Review: Cepheus Engine SRD

Solo uses the Cepheus Engine. The Zhodani Base speaks highly of it. And so I decided to check it out…

In a Nutshell: Traveller retroclone – old-school style SF RPG. The System Reference Document is a 208 page PDF by Samardan Press Publications released in 2016. Pay What You Want on RPGNow and DriveThruRPG.

The core mechanic is as it was in Classic Traveller: Roll 2d6, apply modifiers (notably a relevant skill level), meet or beat a score of 8 to succeed.

CONTENTS

Introduction (9 pages): Overviews of roleplaying in general, the Cepheus Engine itself, common campaign themes, glossary.

Book One: Character Creation (83 pages): This will be familiar to anyone who has played Traveller. You roll 2d6 for each of six characteristics, roll to enter your chosen career, then cycle through various stages of the lifepath, gaining ranks, skills, and material or cash benefits as you go. There are 24 careers (basically the ones from Classic Traveller Book 1 and Supplement 4), and roughly 60 skills. Some items have been renamed, most likely to avoid using terms copyrighted elsewhere.

The Cepheus implementation of this addresses my dislike of the decades-long trend of skills bloat in Traveller; you wind up with roughly two skill levels per term served, and a smattering of skills at level 0, based on your homeworld’s trade codes and your career’s service skills. There are basic rules for gaining new skill levels in play, which explain how long that takes but not what it costs – the GM has to rule on that.

Although humans are as usual the baseline species, there are rules for creating alien races, and a few examples – avians, insectans, reptilians and some human variants: espers and merfolk.

Psionic powers remain an option, with whether they’re available at all, and if so how easy it is to get training, left to the GM. There’s a long equipment chapter with weapons, armour, survival gear, communications and computer gear, drugs, robots and drones, vehicles etc.

Personal combat is focussed on the use of a square grid; unusually compared to most games, but as one might expect for Traveller, the chance of scoring a hit degrades whether you’re long or short of optimal range for the weapon. Whatever damage isn’t absorbed by your armour is temporarily deducted from characteristics, and your status varies with how many of them have been zapped and which ones have reached zero – clunky, but it has worked for decades.

Book Two: Starships and Interstellar Travel (59 pages): How interplanetary and interstellar travel work, building and operating ships, starship combat, interstellar trade, travel on worlds, law enforcement encounters, bribery and punishment for crimes committed (I would’ve covered the legal topics in the next book but it matters little), a goodly number of example ships which are similar, but not identical, to the usual Traveller suspects. Space combat looks a lot more complex than I remember, but I hardly ever use that.

Book Three: Referees (43 pages): The effects of hostile environments, disease, poison, fire and so on; subsector and world generation using familiar Traveller methods; encounters – animals, NPCs, patrons, rumours, starships; rules for creating alien animal life; advice on refereeing the game and creating adventures.

This is following by assorted legal notices.

FORMAT

Colour cover; single-column black text on white, no internal illustrations (this is a System Reference Document, so you’d expect that), lots and lots of tables.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I’d like to see a point-buy character generation option included; this is useful for players with a detailed character concept, and also for play via email, forum or VTT. However, a random method is still useful for new players.

I really don’t like dynamic initiative. It requires me to track both the default initiative score for each character for a given combat as well as the current score as modified by surprise, dodging etc, and remember when it resets to the default. Ain’t nobody got time for dat.

CONCLUSIONS

This is an excellent retroclone, which integrates and streamlines parts of several editions of Traveller; I recognised elements of Classic Traveller, Megatraveller and Mongoose Traveller, and there may have been components from other editions which I didn’t recognise – I am an inveterate CT fan and haven’t played that much of the others.

All the topics I would expect are here, in familiar forms but with some well thought out expansions.

I keep thinking about dipping my toe in Traveller waters again, and if I do that, this is the edition I’d use. However, it’s not quite enough to tempt me away from Savage Worlds just yet.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review: Ruins of the Undercity

In search of fuel for the solo roleplaying fire recently re-ignited, I came across Die Heart’s list of solo roleplaying resources. That led me to Ruins of the Undercity, and I was weak. You know I can’t resist random dungeon generators. So…

In a Nutshell: Labyrinth Lord solo roleplaying campaign and dungeon generator. 74-page PDF by Kabuki Kaiser, $5 at time of writing. I’m reviewing the Flexipop Edition, whatever that means. Published in 2013 so I’m behind the curve as usual.

It’s clearly designed for and integrated with Labyrinth Lord, but any other OSR retroclone should work with varying degrees of conversion effort.

CONTENTS

Introduction (1 page): What the product is, credits.

Background (2 pages): Welcome to Cryptopolis, a corrupt plutocracy of a city squatting on top of ancient ruins built (but thankfully no longer occupied) by necromancers. Long ago, thieves found a statue of the Red Goddess and certain magical texts, and turned themselves into lich-thieves who now roam the lower levels. Do not boogie with the lich-thieves, they will mess you up.

Playing Solo – How It Works (15 pages): This is a low-impact approach to solo play, with minimal changes to the Labyrinth Lord rules. You generate characters as normal, and write down an Exploration Routine; this specifies marching order, who has the torches, who’s on watch when, and who is searching for what. This last bit is important, because later on the random dungeon generator throws up traps, secret doors etc, and if no-one is looking out for them, the party doesn’t see them. Then the traps go off, and the screaming starts… Anyway, most of this section is lists of equipment organised by shop, types of hireling, and random encounters. Buying gear or hiring help takes time, during which random encounters happen, and broadly speaking they are not your friends, either above or below ground. This is solid stuff, all killer, no filler.

Into the Ruins (25 pages): This is an homage to the random dungeon generator in the AD&D 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. You roll for a starting area, then move through the dungeon dicing for rooms, chambers, corridors, monsters, traps, treasure, lighting and so forth on assorted tables. This system retains the diagonal and curving corridors beloved of the DMG, which I found irritating because I couldn’t draw them and nor could the party mapper – I think that was the point, actually.

One thing that stands out as different is that monster level and treasure type depend on the average level of the party, not the dungeon level that they are on. My instinct is that this defeats the object of dungeons having levels, which usually exist so the party can select its own level of risk and reward. Oh, and having determined the monster level you make a second roll to determine their numbers before toddling off to the relevant encounter matrix to find out what they are.

However, a nice touch is the detail on treasure formats. 1,000 sp worth of conch shells, anyone?

Fiends of the Ruins (14 pages): New monsters. Mostly taken from the Fiend Folio by the looks of it. A nice touch here is that many of them have tactics listed – what they do in various circumstances. That’s often tricky to adjudicate in solo games.

Artefacts (4 pages): New magic items. No spoilers, but I like the subtable adding a bit more detail to maps. War story: I played with a GM once who insisted that magic maps weren’t maps to magic items, they were themselves magic and teleported you to the relevant treasure. And its guardians. You were then alone, in an unknown location, half-dead from fighting whatever had been guarding the map… it generally didn’t end well.

Back in Town (3 pages): Rules for fencing loot and what happens to PCs in between dungeon expeditions.

Appendix A: Campaign Game (3 pages): This suggests a number of optional personal objectives for characters and how they might be achieved.

Appendix B: Character Background and Quirks (2 pages): Random tables to generate what each PC did for a living before becoming a delver, and what notable quirks they have.

We close with the obligatory Open Gaming Licence.

FORMAT

Single-column (mostly) black text on white, some curious font choices but nothing dangerous, occasional black and white and colour illustrations. Tolerable on the eye and the printer but not perfect.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

It would have been nice to see something along the lines of the OSRIC generators for tricks and weird contents, but OSRIC is free to download so that won’t stop me for long.

The book has chambers with doors and rooms without, to my mind that is backwards but it has no effect in-game.

CONCLUSIONS

A solid piece of work this, and I look forward to playing it when next there is time. If you’re also interested, check out the Excel party log at the Castellan’s Corner.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.

Review: Solo

Just as I started to feel a yen for some solo SF gaming again, along comes Solo…

In a Nutshell: Solo RPG campaigns for the Cepheus Engine (actually, any version of Traveller). 153 page PDF from Zozer Games, written by Paul Elliot, $10 or so at time of writing. This is a much expanded version of the earlier Star Trader, which I reviewed here.

KEY FEATURES

Solo games often drown in dice-rolling, and Solo handles this by abstracting the equivalent of encounters or sessions into a single dice roll; see The Plan for details.

The player also has a small troupe, two or more characters, rather than just one. This allows for the character interactions one would get in group play.

The overall principle is that the few dice rolls tell you what happened, and you as the player explain how.

CONTENTS

Why Solo? (1 page): Why would you want to do this? Basically because you can’t get the players, or you want to test something before introducing it to them.

The Solo Approach (3 pages): These are designer’s notes, explaining why the author chose to abstract things to the group/session level rather than the character/skill check level – essentially to stop the game drowning in dice rolls. This approach means that you first find out the situation, then make a plan to deal with it, make no more than a couple of dice rolls to determine what the outcome was, and then go back and fill in the narrative explaining what happened. It also summarises the four campaign types detailed in later sections, and lists the required resources.

Player Characters (10 pages): The player is advised to make a small group of PCs, how many exactly depends on the type of campaign envisaged. The main benefit of this is that the random interactions between them inject more drama and plot into the game; a secondary advantage is that it gives the player a broader range of skills to apply to problems. There are also a couple of modifications to the normal character generation sequence; the chief one is that each PC should have three Life Events, which can be inferred from extreme rolls during the character’s creation or diced for separately on a d66 table provided.

Character Reactions (4 pages): Another d66 table is used to give each PC a relationship with one of the others, such as “secretly in love with” or “knows a dark secret”. At various times during the game, a PC checks whether or not they’ve had a bad reaction to something, and if so rolls for what they do about it; recent events, the Life Events and the PC’s relationship are used as inspiration by the player to weave a narrative around the dice rolls. Reactions and relationships essentially inspire the player’s narrative explanation of the dice-mandated outcomes.

The Plan (6 pages): Here’s the guts of the system; a scene, or encounter, resolution mechanic. In other solo game engines, the player controls one of the PCs and is (say) part of the team infiltrating the Big Bad’s remote island base. In Solo, the player is more like the “guy in the van”, watching things over a video link and issuing general orders, trusting the team to resolve individual problems as they arise. So, play throws up a situation – a reason to storm the island base, in this case – and the player comes up with a plan, 3-4 sentences long; perhaps swimming ashore at night to sneak inside and steal the McGuffin, heavily armed in case things go south and equipped with night vision gear and other goodies. The player now looks at his plan as dispassionately as he can: Is it shaky, solid or foolproof? Is it safe or dangerous? The answer to the first question defines the roll required for success on 2d6, with a couple of modifiers applied depending on how well-suited the characters and their gear are for the plan. A second roll against the same target number then determines the unforeseen consequences, which are good if the roll succeeds, and bad if it doesn’t – note that this is independent of whether the plan succeeded or not. Bad consequences include injury or death for one of the PCs, goods ones include making a contact or discovering valuable information.

Write it Down (3 pages): The player is encouraged to keep a written record of what happened, for two reasons; first, to declare actions – once you’ve written something down, it happened or is now an established fact in the setting, no do-overs. Second, to help you pick up where you left off at the start of the next session. The author recommends using a notebook, with an unstructured diary for the events of the game, and lists of friends, foes, neutral NPCs, starships encountered, and storylines (see below). An example page from one of the author’s own games is shown for clarification.

NPCs: Contacts and Enemies (2 pages): These are acquired in play, as the PCs interact with NPCs encountered as they go; the player decides, based on events, which NPCs will become recurring allies or villains, and who is encountered when. The purpose of contacts and enemies is to connect events; when it is suitably dramatic, a freshly-rolled NPC encounter is replaced by someone the PCs already know.

Storylines (3 pages): As with NPCs, these connect random events and characters’ Life Events into a plot. In that sense they are like Mythic’s “plot threads”, although while Mythic has no limit on concurrent plot threads, Solo recommends limiting yourself to one or two at a time. Storylines are optional, though.

Random Rolls (11 pages): A selection of tables to generate random encounters and events, thus introducing new ideas and plots into the session; NPC and ship reactions, colourful locals, starport and ship encounters, and so forth.

Example of Play 1 (6 pages): Exactly what it says on the tin; four randomly-generated PCs hop across a handful of worlds, making Plans and executing them, encountering random NPCs and commissions.

So far, everything has been applicable to any campaign. The book now moves to consider four principal types of game, each of which has additional random encounter and event tables and specific rules.

Campaign: Travellers (8 pages): The default game; a mixed group of travellers, moving from world to world causing (or resolving) problems. This campaign starts In Media Res with a randomly generated event. New random tables here include patrons, missions and their targets.

Campaign: Star Traders (17 pages): This is basically the previous iteration of the system, which I reviewed here, with what looks like a few minor tweaks. The PCs are the crew of a small merchant ship, trading across a subsector; an example showing 5 weeks in the life of such a group is included.

Campaign: Naval Officers (24 pages): In this campaign, the PCs are the officers and senior ratings on a small patrol vessel, pounding a beat around the subsector or a specific world, rooting out pirates and assisting law-abiding merchants. Which is which? Well, you have to get right up close to tell. This section has a lot of exposition on why and how patrol squadrons are organised, and what they do. Character generation is modified to ensure the characters will fit their assigned roles aboard ship. The campaign begins in a pre-launch briefing; the dice identify likely trouble spots, and the player plots his course accordingly. This section has modified ship encounter tables and rules for fast-play space combat.

Campaign: Survey Scouts (38 pages): Unlike the other campaigns, which rely on the player previously selecting or creating a subsector, the scout campaign begins with a partly-generated subsector, with only the size, atmosphere and hydrographics of the worlds known, except for one world which is the PCs’ base of operations. On arrival in a new system, the PCs scan it and identify places and phenomena of interest, called survey targets; there is a problem to overcome at each site, and progress overall is measured in “survey points”. Character generation is modified much as in the Naval Officers game, and like the patrol ship, the scouts plot a route for their ship. This section has modified system generation rules, the usual focussed encounter and event tables, and tables for things to survey; The Plan isn’t used much in this game, it’s more about the PCs reacting to randomly-generated dangers.

Example of Play 2 (5 pages): This is focussed on a team of four scouts surveying an unknown system.

…and we conclude with assorted legal information and blank forms.

FORMAT

Green and black cover wrapped around single-column black text on white, occasional black and white illustrations. Simple, effective, easy on the eye and the printer.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

The one classic type of Traveller campaign not covered in detail is the small mercenary unit; maybe in the next expansion? In many ways it would be a mixture of the Travellers and Naval Officers campaign types, but the number of allied characters the player would need to keep track of would require a further level of abstraction.

A minor nitpick: I’m not sure why deckplans are a required resource, given that play doesn’t seem to require them.

CONCLUSIONS

Although aimed at the various editions of Traveller, Solo is so loosely connected with them that you could easily use another RPG instead; my thoughts immediately went to Savage Worlds, because that’s what I usually play, but I’ve decided to take a look at the Cepheus Engine itself first. With suitable changes to the random tables, Solo could be used for other genres as well; the core mechanic, The Plan, would work with any game.

I’m very impressed with this product, and see it as the probable next evolution in my solo SF gaming – which has moved from playing with the rules as written, to adding Mythic, to Two Hour Wargames (which have gradually increased their own level of abstraction) to Solo. Full marks, Mr Elliot.

This will get used, though not right away; first I want to look at a couple of other things, including Cepheus, and second, I want to select, or generate, a subsector in which play of the various campaign types above can occur. It’s tempting to begin with a Survey Scouts campaign, then jump forward a few centuries and use the other campaign types. That might be better done in flashback, methinks.

Oh, and third, there’s a busy couple of months coming up, with the Pawns of Destiny, Team Robot and Team Dragon each lined up for several sessions. I haven’t played this much since the ’70s!

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.

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.