Review: Cepheus Engine SRD

Solo uses the Cepheus Engine. The Zhodani Base speaks highly of it. And so I decided to check it out…

In a Nutshell: Traveller retroclone – old-school style SF RPG. The System Reference Document is a 208 page PDF by Samardan Press Publications released in 2016. Pay What You Want on RPGNow and DriveThruRPG.

The core mechanic is as it was in Classic Traveller: Roll 2d6, apply modifiers (notably a relevant skill level), meet or beat a score of 8 to succeed.

CONTENTS

Introduction (9 pages): Overviews of roleplaying in general, the Cepheus Engine itself, common campaign themes, glossary.

Book One: Character Creation (83 pages): This will be familiar to anyone who has played Traveller. You roll 2d6 for each of six characteristics, roll to enter your chosen career, then cycle through various stages of the lifepath, gaining ranks, skills, and material or cash benefits as you go. There are 24 careers (basically the ones from Classic Traveller Book 1 and Supplement 4), and roughly 60 skills. Some items have been renamed, most likely to avoid using terms copyrighted elsewhere.

The Cepheus implementation of this addresses my dislike of the decades-long trend of skills bloat in Traveller; you wind up with roughly two skill levels per term served, and a smattering of skills at level 0, based on your homeworld’s trade codes and your career’s service skills. There are basic rules for gaining new skill levels in play, which explain how long that takes but not what it costs – the GM has to rule on that.

Although humans are as usual the baseline species, there are rules for creating alien races, and a few examples – avians, insectans, reptilians and some human variants: espers and merfolk.

Psionic powers remain an option, with whether they’re available at all, and if so how easy it is to get training, left to the GM. There’s a long equipment chapter with weapons, armour, survival gear, communications and computer gear, drugs, robots and drones, vehicles etc.

Personal combat is focussed on the use of a square grid; unusually compared to most games, but as one might expect for Traveller, the chance of scoring a hit degrades whether you’re long or short of optimal range for the weapon. Whatever damage isn’t absorbed by your armour is temporarily deducted from characteristics, and your status varies with how many of them have been zapped and which ones have reached zero – clunky, but it has worked for decades.

Book Two: Starships and Interstellar Travel (59 pages): How interplanetary and interstellar travel work, building and operating ships, starship combat, interstellar trade, travel on worlds, law enforcement encounters, bribery and punishment for crimes committed (I would’ve covered the legal topics in the next book but it matters little), a goodly number of example ships which are similar, but not identical, to the usual Traveller suspects. Space combat looks a lot more complex than I remember, but I hardly ever use that.

Book Three: Referees (43 pages): The effects of hostile environments, disease, poison, fire and so on; subsector and world generation using familiar Traveller methods; encounters – animals, NPCs, patrons, rumours, starships; rules for creating alien animal life; advice on refereeing the game and creating adventures.

This is following by assorted legal notices.

FORMAT

Colour cover; single-column black text on white, no internal illustrations (this is a System Reference Document, so you’d expect that), lots and lots of tables.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I’d like to see a point-buy character generation option included; this is useful for players with a detailed character concept, and also for play via email, forum or VTT. However, a random method is still useful for new players.

I really don’t like dynamic initiative. It requires me to track both the default initiative score for each character for a given combat as well as the current score as modified by surprise, dodging etc, and remember when it resets to the default. Ain’t nobody got time for dat.

CONCLUSIONS

This is an excellent retroclone, which integrates and streamlines parts of several editions of Traveller; I recognised elements of Classic Traveller, Megatraveller and Mongoose Traveller, and there may have been components from other editions which I didn’t recognise – I am an inveterate CT fan and haven’t played that much of the others.

All the topics I would expect are here, in familiar forms but with some well thought out expansions.

I keep thinking about dipping my toe in Traveller waters again, and if I do that, this is the edition I’d use. However, it’s not quite enough to tempt me away from Savage Worlds just yet.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pawns of Destiny 7: A Prince’s Life

As you’ll recall, the Pawns of Destiny players had asked for a meatier plot, and given their current location and character backstories, I selected the fourth Beasts & Barbarians adventure for them, Shadows Over Ekul.

Since it can be up to six months between B&B sessions for this group – we meet twice a month but generally play WFRP3 – I follow the precedent set by the WFRP GM and write up a detailed report of each session shortly after play concludes, then circulate it before the next one to jog memories. However, I’m sure you don’t want 5,000 words of that, so I’ll summarise and share the highlights. The adventure was published in 2012, so following my five year rule, I shall make no effort to avoid spoilers.

Travelling to Shan’Ammar in search of Clan O’Well’s purloined sacred items – for this is why Max the Barbarian is travelling among these southern softies – the party are arrested following a bar brawl, and it turns out that Max is the spitting image of Ulesir Shah, the local ruler. Ulesir needs to travel to a nearby city state to marry his betrothed, so that he can borrow an army from his father-in-law to root out bandits led by his half-brother; but he is too cowardly to go in person, and thus hits upon the Cunning Plan of sending Max in his stead. Successfully fending off attacks by evil monk-assassins and mountain bandits, the group reaches Teluk’Ammar and survives an attempt to embarass Max by exposing his lack of riding skill. The session closed on a social cliffhanger as “Ulesir” and entourage met Tokarim Shah, Valk ruler of Teluk’Ammar.

Highlights:

  • During the arm-wrestling contest which precipitated the brawl, Zosimus beat his opponent by a massive margin, in the true heroic style. The first thing that happened after that was the purse of winnings flying past Ash, who had previously prepared a duplicate purse in advance “just in case”; with an amazing Stealth roll he swapped purses by appearing to fumble catching it, then flicked the duplicate purse into the hands of U’wahz the Sage.
  • The party’s Cunning Plan; despairing of teaching Max to impersonate a Shah, they circulated rumours of an assassination attempt which had temporarily rendered the Shah lame and mute, allowing them to splint Max’s leg and cover his face with a mask in the hopes of avoiding him opening his mouth or having to ride or dance at any point.
  • The attack by an evil monk-assassin during the voyage upriver to Teluk’Ammar, foiled when Ash ziplined down the ship’s backstay and kicked the assassin overboard.
  • The attack by mountain bandits, foiled when the Sage “remembered” that the local subspecies of goat goes berserk when frightened and charges the source of the fear en masse – armed with this information, Dorjee Pema the Alchemist lobbed a couple of fear potions into a suitable position, and the bandits were gored and trampled by goats, allowing the party to escape.
  • The party’s avoidance of the drugged horse intended to embarrass Ulesir Shah by walking to the palace slowly and circuitously while feigning interest in the local architecture.

Max’s player has decided that the horse thing is exactly the sort of hazing any Northeim clan would inflict on a potential son-in-law, for who would want their daughter to marry a wimp? “I’m not playing the weakling for these Valk any longer,” he said at the end of the session. “If they want a real man, I’ll show them one.”

No doubt hilarity will ensue. A Happy Easter to you all!

Hearts of Stone 21: Going Underground

Marblehall, 5th June 216

The gang’s all here and hoovering up free wine and nibbles at Casila’s manor house, at a party in honour of Lord Sunhammer, the Dwarf King’s emissary who has stopped over on his way to Glitterhaegen.

X7-09 stands immobile behind Casila’s chair, getting a crash course in Empire politics as Casila (who has been a prisoner of the drow for some years and is a little out of touch) is brought up to speed by Sunhammer, who in exchange is trying to understand her current plans and ambitions – he hasn’t seen her since she was five.

Ssh’ta and Ladra are purloining the silverware while everyone’s eye is on Valore, because anything she picks up – say, bread or a soup spoon – appears to be on fire. Then there are the big metal wings, of course. Balthazar Rook does his best to put things back before they are missed, but even so some servants get into trouble.

Kowalski is nowhere to be seen – perhaps he is avoiding Lord Sunhammer for some reason. Maybe they are political rivals, who can say. Hayes and Soreth put in an appearance but disappear early on, citing fatigue.

Halfway through the fish course, the tremors begin. Soon there is a definite lurching and dropping sensation. While Casila asks everyone to remain calm and seated, explaining that the house is magically protected, Valore goes to investigate, and reports that the manor house is dropping into a large sinkhole; several others have consumed nearby buildings, and ground level is now approaching the first floor windows. After a quick discussion, bearing in mind their earlier adventures and X7-09’s recent vision, the group decide they are in the process of being consumed by a giant living dungeon.

Silmaria grabs a drinking horn and places its large end on a wall, singing rock ballads into it to soothe the savage dungeon. It is truculent and refuses to be soothed. X7-09 descends into the wine cellar and tries punching through the flagstones to see what’s underneath, but this looks like it will take a long time.

After several minutes’ debate, the group decides to evacuate the guests through the first floor windows. General panic ensues, and things become confused, with some of the party leaping out to guide the guests to safety, and others following X7-09 into the maw of the dungeon (for such it is) in search of whatever loot is to be found. Valore and Boris (in the form of a house martin) fly down the avalanche of partly-digested buildings; Valore is carrying Caliban, who therefore appears to be on fire, and Silmaria follows to avoid being left alone in the darkness. The ever-cheerful Dave skips lightly over the rockslide, with the Fox and Ssh’ta following.

They survive the churning and chomping inside the maw, and spy what looks like a safe corridor, at least by comparison. While they clamber into it, the manor house, magically shrunken to a size which will fit through the jaws without too much damage, slides past and is gone, who knows where. Boris shifts back into human form, completely naked, but Silmaria was expecting that and produces some clothes from her pack.

Beyond the corridor is a room containing four glass pillars full of swirling, dark grey smoke which snubs Dave’s friendly overtures, and a winged statue holding a silver key in one hand. The key is grabbed, and predictably the statue comes to life, attacking X7-09 since he has the key. A brief scuffle ensues, ending when Valore chops the statue in half with a longsword – no mean feat, that. Key in hand, X7-09 advances on the room’s other exit, which is blocked by a locked door…

Meanwhile, outside, Kowalski, Hayes, Soreth, and Ladra observe the head and forebody of the giant living dungeon settle down comfortably in the sinkhole, perhaps digesting its recent dinner.

Casila and Lord Sunhammer are nowhere to be found.

GM NOTES

This went well considering the number of players involved.

There are some spoilers above, and more to come, but the book was published in 2014 so I figure most people will have played it by now. If you want it obfuscated more, let me know.

Review: Ruins of the Undercity

In search of fuel for the solo roleplaying fire recently re-ignited, I came across Die Heart’s list of solo roleplaying resources. That led me to Ruins of the Undercity, and I was weak. You know I can’t resist random dungeon generators. So…

In a Nutshell: Labyrinth Lord solo roleplaying campaign and dungeon generator. 74-page PDF by Kabuki Kaiser, $5 at time of writing. I’m reviewing the Flexipop Edition, whatever that means. Published in 2013 so I’m behind the curve as usual.

It’s clearly designed for and integrated with Labyrinth Lord, but any other OSR retroclone should work with varying degrees of conversion effort.

CONTENTS

Introduction (1 page): What the product is, credits.

Background (2 pages): Welcome to Cryptopolis, a corrupt plutocracy of a city squatting on top of ancient ruins built (but thankfully no longer occupied) by necromancers. Long ago, thieves found a statue of the Red Goddess and certain magical texts, and turned themselves into lich-thieves who now roam the lower levels. Do not boogie with the lich-thieves, they will mess you up.

Playing Solo – How It Works (15 pages): This is a low-impact approach to solo play, with minimal changes to the Labyrinth Lord rules. You generate characters as normal, and write down an Exploration Routine; this specifies marching order, who has the torches, who’s on watch when, and who is searching for what. This last bit is important, because later on the random dungeon generator throws up traps, secret doors etc, and if no-one is looking out for them, the party doesn’t see them. Then the traps go off, and the screaming starts… Anyway, most of this section is lists of equipment organised by shop, types of hireling, and random encounters. Buying gear or hiring help takes time, during which random encounters happen, and broadly speaking they are not your friends, either above or below ground. This is solid stuff, all killer, no filler.

Into the Ruins (25 pages): This is an homage to the random dungeon generator in the AD&D 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. You roll for a starting area, then move through the dungeon dicing for rooms, chambers, corridors, monsters, traps, treasure, lighting and so forth on assorted tables. This system retains the diagonal and curving corridors beloved of the DMG, which I found irritating because I couldn’t draw them and nor could the party mapper – I think that was the point, actually.

One thing that stands out as different is that monster level and treasure type depend on the average level of the party, not the dungeon level that they are on. My instinct is that this defeats the object of dungeons having levels, which usually exist so the party can select its own level of risk and reward. Oh, and having determined the monster level you make a second roll to determine their numbers before toddling off to the relevant encounter matrix to find out what they are.

However, a nice touch is the detail on treasure formats. 1,000 sp worth of conch shells, anyone?

Fiends of the Ruins (14 pages): New monsters. Mostly taken from the Fiend Folio by the looks of it. A nice touch here is that many of them have tactics listed – what they do in various circumstances. That’s often tricky to adjudicate in solo games.

Artefacts (4 pages): New magic items. No spoilers, but I like the subtable adding a bit more detail to maps. War story: I played with a GM once who insisted that magic maps weren’t maps to magic items, they were themselves magic and teleported you to the relevant treasure. And its guardians. You were then alone, in an unknown location, half-dead from fighting whatever had been guarding the map… it generally didn’t end well.

Back in Town (3 pages): Rules for fencing loot and what happens to PCs in between dungeon expeditions.

Appendix A: Campaign Game (3 pages): This suggests a number of optional personal objectives for characters and how they might be achieved.

Appendix B: Character Background and Quirks (2 pages): Random tables to generate what each PC did for a living before becoming a delver, and what notable quirks they have.

We close with the obligatory Open Gaming Licence.

FORMAT

Single-column (mostly) black text on white, some curious font choices but nothing dangerous, occasional black and white and colour illustrations. Tolerable on the eye and the printer but not perfect.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

It would have been nice to see something along the lines of the OSRIC generators for tricks and weird contents, but OSRIC is free to download so that won’t stop me for long.

The book has chambers with doors and rooms without, to my mind that is backwards but it has no effect in-game.

CONCLUSIONS

A solid piece of work this, and I look forward to playing it when next there is time. If you’re also interested, check out the Excel party log at the Castellan’s Corner.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.

Review: Solo

Just as I started to feel a yen for some solo SF gaming again, along comes Solo…

In a Nutshell: Solo RPG campaigns for the Cepheus Engine (actually, any version of Traveller). 153 page PDF from Zozer Games, written by Paul Elliot, $10 or so at time of writing. This is a much expanded version of the earlier Star Trader, which I reviewed here.

KEY FEATURES

Solo games often drown in dice-rolling, and Solo handles this by abstracting the equivalent of encounters or sessions into a single dice roll; see The Plan for details.

The player also has a small troupe, two or more characters, rather than just one. This allows for the character interactions one would get in group play.

The overall principle is that the few dice rolls tell you what happened, and you as the player explain how.

CONTENTS

Why Solo? (1 page): Why would you want to do this? Basically because you can’t get the players, or you want to test something before introducing it to them.

The Solo Approach (3 pages): These are designer’s notes, explaining why the author chose to abstract things to the group/session level rather than the character/skill check level – essentially to stop the game drowning in dice rolls. This approach means that you first find out the situation, then make a plan to deal with it, make no more than a couple of dice rolls to determine what the outcome was, and then go back and fill in the narrative explaining what happened. It also summarises the four campaign types detailed in later sections, and lists the required resources.

Player Characters (10 pages): The player is advised to make a small group of PCs, how many exactly depends on the type of campaign envisaged. The main benefit of this is that the random interactions between them inject more drama and plot into the game; a secondary advantage is that it gives the player a broader range of skills to apply to problems. There are also a couple of modifications to the normal character generation sequence; the chief one is that each PC should have three Life Events, which can be inferred from extreme rolls during the character’s creation or diced for separately on a d66 table provided.

Character Reactions (4 pages): Another d66 table is used to give each PC a relationship with one of the others, such as “secretly in love with” or “knows a dark secret”. At various times during the game, a PC checks whether or not they’ve had a bad reaction to something, and if so rolls for what they do about it; recent events, the Life Events and the PC’s relationship are used as inspiration by the player to weave a narrative around the dice rolls. Reactions and relationships essentially inspire the player’s narrative explanation of the dice-mandated outcomes.

The Plan (6 pages): Here’s the guts of the system; a scene, or encounter, resolution mechanic. In other solo game engines, the player controls one of the PCs and is (say) part of the team infiltrating the Big Bad’s remote island base. In Solo, the player is more like the “guy in the van”, watching things over a video link and issuing general orders, trusting the team to resolve individual problems as they arise. So, play throws up a situation – a reason to storm the island base, in this case – and the player comes up with a plan, 3-4 sentences long; perhaps swimming ashore at night to sneak inside and steal the McGuffin, heavily armed in case things go south and equipped with night vision gear and other goodies. The player now looks at his plan as dispassionately as he can: Is it shaky, solid or foolproof? Is it safe or dangerous? The answer to the first question defines the roll required for success on 2d6, with a couple of modifiers applied depending on how well-suited the characters and their gear are for the plan. A second roll against the same target number then determines the unforeseen consequences, which are good if the roll succeeds, and bad if it doesn’t – note that this is independent of whether the plan succeeded or not. Bad consequences include injury or death for one of the PCs, goods ones include making a contact or discovering valuable information.

Write it Down (3 pages): The player is encouraged to keep a written record of what happened, for two reasons; first, to declare actions – once you’ve written something down, it happened or is now an established fact in the setting, no do-overs. Second, to help you pick up where you left off at the start of the next session. The author recommends using a notebook, with an unstructured diary for the events of the game, and lists of friends, foes, neutral NPCs, starships encountered, and storylines (see below). An example page from one of the author’s own games is shown for clarification.

NPCs: Contacts and Enemies (2 pages): These are acquired in play, as the PCs interact with NPCs encountered as they go; the player decides, based on events, which NPCs will become recurring allies or villains, and who is encountered when. The purpose of contacts and enemies is to connect events; when it is suitably dramatic, a freshly-rolled NPC encounter is replaced by someone the PCs already know.

Storylines (3 pages): As with NPCs, these connect random events and characters’ Life Events into a plot. In that sense they are like Mythic’s “plot threads”, although while Mythic has no limit on concurrent plot threads, Solo recommends limiting yourself to one or two at a time. Storylines are optional, though.

Random Rolls (11 pages): A selection of tables to generate random encounters and events, thus introducing new ideas and plots into the session; NPC and ship reactions, colourful locals, starport and ship encounters, and so forth.

Example of Play 1 (6 pages): Exactly what it says on the tin; four randomly-generated PCs hop across a handful of worlds, making Plans and executing them, encountering random NPCs and commissions.

So far, everything has been applicable to any campaign. The book now moves to consider four principal types of game, each of which has additional random encounter and event tables and specific rules.

Campaign: Travellers (8 pages): The default game; a mixed group of travellers, moving from world to world causing (or resolving) problems. This campaign starts In Media Res with a randomly generated event. New random tables here include patrons, missions and their targets.

Campaign: Star Traders (17 pages): This is basically the previous iteration of the system, which I reviewed here, with what looks like a few minor tweaks. The PCs are the crew of a small merchant ship, trading across a subsector; an example showing 5 weeks in the life of such a group is included.

Campaign: Naval Officers (24 pages): In this campaign, the PCs are the officers and senior ratings on a small patrol vessel, pounding a beat around the subsector or a specific world, rooting out pirates and assisting law-abiding merchants. Which is which? Well, you have to get right up close to tell. This section has a lot of exposition on why and how patrol squadrons are organised, and what they do. Character generation is modified to ensure the characters will fit their assigned roles aboard ship. The campaign begins in a pre-launch briefing; the dice identify likely trouble spots, and the player plots his course accordingly. This section has modified ship encounter tables and rules for fast-play space combat.

Campaign: Survey Scouts (38 pages): Unlike the other campaigns, which rely on the player previously selecting or creating a subsector, the scout campaign begins with a partly-generated subsector, with only the size, atmosphere and hydrographics of the worlds known, except for one world which is the PCs’ base of operations. On arrival in a new system, the PCs scan it and identify places and phenomena of interest, called survey targets; there is a problem to overcome at each site, and progress overall is measured in “survey points”. Character generation is modified much as in the Naval Officers game, and like the patrol ship, the scouts plot a route for their ship. This section has modified system generation rules, the usual focussed encounter and event tables, and tables for things to survey; The Plan isn’t used much in this game, it’s more about the PCs reacting to randomly-generated dangers.

Example of Play 2 (5 pages): This is focussed on a team of four scouts surveying an unknown system.

…and we conclude with assorted legal information and blank forms.

FORMAT

Green and black cover wrapped around single-column black text on white, occasional black and white illustrations. Simple, effective, easy on the eye and the printer.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

The one classic type of Traveller campaign not covered in detail is the small mercenary unit; maybe in the next expansion? In many ways it would be a mixture of the Travellers and Naval Officers campaign types, but the number of allied characters the player would need to keep track of would require a further level of abstraction.

A minor nitpick: I’m not sure why deckplans are a required resource, given that play doesn’t seem to require them.

CONCLUSIONS

Although aimed at the various editions of Traveller, Solo is so loosely connected with them that you could easily use another RPG instead; my thoughts immediately went to Savage Worlds, because that’s what I usually play, but I’ve decided to take a look at the Cepheus Engine itself first. With suitable changes to the random tables, Solo could be used for other genres as well; the core mechanic, The Plan, would work with any game.

I’m very impressed with this product, and see it as the probable next evolution in my solo SF gaming – which has moved from playing with the rules as written, to adding Mythic, to Two Hour Wargames (which have gradually increased their own level of abstraction) to Solo. Full marks, Mr Elliot.

This will get used, though not right away; first I want to look at a couple of other things, including Cepheus, and second, I want to select, or generate, a subsector in which play of the various campaign types above can occur. It’s tempting to begin with a Survey Scouts campaign, then jump forward a few centuries and use the other campaign types. That might be better done in flashback, methinks.

Oh, and third, there’s a busy couple of months coming up, with the Pawns of Destiny, Team Robot and Team Dragon each lined up for several sessions. I haven’t played this much since the ’70s!

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.

Hearts of Stone 20: The Red Tower

Team Robot: Boris, Silmaria, Ssh’ta, The Fox, X7-09. Glitterhaegen, 02 June 216.

Relaxing in Glitterhaegen’s dockside area, Team Robot debates whether they should stay or go. They’re trying to avoid the attentions of the Duke of Glitterhaegen, who may well bear a grudge for the theft of his prize griffin, Lord Fluffington III; Balthazar Rook gives serious thought to stealing it again, but the others talk him out of it. The group gets to know Balthazar’s new sidekick, Ladra, and he sends her off on an unspecified mission. Meanwhile, they have heard of a mysterious red tower, which in local rumours is linked to disappearances on the night of the full moon and red-robed cultists who eat pebbles.

Thus it is that on the night of the next full moon, Silmaria finds herself near the red tower at night, with only Boris in the shape of a mouse for company, and Balthazar, Ssh’ta and X7-09 concealed in overwatch. Inevitably, a group of four cultists attempt to sneak up on her, only to be shot down by Ssh’ta before being hacked to bits by X7-09, who is curious about their flame-bladed daggers but undamaged by them. Balthazar has the presence of mind to beat the one before him unconscious with the pommel of his rapier, so this time they have a prisoner, and their knowledge of the local area allows them to find a secluded warehouse where they can interrogate their captive after weighting the bodies of the other cultists and throwing them in the harbour.

“Just checking, we are the good guys, right?” asks Balthazar. X7-09 explains that they are adventurers, so they get to define what being the good guys means. That settled, the remaining cultist is put to the question, but knows nothing they haven’t already figured out. Tiring of his dire warnings about the Devourer rising to consume them all, they knock him out again and dress in the cultists’ robes before returning to the tower.

Using a key purloined from one of the dead cultists, they find the concealed door and enter. Within, they are attacked by invisible demons (well, invisible to X7-09 anyway, the rest of the group can see the red eyes, slavering fangs piercing their flesh and so forth well enough); X7-09 calls on the Diabolist to show him his enemy, and receives a vision of a gigantic living dungeon. While he is musing on that, the others snap out of it, discovering that it was an illusion.

They continue to explore the tower, finding little of note except a prisoner, who X7-09 reveals as a demon by cunning questioning. The demon announces himself as By-Tor, Prince of Darkness, Centurion of Evil; Caliban the albino dire wolf growls at him throughout the conversation, and he occasionally insults the canine. Reasoning that eventually he will persuade someone to release him, they agree to let him out on condition that [a] he will not harm the party members, with the exception of Caliban, and [b] he owes X7-09 one favour, to be called in when X7-09 desires at some unspecified point in the future.

That done, the party and the demon go their separate ways, leaving the cultists to their kidnapping, murder and Devourer-worship. After all, there’s a party to attend…

GM NOTES

You may recognise the adventure as a modified version of The Windowless Tower from Places of the Dominions, a Beasts & Barbarians supplement; hence the lack of spoilers as it was only published a year or so ago. Since the party ignored most of its wonders and threats, you haven’t missed a lot.

This session was primarily intended to adjust the pacing so that the two teams are back in sync for the next episode, in which they will meet up again at Marblehall.

It was also used to foreshadow some later events; this is most obvious in X7-09’s vision, but By-Tor has a role to play later in one of the character’s personal arc. They also left one of the cultists unconscious but alive, and tied up in a warehouse in Glitterhaegen. Since they took all his stuff, anyone rescuing him will not recognise him as a cultist; but he saw their faces plainly. This creates another potential plot thread.

We agreed to treat By-Tor’s favour owed to X7-09 like an extra icon roll.

Review: Frostgrave

“We’ve made a couple of runs on the old potion store, grabbing little frozen barrels before the blade-bats wake up. Of course the real fun is when you get them home and you have to figure out what they do. That’s just one more reason to take prisoners…” – Frostgrave

This is very pretty, an intriguing concept, and gets good reviews. So…

In a Nutshell: Fantasy skirmish wargame for two players, requires 10 figures per side maximum and a few random encounters, playable in 1-2 hours. 136 pages, £9-£15 at time of writing, depending on format. Written by Joseph A. McCullough, published by Osprey.

CONTENTS

Foreword (2 pages): The premise of the game; Frostgrave is a ruined and icebound city, destroyed by magic gone awry centuries ago. Now it is slowly thawing out, and wizards bent on looting venture into its depths with their minions. There are, of course, guardians for its treasures, and other wizards who dispute your right to take its riches with sword and spell.

Wizards and Warbands (19 pages): What you need to play (figures, dice, tape measure or ruler, table at least two feet square, terrain, an opponent). Building your warband, which consists of one wizard representing the player, an apprentice (optional but highly recommended), and up to eight soldiers (a catch-all term meaning they are not spellcasters; there are 15 different types including dogs, healers, fighters, thieves and whatnot). Your wizard is free, and you have 500 gold with which to hire followers. All figures are human, or at least there are no rules for other playable races.

Wizards are each members of one of the ten schools of magic; they can learn spells from their own or friendly schools, but not opposed schools, and begin with a total of eight spells. Apprentices know the spells their wizard knows, but are not as good at casting them.

Each figure has a statline listing its stats: Move, Fight, Shoot, Armour, Will and Health. Initially, all figures of the same type have the same statline; wizards can improve their stats with experience over a campaign, apprentices improve when their mentor does, soldiers don’t improve. So, you only have one character to track experience for. Figures also have item slots for carrying cool toys; wizards can have a maximum of five items, apprentices four, soldiers one.

As befits a wargame, equipment is basic, defined by the figure’s type, and not detailed in any depth.

Playing the Game (22 pages): Table setup calls for lots of terrain – you’re in a mazelike ruined city, after all. Turns consist of initiative (1d20 roll, high score goes first in each phase); wizard phase (wizard and up to three nearby figures activate); apprentice phase (apprentice and up to three more figures activate – this is why you want an apprentice); soldier phase (any soldiers who haven’t activated yet do so); creature phase (anything else on the board activates). When a figure activates, it gets two actions, one of which must be a move and the other of which can be another move, attack, cast a spell etc.

Combat is brilliantly simple and swingy, combining attack and damage into one roll; when you attack, roll 1d20 and apply modifiers (including adding your Fight or Shoot stat); deduct the target’s armour rating; any positive number left over is the damage taken by the target – since, except for experienced wizards, nobody has more than 12 Armour or 14 Health, you can see they’re not going to last long; the optional critical hits rule, which doubles damage on a natural 20, makes this even more painful. Oh, and if you hit someone you’re allowed to push them back, including off buildings if you’re fighting on the roof. Shooting is much the same, except that you have to beat the target’s Fight roll with your Shoot roll to hit him. Anyone with 4 Health or less loses an action – although the remaining one doesn’t have to be a move.

Spells are cast by rolling 1d20 against a target number; fail by enough and you take damage. You can spend Health to improve your chances, and can do so after the die roll is made. Some spells are opposed by a Will roll (1d20 + stat).

Treasure tokens are why you’re there, and any figure in contact with a treasure token can stagger off with it; if he gets off the table he has escaped intact with it. (Judging by battle reports, the warband’s wizard will often cast the Leap spell on a treasure-carrying figure to move it off-board faster.)

Creatures are figures not under the control of a wizard; they move according to simple rules: If fighting carry on until you or the opponent die; if not and there is a figure in line of sight within 10″ move towards it; otherwise move in a random direction.

The game ends when there is only one player with figures left on the board, at which point he is assumed to have collected all remaining treasure.

The Campaign (24 pages): This is where I think Frostgrave would come into its own; a connected series of games. After the first one you may establish a base in the ruins, with each of the eight types of building giving you different benefits. In the campaign, treasure may be spent to recruit soldiers, buy gear, and upgrade your base with helpful features, while the experience your wizard gained by casting spells and smiting opponents can be used to improve his statline, his chances of casting specific spells, or add a new spell to his repertoire. Those reduced to zero Health may roll to recover, though they may suffer permanent injuries which degrade their statline. Some of your treasure tokens may turn out to have handy magic items as well as gold coins – this is why you need item slots on your figures.

Spells (24 pages): At its heart, this game is all about the spells. Each of the ten schools of magic has eight spells, each of which has a target number for casting and a category, which determines its target type – self, line of sight, area effect, touch or out of game. These last are intriguing as they allow you to adjust the starting conditions of the next game. Optionally, a wizard who learns all the spells of his school may then research Transcendence; if successful he leaves the game for a higher plane of existence, winning the overall campaign.

Scenarios (12 pages): The standard game of Frostgrave places some treasure tokens on the board and then kicks off. This chapter gives ten specific scenarios, which are each intended to be unique in a campaign, each with special rules and a specific location to be explored, or a special monster to be overcome.

Bestiary (12 pages): Random encounter rules, and various sorts of undead, animals, constructs, demons and miscellaneous creatures. These are creatures of sword and sorcery, not high fantasy; you could see Conan squaring off against any of them. There are a couple of dozen in all, each with a brief description and a statline.

Spell Cards (11 pages): Quick reference cards for all the spells. Arguably duplicates the spells chapter, but probably worth it for ease of use during play. Favourites: Time Store, which allows a Chronomancer to save one of his actions for a later turn, giving him three instead of the usual two; Elemental Bolt and Elemental Ball, because who doesn’t like fire spells; Grenade, which does what it says on the tin; Furious Quill, an animated pen which stabs to irritate and distract; Reveal Secret, which lets you start right next to a treasure token.

The Wizard Sheet (3 pages): More of a warband sheet actually; the three pages cover stats and notes for your wizard, apprentice, home base, spellbook and 8 soldiers.

FORMAT

Unusually, this is available as a hardcover book, PDF, Epub file or Kindle file, depending on where you get it from. Cost ranges from £9 to £15 depending on format.

Whichever you pick, you’ll find a full colour cover, single-column black text on white, lots of colour illustrations and photos of better minis and terrain than I ever hope to have. Sob.

Tables and spell cards have an unusually simple and basic layout, but it’s easy on the eye, so I like it.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I’d like to see layers in the PDF file; the simple layout and frosty page backgrounds are not too bad on the printing front themselves, but the colour illos and photos would use a lot of ink.

Trying to manipulate a tape measure around a lot of dense terrain to measure to the nearest 1/100th of an inch sounds hard to me, so I would round off the fractions caused by half moves of half moves of half moves and lay out a hex grid battlemat. Yes, you could argue I’m just jealous of people with nice terrain pieces, and you could well be right.

CONCLUSIONS

It’s inevitable to compare this with Mordheim, Games Workshop’s game of warbands looting a ruined city released in 1999; but Frostgrave has rules that are simple enough I would actually play it, even if it means tracking hit points for all the figures. The setting is likewise simple but inspirational, possibly because of its simplicity.

There are intriguing snippets of in-character quotes from survivors of a skirmish, most of which gave me ideas for scenarios. I see a number of supplements are already available and they could keep releasing those indefinitely.

Although officially for two players, I can see on the web that with larger tables people are successfully playing with three or four warbands. If any of the local wargames clubs met at a time convenient for me, I’d be trying to lure them away from Warhammer 40K and Flames of War into this. I can also see it as a roleplaying resource and a solo game – the setting and scenarios should be doable with any RPG, and all the latter would need is some means of spawning creatures, perhaps rolling every turn for random encounters instead of only when a treasure is picked up. It ought to be easy enough to apply the levelling-up rules to soldiers as well, to use Frostgrave as a very basic RPG. So, like a lot of skirmish wargames, versatile and useful even if you don’t play the Rules As Written.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5; I want to play this one right now; I even have suitable figures in the form of D&D and Pathfinder minis. Had I but world enough, and time…