Review: Ashen Stars

“Your players decide whether to make it matter. You decide what the truth is.” – Ashen Stars

I’m still looking for the game that will enthuse and re-invigorate my SF gaming the way Beasts & Barbarians did for fantasy, and given how impressed I was by Night’s Black Agents, the obvious next place to look is the space opera game from the same stable.

In a Nutshell: Space opera RPG that strives to emulate a gritty reboot of a TV series that never was. 305 page PDF, $25 at time of review, author Robin Laws.

CONTENT

Where the Stars Turn Grey (2 pages): What a roleplaying game is, although the book (reasonably) assumes you know that by now; other Gumshoe games you might want to try; overview of the rest of the book.

All the Justice Credits Can Buy (12 pages): The game premise is that a utopian interstellar society much like Star Trek’s Federation (the Combine) was recently destroyed in a great war, by enemies who have since mysteriously vanished (the Mohilar). While the core worlds rebuild themselves, the frontier worlds are left to their own devices, and everything the USS Enterprise would have handled previously is now contracted out to freelance mercenaries like the PCs.

PCs are created in several steps: Choose a species, assign crew skill packages to ensure that between them the party can do everything the PCs will need to do, choose other investigative and general abilities (these would be characteristics and skills in most games), choose a drive; then as a group, choose your ship and equipment and rate the group’s Reputation. Players are also encouraged to create a personal arc for each PC, a quest which will be woven into the campaign plotline as it moves forwards. Like the icon relationships in 13th Age, this is a way of ensuring that the PCs matter in the context of the game; on its own, this concept takes up four of the 12 pages in the chapter, which tells me it’s important.

There’s a lot of flipping backwards and forwards through the book as you create characters, and it’s best done as a group process, since the group needs to cover a lot of different skills between them, characters need to be differentiated so they all have a chance to shine in play, and they need to agree on how they spend shared points on buying gear and a ship.

Reputation is the mechanism by which the game’s key theme is rewarded or punished; at its core, the game strives to maintain tension between doing what’s right (which increases your Rep) and doing what’s good for yourself (which generally decreases it). The higher the group’s Rep, the more often it will find work, and the better off it will be.

The Seven Peoples (12 pages): Here are the playable races, which I really like.

  • The Balla are part-elf, part-Vulcan; nature-loving, striving to contain their emotions and occasionally failing with disastrous consequences.
  • Cybes are genetically- and cybernetically-enhanced humans, created as super-soldiers for the war recently ended, and now unsure of their position. I can’t help thinking of them as liberated Borg.
  • The Durugh are short, ugly former enemies of the Combine who changed sides before the end of the recent war. They have the ability to go out of phase, enabling them to walk through walls.
  • Humans are, as usual, the Mario; numerous, adaptable and determined.
  • The Kch-Thk are a proud warrior race of humanoid locusts, who at death can migrate their consciousness to a nearby larva, much like the skin jobs in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, or a videogame character respawning at the last save point. The downside to this species is a voracious need to consume organic matter, like terrestrial locusts. The Combine’s decision to remove restrictions on Kch-Thk breeding to produce vast armies for the Mohilar War means there are now huge numbers of ravenous combat veterans looking for food and trouble.
  • The Tavak are another proud warrior race; it’s unusual for a game like this to have more than one, but here they are. Serene and sleepy under normal conditions, these humanoid armadillos are roused to berserk frenzy when they need to fight.
  • The Vas Mal are few in number and resemble the Greys of UFO lore; they are the de-evolved remnants of godlike energy beings, physically weak but retaining some of their former psychic powers.

What You Can Do (26 pages): This covers investigative and general abilities, starting with the skill packages for each role a PC crew will need; each PC has both a shipboard and a groundside role, and based on these it looks like the optimum party size is six characters (some of whom may be NPCs). This is where my first beef with Gumshoe as a rules engine arises; too many skills, 50 investigative and 30 general.

Drives (9 pages): 32 different motivations for your PC, 7 of which can only be taken by specific races. These guide roleplaying but have no mechanical effect, unlike (say) Savage Worlds Hindrances.

Gumshoe Rules (22 pages): As usual, Gumshoe is divided into clue-gathering skills and general abilities. Reading through this implementation soon after reading Night’s Black Agents, I’m less impressed this time round – maybe that’s because of implementation differences, maybe it’s because I’ve given the rules more thought, maybe I’m just a grumpy old git who’s worked too much overtime this month.

Clue-gathering skills always succeed. Gumshoe makes a big thing about this, but really you can do it in any system by looking at the PC’s skills or character class. Aragorn is a ranger? Fine, he finds the orc tracks and the hobbits’ dropped brooch then, no need to roll for it. This is my second beef with Gumshoe, I think this part is needlessly complex.

General abilities (including combat skills) succeed if you make a skill test, which in Gumshoe you do by spending points from a pool, rolling 1d6, and meeting or beating a target number to succeed. Your PC’s “skill level” is the size of the points pool for that skill. Pools refresh at certain points, and you can increase pools by spending what are effectively experience points.

Damage is deducted from the PC’s Health, and he passes out when he has none left.

Starships (40 pages): It’s a given that the PC team has a starship. We have a range of ship types, a recommended ship for players not sure what to take, and upgrade options. Where this game is different is in the highly abstracted combat; it’s like watching the Star Trek bridge crew, or playing the Artemis computer game, in that there are several key roles in ship combat, each of which has a chance to shine. Mechanically, the objective is to accumulate enough points to achieve your objective – each ship may have a different objective (there are 10 to choose from), and the first to achieve its goal wins, in the sense of ending the engagement on its own terms. At the extremes, you need 6 points to Escape, and 21 points to Destroy your opponent. These numbers increase dramatically if you’re outnumbered.

Each turn, the crew decides which of four attack modes to use (fire, manoeuvre, override the opposing ship’s computers, or trickbag, which is a collection of dirty tricks); the PC responsible for that mode engages his opposite number on the other ship, and the winner garners points. There are penalties for overusing one attack mode compared to the others. The loser of the “showdown” may take damage or casualties, which bring the other two roles (medic and engineer) into play to repair/heal them.

Tech (23 pages): The gear chapter. Again, I applaud the game for its Preparedness attribute, also seen in Night’s Black Agents; rather than obsessing over minor items of equipment, your Preparedness allows you to have one available if you succeed at a skill check. We have communicators, some unusual cyberware which is tightly integrated into the game mechanics, medical and forensic items, protective gear (most of which defends against non-standard attacks such as pheromones), investigative equipment, tailored viruses which give you assorted genetic alterations, weapons and accessories. This is the section where the game transcends the usual sci-fi setting and edges into New Space Opera, in line with the gritty reboot theme.

Between the end of this chapter and the start of the next is a basic map of the Bleed, the volume of space in which the game takes place. Space is divided into clusters, in which FTL travel is easy, and outzones, in which it is not. Like the beacons in The Last Parsec, this allows the GM to choose whether the PCs reach their destination in hours or weeks.

The Feed and the Bleed (18 pages): This section provides extra detail on the setting; but the GM is advised that until a piece of information is discovered by the PCs, it is not yet part of the established “series continuity” and can be changed at whim. The GM is encouraged to do this to incorporate player input.

Here we find provisional goverment structures for the Combine, which have been imitated by most worlds; the Combine’s (cursory) presence in the Bleed; the concepts of synthcultures and nufaiths, which allow the GM to insert a world based on any culture or religion into the campaign with ease; a history of the Combine and the Seven Peoples; how to handle the Bogey Conundrum, a mysterious effect which makes it impossible to remember anything about the Mohilar; Bleed slang and jargon.

On the Contact (13 pages): This chapter explains the business the PCs are in, namely freelance problem solving and law enforcement, and what they can (and cannot) do. First we look at Reputation, mentioned above, and how if can be influenced by Public Relations material spread by the PCs and others.

This segues into a discussion of what sort of contracts PCs get, and how much downtime they have between contracts – the better their Rep, the more they are in demand. During downtime, all the boring stuff happens, and upkeep has to be paid for the ship and your equipment; if you can’t pay the upkeep, items have to be taken offline. There are also a number of side deals you can take on in parallel with the main mission, and loans in case the contracts are too far apart.

Next comes an explanation of law and justice; which laws apply, jurisdiction, trial procedures, sentencing and punishments. Not that your PCs would ever get in trouble with the law, or course, but they may actually be the law on a world.

Worlds are Stories (16 pages): This section profundly affected my thinking on SF RPG campaigns, and I’m still working through the ramifications. In short, it extols the virtues of spacefaring as a way of constantly refreshing the game, and casts aside any notion of world generation; the important thing is the scenario, the story of the episode; you start with the adventure premise, and build the world to bring that premise to life, linking it to the PCs’ personal arcs and your overall story arc if any. This central premise is well thought through, and fleshed out at some length.

This chapter also explains how FTL travel works in the setting, and introduces the ubiquitous meson shrapnel and the ashen stars for which the game is named, relics of the Mohilar War which interfere with technology to explain why the PCs’ gear works differently according to what the plotline requires.

The Bad, the Worse and the Alien (22 pages): Here’s the bestiary and a selection of stock NPCs. Some of them are designated as Class-K species, ones so inimical to sentient species that any PCs encountering them need to abort their official mission to eliminate them, or at least get out a warning. You get nine Class-K entities, nine stock animals, and 23 stock NPCs.

Here we also find that Gumshoe is player-facing, which means that if at all possible the players roll the dice; for example, if sneaking up on someone, the PC makes a Stealth check, but the NPC they’re stalking doesn’t roll at all.

Running the Bleed (22 pages): This is about constructing scenarios; the game calls them cases, or episodes. In each episode, the players travel to a new world, where they face a problem to solve, mostly by gathering information; encounter a plot twist; and may advance an overall story arc, or the personal arc of one of the characters. Episodes consist of scenes, which the PCs may traverse in one of several sequences, gathering clues as they go. As well as detailed guidance on how to do this, a wide range of sample episode premises (adventure seeds) is provided, any of which I’d be comfortable running off-the-cuff as an improvised scenario.

That will take you as far as a monster-of-the-week campaign, but the chapter also includes advice on building those individual scenarios into a larger arc by introducing links to personal arcs, gradually revealing an over-arching and escalating threat, and adding recurring characters. It then covers how to avoid the appearance of railroading the PCs, before finishing with an example of play.

The Witness of My Worth (23 pages): The obligatory example adventure, in which the PCs respond to a distress call from a war-ravaged planet, and find things are not as they seem.

Appendices (31 pages): Sample names, detailed example of ship combat (you’ll need that), character sheet, tables and charts.

…and we finish with an index.

FORMAT

The PDF download includes a pretty version of the game, and a printer-friendly one. In either case, two-column black text, quite readable,  especially the tables – most games make these too small or otherwise hard to read, but they are very legible here.

Colour illustrations every few pages, as is the norm, and a tasteful but non-intrusive background in the pretty version.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Since character creation is complex and requires knowledge of the setting, the playable races, and the use and relative value of 80-odd skills, this game could really do with some pre-generated characters.

CONCLUSIONS

Ashen Stars is essentially a gritty reboot of Star Trek; imagine if the Federation had lost the Dominion War big time, but then the forces of the Dominion had mysteriously vanished and whatever those things in the wormhole were had lost their powers and been precipitated into normal space. I can’t help observing, though, that gritty reboots are often franchise-killers; look at Star Trek: Enterprise or Stargate: Universe, for example.

Mechanically, I feel that the page count and skill list for intelligence gathering is overdone. Since the PCs are always going to find the clues anyway, do I really need 50 different skills and many pages of rules to explain that? I think not.

I love the setting, and the advice to GMs is very thought-provoking, but I’m not enamoured of the Gumshoe system, so I would probably want to Savage this.

Bulldogs, The Last Parsec and Daring Tales of the Space Lanes tell you there is no starmap and not much setting, and leave you to get on with it. Ashen Stars tells you how to turn that into a series of adventures and a grand story arc; the GM advice alone is worth the price of admission, Robin Laws has clearly spent a great deal of time and effort in understanding what players and GMs need, and how to give it to them.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. Great setting, great advice, but the Gumshoe system doesn’t do it for me. I’ll probably Savage the Bleed at some point. Meanwhile, this game has made me question and rethink what I should be doing in my SF game slot, and that’s a bigger topic for its own post; I am more likely to play Night’s Black Agents, but Ashen Stars may have a bigger impact on the way I game.

Review: Night’s Black Agents

"One of us always stays awake, in case of vampires." – Peanuts

It looks like I might get to GM for another group, and in looking for something exciting and different to run, I landed on Night’s Black Agents.

In a Nutshell: It’s The Bourne Identity meets Underworld; badass secret agents vs vampires with the world at stake. (Hur hur.) No pressure, then. 233 page PDF, written by Ken Hite.

CONTENT

Introduction (3 pages): This explains the goal of the game, which is to create a vampire spy thriller, and the modes in which this can be done: Burn, which focusses on the psychological cost to the characters of what they do; Dust, which tones down the over-the-top cinematic defaults to give you a gritty, deadly game; Mirror, which focusses on issues of trust and betrayal; and Stakes, which assumes the PCs are driven by a higher purpose. You can of course mix and match those; my all-time favourite vampire show, the British TV mini-series Ultraviolet, was a Dust/Mirror mix with some of the characters having Stakes as well.

Characters (34 pages): Character generation is a point-buy system in four stages. First, you choose a background, or several; this isn’t a character class per se, but does denote the PC’s role in the team – wheelman, muscle, hacker, and so on. Second, choose investigative abilities – streetwise, tradecraft and so on; these always work, so the PCs will never miss a clue, although they may misinterpret it. Third, choose general abilities – shooting, hand to hand, driving; these require a die roll (on 1d6) to succeed, but the points you put into them can be spent to modify the roll. In this stage you also pick the PC’s MOS; this is one general ability at which you excel, even for a superspy, and once per session you can declare that you automatically succeed when using it. Finally, you create the PC’s personality and dossier; this is partly just backstory, but also optionally includes sources of stability – the people and places that keep the PC sane, and allow him to destress between operations. (Naturally, these will at some point become targets for his enemies…) The PC also has a Drive, which is the thing that motivates him to keep fighting the vampires rather than run and hide.

Adventures in NBA are composed of either intelligence gathering, which uses investigative abilities, or confrontation, which uses general ones. At its most basic, dangerous situations get you information, which leads you to the next dangerous situation, which leads you to another clue, and so on.

General abilities also have "cherries"; these are special features that kick in when you have at least 8 points in the ability. My favourite is Preparedness, which is the ability covering how well you select and pack your gear for the mission. At 8 points, you can retroactively prepare timely specific actions in flashback during play – "I thought this might happen, so last night I rigged his car; I can cut his engine anytime using this…"

Character creation works better as a group effort, because the group will need every investigative ability at some point, so you need to make sure that between them, the group has them all. If you are using the optional trust and betrayal rules, the PCs also need to record how much they trust each of the others. Trust acts as a kind of roving modifier whereby one PC can help another; by betraying each other, PCs can get significant one-time bonuses on actions that hinder the one betrayed.

Players are allowed to reserve build points and spend them in play, as a staple of the genre is suddenly revealing that you could speak Bulgarian all along.

Rules (51 pages): The rules chapter is long, and mostly special cases. What you need to know is this:

  • You always find the clues. Always. You may not understand them, but you will not miss any. However, by spending points, you can get more information – you don’t need this extra information, but it can help speed things up.
  • In a confrontation, you roll 1d6 plus the number of points you want to spend on it, and try to hit a target number, usually 4. You commit the points before rolling the die.
  • Points you spend grow back either at specific points in the game, or when you do something especially cool (for example use your 8 points in Athletics to free-run across the roofs of Paris).
  • Points are not skill levels in the usual sense. Points are a way to signal how much a particular scene is about your character doing cool stuff.
  • You have Health (resistance to damage, lose too much and you die) and Stability (resistance to emotion shocks and betrayal, lose too much and you go insane).

Tools (25 pages): Here’s the gear chapter, and my eyes are not glazing over, which is almost unique. The PCs are superspies, and they have access to any conventional item appropriate to the genre, or anything a middle-class European would be able to buy. Acquiring gear only takes up screen time when it has narrative importance (like Bourne’s cache of passports in the Swiss bank) or can be handled very quickly. There’s no money in the game as such; if something is easy to get, you’ve got it, and if it’s hard to get, you make a general ability test to get at it. The gear list is therefore a short descriptive paragraph for each item, generally with no stats attached.

The Tools chapter is more than just gear, though; it’s also a primer on tradecraft for players. It encourages the group to maintain an adversary map – one of those things the protagonists in the movies always have, a cork board covered in photos, notes, and little pieces of string linking them together. How is the terrorist cell in Marseilles connected to the overall conspiracy? Who sent the hitman after them? Why?

Vampires (45 pages): This is where GM-only territory starts, with a build-your-own vampire kit. Are the vampires supernatural, damned souls, aliens, mutants, or some combination? Where did they originate? What are their powers, weaknesses and objectives? How many of them are there? Can they be cured, and if so, how? Some modes work better with some types of vampire, and there’s guidance on this. There are five different example vampires if you want to cut to the chase and start staking, and a dozen unnatural creatures they might have in support, as well as animals related to vampires in various folkloric traditions. (Stock human NPCs are elsewhere in the book.)

The vampire kit is followed by a conspiracy kit, and the GM’s conspyramid, which is a pyramid of nodes in six levels, from street gangs to the vampire elders themselves. This is the narrative framework of the game, showing who the opposition is, what clues can be found when they are defeated, and – when linked with the vampyramid below – what the conspiracy does in retaliation for being poked at that level. In the example conspiracy provided, a raid on a radar station (level 1) can provide clues leading to a member of the Israeli mafia (level 2) or a ring of heroin smugglers (level 3).

There are several non-pyramidal conspiracy structures, but my instinct is that they would be too confusing for the players.

Cities (24 pages): Most of the action in NBA, especially gathering information, happens in cities – the game as written assumes somewhere in Europe. The chapter explains how to set up one or more cities for the game, with a few examples; provides capsule descriptions of the nations, and also the real-world intelligence, terrorist and criminal organisations operating on the continent.

Stories (10 pages): This is advice to the GM on how to set up adventures; the rhythm of spying and fighting scenes which drive each scenario, the conspyramid which shows where the clues take the PCs and who they fight when they get there, the framework of scenes in a standard thriller and how to modify them, the types of missions that the PCs or their opposition mount, and the vampyramid I mentioned above; this is a list of retaliation options the vampires have when you poke their nest with a stick, such as offering to pay you off, framing you for murder, etc. The GM is encouraged to avoid repetition here; being framed once is a challenge, being framed twice is boring.

Scenarios dealt with, we move on to campaigns; the default NBA campaign begins with the PCs learning that vampires exist, the vampires finding out that they know, and then shifts into a race to see which side can wipe the other out first.

Finally, there is a section on alternatives to the vampire conspiracy; straight-up spy stories, Cthulhu, or psionics.

(S)entries (9 pages): This is a introductory scenario, in which the PCs are hired to suppress evidence of something. The action takes them across the Balkans, through fights, car chases and double-crosses, to the realisation of what the evidence is, and how far the opposition will go to suppress it.

Addenda (15 pages): Character sheets, GM worksheets, quick reference sheets.

FORMAT

Unusually, this document is laid up in three columns, black on white with red or grey headings, and the occasional colour illustration. Crisp, clean, a pleasure to read.

CONCLUSIONS

I love spy stories almost as much as I love science fiction, I love playing with conspiracy ideas, I’m OK with vampires, and Ken Hite is the ideal author to merge those elements into a kickass game, which he has duly done.

It does rely on the players sharing responsibility for the narrative, and in my experience not all groups are comfortable with this. The conspyramid is effectively a sandbox; like a dungeon map it presents the PCs with choices of routes to follow, but they must decide which lead to follow up and how.

The GM also needs to prepare quite a lot in advance; the actual sessions may be improvised, but you need to know what your vampires are like, how their conspiracy is structured, and what their objectives are; these give you the framework within which you can improvise.

If you plan on running this game, watch Ultraviolet first. Seriously.

If you don’t, there are a lot of ideas here that are worth pilfering. The conspyramid for the overall campaign structure; the vampyramid for how the bad guys react to the PCs’ meddling; the notes on how to run a thriller story. These are things that I will take with me into the next campaign – in fact I can retrofit them into the Shadows of Keron adventure in Caldeia which will start next time the PCs foregather. Be a shame not to, really.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. Man, I want to run this now; and I think it could be done online, too. Got some prep work first though…

Review: Last Parsec Deck Plans and Figure Flats

More goodies from The Last Parsec… in this week’s post, the ship deck plans and figure flats.

I’ll digress from my usual review structure, because for this kind of product content and format are really the same thing, and also figure flats are not things I use much, so it doesn’t seem fair to give them a rating.

There are four deck plans and two sets of flats available; the deck plans are for a dropship, a modular freighter, a pair of pirate ships, and a research vessel. The figure flats are basically the good guys ("Explorers") and the bad guys ("Terrors").

FIGURE FLATS

Let’s look at the figures first. The Explorers pack contains nearly 70 figures suitable for use as PCs or their sidekicks, comprising four constructs, three deaders, three florans, seven male and three female humans, eight insectoids, three kalians, three rakashans, three saurians, four aurax, four yetis, and a serran (which could also work as another female human); many of these use the iconic art from other products in the line, for example the serran is the same artwork as in the SFC itself, and some of them are named, which suggests they are from existing or planned products – I haven’t checked. Additionally there are seven JumpCorp Marines, seven JumpCorp  security troopers, a squad of eight saltarians and their commander, and two armed exploration vehicles. With the exception of the JumpCorp and saltarian troops, who have multiple instances of the same pose, all of the figures are different.

In the Terrors pack, you get six security bots, a shady-looking dude called Kerastus, three librarians, two stringers, nine kragmen and two kragman shamans, eleven each of canyon, desert, forest, mountain and high sethis, three shock mantas, three drakes, two maulers, nine ravagers, nine spitters, one apex (as in apex predator), six arc beetles, one omariss death worm, five mysterious entities and one giant mysterious entity. All except the mysterious entities are from one of the TLP setting books. These being NPC mooks and local fauna rather than heroes, you get only one or two poses per type of being.

Some of the figures are 2D counters, but most are trifold standees; you fold each figure into a three-cornered prism and stand it on end. I always have trouble gluing those together, so I’d probably trim them to front-and-back and put them in some sort of stand. Personally I’d use the silhouette for the back and a colour image for the front, as in some of the games I play, it matters which way figures are facing.

DECK PLANS

The deck plans are provided as poster-sized full-colour images, overlaid with a square grid at the standard Savage Worlds one inch equals six feet (although you could print them at different scales to suit your figures, obviously). Each one would use 12 pages of A4 or Letter size paper to print out.

The dropship is a short-haul vessel, not suitable for long journeys. The internal areas suitable for combat or whatever consist of (fore to aft): A four-person cockpit; a passenger area with seats for 36; a utility section containing an office, a meeting room (or possibly sick bay, it has a bunk bed), a bathroom, and a weird red disk that might be a hatch, or a teleporter, or anything else you fancy; and a large cargo bay full of crates , with a small vehicle for loading and unloading them. It’s not entirely clear how those get in and out, as there are no suitable doors; I presume there’s a ceiling hatch.

The freighter has three deckplans, side by side, which I shall call the bridge, the crew quarters, and the cargo module. Looking at the cover picture and how the stairs are laid out, I’d say the bridge is on top of the crew quarters, and there’s a cargo module behind each one – possibly many cargo modules, much like freight cars in a railway train. The bridge deck has a seven-person control room, a large mess area, an airlock and a stairway leading down; the crew quarters has stairs up to the bridge, one stateroom with a double bed and a workstation, two four-person bunk rooms, a sick bay, a bathroom, and a lounge with a couch, a pool table, and an exercise bike. The cargo module is a boxy affair, full of crates and barrels, with what look like palm-keyed security doors fore and aft. I didn’t like this one at first, but it’s growing on me, because it’s actually many different freighters in one – print out multiple copies and make the ship as big as you like. That would’ve been easier if the decks had been on separate pages, though.

The pirate ship map has two small ships on it, one of which has two decks. The whitish vessel on the left of the poster seems to be some sort of high-performance, short-range craft, possibly a fighter; there are three crew stations and two jump seats. The more sombre craft on the right of the poster has a four-person bridge, bunk room, bathroom and small cargo area on the upper deck, while the lower deck has more cargo space and a sort of ship’s basement with a workbench and a meeting/dining table; the two decks are connected by ladders port and starboard.

The research ship map is another modular one, with two pods and a main ship – it’s not yet clear to me how they connect together, unless maybe the stairs in the pods lead up to the apparent floor hatch in the main section? If so, the ship can probably only have one pod at a time. The pods are a plain cargo pod with a few crates in it, and a spartan passenger pod with a kitchenette, bathroom, workstation and four cramped bedrooms. The ship proper has an expensive-looking bridge with six workstations, two of which are noticeably larger and better-equipped than the others – science stations, perhaps. Aft of that is something that might (or might not) be a sleeping area, with 2-4 things that might (or might not) be beds, depending on how you interpret their shapes. Behind that are four workstation areas, again two have large, expensive-looking displays. The main section of this map is the one I found hardest to interpret, generally what’s what is very clear on all the maps.

REFLECTIONS

The freighter and pirate maps together give you a solid set of multi-purpose, reusable deck plans. The dropship is OK, but less obviously useful in my games – I can only recall needing a dropship deck plan once in nearly 40 years of gamemastering SF RPGs. The research ship has potential, but it’s not immediately obvious how the pieces fit together.

On the figure flats front, these do the job and cover off all the iconic SFC races, with enough variety to differentiate between the PCs and major NPCs, plus a range of mooks and beasts of various sizes for them to face off against.

And on a personal note, I’m pleased I Kickstarted TLP at a high enough level to get all the PDFs. Win.

Review: The Enigma Equation

Kickstarting The Last Parsec is truly a gift that keeps on giving; I’m still getting PDF downloads intermittently. Next up: The Enigma Equation, 32 page adventure for that setting. You’ll need Savage Worlds Deluxe, and the Sci-Fi Companion, to make full use of it.

CONTENTS

The meat of this booklet is in three sections; Prime, The Enigma Equation, and Travelers & Xenos.

Prime (12 pages): This is essentially a repeat of the free setting primer, which I reviewed here. It’s Firefly meets Star Wars, except there is no central government to rebel against. The main rules clarification is for hyperspace jumps, which in this setting rely on navigation beacons, much as in Babylon 5.

The Enigma Equation (16 pages): This adventure in two acts begins when the team members are sent by JumpCorp to the planet Tomb, home of a JumpCorp research station, but since it was attacked by a group of strange insectoids the head researcher is missing… How are the mysterious Umbra Artefact and the even more mysterious Enigma Equation involved?

Travelers & Xenos (4 pages): Half-a-dozen foes, some reusable (especially the Djinn) and others not so much.

FORMAT

The usual Last Parsec trade dress; full colour throughout, option to turn off the page background in the PDF, pages formatted to look like a tablet PC readout, colour illustrations on most pages.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I’m ambiguous about repeating the primer in an adventure. Still, it didn’t cost me any extra, and even at full price the whole product is about six bucks. This is the sort of thing one usually sees bundled with a GM’s screen, and I vaguely remember reading somewhere that was the original intent.

CONCLUSIONS

I am still struggling to abandon my passion for worldbuilding, but with each Last Parsec adventure I come to understand a little better how that might work. I would be able to recycle the worlds and adventure hooks from any previous campaign just by throwing away the maps.

This little scenario is linked to Scientorium via one of its more enigmatic NPCs, and might make a good lead-in to the larger book. It also hints tantalisingly at a forthcoming TLP setting book which will explore things left unexplained at the end of this particular mission; Pinnacle could keep this up for years before the inevitable accretion of detail solidifies the setting into something hard to write for.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5. A fun little adventure, but it goes into the stack of Last Parsec goodies for potential later use. Perhaps I’m being unduly harsh because of the recycled Primer stuff.

Shadowrunners at the House on the Hill

Five of the old group joined us for Christmas, which was great, but the inertia generated by rich holiday food meant no-one was much in the mood for roleplaying. Instead, we turned to board games: Shadowrun Crossfire and Betrayal at the House on the Hill, both highly recommended, and neither of them mine, so I have not yet broken my resolution not to buy any more games in 2015! Hah!

Not sure how long that will last. Anyway…

Shadowrun: Crossfire

This is a co-operative deck building game. Waves of foes assault the players, who can play cards from their hands to defeat them; removing an enemy from play gives you money tokens with which to buy more cards. The co-operative element comes in because the players share the money tokens, whoever kills an opponent, and players can attack other players’ foes. There’s a roleplaying element too, as each deck is built around a character card, and successfully completing a game gives the player karma points, which are used to buy power-ups – these take the form of repeelable stickers which you apply to the character card. More experienced runners can take on more difficult missions, there being three scenarios in the basic game: Crossfire (survive three waves of foes), Extraction (survive six waves while protecting an NPC client), and messing with a dragon. We are not ready for that one yet.

(My recurring character is an ork whose portrait looks like Bruce Willis, so I’m buffing him with multiple instances of the Got Your Backs power-up, which allows him to pull a group of enemies onto him, get staggered by their combined damage, and then recover to active status again.)

Crossfire does an excellent job of evoking the Shadowrun universe without being enslaved by its rules, and of genuinely encouraging co-operative play whilst retaining an element of tension. It even has a solitaire mode, and the average game takes roughly an hour. It works best with four players, but we used it with one, three, four and five.

Betrayal at the House on the Hill

In this, players assume the roles of stereotypical characters from survival horror B-movies, exploring a haunted house. Each character is rated for its Speed (movement), Might (combat), Knowledge and Sanity. The haunted house is built by drawing tiles from a deck; symbols on the tiles reveal whether they contain an omen, an item or an event, which are drawn from card decks as needed and are a mixture of good stuff and bad stuff. At some point during the game, bad stuff will trigger a betrayal by one of the players; that player then looks up the nature of his or her treachery in one rulebook, while the others plot their countermeasures from another. There are quite a few variations, including the traitor collapsing the house into the Abyss, a madman supported by zombies, and the house rolling up on top of the players from the outside in.

(In the first game we played, I found myself playing the aged and knowledgable character, with a girl companion, a holy symbol, and constructive possession of the Mystic Elevator, which moves randomly around the house. Clearly, therefore, I was Doctor Who.)

Betrayal is every cheesy horror movie you’ve ever seen, with an interesting mixture of co-operative and competitive play, and enormous replay value. We used it with four players, but it should work with three to six. Again, a game takes roughly an hour.

We played more Crossfire, but I think Betrayal would be more accessible to the casual gamer.

Coda

And in other news, the players politely informed me that the Shadows of Keron campaign is not dead, just resting until they can get back together again, and that I may not consider it closed. Good news, I think, even though it may be a while before we play again. We should finish the Artefacts scenarios for Shadowrun first, though, since that has a story arc, and Shadows of Keron doesn’t, it’s just picaresque sword-and-sorcery adventures.

Review: Dungeonlands – Tomb of the Lich Queen

Every so often, I get the urge to run a megadungeon again. I have plans to create one using a mixture of Asteroid, How to Host a Dungeon, Labyrinth Lord and the London Underground map, and maybe someday I actually will, but recently I thought: Somebody must have done a Savage Worlds megadungeon already, why don’t I look for that? And so…

In a Nutshell: Old School killer dungeon for Savage Worlds from Savage Mojo – Pathfinder version also available. 129 page PDF, $20 at time of writing. Part one of three; the upper levels, if you will.

CONTENTS

First up: The whole dungeon is a massive death-trap, and assumes the PCs are Heroic Rank or better.

We begin with a Conanesque full-colour cover, a page about the gods of the Suzerain multiverse in which the dungeon is set, disclaimers and credits, and a table of contents. Don’t worry about the Suzerain multiverse thing, the dungeon is designed to slot into any campaign, fantasy or otherwise, with a minimum of fuss. In fact, most of the individual encounters strike me as pretty portable and could be dropped individually into other places of mystery.

The Legend of the Lich Queen (21 pages). Background fiction.

Enter and Die (18 pages). In which the PCs find their way to Paxectl Island, where the dungeon is located, and explore the 15 locations of the ruined surface level. It’s worth noting that any PC, from any setting, can find the Tomb, and there are a number of free-to-download alternative beginnings written by guest authors, usually containing some pre-generated PCs, info on their home setting, and an adventure culminating in their finding the Tomb.

The Tomb of the Lich Queen (59 pages): The bulk of this chapter is taken up with 31 encounters; the GM is advised to read them all before starting play, as some of them interact, generating different outcomes depending on what the PCs have explored before, and some of them have to be solved in a particular sequence.

First, though, there’s an explanation of the overall story structure and how the dungeon is randomly generated as the PCs explore. There’s no overall map, but there are corridors connecting encounter areas, which are of course populated by wandering monsters.

The individual encounters are a mixture of safe areas where PCs can rest, traps, clues to the storyline, and more traps; no spoilers, but they are all atmospheric and at least slightly unusual – none of this “you open a door and see six goblins; they attack” business. You do get straight-up fights, but usually those are with wandering monsters in the corridors. There’s a lot of machinery involved, for reasons which make good sense given the storyline, but if you’re purist high fantasy or swords-and-sorcery you may not want quite this much clockpunk. The general feel is that of Old School roleplaying; the PCs will not survive just on Notice rolls to find traps and Lockpicking or Repair rolls to bypass them, the players need to pay attention to their surroundings and act accordingly. There are a few encounters where I did think, how on Earth are the PCs supposed to figure that out? But experience teaches me they will, or if not, they are capable of enough sustained violence to batter their way through.

The product assumes that you’re using the companion tile maps (another ten bucks or so) and cards (free to download at time of writing) to generate the dungeon and lay it out for play, and that you only roll dice if you don’t have access to those.

How vicious is this tomb? The designers recommend PCs get a new benny (called “Karma” in the Suzerain over-setting) every time they survive meeting a monster or a trap. Under the Suzerain modifications to Savage Worlds, a player can spend a benny to avoid death, so PCs can only die if they run out of bennies; you might want to consider using that mod here.

Denizens of the Tomb (25 pages): 22 new foes for the heroes to face. Let’s leave those as surprises, shall we?

We close with a list of the Kickstarter backers who funded this.

There are a lot of free-to-download supplements for Dungeonlands; you might or might not want the alternative beginnings, but I found Heroes and Servitors useful as a source of pre-gen characters and extra encounters (and as examples of what the main book’s encounters are like), and the bonus tables useful for monsters and treasure. I’m not likely to use the Encounter Cards, but found the Tomb Cards essential to understand the layout.

FORMAT

The usual; two-column black text on a full-colour background, with full-colour art every few pages. Boxouts are in white text on black. Thankfully the background can be suppressed for cheaper printing.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

21 pages of introductory fiction? Seriously? 17% of the page count? That’s not what I buy these things for, you know; and I’d also appreciate it if previews on places like RPGNow had something other than exerts from the fiction, which really doesn’t help me assess whether I want to buy the product or not; an example encounter would be better. I would have preferred less fiction and some legible diagrams of the modules used to make up the dungeon; that could probably have been done in 2-4 pages.

Speaking of which, it would have helped me a lot to know that most encounter areas are square, about 7″ on a side, with two doors on opposing sides, but that corridors are whatever size, shape and number of exits you need to connect them. If you play in dim light, as recommended, you’ll struggle with the low contrast on some of the map cards; on many of them, exits are simply gaps in black walls on a black floor. To help with all those points, here’s a quick, rough and spoiler-free view of the main encounter areas that I knocked up in Dungeonographer:

dungeonlands

CONCLUSIONS

As usual I’ve tried to tell you enough about the product to decide whether you want to buy it, without revealing all the secrets, because your players (or mine) may be reading. What it brought to mind for me were the horror movie Cube and the first Aliens vs Predator film, in particular the sequences in the Predator pyramid; randomly shifting rooms and corridors full of death traps.

I feel inspired to use this next time I do some SW dungeon crawling; it’ll probably wind up somewhere in the Dread Sea Dominions, somewhere in or near the Fallen Realm of Keron I expect, maybe in the Keronian Range. It has probably saved me many hours of dungeon creation, but that’s a mixed blessing, since if I created my own dungeon I would be able to report the group’s adventures in more detail, as spoilers would neither matter nor potentially infringe copyright. So maybe the OD&D Tube map will see the light of day at some point after all.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. Better than I expected, good enough to get used, not quite good enough to get me to drop everything else.

Review: Scientorium

“Sweet is the harbour, but Death is the ferryman.” – Tsolyani proverb,

In a Nutshell: Plot Point Campaign and mini-setting for Savage Worlds’ Last parsec framework setting; assumes you have SW Deluxe and the Science Fiction Companion.

Things you should know going in:

  • The campaign relies heavily on players being able to separate what they know from what their characters know, and have the characters act only on the latter.
  • There are a lot of obstacles in the players’ way, realistically so given the backstory, and they will need to be more resolute than my lot usually are to reach the end of the story.
  • You’re going to lose at least one PC during the course of the campaign. I guarantee it.

CONTENTS

Characters (2 pages): This is the only chapter safe for players to read, and I’d think twice before letting them near it. If they do read it, they will learn that their PCs are going to explore an ancient structure – since that is written on the back cover, it’s not much of a spoiler. There’s a summary of background information which most characters in the setting don’t know, and half-a-dozen suggested character types (no statblocks, but you could easily use the ones in the companion Archetypes product).

A Galactic Wonder (8 pages): This gives an overview of the Scientorium itself, an orbital structure left behind by a long-vanished alien race. Basically, it’s a megadungeon in spaaaace. I like it.

Setting Rules (11 pages): The mechanic that intrigues me most is that for Doubt – because although the players know about the Scientorium, their characters doubt its existence. I was wondering by this point how that worked, but there’s a straightforward rule for handling it, treating it much like Fatigue. There’s also additionial information on how the Scientorium’s systems operate – and how they malfunction. There’s a lot of virtual reality in the Scientorium, which makes it easy to drop any sort of adventure into this particular setting; I always liked the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that focussed on the holodeck, and you can go nuts with that here. The down side of that is I’m not sure I have the creativity for it, but I could always mine other setting books for ideas. In fact, the Last Parsec as a whole encourages that thought.

Palimpsest (30 pages): Here is a plot point campaign in 11 parts, in which the PCs are (as usual) working for JumpCorp. At first they are tasked with finding a suspected thief and running surveillance on him; he leads them to a second shady individual and his bizarre quest, which over a series of adventures leads the PCs to the Scientorium and its wonders. The epic journey in parts three and four of the series can be extended almost indefinitely, as long as the GM has stories to tell and the players remain interested; they are more a framework into which other scenarios are inserted than they are plot points in the usual sense. Part six is also amenable to this, to an extent.

Savage Tales (22 pages): Thirteen of ’em; the previous chapter suggests where in the overall story arc they should be played. The Pursuer in particular cries out to be woven into the campaign. Several of the adventures can be played before the campaign starts, foreshadowing later events and introducing the PCs to people they will get to know much better in the main plotline (which I would definitely do), or extend the campaign after its official end (which I probably would not). I approve, and encourage other authors to do likewise.

Bestiary (9 pages): Two xenos and six sentients. One of the xenos is unusually large and complex, at six pages long.

FORMAT

Full cover covers wrapped around two-column black text with a blue and grey background (which fortunately can be suppressed using Acrobat layers). Colour illustrations every few pages. The usual Last Parsec trade dress, making the product look a bit like a tablet PC, which is the standard for SF RPG products at the moment.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Like Leviathan, this book refers to Known Space having an edge, and it refers to a target being “three systems away”; I don’t see how either marries up with the presumed drive system, either a place has a nav beacon or it doesn’t, and if it does, it’s one jump away.

It also talks of known space including multiple superclusters of galaxies; that puzzled me until I realised I was confusing it with the Known Worlds, which occupy a much smaller volume.

Scientorium’s size is quoted as different figures in the text and illustration, no biggie.

At various places in the text things like slow drugs or low-pasage canisters are mentioned, apparently relying on the reader to have a knowledge of the Dumarest saga or (more likely) some incarnation of Traveller.

I’m not sure what the impact of million-Gauss magnetic fields on personal equipment and humanoid flesh would be, but I suspect there’s fun to be had with the field strength that this book hasn’t explored – I need to check that out before the players run into them.

CONCLUSIONS

Of all the promised Last Parsec materials, this is the one I was looking forward to the most. The author, Timothy Brian Brown, has a name I recognise from the heady days of GDW, so my expectations were high – GDW was the company whose designers seemed most in tune with what I wanted out of RPGs.

While the one-setting-book-per-world approach has its virtues, I want my group to wander from planet to planet, and I wanted a book to support that. This one does, although at the other extreme of world detail, namely none at all – the intermediate stops on the PCs’ voyage are left for the GM to flesh out.

While the Last Parsec line as a whole is at least partially an homage to Star Frontiers, this book harks back to different roots; the Space Opera adventure Vault of the Ni’er Queyon, or Traveller’s multi-adventure arc culminating in The Secret of the Ancients. There are also, at least for me, echoes of Chaosium’s Ringworld.

Using my usual yardstick of one session every other week, this book would last my group roughly a year of real time, and lift the PCs from Novice to halfway through Veteran Rank.

Overall: I’m dithering between 4 out of 5 and 5 out of 5. Of all the Last Parsec materials to date, this is the one I’m most likely to use, although I would want to sprinkle other adventures around it and before it, gradually leading the players to the start of the plot point campaign. It’s a good keel for a campaign, but I’ll want to add more to it.