Review: Four Against Darkness

I had intended not to buy any more new games for a while, and then I found out about this new solo dungeon crawler. You know I can’t resist those.

In a Nutshell: Rules-lite solo dungeon-crawler from Ganesha Games, 65 page PDF, $8 at time of writing.

CONTENTS

This game has a lot of short chapters, so I’ll abandon my usual chapter by chapter approach for a broader overview and an actual play example.

In the game, you control a party of four adventurers who enter a randomly-generated dungeon to kill things and take their stuff. Characters are defined by their class and level, and have three attributes; Attack, Defence, and Life, this last being hit points. Monsters and traps are defined by their level. By default, the player goes first in combat; to attack, you roll 1d6, apply modifiers, and if the score meets or beats the monster’s level, you hit – each hit inflicts one Life point, with minions having one point and boss monsters several. If you’d rather talk, you let the monsters go first and a reaction roll determines what they do. If they attack, the character rolls a d6 and applies modifiers; a score of the monster’s level or better means you dodged the blow. Magic works much the same way, although spells have varying effects.

The majority of the book is made up of random tables for generating dungeons and their denizens. Rooms, corridors, various types of monsters, traps and treasure, special features, quests (which some monsters give you if you talk to them), epic rewards (which you can earn by completing quests), clues which you can collect to lead you to a major secret, for example the weakness of a boss monster.

There is a short equipment list, an equally short spell list, and rules for levelling up characters in an ongoing game. There is a dungeon generation flowchart, a party sheet, and a record sheet for keeping track of monsters slain (which you need to do for levelling up). Unusually, there are several PocketMod versions of key components, making it easier to play on the move.

FORMAT

Colour cover heralding two-column black on white text, liberally sprinkled with black and white illustrations.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I’d like an option for multi-level dungeons, which seems to be in the works. A wider range of character classes, spells and monsters would be nice, but is by no means essential.

It can be quite difficult to make out the square grid in the room tiles, if the contrast could be turned up just a little it would help me.

ACTUAL PLAY EXAMPLE

I select 4 of the 8 possible classes to form my party:

  • Retif, 1st level warrior (he can’t spell). He adds his level to his attack rolls, and begins with 7 Life, 2d6 = 7 gp, light armour, a shield and a hand weapon (which I decide is a sword).
  • Cirelc, 1st level cleric. She adds half her level to attack rolls (full level vs undead), can use the Blessing spell three times per adventure, and begins with 5 Life, 1d6 = 4 gp, light armour, a shield and a hand weapon (which out of respect for tradition I say is a mace).
  • Feiht, 1st level rogue. He adds his level to defence rolls, disarm trap rolls, and attack rolls if he is attacking outnumbered minions. He has 4 Life, 3d6 = 10 gp, rope, lock picks, light armour and a light hand weapon (most likely a dagger).
  • Draziw, 1st level wizard. He adds his level to spell attacks or puzzle rolls, and begins with three spells, a light hand weapon, a spellbook and writing implements. He has 3 Life and 4d6 = 16 gp. I decide to prepare Fireball, Lightning and Sleep, since some monsters are immune to some spells and that combination seems to give him the widest range of offensive options.

I put Retif and Cirelc in the front rank, Feiht and Draziw in the rear, and give Draziw the lantern to carry.

Map

Here you see the place of mystery they explored, rendered in Dungeonographer; areas are numbered in the sequence they were encountered.

4ad

Key

  1. Empty but with a special feature, specifically a healing fountain. Nobody is wounded yet so we ignore it and move on. I’m not bothering with checking for secret rooms in this game.
  2. Minions, namely 9 goblins. These fail to surprise us, so we go first – I can see from their reaction table that there is no point trying to talk to them unless we have enough cash to bribe them, which we don’t. The party attacks in the order listed above; Retif rolls 1 and adds his level to get 2, which isn’t enough to kill a goblin; Cirelc rolls 1, Feiht 4, and Draziw 9 (dice explode; Drziw rolled a 6, so gets to keep that and roll again, in this case adding another 3. Goblins have level 3, and thus each multiple of 3 damage kills one. Feiht got one, and Draziw killed three. The 5 surviving goblins now roll; a die roll determines that the extra attack hits Cirelc. I notice that the combat example on p. 48 doesn’t quite seem to match how combat is described earlier in the book, but let’s stick with the example for now. The goblins attack, which means the heroes roll to dodge, and suffer a point of damage for missing. Retif rolls a 2, but gets +1 for his light armour and +1 for his shield, total 4; this exceeds the goblin’s level (3) so he blocks the attack. Cirelc and Draziw likewise defend successfully, but Feith rolls a 1, so he fails to defend and takes one damage. In the second round, our heroes drop 4 goblins for no damage, and in round 3 they kill the last goblin – as there are none left to attack, and monsters always go last, they take no further damage. We now loot the bodies, rolling on the Treasure Table (at -1 because goblins) and collecting a gem worth 15 gp.
  3. Empty with a special feature, again a healing fountain, which conveniently heals Feith.
  4. This room was bigger, but by the rules is truncated to fit on the map. Inside are 3 skeletal rats (level 3 undead). Yet again the wizard’s attack die explodes and he offs all but the one killed by Retif. The rats sadly have no treasure.
  5. Retracing our steps without encountering wandering monsters, we move into this area and set off a spear trap. Retif and Cirelc both take one damage.
  6. 8 skeletal rats. it takes 4 rounds to kill them all. Draziw loses a hit point (now down to 2). Again there is no treasure.
  7. 5 orcs. This is a good chance to try a spell, as if it kills one of them the rest may well flee. Draziw fires a lightning bolt at the apparent leader, rolls a 6, adds his level for a 7 – and kills one, as they are level 4 beings. The rest roll a d6, score 2, and since this is in the range 1-3 they all run away, dropping a pouch of 6 gp as they go. Excellent.
  8. A potion of healing protected by a gas trap, how ironic. Everyone makes a defence roll ignoring armour and shields; Retif and Draziw fail, being reduced to 6 and 1 Life respectively. Draziw quaffs the potion and restores himself to 3 Life.
  9. A giant stone block falls out of the ceiling onto Draziw; fortunately he dodges it, and discovers 6 gp stuck in a crack on the side. (The tables tell me a stone block drops and there are 6 gp loot; I can’t help embellishing but wouldn’t like you to be disappointed in what the product actually contains.)
  10. Empty. That does happen occasionally.
  11. 4 zombies with no treasure. The party despatches these in two turns for no damage.
  12. Empty.
  13. 17 rats, no treasure. Rats are level 1, and you might think that since you can’t roll less than this on 1d6, you always hit; but p. 49 says a roll of 1 is always a failure on defence rolls. So while you are guaranteed to take out one rat per turn each, the rats could get lucky. In the five turns it takes us to kill the rats, everybody except Draziw gets bitten and loses one Life, but luckily none of the wounds are infected.
  14. We retrace our steps to the other door out of area 11 – no ambushes – and find 4 orcs in this tiny room. Draziw loses another hit point before the orcs are killed, and looting the bodies reveals another 5 gp. Cirelc decides now is a good time to break out the healing, and heals 7 Life – enough to refresh everyone to full power.

However, I decide to leave the dungeon (luck is with us and there are no random encounters on the way out), and tot up our winnings: 27 gp in all, just short of 7 each. Each time the party kills a boss, completes a quest, or survives 10 minion encounters, one character can roll to level up; we don’t qualify on any of those counts, sadly. Off to the pub then.

CONCLUSIONS

  • In setup and play, the game feels like a mixture of OD&D and Heroquest. It’s easy to reconstruct the classic parties from those games with the classes in 4AD.
  • The extreme simplicity of the game lends itself well to solo play, which I have found often bogs down if using the more complex rules of a full-blown RPG.
  • The tiles are small enough to reproduce as battlemaps, one per page, and lay out directly on the table if I were so inclined.
  • I can see myself not only playing this for its own sake, but also using it as a dungeon generator for other games. It gains the coveted 5 out of 5 for being something that I want to play right away. Oh look, I just have.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.

Review: Thousand Suns

In a Nutshell: Space opera RPG by James Maliszewski, using the 12 Degrees rule system. 277 page PDF (in my case) published by Grognardia Games, $30.

CONTENTS

1: Primer (8 pages). This explains what you’re going to get. The game is intended to evoke the feeling of classic science fiction literature from the 1950s to the 1970s. The core mechanic is to add together a characteristic and a skill level, and roll that or less on 2d12 to succeed.

2: Character Generation (18 pages). This is a straightforward point-buy system; divide 30 points between 5 characteristics, select a species, a homeworld package and three career packages, create five hooks for the character, acquire and spend benefit points. Vitality (hit points) and Initiative Rank are calculated from the five characteristics. Hooks are things about the character that can generate plots or complications, and are somewhat like Fate aspects or Savage Worlds edges and hindrances. Each package gives you a selection of skills and skill levels, and has several hooks suggested for it. Benefit points are derived from career packages. Action points allow you to improve your chances of success or re-roll skill checks; they work better if used in conjunction with a hook.

3: Species (18 pages). Six species are presented, including Terrans (that’s you, that is), two human clades (the obligatory genetically-engineered super-soldiers and geniuses), the Czanik (walking trees and Terra’s best allies), the Hen Jaa (the default bad guys – chlorine-breathing squids), and the Kriilkna (trilaterally symmetrical shrimp-people). A PC’s species affects his characteristics, skills, and so forth, and at least one of his hooks must be related to his species. It’s clearly stated that there are many more species in the game universe.

4: Career Packages (18 pages). There are 27 careers, each with three levels: Novice, Experienced and Veteran. PCs each have three packages to allocate, so they may choose to be a Veteran of a single career, Experienced in one and Novice in a second, or Novice in three different ones. Being a Veteran gets you the best benefits, which are things like a robot servant, membership in an interstellar organisation, part-ownership of a starship and so on.

5: Skills and Hooks (14 pages). There are 40 skills, typically with half a dozen potential specialisations; hooks can be pretty much whatever you want, so there is no definitive list. The core mechanic was explained earlier, and is expanded on here with modifiers, critical successes and failures, and whatnot; how much you succeed by, or fail by, is important, although the main mechanical effect is in combat.

6: Action (20 pages). Combat is straightforward and simple. In order of initiative, move and act or attack. To attack, roll 2d12; if the result is less than or equal to the sum of the relevant characteristic and skill plus modifiers, you’ve hit, and inflict damage equal to your degree of success multiplied by the weapon’s base damage on the target’s Vitality. There is hit location, but only if you use a called shot.

7: Psi (18 pages). The 20 or so psionic powers in the game are bought like skills, although you need to take at least one level in a psi career to gain access to them. Something to watch out for: Use of powers inflicts damage – you essentially power your abilities with your hit points. Using powers on things that are heavier, further away etc. requires more degrees of success and hurts you more. Powers tend to focus on telepathy, telekinesis and buffing the psi’s abilities – what a Star Wars fan would know as the Force.

8: Technology and Equipment (22 pages). My eyes glaze over as usual at the gear chapter, but it includes armour, personal energy shields, blasters both normal and sonic, lasers, tanglers, slug throwers, monoblades, vibroblades, computers, neural jacks, drugs and medical gear, sensors, survival equipment, cybernetic implants, a few types of robots – you get the idea.

9: Starships and Vehicles (26 pages). There are no shipbuilding rules (those are in the supplement Thousand Suns: Starships), just 18 example ships. The stand-out development here is an attempt at simple three-dimensional space combat. Ships in a dogfight move on the table, but their altitude above or below it is shown by d12s. I’m not sure how well this would work as I haven’t tried it, but kudos for having a go at it. Apart from this, in general terms ship combat works similarly to personal combat. This chapter also includes 14 example vehicles and rules for chases and vehicle combat, which is even more like personal combat.

10: Game Mastering (12 pages). This opens with fairly basic, generic stuff; the GM should be fair, the players should always have a chance of success, it’s supposed to be fun, change anything you don’t like in the game. Then we move on into how to create an Imperial SF adventure; draw on events in the 19th and early 20th centuries, be realistic yet optimistic, power should corrupt but not absolutely, great civilisations should rise and fall (sometimes predictably), make travel slow and authority distant, make technology cool but remember it is a prop, not the focus of the story. That segues into a random adventure generator which is followed by notes on awarding experience points and what players can do with them.

11: Worlds and Trade (20 pages). Here are the sector and world generation sequences, and the trading rules. Sectors consist of several dozen worlds, each with 0-3 jump routes connecting it to other worlds 1d12 weeks away. Each world is characterised by its general type, diameter, atmosphere, climate, hydrography, population, government, law and tech levels, and hooks. Speculative trade relies on random die rolls for what is available, and skill checks to haggle for purchase and sale prices.

12: Alien Life (16 pages). Alien animal and species design sequence; basic form, characteristics, size, movement, and traits such as Brittle Bones, Curious and Acidic Spittle. Traits are point-buy, the rest of the sequence is based on die rolls.

13: Allies and Antagonists (8 pages). Get yer NPCs here. Statblocks, gear, descriptions; a dozen generic ones, half a dozen fleshed out in some detail and suitable for use as allies or enemies.

14: Meta-Setting (20 pages). This is my favourite part; although the author intends the book as a toolkit for building your own Imperial SF setting, he understands that not everyone has the time or inclination to do so. The meta-setting is a broad outline of the history and geography of one such setting, which is deliberately kept vague and flexible enough that the individual GM can drop anything into it and be confident it will fit. (This is a current trend in SF RPGs, see for example The Last Parsec or Ashen Stars.) It follows the traditional consensus of the literature; World War III wipes the slate clean and explains discrepancies between today and the setting’s future history, interplanetary then interstellar exploration, alien contact, the first empire (in this case the Terran Federation), assorted wars, an interregnum, and the present day. What is clever about it is the way that the author has removed from play various currently-fashionable technologies which were not present in the literature, notably Artificial Intelligence and genetic engineering. I also like the way that the GM is provided with options for the current Terran State’s structure and its key personalities. We also learn about interstellar organisations, the Terran State’s rival powers, and the long-vanished aliens known as Travelers, blamed for anything weird and the source of the original starmap found by humans on Mars.

15: Limzano Sector (9 pages). In this last full chapter, we see an example sector of about 60 worlds, with four rival powers striving to assimilate them, a number of non-governmental organisations and corporations, thumbnail sketches (statblock and a paragraph or two of notes) of 10 of the worlds, and a lesser intelligent race native to the area.

We finish with an appendix on Lingua Terra (basic phrases, personal and ship names), a bibliography (the fiction the game emulates), the open game licence, and the obligatory character sheet. A nice touch is that Lingua Terra, the language of rule of the old Federation, is represented in-game by the real-world artificial language Esperanto.

FORMAT

Colour cover (by which I mean, it is green) surrounding single-column black text on white. Black and white illustrations every few pages, liberally spattered with quotes from the literature it emulates. Easy to read, easy on the home printer.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

None. This is solid work, and will be comfortingly familiar for the Traveller grognard despite using very different rules.

CONCLUSIONS

Like Classic Traveller, Thousand Suns strives to emulate “Imperial science fiction”, the space opera genre of 1950s-1970s literature; it is therefore inevitable that to some extent they appear similar. You could use these rules for a Travelleresque campaign, and it would work very well. They’re very fast and easy to pick up, well laid out, and a good representation of their target genre. Had I but world enough, and time, and players, this would go into the queue for use. But I don’t, so I shall limit myself to pillaging it for ideas.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review: Moria

“Keep in mind that you do not need to map out every square inch that the characters travel. Instead, create maps that focus on encounter areas and use narrative descriptions to move the action from scene to scene. Just like a book or movie, highlight the important parts of the story. Don’t force the players to navigate an endless series of featureless rooms on their way from one area to the next.” – Moria

Decipher Inc. published two RPGs; Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings, both now sadly out of print and unsupported. The LOTR mantle has passed to Cubicle 7’s The One Ring, which I reviewed here, while the closest thing left in print to a Star Trek RPG is Prime Directive, set in the Star Fleet Battles universe which is close to canonical Star Trek but not an exact match. Both Decipher games used variants of their CODA system, whose core mechanic is roll 2d6 + modifiers and meet or beat a target number.

I’ve read both games, but the only thing I managed to snag was Moria, the supplement detailing the titular and trope-making megadungeon. It had some cool ideas which deserve a wider audience, and the game is long dead, so this post will focus on those and encourage you to adopt them.

The product is a boxed set containing Dwarves of Middle-Earth (32 page booklet), Khazad-dum (96-page booklet), 16 semi-geomorphic map tiles each 10″ by 8.5″, a double-sided 10″ x 17″ map with one side showing the countryside around the Hollin Gate entrance to Moria, and the other showing the 15 main regions of the mines and how they are interconnected by tunnels, and another double-sided 10″ x 17″ map with floor plans for six key areas such as the Twenty-First Hall. The text is printed in eye-damaging dark grey on mid-grey; I suspect it was intended to have a colour background and someone decided they needed to reduce the price by printing in greyscale.

I’ll gloss over Dwarves of Middle-Earth, which is the expected mixture of fluff expanding on what Tolkien actually wrote and crunch about enhanced dwarven character generation, the adequate-but-not-outstanding geomorphs, the key area floor plans and the wilderness map; the cool ideas are all in the Khazad-dum book and the Vertical Exaggeration of Moria, which is basically that schematic diagram you see in D&D-inspired games showing how the dungeon levels connect. The book has six chapters and an appendix, which cover respectively the history of Moria in the setting, setting-specific game mechanics, mapping advice, tools for creating the regions of Moria including diagrams of typical homes and workshops , a bestiary, sample scenarios and advice on creating your own, and expanded info on orc subspecies. The intention seems to be for a multi-generational chronicle in which player characters tackle the dangers of the mines through multiple eras, adventuring for a while then passing the torch to their descendants, while the overall story arc covers Moria’s fall, doldrums, and possible eventual recovery. Middle-Earth’s elves, being immortal, keep the same character from age to age; dwarves are long-lived, and can play in two consecutive ages; but men and hobbits can only play in one generation. To avoid penalising the shorter-lived races, however, experience totals are carried over from character to character.

The thing of note on the Vertical Exaggeration is that the boxes representing levels and the lines showing their connections are labelled; for example a trip from Dimrill Dale (surface) through the First Deep (labelled “P15”) to the Redhorn Upperdeeps (“P20”) takes you along a connecting arrow labelled “P15/T6”. P is the Peril target number and shows how likely the PCs are to run into trouble while there, and T is the travel time in hours – thus it takes 6 hours to travel from the First Deep to the Redhorn Upperdeeps. Levels themselves take an hour to traverse, so the dungeon itself is a points-of-light setting in miniature; long, dark, mysterious passageways connecting densely-packed areas of rooms and chambers. The expectation is that the PCs are not “house-clearing” one room at a time, they have a specific destination in mind and are trying to get there by the shortest route possible to minimise the chance of encounters.

The heroes first plot a route, rolling the appropriate skill against a target number and applying modifiers. While trying to follow it, they must make another skill check every hour of travel to avoid getting lost; on an ordinary failure they realise this and try again in an hour (while Gandalf smokes his pipe and tries to remember the way), and on a critical failure they don’t notice and wind up on the wrong level. While travelling, the group must also make tests to avoid becoming fatigued, and in some areas the dark and terrifying atmosphere is itself enough to cause a fear check. Meanwhile, every four hours the characters must make a Stealth check against the local Peril number; in the case of failure, the more they miss the roll by, the more orcs and other vile monstrosities they encounter, while success allows them to evade detection and possibly ambush the wandering monsters. If the PCs are sufficiently tough nuts to crack, they get a glimpse of orcs or hear drums in the deep, and the bad guys they would have met avoid them, massing the forces from multiple encounters for one dramatic strike. (In a generational chronicle, as the PCs whittle down orcish numbers, they make the mines safer for their descendants by reducing the Peril numbers in specific areas; but if cleared levels are not patrolled, the Peril number creeps back up again.)

Moria has a relatively limited monster palette, consisting principally of orcs and the occasional cave troll. To spice this up a bit, the encounters are split into five groups – massed attacks, patrols, wanderers, watch points and camps – and each group has six detailed situations in which they may be encountered; the group you encounter depends on how badly you miss the Stealth check against the region’s Peril number. You might find two small groups of orcs fighting each other; you might find an impassable obstacle and be ambushed by several times your number of orc archers firing from unreachable cover, while orcs equipped for melee roll up your flank. Sometimes the orcs have set traps to make the encounter more dangerous for the party, or there are environmental hazards present; traps have two target numbers, with the PCs rolling against the first to notice it, and the second to disarm it.

There is also a system of creating dungeon levels using map tiles and dice rolls, which gives Moria three broad types of areas; unique and significant areas like the Chamber of Mazarbul in Lord of the Rings, which are designed by the GM; secondary areas built using map tiles and dice rolls for the type, contents and condition of each chamber; and the completely abstracted tunnels connecting levels. An unusual aspect of this system is that the majority of dungeon levels are not stocked; encounters are driven by the Peril checks above.

The bestiary speaks to orcs of various professions, the balrog, cave-trolls, cave-wraiths, rats both normal and giant, bats, and the Watcher in the Water; the GM is encouraged to create unique Moria-themed creatures as well. The adventures chapter has two full adventures and advice on creating your own, essentially create a goal, a hook, a timeline, and a set of events along the timeline, then infuse those with a Middle-Earth tone and turn the players loose on it.

Things worth assimilating:

  • Abstracted connections between levels, with Peril numbers and transit times.
  • Use of Peril checks to replace stocking the dungeon.
  • Multiple encounter situations for common monsters, with preset numbers and types encountered.

Review: Barbarians of Lemuria

“Designing adventures can be a bit daunting. The thing is, you shouldn’t bust a gut over it. The more it is planned out, the less easy it will be to play.” – Barbarians of Lemuria

I’ve been eyeing this up for a while, and eventually gave in to temptation.

In a Nutshell: Simple but excellent sword and sorcery RPG. 110 page PDF by Beyond Belief Games, $5. Hard copy also available, but dude, that’s, like, soooo twentieth century…

I should mention that I got the Legendary Edition, and I know there are several other editions but not what the differences between them are. Caveat emptor.

CONTENTS

The book opens with the history of Lemuria, the world of the setting; there’s an ancient sorcerous civilisation, then there’s a Dark Lord, then a hero sorts him out, then the sorcerors come back, then another hero sorts them out, then the present day. So you have an ancient-to-mediaeval setting, scantily-clad and mighty-thewed barbarians with an eye on the main chance, evil sorcerors, and fortunes quickly found and just as quickly lost.

Next comes an essay on role-playing, which unusually is not focused on “what is a role-playing game” but is an explanation of the kinds of stories this game tells, how the Game Master and players are expected to contribute, and what to expect in terms of game-play.

Mechanically, characters have four attributes (Strength, Agility, Mind and Appeal), four combat abilities (Brawl, Melee, Ranged and Defence) and four careers (chosen from a list of 26). You have four points to split between the attributes, another four to split between combat abilities, and four to split between careers; the maximum initial rating for any of them is 3. Lifeblood (hit points) is ten plus your Strength. Heroes also have one or two boons (Edges, Advantages, Feats, whatever) and possibly a flaw as well; these are chosen from lists determined by one’s birthplace. Boons let you roll three dice and pick the best two, flaws require you to roll three dice and pick the worst two – they typically apply only in specific circumstances, such as “when the situation calls for someone to believe you”.

Important NPCs are generated like heroes, while Rabble have 3 Lifeblood, most attributes at 0, and are unlikely to last long.

To attempt a task with some chance of failure, the player rolls 2d6, adds the relevant attribute and either any relevant combat ability or any relevant career, and applies situational modifiers; if the result is 9 or more, success. A natural 12 on the dice is always success, a natural 2 is always failure. Sufficiently high rolls, or ones boosted by spending “hero points”, may be Mighty or even Legendary; a nice touch is that with a Mighty Success in combat, the damage you roll is the number of Rabble you incapacitate. (Combat, by the way, follows the usual pattern; roll for who goes first, roll to hit, roll for damage, deduct damage from Lifeblood.)

In terms of rewards, loot is abstract; the GM describes the piles of gold and gems, the characters pick it up and take it away, and the players describe how they drink and gamble it all away – and how many experience points (sorry, Advancement Points) they get depends on how they spend it; misers and hoarders get one point, most people get two, players with especially cool or funny stories get three, especially if the story leads into another adventure. AP are used to improve abilities or careers, buy new boons, or buy off flaws.

There is some GM advice, which I rather liked; BoL is clearly designed for improvisational and picaresque adventures, exactly the sort I prefer. The section on starting gear, for example, advocates giving the characters whatever they want – Conan never went shopping, and nor should the characters. You can always take it off them later.

There are rules for magic, which are vague and abstract because spellcasters are meant to be NPCs – the genre convention is that they are villains, and anyway they spend all their time poring over musty tomes rather than fighting, drinking and wenching. I’ll dwell for a moment on spell levels, because they are unusual; cantrips give very basic effects, spells of the first magnitude allow the caster to do anything a trained individual with the right equipment could do, second magnitude is stuff a single person could never do, and third magnitude are generation-spanning curses and natural disasters. So a cantrip might make a squeaky door open silently, a first magnitude spell might burst it asunder, second magnitude would blow down the whole wall, and third magnitude would flatten the surrounding city. A cantrip might cost 1-2 power, first magnitude spells might need a special item and cost 5 power, and so forth. There are a dozen or so example spells, but the GM is clearly expected to wing it. Priests (good) and druids (bad) pray and sacrifice to gain fate points, which they can use to grant short-duration boons or flaws that are within the domain of their gods. Alchemists make potions and other devices – potions are defined as being able to duplicate the effects of things you can buy in a modern drugstore; sleeping pills, painkillers, ant poison and so on.

There’s an extensive gazetteer of the setting, including a colour map. Some entries have adventure seeds, some don’t. There are half-a-dozen playable races besides men, a couple of dozen beasts (Lemuria is a world without horses, although there are riding beasts) and a handful of stock NPCs. There are twenty good-ish gods and six dark gods. There’s a glossary of terms.

There are seven pregenerated heroes (who interestingly have history with each other) and a few adventure seeds, as well as three longer adventures. And a character sheet. Oh, and did I mention the Sky Boats?

FORMAT

Colour covers, two-column black on white text with red headings and italic quotes at the start of chapters, sprinkled with black and white illustrations. Basic, easy to read, gets the job done.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

None, actually. Although the game has quite a few ideas I intend to borrow.

CONCLUSIONS

There’s a lot to like here; the game handles characters, task resolution and magic very elegantly, and after reading the rules through once I’d be confident in running a basic scenario without opening the rulebook. It’s amazing how much simpler things are when there are no player character spellcasters.

For the sort of games I run these days, this is almost a perfect match; I can see why it gets such good reviews elsewhere. It’s very, very tempting to use next time I get the gang together; but now we only play every 3-6 months changing the rules is a luxury I can ill afford. I did seriously consider it though, so that’s got to be at least a 4, and in fact I’ll bump that to 5 because of the sheer elegance of the rules.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.

Review: Dwimmermount

Dwimmermount is 414 pages of Old School megadungeon, derived from James Maliszewski’s campaign notes at Grognardia and published by Autarch. I got the PDF, which set me back ten bucks. My version is for Labyrinth Lord, but you can also get an ACKS version and it looks easy to port to any retroclone.

I’ll abandon my normal review approach because Dwimmermount is so big. Let’s just hit the highlights.

THE HIGHLIGHTS

It’s big. The dungeon itself has 13 levels, each with about 60 rooms. It’s set in a wilderness roughly 200 x 200 miles, with 40-odd surface locations described in varying degrees of detail, some of which have entrances to smaller dungeons (these are left for the GM to map and populate, however).

It’s detailed. There is a secret history, and the characters are rewarded for figuring it out. There is a publicly-known history. Humans and the demihuman races each have different beliefs about what’s going on and why. There are rival adventuring parties, each with a patron and a purpose, and there are rules for what they get up to in the dungeon when the players are not around. There are notes on the system of water pipes in case the PCs find some magic to shrink themselves to rat size and go exploring in them. There are tables showing which level was built when, why, and by whom; which dungeon levels each of the numerous factions operates on; how other dungeons might be connected to Dwimmermount; where the entrances to the megadungeon are and how to get through them. There are new monsters, new character classes, new magic items, new spells; to be fair, many of these are converted from other editions of D&D. There are four other planets the party can visit using the secrets they find in the dungeon. There is a substance called azoth with mysterious properties, some of them useful and some deadly.

It’s tied to the setting. Every significant event in the world’s history is connected to the dungeon in some way, and vice versa. The demihuman races (especially the dwarves) are modified, the better to fit the setting’s secret history. There are specific gods. In theory you could modify it to fit your own homebrew setting, but that would be a lot of work, quite possibly more than making your own megadungeon.

It’s science-fantasy. There are all the usual mediaeval trappings of a fantasy setting, but then you also have giant machines, spacecraft, golems, androids, interplanetary portals and what have you.

OPINIONS

The good:

  • The way the rooms interact with each other and the dungeon’s secret history.
  • It’s complete in itself, a whole campaign in one book. I’m ambivalent about this; you wouldn’t need anything else, but by the time you’ve fully familiarised yourself with the contents, you could have created your own world.
  • The dungeon is released under the OGL so you can tinker with it in public if you like, thus removing any worries about copyright infringement on your blog, for example.

The bad:

  • Most of the individual rooms are not very exciting. Yes, they’re well-thought out and they fit logically into the setting, but they’re not very exciting.
  • It’s not that easy to fit into a setting other than its own.

REFLECTIONS

In the actual 1970s, dungeons were big and contained homages to whatever fantasy and science fiction the GM had read in the last few years, and for the most part didn’t make a lot of sense. I, at least, yearned for something like Dwimmermount; a huge dungeon with a consistent backstory that could be worked out by sufficiently clever and motivated players, and ventilation shafts and sewer pipes PCs could crawl through. In 1977 I would’ve been all over Dwimmermount like a rash in a cheap suit.

But now? This is all stuff I’ve seen before, if not all in the same place. It’s well-executed, certainly; it’s rare to see a campaign so carefully crafted and fitting together so well; but it’s not vibrant or exciting. I guess you can’t go home again.

I must resist the siren call of the published megadungeon; I keep buying them, and then not using them. Perhaps I should build one just to scratch that itch and get it out of my system.

Review: Five Parsecs From Home

“Every form of art asks questions of the viewer. Questions about life and existence. The questions asked by Five Parsecs From Home is whether your war droid trooper will find true love on the Fringes and why exactly a three armed tax collector is leading a band of religious fanatics?” – Five Parsecs From Home

In a Nutshell: Science fiction supplement for FiveCore skirmish wargaming rules. 91 page PDF by Nordic Weasel Games, $14.99 (on sale at $7.99 at time of writing).

CONTENTS

This is a supplement for FiveCore, allowing the player to use those rules to simulate the sort of adventures one sees in Firefly, Dark Matter, or Killjoys. It can be played as a one-off fight, a campaign game, or as the combat engine for more traditional and freeform roleplaying.

The setting for the game is deliberately vague and morally ambiguous, and to my mind laced with dark humour; the game takes place on the fringes of the Unity, a human-dominated bureaucratic state which responds to any perceived problem in the colonies by invading them (since it can’t be bothered to find out what’s really going on), and then habitually forgets to redeploy the forces afterwards. This means colonies are periodically re-conquered by their own government, and the conquerors are then absorbed into the general population, leaving large quantities of military-grade weapons and more-or-less combat-ready troops lying around. With counterfeiters and petty warlords with incomprehensible local currencies everywhere on the fringe, most traders operate on the barter system. The drive to expand and breed like crazy is confined to humanity, with the typical alien thinking “Where did all the humans come from? Oh, we’re part of the Unity now? Well, whatever, man, who cares.”

The first step is to create your crew, which consists of 4-8 figures. Don’t get too attached to them, because your “player characters” have no special protection. Each has an origin, a motivation, a class and maybe some special circumstances, all determined at random. The crew as a whole has a variety of equipment, provided by their classes and special circumstances, which may also give them Talents (known in other games as Edges, Advantages, Feats and so on). The group also has a starship and a reason they met, but these have no mechanical impact and exist only for narrative purposes. One or two group members may also have random character flaws.

At this point, if you want to play a stand up fight, or a club campaign composed of a series of those with no connecting story, you’re good to go. Otherwise, you head into the campaign section. The focus of the rules is a wargaming club rather than a roleplaying group, so the campaign likely has several players, each controlling a group of rogues, and taking turns to provide each other’s opposition by acting as game master and running the NPCs – or perhaps the two groups get into a fight. Towards the end of the book are some notes on running a more traditional narrative-heavy roleplaying campaign with a single games master, using the rules to adjudicate non-combat activities.

The campaign turn has an unspecified length, possibly a week, and in each turn the group travels to another world, assigns a dirtside activity to each crewman (repair, trade, recruit etc.), finds a patron and a mission, trades, sees the local sights, and enjoys a random event. Missions and random events generate the combat scenarios which are the core of the game, and there is a new random event generator for the unexpected occurring during combat.

There are scenario rules for special occasions; hacking computers, bluffing NPCs and NPC reactions, repairs, fear checks, etc. There is the obligatory equipment list, with sfnal weapons, armour and goodies – including alien artefacts which make good scenario McGuffins.

FORMAT

Much like FiveCore itself; single-column black on white text, few and basic illustrations, colour covers.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I don’t like the random event which ends the campaign, but I can always reroll it.

CONCLUSIONS

I love the setting and will assimilate parts of it directly to better serve the needs of the collective. The campaign system is heavy on tables and random dice rolls, in a way that RPGs (at least, the ones I play) are moving beyond, so the game as a whole brings back fond memories of playing Laserburn in the 1980s. Good times, so maybe that style of play is worth trying again…

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. One to try later.

Review: FiveCore Second Edition

“The game is best enjoyed while listening to heavy metal albums.” – FiveCore Second Edition

During January my attention was drawn to Five Parsecs From Home, which turns out to be a supplement for FiveCore 2nd Edition, so let’s take a look at that first, shall we?

In a Nutshell: Simple skirmish wargaming rules. 93 page PDF by Nordic Weasel Games, $9.99.

CONTENTS

FiveCore 2 is a set of generic skirmish wargaming rules, derived from the earlier Five Men in Normandy and the core of a wide range of supplements for various settings and eras from the 20th century onwards. The rulebook is divided into 23 sections, so rather than list them and drill into detail, here are the highlights. Each section has a number of “playstyle options” which allow you to tweak the game to your liking, and individual rules subsystems are independent of each other, allowing you to mash them up with other games if you fancy it.

Like THW’s Chain Reaction, FiveCore sits in skirmish gaming land, midway between wargaming and roleplaying games, with a small table, a handful of figures on each side, and a campaign generator. It is closer to the wargaming trenches than the roleplaying tavern, however, and thus assumes that all figures are more or less the same. It also assumes that interesting things happen about one-third of the time – whenever a player wants to do something that involves an element of chance, he rolls one or more six-sided dice. Rolls of 1 or 6 have special effects, with the 6 generally being more dramatic. Such situations include movement, firing (but not brawling), throwing grenades, rolling to see if your armour saves you from an attack, the effects of leadership, artillery support, sneaking past guards, and so forth.

During a turn, the dice may drive a player to move all figures, shoot with all figures, or activate three of them who can both move and fire. Player turns alternate, but under some circumstances the inactive player may react to what the active one is doing.

Firing subsumes rolling to hit and rolling for damage into a single dice roll. Each weapon has specified numbers of Shock and Kill dice (the basic infantry rifle has one of each) which are rolled whenever it attacks; scores of 1 or 6 have special effects. Kill dice reflect physical damage, while Shock dice are essentially morale effects – if I say more than that I will basically give you the game, it’s that simple. Under some circumstances you can swap Kill for Shock, or may be forbidden to use one die type or another. This is a very clever mechanic, which I expect would be really fast in play.

Melee is fast, infrequent and deadly; you win or are incapacitated.

There are a lot of optional rules for special situations – weather, vehicles, alien races and superpowers for example – which I infer were not in the first edition of the rules. One which drew my attention was the solo gaming section; these essentially state that each enemy team should have a plan (“take and hold the building”) and give brief notes on battle drills for attack and defence, target priorities, and options for changes of orders, reactions to setbacks and so forth. These are quite different from what I’m used to, but look like they would work well enough.

There is a mission section intended for quick pickup games, and a random force generator to shake things up a bit. There is a character creation section for when “a soldier is a soldier” won’t do; characters have a class (e.g. Rifleman or Leader), a level, which is basically how many (random) advances they’ve gained, and (optionally) a backstory which has no mechanical impact on play. In campaign play, after each game one figure receives an advance.

FORMAT

Single-column black on white text, few and basic illustrations, colour covers. I’m a content guy more than a format guy so I’m fine with this. The layout is simple enough to work as an e-reader file.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I kept thinking I’d found something missing, and then finding it a few pages further on. So maybe an index.

CONCLUSIONS

This is a quirky product, the sort of thing that was commonplace in the 1970s and 1980s before wargaming became big business, when it seemed every local club had its own locally-printed rules with cardboard covers and dodgy illustrations. That’s not a criticism, but it did make me nostalgic.

The actual combat rules are very simple and straightforward, with a one-page quick reference that would suffice for most games. The campaign and character rules are more complex, but look viable.

The game is more focused on the fireteam as a whole than the individuals within it, assuming that figures are much alike in capabilities and importance.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. This intrigues me enough to go into the hopper of games to try out.