Review: Heart of the Fury

In a Nutshell: A campaign in 16 adventures for the FATE Core Edition version of Bulldogs!. 262 page PDF, written by Gareth Hanrahan, published by Galileo Games.

CONTENTS

The book breaks into a number of main sections: an introduction; 16 adventures, ranging from 6 pages to 54 pages in length; new species; and rules for psychic PCs, not previously an option in Bulldogs! The table of contents lists NPCs, monsters, ships, and other items separately, which is useful for the ones that can turn up several times over the course of a campaign.

The introduction gives the GM a concise summary of what’s going on – no spoilers, because figuring that out is one of the primary goals of the campaign.

The campaign as written assumes the PCs are the crew of a Class D Freighter working for the TransGalaxy shipping corporation, making high-risk cargo runs along the fringes of civilised space. The adventures can be run one after the other if you wish – the “Express Route”, the book calls it – or you can mix up the sequence and add in side quests, the “Scenic Route”, so long as you start with the first adventure and finish with the last. Sections called “Exit Trajectory” are listed for the adventures, giving several options for which scenario to run next. Some the scenarios, such as The Hunters, can be recycled and used several times over the course of the campaign. Unusually, the option where the PCs decide to go over to the Dark Side is also covered – I suppose you have to cater to that for Bulldogs.

Some of the NPCs, like the delinquent drop-out Hackragorkan (he’s an accountant), genuinely made me laugh out loud; this would not be appropriate for all games, but is definitely fitting for this one.

FORMAT

Colour cover around single-column black text on white with purple headlines and full-colour page borders and boxouts. A goodly number of colour cartoon illustrations.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

PDF layers so I can turn off the colour borders and boxout backgrounds.

I don’t like the cartoonish style of the internal illustrations. Your Mileage May Vary.

CONCLUSIONS

I’ve come to the conclusion of late that the only way I can run space opera now is to play it for laughs, and for that, the Bulldogs! setting is ideal. Someday I may even try running it under FATE, though Savage Worlds works well with the adventures, so why change?

Bulldogs! adventures have always been a collection of challenges the GM can use in any order, depending on how the players react to the initial setup. I’d hoped Heart of the Fury would extend that to the campaign level, though it doesn’t quite – it does the next best thing, which is offer multiple routes through the plotline.

I can’t help drawing parallels between current US/UK politics and some situations in the plotline, but no doubt this is purely accidental.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. I do want to run this one right away, but it hardly seems fair to stop any of my existing campaigns to do so. It would be easy to kick Collateral Damage onto this track, though…

Hearts of Stone 14: Wyvern Riders

Near Anvil Road, 20 May 216

The party quickly loots the bodies of the fallen Glitterhaegen marines, and retires to their camp to wait for dawn. After some debate on how to track flying creatures in the dark, a combination of Soreth’s extraordinary sense of smell and Ssh’ta’s invocation of the High Druid so that he could talk to the trees allows the group to track the wyvern (for that is what it was) to a nearby farmstead.

Here, they find a group of ten wyvern mounts, watched over by a handful of orcs lazing near a lakeside gazebo. While X7-09 stealthily approaches the wyverns, Hayes openly approaches the leading orc (recognisable by his plate corselet) and challenges him to a game of cards.

“Who are you and what do you want?” asks the orc, who unusually for an orc isn’t shooting first and asking questions later.

“That’s a very good question,” answers Hayes, who as an amnesiac doesn’t know either answer. “What are you doing here?”

The orc explains that he is looking for another orc named Fangrot. Hayes offers the services of his burgeoning intelligence network, and says he did see an orc while looting a living dungeon some weeks ago. This intrigues the orc greatly, but after a short discussion of the dungeon it becomes clear they are talking about different orcs. Meanwhile Soreth moves up to another wyvern and notices there are more orcs in the farmstead; simultaneously Ssh’ta observes one of them watching him from cover and realises the party has been outflanked.

Valore invokes an icon and calls “Here boy!” to the gazebo, which uproots itself and lumbers towards her, barging aside the orc leader. Ignoring the mayhem to follow, Valore, his followers, Kowalski and others clamber into the now-mobile gazebo and help themselves to its supply of cucumber water. Zadok the priest blesses the gazebo, which becomes less dreadful and shinier.

Meanwhile, X7-09 leaps from cover onto the back of the nearest wyvern with a shout of “YEEEE HAAAA!”. The wyvern promptly bucks and throws X7-09 into a pile of rocks nearby, causing its companions to take flight and scatter over the lake.

“Is that dwarf-forged with you?” the orc asks Hayes.

“No,” says Hayes, sitting on a rock. “Look, we can talk later, you’d better sort this out.”

Balthazar Rook, who unlike X7-09 can actually ride flying mounts, charges from cover and leaps into the saddle.

“That’s my wyvern,” says the orc leader.

“It’s my wyvern now!” shouts Balthazar.

“Your funeral,” shrugs the orc, as the wyvern erupts into a blinding ball of claws, teeth and poisonous stinger. He calls sharp orders in orcish, and the other wyverns circle around, heading for the farmstead to pick up their riders.

Balthazar invokes his own icon connection, and his fox mask causes the orc and the wyvern to associate him with their most pleasant memories.

“Come with me if you want to live,” the orc leader says to Hayes. Hayes, Soreth and Balthazar are offered seats on orc-ridden wyverns and disappear into the sky, leaving the rest of the group somewhat perplexed.

GM NOTES

Episode 13 was intended to be a negotiation and roleplaying session, and turned into a bloodbath. This session was intended to be a bloodbath, and turned into a negotiating session because Hayes unwittingly pushed exactly the right buttons for the orc chieftain, who as Hayes will shortly learn is an agent of Master Throatcutter, the Orc Lord’s chief spy and assassin. We ran out of time for that conversation so it will happen between episodes 14 and 15, offline.

This session was also dogged by microphone problems, and also shortened by a lengthy discussion of a proposed rules change; the upshot of that is, we’re adopting the suggestion from Thomas Zunder about making icon relationships skills. You can already see more reliance on icon rolls in this session, but my primary motive was avoiding the need to track icon rolls across sessions, which I felt the need to do because 30-odd icon rolls every session is just not viable when each session has only one encounter on average.

The group has also discovered the story of the Dread Gazebo and requested a gazebo in this adventure. Intrigued, I complied, and you can see the outcome above.

A double-sized party and sessions half the usual duration are also making me think about adopting the quick combat rules for most fights. Still thinking about that one, because the group do seem to enjoy fights.

The Illustrated Hearts of Stone

One thing I haven’t really mentioned is how the players in the Hearts of Stone campaign are using the tools in Roll20 to mark up the maps.

Here, for example, is what they did to the strategic overland map…

hos12

Marking Marblehall as “safe” is fair enough I suppose, as is adding the dwarven trade route from Glitterhaegen to Anvil. Starting fires in places they haven’t even been to is intriguing, especially the fires in the middle of the Midland Sea, and I have no idea what is going on with Babe Island. Although it’s a pretty clear signal that they mean to go there, and when they do they will expect babes.

Credits: Map from the 13th Age core rulebook, hexgrid and tokens added by me.

Here is a fairly typical markup of an encounter map, this one from episode 13:

hos13

The cone template is just parked out of the way. The owl-related stuff is all from Boris’ player, since Boris had at this point assumed the shape of an owl, and his turns were far apart due to the number of other players. The red splodge over the NPC at bottom right reveals the players’ frustration at his stubborn refusal to die. The medusa┬áis the form taken by Boris’ construct bodyguard.

Credits: Map from Dungeons Unlimited; tokens either by Fiery Dragon or the players themselves.

I rather like these doodles, actually, although the fact people have time to draw them suggests we’re not moving quickly enough.

Quick Ship Combat Example

For Savage Worlds

Last week, I posted about using Savage Worlds’ Quick Combat for dogfights between starships. Let’s run an example to see how it works in practice…

The PCs are the crew of an armed scoutship – Arion (Ace, Piloting d10), Coriander (Attractive, Persuasion d10) and Dmitri (Shooting d6). While trying to run a blockade around a restricted planet, they have encountered a star patrol gunboat. The gunboat is more heavily armed and armoured, and much bigger than the scoutship; the GM rules that the PCs are completely outclassed, giving them a -4 modifier. However, the scoutship has a tactical advantage as the PCs have specified finding a suitable meteorite and following it down to the planet to mask them from the defenders’ sensors, so the GM awards them a +2 modifer for this. Overall, then, they are rolling at -2.

GM: OK, you’re following the meteor down, but you know that at some point the defenders will be able to see you. Give me some skill rolls and tell me what you’re doing.

Dmitri: I’m in the turret. The second that gunboat notices us, I’m going to blast it with our lasers. And I rolled… 5. Ouch, we’re at -2 you say? Then that’s a 3, I failed.

GM: Do you want to use a benny to reroll that?

Dmitri: Nah, I only have one left, I want to keep that in case I get Incapacitated later.

GM: OK, a failure for you then. Cori?

Coriander: They’ll probably hail us first. I’ll move to the comms workstation and once they spot us I’ll try to confuse them with Persuasion. I rolled a 7, +2 for Attractive is 9, -2 for modifiers is 7. Success but no raise.

GM: Why should I let you count Attractive on a radio link?

Coriander: This is the far future, surely it’s a video link by now?

GM: OK, I’ll allow that. Arion?

Arion: I’ll dodge, obviously, using Ace and Piloting. If we get hit I’ll use Ace to soak damage on the ship. I roll… 5, plus two for Ace is 7, minus two for the situation is 5, a success.

GM: Here’s what happens then: You get into the outer atmosphere OK, but as the meteor starts to heat up and gets buffeted by re-entry, it unexpectedly breaks up. Arion has to dodge some of the debris, and that gives away your position to the nearest gunboat.

Dmitri: Wait, nearest gunboat? There’s more than one?

GM: Of course. Meanwhile the gunboat hails you: “Unidentified ship, identify yourself and state your purpose or we will open fire. We are authorised to use deadly force.”

Coriander: That’s where I come in. I say: “Hello boys, this is the regular courier vessel from Arcturus 7 with this month’s mail from home and two tons of choc ices and beer for the mess hall. Is Eddie with you?”

GM (rolling reaction dice): A 5, Neutral, and Coriander rolled a success so that shifts up to Friendly. “Oh wow,” the gunboat says, “Choc ices? Hey baby, there are some dangerous choc-ice munchers down there, you need an escort?”

Coriander: See, I’ve still got it.

GM: Aaaand that’s when Dmitri opens up on them with the laser turret. The gunboat returns fire immediately, it must have some sort of preprogrammed response to being shot at, and it rakes your turret with disruptor fire. Dmitri, you failed your roll so you take a Wound, you want to soak that?

Dmitri: Umm, no thanks, I have more Wounds left than bennies.

GM: OK then, Arion, because one of the crew took a wound so does the ship, you want to soak that?

Arion: Damn’ right I do. Not MY SHIP, you don’t. What am I rolling?

GM: Piloting. There’s a -2 on the roll but your Ace edge cancels that out. Don’t forget this costs you a benny.

Arion: OK, that’s a 6 – success, so I soak one Wound on the ship, right?

GM: Yes. The turret is damaged – that’s how Dmitri got hurt – but still functional, and your repairbots will have it fixed in a couple of hours.

Dmitri: A little help here? There’s a hole in my spacesuit and blood coming out.

GM: At least one of you succeeded, so you win the encounter and escape. Your ships flash past each other, and you’re gone into a thunderstorm before the gunboat can recover; Dmitri, your laser fire seems to have disabled its manoeuvring thrusters. The charge of damaging a star patrol gunboat will be added to your rap sheet.

Dmitri: I’m still wounded. You guys like this ship more than me.

Arion: Well, obviously, it’s more useful… Wait, did you say a thunderstorm?

GM NOTES

As you can see, Quick Combat doesn’t cover allocation of Wounds to vehicles so we need some way of doing that, and while not perfect, wounding the ship every time one of the PCs gets wounded is fast and easy. The PCs can always soak their own wounds if they don’t want the ship damaged, and edges like Common Bond can also help. Ace is a good backstop though.

Notice that I don’t need any stats at all for either ship or any of the ship-scale weapons. Good, eh?

Damn, I miss those characters. I should bring them back.

Hearts of Stone 13: The Death of Matteus Fulmens

Anvil Road, 19 May 216

The 18th of May 216 found our heroes deciding on their next move, as they have a choice of three quests before them.

  • First, they could investigate the disappearances and dismemberments in and around Dwardel. No-one seemed especially interested in that.
  • Second, they could investigate the Archmage’s secret facility under the town hall. A couple of people wanted to look into this, but the consensus was that it isn’t going anywhere and they can always come back to it later.
  • Third, they could investigate rumours of orcish spies encroaching on the Artalin estate. This has the advantage that their patron, Countess Casila, has specifically asked them to do it, and it won the vote by a tidy margin.

So, having collected rumours from travellers and barflies, and decided where they thought the orc spies were, they gathered up their numerous followers, horses, and a cart, and set off early on the 19th along the dwarven trading route towards Anvil. The day passed uneventfully, but during the second watch of the night, Vor (one of Valore’s followers) noticed a large batlike creature with a long tail circling the party’s camp before heading off to the north-east. At roughly the same time, Villen (Balthazar’s squire) noticed movement in the bushes to the south. They party woke up, tooled up, and after a brief debate set off in pursuit of the latter, elves to the fore to take advantage of their superior night vision, Boris temporarily assuming the form of an owl.

This led them to a small ruined building in the woods just off the road, wherein flickering light from a fire could be seen, and low voices in discussion could be heard. Aditi and Ssh’ta stealthily approached the nearest door with the intention of eavesdropping, but this plan was rendering obsolete by Soreth breaking down the door and discharging her breath weapon into whoever and whatever was inside.

This proved to be Decanus Matteus Fulmens of the Duke of Glitterhaegen’s Marines and the remains of his patrol, who have been following the party for several weeks pending instructions from their commander. Three marines were instantly incinerated by Soreth’s fiery breath, and seconds later two were smashed into a bloody pulp by Hayes’ ferocious charge and shield bash. Aditi slipped in behind them and tried to stab Matteus himself, while Valore dropped a brick on him from her vantage point 20 feet in the air above.

With all his men obviously dead, and a conviction that this was not going to end well for him, Matteus set off a Blast spell in the middle of the room. Only Balthazar was seriously wounded, although several others were blown through the doors. Matteus took advantage of this to flee the building, only to be caught in a Fear spell from Boris, who had flanked him moving up through the woods in owl form, which impelled him to even faster flight. Sadly for him, Hayes charged from the building and tackled him, while Boris summoned a female construct and Ssh’ta also joined in the melee. Low on mana and badly injured, Matteus still put up a good fight, but alone against a party of seventeen he stood no chance once pinned, and after battering him unconscious, Hayes slit his throat.

As far as the party knows, there are no surviving witnesses.

GM NOTES

The party now consists of 9 player characters (including a new player, whose first session this was), five NPC followers, three horses, one dire wolf and a chamaeleon. That’s the biggest party I’ve run since 1983, when I ran a party of 12 through FGU’s Alien Base adventure using Classic Traveller rules. The session was a bit hampered by us all being rusty after three weeks’ off, and numerous technical issues.

By my count, two of the Marines survived by virtue of not being in the camp during the attack. I shall have to consider what they might have seen and what their next move might be.

I spent most of my prep time over the holidays on the Archmage’s secret facility, which seemed to be their next target when we broke up, with very little thought given to the other two options. I shan’t make that mistake again.

Quick Ship Combat

For Savage Worlds…

Ship combat is a major feature of many SF RPGs, and when I convert those to Savage Worlds, it’s one feature that doesn’t convert well. It’s also not a major part of my games, because my groups don’t enjoy it any more than they enjoy interstellar trade.

Historically I’ve addressed this by either not having space combat in my games, or by writing clunky, complex rules interfaces. But now there is a better way; the Savage Worlds Quick Combat rules.

All you need to know about the two opposing ships to use them is this: Is one side outclassed, or even massively outclassed? Follow the link and read the rules, you’ll see.

The only tweak I’d make is that the PC’s ship takes a Wound every time one of the PCs does, meaning that the ship ablates away faster than the characters, as is proper for a pulp story.

If there are more than one or two ships per side, you should really be using the Mass Battle rules anyway.

Have I missed anything, or is it really that simple?

Review: The Gaean Reach

I’ve been busy with the Hearts of Stone campaign for the last few months, but that hasn’t stopped me buying more RPG stuff I don’t need. That habit will likely continue, and I shall review these items as time and motivation permit.

In a Nutshell: This is an RPG of interstellar vengeance in the Gaean Reach, the setting for Jack Vance’s Demon Princes novels, and the Gumshoe rules system. 110-page PDF, written by Robin D Laws, published by Pelgrane Press, $8.75 from RPGNow at time of writing.

CONTENTS

Welcome to the Reach (2 pages): In which we are introduced to the concepts of roleplaying.

Building Your Vengeance-Seekers (7 pages): Character creation, in essence. This is slightly simpler than usual for Gumshoe, in that each player picks cards for his character’s Knowledge, Persona and Life, each of which gives the character certain abilities. Each player then explains how the villainous Quandos Vorn wronged his character sufficiently to motivate the PC dedicating his whole life to revenge, much in the manner of Kirth Gersen in The Star King, and what obstacles have prevented his vengeance to date. The characters then agree to join forces to rid the universe of Vorn.

The Rules of Reprisal (34 pages): The Gumshoe rules – I’ve reviewed these before here and here. I don’t like them, but the salient points are that they preclude the PCs missing anything important (though they may still misunderstand it), abilities cover things that would be skills or attributes in other games, and ability usage is not so much about the PC’s competence, more about how much time he gets in the spotlight doing cool stuff.

As in Pelgrane’s other Vancian setting, The Dying Earth, each character is given taglines – specific lines of dialogue they should weave into the session’s narrative as it proceeds, for example “Have you misplaced your etiquette guide?” In Gaean Reach, your character gains experience points (“tokens”) for using taglines in apt and amusing ways, and can trade those tokens for character improvements at the end of the session.

There are a couple of unusual rules worth mentioning. First, unspent tokens are lost at the start of the next session. Second, modern weaponry such as projacs and needle guns doesn’t deal damage; it is instantly fatal if it hits – but you can spend tokens on a Fortunate Avoidance, describing what miraculous stroke of luck prevents your character’s demise.

A Mordant Future (16 pages): The setting, painted with a broad brush; an overview of the Reach, capsule descriptions of ten of its worlds and their bizarre cultures, interstellar travel, and the ubiquitous Baron Bodissey, whose works are frequently cited in footnotes in the source novels. Explanations are offered for why technologies which seem obvious to us (such as computers) are not available in the Reach (spoiler: The Institute did it).

GM Tips and Tricks (14 pages): Opponents, alternate point-based character generation, how to plan a campaign, alternatives to the group of avengers such as government agents, traders, or planetary scouts.

The Cerulean Duke (19 pages): The obligatory introductory scenario, in which the characters further their quest for vengeance on Quandos Vorn by thwarting a scheme of conquest and plunder by one of his lieutenants.

Appendix (12 pages): Glossary, character sheet, GM’s party sheet and NPC sheets, cards for use in character generation, many taglines.

FORMAT

Black on white Vancian-flavoured text in a mixture of single and double columns, black line art and a red and black cover. Simple, efficient, easy on the eye and the printer, gets the job done. Thumbs up for this bit.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I would have preferred this as a system-neutral setting book, but arguably the companion Gaean Reach Gazetteer fulfills that need. I may purchase that at some point, as my love for the Reach is undiminished.

CONCLUSIONS

I still don’t like Gumshoe. I don’t need dozens of pages of rules to tell me that the PCs always find the crucial clue. That’s a good concept, but the implementation is unnecessarily verbose.

However, Robin Laws’ works often have enough good advice for the GM that I’m prepared to put up with Gumshoe being in the book. Gaean Reach doesn’t really cut it in this regard; I feel the main thing I’m left with after reading is the central idea of a group of PCs bent on vengeance, and you can get that from the cover blurb, or the Demon Princes novels come to that.

Overall: 2 out of 5. A few great concepts, executed in a manner not to my taste. Your Mileage May Vary.