Tryouts: Conan, Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of

The Conan saga is one of my all-time favourites, and I have played several of RPG implementations of it over the years. This one is from Modiphius; I backed the Kickstarter for it, and then things went very quiet for months, so I assumed the project had failed – but I was wrong, and the game was worth the wait.

The book itself is in sombre full-colour, and like most RPG PDFs I have bought in the last couple of years, clocks in at over 400 pages and significantly over 100 MB, which makes it unresponsive on my tablet and not that nippy on my PC. So I’m afraid I can’t summon the motivation for a detailed review.

Several of us in my regular WFRP3 group have the core rulebook and thus could have run the game, but our most experienced GM is semi-retired now and so has more time than the rest of us for learning rules and session prep; we agreed he should take the chair. His assessment of the rule book is that like most modern RPGs it is intended to teach you the game, not act as a reference guide, so he spent some time distilling it into a dozen or so pages for us to work from at the table. We played through the sample scenario in the rulebook; I won’t say much about that to avoid spoilers.

We used the Modiphius online character creator, which simplified things considerably and highlighted the quality of character creation; this takes a little time – and is faster and easier with the online tool – but by the end I felt I knew my character very well and understood exactly how and why he had become embroiled in the adventure hook the GM offered us. The sequence uses a lifepath approach driven by player choices, with no random elements that I recall – this is why the online tool is so useful, as otherwise one would have to internalise all the choices beforehand.

Our concern before play began was that the 2d20 rules engine would be too complex and time-consuming, but actually it is easy to pick up and fast in play. There is a tentative move towards special dice, which I despise, but within a couple of combat rounds I had memorised how to convert ordinary d6 rolls to the special results, so it isn’t really an issue.

The system is very elegant and treats physical, mental and social “combat” in the same way, so we didn’t find many edge cases in the rules. Range bands are unusual in that each ranged weapon has an optimum range and attack rolls have penalties if the range is either more or less than that. Combat uses a semi-abstract zone-based system, and as a group we prefer figures on a battlemat, so our GM will most likely replace the official rules with a more traditional system of movement. We think that actually casting spells looks dangerous, so sorcerors in our group are likely to focus on alchemy or conning people.

I thoroughly enjoyed the test session, and look forward both to playing it again and to seeing how the forthcoming Infinity RPG applies the 2d20 system to space opera. There’s a free quick start guide here; if you have any affection for the Conan stories, check it out.

Four Against Darkness, Episode 1

“You can run D&D with just some PCs and a dungeon. I think that’s totally legit.” – Jeff Rients

For this more detailed trial run of 4AD, I’m going to make a couple of changes to the recommended map. First, henceforth the dungeon entrance will be at the top of the map, where you start reading; second, the sheet is going to be 27 x 19 squares rather than 20 x 28. This allows me to align the rooms centrally (most are an odd number of squares wide) and is better suited to a computer screen, which is wider than it is tall.

Our party tonight consists of Sable the Mage (who has memorised Fireball, Lightning and Sleep), his bodyguard and paramour Issa the Snow Barbarian, Ivan the rogue and Brother Aloysius the cleric. All are level 1, and between them they have 36 gp, which they save for the moment. Sable takes the lantern. Trekking cross-country, they find the stone doors marked on the map Sable purloined from the library in the Wizard’s Guild. With some effort, they force the doors open, and Issa and Aloysius take the front rank.


Room 1 (as Sable marks it on the map he is scribing in his commonplace book) is apparently empty, apart from three doors leading deeper into the complex. Sable directs the party to search the room (p. 53), but it remains stubbornly empty. Preparing for combat once more, the group selects the left-hand door, and a short corridor leads them to room 2, which appears to be a dead end. However, no time to think about that now, as it also appears to be home to six hobgoblins. Sable casts Sleep on them, and all six lose consciousness.

“No doubt as a barbarian you have a code of honour which argues against slaying incapacitated foes…” Sable begins.

“They had their chance,” Issa interrupts, methodically slitting throats. “It doesn’t get fairer than that, down here.”

While this debate is going on, Ivan searches the bodies (roll at +1 on the treasure table, p. 34), and finds a pouch full of Fools’ Gold. The party retrace their steps into room 1, where luckily there is no ambush awaiting them. Picking the middle door this time, they find an even shorter corridor leading to a somewhat smaller room, this time with two other exits. This contains a troll, which the party immediately attacks; Sable and Aloysius miss it, but Issa kills it, and then Ivan chops it into tiny pieces so that it doesn’t regenerate. Ivan reports disgustedly that the troll had but a single gold piece to its name.

Rather than risk an unnecessary ambush by returning to room 1, the group heads through the door opposite, beyond which lies an empty four-way intersection (4). Searching this for secret doors and compartments, they find a clue – a section of defaced and barely legible runic script carved into the wall, which Sable copies into his book.

Turning left at the intersection, they find a door leading to a large, L-shaped room (5) with two other exits. A dead adventurer lies on the floor, his arm outstretched towards a small jewellery box which Ivan thoughtfully appropriates; this proves to contain a jewelled necklace worth 80 gp. Ahead lies another door, beyond which is an odd-shaped room (6) containing a pair of zombies, who quickly fall before Issa’s axe; at this point they prove to be guarding a +1 magic mace, which is handed to Brother Aloysius. Picking the furthest door, they move on, into a square room (7) full of giant centipedes – these put up a stiff resistance but are vanquished without poisoning anyone. Sadly, they have no loot.

The next room (8) proves to contain a small dragon, and given how vicious they are, Sable attempts to parley. The dragon demands all the party’s gold, with a minimum of 100 gold or one magic item. Ivan steps forward and hands over the Fools’ Gold he acquired earlier in room 2, and the party’s own 36 gp, reasoning that even if the dragon doesn’t accept the Fools’ Gold as 74 gp, it’s still a magic item, so counts either way. Muttering under their breath, the party retreats into room 7 where they are ambushed by 6 skeletal rats. These put up the stiffest fight yet, managing to inflict a wound on Ivan before they fall to Brother Alyosius’ magic mace. No treasure though.

Heading away from the dragon, the party encounters a Y junction (9), which remains stubbornly empty even when searched. Both doors prove to lead to the same, small room (10) – home to 6 skeletons, which are killed in a short but vicious melee; the party recovers 4 gp. The party has now killed over 10 minions, so one character gets a chance to level up; I pick Sable, and roll a 6 on one die – this is more than his current level, so he advances, and being a wizard gets a new spell; I pick another Lightning Bolt, as I already know there is a dragon about, and they are immune to Sleep and Fireball.

Perforce heading back towards the dragon, the party is ambushed by a catoblepas in room 7, whose deadly gaze costs Aloysius a life. Issa and Aloysius are both badly injured before the beast is felled, so while Ivan is looting the body, finding a potion of healing, Aloysius casts his first healing of the adventure, restoring everyone to full health.

Continuing to room 6 in search of unexplored areas, the group is attacked by an orc brute – thanks to exploding dice, this is down to one hit point by the time it gets a chance to react, whereupon it clocks Brother Aloysius for two hits before Ivan yerks it under the fifth rib and puts it down, purloining 6 gp from it almost before it hits the ground. Killing a boss monster triggers another levelling up opportunity, and Issa advances to level 2.

Taking the only unexplored exit from room 6 leads to a square room (11) which appears to be a dead end; it is empty apart from a blessed temple, at whose shrine Aloysius gains +1 attack against undead or demons (which expires when the group kills one). The group retraces its steps to room 5, and takes the only unexplored exit there, which leads them down a long, featureless corridor to a small chamber wherein lurk 3 orcs. Two fall, the third fails to hit Issa, who cleaves it to the brisket. Ivan relieves the bodies of 2 gp, bringing their current total to 12 gp.

Back to the four-way intersection (4) without incident, and turn left; a short empty corridor (13) leads to another short, empty corridor (14) which in turn leads to another corridor (15) – where Brother Aloysius narrowly escapes injury from a dart trap as he bends down to pick up a potion of healing, no doubt dropped by an earlier explorer. Beyond that is yet another corridor (16), full of vampire frogs, one of which bites Aloysius before they are put down. Aloysius heals himself. The frogs are guarding another potion of healing; Sable takes that, as Issa has 9 hit points of her own now, and the other two already have one each. Trudging on, the team finds themselves in an empty four-way intersection (17) and goes straight across, following the corridor to a small, cramped room containing a weird monster – another catoblepas, the other half of a mated pair perhaps? Before it falls to their blades, Issa and Sable have each lost a life. Tangled in its matted fur is a scroll of Blessing, which Aloysius gets.

Returning to the last intersection (17), the party turns right, but finds their way blocked by rubble (because the room would be off the map). Back to the intersection and across it, to a roundish room (20) where a giant stone block (level 5) falls from the ceiling onto Ivan, inflicting 2 damage on him. Beyond the far door lies a large square chamber (21), occupied by 10 rats, but an enraged Aloysius smashes them to bits before they can bite anyone. To the party’s left is a short corridor ending in another door, but that opens onto another rubble-blocked vista (22) and they abandon that route, heading back to the chamber and across it to its only remaining exit; that proves to lead to a truncated rectangular room (23) where 5 orcs are camped. Three of them are cut down before they can react, their return strikes miss, and Issa decapitates both the survivors, one of whom is wearing a fine ring worth 130 gp. This brutal slaughter takes the minion death count up to 23, meaning someone can roll to advance; I choose Ivan, but he rolls a 1 and fails to improve. Meanwhile Issa opens the last door in this room, discovering a short, rubble-blocked corridor which the orcs have been using as a privy.

Closing that door against the smell, the team return to area 16 and take the north door into a corridor (25), where Issa falls into a trapdoor and loses a life. The others use their rope to pull her out, together with the Wand of Sleep she found at the bottom, and Aloysius uses his last healing of the trip to heal everyone. Pressing on brings them to another empty corridor (26), and ignoring the doors they march north – this leads them back to the entrance room (1) – I moved one of the doors around as it made more sense to make that connection than squeeze another area into the one available square. Another trapdoor yawns before Issa and she avoids this one, picking up a second +1 mace – as a barbarian she has an innate fear of magic, so hands it to Ivan, muttering about him not needing to worry about edge alignment now. They take the west door out of area 27 and enter a room full of skeletal rats (28), which give Ivan a nasty bite before they are slain. Ironically, they guard a potion of healing.

Room 29 is small, oddly shaped, and inhabited by 17 rats – Ivan gets bitten again in the course of dealing with these. The party now returns to area 26 to try the doors there. The west door leads to a short, empty corridor going nowhere (30); a good place for stairs leading down, but obviously things have not progressed that far. The east door can pretty much only lead back to area 4, but inside this strangely-shaped area (31) a chaos lord is lurking, and he begins by unleashing his Hellfire Blast on the party, taking a life from each member. By the time the chaos lord is dealt with, the party has lost 9 lives between them and is in pretty bad shape. Everyone who has one quaffs a potion of healing, after which only Issa is still wounded (because she stubbornly refuses to drink one). I pick Aloysius to level up, which he does barely. Ivan meanwhile acquires 4 gp and a jewelled gorget worth 120 gp.

Three doors left; moving back to room 3, the party kicks open the remaining door there to find an empty cupboard (33). With only two unopened doors left in the complex, our heroes trudge back to area 16 and take the south door. Beyond this is a dead-end room (32) dominated by an ogre; Issa loses another two life killing it – a high price to pay for 3 gp.

It’s dragon time. Back to room 8 and the dragon. Sable starts with a Lighning Bolt, zapping it for two life – now it has three left. Aloysius removes another one, but the others miss. The dragon retaliates, biting Issa and Aloysius. Sable fires his second Lightning Bolt and misses. Ouch. Luckily both Issa and Aloysius land their blows, and the dragon expires. Its hoard contains 10 gp, a wand of Sleep, and a potion of healing. That’s got to be worth a levelling up roll, Ivan gets it and succeeds.

There’s one place left to go, south from the dragon’s lair, and that room (34) has 6 hobgoblins in it. Pity to waste the Fireball, so in it goes; that plus several rounds of frenzied slashing and macework polishes them off without serious incident, leaving our heroes to loot jewellery worth 30 gp.

Escaping the now cleaned-out dungeon without incident, the party takes stock. They have two +1 maces, a potion of healing, a scroll of blessing and a fully-charged wand of sleep, plus 319 gp. Issa is half-dead, but that’s her own stubborn fault because she won’t drink potions of healing. Everyone has made it to second level.

Off to the pub, then.


This is definitely a fun little game, but I would prefer it to be shorter – the last ten rooms were a bit of a slog. I should be able to achieve a faster game by making the map smaller, so I’ll try that next time; statistically that should make it a tiny bit easier to level up, as some of the quests depend on clearing out the map, but I don’t think it’s a game-breaker. The alternative is to split a game across multiple sessions, which is also entirely feasible.

The game plays very nicely just from the quick reference sheets. The main thing I had to keep checking was when PCs do, or do not, add their level to rolls; the main thing I kept getting wrong was how many opponents attacked each PC. Both of those will come more easily with practice.

Credits: Rules – Four Against Darkness by Ganesha Games. Map drawn in Dungeonographer.

Death Frost Doom

I was asked to run a game for Nick and some friends, and they specifically wanted something Old School to see how things used to be done in the 1970s,  so out came Labyrinth Lord and Death Frost Doom. (I love OD&D, but not quite enough to run it from my aging White Box books; the Moldvay edition, and Labyrinth Lord which retroclones it, were and are more popular for a reason.)

Random character generation Old School style is fast and easy – which it has to be, given the lifespan of the average first level character – so it was only a short while later that the party took shape; one fighter, one dwarf, one cleric, and one Charisma 17 thief. I dropped Deathfrost Mountain into my old Irongrave campaign, expecting this to be a one-off, and the party began at the town of Stonebridge, where none of the players had been before, drawn by the rumour of treasure in the mountain, which they accepted despite rejecting the rumours of the resurgence of the ancient death cult which used to live there.

Now while original DFD is more than five years old and thus outside my self-imposed spoiler limit of five years, the new edition is only a year old and so well within it. So you’ll get partial spoilers.

The session was about six hours long, and of that they spent probably an hour generating characters, buying equipment in town, and taking to NPCs; and a couple of hours thrashing around outside the dungeon entrance, talking to more NPCs, examining the entrance in minute detail, and demonstrating the usual healthy acquisitiveness.

Then they found their way in, and explored the complex, continually thinking they had found it all – and then finding another door. They avoided four potential Total Party Kills, and most of the treasure, because they did not search the rooms thoroughly enough; they found the Sacred Parasite and killed it with fire, losing the thief in the process (one hit point you see – Old School, baby) and being unable to recover her body (for resurrection) or the loot (for fencing).

They then unleashed the Sealed Menace, which they escaped by creative (and desperate) use of some of the items they found in the dungeon. By the time they had finished doing that, the Sealed Menace had destroyed Stonebridge, which they could see burning in the distance as they marched south to the next town (the campaign’s titular Irongrave), concocting stories on the way of how they had warned Stonebridge and fought valiantly in its defence.

Oh well, easy come, easy go.

What about Death Frost Doom then? It’s a horror story rather than a hack-and-slash dungeon; the players find a lot of creepy stuff, but it is quite possible to go for extended periods without fighting anything – there was only one serious combat in the entire session. Everything in the scenario is there for a purpose, and it all interacts, and there were a number of interactions I didn’t spot until I was actually running it, despite having read it several times and taken notes.

As Zak S says in his introduction, this scenario demands only a little of your campaign’s space and time, but it does something with every inch of that space and every second of that time. I’d love to run it again sometime – and there are not many scenarios I think that about.

TLP Suspicions: Politics

“What do you know?” he would have asked me, and “What do you suspect?” – Robin Hobb, Assassin’s Apprentice

In preparation for some Last Parsec space opera, I have been rereading my SW Sci-Fi Companion and all the pieces of The Last Parsec I have, starting with politics; and I have some suspicions.

I know that the United Confederation’s troops use the basic Soldier/Marine and Starship Crew profiles (SFC p. 74). I know that those templates are probably human (SFC p. 66) because they have no racial abilities. So, I suspect that the UC is human-dominated.

I know that the Tazanian racial enemy is the largest organised opposition in the setting (SFC p. 73). I know that there are only three “empires” mentioned in the SFC (pp. 72-74); the Rigellian Slave Fleet,  the Tazanian Empire, and the United Confederation. I know that the Rigellians are wanderers from a distant, long-lost system (SFC p. 72), that the UC has dozens or hundreds of member worlds, and that the Tazanian Empire has thousands of conquered planets (TLP Primer, p. 10) and a policy of militaristic expansion (SFC p. 73). So, I suspect that the Tazanian racial enemy is humans, and the UC was originally a defensive alliance intended to fend off Tazanian aggression.

I know that the Rigellians are slavers, selling captives to unscrupulous empires (SFC p. 72). I know that subject races on Tazanian worlds toil beneath the lash of their overseers (TLP Primer p. 10). So, I suspect that the Tazanians are some of the Rigellians’ biggest customers.

I know that JumpCorp is a galaxy-spanning corporation, big enough and influential enough that its company scrip is the de facto interstellar currency (TLP Primer, p. 4). So, I suspect one of the themes of the setting is a futuristic reflection of the contemporary tension between nation-states and large corporations.


Already, I can see that my Last Parsec campaign is likely to diverge from the official setting, which is disappointing. This gives me several options:

  • Wait for Pinnacle’s future TLP products to resolve my questions. Who knows when that might happen, or if I will like the answer?
  • Build a TLP campaign based on my suspicions, and retcon it later as and if those are contradicted; or more likely not, because my players are unlikely to have enough TLP products to spot the join.
  • Build a campaign which sidesteps these issues entirely by not using the Tazanian Empire, for example by using one of the plot point campaign books.
  • Scrap TLP completely and drive on.

I shall reflect on all this, and pursue other interests for a while. There’s no point investing a lot of effort in this campaign only to delete it later.

“We demand rigidly-defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!” – Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Welcome to Lygos!

“In the far future, the [human group] fights a pitched battle against the mighty [alien name] Empire, but deep in the mysterious [region of space], among the ruins of the past, a darker threat looms.” – TV Tropes, Standard Sci-Fi Setting

Time for some space opera! Let’s try The Last Parsec, shall we?

The Zhodani Base recommends four things for an interesting Traveller subsector; at least two nearby interstellar states, backwater worlds, obvious adventures and a place that feels like home. Since those don’t depend on specific rules or a map, they are equally useful here, and they are easy to do in TLP: The United Confederation and the Tazanian Empire are the main states; backwater worlds can be easily inserted into the mapless setting as needed; there are obvious adventures driven by the conflict between the two states, abductions by Rigellian slavers, the machinations of JumpCorp and those who hire it, and the predations of the obligatory space pirates; but we need a place to feel like home.

I could make the PCs’ homeworld a member of a third state – since we already have a Federation and an Empire, this would be the Kingdom – but since the defining feature of a Confederation is that there is no strong central government, that’s an unnecessary complication; the homeworld can be part of the UC.

Alternatively, I could make the PCs’ home their starship, but that means they start off travelling, and I can minimise world-building effort by starting with a single world and limiting the PCs to it. To paraphrase Tolstoy, that means most adventures will be “a stranger comes to town” rather than the more usual “go on a quest”. The reasons I want to do this are first, to minimise the risk of clashing with future releases in the TLP line, especially the promised setting book, and second, I’m still not entirely comfortable with how hyperspace travel works in this setting.

To feel like home, the base world should be familiar; it should be reasonably Earthlike, and have a cultural and political background that the players can relate to, so something vaguely like the present-day Western democracies – this isn’t about whether those are the best or most likely form of society, it’s about how much I have to explain to players before we get down to the adventure.

However, to expose the players to TLP canon, the base world should have a starport where strangers of many races gather, suggesting a trade hub. Since that implies a lot of traffic, the world is likely rich and desirable; therefore it should be populous and technically advanced enough to defend itself against the Rigellians and the Tazanian Empire, who would otherwise enslave or conquer it while the UC was debating whether or not to act. That immediately makes me think of Istanbul, Byzantium, or whatever you want to call it; for much of history, a military superpower and a major commercial port. Those names are too obvious though, so I shall use one of its earlier monikers: Lygos.

It will enhance the not-Kansas factor if the starport is in orbit, and I shall dub it Halfway Station, because there is always a space station called that in my SF games, whether or not the PCs ever find it. I’m enamoured of the original von Braun-style hub-and-spoke stations, and those are appropriate for TLP because antigravity is Ultra-Tech, beyond the reach of most worlds – which leaves you simulating gravity by rotation. To save time, I shall use the stock space station from p. 50 of the Sci-Fi Companion, which has a population of about 25,000 – a small city, which immediately suggests the right spaceport size is Large; that’s also appropriate as it is the smallest type which can repair critical hits, and players will need that eventually.

A base world needs a number of NPCs to bond the players to it, and the easy way to do that is to have one of each type of Wild Card from the Travelers and Xenos chapter of the Sci-Fi Companion; that also gives me a starting list of NPCs for use with the Mythic Game Master Emulator, which initially includes a Master Assassin, a Pirate Officer, a Pirate Captain, a Psi-Knight (wait, what?), a Psionicist, a Starship Captain, a Chief Engineer, a Chief Medical Officer (those three probably run the starport), a Tazanian Officer (probably an envoy of some kind), and on the non-sentient side a Hunter Queen and a Space Leviathan.


Planetary Gravity: Normal. Dominant Terrain: Temperate forests (it’s a “Vancouver planet“). Atmosphere: Normal. Average Temperature: 60 F (15-16 C). Population Density: Average. Dominant Government: Republic. Dominant Law: Average. Customs: Hmm, let’s leave that one for a bit and see what inspiration strikes in play. Technology Level: Average. Spaceport: Large.

Lygos is a major trade hub and member of the United Confederation; aboard the orbiting spaceport are a Tazanian delegation and a number of characters of dubious morality, as well as a UC command crew. We’ll figure the rest out in play.

Dogs in the Vineyard

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power." – Abraham Lincoln

Last weekend, two out of town gamers (Sal and Robert) were visiting my daughter Giulia and her husband Tenchi. Would I run a game for them? Of course I would. Sal really wanted to play Dogs in the Vineyard; would I mind running that? No, of course not, I’ve had it for years and just never got around to using it as a guest game – why not now?

So this post is part review and part session write-up. I read the rulebook again, started out using the Box Elder Canyon Branch adventure in that, and modified it on the fly as we played.


Brother Cadmus has decided that his role as Territorial Agent and census-taker warrants a living wage, and is spending his whole time lobbying for that rather than running his farm (Pride). His wife, Sister Felicity, has to feed their three children somehow, so has started making moonshine in the barn and selling it (Injustice).

Brother Ephraim, a farm hand, runs out of money to buy whiskey, so breaks into the church at night to steal the silver Tree of Life from the altar. While he is in there, his lantern’s light attracts the attention of Brother Benjamin, and when Benjamin enters to investigate, the lantern is knocked over, burning the church to the ground and severely disfiguring Benjamin while Ephraim escapes out of the rear window (more Injustice).

Benjamin decides that this is the doing of the Mountain People woman Eve Many Horses, on the grounds that some Mountain People pray to spirits and therefore she must be a witch (still more Injustice). He starts praying for her death (Heresy), and decides that the Steward, Brother Artax, is unfit for duty because of his tainted blood (either more Injustice or additional Heresy). Meanwhile, Ephraim, wracked by guilt, has introduced Benjamin to moonshine to dull the pain (definiftely more Injustice and Heresy) and is spending far too much time with him; he hasn’t joined in the prayers yet, but some night soon that’s bound to happen over a shared mason jar of moonshine.

It’s at this point that four newly-minted Dogs ride into town. After a couple of days asking questions, a stake-out of Brother Cadmus’ farm, and a couple of fist-fights both ended by Sal’s Dog brandishing an enormous revolver, they work out that moonshine is involved, where it came from, and who’s buying it; a short but brutal field interrogation on one of the outlying farms buys the Dogs the story of what happened in the church, at the cost of one of Brother Ephraim’s fingers.

The Dogs explain forcefully to Brother Cadmus that he needs to straighten up and fly right, make him demolish the still, and give his wife some money and herbal recipes to tide them over until the farm is back in production. They give Brother Benjamin a herbal pain-relief placebo in the hope this will help him give up moonshine.

The Dogs drag Ephraim into town, explain to the congregation what really happened, and entreat them half-heartedly not to kill him. Brother Benjamin opines that "It was thet Mountain People Witch what made him do it," but they ride off satisfied with a job well done.

Meanwhile, in the darkness of his cellar, Brother Benjamin continues to pray for Eve’s early and unpleasant demise. And the Dogs have established the doctrinal precedent that sometimes it’s okay to drink moonshine for medicinal purposes… In an ongoing campaign, those two issues would come back to bite them at some point, probably the next time their circuit brings them back to Box Elder Canyon.


“We’re comforting the children by telling them their mother has been possessed by a demon.”

They meant it wasn’t really her fault, and she was okay again now, but you can imagine how the kids took it…


We were totally immersed in the game – we started playing around 11 AM, and at 2.30 PM realised we’d missed lunch, so whipped up some guacamole and ate it at the gaming table. We finished around 4 PM, and by the end players were making the Sign of the Tree at each other (and NPCs) over the table at dramatically appropriate points.

In hindsight, character creation was the most enjoyable part of the session. Sal explained this best I think, saying "It’s not often you get to play through the pivotal moment of your character’s life." It’d be interesting to see how the group character creation in Mongoose Traveller worked with this team, I think it would go well.

Sal’s exorcism of a demon in training went right down to the wire, but he succeeded in the end; let’s just say he got a new Trait out of that, “Whatever it takes 1d6”, and leave it at that. Tenchi’s character has a complicated history, and for his training challenge bluffed his way out of being recognised by an old criminal acquaintance thanks to an unusual Belonging – "Mammoth beard 2d8". We decided that since it could be shaved off, it was a Belonging not a Trait.

Giulia’s herbalist character took as an aspiration "I hope I don’t get addicted to any of the herbs we use," and only made it thanks to the intervention of Robert’s PC, the use of her Dog’s Coat ("I focus on the coat, it reminds me of my family, and I know I can’t let them down like this,") and her horse – which ate the supply of offending herbs. The fallout is that her horse now has the trait "Addicted to herbs 1d6".

The Dogs’ Coats were a real hit. All the players were happy describing their coats, and how the coats changed as the game went on, and like me they love the idea that you can apply permanent damage to your coat to avoid more serious long-term fallout. Sal’s Dog has a coat where he makes marks representing each demon he has faced down, and how much fun could a GM have with that? Giulia’s coat is a herbal, embroidered with all the various healing herbs – the idea is that she can point at them and say "I need this to save your father’s life," and so on. She is defacing the pictures of the addictive herbs, but still trying them all – after all, someone has to find out, right? Robert’s Dog’s coat is torn and bloodstained where he was gored by an ox while saving the life of a ploughboy previously gored by the same ox. Tenchi’s Dog? Well, nobody’s going to notice the coat while it’s obscured by a 2d8 beard.

As a GM, I was delighted by the discussions around the table about what would be a just punishment for each of the sinners. I gave them a range of repentance – or lack thereof – from “Oh Lord, what have I done?” (Cadmus) to “Where were the Dogs when I needed them? Where was the King of Life when I needed him?” (Benjamin) to “Please don’t cut off my hand! I’ll be good!” (Ephraim) to “The King has placed me in Stewardship over these children, and they will not go hungry while I am their Steward!” (Felicity). It was fascinating to watch their reactions, especially with Ephraim, where they decided that a one-handed farmhand would be a burden on a small community, but they had to cut something off or the congregation would kill him for burning down the church. Cadmus and Felicity showed genuine repentance and got mercy in return, Ephraim showed fake repentance and was maimed, Benjamin showed no repentance at all, but they decided his hideous burns had been gained doing the King’s work and were in and of themselves punishment enough.


Conflict resolution got in the way for me as the GM, and I’m pretty sure I was doing it wrong, so I fell more and more into straight narrative play as the game progressed. A few more sessions would fix that problem, I think. I did briefly consider using the super-cool setting with Savage Worlds as the game engine, but I think the poker-style conflict resolution is so central to the feel of the game that it wouldn’t work

I hadn’t prepared any NPC statblocks in advance, so I was making them up as I went along, and I think conflict was too easy as a result. It didn’t seem to hurt the game, though.

From the constant talk around the table about exorcising demons, and the fact that one of the characters invested heavily in demonology skills and demon-suppression equipment, I should have realised that the group wanted the game to be about demonic possession. That would have been easy to add into the game by using Demonic Influence dice, which I completely forgot about.

The players started off investigating the church fire, then spent most of the session chasing moonshiners, before remembering they had decided the important thing was to find and punish the church-burner. They never did figure out what Brother Benjamin was up to.


You need more d4, d8 and d10 for Dogs than we normally have around – as three of the five at the table were Shadowrun players, there was no shortage of d6. This is because when you roll a die, it needs to stay on the table until that conflict is over, whereas in a typical game you would use the score right away and reroll the die.

Dogs is more about solving puzzles and interacting with NPCs than it is about killing things and taking their stuff. With the group of players we had, that worked very well.

Dogs has a very different vibe to most games we play, because of who the characters are. The players like having total authority over NPCs and total freedom of action, because the NPCs acknowledge they are Big Damn Heroes. As a GM, I like being able to cut to the chase – the NPCs tumble over themselves to involve the Dogs in their problems, so no valuable session time is used up identifying the problem or persuading the NPCs to help. This works very well and would be easy to use in any other game.

The way towns are set up works well to create an adventure, and would work well in any game for scenarios of mystery or intrigue.


The players?

  • Tenchi: That was more fun than I expected.
  • Sal: It was everything I hoped for, and more. I have to play this again.

The GM?

  • Dogs in the Vineyard is really a supernatural Western detective show, and a lot of fun to play – that was one of the best sessions we’ve had in years.
  • There are many lessons to learn from this game, but it’s unlikely to topple my favourites from their pedestals.
  • As always, who’s playing matters more than what we play. For this group, Dogs in the Vineyard works really well.

Telrax the Indomitable, Episode 1

Today, we bring you an example/review of Scarlet Heroes solo play, featuring Telrax the Indomitable. This may or may not become a regular feature. I have largely suppressed my narrative urges, the better to show you the rules at work.


First I need a character. My focus at the moment is understanding how the solo rules work, so I take the simplest race and class – human fighter – to avoid distractions. SNP is unusually lenient here, in that rather than "roll 3d6 and you’re stuck with it", Scarlet Heroes PCs use the 4d6-drop-lowest-and-rearrange approach, with at least a 16 in the prime requisite guaranteed. I roll 16, 16, 13, 12, 11, 8, which I think will be good enough, and rearrange them as Str 16 (+2), Dex 12 (+0), Con 16 (+2), Int 13 (+1), Wis 8 (-1), Cha 11 (+0) – Telrax is a big, beefy lad, with a certain low cunning, but prone to impulsive decisions; a perfect fighter.

Page 8 tells me he can use any armour or weapons, begins with 8 hit points and gains +4 HP per level, begins with a +1 attack bonus and gains +1 per level, and his Fray Die is 1d8.

Telrax gets three Trait points, plus two for being human. I allocate these as Barbarian Warrior +3 and City Guard +2. I picture him wandering into some city as a youth much like Conan, but choosing the side of law rather than becoming a petty thief. He has now grown bored with taking orders and sets out to seek his fortune.

A roll of 15 grants him 150 gp to spend on equipment; I take a one-handed weapon (1d8, probably a sword) for 15 gp, a small weapon (let’s say a dagger, 1d4, 2 gp), chainmail (70 gp) and shield (5 gp) which together give him AC4, and decide to begin with an urban adventure (so the shops are handy) and figure out what else he needs later on, so as to start playing immediately. Total expenditure 92 gp, leaving him with 58 gp in cash.

Where is Telrax from? What city is he in? It doesn’t matter at this stage. Let’s see how the rules play before I commit myself to any of that.


I now turn to p. 116 and points west, and the urban solo adventure rules, and begin by rolling 1d8 to generate a plot. A score of 1 (assassination) tells me that I should pick either the antagonist or the target as my initial contact, and I will only learn about the other one after a successful investigation scene. I set Victory Points both for Telrax and the antagonist to zero (first one to 10 wins). Hmm. This early in the game I have no idea which person Telrax would care more about, so I decide to work one out first and then decide which they are.

Flipping back to page 114, I decide whether this person is an assassin or a victim, they’re most likely to be in the Elite and Noble column of the NPCs table. A couple of dice rolls tell me that the NPC is in fact a Famed Courtesan who Telrax owes a favour. She’s Shou Blooded, hard of hearing, lazy, and her immediate purpose is to destroy the evidence of something. That sounds more like a victim than an assassin; we’ll figure out what’s going on later. I set the Threat Level to 1, as that is Telrax’s level. I need a name for the Famed Courtesan; the NPC names tables don’t have any for the Shou Blooded, so arbitrarily I pick Yanmei from the Imperial name tables – obviously she has a professional name, and prefers not to use her real one. (I could have cracked open my copy of Red Tide and taken a Shou name from there, but inertia overcame me.)


Telrax hasn’t got a Clue yet, so can’t pick an action scene; he can choose either an investigation or a conflict scene, so in time-honoured pulp tradition we begin with a conflict. Rather than roll for this, I select "Waylay a minion of the foe. Face a fight instead of a check."

Clearly, Telrax has found the courtesan trying to dispose of some evidence while being ambushed; I expect he knows her from his time in the City Guard, although since she is a Famed Courtesan he is probably not a former patron.

Moving on to the tables on page 119, a few more dice rolls tell me that this is happening in or near a sewer passage (probably where the evidence is going), that the opposition are 1d4+T Rabble assassins (OK, that figures) – a die roll gives me three of them, and I can see their stats at the bottom of the page; HD 1, AC 9, +1 to hit, 1d4 damage, morale 8, skill +1, move 30′.

We’ll deal with the fight in a moment, but meanwhile, what is this evidence? I decide to roll up a random object on the tables on p. 81. The most interesting option is Jewelry, so I roll some more dice and get a bloodstone amulet, worth 500 gp.

Condensed Narrative Part 1

Telrax is walking through the slums when he spies Yanmei, a courtesan of his acquaintance, hiding a packet in a nearby sewer entrance. Not a very good hiding place, but then, Yanmei is not a fan of hard work. Nor is she especially alert, and she fails to detect the three ruffians approaching her stealthily from behind. However, Telrax owes her, and this looks like a good chance to repay the favour.

The Fight

This being Scarlet Heroes and Telrax a PC, he goes first. Everyone else rolls 1d8 plus Dex modifier (which I’ll call +0 all round to save time) and acts in descending order; that gives us Ruffians #1 and #2 (1), Yanmei (2), and finally Ruffian #3 (5).

Let’s start with the Fray Die, which for Telrax is 1d8. He rolls 4, which signifies one point of damage; since the thugs’ hit dice are less than or equal to his level, he deducts that damage point directly from Ruffian #1’s hit dice (not hit points), removing him from play.

Attacking #2, Telrax rolls 13 on 1d20, then adds +2 for his Strength modifier, +1 for his attack bonus, and +9 for the target’s AC – a total of 25, which as it is at least 20, hits the target. He rolls 1d8 for damage and gets a 5, inflicting one point of damage; this is deducted directly from the target’s hit dice and fells him.

The foes now face a morale check for their losses (p. 18) and roll 2d6 vs their Morale of 8; they roll a 6 and continue – but must now take a second check for losing half their number or more. They roll an 8, and not only carry on, but because they have passed two morale checks will fight to the death.

Yanmei draws a dagger and stabs at the third and final assailant; she rolls 8, plus his AC of 9, plus no bonuses, for a 17 – miss. Ruffian #3 now swings at her, rolling a 3, plus 9 for her AC, plus one for his attack bonus; total 13, also a miss.

It’s a new turn, so initiative again; both NPCs roll a 2, so they will act simultaneously, and Telrax always goes first. The Fray Die comes up 1, inflicting no damage; he rolls 15 to hit, and I can tell that will hit without adding it up. He rolls 7 for damage, which does two points of damage directly to the thug’s hit dice, killing him outright. (Note that had there been another thug left, the second damage point would have got him too.)

Telrax gets a Victory Point for prevailing in this scene (p. 116), and would deduct one from his enemy’s total for winning a conflict, but the as-yet unnamed foe is still on zero VP. He also gets one XP for completing the session, having accomplished something heroic (rescuing a damsel in distress).

Condensed Narrative Part 2

Just as Yanmei fails to notice the ruffians, they fail to notice Telrax coming up behind them until he kicks one of them into the sewer mouth. While the scream and splash are still echoing, Telrax follows up with a savage thrust into the back of the second thug, ending him. Yanmei draws a dagger from somewhere in her diaphanous robes, and she and the surviving thug trade ineffective stabs until Telrax slips past his guard and drops him with a mighty slash.

"Hello, Yanmei," Telrax grins, reaching into the sewer mouth and retrieving a pouch. Emptying it onto his palm, he notices a small bloodstone amulet.

"What have we here? There’s a story behind this, I’ll wager. Do you want to talk about it?"

"Not here," Yanmei replies, looking around her warily. "Follow me, I will explain…"

Pausing only to roll the two dead bodies into the sewer, Telrax obeys.


Well, that was fun, fast, and easy to run; the initial character generation and set up took about half an hour, and scene 1 just over ten minutes – I expect both would speed up with practice. I was able to run the actual scene with only the quick reference rules on p. 25 and the NPC stats.

The Fray Die is vicious against low-level combatants; between that and his combat adds, Telrax can be pretty certain of incapacitating two mooks per turn. I rather like that, very Conanesque.

It doesn’t take much story to hook me, so you can probably expect further episodes of the adventures of Telrax later. Meanwhile, up next: More Dark Nebula…