Monthly Archives: August, 2011

Black Hand Source Maps

These are some very cool, and cheap, fantasy map products.

Ancient Cities 1: 6 pages. A basic city, bisected by a river, surrounded by woods. There are four versions of the city map; colour numbered, colour not numbered, black and white not numbered, and one colour-coded to show districts.

Ancient Cities 2: 8 pages. A slaver’s city on a caravan route, surrounded by forest, with a river running through it. This differs from the first city in having more types of buildings, some locations outside the city walls, and a map of the sewers. I consider these improvements, so prefer number 2 to number 1. There is one version of the sewer map, and four versions of the city map – the same versions as for city 1.

The scale is ambiguous in both cases, so the GM can adjust it to suit, but looking at the size of things and the Dwarven Kingdom (which does have an explicit scale) I’d say the scale is in metres.

Dwarven Kingdom: 32 pages. A dwarven city in nine modules, including a traders’ quarter, living areas, the noble and military district, cemeteries, and of course mines. There are also a number of NPC illustrations, and a brief history of the city. You can use it either as a functioning dwarven settlement, or as a straightforward dungeon.

The Lone Tower: 11 pages. An isolated tower, with 9 levels, one of which is underground. There are three external views, one colour, one black and white, and one colour-coded to show levels; there are also maps of each level, at a scale of one square equals one metre – although you could use the ubiquitous 5′ to the square and it would still work. Some secret areas are marked, making it better suited as a GM’s map.


  • The cartography. It looks really good, and I appreciate the different versions of the city maps.
  • Numbered locations on some versions of the maps. Other cartographers take note, I prefer the choice of a numbered version or not – it’s a bonus for me if you provide both. That can be done either using layers in the PDF or by putting both versions in the file.

Didn’t Like

  • The cities feel a bit small. Using S John Ross’ guideline of 150 people per hectare, a ruler, and the scale printed on the maps, the two Ancient Cities would hold about 1,250 inhabitants each, and the Dwarven Kingdom about 4,700. I’d class them as towns, and the Ancient Cities not terribly big towns at that.
  • The tower maps have no numbers or other location keys.


Nice stuff, recommended. I’m tempted to replace my current maps of Irongrave and its dungeon with one of the Ancient Cities and the Dwarven Kingdom respectively, but the jury’s still out on that. For the city, I would need to mess around with either the scale of the map, or the population of Irongrave.


I recalculated the population and for some reason my arithmetic was wrong – the population for each city at 150 persons per hectare should be around 4,000. Better, but still not very big.

Links were requested, and here they are…

I see there is a new one too, the Pale Imp Tavern. I shall acquire it and review it shortly.

Drew, December 2012

I gots me the zombie-killin’ sweats agin, so it’s back to All Things Zombie: Better Dead Than Zed.

Reed & Co. having been wiped out on 19th January 2013, I pick one of the other groups rather than generate a new Star; Detective Sergeant Malcolm Drew.

  • Drew (Star, Rep 5, Star Power 5, Born Leader, Brawler, BA Pistol)

We know what Drew was up to in January 2013 (getting his crew shot up by Captain Flack and the Camberwick Green SAS), so I decide to run Day One for him and then advance to February 2013 in the next post, so as to break myself back in gently after a few months off.


Drew is sitting at home watching TV with a cold beer. There’s not much else in the fridge since his wife left him – “Good riddance,” he mutters to himself as he takes another swig – and the general bachelor disarray is enhanced by a selection of weightlifting equipment. Have to pass the time in the evenings somehow, and Drew senses beer is not the answer in the long term.

The ‘phone rings, and he answers. It’s the local cop shop, calling in off-duty officers to help with what they still think are riots.

“Hello…. Yes, I’m watching it on the news now… OK, I’ll be at the station in twenty.”

For the first session I’ll downgrade Drew to a Rep 4 Civilian, because he works out a lot.

Drew pauses to throw on something more suitable than a beer-stained track suit and grab his gun, a BA Pistol. He looks at the beer, then at the car keys, and shrugs. “What the Hell,” he mutters. He grabs the keys and heads out, locking the door behind him as if he will ever come back; as if it matters whether someone steals his last beer and his barbells.

I don’t think I’ll need a table laid out for this; let’s see how far we get just on dice. Destination police station, arriving by vehicle; I roll 2d6 vs Rep (4) on the table on p. 64 – 5, 4 is pass 1d6, but since this is the first location and Drew’s Rep is greater than the location number, this counts as pass 2d6. He arrives normally, in 20 minutes as promised. Arriving at the bottom edge of the imaginary 3’ x 3’ table, Drew must get to a 6” square area in the centre, which is the station. That puts him 15” from the objective – call it two moves at 8” per turn.

This early in the outbreak an urban area counts as suburban, but there are no zombies on the table initially.

Turn One

Activation: Drew 2, Terrified Civilians (there are 12 of ‘em) 1. All activate.

There’s a huge crowd outside the station as Drew pulls up. There’s obviously no chance of getting the car through them, so he parks, locks the vehicle, and moves in. As a detective, he’s in civilian clothes and not obviously a police officer. He starts pushing his way through the mob to get in.

Drew must fight all 12 civilians in melee to get past them. I won’t bore you with the numerous dice rolls, suffice to say that a Rep 4 Brawler has to be really unlucky to get KO’d by a Rep 3 Civilian, and Drew wasn’t unlucky enough for that to happen.

Turn Two

Activation: Drew 5, Civilians 2. Since the activation dice total 7 there is a chance of zombies. Two zombies appear, and roll 1 for activation; one towards the top of the table and one to the right, both 12” away; that means one of them is actually inside the station – oops. The other zombie uses its turn to move 6” towards the nearest human, namely Drew. It is now 6” from Drew, so as a police officer he now takes the Zed or No Zed test on p. 33. 2d6 vs Rep 4: 2, 5 = pass 1d6. The zombie charges and Drew takes the Being Charged test; this early in the outbreak I don’t think he will use his pistol, so he uses his Star status to select “cannot fire but will melee normally” – pass 1d6.

Drew is a Rep 4 Brawler so rolls 5d6 vs 3: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 = 2 successes. The zombie rolls 1d6 vs Rep 4: 6. Drew scores two more successes than the zombie; it is Obviously Dead.

Drew now sees what the panicked crowd is fleeing from; a bloodied travesty of a human being, muttering “Braaiiiiins…” Looks like someone on drugs, he thinks. It claws at him ineffectively; this is no time for half measures, and Drew is not in an entirely stable frame of mind, so he drops it with a few well-placed blows. Time enough to worry about the brutality charges later; there’s gunfire coming from inside the station.

I decided not to play out the scene inside the station in detail, but ruled that one of the armed officers panicked and opened fire.

Turn Three

Activation: Drew 5, Civilians 5, Zombies 2. The zombies activate; the one clawing its way around the police station continues the way it was going, starting to move away from Drew as it doesn’t yet have Line Of Sight to him.

Turn Four

Activation: Drew 2, Civilians 6, Zombies 4. The zombie inside the station activates first, then Drew.

Drew sprints inside, drawing his pistol, to find the zombie charging him. He opens fire, figuring that if other officers have started shooting, there is something seriously amiss.

Enough pussyfooting around. Drew chooses to pass 2d6 on the Being Charged test and opens up with the BA pistol. 1d6+4 = 5 = miss. Oops. However, he can melee normally, passes 4d6 and the zombie is Obviously Dead.

The desk sergeant emerges cautiously as Drew kicks the body.

“Talk to me, Harrison,” he says. “What’s going on?”

“I dunno. We took this guy in on suspicion of drugs, then he went wild and starting biting people. Never seen anything like it. The batons did nothing, so somebody fired – I don’t know who. Sylvia took Vince, Larry and Kate out to the Bridger place; she thought if anyone knew about this new drug Bridger would – he probably made it.”


“She called for backup just before things went crazy here. Everybody else is out dealing with the riots, so you’re it.”

“Just me, huh?”

“Hey – one riot, one ranger.”


Various decisions the players have made over the last couple of weeks, for example their liking of the Norse pantheon, mean I’ve felt the need to reboot Irongrave.

It’s not like they’ve actually been anywhere more than about ten miles from the dungeon yet. They won’t even notice.

I still like the Welsh Piper’s idea of zooming in and out of the hexgrid, but this time I’m starting at the top and zooming in. Here’s the continent of Varldsdel at a scale of 625 miles per hex:


This means that each hex is roughly the size of a European country. At the next level down, each of these hexes is subdivided into 125 mile subhexes, each of which is roughly one month’s strategic move in WHAA. Below that we move to 25 mile hexes, which is going to be my standard wilderness scale.

For encounters with military forces I think I’ll use CR3.0 Swordplay Army Lists, with WHAA for other encounters.

  • Gardar is based on the Kievan Rus, while Hjemland uses Viking-era Sweden as its template. Both use the Northmen Army List.
  • The Iron Horde are orc and goblin steppe nomads, so use the Nomad, Goblin or Orc Army Lists, depending on how I feel at the time.
  • Ezhdan is a vaguely Middle Eastern Caliphate with a state religion of dragon-worship. It uses the Eastern Empire Army List.
  • Skulos is based on Byzantium, and uses the Western Army List.

I expect that the campaign will be limited to Gardar for years yet, but it is useful to know roughly what is off the edge of the main map.

$1 Downloads: Michael T Desing’s Army Ants Resolute Referee’s Guide

A while ago I reviewed Army Ants Resolute edition, and bemoaned the lack of guidance for the GM. This guide fixes that. So, what’s inside this 8-page booklet?

  • Ant society – the castes and their roles.
  • The Unending War – the ongoing conflict between the Ant Republic and the Wasp Empire, and why it is unending.
  • Six mission prompts – basic scenario types.
  • Advice on unifying individual missions into a campaign
  • Paragraphs on technology, mysticism, and larger beasts

I think this is probably as far as I will go with Army Ants. I love the concept, but there are two things that will stop me progressing to a campaign…

  • Most importantly, I know from experience that my players don’t like military-themed campaigns; they are more focussed on exploration and intrigue. While you can play any type of scenario with any rules, some are better suited to particular types of story – this game has a military focus.
  • After both the rules and the ref’s guide, and the free introductory comic, I still don’t see clearly what makes Army Ants unique, different from any other military-themed game, apart from the terrain (the ref’s backyard).

So, another one for the reference shelf, at least for me. Your Mileage May Vary.

Antares Sector Map v2

It’s about time to do something else in Heart of the Scorpion, and where better to restart than with the sector map? Here is version 2 (and hopefully final), rendered in Hexographer.


What was stopping me was naming the worlds, so I named the ones I had ideas for, then Googled alternative names for Antares in various languages and cultures to get the rest.

Irongrave Session 5

Nessime, Tenchi and the Warforged continued their quest for the Holy Handkerchief of St. Veronica, tracking its Orcish thieves upriver to an abandoned dwarven city. Here they found a small tribe of orcs, with a chieftain, an ogre, and a handful of dire wolves.

Convincing themselves that the dire wolves chained up in the guard rooms were actually werewolves, they bypassed these entirely and moved off towards the main entrance hall. The howling and barking from the dire wolves had roused the orcs, however, and a pitched battle emerged. Using a favourite tactic, the party retreated to a corridor where the orcs could only come at them two at a time, and inflicted massive casualties before the orcs decided to retreat and fight again another day.

During the combat, they killed the ogre (which they have yet to identify, beyond it being some kind of large orcish thing) and looted its body, whereupon they found the Holy Handkerchief in use as (what else) a handkerchief.

It is to be hoped that the necessary washing and purification will not damage the inherent magic of the relic.

Session 5 closed with the group resting in the city, having barred the exit to keep out werewolves. The paranoid fear of werewolves they have developed since session 3 is most gratifying.

Quote of the session: Nessime, wanting to throw rocks at orcs, discovering she had no Throwing skill, and scanning her character sheet to see what skills she did have:

“I Persuade the rocks to throw themselves at the orcs…”

Review: Kingdoms of Legend

I’ve had my eye on this for a little while now, and it snuck into one of my downloads when I wasn’t looking, honest.

This is a 36-page setting, Pathfinder compatible, based on Europe in the 1450s. The idea is similar enough to what I’ve been trying to do in Irongrave to attract my attention, although 1450 is a bit late for my tastes – for me, high fantasy is about the 12th century rather than the 15th.

So, what have we here?

The book opens with a one-page map of Europe, stretching from the Atlantic to Moscow and from Norway to the coast of North Africa.

Next, a short welcoming piece from the author, and a page of fiction. The welcoming piece explains the goal of a setting containing the usual fantasy tropes, but which is both comfortable and easily recognisable. Certainly one of the obstacles I face repeatedly in my games is the time and effort  it takes for players to come to grips with the background, so I sympathise with this – and truthfully, most settings borrow heavily from real history, so why not take the whole thing?

1451 is chosen because of the wide range of campaign types it can accomodate – as the author says, there was a lot going on back then.

On to the chapters.

1. Introduction

3 pages. This retells history leading up to 1451 to include the demihuman races as precursors to humanity. After a while, the Greek pantheon, which favours humans over demihumans, overthrew the older gods, and the power of the elder races diminished. Demihuman clerics can now only cast spells if they carry a relic from one of their sacred sites, which establishes a channel to their gods. The elves have retreated to the deep forests, the dwarves to the high mountains.

The historical religions of the period are replaced by The Twelve, most familiar to me as the Greek pantheon, but known by different names in different lands, and in this game assumed to be the same divinities, as understood by different cultures.

The Crusades occurred, but were fought against orcs, sahuagin and undead, not against other humans.

2. Races

5 pages. The standard Pathfinder/D&D races are available, as well as two new ones: The half-dwarf and half-gnome. In addition to the usual miscegenation approach, half-races can be created when a group of (say) dwarves decides to worship the human pantheon – one side effect of this is that over generations, they gradually become first half-dwarves, and then finally full humans.

3. Classes

3 pages. Each of the standard D&D/Pathfinder classes in turn is briefly discussed, with notes on its preferred religions and likely homelands.

4. Languages

6 pages. Languages are more complex in the real world than most games tend to illustrate.

In this setting, there is no Common Tongue as such, and most characters are illiterate – Literacy requires expending a feat, although some classes (e.g. Cleric) receive it as a free extra feat.

KOL introduces a new skill, Linguistics, whose skill checks cover translation and forgery. Each time you take a rank in this, you learn a new language; most characters start knowing two languages, their native tongue and one of the three trading languages – German, which works in Northern Europe; Sabir, useful in the Mediterranean; or Latin, used by scholars, clerics and magic-users.

Major languages of the setting are listed, with notes on where they are spoken, which language group they belong in, which alphabet they use, and example names for the relevant culture. If both parties in a conversation know a language from the same family, communication is easier than otherwise, but not as good as if they both knew the same language.

I like this idea. Whether my players would like it remains to be seen; they normally build characters in concert to ensure that the party as a whole has access to the main languages of the setting, which may be their gentle way of telling me they are less interested in linguistics than I am.

5. Geography

11 pages. This largely consists of short descriptions of each state, explaining its population, major settlements, racial makeup, ruler, government, languages, religion, allies and enemies, and with whom it is currently at war. There are over 30 of these, ranging from Acquitaine to the Zayyanid Kingdom. The most interesting to me is the Republic of the Archmage, which replaces the historical Vatican and nearby city-states.

There are also a couple of pages on places of mystery, for example the dungeons below King Arthur’s former seat at Tintagel. I note that the separation between planes of existence is very thin near Palmyra; I like to have a means of travelling between settings in each of my campaigns, and it looks like the author does likewise.

The book closes with a table of the various gods and their portfolios, and the usual OGL legal stuff.


D&D has arguably always been the 15th century without gunpowder and the printing press, and there is a long tradition in gaming of taking historical maps, events and people and modifying them slightly.

This setting is much more open about doing that than I am used to; normally part of the metagame in my campaigns is working out what I have used as a background, and those who do have an advantage in solving the puzzles.

KOL is tempting for me, partly because of the time it would save, and partly because at 36 pages it is short enough not to be intimidating.

The jury is still out, though. Is it an interesting setting? Yes. Do I regret buying it? Absolutely not.

Will I actually use it? That remains to be seen…

Irongrave Backstories – 1

One of the keys to gaming on the run is to let the players do the work for you. Not only does this save you time and effort as the GM, but it also makes the players feel good that their ideas are adopted, and tailors the game setting to what they want.

I got together for lunch with one of the player groups in the campaign, and as the first party in Irongrave, I also thought they should have the honour of deciding which pantheon is worshipped locally. They chose the Norse one. I can work with that.

Our conversation then turned to backstories for the characters. I just let them run with it for a while to see what happened, and here’s what came out…

Nessime is a young, inexperienced paladin, being sent on quests to prove her worth.

Tenchi the thief is on the run from the gang of highwaymen he used to run with in the forest (I’m picking up a Robin Hood vibe here) after one robbery netted the gang a clue to a prize of great value – something wizards would pay a lot of money for, but first he must collect all the pieces. Being greedy and overconfident, he stole the clue and left the gang. There’s safety in numbers, he reasons, so until he has collected enough of the set, he has joined the party.

The Warforged, who has yet to be given a name, responded well to my question of why anyone would build a warforged sorcerer. He is the former bodyguard of a great wizard from the last fallen empire; the player thought that constructs are immune to Fatigue (they aren’t) and so it would be valuable to the wizard to have a bodyguard with the Teleport power who wasn’t Fatigued by using it. That reasoning is faulty, but they do have bonuses to recover from Shaken and don’t suffer wound penalites, so the underlying idea seems sound enough. The reason he no longer knows his name, the Teleport power, or his original native language is that his memory core has been stolen.

Unknown to any of the party, I decided the Warforged’s memory core is one of the items Tenchi must collect. Tenchi knows what it looks like, but not what it does; the Warforged knows what it does, but not what it looks like, due to his amnesia.

I can see myself having fun with this.


Each year, my lady wife goes to visit her family alone for a while – she gets more holiday than I do.

While she is away, and not keeping her normal eagle eye on the credit cards, it is my wont to treat myself to a toy. This year, that was a Kindle from Amazon.

I have an extensive ebook collection; I went almost completely digital as soon as I could, driven by complaints from the rest of the family about how much of the holiday luggage was filled with books.

Naturally, though, it wasn’t long before I started looking at how to use the Kindle for nefarious gaming purposes.


First off, how does it handle PDF files, which is how most of my games are currently held? I was a little dubious, as my previous experience of handheld devices and PDF is that they are slow to load, and illegible once loaded.

My first attempt was to transfer the Savage Worlds Test Drive v6 to the Kindle. This worked surprisingly well. The SW rulebook is 166 x 228 mm, and the Kindle screen is 90 x 122 mm. So, it displays at about 55%, which is just about legible for me with the naked eye if I squint, and no problem at all with my spectacles on. The only problem I found was that some of the artwork moved around on the page, and developed a dark grey background which helpfully obscured the text. Switching to landscape mode and fidgeting with the contrast helped with legibility, but not with the images.

To my surprise, the print-friendly version of the Explorer’s Edition rulebook worked much better, I suspect because the background layer is suppressed (which it is not in the Test Drive).

THW rulebooks and the Pathfinder SRD PDFs worked well too, because of their basic layout and low graphics content. The graphics movement and darkening wasn’t noticeable here.

Large, graphics-intensive files such as Ptolus or the Pathfinder Core Rulebook do work, but page-turning slows quite a bit once you’re a few pages into the document. However, the fact that they can be read at all on this platform is impressive. Respect to you, Kindle designers. The Kingdom of Legend PDF (of which more in a later post) causes the Kindle to hang, sometimes for minutes at a time; blessed if I can work out why, it is smaller and less graphics-intensive than some of the other files. My experience so far is that any file which is going to do this, does so within the first 10-12 pages.

PDFs I’d created myself from my campaign notes using Open Office transferred well, and were legible. The lack of graphics seemed to help both legibility and speed of opening the document. However, the body text (which I’d set to Arial, for its greater legibility at small font sizes) had mysteriously converted itself to some sort of serif font, possibly Times New Roman. After some experimentation with font and page sizes, I settled on using the standard fonts and setting the page size to A5. (As an added benefit, the pages are then clearly legible if printed 4-up from Acrobat, and 9-up is viable if you have good eyesight.)

I’m also having good results with the free MobiPocket Creator software; starting from OpenOffice or similar, save your notes as HTML files, then import into MPC and build as MobiPocket files. The Kindle will recognise these as ebooks and display them happily. The advantage of this over PDF is you can use the built-in text size adjustments to change font size once your file is on the machine.

Disclaimer: I haven’t tried this with graphics-intensive files because I don’t build them much.


Umm, none to speak of. Bear in mind that I don’t want to play Texas Hold ‘Em or Sudoku; I want a dice roller. I suppose I could use solitaire for that with a little ingenuity, but it looks like the few apps currently on sale are only available in the USA.

I can live with creating character sheets on the PC, printing to PDF, and exporting to Kindle; I can track experience etc. using the annotation features.


The Kindle looks a bit like a tablet PC or a big smartphone, and I found myself tempted to tap the screen or drag things around with a fingertip, even though I know it won’t work. The temptation wore off about day two.

My podgy fingers are big enough to cover four of the little keys at the bottom, so I don’t see myself writing copious notes on it; but then, that isn’t what it’s for. I’ll use a stylus and cultivate brevity.

The greyscale display is less of a problem than I expected, even colour pictures displaying clearly. It is much easier on the eyes than anything else I’ve tried, and is also the only handheld device I’ve ever used whose screen actually gets more legible in brighter light. That is a huge plus.

Pressing “next page” several times in quick succession tends to freeze the display for a few seconds before it catches up, so I should avoid this habit – I often search this way on a PC, but the Kindle doesn’t handle it well.

It is extremely lightweight and comfortable to hold for long periods, even when loaded with many, many megabytes of books and games.

I’m delighted with my purchase.

One-Page Bestiary

I’ve mentioned several times now that I like to travel light when gaming away from home. One of the things a GM always needs is some kind of bestiary – friends and foes to aid or oppose the player characters, whether human or otherwise.

For Savage Worlds, I’ve now trimmed my travel bestiary down to one page of notes.

How? Using the soldier archetypes from the Typical Allies section on p. 99 of the rulebook, and some trappings and monstrous abilities. Look what you can do with them…

  • Use them as they stand for pretty much any human or demihuman encounter. OK, by the W&W supplement elves (say) should have Low Light Vision (use GM fiat), a one step advance in Agility (and how do the players know what their Agility was before that, eh?) and All Thumbs (and how are the PCs going to work out that’s missing in the middle of a firefight, eh?)
  • Make them Wild Cards rather than Extras to become major NPCs.
  • Reskin their appearance, speech pattern and equipment to make any kind of humanoid opponent. R.E. Howard serpent men? Check. Goblins and (Experienced) Orcs? Check.
  • Add the Construct ability to make them golems, animated statues etc.
  • Add the Undead ability to make them skeleton warriors or slightly superior zombies. Make them Wild Cards as well to get stronger undead, for instance mummies.
  • Add Arcane Background to make priests, wizards, psions, or mad scientists.

Throw several of them into the blender at once for added weirdness. Robot Dracula from Mars? Slather on Undead and Construct, and make it a Wild Card. Warforged sorceror? Construct plus Arcane Background. Gargoyle? Apply Construct and Flight.

Want a bigger range of threats? The Experienced Soldier is essentially the Soldier with all traits increased by one die step. Decrease all the Soldier’s traits one die step to get an Innocent Bystander. Increase the Experienced Soldier’s traits by one die step to get an Elite Soldier, or by two die steps to get one even better.

Sure, you get more detail and variety in the bestiary or your setting guide, and I’ll use them if I have them with me; but as I say, I can get this lot on a page with room left over. Gotta love Savage Worlds.


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