Archive for July, 2011

Review of The Wild Hunt

Posted: 30 July 2011 in Reviews

I’m feeling lazy this weekend, so you get this instead of my normal ramblings.

The Wild Hunt was Pinnacle’s contribution to Free RPG Day 2011. It’s a contemporary horror scenario, with Savage Worlds test drive rules, figure flats, and pregenerated characters. 16 pages long, free to download here.


  • The more compact format for the test drive rules. They appear to be version 6; I wonder if the Deluxe Edition will result in a version 7?
  • Gender-neutral names for PCs, and figure flats for each character in either gender.

Didn’t Like

  • Nothing, really.


  • Does the job as an introduction to SW, and could be worked into most existing campaigns with a horror component – all you need to do is replace the bus with an appropriate form of transport, and the pregens with your own group’s PCs.
  • I’ll probably replace my standard Test Drive v6 with the version of the rules here, purely because it’ll take up less room in my trusty display book.

Review: Vornheim

Posted: 27 July 2011 in Reviews

“Any detail of the rules or setting left unexplained has been left that way because it’s not important to the character of the setting, and the GM should interpret it however s/he feels will distribute maximum fun.” – Zak S, Vornheim: The Complete City Kit

Vornheim is the city where Zak S runs the campaign he describes in the blog Playing D&D With Porn Stars and the web video series I Hit It With My Axe.

Vornheim – the Complete City Kit is the subject of this review; it’s a GM’s guide to running Vornheim, or any other fantasy city, on the fly. Where Ptolus attempts to document everything you would need as GM up front, and rely on you reading the necessary chapters before a session, Vornheim assumes you create the city as you go – once something has been determined, it is recorded, and stays that way from then on; but until it has been determined, no-one (including the GM) knows what it is.

In my current circumstances – busy job, family, commute etc. – the Vornheim approach suits me better.

What’s in the Book

  • A map of the area surrounding Vornheim in Zak’s baroque, and for me faintly disturbing, graphical style. There are capsule descriptions of other points of interest on the map; cities, undead trees (maybe), a battle endlessly frozen in time.
  • A gazetteer of some places in Vornheim. Note that the places are generally not critical to the city, so can be added and dropped as needed. Some places, like the Palace Massive, have labelled diagrams.
  • Oddities of the city. The gardens, slow pets (including flail snails), granary cats, bizarre festivals, snakes whose skins are books, unusual creatures, superstitions.
  • Detailed locations – i.e., mapped with keys and details of inhabitants. The House of the Medusa; the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng; the Library of Zorlac.
  • Commentaries on Vornheim from Zak’s regular players.
  • Diagram of a typical Vornheim tower. Most buildings in the city are improbably tall for a mediaeval setting.
  • The famous Urbancrawl rules, explaining how to generate city districts and building layouts on the fly.
  • The law and punishments in Vornheim. These interact with the superstitions to explain, for example, why humorous methods of execution are favoured.
  • Contacts – how many each PC knows, what sort of people they are and what they know.
  • Optional rules for chases, searching libraries and item costs.
  • Advice for the GM on open-ended city adventures.
  • God’s Chess – using chess or other games to generate campaign background. Zak suggests playing the game, but there are enough writeups of chess games available that one wouldn’t have to, unless one enjoys chess for its own sake as well.
  • Random tables. Lots and lots of random tables. They generate aristocrats, books, city NPCs (I was tempted to say “ordinary” or “normal”, but neither is really true), shopkeepers, relationships between NPCs, encounters in the city, fortunes told to the PCs, things found when PCs search bodies, legal situations, unexpected magical effects, taverns, common buildings and encounter hooks therein. The author recommends that when one entry is used, it is crossed off, and replaced by a new one.
  • A table for converting statblocks between different editions of D&D
  • Charts for determining things at random by rolling dice actually on the chart – the end position of the die is read off against marks on the edges.
  • Recommended reading – works chosen in Zak’s usual eclectic style.


Zak’s imagination is like Mervyn Peake on LSD, and he always has new angles on things, ones worth reading even if I usually don’t adopt many of them. He relies heavily on random tables (fair enough) and sometimes on physically throwing dice on a chart.

My favourite parts are…

  • The Urbancrawl rules
  • The superstitions
  • Snakes as books

Top 10s

Posted: 23 July 2011 in Rules

I tend to carry with me quick reference notes for the most popular player character build choices, so I like to keep track of what those are. At the time of writing, I’ve had 13 players in my fantasy and SF Savage Worlds campaigns, who between them have created 26 characters. I’m starting to see some patterns developing…

Including both initial choices and later acquisitions, the most popular Edges, Hindrances and Powers are these:


  1. Arcane Background (Magic) – chosen 6 times.
  2. Arcane Background (Miracles), New Power, Power Points – each selected 3 times.
  3. Wizard, Arcane Background (Psionics), Ace, Arcane Background (Weird Science) – each picked twice.
  4. 21 other edges, each only taken once.


  1. Loyal: Friends. By far the most popular choice, selected by 12 characters.
  2. Minor Habit – chosen 6 times.
  3. Code of Honour, Heroic, Wanted – four times each.
  4. Bloodthirsty, Stubborn, Curious, Vengeful, Phobia – three times each. Bloodthirsty and Stubborn are always picked by the same guy, though, so that may be distorting the figures.
  5. Cautious, Clueless, Vow, Outsider, Ugly, Delusional – twice each.
  6. 11 other hindrances, each only taken once.


  1. Healing – 5 characters have this.
  2. Bolt, Detect/Conceal Arcana, Smite, Fear – chosen 4 times each.
  3. Boost/Lower Trait, Stun, Deflect – twice each. Boost/Lower Trait in particular is more useful than it appears at first.
  4. Armour – once. My players quickly worked out that on average, you take less damage if you have Deflection up than Armour.

I wonder, is this a general thing, or specific to my groups of players? What patterns do you find in your campaigns?

Zones of Control

Posted: 22 July 2011 in Reflections

Original D&D used the board of Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival for impromptu wilderness hexcrawls, at a scale of 5 miles per hex, treating the buildings as towns and ponds as castles.

It also states that building a stronghold clears out all monsters in a 20 mile radius.

In an idle moment, I took a red pen to a copy of the map and filled in all those 20 mile radius zones of control, like so:


My instinctive reaction is that overlapping zones of control indicate some form of larger state; an alternative would be to assume that overlaps indicate border tensions.

State Hypothesis

  • Most of the towns and castles have overlapping zones of control, forming a large state aligned diagonally across the centre of the map from the northwest.
  • There is a smaller state of two isolated castles in the southwest, controlling the western swamp, and one consisting of a town and two castles in the north.
  • There are two partial zones of control, one centred on a castle in the northeast, and one on a town in the west. These may be independent, or they may be extensions of states off the edges of the map.
  • Monsters are boxed into the northwest and southeast corners of the map, although there is a crescent of unclaimed territory in the northeast, and neither desert is fully controlled.
  • The only place adventurers can build a new stronghold without muscling in on someone else’s territory is the northwest corner.

Border Tension Hypothesis

  • Most towns and castles have ongoing disputes with at least two others, and sometimes half-a-dozen.
  • I would interpret strongholds in each other’s ZOCs as some sort of dispute over who is the rightful ruler, with each town or castle claiming that it should be in charge of the others.
  • ZOCs that overlap without including the opposing town or castle are more likely to be about control of useful resources.

Of course, in a feudal society, there is no reason why both hypotheses could not be true simultaneously. Sadly, either geographically or politically, the original hexcrawl setting makes little sense. Not that we cared about such things in the 1970s, and to be honest we had just as much fun then without worrying about verisimilitude.

Review: Polychrome

Posted: 20 July 2011 in Reviews

My latest venture into the wonder that is Stars Without Number is Polychrome, a combination of world writeup, cyberpunk supplement, and adventure pack.

A Killing Colour in the Sky

4 pages. This gives a capsule history and statistics for the planet Polychrome, which is one of the less-visited worlds in the sample sector given in the Stars Without Number rulebook.

Polychrome is a world poisoned by alien biotoxins, and the survivors live underground, ignorant of the true reason why their world was destroyed, or who did so. Few of them have the energy or interest to enquire, but perhaps the PCs will.

Political power on Polychrome requires the control on one or more nanofabbers, the automated factories producing the cybernetic implants which improve chances of surviving the constant exposure to traces of insidious biotoxins.

The Feel of the City

3 pages. This does what it says on the tin; it explains, briefly, the lifestyles of the various classes and the general layout and feel of The Warrens, Polychrome’s capital. Capsule descriptions for 9 NPCs and 10 locations are also included.

Megacorps and the Council

2 pages. This describes the eight main corporations forming the Council (the 9th seat being the chairperson, who has little real power), and 10 sample NPCs the players might encounter if their adventures take them into the circles of power.

Inside Jobs

2 pages. A bunch of adventure seeds tailored to the planet, with tables for which friends, enemies, bit players, valuable things, and complications will be involved.

Handling Investigations

One page. The cyberpunk genre is focussed more on solving mysteries than most SF, and this page introduces a grittier approach to that, built on the idea that somewhere, there is a NPC who knows what the players want to find out, and that NPC will tell them for a price. There’s a table for NPC motivations, which you can use to work out that price; then the PCs have to decide whether they are willing to do what the NPC wants. I like this, and may appropriate it for other urban adventures.


3 pages. Rules for creating new identities, stealing funds, finding information, or editing records.

Combat on Polychrome

3 pages. These are more about what you can do and carry, and what happens if you overachieve in either area, than about variant combat rules, which is fine by me. There are also some new NPC statblocks for likely opponents.

Psionics on Polychrome

One page. What it’s like being a psion native to Polychrome.

Cyberware on Polychrome

3 pages. Additional types of cyberware; reduced costs due to the planetary dependence on this technology.

Resource Sheets

3 pages. I always look forward to these in Kevin Crawford’s work. This time we get:

  • NPC resources. Tables for NPCs; how they know the PCs, their names, their motivations, quirks, where to find them, and who they are really working for.
  • Tables for quick answers to common questions. Suddenly something happens, what’s in the room, what megacorp is behind this, what’s that building, what security is there.
  • NPC statblocks, cost of lifestyle and services, locks, security and environmental perils.

Bad Blood

8 pages. An adventure on Polychrome which could leave the PCs richer and with a powerful contact, or dead in an alleyway somewhere.

Player Handouts

Two pages. One page is a data handout on the planet, and the other is a quick-reference sheet for hacking.

Reviewer’s Conclusions

In a sense, this is the cyberpunk and/or post-apocalyptic genre book for SWN. Corrupt and venal megacorporations; an embittered underclass of cyber-enhanced criminals; an uninhabitable wilderness full of ruined cities; it’s all here.

Cyberpunk isn’t really my thing, but I could see Polychrome as a useful world in a number of campaigns – it’s a good place to go to get wired and tooled up, once the PCs learn of its existence and figure out a way to get there. As ever with SWN, there are a number of GM tools worth adopting in other settings.

We interrupt our usual schedule today to bring you a review of the new Savage Worlds Deluxe Edition from Pinnacle Entertainment. 161 page PDF (in my case), $20 to download from RPGNow.


It’s a multi-genre roleplaying game with a point-buy character generation system, best suited to pulp action adventure.

To succeed at a task, you need to roll the target’s Parry score (when rolling to hit someone in melee), or the target’s Toughness (when trying to wound them), or a 4+ (for anything else). More experienced characters roll dice with more sides, giving them a better chance of success. If you beat the required roll by 4 or more (called a “raise”), you get a better result. Any die which rolls its maximum (an “ace”) allows you to keep that score, reroll the die, and add the new result to your total.

PCs roll a d6 as well as the die for their skill or attribute whenever they roll, except when rolling damage; you can choose to use the result from the normal die, or the d6. PCs also start each session with three “bennies”. You can use a benny to reroll any one die, or to try to recover from wounds. PCs have 3 wounds, NPCs have one.

The combat system encourages swashbuckling and teamwork. You can attempt any number of actions per turn, although the more you try, the worse the penalties to your die rolls. Skills like Taunt and Intimidation, and tricks based on Smarts (“Look behind you!”) or Agility (throwing sand in faces) make it easier for you and your friends to damage enemies.

Get the free test drive version here and check it out. Now, read on…


This takes the Explorer’s Edition and tweaks it with the designer’s current thoughts based on the last ten years of play, feedback, and other products. Pinnacle plans to make the changes available on its website for those with the previous edition (a fine plan, chaps).

Deluxe doesn’t invalidate Explorers’, so you can carry on using it. No, really. The gaming police won’t lift a finger against you.

What’s New?

  • The rulebook has the same page count as EE, but a larger page size and a smaller internal font. This means it has more stuff in it, but doesn’t take so well to being printed or viewed at a reduced size. Some of the extra page count is used to advertise other SW products – settings, adventures, accessories etc.
  • Design notes – short paragraphs (they’d be sidebars in most products) explaining why particular rules are the way they are.
  • Character archetypes. These are 16 character templates you can pick up and play pretty much immediately; add Hindrances and gear, spend any remaining skill points, and you’re off. I’ve been doing this in my games for years (I took the idea from the WEG version of the Star Wars RPG), and I heartily recommend it.
  • Races. 11 stock races including most of the stereotypical fantasy and SF ones, plus the rules from the Fantasy Companion on creating new races. I felt this was missing from Explorer’s Edition, and I’m pleased to see it here.
  • A number of new edges. I particularly like Tactician, which allows a hero to draw extra action cards and give them to his NPC allies. No new hindrances that I could see.
  • Rules for firing and evading guided missiles.
  • More guns. Mostly machine guns and tank/antitank guns, it seems.
  • Expanded vehicle rules, including how to calculate vehicle Toughness; statblocks for World War II, modern, and futuristic military vehicles.
  • Rules for gaming without miniatures, welcome because that is how I usually play.
  • Rules for improvised weapons.
  • Extended examples for personal and vehicular combat, and the new “dramatic tasks” such as defusing a bomb.
  • Expanded disease and poison rules.
  • Interludes – scenes between encounters where heroes engage in small talk to develop their characters. I probably won’t use this.
  • Setting rules. These are a selection of rules variants for particular setting types, such as Gritty Damage (in which wounds also incur rolls on the Injury Table rather than just penalties to die rolls), the popular Multiple Languages (speak as many as half your Smarts die) or No Power Points (which replaces power points with modifiers on casting die rolls). I will definitely try the last.
  • Rules for social conflict – these work somewhat like the skill challenges in D&D 4th Edition.
  • Expanded rules for travel, including random encounters. The encounter rules are not very detailed, and would need some customisation.
  • More powers, and rules expanding on power trappings to modify their effects depending on the trapping (I’m in two minds about that one). The new powers include Confusion, Mind Reading, and Slumber (a sleep spell at last!), and Summon Ally. The design notes also stress that players and GMs should rename the powers to add flavour.
  • A couple of new creatures, but in the main the Bestiary stays as it was. House cats are in the bestiary; the powers section has two flavours of summoned bodyguards.
  • Several one-sheet adventures, one for contemporary horror, one for fantasy vikings, one for sci-fi, one for high fantasy, one for present-day criminal gangs.
  • Templates. These were missing from Explorer’s Edition, you had to download them from the website.
  • An index! Explorer’s Edition doesn’t have an index, and I miss it more than I expected.

What’s Different?

  • The page layout is tighter and easier to read than before. Much of the artwork has changed, with fewer of the cartoon-style illustrations.
  • Skill and power descriptions have related rules embedded in them – for example the Zombie power now has the zombie statblock with it, so you don’t need to flip to the bestiary when you cast it; the Climbing skill has the relevant movement rules in its description.
  • More detailed descriptions of some skills – for example, Knowledge (Language) now has examples of what a character can do at each skill level.
  • Background and professional edges can now be taken at any time, not just at character creation.
  • The summary pages for character creation, gear, combat etc are better laid our and more user-friendly than before.
  • Climb ratings for air vehicles are calculated differently.
  • The chase rules. I’ve never actually used these, so although I can see they are different, I can’t say what impact that will have.

What’s Gone?

  • The Guts skill has been removed. It’s now considered a setting-specific rule, not part of the core system. Interestingly, it is not one of the setting rules in the Deluxe Edition itself.
  • The printer-friendly version of the PDF. The background layer on each page isn’t as aggressive, though, so hopefully it won’t matter.
    Update: After some weeks I noticed that one can suppress the background layer using the layers tab in Acrobat, so this isn’t “gone” after all.
  • The Wreck of the Solarah pirate one-sheet adventure, but you do get five others instead.


The Deluxe Edition feels like it has a more military focus than previously, largely because the gear lists have expanded in that direction. The additional powers will also make it easier to emulate D&D and similar fantasy games, because they introduce those common tropes into the game.

I will probably switch from Explorer’s to Deluxe shortly, if only because doing that would eliminate all but one of my current house rules – they wouldn’t be necessary. The primary impact that will have in my current campaigns is to remove Guts from all PCs; I’ll let them spend the points elsewhere.

$1 Downloads: Sufficiently Advanced

Posted: 13 July 2011 in Reviews

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." – Arthur C Clarke

Sufficiently Advanced comes in three parts: A back cover, a character sheet, and the rules themselves. The back cover is blurb and pictures, but does convey the core premise.

It is this: In the distant future, the economy is driven by ideas, and thus by patents. Characters are troubleshooters for the patent office, which is run by Artificial Intelligences who work to ensure the survival of humanity into the distant future, simply because they’d like some company when that future arrives.

I usually start with a new game by looking at the character sheet; it serves as a one or two page introduction to the game’s core concepts and approach. What gets a lot of space on the sheet tends to be what the game considers important. In this case, the sheet isn’t too "busy", which tells me not to expect a lot of number-crunching, and that a character is defined by core values, themes, capabilities, and professions – half a dozen of each. There is no space at all for equipment, which tells me that won’t be important. The themes look interesting because they include such things as Romance and Plot Immunity.

Thus armed with an idea of the concept and characters, I venture into the main rulebook. It’s split into these chapters…

Prologue (9 pages)

An introduction to roleplaying in general, and this setting in particular. The game explores a world in which technology has advanced to the limits of what can currently be foreseen, without destroying mankind in the process; and looks at what kind of societies would evolve as a result. The last couple of pages are a quickstart version of the main game.

The Universe (61 pages)

Civilisations, societies, species, and more on the Patent Office. In the entire universe, there are only about 100 inhabited planets, so life is scarce and valuable indeed.

This section opens with a look at each of the 14 dominant civilisations in the setting; each is given a page of descriptive text, and some flavour text such as a short piece of fiction giving a day in the life of a typical member, an imagined conversation between a member of that civilisation and another one, and so on. Part of the description includes the core values a member must have, and the benefits they receive. I really liked these, and might well appropriate some into another setting – they were worth the price of admission on their own. The civilisation writeups end with a relationship diagram showing not only the usual "likes" and "dislikes", but more intriguing relationships such as "studies" or "recruits", and power blocs. Although the game doesn’t suggest this, it could make a useful star map in its own right. I’ll put that in the folder marked "someday, when I have the time and the players".

Then come descriptions of societies – associations of like-minded individuals which provide benefits to members, who must have the correct core value at a minimum level. While everyone is a member of a civilisation, not everyone is a member of a society.

There are four alien races in the setting, none of them suitable as PCs. These are the Coldworlders (slow-moving whale-like creatures who live in the depths of a gas giant), the Worldweb (sentient sap in a continent-sized vine jungle), the Skotadi (exotic creatures made of dark matter who communicate via gravity waves) and the Aia (human-created Artificial Intelligences who have left us far behind).

The Patent Office is described in terms of its typical office layout, the sort of person (or AI) who will be the PCs’ handler, and answers AIs typically give to questions. I loved those, too.

There’s also a section on how crime has changed; essentially, sufficiently advanced technology means that criminals other than con-men have disappeared.

Character Creation (29 pages)

This steps through each area of the character sheet, as it were – core values, themes and so on. It also explains character development, and provides some sample PCs and NPCs.

Characters are created by picking a civilisation (mandatory) and a society (optional), which will determine some of their core values – abstract concepts such as freedom or charity in which the character believes deeply. Other core values are then chosen at will.

Then, themes are selected, ranked, and described; capabilities are added based on the themes. Themes are the key to the character, and cover areas like Plot Immunity, Intrigue, Romance and so forth. I might pick Intrigue as a theme, assign it rank 2 ("obtain secret information") and a descriptor of Stumble Upon – this character could be embroiled in a conspiracy when he notices a pattern in graffiti, for example. One with Plot Immunity 4 ("Evade certain on-screen death") and a descriptor of Bad-Ass is an action movie hero. As much as anything, these telegraph to the GM what kind of scenarios the players are interested in – Plot Immunity, though tells you what the character doesn’t want to do, by telling you what he will triumph over without breaking into a sweat.

Capabilities are the five key areas of technology, rated from 1-10, with 2 being the average unenhanced human. A PC’s rating in each is influenced by his civilisation; for instance, a member of the Mechanica must have at least a 6 in Stringtech, and might have as much as 10; a 10 would mean he has something like a fusion gun built into his body. Capabilities also have Reserve, which is partly like fatigue or power points, and partly like hit points – your capabilities are reduced if you don’t have adequate rest and whatever power or nutrients they require.

Finally, the player allocates years of the character’s life to learning professions. You can have as many as you want, at whatever level you like; the only impact is that your character has to be old enough to have spent the necessary time on them. There doesn’t seem to be a downside to being older. This relies on the players; a min-maxing munchkin could take all the professions in the book at level 10, and the only effect would be that he’d be several thousand years old.

Then you’re done; no equipment to buy here, because your capabilities are the equipment – built-in nanotech, or a robot body, for example.

This is a bit different from character creation in normal RPGs, but the game includes a number of stereotypical, nearly-complete PCs to help with it, as well as stat blocks for stock NPCs.

There’s no standard way to improve your character, although there are some suggestions; since you can start off as good as you want to be, there’s no real need for one.

Game Mechanics (30 pages)

Dice rolling, conflicts and their resolution, story triggers, the care and feeding of themes.

To attempt a task, you roll 1d10 for a relevant capability and a relevant profession, multiply the score by the level in the capability/profession, and then pick the higher of the two scores. If that total exceeds the target number set by the GM, you have succeeded. An average person with average rolls would score about 10 (average roll of 5 x average capability of 2); the best character possible (capability 10) with the best die roll (10) would score 100. You can expend your capability’s reserve to boost your score. There are rules, tables and flowcharts for types of conflicts and which capabilities or professions apply.

The other main mechanic, besides dice rolling, is the use of "twists" to activate one of your themes. You start with one twist, plus one per complication (problem in the current situation) your character has; you could start the scene wounded, perhaps, to get another twist. Using a twist allows the player to invoke one of his character’s themes to his benefit; for example, you capture a foe and need to convince him to help – a Plot Immunity Bad-Ass might scare him into revealing the truth, an Intrigue Stumble-Upon character might find a clue in his pockets while frisking him. Twists, then, are similar to bennies, fortune points or fate points in other games.

The bit I found hardest to grasp is the story trigger. This is a potential event, known to the players but not to the characters, which they can use twists to activate. The GM can create triggers, but cannot activate them. The players can activate them, or create them, by spending twists. A trigger consists of a secret (what’s going on), a reveal (how the characters find out – the players already know), a lever (which activates the trigger) and an effect (what happens after activation). Players know the reveals, which means they can choose whether to activate the trigger or not. I’m still not sure I understand this properly, but there are a number of example triggers to get you started.

The section closes with advice on how to use themes, avoid abuse of them, and handle complications.

Technology (30 pages)

Devices and how to use and invent them.

Devices function much like capabilities, except that they have no reserve. A variety of them are described, with tech levels, costs, and so on. "Devices" include not only personal equipment, but special training and large-scale infrastructures like power plants or orbital elevators. Interestingly, there is also a section on equipment that is not available, because it doesn’t fit the hard SF concepts of the game, because it would make a good plot device so should not be something you can buy off the shelf, or because society tried it and decided it wasn’t worthwhile.

Advice (17 pages)

Tools, adventure ideas, alternative settings, and designers’ notes.

One thing repeated through the game is that Sufficiently Advanced chews through plot faster than most games, because the players can spend twists to bypass parts that don’t interest them.

Again, there is an unusual – but welcome – section at the back of the adventure ideas; a list of scenario types that don’t work well with this game.

The chapter also includes commentary on other possible universes, and optional rules for letting players create new civilisations from which PCs can come.

Appendices (2 pages)

Acknowledgements and sources of inspiration (reading and watching lists).


This game didn’t interest me enough to replace any of my current favourites, but it does have some ideas – especially societies – worth borrowing. It’s also interesting to see a game written by a physicist, which gives the scientific angles more credibility. Can’t complain for a buck.