Review: Frostgrave

“We’ve made a couple of runs on the old potion store, grabbing little frozen barrels before the blade-bats wake up. Of course the real fun is when you get them home and you have to figure out what they do. That’s just one more reason to take prisoners…” – Frostgrave

This is very pretty, an intriguing concept, and gets good reviews. So…

In a Nutshell: Fantasy skirmish wargame for two players, requires 10 figures per side maximum and a few random encounters, playable in 1-2 hours. 136 pages, £9-£15 at time of writing, depending on format. Written by Joseph A. McCullough, published by Osprey.

CONTENTS

Foreword (2 pages): The premise of the game; Frostgrave is a ruined and icebound city, destroyed by magic gone awry centuries ago. Now it is slowly thawing out, and wizards bent on looting venture into its depths with their minions. There are, of course, guardians for its treasures, and other wizards who dispute your right to take its riches with sword and spell.

Wizards and Warbands (19 pages): What you need to play (figures, dice, tape measure or ruler, table at least two feet square, terrain, an opponent). Building your warband, which consists of one wizard representing the player, an apprentice (optional but highly recommended), and up to eight soldiers (a catch-all term meaning they are not spellcasters; there are 15 different types including dogs, healers, fighters, thieves and whatnot). Your wizard is free, and you have 500 gold with which to hire followers. All figures are human, or at least there are no rules for other playable races.

Wizards are each members of one of the ten schools of magic; they can learn spells from their own or friendly schools, but not opposed schools, and begin with a total of eight spells. Apprentices know the spells their wizard knows, but are not as good at casting them.

Each figure has a statline listing its stats: Move, Fight, Shoot, Armour, Will and Health. Initially, all figures of the same type have the same statline; wizards can improve their stats with experience over a campaign, apprentices improve when their mentor does, soldiers don’t improve. So, you only have one character to track experience for. Figures also have item slots for carrying cool toys; wizards can have a maximum of five items, apprentices four, soldiers one.

As befits a wargame, equipment is basic, defined by the figure’s type, and not detailed in any depth.

Playing the Game (22 pages): Table setup calls for lots of terrain – you’re in a mazelike ruined city, after all. Turns consist of initiative (1d20 roll, high score goes first in each phase); wizard phase (wizard and up to three nearby figures activate); apprentice phase (apprentice and up to three more figures activate – this is why you want an apprentice); soldier phase (any soldiers who haven’t activated yet do so); creature phase (anything else on the board activates). When a figure activates, it gets two actions, one of which must be a move and the other of which can be another move, attack, cast a spell etc.

Combat is brilliantly simple and swingy, combining attack and damage into one roll; when you attack, roll 1d20 and apply modifiers (including adding your Fight or Shoot stat); deduct the target’s armour rating; any positive number left over is the damage taken by the target – since, except for experienced wizards, nobody has more than 12 Armour or 14 Health, you can see they’re not going to last long; the optional critical hits rule, which doubles damage on a natural 20, makes this even more painful. Oh, and if you hit someone you’re allowed to push them back, including off buildings if you’re fighting on the roof. Shooting is much the same, except that you have to beat the target’s Fight roll with your Shoot roll to hit him. Anyone with 4 Health or less loses an action – although the remaining one doesn’t have to be a move.

Spells are cast by rolling 1d20 against a target number; fail by enough and you take damage. You can spend Health to improve your chances, and can do so after the die roll is made. Some spells are opposed by a Will roll (1d20 + stat).

Treasure tokens are why you’re there, and any figure in contact with a treasure token can stagger off with it; if he gets off the table he has escaped intact with it. (Judging by battle reports, the warband’s wizard will often cast the Leap spell on a treasure-carrying figure to move it off-board faster.)

Creatures are figures not under the control of a wizard; they move according to simple rules: If fighting carry on until you or the opponent die; if not and there is a figure in line of sight within 10″ move towards it; otherwise move in a random direction.

The game ends when there is only one player with figures left on the board, at which point he is assumed to have collected all remaining treasure.

The Campaign (24 pages): This is where I think Frostgrave would come into its own; a connected series of games. After the first one you may establish a base in the ruins, with each of the eight types of building giving you different benefits. In the campaign, treasure may be spent to recruit soldiers, buy gear, and upgrade your base with helpful features, while the experience your wizard gained by casting spells and smiting opponents can be used to improve his statline, his chances of casting specific spells, or add a new spell to his repertoire. Those reduced to zero Health may roll to recover, though they may suffer permanent injuries which degrade their statline. Some of your treasure tokens may turn out to have handy magic items as well as gold coins – this is why you need item slots on your figures.

Spells (24 pages): At its heart, this game is all about the spells. Each of the ten schools of magic has eight spells, each of which has a target number for casting and a category, which determines its target type – self, line of sight, area effect, touch or out of game. These last are intriguing as they allow you to adjust the starting conditions of the next game. Optionally, a wizard who learns all the spells of his school may then research Transcendence; if successful he leaves the game for a higher plane of existence, winning the overall campaign.

Scenarios (12 pages): The standard game of Frostgrave places some treasure tokens on the board and then kicks off. This chapter gives ten specific scenarios, which are each intended to be unique in a campaign, each with special rules and a specific location to be explored, or a special monster to be overcome.

Bestiary (12 pages): Random encounter rules, and various sorts of undead, animals, constructs, demons and miscellaneous creatures. These are creatures of sword and sorcery, not high fantasy; you could see Conan squaring off against any of them. There are a couple of dozen in all, each with a brief description and a statline.

Spell Cards (11 pages): Quick reference cards for all the spells. Arguably duplicates the spells chapter, but probably worth it for ease of use during play. Favourites: Time Store, which allows a Chronomancer to save one of his actions for a later turn, giving him three instead of the usual two; Elemental Bolt and Elemental Ball, because who doesn’t like fire spells; Grenade, which does what it says on the tin; Furious Quill, an animated pen which stabs to irritate and distract; Reveal Secret, which lets you start right next to a treasure token.

The Wizard Sheet (3 pages): More of a warband sheet actually; the three pages cover stats and notes for your wizard, apprentice, home base, spellbook and 8 soldiers.

FORMAT

Unusually, this is available as a hardcover book, PDF, Epub file or Kindle file, depending on where you get it from. Cost ranges from £9 to £15 depending on format.

Whichever you pick, you’ll find a full colour cover, single-column black text on white, lots of colour illustrations and photos of better minis and terrain than I ever hope to have. Sob.

Tables and spell cards have an unusually simple and basic layout, but it’s easy on the eye, so I like it.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I’d like to see layers in the PDF file; the simple layout and frosty page backgrounds are not too bad on the printing front themselves, but the colour illos and photos would use a lot of ink.

Trying to manipulate a tape measure around a lot of dense terrain to measure to the nearest 1/100th of an inch sounds hard to me, so I would round off the fractions caused by half moves of half moves of half moves and lay out a hex grid battlemat. Yes, you could argue I’m just jealous of people with nice terrain pieces, and you could well be right.

CONCLUSIONS

It’s inevitable to compare this with Mordheim, Games Workshop’s game of warbands looting a ruined city released in 1999; but Frostgrave has rules that are simple enough I would actually play it, even if it means tracking hit points for all the figures. The setting is likewise simple but inspirational, possibly because of its simplicity.

There are intriguing snippets of in-character quotes from survivors of a skirmish, most of which gave me ideas for scenarios. I see a number of supplements are already available and they could keep releasing those indefinitely.

Although officially for two players, I can see on the web that with larger tables people are successfully playing with three or four warbands. If any of the local wargames clubs met at a time convenient for me, I’d be trying to lure them away from Warhammer 40K and Flames of War into this. I can also see it as a roleplaying resource and a solo game – the setting and scenarios should be doable with any RPG, and all the latter would need is some means of spawning creatures, perhaps rolling every turn for random encounters instead of only when a treasure is picked up. It ought to be easy enough to apply the levelling-up rules to soldiers as well, to use Frostgrave as a very basic RPG. So, like a lot of skirmish wargames, versatile and useful even if you don’t play the Rules As Written.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5; I want to play this one right now; I even have suitable figures in the form of D&D and Pathfinder minis. Had I but world enough, and time…

Review: The Black Hack

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” – Albert Einstein

This is something I’ve been wondering about for a while, but since it costs about the same as a cup of coffee I expect I’ll be safe from buyer’s remorse.

In a Nutshell: Heavily streamlined OD&D retroclone RPG in 20 pages, $2 at time of writing. Written by David Black.

CONTENTS

With a total of 20 pages there are no chapters as such.

Character creation is the familiar roll 3d6 for each of six stats, then pick one of the four core classes (these are the usual suspects); there are no races in the core rules, although there are a wide range of supplements with races, more classes, and so on. The core mechanic is to roll under the most appropriate stat on 1d20. Advantageous or disadvantageous circumstances mean you roll twice and use one of the results, natural rolls of 1 or 20 are critical success and critical failure respectively.

Combat is player-facing in that monsters only roll for damage; PCs roll to hit, or to avoid being hit – more dangerous monsters apply modifiers to the rolls. Movement is abstracted into range bands. Armour absorbs damage, but appears to have a limit after which it can absorb no more until you rest; being reduced to no hit points takes a PC “out of the action”, but doesn’t necessarily kill him – there’s a table to roll on to see what happens.

Initiative is interesting; everyone makes a Dexterity check, winners go before the monsters and losers go after them. Consumable gear has a “usage die”; the theory is that you put a die of that type on your character sheet, and as you use it, you swap that die for ones with progressively fewer sides. Using the spots or number showing on the die to track uses seems more intuitive to me.

Spellcasters can memorise as many spells as their level, and make a stat roll to cast; failure means they lose a spell slot of the same level as the spell – this semi-Vancian approach is a bit like FATE stress tracks, you can keep casting until you have failed often enough to cross off all your slots.

Monsters have a single stat, hit dice, which is manipulated to give their other features.

Characters essentially level up when the GM deems them worthy, gaining extra hit points and a chance to increase their stats.

There are two pages of spells and two pages of monsters. There’s a character sheet, an example of play, and the OGL licence.

FORMAT

Single or two column black text on white background, basic cover art and no internal artwork. Does the job.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I don’t like how armour seems to work; maybe I’ve misunderstood it, but as I read the rules, once you have absorbed (say) the 4 incoming damage with your armour, it doesn’t help you any more. The example of play could do with explaining how that works. Easy enough to fix, simply ignore that rule and let armour absorb the listed amount of damage indefinitely.

I also don’t like the levelling up rule; I suspect characters would level up very quickly, and there is an implied level cap of 10, so campaigns would likely be short. My inclination would be to borrow a rule from The Petal Hack (of which more anon) and say a PC reaches a new level after a number of sessions equal to that level, so he would reach 2nd level after two sessions, and 3rd level after another three, or 5 in all.

CONCLUSION

This looks to me as if it would make a good beer-and-pretzels game, maybe one to take on holiday and play over a few drinks. The rules are simple enough and familiar enough that I had memorised most of them from a single read-through. However, I’m not sure that it has the legs for a full-blown campaign; it may be too simple for that.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5; deserves a trial run at some point.

Update: I had planned to review The Petal Hack, but since you can download the whole thing for free here, you should do that if you’re interested in it.

Review: Bulldogs FATE Core Edition

“The Black Watch is a tough ship, and the crew wants to represent that. They decide to spend their last starting upgrade point on light armor. They name it SPACETURTLE SHELL, actually claiming that their ship is covered in the shell of harvested spaceturtles. Because they can.” – Bulldogs!

I reviewed the previous FATE edition of this here, and there is a d20 version which I haven’t read; but because I really liked Heart of the Fury, and I am considering whether to run it under FATE at some point, I picked up the new edition as well. Now read on…

In a Nutshell: Tongue-in-cheek space opera for FATE Core. 220 page PDF from Galileo Games, $10 at time of writing.

CONTENTS

Up front: There are some concepts you need to know before you read on, as they appear a bit out of sequence in the book.

Aspects and tagging. Aspects are things that would be attributes, advantages or disadvantages in most systems; the difference in FATE is that the player makes them up. Rather than having Strength, Dexterity and whatnot you decide what attributes matter for your character, for example “One-Woman Wrecking Crew” or “Nobody wants a blind pilot”. Aspects can be invoked or compelled to give you bonuses or penalties on dice rolls.

Fate points. These represent luck or narrative control. Typically you can spend a fate point to reroll a dice roll, or add a flat +2 to it. You gain fate points when aspects cause trouble for you. The ebb and flow of fate points is what powers the game in play.

Refresh. This is how many fate points you start with; 6 by default, but your character’s racial abilities may adjust that.

Introduction (2 pages): The premise of the setting, namely that the PCs are deeply flawed individuals crewing a heavily-insured tramp freighter on suicide missions. Pointers to key changes to the generic FATE Core engine made for this setting. Overview of the book’s chapters.

The Galaxy (14 pages): Here we find the basics of the setting; PCs will mostly find themselves in the Frontier Zone, a buffer zone between the Templari of the Devalkamanchan Republic (purple-skinned space nazis) and the assorted species of the Union of the Saldralla (a peaceful democracy, which stays that way because troublemakers quietly disappear).

FATE Core Basics (7 pages): I reviewed FATE Core here, so I won’t go through that again, but I will look at stress, conditions and consequences – partly because they are different from the usual FATE Core rules, and partly because they are the parts of the system that give me the most trouble.

In this version of Bulldogs!, stress is ticked off on condition tracks, e.g. “Stunned”. Once every box on a track is ticked, the condition becomes an aspect on your character; this normally clears when you accept a compel on the condition, e.g. “You’re stunned, so the thug can push you off the roof.”

If you can’t, or don’t want to, tick off any more boxes on a track, you must take a consequence, e.g. “Broken Arm”. These are harder to get rid of and can be invoked to make your life difficult, e.g. “Remember, you have a broken arm, it’ll be really hard to do that.”

One track worthy of note is Credits, which has 10 boxes; you start with 9 ticked, meaning you’re dirt poor; as you earn money you clear them, as you buy stuff you tick them again, and if you ever get all 10 clear at once you can buy yourself out of your contract with your employer (and start a new character).

Alien Species (34 pages): There are 10 playable races. Each has six racial aspects, of which a PC must choose two, and certain species abilities, which affect the amount of refresh the PC begins play with. There are also rules for creating new species.

Crew Creation (12 pages): Players are encouraged to create their PCs as a group, not least because they collectively create their ship and its captain (who is normally an NPC and often an adversary). Each player chooses a species and seven aspects, then picks skills, stunts, and gear. Every PC has three consequences slots (one mild, one moderate, one severe – more on these later) and four conditions, each with a stress track; Winded, Angry, Stunned and Broken. I can see what they’re doing here, but my aversion to hit points is well-known and the idea of tracking four separate sets of them is depressing – probably my biggest objection to the Rules As Written.

The ship has three aspects: A high concept (a general description, perhaps “decrepit free trader”), trouble (what’s wrong with it, e.g. “bits keep falling off”), and an advantage (what’s its redeeming feature, possibly “surprisingly fast”). The captain likewise has three aspects; what did he do to end up here, what trouble does he cause for the crew, and what is his management style? The example given is a Disgraced Ex-Nova Legion Officer who is Ever Intoxicated and whose style is Better to be Feared than Loved. While each PC has fate points, the crew as a whole also has some – these are used to invoke the ship’s or the captain’s aspects.

Aspects (17 pages): So, we know already that a PC has seven permanent (ish) aspects. These fall into the following areas: Racial (two from the list for your race), Aptitude (what are you good at, perhaps Silver-Tongued Devil), Class D (how did you wind up here, maybe Huge Gambling Debts), and three for your current berth (how well do you get on with the captain and two other PCs, for example I’d Follow the Captain to Hell, Rolley is my Brother, and Secretly in Love with Dahlia). Aspects are about who the PC is, and who or what is important to him; they are at the heart of the “fate point economy” which drives play. In addition to these seven aspects, which are part of the character, there can also be temporary aspects such as “Blind Drunk”. Note also that anything in FATE can have aspects; a place, an item of equipment, a character, the campaign itself. Things you can do with aspects:

Invoke an aspect, usually by spending a fate point and explaining how this helps you. This lets you either reroll your dice, or add +2 to a roll.

Compel an aspect, either on yourself or someone else. This causes trouble for a character; they can either accept the complication and earn a fate point, or spend a fate point to stop it happening.

To an extent, aspects are the players telling the GM what they want to see in the game.

Doing Things (22 pages): FATE has non-standard dice, d6 with two blank faces, two with a plus sign and two with a minus sign. Checks are made by rolling four of them against a target number, and can generate a failure (less than target), a tie (same as target), success (1 or 2 more than target), or success with style (at least 3 more than target). If you beat the target number, the points you beat it by are called “shifts”. There are five things you would roll for: Overcome an obstacle (what most games would call a skill roll or skill check), create advantages (aspects that will help a future roll), discover (learn something), attack (hurt someone) or defend (avoid an attack or negate an advantage created against you). There is a quite complex set of outcomes depending on what you’re trying to do and which of the four outcomes you get, but in general you get what you want, get what you want with some sort of cost, or get it with a benefit; costs and benefits are often temporary aspects. Beyond that, actions can be simple, challenges (complicated), contests between characters, or conflicts (combat). That sounds complicated, but I suspect once you are used to it, it flows very smoothly.

The bit I normally struggle with in FATE combat is consequences. If you fill one of your stress tracks (“hit points”) but still need to take stress (“damage”) you can pick a suitable consequence such as Grazed or Broken Arm; this is a temporary aspect which your foes can invoke for free. What this version of Bulldogs! does that I don’t remember seeing in any previous FATE product is provide a list of example consequences of each type! Fantastic, but how hard was it to do that, purveyors of other FATE products?

Advancement (3 pages): Advancements are triggered when your employer pays you; you can make money on the side, but that doesn’t improved your character. Recovering from “wounds” consequences seems to count as an advance, mind.

Skills (20 pages): Characters normally have 10 skills; one at +4, two at +3, three at +2, and four at +1. The default skill cap is +5, meaning no skill can ever be higher than +5. Skills are about what the PC can do; there are 18 in all, so they are fairly broad – Fight, for example, covers any close combat weapon, while Shoot covers any ranged weapon.

Stunts (17 pages): Stunts fill the same ecological niche in FATE as advantages, edges, feats and what have you in other games. By default, characters begin with two stunts; a stunt can allow you to swap one skill for another, use a skill in specific circumstances which would normally preclude it, or give you a +2 in a particular situation. The more powerful ones cost a fate point to activate. The bulk of this chapter is filled with example stunts.

Gear (11 pages): This is the first time an equipment chapter in an RPG has interested me in some years, and it’s because of the way gear is handled. You have two gear points to begin with, and you can use boxes on your credit stress track to get more, which you can replenish by getting paid.

Let’s take weapons for example. You have Shoot as a skill, obviously. That means you have some sort of basic ranged weapon, just enough to let you use the skill. Light weapons get an aspect you can invoke for free once per session. Medium ones do the same, but targets can’t use the Winded or Angry tracks to absorb their hits. Heavy weapons do all of the above, and targets can’t use the Stunned track against them either. You can also spend more gear points to get special features like Concealable or Autofire. Other gear has similar rules-bending attributes.

So, you always have the basic equipment you need; gear is for cool toys and trademark weapons.

Ships (19 pages): The PCs as a group have a ship; they choose how big it is and buy initial upgrades using a fixed pool of points. (Bigger ships have manoeuvring penalties but more boxes on their stress tracks.) Combat is a lot like personal combat, enough that I won’t drill into it in detail. The ship construction rules actually work for any kind of vehicle, and example ships are provided. Travel is at the speed of plot, and maintenance is handwaved (except for repairing combat damage).

Running the Game (18 pages): Advice for the GM, although unusually the players are actively encouraged to read it. This is stuff like when to call for dice rolls, how to set difficulties for them, what the consequences might be, designing social and combat encounters, minions singly and in groups, (minions are disposable, low-powered, nameless NPCs, similar to Extras in Savage Worlds) and the more robust supporting NPCs and villains. Bulldogs encourages action over contemplation and this shines through in the GM advice; this game is a comedy thriller. There’s also a nod to other campaign types, but I think the expendable merchant crew is the perfect setup for the game.

We close with an index, the Open Gaming Licence, and character and starship sheets. No sample adventure, but then there used to be half a dozen free ones.

FORMAT

6″ x 9″ format (roughly 229 x 152 mm), single-column black text on white, full colour illustrations every few pages, gets the job done. The art style is cartoon-like, but then to be fair so is the game.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

It’s not clear what weapons and armour cost. I can infer that light examples cost one gear point, medium ones two, and heavy three, but I would prefer that stated explicitly.

There’s a “see page XX” on page 160 which I think should refer to page 166.

I’d like to see the return of the Ports of Call supplement and the free adventures – maybe they are being upgraded for these new rules?

CONCLUSIONS

I dislike games with custom dice, and anything FATE-flavoured has those. Functionally, they are equivalent to 4d3-8, which is no better. However they are straightforward enough as custom dice go.

Full marks for the best explanation of the FATE rules I have seen yet, and bonus points for explaining consequences in particular. This book simplified and clarified FATE, which has always mystified me somewhat, into something I might actually play.

Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5. I’m of a mind to tweak this setting a bit and use it as my default space opera game (5), and the rules should be tried out at some point (4).

Review: Bethorm

In a Nutshell: This is the latest incarnation of the Empire of the Petal Throne, which has been around since 1975, and which I have played in and run intermittently since 1976. 262 page PDF, officially $65 but I grabbed it when it was on special offer for $10. Written by MAR Barker and Jeff Dee, uses the Pocket Universe system, published by Uni Games in 2014 so I’m behind the curve as usual.

Core Mechanics: Roll 2d10, apply modifiers, if the result is less than or equal to the relevant attribute or skill level you succeed. Doubles are critical – critical success if the check succeeded, critical failure if it didn’t. Rolling to hit is a skill check, armour is deducted from incoming damage, get knocked out if you lose half your hit points in a single blow, die when you run out of hit points.

CONTENTS

What is Bethorm? (5 pages): The usual; what an RPG is, a thumbnail sketch of the setting, designer’s notes, rules system.

Game Mastering Bethorm (2 pages): Mostly covers why your PCs are working together, who their patrons might be, and what they might be asked to do.

Character Creation (36 ages): A bit of setting information, then into chargen proper: pick a clan; pick age, birthday, gender, name, marital status, whether you have children and how many; pick a religion; we’re 13 pages in before we get to generating attributes (of which there are five, Physique, Deftness, Intellect, Willpower, Psychic Ability) – this is a point-buy system rather than random generation. Then there are eight secondary attributes, which are calculated. Next come Advantages (Edges, Feats, call ’em what you will) and Disadvantages; these are optional point-buy features, but for each point of Advantages you take, you must also take a point of Disadvantages – a point of interest here is that you can take a Crutch with your Disadvantage, an item of equipment which halves the cost of the Disadvantage and negates its effects, but which can break, be lost or stolen, etc. Next the 12 NPC races are listed with their racial Advantages and Disadvantages, and their effects on PC attributes; then the player buys skills and language familiarities, and chooses contacts – friends, associates, family members he can call on for help.

This chapter goes into some detail on social status, sexual orientation, and contacts; this is appropriate for the setting, where those are important and different from the usual faux-Western Mediaeval expectations.

Equipment (11 pages): The usual suspects; weapons and armour; adventuring gear; clothing, food, poisons and antidotes, lodgings, livestock (lots more types of these than usual); siege engines, narcotics, entertainment, buildings, ships and slaves (unusual); gems and jewelry (mostly useful for assessing loot). The source material makes a big point of how Tsolyani clans deal in favours and obligations more than hard cash, but the game systems and even some of the novels stress the importance of actual coinage to the adventurer and would-be noble. I find that a bit incongruent personally, but that’s just me.

Non-Player Characters (2 pages): How to generate stats and personality traits for NPCs.

Turn Sequence & Game Scale (2 pages), Movement (2 pages), Skill & Attribute Checks (4 pages), Combat (7 pages), Healing (1 page): This is the guts of the Pocket Universe engine as adapted for Tekumel. Things that are unusual compared to other RPGs:

  • Measurements are given both in metric (game world) and Imperial (tabletop). This means you can tell whether the value is game world or real world at a glance, but I don’t think it really adds anything to play.
  • Initiative is a secondary attribute calculated during character generation ; each character has three initiative values and dices to see which one applies each round. That seems like an unnecessary extra step to me.
  • Character turns are non-standard in a couple of ways; in each turn you can move and act, but if you don’t act, your action (not your whole turn) is ‘on hold’ – if you charge a foe but don’t quite reach, your attack is on hold, and if he countercharges you may be able to twat him before he closes. Further, each figure has a zone of control, and if an opponent enters your zone of control, there’s a chance that he has to stop moving. Both of these are things that most games I know do with some sort of attack of opportunity.
  • Weapons have three different possible amounts of damage inflicted; you dice to see which one you use. Armour has different values against different damage types, and the appropriate one is deducted from the incoming damage. This is unnecessarily clunky.

Those factors, plus things like the case numbering system beloved of SPI map-and-counter games and the advice on base sizes, show a game that is closer to the wargaming roots of RPGs than is usual these days.

Sorcery (77 pages): Learning spells is a point-buy affair, casting them uses power points rather than Vancian spell slots. There are dozens and dozens of spells (the list alone is two pages long), subdivided by power level, which temple can teach it to you, and phylum (i.e. the sort of thing it does); so I won’t go into detail.

Outdoor Travel (1 page), Outdoor Encounters (9 pages), Underworld Exploration (2 pages): Long-distance overland movement rates, dungeon movement rates, and random encounter tables, including motivations for NPCs encountered and how to stock a dungeon randomly. This bit is not bad, and I do like the notes on what sort of humans may be encountered in a dungeon and why they are there.

Bestiary (52 pages): Another big chunk of book this; again the list of monsters alone is two pages long. All the old favourites like Serudla, more recent additions like Jakkohl, and a few I don’t recognise like Dlikken. Each has stats like a character and some descriptive text; non-human races have standard statblocks provided, and finally somebody writing Tekumel rules has realised that the GM needs pregenerated spellcasters as well as generic warriors. Thumbs up for that.

Treasure (26 pages): Random tables for treasure determination. Which tables you use depend on what you had to overcome to get the treasure, which is made up of the usual suspects; coins, gems, weapons, armour, magic items, scrolls, magical books.

Character Advancement (2 pages), Income and Expenditures (2 pages), Appendix (3 pages): PCs get 1-3 experience points, per session, with which they can improve skills. If they do really well, they may also get an advantage point which can be used to buy off Disadvantages or get new Advantages. Annually, or when a PC performs some worthy deed, the player can roll for promotion in the character’s official career, such as priest of soldier. No, “murderhobo” does not count as an official career. There’s a nice map of the city of Katalal with a key, a regional map of the area it controls, and a larger-scale map showing where the city and region sit on the main world map.

Finally, some record sheets; a party combat record and an entourage record for the GM, character and spell sheets for the players. Either of the GM sheets would work as well for NPCs and encounters as for the party.

FORMAT

Colour cover wrapped around two-column black text on white background with lots of black and white art by Jeff Dee. I like Dee’s art, and Tekumel is a world which benefits more than most from being illustrated, because it is so different from the usual RPG setting. No complaints here.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

This is essentially a rulebook with a little bit of setting material, which is the reverse of what I was looking for; so the sort of minor tweaks I usually suggest here aren’t the answer – basically, I bought the wrong book, for what I want I should have bought Swords and Glory volume 1; but I already did that in the 1980s. Maybe I’ll review that some other time.

More practically, it looks like there’s a fair amoung of flipping backwards and forwards in the rulebook during play; a change of organisation, or some sort of quick reference, might be useful there.

CONCLUSIONS

Previous incarnations of EPT have devoted a lot of page count to the world itself, this one assumes you’re already familiar with the setting (which I am), have original EPT and Swords & Glory (which I do) and just want to know how to run it under Pocket Universe (which I don’t).

Like most other versions of EPT, this has a steep learning curve for the player, and a steeper one for the GM. Generating PCs is going to take a while, especially for spellcasters, and if I were to use this system I would make up a bunch of pregens and let people choose one.

I might get some usage out of the name and encounter tables, illustrations and maps, and there is a new city to start players in rather than the usal Jakalla, but overall this one’s going on the virtual shelf.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5. I was going to say 2, but the sections on encounters and statblocks for NPC spellcasters persuaded me to bump it up to 3. Your Mileage May Vary, especially if you like Pocket Universe.

Review: Eyes of the Stone Thief

“That was nuts!” – Dag, Angry Beavers

As you may have guessed by now, this is the backbone of the Hearts of Stone campaign, whose session writeups you see on Wednesdays. It’s an everyday story of a sentient mobile megadungeon, the titular Stone Thief, and those who hunt it.

In a Nutshell: 13th Age campaign for character levels 4-8. 346 page PDF, written by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, published by Pelgrane Press.

CONTENTS

This monster is too big for my normal review format, so let’s hit the highlights.

First comes a group of four chapters explaining what the campaign is about, how to use it, and the key factions in play within the megadungeon, which are presented in the same manner as the icons in the 13th Age core rules. This book is not so much a scripted campaign as it is a selection of adventures which the GM can stitch together in a number of ways. I doubt whether any two groups would follow the same path through it.

Next is a group of thirteen chapters, each focussed on one level of the megadungeon. In each case there’s an isometric map, details on encounter areas, traps, monsters, links to factions and so forth. Not much on treasure, because this adventure is more about revenge; the GM is essentially left to hand out whatever treasure he or she feels appropriate. There are a few plot items which come in handy later in the story. The dungeon can rearrange the layout of its levels, and the book offers several possibilities for that.

Then there are ten chapters covering the opposition, the dungeon’s prey, and surface quests. The intent of the book is that the GM switches between dungeon crawls, quests for information, help and artefacts on the surface, and homebrew scenarios focused on the character’s One Unique Things and icon relationships. Four groups of opponents are provided, of which my favourite is the Vengeful Company – a rival group of adventurers who hog all the limelight whatever the PCs manage to achieve.

These are followed by a chapter of enemy reactions to the player’s activities, and two chapters on finding and killing the living dungeon.

We close with an index.

FORMAT

Two-column black on colour text. Illos every few pages ranging from less than a quarter page to a whole page in size. Full colour everywhere.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

There’s a short section in my copy which is in black on white with no colour at all. Not sure what happened there but pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to do that.

After the first couple of read-throughs I would have asked for more help navigating the campaign, but there is no real substitute for re-reading in detail several times and taking copious notes. I found creating a timeline for the campaign very helpful, but what is in that depends on which path through the adventure your PCs take, and I expect it to change repeatedly as we go.

CONCLUSIONS

13th Age is already D&D with the volume turned up to eleven, and I can picture Ryder-Hanrahan grinning maniacally as he twists the dial even further clockwise. Eyes of the Stone Thief is completely mad, and my main concern from running the game is how I am going to herd the players back into a gritty, low-magic game afterwards.

It is truly a great campaign, and is now the standard against which I measure megadungeons; but the GM needs to put a lot of work in, both before it begins and during play. I don’t think I will do it justice the first time through; maybe if I ran it again later for another group, they would get more out of it.

Overall rating: 4 out of 5. I am running this, true, but as you’ve seen I didn’t drop everything else to do so, and it needs more preparation than I would like.

Review: 50 Fathoms

In a Nutshell: 210-page plot point campaign for Savage Worlds from Pinnacle Entertainment, roughly $10 at time of writing. This is the Explorer’s Edition, which is updated for Savage Worlds Deluxe and includes content from the 50 Fathoms Companion. Think Waterworld meets Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

What’s a Plot Point Campaign? It’s the Savage Worlds version of an adventure path, with a number of adventures which together form a story arc, and a large number of side quests. 50 Fathoms is often said to be the best one, so let’s take a look inside…

CONTENTS

I should start by saying SW plot point books take the view that you want adventures to run, and any setting information beyond what you need to do that is a distraction – stuff you wade through searching for nuggets of information, but probably won’t use. The campaign is divided into three main types of session; the adventures on the story arc, which move the plot along; the side quests, which allow the PCs to gather the resources and information they need to take the next step along the main arc; and random adventures, which are a fallback in case they go completely off-piste. The first two types are in the Savage Tales section, the last is under Adventures.

The premise is that a piratical fantasy world is slowly drowning, and Earthly pirates are drawn through a dimensional portal to help save it. The story arc revolves around them figuring out what the threat really is and stopping it, thus saving their new home. Of course, as pirates, they might decide to slope off in search of booty, but as long as everyone is having fun, what does that matter?

50 Fathoms (32 pages): A brief introduction to the setting, including what the characters initially think is going on as opposed to what’s really happening; a map of the Thousand Isles; character creation, which is standard except for a few new nautical edges and hindrances; new races; gear, including all manner of pirate goodies and ships. Races include Earth humans, local humans, the winged atani, doreen (dolphin-men), grael (walrus-men), kehana (fish-men), kraken (squidheads), red men (dumb barbarians), and scurillians (crab-men).

Setting Rules (10 pages): These are mostly focused on ships; navigation, repair and upkeep, ship combat, the fatigue that builds up in the crew on a long voyage and the carousing that can resolve it, trade, whaling and finally a section on “pirate lingo”.

Caribdus Gazetteer (4 pages): This is “what everyone knows” – a short paragraph on notable places and persons on the world of Caribdus, the general knowledge that any PC would know after kicking around the Thousand Isles for a few months.

Magic (3 pages): The only Arcane Background in this setting is Magic, and the mage must specify which element (air, earth, fire or water) he has specialised in; you can learn others later. There are eight new spells, a discussion of appropriate trappings, and a table showing which spells are available to which elemental specialisation – if it isn’t on the table, it doesn’t exist in this setting. To summarise, the earth mage fixes things, the fire mage destroys them, the water mage heals you and the air mage fills your sails with the right breeze.

The Thousand Isles (42 pages): From this point on, we are in GM-only territory. We begin by learning the true backstory for the campaign. Then there are 17 areas of Caribdus, mostly islands or groups of islands. Each is expanded for the GM with a little more background information, encounter tables, and (crucially) pointers to which Savage Tales the PCs might be drawn into in that locale. So in a typical session the players will say where they are going next, the GM will tell them what they meet on the way, describe what the place is like when they arrive, perhaps including places and people of note, and then embroil them in one of the Tales – or perhaps a randomly-generated adventure if they have exhausted all the ones listed for that area.

Adventures (10 pages): This contains the random adventure generator, as well as rules for salvage, trade, natural hazards, subplots you might encounter within the main adventure of the session, and random treasure tables for both mundane and magical loot – +2 blunderbuss, anyone?

Savage Tales (74 pages): This is what the book is really about. Almost 90 different scenarios and adventure seeds, ranging in size from a quarter of a page to several pages. There are two series of plot points, each 9 adventures long; you can play one and save the world, play the other and find a great treasure, or play both and do both.

Encounters (22 pages): About 70 NPCs and monsters, each with notes and a statblock. Those which only appear in one Savage Tale are listed with that tale, so there are quite a few more buried in the previous chapter.

…and we close with an index, character and ship sheets, and an advertisement for short fiction set on Caribdus.

FORMAT

6.5″ x 9″, full colour everywhere but with help from the option to suppress page background your printer might survive the PDF. Colour illustrations every few pages. Two-column black text on whitish background with colour trim. Personally I find it a lot easier to read with the background turned off, but most of you probably have better eyesight than I have.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Some ship deck plans would be nice, but those are available for free from Pinnacle’s website, so I’ll let them off.

There is already a players’ guide, roughly half the price and contains only things it is safe for players to know.

CONCLUSIONS

As best I can tell without running it, this does exactly what it says on the tin, providing a ready-to-use story arc in a sandbox without requiring a lot of prep time, which is a really cool idea. It gets a lot of very positive commentary in reviews and the SW forum, and is reportedly held up to SW licensees as how to do a plot point campaign. Some GMs have reskinned it as a space opera setting, and I think that would work well, too.

However, I’m left with an overall feeling of “Yeah, I can probably make this work,” rather than “Jeez, I have got to run this RIGHT NOW!” For me personally, the gold standard in SW settings remains Beasts & Barbarians.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review: Heart of the Fury

In a Nutshell: A campaign in 16 adventures for the FATE Core Edition version of Bulldogs!. 262 page PDF, written by Gareth Hanrahan, published by Galileo Games.

CONTENTS

The book breaks into a number of main sections: an introduction; 16 adventures, ranging from 6 pages to 54 pages in length; new species; and rules for psychic PCs, not previously an option in Bulldogs! The table of contents lists NPCs, monsters, ships, and other items separately, which is useful for the ones that can turn up several times over the course of a campaign.

The introduction gives the GM a concise summary of what’s going on – no spoilers, because figuring that out is one of the primary goals of the campaign.

The campaign as written assumes the PCs are the crew of a Class D Freighter working for the TransGalaxy shipping corporation, making high-risk cargo runs along the fringes of civilised space. The adventures can be run one after the other if you wish – the “Express Route”, the book calls it – or you can mix up the sequence and add in side quests, the “Scenic Route”, so long as you start with the first adventure and finish with the last. Sections called “Exit Trajectory” are listed for the adventures, giving several options for which scenario to run next. Some the scenarios, such as The Hunters, can be recycled and used several times over the course of the campaign. Unusually, the option where the PCs decide to go over to the Dark Side is also covered – I suppose you have to cater to that for Bulldogs.

Some of the NPCs, like the delinquent drop-out Hackragorkan (he’s an accountant), genuinely made me laugh out loud; this would not be appropriate for all games, but is definitely fitting for this one.

FORMAT

Colour cover around single-column black text on white with purple headlines and full-colour page borders and boxouts. A goodly number of colour cartoon illustrations.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

PDF layers so I can turn off the colour borders and boxout backgrounds.

I don’t like the cartoonish style of the internal illustrations. Your Mileage May Vary.

CONCLUSIONS

I’ve come to the conclusion of late that the only way I can run space opera now is to play it for laughs, and for that, the Bulldogs! setting is ideal. Someday I may even try running it under FATE, though Savage Worlds works well with the adventures, so why change?

Bulldogs! adventures have always been a collection of challenges the GM can use in any order, depending on how the players react to the initial setup. I’d hoped Heart of the Fury would extend that to the campaign level, though it doesn’t quite – it does the next best thing, which is offer multiple routes through the plotline.

I can’t help drawing parallels between current US/UK politics and some situations in the plotline, but no doubt this is purely accidental.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. I do want to run this one right away, but it hardly seems fair to stop any of my existing campaigns to do so. It would be easy to kick Collateral Damage onto this track, though…