Review: An Echo Resounding

I see Kevin Crawford has written a book for domain-level play in Labyrinth Lord, and given that I’ve liked everything else he has released, it was a no-brainer to buy that as well.

This is Sine Nomine Publishing’s take on the presumed end game of OD&D, namely PCs in charge of their own fiefs.

Summary: 111 page Labyrinth Lord supplement covering the creation and operation of domains. Labyrinth Lord or some other D&D style game required; SNP’s Red Tide useful, but not essential.

INTRODUCTION (1 page)

This explains the contents and aims of the book. Key goals are that ruling a domain is optional for PCs, and that domains should serve as a source of adventures and consistent background for the GM whether any, all, or none of the PCs want to be a feudal lord.

DOMAIN PLAY IN A CAMPAIGN (4 pages)

This expands on the key goals, and recommends embedding domain-level play structures in a campaign from the beginning, emphasising the value of a clear political landscape. While traditionally OD&D assumes that everyone becomes a landholder at about 9th level, this book assumes that some will, some won’t; those who do will take up control at different levels; and those who don’t are still useful henchmen for NPC lords. More on how that works later.

Meanwhile, the book acknowledges that some players just want to stay freebooters their whole careers, and offers advice on handling their concerns – will they be forced into running a fief, will their PCs be edged out of the limelight by those who do? No, because adventures can be structured to retain their involvment.

It’s also notable that the recommended campaign focus is smaller for An Echo Resounding than for Adventurer-Conqueror-King, recently reviewed on this very blog. While ACK looks to the level of kingdoms and empires, AER focuses on a small border region of a few towns and maybe one city. (If you want to grow beyond that, the Domain Management chapter has ideas for it.)

CREATING CAMPAIGN REGIONS (30 pages)

This is the heart of the book; how to set up your campaign so that it will grow easily and naturally into domain-level play. As with all SNP rules, the GM is warned against burnout from overdoing the setting creation process. The design goal for this chapter is that you should be able to create a borderland region and its political structure in a single afternoon, elaborating on it later as play dictates.

The region is up to 300 miles on a side, and contains a number of locations, each of which is just a place the PCs might be interested in; locations are rated for Military, Wealth and Social values, and also have traits – similar to the tags in other SNP products – and obstacles. Traits are capsule descriptions of things that make the location unique, while obstacles are problems it must overcome, usually by hiring adventurers to deal with them. Finally, locations have assets, used in the Domain Management and Mass Combat rules later.

Region setup is simple. Start with a map, either a hexmap or a free-form sketch; the book notes in passing that a map isn’t really necessary, but by this point I already have one in mind.

On the map, the GM places one city of 10-15 thousand people, four towns of one or two thousand inhabitants, and five ruins or places of mystery for the PCs to investigate. For each town, place a Resource location – a source of some valuable commodity such as food, lumber, gems or whatever – a little way from towns or cities; this makes it easier for conflicts over them to develop.

Next, mark likely routes between cities and towns on the map. Halfway along each route is a monster lair, preying on the traffic; disposing of these is what adventurers do.

All of these numbers can be scaled up proportionally for bigger or more well-developed areas, or just because you feel like it; but I think this would give me enough to be going on with.

Each location (by now you have a couple of dozen) is fleshed out with traits from a table for that type of location. Each city, town or resource location gets an obstacle – initially, the obstacle is what has prevented a larger polity from seizing effective control of it. If you’re using Red Tide as well, this is where you roll up the site tags for those locations.

(PCs may well establish their own locations, even if they don’t control them; remember that a location is something that interests PCs, so expect to find more and mark them on the map as play progresses.)

Now the actual Domains appear; these are the towns, cities or other areas which are the movers and shakers in the campaign. Many of the towns and cities have neither the capability nor the desire to play a role on the regional stage, but you need some that are. Domains in AER consist of 2-3 locations which act together and are controlled by one leadership. Those leaders have somehow come to terms with the local obstacles, but anyone else wanting to take over will need to make their own arrangements.

Next, the Hall of Infamy. These are the regional-level Big Bads who are foreshadowed in early adventures, and may eventually be taken down by the PCs. They consist of the Prime Evil, a challenge worthy of the maximum level you expect PCs to reach in the campaign; two lesser threats, a match for 9th level PCs; and four villains who will give mid-level parties a run for their money, each of whom probably occupies one of the lairs placed earlier. Lesser enemies are bit parts, with no ongoing role in the campaign story.

Again, this approach can be scaled to give more foes if you wish.

Two special cases are considered; venturing afar, i.e. adventures which go a long way off-map, and retrofitting the system to an existing map.

If the party ventures afar on a specific quest, then all you need are a few locations they will pass through on their way. If they’re moving in for the long term, you need another region.

Retrofitting is for a GM with an existing campaign. Take your map, pick a region, and pick which towns and cities matter. The others continue to exist, but for whatever reason are not strategically valuable to Domains. The purpose of this is to focus the GM’s effort on a manageable number of locations. From this point on, proceed as if generating a new region. If you have existing power structures, they become Domains. In name, they might all be part of the same empire, but this just drives conflict underground.

ACK bases its domain generation on demographics; AER does not, but provides a page of instructions on reverse-engineering the demographics from the domain should you wish.

Next, a series of tables to flesh out locations; each outcome influences the owning domain’s Military, Wealth and/or Social ratings, usually by adding +2 to one of them. The city and town tables cover origin (why were they built?); activities (why are they still here?); and obstacles (what’s in their way?). The ruins tables cover its nature (what was it before?), its traits (why would you want to control it?); and obstacles (why don’t you?). The resources tables show the type of resource, and obstacles to obtaining it. Lair tables determine the lair’s nature.

Remember those pesky obstacles? As a Domain ruler, you have two ways of dealing with them – either commission a party of adventurers to rid you of them, or take us a Solve an Obstacle action and the correct unit type to have a crack at them. Until you have dealt with the obstacle, it reduces your Military, Social and Wealth ratings. This would have made more sense to me as part of the next chapter, but that’s not an enormous problem as it is the last section in this one.

DOMAIN MANAGEMENT (12 pages)

Domains are, in a way, a different type of character. Consider its Military, Wealth and Social scores as its attributes, and its assets as equipment. It has saving throws, used in overcoming obstacles. Domains are managed in domain turns, each lasting roughly one month of game time and intended to be handled in 10-15 minutes of effort at the end of each session. PC-controlled domains get two actions per turn, NPC-controlled domains only one.

Actions include making or destroying assets or locations, moving or repairing an asset, accumulating wealth, attacking a location, resolving an obstacle, punish a scapegoat for your atrocity, and so forth. Note that siphoning off funds for personal use is also an action.

Assets include shrines, military units, charity, friendship with demihumans, slaves, and many more. Each affects the domain’s Military, Wealth and/or Social ratings. Assets cost Wealth to maintain, which places an upper limit on how much power a domain can project. Assets are assigned by the GM based on the location’s role in the game.

Domains require at least one location as the seat of their power, and most wish to expand. They do this by resolving the obstacle at a new location, then persuading the locals to accept their rule. Multiple competing domains may be interested in the same location at the same time. Conquering a location by force destroys its assets, and it must then be rebuilt; if you use diplomacy, the location might give up some assets willingly.

If the obstacle can be resolved by simply throwing money, arrows or spells at it, then resolution is probably a domain action. Otherwise, it’s an adventure for the PCs.

Meanwhile, at home, it’s tempting for the ruler to hurry up domain actions by executing dissidents and committing atrocities. These give bonuses on the saving throw for the current problem, but penalties on Military, Wealth and Social ratings until the ruler dies or pins the blame on a scapegoat. (Is that a scenario I hear, offstage?) More gentle management, however, means any rebels who do arise are better equipped.

It’s good to be the king. The domain ruler (or rulers) get a cash income from their domain, and can call on its assets (temples, troop units, magical schools) to do things for him. Rulers can appoint viziers to do the boring parts for them.

Vast domains are handled by scaling things up. The city becomes an urbanised section of a province, the troop unit becomes a thousand archers instead of the usual hundred, the map gets bigger.

This chapter concludes with an example of domain-level play.

MASS COMBAT (14 pages)

Disputes between domains are often military in nature, and thus a simple mass combat system is needed. This chapter provides it; it has a turn sequence much like that for personal combat, and units representing about 100 humanoids, a lair’s-worth of other creatures, or individual champions such as the PCs, moving about on a rough map of the battlefield.

In effect, these rules use the personal combat rules, with each figure representing a unit. Heroes can fight alone, or join a unit to give it bonuses. Some spells can be used only against heroes, others can also be targeted at troop units.

Sieges are handled in an abstract manner. Assets can be destroyed, and may have to be rebuilt; troops can gain experience, which increases their unit’s attack rolls, morale, hit dice, AC and/or special qualities. Not very far, and not very fast, but it does.

HEROES (6 pages)

Once PCs reach a certain level, they begin to gain parallel levels as a Champion. Each time they gain a Champion level, they may choose an appropriate special ability or “gift” from a list of several dozen, which makes them valuable to a domain. (NPCs don’t get these abilities as a rule, to make them simpler for the GM to adjudicate.) In addition, they get one gift based on their race and class.

Gifts will bring you followers, give a troop unit you attach yourself to combat bonuses, or modify your domain’s MSW ratings.

The bonuses from gifts don’t stack, so there’s no point two PCs taking the same one, or one PC taking the same one twice.

I can immediately see assassination scenarios springing from this. (“Ragnar’s Martial Glory grants his Domain +4 Military, I want you lot to kill him so they become conquerable.”)

THE WESTMARK (38 pages)

This is a detailed example of the rules above, in the form of one of the regions in Red Tide, with a colour hex-map for the GM, a much less detailed black and white one for the players (or as a basis for a different region entirely) and 40 locations fleshed out with game statistics and plot hooks.  As well as being a how-to guide, it is usable as an “instant” region, or can be mined for locations etc. to insert into your own game.

The book closes with an index and the OGL. No forms for the GM this time; none are really necessary. Hex paper is optional, and you probably have a source of that already. If not, try Dragonsfoot.

CONCLUSIONS

The obvious comparisons for me are with OD&D and Adventurer-Conqueror-King.

Even re-reading OD&D with 35 years’ gaming experience, I can see that my PC could use his money to build a castle and clear a domain, but then what? It’s unclear. Yes, I could work it out for myself, but the 30-40 hours per week I put into RPGs in my twenties are no longer viable for me, and dropping another $10 or so to get much of the work done for me is a very fair trade.

Reading ACK left me with the feeling that I’d love to use it, but wouldn’t have the time or (frankly) determination to see it through.

Reading An Echo Resounding left me keen to start using it, right away, confident that it could grow organically in whatever time I gave it.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.

Shadows of Keron Episode 6: Death of a Tyrant, Part 4

Many adventures ago, the party acquired a magic item called the Stone of Recall. When activated, this teleports everyone touching it to the last nominated “respawn point”. I’ve had great fun with this; by the time things are bad enough to use it, the heroes have generally split up, and whoever uses it has to leave some friends behind.

While wandering around the desert, the party completely forgot they had it (not that it would have worked, for reasons they have yet to determine), and when they did remember it, almost immediately remembered they had last set it to the lair of the Big Bad. Then they forgot it again while holed up in their erstwhile patron’s house, and fought the waves of minions he sent against them.

This session, they remembered it again, and used it to teleport a strike team to the Big Bad’s lair with the dual aims of killing him and rescuing their former patron, who has the Attractive edge (hey, this is pulp).

As usual when running a published adventure, I shall say little to minimise the risk of spoilers. The highlights, however, were:

  • The strike team teleporting right into the middle of minions in platoon strength, from which they escaped through adroit use of area effect powers and setting fire to the location.
  • Fun using the Puppet power to turn the PCs against each other, and Lower Trait to drop the party tank’s Fighting skill to Keystone Cops levels.
  • Garstrewt continuing to pound Nessime with a crowbar even after the Puppet wore off.
  • The kidnapped patron regaining consciousness to the feeling of Garstrewt rubbing her all over with olive oil, ostensibly to make it easier to slip her free from her bonds.

NO POWER POINTS

This was the second playtest session for this option, and we’ve decided to keep it and allow those who took Power Points as an advance to swap it out for something else. The main impacts of the option continue to be:

  • PCs with Arcane Backgrounds using a wider range of powers (notably buffs) and using powers more often.
  • Spellcasters burning through bennies slightly faster, mostly to avoid being Shaken or Wounded by failing arcane skill rolls.
  • No need to track Power Points.

BEAST & BARBARIANS – REFLECTIONS

While B&B recommends only one PC in the party should have an Arcane Background, the previously established group has three. I suspect this is making things easier for them, I’ll have to look to beefing up the opposition.

No Power Points Option

In the last session, we experimented with the No Power Points setting option in Savage Worlds. We like the idea of one less thing to track, but weren’t sure how it would play in a real session. Here’s what we found…

Those with Arcane Backgrounds cast more spells, but lower powered ones, to avoid casting penalties. In particular, multi-shot bolts were not used so much, because more skill dice being rolled means a higher chance that at least one fails. The range of spells in use widened as well, people being more willing to cast buffs like Armour rather than reserving their power for offensive spells as they stay up indefinitely.

It’s relatively easy to Shake yourself by failing a casting, but it’s easy to avoid/recover from so long as you have bennies left. From a GM’s perspective, this increases the benny spend rate, so I may need to reconsider how I balance the flow of bennies; this is definitely a tool you could use to control how nasty the option is. It also makes The Warforged relatively more powerful, because as a Construct he gets +2 to recover from Shaken; so do undead, so Liches are now a little more powerful too in comparison to a plain vanilla spellcaster. I expect this manifests itself as them spending fewer bennies on average over the course of a session.

A number of Edges players have taken, such as Wizard and extra Power Points, are wasted under this option. I’d originally intended to have them partially negate the penalties (each Power Points edge reduces the penalty for one point, penalties are figured on the cost after the Wizard edge is applied), but I think that would remove too much of the risk of failure; so I’m more likely to let them swap those edges out for something that is still useful.

Players were really worried about blowing themselves up with critical failures, but it didn’t happen. I like this aspect of the option, as it echoes one of my favourite parts of WFRP: Wizards blowing themselves up or being carried off by demons when they get a spell badly wrong.

Great Healing (courtesy of the Holy Handkerchief) is much less useful now, as the casting penalty is –5 or –10; the HH provides the power and the power points, but the caster must make a Faith roll to activate it, so this turned into a huge benny drain and after a couple of uses the players abandoned it and using their own healing powers, with much muttering about “magic items are useless in this system”.

That’s how my group rolled. Have you tried this option? How did it go with your players?

Episode 5: Death of a Tyrant, Part 3

This did not go at all as I expected. No change there, then.

I had expected that the group would deduce where the Big Bad was in fairly short order, and then stroll over to sort him out.

They did in fact work out where he was early on, but thrashed around for a long time debating what to do, including convincing themselves there must be secret escape passages somewhere through which they could bug out into the desert again. (After all, that worked so well last time.)

Before they could decide what to do, the Big Bad’s minions turned up in platoon strength to neutralise them. I thought the NPCs grabbing bows and opening fire on the incoming horde would be a good enough clue to do something, but in fact the party continued their debate until the attackers were literally coming in through the windows. They had at least one perfectly good escape route, which they ignored, preferring to stand to and repulse the attackers.

A lengthy and brutal melee ensued. Highlights:

  • The Warforged casting a Fear spell, whose primary effect was to make Gutz throw himself out of the nearest window and fall two stories to the ground.
  • Nessime standing in the centre of the building to give herself the best possible coverage for her Repulse power, having deduced the attackers were supernatural and evil. She killed more of them than anyone else.
  • Athienne being (literally) brained, and only saved because Nessime managed to get the Holy Handkerchief to her in time.
  • Garstrewt using up all the healing potions, none of which worked. They must have been sold a bad batch.
  • The Warforged casting Blast into the ground floor as the attackers broke down the door. He killed more friendlies than all the attackers combined by doing this.
  • Gutz kill-stealing the lone surviving attacker before Athienne could fulfil her vow to do so.

While all this was going on, the only remaining member of the cabal that originally hired them was kidnapped. They are currently still in what’s left of her house, pondering their next move.

Quick Reference

No matter how I resist it, I always find myself making my own GM screen or quick reference sheets for any RPG I run, because I’m never completely happy with anyone else’s sheets. That time has now come for Savage Worlds.

I’m not sharing the sheets themselves, partly because of copyright concerns and partly because I use a brutally simple layout, since I have a habit of printing the same file on various paper sizes and using it on several different electronic devices; tables, bullet points and so forth do not survive such transitions.

Here is what I think should be on these sheets:

  • Explanations of trait rolls and bennies.
  • Combat summary, covering initiative, movement, Fighting, Shooting, damage, Soak rolls, incapacitation and injuries, combat options like ganging up and aiming, and the Fear table.
  • Use of powers – most of this is on the character sheets, but I like to have the backlash rules with me.
  • Setting rules, if any. (Not Multiple Languages, which can be covered on the character sheet – "speaks Common and three others".)
  • NPCs. Stock allies, personalities, reaction tests, and a couple of monstrous abilities for instant monsters.

Earlier in my gaming career, I would have added character creation rules as well, but to be honest you don’t need character creation that often in the course of a campaign, and players can easily use an Experienced Soldier until they get around to creating a PC.

All of this fits on 4 sides of A4, 6 sides of A5, or 15 sides of 9×12 cm virtual paper for my Kindle. I think I’ll try running the next session from my Kindle, just to freak people out.

Review: Beasts & Barbarians Adventures

Here are my thoughts on three GRAmel adventures for their Beasts & Barbarians setting. I would like to go into more detail, but that would potentially spoil the adventures, so capsule reviews only this time.

DEATH OF A TYRANT

44 pages. This consists of a four-part adventure set in the Red Desert, NPC and creature statistics, and background information on the Red Desert and its inhabitants, human and otherwise.

The PCs become embroiled in intrigue in the desert city of Quollaba; their success in their initial assignment leads to unforeseen complications, but with luck and cunning they can emerge alive and wealthy.

My players are currently partway through this one, and enjoying it hugely. My average session is 4 hours long, and I think we will get two or maybe three sessions out of this one.

CITADEL OF THE WINGED GODS

66 pages. This is a scenario in four parts, with NPC and creature stats, and background information on Kyros, its rulers, its problems, its religions, and its famous horses.

As an army moves to crush a rebellious city in eastern Kyros, the PCs learn of a great treasure inside the walls, worth a man’s weight in silver. The treasure is not quite what they expected, but it leads them to the secrets of a lost city, pursued by vile bandits.

Again, I think 2-3 sessions worth of play for my lot here.

THE SKINNER OF SYRANTHIA

21 pages. A shorter adventure, with NPC and creature stats, set in the city of Syranthia.

A visit to a favourite tavern alerts the heroes to a spate of kidnappings and murders. They must investigate, and bring the culprits to justice. In the course of doing so, they will learn about Syranthia’s Great Library and its gladiatorial arena, and uncover a dark secret.

Probably 1-2 sessions in this one, I think.

CONCLUSIONS

These adventures are good at three things; first, capturing the feel of Conanesque swords and sorcery; second, showing how to use chases, co-operative and dramatic tasks in creative new ways; third, setting up “battlemats” made of whatever you have lying around already, such as blast templates.

The scenarios are essentially linear, which is a change for me after the last few years of sandbox play, but it’s working so far.

I’m not a fan of the dark and ink-intensive backgrounds on each page, but fortunately these are a separate layer in the PDF file and can be turned off for reading and printing.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.

Death of a Tyrant–Part 2

Again, I’ll keep this brief and generic to avoid spoilers for anyone who buys the Death of a Tyrant adventure. After wandering around in the desert, completely lost, for a week, the group found themselves back in Quollaba, having gone in a complete circle; and it wasn’t long before their enemies found them.

A friendly NPC did the "Come with me if you want to live" thing, but since the party’s fighters are loaded with Hindrances like Arrogant, Overconfident, Bloodthirsty, and Vow: Never retreat, never back down, they ignored him and waded into the bad guys, who had appeared in platoon strength. The party’s spellcasters made adroit use of area effect spells, especially Fear, to break up the pack, after which their foes were defeated in detail. By the end of it, there were very few bennies left anywhere, and a lot of Wounds; fortunately I had dug out some tokens to use for power points, bennies and wounds – not having to record those on scrap paper really speeds things up.

By the end of session two, the party is holed up with one of their erstwhile patrons, who is effectively under house arrest. I left them to plot their next move.

REFLECTIONS

  • I’m really pleased I started this campaign. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to GM a group face to face.
  • Beast & Barbarians published scenarios stress supporting skills like Tracking and Survival as much as combat skills. My players have so far considered those a waste of points, which is probably my fault; but these adventures should change that.
  • Seeing half a dozen PCs faced off against 30+ Extras and a Wild Card made me realise how hard it would be for me to go back to a system where every opponent had its own hit points to track. That combat took almost an hour to run under Savage Worlds, although I am still a bit rusty as a GM.
  • Running published scenarios for the first time in a while also brought home to me how much time I could save by doing that in future.

ARTWORK – SPOILER WARNING!

I’m not sure how much this gives away, but here are the drawings made during the first session of Death of a Tyrant by Tenchi Montano, who plays Gutz. The female character at center right is Nessime the paladin, played by Tenchi’s wife Giulia; the male figure with a long ponytail is Gutz.

Tyrant01

Artwork © 2012 Tenchi Montano, used with permission.