Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Review: Barebones Fantasy, etc

Posted: 12 August 2017 in Reviews
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“We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”
– Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

There are times when I think even Savage Worlds is too complex, usually when explaining to someone when they can use a Wild Die or when running it over VTT. I have been eyeing up BareBones Fantasy as a potential alternative for a while now, so snagged it and the setting, Keranak Kingdoms, during the RPGNow ‘Christmas in July’ sale. I notice I’ve developed a habit of not taking the savings from sales, but spending them on supplemental materials instead. But I digress.

In a Nutshell: A complete old-school fantasy RPG in 84 pages, and the setting sourcebook to go with it. Both written by Larry Moore and Bill Logan, published by DwD Studios. $10 and $5 respectively when not on sale; prices seem to have been stable since 2012, as best I can tell.

Core mechanic: Roll less than or equal to relevant score on percentile dice to succeed. Doubles are critical success if you succeed, critical failure if you don’t. (The rules are a lot like Star Frontiers overall, not surprising as DwD supports that game extensively.)

BAREBONES FANTASY

This is a lot of game for ten bucks and 84 pages. You get character creation, game rules, GM advice including magic items, NPCs, monsters, adventure generator, dungeon generator, and a capsule setting. Just this book, pencil, paper and a few d10 and you’re good to go.

The book assumes you know what a fantasy RPG is and the basic idea of how to play, which is one reason it’s relatively short.

Characters have four abilities (Strength, Dexterity, Logic, Willpower) which can either be randomly generated (5d10+30) or allocated (one each at 50, 55, 60 and 65). The usual Tolkeinian suspects are in evidence for races; human, dwarf, elf, halfling.

There are a handful of skills – actually, skill packages, or maybe character classes, really; Cleric, Enchanter, Leader, Scholar, Scout, Spellcaster, Thief and Warrior. You pick one of those as primary, one as secondary, and one which starts at level 1. If your character is trying to do something a Thief would know how to do, that’s the relevant skill for the task; your percentage change of success is half the relevant ability, plus 10 per level, plus 20 if it’s your primary skill or 10 if it’s your secondary skill. Only Scout, Thief or Warrior can be used untrained, the rest you need at least level 1 to use; skills can’t exceed level 6, but there is no upper limit on how high you can advance abilities with enough experience.

The Warrior skill is your chance of hitting in combat, using Strength for melee weapons and Dexterity for ranged. Each skill has a list of things you can do with it and/or a starting bonus; for example an Enchanter can brew potions and imbue items with powers, can inscribe runes on things which take effect when a specific event triggers them, and has a small animal which acts as a familiar. Spellcasters know one spell per Spellcaster level, twice that if that is their primary skill, while Enchanters know all of them but can’t cast them directly.

So far, so simple. Surprisingly complex for a system so mechanically simple are the personality rules; you pick two descriptors which give a positive and a negative feature of your character, perhaps “always cheerful” and “eats too much”, and a moral code comprised of five traits, each of which is selected from a pair of opposites (e.g. selfish/selfless) and whether it is somewhat, very, or totally characteristic of the PC. To act against your code may require a successful Willpower check (GM’s option).

Then we’re back to simple again for equipment – take any six things from the equipment list and 2d10 gold pieces. While I’m thinking about equipment, weapons usually do 1d10 plus a modifier in damage, and you have hit points equal to half your Strength – you heal 2 points per day, and as I’m drifting into the combat mechanics I’ll note that depending on characteristics you get 1-3 d10 for initiative; you roll all of them and use the highest score, then act in descending order of initiative.

There are 17 spells in all, and the magic system deserves some more detail. As in original EPT or D&D 4E, each has a specific casting frequency; once per turn, once per day, once per level per day and so on. What’s interesting is that as in Savage Worlds, they have many different possible trappings; for example Offensive Strike – the only directly damaging spell in the game – has unlimited casting frequency, but you can cast it as lighting, fire, ice, a swarm of malignant fairies, tendrils of black smoke, or whatever you feel like. And you can change the trapping each time you cast. However, the GM is at liberty to say things like “that critical failure on your ice blast? All the fingers on your right hand have frostbite now” or “yeah, about that fireball in the storeroom full of expensive, wonderfully scented cedarwood… that was going to be the treasure, you know…” Casting a spell is an action, and characters can take as many actions as they want in a turn, but each one after the first suffers a cumulative -20 penalty to your skill check – you can cast a dozen Offensive Strikes in a turn if you like, but the second will be at -20, the third at -40… the final one would be at -220 and you’d have to be pretty good for it to work.

(I have been running Savage Worlds powers like this for some years now, allowing players to pick their trappings at the point of casting and using GM fiat for specific trapping effects rather than the Rules As Written; it works like a charm, no pun intended, and players very quickly home in on one signature trapping for each spell without any of us having to learn the detailed trapping rules.)

At the end of each session the GM consults a checklist; each item you ticked off gets you one Development Point, which you can use to buy increases in skills or attributes. You can only get one DP per session for combat, however much of it you did, and you get that for still being alive afterwards. The checklist is focused more on what D&D calls ‘story awards’ – did you find out something useful, did you succeed in your quest, that kind of thing.

There are four sample characters, an example of play, assorted other rules for things like making and buying magic items, dehydration and whatnot, a couple of dozen magic items, some very simple and elegant guidelines on NPC creation, about 50 monster statblocks and instructions on how to build your own monsters, random dungeon and adventure generators, a table of non-monetary rewards, a setting map and gazetteer, and a character sheet.

But wait, there’s more. In the downloaded zip file you get another character sheet, a very well thought out player and GM cheat sheet, colour maps of the setting with and without hexes, an introductory adventure (‘Maidens of Moordoth’, involving a village with a dark secret and a small dungeon), a development journal (sort of a session log for your character), and print friendly versions of all the PDFs.

KERANAK KINGDOMS

The setting sourcebook, Keranak Kingdoms, includes the same setting maps and an expanded gazetteer of the setting, plus another adventure (a romp through an abandoned dwarven mine now occupied by villainous non-human squatters). Neither book has much background information; this is a deliberate choice, so that the GM has a free hand to develop the world to his own taste – by and large the maps show the name of each kingdom and the location of forests and mountain ranges, and that’s about it. The sourcebook does unbend far enough to include a more detailed map of one kingdom showing cities and large towns, but no more. You do get more details on things like the pantheon of gods, though.

The premise of the setting is that the Keranak Kingdoms are the successor states of a recently-fallen empire; the knightly Order of the Rose has hidden a magical artefact used by the former emperor to help him rule, and is rumoured to be looking for his illegitimate son to place him on the throne. The gods were banished by the enigmatic dragon highlords some time ago, except for one goddess who was overlooked and one who is so strongly tied to the land that she sneaks back in anyway.

Oh, and you also have giants, previously exiled to the northern wastes, but beginning to encroach on the Kingdoms now there isn’t anyone to shoo them away.

FORMAT

Colour covers wrapped around single-column black text on grey. As usual I got the PDFs, but the properties tell me hard copies would be 6″ x 9″, what Savage Worlds would call Explorers’ Edition size, a bit bigger than European A5.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Just one: It seems counter-intuitive to me that a roll of 0 counts as 10, but a roll of 00 counts as zero. I would have expected 00 to be 100, but that would shift the relative frequency of outcomes slightly, giving fewer critical successes and more critical failures.

CONCLUSIONS

As I said earlier, you get an awful lot of game for your money with BareBones Fantasy, and it’s very simple and elegant (in the mathematical sense). I could see myself using this as a travel game, a VTT game, an introductory set of rules for my grandchildren in a few years’ time, a solitaire game (with a bit of help from something like Mythic), and an adventure or dungeon generator for another campaign. I have games ten times this size and cost that don’t give me as much usable content. Highly recommended.

The Keranak Kingdoms sourcebook and the adventures get the job done, and have some intriguing ideas, but to be honest they don’t really stand out as something special, unlike their parent game. One might expect that as they are a springboard intended as a stimulant for the GM’s imagination, not a replacement for it.

Overall Rating: BBF itself, 5 out of 5 – I’m not quite ready to dump Savage Worlds and run off with BareBones Fantasy, but it was a close-run thing. Keranak Kingdoms gets 3 out of 5. Let’s call that 4 out of 5 for the set.

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Review: Seven Worlds Campaign

Posted: 5 August 2017 in Reviews
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“The Seven Worlds. This is the story of how we lost them, and of the heroes who tried to avert their fall.” – Seven Worlds.

My concern as I closed the setting book last week was whether the default campaign would be a bit of a railroad; let’s see, shall we?

In a Nutshell: The default campaign for the Seven Worlds setting for Savage Worlds, in seven modules, each roughly 40 pages long, published by Intellistories, written by Luis Enrique Torres. Price not known at time of writing (disclosure, I have review copies – thanks again Luis!).

Here I have to dance the usual dance when reviewing an adventure; I need to avoid spoilers, but still give you enough information to decide whether or not this is for you.

From one perspective, the campaign is a travelogue for the Seven Worlds, so some capsule descriptions may help:

  • Earth (Sol): Smacked around a bit by an asteroid impact a few generations ago, but still good. Home of the Psion Brotherhood.
  • Apollo (Epsilon Indi): Corrupt, plutocratic iceworld.
  • Bay Jing (Omicron 2 Eridani): Garden world, agriculture and mining, authoritarian government.
  • Concordia (Epsilon Eridani): Rich, garden world, pseudo-nobility. Main Circle base.
  • Logan’s End (Eta Cassiopeiae): High-gravity, jungle world, hellishly hot. The new frontier.
  • Nouvelle Vie (Gamma Leporis): Earthlike, too bright, jointly settled by Concordia and Bay Jing, ongoing cold war. Lots of asteroid mining and storms.
  • Zarmina (Gliese 581): Heavy gravity, extreme temperatures, barely-breathable air, run by big pharma.


CONTENT

Each module, including the first, begins with a ‘story so far’ section summarising the reveals to date, so you do not want your players anywhere near these modules. On the plus side, the GM knows exactly what the backstory is from the beginning, meaning he or she can align any off-piste activity or side quests to the main storyline on the fly.

Module 1 – Rumours of War (44 pages): This takes the heroes from Nouvelle Vie, site of the Mysterious Encounter introductory scenario in the setting book, to Concordia, then to Earth, via intrigue, disappearance and assassination, not necessarily in that order. In this adventure the PCs will meet senior figures in several governments, the Circle, and the Psion Brotherhood, as well as the N’ahili Ambassador. They also find themselves in a virtual world MMORPG at one point. These are like Chekhov’s Gun, they’re not just there to introduce you to the setting, they all turn up again later in the story at key points.

Module 2 – Divided We Fall (37 pages): Arriving back at Concordia, the heroes learn that Concordia and Bay Jing are now at war, and that they have been selected for a covert mission. ‘Nuff said. This scenario features spy stuff and combat, both ground and space. By the end of it, the heroes should have a good idea of what’s going on; to avoid spoilers, the module writeups are going to be really vague from now on.

Module 3 – Into the Fire (38 pages): The story arc is now starting to make serious changes to the setting and the maps. This is one reason why the campaign has the setting designed around it, not vice versa, and why I think you will most likely discard the setting at the end of the story. The heroes’ patron now sends them to Apollo to follow up leads, leading to a mixture of investigation, infiltration and combat. Player handouts start to include news stories from other worlds, showing them they are not the only ones with problems.

Module 4 – Broken Circle (43 pages): While adventures so far have focussed on habitable worlds, this one takes the PCs to several of the smaller waystations and refuelling depots between them, then to Logan’s End. Again, it involves investigation and combat, as well as a rescue mission; if all are successfully completed the heroes will solve two important mysteries from earlier in the campaign.

Module 5 – Chrysalis (46 pages): Conspiracies, chases, secret bases, a mass battle, and a very unusual setting for them all, at least in astronomical terms.

Module 6 – Exodus (46 pages): If they’re doing things right, by now the heroes have a veritable army helping them, but can they keep it focussed on the mission despite boredom, internal politics, and the perceived risks of failure? There’s a ‘Managing the Fleet’ side quest for playing this out in abstracted detail. Expect Shadowrun-style hacking as well.

Module 7 – Endgame (53 pages): More infiltration, sabotage, a massive space battle, enemies both foreign and domestic, and a dungeon crawl in space, not necessarily in that order. The campaign ends, most likely in bittersweet triumph. There are things to do in the aftermath, but for me the story would be dramatically complete with the final showdown. There are loose ends which might work as the lead-in to another big campaign, though, and I hope Mr Torres will expand one of them into another story arc someday.

Each module also includes maps, stats for the opposition, and a handful of side quests to weave into the campaign. Even without these, you should get a couple of sessions out of each of the main adventures; I’d say 30-60 sessions overall, so 1-2 years for a group playing every couple of weeks.

Now, as for the storyline as a whole: The heroes are going to be captured at least once, maybe twice; I don’t know about your players, but mine would rather die, so that would take careful preparation and perhaps an honest discussion. The story makes more use of the social conflict rules than I remember seeing anywhere else; there are several points where crowds or influential NPCs need to be brought around to the PCs’ viewpoint. At times, the story turns on the technology and new psi powers in the corebook, showing how tightly integrated the story and the setting are. The PCs should work out the motivation and nature of the domestic enemy, but unless they are especially insightful, I don’t think they will figure out the foreign one; that’s credible and appropriate in terms of the story, but might frustrate some groups.

There’s quite a bit of duplication between modules, and between the modules and the corebook; statblocks for the opposition, mostly. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad – I guess that depends on whether you prefer only buying stuff once, or convenience at the table.

FORMAT

Each module has colour covers and illustrations (one every few pages), two column black text on pale blue background (which can be suppressed for a print-friendly version). The core setting book says there will be an option to get all seven modules in one large book. The page size means I can read these files on a tablet without squinting. I’m a happy camper.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

There are more epic stories to tell in this setting, and I’d like to see them. The heroes aren’t going to work out what’s really going on with the N’ahili, although the GM knows, and there’s a story there. There are at least two things that key historical NPCs should not have known, but did; there’s a story there, too.

Also, I think it would make a pretty good TV series.

CONCLUSIONS

The setting is sufficiently flexible to allow for most types of SF campaign, so long as you only need half-a-dozen habitable worlds; but it was built around this campaign, and explaining by way of analogy to avoid spoilers, once you’ve thrown the One Ring into Mount Doom, killing the odd couple of orcs and stealing their purses isn’t satisfying. So I’d recommend doing any sandbox play before you start the main story arc; that would also familiarise players with the milieu.

The campaign is more linear than I normally go with, and the story piles time pressure on the PCs as it develops. For it to work as intended, I think you’d need a small group of players willing to follow the trail, and I’m not sure any of my groups tick both of those boxes; but if you can find 4-5 hard SF fans who love The Expanse and Babylon 5, and are OK with a linear main storyline, they will love Seven Worlds.

How well does Seven Worlds do what it sets out to do?

  • Space Opera with a Hard-SF flavour: Definitely. It’s got the Atomic Rockets Seal of Approval. That’s as good as it gets.
  • Paper-and-pencil-and-technology: Ye-e-es. It achieves this goal through the VRML starmap and the Google Earth world maps. That’s not likely to change the way I play, ‘cos I’m a dinosaur.
  • Not a setting with a story, but a story with a setting: Yes, it succeeds at this; the setting is built to support one specific story.


Overall Rating
: 4 out of 5. I was again tempted to go with a 5, but the ratings are about how well things work for me personally; and I think I’d struggle to keep my players on piste.

“The goal is for the players to stop thinking about the door, wall or table as an inanimate obstacle to be overcome and instead see it as an enemy to be outsmarted.” – Seven Worlds

In a Nutshell: Hard SF space opera setting for Savage Worlds, 217 page PDF, published by Intellistories, written by Luis Enrique Torres. Price not known at time of writing (disclosure, I received a review copy – thanks Luis!).

The Seven Worlds setting was built around a specific campaign in seven parts, which deserves its own review; but I’ll begin with the setting book, because I am more of a rules guy than a story guy at heart, and the thing that really attracted my attention was that this setting has the Atomic Rockets Seal of Approval, meaning that website has validated the underpinning science as accurate. These awards are highly esteemed in the hard SF community, and not easily gained.

CONTENTS

Introduction (2 pages): This explains the setting’s unique selling points (hard SF, built around a specific storyline); who the PCs are (by default, paramilitary troubleshooters); and a capsule overview of the setting, which I think is suitable for handing out to the players.

Overview (98 pages): With nearly half the book in this section, I’m not going into a huge amount of detail. You have a timeline running from the present day about 200 years into the future; enigmatic but benevolent aliens; an accurate depiction of actual stars within about 30 lightyears of Sol; descriptions of the titular Seven Worlds, which are habitable, and a half-dozen or so less important waystations between them. The one-page world map/summary for each habitable planet would make a fine handout.

Key technologies for star travel include jump drives, fusion power plants, and the Coulborne Shield, which protects travellers from energy and radiation (working much like the Langston Field of The Mote in God’s Eye); there is no artificial gravity, but relay drones shuttling between jump points provide FTL communications, at least along major routes. I like the FTL travel and comms in this setting much more than the approach used in the The Last Parsec, which I guess is the setting’s main competitor.

There are writeups for the two main interstellar organisations, the Circle and the Psion Brotherhood, and what little is known of the alien N’ahili. There are descriptions of life in the 23rd century, with nanotech, AR/VR, genemods, space travel and combat (there’s a lot of detail in those bits). This section also has four iconic PCs, fully statted, and with extensively detailed backstories.

Characters (7 pages): Unusually short for a character generation chapter, because it stays very close to the core Savage Worlds rules – I approve of that, incidentally. Only humans allowed, although the different homeworlds give some variety by swapping out the usual free Edge for another benefit; the only arcane background is psionics, and that involves taking a vow representing a code of conduct much like the psions in Babylon 5. There are three new skills (Hacking, Knowledge: Ship Ops, Knowledge: Science), and five pages of new and modified Hindrances and Edges. The default assumption is that all PCs are members of a specific organisation, the Circle, which provides gear, missions and so on; think of them as the space patrol and you won’t be far off the mark.

Gear (11 pages): Near future hard SF here; no personal energy weapons or shields, although flechettes and gyrojets abound. Spacesuits, programmable matter, nanotech healing, and more mundane gear. Honourable mention for the smart dust grenade, which scatters nanosensors throughout its burst template and allows the user to see through cover and around corners. The signature gear item, however, is the assistant, a kind of high-tech familiar which almost every PC has – basically a disembodied NPC sidekick played by the GM.

Psions (5 pages): Again short, again because it leverages what Savage Worlds already has. A limited palette of available powers; mental Toughness, used to resist psionic attack; the Psionics skill is harder to advance than usual. There are 9 new powers, and 21 powers which are modified from the core rules either with new trappings or with different power point costs.

Setting Rules (22 pages): These cover languages (not an issue due to widespread translation software); game effects of microgravity, space and planetary environments, and assistants; and a modification to the Test of Wills rules I might adapt elsewhere, namely intimidating groups of NPCs. I liked the tags for planetary environments, which include things like “Cold and Hostile” or “Too Dark”.

The majority of the section, though, is taken up with rules for interstellar travel and space combat. Travel is in jumps, and each ship has a number of jumps it can make without refuelling, as well as a pseudospeed defining how many weeks each jump takes. This looks like it would work very well in play.

Space combat uses a modified version of the SW chase rules, reflecting the problems with realistic space combat; namely, you can’t hide, you can’t run or dodge very well either, and if you don’t manage the heat buildup properly the ship is incapacitated. There is also a heavy reliance on missiles, to the point where a sheet is needed to keep track of incoming ordnance. This all looks very different and more realistic than the usual dogfight paradigm; I’d have to try it to understand how the modifications interact, but I can already see the ship’s engineers have something useful to do – stop the ship melting. A useful sidebar shows you how to dial combat lethality up or down to match how much trouble the PCs are having.

GM Section (20 pages): Much of this is taken up with the introductory adventure, “A Mysterious Encounter”, which segues into the default campaign. This supposes the PCs work for the Circle, and includes introductions to common technology, personal and ship combat, and a final puzzle which I expect will be resolved later in the campaign. As well as that, we find rules options (interstellar trade, ship customization, space encounters) and game mastering tips (the implications of Seven Worlds technology, how to run the default campaign, alternative campaign types – including which ones will and will not work well in the setting).

Bestiary (22 pages): Over 60 animals and NPCs; 27 vehicles and spacecraft. Each of the animals and NPCs has a location specified, showing where it can be found; quite a few are constructs found only in virtual reality. (By the way, the widespread use of virtual reality in the setting allows the GM to make full use of the multi-genre nature of Savage Worlds – the PCs can have ‘real’ adventures in the Seven Worlds and ‘virtual’ ones in a fantasy world, the Old West, etc. I don’t think I could carry that off myself, mind.)

The Voyager (2 pages): This is the PCs’ default ship, owned by their patrons the Circle foundation. It’s spherical and the decks go all over the place, including one around the equator and a gym that is reeled out on a cable for spin gravity. It cannot have been easy to design, but there is no confusing it with the usual aeroplane or ship layouts for starships.

Appendix (11 pages): Seven Worlds prides itself on sticking to known scientific fact as far as it can, but in the end, it is a game; this appendix lists the areas where the author knows he has bent or broken the laws of science for the sake of a better story, as well as his reference sources and a 2D starmap.

After that, there are character and ship record sheets, a couple of ads for the campaign and website, and two more 2D maps of the setting, one showing all the stops between the Seven Worlds, and one more stylised and less cluttered, somewhat like a subway map – that’s the most useful one for planning interstellar travel.

FORMAT

Colour covers and illustrations (one every few pages, and I especially liked the cover), two column black text on pale blue background (which can be suppressed for a print-friendly version) – except in the introductory adventure, where the background is green, or the iconic PCs, where it is pale brown; I found that helpful to locate them when flicking through the book. There are also sidebars throughout the book explaining the science behind the game; I loved those.

A nice touch is that the blue line in the header between pages 2 and 206 has a purpose – to the scale of the small solar system diagram on page 2, it shows the distance to Proxima Centauri, our closest stellar neighbour.

As well as the usual character sheets, maps and pregens, the game’s website also hosts a dynamic 3D starmap usable with VRML viewers, and world maps you can load into Google Earth; the intention is that the GM and players use these at the table on their tablets or smartphones. Check out the demo video here. They are a nice touch, and point the way for future RPGs, but personally I’d be happy running things without access to any tech beyond pencil and paper, maybe because I’m an aging dinosaur whose play style developed in the 1970s, when that was the only choice.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

A minor nitpick only: There’s a tiny bit of Smallville syndrome, in that the three most significant ‘historical’ NPCs lived in the same small American town and went to school together. I thought that might be explained in the campaign (see next review), but the mystery just gets deeper.

CONCLUSIONS

This isn’t the usual Firefly-meets-Star Wars space opera, it’s more like The Expanse; and the hard SF tech isn’t just for show, it makes a real difference to the campaign plotline and how the game plays. This means it’s not a setting you can just pick up and run in a few minutes, it needs a little thought first. My first thought is that the kitchen appliances should include the Talkie Toaster and spontaneously burst into upbeat, family-friendly song every few minutes.

There are echoes of 2300AD, Classic Traveller, Diaspora, Attack Vector: Tactical and other games, so I suspect Mr Torres had a youth misspent in much the same way as my own. It’s no surprise that I love the setting, as it’s so close in spirit to my old favourites.

It’s good to see a game world whose technology feels futuristic; I haven’t had that feeling since I discovered 2300AD, and the 1980s were a long time ago. I’m also impressed by the way the corebook conveys a hard SF setting without making sweeping changes and adding complexity to the core Savage Worlds rules like, say, Nova Praxis.

My instinct is that the Seven Worlds would work better with smaller parties, as with large ones the assistants would increase GM workload too much – I might take a leaf out of Infinity’s book and have each player run the assistant of the player to his right.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. I could see the Pawns of Destiny group in this setting once there is a gap in the schedule; it’s complex, realistic and elegant, just the sort of thing they go for. I might let Arion loose in it after the summer holidays as well, to see what he makes of it and try out the setting rules.

Next up: The Seven Worlds campaign, which is after all what the corebook exists to support.

Review: Parsantium, etc

Posted: 22 July 2017 in Reviews
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“I was born here in the city
With my back against the wall
Nothing grows, and life ain’t very pretty
No one’s there to catch you when you fall”
– The Eagles, In the City

In a nutshell: Parsantium is a city sourcebook that works with any version of D&D, 178 pages. Icons of Parsantium is a collection of 15 movers and shakers that dominate the city and the surrounding lands, 47 pages. Whispers of the Dark Daeva is a 42-page adventure for 1st level PCs. All written by Richard Green and published by Ondine Publishing. Roughly £15, £4 and £4 respectively at time of writing.

PARSANTIUM, CITY AT THE CROSSROADS

As the author explains in the introduction, Parsantium grew out of a desire to merge a great fantasy city with exotic cultures and use that for his home game. The result is essentially Byzantium around the turn of the first millennium, but in a world where India got nudged a bit closer to the mediterranean for convenient access to its culture and monsters.

Once past the introduction and the city map, you get an overview of the city (history, character races and backgrounds – 16 pages), and chapters on life in the city (politics, law, customs – 18 pages), running a campaign (themes, facilities, features – 10 pages), a gazetteer (places, people and plot hooks for each of the 11 wards plus comments on the underworld below the city and nearby regions outside – 70 pages), organisations both overt and covert (24 pages), religions derived from the Graeco-Roman, Indian, Arabic and Chinese cultural analogues which inhabit Parsantium (15 pages), and an index.

The map is a delight, and the timeline covers 2,000 years of history in overview. The city’s internal politics are appropriately Byzantine. Most of the key NPCs seem to be about 14th or 15th level, lesser ones averaging about 5th level, and they have no detailed stats – just a notation of alignment, class and level, which personally I much prefer to full statblocks. Each ward has a number of passersby to encounter as well as the traditional shops, temples and so forth, each with a paragraph of detail. A welcome touch is the inclusion for each ward of the PCs’ first impressions on entering it.

On the downside, I prefer to have my fantasy races separated into their own tidy little kingdoms, Tolkien style, not thrown into a blender a la Eberron. Parsantium is human-dominated, but you also have minotaurs, dragonborn, centaurs, tieflings, vanara (intelligent monkey people), gnolls, half-everythings, and whatnot. For me, this Star Wars cantina approach degrades the sense of wonder – when everything is fantastic, nothing is fantastic. Halfling gypsies camped outside the walls don’t do it for me either, I’m afraid. And it’s got gnomes in it. I hate gnomes. So I will probably tone down the number of humanoids and emphasise the different human cultures.

The character backgrounds and city statistics are clearly aimed at Pathfinder, but that’s very little of the book, maybe 6 pages total. The rest of it would work with any edition of D&D I’m familiar with, and it would take very little effort to reskin it for other fantasy RPGs.

The law and order section includes a list of crimes and their punishments, as well as notes on the largely corrupt city watch. The customs and culture chapter includes food, drink, clothing, the calendar, festivals, entertainment, superstitions etc. Now this in particular is a difficult row to hoe; a sourcebook must have enough of these to establish the setting’s culture as different and interesting, but not so many that it is hard work to memorise them before the game.

The chapter on running a campaign offers five main options; running with the criminal gangs (Grand Theft Donkey – Parsantium), uncovering the secrets of the older city on which Parsantium is built (dungeon crawling), political intrigue, fighting as gladiators in the arena, and the return of an ancient evil. No reason not to mix and match, of course. There are also random events to shake things up.

ICONS OF PARSANTIUM

Here are 15 major NPCs written up 13th Age style, faction leaders with whom the PCs can have some sort of connection. Some are individuals, others are organisations; some live in or near Parsantium, and others are distant. You don’t have to use them all, and in fact my (admittedly limited) experience of icons in general is that focussing on a few of them gives you a better game.

Each icon has a quotation, a usual location, a paragraph of common knowledge (what everyone knows about them), missions they might send adventurers on, minions at their command, allies and enemies, a little of their history and one real danger that they could unwittingly unleash (these make good plotlines).

There are also two playable races for 13th Age, gnolls and vanara, presented as sidebars.

There are separate sections of example relationship dice outcomes for each icon (nice touch that, this was something my group and I had trouble with when using 13th Age icons), and the secret, GM-only information on each icon. This means you can use the main icon writeups as handouts if you wish, while retaining some mysteries for the PCs to work out for themselves.

WHISPERS OF THE DARK DAEVA

Here’s an adventure in four parts, in which the PCs are engaged to solve a series of puzzling murders in the Dock Ward of the Old Quarter.

Drawn in at first by witnessing one of the murders, the PCs do some investigatory legwork and (naturally) visit the local pub before heading into the villain’s hideout to sort them out. The longer they take to do this, the more murders occur around them, and the more murders, the worse things get for them – this forms a sort of ticking bomb in the scenario, and once they work out what is going on, it adds time pressure to their activities.

A sidebar explains which Icons are likely to be involved and how, should you be using the Icons. Finally, outcomes are provided explaining what happens if the PCs succeed – or if they fail.

FORMAT

Colour covers, full-colour city map, minimal internal illustrations including the odd dungeon map, two-column black text on white. Simple, effective, easy on the eye and the printer.

There’s also a blog by the author here, focused on the setting’s development.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I’d like more detail on the Hidden Quarter please; perhaps a side-on diagram on how the various levels fit together (I’ll probably knock one of those up myself to help me understand it at some point) and some more location maps for places of interest and mystery.

CONCLUSIONS

A fantasy version of mediaeval Byzantium is something I’ve often toyed with as a setting, and Parsantium absolves me of the need to do any heavy lifting for it. These products come across as a labour of love by someone with a deep knowledge of the Eastern Roman Empire of the 10th to 11th century, and cultures less frequently seen in fantasy gaming.

In terms of the product interactions, Icons needs Parsantium but not vice versa, and Whispers could stand alone, but would be a good introductory adventure for a Parsantium campaign.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. This is the best contender for my planned D&D 5E city game, currently in development, but it needs some tweaking. If nothing else, those wretched gnomes have got to go…

In a Nutshell: Sourcebook of lost technology for Stars Without Number. 34 page PDF from Sine Nomine Publications, written by Kevin Crawford.

CONTENTS

No spoilers…

Relics of the Lost (1 page): What the book is, advice on how to stock ruins with relics of the Terran Mandate, guidelines on how to buy and sell Pretech.

Tools of Ill Omen (8 pages): Weapons and armour from the none-too-peaceful era before the fall of the Mandate. A couple of dozen weapons and 10 items of armour showcasing Mr Crawford’s imaginative ways of killing characters, ranging from the ingenious to the downright unnerving. On top of that, there is the possibility that a weapon might have been improved in some way from the standard model, or have developed a flaw during its centuries of disuse.

A Better Shell (5 pages): Advanced medical technology of the Mandate; 30 drugs with various healing or recreational properties, and how they might have gone bad over the years. There’s also a brief piece of background information on pharma companies of the Mandate for flavour.

Delights of a Former Age (7 pages): Yes, your PCs are looking for bigger and better guns, but they might well find civilian tools and basic commercial goods. Which they will probably try to repurpose as weapons, at least if they’re like my lot. Roughly 50 everyday items that a typical Mandate citizen might have left lying around when they died or fled. A shout out here to the Gaming Miniatures and their “esoteric and largely incomprehensible set of rules”. See how many ways you can think of to kill an NPC with them.

Unsleeping Servants (5 pages): Robots and expert systems. This begins with explanations on where such things might be encountered and their reactions to PCs attempting to force or con their way in, repairing non-functional ones you might find, and how to buy and sell them – the core rulebook includes Tech Level 4 robots, so this section focusses on 8 examples of TL 5 Mandate relics rather than how to build such items.

Forbidden Fruits (4 pages): Five devices with which to inflict ruin on your PCs and their homeworlds, and notes on what defines Maltech in the game, what modern Maltechnologists are up to and why they might hire PCs to help.

Random Equipment Tables (2 pages): What it says on the tin.

FORMAT

Colour cover; inside, two-column black text on white in the usual SNP ‘trade dress’, occasional black on white line art.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I got nuthin’. This is a book full of ‘magic items’ to stock the ruins your PCs explore, and it does that job well.

CONCLUSIONS

Like its companion sourcebook Engines of Babylon, this is something I’ll dip into occasionally to spice things up rather than make the core of a campaign. It’s basically a book of magic items for SWN explorers to find.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. I think I’ll get more use from this than Engines of Babylon, but that’s because my gearhead days are long gone.

The first of a handful of reviews of things I acquired last year and haven’t got around to reviewing yet…

In a Nutshell: Vehicle design supplement for Stars Without Number. 42 page PDF by Sine Nomine Publishing, written by Kevin Crawford.

CONTENTS

Dead Men’s Toys (1 page): What the book is, namely a selection of vehicle design systems, example vehicles, and stuff your players might pick up while scavenging.

Howling Engines (14 pages): Custom vehicle design rules. These are much like the starship or mecha rules in the core rulebooks (the free edition has no mecha); choose a hull, choose systems to slot into it, total the cost, calculate the derived stats such as speed, armour, hit points. There are 20 basic hulls for aircraft, ground vehicles, and grav vehicles, and a wide range of accessories and weapons to add; most of these are for Tech Levels 3-4, but there are the odd TL 5 and PreTech elements statted up for those lucky enough to have access to them. This is followed by rules for operating vehicles, chases and combat, and the section ends with 15 example vehicles built using the rules.

A Nearer Apogee (14 pages): Design system for insystem ships without spike drives. Similar in concept and methods to the previous chapter, but focussed on TL3 spacecraft rather than ground and air vehicles. In the official SWN universe, these system ships are for planets that either don’t have spike drives or don’t consider them economical for insystem workhorses. A spike drive would run rings round them, but they still have commercial uses. In a homebrew universe they might be the only option available. System ships require different combat and travel rules to spike drive vessels, which you can find in this chapter along with 11 example ships.

Precious Things (6 pages): Treasures of the long-vanished Terran Mandate which PCs might come across while exploring its ruins. No spoilers, but whereas the core rulebooks focus on Mandate relics of use to warriors or starfarers, these 20 items are luxuries which the Mandate elite would have owned. This does not mean they are safe for the ignorant.

Forbidden Fruits (4 pages): While the Precious Things are, if sometimes dangerous, at least not definitively evil, the Forbidden Fruit are maltech devices. You might still find them while scavenging, but your customers are likely to be either Big Bad Evil Guys or those bent on making sure the BBEG don’t get hold of them. These 9 things enslave or destroy on a vast scale. Again, no spoilers.

FORMAT

Colour cover; inside, two-column black text on white in the usual SNP ‘trade dress’, occasional black on white line art.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

None, really; does what it says on the tin.

CONCLUSIONS

My gearhead days are long behind me now, and I am generally happy to stick to the standard vehicles in the core rules of most games, so the design sequences are not something I expect to use. The example vehicles, precious things and forbidden fruit are more useful to me.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5. Not really my cup of tea, but some useful bits to cannibalise and use later.

Review: Cepheus Engine SRD

Posted: 19 April 2017 in Reviews
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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.