Magic in Irongrave

Last time on Savage Saturday, I looked at Wild Cards and Extras. This time, powers. The Irongrave campaign permits three Arcane Backgrounds; Magic, Miracles and Weird Science (this last to create all the minor magic items that lie around in an old school fantasy game). Those who choose Miracles must abide by their religion’s tenets, or their powers will be degraded or even removed. Those who choose Magic are not limited in that way, but can injure themselves if the spell fails badly.

Magic is fuelled by power points. Most casters have 10, and nobody below Legendary has more than 30. Most spells cost 3 to cast for 18 seconds, and a further 1 per 6 seconds after that.

Spellcasters have various ranks: Novice, Seasoned, Veteran, Heroic and Legendary. The detectable difference between them is that there are some spells only a high-level spellcaster can use. For example, if a caster uses Fly, you know he must be at least Veteran.

These five ranks are mapped to Apprentice, Journeyman, Master, Grand Master and Archmage respectively for Arcane Background (Magic or Weird Science); the equivalents for Arcane Background (Miracles) are Acolyte, Deacon, Priest, Bishop – there is no specific title for a Legendary clergyman.

The most effective way for a spellcaster to demonstrate their rank is to learn Shape Change, because what you can turn into is limited by rank. In fact, the only reliable way to prove Archmage status is to shapeshift into a Great White Shark.


  • Spellcasters fuel their effects from their personal mana.
  • Arcane spellcasters can injure themselves if the casting fails, divine ones lose their powers if they stray from their vows.
  • There are some spells which only the more powerful spellcasters can use.
  • Most spellcasters can’t keep a typical spell going for more than a minute or so.
  • Some spellcasters can heal you so long as the injury is less than an hour old, but they can’t bring you back from the dead.
  • Use of the Puppet or Zombie powers is illegal; Puppet because it can compel you to commit acts against your will, and Zombie because nobody wants to see their granny raise from the grave as a mouldering corpse.


  • Most formal magical schools require students to learn Shape Change. The final examination for promotion to the next rank includes demonstrating which animal shapes you can assume.
  • Secure locations are set up to preclude access by the Burrow, Fly, Invisibility, Puppet, Shape Change or Teleport powers.


  • To detect Puppet and Shape Change, security at an important fixed location includes one or more spellcasters, who scan those entering with Detect Arcana. The more worried you are about Conceal Arcana, the better these casters are.
  • As a defence against Invisibility, the approach to the location should include dog (to smell the intruder), floors covered with flour or water (to make his footsteps visible), squeaky floorboards (to make his footsteps audible), etc.
  • Defending against Burrow means there can be no areas of raw earth in sensitive locations. Stone or wood are preferred.
  • Thwarting the Flying intruder simply requires a site with no airborne access – common methods include sites deep within a building with no windows, or underground.

The Chosen

“I loved it when one day a player of mine said, “I polymorph myself into a troll and run out into the street after the thief.”

Another player said, “Dude, you can’t go out there like that!”

And the first player replied, “Don’t worry about it! This is Ptolus — they see this stuff all the time.”

I knew then that the first player really got Ptolus.”

– Monte Cook, A Player’s Guide to Ptolus

The thing that intrigues me most about Monte Cook’s Ptolus setting is that everything is driven by the Rules As Written of D&D 3rd Edition.

As my poison of choice is Savage Worlds, one of the things I shall be exploring in Irongrave is: What does a Savage Worlds setting look like if the conceits of the setting are the conceits of the Rules As Written? This will be my focus for the next few Savage Saturdays.

The first thing that springs to mind is the split between Wild Cards (PCs and major NPCs) and Extras (mooks and cannon-fodder). In the setting, people will know this, and might know which they are. This calls to mind the Bene Gesserit of Dune, who sift people to find the true humans, and the Birthright D&D setting.

There’s a third category, Allies – Extras (or possibly Wild Card NPCs) who are attached to the PCs. They differ from normal Extras in having a chance to “level up” after adventures. Some Wild Cards can also share power effects or bennies with their allies.

In-game, the best ways to tell whether someone is a Wild Card are to cast Fear on them (Extras always Panic, Wild Cards may Panic but usually do something else instead) or to injure them seriously (Wild Cards keep going after Extras have been incapacitated).


  • Most people (and other beings) are ordinary.
  • Some people – the Chosen – are inherently stronger, tougher, faster, smarter, and luckier than others. However, they are not invulnerable or immortal, nor is any race or social class favoured; anyone could be Chosen.
  • There is no infallible way to tell whether someone is Chosen or not; the most reliable predictor is how they respond to terrifying situations or severe injuries.
  • The best way for an ambitious but normal person to improve themselves is to ally themselves with one of the Chosen.
  • The worst monsters (vampires, dragons etc.) are Chosen.


  • If you want something important done, you use the Chosen to do it. They are more likely both to survive and to succeed. Over time, therefore, the Chosen have come to dominate positions of power.
  • Scars and a reputation for courage command respect. Improbable survival in the face of wounds, or exceptional courage, are good indicators that you are Chosen.
  • If you want to know whether someone is Chosen or not, you subject them to a series of terrifying experiences (much less likely to kill them than injuries). The ones who do something other than Panic are Chosen; most Chosen identified by this method have phobias or some mark of fear such as white streaks in their hair. However, some of the Chosen go berserk under stress, so the tests are best administered from a safe distance.
  • If you are not Chosen, but still ambitious, you try to find one of the Chosen and join his or her retinue; your chances of glory, gold and increased prowess are much higher. Of course, your chance of dying horribly is much higher too.
  • If you become well-known as one of the Chosen, you may start to attract normal people as retainers. These will be motivated by ambition, greed, or glory.

All of this leads naturally into a discussion of the pantheon – who Chooses these people, and why? That needs a bit more thought.

Review of Venture by 0One Games


A dungeon crawl boardgame by 0One Games, essentially a re-imagining of the old Games Workshop/Milton Bradley favourite, HeroQuest. Available as a PDF download to print and assemble, or (hopefully soon) as a "proper" boardgame.

As in HeroQuest, a party of up to four adventurers enters a dungeon in each quest to achieve an objective.


I went for the travelmate edition, which differs from the regular one in having counters rather than standees to cut out. (I plan to print them on big sticky labels, and stick them to foamcore board to make more durable components.)

This has 10 files in it, containing:

Boards: Venture has six boards, each 9" by 9" and split over two pages. These contain an entrance hall, a hall of pillars, and boards with one, two, three and four rooms on them, respectively. There are no corridors as such, probably because they’d make the layout too big; as it is, every piece of every tile is an encounter area. Doors, traps and furniture are represented by counters, so have no fixed positions on the boards. Each scenario uses 2-6 of these modular boards in a different configuration. The file also contains a Decks Board, where the four card decks needed for play are laid out.

Bonus Materials: This file is intended to be printed on heavier card stock, and assembled to form a box full of trays to store the other components. I’ll probably get a plastic box and some bags for that purpose. There is also a sheet of stickers to convert ordinary dice into the game’s special dice. More on those later.

Cards: Two files here, one with 14 pages of cards for equipment, expendables (such as potions), spells, events, and initiative, and one with the card backs. You could go nuts adding your own extra cards.

Counters: Two files again, one with markers for traps, lost hit points, and the disembodied spirits of the adventurers, and another with counters for heroes, monsters, doors and furniture. If you get the normal edition, the second one is replaced with standees for those items, which you can also buy separately if you change your mind. Or you could use all those miniatures you have lying around.

Evil Keeper’s Screen: Reference charts for the EK, which you assemble into a GM’s screen.

Hero and Monster Sheets: Cards for the four heroes (human barbarian, human thief, elven wizard, dwarven fighter) and the five ordinary monsters (orc, ogre, kobold, skeleton, zombie). The monster cards have summaries of their statistics, and the hero cards also have places to park counters for hit points lost, equipment, and spells cast. The boss monsters – death knight, evil mage, and chaos fighter – are handled differently as their statistics are variable.

Rulebook: 15 pages of rules, covering movement, combat and spells. The rules are boardgame-level, so you’ll have no trouble picking them up. Each figure’s statistics are defined as a number of dice; your Move score is how many squares you can move, and combat and spellcasting are resolved by dice rolls. Moves cannot be diagonal; attacks can only be diagonal if you have the right equipment.

Quest Sheets: Ten ready-to-play quests, each with a map layout, statistics for the Boss, traps and any non-standard rules. There are more quests free to download at 0One Games, and expansions for the game are starting to appear too.



  • Heroes can’t be permanently killed by low-grade monsters; as in games like Guild Wars, being killed by one of these means your disembodied spirit has to move to a shrine and respawn.
  • Heroes can rest to recover hit points.
  • Each time the heroes rest, respawn, or find some treasure, the dungeon’s Boss gets stronger. This means that if they lose too many fights, or clean out the entire dungeon, the Boss can become undefeatable – and he CAN kill heroes permanently.
  • The Evil Keeper lays out all the map tiles at the start of the game, but not the doors, monsters or furniture. The heroes thus know the extent and shape of the dungeon, but not how they’ll get into each corner, or what they will find there.
  • Campaign mode, in which heroes can keep equipment from dungeon to dungeon… but the more they keep, the stronger the Boss gets.


  • Each board is split over two sheets of paper; they have to be printed and assembled. I’ll get over it; if necessary I’ll recreate the boards and print them and the counters using "shrink to fit". So there.
  • The custom dice. These are 6-sided dice of three different types, which grant a success 2, 3 or 4 times out of 6, respectively. This just feels clunky as a mechanic. It has the advantages of requiring almost no arithmetic (which would be needed for die roll modifiers) and fewer dice than if all of them had the same chance of success. I don’t like it, though.
  • The quests don’t link together in an overall campaign. That was one of the best things about HeroQuest for me. Easy enough to fix, I suppose.

This looks like a serviceable enough game. My main interest was in using it as a source of additional dungeon tiles and scenarios for other games, so my slight disappointment in it is unjust, as that isn’t really what it’s designed for – 0One do a very snazzy line of dungeon tiles already. I can’t see a way to play it solo, but maybe it’s one for the holidays – I can play it with the family over Christmas.

This sort of dungeon crawl game has a lot of devotees, in the UK, USA and Europe, so I expect it to do well. I shall follow the expansions with interest.

Review: Savage Worlds Fantasy Toolkits

Pinnacle has produced a number of genre toolkits, typically three for each genre: A bestiary, a world builders’ guide, and an equipment book. These are all optional with a capital O, intended to act as examples and guidelines rather than strict rules. My copies are PDF downloads from RPGNow.

This review is about the fantasy toolkits, which were published in 2005, and like much of the SW line, written by Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams; I suspect they may eventually be replaced by the Fantasy Companion.

Fantasy Gear Toolkit (81 pages)

The main sections are these:

  • Introduction (1 page). The stock outline of the content to come, plus the usual SW admonition to use, change or ignore them as you wish.
  • New Setting Background (1 page). The fantasy toolkits use this as an example of how to create a setting.
  • Tools of the Trade (9 pages). Expanded rules for non-magical armour, weapons and adventuring gear; ships; siege engines and sieges.
  • Making Magic (4 pages). This is about constrcuting magic items, and includes the new character Edges required to make them, and the costs of various enchantments.
  • Magic Items (61 pages). Here we have a discussion of the types and placement of magic items, the treasure table which we’ll see again in the Bestiary Toolkit, random tables suitable for stocking dungeons with magic items, and descriptions of the various items on the tables. This chapter has an old school D&D vibe to it, although there is not much overlap in the relics themselves with D&D.

Fantasy Bestiary Toolkit (62 pages)

The main chapters are:

  • Introduction. One page. Much like the one in the Gear toolkit.
  • Making Monsters. Two pages. This covers how to build your own monsters from scratch, with a worked example, and a treasure table, used to determine what loot the various beasts have with them. The guidelines for monster creation boil down to “give it whatever stats, skills and abilities you think fit the description”, which is the default SW approach and one of the reasons I like it.
  • Bestiary. 54 pages. Here’s the guts of the book; dozens of new monsters, some generic fantasy creatures, others new. I’m pleased to see a load of human archetypes in the product, although I would have preferred them to be collected in a separate chapter rather than mixed in with the dinosaurs and mythological beasties.

In addition, there are sidebars of several types scattered throughout the book:

  • Adventure Seeds. There are 20 of these, each based on one of the monsters in the book.
  • Encounters, including philosophy, traps, and encounter tables for various terrain types.
  • Treasure types for monsters from the core rules.

Fantasy World Builder Toolkit (70 pages)

  • Introduction (1 page). The usual stuff.
  • The Drawing Board (6 pages). The reader is encouraged to start creating his setting by thinking about the style of fantasy (high, low, historical, technological, weird); the hook that will draw the players into it; and what is going on in the world. Plot Points (story arcs) are also discussed, with some samples. This section closes with a recap of the example setting from the Gear Toolkit.
  • World Creation (9 pages). The pros and cons of top-down and bottom-up world construction. DIscussions of, and rules for: Climate and terrain types; ecology; weather; hazards (rockfalls, forest fires, quicksand etc.); and travel.
  • Building Nations (15 pages). This explains how to create cultures and kingdoms, whether human or not. There are capsule descriptions of ancient cultures to plagiarise, suggestions on customising stock fantasy races to make them unique to your setting, rules for creating new races, different types of government and their effects, laws, and economics. These lead into advice on placing your new nations on your map, capsule descriptions of standard settlement types, and thoughts on calendars and their possible impacts on magic.
  • Religion (7 pages). The chapter looks at creating gods and pantheons, the powers and duties of clergy. There’s an example pantheon, too.
  • Arcane Magic (10 pages). The heart of this section is tweaking the Arcane Background edge to provide a variety of different types of spellcaster – rune magi, alchemists and so on. It also includes rules for familiars.
  • Major Players (4 pages). Organisations and powerful individuals who have an impact, either as friends or foes. The book suggests tying these to Professional Edges – a number of examples are provided.
  • Using Powers (14 pages). How to tweak the standard powers and trappings to customise your setting, and a grimoire of new powers.


Cheap, cheerful, does what it says on the tin. However, like most of my RPG library, I flip through these every so often for inspiration rather than keeping them close at hand while I play, or design a setting. The thing I use most often is the Traps Table from the Bestiary.

Review: Savage Worlds Science Fiction Toolkits

Pinnacle has produced a number of genre toolkits, typically three for each genre: A bestiary, a world builders’ guide, and an equipment book. These are all optional with a capital O, intended to act as examples and guidelines rather than strict rules; as the author says, "take what you need, and modify the rest".

This review is about the science fiction toolkits, which were published in 2004-2006, and like so much of the SW line, written by Paul "Wiggy" Wade-Williams.

Science-Fiction Bestiary Toolkit (62 pages)

  • Introduction (1 page). This explains the book’s contents, and stresses that these are optional rules and creatures.
  • Populating Worlds (6 pages). This kicks off with a random alien creature generator (with an example creature), provides advice on reskinning beasts for an SF setting, and lists some new monstrous abilities to confer on animals. There is also a system for creating intelligent aliens – the book suggests that these are used as templates, which are then applied to the statblocks in the Archetypes chapter to create alien NPCs; note that this system produces NPC alien races quickly, and isn’t necessarily balanced – for the PC race rules, you need the World Builder toolkit.
  • Strange Beasts (21 pages). These are mundane creatures – "the alien equivalent of lions and cows", with no psionic or other special powers. Over 60 creatures are listed, together with sidebars on random encounters and encounter tables. As always in SW, the Sorting Algorithm of Evil doesn’t apply – the PCs meet what they meet, and are expected to fight, run, or trick their way out of the situation as appropriate. There are also comments on how much food you can glean from a carcass after a hunt. I think I would get most mileage out of Jester Monkeys (comical, but potentially lethal to the unprepared) and Species ZS-665, which reminds me a lot of a certain movie xenomorph with acidic blood.
  • Weird Aliens (9 pages). These beasties are not so mundane – they include vacuum-dwelling starship-eating squid, cyber-dogs, B-movie giant ants, psionic creatures, icky parasites that take over normal people for nefarious purposes, uplifted chimpanzees, and more. This is a good chapter to play "spot the movie influence".
  • Hazards (4 pages). Mundane hazards – avalanches, forest fires, crevasses and so on. There’s a good range of these, with straightforward rules or guidelines for each one.
  • Robots (8 pages). While the SF Gear Toolkit provides rules for designing robots, this chapter provides 20 pre-designed sample robots. It would be a while before you needed any more.
  • Archetypes (10 pages). Another good place to play "spot the movie influence" (incidentally, that’s not a criticism). Around 50 stock characters, created as humans but with the intent that you can apply alien templates to generate non-human NPCs quickly. Here you’ll find soldiers and crewmen of various ranks and specialities, thugs, merchants, pirates, psi-knights and others.

Science Fiction Gear Toolkit (68 pages)

  • Introduction. (2 pages). This explains the purpose of the book – advice and guidance rather than "official" rules – and gives a range of suggested technology levels from 0 (present-day Earth) to 3 (super-science). It’s important to remember that this toolkit – like the others – provides a wide range of interesting ideas, and leaves it to the individual GM to decide what to incorporate, and what makes no sense in his campaign.
  • Mundane Gear. (6 pages). Armour, weapons and adventuring gear. Here is where you’ll find personal forcefields, spacesuits, guns, communicators and so forth.
  • Cybernetics. (5 pages). Here’s the implanted cyberpunk equipment. Cyberware in this toolkit is largely another set of trappings for the standard SW powers.
  • Cyberspace. (9 pages). This explains how to build your hacker’s rig, how to get past the ICE protecting sensitive systems, and what to do once you get there. The rig, and its cyberspace persona, are rated as a character, as are the defensive measures it will encounter. The whole feel is very like William Gibson’s novels, or the Cyberpunk RPG.
  • Starships. (12 pages). This presents two approaches to starship design; the "as you need" method – i.e, the GM makes it up as he sees fit by comparison to the generic ships presented later in the chapter) – and the "construction method", a more traditional approach involving selecting a hull, then allocating its available capacity to various systems. There are sidebars on FTL drive and Handling (trading available capacity for Piloting bonuses). Finally, we have 19 generic spacecraft, and component tables for the hulls and systems, showing how much of what can fit in what, and how much it costs.
  • Vehicles. (6 pages) This applies the starship approach to planet-bound vehicles, giving "as you need" and "construction" methods for vehicles, and 16 sample vehicles.
  • Mechs. (6 pages). The by-now-familiar two construction methods, combat rules for mechs, and a dozen or so example units. Mechs are essentially vehicles, but separated into their own chapter as not every setting has them.
  • Power Armour. (4 pages). Same methods again, with appropriate chassis and component tables, and 9 sample suits of power armour.
  • Robots. (5 pages). Three construction methods this time; build ’em as characters, build ’em as robots, or the chassis and component approach. The character method swaps the stock human’s free Edge for the Construct monstrous ability, the monster approach is essentially the "as you need" method, and the chassis and component one is the "construction" method. There are half-a-dozen stock robots too – for a wider range, get the Bestiary Toolkit.
  • Weird Science. (3 pages). Weird Science becomes less useful as an Arcane Background as the campaign tech level rises, because the mundane devices get steadily more weird themselves. The chapter introduces two new Edges for Weird Scientists; Artificer, which lets them imbue their devices with skill bonuses, and Chemist, which lets them create "potions" imbued with a power or edge. This short chapter closes with a discussion of alien gear and artefacts.
  • Superhero Lairs. (4 pages). This is taken from the Necessary Evil worldbook, and allows the PCs to construct a base of operations. Lair is a new Social edge, which grants the character 5 "lair points". Anyone in the group can take Lair, multiple times if they wish, and get 5 more Lair Points each time. The lair’s owner must specify its size and location (bigger and more remote cost more points), then each facility (command room, training area, etc) costs points as well – the lair’s size defines how many more points you can build into it. Four sample lairs of various sizes are provided.

Sci-Fi World Builder Toolkit (66 pages)

  • Introduction (1 page). The usual overview of contents and admonition to pick and choose from them.
  • Drawing Board (6 pages). How to select a style for the campaign – hard SF, pulp, space opera, B movie, cyberpunk, historical, or weird science. A discussion of technology levels, duplicating that in the Gear Toolkit. Advice on Hooks (essential) and Plot Points (or story arcs – optional). How those factors bear on the campaign’s background. The toolkit assumes that there is some kind of over-arching plot for the campaign, at least when you create it, even if the PCs later go off and do something completely different.
  • Setting Basics (4 pages). How big is the setting – a world, a star system, a galaxy? What technologies will it employ? (The toolkit advises against just piling everything in, rather stressing a selection of 2-3 main tropes – you might have starships and psionics, for instance, but no cyberware or mechs.) What character archetypes are there? What alien races, gear, new edges and hindrances? What new rules will you need?
  • World Design (18 pages). First, the book advises you to decide whether you have a top-down or bottom up approach. Will you provide a rough outline of the galaxy, or only look at where the PCs are standing right now? Either way, it advises a short handout for players with the key facts. Next comes a world-making section; this is a series of random tables for creating planets from scratch, and will be familiar in concept to anyone who has played any version of Traveller, or indeed most other SF games. This includes guidance on the impact of various terrain types and gravity levels, and a couple of new edges to mitigate them. Then there are balanced rules for creating alien races, ones suitable for use by PCs, with random tables for some aspects in case you run out of inspiration.
  • Trade and Travel (8 pages). Here we find a discussion of trade and economics in the campaign; one simple and one complex system for handling speculative trade conducted by the players; travel both on and between planets; starship operations; options for different calendars on different planets.
  • Starship Combat (4 pages). This is handled as a special case of vehicle combat, covered in the basic SW rules. There are new edges, new manoeuvres, and a discussion of boarding actions.
  • Major Players (4 pages). This advises how to create factions for your campaign – the organisations, shadowy or overt, which engage with your PCs as friends or foes. The focus here is on Professional Edges appropriate to membership. One example organisation, and 9 new professional edges, are listed.
  • Psionics (4 pages). This section is about customising the Arcane Background (Psionics) edge to individualise your campaign. It includes new and variant psionic edges.
  • Psionic Powers (7 pages). How to modify powers to fit into your setting better, plus 19 new powers.
  • Time Travel (4 pages). This looks at the topic, and its effects and drawbacks. Why would time travel be in your campaign; paradoxes; ways the PCs could break your campaign using time travel, and what you can do about that.


These are inexpensive, well-written in a chatty sort of style, and full of options a GM can apply selectively to his campaign.

For me, though – like most of my RPG collection – these are books I dip into for ideas every now and then, rather than keep on hand during actual play, or even campaign creation. Most of my SW games convert an existing setting to the SW rules, rather than create one from scratch; and the more I become familiar with the rules, the less I feel the need for a bestiary or a gear book.