Posts Tagged ‘Others’

Review: Barebones Fantasy, etc

Posted: 12 August 2017 in Reviews
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“We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”
– Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

There are times when I think even Savage Worlds is too complex, usually when explaining to someone when they can use a Wild Die or when running it over VTT. I have been eyeing up BareBones Fantasy as a potential alternative for a while now, so snagged it and the setting, Keranak Kingdoms, during the RPGNow ‘Christmas in July’ sale. I notice I’ve developed a habit of not taking the savings from sales, but spending them on supplemental materials instead. But I digress.

In a Nutshell: A complete old-school fantasy RPG in 84 pages, and the setting sourcebook to go with it. Both written by Larry Moore and Bill Logan, published by DwD Studios. $10 and $5 respectively when not on sale; prices seem to have been stable since 2012, as best I can tell.

Core mechanic: Roll less than or equal to relevant score on percentile dice to succeed. Doubles are critical success if you succeed, critical failure if you don’t. (The rules are a lot like Star Frontiers overall, not surprising as DwD supports that game extensively.)

BAREBONES FANTASY

This is a lot of game for ten bucks and 84 pages. You get character creation, game rules, GM advice including magic items, NPCs, monsters, adventure generator, dungeon generator, and a capsule setting. Just this book, pencil, paper and a few d10 and you’re good to go.

The book assumes you know what a fantasy RPG is and the basic idea of how to play, which is one reason it’s relatively short.

Characters have four abilities (Strength, Dexterity, Logic, Willpower) which can either be randomly generated (5d10+30) or allocated (one each at 50, 55, 60 and 65). The usual Tolkeinian suspects are in evidence for races; human, dwarf, elf, halfling.

There are a handful of skills – actually, skill packages, or maybe character classes, really; Cleric, Enchanter, Leader, Scholar, Scout, Spellcaster, Thief and Warrior. You pick one of those as primary, one as secondary, and one which starts at level 1. If your character is trying to do something a Thief would know how to do, that’s the relevant skill for the task; your percentage change of success is half the relevant ability, plus 10 per level, plus 20 if it’s your primary skill or 10 if it’s your secondary skill. Only Scout, Thief or Warrior can be used untrained, the rest you need at least level 1 to use; skills can’t exceed level 6, but there is no upper limit on how high you can advance abilities with enough experience.

The Warrior skill is your chance of hitting in combat, using Strength for melee weapons and Dexterity for ranged. Each skill has a list of things you can do with it and/or a starting bonus; for example an Enchanter can brew potions and imbue items with powers, can inscribe runes on things which take effect when a specific event triggers them, and has a small animal which acts as a familiar. Spellcasters know one spell per Spellcaster level, twice that if that is their primary skill, while Enchanters know all of them but can’t cast them directly.

So far, so simple. Surprisingly complex for a system so mechanically simple are the personality rules; you pick two descriptors which give a positive and a negative feature of your character, perhaps “always cheerful” and “eats too much”, and a moral code comprised of five traits, each of which is selected from a pair of opposites (e.g. selfish/selfless) and whether it is somewhat, very, or totally characteristic of the PC. To act against your code may require a successful Willpower check (GM’s option).

Then we’re back to simple again for equipment – take any six things from the equipment list and 2d10 gold pieces. While I’m thinking about equipment, weapons usually do 1d10 plus a modifier in damage, and you have hit points equal to half your Strength – you heal 2 points per day, and as I’m drifting into the combat mechanics I’ll note that depending on characteristics you get 1-3 d10 for initiative; you roll all of them and use the highest score, then act in descending order of initiative.

There are 17 spells in all, and the magic system deserves some more detail. As in original EPT or D&D 4E, each has a specific casting frequency; once per turn, once per day, once per level per day and so on. What’s interesting is that as in Savage Worlds, they have many different possible trappings; for example Offensive Strike – the only directly damaging spell in the game – has unlimited casting frequency, but you can cast it as lighting, fire, ice, a swarm of malignant fairies, tendrils of black smoke, or whatever you feel like. And you can change the trapping each time you cast. However, the GM is at liberty to say things like “that critical failure on your ice blast? All the fingers on your right hand have frostbite now” or “yeah, about that fireball in the storeroom full of expensive, wonderfully scented cedarwood… that was going to be the treasure, you know…” Casting a spell is an action, and characters can take as many actions as they want in a turn, but each one after the first suffers a cumulative -20 penalty to your skill check – you can cast a dozen Offensive Strikes in a turn if you like, but the second will be at -20, the third at -40… the final one would be at -220 and you’d have to be pretty good for it to work.

(I have been running Savage Worlds powers like this for some years now, allowing players to pick their trappings at the point of casting and using GM fiat for specific trapping effects rather than the Rules As Written; it works like a charm, no pun intended, and players very quickly home in on one signature trapping for each spell without any of us having to learn the detailed trapping rules.)

At the end of each session the GM consults a checklist; each item you ticked off gets you one Development Point, which you can use to buy increases in skills or attributes. You can only get one DP per session for combat, however much of it you did, and you get that for still being alive afterwards. The checklist is focused more on what D&D calls ‘story awards’ – did you find out something useful, did you succeed in your quest, that kind of thing.

There are four sample characters, an example of play, assorted other rules for things like making and buying magic items, dehydration and whatnot, a couple of dozen magic items, some very simple and elegant guidelines on NPC creation, about 50 monster statblocks and instructions on how to build your own monsters, random dungeon and adventure generators, a table of non-monetary rewards, a setting map and gazetteer, and a character sheet.

But wait, there’s more. In the downloaded zip file you get another character sheet, a very well thought out player and GM cheat sheet, colour maps of the setting with and without hexes, an introductory adventure (‘Maidens of Moordoth’, involving a village with a dark secret and a small dungeon), a development journal (sort of a session log for your character), and print friendly versions of all the PDFs.

KERANAK KINGDOMS

The setting sourcebook, Keranak Kingdoms, includes the same setting maps and an expanded gazetteer of the setting, plus another adventure (a romp through an abandoned dwarven mine now occupied by villainous non-human squatters). Neither book has much background information; this is a deliberate choice, so that the GM has a free hand to develop the world to his own taste – by and large the maps show the name of each kingdom and the location of forests and mountain ranges, and that’s about it. The sourcebook does unbend far enough to include a more detailed map of one kingdom showing cities and large towns, but no more. You do get more details on things like the pantheon of gods, though.

The premise of the setting is that the Keranak Kingdoms are the successor states of a recently-fallen empire; the knightly Order of the Rose has hidden a magical artefact used by the former emperor to help him rule, and is rumoured to be looking for his illegitimate son to place him on the throne. The gods were banished by the enigmatic dragon highlords some time ago, except for one goddess who was overlooked and one who is so strongly tied to the land that she sneaks back in anyway.

Oh, and you also have giants, previously exiled to the northern wastes, but beginning to encroach on the Kingdoms now there isn’t anyone to shoo them away.

FORMAT

Colour covers wrapped around single-column black text on grey. As usual I got the PDFs, but the properties tell me hard copies would be 6″ x 9″, what Savage Worlds would call Explorers’ Edition size, a bit bigger than European A5.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Just one: It seems counter-intuitive to me that a roll of 0 counts as 10, but a roll of 00 counts as zero. I would have expected 00 to be 100, but that would shift the relative frequency of outcomes slightly, giving fewer critical successes and more critical failures.

CONCLUSIONS

As I said earlier, you get an awful lot of game for your money with BareBones Fantasy, and it’s very simple and elegant (in the mathematical sense). I could see myself using this as a travel game, a VTT game, an introductory set of rules for my grandchildren in a few years’ time, a solitaire game (with a bit of help from something like Mythic), and an adventure or dungeon generator for another campaign. I have games ten times this size and cost that don’t give me as much usable content. Highly recommended.

The Keranak Kingdoms sourcebook and the adventures get the job done, and have some intriguing ideas, but to be honest they don’t really stand out as something special, unlike their parent game. One might expect that as they are a springboard intended as a stimulant for the GM’s imagination, not a replacement for it.

Overall Rating: BBF itself, 5 out of 5 – I’m not quite ready to dump Savage Worlds and run off with BareBones Fantasy, but it was a close-run thing. Keranak Kingdoms gets 3 out of 5. Let’s call that 4 out of 5 for the set.

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Review: Frostgrave

Posted: 18 March 2017 in Reviews
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“We’ve made a couple of runs on the old potion store, grabbing little frozen barrels before the blade-bats wake up. Of course the real fun is when you get them home and you have to figure out what they do. That’s just one more reason to take prisoners…” – Frostgrave

This is very pretty, an intriguing concept, and gets good reviews. So…

In a Nutshell: Fantasy skirmish wargame for two players, requires 10 figures per side maximum and a few random encounters, playable in 1-2 hours. 136 pages, £9-£15 at time of writing, depending on format. Written by Joseph A. McCullough, published by Osprey.

CONTENTS

Foreword (2 pages): The premise of the game; Frostgrave is a ruined and icebound city, destroyed by magic gone awry centuries ago. Now it is slowly thawing out, and wizards bent on looting venture into its depths with their minions. There are, of course, guardians for its treasures, and other wizards who dispute your right to take its riches with sword and spell.

Wizards and Warbands (19 pages): What you need to play (figures, dice, tape measure or ruler, table at least two feet square, terrain, an opponent). Building your warband, which consists of one wizard representing the player, an apprentice (optional but highly recommended), and up to eight soldiers (a catch-all term meaning they are not spellcasters; there are 15 different types including dogs, healers, fighters, thieves and whatnot). Your wizard is free, and you have 500 gold with which to hire followers. All figures are human, or at least there are no rules for other playable races.

Wizards are each members of one of the ten schools of magic; they can learn spells from their own or friendly schools, but not opposed schools, and begin with a total of eight spells. Apprentices know the spells their wizard knows, but are not as good at casting them.

Each figure has a statline listing its stats: Move, Fight, Shoot, Armour, Will and Health. Initially, all figures of the same type have the same statline; wizards can improve their stats with experience over a campaign, apprentices improve when their mentor does, soldiers don’t improve. So, you only have one character to track experience for. Figures also have item slots for carrying cool toys; wizards can have a maximum of five items, apprentices four, soldiers one.

As befits a wargame, equipment is basic, defined by the figure’s type, and not detailed in any depth.

Playing the Game (22 pages): Table setup calls for lots of terrain – you’re in a mazelike ruined city, after all. Turns consist of initiative (1d20 roll, high score goes first in each phase); wizard phase (wizard and up to three nearby figures activate); apprentice phase (apprentice and up to three more figures activate – this is why you want an apprentice); soldier phase (any soldiers who haven’t activated yet do so); creature phase (anything else on the board activates). When a figure activates, it gets two actions, one of which must be a move and the other of which can be another move, attack, cast a spell etc.

Combat is brilliantly simple and swingy, combining attack and damage into one roll; when you attack, roll 1d20 and apply modifiers (including adding your Fight or Shoot stat); deduct the target’s armour rating; any positive number left over is the damage taken by the target – since, except for experienced wizards, nobody has more than 12 Armour or 14 Health, you can see they’re not going to last long; the optional critical hits rule, which doubles damage on a natural 20, makes this even more painful. Oh, and if you hit someone you’re allowed to push them back, including off buildings if you’re fighting on the roof. Shooting is much the same, except that you have to beat the target’s Fight roll with your Shoot roll to hit him. Anyone with 4 Health or less loses an action – although the remaining one doesn’t have to be a move.

Spells are cast by rolling 1d20 against a target number; fail by enough and you take damage. You can spend Health to improve your chances, and can do so after the die roll is made. Some spells are opposed by a Will roll (1d20 + stat).

Treasure tokens are why you’re there, and any figure in contact with a treasure token can stagger off with it; if he gets off the table he has escaped intact with it. (Judging by battle reports, the warband’s wizard will often cast the Leap spell on a treasure-carrying figure to move it off-board faster.)

Creatures are figures not under the control of a wizard; they move according to simple rules: If fighting carry on until you or the opponent die; if not and there is a figure in line of sight within 10″ move towards it; otherwise move in a random direction.

The game ends when there is only one player with figures left on the board, at which point he is assumed to have collected all remaining treasure.

The Campaign (24 pages): This is where I think Frostgrave would come into its own; a connected series of games. After the first one you may establish a base in the ruins, with each of the eight types of building giving you different benefits. In the campaign, treasure may be spent to recruit soldiers, buy gear, and upgrade your base with helpful features, while the experience your wizard gained by casting spells and smiting opponents can be used to improve his statline, his chances of casting specific spells, or add a new spell to his repertoire. Those reduced to zero Health may roll to recover, though they may suffer permanent injuries which degrade their statline. Some of your treasure tokens may turn out to have handy magic items as well as gold coins – this is why you need item slots on your figures.

Spells (24 pages): At its heart, this game is all about the spells. Each of the ten schools of magic has eight spells, each of which has a target number for casting and a category, which determines its target type – self, line of sight, area effect, touch or out of game. These last are intriguing as they allow you to adjust the starting conditions of the next game. Optionally, a wizard who learns all the spells of his school may then research Transcendence; if successful he leaves the game for a higher plane of existence, winning the overall campaign.

Scenarios (12 pages): The standard game of Frostgrave places some treasure tokens on the board and then kicks off. This chapter gives ten specific scenarios, which are each intended to be unique in a campaign, each with special rules and a specific location to be explored, or a special monster to be overcome.

Bestiary (12 pages): Random encounter rules, and various sorts of undead, animals, constructs, demons and miscellaneous creatures. These are creatures of sword and sorcery, not high fantasy; you could see Conan squaring off against any of them. There are a couple of dozen in all, each with a brief description and a statline.

Spell Cards (11 pages): Quick reference cards for all the spells. Arguably duplicates the spells chapter, but probably worth it for ease of use during play. Favourites: Time Store, which allows a Chronomancer to save one of his actions for a later turn, giving him three instead of the usual two; Elemental Bolt and Elemental Ball, because who doesn’t like fire spells; Grenade, which does what it says on the tin; Furious Quill, an animated pen which stabs to irritate and distract; Reveal Secret, which lets you start right next to a treasure token.

The Wizard Sheet (3 pages): More of a warband sheet actually; the three pages cover stats and notes for your wizard, apprentice, home base, spellbook and 8 soldiers.

FORMAT

Unusually, this is available as a hardcover book, PDF, Epub file or Kindle file, depending on where you get it from. Cost ranges from £9 to £15 depending on format.

Whichever you pick, you’ll find a full colour cover, single-column black text on white, lots of colour illustrations and photos of better minis and terrain than I ever hope to have. Sob.

Tables and spell cards have an unusually simple and basic layout, but it’s easy on the eye, so I like it.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I’d like to see layers in the PDF file; the simple layout and frosty page backgrounds are not too bad on the printing front themselves, but the colour illos and photos would use a lot of ink.

Trying to manipulate a tape measure around a lot of dense terrain to measure to the nearest 1/100th of an inch sounds hard to me, so I would round off the fractions caused by half moves of half moves of half moves and lay out a hex grid battlemat. Yes, you could argue I’m just jealous of people with nice terrain pieces, and you could well be right.

CONCLUSIONS

It’s inevitable to compare this with Mordheim, Games Workshop’s game of warbands looting a ruined city released in 1999; but Frostgrave has rules that are simple enough I would actually play it, even if it means tracking hit points for all the figures. The setting is likewise simple but inspirational, possibly because of its simplicity.

There are intriguing snippets of in-character quotes from survivors of a skirmish, most of which gave me ideas for scenarios. I see a number of supplements are already available and they could keep releasing those indefinitely.

Although officially for two players, I can see on the web that with larger tables people are successfully playing with three or four warbands. If any of the local wargames clubs met at a time convenient for me, I’d be trying to lure them away from Warhammer 40K and Flames of War into this. I can also see it as a roleplaying resource and a solo game – the setting and scenarios should be doable with any RPG, and all the latter would need is some means of spawning creatures, perhaps rolling every turn for random encounters instead of only when a treasure is picked up. It ought to be easy enough to apply the levelling-up rules to soldiers as well, to use Frostgrave as a very basic RPG. So, like a lot of skirmish wargames, versatile and useful even if you don’t play the Rules As Written.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5; I want to play this one right now; I even have suitable figures in the form of D&D and Pathfinder minis. Had I but world enough, and time…

The Conan saga is one of my all-time favourites, and I have played several of RPG implementations of it over the years. This one is from Modiphius; I backed the Kickstarter for it, and then things went very quiet for months, so I assumed the project had failed – but I was wrong, and the game was worth the wait.

The book itself is in sombre full-colour, and like most RPG PDFs I have bought in the last couple of years, clocks in at over 400 pages and significantly over 100 MB, which makes it unresponsive on my tablet and not that nippy on my PC. So I’m afraid I can’t summon the motivation for a detailed review.

Several of us in my regular WFRP3 group have the core rulebook and thus could have run the game, but our most experienced GM is semi-retired now and so has more time than the rest of us for learning rules and session prep; we agreed he should take the chair. His assessment of the rule book is that like most modern RPGs it is intended to teach you the game, not act as a reference guide, so he spent some time distilling it into a dozen or so pages for us to work from at the table. We played through the sample scenario in the rulebook; I won’t say much about that to avoid spoilers.

We used the Modiphius online character creator, which simplified things considerably and highlighted the quality of character creation; this takes a little time – and is faster and easier with the online tool – but by the end I felt I knew my character very well and understood exactly how and why he had become embroiled in the adventure hook the GM offered us. The sequence uses a lifepath approach driven by player choices, with no random elements that I recall – this is why the online tool is so useful, as otherwise one would have to internalise all the choices beforehand.

Our concern before play began was that the 2d20 rules engine would be too complex and time-consuming, but actually it is easy to pick up and fast in play. There is a tentative move towards special dice, which I despise, but within a couple of combat rounds I had memorised how to convert ordinary d6 rolls to the special results, so it isn’t really an issue.

The system is very elegant and treats physical, mental and social “combat” in the same way, so we didn’t find many edge cases in the rules. Range bands are unusual in that each ranged weapon has an optimum range and attack rolls have penalties if the range is either more or less than that. Combat uses a semi-abstract zone-based system, and as a group we prefer figures on a battlemat, so our GM will most likely replace the official rules with a more traditional system of movement. We think that actually casting spells looks dangerous, so sorcerors in our group are likely to focus on alchemy or conning people.

I thoroughly enjoyed the test session, and look forward both to playing it again and to seeing how the forthcoming Infinity RPG applies the 2d20 system to space opera. There’s a free quick start guide here; if you have any affection for the Conan stories, check it out.

Review: The Gaean Reach

Posted: 11 January 2017 in Reviews
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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.

Review: Interstellar Overthruster

Posted: 20 July 2016 in Reviews
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This is a 63 page A5-or-so booklet from Albatross Press, written by Jed McClure and illustrated by Ezra Clayton Daniels. As it says on the cover, it is a set of hexcrawl rules for uncharted space. As an added bonus, I’ll also talk about the matching campaign seed, A Star for Queen Zoe, same format but only 35 pages.

Interstellar Overthruster

This attracted my attention because of how it’s intended to be used; the idea is that you generate your campaign’s sector of space on the fly, at the table, using dice, hex paper and other stationery supplies – you need a couple of different coloured pens and something to colour in the hexes as you go.

Now, be warned, creating random sectors is all IO does, so you will need another RPG for characters, combat both personal and space, chases, and whatnot. As written, IO assumes that you’re using something Old School or a retroclone – Traveller, Thousand Suns, Stars Without Number, that kind of thing – but really anything will work, so long as the mini-game that is IO can be swapped for any space exploration rules your RPG might have.

IO’s approach has several advantages. First, the GM has minimal prep work; at most, you need a homeworld and a reason for the PCs to be exploring – A Star for Queen Zoe addresses both, more of that below.

Second, neither the GM nor the players have any setting to learn, except maybe the campaign seed. The rest of the setting emerges in play. (It is assumed a previous interstellar empire collapsed, and the PCs’ homeworld is just re-emerging into space – a standard SF trope.)

However, if you use it as designed, the GM has to be comfortable with improvising plotlines – nobody has any idea what’s coming next.

At the table, exploration proceeds in three phases. First, the PCs scan adjacent hexes – this tells the players whether there is a system present, which matters as you can jump into an empty hex but not out again, and what zones the hex is in – more on this later as it is a cool innovation.

Second, the PCs pick a system, hyperjump there, and scan it to find what planets and lifeforms are present. This is based on a percentile die roll against a table with a full 100 different entries; as I understand the rules you have a traditional 8 x 10 hexgrid and roughly a one in three chance of a system in each hex, so you might reasonably expect to generate a number of sectors before things get repetitive. Each planet also gets a percentile roll on a table with a full 100 entries – much of the book is taken up with these tables.

Third, if the second step detected intelligent life and the PCs decide to land, they find out about local culture, technology, trade and so on. Intelligent life may be low-tech locals, whether human or alien, or it may be an outpost of another pocket empire. This is done with die rolls on half a dozen other tables, as is traditional. Finally there is another full 100 table of cosmic strangeness – the intention here is that every habitable world has something unusual and interesting about it. To an extent, these are scenario seeds, and pretty much the only part of the book that I would be cautious about letting the players see; the rest of this step could be replaced by normal world generation from the SF RPG of your choice.

There is an element of resource management to encourage the players to explore worlds that lack an obvious reward (“we need to stop and forage, we’re almost out of food”).

I mentioned zones. I’ve seen random generation of starmaps on the fly before – one of the Classic Traveller supplements had a mod for this, for example – but zones are new so far as I know. When you scan a hex, you may discover that it is part of a zone, which may be a natural phenomenon such as a nebula, a state controlled by another spacefaring race, or an area of weird energy. (You colour in zones as you scan, to keep track of what’s where, and a single hex can potentially be in several zones.) Normally I would generate all the systems in the sector, then place empires and other zones manually, but this system lets you create them on the fly, thus reducing prep time.

A Star for Queen Zoe

You could just say “you lot are the crew of a scout ship and your mission is to explore this new sector” and not worry about their homeworld, but you do need some motivation for the PCs to be exploring. You could always make up your own, which is why this is a separate booklet, but A Star for Queen Zoe details Essex, a possible homeworld for the PCs, characterised by multiple competing states, 18th century technology (limited by available materials more than knowledge), and the recent discovery of a functional starship. Queen Zoe finds herself in urgent need of an offworld colony and commissions her (hopefully) loyal PCs to find one for her, thus providing the motivation for exploration. The plotline will be familiar if you’ve read King David’s Spaceship by Jerry Pournelle.

The booklet mentions the usefulness of political developments at home while the PCs are offworld, so at first I expected something like Stars Without Numbers’ faction rules to move that forward, and was a little disappointed not to see them; but they aren’t strictly necessary.

Coda

Put these two together with the SF RPG of your choice, and you have a campaign ready to go, no prep needed beyond creating characters. That’s very attractive, and worth a tryout at some point; but as you will see next time, I have other fish to fry for the moment…

I only bought this because it’s what the WFRP3 group I play in wants to do next, but actually it’s better than I expected. It’s 440 pages of full-colour hardback rulebook from Fantasy Flight Games, and my heart sinks at the thought of doing a detailed review, so you’ll have to settle for a capsule summary. I will note that at £40 this is easily the most expensive gaming item I have bought – or intend to buy – this year, and it would have been worse if my FLGS had had the dice in stock as well.

In a nutshell, this is what WFRP3 should have been; all of the irritating little cards and tokens (and the big slipcase box you need to keep them in) are gone, in favour of a more traditional rulebook and character sheet. The game is set in the Star Wars universe around the time of Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and player characters are fringer rogues – smugglers, bounty hunters, mercenaries and so on. Character generation is point-buy, and although I haven’t played it in anger yet, it looks like character development will focus on picking items from a talent tree; there aren’t many skills, and characteristics are very, very expensive.

The custom dice are still there, and whenever you try to do something you build a pool of dice of various types and colours depending on your characteristics and skills, circumstances, gear, what your opponent is like, how hard the task is and so on. You roll the pool, take note of which symbols cancel out which other symbols, and if you still have at least one success symbol, you succeed. The other surviving symbols give information to inspire how the scene is narrated; you might succeed but suffer side effects, or you might fail in a really lucky way. The dice pools look like they will be smaller than in WFRP3, where a dozen or more dice in the pool are not uncommon; characteristics in EotE are much harder to improve, skill dice replace characteristic dice rather than being added to the pool, and some talents act to remove disadvantageous dice from the pool; so 5-6 dice seems more likely. This means that characteristics are more important in EotE, as they limit how much skill you can apply to a given roll.

The various combat action cards of WFRP3 are replaced by a simple rule, that each success symbol grants +1 damage. That wasn’t so hard, was it FFG? Combat is, if anything, even more abstract than WFRP3 – sort of Classic Travellerish, with range bands. This is a shame, as it suggests they won’t bring out any pre-painted miniatures to support it.

I’m not going to talk about the setting. Watch the movies, it’s more fun that way. You know better than to watch Episodes I-III, right?

CONCLUSIONS

I can’t help feeling there is a better way to introduce narrative hooks than a dozen expensive custom dice, but it’s a tight little system and it ought to play well at the table. Too complicated for me to run, and I would like the rules to be available as a PDF, but a decent effort on the whole, and it’ll get played, which is more than can be said for most things I review.

Four Against Darkness, Episode 1

Posted: 4 May 2016 in Tryouts
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“You can run D&D with just some PCs and a dungeon. I think that’s totally legit.” – Jeff Rients

For this more detailed trial run of 4AD, I’m going to make a couple of changes to the recommended map. First, henceforth the dungeon entrance will be at the top of the map, where you start reading; second, the sheet is going to be 27 x 19 squares rather than 20 x 28. This allows me to align the rooms centrally (most are an odd number of squares wide) and is better suited to a computer screen, which is wider than it is tall.

Our party tonight consists of Sable the Mage (who has memorised Fireball, Lightning and Sleep), his bodyguard and paramour Issa the Snow Barbarian, Ivan the rogue and Brother Aloysius the cleric. All are level 1, and between them they have 36 gp, which they save for the moment. Sable takes the lantern. Trekking cross-country, they find the stone doors marked on the map Sable purloined from the library in the Wizard’s Guild. With some effort, they force the doors open, and Issa and Aloysius take the front rank.

4AD01

Room 1 (as Sable marks it on the map he is scribing in his commonplace book) is apparently empty, apart from three doors leading deeper into the complex. Sable directs the party to search the room (p. 53), but it remains stubbornly empty. Preparing for combat once more, the group selects the left-hand door, and a short corridor leads them to room 2, which appears to be a dead end. However, no time to think about that now, as it also appears to be home to six hobgoblins. Sable casts Sleep on them, and all six lose consciousness.

“No doubt as a barbarian you have a code of honour which argues against slaying incapacitated foes…” Sable begins.

“They had their chance,” Issa interrupts, methodically slitting throats. “It doesn’t get fairer than that, down here.”

While this debate is going on, Ivan searches the bodies (roll at +1 on the treasure table, p. 34), and finds a pouch full of Fools’ Gold. The party retrace their steps into room 1, where luckily there is no ambush awaiting them. Picking the middle door this time, they find an even shorter corridor leading to a somewhat smaller room, this time with two other exits. This contains a troll, which the party immediately attacks; Sable and Aloysius miss it, but Issa kills it, and then Ivan chops it into tiny pieces so that it doesn’t regenerate. Ivan reports disgustedly that the troll had but a single gold piece to its name.

Rather than risk an unnecessary ambush by returning to room 1, the group heads through the door opposite, beyond which lies an empty four-way intersection (4). Searching this for secret doors and compartments, they find a clue – a section of defaced and barely legible runic script carved into the wall, which Sable copies into his book.

Turning left at the intersection, they find a door leading to a large, L-shaped room (5) with two other exits. A dead adventurer lies on the floor, his arm outstretched towards a small jewellery box which Ivan thoughtfully appropriates; this proves to contain a jewelled necklace worth 80 gp. Ahead lies another door, beyond which is an odd-shaped room (6) containing a pair of zombies, who quickly fall before Issa’s axe; at this point they prove to be guarding a +1 magic mace, which is handed to Brother Aloysius. Picking the furthest door, they move on, into a square room (7) full of giant centipedes – these put up a stiff resistance but are vanquished without poisoning anyone. Sadly, they have no loot.

The next room (8) proves to contain a small dragon, and given how vicious they are, Sable attempts to parley. The dragon demands all the party’s gold, with a minimum of 100 gold or one magic item. Ivan steps forward and hands over the Fools’ Gold he acquired earlier in room 2, and the party’s own 36 gp, reasoning that even if the dragon doesn’t accept the Fools’ Gold as 74 gp, it’s still a magic item, so counts either way. Muttering under their breath, the party retreats into room 7 where they are ambushed by 6 skeletal rats. These put up the stiffest fight yet, managing to inflict a wound on Ivan before they fall to Brother Alyosius’ magic mace. No treasure though.

Heading away from the dragon, the party encounters a Y junction (9), which remains stubbornly empty even when searched. Both doors prove to lead to the same, small room (10) – home to 6 skeletons, which are killed in a short but vicious melee; the party recovers 4 gp. The party has now killed over 10 minions, so one character gets a chance to level up; I pick Sable, and roll a 6 on one die – this is more than his current level, so he advances, and being a wizard gets a new spell; I pick another Lightning Bolt, as I already know there is a dragon about, and they are immune to Sleep and Fireball.

Perforce heading back towards the dragon, the party is ambushed by a catoblepas in room 7, whose deadly gaze costs Aloysius a life. Issa and Aloysius are both badly injured before the beast is felled, so while Ivan is looting the body, finding a potion of healing, Aloysius casts his first healing of the adventure, restoring everyone to full health.

Continuing to room 6 in search of unexplored areas, the group is attacked by an orc brute – thanks to exploding dice, this is down to one hit point by the time it gets a chance to react, whereupon it clocks Brother Aloysius for two hits before Ivan yerks it under the fifth rib and puts it down, purloining 6 gp from it almost before it hits the ground. Killing a boss monster triggers another levelling up opportunity, and Issa advances to level 2.

Taking the only unexplored exit from room 6 leads to a square room (11) which appears to be a dead end; it is empty apart from a blessed temple, at whose shrine Aloysius gains +1 attack against undead or demons (which expires when the group kills one). The group retraces its steps to room 5, and takes the only unexplored exit there, which leads them down a long, featureless corridor to a small chamber wherein lurk 3 orcs. Two fall, the third fails to hit Issa, who cleaves it to the brisket. Ivan relieves the bodies of 2 gp, bringing their current total to 12 gp.

Back to the four-way intersection (4) without incident, and turn left; a short empty corridor (13) leads to another short, empty corridor (14) which in turn leads to another corridor (15) – where Brother Aloysius narrowly escapes injury from a dart trap as he bends down to pick up a potion of healing, no doubt dropped by an earlier explorer. Beyond that is yet another corridor (16), full of vampire frogs, one of which bites Aloysius before they are put down. Aloysius heals himself. The frogs are guarding another potion of healing; Sable takes that, as Issa has 9 hit points of her own now, and the other two already have one each. Trudging on, the team finds themselves in an empty four-way intersection (17) and goes straight across, following the corridor to a small, cramped room containing a weird monster – another catoblepas, the other half of a mated pair perhaps? Before it falls to their blades, Issa and Sable have each lost a life. Tangled in its matted fur is a scroll of Blessing, which Aloysius gets.

Returning to the last intersection (17), the party turns right, but finds their way blocked by rubble (because the room would be off the map). Back to the intersection and across it, to a roundish room (20) where a giant stone block (level 5) falls from the ceiling onto Ivan, inflicting 2 damage on him. Beyond the far door lies a large square chamber (21), occupied by 10 rats, but an enraged Aloysius smashes them to bits before they can bite anyone. To the party’s left is a short corridor ending in another door, but that opens onto another rubble-blocked vista (22) and they abandon that route, heading back to the chamber and across it to its only remaining exit; that proves to lead to a truncated rectangular room (23) where 5 orcs are camped. Three of them are cut down before they can react, their return strikes miss, and Issa decapitates both the survivors, one of whom is wearing a fine ring worth 130 gp. This brutal slaughter takes the minion death count up to 23, meaning someone can roll to advance; I choose Ivan, but he rolls a 1 and fails to improve. Meanwhile Issa opens the last door in this room, discovering a short, rubble-blocked corridor which the orcs have been using as a privy.

Closing that door against the smell, the team return to area 16 and take the north door into a corridor (25), where Issa falls into a trapdoor and loses a life. The others use their rope to pull her out, together with the Wand of Sleep she found at the bottom, and Aloysius uses his last healing of the trip to heal everyone. Pressing on brings them to another empty corridor (26), and ignoring the doors they march north – this leads them back to the entrance room (1) – I moved one of the doors around as it made more sense to make that connection than squeeze another area into the one available square. Another trapdoor yawns before Issa and she avoids this one, picking up a second +1 mace – as a barbarian she has an innate fear of magic, so hands it to Ivan, muttering about him not needing to worry about edge alignment now. They take the west door out of area 27 and enter a room full of skeletal rats (28), which give Ivan a nasty bite before they are slain. Ironically, they guard a potion of healing.

Room 29 is small, oddly shaped, and inhabited by 17 rats – Ivan gets bitten again in the course of dealing with these. The party now returns to area 26 to try the doors there. The west door leads to a short, empty corridor going nowhere (30); a good place for stairs leading down, but obviously things have not progressed that far. The east door can pretty much only lead back to area 4, but inside this strangely-shaped area (31) a chaos lord is lurking, and he begins by unleashing his Hellfire Blast on the party, taking a life from each member. By the time the chaos lord is dealt with, the party has lost 9 lives between them and is in pretty bad shape. Everyone who has one quaffs a potion of healing, after which only Issa is still wounded (because she stubbornly refuses to drink one). I pick Aloysius to level up, which he does barely. Ivan meanwhile acquires 4 gp and a jewelled gorget worth 120 gp.

Three doors left; moving back to room 3, the party kicks open the remaining door there to find an empty cupboard (33). With only two unopened doors left in the complex, our heroes trudge back to area 16 and take the south door. Beyond this is a dead-end room (32) dominated by an ogre; Issa loses another two life killing it – a high price to pay for 3 gp.

It’s dragon time. Back to room 8 and the dragon. Sable starts with a Lighning Bolt, zapping it for two life – now it has three left. Aloysius removes another one, but the others miss. The dragon retaliates, biting Issa and Aloysius. Sable fires his second Lightning Bolt and misses. Ouch. Luckily both Issa and Aloysius land their blows, and the dragon expires. Its hoard contains 10 gp, a wand of Sleep, and a potion of healing. That’s got to be worth a levelling up roll, Ivan gets it and succeeds.

There’s one place left to go, south from the dragon’s lair, and that room (34) has 6 hobgoblins in it. Pity to waste the Fireball, so in it goes; that plus several rounds of frenzied slashing and macework polishes them off without serious incident, leaving our heroes to loot jewellery worth 30 gp.

Escaping the now cleaned-out dungeon without incident, the party takes stock. They have two +1 maces, a potion of healing, a scroll of blessing and a fully-charged wand of sleep, plus 319 gp. Issa is half-dead, but that’s her own stubborn fault because she won’t drink potions of healing. Everyone has made it to second level.

Off to the pub, then.

Reflections

This is definitely a fun little game, but I would prefer it to be shorter – the last ten rooms were a bit of a slog. I should be able to achieve a faster game by making the map smaller, so I’ll try that next time; statistically that should make it a tiny bit easier to level up, as some of the quests depend on clearing out the map, but I don’t think it’s a game-breaker. The alternative is to split a game across multiple sessions, which is also entirely feasible.

The game plays very nicely just from the quick reference sheets. The main thing I had to keep checking was when PCs do, or do not, add their level to rolls; the main thing I kept getting wrong was how many opponents attacked each PC. Both of those will come more easily with practice.

Credits: Rules – Four Against Darkness by Ganesha Games. Map drawn in Dungeonographer.