The penultimate session for Shadows Over Ekul, and after a lot of fascinating in-character discussion and debate over whether Ash should be replaced by a Valk character, the players decided to follow Jirro, cavalry officer and suspected kidnapper of Princess Karmella, to the old Tenebar Fort where he holed up, in support of Tokarim Shah.

Most of the session was spent on a commando raid on the fort. This captured, they learned from Jirro that he had, in fact, obeyed orders in good faith and to the letter (“Go to the fort and repair it, don’t come back until I send for you,”) and was not the kidnapper they were looking for. At this point a ransom note from the real kidnapper surfaced, offering to exchange Karmella for ‘Ulesir Shah’, actually Max in disguise.

In company with Philosopher Jimpah, King Ekul’s personal monk, they headed south to the hostage exchange point. By this stage they had decided that nobody was who they seemed to be, and began the exchange (correctly) convinced that the supposed ‘Karmella’ brought by the kidnappers was no such person. The leader of the kidnappers turned out to be one of the Black Monks they have developed such an interest in.

The highlight of the session for me was the fight with the kidnappers. Ash had concealed himself underwater near the lakeside exchange point, and due to an extremely positive response by the dice to his question “Are any of Etu’s sacred crocodiles following me?”, was flanked by two such reptiles. The fight began with Dorjee hurling a fear potion onto the kidnappers’ boat, whereupon the bulk of them leapt into the water where they were engaged by the crocodiles. Final score: Crocodiles 7, heroes 3, kidnappers 0.

Interrogating the Karmella imposter and the lone surviving kidnapper (a minion who knew next to nothing but was very helpful in the hopes of not being fed to the crocodiles) led them to a concealed stairway hidden behind a waterfall, at the top of which is a trail leading to a bandit village and (three dramatic chords) the Monastery of Shadows, which not unreasonably they expect to be full of Black Monks – followers of the Path of Obscurement, who have given them the only serious opposition they have faced so far in this adventure.

They slaughtered the sentinels guarding the path in less than one combat round, as Max now has Sweep and the Monk’s character build is focussed on maximising the number of attacks per round he can deliver – in the right circumstances he now gets five, which is very scary.

The session ended with the party dressed as rebels, riding captured yaks, and disappearing cinematically into a snowstorm as the camera pulled back from them.

GM NOTES

I continue to be impressed by Umberto Pignatelli’s ability to predict, or guide, what the PCs will do; after the initial debate they followed his most-likely outline almost to the letter.

They’re doing better than the last group; by the time the Shadows of Keron party had got this far, they had killed literally every NPC who knew anything about what was going on, including the slave girl posing as Karmella.

I’ve enjoyed this immensely, and it seems to have won over all but one of the players to Savage Worlds; but the next session will conclude this adventure, and then we’ll revert to WFRP3 and Star Wars EotE for a while. It will be a refreshing change to be a player again for a while.

Moving forward, I’ve calculated that at this rate I have enough scenarios for this group to last us until 2038, so I can afford to start offering them a choice of several via rumours, which I hope will improve satisfaction levels further.

Anvil Road, 8th June 216

Trusting their colleagues in Team Dragon to take care of the giant living dungeon, Team Angel (Boris, Silmaria, Ssh’ta, The Fox and Valore plus henchmen) take stock of their other options: Follow up on the cloud giant observing them earlier, pursue the bounty offered them by Gutstabber (which will mean a trip to Glitterhaegen), go back to the dwarven tower on Anvil Road and find out what’s underneath, or follow up on the flying building they noticed several months ago.

By a majority of three in favour of the dwarven tower to two not-that-bothered, they head north, arriving at the actual tower a couple of days later. They first scout the tower’s environs, then the tower itself, finding only unburied orc bodies somewhat the worse for nibbling by the local wildlife since the party killed them just over two weeks ago. Valore rightly deduces that nobody has been to check up on them or bury them, and the group removes the lift shaft lid. Ssh’ta is designated lookout and climbs to the roof with Caliban in case the party are disturbed by rude strangers while exploring.

Valore drops a torch down the shaft; it can be seen burning on the floor of a corridor some 30 feet below. Valore and Dave descend and find themselves in a corridor leading to a four-way intersection. Someone has made a half-hearted attempt to bury four goblin spearmen in the loose rock of the corridor sides between some pit props; they appear to have been bludgeoned to death. Valore draws her sword (which then appears to burst into flames, thus providing a light source) and with the others following at a safe distance, she and Dave head up to the intersection and explore a short way down each arm. To the east they find a small chamber containing cots, chicken coops, and a hole in the wall labelled ‘Slide’ in dwarven, as well as a curving corridor sloping down. To the south is another curving corridor sloping down. To the west is a third curving, sloping corridor and a chamber, containing three statues of goblin spearmen and four large chickens pecking at something concealed under an overturned mine cart.

The chickens, soon to be dubbed ‘angry medusa chickens’ by Valore, prove to be cockatrices and assault the recon element. Valore finds herself being petrified, but thinking quickly, sheathes her sword, plunging the place into darkness, and flies up to the ceiling. Silmaria, who has galloping scotophobia, freaks out, but now only Boris and Dave can see, and Dave quickly skewers two of the cockatrices with arrows. Boris steps into the chamber and engages a third while Dave shoots the last of the four, which is running off into the darkness in some confusion. Once stabbed, cockatrice number three turns on Boris and starts pecking and petrifying him; he flees back towards Silmaria and the others while Dave and The Fox attack the surviving cockatrice, sending it to oblivion; but Dave is incapacitated by its dying death gaze.

The party rallies and heals its wounds; fortunately, Dave’s apparently fatal petrification responds well to Boris’ ministrations. Lifting the overturned mine cart, they discover a single goblin spearman who thanks them for saving his life and gives Valore ‘treasure’ as a reward, namely a single copper piece. Under gentle questioning he reveals that he and his companions were sent by the Goblin Chief to retrieve the Forever Stone, a valuable item buried here after dwarves and evil wizards fought over it. Silmaria, meanwhile, has found a mineshaft in the corner of the Cockatrice Room and explains that in line with dwarven practice, it has been named after an ancient dwarven king.

Adding Hug-Hug (for such is the goblin’s name) to the party, they explore several looping, sloping corridors with the result that they wind up more or less back where they were. Shrugging, they return to the room of chicken coops. Boris assumes the shape of a bat and flies down the slide, finding at the bottom a large pit full of powdered lime and lizard bones, with glimpses of a large chamber above. Boris decides he wants nothing to with this and returns.

Trying another sloping, curvy corridor, the group descends into another chamber with two exits and a perch containing what turn out to be cockatrice eggs. Ladra, who is the group’s best climber, retrieves them, but refuses to smash them as the others suggest, pointing out that they are worth money to a certain sort of person. They use one of the exits and descend again, finding themselves in the large chamber Boris found earlier. Now that they have a better view of it, the party can clearly see a dozen or so dwarven skeletons hard at work, apparently mining.

While the rest pause to assess the new situation, Valore (who has firm views on this topic) screams “CLEANSE THE UNDEAD!” and launches herself at them.

To be continued…

GM’S NOTES

I am letting go of a lot of my ingrained habits and prejudices with this campaign, possibly because the sessions are so close together. Normally, I guard the character sheets jealously and update them all myself; for my other campaigns, where sessions average some three months apart and party size is 2-6, this is not a problem; but for a party of nine meeting weekly it just doesn’t work, and I have delegated that responsibility to players for the first time since the 1970s.

Likewise, I am gradually reverting to sandbox play, letting the party wander where it likes at its own pace. Yes, there is a story arc – the Eyes of the Stone Thief – but what does it matter if we don’t follow it, so long as we’re all having fun? In this instance, they decided to go back to a dungeon they knew of but had previously ignored, so I hauled out the Mines of Madness from D&D Next, as it was known in 2013, and off we went.

There was a bittersweet note though: As we waited for the full set of players to log in to the VTT, one waxed lyrical about the Mongoose Traveller campaign they intend to play with my son (who will be the GM) during the summer vacation. I’m delighted they’re playing Traveller, but oh man, I wish I could join in, rather than just handing on the baton… the training wheels are well and truly off now, and away he goes down his own road, which is right and proper; but surely it was only last weekend the two of us and his sisters were playing D&D with Lego minifigures?

Where did the time go?

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.

Marblehall, 6th June 216

Comes the dawn, and while the bulk of the party are sorting out the mess on the estate, Kowalski, Pascal and Soreth investigate the hill where the giant figure was standing last night, using its astrolabe and taking notes. Examining the footprints leads Kowalski and Pascal to the conclusions that the giant was 30 feet tall, and took a running jump into the air. Squinting along the path he would have taken by doing this, Pascal’s detect arcana shows him a magical cloud some miles away. Pascal is keen to get up there and talk to the studious and erudite cloud giants, but in the absence of a way to do that, they decide to return to the dungeon, which has surfaced again and is now sunning itself in the sinkhole where Marblehall used to be, snoring.

It’s the work of moments to retrace their steps to the stairs down to the second level, and as they have previously befriended the monster guarding the stairs by playing on its loneliness and curiosity, it lets them pass easily after an exchange of pleasantries, and they descend to the second level. Now, the Stone Thief can reconfigure its levels, and the configuration I’m currently using provides a second level which is full of traps. The party encountered a chute, a collapsing corridor, something that re-creates the trash compactor scene from Star Wars with a submarine fire-breathing regenerating hydra, giant circular saw blades, and swarms of spiders – and that’s just in the first two encounter areas. Judicious use of breath weapons, fear spells and icon invocation have kept them alive so far, but they have a long way to go yet. As they are currently trapped, I decided not to submerge the dungeon – a Total Party Kill with no way to avoid it is poor form and no fun for any of us – and so they are currently drawing breath, dripping with sewage, and awaiting the onslaught of the spider swarms.

GM NOTES

This was the session in which Pascal’s true nature emerged: Pascal is a sentient chamaeleon archaeologist, essentially a mecha pilot for the roughly human-sized X7-09. The precedent we have established is that it is OK for the player to switch from the main PC to one of his allies or hirelings, but the ones he isn’t playing are all Extras, and only the active PC benefits from bennies or the Wild Die. Pascal spent the session crawling up walls and poking his nose where it wasn’t wanted, while X7-09 carried the torch and supplies, lumbering along behind him.

The session was quite slow-moving as they spent half an hour working out what had happened to the cloud giant, the same amount of time in discussion with the stairway guardian, and the rest of it lurching from trap to trap. Had I been more familiar with the group before we started playing, I would have given them a D&D megadungeon; they are quite happy killing monsters, evading traps and looting treasure, with little sign of interest so far in the story arc they said they wanted. Luckily, in the version of Eyes of the Stone Thief I’ve chosen (for there are several possible campaigns in there), the story arc is the dungeon, more or less. Still, we’re all having fun, so we’re doing it right; as I’ve said before, the setting is for the GM, what the players see is a sequence of encounters.

Never having used them before, I was surprised how generous the Savage Worlds drowning rules are – it looks to me as if all characters can swim to some extent, and Swimming skill is what you use under extreme stress, much like Riding – everyone can sit on a horse and travel, but steeplechasing under fire requires skill rolls.

The Pawns of Destiny continue to chew their way through Shadows Over Ekul. A lot of email traffic before the session led to a towering edifice of hypothesis about the political situation in Ekul (entirely plausible but not in the scenario or the setting book) which coloured the party’s approach.

Max succeeded in impersonating Ulesir Shah.¬†Ash and the Monk spent most of the session tracking down three black-robed figures who arrived in Teluk’Ammar the week before the party, and became so invested in it that I gave them a trail to follow, although I had forgotten to bring their stats so they never actually caught what they have taken to calling ‘ninja monks’, though they did find a hideout from which the ninja monks had been watching them and found witnesses whose stories suggested collusion between the Shah’s evil half-brother and the ninja monks. Ash and Zosimus also took great pains to ingratiate themselves with their Amazon guards, Zosimus by engaging the commander in discussions of contracts and such, one merc to another, and Ash by arranging a series of athletic contests to keep the rank and file Amazons occupied during the buildup to the wedding, resulting in him being adopted as a sort of mascot.

Zosimus and Ash worked out from very little information the unrequited love between Ulesir’s bride-to-be and the cavalry officer, who in turn got far too drunk on the stag night and challenged the party to a sword-fight enlivened by venomous snakes.

(When Melee first came out, my games club had a Melee league, and the guy running it had a rule that if anyone developed too much of an advantage, the master of ceremonies would throw in a few poisonous snakes to even the odds. But I digress.)

Anyway, this all led to the officer being thrown out of the city and a certain amount of ribbing about his men having been incapacitated by Ulesir Shah’s food taster, that being what the Monk is posing as.

At the wedding the next day, it quickly became apparent that the princess had swapped places with one of her handmaidens and left the palace by night. Her father is most displeased, and U’wahz has expanded his Valk vocabulary significantly.

“I say we cut and run,” said Ash as the Valk warlord set off in pursuit of his errant daughter and the would-be groom. “I was curious about the ninja monks, but I’ve decided I’m not that curious.”

The spirit of the sandbox is strong in Ash’s player, and he chafes at the perceived limitations both of the scenario and his own character. Interestingly, this happened last time I ran Shadows Over Ekul as well – the Warforged had similar issues, and at about the same time, too; he argued passionately in favour of decamping with the wedding presents while all the Valk were out of town…

Marblehall, 5th June 216

Don’t write the dungeon, they say, so I shan’t. Last weekend the party continued their exploration of the Stone Thief and cleared out the next five rooms, all of which cluster around the castle-chomping gullet they entered through. This basically gave them three groups of monsters (all of which they slew mercilessly, including two groups that would have been willing to barter useful information for their lives) and two quite clever riddles (both of which they solved by themselves).

The group was a bit reduced – several have exams coming up and two had some kind of stomach bug to deal with, so we were reduced to five players and three NPC henchmen.

Every area in the Stone Thief has something interesting going on in it, be that monsters to slay, traps to dodge, or riddles to solve, so it was quite a long session, and they would have kept going had I not drawn things to a close – the Stone Thief also has a mechanic for chasing PCs out of the dungeon when the GM wants to go to sleep, which worked well. They have more or less cleared the first level now.

I’m pleased with how well they’ve played as a team the last couple of sessions, and impressed with how good the dungeon is – things are really motoring now they’ve got inside, and should I run this campaign again I wouldn’t spend so long setting things up. The campaign is intended to take 13th Age PCs from the top of level 3 to the end of level 8; I’m using Savage Worlds, and I think a Novice PC straight out of chargen would be a match for a 3rd level 13th Age character. Having them employed by Casila has worked well though, and I’d use that again, likewise probably earlier on – perhaps even from the beginning.

The players took advantage of all being back together to reshuffle their team membership; now, Valore and X7-09 have swapped places, so the former Team Robot has been renamed Team Angel.

Review: Cepheus Engine SRD

Posted: 19 April 2017 in Reviews
Tags:

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.