Arion, Episode 15: Godown

Tonight’s episode sees Arion at a starport godown, protecting the goods he recently delivered. In game terms this is a confrontation (p. 45) and we have already established it will take place at night. I place Arion in the centre of the table, generate NPCs as if passing 2d6 on the PEF resolution table (p. 70) and put the NPCs 6″ away in line of sight before going immediately to Walk the Walk. I forgot to take any pictures (out of practice I guess) but as you’ll see, that didn’t make much difference.

Turn 1

Arion looks out the godown’s front window and sees three police stroll up; a Xeog (#5 on the Exotic NPC table) and two Hishen (#7 and #11). The Xeog appears to be in charge. His suspicions are aroused when they kick the door in before entering the building. As Mercs opposing a Merc they might use deadly force, but a roll of 4 shows they aren’t intending to do this and the encounter will therefore be resolved by butt-kicking. Both sides begin active, the NPCs are moving, and we go straight to an In Sight check with the winner charging into melee.

The Xeog rolls 6636, one success. Arion rolls 411425 for three successes and charges into melee. The police roll 5,1 vs Rep 4 so pass 1d6, Arion rolls 632 vs Rep 5 (he gets an extra die because he is charging) and passes 2d6, so he is upon them before they can draw and fire.

Let’s take the Xeog first. Arion rolls Rep d6 for melee, looking for successes, and gets 51116 – three. The Xoeg rolls Rep d6 and gets 6161 – two. Arion rolls a 4 for damage, adds one as he scored one success more, and gets a 5 – this is more than the Xeog’s Rep but not a 6, so she is Out Of the Fight. The two Hishen take a Man Down test using the best remaining Rep (4) and get 4, 3 so they Carry On.

Arion moves on to the Rep 4 Hishen and gets two successes to the Hishen’s one (even though it’s rolling an extra die because it has Rage), but only rolls 1 for damage; the Hishen is reduced to Rep 3 and we go again. Arion scores 3 vs 1, and rolls 6 for damage and scores 8 thanks to the extra successes; that would normally be a kill, but since we have an unspoken agreement not to use deadly force, that is downgraded to Out Of the Fight, which the NPC’s Resilient attribute improves to -1 Rep – and we go again. Arion scores 3 vs the Hishen’s 2, and a 6 for damage is a KO. The surviving Rep 3 Hishen takes another Man Down test; scores of 2,4 pass 1d6, and as [a] a Merc and [b] the last man standing, he Leaves the Tabletop, fleeing into the night.

Arion now has history with these NPCs, which means I need to record them in the character journal. He also gains a pleasing three increasing Rep dice for inflicting a sound drubbing on the fake (or possibly bent) police. He considers looting the bodies of their two BAPs, but decides not to get his prints on them – who knows who else they have killed?

The police arrive on turn 6, by which time only the unconscious bodies of two crooks impersonating police officers can be found. A day or two later, the police invite Arion back for questioning about the second incident, and again he persuades them they have no cause to arrest him.

Reflections

Luck was with Arion tonight, and as a result it was hardly worth getting the figures out even if I had remembered to take pictures.

The new damage rules flow much more quickly and easily than in previous THW games. I like them.

Arion, Episode 14: Chillin’

Another five-day blitz, this time the Arioniad under Fringe Space…

It’s now March 2220 and Arion has just landed the Dolphin on a class 2, law level 3, independent basic world (now called Fermanagh) to deliver some cargo… Let’s work through the turn sequence; I’m still taking this slowly while I learn the rules, and I decide to work through the whole turn sequence for the month before playing out any tabletop action, partly because that helps me to understand it better, and partly because it makes the narrative flow more smoothly.

Starting Position: Ring 1, Sector 4. 2/3 Indy basic. Random Event: Yes, Chillin’, Daytime. Movement: Stay in area 1 of settlement (you always arrive in the spaceport, area 1, and Arion hasn’t moved yet). Voluntary Encounter: Yes, looking for a Job Offer. Job Offers (pp. 46-47) are: Rep (5) – 1d6 (2) = 3 job offers available. Shaker, Confrontation; Shaker, Rescue; Criminal Element, Confrontation. I decide to accept all three, just to try things out; as a White Knight, Arion can’t really turn down a Rescue anyway. Then the end-of-month PEFS: A – something’s out there. B – one police, #10 – Rep 4 Grath A1 G2 Pass 0d6 = History! C – one criminal, #9 – Rep 4 Grath – A4 G2, could recruit and might need the muscle.

It looks like a busy month. This episode (14) will look at the Chillin’ encounter, then the next three (15-17) will look at the Job Offers, closing with a catchup (18) covering the PEFs, the monthly admin, and the list of contacts and worlds identified to date.

CHILLIN’

Fermanagh spaceport in March is cold, windswept, and rainy. Arion is standing outside, in what little shelter the Dolphin’s undercarriage can provide, supervising the cargo robots unloading – which mostly means being the person that gets sued if anything goes wrong, and watching in case anyone has reprogrammed the robots to take anything they’re not supposed to take. The last one is just lurching away to the nearest godown when a call comes in.

“Hi, Arion? I’m Anne MacDonald – I know Perry Anderson well, would you be interested in joining a few of us in a drink to celebrate the arrival of our cargo? The local whiskey is really something special.” Arion recognises the name from the cargo manifest and his briefing from Anderson, he’s not flying tomorrow, so why not? A month alone aboard ship leaves a man interested in parties.

“Sure, absolutely. When and where?”

“It’s a working lunch, so as soon as you can get over to Montagu’s – I’ll send you the address.” Arion notes this is in the spaceport district, so travel won’t be a problem.

“OK, I’m on my way.”

Chillin’ is the encounter type used for recruiting, hiring, or dealing in contraband. The space port has law level 2 (p. 37) and given the setup I pick a Restaurant as the location. Arion needs to resolve two PEFs before reaching the target building, a third one once inside, then he meets his host, and finally there is the chance of being mugged on the way out.

PEF A: I roll 2d6 vs the PEF’s Rep (always 4 in Fringe Space) and get 1, 6; that passes 1d6 so something is out there and the next PEF is resolved with the lowest two scores of three dice.

PEF B: 133 – contact. 1d6 (6) means there are two more NPCs than Arion’s group, i.e. three of them. 2d6 (7) means the leader is an Ordinary Joe, and in Fringe Space that means they all are – this is faster to resolve than in, say, Larger Than Life, where everyone in the group could be different. I use the option to roll professions separately, and get 234 – service industry, food & beverage, and manufacturing. I roll 2d6 for each to generate statblocks for them and get 3, 9 and 5 – the highest Rep present is a Rep 5 Xeog. Time to Talk the Talk; Arion rolls 6d6 (Rep 5 and an extra one for the difference in social status) looking for successes, i.e. rolls of 1-3; he scores 112356 and gets 4 successes. The best Rep in the opposing group, the Xeog, rolls 7d6 – 5d6 for her Rep and an extra two because like all Xeogs she is hawt. She gets 12234456 for 4 successes; the characters exchange pleasantries and then go their separate ways.

Arion now enters the restaurant and resolves a third and final PEF; 4,5 means “something’s out there”, but this is the final PEF of the session so that has no effect. Arion now meets Ms McDonald.

Arion’s taxi drops him off near Montagu’s, and he hurries through the crowd, eager to escape the rain. As he approaches the restaurant, a Xeog in the company of two Basics flashes him a smile, and he feels compelled to smile back just because she’s so pretty. But warmth and whiskey are more attractive right now than pleasantries from an alien, so he ducks inside, checks with the maitre d’, and is directed to a private table at the back, where he and MacDonald recognise each other from the earlier comlink call, and she hooks him up with a piper’s measure of the local whiskey, which proves to be smooth, mellow and aromatic; Arion wonders what the offworld market is like, and whether to take a few barrels with him when he leaves.

After an hour or so of food, whiskey and polite conversation, Arion rises to leave and MacDonald insists on showing him out. The motive for this becomes clear while Arion is waiting for his sodden coat to be recovered.

“Listen,” says MacDonald quietly, “I need some help. A local gang tried to buy that cargo from me, and I said no. I think they’ll try to steal it tonight. Will you help me stop that? I can pay you three blocks.”

Arion never turns down a cry for help, and frankly he needs the money. He pauses for a moment, because he doesn’t want to look too desperate, then says: “Okay, I’m in.”

“Thank you,” she says. “Be at the godown around nine.”

Arion now leaves the restaurant, three increasing Rep d6 richer. Local law level is 2 (spaceport), reduced by one because Arion is alone; I roll 2d6 vs law level and get 1, 3, passing 1d6. A robbery, but Arion will count as suspicious as it begins.

Robbery is handled like an attempted arrest by the police (p. 40) but obviously you’ve encountered criminals. The robbers begin on the tabletop with weapons drawn, and demand that you drop your weapons and hand over your valuables. This is a Confrontation encounter (p. 45), but rather than begin by generating the opposition as if a PEF had been encountered, I decide the would-be mugger (the dice tell me there is only one) must be a Criminal, in fact a lone Rep 4 Razor ganger (NPC #2 on the Criminal table).

-o0o-

Arion unwisely takes a short cut through an alley, and finds himself face to face with a Razor; fortunately the usual gang of Hishen sidekicks seems to be absent, but even so, Razors are muscular, fast, good in hand-to-hand combat, and able to launch a mental blast at their foes. Not good.

“Drop your weapons,” says the Razor, pointing a machine pistol at Arion. “I want your comlink, your cred chip, and that shiny big gun you have.”

Arion sighs, and goes for his gun.

Straight to the In Sight test; a roll of 6 means Arion counts as the moving side.

Arion rolls 5d6; 5 for his Rep, +1 for Steely Eyes, -1 because the opponent is a Razor. He gets 13445 for 2 successes. The Razor rolls 4d6, just her Rep: 1233 = 4 successes, so she wins the In Sight and opens up.

The Razor uses her Mental Blast ability, largely because I want to see how it works. She rolls d6 equal to her Rep and gets 5335; she can only apply one of those dice to Arion, starting with the highest, which is a 5 – adding her Rep gives her a score of 9, a hit. I now roll 1d6 for damage; Arion has body armour, but it seems unreasonable that he would wear it to a lunch date, so it’s a straight roll; 3. This is less than his Rep of 5 so he ducks back into cover. (This is the first time Arion has faced a Razor, and he has obviously forgotten that their Mental Blast ignores cover.)

I think about Arion’s next move for a second, and decide that discretion is (to quote Jim Butcher) the better part of not being exsanguinated. Fringe Space does not really reward the Star for killing wandering monsters, and there is nothing to be gained from victory except a machine pistol and a criminal record, so since Arion is the active side he leaves the table – being in Duck Back prevents him from attacking, and means he can neither see the Razor nor be seen by her, but the rules are silent on whether he can move so I assume he still can. Since he leaves the table voluntarily, no recovery test is needed.

If I were following the Razor’s career, Arion leaving the table would give her an increasing Rep d6, but I’m not. The rules as written don’t say anything about Arion getting a decreasing Rep d6, so that seems to be the end of it. A couple of dice rolls on the tables on p. 40 reveal that the police will arrive on turn 3, but both parties are long gone by then.

Arion breaks contact by putting a number of corners between himself and the ambush site, and returns to his ship to tool up for the evening’s entertainment.

A roll of 3 under page 41’s investigation rules reveals Arion has to report in to the police later on in connection with the incident; that shouldn’t logically happen for a while yet, but let’s get it out of the way – the police roll 3d6 (one per point of law level) and get 646, passing 0d6, while Arion rolls 16115 and gets 3 successes; the police decide not to pursue the matter further as no-one was hurt and Arion’s weapon has not been fired.

REFLECTIONS

It’s not clear from the rulebook how much the Star gets paid for Rescues or Confrontations, but I checked on the forum, and the author says to use the wages for hauling passengers, namely one decreasing Rep d6 (expenses of doing the job) and three increasing (reward).

I also discovered from him that campaign movement on a planet takes one month if moving from settlement to wilderness or vice versa, but movement from area to area within a settlement takes negligible time. So now you know.

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.