Posts Tagged ‘Others’

Review: Fantastic Frontier Quickstart

Posted: 1 November 2017 in Reviews
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No game last Saturday night, so no writeup today; so instead, I had a quick rummage through the review pile and drew this forth.

In a Nutshell: OSR sandbox. 40 page PDF by Beaten Path Publishing, Pay What You Want on RPGNow.

CONTENTS

This is a short product so breaking it into chapters seems inappropriate.

The premise of the game is drawn from the famous West Marches campaign; your PCs live in a town or village on the edge of civilisation; behind them is a peaceful, adventure-free retirement, and before them lies a wilderness studded with dungeons and other places of mystery. It’s assumed that there is a largish group of players, but only a few can play in each session, so the PCs are drawn from a pool. They hexcrawl out of town, stopping if and when they see something to investigate, kill or loot. There is no setting but what the group makes. So far, so West Marches.

The rules of the game are essentially a stripped-down version of D&D; 9 classes, 10 races, 4 attributes, and so on. Your PC also has a Culture (basically a background, what he or she did before adventuring), traits such as Loner or Kind, and a Profession, such as Priest or Farmer. The Class and Profession determine what skills you begin with, the other elements boost your levels in attributes or skills; to succeed at a task, roll 1d20 and add your skill level. You collect experience points from training, exploration or combat, get enough together and go up a level, go up a level and get hit points, go up enough levels and unlock other advances. Equipment items are the usual mediaeval suspects.

Unusually for such a basic game, as well as hit points you have stamina points and stress. The stress mechanic is interesting; you gain stress for – well, stressful things happening to you – and once this reaches a certain level, you can’t do anything else until you have rested. If you let your stress max out like that too often, you stop adventuring and retire.

So far, nothing too unusual. Where this starts to get interesting is in the base town. This begins with three buildings; the tavern, which restores stress; the guildhall, which issues quests; and the butcher, who sells rations and torches. There are another six buildings you can pay to set up, things like a marketplace which sells equipment, a library that tells you where to find stuff, an alchemist who provides potions. But wait, there’s more… you can use your loot to buy upgrades for these features, for example if you upgrade the temple enough it can resurrect dead PCs. The only thing they tie back to is the rules on stress, so if you use the town rules you need to use stress, and vice versa. In effect, this makes the town another character in its own right, which buffs the PCs between raids, and which levels up when they share their loot with it.

The GM section is fairly basic; start by marking the base town on a hexmap, then put something interesting in each hex around it, and build out the frontier a little at a time as the players explore. The players build the wider world for you by how they describe their characters’ backgrounds. You don’t describe anything you don’t have to, which reduces work for the GM and gives the players room to be flexible.

Almost half the book is made up of various forms; a dungeon form, specialised character sheets for each class, a GM party sheet.

FORMAT

Four-column black text on white with black and white art. Four column is a bit unusual, but this file is in landscape rather than portrait, the better to display on a screen I expect.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

More buildings for the town please!

A hex mapping sheet along the lines of the dungeon sheet.

CONCLUSIONS

So this is an intriguing little melange. It has a D&D base, with influences from The One Ring, the West Marches, MMORPGs, 13th Age, Darkest Dungeon, RTS videogames and probably more I don’t have the background to notice.

I can’t see myself running a D&D campaign any time soon, but I am tempted to break this down for parts. The premise, stress and town-building rules are intriguing, and I’m tempted to wrap them around Gold & Glory. I could do that easily by moving the Hearts of Stone off-map into a new frontier. Maybe have a building for each icon, which ones the players build influences how the icons interact with them. Actually, that’s not a bad idea, deserves more thought.

Overall Rating: This is effectively an open beta, so it doesn’t seem fair to rate it yet. Good effort so far, though.

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Review: WFRP2

Posted: 7 October 2017 in Reviews
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“Er… Gitter, Boss. One of Maggot’s lot. But ’e was dead when we found ’im.” The Goblin paused a moment. “Corse ’e claimed ’e was just sleepin’… but that lot is all liars ain’t they?” – WFRP2 Core Rulebook.

It occurred to me that I’ve never reviewed Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying second edition, henceforth WFRP2, despite having played it for several years a while ago. So…

In a Nutshell: Grimdark clockpunk RPG set in the world of Warhammer Fantasy Battles; imagine The Lord of the Rings, but set in 16th century Germany, and directed by Sergio Leone.

If you’ve never played WFRP2 before: It’s set in the Warhammer World, and specifically in the Empire, the in-game version of Renaissance Germany. It has a (mostly) random character generation sequence and a percentile task system – roll 1d100 and get less than or equal to your characteristic to succeed. Two things make it stand out: The career system, which makes advancing your character an intriguing offline mini-game to play between sessions, and the way wizards eventually try to cast a spell they can’t handle, and blow themselves up.

CONTENTS

Introduction (11 pages): Introductory fiction, overview of what roleplaying is and the Warhammer world (AKA the Old World), one-page overview of the Empire (the default setting) suitable for use as a play handout (in the form of a sermon by an Imperial cleric – nice touch that), example of play.

Character Creation (12 pages): This is largely random; each PC has a main profile of eight randomly-generated stats – unusually, these include melee and ranged weapon skills as well as the more usual Strength, Intelligence and so forth – and a secondary profile of calculated stats, such as Wounds (i.e. hit points). Typically main profile stats are rated as percentages, beginning somewhere between 12% and 50%, and rising with experience. Secondary profile stats range from 0 to 14 initially and can also rise in play – but you might not want Insanity to rise above 0.

The main profile is easily convertible to and from the Warhammer Fantasy Battles statlines, meaning that the WHFB army books and free-to-download quick reference sheets give you a ready source of more NPC and monster stats.

You also choose a race; dwarf, elf, halfling or human. These playable races are the ones who work readily together; although nobody really trusts elves, the other three races have a long history of co-operation. Each race gives you certain benefits, in the form of skills and talents known at the beginning of play.

Finally, your starting career is generated randomly out of a list of 60 or so, and you get one free advance, which allows you to boost one of the characteristics on your profiles. This random selection is part of the challenge of the game, but more importantly reduces the time taken to create a character, as you don’t need to understand all the careers and pick the best one.

There is a set of tables for random generation of height, weight, hair colour, name and so on, but I never knew anyone to use it. Be handy for NPCs I expect.

Careers (61 pages): This is the heart of WFRP, and the reason why I would probably run the Rules As Written rather than Savage it, simple though that would be; from a player’s perspective, half the fun of the game is navigating the maze of careers to advance your Player Character.

Each career allows you to improve particular characteristics by particular amounts, and gives you access to particular skills and talents. Each career also has a list of entries, exits and trappings (particular items of gear associated with the career). Once you have taken all the advances a career can offer, you choose your next career from the available exits, collect all the trappings for it, and pay some experience points to enter it.

(In the party I played in, everyone went through the Witch Hunter career at some point, which requires a crossbow pistol as one of its trappings; nobody ever actually used it, so it was simply handed down to the next candidate when they changed career, mint in the box… but I digress.)

Career entries are the main part of that between sessions mini-game I mentioned earlier; if you have a clear goal for your character in terms of careers, which in my experience most people do, you work backwards through the career entries to plot your course between them.

There are 60 basic careers (ones you can begin play in) and 53 advanced careers (ones you can only reach by completing earlier careers). A couple of typical progressions are:

Trollslayer > Giant Slayer > Daemon Slayer > Glorious Death (I love that one).

Apprentice Wizard > Journeyman Wizard > Master Wizard > Wizard Lord.

Generally, you can expect to earn 200-300 experience points per session, and each character improvement (‘advance’) costs 100 experience.

Skills and Talents (15 pages): Skills, including languages, are each based on a characteristic, and you roll percentile dice against that characteristic to make a skill check – circumstances apply modifiers to the roll, and you can buy skills multiple times, gaining +10% to your roll each time after the first, to a maximum of +20%. Talents are more like D&D Feats or Savage Worlds Edges, in that they either give a bonus to one of your skills, or allow you to do something that other characters can’t do, such as cast spells.

There are 20 basic skills, which you can use even if not trained in them, and about 20 advanced skills, which can’t be used untrained. As well as the usual suspects, there’s stuff like Consume Alcohol, which allows you to resist the effects of getting drunk, and Channelling (of which more anon). Some skills (like Performer) are groups of related skills which have to be bought separately. There are also about 80 talents to choose from, some only available to particular races.

Equipment (21 pages): This chapter not only lists gear, but also has notes on encumbrance (an optional rule in this game), currency, availability, craftsmanship and slang. Weapons can have various qualities, such as Fast or Unreliable, which have effects in combat. The goods and services themselves are typical for a fantasy game, with the addition of black powder firearms and replacements for appendages you might have carelessly had bitten off by the monsters.

Combat, Damage and Movement (16 pages): A combat turn is 10 seconds, and works in the usual way; roll for initiative, then act in descending order of initiative. There are full actions, such as Charge Attack; half actions, such as Aim, Move or Standard Attack; and free actions, such as battle cries, witty quips, and swearing when you get skewered. One thing I like here is that the actions are split into basic ones (the minimum you need to play the game) and advanced ones (fancy ones like Feint, for tacticians).

Attacks involve rolling to hit, determining hit location, rolling damage (1d10 plus your weapon’s bonus), and then reducing the incoming damage by your target’s Toughness and armour value. Note that the damage die can explode; on a natural 10, you keep the 10, roll again and add the new amount. I don’t approve of hit location as a rule, but if you’re going to chop bits off your opponents – which can happen – you do need it. At least there is an optional rule for ignoring it.

There are some welcome combat examples. There are penalties triggered by different levels of damage and other conditions. There are highly entertaining and gruesome critical hits, some of them permanent like losing a hand. There are Fate points, expended permanently to miraculously cheat death, and Fortune points, expended temporarily to reroll a result you’re not happy with. There are diseases such as the Galloping Trots or Neiglish Rot. The Warhammer World is indeed grim and perilous, but also darkly humourous.

Magic (30 pages): Magic divided into the arcane and the divine. Arcane magic is practiced by wizards, who are divided into eight schools, one for each of the Winds of Magic. Mechanically, each spell has a target number, and to cast it, you roll a number of d10 less than or equal to the magic characteristic on your profile; a successful Channelling action gives you a bonus. If you roll doubles, triples etc on your d10s, you get a free Chaos Manifestation, which ranges from the invconvenient (milk curdles within 30 feet of you) to the fatal (sucked into the realm of Chaos and lost forever). So, you want to roll as few d10 on this roll as you can get away with, because quadruples are worse than triples, and triples are worse than doubles; however, if every die comes up a 1, you make a Will Power check to avoid gaining an Insanity Point. Some of the effects are permanent; by the time the campaign I was in closed, our party wizard spooked all nearby animals, had purple eyes, and all nearby smoke gathered around him – and he had got off lightly.

Wizards in this system are therefore restrained not by spell slots or power points, but by fear of what might happen to them if they cast a spell, which I think is fantastic. They can cast spells as often as they like, but sooner or later, they all go mad and/or change in disturbing ways. Such are the dangers of the Chaos that powers their spells.

The spells themselves are divided into Petty Magic, Lesser Magic, and Arcane Lores, each of which requires an appropriate talent to unlock. Petty Magic typically has a target number of 4 or so and does things like keep you dry in the rain; Lesser Magic has target numbers in the range of 4-13 and includes temporary magical armour and weapon enchantments; the good stuff is in the Arcane Lores, which have target numbers up into the 30s.

Divine magic works roughly the same way, except that fluffing the casting roll invokes the attention of a deity rather than a daemon, and is generally more benign in its effects. The spells are also split by cult rather than by magical school.

Then there is ritual magic, which is too time-consuming to cast in combat, and demands expensive ingredients, special circumstances and intensive study to use. Its primary devotees are necromancers, Chaos magicians, and alchemists.

The chapter closes with a couple of example magic items. Such things are very rare in the Warhammer World, and tend to be held by large, powerful organisations such as the Imperial Armoury. They are more plot McGuffins than tools for adventurers.

Religion and Belief (20 pages): Here we find notes on temples and shrines, the ten main gods of the Empire and their favoured sacrifices, the principle rites and festivals (my favourite is the annual halfling festival of Pie Week – this is an actual British thing, mark you, celebrated in the first week of March, and transplanted to the Warhammer World), common everyday sayings, the wrath of the gods and what acts of contrition might deflect it, writeups for each cult, and a final page on the nonhuman gods and the dark forbidden ones. All fluff, this, no actual crunch. But it’s pleasing fluff.

The Game Master (23 pages): This is about how to be a GM, and how the Warhammer World is different from the typical fantasy setting – in a word, it’s grim. There’s advice on how to set up the party so they have reasons to work together in a world where they should really be suspicious of, and treacherous to, each other. There’s advice on which plots are appropriate in this milieu and what adventures and campaigns flow from them. There’s advice on how to work the game mechanics, especially Fate points, experience points, magic and Insanity, which is hilarious if you’re the GM.

The Empire (14 pages): Another chapter which is all fluff, no crunch, this describes the setting the game is intended for (and tightly woven into, to be honest; I can’t imagine running WFRP2 in any other game world). History, politics, a map and descriptions of the provinces, the main threats to the Empire, its neighbours and allies. The game is set just after the Storm of Chaos, which means it occurs a few years after 3rd edition, and about 20 years after 1st edition.

The Bestiary (9 pages): This is a relatively small bestiary, containing common animals like horses and dogs, common NPCs like bandits, and more feisty foes like beastmen, imps, goblins, daemons, orcs, mutants, skeletons and zombies. However, there are more monster types than you might think, because monsters have careers and advances too; your basic goblin or bandit can be upgraded by making him a Brute, Chief or Sneak, and there’s no reason why he might not have taken all three. Bear in mind also that this is a world where PCs often face the enemy within – corrupt noblemen, chaos cultists and whatnot.

Through the Drakwald (11 pages): The obligatory introductory adventure, in which the PCs must guide and protect civilians fleeing from approaching beastmen – but all is not as it seems, as intrigue is also present. This can be used as a prequel to the Paths of the Damned campaign, detailed in three further books in the WFRP2 line, starting with Ashes of Middenheim.

And we close with designer’s notes, index, templates for area effects, and a character sheet.

FORMAT

Full-colour throughout; two column black text on brownish background with colour page borders, full colour artwork every few pages.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

An option to suppress the PDF background and page borders when printing please. They’re pretty, but that’s a lot of coloured ink.

CONCLUSIONS

The first edition of WFRP was a mixture of good ideas and flawed ones, while the second takes the game engine apart, cleans it up, and puts it back together again, discarding unnecessary rules and improving play balance until it rumbles nicely under the hood. We will not speak of third edition here.

In my opinion, WFRP 2nd edition is superior to both 1st edition (as the industry has learned a lot in the last 30 years) and 3rd edition (which is more an exercise in making something that can’t be pirated than an actual game). It’s leavened with dollops of dark humour, but the levels of horror and vulgarity in the game mean it is not the one to use for introducing your five-year old to roleplaying, at least not without some serious editing.

On rereading this and some of the other items now mine thanks to the recent Humble Bundle, I feel I really should reconsider my irrational distaste for gunpowder weapons in fantasy games. If I’d realised how good WFRP2 was ten years ago, you’d have seen more of it here. It definitely gets added to the Bucket List.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review: Karak Azgal

Posted: 4 October 2017 in Reviews
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Yes, alright, I was weak. I bought into the Humble Bundle and now have vast amounts of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 2 material. Some of it I already had, some of it doesn’t look that interesting, but for $20 you don’t have to find much of value before it’s a good deal. WFRP2 joins the elite group of games where I’ve bought the entire product line (actually, just 2300AD and Classic Traveller, although Stars Without Number comes close) – usually I restrict myself to the core rulebook. But look at me, talking when there’s science to do…

In a Nutshell: WFRP2 megadungeon. 99 page PDF, cost less than a dollar as part of a Humble Bundle.

CONTENTS

Introduction (3 pages): Karak Azgal is WFRP2’s take on the classic trope of a city built on top of a megadungeon. This section covers the history of the place, and overviews of the various areas for heroes to explore – basically, the abandoned dwarven mine, the dwarf hold built when the dwarves moved back in, and the shantytown on its outskirts. Collectively, these are called Karak Azgal.

The City of Karak Azgal (5 pages): Although the dwarves are back, they haven’t retaken that much of the megadungeon. They allow adventurers to enter and plunder the place for a fee, but confiscate anything they deem a “cultural artefact”, i.e. all the really good stuff. In this way the monsters below are thinned out, and the really shiny items are brought to the dwarves without risk. This chapter covers the local law, religion, trade, currency and taxation, and NPCs, all of which are designed to separate the PCs from their loot in the usual darkly humourous Warhammer fashion.

Skalf’s Hold (11 pages): This describes the walled dwarven city built on the surface over the megadungeon; construction, population, the various city quarters and their notable locations and NPCs, including some with a dark secret for PCs to root out. There’s a half-page map of the city too.

Deadgate (10 pages): The dwarves of Karak Azgal have no opinion at all of the other races, and these undesirable elements have been left to fend for themselves, building a shantytown slum outside the pristine walls of the dwarf city proper. Again, we have notable NPCs and locations, and a small map. I love the NPCs here, especially the bickering Tilean couple who run the supply shop. Deadgate has one legal entrance to the dungeon, which is well-guarded by dwarves.

Ruins of Karak Azgal (16 pages): At roughly 100 pages I was not expecting fully detailed maps of the whole place, but I was expecting some sort of random dungeon generator, and there isn’t one. What you do get are some useful descriptions of the five layers of a dwarven settlement (with notes on what sort of construction is appropriate to each, so you can describe it), a side-on view of the dungeon levels showing roughly where the big set-piece encounters are, a whole four paragraphs on mapping adventure sites, rules for mining if you want to try your luck at that, encounter tables, and a few new monsters, challenges and other encounters unique to the Karak,

So there is a sort of dungeon generator, and it covers pretty much what you would expect, except for generating a map; you have to create that yourself. What you’re supposed to do is generate the occupants and environmental challenges for the area the party will explore in the coming session randomly, and then design a room complex to suit it; quite the reverse of the usual approach. Encounters are rated with the Slaughter Margin I first encountered in the Old World Bestiary, which is basically a yardstick for how tough the monster is; you use this to determine what treasure they have, which is facilitated by a series of random tables.

Rats in the Basement (14 pages), The Walking Dead (15 pages), Greenskins (14 pages), Beast of Chaos (3 pages): As previously alluded to, there are a number of set-piece encounters for you to use, each focussed on a faction within the dungeon with their own Big Bad and base of operations; these chapters respectively cover a pair of skaven clain lairs, two undead-controlled areas (one small, one large), three areas dominated by greenskins – respectively orcs, trolls and goblins – the lair of the dreaded Beast of Chaos, and finally an altar of Slaanesh. The overall map in the Ruins chapter suggests placements for these, but you don’t need to put them there, it’s not like the players are going to see that map.

We close with a single handout – a licence to explore the ruins.

FORMAT

Colour covers, two-column black text on pale grey background with illustrated borders, line and greyscale art. Clean, legible, easy on the eye and the printer, gets the job done.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I wanted to see some sort of random dungeon generator as well; the one from Advanced Heroquest would have fit right in, for example. Still, it’s not like I’m short of those, is it?

CONCLUSIONS

One lesson I have learned over the years is to keep an offline copy of all my gaming PDFs, in case a change of edition or licencee wipes out hundreds of pounds worth of, errm, let’s call them “investments”, overnight. So this goes on the external hard drive.

I like the backstory to the dungeon very much. Like many more recent dungeon supplements, this focuses on detailed complexes separated by unspecified areas of empty rooms and silent corridors; those endless empty rooms that one used to encounter in OD&D have been collapsed into a movie montage, with screen time focussed on the interesting scenes of combat, looting and puzzle-solving.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. This is a nice dungeon and I would like to run it right away, but there are two obstacles; first, it’s tightly integrated with the Warhammer World and I’m not 100% sure I want to go there; second, it would need a fair amount of preparation – there are a number of set-piece locations for Big Bad Evil Guys, and a couple of introductory areas pre-mapped, but that’s it.

I still think WFRP2 is vastly superior to WFRP3. And I have tons of it now, so expect odd reviews of proper WFRP to pop up unexpectedly. I’ll be interested to see what happens with WFRP4.

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.

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.