Shadows of Keron, Episode 30: Hunter’s Moon

You’ll have to wait a bit longer for the next episode of Shepherd’s adventures, because Shadows of Keron lurched briefly back into life over the weekend. Four of us found ourselves in a windswept cottage in Oxfordshire with a bunch of dice, more whiskey than the mind can comfortably conceive of, and a copy of Beasts of the Dominions.

HUNTER’S MOON

Since the group was last seen in the Ivory Savannah, that is where we pick up their story again. I had packed BoD because what one needs in these circumstances is a short, picaresque adventure that can be finished in a few hours; and in the Ivory Savannah we find Hunter’s Moon, an everyday story of tribesmen, merchant caravans, the Elephants’ Graveyard, and Things Man Was Not Meant To Know.

We established earlier that the group splintered at some point between Ekul and the Brown Sea, and is making its way home in penny packets. While our series regulars are off dealing death to Kumal the Smiling and picking up a piece of treasure they will really regret finding, three of the fellowship have taken passage with a merchant caravan across the Savannah, intending to cross that, then the Red Desert, and thus at last come home to the Independent Cities.

These worthies are Peter Perfect the Paladin, Seasoned holy warrior of Hulian; Abishag, Seasoned halfling thief (don’t ask); and Alihulk Junior, Seasoned fighting man and the living embodiment of the phrase "No retreat – no surrender".

I will limit my report of the scenario to avoid spoilers, but here are a couple of vignettes for you:

  • Alihulk attempting to catch a man-eating lion by covering himself in raw meat and sleeping outdoors. He attracted a lot in the way of noisome vermin, but no lions.
  • Peter replaying the famous motion tracker scene from Aliens using Detect Arcana and a Thing Man Was Not Meant To Know.
  • Alihulk, mounted on a lame warpony, chasing down a burning lion (set on fire by Peter Perfect) and grappling it. That really didn’t end well for either party.

Hunter’s Moon worked well. The plot is very linear, but the players naturally followed it without apparently noticing that, and with no steering from me. A fine time was had by all.

LATIFUNDIUM

As veteran roleplayers, the party got through Hunter’s Moon more quickly than I’d expected, and I felt Alihulk and Abishag deserved some time in the spotlight as Peter had shone in that scenario.

So it was that they encountered an old witch in a walking hut (Baba Yaga-style) who had seen Alihulk’s father and brother earlier. Learning that the father, Alihulk Senior, had moved to Caldeia to become a dark sorceror – he is Alihulk Junior’s enemy, which is intriguing – and that Alihulk Junior’s younger brother had followed him there some time later, the party decided to follow them down the Buffalo River to Caldeia.

Peter Perfect was bent on overthrowing this stronghold of slavery and dark sorcery; Alihulk aimed to confront his father; and Abishag is designed for city work, so we ought to get him into a city for a bit.

I had a vague plan, based on Alihulk Senior being somehow connected with the Disciples of the Black Temple, a couple of recycled NPCs, and a copy of the Mythic GME tables, and this proved to be enough. In fact, it flowed more smoothly than Hunter’s Moon, because I didn’t need to look anything up.

The first sign of civilisation they found was a slave plantation. After maiming a slave overseer because he wouldn’t free the slaves, they decided to enter the villa and have it out with the plantation manager, who they had learned ran the place on behalf of a priest prince. There, Peter and Alihulk were mistaken for guests at the evening’s orgy, and Abishag for part of the entertainment. Taking ruthless advantage of this, they attempted to suborn the plantation manager with a plan for a more cost-efficient plantation operated by freedmen, and offered to stand in for the stable boys who would otherwise have to handle the Priest-Prince’s giant bat steed ("We usually have to replace a couple of stable boys when he visits on that, it’s vicious.").

After much planning, they settled on ambushing the Priest-Prince as he arrived, using Lower Trait to discomfit his steed. He had realised something was wrong on the approach, and consequently survived the crash-landing because he had Deflection and Armour running, which also helped him with assorted stabbings. While his Amazon bodyguard was being run through by Alihulk, the Priest-Prince made a run for the edge of the roof, intending to leap off and trust to his Armour to save him from the fall; but Peter rugby-tackled him and then stabbed him fatally.

The plantation manager, arriving to greet his master, took in the scene quickly and realised that his life was forfeit. Secretly, he also has a thing for the Amazon, so ran to save her. Learning that the Amazons are loyal to whoever pays them, and that the death of her principal makes her life forfeit and her contract void, Peter heals her, and the party decamp before the three other Priest-Princes expected at the orgy can arrive.

They are now on the outskirts of Caldeia, planning their next move. Little do they know that Baaltasar the plantation manager is in fact a renegade Disciple of the Black Temple, on the run.

Good fun. Shadows of Keron practically writes itself by now.

NEXT TIME, ON HALFWAY STATION…

…we return to Greg Shepherd. I’ll have to do a couple of weeks with double episodes if I’m to reach the self-imposed goal of 26 episodes by the half-year point.

Review: Last Parsec Deck Plans and Figure Flats

More goodies from The Last Parsec… in this week’s post, the ship deck plans and figure flats.

I’ll digress from my usual review structure, because for this kind of product content and format are really the same thing, and also figure flats are not things I use much, so it doesn’t seem fair to give them a rating.

There are four deck plans and two sets of flats available; the deck plans are for a dropship, a modular freighter, a pair of pirate ships, and a research vessel. The figure flats are basically the good guys ("Explorers") and the bad guys ("Terrors").

FIGURE FLATS

Let’s look at the figures first. The Explorers pack contains nearly 70 figures suitable for use as PCs or their sidekicks, comprising four constructs, three deaders, three florans, seven male and three female humans, eight insectoids, three kalians, three rakashans, three saurians, four aurax, four yetis, and a serran (which could also work as another female human); many of these use the iconic art from other products in the line, for example the serran is the same artwork as in the SFC itself, and some of them are named, which suggests they are from existing or planned products – I haven’t checked. Additionally there are seven JumpCorp Marines, seven JumpCorp  security troopers, a squad of eight saltarians and their commander, and two armed exploration vehicles. With the exception of the JumpCorp and saltarian troops, who have multiple instances of the same pose, all of the figures are different.

In the Terrors pack, you get six security bots, a shady-looking dude called Kerastus, three librarians, two stringers, nine kragmen and two kragman shamans, eleven each of canyon, desert, forest, mountain and high sethis, three shock mantas, three drakes, two maulers, nine ravagers, nine spitters, one apex (as in apex predator), six arc beetles, one omariss death worm, five mysterious entities and one giant mysterious entity. All except the mysterious entities are from one of the TLP setting books. These being NPC mooks and local fauna rather than heroes, you get only one or two poses per type of being.

Some of the figures are 2D counters, but most are trifold standees; you fold each figure into a three-cornered prism and stand it on end. I always have trouble gluing those together, so I’d probably trim them to front-and-back and put them in some sort of stand. Personally I’d use the silhouette for the back and a colour image for the front, as in some of the games I play, it matters which way figures are facing.

DECK PLANS

The deck plans are provided as poster-sized full-colour images, overlaid with a square grid at the standard Savage Worlds one inch equals six feet (although you could print them at different scales to suit your figures, obviously). Each one would use 12 pages of A4 or Letter size paper to print out.

The dropship is a short-haul vessel, not suitable for long journeys. The internal areas suitable for combat or whatever consist of (fore to aft): A four-person cockpit; a passenger area with seats for 36; a utility section containing an office, a meeting room (or possibly sick bay, it has a bunk bed), a bathroom, and a weird red disk that might be a hatch, or a teleporter, or anything else you fancy; and a large cargo bay full of crates , with a small vehicle for loading and unloading them. It’s not entirely clear how those get in and out, as there are no suitable doors; I presume there’s a ceiling hatch.

The freighter has three deckplans, side by side, which I shall call the bridge, the crew quarters, and the cargo module. Looking at the cover picture and how the stairs are laid out, I’d say the bridge is on top of the crew quarters, and there’s a cargo module behind each one – possibly many cargo modules, much like freight cars in a railway train. The bridge deck has a seven-person control room, a large mess area, an airlock and a stairway leading down; the crew quarters has stairs up to the bridge, one stateroom with a double bed and a workstation, two four-person bunk rooms, a sick bay, a bathroom, and a lounge with a couch, a pool table, and an exercise bike. The cargo module is a boxy affair, full of crates and barrels, with what look like palm-keyed security doors fore and aft. I didn’t like this one at first, but it’s growing on me, because it’s actually many different freighters in one – print out multiple copies and make the ship as big as you like. That would’ve been easier if the decks had been on separate pages, though.

The pirate ship map has two small ships on it, one of which has two decks. The whitish vessel on the left of the poster seems to be some sort of high-performance, short-range craft, possibly a fighter; there are three crew stations and two jump seats. The more sombre craft on the right of the poster has a four-person bridge, bunk room, bathroom and small cargo area on the upper deck, while the lower deck has more cargo space and a sort of ship’s basement with a workbench and a meeting/dining table; the two decks are connected by ladders port and starboard.

The research ship map is another modular one, with two pods and a main ship – it’s not yet clear to me how they connect together, unless maybe the stairs in the pods lead up to the apparent floor hatch in the main section? If so, the ship can probably only have one pod at a time. The pods are a plain cargo pod with a few crates in it, and a spartan passenger pod with a kitchenette, bathroom, workstation and four cramped bedrooms. The ship proper has an expensive-looking bridge with six workstations, two of which are noticeably larger and better-equipped than the others – science stations, perhaps. Aft of that is something that might (or might not) be a sleeping area, with 2-4 things that might (or might not) be beds, depending on how you interpret their shapes. Behind that are four workstation areas, again two have large, expensive-looking displays. The main section of this map is the one I found hardest to interpret, generally what’s what is very clear on all the maps.

REFLECTIONS

The freighter and pirate maps together give you a solid set of multi-purpose, reusable deck plans. The dropship is OK, but less obviously useful in my games – I can only recall needing a dropship deck plan once in nearly 40 years of gamemastering SF RPGs. The research ship has potential, but it’s not immediately obvious how the pieces fit together.

On the figure flats front, these do the job and cover off all the iconic SFC races, with enough variety to differentiate between the PCs and major NPCs, plus a range of mooks and beasts of various sizes for them to face off against.

And on a personal note, I’m pleased I Kickstarted TLP at a high enough level to get all the PDFs. Win.

Review: The Enigma Equation

Kickstarting The Last Parsec is truly a gift that keeps on giving; I’m still getting PDF downloads intermittently. Next up: The Enigma Equation, 32 page adventure for that setting. You’ll need Savage Worlds Deluxe, and the Sci-Fi Companion, to make full use of it.

CONTENTS

The meat of this booklet is in three sections; Prime, The Enigma Equation, and Travelers & Xenos.

Prime (12 pages): This is essentially a repeat of the free setting primer, which I reviewed here. It’s Firefly meets Star Wars, except there is no central government to rebel against. The main rules clarification is for hyperspace jumps, which in this setting rely on navigation beacons, much as in Babylon 5.

The Enigma Equation (16 pages): This adventure in two acts begins when the team members are sent by JumpCorp to the planet Tomb, home of a JumpCorp research station, but since it was attacked by a group of strange insectoids the head researcher is missing… How are the mysterious Umbra Artefact and the even more mysterious Enigma Equation involved?

Travelers & Xenos (4 pages): Half-a-dozen foes, some reusable (especially the Djinn) and others not so much.

FORMAT

The usual Last Parsec trade dress; full colour throughout, option to turn off the page background in the PDF, pages formatted to look like a tablet PC readout, colour illustrations on most pages.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I’m ambiguous about repeating the primer in an adventure. Still, it didn’t cost me any extra, and even at full price the whole product is about six bucks. This is the sort of thing one usually sees bundled with a GM’s screen, and I vaguely remember reading somewhere that was the original intent.

CONCLUSIONS

I am still struggling to abandon my passion for worldbuilding, but with each Last Parsec adventure I come to understand a little better how that might work. I would be able to recycle the worlds and adventure hooks from any previous campaign just by throwing away the maps.

This little scenario is linked to Scientorium via one of its more enigmatic NPCs, and might make a good lead-in to the larger book. It also hints tantalisingly at a forthcoming TLP setting book which will explore things left unexplained at the end of this particular mission; Pinnacle could keep this up for years before the inevitable accretion of detail solidifies the setting into something hard to write for.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5. A fun little adventure, but it goes into the stack of Last Parsec goodies for potential later use. Perhaps I’m being unduly harsh because of the recycled Primer stuff.

Shadowrunners at the House on the Hill

Five of the old group joined us for Christmas, which was great, but the inertia generated by rich holiday food meant no-one was much in the mood for roleplaying. Instead, we turned to board games: Shadowrun Crossfire and Betrayal at the House on the Hill, both highly recommended, and neither of them mine, so I have not yet broken my resolution not to buy any more games in 2015! Hah!

Not sure how long that will last. Anyway…

Shadowrun: Crossfire

This is a co-operative deck building game. Waves of foes assault the players, who can play cards from their hands to defeat them; removing an enemy from play gives you money tokens with which to buy more cards. The co-operative element comes in because the players share the money tokens, whoever kills an opponent, and players can attack other players’ foes. There’s a roleplaying element too, as each deck is built around a character card, and successfully completing a game gives the player karma points, which are used to buy power-ups – these take the form of repeelable stickers which you apply to the character card. More experienced runners can take on more difficult missions, there being three scenarios in the basic game: Crossfire (survive three waves of foes), Extraction (survive six waves while protecting an NPC client), and messing with a dragon. We are not ready for that one yet.

(My recurring character is an ork whose portrait looks like Bruce Willis, so I’m buffing him with multiple instances of the Got Your Backs power-up, which allows him to pull a group of enemies onto him, get staggered by their combined damage, and then recover to active status again.)

Crossfire does an excellent job of evoking the Shadowrun universe without being enslaved by its rules, and of genuinely encouraging co-operative play whilst retaining an element of tension. It even has a solitaire mode, and the average game takes roughly an hour. It works best with four players, but we used it with one, three, four and five.

Betrayal at the House on the Hill

In this, players assume the roles of stereotypical characters from survival horror B-movies, exploring a haunted house. Each character is rated for its Speed (movement), Might (combat), Knowledge and Sanity. The haunted house is built by drawing tiles from a deck; symbols on the tiles reveal whether they contain an omen, an item or an event, which are drawn from card decks as needed and are a mixture of good stuff and bad stuff. At some point during the game, bad stuff will trigger a betrayal by one of the players; that player then looks up the nature of his or her treachery in one rulebook, while the others plot their countermeasures from another. There are quite a few variations, including the traitor collapsing the house into the Abyss, a madman supported by zombies, and the house rolling up on top of the players from the outside in.

(In the first game we played, I found myself playing the aged and knowledgable character, with a girl companion, a holy symbol, and constructive possession of the Mystic Elevator, which moves randomly around the house. Clearly, therefore, I was Doctor Who.)

Betrayal is every cheesy horror movie you’ve ever seen, with an interesting mixture of co-operative and competitive play, and enormous replay value. We used it with four players, but it should work with three to six. Again, a game takes roughly an hour.

We played more Crossfire, but I think Betrayal would be more accessible to the casual gamer.

Coda

And in other news, the players politely informed me that the Shadows of Keron campaign is not dead, just resting until they can get back together again, and that I may not consider it closed. Good news, I think, even though it may be a while before we play again. We should finish the Artefacts scenarios for Shadowrun first, though, since that has a story arc, and Shadows of Keron doesn’t, it’s just picaresque sword-and-sorcery adventures.

2014 in Retrospect

“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
– JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.

Let’s be honest, 2014 pretty much sucked.

  • Games played: 9 (5 of WFRP3, and one each of All Things Zombie, Dogs in the Vineyard, OD&D, Classic Traveller). That’s the worst for a long, long time. Dogs in the Vineyard might even have been my swan song as a GM – hopefully not, but if it was, there are worse ways to bow out.
  • Items reviewed: About a dozen. It’s not worth doing a top five this year.
  • Figures painted: 0. Well, 10 half-painted. Does that count as five?
  • Players in group: 3, dropping to 0. On the plus side, even as the group died, it spawned a Savage Worlds group in Brighton (with Nick as GM) and possibly a Dogs in the Vineyard group in California, so at worst the torch has been handed on.
  • Close relatives lost: Too damned many, one way and another, which explains all of the above. I expect it to be well into 2016 before the fallout from all of them is processed.

Outlook for 2015:

  • Games played: 14 (10 WFRP3, 3 Savage Worlds, 1 OD&D).
  • Items reviewed, figures painted: 0 (because what’s the point).
  • Players in group: 0 (2-4 irregulars, probably different ones each session).
  • Close relatives lost: No more, hopefully.

Lessons learned:

  • Make a will. Set up a Lasting Power of Attorney. Seriously, people, do these things right now. You cannot imagine the mess you leave behind otherwise. If you’re saying "Yeah, yeah, I’ll get around to it later," remember – you don’t get to choose whether there is a "later".
  • I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: GMs, your current group is transient. Keep an eye out for new players to replace the inevitable losses. Mind you, by the mid-2020s, I could be introducing my grandchildren to RPGs, which would be very cool.
  • For the foreseeable future, I’ll play more WFRP3 than anything, so maybe I should learn the rules. Pity they’re so complex.
  • I’ll still see my old players, a couple at a time, for a few hours every 3-6 months; but if there’s to be any gaming, I need to avoid changing things on them, and finish each adventure within a single session. So, that probably means one-shot adventures for Savage Worlds’ Beasts & Barbarians, using their existing characters; frankly, I could do a lot worse than that.
  • Any new gamers I find are most likely to be familiar with The Lord of the Rings (best-selling fantasy or SF book ever, by a country mile), Dungeons & Dragons (outguns all other RPGs put together in terms of player base), or Star Wars (third highest-grossing movie ever, when you adjust for inflation). So any future changes of rules or setting should head in those directions.
  • I should set up some sort of solo Savage Worlds game to avoid skills fade on the rules. Maybe carry on with ATZ. Not feeling terribly motivated at the moment, though.

-o0o-

Overall, it looks like I’m heading into a lean time for gaming. That has happened a couple of times before, and each time it lasted 3-5 years. Mind you, the last couple of times there was no gaming at all in those periods, so I’m doing better this time.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. See you on the other side.

Review: Dungeonlands – Tomb of the Lich Queen

Every so often, I get the urge to run a megadungeon again. I have plans to create one using a mixture of Asteroid, How to Host a Dungeon, Labyrinth Lord and the London Underground map, and maybe someday I actually will, but recently I thought: Somebody must have done a Savage Worlds megadungeon already, why don’t I look for that? And so…

In a Nutshell: Old School killer dungeon for Savage Worlds from Savage Mojo – Pathfinder version also available. 129 page PDF, $20 at time of writing. Part one of three; the upper levels, if you will.

CONTENTS

First up: The whole dungeon is a massive death-trap, and assumes the PCs are Heroic Rank or better.

We begin with a Conanesque full-colour cover, a page about the gods of the Suzerain multiverse in which the dungeon is set, disclaimers and credits, and a table of contents. Don’t worry about the Suzerain multiverse thing, the dungeon is designed to slot into any campaign, fantasy or otherwise, with a minimum of fuss. In fact, most of the individual encounters strike me as pretty portable and could be dropped individually into other places of mystery.

The Legend of the Lich Queen (21 pages). Background fiction.

Enter and Die (18 pages). In which the PCs find their way to Paxectl Island, where the dungeon is located, and explore the 15 locations of the ruined surface level. It’s worth noting that any PC, from any setting, can find the Tomb, and there are a number of free-to-download alternative beginnings written by guest authors, usually containing some pre-generated PCs, info on their home setting, and an adventure culminating in their finding the Tomb.

The Tomb of the Lich Queen (59 pages): The bulk of this chapter is taken up with 31 encounters; the GM is advised to read them all before starting play, as some of them interact, generating different outcomes depending on what the PCs have explored before, and some of them have to be solved in a particular sequence.

First, though, there’s an explanation of the overall story structure and how the dungeon is randomly generated as the PCs explore. There’s no overall map, but there are corridors connecting encounter areas, which are of course populated by wandering monsters.

The individual encounters are a mixture of safe areas where PCs can rest, traps, clues to the storyline, and more traps; no spoilers, but they are all atmospheric and at least slightly unusual – none of this “you open a door and see six goblins; they attack” business. You do get straight-up fights, but usually those are with wandering monsters in the corridors. There’s a lot of machinery involved, for reasons which make good sense given the storyline, but if you’re purist high fantasy or swords-and-sorcery you may not want quite this much clockpunk. The general feel is that of Old School roleplaying; the PCs will not survive just on Notice rolls to find traps and Lockpicking or Repair rolls to bypass them, the players need to pay attention to their surroundings and act accordingly. There are a few encounters where I did think, how on Earth are the PCs supposed to figure that out? But experience teaches me they will, or if not, they are capable of enough sustained violence to batter their way through.

The product assumes that you’re using the companion tile maps (another ten bucks or so) and cards (free to download at time of writing) to generate the dungeon and lay it out for play, and that you only roll dice if you don’t have access to those.

How vicious is this tomb? The designers recommend PCs get a new benny (called “Karma” in the Suzerain over-setting) every time they survive meeting a monster or a trap. Under the Suzerain modifications to Savage Worlds, a player can spend a benny to avoid death, so PCs can only die if they run out of bennies; you might want to consider using that mod here.

Denizens of the Tomb (25 pages): 22 new foes for the heroes to face. Let’s leave those as surprises, shall we?

We close with a list of the Kickstarter backers who funded this.

There are a lot of free-to-download supplements for Dungeonlands; you might or might not want the alternative beginnings, but I found Heroes and Servitors useful as a source of pre-gen characters and extra encounters (and as examples of what the main book’s encounters are like), and the bonus tables useful for monsters and treasure. I’m not likely to use the Encounter Cards, but found the Tomb Cards essential to understand the layout.

FORMAT

The usual; two-column black text on a full-colour background, with full-colour art every few pages. Boxouts are in white text on black. Thankfully the background can be suppressed for cheaper printing.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

21 pages of introductory fiction? Seriously? 17% of the page count? That’s not what I buy these things for, you know; and I’d also appreciate it if previews on places like RPGNow had something other than exerts from the fiction, which really doesn’t help me assess whether I want to buy the product or not; an example encounter would be better. I would have preferred less fiction and some legible diagrams of the modules used to make up the dungeon; that could probably have been done in 2-4 pages.

Speaking of which, it would have helped me a lot to know that most encounter areas are square, about 7″ on a side, with two doors on opposing sides, but that corridors are whatever size, shape and number of exits you need to connect them. If you play in dim light, as recommended, you’ll struggle with the low contrast on some of the map cards; on many of them, exits are simply gaps in black walls on a black floor. To help with all those points, here’s a quick, rough and spoiler-free view of the main encounter areas that I knocked up in Dungeonographer:

dungeonlands

CONCLUSIONS

As usual I’ve tried to tell you enough about the product to decide whether you want to buy it, without revealing all the secrets, because your players (or mine) may be reading. What it brought to mind for me were the horror movie Cube and the first Aliens vs Predator film, in particular the sequences in the Predator pyramid; randomly shifting rooms and corridors full of death traps.

I feel inspired to use this next time I do some SW dungeon crawling; it’ll probably wind up somewhere in the Dread Sea Dominions, somewhere in or near the Fallen Realm of Keron I expect, maybe in the Keronian Range. It has probably saved me many hours of dungeon creation, but that’s a mixed blessing, since if I created my own dungeon I would be able to report the group’s adventures in more detail, as spoilers would neither matter nor potentially infringe copyright. So maybe the OD&D Tube map will see the light of day at some point after all.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. Better than I expected, good enough to get used, not quite good enough to get me to drop everything else.

Review: Scientorium

“Sweet is the harbour, but Death is the ferryman.” – Tsolyani proverb,

In a Nutshell: Plot Point Campaign and mini-setting for Savage Worlds’ Last parsec framework setting; assumes you have SW Deluxe and the Science Fiction Companion.

Things you should know going in:

  • The campaign relies heavily on players being able to separate what they know from what their characters know, and have the characters act only on the latter.
  • There are a lot of obstacles in the players’ way, realistically so given the backstory, and they will need to be more resolute than my lot usually are to reach the end of the story.
  • You’re going to lose at least one PC during the course of the campaign. I guarantee it.

CONTENTS

Characters (2 pages): This is the only chapter safe for players to read, and I’d think twice before letting them near it. If they do read it, they will learn that their PCs are going to explore an ancient structure – since that is written on the back cover, it’s not much of a spoiler. There’s a summary of background information which most characters in the setting don’t know, and half-a-dozen suggested character types (no statblocks, but you could easily use the ones in the companion Archetypes product).

A Galactic Wonder (8 pages): This gives an overview of the Scientorium itself, an orbital structure left behind by a long-vanished alien race. Basically, it’s a megadungeon in spaaaace. I like it.

Setting Rules (11 pages): The mechanic that intrigues me most is that for Doubt – because although the players know about the Scientorium, their characters doubt its existence. I was wondering by this point how that worked, but there’s a straightforward rule for handling it, treating it much like Fatigue. There’s also additionial information on how the Scientorium’s systems operate – and how they malfunction. There’s a lot of virtual reality in the Scientorium, which makes it easy to drop any sort of adventure into this particular setting; I always liked the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that focussed on the holodeck, and you can go nuts with that here. The down side of that is I’m not sure I have the creativity for it, but I could always mine other setting books for ideas. In fact, the Last Parsec as a whole encourages that thought.

Palimpsest (30 pages): Here is a plot point campaign in 11 parts, in which the PCs are (as usual) working for JumpCorp. At first they are tasked with finding a suspected thief and running surveillance on him; he leads them to a second shady individual and his bizarre quest, which over a series of adventures leads the PCs to the Scientorium and its wonders. The epic journey in parts three and four of the series can be extended almost indefinitely, as long as the GM has stories to tell and the players remain interested; they are more a framework into which other scenarios are inserted than they are plot points in the usual sense. Part six is also amenable to this, to an extent.

Savage Tales (22 pages): Thirteen of ’em; the previous chapter suggests where in the overall story arc they should be played. The Pursuer in particular cries out to be woven into the campaign. Several of the adventures can be played before the campaign starts, foreshadowing later events and introducing the PCs to people they will get to know much better in the main plotline (which I would definitely do), or extend the campaign after its official end (which I probably would not). I approve, and encourage other authors to do likewise.

Bestiary (9 pages): Two xenos and six sentients. One of the xenos is unusually large and complex, at six pages long.

FORMAT

Full cover covers wrapped around two-column black text with a blue and grey background (which fortunately can be suppressed using Acrobat layers). Colour illustrations every few pages. The usual Last Parsec trade dress, making the product look a bit like a tablet PC, which is the standard for SF RPG products at the moment.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Like Leviathan, this book refers to Known Space having an edge, and it refers to a target being “three systems away”; I don’t see how either marries up with the presumed drive system, either a place has a nav beacon or it doesn’t, and if it does, it’s one jump away.

It also talks of known space including multiple superclusters of galaxies; that puzzled me until I realised I was confusing it with the Known Worlds, which occupy a much smaller volume.

Scientorium’s size is quoted as different figures in the text and illustration, no biggie.

At various places in the text things like slow drugs or low-pasage canisters are mentioned, apparently relying on the reader to have a knowledge of the Dumarest saga or (more likely) some incarnation of Traveller.

I’m not sure what the impact of million-Gauss magnetic fields on personal equipment and humanoid flesh would be, but I suspect there’s fun to be had with the field strength that this book hasn’t explored – I need to check that out before the players run into them.

CONCLUSIONS

Of all the promised Last Parsec materials, this is the one I was looking forward to the most. The author, Timothy Brian Brown, has a name I recognise from the heady days of GDW, so my expectations were high – GDW was the company whose designers seemed most in tune with what I wanted out of RPGs.

While the one-setting-book-per-world approach has its virtues, I want my group to wander from planet to planet, and I wanted a book to support that. This one does, although at the other extreme of world detail, namely none at all – the intermediate stops on the PCs’ voyage are left for the GM to flesh out.

While the Last Parsec line as a whole is at least partially an homage to Star Frontiers, this book harks back to different roots; the Space Opera adventure Vault of the Ni’er Queyon, or Traveller’s multi-adventure arc culminating in The Secret of the Ancients. There are also, at least for me, echoes of Chaosium’s Ringworld.

Using my usual yardstick of one session every other week, this book would last my group roughly a year of real time, and lift the PCs from Novice to halfway through Veteran Rank.

Overall: I’m dithering between 4 out of 5 and 5 out of 5. Of all the Last Parsec materials to date, this is the one I’m most likely to use, although I would want to sprinkle other adventures around it and before it, gradually leading the players to the start of the plot point campaign. It’s a good keel for a campaign, but I’ll want to add more to it.