The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

A few things have fallen onto my hard drive recently which don’t inspire me to do a full review, but I wanted to mention them anyway.

SWADE Action Deck. It’s a Savage Worlds deck of cards, used for initiative, encounters and various other purposes. Actually two decks, one normal poker card sized, the other oversized to make it easy to see who goes next. I reckon you’ve seen decks of cards before. The face cards have SWADE artwork. This from the SWADE Kickstarter.

The Fantasy Trip Companion. This is from The Fantasy Trip Kickstarter; a collection of reprinted articles about, and reviews of, The Fantasy Trip from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even my nostalgia has limits, and this is just outside them.

Rangers of Shadow Deep. Joseph A. McCullough’s latest work, a tabletop miniatures skirmish game using the rules engine from his earlier Frostgrave (reviewed here) and a new setting. The Dark Lord has eaten the kingdom next door, turning it into the Shadow Deep, which is like Mirkwood on acid. Players control individuals or small teams sent into the Shadow Deep on various spec ops missions. I have come to expect more missions and more exciting layout in a product of this price, but on the plus side, it is aimed at cooperative or solitaire play, which I like – the players are all on the same side, and the NPC enemies are moved around by a basic set of rules; melee attack, ranged attack, close to melee, or move towards a mission objective, depending on what the NPC can see.

Location Crafter. This is from Word Mill Press, home of the Mythic solitaire RPG and/or GM Emulator. I wasn’t that taken with the full-blown RPG (reviewed here) but did like the GM Emulator (reviewed here). The Location Crafter is a slim tome, 22 pages as a PDF, and essentially takes the concepts of random encounter and treasure tables that have been around since the late 1970s and applies them to creating adventure locations; if I said much more than that, I would give you the core of the product, it’s that simple, although there are a few interesting twists which allow you to create locations on the fly by editing the table as you go, using random word tables to flesh out and differentiate locations and so on. Apart from those tables, I pretty much memorised it on the first reading, so I think it would be faster and easier to use at the table than any previous “random dungeon generator” I’ve come across. I confess it’s growing on me, this one.


New Hope, April ’01

“Yeah, yeah, yeah… Tell me your story again, Metaxas,” says the slack-jawed detective.

“I already told the good cop,” Arion points out, “And I’m sure you were recording it all. Ask him, or play the vid.” He looks at the mirrored wall and says “Come in and explain it to him, okay? I’m getting hungry.”

“We’ve got witnesses, Metaxas.”

“Tell me something I don’t know. This is New Hope City. Give me five minutes and half a block, and I can find someone to swear I’m the reincarnation of the Great Winslow.”

We’re on page 57 now, and Arion is being questioned by (rolls a d6) Detective Kang, Rep 4 Zhuh-Zhuh with Rage who suspects him of… do you know, I don’t think he has actually said. This requires us to flip between pages 48 (Questioning and Arrest) and 70 (NPC Interactions). Fortunately, Arion hasn’t done anything wrong and has no “previous” in New Hope City.

Arion is now Rep 7 so automatically passes 2d6. Kang rolls 2, 3 vs Rep 4 and also passes 2d6, so we roll again, with a further draw counting as Arion passing more dice. Kang rolls 3, 4 and passes 2d6 again, but this means Arion wins the interaction and is thus free to go.

A basic wearing a nametag that says “Carlzen” opens the door and sticks his head into the interrogation room.

“Cut him loose, Kang. He’s clean, his ship’s clean, his crew’s clean. We got nothing on him except for poor taste in bars, and if he wants to drink in Berengei’s I say that’s punishment enough.”

Kang growls and points at the door. Arion rises, sketches a salute, and strolls out. Behind him, he can hear the thump of a meaty fist hitting the desk. That explains the steel desk, then. And the dents in it.

Character Update

No change.

GM Notes

…aaand we’re back in the published campaign, having just concluded encounter 4, which I think makes most sense as the involuntary encounter at the beginning of April.

Winslow is one of the more entertaining deities in Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire by Phil Foglio, better known for his work on Girl Genius.

Review: SWADE Cards

Hmm, what should appear in my Kickstarter downloads last week but three sets of cards for Savage Worlds Adventure Edition; the Adventure Deck, the Power Cards, and the Status Cards.

Adventure Deck: A cover, a set of card backs, and 56 cards at 8 to the page; two are blank for your own use, one explains the rules for using them. At the start of the session, each PC is dealt as many cards as their Rank (so 3 for Heroic) and keeps one, discarding the rest. They can then play their card at the point of their choice during the session to invoke that card’s effect. Some of these are mechanical (Last Stand grants the hero and all allies within 10 yards +2 Parry and Toughness until the next Joker is dealt), some narrative (Love Interest is played on an NPC you encounter to make them attracted to your hero). I especially like Villainous Verbosity, which forces an opposing Wild Card to miss a turn while he explains his master plan to you. The narrative effects are the sort of thing you could now trigger by expending a Benny, the mechanical effects look like they would make combat even more swingy and unpredictable than before. I’ve dithered about getting the various adventure decks for some years, but now this one has fallen in my lap, I’ll have to try it at some point. Maybe run a session or two without it first, to get used to the new rules.

Power Cards: Cover, card backs, and 56 cards, of which two are blank for your own use. Each card provides the information on one Power; cost, range, duration, effect description, and the extra effects that can now be bought by spending extra power. Currently I use homebrew character sheets, and each character with an arcane background has a section with that info in it; I like the idea of giving them cards instead. Fortunately, at the moment each party only has one person who needs them, but since this is a PDF I could always print a second set. I suspect this is the deck that will get the most use long-term. Maybe I should whip up something similar for Edges and Hindrances too?

Status Cards: Same story as Power Cards really, but for conditions. I like this deck as well and can see it getting a lot of short-term use, until the group and I are all used to the expanded range of conditions in SWADE. The deck contains 11 Wounded cards, 12 Shaken cards, 11 Fatigue, 5 Distracted, 5 Vulnerable, and two each for Entangled, Bound, Stunned, Hold, Aim and Defend. I will have to remember that some status conditions trigger others, for example if Bound you are also Distracted and Vulnerable.

The status card download also came with a sheet of status tokens, small disks to cut out and presumably place on the tabletop near your minis; 8 Wounded, 9 Shaken, 8 Fatigue, 4 Distracted, 4 Vulnerable, and two each of Aim, Defend, Entangled, Bound and Hold. These I may replace with homebrewed square tokens which will be a lot easier to cut out.

Overall, these are things I would not have bought on their own, but now I have them I expect to use all the card decks at least once, and I could see the Power and Status Decks being a regular addition to my games. The Adventure Deck looks like fun, but may be less useful at my table – YMMV.

Deep Space, March ’01

With the start-of-month involuntary encounter resolved, Arion now heads back towards New Hope. Reading page 26 of 5150 No Limits I see I need to check for encounters – more on that below. Page 43 states in the description of hauling passengers (the current job) that there will be one PEF per ring travelled (that’s two in all), resolved using the Contact in Space rules on page 35. A few dice rolls determine:

PEF1: Slaver, Zhuh-Zhuh registry. That must be fake as slavers are always a Razor captain leading a Hishen crew. Fortunately the captain is only Rep 3. Looking at page 37, none of the situations listed apply, so we turn to page 29 and use the procedure for Friends or Foes; rolling 1d6 plus number in group gives me totals of 9 for Arion and 7 for the slaver (assuming the captain has the maximum possible group size, i.e. her Rep). As neither side has twice the other’s score, this sends us to page 70 and Talk the Talk. Nobody has an attributes that will affect the dice roll. Arion has Rep 6 now so is guaranteed to pass 2d6; the Razor rolls 6, 1 vs Rep 3 and passes 1d6. Arion passes more d6 so gets a “favourable result” and an extra increasing Rep d6.

“Uh oh,” reports the Dolphin. “Hishen slaver abaft the starboard beam.”

“What?” asks Arion.

“Over there,” says the Dolphin, projecting a flashing graphic on the inside of the bridge. The comms screen lights up with an incoming message; the video feed shows a Razor in the slaver’s command chair, surrounded by small, grey-skinned Hishen crew.

“Unidentified trader, cease accelerating and prepare to be boarded. All lifeforms aboard are now my property.” The razor speaks so quickly it’s hard to follow, eyes darting everywhere.

“Umm, no thanks,” Arion replies. “I already belong to her,” he nods at Coriander. “I don’t think she wants to sell me.”

“Let me think… ah, no,” Coriander says. “He’s the only one who can fly the ship.”

“That’s not strictly…” begins the Dolphin, but catches Cori’s expression and continues smoothly “My concern, is it. No.”

“Look,” Arion says. “Our ships are roughly the same size, you have bigger guns but trust me, I am a much better pilot. We could fight, but it wouldn’t be profitable for either of us. So let’s not, eh?”

The razor considers this for noticeably less time than a basic human would before replying.

“Agreed. This time.” The screen goes dark.

Arion looks at Cori and raises an eyebrow.

“Only one who can fly the ship? Have I no other value to you?”

“Not in front of the AI,” she responds.

PEF2: Trader, Gaea Prime registry, Rep 5 Basic captain. According to page 37 these acknowledge the Dolphin (a Trader) and move on unless I do something about to stop them. Let’s leave them be, shall we?

New Hope, March ’01

Back to page 26 again… It’s easier to resynchronise with the published campaign if I assume we rolled a 1-3 for campaign movement, ending both movement and the month.

The passengers and crew of the Dolphin tramp down the landing ramp and say their goodbyes.

“Didn’t talk much, did they?” asks Coriander as the two passengers fade into the darkness around New Hope City Spaceport.

“The less you tell people, the less likely it is you’ll have to kill them,” Dmitri opines.

Arion looks at him. “I am going to assume you’re not speaking from personal experience there, Dima.”

Character Updates

The crew as a whole has 8 increasing Rep d6; 11 for the job, -3 for upkeep on the ship. Arion has an extra increasing Rep d6 from the encounter with the slavers. Arion rolls 123455666 and increases his Rep to 7. Cori rolls 12222346 and becomes Rep 6. Dmitri gets 23333566 and Rep 5.

  • Arion: Rep 7 Spaceship Crew, Quick Reflexes, Resilient. BAP2, P1, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: 14.
  • Coriander: Rep 6 Doctor, Free Spirit, Smooth. A3, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: 15.
  • Dmitri: Rep 5 Investigator, Logical, Smooth. BAP2, P1, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: 13.

As the author says, there is no upper limit on Rep, but there is “Obviously Dead” as a combat result.

GM Notes

I am wondering whether it would be better to treat Coriander and Dmitri as Grunts for Rep purposes; it doesn’t make sense that the ship costs more to run because they are on board.

This is a consequence of me treating the two followers as additional Stars, which is not how the game is meant to be played. For further study.

Either way, it seems to be a lot easier to increase Rep in No Limits than it was in Fringe Space. Next time, we’ll return to the published campaign.

In The Lord of the Rings, who is the only witness to Boromir’s death? Aragorn – who is also the person who stands to gain the most from Boromir’s death. Why was Aragorn so set on rescuing the kidnapped hobbits? A sense of duty – or fear that they might have seen something?

Here’s another piece of SWADE goodness from Kickstarter… this time, a 98 page PDF expanding on the advice for GMs in the core rulebook, written by a number of different SW luminaries.

What has it got in its pocketses?

World Building (12 pages): Creating settings, converting settings, plot point campaigns, Pinnacle style guide; essentially a more detailed version of the advice in the core rulebook. Savage Worlds settings usually take a common genre and add a twist, usually zombies; this section includes the throwaway idea of running The Lord of the Rings as crime noir, and as an avid reader of thrillers I’ve been wondering about Aragorn and Boromir since the 1970s, see the opening statement.

Savage Worlds for All Ages (12 pages): Advice to the GM on running games for people of various age groups. While SW was originally intended as a game that working parents could fit into their schedules, it has a broader appeal; this section offers advice on running games for everyone from age 6 through to post-retirement, suggesting how to tweak the game for different attention spans and interests.

Risks and Reversals (9 pages): This section is about how to make games more interesting by using suitable risks and reversals – using scenes from movies to illustrate the point. This was one of the more interesting sections for me.

High Powered Games (8 pages): Savage Worlds differs from a lot of games in that characters reach the maximum power cap fairly easily – a one-trick pony can very nearly do this at character creation – after which they grow horizontally rather than vertically, becoming more flexible rather than more powerful. Combined with exploding dice rolls, this means that the lowliest foe remains a threat in combat for even the most advanced PCs. This section is about how to handle games with superpowered characters, say Rifts or a superhero game. While I don’t plan to do that, the commentary on the unpredictable nature of SW and how characters advance supports views I developed about the game some years ago, and there is also advice on engaging quiet players.

Building Your Tribe (10 pages): This goes off in a direction I’ve not seen covered in the books before, by explaining how to build a community of gamers using conventions and other public games. I might try this, although probably not until after I retire.

Turning Ideas Into Swag (11 pages): This chapter is about how to turn your game into published products as an indie game publisher. I normally mash up existing published products, so I don’t expect to use this part.

The Long Game (4 pages): This is focused on Deadlands, the flagship SW setting, and uses the development of that product line to explain how to run a game that lasts years or even decades. Regular readers will know that despite my admiration for those who do run such campaigns, it’s not in my nature; there are so many shiny new things appearing each year that I struggle to settle down to a single one.

Anecdotes (22 pages): A selection of short articles covering a range of topics such as running unusually large parties, designing mystery-solving adventures, running a game as a “show” on an online stream, and so on. Most of them are reflections based on, and illustrated by, a specific incident in actual play, and all of them are short.

Under the Hood (7 pages): In this final part, the book looks at how to tweak the rules. The most interesting idea for me was how to use the rules to cover things you might think are missing – in essence, this is a metagaming expansion of trappings. For example, your character has Repair and wants to work as a mechanic for a while? Use the rules for Performance, change the skill, and maybe tweak how much income is received on a success or raise.

Having read through this, I don’t think I’m the target audience, as I have been a GM for over 40 years and have been playing Savage Worlds for over a decade. If you are new to either, you will probably find it more useful. I did enjoy reading it, but I probably won’t reread it.

“When the ship lifts, all debts are paid. No regrets.” – Robert A Heinlein

Pontus, March ’01

Each month in No Limits begins with an involuntary encounter (p. 30). As Our Heroes are starting the month on a planet, I roll 1d6 and get a 2; a job offer, interesting. These are defined on page 44 and if I accept the job offer, the job replaces the next voluntary encounter, which will occur on New Hope after interstellar movement.

Page 44 instructs me to roll Rep (6) – 1d6 (2 again) for the number of job offers; four. Let’s see what they are, rolling 2d6 for each employer and then 1d6 for the job they want to do.

  • Joe, Confrontation. The Joe wants us to persuade a member of the Criminal Element to leave them alone.
  • Shaker, Find. The Shaker wants us to find someone.
  • Criminal Element, Find. The criminal wants us to find someone.
  • Joe, Escort. The Joe wants us to escort them to a meeting.

The first of those four encounters in particular is the sort of thing Arion would normally follow up on, but I am keen to return to the published campaign, so I decline all of them.

In narrative terms, I picture this as a montage, showing Arion moving around Pontus starport and meeting with a number of potential employers. In each case he shakes his head and cites the Captain’s Bond as a reason he can’t stay onplanet to do the job.

Character Update

No changes this encounter.

GM Notes

The Captain’s Bond is a plot device from E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest saga; it commits the ship to travelling a specific route and leaving at a specific time, with financial penalties for breaking that contract. However it applies only to a single trip, and makes no commitment on future ports of call.

In episode 47, Arion and crew return to New Hope, and face two Space Encounters en route. After that, we’ll be back on track with the published campaign included as part of the No Limits rulebook.

Another goodie from the Savage Worlds Adventure Edition Kickstarter…

This is a 48-page PDF including four mini-settings for the latest edition of Savage Worlds. These settings are written by some heavy hitters in the Savage Worlds community, and intended to showcase what can be done with SW in general and the new edition in particular.

Spirit of 1786 (Matthew Cutter): Late 18th century fantasy. Shortly after the American War of Independence, the heroes must wield magic, diplomacy and muskets to battle fallen Norse gods, ghosts, and agents of the Bavarian Illuminati.

Abyssal (Shane Lacy Hensley): Johnny Quest meets Pirates of Dark Water; the heroes are a family of UN-sponsored scientists exploring weirdness in the Marianas Trench and battling evil corporations.

Tesla Rangers (Cheyenne Wright): Cowboys with lightning guns versus cast iron robots. In the aftermath of the Robot War, an expeditionary force crosses the Mississippi into robot territory. It’s a sort of steampunk version of Terminator.

The Lost City of Astla (BJ Hensley): This is the most unusual; a post-apocalyptic fantasy world in which the elves fled to a magic-powered orbital city to escape humans. Heroes are elves who must descend to the surface on various quests.

Each of these has a brief introduction, variant character creation and setting rules, one or more short adventures (“Savage Tales”), and some setting-specific opponents.

Abyssal and Tesla Rangers aim to recreate the feeling of Saturday morning cartoons, while Spirit of 1786 is “pulp history” and The Lost City of Astla is “technology as magic” in a similar vein to D&D’s Eberron setting.

At first it was hard for me to see how exactly these showcased Savage Worlds, but the key to this is in the Setting Rules for each mini-setting. SW isn’t a universal system in the same sense as, say, GURPS or True20; it’s a core rules engine with parameters that you can turn on or off to evoke particular genres. So, where a section on Setting Rules in most games or settings would be quite extensive, here you get something like “The following setting rules are in play for the Lost City of Astla: Conviction, Fanatics, High Adventure.”

  • Conviction means epic wins and epic fails give you an extra die which you can keep and add to a single future roll.
  • Fanatics makes villains harder to kill as their henchmen leap in the way of PCs’ attacks.
  • High Adventure means characters can spend Bennies (called fate points or action points in other games) to gain a single access to one or more Edges (AKA advantages, talents, feats).

This gives the game a different feel than one with (say) Gritty Damage and Hard Choices switched on, in which case wounds are much more dangerous, and every time the PCs use a Benny to gain access to some special benefit, that Benny is given to the GM to use for the opposition.

Overall, I approve of the mini-setting philosophy in general, because I am a minimalist at the gaming table. (We will gloss over the number of unused games on my shelves and hard drive.) However, I’m not inspired to run any of the four examples.

As a bonus while we’re at it, though, I’ll mention that there are a large number of SWADE Quickstarts now appearing, which each give a short introduction to one of the licensees’ settings, such as Beasts & Barbarians. There are so many that I don’t have time to review them all, but I will call out two for your attention:

Dragon vs Lich Showdown is interesting because it is almost setting-neutral and can be played through by parties of wildly differing experience. The PCs are hired to blaze a trail for a new trade route, only to find that part of it is contested by a dragon and a lich who hate each other. Only the most experienced parties can fight either and hope to survive, but anyone can broker a truce with sufficient cunning.

Trailer Park Shark Attack supposes the heroes are trailer trash who must survive when their home is swept away by a flood infested with sharks. I can’t see this as a campaign, but as a one-off convention game it sounds like a lot of fun.

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