Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Review: High-Space 2nd Edition

Posted: 13 December 2017 in Reviews

In a Nutshell: Transhuman SF setting for Savage Worlds by StoryWeaver, $20 at time of writing, 246 page PDF.


I’ll consider this not only on its own, but by comparison to the first edition, which I reviewed here.

PanDominion (80 pages): Almost immediately we see changes between the first and second editions. The first edition was set in The Lantern, a frontier island nebula dominated by the search for technological treasures left behind by long-vanished alien races. Here, we see the PanDominion proper, getting 80 pages instead of two. This is a post-scarcity society on a galactic scale, and the PCs are the throwbacks, bored with the easy lives led by the masses. The PanDo can’t allow these misfits to disrupt the peaceful harmony of their society, but on its edges, there are enemies to fight, dangerous new worlds to explore – and the misfits are the ones mentally suited to deal with the dirty work. Picture the Special Circumstances agents in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels and you won’t go far wrong. As a concept for the setting, this has a lot of promise.

This chapter begins with a section called Know Your PanDo, several pages of short paragraphs, each on a specific topic, with a page reference for a fuller treatment. That is a nice touch. It’s followed by some news bulletins written from an in-game viewpoint, summary data on the common species of the PanDo, the external threats that hold it together, timelines, means of interstellar travel (like Mass Effect – FTL drives on ships, with wormgates for long-distance travel and colonised star systems huddling around the wormgates), important sectors of space and capsule summaries of what’s in them, key planets, the PanDo government and how it works, the local version of the internet (called ‘the Sphere’), the Culture-style AIs known as ‘Minds’, with discussions both of the general situation and individual Minds the PCs are likely to encounter, the United Resources Corporation and other megacorps, law enforcement, the Contracts Guild, the Merc List, and the Council of Churches.

How a post-scarcity economy works in the game deserves a few notes. Basically, as your character advances in Rank, he or she is perceived as more valuable by the AIs that run the PanDo, and is therefore trusted with more complex and expensive gear. However, second edition High-Space moves away from the full-on post-scarcity trope and adds CBTs, a pseudo-currency used by the AIs to allocate resources. I think this was explained better in the first edition, but I admit I haven’t reread it to confirm that.

This section is also sprinkled with the obligatory short pieces of fiction.

Agencies (8 pages): These are civilian PanDo organisations PCs might find themselves working for – Insight, which assesses new species as potential PanDo members; the Integration Agency, which brings such species aboard; and Intervention, which does whatever is necessary to protect the PanDominion. The PCs are most likely to work for Intervention, which is pretty much the game version of Special Circumstances.

Militant Arms (12 pages): These are PanDo’s military ‘agencies’ – Armada, the navy, which explores, deters enemies,provides humanitarian aid, and enforces internal security; Field, the ground forces, which do what they have always done; PsiOps, psionic spies and ninjas. Armada is very close to Star Fleet in most of the Star Trek series.

This chapter also includes PanDo’s guiding principle for interspecies contact, the Doctrine of Least Resistance. This is useful to the GM by defining what PanDo will do – or order the PCs to do – in various circumstances.

Xenofile (42 pages): Unlike the first edition, which gave you five basic templates and left you to get on with it, second edition High-Space gives you details on eight PanDo member races (including humans), overviews of six more member species and eight allied ones, and three non-playable races; the enigmatic starfish, the hostile strozi, and the equally hostile nuclarine.

Character Creation (14 pages): This begins by listing all the standard skills and how they are modified for use in the setting, and some new ones; Psychiatry (the mental equivalent of physical Healing), Security (Smarts-based and replaces Lockpicking), Spacewise (a space-based version of Survival). I’m not sure of the value of listing all the existing skills, so maybe I should read that bit again.

There are seven new Hindrances, including Synthetic (you’re actually an android); Doubting Thomas and Poverty are not allowed. Sidelined is interesting; you count as one Rank lower than you actually are for purposes of acquiring and keeping gear.

New Edges relate to using technology. My favourites are the Glanding Edges, representing implants which allow the user to trigger hormones and pheromones at will, but there are also Hacking Edges for dealing with computers, Edges for Synthetics which make them stronger, more flexible and so on, and general Edges which usually involve an implant of some kind. A simple system, yet flexible.

The backgrounds and their mandated skills have vanished, making character design much closer to standard Savage Worlds.

Gear and Gadgets (20 pages): As this is a post-scarcity society, access to equipment is limited by weight (you still have to carry it) and Rank (the AIs running the place have to think you’re worthy to carry it). Regular readers will know I am not enamoured of Gear chapters, so I’ll mention the drones, the Positronic Warbeast and the armour-penetrating motorised teeth for the Shako species, and move on. The range of gear is much expanded from the first edition, especially in regard to devices from non-human species, and helps convey the feel of the setting.

Fleet Manual (32 pages): By this stage of the book, the reader has seen a number of tantalising sidebars defining particular classes of ship, and this is where the stats in those start to make sense. It’s also the bit that tempted me to buy the book, as I am intrigued by the idea of PC starships, and this is the only official product I know of that includes them.

Ships in High-Space are designed much like characters. Each has a free Design Edge, denoting its original purpose and affecting its other stats. It then has five attributes – Manoeuvre (how agile the ship is), Computer (how good the autopilot and other systems are), Drive (normal-space movement), Displacement (size and payload), and Quality (how well-built it is) – and two derived stats, Pace and Toughness, calculated from their attributes, edges and hindrances. Edges are basically payload items, while hindrances are about the ship’s age and behaviour. I always wanted  more hindrances in High-Space to give a wider variety of individualised ships, and here they are; but my favourite is still Poor Signage, which means it’s hard to find anything you need. Edges are things which would be fittings in most game systems; cryosleep pods, armouries, cargo holds, that kind of thing. Some of them require connections with particular organisations or species to acquire.

The XS+ vehicle rules have been replaced with a more elegant solution: Such vehicles are built like starships, but have the Aero Hindrance, meaning they are atmospheric flyers only, no FTL capability. A definite improvement.

Another change I do approve of is that starships no longer have an FTL die randomising their movement; they all move FTL at the same speed. One change I’m unsure about is that ship attributes and edges are bought and hindrances reduce the ship’s overall cost; in first edition, they worked more like character edges and hindrances (which was more elegant, especially as you could level up your ship as the party advanced), now they work more like gear (you just buy them). I think I prefer the first edition approach for this.

I found the lack of example designs in first edition made it hard to understand the starship construction rules, but now there is one worked example and a number of sample designs.

The Tactical Sphere (17 pages): The thing that stopped me using High-Space first edition was the space combat, with its (admittedly optional) tabletop maps and randomised movement; that’s unfortunate as High-Space is supposed to be all about what it calls “spacefighting”. Second edition ranges are still huge even by SF RPG standards; sensor range is far bigger than a star system, weapons range is about the same size as one, and adjacent is what it says on the tin. FTL movement allows you to change zone, while normal-space movement is for docking. There are still tabletop maps, though they are now abstract and based on zones like the ones in FATE rather than being actual battlemats. Abstract movement is reserved for encounters in deep space, although I couldn’t quite see how that worked. Several things about this chapter jar for me, such as the idea of lasers moving faster than light, fixed sublight speeds for ships, and so on. I see the point of them, in that they allow more tactical complexity by bringing various manoeuvres and ship edges into play. But I’m not going to play this version of space combat either, and since that is one of the key features of the game, this is where I checked out.

Into the Void (11 pages): The deep space between star systems, why you shouldn’t go there (it’s boring), and why you might have to anyway (there might not be a nearby wormgate); notes on astronomical features found in deep space; solar systems and what you can find in them (which seem to refer to a different set of cinematic ranges than the Tactical Sphere, but maybe I missed something); supplies you need; zero-g personal combat.

Keep It Wild (2 pages): A mixture of designers’ notes, adverts for the next release, and further explanation of what PCs do and who hires them. I like the idea NPCs insult the PCs by calling them ‘pandas’.


One book rather than the previous three; still has nice artwork; black text on white, usually two column but sometimes one; unusually, body text is sans serif.


It would be nice to have the ability to suppress colour page backgrounds. I can’t believe I still have to point that out in 2017.

As a science fiction game, it should either be scientifically plausible or explain why science doesn’t apply in this setting. As things stand, I am jarred out of my willing suspension of disbelief every time a ship moves.

Savage Worlds has perfectly viable dogfighting rules; personally I would have used those and adjusted the shipbuilding rules to suit them.


Picture the Lantern, the setting for the first edition, as a mining town in Alaska; the second edition takes you to the PanDominion equivalent of L.A. In fact, this is a completely new setting; character creation, starship creation and combat, aliens, background – all different.

This is a more polished product than the first edition in many ways, but it appeals to me less. Oh, and leave any scientific education you have at the door, it will only upset you once you’re inside.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5. It works, it does what it sets out to do, but what it sets out to do isn’t what I want – not really the game’s fault, I suppose, more a case of I bought the wrong thing.

Review: Sector Asgard Kappa

Posted: 8 November 2017 in Reviews

Missed another session last Saturday, but as I was wondering what to regale you with today, what should drop into my inbox but an announcement that this Kickstarter is done and I can download the final product. Woot! Let’s have a look, shall we?

In a Nutshell: SF setting and plot point campaign for Savage Worlds and its Sci Fi Companion. 170 page PDF by Applied Vectors Ltd. About $20 at time of writing, with another $10 getting you a larger plan of the default party ship.


The Introduction, New Edges, New Hindrances, and Native Races (6 pages) aren’t listed as a separate chapter, but it is convenient for me to treat them as such. The premise: This sector of space was cut off from the rest of the galaxy for centuries due to a dark matter storm, developed independently, and is now being reopened for travel and trade as the storm has passed. This section introduces the concept of “Ventures”, small groups of explorers, adventurers, and deniable troubleshooters, originally a rakashan thing but now open to all. We also learn of the Tenarii, a long-vanished alien race which created technological wonders (including the Wormway, a network of jumpgates, and a variety of ringworlds) and then disappeared. There are two new hindrances and two new edges, and a comment that each world has at least one playable native race.

Worlds of Sector Asgard Kappa (105 pages): Here’s the meat of the book; 30-odd star systems, all with at least one inhabited world, some with two or three. Oddly, given the nature of SW hyperdrive (all worlds are one jump away from all other worlds) this section begins with a sector map on an 8 x 10 hexgrid; even more oddly, the names on the sector map are those of the stars rather than the worlds themselves.

Each world has a Sci Fi Companion statblock, a page or so of background info, a few local NPCs, a full-page combined system and world surface map in colour, a playable native race or two (usually variants on one of the races in the SFC, presumably diverging from the main species during the period of isolation), a sidebar detailing some local oddity, and a short adventure, about the size of a SW One Sheet, often with statblocks for new creatures or enemies. Systems with multiple worlds get more pagecount and more maps. The structure of the world descriptions, and the maps, are both good.

Crowfoot’s Venture (10 pages): This section includes full stats and deck plans for the party’s ship, a refurbished warship which is a bit bigger and more heavily armed than the usual group of ne’er-do-wells would be tooling around in; as well as stats and descriptions for the crew of nine, any or all of which could be seasoned player characters. I approve of the authors listing the advances by which each one reached Seasoned.

The deckplans themselves are available for another $10 as 18″ x 12″ sheets, which look like they would still be usable on the tabletop if magnified. They’re the same images, just bigger and higher resolution.

A Million Starflies (28 pages): No spoilers! This is a plot point campaign in 15 episodes, each of which will take 1-2 sessions to play. This pits the PCs against a dastardly foe bent on large-scale domination and his minions – picture a Bond villain and you have the general idea. Given that you have effectively several dozen Savage Tales sprinkled through the book, you have about 50 sessions’ worth of play here, which depending how often your group meets would be a year or more of play.


Judging by the properties in the PDF, this is a 7″ x 10″ book. Two column black text on white, colour border for each page, colour illustrations. Does the job.

Production values don’t seem quite as polished as my usual fare, but I am a content guy more than a format guy, and it’s perfectly usable, so no complaints.


The hexgrid sector map is neither necessary nor useful for SW play if you’re using the standard hyperdrive rules. It could be useful if you want to convert the setting to Traveller or Stars Without Number.

For the same reason, I would have presented the worlds in alphabetical order of name myself, rather than in their sequence on the hexgrid.

The floorplans and deckplans have a square grid, but the grid would be more useful at one square to two yards (one tabletop inch); it appears to at roughly 12 squares to the tabletop inch.


I haven’t really got the hang of the world generator in the SW Scif Fi Companion, and I was hoping that this would be an example of how to use it in anger. However, the more I read this book, the more convinced I am that the authors created a Stars Without Number sector using this tool and converted it to Savage Worlds, sprinkling the result with some Traveller concepts such as the Ancients (Tenarii) and red zones (red trade codes). I do that sort of thing all the time myself so no complaints about that.

However, it does reinforce my opinion that the SW Sci Fi Companion world generator isn’t very useful. and doesn’t show me how to use it to good effect – that’s not the authors’ fault, mind, they wrote what they said they’d write.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5. I don’t regret backing this, and I can surely cannibalise it for parts; but the quest for the definitive SW space opera setting goes on.

Review: Fantastic Frontier Quickstart

Posted: 1 November 2017 in Reviews
Tags: ,

No game last Saturday night, so no writeup today; so instead, I had a quick rummage through the review pile and drew this forth.

In a Nutshell: OSR sandbox. 40 page PDF by Beaten Path Publishing, Pay What You Want on RPGNow.


This is a short product so breaking it into chapters seems inappropriate.

The premise of the game is drawn from the famous West Marches campaign; your PCs live in a town or village on the edge of civilisation; behind them is a peaceful, adventure-free retirement, and before them lies a wilderness studded with dungeons and other places of mystery. It’s assumed that there is a largish group of players, but only a few can play in each session, so the PCs are drawn from a pool. They hexcrawl out of town, stopping if and when they see something to investigate, kill or loot. There is no setting but what the group makes. So far, so West Marches.

The rules of the game are essentially a stripped-down version of D&D; 9 classes, 10 races, 4 attributes, and so on. Your PC also has a Culture (basically a background, what he or she did before adventuring), traits such as Loner or Kind, and a Profession, such as Priest or Farmer. The Class and Profession determine what skills you begin with, the other elements boost your levels in attributes or skills; to succeed at a task, roll 1d20 and add your skill level. You collect experience points from training, exploration or combat, get enough together and go up a level, go up a level and get hit points, go up enough levels and unlock other advances. Equipment items are the usual mediaeval suspects.

Unusually for such a basic game, as well as hit points you have stamina points and stress. The stress mechanic is interesting; you gain stress for – well, stressful things happening to you – and once this reaches a certain level, you can’t do anything else until you have rested. If you let your stress max out like that too often, you stop adventuring and retire.

So far, nothing too unusual. Where this starts to get interesting is in the base town. This begins with three buildings; the tavern, which restores stress; the guildhall, which issues quests; and the butcher, who sells rations and torches. There are another six buildings you can pay to set up, things like a marketplace which sells equipment, a library that tells you where to find stuff, an alchemist who provides potions. But wait, there’s more… you can use your loot to buy upgrades for these features, for example if you upgrade the temple enough it can resurrect dead PCs. The only thing they tie back to is the rules on stress, so if you use the town rules you need to use stress, and vice versa. In effect, this makes the town another character in its own right, which buffs the PCs between raids, and which levels up when they share their loot with it.

The GM section is fairly basic; start by marking the base town on a hexmap, then put something interesting in each hex around it, and build out the frontier a little at a time as the players explore. The players build the wider world for you by how they describe their characters’ backgrounds. You don’t describe anything you don’t have to, which reduces work for the GM and gives the players room to be flexible.

Almost half the book is made up of various forms; a dungeon form, specialised character sheets for each class, a GM party sheet.


Four-column black text on white with black and white art. Four column is a bit unusual, but this file is in landscape rather than portrait, the better to display on a screen I expect.


More buildings for the town please!

A hex mapping sheet along the lines of the dungeon sheet.


So this is an intriguing little melange. It has a D&D base, with influences from The One Ring, the West Marches, MMORPGs, 13th Age, Darkest Dungeon, RTS videogames and probably more I don’t have the background to notice.

I can’t see myself running a D&D campaign any time soon, but I am tempted to break this down for parts. The premise, stress and town-building rules are intriguing, and I’m tempted to wrap them around Gold & Glory. I could do that easily by moving the Hearts of Stone off-map into a new frontier. Maybe have a building for each icon, which ones the players build influences how the icons interact with them. Actually, that’s not a bad idea, deserves more thought.

Overall Rating: This is effectively an open beta, so it doesn’t seem fair to rate it yet. Good effort so far, though.

In a Nutshell: Old School dungeon crawler for Savage Worlds. Written by Giuseppe Rotondo, maps by Dyson Logos, published by GG Studios. 114 page PDF, $9.90 at time of writing.


Introduction (2 pages, one of them a black and white illo): What Gold & Glory is; not a setting, but a really fast Savage Worlds dungeon crawler with random character generation.

Character Creation (14 pages): Savage Worlds doesn’t have a random option for character creation, relying instead on the semi-pregenerated archetypes; this section provides a one (you can still use full fat SW if you want). You draw three cards; suits determine the character’s gender, race, and ‘character class’, while values determine edges and hindrances.

Race determines starting characteristics, and character class is basically a starting skills and equipment package – it has no effect on character development later in the game, but does define what gear you have and what you can do with it. If you have an Arcane Background because of your class, you draw 1-2 more cards to check what powers you have; arcane casters also roll a d6 to select trappings for their powers.

You draw another three cards for extra gear you might have; some of these items give you extra skills.

Optionally, each player draws a card for a connection between his character and that of another player; so in a group, each PC is connected to two others. These have mechanical effects as well as narrative ones – my favourite is Competing Friends: whenever one PC rolls snake eyes, his Competing Friend gets a benny.

Equipment (10 pages): This covers currency, selling loot, buying magic scrolls, and a revised encumbrance system which disposes of pounds weight in favour of abstract units. There are a few new mundane items (shout out for the poison purge, which allows you to reroll the effects of being poisoned). Light sources have an additional attribute: The usage die. When you enter a new room, you roll that die; if you score a 1, the usage die becomes a d4, or if it is already a d4, the light goes out.

Setting Rules (10 pages): These are focused on Arcane Backgrounds, lighting conditions, time and movement during exploration; they serve to make the game more like Original D&D. Wearing armour reduces your casting chances, you can prepare spells ahead of time for mechanical benefits, you only recover power points under certain conditions, experience points are based on loot recovered, that kind of thing. Design notes explain the decisions the author has taken – the objectives are to speed up play and discourage disruptive behaviour at the table.

Experience (6 pages): Your PC is in this game for the loot; you enter dungeons because that is where the loot is, you slay monsters because they are standing between you and the loot. The revised experience system is the key setting rule, and as such gets its own small chapter.

If you spend your loot on carousing, magical research, or offerings to Solis the Sun God, you can convert gold pieces to experience points – spending the money on other things doesn’t help. The xp you need to gain an advance start at 50, and increase at each rank. In effect, then, you buy advances with loot. Once per session, if you have spent gold to buy xp, you also draw a card based on which activity you spent the money on; this gives you a random benefit, which can be temporary or permanent. Anyone can carouse, but research and offerings only really help those with the right Arcane background.

Wild Draw Dungeons (6 pages): This is a random dungeon generator, intended to be used on the fly. If you do this, you’ll need a second card deck with the aces, faces and jokers removed. Draw three cards for each room as you enter it; the values determine the room’s size and number and type of exits, while suits determine what’s in the room. At first, I thought there was no advice on connecting rooms with passages; but after a little thought I realised that a corridor is just a long, narrow room.

Optionally, you can take some black cards out of the deck; this means you get to the interesting rooms more quickly.

There are examples of the dungeon layouts this generates, but specific monsters and treasures vary from dungeon to dungeon, which is where the next chapter comes in.

Dungeon Adventures (61 pages): These are intended to be used with the random generator in the previous section; that creates the map, while the seven dungeons in this chapter each provide an overall theme and tables of loot, special features and monster encounters – these are generally standard SWD monsters with a couple of modifications. Each dungeon has flavour text split into what everyone knows, what information can be found by a Streetwise or Investigation roll, and what it looks like once you’re inside. Sometimes there are special rules which apply to a particular dungeon. Several of them have a distinct fairy-tale feel.


Single-column black text on white, lots of black and white dungeon maps (most chapters have one as the last page), occasional line art or colour images.


There’s no index or table of contents, which doesn’t bother me at all because I use the PDF reader search function. But you should know what you’re getting, and an index or table of contents isn’t it. Update 22 October 2017: The product now has a table of contents.

I find the vertical text centering used in tables harder to read than top-centred text. It’s only really possible for me because of the grey banding on table rows. That could just be my eyes, of course.

At different places in the book, it seems to say random PCs start with 250, 2d6, or no cash. I’ve assumed no cash because the gear is often worth more than any of those amounts. Update 16 October 2017: The author explains it’s 2d6 for randomly created PCs and 250 for ‘standard’ ones. My mistake.

If I draw three cards for gear, then get a joker to draw two more, how many of the four items do I keep? I used two, thinking that the extra choice was enough of a bonus. Update 16 October 2017: The author confirms you keep two.


In about three sessions’ time I’m going to need some fast and easy SW dungeons for the 13th Age game. This may well be how I get them.

The random character generation sequence might be an entertaining way to create NPCs. The setting rules strike me as an especially simple and elegant way of encouraging PCs to behave like D&D PCs without forcing them to do so.

The seven dungeons provided will certainly get you started and keep a group occupied for quite a few sessions, but you will eventually need to prepare more encounter and treasure tables.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. I love this, and it will see use in the next few days. Watch for an ‘after action report’ soon!

Review: WFRP2

Posted: 7 October 2017 in Reviews

“Er… Gitter, Boss. One of Maggot’s lot. But ’e was dead when we found ’im.” The Goblin paused a moment. “Corse ’e claimed ’e was just sleepin’… but that lot is all liars ain’t they?” – WFRP2 Core Rulebook.

It occurred to me that I’ve never reviewed Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying second edition, henceforth WFRP2, despite having played it for several years a while ago. So…

In a Nutshell: Grimdark clockpunk RPG set in the world of Warhammer Fantasy Battles; imagine The Lord of the Rings, but set in 16th century Germany, and directed by Sergio Leone.

If you’ve never played WFRP2 before: It’s set in the Warhammer World, and specifically in the Empire, the in-game version of Renaissance Germany. It has a (mostly) random character generation sequence and a percentile task system – roll 1d100 and get less than or equal to your characteristic to succeed. Two things make it stand out: The career system, which makes advancing your character an intriguing offline mini-game to play between sessions, and the way wizards eventually try to cast a spell they can’t handle, and blow themselves up.


Introduction (11 pages): Introductory fiction, overview of what roleplaying is and the Warhammer world (AKA the Old World), one-page overview of the Empire (the default setting) suitable for use as a play handout (in the form of a sermon by an Imperial cleric – nice touch that), example of play.

Character Creation (12 pages): This is largely random; each PC has a main profile of eight randomly-generated stats – unusually, these include melee and ranged weapon skills as well as the more usual Strength, Intelligence and so forth – and a secondary profile of calculated stats, such as Wounds (i.e. hit points). Typically main profile stats are rated as percentages, beginning somewhere between 12% and 50%, and rising with experience. Secondary profile stats range from 0 to 14 initially and can also rise in play – but you might not want Insanity to rise above 0.

The main profile is easily convertible to and from the Warhammer Fantasy Battles statlines, meaning that the WHFB army books and free-to-download quick reference sheets give you a ready source of more NPC and monster stats.

You also choose a race; dwarf, elf, halfling or human. These playable races are the ones who work readily together; although nobody really trusts elves, the other three races have a long history of co-operation. Each race gives you certain benefits, in the form of skills and talents known at the beginning of play.

Finally, your starting career is generated randomly out of a list of 60 or so, and you get one free advance, which allows you to boost one of the characteristics on your profiles. This random selection is part of the challenge of the game, but more importantly reduces the time taken to create a character, as you don’t need to understand all the careers and pick the best one.

There is a set of tables for random generation of height, weight, hair colour, name and so on, but I never knew anyone to use it. Be handy for NPCs I expect.

Careers (61 pages): This is the heart of WFRP, and the reason why I would probably run the Rules As Written rather than Savage it, simple though that would be; from a player’s perspective, half the fun of the game is navigating the maze of careers to advance your Player Character.

Each career allows you to improve particular characteristics by particular amounts, and gives you access to particular skills and talents. Each career also has a list of entries, exits and trappings (particular items of gear associated with the career). Once you have taken all the advances a career can offer, you choose your next career from the available exits, collect all the trappings for it, and pay some experience points to enter it.

(In the party I played in, everyone went through the Witch Hunter career at some point, which requires a crossbow pistol as one of its trappings; nobody ever actually used it, so it was simply handed down to the next candidate when they changed career, mint in the box… but I digress.)

Career entries are the main part of that between sessions mini-game I mentioned earlier; if you have a clear goal for your character in terms of careers, which in my experience most people do, you work backwards through the career entries to plot your course between them.

There are 60 basic careers (ones you can begin play in) and 53 advanced careers (ones you can only reach by completing earlier careers). A couple of typical progressions are:

Trollslayer > Giant Slayer > Daemon Slayer > Glorious Death (I love that one).

Apprentice Wizard > Journeyman Wizard > Master Wizard > Wizard Lord.

Generally, you can expect to earn 200-300 experience points per session, and each character improvement (‘advance’) costs 100 experience.

Skills and Talents (15 pages): Skills, including languages, are each based on a characteristic, and you roll percentile dice against that characteristic to make a skill check – circumstances apply modifiers to the roll, and you can buy skills multiple times, gaining +10% to your roll each time after the first, to a maximum of +20%. Talents are more like D&D Feats or Savage Worlds Edges, in that they either give a bonus to one of your skills, or allow you to do something that other characters can’t do, such as cast spells.

There are 20 basic skills, which you can use even if not trained in them, and about 20 advanced skills, which can’t be used untrained. As well as the usual suspects, there’s stuff like Consume Alcohol, which allows you to resist the effects of getting drunk, and Channelling (of which more anon). Some skills (like Performer) are groups of related skills which have to be bought separately. There are also about 80 talents to choose from, some only available to particular races.

Equipment (21 pages): This chapter not only lists gear, but also has notes on encumbrance (an optional rule in this game), currency, availability, craftsmanship and slang. Weapons can have various qualities, such as Fast or Unreliable, which have effects in combat. The goods and services themselves are typical for a fantasy game, with the addition of black powder firearms and replacements for appendages you might have carelessly had bitten off by the monsters.

Combat, Damage and Movement (16 pages): A combat turn is 10 seconds, and works in the usual way; roll for initiative, then act in descending order of initiative. There are full actions, such as Charge Attack; half actions, such as Aim, Move or Standard Attack; and free actions, such as battle cries, witty quips, and swearing when you get skewered. One thing I like here is that the actions are split into basic ones (the minimum you need to play the game) and advanced ones (fancy ones like Feint, for tacticians).

Attacks involve rolling to hit, determining hit location, rolling damage (1d10 plus your weapon’s bonus), and then reducing the incoming damage by your target’s Toughness and armour value. Note that the damage die can explode; on a natural 10, you keep the 10, roll again and add the new amount. I don’t approve of hit location as a rule, but if you’re going to chop bits off your opponents – which can happen – you do need it. At least there is an optional rule for ignoring it.

There are some welcome combat examples. There are penalties triggered by different levels of damage and other conditions. There are highly entertaining and gruesome critical hits, some of them permanent like losing a hand. There are Fate points, expended permanently to miraculously cheat death, and Fortune points, expended temporarily to reroll a result you’re not happy with. There are diseases such as the Galloping Trots or Neiglish Rot. The Warhammer World is indeed grim and perilous, but also darkly humourous.

Magic (30 pages): Magic divided into the arcane and the divine. Arcane magic is practiced by wizards, who are divided into eight schools, one for each of the Winds of Magic. Mechanically, each spell has a target number, and to cast it, you roll a number of d10 less than or equal to the magic characteristic on your profile; a successful Channelling action gives you a bonus. If you roll doubles, triples etc on your d10s, you get a free Chaos Manifestation, which ranges from the invconvenient (milk curdles within 30 feet of you) to the fatal (sucked into the realm of Chaos and lost forever). So, you want to roll as few d10 on this roll as you can get away with, because quadruples are worse than triples, and triples are worse than doubles; however, if every die comes up a 1, you make a Will Power check to avoid gaining an Insanity Point. Some of the effects are permanent; by the time the campaign I was in closed, our party wizard spooked all nearby animals, had purple eyes, and all nearby smoke gathered around him – and he had got off lightly.

Wizards in this system are therefore restrained not by spell slots or power points, but by fear of what might happen to them if they cast a spell, which I think is fantastic. They can cast spells as often as they like, but sooner or later, they all go mad and/or change in disturbing ways. Such are the dangers of the Chaos that powers their spells.

The spells themselves are divided into Petty Magic, Lesser Magic, and Arcane Lores, each of which requires an appropriate talent to unlock. Petty Magic typically has a target number of 4 or so and does things like keep you dry in the rain; Lesser Magic has target numbers in the range of 4-13 and includes temporary magical armour and weapon enchantments; the good stuff is in the Arcane Lores, which have target numbers up into the 30s.

Divine magic works roughly the same way, except that fluffing the casting roll invokes the attention of a deity rather than a daemon, and is generally more benign in its effects. The spells are also split by cult rather than by magical school.

Then there is ritual magic, which is too time-consuming to cast in combat, and demands expensive ingredients, special circumstances and intensive study to use. Its primary devotees are necromancers, Chaos magicians, and alchemists.

The chapter closes with a couple of example magic items. Such things are very rare in the Warhammer World, and tend to be held by large, powerful organisations such as the Imperial Armoury. They are more plot McGuffins than tools for adventurers.

Religion and Belief (20 pages): Here we find notes on temples and shrines, the ten main gods of the Empire and their favoured sacrifices, the principle rites and festivals (my favourite is the annual halfling festival of Pie Week – this is an actual British thing, mark you, celebrated in the first week of March, and transplanted to the Warhammer World), common everyday sayings, the wrath of the gods and what acts of contrition might deflect it, writeups for each cult, and a final page on the nonhuman gods and the dark forbidden ones. All fluff, this, no actual crunch. But it’s pleasing fluff.

The Game Master (23 pages): This is about how to be a GM, and how the Warhammer World is different from the typical fantasy setting – in a word, it’s grim. There’s advice on how to set up the party so they have reasons to work together in a world where they should really be suspicious of, and treacherous to, each other. There’s advice on which plots are appropriate in this milieu and what adventures and campaigns flow from them. There’s advice on how to work the game mechanics, especially Fate points, experience points, magic and Insanity, which is hilarious if you’re the GM.

The Empire (14 pages): Another chapter which is all fluff, no crunch, this describes the setting the game is intended for (and tightly woven into, to be honest; I can’t imagine running WFRP2 in any other game world). History, politics, a map and descriptions of the provinces, the main threats to the Empire, its neighbours and allies. The game is set just after the Storm of Chaos, which means it occurs a few years after 3rd edition, and about 20 years after 1st edition.

The Bestiary (9 pages): This is a relatively small bestiary, containing common animals like horses and dogs, common NPCs like bandits, and more feisty foes like beastmen, imps, goblins, daemons, orcs, mutants, skeletons and zombies. However, there are more monster types than you might think, because monsters have careers and advances too; your basic goblin or bandit can be upgraded by making him a Brute, Chief or Sneak, and there’s no reason why he might not have taken all three. Bear in mind also that this is a world where PCs often face the enemy within – corrupt noblemen, chaos cultists and whatnot.

Through the Drakwald (11 pages): The obligatory introductory adventure, in which the PCs must guide and protect civilians fleeing from approaching beastmen – but all is not as it seems, as intrigue is also present. This can be used as a prequel to the Paths of the Damned campaign, detailed in three further books in the WFRP2 line, starting with Ashes of Middenheim.

And we close with designer’s notes, index, templates for area effects, and a character sheet.


Full-colour throughout; two column black text on brownish background with colour page borders, full colour artwork every few pages.


An option to suppress the PDF background and page borders when printing please. They’re pretty, but that’s a lot of coloured ink.


The first edition of WFRP was a mixture of good ideas and flawed ones, while the second takes the game engine apart, cleans it up, and puts it back together again, discarding unnecessary rules and improving play balance until it rumbles nicely under the hood. We will not speak of third edition here.

In my opinion, WFRP 2nd edition is superior to both 1st edition (as the industry has learned a lot in the last 30 years) and 3rd edition (which is more an exercise in making something that can’t be pirated than an actual game). It’s leavened with dollops of dark humour, but the levels of horror and vulgarity in the game mean it is not the one to use for introducing your five-year old to roleplaying, at least not without some serious editing.

On rereading this and some of the other items now mine thanks to the recent Humble Bundle, I feel I really should reconsider my irrational distaste for gunpowder weapons in fantasy games. If I’d realised how good WFRP2 was ten years ago, you’d have seen more of it here. It definitely gets added to the Bucket List.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review: Karak Azgal

Posted: 4 October 2017 in Reviews

Yes, alright, I was weak. I bought into the Humble Bundle and now have vast amounts of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 2 material. Some of it I already had, some of it doesn’t look that interesting, but for $20 you don’t have to find much of value before it’s a good deal. WFRP2 joins the elite group of games where I’ve bought the entire product line (actually, just 2300AD and Classic Traveller, although Stars Without Number comes close) – usually I restrict myself to the core rulebook. But look at me, talking when there’s science to do…

In a Nutshell: WFRP2 megadungeon. 99 page PDF, cost less than a dollar as part of a Humble Bundle.


Introduction (3 pages): Karak Azgal is WFRP2’s take on the classic trope of a city built on top of a megadungeon. This section covers the history of the place, and overviews of the various areas for heroes to explore – basically, the abandoned dwarven mine, the dwarf hold built when the dwarves moved back in, and the shantytown on its outskirts. Collectively, these are called Karak Azgal.

The City of Karak Azgal (5 pages): Although the dwarves are back, they haven’t retaken that much of the megadungeon. They allow adventurers to enter and plunder the place for a fee, but confiscate anything they deem a “cultural artefact”, i.e. all the really good stuff. In this way the monsters below are thinned out, and the really shiny items are brought to the dwarves without risk. This chapter covers the local law, religion, trade, currency and taxation, and NPCs, all of which are designed to separate the PCs from their loot in the usual darkly humourous Warhammer fashion.

Skalf’s Hold (11 pages): This describes the walled dwarven city built on the surface over the megadungeon; construction, population, the various city quarters and their notable locations and NPCs, including some with a dark secret for PCs to root out. There’s a half-page map of the city too.

Deadgate (10 pages): The dwarves of Karak Azgal have no opinion at all of the other races, and these undesirable elements have been left to fend for themselves, building a shantytown slum outside the pristine walls of the dwarf city proper. Again, we have notable NPCs and locations, and a small map. I love the NPCs here, especially the bickering Tilean couple who run the supply shop. Deadgate has one legal entrance to the dungeon, which is well-guarded by dwarves.

Ruins of Karak Azgal (16 pages): At roughly 100 pages I was not expecting fully detailed maps of the whole place, but I was expecting some sort of random dungeon generator, and there isn’t one. What you do get are some useful descriptions of the five layers of a dwarven settlement (with notes on what sort of construction is appropriate to each, so you can describe it), a side-on view of the dungeon levels showing roughly where the big set-piece encounters are, a whole four paragraphs on mapping adventure sites, rules for mining if you want to try your luck at that, encounter tables, and a few new monsters, challenges and other encounters unique to the Karak,

So there is a sort of dungeon generator, and it covers pretty much what you would expect, except for generating a map; you have to create that yourself. What you’re supposed to do is generate the occupants and environmental challenges for the area the party will explore in the coming session randomly, and then design a room complex to suit it; quite the reverse of the usual approach. Encounters are rated with the Slaughter Margin I first encountered in the Old World Bestiary, which is basically a yardstick for how tough the monster is; you use this to determine what treasure they have, which is facilitated by a series of random tables.

Rats in the Basement (14 pages), The Walking Dead (15 pages), Greenskins (14 pages), Beast of Chaos (3 pages): As previously alluded to, there are a number of set-piece encounters for you to use, each focussed on a faction within the dungeon with their own Big Bad and base of operations; these chapters respectively cover a pair of skaven clain lairs, two undead-controlled areas (one small, one large), three areas dominated by greenskins – respectively orcs, trolls and goblins – the lair of the dreaded Beast of Chaos, and finally an altar of Slaanesh. The overall map in the Ruins chapter suggests placements for these, but you don’t need to put them there, it’s not like the players are going to see that map.

We close with a single handout – a licence to explore the ruins.


Colour covers, two-column black text on pale grey background with illustrated borders, line and greyscale art. Clean, legible, easy on the eye and the printer, gets the job done.


I wanted to see some sort of random dungeon generator as well; the one from Advanced Heroquest would have fit right in, for example. Still, it’s not like I’m short of those, is it?


One lesson I have learned over the years is to keep an offline copy of all my gaming PDFs, in case a change of edition or licencee wipes out hundreds of pounds worth of, errm, let’s call them “investments”, overnight. So this goes on the external hard drive.

I like the backstory to the dungeon very much. Like many more recent dungeon supplements, this focuses on detailed complexes separated by unspecified areas of empty rooms and silent corridors; those endless empty rooms that one used to encounter in OD&D have been collapsed into a movie montage, with screen time focussed on the interesting scenes of combat, looting and puzzle-solving.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. This is a nice dungeon and I would like to run it right away, but there are two obstacles; first, it’s tightly integrated with the Warhammer World and I’m not 100% sure I want to go there; second, it would need a fair amount of preparation – there are a number of set-piece locations for Big Bad Evil Guys, and a couple of introductory areas pre-mapped, but that’s it.

I still think WFRP2 is vastly superior to WFRP3. And I have tons of it now, so expect odd reviews of proper WFRP to pop up unexpectedly. I’ll be interested to see what happens with WFRP4.

Review: Mongoose Traveller 2nd Edition

Posted: 30 September 2017 in Reviews

“This is my family. I found it all on my own. It’s little, and broken, but still good. Yeah – still good.” – Lilo and Stitch.

In a Nutshell: Second edition of Mongoose Traveller, 240 page hardback. Still channelling Classic Traveller. Some bits you might expect are missing, but it’s still good. £24 on Amazon, RPGNow PDF version a tiny bit cheaper.


Introduction (5 pages): There’s not much about what a roleplaying game is; that section is no longer necessary, because your mom plays RPGs on her tablet now. It does touch on the default setting – the Third Imperium – and campaign types: Free traders, mercs, explorers, travellers (a little bit of all the others). It plugs other books in the line and explains game conventions. It lists tech levels. It expands on the usual Rule Zero (“what the GM says trumps what the rulebook says”) by reminding GMs that they can overrule random results (such as random encounters) if this will improve the story.

Traveller Creation (49 pages): It’s all about the player characters; you’d expect that in a roleplaying game. The basic lifepath sequences will be familiar to anyone who has played Classic Traveller, MegaTraveller or Mongoose Traveller first edition; generate six characteristics, join a career (there are 12, plus the chance to go to jail, and an event that can switch you onto the psionic track), work around a cycle of survival, commission/promotion (sorry, advancement), re-enlistment until you have what you want or get invalided out, roll for benefits and so on. Unlike early versions of the game, you also generate mishaps and events as you go; these may result in acquiring NPC friends or foes, or (if you can link them to other PCs) extra skills; the assumption is that the group generate characters together, allowing for these links and also for skills package selection – the group as a whole selects one skills package suitable for the chosen campaign type, and individual characters select skills from it in turn, ensuring that between them, the PCs have suitable skills for the campaign.

Three playable races are included: Humans (the default), aslan (samurai cat people), and vargr (piratical canines). This chapter also includes the rules for character advancement; study a skill for a set number of weeks, make a characteristic check, increase your skill level if you succeed.

Skills and Tasks (14 pages): Tasks are basically skill checks; roll 2d6, and skill level and characteristice modifier, meet or beat a target number to succeed. Boons and banes look new to me; like D&D advantage and disadvantage, these mean you roll an extra die and take either the best two (boon) or the worst two (bane) – they are applied for circumstances such as dim lighting or unusually good tools. Sometimes how much you succeed or fail by matters, sometimes it doesn’t.

There are about 40 skills, many of which have multiple specialities. If the skill has at least two possible specialities, level 0 in the main skill gives you level-0 in all specialities, and you advance them separately after that. Another way to look at this is that expertise in some skills gives you basic knowledge in a group of closely related skills. This is a viable but somewhat sneaky way of getting another 70-80 skills into character generation – but at least you avoid the untrained penalties for a lot of them.

Combat (6 pages): This can be relatively short because it’s resolved as a series of tasks. I am delighted to see that dynamic initiative has been disposed of, since that was the single biggest thing stopping me playing Mongoose Traveller or the Cepheus Engine, but you still need to track the number of dodges/parries each PC or NPC makes, as that is a direct modifier on all their rolls for that round. Tactics – which I’m used to thinking of as a roving modifier – now boosts allied initiative. The combat round is the usual initiative, move, act, roll to hit, roll for damage; if you have ever played Traveller, you’ll be right at home. Damage directly reduces physical characteristics; unlike Classic Traveller, you need two of those reduced to zero to knock someone out, but the third zeroed characteristic kills them.

Encounters and Dangers (15 pages): The usual suspects here; disease, poison, falling off things, radiation, suffocation, hostile environments. Then come the healing rules, followed by encounters, rules for creating animals (and half a dozen examples), random person and patron encounters, missions, and so forth. The animal generation rules are the simplest I’ve seen in any edition of Traveller, but they look like they would do the job. The random encounter and mission tables are, I think, my favourite part of the book – very well done.

Equipment (39 pages): Tons of equipment, much of it weapons and armour; you’d expect that in a science fiction RPG. The publishers have tried to do this as a sort of combination magazine and catalogue; I would prefer something more straightforward, but at least it gives you a picture of everything. Armour is much as it has always been, with the exception of Battle Dress, which now has lots of modular add-ons. Next come augments – cybernetic implants, mostly focused on improving characteristics. Then we get sections on communications, computers and software, medical gear and drugs, sensors, survival gear; melee and ranged weapons, grenades, explosives, heavy weapons, weapon options. Again, if you’re played Traveller before, you will recognise them all, and if you’re a grognard like me, you’ll think of the weapons in particular as Book 1 plus Book 4 personal and squad support weapons.

Vehicles (12 pages): Vehicular combat rules, optional extras, and half a dozen example vehicles. No design sequence – I expect that will come in a later book. The rules are an extension of personal combat, adding critical hit tables but otherwise broadly similar.

Spacecraft Operations (12 pages): How your ship is operated, how much that costs, what you might meet in space, typical travel times, that kind of thing.

Space Combat (10 pages): This has longer combat rounds and a different turn sequence than personal or vehicle combat, but it is still resolved using initiative, skills and tasks. This chapter limits itself to the standard turret weapons (lasers, missiles, sandcasters) and does not introduce military-grade weapons such as particle accelerators and meson guns – I assume they follow in a later book. The authors have tried hard to give all the bridge crew a useful role in combat; without playing it, my gut feeling is that they’ve expanded the fun roles from pilot and gunner to include engineer, but I’m not sure that sensor ops or marines will enjoy space combat much. Passengers, sitting patiently in their staterooms, can only wait for it to be over.

Interestingly, if spacecraft close to within 10 km of each other, they shift into a dogfight mode, effectively a modified form of personal combat. This intrigues me, and I don’t remember it from any previous version of Traveller, but I’m not sure I’ve understood it properly – an example would be useful.

Closer still, within a thousand metres, and boarding actions can occur. There’s an abstract system for this, and the option to shift into personal combat on deck plans depending on the outcome of the abstract dice rolls.

Common Spacecraft (32 pages): Here we find stats and deck plans for the sort of ships Travellers might encounter, or hope to acquire; all the usual suspects – for grognards, types A, A2, C, J, K, L, M, R, S, T, Y, and the small craft that have been standard since 1981. The deck plans are an isometric view, which I dislike because I find the more traditional top-down plans easier to read and to use; however, they are more legible than the ones in first edition, and I approve of that.

Psionics (10 pages): The expected five psionic talents; telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis, awareness, teleportation. In line with the skill and task system elsewhere, each of these is a skill, and the various powers are tasks with variable difficulties – life detection is an easy task (4+ to succeed), while psionic assault is formidable (14+). There are drugs to enhance or suppress your powers, psionic shielding to protect you from psions, and a teleport suit which rapidly warms or cools you to reduce damage from the sudden changes in temperature caused by vertical teleportation. Hidden away at the back of the chapter is the 14th career, psion, which you can only access if you roll a suitable event in your normal career.

Trade (8 pages): While Starship Operations and Space Combat focus on what it costs to run a ship, this section is about how ships make money, by transporting freight or passengers, and perhaps indulging in speculative trading – buying goods on a planet where they are cheap, and selling them where they are expensive. It has a suggestion I haven’t tried in all the years I’ve run Traveller, namely to give the players the Trade chapter and a subsector map, and let them get on with it while the GM prepares for the next scene. That bears thinking about.

World and Universe Creation (16 pages): This hasn’t changed a lot since 1977, but then it does the job and does it well, so there’s no need for change. Roll to see which of the 80 hexes in a subsector have worlds present, roll for each world’s starport type, size, atmosphere, hydrographics, population, government, law level, tech level, and other features such as bases; some of these affect others. In this edition, there are rules for factions within a government, and what the penalties are for breaching the law level. As usual, there are travel codes (how safe is it) and trade codes (dependent on the world stats, and influencing the price of goods there).

The Sindal Subsector (10 pages): It’s a Traveller subsector, following the Zhodani Base’s advice to have lots of lawless backwater worlds sandwiched between two large offmap powers (the Third Imperium and the Aslan). I do like the extra page showing where it is in the sector (Trojan Reach, immediately rimward of the Spinward Marches), Known Space, and Milky Way Galaxy – nice touch, and good use of colour. Each of the 18 worlds has stats, a brief description, an a patron with a mission for the Travellers.

And that’s it. No ship or vehicle design rules, no character sheet, no blank subsector map, no index. None of those are things I use much anyway, so I’m cool with that.


Two column black text on patterned grey background, full colour pictures every few pages, glossy paper. From a visual perspective alone, this is a big improvement on the first edition. It remains to be seen whether Mongoose has figured out how to do PDF files yet, I am reluctant to buy the PDF rulebook to find out after the issues I had with earlier products, most notably the quickstart rules.

The book doesn’t use the so-called perfect binding method (far from perfect if you ask me), but I’m not sure how well the stitching would hold up under heavy use.


I would like a point-buy option for character creation. I didn’t notice one as I read through, but maybe I missed it.

If space encounters in bold cannot be ignored, it would be useful if some of them were in bold text (pages 145-146).

Ship deck plans in a more traditional format please, isometric ones don’t appeal to me.


You could pick this up, generate characters, and start playing in the Sindal subsector right away, whereas with previous editions you’d have to have either bought or generated a subsector as well.

The rules system is an improvement on the first edition, especially the removal of dynamic initiative (huzzah!). I suspect that there is some skills bloat compared to Classic Traveller, as each PC is going to have 3-4 extra skills from connections and the group’s package; but to an extent this is mandated by the 120+ skills and specialisations available.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. It’s good, but I’m a Savage now. Maybe someday I’ll come back to Traveller proper, and if so, I could do a lot worse than this. But not today.

Review: Barebones Fantasy, etc

Posted: 12 August 2017 in Reviews

“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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

“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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

“The goal is for the players to stop thinking about the door, wall or table as an inanimate obstacle to be overcome and instead see it as an enemy to be outsmarted.” – Seven Worlds

In a Nutshell: Hard SF space opera setting for Savage Worlds, 217 page PDF, published by Intellistories, written by Luis Enrique Torres. Price not known at time of writing (disclosure, I received a review copy – thanks Luis!).

The Seven Worlds setting was built around a specific campaign in seven parts, which deserves its own review; but I’ll begin with the setting book, because I am more of a rules guy than a story guy at heart, and the thing that really attracted my attention was that this setting has the Atomic Rockets Seal of Approval, meaning that website has validated the underpinning science as accurate. These awards are highly esteemed in the hard SF community, and not easily gained.


Introduction (2 pages): This explains the setting’s unique selling points (hard SF, built around a specific storyline); who the PCs are (by default, paramilitary troubleshooters); and a capsule overview of the setting, which I think is suitable for handing out to the players.

Overview (98 pages): With nearly half the book in this section, I’m not going into a huge amount of detail. You have a timeline running from the present day about 200 years into the future; enigmatic but benevolent aliens; an accurate depiction of actual stars within about 30 lightyears of Sol; descriptions of the titular Seven Worlds, which are habitable, and a half-dozen or so less important waystations between them. The one-page world map/summary for each habitable planet would make a fine handout.

Key technologies for star travel include jump drives, fusion power plants, and the Coulborne Shield, which protects travellers from energy and radiation (working much like the Langston Field of The Mote in God’s Eye); there is no artificial gravity, but relay drones shuttling between jump points provide FTL communications, at least along major routes. I like the FTL travel and comms in this setting much more than the approach used in the The Last Parsec, which I guess is the setting’s main competitor.

There are writeups for the two main interstellar organisations, the Circle and the Psion Brotherhood, and what little is known of the alien N’ahili. There are descriptions of life in the 23rd century, with nanotech, AR/VR, genemods, space travel and combat (there’s a lot of detail in those bits). This section also has four iconic PCs, fully statted, and with extensively detailed backstories.

Characters (7 pages): Unusually short for a character generation chapter, because it stays very close to the core Savage Worlds rules – I approve of that, incidentally. Only humans allowed, although the different homeworlds give some variety by swapping out the usual free Edge for another benefit; the only arcane background is psionics, and that involves taking a vow representing a code of conduct much like the psions in Babylon 5. There are three new skills (Hacking, Knowledge: Ship Ops, Knowledge: Science), and five pages of new and modified Hindrances and Edges. The default assumption is that all PCs are members of a specific organisation, the Circle, which provides gear, missions and so on; think of them as the space patrol and you won’t be far off the mark.

Gear (11 pages): Near future hard SF here; no personal energy weapons or shields, although flechettes and gyrojets abound. Spacesuits, programmable matter, nanotech healing, and more mundane gear. Honourable mention for the smart dust grenade, which scatters nanosensors throughout its burst template and allows the user to see through cover and around corners. The signature gear item, however, is the assistant, a kind of high-tech familiar which almost every PC has – basically a disembodied NPC sidekick played by the GM.

Psions (5 pages): Again short, again because it leverages what Savage Worlds already has. A limited palette of available powers; mental Toughness, used to resist psionic attack; the Psionics skill is harder to advance than usual. There are 9 new powers, and 21 powers which are modified from the core rules either with new trappings or with different power point costs.

Setting Rules (22 pages): These cover languages (not an issue due to widespread translation software); game effects of microgravity, space and planetary environments, and assistants; and a modification to the Test of Wills rules I might adapt elsewhere, namely intimidating groups of NPCs. I liked the tags for planetary environments, which include things like “Cold and Hostile” or “Too Dark”.

The majority of the section, though, is taken up with rules for interstellar travel and space combat. Travel is in jumps, and each ship has a number of jumps it can make without refuelling, as well as a pseudospeed defining how many weeks each jump takes. This looks like it would work very well in play.

Space combat uses a modified version of the SW chase rules, reflecting the problems with realistic space combat; namely, you can’t hide, you can’t run or dodge very well either, and if you don’t manage the heat buildup properly the ship is incapacitated. There is also a heavy reliance on missiles, to the point where a sheet is needed to keep track of incoming ordnance. This all looks very different and more realistic than the usual dogfight paradigm; I’d have to try it to understand how the modifications interact, but I can already see the ship’s engineers have something useful to do – stop the ship melting. A useful sidebar shows you how to dial combat lethality up or down to match how much trouble the PCs are having.

GM Section (20 pages): Much of this is taken up with the introductory adventure, “A Mysterious Encounter”, which segues into the default campaign. This supposes the PCs work for the Circle, and includes introductions to common technology, personal and ship combat, and a final puzzle which I expect will be resolved later in the campaign. As well as that, we find rules options (interstellar trade, ship customization, space encounters) and game mastering tips (the implications of Seven Worlds technology, how to run the default campaign, alternative campaign types – including which ones will and will not work well in the setting).

Bestiary (22 pages): Over 60 animals and NPCs; 27 vehicles and spacecraft. Each of the animals and NPCs has a location specified, showing where it can be found; quite a few are constructs found only in virtual reality. (By the way, the widespread use of virtual reality in the setting allows the GM to make full use of the multi-genre nature of Savage Worlds – the PCs can have ‘real’ adventures in the Seven Worlds and ‘virtual’ ones in a fantasy world, the Old West, etc. I don’t think I could carry that off myself, mind.)

The Voyager (2 pages): This is the PCs’ default ship, owned by their patrons the Circle foundation. It’s spherical and the decks go all over the place, including one around the equator and a gym that is reeled out on a cable for spin gravity. It cannot have been easy to design, but there is no confusing it with the usual aeroplane or ship layouts for starships.

Appendix (11 pages): Seven Worlds prides itself on sticking to known scientific fact as far as it can, but in the end, it is a game; this appendix lists the areas where the author knows he has bent or broken the laws of science for the sake of a better story, as well as his reference sources and a 2D starmap.

After that, there are character and ship record sheets, a couple of ads for the campaign and website, and two more 2D maps of the setting, one showing all the stops between the Seven Worlds, and one more stylised and less cluttered, somewhat like a subway map – that’s the most useful one for planning interstellar travel.


Colour covers and illustrations (one every few pages, and I especially liked the cover), two column black text on pale blue background (which can be suppressed for a print-friendly version) – except in the introductory adventure, where the background is green, or the iconic PCs, where it is pale brown; I found that helpful to locate them when flicking through the book. There are also sidebars throughout the book explaining the science behind the game; I loved those.

A nice touch is that the blue line in the header between pages 2 and 206 has a purpose – to the scale of the small solar system diagram on page 2, it shows the distance to Proxima Centauri, our closest stellar neighbour.

As well as the usual character sheets, maps and pregens, the game’s website also hosts a dynamic 3D starmap usable with VRML viewers, and world maps you can load into Google Earth; the intention is that the GM and players use these at the table on their tablets or smartphones. Check out the demo video here. They are a nice touch, and point the way for future RPGs, but personally I’d be happy running things without access to any tech beyond pencil and paper, maybe because I’m an aging dinosaur whose play style developed in the 1970s, when that was the only choice.


A minor nitpick only: There’s a tiny bit of Smallville syndrome, in that the three most significant ‘historical’ NPCs lived in the same small American town and went to school together. I thought that might be explained in the campaign (see next review), but the mystery just gets deeper.


This isn’t the usual Firefly-meets-Star Wars space opera, it’s more like The Expanse; and the hard SF tech isn’t just for show, it makes a real difference to the campaign plotline and how the game plays. This means it’s not a setting you can just pick up and run in a few minutes, it needs a little thought first. My first thought is that the kitchen appliances should include the Talkie Toaster and spontaneously burst into upbeat, family-friendly song every few minutes.

There are echoes of 2300AD, Classic Traveller, Diaspora, Attack Vector: Tactical and other games, so I suspect Mr Torres had a youth misspent in much the same way as my own. It’s no surprise that I love the setting, as it’s so close in spirit to my old favourites.

It’s good to see a game world whose technology feels futuristic; I haven’t had that feeling since I discovered 2300AD, and the 1980s were a long time ago. I’m also impressed by the way the corebook conveys a hard SF setting without making sweeping changes and adding complexity to the core Savage Worlds rules like, say, Nova Praxis.

My instinct is that the Seven Worlds would work better with smaller parties, as with large ones the assistants would increase GM workload too much – I might take a leaf out of Infinity’s book and have each player run the assistant of the player to his right.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. I could see the Pawns of Destiny group in this setting once there is a gap in the schedule; it’s complex, realistic and elegant, just the sort of thing they go for. I might let Arion loose in it after the summer holidays as well, to see what he makes of it and try out the setting rules.

Next up: The Seven Worlds campaign, which is after all what the corebook exists to support.