Review: Thousand Suns

In a Nutshell: Space opera RPG by James Maliszewski, using the 12 Degrees rule system. 277 page PDF (in my case) published by Grognardia Games, $30.

CONTENTS

1: Primer (8 pages). This explains what you’re going to get. The game is intended to evoke the feeling of classic science fiction literature from the 1950s to the 1970s. The core mechanic is to add together a characteristic and a skill level, and roll that or less on 2d12 to succeed.

2: Character Generation (18 pages). This is a straightforward point-buy system; divide 30 points between 5 characteristics, select a species, a homeworld package and three career packages, create five hooks for the character, acquire and spend benefit points. Vitality (hit points) and Initiative Rank are calculated from the five characteristics. Hooks are things about the character that can generate plots or complications, and are somewhat like Fate aspects or Savage Worlds edges and hindrances. Each package gives you a selection of skills and skill levels, and has several hooks suggested for it. Benefit points are derived from career packages. Action points allow you to improve your chances of success or re-roll skill checks; they work better if used in conjunction with a hook.

3: Species (18 pages). Six species are presented, including Terrans (that’s you, that is), two human clades (the obligatory genetically-engineered super-soldiers and geniuses), the Czanik (walking trees and Terra’s best allies), the Hen Jaa (the default bad guys – chlorine-breathing squids), and the Kriilkna (trilaterally symmetrical shrimp-people). A PC’s species affects his characteristics, skills, and so forth, and at least one of his hooks must be related to his species. It’s clearly stated that there are many more species in the game universe.

4: Career Packages (18 pages). There are 27 careers, each with three levels: Novice, Experienced and Veteran. PCs each have three packages to allocate, so they may choose to be a Veteran of a single career, Experienced in one and Novice in a second, or Novice in three different ones. Being a Veteran gets you the best benefits, which are things like a robot servant, membership in an interstellar organisation, part-ownership of a starship and so on.

5: Skills and Hooks (14 pages). There are 40 skills, typically with half a dozen potential specialisations; hooks can be pretty much whatever you want, so there is no definitive list. The core mechanic was explained earlier, and is expanded on here with modifiers, critical successes and failures, and whatnot; how much you succeed by, or fail by, is important, although the main mechanical effect is in combat.

6: Action (20 pages). Combat is straightforward and simple. In order of initiative, move and act or attack. To attack, roll 2d12; if the result is less than or equal to the sum of the relevant characteristic and skill plus modifiers, you’ve hit, and inflict damage equal to your degree of success multiplied by the weapon’s base damage on the target’s Vitality. There is hit location, but only if you use a called shot.

7: Psi (18 pages). The 20 or so psionic powers in the game are bought like skills, although you need to take at least one level in a psi career to gain access to them. Something to watch out for: Use of powers inflicts damage – you essentially power your abilities with your hit points. Using powers on things that are heavier, further away etc. requires more degrees of success and hurts you more. Powers tend to focus on telepathy, telekinesis and buffing the psi’s abilities – what a Star Wars fan would know as the Force.

8: Technology and Equipment (22 pages). My eyes glaze over as usual at the gear chapter, but it includes armour, personal energy shields, blasters both normal and sonic, lasers, tanglers, slug throwers, monoblades, vibroblades, computers, neural jacks, drugs and medical gear, sensors, survival equipment, cybernetic implants, a few types of robots – you get the idea.

9: Starships and Vehicles (26 pages). There are no shipbuilding rules (those are in the supplement Thousand Suns: Starships), just 18 example ships. The stand-out development here is an attempt at simple three-dimensional space combat. Ships in a dogfight move on the table, but their altitude above or below it is shown by d12s. I’m not sure how well this would work as I haven’t tried it, but kudos for having a go at it. Apart from this, in general terms ship combat works similarly to personal combat. This chapter also includes 14 example vehicles and rules for chases and vehicle combat, which is even more like personal combat.

10: Game Mastering (12 pages). This opens with fairly basic, generic stuff; the GM should be fair, the players should always have a chance of success, it’s supposed to be fun, change anything you don’t like in the game. Then we move on into how to create an Imperial SF adventure; draw on events in the 19th and early 20th centuries, be realistic yet optimistic, power should corrupt but not absolutely, great civilisations should rise and fall (sometimes predictably), make travel slow and authority distant, make technology cool but remember it is a prop, not the focus of the story. That segues into a random adventure generator which is followed by notes on awarding experience points and what players can do with them.

11: Worlds and Trade (20 pages). Here are the sector and world generation sequences, and the trading rules. Sectors consist of several dozen worlds, each with 0-3 jump routes connecting it to other worlds 1d12 weeks away. Each world is characterised by its general type, diameter, atmosphere, climate, hydrography, population, government, law and tech levels, and hooks. Speculative trade relies on random die rolls for what is available, and skill checks to haggle for purchase and sale prices.

12: Alien Life (16 pages). Alien animal and species design sequence; basic form, characteristics, size, movement, and traits such as Brittle Bones, Curious and Acidic Spittle. Traits are point-buy, the rest of the sequence is based on die rolls.

13: Allies and Antagonists (8 pages). Get yer NPCs here. Statblocks, gear, descriptions; a dozen generic ones, half a dozen fleshed out in some detail and suitable for use as allies or enemies.

14: Meta-Setting (20 pages). This is my favourite part; although the author intends the book as a toolkit for building your own Imperial SF setting, he understands that not everyone has the time or inclination to do so. The meta-setting is a broad outline of the history and geography of one such setting, which is deliberately kept vague and flexible enough that the individual GM can drop anything into it and be confident it will fit. (This is a current trend in SF RPGs, see for example The Last Parsec or Ashen Stars.) It follows the traditional consensus of the literature; World War III wipes the slate clean and explains discrepancies between today and the setting’s future history, interplanetary then interstellar exploration, alien contact, the first empire (in this case the Terran Federation), assorted wars, an interregnum, and the present day. What is clever about it is the way that the author has removed from play various currently-fashionable technologies which were not present in the literature, notably Artificial Intelligence and genetic engineering. I also like the way that the GM is provided with options for the current Terran State’s structure and its key personalities. We also learn about interstellar organisations, the Terran State’s rival powers, and the long-vanished aliens known as Travelers, blamed for anything weird and the source of the original starmap found by humans on Mars.

15: Limzano Sector (9 pages). In this last full chapter, we see an example sector of about 60 worlds, with four rival powers striving to assimilate them, a number of non-governmental organisations and corporations, thumbnail sketches (statblock and a paragraph or two of notes) of 10 of the worlds, and a lesser intelligent race native to the area.

We finish with an appendix on Lingua Terra (basic phrases, personal and ship names), a bibliography (the fiction the game emulates), the open game licence, and the obligatory character sheet. A nice touch is that Lingua Terra, the language of rule of the old Federation, is represented in-game by the real-world artificial language Esperanto.

FORMAT

Colour cover (by which I mean, it is green) surrounding single-column black text on white. Black and white illustrations every few pages, liberally spattered with quotes from the literature it emulates. Easy to read, easy on the home printer.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

None. This is solid work, and will be comfortingly familiar for the Traveller grognard despite using very different rules.

CONCLUSIONS

Like Classic Traveller, Thousand Suns strives to emulate “Imperial science fiction”, the space opera genre of 1950s-1970s literature; it is therefore inevitable that to some extent they appear similar. You could use these rules for a Travelleresque campaign, and it would work very well. They’re very fast and easy to pick up, well laid out, and a good representation of their target genre. Had I but world enough, and time, and players, this would go into the queue for use. But I don’t, so I shall limit myself to pillaging it for ideas.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review: Moria

“Keep in mind that you do not need to map out every square inch that the characters travel. Instead, create maps that focus on encounter areas and use narrative descriptions to move the action from scene to scene. Just like a book or movie, highlight the important parts of the story. Don’t force the players to navigate an endless series of featureless rooms on their way from one area to the next.” – Moria

Decipher Inc. published two RPGs; Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings, both now sadly out of print and unsupported. The LOTR mantle has passed to Cubicle 7’s The One Ring, which I reviewed here, while the closest thing left in print to a Star Trek RPG is Prime Directive, set in the Star Fleet Battles universe which is close to canonical Star Trek but not an exact match. Both Decipher games used variants of their CODA system, whose core mechanic is roll 2d6 + modifiers and meet or beat a target number.

I’ve read both games, but the only thing I managed to snag was Moria, the supplement detailing the titular and trope-making megadungeon. It had some cool ideas which deserve a wider audience, and the game is long dead, so this post will focus on those and encourage you to adopt them.

The product is a boxed set containing Dwarves of Middle-Earth (32 page booklet), Khazad-dum (96-page booklet), 16 semi-geomorphic map tiles each 10″ by 8.5″, a double-sided 10″ x 17″ map with one side showing the countryside around the Hollin Gate entrance to Moria, and the other showing the 15 main regions of the mines and how they are interconnected by tunnels, and another double-sided 10″ x 17″ map with floor plans for six key areas such as the Twenty-First Hall. The text is printed in eye-damaging dark grey on mid-grey; I suspect it was intended to have a colour background and someone decided they needed to reduce the price by printing in greyscale.

I’ll gloss over Dwarves of Middle-Earth, which is the expected mixture of fluff expanding on what Tolkien actually wrote and crunch about enhanced dwarven character generation, the adequate-but-not-outstanding geomorphs, the key area floor plans and the wilderness map; the cool ideas are all in the Khazad-dum book and the Vertical Exaggeration of Moria, which is basically that schematic diagram you see in D&D-inspired games showing how the dungeon levels connect. The book has six chapters and an appendix, which cover respectively the history of Moria in the setting, setting-specific game mechanics, mapping advice, tools for creating the regions of Moria including diagrams of typical homes and workshops , a bestiary, sample scenarios and advice on creating your own, and expanded info on orc subspecies. The intention seems to be for a multi-generational chronicle in which player characters tackle the dangers of the mines through multiple eras, adventuring for a while then passing the torch to their descendants, while the overall story arc covers Moria’s fall, doldrums, and possible eventual recovery. Middle-Earth’s elves, being immortal, keep the same character from age to age; dwarves are long-lived, and can play in two consecutive ages; but men and hobbits can only play in one generation. To avoid penalising the shorter-lived races, however, experience totals are carried over from character to character.

The thing of note on the Vertical Exaggeration is that the boxes representing levels and the lines showing their connections are labelled; for example a trip from Dimrill Dale (surface) through the First Deep (labelled “P15”) to the Redhorn Upperdeeps (“P20”) takes you along a connecting arrow labelled “P15/T6”. P is the Peril target number and shows how likely the PCs are to run into trouble while there, and T is the travel time in hours – thus it takes 6 hours to travel from the First Deep to the Redhorn Upperdeeps. Levels themselves take an hour to traverse, so the dungeon itself is a points-of-light setting in miniature; long, dark, mysterious passageways connecting densely-packed areas of rooms and chambers. The expectation is that the PCs are not “house-clearing” one room at a time, they have a specific destination in mind and are trying to get there by the shortest route possible to minimise the chance of encounters.

The heroes first plot a route, rolling the appropriate skill against a target number and applying modifiers. While trying to follow it, they must make another skill check every hour of travel to avoid getting lost; on an ordinary failure they realise this and try again in an hour (while Gandalf smokes his pipe and tries to remember the way), and on a critical failure they don’t notice and wind up on the wrong level. While travelling, the group must also make tests to avoid becoming fatigued, and in some areas the dark and terrifying atmosphere is itself enough to cause a fear check. Meanwhile, every four hours the characters must make a Stealth check against the local Peril number; in the case of failure, the more they miss the roll by, the more orcs and other vile monstrosities they encounter, while success allows them to evade detection and possibly ambush the wandering monsters. If the PCs are sufficiently tough nuts to crack, they get a glimpse of orcs or hear drums in the deep, and the bad guys they would have met avoid them, massing the forces from multiple encounters for one dramatic strike. (In a generational chronicle, as the PCs whittle down orcish numbers, they make the mines safer for their descendants by reducing the Peril numbers in specific areas; but if cleared levels are not patrolled, the Peril number creeps back up again.)

Moria has a relatively limited monster palette, consisting principally of orcs and the occasional cave troll. To spice this up a bit, the encounters are split into five groups – massed attacks, patrols, wanderers, watch points and camps – and each group has six detailed situations in which they may be encountered; the group you encounter depends on how badly you miss the Stealth check against the region’s Peril number. You might find two small groups of orcs fighting each other; you might find an impassable obstacle and be ambushed by several times your number of orc archers firing from unreachable cover, while orcs equipped for melee roll up your flank. Sometimes the orcs have set traps to make the encounter more dangerous for the party, or there are environmental hazards present; traps have two target numbers, with the PCs rolling against the first to notice it, and the second to disarm it.

There is also a system of creating dungeon levels using map tiles and dice rolls, which gives Moria three broad types of areas; unique and significant areas like the Chamber of Mazarbul in Lord of the Rings, which are designed by the GM; secondary areas built using map tiles and dice rolls for the type, contents and condition of each chamber; and the completely abstracted tunnels connecting levels. An unusual aspect of this system is that the majority of dungeon levels are not stocked; encounters are driven by the Peril checks above.

The bestiary speaks to orcs of various professions, the balrog, cave-trolls, cave-wraiths, rats both normal and giant, bats, and the Watcher in the Water; the GM is encouraged to create unique Moria-themed creatures as well. The adventures chapter has two full adventures and advice on creating your own, essentially create a goal, a hook, a timeline, and a set of events along the timeline, then infuse those with a Middle-Earth tone and turn the players loose on it.

Things worth assimilating:

  • Abstracted connections between levels, with Peril numbers and transit times.
  • Use of Peril checks to replace stocking the dungeon.
  • Multiple encounter situations for common monsters, with preset numbers and types encountered.

Review: Barbarians of Lemuria

“Designing adventures can be a bit daunting. The thing is, you shouldn’t bust a gut over it. The more it is planned out, the less easy it will be to play.” – Barbarians of Lemuria

I’ve been eyeing this up for a while, and eventually gave in to temptation.

In a Nutshell: Simple but excellent sword and sorcery RPG. 110 page PDF by Beyond Belief Games, $5. Hard copy also available, but dude, that’s, like, soooo twentieth century…

I should mention that I got the Legendary Edition, and I know there are several other editions but not what the differences between them are. Caveat emptor.

CONTENTS

The book opens with the history of Lemuria, the world of the setting; there’s an ancient sorcerous civilisation, then there’s a Dark Lord, then a hero sorts him out, then the sorcerors come back, then another hero sorts them out, then the present day. So you have an ancient-to-mediaeval setting, scantily-clad and mighty-thewed barbarians with an eye on the main chance, evil sorcerors, and fortunes quickly found and just as quickly lost.

Next comes an essay on role-playing, which unusually is not focused on “what is a role-playing game” but is an explanation of the kinds of stories this game tells, how the Game Master and players are expected to contribute, and what to expect in terms of game-play.

Mechanically, characters have four attributes (Strength, Agility, Mind and Appeal), four combat abilities (Brawl, Melee, Ranged and Defence) and four careers (chosen from a list of 26). You have four points to split between the attributes, another four to split between combat abilities, and four to split between careers; the maximum initial rating for any of them is 3. Lifeblood (hit points) is ten plus your Strength. Heroes also have one or two boons (Edges, Advantages, Feats, whatever) and possibly a flaw as well; these are chosen from lists determined by one’s birthplace. Boons let you roll three dice and pick the best two, flaws require you to roll three dice and pick the worst two – they typically apply only in specific circumstances, such as “when the situation calls for someone to believe you”.

Important NPCs are generated like heroes, while Rabble have 3 Lifeblood, most attributes at 0, and are unlikely to last long.

To attempt a task with some chance of failure, the player rolls 2d6, adds the relevant attribute and either any relevant combat ability or any relevant career, and applies situational modifiers; if the result is 9 or more, success. A natural 12 on the dice is always success, a natural 2 is always failure. Sufficiently high rolls, or ones boosted by spending “hero points”, may be Mighty or even Legendary; a nice touch is that with a Mighty Success in combat, the damage you roll is the number of Rabble you incapacitate. (Combat, by the way, follows the usual pattern; roll for who goes first, roll to hit, roll for damage, deduct damage from Lifeblood.)

In terms of rewards, loot is abstract; the GM describes the piles of gold and gems, the characters pick it up and take it away, and the players describe how they drink and gamble it all away – and how many experience points (sorry, Advancement Points) they get depends on how they spend it; misers and hoarders get one point, most people get two, players with especially cool or funny stories get three, especially if the story leads into another adventure. AP are used to improve abilities or careers, buy new boons, or buy off flaws.

There is some GM advice, which I rather liked; BoL is clearly designed for improvisational and picaresque adventures, exactly the sort I prefer. The section on starting gear, for example, advocates giving the characters whatever they want – Conan never went shopping, and nor should the characters. You can always take it off them later.

There are rules for magic, which are vague and abstract because spellcasters are meant to be NPCs – the genre convention is that they are villains, and anyway they spend all their time poring over musty tomes rather than fighting, drinking and wenching. I’ll dwell for a moment on spell levels, because they are unusual; cantrips give very basic effects, spells of the first magnitude allow the caster to do anything a trained individual with the right equipment could do, second magnitude is stuff a single person could never do, and third magnitude are generation-spanning curses and natural disasters. So a cantrip might make a squeaky door open silently, a first magnitude spell might burst it asunder, second magnitude would blow down the whole wall, and third magnitude would flatten the surrounding city. A cantrip might cost 1-2 power, first magnitude spells might need a special item and cost 5 power, and so forth. There are a dozen or so example spells, but the GM is clearly expected to wing it. Priests (good) and druids (bad) pray and sacrifice to gain fate points, which they can use to grant short-duration boons or flaws that are within the domain of their gods. Alchemists make potions and other devices – potions are defined as being able to duplicate the effects of things you can buy in a modern drugstore; sleeping pills, painkillers, ant poison and so on.

There’s an extensive gazetteer of the setting, including a colour map. Some entries have adventure seeds, some don’t. There are half-a-dozen playable races besides men, a couple of dozen beasts (Lemuria is a world without horses, although there are riding beasts) and a handful of stock NPCs. There are twenty good-ish gods and six dark gods. There’s a glossary of terms.

There are seven pregenerated heroes (who interestingly have history with each other) and a few adventure seeds, as well as three longer adventures. And a character sheet. Oh, and did I mention the Sky Boats?

FORMAT

Colour covers, two-column black on white text with red headings and italic quotes at the start of chapters, sprinkled with black and white illustrations. Basic, easy to read, gets the job done.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

None, actually. Although the game has quite a few ideas I intend to borrow.

CONCLUSIONS

There’s a lot to like here; the game handles characters, task resolution and magic very elegantly, and after reading the rules through once I’d be confident in running a basic scenario without opening the rulebook. It’s amazing how much simpler things are when there are no player character spellcasters.

For the sort of games I run these days, this is almost a perfect match; I can see why it gets such good reviews elsewhere. It’s very, very tempting to use next time I get the gang together; but now we only play every 3-6 months changing the rules is a luxury I can ill afford. I did seriously consider it though, so that’s got to be at least a 4, and in fact I’ll bump that to 5 because of the sheer elegance of the rules.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.

Pawns of Destiny, Episode 5: Kiss of the Serpent Priestess

Another adventure from Beasts of the Dominions – “The Whispered”.

Quickly growing bored with hunting spiders of decreasing size in Vadokara, the party takes its leave of their new friend, governor Temar Nhir, who gives them a letter of recommendation explaining to whom it may concern that they are competent and trustworthy.

They hike north through the jungle to the Sword River, intending to head for Kenaton and the bright city lights, and seek a likely berthing place where river traffic will come ashore for the night (as is the common practice), concealing themselves at the edge of the forest out of habit more than anything. Shortly, they notice a small but luxurious vessel pulling ashore, and seeing the occupants are a sage, a young nobleman, a couple of bodyguards, a few serving girls and what appears to be a merchant crew, they step forward and announce themselves, noting the crew erecting a whipping frame without much enthusiasm.

U’whaz introduces himself to the sage, one Pema the Elder, and they discover they are both alumni of the Great Library in Syranthia. Having established their bona fides, Pema feels able to confide that he and his pupil Salathar (the young noble) are travelling to the nearby city of Chalat to pay their respects to the governor, a relative on Salathar’s mother’s side.

Meanwhile Salathar is marching about demanding a whipping, and the two bodyguards drag forward a pretty slave girl, with expressions denoting that they have to do this, but they don’t much like it. Ash, who has a weakness for a well-turned ankle, decides this is inappropriate and steps in, volunteering to take on the task of whipping the girl. This is a ruse, as he explains to her under the guise of checking the knots; he contrives to use red riverside dust and skillful handling of the whip to make it seem he is lashing her within an inch of her life, while actually doing very little damage, after which he takes her away to bandage her up using his alleged healing skills. (He will later claim to have used his last healing potion on her to explain the lack of deep, bleeding gashes in her back.)

The party infers that Salathar has either done something embarrassing, or is under threat of assassination, or possibly both. When pressed, Pema the Elder admits that Salathar is travelling to Chalat “for health reasons”.

Our heroes parlay their letter of recommendation into free passage with Pema and Salathar, Pema agreeing that the group forms an excellent educational opportunity for the young gentleman. The party splits up to gather intelligence at this point, with U’wahz, Dorjee Pema and Zosimus joining the captain, Pema, Salathar, and the bodyguards for a genteel supper, while the others choose to sit with the crew for a less refined, but more filling, meal.

From their own knowledge and skilful questioning of their new companions, the party discover the following.

  • Chalat is a busy port along the Gold Route, near the jungle but surrounded by well-tended fields. It is known as the City of Snakes, and its emblem is a snake.
  • Snakes are a common feature of architecture and diet in Chalat, and some species are considered sacred.
  • Salathar is arrogant, cruel and easily bored. When bored, he likes to be amused by watching someone else in pain.
  • The bodyguards (who take a great liking to Zosimus) are expecting an assassination attempt orchestrated by Master Merchant Ramith, an enemy of Salathar’s family who has agents up and down the Sword River.
  • Chalat will soon celebrate the Days of the Open Doors, during which any man can enter the Temple of Etu to “commune” with one of the priestesses. The rowers agree that it is worth putting in a bit of extra effort to ensure they arrive on time, as for most of them it’s the only chance they’re going to get this year at a spot of tea, crumpets and polite conversation with gorgeous priestesses.

The night passes uneventfully, and the following afternoon the ship reaches Chalat, which is very crowded. While the group is disembarking, a crate swinging overhead on a crane drops, threatening to crush Salathar. The only person in a position to save him is the stark naked Monk, who decides instead to let fate choose whether the aristocrat lives or dies, and so steps aside to let the crate fall on him. There is a thump, a scream and several cracking noises, at least one of which will later turn out to be Salathar’s leg. It is at this point that the heroes realise the jars were full of live, poisonous snakes, and leap to the conclusion that this is the expected assassination attempt, then react by looking for the backup team – clearly the whole snakes in a crate thing is merely Plan A, although it does seem to be going rather well so far.

Zosimus darts in to grab the boy, who has been perforated by several serpents, while the bodyguards kick over a huge jar of wine to wash away the snakes, which stratagem more or less succeeds. Max uses his dagger to dispose of the one snake which has managed to stay attached to the boy. Dorjee Pema attempts to ingratiate himself with Salathar’s family by using potions and healing skills to save the boy, who is by now convulsing and foaming at the mouth, and appears to succeed. Ash runs to the winch controls to interrogate the operators, but curiously they have disappeared. The party decides this means nothing, as even if they were innocent, they would have fled.

The Monk, meanwhile, is sitting cross-legged on a bollard, just out of snake reach, watching to see what fate decides.

Totally ignoring Dorjee’s contribution, the crowd heaves Salathar onto their shoulders, yelling about him being blessed because he has survived the snake bites; they bear him off towards the palace, with the rest of the group following in their wake. Salathar laps it up, as any arrogant 16-year-old would. It merely reaffirms his view of his own importance.

At the palace, the governor apologises profusely to his kinsman (although it isn’t entirely clear why), and orders a feast in honour of the Chosen One (although given how fat he is, that’s probably a nightly occurrence). The excitement around the now-blessed Salathar is such that nobody is checking invitations, and the party sweeps into the palace, taken for part of Salathar’s entourage – free food is all the incentive they need to follow along, even if most of it does turn out to be snakes.

At the end of the dinner, High Priestess Yantara arrives by palanquin from the Temple of Etu, keen to meet the Blessed Salathar. She brings entertainment: A dusky young priestess called Marah, who dances for Salathar to his immense interest. The dance concluded, Salathar leads Marah away to his quarters, while Yantara departs with a smile, having given Marah leave to spend the night away from the temple. Ash offers to escort Yanatara home, but she declines graciously, saying that her own years of service in the Days of the Open Doors are long past. Ash infers that one of the benefits of being a high priestess is the ability to be a bit more picky about what you do on those days – and who you do it with.

Salathar, meanwhile, has been followed to his room by the two bodyguards and Zosimus, whom he instructs not to enter the room under any circumstances, whatever they might hear. The three warriors concur that this must be the first step in another assassination attempt, but the little snot has it coming, and they can always say they were obeying orders. Privately, Zosimus doesn’t think this will help them much. However, the only noises coming out of the boudoir are what one might expect from a young, healthy couple neither of whom is encumbered by inhibitions.

The Monk stays back to find out what happens to the leftovers; it turns out that the servants eat as much of those as they can, then sell the rest to passersby at the door. The Monk is disappointed that the remaining food is not given away to the needy – after all, that’s what he did with his loincloth – and tries to persuade the servants to do that. Unable to decide whether he is a holy fool or just a fool, they settle for throwing him out without beating him up first.

While Max falls asleep on one of the couches, Dorjee and U’wahz settle in for an evening of intellectual conversation with Pema the Elder. Around one AM, that group breaks up to go to bed, but Pema decides to look in on Salathar first. The guards note that while they are forbidden to enter, no orders were given about Pema, so they let him in.

Pema calls them in and points out that both Salathar and Marah are missing. The rest of the heroes are awakened and summoned to the bedroom. Using the immense powers of observation and deduction Hulian grants to sages such as he, U’wahz points out that there is no sign of a struggle, that the secret passage he found clearly hasn’t been used in years, and in his opinion the pair eloped using the improvised bedsheet rope hanging over the balcony and left the palace through the garden gate he can see open on the other side of the lawn.

Pema asks the party for help, reasoning that he doesn’t know the background or motives of anyone in Chalat, but the heroes had a better opportunity to kill Salathar earlier if they wanted to, so are probably not involved. Besides, this is clearly a subtle plot, and it’s also clear that this particular group of adventurers isn’t optimised for subtlety.

Pausing only to acquire a tracker dog from the governor’s kennels and give it Salathar’s scent, the group races across the lawn and through the gate, finding a short alley leading to a shack where a drunken beggar lies asleep. Having picked him up to check for trapdoors beneath him, they rouse him, and for the price of a few coins learn that a palanquin fitting the description of Yantara’s picked up the young couple a short while ago, and headed off towards the Temple of Etu. This is also the direction their bloodhound wants to go as it strains at the leash, so the party follow it to the temple, where they can see the palanquin parked in the yard and a steady stream of men flowing in and out of the temple.

Shunning the main entrance, the heroes make their way round to the back, avoid the not-terribly-alert guard dozing as he makes his rounds, and sneak into the inner sanctum of the temple, which is laid out much like the last one they desecrated. Inside is a statue of Etu, in the form of a pregnant woman carrying a snake. Is it a trick of the light, or is the statue eyeing Ash up suspiciously?

After some experimentation the heroes are pleased to note that the statue is hollow and can be rolled aside in the traditional manner to reveal a staircase leading down to an ornate door. Ash easily discerns the trap and how to disarm it, and the party breezes through into a short corridor flanked by rows of open cells, from which the sounds of people moaning in drugged pleasure can be heard. Shrugging and moving on, the group next comes to a room where a priestess is administering drugs to the faithful; their blandishments are somewhat less than efficacious, and a brief but fierce melee erupts, at the end of which five cultists are dead or incapacitated, and the priestess is heavily drugged with whatever she was dispensing, while our heroes are unscathed. They pause to strip the cultists and put on the fashionable red robes.

Next in line is an obvious treasure room, full of loot – but the group leave it alone because Ash tells them it is trapped. Pressing on, they come to a flight of steps leading down into the main altar room where the bulk of the cult is being led in prayer to an idol of a three-eyed cobra by none other than Yantara. U’wahz recognises the language as a Valk dialect and therefore probably demon-related, and thanks to his knowledge of legends and lore, recognises the idol as the demon Ulasha, the Snake That Devours The World. Marah and Salathar enter, and Yantara gives a little speech about welcoming the boy to his true heritage, then transforms into a snake-woman hybrid. Who, the party notices, is pretty damned hot for a snake.

Zosimus isn’t standing for this, and hurls a javelin at her with all the strength his mighty thews and an atlatl can lend it, inflicting what must surely be a fatal wound; but the abomination pulls the javelin from its body and turns to stare at him. Deciding that locking eyes with the serpent is a bad move, Zosimus ducks back around the corner, trying to shake the eerie, repulsive beauty of the creature from his mind.

Now, everyone is dressed in cultists’ robes, so Yantara can’t tell who is with her and who is not; she makes an error, and decides that Zosimus is acting alone. “You on the stairs,” she calls, “Stop that man and bring him to me! I must know how much he knows!” Unfortunately, this is a second error, as she has picked Max. Max gleefully darts after Zosimus, and soon the noise of a struggle is heard from the treasure room as they fake brutal combat. The rest of the party, so far unrecognised, move closer to the idol and the priestess – except for U’wahz, who has a good vantage point at the head of the stairs and is taking copious notes and verbatim records of the dialogue.

“Now then, where was I? Oh yes,” Yantara continues, praising Marah for her contribution and biting her, injecting a venom which reduces the young priestess to a writhing ball of pleasurable sensations. At this point, Max re-emerges leading an apparently beaten and sullen Zosimus towards the priestess, which the pair of them have agreed is perfect as they are both close-combat specialists. Yantara now bites Salathar, who begins to transform into a giant snake, and the heroes decide enough is enough. Dorjee Pema throws the Yellow Lotus of the Nightmarish Visions into the group by the idol and succeeds in scaring off the temple guards and Marah, all of whom flee to corners of the room, sobbing in panic – unfortunately he can’t cover off the bulk of the cultists and the High Priestess and Salathar appear unaffected.

To provide cover and protection for the party members now closing to engage the priestess, Dorjee hurls his Lotus reserve, the ever-popular Red Lotus of the Phoenix Fire, which forms a flaming barrier surrounding and obscuring the principal actors in this little drama: Zosimus, the Monk, Salathar, and Yantara. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite cover enough ground to obscure the left flank, so Max moves to hold that and buy some time.

While Ash sneaks round the right flank and closes to attack, Zosimus stabs the snake priestess hard – but his blade slides off her scales. Max, meanwhile, has been attacked by a group of half-a-dozen cultists, but kills one and wades through the rest like a bull through terriers. The Monk, who has been moving forward as if to get a better view, is on the wrong side of the flame barrier. Yantara turns to Zosimus and explains that there is no need for them to be at odds, surely they can come to some arrangement? Consider the benefits of being the snake-priestess’ consort and right-hand man. Zosimus does, and considering that for a snake she’s pretty damned hot, decides to change sides. However, he reasons, this makes Salathar his rival for Yantara’s affections, and consequently a legitimate target; so he stabs Salathar, who falls, seriously injured and unconscious. Ash approaches Yantara from the other side to stab her, and she turns her gaze on him, asking him to consider what he desires. Intense pleasure? Wealth beyond the dreams of avarice? She offers him these things if he will join her. Ash ruminates that he has seen evidence of both the intense pleasure and the enormous wealth, and also changes sides. Zosimus sends him a hostile look, and Ash says “No no! You can have her! I want Marah!” – so that’s settled.

Just as it begins to look as if the party will have to change its name to Pawns of the Serpent Priestess, the unimaginative Max steps around the end of the flame barrier and incapacitates Yantara with a mighty blow of his axe.

The heroes stand, breathing heavily, realising they still have a couple of dozen armed and fanatical cultists to deal with; but as the flame barrier dies down, revealing the scene of death and carnage, the surviving cultists take in the scene, and then with a mass wail of sorrow and panic, kill themselves with their own daggers (except Marah, who is still incapacitated by a curious state composed in equal measure of blind panic and orgiastic pleasure). The heroes are confused, but decide they will accept this twist of fate. The one thing they cannot accept, however, is witnesses, so they spend a little while making sure there are none left alive – not even Marah, cute though she is – and coming up with a plan.

They decide that the governor must be in on this, and there are probably more snake priestesses where this one came from; so they need to get out of town while they still can. Once dead, Salathar and Yantara reverted to human form, so the best the group can hope for if they stay is a short and not very fair trial for murder, followed by execution. They agree that they will all grab whatever they can carry from the treasure room on the way out, brief the two bodyguards and Pema the Elder on the situation, and then leave the city on the first available ship, regardless of destination. The Monk carries out his share, but only so he can give it to those they have warned, thus funding their escape if that’s their choice. Is it a trick of the light, or does the statue of Etu smile and nod at Ash as he passes it on his way out?

As the hue and cry rises in the city behind them, the heroes agree it’s the perfect end to a perfect night, and settle down to assess their loot on the deck of a ship bound who knows where.

REFLECTIONS

This was another highly enjoyable little adventure from Umberto Pignatelli, which flowed so naturally that the players seemed to follow the railway tracks without ever noticing they were there.

As usual, I left out a number of encounters to fit the scenario into the time available. A pattern is developing which works well for these players; a largely narrative adventure with almost no skill rolls for about 75% of the session, and then a big, tactical combat to round off the evening before we close.

My principle mistake was using the same statblocks for both male and female snake people; in reality, the male is a much, much stronger opponent, but I can rationalise that by saying that the only male present was being a snake man for the first time, and thus not really used to it and operating below par.

The serpent people’s charm abilities are extremely dangerous, and I was one good soak roll away from dominating enough of them to make them Yantara’s henchmen. That would be an entirely different, but thoroughly entertaining, campaign – I’m tempted to give the snake people another chance at that.

Pawns of Destiny, Episode 4: Bridegroom of the Spider Queen

This adventure is “A Matter of Love” from Beasts of the Dominions, published in 2012. The party consisted of Ash, Kyrosian rogue; Dorjee Pema, alchemist of Gis; Max, savage northlander brute; the Monk, wandering Lhobanese martial artist; U’wahz, Syranthian sage; and Zosimus, cairnlander gladiator.

The party is contacted by Temar Nhir, an aide to the Kyrosian ambassador to Syranthia, who has just been given new orders: He is to take over the governorship of Vadokara, about which the Kyrosian Autarch has heard disturbing rumours – a “darkness hanging over the city” or some such rot. The city is a crumbling mass of ruins with a desperate population, and the previous two governors, sent to rebuild it, have disappeared without trace; the Autarch needs someone trustworthy to resolve those problems, if not the darkness thing. The Great Library has suggested the party would be a valuable addition to his entourage, and Nhir likes the idea of having someone not appointed by the Autarch’s court – openly, he merely says different viewpoints can be valuable, but it’s clear he has considered the possibility that he is being quietly disposed of. Much as the Great Library is quietly disposing of the party, in fact.

Vadokara is some way off, and the party has several weeks in the company of Nhir, his daughter Melandra, and the dozen or so soldiers making up his official guard as they make their way eastwards. The last week or so is through thick jungle, and troubled by rain, snakes and fever. Taking advantage of their travels to suss out their companions, the party determines that:

  • Temar Nhir is a competent bureaucrat, and while he knows nothing about the military, he does know enough to listen to people who do, and thus has an equally competent group of guards.
  • Vadokara is a bit of a dump, and the guards are of the opinion that Nhir is being sent there as a punishment and they were unlucky enough to be picked to accompany him.
  • Vadokara is also a hundred leagues from any enemies of Kyros, so while boredom is a threat, being perforated by spears probably isn’t. The guards think that a fair trade.
  • Nhir’s daughter Melandra is young and naive, so Ash’s player decides that she reminds him of his younger sister and has triggered protective rather than lustful emotions in the rogue.

Arriving at the city, the group observes a couple of ragged-looking sentinels on derelict battlements, who disappear inside as soon as they notice the new governor approaching. The city gates are open, and the one on the left has a broken top hinge. Ash decides the governor should ride with some pomp into the city, rather than weaving around broken gates, and beckons Max and Zosimus to help push them open; the rest of the group enters with as much dignity as it can manage.

In the main square, the new arrivals are met by a shabby, smelly person in a stained red tunic, who names himself Shendul, says the city belongs to him and Etu is a false goddess, and what do they think they can do about it? Any better than the last lot? The inhabitants of the city watch expressionlessly. U’wahz notices a large gold ring on Shendul’s hand, the sigil the Autarch presents to city governors, and Ash (a native of Kyros) explains that the stained red tunic is the mark of wandering priests of Etu, although normally they are cleaner than that. Shendul is arrested, but seems unconcerned as he is led away. Ash has already decided offending Shendul would be a bad idea and goes to some lengths not to insult him or knock him around.

The palace has no servants, and clearly has not been used in months. The governor sets the troops to clearing the place up and making it habitable, but the PCs have enough sense to make themselves scarce; U’wahz and Zosimus return to the dungeon to interrogate Shendul, while Ash goes out to the nearest tavern intending  to hire a cook and possibly some other servants. The Monk, who has now discarded even his loincloth in his flight from material possessions, sits outside the palace begging. Every so often someone gives him a loincloth, then he goes to find a beggar even worse off and gives it to them. He learns that the unusually strong doors and window shutters in town date from the arrival of Shendul the priest a couple of years ago, since when no new governor has lasted more than a few days, their entourages disappearing in ones and twos overnight.

In the dungeon, U’wahz is struck by the fact that all the spiders have formed a circle around Shendul and are watching him expectantly. Under questioning, Shendul reveals that he lost his faith after he met… someone… in the jungle, after which he came here and took over the town. He continues to be completely unconcerned about being chained to the wall in the dungeon, and the party deduce that he doesn’t expect to be there long, and that the total absence of skeletons or other evidence of the previous governor bodes ill; clearly, they feel, Shendul controls something awful which will emerge that night and kill them all. Not liking this idea, they decide to thwart this plan by killing Shendul before he can execute it.

As a contingency, U’wahz prepares a large stack of things for the new governor to sign, and slips a death warrant into it, far enough down that the governor will be signing things on autopilot by the time he reaches it. Meanwhile, Max and Zosimus descend once more, and commence strangling Shendul with his own chains, planning to claim later that he got tangled up in them while drunk and accidentally killed himself. The spiders don’t like this, and as waves of steadily larger and more brightly-coloured spiders invade the cell, they decide on a change of plan; Zosimus holds the spiders off while Max shanks the priest repeatedly with his dagger. At this point the spiders go berserk, and the two barbarians flee the palace, eventually winding up in the river, watching a crowd of agitated spiders on the bank, some of them as large as wolves.

Inside the palace, U’wahz, Dorjee, and company notice a sudden increase in the number and ferocity of the spider population and are soon forced to make a run for it, heading towards the temple where they decide to take refuge in the inner sanctum, a bunker-like building inside the main temple which has the advantage of thick walls, heavy doors, and no windows. Eight of the twelve soldiers are brought down by spiders and consumed, and the remainder hold the doors closed by main strength while the heroes prepare a trap – they use the offerings of grain and oil to improvise a flame fougasse, which Dorjee triggers with a flaming barrier potion as the soldiers fall back and the spiders charge in. The first wave of spiders is easily incinerated or speared while shaken from the flames.

Meanwhile, outside, Ash has heard the commotion, left the tavern, and (being a second-story man by trade) climbs to the roof of a tenement near the temple, rightly deducing that something nasty is about to happen, and determined to rescue the young girl. He observes the others chased into the temple by the spiders, and camouflages himself in rags taken from nearby washing lines as he notices something unpleasant approaching from the direction of the city’s main water cistern: A horse-sized half-woman half-spider covered in smaller spiders.

This abomination pauses outside the temple building and calls: “I need a mate. Send out the cutest one. As for the rest of you, well, my children must feed.”

The Monk asks what duties being the spider queen’s mate entails, and learns that in addition to the normal reproductive matters, he will also be expected to provide their children with fresh human meat and plenty of it. The Monk emerges with the intention of buying the rest of the party some time; his previous incarnations have experienced much, leaving him with an interest in those few and rare genuinely new sensations, and carnal knowledge of a spider-centaur certainly qualifies.

“Aha! I see you are already naked!” roars the spider queen, not realising that the Monk is trying to purge himself of any attachment to material possessions, including loincloths. “Excellent, let’s get on with it then!”

“Not in the street,” the Monk says. “Surely we need some privacy?” He is beginning to suspect the reason for the recently-deceased priest’s alcoholism.

“Well, I suppose, if you insist,” demurs the spider queen. “Now, tell me I’m pretty.” The pair stroll off, arm in arm, towards the main water cistern where the queen has taken up residence, with the Monk paying her compliments and engaging her in small talk to distract her, such as seeking an explanation of how two lovers of such different size and shape can consummate their relationship (which the queen is happy to provide). The rest of the spiders surge forward towards the temple, and the heroes work with the soldiers to hold the inner sanctum’s doors closed while Ash rigs a zipline from the tenement to the temple roof, where he makes his way inside, discovering a trapdoor in the inner sanctum’s ceiling. He attracts the party’s attention and they find a ladder, which the priests use for accessing the roof to conduct repairs, and keep it inside so that it doesn’t get stolen. Led by the governor’s daughter, those inside begin preparing to evacuate, looking around the while for something to block the door with so the soldiers can also escape. Their eyes light on the 12 foot tall statue of Etu, holding a baby crocodile in one hand and caressing its head with the other. Is that an expression of suspicion on its face? Is the Great Mother not angry, but terribly, terribly hurt? Obviously, it falls to Ash to swarm up the wall and kick the (hollow) statue over, then the rest drag it forward to block the doors and make good their escape through the temple roof, before making for the city wall at a dead run.

The spiders at the riverbank have decided to join in the feast at the temple and scuttle back to town, cautiously followed by Max and Zosimus. The spiders see Ash, Dorjee, and U’wahz leading the governor, his daughter and the soldiers to safety and turn to pursue them. Max and Zosimus see the spider queen leading the Monk off to who knows what fate, and decide to sneak up behind the couple and hack the spider queen to death, which they promptly do. While they are doing this, the Monk turns on his new girlfriend and with a stunning return to form inflicts a phenomenal amount of damage to the spider queen’s most delicate areas. She drops as if poleaxed, making a very peculiar noise – the Monk explains that he wished to pleasure the spider queen while killing her.

The rest of the spiders have nearly caught up with the other part of the group, and Ash heroically distracts them by bounding up external stairs of one building and throwing rocks at the biggest and stripiest spider, which is clearly the leader. It is stunned by the rock, and at that precise moment the spider queen dies and so loses mental control of the others. Bereft of orders, the pursuing spiders split up, some pursuing in a desultory manner and the rest taking refuge in nearby shadows. Ash claims to have scared them off.

Back at the spider queen’s corpse, Max briefly considers replacing the bull’s head he is currently wearing as a hat with the head of the spider queen, but is persuaded that wearing what will look like the decapitated head of a dead woman will not be popular. Instead they cut it off for addition to Zosimus’ collection of shrunken heads.

By now, it’s all over bar the shouting. The governor moves back into the palace and declares undying friendship to our heroes, who spend the next few days hunting down and disposing of the remaining Spiders Of Unusual Size, before moving on to their next adventure.

REFLECTIONS

The spider queen wasn’t as tough as I expected, and once the party came to blows with her they finished her off in a couple of melee rounds.
I didn’t give Ash as much air time as the others, which the player took in good heart, but I need to focus more on making things fair – this will become more challenging once all six players are back, currently two are away and their characters (Dorjee and Max) are being run as allies by the remaining players.
I’m struggling to come to grips with the chase rules, and am wondering whether to bother with them going forward.
This particular group continues to have problems with the abstract mapless approach favoured by Beasts & Barbarians for “dungeons” such as the temple – this time I overcame that by describing the Parthenon, which I saw about ten years ago.
This session marked my first significant use of David Okum’s 2D card miniatures, which went very well – the Pawns of Destiny meet in U’wahz’s player’s house and it was very convenient to have such lightweight tokens.

The Map is Not the Territory

“Adventures in this campaign are best viewed as episodes of an action-adventure SF TV series. Don’t expect a grand story arc, too much continuity between episodes, or even a star map! You arrive in a new star system – solve the puzzle or defeat the enemy – and move on, most likely never to return.”

I found that while I was sorting out some files over Christmas; it’s from the player handout for my last Traveller campaign in 2003, so I have obviously been groping my way towards a mapless setting for some time.

Anyway, this one is for kelvingreen, who wanted to know more about the mapless map. I struggled with this concept until I stopped asking myself how I could run games without a map, and started asking myself what the map was for… Note that here I’m talking about the overland, wilderness or star map used for strategic movement, not whatever you use to regulate combat.

WHY IS THERE A MAP?

  • It’s eye candy; it breaks up the text.
  • It gives a concise overview of the setting, and maybe some plot hooks.
  • If the game is a sandbox, it helps players choose their destination by showing them locations, distances and obstacles.
  • Finally, most RPGs are set in fantasy worlds, and fantasy novels are often travelogues with maps in the endpapers; I suspect that gamers instinctively expect a map because of that.

WHY PLAY WITHOUT A MAP?

  • Time constraints. Maybe you don’t have time to draw it, maybe players don’t have time to use it (e.g. a convention game).
  • Space constraints. Maybe carrying the map and setting information around with you is a problem (e.g. you’re on holiday).
  • Plot constraints. Every piece of information on the map rules out options later in the campaign; eventually, there are stories you can’t tell. (That happens anyway in the end, due to ‘series continuity’, but having a map accelerates the process.)
  • Cartographer’s remorse (which I just made up, it’s like buyer’s remorse but it’s about the maps one draws). I’m never happy with my maps for long, and feel continuously compelled to redraw them, wasting time and effort. This is probably just me.

HOW DO YOU PLAY WITHOUT A MAP?

  • The players don’t choose where they go. They obey orders from a patron, or you start the game in media res, after the journey.
  • Each adventure has a defined plotline. The best way to write these is from the villain’s perspective; he has a plan, the characters derail it, and he reacts to bring it back on track. Repeat as necessary.
  • Travel happens in downtime between scenarios; you can skip over it completely, or borrow an idea from Beasts & Barbarians and have the players make skill rolls – once they accumulate enough successes, they arrive at the destination. (The latter allows for random encounters, roll or draw for one after each skill roll.)
  • Travel happens at the speed of plot. The characters arrive either in the nick of time, or just too late, whichever suits the story.
  • You separate what the characters do (spend hours poring over the map) from what the players do (dive straight into the action).

This approach is not for everyone, and maybe I won’t use it forever, but it suits my group’s current situation.