Hex Map Pro and the Dread Sea Dominions

One of the first apps I bought for the iPad was Hex Map Pro, which turns it into a game board (£2.99 from the App Store). You can use the built-in facilities to create a board, which are limited to colouring in squares or hexes; or you can import a picture, rescale it, and overlay a grid on it. Then, the app lets you create and label counters to move around the map. There are no built-in rules, so it isn’t tied to a particular game; and no automation, so it’s easy to work out.

I intended to use it for playing THW games without having to haul out terrain or minis, and you’ll see some examples of that in due course. It took me a while to realise how useful it would be for other things, though; here’s an example screenshot.

DSD_Hex

I loaded up Beasts & Barbarians Golden Edition on the iPad, and took a screenshot of the map, which I saved as a photograph. I cropped off the margins using a free picture editor map, then imported it into Hex Map Pro. I then resized the picture so that it was about 30 hexes tall, which in my version of the Dominions makes one hex about 125 miles (that makes it easy to zoom in to 25 and then 5 mile hexes if I ever want to do that). Finally, I saved it as a new gameboard in HMP, and created one token (the green one labelled “Party”) to show the group’s current location.

One screenshot later, you get the picture above. I like it.

(I remember doing the same thing in the late 1970s with a map, a photocopier and a plastic sheet that had hexagons printed on it. This is a LOT faster and easier.)

Review: B&B Hero Construction Set

I’m not a big fan of cardboard figures, but I was intrigued enough to get the Beasts & Barbarians Hero Construction Set from Okumarts Games; partly because it relates directly to my main current setting, and partly because of the way it uses PDF layers to create variations on the basic figures.

CONTENTS

One sheet of 12 pregenerated figures, and one sheet of 12 customisable figures. In each case, you have one each of Northlander, Amazon, Tricarnian, Valk, Rogue, Ivory Savannah Tribesman, Cairnlander, Gladiator, Lotusmaster, Monk, Sorceror and Red Desert Nomad. The Rogue and Amazon are female, the others male. There are some instructions, adverts and a front cover also, each as separate files.

On the pregenerated sheet, there are three versions of each figure, mostly variations in colour scheme. On the customisable sheet, each figure has three choices for his or her head, torso/arms, and legs. I haven’t tried all the possible variations yet, but with 9 possible versions of each of 12 figures I won’t run out any time soon.

FORMAT

Large, layered PDF file. Like most standee figures, the art is a little cartoony, but you see enough of it before you buy to know what you’re getting. The use of layers is good, especially the ability to turn off text.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I would have liked female versions of some of the other characters, and perhaps a male rogue, but you can get close to those by picking the right set of body parts so that’s a nitpick.

Another nitpick is that I would’ve liked to see a drow-style jet black option for the Tricarnian; but I can see where that would be a bit iffy to print. It took me a while to work out that the Tricarnian is in some sort of martial arts crane stance, which is why his right leg and left hand look a bit strange.

CONCLUSION

If you like standees, these are good ones. When printed out, they look a lot better than I would have expected from viewing them onscreen, probably because they are farther away – the usual thing about figures needing to look good at arms’ length, on a table, rather than right up next to your eyes.

I’m not sure they will tempt me away from my pewter and plastic, but over a hundred different figures for $5 and the cost of printing them is a price point other options can’t match; and the ease of replacing them means I won’t be so bothered if they get dropped, eaten by cats, smashed by small children, etc.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

PBEM Experience Awards

Now that I have Play-By-EMail players using Savage Worlds and Labyrinth Lord, I need to consider how to award experience.

Points for roleplay or good ideas can follow the usual SW rules, but since SW experience is largely driven by the number of sessions, what constitutes a session?

Fortunately, Larger Than Life and Mythic both work in scenes. In a face to face session I would expect to get through 3-4 scenes, and award each SW character 2 XP per session on average; so, one experience point per two scenes is about right, awarded about every 4 scenes.

Update 10th April 2015: After a lot more solo play, I eventually settled on these revised rules: Each blog post, letter or email exchange counts as one scene; bennies refresh every four scenes, and PCs gain one advance every 10 scenes – it’s not necessary to track experience points separately because of my habit of numbering scenes.

For LL characters, I can use the D&D 3.5 advice – level up after 13.33 encounters (i.e., scenes) on average, which gives them almost exactly 7.5% of the experience needed for the next level after each scene. Come to think of it, I will round that up to 10%, both to make the calculation easier and because, given how slow PBEM play is anyway, the PCs need a little help – at my usual average of one scene every 1-2 weeks, it will take PCs about 3 months to level up.

Note that I won’t count LTL travel scenes unless there is an event or encounter of some kind, as at the table I would represent them as something like “you travel for days across the flat, dusty landscape, always alert for Valk outriders, but fortunately you don’t meet any”.

Job done. And I can also use this for my solo PCs – Arion has been adventuring for years without a single experience point to his name, poor fellow…

Review: The Pacts of the Wise

Kevin Crawford has been busy again. I’m at least four products behind on my obsessive quest to collect all of Sine Nomine’s output. We can’t have that now, can we?

The Pacts of the Wise is a free 10-page web supplement for The Crimson Pandect (also on my wish list), which is the magical expansion for SNP’s line of Labyrinth Lord goodies, following Red Tide (campaign setting) and An Echo Resounding (domain-level play).

CONTENT

Cover, introduction, six example pacts (each illustrated with the symbol of the relevant entity), one page of OGL, one page advert for an adventure written by KC for the Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG (shiny!).

Essentially, a magic-user or elf (race as a class is alive and well in Labyrinth Lord) can make a pact with an entity – not yer Elder-Gods-Crawlin’-Chaos type of entity; something a bit less dangerous, but still powerful enough to do useful favours. In exchange, the entity requires rituals, sacrifices, and/or abiding by certain taboos.

The favours are not overly powerful on the face of it; I hesitate only because the cunning of players knows no bounds, and something that looks innocent enough to me might become a tool of global destruction or domination in the hands of (say) Garstrewt, or The Warforged.

Each entity gets a page to itself, with details of how to make and break pacts with it, a picture of its symbol, a new item, a couple of plot seeds, and details of what the entity does to the wizard if he displeases it.

FORMAT

The usual SNP layout; printer-friendly, content-rich, and with high information density. This is what I prefer, personally; but I am well-known for placing content above format.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I got nothin’. Move along, nothing to see here.

CONCLUSIONS

Cracking stuff as usual, easily introduced into any other fantasy game setting. I think I shall use the scenario seeds in my Beasts & Barbarians game as well, the Lovecraft/Howard feel of them would fit right in.

Rating: 5 out of 5 (which translates as "Can’t wait to use this stuff!" – in fact, I’ve already started).

Review: Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion

I was curious about how this differed from the earlier fantasy toolkits, if at all; and when those cunning blighters at RPGNow introduced a discount for items that have been sitting on my wishlist for a while, well, how was a chap to resist?

SUMMARY

The Fantasy Companion is the Savage Worlds supplement for GMs running a fantasy campaign, and judging by the comments on the Pinnacle forum, most people use either a published setting, or the core rules and this companion, when setting up a fantasy campaign.

My view on first flicking through this was that I had wasted my money, as there was so much duplication. However, I warmed to it a little on a more detailed reading. What you get is most of the content from the Wizards & Warriors genre pack and the Fantasy Toolkits, merged into a single, better laid out book.

CONTENT

A lot of this has been covered before in other SW products, so the Companion is perhaps best thought of as an optional upgrade. Chapter by chapter, then…

Characters (8 pages)

First we look at races; there are eight fully-statted races: Dwarf, elf, hobbit halfling half-folk, half-elf, half-orc, human, rakashan (cat-people), and saurian. After this are rules on languages (the half-Smarts optional setting rule) and creating new races. SW Deluxe has these rules already in the core rulebook, but SW Explorers’ doesn’t. The free Wizards & Warriors genre pack has most of the stock races.

Next, new Edges. Familiar lets your mage PC have a familiar; Adept, Assassin, and Troubadour allow you to play a D&D-style monk, backstabbing thief, or bard respectively; Knight is not quite a paladin, but would do nicely as a C&C knight. Other Edges mostly reflect racial abilities. All of the Edges are new if you only have SWEE, although a few of them overlap with the W&W pack and a couple exist in SWD.

Gear (11 pages)

Adventuring gear overlaps quite a bit with the core rules, although shelter, clothing, food, etc are expanded upon. Weapons and armour are new items, not ones from the main rulebooks. I have got to work the pump-action crossbow into play somehow, it’s just too cool for school.

Sidebars in this chapter explain long-term overland movement rates by terrain, and there is quite an extensive (by SW standards, anyway) section on siege warfare, including a price list for fortifications and siege engines.

Arcana (27 pages)

This chapter expands on the core rules in the area of magic and miracles.

First we get a list of templates for deities; god of justice, goddess of healing, god of war and so on. Each of these is described in terms of aspects (that’s "domains" for you d20 players), duties, sins, and a list of the powers to which the god grants his priests access.

Next up, new arcane backgrounds: Alchemy, sorcery, ritual magic. Alchemy lets you make the casting roll in the privacy of your own laboratory and get some expendable patsy to deliver the spell to its target; sorcery grants the innate ability to dispel other castings; ritualism is slow and steady, but less risky than other approaches. The default assumption of the Companion is that AB (Magic) excludes healing powers, but you can always change that. Arcane Backgrounds are commonly rewritten for each new setting, as one of the key things that differentiate milieux is the way magic works; so this is more useful if you are creating your own world.

Third, an expansion on trappings – what are the mechanical effects of saying your Bolt power has a trapping of fire vs ice vs lightning? This is already part of SWDE and (in a less detailed form) the World Builders’ Guide, but new for SWEE.

Fourth, a full spell list, including all spells in the core rules. There are 55 powers in the FC, compared to 50 in DE and 31 in EE; I liked the increase in available powers from Explorers’ to Deluxe, but the Companion didn’t have a "killer app" for me in the powers department.

Treasure (53 pages)

This is mostly an extensive random magic item generator, almost identical to the one in the Fantasy Gear Toolkit as far as I could tell; the main difference I spotted was the optional treasure table with black powder weapons in it. There’s also the treasure type table from the Fantasy Bestiary Toolkit.

If you have the Toolkits, as I do, this section is of limited value. If you don’t, it will give you a D&D style treasure generator.

Bestiary (56 pages)

Again, if you have the Toolkits, this is of limited value. It repeats some, but not all, of the monsters in the core rules, and adds statblocks for a number of common human and demihuman encounters, as well as a range of monsters not found in the core books – mummies, naga, gargoyles and what have you; a subset of the Fantasy Bestiary Toolkit.

What’s Missing?

Almost all the world creation and nation-building stuff from the World Builders’ Guide, as well as some of the spells. A variety of monsters, the random encounter tables, the traps table, and the adventure seeds from the Bestiary. I didn’t spot anything missing from the Gear Toolkit, but given the difference in page counts I suspect there is something.

What’s New?

Magical black powder weapons. Statistics and costs for fortifications. A wider range of god templates for priests to follow.

What’s Different?

The Toolkits explicitly said they were guidelines only, and didn’t feel that tightly integrated to me. The Companion is a single, prescriptive piece – more "this is how it is" than "you could do it this way if you feel like it". Your call whether that’s a good or a bad thing.

FORMAT

This is nicer than the Toolkits on several fronts; better art, better layout, ability to suppress page backgrounds via Acrobat layers (rather than having one version of the file with, and one without).

Also, I prefer to have a single file (the Companion) rather than three (Bestiary, Gear, and World Builders’ Guide).

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

The Fantasy Gear Toolkit included Edges allowing a character with AB (Magic) or AB (Miracles) to create magic items – potions, scrolls, relics and whatnot. The Fantasy Companion does not, and I would prefer that it did; that comes down to an individual GM’s interpretation of magic.

Pinnacle sometimes use "Explorers’ Edition" to refer to the size of the book, and sometimes to refer to an edition of the rules. I’d prefer that they used different terms, to reduce the chance of confusion.

One thing that would be really useful to me is a summary sheet for all the Powers, like the ones for Edges or Weapons. I keep meaning to do my own, but inertia rises triumphant.

My favourite bit from the Bestiary Toolkit was the traps table, and I’d like to see that here too. Go on, Pinnacle, you know you want to – it’s only a quarter page.

CONCLUSIONS

This seems to have been written with the Explorers’ Edition rules in mind (for example, the Guts skill is still included, although not a setting rule), rather than the Deluxe Edition, so it’s less useful if you have the latter.

It also seems aimed at GMs converting or creating their own world, rather than running a published SW setting – setting books cover most of this territory in a more focussed way, so again, less useful if you’re already intending to play Evernight, Beasts & Barbarians, or whatever.

Finally, I’d say there’s a deliberate design decision to duplicate entries from the core rules in a number of places, though not all; that’s good if your priority is to avoid flipping through several books to find something, and bad if your priority is to pay for a particular piece of text only once; your call.

Overall Rating: Tricky, but I’ll go with 3 out of 5. I could see the rating being anywhere from 2 out of 5 to 4 out of 5, depending on what other SW products you have. I’ll use some bits of it I’m sure, but it’s going to be a reference work rather than something I feel the need to have on hand constantly.

Welcome to the Dark Side

As regular readers will know, from time to time my lady wife goes to visit her family abroad. This leaves me home alone with the credit cards, and it is my wont to console myself with a new toy. This year, that toy was an iPad.

Now, this is a gaming blog, so in this post I will consider it as a device to support my tabletop gaming. After using it for about a month, here are my initial thoughts.

THE GOOD…

  • Condenses all my written rulebooks, scenarios, character sheets etc. into the form factor of a medium notebook.
  • Screen large and clear enough to read A4 or 8.5″ x 11″ documents, even with my eyesight.
  • Apps can replace dice, character sheets, minis and battle mats (good for playing while travelling, but I wouldn’t want to run a normal session that way).
  • Less intrusive than a netbook or laptop at the table.

THE BAD…

  • Assumes that my life revolves around iTunes. It does not.
  • File management, especially transferring files to and from PCs, is clumsy and often frustrating.

…AND THE APPS.

More on these later perhaps, but after going crazy downloading apps and then sorting the wheat from the chaff, I currently use:

  • Dropbox. Easier to use for file transfer than iTunes, better cloud services than iCloud, and a number of other apps support automatic synchronisation with it. Free for the first 2GB of storage.
  • Kindle, iBooks. If I have multiple PDFs open, I find it easier to switch between apps than to switch documents within an app. Both free.
  • Dice rollers: The Dicenomicon, WFRP Toolkit, SR4Rating5LE (free). The last is especially valuable due to the number of dice needed for Shadowrun.
  • Springpad: Plain text editor for short notes. Anything with a screen can display plain text without time-consuming reformatting; if format is important, make the file PDF instead. Beats other plain text editors by having a better file structure and the ability to display summaries of notes side by side.
  • Hex Map Pro. Virtual tabletop with square or hex grids, tokens, etc. Can export in JPG format, but could really do with some way to draw lines instead of just filling spaces with a colour.

-o0o-

Finally, I strongly recommend a case of some kind. My limited experience of cats and iPads is that cats are either jealous of the attention lavished on the iPad, or fascinated by the display; in either case, they claw at it…

Paradigm Shift 2: All Killer, No Filler

Just as my players hadn’t fully made the mental shift from D&D to Savage Worlds, I realise I have been trying to emulate parts of D&D in my games; so I need to make a similar shift, and after discussion with the friendly Savages on the Pinnacle forum and a bit of thought, here’s what I came up with.

  • I can’t hide behind time-consuming and unnecessary fights, or a monster of the week with exotic abilities. Adventures need a plot, and every encounter or fight must move it forward.
  • Opponents’ abilities matter less than numbers and tactics. The NPCs have to fight dirty, making full use of combat options, or the PCs will wipe them out in short order; the PCs’ Wild Dice and Bennies give them a killing edge in a "fair" fight.

The necessary shift will be easy to make, since the approach I need is much like the one I used for Classic Traveller and 2300AD in the 1980s and 1990s. In my experience, this moves the focus of adventures away from combat, towards mystery and intrigue.