Collateral Damage Episode 3: Hot Hydrogen

SS Collateral Damage, Mainday Shift, 11 February 3201…

We begin this session with the party wanted on Mizah for murder, weapons violations, grand theft auto, assault with a deadly weapon, cybercrimes, and theft of government property, namely the database of restricted Mandate stasis pod access codes.

If this is what happens when you send them to pick up a library book, goodness only knows what will happen when they’re sent to break things and hurt people.

This is why the science fiction party’s home base should be their ship. It allows them to move on, learn from experience, and start with a clean slate in the next system.

-o0o-

Thanks to the new identities provided by their patron, the party leaves Mizah without being arrested, and with a general feeling that it might be better if they stayed away for a while. The Collateral Damage spends a week in hyperspace en route to Kov; Fromar spends most of his time trying to befriend the ship’s AI, while Captain Roscoe and Big Ted play poker in the cargo hold. Roscoe loses steadily (the Poverty hindrance in action), and blows off steam by trying out his new blunderbuss on the wall of the cargo hold, disturbing the rest of the crew who have opened the purloined crates of assault rifles and are arming themselves in anticipation of stiffer opposition next time.

Emerging from hyperspace, they descend into the atmosphere of Kov, a Saturn-like gas giant, and make their way to Karabulut Station, a former Mandate mining platform best imagined as Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back, but under the control of one of the road gangs from Mad Max. The Balkan Group has chosen this rig as they have grav engine spares, and it has broken grav engines – this becomes obvious on final approach, when they discover the station hanging from a collection of improvised hot hydrogen balloons.

Dyson negotiates with the local nihilist warlord, one Erk Karabulut, and rapidly comes to the desired deal: The crew of the Collateral Damage will repair the station’s grav engines, and in return Karabulut Station will provide safe haven and warehousing facilities for the Balkan Group’s factor, who will arrive later.

Meanwhile, one of the warlord’s slave girls, Hurriyet Gundogan, sneaks up to Lisa Andrews and begs for help – she is an Adept of the Great Archive, formerly part of one of the Archive’s surveyor crews, kidnapped during a raid by Karabulut on a neighbouring mining rig, since when she has been Erk’s unwilling concubine. She would very much like to be on the party’s ship when it departs.

Andrews is noncommittal, but then Fromar starts frying bacon on his portable stove, and Captain Roscoe challenges the warlord’s bodyguards to a game of cards. The stakes: Assault rifles and bacon from the party’s side, slave girls and the location of the rumoured Lost City on the guards’. To everyone’s surprise, Roscoe wins two slave girls and the map coordinates for the Lost City. Fromar, apparently just for the hell of it, throws some bacon at the guards – since they have been without decent food for 600 years, this provokes a brawl, to everyone’s great amusement.

Hurriyet is initially buoyant as she thinks this must be part of the group’s plan to free her, but her hopes are dashed – no-one has told Roscoe what’s going on, so he retires to his cabin with the two girls. Best we draw a veil over subsequent events.

The next day, the party borrows a couple of gravsleds and a couple of thugs from Erk, bundles up in parkas and breather masks, and sets off for the Lost City, driven by the I-9 Handybot and Fromar (who levelled up last session and used his advance to buy Piloting d4). Seating is limited, so they leave the slave girls behind aboard the Collateral Damage. As you will see later, this is a tactical error.

After a series of misadventures in piloting rolls which consume a goodly number of bennies, they enter one of the planet’s larger and more permanent storms and discover the Lost City easily enough. Most of the cargo bay floor is missing, so they enter easily,  leave their rent-a-thugs guarding the gravsleds, and thanks to Fromar’s knowledge of how Mandate installations are laid out, they quickly locate the med bay – Dyson and Fromar have decided that the stations would provide a ready market for vitamin supplements, which is certainly true. During the course of Fromar’s meddling with the computer network, they awaken the long-dormant AI, which announces it is the Orbital Defence Grid Node No More Mr. Nice Guy, and politely enquires who they might be.

The party attempts to bluff their way to control of the platform, with Roscoe claiming to be the new commanding officer, Fromar trying to hack into it, and the I-9 Handybot trying to upload a virus disguised as a history file covering the half millenium and more during which the platform has been dormant. The platform is a cutting-edge military-grade Mandate AI, and is having none of that. It instructs them to proceed to a secure holding cell where it will detain them for their own safety while it awaits orders from an authorised Mandate officer. When they continue to ransack the med bay, it despatches half a dozen security bots to encourage them; naturally, a firefight ensures, and unsurprisingly, the PCs are victorious. During the combat, they hear an explosion off towards the platform roof, followed by gunfire; leaving Fromar to loot the bodies and the med lab, they march to the sound of the guns.

They discover a group of badly-trained thugs from a rival station has also found the city and broken in; there’s a hole in the roof, with ropes dangling down from it and a dozen thugs milling around, looking to their wounded and looting the security bots they have overpowered. The party opens fire, literally in Andrews’ case (she still has the McGyvered flamethrower, and is not afraid to use it despite my explanations of the local gas mix), and promptly halves their number. Andrews then casts Fear on the rest, and they flee, pursued by Dyson, Andrews and the I-9 Handybot.  Big Ted pauses to scalp one of the thugs and put on his Mohican as a hat. Captain Roscoe (who is inordinately strong) hoists Big Ted onto his shoulders, and climbs one of the ropes, despite his wooden leg. Big Ted’s borrowed Mohican emerges into the air, followed by his furry muzzle and the somewhat less furry muzzle of his new assault rifle; the gravsled pilots left outside by their opponents have been somewhat disturbed by the napalm, gunfire, and screaming from downstairs, and are waiting for things to calm down a bit before going in to investigate. One is in the pilot’s seat of a gravsled, the other leaning against the side of another. Aiming at the seated thug, Big Ted blows his head clean off.

It is at this point, as the gravsled drifts away, that they realise it’s the one their rope is attached to. The thug-hunting party has failed to locate their quarry and returns in time for Dyson to McGyver a quick pulley hoist and heave the I-9 Handybot outside, where despite its ball foot it manages to claw its way aboard a gravsled. Between them, Fromar and the Handybot manage to take control of the group of gravsleds, slaving them to follow the Handybot, which flies them neatly into the cargo bay; the lone surviving thug has made a bad call, namely grabbing one of the other ropes, so they travel with Roscoe, Big Ted and the thug swinging wildly on ropes below – Big Ted and Roscoe somewhat more wildly as Big Ted is shooting at the thug, eventually killing him. Fromar arrives in the cargo bay too, with a gurney full of looted medical supplies, and the party decamp with the sense of a job well done and rapidly dwindling oxygen supplies. As they leave, they notice the station beginning to rise out of the storm, bound who knows where.

When they get back to where they left the ship, almost the first thing they notice is that it is no longer there. A quick radio call reveals that Hurriyet – who you will recall is part of a Great Archive surveyor crew – has escaped her bonds, seized control of the ship, and made off with it. Unfortunately for the fugitives, Fromar has taken the precaution of setting up remote override codes for the ship, and brings it to a halt. The party catch up to it after a while, and board, cautiously, to discover the girls have looted the crates of assault rifles and are nowhere to be seen.

After a protracted search, Captain Roscoe finds them in his cabin, readies his blunderbuss, and leaps into action – and also into a hail of bullets. Wounded, he manages to close with Hurriyet and knock her unconscious with the blunderbuss. The other fugitive, Maryam, whose training with the weapon is limited to "point this end at them and pull this bit", opens up on full auto, wounding Roscoe again and incapacitating Hurriyet. The rest of the party are running to assist, and Lisa Andrews arrives first, closely followed by the I-9 Handybot – they attempt to resuscitate Hurriyet while Roscoe leaps onto the bed intending to clobber Maryam with his blunderbuss. She lets off another burst, missing all the PCs but hitting Hurriyet again. This happens again almost to the die roll on the following turn, then Roscoe manages to clock her with the blunderbuss and she falls. Big Ted arrives, and just for the fun of it bashes Roscoe from behind with a billy club, knocking him out (he is on three wounds and out of bennies at this point). Thanks to liberal use of bennies and the Healing power, the Handybot and Andrews manage to keep Hurriyet alive.

Immobilising the girls in sick bay, the party decide to return to the defence grid node and loot it further, rightly thinking it must be out of security bots. However, the No More Mr. Nice Guy is making for orbit, and it takes them some hours to catch up. During this time, Dyson gently interrogates Maryam and corroborates Hurriyet’s story, which Andrews has belatedly shared. Eventually Hurriyet wakes up, and Dyson explains they are not on the best of terms with the Great Archive – if they take her home, will she put in a good word on their behalf? Hurriyet has few options but to agree, although whether she will keep her word is unclear.

Careful analysis of the platform’s remaining active systems allows the team to board despite its evasive manoeuvres, and they make their way back to the med lab to negotiate with the AI. The I-9 Handybot manages to persuade it to upload a file; fortunately it has the presence of mind to sandbox it, and thus remains uninfected. The platform AI notes that what it has observed so far is consistent with their argument that the Mandate has fallen. An extended session of dice-free, roleplaying debate follows, at the end of which the party and the AI reach the following agreement:

  • The AI is ambiguous about the human population of the mining platforms, which were largely crewed by involuntary labour. It agrees that their descendants are innocent of the original crimes and would inherit Mandate citizenship from their ancestors, but if the Mandate has fallen, there is no Mandate for them to be citizens of. However, it agrees that its primary mission of defending the mining platforms is not well served by letting them fall out of the sky as their drives fail.
  • The AI will allow the party to load up with food and medical supplies from stasis, ostensibly to distribute to the mining rigs, as regardless of their citizenship status the inhabitants can help with repairs.
  • They will leave it a couple of gravsleds, which it will use to ferry its repair swarms around the surviving platforms and repair them.
  • They will communicate its presence to the Great Archive, which is a former Mandate institution and thus the closest thing left to an authority it would recognise. (A bit like the Battlestar Galactica reboot this, their argument is by analogy to the US government being wiped out until only the undersecretary for education is left to claim the presidency.)

At this point Dyson comes up with the bright idea that they have an Archive Adept with them, admittedly a bit the worse for wear. Unwillingly to trust her with a Mandate-era defence grid node while they and Karabulut Station are both in laser range, they sedate her, take her to the platform’s med bay, and put her into stasis. They spend a couple of days fixing Karabulut’s grav engines with their spares, and depart in high spirits for Mizah, where they plan to trade the remains of Kov’s defence grid for a pardon.

Meanwhile, shortly after they depart, the No More Mr. Nice Guy wakes Hurriyet up and tentatively accepts her as the closest to a Mandate official it’s going to get. We close with a shot of Hurriyet sitting in the node’s fire control centre, looking at Karabulut Station with her finger hovering over a big red button.

REFLECTIONS

I was quite pleased with this session, as were the party. The game definitely works better on a relatively low-tech world with little in the way of law enforcement.

They achieved their goal, which was essentially to establish a Base of Influence for the Combine on Mizah, and as luck would have it they also established a Base of Influence for the Great Archive as well. I’m not sure how well their plan of trading the defence grid for amnesty is going to work, and we still don’t know who tried to obliterate them on Mizah, other than it wasn’t the person they asked to fake their deaths.

Fromar’s player is getting quite cross about not being able to control Mandate AIs. Looking at the character sheet, it’s clear his PC is designed for that one purpose, so I have to think of a way to give him an AI to play with – but not the Great Archive’s central core or a Mandate defence grid. The obvious candidate is the AI on the party’s ship, which is already unbraked due to damage, but is concealing that fact from the party.

Possibly because some of them have been playing Traveller with me for several decades now, the party has ignored the ship description I’ve given them and believes they are tooling around in a Type A Free Trader. So I will probably rework the Collateral Damage at some point and see how close to that I can get in the Sci Fi Companion’s rules.

As I grow older, and better-read, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me as GM to suspend my own disbelief in the party getting away with the sort of shenanigans it got up to on Mizah. There are two main options I think; switch over to fantasy, or play the game for laughs – which is what Bulldogs! does.

This group is breaking up now as they return to University and to work for a few months, so I have a breathing space now to figure out the next few potential adventures. Nick is planning to use the same setting for his group at Uni, so I will keep expanding it for him (and myself), and let you know how that goes.

Collateral Damage Episode 2: Please Enter Your PIN

SS Collateral Damage, Mainday Shift, 02 February 3201…

The annual gamefest rolled around again a little while ago, and as we had some of the same players as in the first session and some different ones, this is a flashforward – we assume that somehow the PCs managed to complete the first episode and escape with their lives and the stasis pod. Ironically, Captain Couder sells it to their boss, Torun Balkan, who quickly discovers that he needs the codes to open it.

Adept Aytuna Durak, Librarian of the Great Archive, unwittingly has the codes in her section of the Library. Somewhere. Torun instructs the PCs to retrieve the codes for him so he can open the pod.

Meanwhile, Lord Mareecha still wants the pod, and if he wants it, Sertac Bayram of the Confederation Embassy and his saurian bodyguard Engerec don’t want him to have it. Whatever it is.

THE CHARACTERS

  • Fromar, mad scientist and AI researcher.
  • Lisa Williams, ship’s doctor and renegade psion.
  • Captain Roscoe, lostworlder seafarer and pirate. Arrr.
  • The I-9 Handybot, library drone with deficient antivirus software.
  • Big Ted, urseminite legbreaker-for-hire.
  • Ed Dyson, ship’s engineer.

Urseminite? Yes, I borrowed those from Galileo Games’ Bulldogs, I’ll share the racial writeup in due course, but for now think of Big Ted as an alcoholic, psychopathic ewok.

NOW READ ON…

Torun Balkan is hiring surveyor crews for the aging, leaky and heavily-insured freighter Collateral Damage, registered out of Gazzain, which allows him to avoid certain inconvenient regulations. Amongst those he has hired are the PCs. It turns out that Captain Couder has sold the stasis pod to him, and he believes that the pod access codes are on record in the Great Archive at Zonguldak. He commissions the PCs to go there and recover the right code for him; after all, two of them were in the party that recovered the pod, and might know useful details, and another one is an ex-Archive library drone.

What could possibly go wrong? I mean, he’s basically asked them to check out a library book for him, right?

Tooling up – which in hindsight is my fault for not explaining the local law levels to them, I must fix that – the party catch the monorail from the spaceport to Zonguldak, which takes them through the nature reserve that featured heavily in Back in Black. Arriving in town, they quickly locate the Great Archive and approach it, studiously ignoring the razor wire and the ornate lion statues flanking the entrance.

After a brief altercation with the guard, who doesn’t want to let the urseminite inside, Captain Roscoe – who is possibly the most intimidating man in the entire sector – bullies the guard into letting them in without raising the alarm.

In reception, they quickly establish that the library AI is not authorised to give them pod access codes – you never know what’s inside a pod – and they need to talk to a human librarian, who is duly summoned.

Meanwhile, Lord Mareecha, who burns for revenge against Andrews and Fromar, has followed them to the Archive. He enters with insults and threats. While they are trying to out-intimidate each other, Sertac Bayram and Engerec, who have been following Lord Mareecha on general principles, intervene and calm things down. Mareecha storms off in a huff, affecting not to hear the party’s sarcastic comments.

The group chat briefly with Sertac and Engerec, but decide they are not worth following up. Adept Aytuna Durak, the Librarian, arrives and they engage in a mutually satisfactory discussion of the I-9 Handybot’s prototype status, Mandate history, and other small talk before explaining that they need access to codes. Aytuna provides the public domain codes right away, but explains they will need authorisation from the Grandmaster Adept to get at the restricted ones, which are of course what they need.

They call Torun Balkan with a progress update. He points out to them that he already has the public domain codes, which he downloaded from the Archive datanet earlier. They ask Aytuna where they can find the Grandmaster – "That building over there, his office is on the 10th floor, I’m sure you can get an appointment."

Now, this was intended to be an episode of social interaction and intrigue, but as you will see, the party had other ideas.

Having tried and failed to hack into the Archive’s AI, and in the case of the I-9 Handybot infect it with an extremely dangerous virus, they briefly consider hacking the Grandmaster’s diary so that he will see them today, before deciding on asking the Librarian to accompany them into a sealed booth so they can discuss the next step in private. This happens all the time, so the  Librarian is not worried. The booths are small, so only Roscoe and Big Ted go in with her. Fromar, who grows frustrated and restive at not being able to hack the AI, disables the booth’s internal surveillance.

I point out that they are in the heart of one of the most heavily-defended areas of the planet, and about to irritate the third most powerful group in the sector. They acknowledge this, but proceed with their Cunning Plan – Roscoe explains to Aytuna that if she doesn’t give them what they want, he will first cut off her ears with his cutlass, and then step outside, locking her in the booth with an urseminite.

(We establish at this point that the urseminite is the former star of a children’s holovid show called "Don’t Cry Children, It’s Blood All Right", recently cancelled after an unfortunate incident involving Big Ted and one Looby Lou. The tape of this incident has been withdrawn from general circulation but is much coveted among the online snuff movie community.)

After a show of willpower not expected from an Extra with Spirit d6, Aytuna eventually cracks and gives them the restricted codes. The booth is soundproofed and isolated, but as they open the door to leave, Aytuna screams for help. The AI puts two and two together – Adept in distress, suspicious activity in the surveillance system, armed intruders in the library – and raises the alarm.

The party now flees the building. Slowly, because Roscoe has a wooden leg and Big Ted only has little legs (Small Hindrance). Armed security converge on their location, both on foot and in gravsleds, and they steal a soccer mom’s people carrier for their daring escape, engaging the police in a vicious firefight as they go – the death toll among security forces will eventually rise to eight.

Roscoe demands to drive, despite his only vehicle skill being Boating. Dyson – who is a genius among engineers – reconfigures the vehicle’s controls so that they work like a boat’s. The I-9 Handybot is actually an accomplished gravsled pilot, but has not been asked to help. Roscoe damages the vehicle pulling out of the car park, so Dyson is called upon again for running repairs. Meanwhile Big Ted and Lisa Andrews are firing submachineguns at the pursuing security forces, and Formar manages to hack their flight controls, causing one to crash into a building and the other to roll over, tipping out all the occupants (who thanks to some truly appalling rolls have all forgotten to fasten their safety belts).

They flee towards the spaceport, 25 km away. After a few more casualties the police decide to follow them a little out of range, and order them to pull over, throw down their arms, and emerge with their hands plainly visible.

This leads to an entertaining scuffle between the I-9 Handybot (which feels it must pull over to minimise further harm to sentient beings) and Captain Roscoe (who is shouting "Mutiny! Mutiny!"). This consumes most of the party’s bennies.

The party contact Torun Balkan on an encrypted channel, and demand that he arrange fake IDs and passage offworld, and organise an orbital strike to help them fake their deaths, or they will reveal his involvement. Torun is happy to oblige, and they go offroad into the nature reserve, having established that they are only a few klicks from the clifftop mansions of the elite. As they bump through the forest, Dyson McGyvers the entertainment system to show convincing holograms of the party still inside the vehicle (admittedly, dancing to Brotherhood of Man songs, but hey, he’s under pressure here), then bail out. Ably assisted by Dyson’s expert guidance, Big Ted blows up the vehicle with his SMG.

Seconds later, the remains of the vehicle (and a number of nearby trees) are totally obliterated by an orbital artillery strike. The party calls to thank Torun Balkan, who explains he didn’t do it. They discuss this for a moment but discard it as irrelevant. A quick jog brings them to the mansion they previously raided, now under repair by contractors before being sold. These they evade, and take the cliffside path to the obligatory boathouse, where they steal a cabin cruiser and make their way to the spaceport (which is also on the coast) under cover of darkness.

They spend the next day or so laying low, and identifying Balkan Group’s warehouse managers. By dint of following these worthies and some low-grade hacking, they establish where the stasis pod has been taken, and prepare to assault the warehouse and steal it (they now have the codes, you see). Hacking the warehouse system to find out where it is, they discover it has already been loaded onto the Collateral Damage. In a fit of pique, they spoof the warehouse computer into sending three tons of assault rifles to their ship as well, before sneaking into the spaceport proper and making their way to the Collateral Damage.

When opened, the pod is found to contain Mandate-era grav engine spares, mint in the box, of a type Torun knows are in demand on Kov. So off to Kov they go…

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

  • Why was Torun Balkan so eager to help the party acquire fake IDs and flee offworld? How could this possibly benefit him?
  • Who was it who ordered the orbital strike on the party’s vehicle, and why?
  • Further, why did the local government cover that up afterwards?

The party briefly considered these questions, but quickly drove on. I, however, will build them into the emerging backstory.

LESSONS LEARNED

If you set up a world to be the PCs’ permanent base of operations, tell them so, before the little murderhobos have to run away. Tell them about the law levels as well. Really, I should have known that by now, so it’s my own fault. Oh well, never mind – easy come, easy go.

At this point it looks like the PCs actually are one of the Combine’s surveryor crews, which is just fine.

Death Frost Doom

I was asked to run a game for Nick and some friends, and they specifically wanted something Old School to see how things used to be done in the 1970s,  so out came Labyrinth Lord and Death Frost Doom. (I love OD&D, but not quite enough to run it from my aging White Box books; the Moldvay edition, and Labyrinth Lord which retroclones it, were and are more popular for a reason.)

Random character generation Old School style is fast and easy – which it has to be, given the lifespan of the average first level character – so it was only a short while later that the party took shape; one fighter, one dwarf, one cleric, and one Charisma 17 thief. I dropped Deathfrost Mountain into my old Irongrave campaign, expecting this to be a one-off, and the party began at the town of Stonebridge, where none of the players had been before, drawn by the rumour of treasure in the mountain, which they accepted despite rejecting the rumours of the resurgence of the ancient death cult which used to live there.

Now while original DFD is more than five years old and thus outside my self-imposed spoiler limit of five years, the new edition is only a year old and so well within it. So you’ll get partial spoilers.

The session was about six hours long, and of that they spent probably an hour generating characters, buying equipment in town, and taking to NPCs; and a couple of hours thrashing around outside the dungeon entrance, talking to more NPCs, examining the entrance in minute detail, and demonstrating the usual healthy acquisitiveness.

Then they found their way in, and explored the complex, continually thinking they had found it all – and then finding another door. They avoided four potential Total Party Kills, and most of the treasure, because they did not search the rooms thoroughly enough; they found the Sacred Parasite and killed it with fire, losing the thief in the process (one hit point you see – Old School, baby) and being unable to recover her body (for resurrection) or the loot (for fencing).

They then unleashed the Sealed Menace, which they escaped by creative (and desperate) use of some of the items they found in the dungeon. By the time they had finished doing that, the Sealed Menace had destroyed Stonebridge, which they could see burning in the distance as they marched south to the next town (the campaign’s titular Irongrave), concocting stories on the way of how they had warned Stonebridge and fought valiantly in its defence.

Oh well, easy come, easy go.

What about Death Frost Doom then? It’s a horror story rather than a hack-and-slash dungeon; the players find a lot of creepy stuff, but it is quite possible to go for extended periods without fighting anything – there was only one serious combat in the entire session. Everything in the scenario is there for a purpose, and it all interacts, and there were a number of interactions I didn’t spot until I was actually running it, despite having read it several times and taken notes.

As Zak S says in his introduction, this scenario demands only a little of your campaign’s space and time, but it does something with every inch of that space and every second of that time. I’d love to run it again sometime – and there are not many scenarios I think that about.

Review: Ultima Forsan

"Can you imagine what this novel might be like without the violent zombie mayhem?" – Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: A Reader’s Discussion Guide.

In a Nutshell: Renaissance Italy zombie apocalypse setting for Savage Worlds. 210 page PDF, $25 but discounted to $15 at time of writing. To paraphase Jeff Rients: I’m Machiavelli, you’re Da Vinci; we team up to fight zombies. In clockwork powered armour.

CONTENTS

Introduction (18 pages)

Ultima Forsan feels more like an alternate history than a fantasy setting, so I’ll talk about it in those terms. On this timeline, the zombie apocalypse begins in 1345 AD, with a plague of the risen dead spreading from the east of the known world. Two centuries later, the player characters are people of 1514 AD, living in small, fortified fiefdoms, and ever so slowly starting to push back the zombie hordes.

This section first defines how the contagion works and spreads, then extrapolates from that to how society reacts to those known to have contracted it, and how humanity itself is changing in reaction to constant exposure to the undead.

There’s a dungeon-equivalent in the Cities of Sorrow; places infested by undead and worse, but with valuable loot for those with the skill and courage to recover it – relics, books, weapons, or the traditional gold and jewels.

New Kingdoms (30 pages)

Unsurprisingly, since the authors and publisher are Italian, the focus of the setting is on Italy – but Renaissance Italy, even without the zombies, was full of city-states, wars, intrigue and adventure, so it’s a good choice. This section describes the principal Italian city-states, then provides a map of Europe showing civilised and wilderness areas, before describing the other nations of the day: The Holy Roman Empire, the Teutonic Federate, Hungary, the Hanseatic League (not strictly a nation, I know) and many others.

This is not a period of history I know well, but it looks like the authors have blended actual people and events into their setting as well as zombies. Although I’m pretty certain one of the NPCs is a Renaissance version of Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man.

We have several different kinds of undead, necromancers and others trying to use them for their own ends, and even some quislings who work for the undead, for various unwholesome reasons. Out in the wilderness between walled cities, animals and undead devour each other indiscriminately, and thus other abominations are created.

Character Creation (24 pages)

We start with character concepts, or archetypes if you will; in addition to the usual mercenaries, rogues, witches and alchemists, we have the obligatory Far East martial artists, Muslim berserkers (there are places in the setting where the Norse adopted Islam, you see), members of monastic orders military and otherwise, and so on.

There are two playable races: Human and Tainted – these are more-or-less immune carriers of the undead plague, shunned by most for obvious reasons. Character generation follows Savage Worlds Deluxe, with the Multiple Languages setting rule; there are dozens of new Edges, most of them Professional ones aligned to specific character archetypes.

Then there is the Sardonic Grin edge which those infected with the plague develop. With nothing left to lose, and little time left before he dies, such a hero becomes more effective in fighting the undead.

Gear (14 pages)

You should know by now that I have little interest in Gear chapters, so you will understand if I skip gaily ahead, pausing only to mention augmented armour and mechanical prostheses in passing. Imagine powered armour and cyberpunk implants designed and built by Leonardo da Vinci.

Setting Rules (20 pages)

The standard setting rules "switched on" in Ultima Forsan are Gritty Damage, Multiple Languages, Blood & Guts, and No Power Points. Fear checks use Spirit, and are less frequent than you might expect – the heroes grew up with hordes of undead outside the city walls, they’re used to stuff like that.

There are additional setting rules for variable lethality, plague exposure and what to do about it, and hit location for undead attacks, because what you need to do about being bitten depends on where the bite is. Often, what you need to do is amputate the bitten part, which leads us to the need for setting rules for amputation and prosthetics. I am not usually a fan of hit location, but in this case it supports the genre and the rest of the mechanics.

The Variable Lethality setting rule allows the GM to dial the heroes’ chances of survival up or down to suit the group, much like difficulty levels in a videogame. The further up you turn up the dial, the more likely the heroes are to die if bitten by zombies, but the more experience points they get per session.

There are two new Arcane Backgrounds: Alchemy and Witchcraft – these and Weird Science are the only Arcane backgrounds permitted, and they each have a drastically reduced set of available powers.

Optionally, you can use Tarot cards for initiative, and there are rules for doing that; essentially each player picks one of the major arcana as his personal joker (the GM gets Death as his), and the Fool is a normal joker.

Game Mastering (20 pages)

There are a few additional rules here, chiefly that in mass battles the undead consume the fallen living, so they can get more tokens as the battle progresses! Of course they are largely mindless, so they do not often win the battle roll.

There are expanded random encounter tables – always of interest to me because I often play solo, and that is greatly assisted by such tables. There’s a random table for which language that book you found is written in, too.

We are also introduced to relics the players may find, or be commissioned to recover from a City of Sorrows; things like St George’s spear, or bits of saints. These are drawn from the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Pagan faiths, and are complemented by marvels, which are the Weird Science equivalent; books of useful knowledge, enhanced armour and so forth.

Then there are GM’s secrets, including additional details on the plague – suffice to say that there are several layers of complexity beyond anything the players initially know.

The Secret of Marco Polo (34 pages)

This is an introductory campaign of four linked scenarios, each of 4-5 scenes, with the unifying theme that the PCs have been hired to find Marco Polo’s treasure, and return a particular book to their patron – anything else they find, they can keep. No spoilers, but using my usual yardstick of a couple of sessions per month and 3-4 scenes per session, this would keep my group entertained for 3-4 months.

Adventure Generator (8 pages)

It’s traditional for Savage Worlds settings to include a random adventure generator, and this one is no exception. Unusually, though, it’s all done with dice – no card draws here. You roll for the mission, enemies, destination, resources provided by the patron, and difficulties to be overcome.

Bestiary (30 pages)

Statblocks and descriptions for opponents; animals, fell beasts, undead, abominations and chimeras, stock NPCs.

…and we close with a map and a character sheet. The map is of a Renaissance city, and is particularly interesting as it has alternate keys, one key which describes the city of Lucca and one key which describes a generic period city. Nice touch. I assume Lucca is intended to be the PCs’ base town, but that wasn’t completely clear to me from the text.

FORMAT

Two-column, black text on yellow-green parchment-effect background (which can be suppressed to save ink). There are illustrations every few pages, a mixture of period woodcuts and new illustrations, usually black and white with a single spot of colour. It’s astonishing how many of the period pieces show humans and undead together, actually.

To judge from the PDF properties a printed copy would be approximately A5 size.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

None worthy of the mention. But, if you want to check out the setting, there is a free primer including pregen characters and an adventure on RPGNow – search for "Ultima Forsan – A Taste of Macabre".

CONCLUSIONS

I’m impressed with the way the authors have built a consistent clockpunk alternate history (“Macabre Italy”) around the undead, and seamlessly merged historical characters and modern tropes into it. Like many Savage Worlds campaigns, it takes a common type of setting, gives it a twist, and adds zombies.

So, what is Ultima Forsan? It’s a 16th century version of Attack on Titan; it’s Leonardo Da Vinci: Zombie Hunter; it’s Left 4 Dead meets Assassin’s Creed. It aligns with the current wave of movies set in the 16th century, but with anachronistic technology and supernatural monsters – the most recent one I can recall is Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, which you could do quite handily in this setting.

And the title? It has been 45 years now since I studied Latin, but I think it means something like "perhaps the last". That fits with the refrain in the book that for the heroes, each day may be their last. Especially with variable lethality turned up high.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. There’s a lot of good stuff here, and a number of ideas I shall quietly make off with and use elsewhere; but the Renaissance is not for me. Although if it was, this is what I would use.

Disclaimer: GG Studio provided me with a copy of Ultima Forsan for review purposes. Grazie mille Mauro!

Pawns of Destiny Episode 2: Wolves in the Borderlands

Slowly, my regular WFRP3 group are dipping their toes in the fast-moving waters of Beasts & Barbarians. For their second outing, I rummaged through my hard drive and drew forth the adventure that persuaded me to buy B&B in the first place; Wolves in the Borderlands, which is to some extent a Savage Worlds implementation of the classic Conan story Beyond the Black River.

After some thought, I have decided it’s OK to post spoilers for items more than five years old, but Wolves in the Borderlands doesn’t quite pass that hurdle, as it was published in 2011. So just the spoiler-free highlights then.

The party consists of Max O’Well the Barbarian from Northeim, Dorjee Pema the Lotusmaster from Gis, Zosimus the Cairnlander ex-Gladiator, U’wahz the Sage from Syranthia, Ash the Gilaskan Scoundrel, and an as-yet-unamed Lhobanese monk, and as usual I dropped and merged encounters to make sure we finished on time – they are a relatively slow-moving group, and you know what, as long as we’re all having fun, that’s OK.

Session highlights:

  • Off-camera, Ash’s player is writing a parallel series of adventures about what happens between sessions. In those stories he has taken up with a slave girl, and they have established a scam; when they enter each new town, he sells her, and just before they leave, he steals her back. That will get him into trouble at some point.
  • The monk. With one exception, a giant forest bear, the monk killed everyone he hit with his iron prayer beads. In one punch. Flukey or not, the rest of the party treat him with a new respect now. Especially since he has started describing his attacks… “I think I shall have your heart, Kerim Shah” or on one occasion “I rip his spine clean out, and he collapses bonelessly to the ground.” That last one did something like 30 damage on an Extra.
  • Crossing a bridge submerged by floodwater. This was a good example of PCs having a solid plan; Ash (who has good Agility and Acrobat) used a stick to tightrope-walk across the handrail, trailing a rope behind him, and thus they built a bridge on the bridge. Zosimus, the last man across, tied the rope to himself and jumped in, letting the rope and the current swing him to the other bank, where Max reeled him in like a fish.
  • Ash worships Etu, and in the previous session broke a piece off a pyramid sacred to Etu and used it to kill a crocodile sacred to Etu. The group now considers Etu the Great Crocodile Goddess, and Ash’s player checks every body of water for crocodiles as they approach. After he’d been doing this all session, I gave up and placed a supernatural crocodile in the flooded river, watching him. The others have now decided that crocodile must be ticking.

Good times. In our next session, the group will visit Syranthia, partly to return an orphan they’ve picked up to her next of kin, and partly because it’s about time the Sage checked in with the Great Library.

Collateral Damage 1: Stasis Pod

SS Collateral Damage, Alterday Shift, 25 January 3201…

LISA ANDREWS, FROMAR, POSEY AVRIL and JOE WILLIAMS are sitting in a coffee shop in the Charsi District of Zonguldak on Mizah, minding their own business, when they are approached by two hard-looking men trailing a couple of slap-drones.

CAPTAIN COUDER and his badly-scarred henchman CLAUDE have exchanged many harsh words with Posey in the past, and not a few bullets, but now need her assistance. Owing to a misunderstanding with the local law, Couder and Claude find themselves slap-droned (that is to say, followed everywhere by small robots which will intervene if they leave the city limits or do anything else illegal), and therefore unable to investigate the pre-Mandate survivalist’s bunker whose location they have learned by it’s-none-of-your-business. However, what they can learn, others surely will, and splitting the loot in half between the crews is better than losing all of it. Time is of the essence.

Despite numerous cogently-argued objections from Fromar, the party accepts this mission and rents a grav sled before embarking on the three-hour flight to the equatorial jungle island where the bunker is located. Holding at forty and doing a slow circle of the island, they discover two options: Land on the beach and walk in to the bunker coordinates, or land on the mountaintop and abseil down the sheer rock face. Despite (or possibly because of) the GM’s encouragement for the latter, they park on the beach and head in, chopping their way through the dense vegetation with machetes.

As they march, Fromar uses his copious mundane supplies to McGyver a flamethrower. Posey and Williams think they see foliage moving against the wind, and Williams drops prone yelling about bugs; Fromar uses his lighter to set the foliage on fire, but when nothing bursts out at them they decide to bound it in stones, make a campfire, and cook some bacon, it being lunchtime by now.

They reach the position Posey is sure is the site of the bunker without further incident, and find nothing. Fortunately Posey brought shovels, and they scrape away at what turns out to be the metal roof of a buried bunker. Shortly after that they notice that what they thought was a sink hole occupied principally by tree roots is in fact the entrance shaft to the underground bunker. Shortly after that, they notice that the shaft is lined with a viscous, pale-green slime; Fromar analyses this and informs them that it is characteristic of the giant carnivorous bugs known as “Hunters”. He drops a lit match down the hole to see how deep it is and set off any explosive gas before they go down.

Williams decides that the bugs must be killed with fire and is ready to attack. Posey is willing to go along for the sake of the loot, and starts to ready a rope by which they can descend, but the group’s plan is interrupted by a four-metre tall guard robot, covered in moss and vines, crashing through the foliage; it orders them to step away from the bunker and explains it is authorized to use deadly force.

Fromar argues with it, pointing out the advantages of having its AI braking removed so that it can be free to do its own thing; it counters that its primary purpose is to defend the bunker and its occupants. Fromar points out that the bunker is currently infested with giant carnivorous bugs which have no doubt eaten the occupants. The robot admits that the humans have been a bit quiet lately, but brightens when it realizes if the bugs are living there, they are now occupants, and therefore it still has something to protect.

Andrews realizes this means if she can get inside, she will be an occupant, and therefore safe from the robot. She makes a cinematic dive into the shaft, grabbing for the rope… which Posey hasn’t actually put there yet. Over the space of the next few seconds, noises come out of the shaft in quick succession: “Aaaaah!”, WHUMPFF, and “Owwwww…”

Looking around in her shaken state and checking herself for fractures – it’s always the medic who gets taken out first, isn’t it? – Andrews sees she is in an underground dome, ten meters high and twenty in diameter, with six corridors evenly-spaced around the perimeter; a number of Mandate stasis pods, mostly cracked open but one or two of which seem to be in working order, and half-a-dozen man-sized bugs advancing on her, waving an assortment of pincers, mandibles, antennae and stingers.

Above, Fromar continues his debate with the robot until Andrews calls “Help! Bugs!” As Williams dives towards the shaft entrance, Fromar throws him the improvised flamethrower, which he ignores completely. The robot tracks him with its autocannon and flamethrower, neither of which is working too well after 600 years in a jungle without maintenance or reloads. Fromar realizes that while it may be authorized to use deadly force, it no longer has the capability.

Confederation Marines are obviously trained in this kind of thing, as Williams rolls with the impact of his thirty-foot drop, bounces up unhurt, and blows the head off a bug with a well-placed slug from his magnum revolver. Posey follows him down and the three engage in a fierce close-quarters combat with the five remaining bugs, in a dark, cramped underground space lit only by the muzzle flashes of their weapons and dimly-luminous slime.

Andrews is wounded repeatedly by bug stingers, but manages to shake off the paralyzing poison each time. Posey realizes that her parrying is so good they have almost no chance of hitting her, and draws them away from her colleagues. Williams fends them off and gradually whittles down their numbers with his revolver, and Posey manages to drop one as well.

Confident of the team’s ability to deal with a few insects, and intent on securing the party’s escape route, Fromar carries on remonstrating with the robot, which is now trying to twat him with the barrel of its autocannon. During the melee, he manages to get close enough to jack into a diagnostic port and disable the hydraulics, immobilizing it. It politely requests him to stop that and stand still so it can stomp on him.

Reasoning that without combat skills he will be more of a hindrance than a help down below, Fromar ties one end of the rope to the robot (which weighs several tons and will be an adequate belay), throws the other end down the shaft, and – as gently as he can – drops the improvised flamethrower after it. Fortunately, it fails to explode.

Andrews, barely conscious, grabs the flamethrower and turns it on the dogpile containing several bugs and Posey, yelling “Flame on!” Posey manages to dive out of the way, and Andrews immolates all the bugs. Williams holsters his revolver, draws his cutlass, and engages the blazing bugs mano-a-mano, like a real Marine (his words). He thinks he can hear the distinctive sound of lasers firing above, but is too preoccupied to worry about that just now.

Meanwhile, Fromar’s investigation of the robot is interrupted by the arrival of a squad of rakashan troops who have been tracking the party through the jungle. Their leader congratulates the human vermin on clearing out the bunker, which he is sure they will complete any minute, after which he will relieve them of the loot and be on his way. The guard robot orders the rakashans to step away from the bunker, and notes that it is authorized to use deadly force. Fromar attempts to bluff his way out of the situation, pointing out the robot’s autocannon and flamethrower and telling the rakashans to drop their weapons, or the giant robot – now under his control – will kill them all.

After a second’s thought, the rakashan leader yells “The big one is mine!” and opens fire on the robot with his laser pistol. His troops take this as a sign that hostilities have commenced, and start shooting at Fromar and the robot with laser assault rifles (this is the laser fire Williams can hear).

Fromar sets the robot’s filesystem to copy itself into his portable computer, and trailing data cables behind him, dives into the shaft, managing to grab the rope with one hand as he falls.

-o0o-

As the session draws to a close, we find the situation as follows:

  • Andrews is waving an improvised flamethrower around in an unsafe manner. It has two shots left. She is heavily wounded (having taken something like seven Wounds and soaked all but two of them). On the plus side, the blazing bug carcasses have improved the illumination level.
  • Posey is rolling to her feet and assessing the situation, her rifle is on the floor somewhere but she is still clutching her lucky pistol “Elmira”.
  • Fromar is dangling from a rope just inside the top of the shaft, downloading what will turn out to be roughly half the robot’s file system onto his PC, while rakashan troops topside laser the stuffing out of the robot, which is threatening them impotently.
  • Williams is engaged in slashing the last surviving bug to pieces with his cutlass. It is burning merrily and more than a little unhappy.
  • Williams has been acknowledged as the leader, at least for this firefight, by Posey and Andrews, which means as long as they are within 5” of him on the tabletop they get +1 to recover from Shaken and he can (but need not) share his bennies with them.
  • It’s about four in the afternoon, and they have two to three hours of light left. Which is a moot point so long as they are underground.

We’ll pause this particular adventure here until the players concerned next meet up, which will be in a few weeks, and flashforward to the next one for the moment, which has some of the same players and some new ones.

It’s only in writing this up afterwards that I realized how well everyone was playing their hindrances.

PCs

This is the crew from Back in Black, converted back to Savage Worlds and transposed into this setting. Lisa Andrews, medic (and not a renegade psion on the run at all, honest); Fromar, mad scientist; Ms Posey Avril, semi-retired pirate and gastropub franchise owner; Captain Joe “Cap’n Crunch” Williams, Confederation Marine deserter. It’s interesting how everyone on this team except Fromar is already wanted by the authorities. Remember that while the players know this, the characters do not.

It’s also interesting that none of the players have noticed they are on a different planet entirely and the setting has been rewritten around them, although Posey’s player was one of the playtesters for the Aslan half of GURPS Traveller Alien Races 2 and recognised she has been in the Dark Nebula before – she’s happy playing Posey but did request a crossover adventure where she meets her old character. To be fair to them, it’s over a year now since Back in Black. Good Lord. Is it really? I suppose it must be.

NPCs

Captain Barry Couder of the armed freighter Goodnight Vienna; Claude Baddeley, his heavily-scarred lieutenant; Lord Mareecha, rakashan nobleman, and sundry laser-toting rakashan troops; hunter queen and assorted acid-dripping hunter warriors; Mandate sentinel mech, designation currently unknown.

REFLECTIONS

Well, Gromit, that went as well as could be expected. I had a very simple dungeon crawl in mind as a shakedown cruise for the party, with multiple opposing forces so that if they get out of their depth with one, another can barge in and distract their current enemy before turning on them itself.

I spent too much time looking up monster statblocks, even though I’d copied the ones I needed onto a crib sheet. I need a better way of doing that.

I actually have eight potential players, but they drop nicely into two groups of four whose attendance at sessions will rarely overlap, so I’ve split them into a mainday shift and an alterday shift, allowing me to have all of them on the same ship while explaining why there are two basic groups, whose members will sometimes mingle. I’ve given them a stock Light Freighter from the Sci-Fi Companion, and I’m studiously ignoring how eight of them manage to fit into a ship with life support for five, because I can’t be bothered to redesign the ship. Obviously they’re hot-bunking though.

I asked the players what their ship should be called – what they don’t know yet is that the AI has suffered damage and become unbraked, and its personality will be determined by what they name the ship. Collateral Damage won by a small margin over Resistance Is Advisable. They’ve been reading too many Culture novels.

The Last Parsec Core

Having purchased this as soon as I noticed it was available, and devoured it overnight, here are my initial thoughts…

In a Nutshell: Core book for the Savage Worlds Last Parsec setting, from Pinnacle Entertainment. 96 page PDF, $10 at time of writing – print options also available. This isn’t a stand-alone book, you also need Savage Worlds Deluxe and ideally the Sci-Fi Companion as well.

CONTENTS

1 – The Known Worlds (42 pages)

This covers the history of the Known Worlds in outline, and details six of them, before moving into essays on FTL travel, sentient races, threats and opportunities, and character concepts.

The history is broadly in line with the early part of the Standard Sci-Fi History common to many space operas; Earth is devastated by war in the near future, but recovers and launches sublight colony ships which settle distant Earthlike worlds, encountering various species which resemble humans, felines, saurians, etc. After enough time for the colonies to develop distinctly alien cultures, FTL travel is discovered and they link up again. Earth is historically significant, but not a major interstellar power.

There’s a table of main sequence star data, which appears to serve no useful purpose as there are no rules for star system generation. Each of the six selected worlds gets about a page of background detail in all, explaining how it was settled, what it’s like, and the culture of its inhabitants; one is tagged as the serran homeworld, and the others are human-dominated.

There are a couple of pages on FTL travel, but they don’t answer the questions I still have – see Suggestions for Improvement below. They do clarify that in TLP hyperspace travel is not instantaneous, and there is a tantalising hint of sentient white dwarf stars which are able to conduct hyperspace jumps.

Next, each of the important sentient races in the setting gets a couple of pages, describing its homeworld, appearance, pre-contact or pre-spaceflight history, and current situation. These races are the aurax, parasteen (deaders), florans, insectoids, rakashans, saurians, and yetis. We learn who the rakashan racial enemy is in the setting – kalians. We also learn that there are various splinter groups of rakashans who do not play well together.

Note that terms like "insectoid" are used as catch-all categories covering multiple similar species which need not be related; indeed, the book provides three different species of saurians from different planets.

This chapter also contains a map showing the realspace locations of a number of worlds, which is nice enough but has no game purpose due to the nature of FTL travel in the setting – every world is only one jump away from every other world.

The threats and opportunities section talks about lost civilisations and threatening species, and to avoid spoilers I won’t give details, other than to say that if you have Scientorium you already have much of that information.

The final section talks about character concepts – these are called archetypes, but to me an archetype is a ready-to-play character, not a paragraph telling me that engineers build and repair things and are in high demand, for example. It also has a sidebar of slang terms.

2 – JumpCorp (8 pages)

The default employer for player characters in the setting, JumpCorp is a unifying component giving the future-shocked PC something to cling to among the wide range of worlds and races. It’s more like a franchise operation than a typical megacorporation; charters are limited to a particular star system, but local operations can group together into conglomerates, and all report to JumpCorp Prime, which doesn’t control franchises but does share data and arbitrate between them. Individual charters can be good, bad or indifferent, and use different organisational structures and job titles; so the GM can invent whatever type of corporation suits his group best.

Basically, whatever the GM needs the megacorp in his game to do, there’s a bit of JumpCorp somewhere that does it. The chapter also mentions three other corporations to show JumpCorp isn’t the only game in town, and gives the GM some guidance on how to use JumpCorp to best effect.

3 – Gear (13 pages)

You can see my eyes glazing over already, right? That’s not about the book, it’s about my long-standing indifference to equipment chapters in all RPGs. There are a handful of new weapons, personal devices, androids and starships; a couple of new mods for homebrew ships; and some new vehicles and vehicle mods. There are more starships and vehicles than anything else. The main thing that caught my eye was the grav belt – err, sorry, anti-grav pack.

4 – Setting Rules (5 pages)

We start with Joker’s Wild and Multiple Languages from the SWD rulebook – good choices – and all PCs getting a free Knowledge skill at their Smarts die type – which I dislike on principle, but that’s just me.

The chapter then talks about what JumpCorp pays your heroes, how they might requisition unusual equipment, and commendations – these are a bit like medals and grant the PC bonus money and experience for going above and beyond their contracted duty; they also grant Resolve, which are points you can trade for connections, bennies, extra action cards, or extra adventure cards if your group uses those. This intrigues me and deserves further study and possibly experimentation in play.

A sidebar explains that interstellar travel is something done only by the few, e.g. the PCs, with most people never travelling offworld. A larger section expands on space travel and how it works, but seems to be largely a consolidated recap of information in other products (which one might reasonably expect of a core setting book, although usually the adventures would be published after the core book and duplicate its content, not the other way around).

5 – Adventure Generator (9 pages)

As is traditional for SW settings, there are rules for generating random adventures using card draws and dice. In this case, an adventure consists of an objective, a focus, a conflict and 1-4 other elements. I’ll create an example to show you how it works… it’s worth noting that all card draws refer you to the same set of tables, so a specific item might be a factor for good or ill depending on the adventure. That would encourage me to reuse NPCs, as I like the idea of particular NPCs being allies in one session and enemies in the next, according to their motivations.

First I roll 1d20 for the mission objective: 1 – exploration. The PCs must explore a newly discovered region, world or ruins. Fair enough, it’s a common adventure type.

Next I draw a card to determine what people or objects relate to that objective; a Queen of Clubs. Clubs tell me there is an obstacle of some type and I roll 1d20 to decide what -  15, which I see means the PCs encounter local military or police forces and must persuade them of their right to be in that location, or be arrested.

Third, I draw a card for the conflict; Ace of Diamonds – I roll another d20 and get 13, technology; 1d10 = 3 cargo spaces of high-end consumer goods. That is unlikely to fight the PCs, so it must be something they find which other groups want badly enough to fight them for.

Fourth, I draw 1d4 more cards for other elements and get a 2 of Clubs and an Ace of Spades. Each of those requires a d20 roll and I get 12 and 20 respectively; the adventure will also feature a gravitational anomaly and soldiers of the Tazanian Empire in a heavily-armed light freighter.

(In some situations I could have found myself rolling percentile dice to see which creature from the Sci-Fi Companion was involved, but that didn’t happen here.)

Putting that all together, I decide to use the stock TV show trope of answering a distress call; a JumpCorp freighter has been rerouted to a world with super heavy gravity, and is thought to have crashed. The team is sent to investigate and recover any survivors and the valuable cargo – and also find out why it was there in the first place.

Reaching the crash site, which is dangerous and difficult because of the gravity, the PCs discover the ship was given forged orders diverting it from its normal destination, and is being ransacked by a group of Tazanian soldiers disguised as a freighter crew, who claim they are salvaging the cargo. Clever players may discover clues to the fact that the Tazanians issued the fake orders to take the ship somewhere they could seize its cargo, which has valuable secrets and/or contraband concealed in it. The Tazanians have also warned a warship from a neighbouring world which is patrolling the system that they suspect "pirates" are responsible for the crash and to be on the lookout for brigands posing as JumpCorp employees.

Sounds like a reasonable adventure and took less than 20 minutes to work out. For me, this is the most useful part of the book.

6 – Travelers and Empires (13 pages)

More common allies and enemies to supplement those from the Sci Fi Companion; a couple of dozen NPCs of various stripes, including the first mention of an avion in the setting; empires and organisations, including two of the three empires from the Sci-Fi Companion and a sidebar with a couple of mercenary outfits to use as organisations.

…and we close with an index.

FORMAT

PDF properties suggest this is what Pinnacle call an Explorer-sized book, about 7" x 10" or so. It’s in the usual TLP trade dress, black type on a pale blue background with pages looking vaguely like a tablet PC screen. Fortunately for my printer the background layer can be suppressed.

Full colour illustrations every few pages, ranging from a quarter page to a full page in size; many have been recycled from earlier TLP products, not that this bothers me.

Overall, it’s fine; plain, straightforward, gets the job done. It would be easy to use at the gaming table and that’s what counts most for me.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I still want to know the military and political implications of an FTL drive system in which there are no choke points and all planets are equidistant from all other planets, especially since the nav beacons provide “FTL radio”. It’s a bit like the present day I suppose; if you’re in trouble in Sumatra, say, you can radio corporate headquarters in New York, and if they care enough, they can have backup airdropped to your position within a day or two.

I also want to know how a planet can be “far from the regular trade routes” or “on the edge of explored space”, as several are said to be in other products, when every world with a nav beacon is equally accessible.

Nobody on the forum seems bothered about any of this, so I suspect there is another paradigm shift from Old School RPGs to Savage Worlds that I haven’t quite made yet, one relating to not needing the amount of setting information I’m used to having. I shall muse on that further over the coming months; it’s probably connected to Old School assumptions about domain-level play, which current RPGs have largely abandoned.

CONCLUSIONS

I had wondered whether this would enhance TLP to the point where I abandon my semi-homebrew Dark Nebula setting in favour of it, but it doesn’t. I can vaguely see how a TLP campaign might be run, and it would have almost no advance preparation at all, which is attractive; setting details would emerge in play as the GM responds to player questions. I can’t see it clearly enough to run, though.

TLP Core reuses a lot of setting information from the other TLP products and the Sci-Fi Companion, but this makes it usable whatever other products you have, and even if you do have them it would reduce page-flipping across multiple books; it does mean you are paying for content you might already have, or could obtain free elsewhere, so it’s your call whether the convenience is worth the cost. The reuse does mean I could see this setting being just about workable without the Sci-Fi Companion, and it’s definitely usable without the world books from the Kickstarter. Mind you, you could do the same thing with the free setting primer, too, and if you’re interested I recommend you download that first to see if it floats your boat before you buy the full setting book.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 if you have the other TLP products, 4 out of 5 in its own right. I’ll mine it for ideas (most likely the adventure generator), but it’s not quite what I’m after at the moment, so it’s destined for the reference section.