Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Review: High-Space 2nd Edition

Posted: 13 December 2017 in Reviews
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In a Nutshell: Transhuman SF setting for Savage Worlds by StoryWeaver, $20 at time of writing, 246 page PDF.

CONTENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FORMAT

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

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

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

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

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

CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

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Review: Sector Asgard Kappa

Posted: 8 November 2017 in Reviews
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Missed another session last Saturday, but as I was wondering what to regale you with today, what should drop into my inbox but an announcement that this Kickstarter is done and I can download the final product. Woot! Let’s have a look, shall we?

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

CONTENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

FORMAT

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

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

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

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

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

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

CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

Review: Fantastic Frontier Quickstart

Posted: 1 November 2017 in Reviews
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No game last Saturday night, so no writeup today; so instead, I had a quick rummage through the review pile and drew this forth.

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

CONTENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FORMAT

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

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

More buildings for the town please!

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

CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

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

CONTENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FORMAT

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

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

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

Review: WFRP2

Posted: 7 October 2017 in Reviews
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“Er… Gitter, Boss. One of Maggot’s lot. But ’e was dead when we found ’im.” The Goblin paused a moment. “Corse ’e claimed ’e was just sleepin’… but that lot is all liars ain’t they?” – WFRP2 Core Rulebook.

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

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

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

CONTENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FORMAT

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

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

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

CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review: Karak Azgal

Posted: 4 October 2017 in Reviews
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Yes, alright, I was weak. I bought into the Humble Bundle and now have vast amounts of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 2 material. Some of it I already had, some of it doesn’t look that interesting, but for $20 you don’t have to find much of value before it’s a good deal. WFRP2 joins the elite group of games where I’ve bought the entire product line (actually, just 2300AD and Classic Traveller, although Stars Without Number comes close) – usually I restrict myself to the core rulebook. But look at me, talking when there’s science to do…

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

CONTENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FORMAT

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

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

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

CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

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

Review: Mongoose Traveller 2nd Edition

Posted: 30 September 2017 in Reviews
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“This is my family. I found it all on my own. It’s little, and broken, but still good. Yeah – still good.” – Lilo and Stitch.

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

CONTENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FORMAT

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

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

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

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

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

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

CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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