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Anvil Road, 8th June 216. Boris, Dave, the Fox, Hug-Hug, Kowalski, Ladra, Silmaria, Valore.

We left Team Angel exploring an abandoned dwarven mine, in which they had just encountered a group of skeletal miners. Valore, who has strong and intolerant views on the subject of undead, immediately charged them, yelling “Cleanse the undead!”

The leader of the skeletons invokes an Icon, asking for intercession by the descendants of his clan, which results in Kowalski blinking into existence above the melee, and falling head-first onto the ground nearby. Valore takes advantage of this distraction to cleave the skeleton leader in twain. The Fox makes a dramatic entrance, enhanced by his Sword of Stunning, and the majority of the skeletons pause, taken aback; the Fox disposes of the one closest to him while they are recovering, while Dave shoots at one with her bow, shaking it.

The remaining skeletons surround Valore and the Fox, and belabour them with miners’ picks; one gets lucky and incapacitates Valore, who falls with a through-and-through pickaxe wound to the abdomen. The Fox manages to stave off his attackers by parrying furiously. The skeletons ignore the dwarf dropped into their midst – there are several possible explanations for this, but Kowalski will later point out that these are his clan ancestors and suggest their blood ties explain it.

Meanwhile, Hug-Hug (the lone survivor of the goblin expedition to recover a magical artefact from the mine) sidles off into the darkness. Before charging, the Fox tossed his torch to Ladra, who with the dexterity one might expect, catches it. Silmaria (who is afraid of the dark) steps closer to her. Boris (who by default closes range with any females of marriageable age) steps closer to both of them. Ladra sees no reason to engage in melee, as anything that can get past Valore, Kowalski and the Fox is not going to be inconvenienced by her.

Kowalski yells at the combatants to put down their weapons. The skeletons obey, the Fox also obliges, and Valore is drifting in and out of consciousness and bleeding out. Kowalski next asks the skeletons to line up against the far wall, and they obligingly troop past in column to do so. A bolt of light explodes from Valore’s gaping abdominal wound, incinerating several, although most manage to jump out of the way, alerted by some sixth sense.

“Sorry,” says Valore, although her tone of voice suggests she isn’t, really. “That always happens when I get incapacitated.” Since the party hasn’t seen her be incapacitated before, they have no basis on which to dispute this assertion.

Boris now explains that he can heal Valore by the laying on of hands, but first it will be necessary to remove her clothing.

“I’d rather die,” mutters Valore. Fortunately, Kowalski also has healing powers, and restores her to no more than light injuries, after which mundane first aid suffices to return her to the fray.

It is the work of moments to relieve the skeleton leader of the diamond tip on his pickaxe and a parchment clutched in his left hand. Assessing the situation, the party notes a pit full of quicklime and lizard bones to the north, and three doors to the south, one of which is blocked by an iron spike. The Fox and Ladra use pickaxes to lever out the spike, while Kowalski interrogates the surviving skeletons. These tell him that the west door leads to other mineshafts, the middle door leads to a corridor which was never finished, and they don’t know what’s behind the east door as they were told never to go in there.

The Fox first sticks his head into the alcove behind the middle door, then throws a rock into it. He is rewarded with a small thunderclap and the disappearance of the rock. After some discussion, Kowalski orders a skeleton to go through the suspected teleporter and return. It goes through all right, but doesn’t come back. Kowalski sends another one through with the same result. Dave runs up behind the Fox and pretends to push him through. Encouraged by this, he steps through, and finds himself in total blackness, either elsewhere in the same mine or in another one, with two skeletons just standing there – this is because they have no idea where they are, and thus don’t know which way to go to get back to Kowalski.

Ladra calls that she is going to find the Fox, and vanishes with a torch and several exceedingly valuable cockatrice eggs; she will later claim these dropped and smashed on the way out, and her new jewelry is a gift from an admirer. An Icon is implored to help her escape alive, and in a few days it will turn out that she did. Everyone else sighs and follows the Fox through the teleporter.

On the far side, they find themselves near an intersection centred on a lift, whose ropes they could use to ascend. Before they can decide what to do next, a pair of creatures the likes of which they have never seen leap at them and have to be stabbed. They go down easily enough, but their bodily fluids begin to dissolve the blades used to stab them, leading to a short argument over whose clothing should be used to clean them. That settled, the group proceeds, taking a side passage to the east which leads them down a spiralling and descending corridor, and at length to a rough plank spanning a shaft roughly 80′ deep. A voice calls for help, and Silmaria and Kowalski engage it in conversation, but it seems unable to keep its story straight, and when Boris extends his armpit hairs to sufficient length for it to grab hold and be hauled up, it ignores this offer. Mind you, nobody else would willingly hold Boris’ armpit hairs, so this proves nothing. The party decide this is some sort of trap trying to entice them into the shaft, and walk on.

Shortly, they come to a door in the form of a dwarven face, with innocent inscriptions and a hole through it where the mouth should be. Naturally this arouses deep suspicions, and they stand off at a (hopefully) safe distance while Boris uses his luxurious armpit hair to open it. Apart from discovering it is spring-loaded and closes automatically, they are unharmed, and hurry through before it slams shut.

To be continued…

GM NOTES

Kowalski’s player was available to join this session, so I offered a Benny for the best explanation of why his character had skipped forward two days in time and several hundred miles north; the icon invocation was the best one.

It was all fun and games until a skeleton aced multiple times on both its attack and damage rolls, inflicting nine wounds on Valore. Soaking really doesn’t help in that situation, because as I understand it you have to soak all of them, although once you have taken three wounds, the fourth one knocks you into Incapacitated and the others are wasted. Fortunately, as you can see, she was saved by the rest of the party; had she been alone, or had there been no healers present, things might have gone differently; it’s very hard to kill a PC in Savage Worlds, but it is possible.

As you may recall, and at least one player has now worked out, we are working our way through the Mines of Madness for D&D Next. That dwarf-faced door can really mess you up if you’re not careful, but they were, and failed to trigger any of the traps.

The limitations of Silmaria’s character build are becoming apparent now, as she is basically useless if there are no NPCs around to persuade. Her player is also growing restless as everyone else in the party is either a spellcaster or has a cool magic item; so I shall have to sort her out with something interesting as well, perhaps a musical instrument of some kind.

I tend to forget that skeletons are mindless automata. However, everyone is having fun, so it’s probably OK. Maybe these ones were just smarter than average.

I decided up front that I would just let them wander wherever they wanted to go at their own pace, rather than trying to hurry them along a particular path, and that worked pretty well. I think the best way to satisfy this group is an old-fashioned dungeon crawl, and those are easy enough to come by.

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Arion, Episode 23: Ouidah

Posted: 9 September 2017 in Arioniad
Tags: ,

In which we continue to explore Solo as a solitaire game engine, and venture into Hishen space in search of the kidnappees…

ROLLS AND RULES

Slow and didactic this time to be sure I don’t miss anything; I’m working from the checklist on page 53, and we begin by jumping to a new world. This looks in turn at leaving the current world, time in jump, and arrival at the destination. We start with some ‘pre-flight checks’…

  • Roll d66 for Starport Encounter (page 39): 5, 1 = meet a fellow traveller.
  • Roll 2d6 for NPC’s reaction (page 38): 8, Neutral. This is enough to make him/her a friendly contact if met again.
  • Roll d66 on Patron table (page 59) to determine NPC’s identity: 4, 2 = Scientist.

OK, so we now know a friendly scientist on Tortuga. I don’t plan on coming back this way so I don’t work up any more details. There is no cargo as the last time Arion thought about it was on Fermanagh, when he intended to buy whiskey – let’s assume he did – and I can’t be bothered with costs and fees (too much like the day job).

  • Roll 2d for Ship Encounter (page 40, assume no modifiers): 7 – no encounter.

At this point we leave Tortuga, and enter jumpspace. Let’s call the slavers’ trading world Ouidah, and give it the same 5150 stats as Tortuga – the salient point is law level 2. We need to roll for a shipboard event while in jump, and there is the chance of a bad reaction from a crewmember.

  • d66 for Onboard Event (page 56): 4, 4 = bridge sensors suggest a stowaway.
  • Tell Me, d6 (page 37): Is there one? 5. Why, yes. This is a good chance to introduce Dmitri, in this setting a Hegemony spy on the run from pirates.
  • Tell Me, d6: What kind of person is he? 6 = honest, good, dependable. Right, that settles it, it’s Dmitri.
  • Bad Reaction – random character affected (odd Arion, even Osheen): 3, Arion.
  • 8+ to avoid a bad reaction: Dice roll 6, so Arion reacts badly.
  • 1d6 to determine reaction: 2 – panic/anxiety. A stowaway picked up in a pirate haven sounds like a good reason to be anxious, until we realise he is friendly.

Now we arrive at Ouidah.

  • 2d for Ship Encounter: 4 – no encounter.
  • d66 for Starport Encounter: 5, 3 = another potential contact. This one has a reaction roll of 7 though, not enough to qualify, so no need to work out who they are.

Next, a week onplanet during which we will try to rescue the slavers’ victims. That calls for a Plan. I decide the easiest option is to buy them, trading the current cargo of Fermanagh whiskey for them. That seems like a Solid plan (8+ to succeed) but anything involving pirates, slavers and Hishen is Dangerous. First, though, as per page 53, a World Encounter.

  • d66 for World Encounter (page 58): 2, 1 = invited to a posh function. Well, that makes sense, this is obviously a party thrown by the slavers for potential buyers, which will no doubt culminate in an auction. Let’s add a security check to represent the bouncers on the door asking Osheen to hand in his guns at the door.
  • 2d6 vs law level: 9, no problems. If a Grath wants to bring a squad support weapon to the party, the bouncers are good with that. One wonders what armour they’re wearing if this doesn’t worry them.

The Plan. 8+ to succeed, no obvious modifiers. 2d6 = 12, success. Excellent – that could have gone badly wrong. 2d6 for Consequences; 6, which is under the 8 required – this means a Bad Consequence, and as the Plan is dangerous I decide to apply a -2 to the dice roll. The result is a 10, which would normally antagonise an NPC, but the houseruled modifier drops it to an 8 – partial failure (let’s say odds on 1d6) or incriminating evidence (let’s say evens). 1d6 = 3, so partial failure; since the objective was to recover all the kidnap victims, we only get Coriander, most likely because Arion fancies her more than the others and so is focussed on recovering her.

At this point we cycle back to another jump, but you’ve seen how those work already.

NARRATIVE

This post is long enough already, and its purpose is to explore the rules, so none of that this time. As a general rule, though, that would be the focus.

GM NOTES

Ship encounter rolls are influenced by world population and starport class, but I have assumed frontier routes and no modifiers to save having to generate worlds. I’ve also assumed the Dolphin is not a passenger ship (they have different onboard events).

As Anzon observed in the comments last time, there’s a lot of page flipping to get at tables. The way they are organized helps the internal logic when reading through the first time, so I understand why it’s that way, but in play it slows things down a bit. I will probably wind up printing out the relevant pages and shuffling them into a more usable order. Old school hardcopy users could stick tags on the relevant pages.

Anzon also observed that Dangerous Plans appear to have no mechanical effect. So my current house rule is to apply a -2 to any rolls for Bad Consequences, making injury or death more likely. I could infer from the text that injury or death only occur if the Plan is Dangerous, and roll 1d6+6 on the Bad Consequence table if it is Safe, or any number of other alternatives, but a flat -2 modifier is in the Traveller spirit and easy to remember.

Overall, I find this flows very smoothly and easily for me; no doubt that is partly due to it being based on Traveller, as I have spent most of my adult life playing that on and off. Blog posts would work better if I ran them as one per week, alternating time in jumpspace with time on planetary surfaces; that has come up so often over the years that I can take it as read now.

So, after eight years experimenting, I think I can move to an actual decision now. More of that in a future post, but for now, Hearts of Stone is restarting…

Arion, Episode 22: Tortuga

Posted: 2 September 2017 in Arioniad
Tags: ,

We left Arion and Osheen doing combat simulations in practice for their forthcoming rescue operation. For this next session I intend to use a mixture of 5150 Fringe Space and Solo, as I want to try out Solo and check if it really is as flexible as I think. I’ll put Rep on hold while I do that, as tracking lifetime and current Rep is almost as much work as tracking a bank balance in Credits. (I dislike tracking money in games, because a huge amount of my day job is about tracking money, and I don’t want to spend my leisure time doing it as well.)

“A place I know in Ring 5”, as Arion put it, is clearly relaxed about both selling heavy weapons to Grath and dealing with slavers and pirates. The only planetary data I think I need for Solo is a law level, so I pick the lowest law level planet available in Ring 5; Class 3, Law Level 2, Independent Alien world. It’s tempting to double that law level, which would bring law levels better into alignment with Traveller, but law level 2 feels more like a rough and tumble pirate hangout than law level 4. So 2 it is.

I’ll test-drive the Travellers campaign type; it’s the simplest. I’m comfortable with the life events, relationships and backstory for both characters so I skip over those. We are already In Media Res, so no need to roll for that.

As Arion outlined the plan, the Dolphin will jump to somewhere in Ring 5 – let’s call it Tortuga – then the crew will tool up and try to get a lead on the slavers. Looking at the checklist on page 53, we’re starting in the Jumping from World to World section, which is unusual but seems not to cause any problems.

The first applicable step in Solo is on p. 19, therefore, when I roll to avoid a bad reaction in jump. (If I were using Savage Worlds, I might replace this check with an Interlude.) I determine randomly who is affected (Arion, as it turns out) and roll 2d6, looking for 8+ as one generally does in Traveller-ish rules. I roll an 11; all good.

Second, as we’re now moving into On-Planet Activity, I roll on the World Encounters table (p. 58) and get 3, 5 – a patron offers a courier job, roll on tables S1 and S3. The World Encounters table is supposed to direct me to one of Patrons, Enemies, Cargoes or Colourful Locals but I can’t see how. In this case it points me to S1 (which I eventually work out is the patron table; I roll 6, 3 and get an engineer) and S3, which could be the cargoes table (which would be in the Traveller rules) because it’s third in the list, or might be the Mission Targets table because it’s the third table if you count patrons as the first. It’s a courier job to the next destination so logic dictates the latter; I roll 2d6 and get 4,1 – a remote base. Let’s resort to the Tell Me, D6 method (p. 37); on a scale of 1-6, high meaning more, how much is this job related to the current rescue mission? 1d6 =2; hardly at all. I decide this is a lead in to the next adventure, and park it for the moment, noting that the next destination would logically be the world the kidnap victims came from, which if I recall correctly is Fermanagh.

This takes me to page 22 and The Plan.

“What’s the plan, Captain?”

“First we go shopping and get all those guns you recommended.”

“And a large industrial blender.”

“Very well, and a blender. Then we ask around the local bars looking for slavers with people to sell. I think we should pose as agents for an anonymous buyer.”

I assess the plan for difficulty and danger level. Shopping isn’t worth rolling for; I note that the crew has tooled up, and move on. Trying to find slavers could go wrong in a number of ways, so the plan qualifies as ‘Shaky’ with 10+ needed to succeed. A lot of those bad outcomes involve violence, so it’s ‘Dangerous’. Does the crew have any PCs with skills that are particularly well, or badly, suited to the task? Does it have any crucial equipment or assets? Well, the Grath are the 5150 universe’s unstoppable killing machines, so I’ll give them a +1 for that. They’re now tooled up, but then so is everyone else, so no particular advantage there.

A security roll (2d6 vs law level) seems called for, a daily routine while onworld for Travellerish games; 6 is greater than the law level whether I doubled it or not, so the locals are not bothered by a human and a Grath walking among them.

How about the plan? I roll 9 on 2d6, add one for Mr Osheen’s boyish charm (and selection of weaponry), and get a 10 – success, if barely. So far so good, now I roll against the same target number to see if there was a good or bad consequence; it’s not completely clear to me whether or not I should apply the same modifiers, so I decide not to, for simplicity. I roll a 12 (huzzah!) and since this is higher than the target number, there is a good consequence; 2d6 = 10 (I’m on fire today) and the Good Consequence table tells me the crew finds a useful or valuable piece of kit. I decide the patron encounter would logically happen during that sequence of events.

A montage follows Arion and Osheen from shop to shop, bar to bar. Many people look them up and down, assessing whether they can kill Our Heroes and take their stuff. On observing the Grath, however, they decide there are easier ways to make a living.

At some point, there is a brief conversation in a bar with a guy in overalls; he offers Arion a package and an envelope, Arion nods and accepts.

At length, in a pawnshop near the docking bays, Arion picks up a locket he recognises. Flashback to him studying the kidnap victim dossiers; in one picture, the same locket is around the neck of the victim. We can’t see her full name, but “Coriander” is clearly visible above and to the right of the portrait, which shows an attractive woman with red hair…

GM NOTES

Solo’s author, Paul Elliot, rightly says that the narrative explaining the die rolls is the point of the exercise rather than an optional extra; but I have restrained myself here, the better to focus on evaluating the mechanics. Novelisation isn’t required, just some sort of story about what happened – examples in the rulebook generally limit the narrative to a few lines or paragraphs, some very straightforward and others more flowery. The style and length of your writeup is up to you.

As you see above, this is very fast and easy to run, and I haven’t gone anyway near Traveller or the Cepheus Engine; as it turned out, I didn’t need the Fringe Space rules, just a general understanding of the situation and the characters, a pair of six-sided dice, and Solo itself. I would expect to memorise the key rolls within a couple of sessions, but I would continue to need the more complex tables throughout an extended campaign.

As I haven’t referred to any rules other than Solo in this exercise, I still think this could be used with any RPG of the player’s choice, or indeed none at all if you have a clear picture of your characters and setting.

At this point it seems quite likely that Solo is the way forward for me in solitaire SF gaming, but let’s give it a couple more laps round the block before reaching a decision.

RPGaDay 2017

Posted: 26 August 2017 in Reflections

Another year, another RPGaDay. I find these fun, and usually thought-provoking.

1. What Published RPG do you wish you were playing right now? Any would be fine. It’s more about who you play with.

2. What is an RPG you would like to see published? Surprise me. I’m happy with the ones I have, not that this stops me buying new ones.

3. How do you find out about new RPGs? RPGNow, Kickstarter, or tips from friends.

4. Which RPG have you played the most since August 2016? Savage Worlds.

5. Which RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game? AD&D 1st edition Players’ Handbook – the iconic lizardman-slaying temple-looting party levering gems out of an idol.

6. You can game every day for a week. Describe what you’d do. 15-20 typical sessions there, so I’d finish one of the currently active long campaigns – either Heart of the Fury or Eyes of the Stone Thief. Given present circumstances, long story arcs are hard for me to pull off in normal play.

7. What was your most impactful RPG session? Probably the one where my son negotiated a peace treaty with the Lich King, bringing to an end many months of fighting between them, and preventing an invasion of the PCs’ country by a skeleton army. He was exclusively a hack and slash player before then (unless you count hiring half-orcs he encountered to use as meat shields).

8. What is a good RPG to play for sessions of two hours or less? One with simple rules, especially combat rules. OD&D, BareBones Fantasy, something like that.

9. What is a good RPG to play for about 10 sessions? This is more about the adventures than the game itself, so any will do, although again simpler is better – ten sessions may not be enough to learn the rules otherwise. Picaresque one-off adventures will work with most games, if you’re going for a longer story you need to be sure you can finish it in time.

10. Where do you go for RPG reviews? Google. That usually refers me to a variety of blogs and ENWorld.

11. Which dead game would you like to see reborn? SpaceQuest by Tyr Wargames. Maybe I’ll Savage it someday, if I can find another copy.

12. Which RPG has the most inspiring interior art? AD&D 2nd edition. There are some lovely pieces in there, some of which directly inspired adventures for our group.

13. Describe a game experience that changed how you play. There was one Traveller session in the ’70s when the group forgot to refuel their ship before leaving port; that stranded them in deep space and led to a lot of finger pointing between players. I realised that character knowledge and player knowledge are different things, and it’s not appropriate to penalise players for things their characters would know. (The characters can still make use of player knowledge; in my campaigns, metagaming is not a sin, but a demonstration of player skill.)

14. Which RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play? Something skill-based rather than class-and-level based, as above a certain point it becomes difficult to challenge high-level characters. That doesn’t seem to happen so much with skill-based systems. So let’s say Savage Worlds for this one, although I’ve also played open-ended campaigns with Traveller and 2300AD.

15. Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most? Savage Worlds – I “Savage” settings on a regular basis.

16. What RPG do you enjoy using as is? Again, Savage Worlds. I very rarely change the actual rules, usually not even adding any setting-specific edges. That may seem to contradict the previous answer, but which answer is correct depends on the campaign.

17. What RPG have you owned the longest but not played? Probably Dark Heresy; I ran a short campaign in the W40K setting, but that was using Savage Worlds.

18. What RPG have you played the most in your life? In terms of sheer number of hours played, probably still OD&D; I estimate over 3,000 hours on that. Don’t let anyone tell you I’ve wasted my life.

19. What RPG features the best writing? The Dying Earth RPG, because it uses the writing style of the setting’s creator to convey the rules and setting.

20. What is the best source for out of print RPGs? For the ones I’m interested in, RPGNow.

21. What RPG does the most with the least words? Of the ones I know, BareBones Fantasy.

22. Which RPGs are the easiest for you to run? Classic Traveller and Savage Worlds, because I have the most experience as a GM in those; any RPG becomes easy to run if you stick with it long enough.

23. Which RPG has the most jaw-dropping layout? Layout isn’t something I pay much conscious attention to, but I’d say Hellas: Worlds of Sun and Stone. Totally impractical in actual play, mind you, which is often the case with fancy layouts. Usually there isn’t enough contrast for my aging eyes.

24. Share a PWYW publisher who should be charging more. Umm, it’s pay what you want, right? So how would they charge more? Also, I’m not aware of any publishers who are totally PWYW, the ones I know only sell part of their catalogue that way.

25. What is the best way to thank your GM? Say “Thank you, that was a great session, when is the next one?”

26. Which RPG provides the most useful resources? Anything by Sine Nomine Publishing – depending on your preferred genre, something from Stars Without Number, Red Tide, or whatever.

27. What are your essential tools for good gaming? Friends, character sheets, dice, rules, in that order. Anything else, you can improvise. I normally work from the quickstart rules for whatever game we’re playing and some rough notes for the adventure, by the way, not the full rulebooks.

28. What film/series is the biggest source of quotes in your group? Aliens, I think. There’s also a lot of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

29. What has been the best-run RPG Kickstarter you have backed? Spears of the Dawn.

30. What is an RPG/genre-mashup you would most like to see? I’ve seen so many of these now that I’m turning back to the old classics, probably all the way back to fantasy dungeon crawling this year.

31. What do you anticipate most for gaming in 2018? The annual OD&D session with my old university group, or what’s left of it. It’s all about who you play with.

RPGaDay 2016

Posted: 23 August 2017 in Reflections

I was filling in RPGaDay for 2017 when I noticed I had somehow missed this one out completely, so here it is…

1. Real dice, dice app, diceless, how do you prefer to roll? Real dice; they just feel better to me. I use dice apps when playing solo or by VTT, though, and will probably switch to dice apps for Fantasy Flight Games products with all their irritating fiddly weird dice (WFRP, I’m lookin’ at you).

2. Best gaming session since August 2015? Kiss of the Serpent Priestess.

3. Character moment you are proudest of? Solving a puzzle no-one else could, and thereby enlisting the help of a vital NPC.

4. Most impressive thing another’s character did? Alihulk Jr. finally defeating his lifelong enemy with heroic fisticuffs.

5. What story does your group tell about your character? “He’s a dwarven weightlifter who hates undead, and spends most of his time drinking or criticising shoddy human workmanship.”

6. Most amazing thing a game group did for their community? Not something I pay attention to, sorry.

7. What aspect of RPGs has had the biggest effect on you? The realisation that skills and companions matter, but possessions really don’t.

8. Hardcover, softcover, digital? What is your preference? Digital. Takes up less room, easier to search, easier to update (often by free download), easier to carry around. That said, in actual play I always have some kind of hardcopy quick reference sheet to hand. If I can’t have digital, I will go for hardcover if available, softcover if not.

9. Beyond the game, what’s involved in the ideal session? Drinks suitable for the attendees, nibbles (optional), enough table space to lay everything out, low noise level apart from the players.

10. Largest in-game surprise you have experienced? When the peace treaty we had been sent to broker between feuding dwarf clans allowed them to complete a small atomic bomb, killing my character. Others ran earlier and were saved.

11. Which gamer most affected the way you play? It’s a tie between two of my friends; one who is still playing OD&D and one who seeks out the most complex games and plotlines available. Both of them make their chosen games sing at the table. The former teaches memorable plots and NPCs, the latter deeply immersive settings and long story arcs.

12. What game is your group most likely to play next? Why? For the Hearts of Stone and Collateral Damage groups, D&D 5th edition, because they want to try it. For the Pawns of Destiny, the group’s primary GM always has 2-3 campaigns ready and lets us pick one; next up is a 1920s homebrew using the Edge of the Empire rules. That’s in about two years’ time at the current rate of progress, mind; he aims for campaigns 100 sessions long, and playing every few weeks, that takes about five years.

13. What makes a successful campaign? The same as for any other project; shared and agreed expectations.

14. Your dream team of people you used to game with? Luckily for me, I still play with them.

15. Your best source of inspiration for RPGs? Real world history. Our ancestors did some crazy things, and there are points in time where a handful of people really made a difference.

16. Historical person you’d like in your group? What game? Gary Gygax, and thus obviously D&D. I would love to see his take on one of our games.

17. What fictional character would best fit in your group? Flashman from the George Macdonald Fraser novels.

18. What innovation could RPG groups most benefit from? I got nuthin’, sorry.

19. Best way to learn a new game? Play it, simple as that.

20. Most challenging but rewarding system you have learned? OD&D. Let’s just say that rules writing and layout have moved on quite a way since 1974.

21. Funniest misinterpretation of a rule in your group? The hobbit sword from OD&D – “sword +1, detect meals and what kind”. We all knew it was a typo, but it was much more fun played as written.

22. Supposedly random game events that keep recurring? The 2 AM wyvern, which attacked our party’s camp in RuneQuest so often that the GM eventually stopped rolling for it and just had it attack us every night. Of course we were ready for it by then.

23. Share one of your best ‘worst luck’ stories? While looking to rent a tracker dog to hunt down a goblin, the tracker’s wife (Charisma 3) tried to seduce my character. The tracker returned at a awkward moment with his dog. It was at this point I remembered another party member had recently been polymorphed into a goblin, and thus my character had the scent of goblin about him. Exit stage left, pursued by a snarling dog, an axe-waving tracker, and the tracker’s wife with a frying pan. Like most of these stories, you had to be there to understand how funny that was in context.

24. What is the game you are most likely to give to others? Savage Worlds, because that is the one they are most likely to play with me, and that way we don’t have to share a rulebook, which speeds things up.

25. What makes for a good character? The way you play it. The attributes, skills and whatnot are less important.

26. What hobbies go well with RPGs? Wargaming, videogaming, and reading/watching history, fantasy and SF.

27. Most unusual circumstance or location in which you’ve gamed? In a disused wine cellar with bad lighting, because the organiser felt it would give the right ambience.

28. Thing you’d be most surprised a friend hadn’t seen or read? Star Wars episodes IV – VI.

29. You can game anywhere on Earth, where would you choose? Somewhere meeting the specifications in (30) and in a suitable location for the group to meet.

30. Describe the ideal game room if budget were unlimited. It doesn’t need much; the fancier it gets, the more it distracts you from the game you’re playing. A table big enough for the group, with enough chairs; storage for game rules, dungeon tiles or battle maps, and miniatures; dice. Good lighting. Quiet, and far enough away or soundproof enough that the raucous shouting doesn’t disturb others. Bonus points if you don’t have to clear the table for dinner because there is another table somewhere else in the house.

31. Best advice you were ever given for your game of choice? Best advice ever? From THW games, “Just play the game.” Best for my current favourite (Savage Worlds)? It’s a tie between “Number of wounds cannot exceed nmber of raises” and “Trim the fat”.

Review: Barebones Fantasy, etc

Posted: 12 August 2017 in Reviews
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“We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”
– Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

There are times when I think even Savage Worlds is too complex, usually when explaining to someone when they can use a Wild Die or when running it over VTT. I have been eyeing up BareBones Fantasy as a potential alternative for a while now, so snagged it and the setting, Keranak Kingdoms, during the RPGNow ‘Christmas in July’ sale. I notice I’ve developed a habit of not taking the savings from sales, but spending them on supplemental materials instead. But I digress.

In a Nutshell: A complete old-school fantasy RPG in 84 pages, and the setting sourcebook to go with it. Both written by Larry Moore and Bill Logan, published by DwD Studios. $10 and $5 respectively when not on sale; prices seem to have been stable since 2012, as best I can tell.

Core mechanic: Roll less than or equal to relevant score on percentile dice to succeed. Doubles are critical success if you succeed, critical failure if you don’t. (The rules are a lot like Star Frontiers overall, not surprising as DwD supports that game extensively.)

BAREBONES FANTASY

This is a lot of game for ten bucks and 84 pages. You get character creation, game rules, GM advice including magic items, NPCs, monsters, adventure generator, dungeon generator, and a capsule setting. Just this book, pencil, paper and a few d10 and you’re good to go.

The book assumes you know what a fantasy RPG is and the basic idea of how to play, which is one reason it’s relatively short.

Characters have four abilities (Strength, Dexterity, Logic, Willpower) which can either be randomly generated (5d10+30) or allocated (one each at 50, 55, 60 and 65). The usual Tolkeinian suspects are in evidence for races; human, dwarf, elf, halfling.

There are a handful of skills – actually, skill packages, or maybe character classes, really; Cleric, Enchanter, Leader, Scholar, Scout, Spellcaster, Thief and Warrior. You pick one of those as primary, one as secondary, and one which starts at level 1. If your character is trying to do something a Thief would know how to do, that’s the relevant skill for the task; your percentage change of success is half the relevant ability, plus 10 per level, plus 20 if it’s your primary skill or 10 if it’s your secondary skill. Only Scout, Thief or Warrior can be used untrained, the rest you need at least level 1 to use; skills can’t exceed level 6, but there is no upper limit on how high you can advance abilities with enough experience.

The Warrior skill is your chance of hitting in combat, using Strength for melee weapons and Dexterity for ranged. Each skill has a list of things you can do with it and/or a starting bonus; for example an Enchanter can brew potions and imbue items with powers, can inscribe runes on things which take effect when a specific event triggers them, and has a small animal which acts as a familiar. Spellcasters know one spell per Spellcaster level, twice that if that is their primary skill, while Enchanters know all of them but can’t cast them directly.

So far, so simple. Surprisingly complex for a system so mechanically simple are the personality rules; you pick two descriptors which give a positive and a negative feature of your character, perhaps “always cheerful” and “eats too much”, and a moral code comprised of five traits, each of which is selected from a pair of opposites (e.g. selfish/selfless) and whether it is somewhat, very, or totally characteristic of the PC. To act against your code may require a successful Willpower check (GM’s option).

Then we’re back to simple again for equipment – take any six things from the equipment list and 2d10 gold pieces. While I’m thinking about equipment, weapons usually do 1d10 plus a modifier in damage, and you have hit points equal to half your Strength – you heal 2 points per day, and as I’m drifting into the combat mechanics I’ll note that depending on characteristics you get 1-3 d10 for initiative; you roll all of them and use the highest score, then act in descending order of initiative.

There are 17 spells in all, and the magic system deserves some more detail. As in original EPT or D&D 4E, each has a specific casting frequency; once per turn, once per day, once per level per day and so on. What’s interesting is that as in Savage Worlds, they have many different possible trappings; for example Offensive Strike – the only directly damaging spell in the game – has unlimited casting frequency, but you can cast it as lighting, fire, ice, a swarm of malignant fairies, tendrils of black smoke, or whatever you feel like. And you can change the trapping each time you cast. However, the GM is at liberty to say things like “that critical failure on your ice blast? All the fingers on your right hand have frostbite now” or “yeah, about that fireball in the storeroom full of expensive, wonderfully scented cedarwood… that was going to be the treasure, you know…” Casting a spell is an action, and characters can take as many actions as they want in a turn, but each one after the first suffers a cumulative -20 penalty to your skill check – you can cast a dozen Offensive Strikes in a turn if you like, but the second will be at -20, the third at -40… the final one would be at -220 and you’d have to be pretty good for it to work.

(I have been running Savage Worlds powers like this for some years now, allowing players to pick their trappings at the point of casting and using GM fiat for specific trapping effects rather than the Rules As Written; it works like a charm, no pun intended, and players very quickly home in on one signature trapping for each spell without any of us having to learn the detailed trapping rules.)

At the end of each session the GM consults a checklist; each item you ticked off gets you one Development Point, which you can use to buy increases in skills or attributes. You can only get one DP per session for combat, however much of it you did, and you get that for still being alive afterwards. The checklist is focused more on what D&D calls ‘story awards’ – did you find out something useful, did you succeed in your quest, that kind of thing.

There are four sample characters, an example of play, assorted other rules for things like making and buying magic items, dehydration and whatnot, a couple of dozen magic items, some very simple and elegant guidelines on NPC creation, about 50 monster statblocks and instructions on how to build your own monsters, random dungeon and adventure generators, a table of non-monetary rewards, a setting map and gazetteer, and a character sheet.

But wait, there’s more. In the downloaded zip file you get another character sheet, a very well thought out player and GM cheat sheet, colour maps of the setting with and without hexes, an introductory adventure (‘Maidens of Moordoth’, involving a village with a dark secret and a small dungeon), a development journal (sort of a session log for your character), and print friendly versions of all the PDFs.

KERANAK KINGDOMS

The setting sourcebook, Keranak Kingdoms, includes the same setting maps and an expanded gazetteer of the setting, plus another adventure (a romp through an abandoned dwarven mine now occupied by villainous non-human squatters). Neither book has much background information; this is a deliberate choice, so that the GM has a free hand to develop the world to his own taste – by and large the maps show the name of each kingdom and the location of forests and mountain ranges, and that’s about it. The sourcebook does unbend far enough to include a more detailed map of one kingdom showing cities and large towns, but no more. You do get more details on things like the pantheon of gods, though.

The premise of the setting is that the Keranak Kingdoms are the successor states of a recently-fallen empire; the knightly Order of the Rose has hidden a magical artefact used by the former emperor to help him rule, and is rumoured to be looking for his illegitimate son to place him on the throne. The gods were banished by the enigmatic dragon highlords some time ago, except for one goddess who was overlooked and one who is so strongly tied to the land that she sneaks back in anyway.

Oh, and you also have giants, previously exiled to the northern wastes, but beginning to encroach on the Kingdoms now there isn’t anyone to shoo them away.

FORMAT

Colour covers wrapped around single-column black text on grey. As usual I got the PDFs, but the properties tell me hard copies would be 6″ x 9″, what Savage Worlds would call Explorers’ Edition size, a bit bigger than European A5.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Just one: It seems counter-intuitive to me that a roll of 0 counts as 10, but a roll of 00 counts as zero. I would have expected 00 to be 100, but that would shift the relative frequency of outcomes slightly, giving fewer critical successes and more critical failures.

CONCLUSIONS

As I said earlier, you get an awful lot of game for your money with BareBones Fantasy, and it’s very simple and elegant (in the mathematical sense). I could see myself using this as a travel game, a VTT game, an introductory set of rules for my grandchildren in a few years’ time, a solitaire game (with a bit of help from something like Mythic), and an adventure or dungeon generator for another campaign. I have games ten times this size and cost that don’t give me as much usable content. Highly recommended.

The Keranak Kingdoms sourcebook and the adventures get the job done, and have some intriguing ideas, but to be honest they don’t really stand out as something special, unlike their parent game. One might expect that as they are a springboard intended as a stimulant for the GM’s imagination, not a replacement for it.

Overall Rating: BBF itself, 5 out of 5 – I’m not quite ready to dump Savage Worlds and run off with BareBones Fantasy, but it was a close-run thing. Keranak Kingdoms gets 3 out of 5. Let’s call that 4 out of 5 for the set.

Review: Seven Worlds Campaign

Posted: 5 August 2017 in Reviews
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“The Seven Worlds. This is the story of how we lost them, and of the heroes who tried to avert their fall.” – Seven Worlds.

My concern as I closed the setting book last week was whether the default campaign would be a bit of a railroad; let’s see, shall we?

In a Nutshell: The default campaign for the Seven Worlds setting for Savage Worlds, in seven modules, each roughly 40 pages long, published by Intellistories, written by Luis Enrique Torres. Price not known at time of writing (disclosure, I have review copies – thanks again Luis!).

Here I have to dance the usual dance when reviewing an adventure; I need to avoid spoilers, but still give you enough information to decide whether or not this is for you.

From one perspective, the campaign is a travelogue for the Seven Worlds, so some capsule descriptions may help:

  • Earth (Sol): Smacked around a bit by an asteroid impact a few generations ago, but still good. Home of the Psion Brotherhood.
  • Apollo (Epsilon Indi): Corrupt, plutocratic iceworld.
  • Bay Jing (Omicron 2 Eridani): Garden world, agriculture and mining, authoritarian government.
  • Concordia (Epsilon Eridani): Rich, garden world, pseudo-nobility. Main Circle base.
  • Logan’s End (Eta Cassiopeiae): High-gravity, jungle world, hellishly hot. The new frontier.
  • Nouvelle Vie (Gamma Leporis): Earthlike, too bright, jointly settled by Concordia and Bay Jing, ongoing cold war. Lots of asteroid mining and storms.
  • Zarmina (Gliese 581): Heavy gravity, extreme temperatures, barely-breathable air, run by big pharma.


CONTENT

Each module, including the first, begins with a ‘story so far’ section summarising the reveals to date, so you do not want your players anywhere near these modules. On the plus side, the GM knows exactly what the backstory is from the beginning, meaning he or she can align any off-piste activity or side quests to the main storyline on the fly.

Module 1 – Rumours of War (44 pages): This takes the heroes from Nouvelle Vie, site of the Mysterious Encounter introductory scenario in the setting book, to Concordia, then to Earth, via intrigue, disappearance and assassination, not necessarily in that order. In this adventure the PCs will meet senior figures in several governments, the Circle, and the Psion Brotherhood, as well as the N’ahili Ambassador. They also find themselves in a virtual world MMORPG at one point. These are like Chekhov’s Gun, they’re not just there to introduce you to the setting, they all turn up again later in the story at key points.

Module 2 – Divided We Fall (37 pages): Arriving back at Concordia, the heroes learn that Concordia and Bay Jing are now at war, and that they have been selected for a covert mission. ‘Nuff said. This scenario features spy stuff and combat, both ground and space. By the end of it, the heroes should have a good idea of what’s going on; to avoid spoilers, the module writeups are going to be really vague from now on.

Module 3 – Into the Fire (38 pages): The story arc is now starting to make serious changes to the setting and the maps. This is one reason why the campaign has the setting designed around it, not vice versa, and why I think you will most likely discard the setting at the end of the story. The heroes’ patron now sends them to Apollo to follow up leads, leading to a mixture of investigation, infiltration and combat. Player handouts start to include news stories from other worlds, showing them they are not the only ones with problems.

Module 4 – Broken Circle (43 pages): While adventures so far have focussed on habitable worlds, this one takes the PCs to several of the smaller waystations and refuelling depots between them, then to Logan’s End. Again, it involves investigation and combat, as well as a rescue mission; if all are successfully completed the heroes will solve two important mysteries from earlier in the campaign.

Module 5 – Chrysalis (46 pages): Conspiracies, chases, secret bases, a mass battle, and a very unusual setting for them all, at least in astronomical terms.

Module 6 – Exodus (46 pages): If they’re doing things right, by now the heroes have a veritable army helping them, but can they keep it focussed on the mission despite boredom, internal politics, and the perceived risks of failure? There’s a ‘Managing the Fleet’ side quest for playing this out in abstracted detail. Expect Shadowrun-style hacking as well.

Module 7 – Endgame (53 pages): More infiltration, sabotage, a massive space battle, enemies both foreign and domestic, and a dungeon crawl in space, not necessarily in that order. The campaign ends, most likely in bittersweet triumph. There are things to do in the aftermath, but for me the story would be dramatically complete with the final showdown. There are loose ends which might work as the lead-in to another big campaign, though, and I hope Mr Torres will expand one of them into another story arc someday.

Each module also includes maps, stats for the opposition, and a handful of side quests to weave into the campaign. Even without these, you should get a couple of sessions out of each of the main adventures; I’d say 30-60 sessions overall, so 1-2 years for a group playing every couple of weeks.

Now, as for the storyline as a whole: The heroes are going to be captured at least once, maybe twice; I don’t know about your players, but mine would rather die, so that would take careful preparation and perhaps an honest discussion. The story makes more use of the social conflict rules than I remember seeing anywhere else; there are several points where crowds or influential NPCs need to be brought around to the PCs’ viewpoint. At times, the story turns on the technology and new psi powers in the corebook, showing how tightly integrated the story and the setting are. The PCs should work out the motivation and nature of the domestic enemy, but unless they are especially insightful, I don’t think they will figure out the foreign one; that’s credible and appropriate in terms of the story, but might frustrate some groups.

There’s quite a bit of duplication between modules, and between the modules and the corebook; statblocks for the opposition, mostly. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad – I guess that depends on whether you prefer only buying stuff once, or convenience at the table.

FORMAT

Each module has colour covers and illustrations (one every few pages), two column black text on pale blue background (which can be suppressed for a print-friendly version). The core setting book says there will be an option to get all seven modules in one large book. The page size means I can read these files on a tablet without squinting. I’m a happy camper.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

There are more epic stories to tell in this setting, and I’d like to see them. The heroes aren’t going to work out what’s really going on with the N’ahili, although the GM knows, and there’s a story there. There are at least two things that key historical NPCs should not have known, but did; there’s a story there, too.

Also, I think it would make a pretty good TV series.

CONCLUSIONS

The setting is sufficiently flexible to allow for most types of SF campaign, so long as you only need half-a-dozen habitable worlds; but it was built around this campaign, and explaining by way of analogy to avoid spoilers, once you’ve thrown the One Ring into Mount Doom, killing the odd couple of orcs and stealing their purses isn’t satisfying. So I’d recommend doing any sandbox play before you start the main story arc; that would also familiarise players with the milieu.

The campaign is more linear than I normally go with, and the story piles time pressure on the PCs as it develops. For it to work as intended, I think you’d need a small group of players willing to follow the trail, and I’m not sure any of my groups tick both of those boxes; but if you can find 4-5 hard SF fans who love The Expanse and Babylon 5, and are OK with a linear main storyline, they will love Seven Worlds.

How well does Seven Worlds do what it sets out to do?

  • Space Opera with a Hard-SF flavour: Definitely. It’s got the Atomic Rockets Seal of Approval. That’s as good as it gets.
  • Paper-and-pencil-and-technology: Ye-e-es. It achieves this goal through the VRML starmap and the Google Earth world maps. That’s not likely to change the way I play, ‘cos I’m a dinosaur.
  • Not a setting with a story, but a story with a setting: Yes, it succeeds at this; the setting is built to support one specific story.


Overall Rating
: 4 out of 5. I was again tempted to go with a 5, but the ratings are about how well things work for me personally; and I think I’d struggle to keep my players on piste.