Review: Four Against Darkness

I had intended not to buy any more new games for a while, and then I found out about this new solo dungeon crawler. You know I can’t resist those.

In a Nutshell: Rules-lite solo dungeon-crawler from Ganesha Games, 65 page PDF, $8 at time of writing.

CONTENTS

This game has a lot of short chapters, so I’ll abandon my usual chapter by chapter approach for a broader overview and an actual play example.

In the game, you control a party of four adventurers who enter a randomly-generated dungeon to kill things and take their stuff. Characters are defined by their class and level, and have three attributes; Attack, Defence, and Life, this last being hit points. Monsters and traps are defined by their level. By default, the player goes first in combat; to attack, you roll 1d6, apply modifiers, and if the score meets or beats the monster’s level, you hit – each hit inflicts one Life point, with minions having one point and boss monsters several. If you’d rather talk, you let the monsters go first and a reaction roll determines what they do. If they attack, the character rolls a d6 and applies modifiers; a score of the monster’s level or better means you dodged the blow. Magic works much the same way, although spells have varying effects.

The majority of the book is made up of random tables for generating dungeons and their denizens. Rooms, corridors, various types of monsters, traps and treasure, special features, quests (which some monsters give you if you talk to them), epic rewards (which you can earn by completing quests), clues which you can collect to lead you to a major secret, for example the weakness of a boss monster.

There is a short equipment list, an equally short spell list, and rules for levelling up characters in an ongoing game. There is a dungeon generation flowchart, a party sheet, and a record sheet for keeping track of monsters slain (which you need to do for levelling up). Unusually, there are several PocketMod versions of key components, making it easier to play on the move.

FORMAT

Colour cover heralding two-column black on white text, liberally sprinkled with black and white illustrations.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I’d like an option for multi-level dungeons, which seems to be in the works. A wider range of character classes, spells and monsters would be nice, but is by no means essential.

It can be quite difficult to make out the square grid in the room tiles, if the contrast could be turned up just a little it would help me.

ACTUAL PLAY EXAMPLE

I select 4 of the 8 possible classes to form my party:

  • Retif, 1st level warrior (he can’t spell). He adds his level to his attack rolls, and begins with 7 Life, 2d6 = 7 gp, light armour, a shield and a hand weapon (which I decide is a sword).
  • Cirelc, 1st level cleric. She adds half her level to attack rolls (full level vs undead), can use the Blessing spell three times per adventure, and begins with 5 Life, 1d6 = 4 gp, light armour, a shield and a hand weapon (which out of respect for tradition I say is a mace).
  • Feiht, 1st level rogue. He adds his level to defence rolls, disarm trap rolls, and attack rolls if he is attacking outnumbered minions. He has 4 Life, 3d6 = 10 gp, rope, lock picks, light armour and a light hand weapon (most likely a dagger).
  • Draziw, 1st level wizard. He adds his level to spell attacks or puzzle rolls, and begins with three spells, a light hand weapon, a spellbook and writing implements. He has 3 Life and 4d6 = 16 gp. I decide to prepare Fireball, Lightning and Sleep, since some monsters are immune to some spells and that combination seems to give him the widest range of offensive options.

I put Retif and Cirelc in the front rank, Feiht and Draziw in the rear, and give Draziw the lantern to carry.

Map

Here you see the place of mystery they explored, rendered in Dungeonographer; areas are numbered in the sequence they were encountered.

4ad

Key

  1. Empty but with a special feature, specifically a healing fountain. Nobody is wounded yet so we ignore it and move on. I’m not bothering with checking for secret rooms in this game.
  2. Minions, namely 9 goblins. These fail to surprise us, so we go first – I can see from their reaction table that there is no point trying to talk to them unless we have enough cash to bribe them, which we don’t. The party attacks in the order listed above; Retif rolls 1 and adds his level to get 2, which isn’t enough to kill a goblin; Cirelc rolls 1, Feiht 4, and Draziw 9 (dice explode; Drziw rolled a 6, so gets to keep that and roll again, in this case adding another 3. Goblins have level 3, and thus each multiple of 3 damage kills one. Feiht got one, and Draziw killed three. The 5 surviving goblins now roll; a die roll determines that the extra attack hits Cirelc. I notice that the combat example on p. 48 doesn’t quite seem to match how combat is described earlier in the book, but let’s stick with the example for now. The goblins attack, which means the heroes roll to dodge, and suffer a point of damage for missing. Retif rolls a 2, but gets +1 for his light armour and +1 for his shield, total 4; this exceeds the goblin’s level (3) so he blocks the attack. Cirelc and Draziw likewise defend successfully, but Feith rolls a 1, so he fails to defend and takes one damage. In the second round, our heroes drop 4 goblins for no damage, and in round 3 they kill the last goblin – as there are none left to attack, and monsters always go last, they take no further damage. We now loot the bodies, rolling on the Treasure Table (at -1 because goblins) and collecting a gem worth 15 gp.
  3. Empty with a special feature, again a healing fountain, which conveniently heals Feith.
  4. This room was bigger, but by the rules is truncated to fit on the map. Inside are 3 skeletal rats (level 3 undead). Yet again the wizard’s attack die explodes and he offs all but the one killed by Retif. The rats sadly have no treasure.
  5. Retracing our steps without encountering wandering monsters, we move into this area and set off a spear trap. Retif and Cirelc both take one damage.
  6. 8 skeletal rats. it takes 4 rounds to kill them all. Draziw loses a hit point (now down to 2). Again there is no treasure.
  7. 5 orcs. This is a good chance to try a spell, as if it kills one of them the rest may well flee. Draziw fires a lightning bolt at the apparent leader, rolls a 6, adds his level for a 7 – and kills one, as they are level 4 beings. The rest roll a d6, score 2, and since this is in the range 1-3 they all run away, dropping a pouch of 6 gp as they go. Excellent.
  8. A potion of healing protected by a gas trap, how ironic. Everyone makes a defence roll ignoring armour and shields; Retif and Draziw fail, being reduced to 6 and 1 Life respectively. Draziw quaffs the potion and restores himself to 3 Life.
  9. A giant stone block falls out of the ceiling onto Draziw; fortunately he dodges it, and discovers 6 gp stuck in a crack on the side. (The tables tell me a stone block drops and there are 6 gp loot; I can’t help embellishing but wouldn’t like you to be disappointed in what the product actually contains.)
  10. Empty. That does happen occasionally.
  11. 4 zombies with no treasure. The party despatches these in two turns for no damage.
  12. Empty.
  13. 17 rats, no treasure. Rats are level 1, and you might think that since you can’t roll less than this on 1d6, you always hit; but p. 49 says a roll of 1 is always a failure on defence rolls. So while you are guaranteed to take out one rat per turn each, the rats could get lucky. In the five turns it takes us to kill the rats, everybody except Draziw gets bitten and loses one Life, but luckily none of the wounds are infected.
  14. We retrace our steps to the other door out of area 11 – no ambushes – and find 4 orcs in this tiny room. Draziw loses another hit point before the orcs are killed, and looting the bodies reveals another 5 gp. Cirelc decides now is a good time to break out the healing, and heals 7 Life – enough to refresh everyone to full power.

However, I decide to leave the dungeon (luck is with us and there are no random encounters on the way out), and tot up our winnings: 27 gp in all, just short of 7 each. Each time the party kills a boss, completes a quest, or survives 10 minion encounters, one character can roll to level up; we don’t qualify on any of those counts, sadly. Off to the pub then.

CONCLUSIONS

  • In setup and play, the game feels like a mixture of OD&D and Heroquest. It’s easy to reconstruct the classic parties from those games with the classes in 4AD.
  • The extreme simplicity of the game lends itself well to solo play, which I have found often bogs down if using the more complex rules of a full-blown RPG.
  • The tiles are small enough to reproduce as battlemaps, one per page, and lay out directly on the table if I were so inclined.
  • I can see myself not only playing this for its own sake, but also using it as a dungeon generator for other games. It gains the coveted 5 out of 5 for being something that I want to play right away. Oh look, I just have.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.

Arion Episode 18: Recruiting

“So, Mr Osheen, thank you for responding to my job advert – nice to see you again. Let’s get right to it. What do you hope to achieve as First Mate on the Dolphin?”

“We wish to kill our enemies and absorb their bodily fluids for nourishment.”

“I see. And have you any previous experience of this kind of work?

“We have killed many enemies and absorbed their bodily fluids. For nourishment. The local police do not approve. We do not understand why.”

“No, I meant do you know anything about starship operations – piloting, engineering, navigation, that kind of thing.”

“We know that we must protect the Captain and prevent others from killing him and absorbing his bodily fluids for nourishment. We also know that we must not absorb the hydraulic fluid for nourishment. Or the hyperdrive coolant.”

“You know what, Mr. Osheen, the way things have been going lately, that’s good enough. You’re hired.”

MONTH-END ADMIN – MARCH 2220

Firstly, I decided Arion needs some muscle if he’s out in the Big Dark all alone, so I recruit the Grath Criminal for that purpose; I also think he will be a handy foil for Arion in future writeups, as the Grath are big, dumb, nearly indestructible, and can absorb any fluid for nourishment. I need to be careful to keep him aboard ship in Gaea Prime space though, as they will shoot him on sight.

Rep

As you can see, a single month can include several encounters, any of which could result in increasing Rep d6; so the support cost of one decreasing Rep d6 per group member per month isn’t going to be as harsh as I expected. I suspect the bulk of increasing dice will come from adventures on-planet, though.

  • Starting Lifetime Rep +1
  • Support -2, completing the trading mission +4
  • Encounters: +3 for episode 15, +1 for episode 16, -1 for episode 17.
  • Net increasing Rep this month +6 – roll 255242, no change to Rep.
  • Ending Lifetime Rep +7.

Contacts

Hmm, the contacts are racking up quite quickly here, not sure I want to track those. I might just say that when the ship lifts, all debts are paid, and the contact list resets. Rather than rolling to confirm whether an NPC has been met previously or not, I might decide that if the same NPC stats are rolled again (say, #10 on the Exotic table) it’s the same NPC.

  • Perry Anderson (Rep 4 Politician, Corinth)
  • Roger Houston (Rep 5 Pilot, Corinth, previously recruited)
  • Captain Pollard Lush (Rep 4 Drunkard, Gaea Prime light freighter – history)
  • Anne MacDonald (Rep 5 Corporate Exec, Shaker NPC #10, Fermanagh)
  • Officer 182 (Rep 4 Grath Police, Exotic NPC #10, Fermanagh – history)
  • Xeog and two Hishen police impersonators (Exotic NPCs 5, 7 and 11 – history)
  • First Mate Osheen (Rep 4 Grath Criminal, Exotic NPC #9, Fermanagh, previously recruited)

Worlds

Looking at the sample systems table on p. 82 I can see I’ve already established enough detail to fill in the rest for the campaign worlds mentioned to date, so I did that. I also note that the home world tables on p. 13 generate different results, so decide not to worry about it and just pick whatever seems appropriate.

  • Corinth: 1/4 Indy Basic, Ring 3, Sector 1
  • Fermanagh: 2/3 Indy Basic, Ring 1, Sector 4
  • Makaria: 2/4 Indy Basic, Ring 3, Sector 6

REFLECTIONS

The campaign movement for a typical trading run would be: Month 1 – move from planet of departure to sector 1 in current ring. Month 2 – move to sector 1 in destination ring. Month 3 – move to destination planet. Three months for a cargo run seems a bit long to me.

For further study: Fringe Space looks like it will be good for ongoing picaresque wandering, but one thing I did like about Larger Than Life was the story arc. I’ll reread FS in depth and see how that sense of direction and progress could be incorporated.

Arion, Episode 17: Face-Off

“Arion.”

“Ms McDonald.”

“Enough is enough, Arion. A problem isn’t solved until you have stopped it happening again. I want to meet these people, on my terms.”

“How will we arrange that?”

“Leave that to me. Be at the godown at eight PM. Bring lots of guns.”

Setup

Another confrontation, p. 45. Arion and Ms McDonald are causing the confrontation, at night. I’ll override the Who Are They? table to force a Criminal result, then work through tables on pp 70-75 to find out who the opposition are; they turn out to be two criminals, #2 and #6 – a Rep 4 Razor with a machine pistol and a Rep 4 Zhuh-Zhuh sidekick with a BAP.

What about Ms MacDonald? A Corporate Exec with (roll 1) body armour – and a BAP now Arion has loaned her one. I roll on the Shaker table on p. 72 and get #10, changing the gender to match her; Rep 5, Fast, Drunkard, Cruel. One begins to wonder who the real villain is here; this sort of emergent situation is one of the fun parts of THW games.

The sides are 6″ apart, facing each other, and being gangers the opposition will use deadly force from the outset. We go straight to a Draw with both sides active.

Turn 1

Arion draws, rolling 6d6 (5 for his Rep and 1 for Steely Eyes); he rolls 211116 for 5 successes. The Razor gets 2 successes, the Zhuh-Zhuh 2, and MacDonald 3. Characters now fire in descending order of successes; Arion fires twice at the Razor, hitting her once and forcing her to Duck Back. MacDonald hits the Zhuh-Zhuh twice and he Ducks Back as well. Arion and MacDonald move into cover. (Parenthetically, Arion has now won a Draw and in future will count Draw rolls of 1-4 as successes rather than the usual 1-3.)

The enemy now becomes active and pops up to return fire, triggering an In Sight test. Arion rolls 4d6 (5 basic, +1 Steely Eyes, -1 target in cover, -1 target is a Razor) and gets 2 successes. MacDonald gets 2 as well, the Razor gets 3 and the Zhuh-Zhuh gets 1. The razor fires her mental blast (her best move as it is an area effect which ignores cover), missing MacDonald but scoring Obviously Dead on Arion – Star Power to the fore, 3 successes and he’s back in the fight. MacDonald takes a Received Fire test as she was shot at but missed, 2d6 vs Rep 5 on the Shaker table as an LWC and passes 1d6 (6,3) so she Leaves the Tabletop, abandoning Arion with two enemies and a decreasing Rep die. This triggers a Man Down test for Arion, but as a Star he can choose his result and he decides to stick around for another turn.

Turn 2

Arion blasts away at the Razor, missing, and having rolled double ones is out of ammo – time for a New York reload, and he pulls out his spare BAP. Both the Razor and the Zhuh-Zhuh return fire; the Razor switches to her machine pistol as that gives her more chances to hit, and she hits twice, forcing two Duck Backs, at which point the Zhuh-Zhuh can’t see Arion and thus holds his fire. Arion doesn’t like the odds and decides to Leave the Tabletop.

The police are not interested, so there’s the end of it.

Reflections

Another fast and figure-free encounter. While this is very practical for me, it’s very different to what I’m used to and I’m not sure whether in the long term I will prefer it to figures and terrain on a table.

I think I have the rules down pat now, though, so I plan to shift to a more narrative approach for future encounters. Maybe with pictures, although in honesty they will be mostly for show.

Arion, Episode 16: Damsel in Distress

“Arion.”

“Ah, Ms McDonald, how are you?”

“Not good. They’ve got my daughter. They say they’ll kill her if I don’t hand over the cargo. I have… sources who traced the call to a drugstore downtown.”

“You want me to get her back?”

“Yes. Don’t involve the police. As you’ve seen, they own the police.”

Setup

This is a Raid encounter as per page 46. The kidnappers are holding the missing girl in the City Centre (5, 10 and 4 rolled for random location) and the opposition at the time of attack is a single NPC, #11 on the Criminal tables – female basic, Rep 4, Stunning x 2, Brawler, machine pistol, profession transporter and (die roll) no body armour. Hmm, interesting, might be worth recruiting that one – mind you, she is more likely to recruit Arion, which would be equally entertaining. I get the option of the day part and opt for daytime. The local law level is 4 (I’m using New Hope City’s law levels as a template). Arion is expecting trouble so is wearing body armour under a duster and carrying a backup BAP and a knife as well as his main weapon, in case a New York reload is required.

Arion goes to the downtown drugstore and drops off a couple of spiders from the repair swarm to check things out. Soon, he is looking at a view of the upstairs flat in his Augmented Reality visor., where a young girl is at play, albeit chained to a radiator and guarded by a stunningly beautiful woman in her mid-twenties. Surreptitiously, he checks the body armour under his coat, the pistols in shoulder holsters underneath it, and the knife in his boot. Adjusting his AR visor and taking a deep breath, he crosses the street.

PEF Resolution

Arion needs to resolve three PEFs before entering the target building, and a third one once inside. You’ve seen that before so I’ll cut to the chase and tell you he gets nothing on the first two, but the third is a group of three Exotics, an entertainer and two bounty hunters, numbers 5, 7 and 8 on the NPC table on p. 73. The leader is one of the bounty hunters, Rep 5. This group exchanges pleasantries with Arion but then leaves.

The street is unusually quiet for this time of day, but Arion’s nerves make every noise sound like an ambush. A passing group greets him and he returns the favour before entering the drugstore.

Turn 1

One of the things that is different about Fringe Space is activation; unlike the usual 1d6 per side with figures needing to roll less than their Rep to activate and doubles meaning a draw, in Fringe Space you roll 1d6 at the point of contact, with 4-6 meaning the player is active, and then the sides alternate moves after that, which I take to mean that the winner goes first each turn.

I decide that having observed the situation, and not being the sort to gun people down in cold blood in front of a child, as Arion breaks in there will be an In Sight test (the kidnapper might fire instinctively, or make a move that makes Arion do so), followed by a Talk the Talk, and then if necessary a Draw. Arion rolls a 4 for activation, so I assume he will wait until he his surveillance spider tells him his opponent is distracted, and then go in.

Arion climbs to the first floor, readies his weapon, and kicks in the door.

We go to In Sight, which is a draw, so as the moving side Arion loses. Looking at the Grunt actions on p. 25, my hopes of recruiting a hot sidekick are at least temporarily shattered as she opens fire with the machine pistol, rolling 662 for her three shots – adding her Rep of 4 gives her 10, 10 and 6; the 6 misses but a 10 always hits, so two rolls for damage: 1, 4 vs Arion’s effective Rep of 6 (5 basic, +1 for body armour). Both of those are Duck Back results. Gunshots have now been heard and I determine the police will arrive in 6 turns, on turn 7.

The kidnapper must’ve heard Arion coming; she’s waiting as he comes through the door and opens up with a burst from a machine pistol. Arion ducks back around the door jamb, wondering how thick the walls are and whether they’ll stop a machine pistol round.

Turn 2

Arion fires from cover – it seems reasonable she is in cover as well at this point, though. This triggers another In Sight and the kidnapper again sprays Arion with hot lead, hitting once and getting a 6 for damage – Obviously Dead. Arion breaks out the Star Power dice and rolls 51314, keeping all the dice and reducing the damage to nothing. Arion now returns fire, but misses because of the -1 Rep when firing a BAP.

Arion sticks one eye and a gun barrel around the corner and fires twice, but his aim is hurried and he misses, while his opponent again sprays him with MP fire. “Man,” Arion thinks to himself, “I have to get me one of those.”

Turn 3

Arion again peeks around the door jamb, wins the In Sight and fires, but misses again. This triggers a Received Fire test for the kidnapper, who rolls 62 vs Rep 4 and passes 1d6 – as she is the last character her side has on the table (the hostage is more of an objective marker, I figure), she Leaves the Table. Arion is now in possession of the field of battle and the hostage; he picks her up and leaves with her in tow.

The kidnapper seems to be more interested in keeping him suppressed than actually killing him, so Arion decides she is waiting for something and refuses to be suppressed. He fires again, and a gravsled pulls up; the kidnapper rolls out of the window into it, and it lifts out of sight at full throttle. Checking around, he quickly satisfies himself there is no other opposition, and moves up to the girl.

“Hi,” he says, kneeling next to her and holstering his gun, “My name is Arion – your mother sent me to get you. Would you like me to take you to her?” The girl nods, as one of Arion’s spider’s unlimbers a tiny cutting torch and slices through the chain.

“Okay then, let’s go.”

Arion gains another increasing Rep d6 for causing the kidnapper to flee. Let’s resolve the police investigation now as well: Roll 1d6 vs law level (4) to see if they investigate – a 1, so they do. Arion is called in to the police station for questioning, he scores 3 successes to the investigator’s 2 (see page 41) and is released.

Reflections

It’s clear that Fringe Space can be played indefinitely without any table, terrain or figures. At the moment that suits me very well, although the writeups are not as interesting as if I had some photos to upload – the detailed pictures the game generates in my mind’s eye are not showing up in the blog!

It’s also clear that it plays much faster than previous THW games I’ve tried.

Finally, under the revised damage rules, machine pistols are more dangerous than in those earlier games – of the weapons which don’t reduce effective Rep when rolling to hit, the MP has the highest rate of fire, and now that weapon calibre doesn’t affect damage rolls any more, that gives it quite an edge.

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.