The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

“I know it’s only rock’n’roll, but I like it, like it, yes I do.” – The Rolling Stones

TLDR: It’s Traveller, Jim, but not as we know it. I’ve been looking forward to this for some time, it did not disappoint, and it is likely to show up at my table sometime in the future. 227 page PDF from Stellagama Publishing, $10ish from DriveThruRPG.

In talking about this game, I’m going to assume a certain level of familiarity with Traveller, and look mainly at how it differs from other editions.

Characters

Character generation in Cepheus Deluxe still uses the Traveller lifepath approach where the character cycles through terms of service to acquire skills, rank and mustering out benefits, but there are some major changes.

  • Characteristics are not diced in order using 2d6. Instead, the player allocates an array of scores to the character’s attributes as he sees fit, the array being 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. That’s a total of 45 points, not far from the 42 you’d get as an average outcome from the 2d6 method.
  • Rank is accrued at a steady, predictable rate rather than depending on dice rolls; the PC is promoted once in each even-numbered term of service. You can no longer die in chargen, but you do still suffer from aging.
  • Skill acquisition is also steady and predictable; one level 1 skill from the PC’s homeworld, one level 1 in a service skill from initial training, two levels per term from the first three terms and one per term thereafter, and finally one from a group package designed to ensure that the character has at least one skill useful for the campaign envisaged. I’m not sure that is necessary given that all skill levels are chosen from tables rather than being randomly allocated.
  • New for Stellagama, but familiar in Mongoose Traveller, are the random career and life events, which are really good for building up PC backstory and occasionally provide an extra skill level. As a GM, the events which appeal to me are the ones which link the PC to NPCs; contacts, enemies, current and former romantic relationships, and so on; these are ripe with story potential.
  • Each character has one Trait per two terms, rounded up. These are chosen from a list of 90 or so, and are this game’s equivalent of feats, edges or advantages. Arguably Classic Traveller had a few ‘traits’, chiefly membership of the TAS and access to a scoutship or free trader; the expanded list includes items such as Merchant, which allows you to roll 3d6 when haggling or indulging in speculative trade, and use the best two as your result.

There are a number of other changes and options I have glossed over for the sake of brevity. Although I don’t have those products, this looks like Stellagama has incorporated their Cepheus Light supplements for Traits and point-buy character generation into the core rules.

The point of diminishing returns occurs at the end of term 3, as it always did, though for different reasons. This process looks like it will produce PCs with average or better characteristics, 9-10 expertise levels, and about 8-10 skills at expertise level 0. That means they are roughly on a par with PCs from the expanded generation systems in Classic Traveller’s Book 4, Mercenary, and Book 5, High Guard, rather than the original Book 1 system, but without all the extra dice rolls and with considerably more control over the outcome.

Combat

This will be familiar to anyone who has played previous editions of Traveller or Cepheus Engine.

The most interesting thing here is the options, which allow you to revert almost completely to Book 1 if you’re so minded; you can replace armour-as-damage-reduction with armour-as-hit-modifiers, and bring back simultaneous combat. I find the second of those very tempting, and the first not so much.

Characteristics and “hit points” are much more loosely coupled than in CT. How much damage a PC can take depends solely on Endurance and Athletics skill, and wounds do not temporarily reduce characteristics.

Psionics

The thing that stood out for me in the Psionics chapter is the extended range of powers, including Alter Self (essentially a disguise spell), Empathic Healing (which lets you heal another character), and Zombie (which lets you use a corpse as a puppet). Psionics are now more capable than before, and optionally have higher Psionic Strength too.

Starships

Construction has shifted from the Book 2 and Cepheus Light approach of fixed drive tonnage by drive letter towards the Book 5 method of drive tonnage as a percentage of ship tonnage, depending on drive rating. Standard hull sizes now go up to 10,000 tons, and some bigger weapons are added to the list for them to use. The biggest change, though, is the elimination of power plant fuel – fusion power plants now include a year’s worth of fuel, and are only topped up at annual overhauls. This doesn’t have a huge effect on big ships, but it makes the 100-400 tonners the PCs are likely to use much more attractive for speculative trade – a 100 ton scout now has 24 tons of cargo hold.

Jumps in Cepheus Deluxe must start and end in a hex with a star system; no more sneaky secret fuel dumps in deep space. The game effect of this is that you can’t misjump into an empty hex and die alone, there is always some sort of star system wherever you emerge.

Space combat is highly abstract, with each ship rolling for ‘position’ and only being able to attack vessels with lower positions. Position thus subsumes range, manoeuvring, and other factors. (I should mention that vehicle combat uses something similar.)

Worlds

Like Mongoose, Cepheus Deluxe allows for profile ratings above 12, except for population, hydrographics and (uniquely, I think) law level, which are capped at 10. The cap on law level means that there is always some chance of evading a law enforcement encounter, which I hold to be a Good Thing.

Also like Mongoose, CD modifies the roll for starport type by population level. This has two main effects; first, good starports are only found on highly populated worlds, and second, there are fewer A and B class starports, but more types D-X.

Trade and Smuggling

This section is expanded considerably, with ‘cargo tags’ and complications with the deal which can turn any trading transaction into an adventure seed.

A new rule which interests me is that cargo purchase and sale prices are modified both for traffic and travel rating; a class A starport in a green travel zone has lower prices due to the higher number of merchants, while a class X red zone can be very profitable, if you survive.

Encounters

My main complaint about Cepheus Light was the lack of planetary encounters – it only had space encounters, using a unique table where what you meet depended on dice rolls, starport types, and the level of tension in the subsector. Cepheus Deluxe has revised space encounters (where, unusually, starport type has no direct impact on the outcome), plus pages of social encounter tables (starport, bazaar, high society, commoners, criminals, patrons) and rules for animal encounters which look a lot like the original and familiar ones from CT Book 2. NPCs, and especially patrons, have further tables which can be used to determine what they are like and how they will treat the PCs.

Conclusions

I’d expected this to be a second edition of Cepheus Light, but it is more like a new game entirely, which I suppose explains the new title. Omer Joel and the Stellagama crew have drawn on several previous incarnations of Traveller and the Cepheus Engine to give us a game which feels a lot like Classic Traveller, updated to modern sensibilities. The overall theme is one of increased control, both for the player and the GM.

I like to think that if I had followed the other path I sometimes talk about, in a parallel universe where I stuck to Classic Traveller for 40 years, my house rules would have brought me to a place something like this. As I read through Cepheus Deluxe, I find myself wondering why I put the effort into converting Traveller for Savage Worlds rather than using this new game as written.

Fear not; experience teaches that changing the rules halfway through a campaign is a really bad idea, but there is a distinct possibility that at some point I will switch over to Cepheus Deluxe. I rate it very highly and recommend it to the House.

This was a relatively expensive kickstarter for me, but I feel I got my money’s worth. I think I have everything now except the VTT assets, and I probably won’t review those; so here are the final few goodies…

The Last Drop

Action Cards: It’s a deck of cards. However, it does double duty in that each card has a full-length portrait of a character; I can see myself pulling a card from the deck and saying “You see this guy”, or letting the players peruse it for character inspirations.

Allies and Adversaries Cards: I have only the PDF for these, but it looks like they are intended to be double-sided, with a full-colour picture of an ally or adversary on one side, and the character’s statblock on the other. Six of them are named (well, seven if you count the twins as seperate characters), and six of them simply have job titles such as ‘elven assassin’ or ‘mystic thief’. I like the idea of generic allies and opponents on cards, but I’m not sure how much mileage I’ll get out of these specific ones now that everything is on VTT.

Arcane Conversions: This demonstrates how to ‘build’ Pathfinder spells using Savage Worlds powers, trappings, modifiers and limitations. Some are straightforward (Enlarge Person is simply Growth), others not so much (there are two different ways of doing Ice Storm, using either Entangle or Blast as the base, then adding a trapping and three different modifiers). There are almost 50 example spells given. This one is clever, and interesting to me as a GM, but I’m not likely to use it myself, as I can’t foresee a situation where a plotline or an NPC turns on being able to replicate a specific Pathfinder spell.

Bookmarks: Four different bookmarks, each with Pathfinder art on one side and a quick reference table of some sort on the other. I’ve not used bookmarks in any kickstarter where they have appeared, and I’m not likely to start now.

Customisable GM Screen: Most screens I’ve seen have three panels, and to give the GM some flexibility, this product includes nine full page art panels (and I do love the Pathfinder art, I must admit), with five pages of charts and tables, all landscape mode. Most of these are the usual SWADE fare, but the last one has some items specific to Golarion and Pathfinder for SWADE; languages, schools of magic, and downtime activities. A GM screen is not that useful to me while I’m doing everything via VTT, but I might print the tables on card and laminate them as a quick reference guide, and perhaps pick one of the art pieces as a splash page for Roll20. The one with heroes fighting ogres on a dam in the pouring rain is my favourite.

Retrospective

Overall, I’ve had an embarrassment of riches from this kickstarter; the core rules for running Pathfinder under SWADE, a large bestiary, a full (if somewhat linear) campaign in six books, supplements to expand the setting background, and more accessories than you can shake a stick at. As I say, I got my money’s worth from this one.

The question is, though, will I ever use them, beyond the usual mining the products for ideas to bolt on to my current campaign? Certainly I’d like to, but I’m not sure if any of my groups would go for it; I’ll have to ask them.

Cheremoshna Spaceport, Early January 2988

Another robbery…

Arion is heading back to the Dolphin after dark, no further along in his quest to find Mr Osheen, when a young basic woman hits him over the head with a club.

“What was that for?” he asks, but she is already swinging at him again, and lands a second blow.

“Ow,” he says. “That hurt. Stop it, will you?”

She winds up again, and he pokes her hard in her solar plexus. She staggers back, waving the club threateningly, then catches her breath and charges him, using the club like a battering ram. Arion steps aside and she goes sprawling in the rubbish at the end of the alley. He looks around, confirming she is alone, before turning back to her.

“Stay down,” he says, pulling aside his spacer’s jacket to show the butt of his Karakush 12.5mm. “Now, why are you hitting me with that stick?”

The fight has gone out of her. “I’m robbing you,” she gasps. “If I don’t go back with something, they’ll…” She shudders.

“You’re new at this, aren’t you?” he says, not unkindly. “Look, if you’re going to do this for a living – and I don’t recommend it – you need some friends with you; you should outnumber me at least three to one, and pick on someone who walks like they’re drunk. You should also have a plan for what to do if I have a gun, which I do.”

He peels a couple of notes out of his wallet, and hands them to her.

“Here. Tell them you hit me on the way back from town, and this is all I had on me. Now get out of here.”

“I must be going soft,” he mutters as she disappears into the night. But he feels better about himself than he has in months.

Cheremoshna Spaceport, Late January 2988

We need some IRD quite badly now, so as a voluntary encounter I opt to raid somewhere.

“We ready?” Arion asks outside godown six as darkness falls. Both the ladies nod at him. “Okay, so my razor friend – smeg, I never thought I’d say those words in the same sentence – says the bounty hunters might know where Mr Osheen is. Let’s go get ’em. Try to leave one alive for us to talk to.”

“You sure about this?” Shakadan asks. “You know there are more of them than us.”

“He’d do it for me.”

“Yeah, but he’s a regenerating killing machine, you’re just an ordinary joe.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m not leaving Cheremoshna without him.”

The three burst in through the godown’s doors – to find the bounty hunters waiting for them. The leader, a big female zhuh-zhuh, blazes away at Arion but misses; he returns fire, forcing her to duck back. The xeogs on either side of her also fire, but miss Cori and Shakadan in the darkness – they shoot back, Cori putting one out of the fight and Shakadan getting into an extended exchange of fire with the other which ends with the enemy xeog pinned down behind a crate. The sole basic member of the group fires at Shakadan, she shoots back but misses, he shoots back at her and misses, she shoots back at him and he ducks back. The razor member of the opposing team tries a mental blast centred on Arion, and catches all three of Team Dolphin; Cori and Shakadan both drop, out of the fight, but Arion’s luck saves him and he ducks back, cursing. That razor has got to go.

After a few seconds, Arion sticks his head back up and looks for targets. The basic immediately fires at him, but Arion’s return fire drops him, out of the fight. Everyone except the razor is either down or ducked back, so the razor tries another mental blast, forcing Arion to duck back again. While he is pondering his options, the surviving bounty hunters cautiously emerge from cover.

The opposition doesn’t seem to be doing anything constructive, so Arion steels himself and pokes his head out of cover. Bizarrely, he and the surviving bounty hunters spend a few seconds simply staring at each other. Arion breaks the spell by firing at the razor, forcing her to duck back.

Hoping he’s on a roll now, he fires at the leader, but the godown is completely dark, lit only by muzzle flashes, and he misses. She does no better, and despite the flash of her weapon giving her away, he fails to hit her. She crouches down behind a crate. The xeog pumps a burst at Arion’s muzzle flash, but he has already changed position and the brief exchange of fire that follows drops her, sufficiently badly wounded not to continue.

It goes quiet for a long time, and when Arion eventually dares to risk looking around, he sees that the razor and the zhuh-zhuh have left, carrying their xeog buddies, leaving the wounded basic behind.

It takes Arion some time to lug everyone back to the gravsled. Cori and Shakadan recover thanks to the ministrations of the Dolphin‘s autodoc, but the captured bounty hunter bleeds out on the way back to the ship.

Team Dolphin

Arion gets 1 IRD for the brawl and 2 for the raid, but also 3 DRD to keep the ship running, so that’s a wash. Cori gets 1 IRD for the raid, and does score an advance, but to keep the team together I push that into Savvy – there’s no mechanical advantage to taking People over 6, and it can’t ever drop, so increasing that to 7 would be a wasted advance.

  • Arion: Rep 5 Star, Ship Crew. People 4, Savvy 6. Hard as Nails, Quick Reflexes. B2, Pirate ship (Dolphin). Lifetime Rep 13. Clues 1.
  • Coriander: Rep 5 Doctor. Pep 6, Sav 4. Free Spirit. A3. Lifetime Rep 19.
  • Mr Osheen: Rep 7 Grath Mercenary. Pep 1, Sav 2. Rage. A3. Lifetime Rep 6. (MIA)
  • Shakadan: Rep 5 Xeog Ganger. Pep 4, Sav 4. Smooth. A3. Lifetime Rep 1.

GM Notes

Recently, I’ve had a run of Rep 3 opponents, and I am not complaining. This lot (also Rep 3) were rubbish in combat, but their will to fight was admirable, and yet again we see the horrifying effectiveness of razors in combat; Arion’s Star Power saved him again, without that the whole team would’ve been toast. I have to get me one of them razors on the team at some point. Either that or we have to start charging into melee and taking them out that way.

Arion needs a big score, and soon. On the plus side, I’m now sufficiently familiar with the rules that working through a month of play takes about an hour. This really is a very fast and simple little game, but the story doesn’t seem to suffer from that.

Review: Svalbard

TLDR: Roguelike scenario drawing on the Cthulhu mythos. 98 page PDF by Two Starving Gnolls, price unknown at time of writing (it’s a Kickstarter reward for me).

Spoiler alert, this has a gimmick I haven’t seen before, which I will explain below, so if you intend to play this rather than run it, probably best to move on.

What’s This?

It’s 1993, and a secret Russian military base on an arctic island has emitted a call for help and a large gamma ray burst. The name Azathoth has been mentioned. The PCs are sent to investigate; time is clearly of the essence, so briefing and equipment are scant.

The scenario is essentially a series of puzzles, and could be run in any game system really; there is a very basic one included, but basically it allows players to say if their character is smart, dextrous or strong, and is more a guideline to how they intend to solve problems than anything. They are assumed to be competent spec ops soldiers, field agents, investigators, or whatever and can do anything such people could do.

The key resource the players must manage is time. They have a small number of ‘time units’ which are used up as they make their way through the underground base and deal with its hazards, and once they’re all gone, “rocks fall, everyone dies”. Oh, and the world ends.

Spoiler! Now the gimmick; when the PCs die, as they inevitably will, they respawn at the entrance to the base and can try again. Since they now know the answers to some of the puzzles, they should get closer to solving the mystery and saving the world each time, until they finally succeed. This is the RPG equivalent of Groundhog Day, and the reason for my impulse purchase of the title, as I wanted to see what the authors would do with the idea.

I also got the GM screen, which has some atmospheric artwork, a summary of what’s in each location, and all the maps of the site on one page. A useful addition.

What Do I Think?

This is not a scenario you can run twice with the same players, but then what tabletop scenario is? I think I could run it 2-3 times by carefully selecting groups of players with no overlap, and it might work as a convention game too; it should be possible to finish it in a single session.

I’m not sure how the players would react to multiple Total Party Kills in one session, especially the first time (which the GM is encouraged to surprise the players with), and I’m also not certain about how to handle situations where one PC dies and the others don’t – there are several places that can happen. This would probably work OK with OSR and Call of Cthulhu groups, as they are used to a high casualty rate, but other players? I’m not so sure. Maybe that’s just the folks I play with.

The authors are Norwegian, so there are some slips in the use of English, but nothing that would stop you using the product. There are also a couple of places where the equipment list is a bit strange; what party goes into an old mine without a rope, for example? But these are minor niggles.

Overall, this is an interesting experiment, one which reminds me somewhat of a favourite PC game, Half-Life, and something I would run a couple of times as a palette cleanser or a one-off. The authors suggest it could also be used as the introduction to a longer campaign, but I struggle to see where that goes after the PCs have literally saved the world from an Elder God.

This time, let’s look at the PCs’ rivals and other active factions: GeDeCo, the Grehai Movement, the Ihatei, the Pirates, and the Third Imperium’s Punitive Fleet. All of them are a bit unusual, so none of them quite use the example faction statblocks from the Stars Without Number rulebook. A long post this time, but the Pirates are back in play in a week or two, and I want to have everything ready for them.

The starting point for these statblocks was searching the PDF of the Trojan Reach book from Pirates of Drinax for suitable terms. So, I may need to add, say, more Bases of Influence later on if I find them in other books.

GeDeCo

This is a more or less a cult which has taken over the sector organisation of an Imperial megacorporation. The PCs are its allies… for now…

Homeworld: Vorito.

Planetary Government of: Vorito.

Bases of Influence (HP): Acrid (3), Argona (5), Awaweaw (8), Berengaria (6), Byrni (6), Ergo (5), Exe (1), Falcon (4), Gazulin (8), Khtiyrlo (7), Marduk (4), Oghma (7), Pandora (3), Tanith (3), Tech-World (1). These are mostly worlds where GeDeCo helped build the starport.

Force: 5. Cunning: 7. Wealth: 8. Hit Points: 49. Revenue: 7/turn. Expenditure: 0/turn. FacCreds: 0. XP: 0.

Assets (number of):

  • Bank/Wealth 4 (1). Vorito. GeDeCo is nothing if not rich.
  • Book of Secrets/Cunning 7 (1). Professor Jaskarl’s great plan, kept on Vorito.
  • Demagogue/Cunning 5 (1). Professor Jaskarl, on Vorito.
  • Guerilla Populace/Force 2 (1). A rebel movement in the making on Awaweaw.
  • Mercenaries/Wealth 3 (1). The garrison at Oghma.
  • Transit Web/Wealth 7 (1). Vorito. I haven’t played with one of these before, let’s see what it can do.
  • Treachery/Cunning 7 (1). Manipulated from Vorito. GeDeCo can offer a big enough bribe to turn anyone’s head.
  • Venture Capital/Wealth 8 (1). Vorito.

Tags: Theocratic, Planetary Government (Vorito). Like I say, this is basically a cult.

Goal: Peaceable Kingdom. At the moment, various other factions (notably the PCs) are furthering GeDeCo’s aims, so it is going to sit back and act the innocent.

The Grehai Movement

This is basically a Backwater Planet which has been left alone to extend tendrils of populism along the Dustbelt and the Drinax Chain. Some of this is inferred from published material, some of it has been established in play, so your Grehai Movement may look different.

Homeworld: Yggdrasil.

Planetary Government of: Yggdrasil.

Bases of Influence (HP): Acis (7), Asim (5), Caldos (8), Clarke (7), Dpres (6), Drinax (4), Hecarda (3), Hilfer (7), Oghma (7), Paal (6), Pourne (8), Thebus (3), Tktk (6), Torpol (7), Tyr (5). Inspired by the TAS, I’ve given the Movement bases of influence at all A and B starports between Yggdrasil and Paal. Note that Yggdrasil and Dpres also have bases of influence from the Third Imperium.

Force: 6. Cunning: 3. Wealth: 5. Hit Points: 29. Revenue: 5/turn. Expenditure: 0/turn. FacCreds: 0. XP: 0.

Assets (number of):

  • Bank/Wealth 4 (1). Yggdrasil.
  • Blockade Runners/Wealth 5 (1). The various subsidised merchants and free traders used to move the bioweapons team around. Currently on Acis.
  • Informers/Cunning 1 (1). Yggdrasil.
  • Planetary Defence Forces/Force 6 (1). Yggdrasil.
  • Postech Infantry/Force 4 (1). Yggdrasil.
  • Psychic Assassins/Force 5 (1). This represents the bioweapons team and their bugs. Currently on Acis.
  • Surveyors/Wealth 2 (1). This represents Prince Grehai and his flotilla. Also currently on Acis.

Tags: Imperialists, Planetary Government (Yggdrasil).

Goal: Blood the Enemy (Ihatei).

Ihatei

These are not really a faction per se, but a number of independent groups of squatters and mercenaries with a shared vision. They are not co-ordinated in any way… yet…

Homeworld: Erasaso, Oihyetihe, Kteiroa, Yestahwye. These are the principal camps where ihatei gather. The multiple homeworlds reflect the independent nature of the groups.

Planetary Government of: None.

Bases of Influence (HP): Asim (5), Earlyu (8), Eoiw (6), Khtiyrlo (7), Tisilli (9). The base of influence of Paal has been wiped out during play.

Force: 4. Cunning: 1. Wealth: 3. HP: 15. Revenue: 3/turn. Expenditure: 0/turn. FacCreds: 0. XP: 0. For all the fear they generate, the ihatei are not yet a major power.

Assets (number of):

  • Surveyors/Wealth 2 (2). Assorted small ships captained by ihatei from wealthy clans, initially located at Kteiroa and Oihyetihe.

Tags: Warlike. This is why everyone is afraid of them.

Goal: Expand Influence. Despite their bloodthirsty reputation, all the ihatei want to do is settle on some good land. This is represented in game terms by creating Bases of Influence and increasing their hit points.

Pirates

This is another strange faction, since it represents 50-100 bands of pirates and raiders, each with 3-5 small ships, operating independently of each other. Its next purchase should be replacing the fuel dump next to Theev, which the PCs blew up earlier.

Homeworld: Oghma, Theev, Tyr. Yes, this ‘faction’ also has multiple homeworlds, so eradicating it is going to be very difficult.

Planetary Government of: Oghma, Theev, Tyr.

Bases of Influence: Bantral (5), Belgard (3), Drinax (4), Ergo (5), Ftoakh (10), Kteiroa (1), Palindrome (3), Tyokh (10), Wildeman (6).

Force: 6. Cunning: 5. Wealth: 3. HP: 29. Revenue: 4/turn. Expenditure: 0/turn. FacCreds: 0. XP: 0.

Assets (number of): This faction has a lot of small flotillas, but they are not generally players in the ‘Game of Thrones’.

  • Blockade Fleet/Force 5 (1). Surviving Oghmans at Oghma.
  • Smugglers/Cunning 1 (1). Aslan underworld connections on Tyokh.
  • Strike Fleet/Force 4 (1). Admiral Darokyn’s fleet on Theev.

Tags: Pirates, Planetary Government (see above).

Goal: Wealth of Worlds. The pirates are currently hiding from the Punitive Fleet, and spreading cash around to bribe people to point the Fleet in the wrong direction.

Punitive Fleet

This is a catch-all ‘faction’ which covers the Imperial Navy and Scout assets operating in the Reach. It can’t be wiped out as such – the Imperium is too big for that – but it could in theory be driven back, as the Imperium decides the Reach is more trouble than it’s worth.

The Fleet will become active once it reaches Byrni, until then it is moving along the route pre-plotted in the Pirates of Drinax adventure The Game of Sun and Shadow, except for Cmdr Jagad and her surveyor (close escort) which has other orders and will be allowed to make double moves until the Fleet reach Byrni.

Homeworld: Tobia.

Planetary Government of: All worlds in the Third Imperium.

Bases of Influence (HP): Ancient Base (1), Bantral (5), Boulder (7), Camoran (6), Dostoevsky (6), Dpres (6), Gabriel (1), Nabeth (5), Sarage (5), Tech-World (1), Tktk (6), Yggdrasil (7). Basically, all the Imperial client states, bases and research stations beyond the Imperial border.

Force: 8. Cunning: 5. Wealth: 7. HP: 49. Revenue: 7/turn. Expenditure: 3/turn. FacCreds: 0. XP: 0.

Assets (number of):

  • Capital Fleet/Force 8 (1). The Punitive Fleet itself, currently en route to Byrni. This costs one FacCred per turn to run.
  • Deep Strike Landers/Force 7 (1). The Space Marines’ transport vessels, attached to the Punitive Fleet.
  • Pretech Researchers/Wealth 5 (2). The research stations on Dostoevsky and Sarage, which each cost one FacCred per turn to operate.
  • Space Marines/Force 7 (1). The marine contingent of the Punitive Fleet.
  • Surveyors/Wealth 2 (3). One of these is Commander Jagad and her close escort, currently delivering despatches to the Imperial bases of influence on Dostoevsky and Yggdrasil. Another is the Imperial Scout team currently exploring the Ancient facility discovered earlier by the Diplomats. The third is a group of pirate hunters looking for the fabled Pirate World.

Tags: Imperialists, Planetary Government (see above).

Goal: Blood the Enemy (Pirates).

Cheremoshna Spaceport, Early December 2987

We start the month with a Defend encounter, in which someone we’ve never met wants to harm us. Joes Labour? What did we ever do to them?

“Boss?” Shakadan calls from the cargo bay. “Some guys want to talk to you.”

Arion puts down what he’s doing and walks out to meet them; a pair of spaceport workers in overalls, one zhuh-zhuh and one muggie zhuh-zhuh. Looks like trouble; he catches Cori’s eye to alert her, and mouths “No guns.” She nods in reply and picks up a spanner, before walking purposefully over to Shakadan to pass the word under cover of pointing something out.

“We represent the local spaceport workers’ union,” the zhuh-zhuh explains, “And it has come to our attention that you have not paid your docking surcharge.”

“Really. Traffic control said nothing about that.”

“This is more of an informal thing,” the zhuh-zhuh says. “I’m sure you’ll agree that 2 IRD is a small price to pay to ensure the high level of service you’ve enjoyed so far continues.”

“You haven’t done anything for us so far.”

“What about those holes in your hull?”

“What holes?”

“The holes that might mysteriously appear if the said high level of service were not maintained. Now, nobody needs to…”

That’s as far as he gets, because Arion has lost patience and has no intention of giving any warning. He kicks the zhuh-zhuh hard in a sensitive spot as the zhuh pulls a knife on him, while Cori and Shakadan tackle the muggie from opposite sides. The fight is over in a matter of seconds, the larger zhuh curled up around his pain and the smaller one unconscious on the ground.

“Take your pal and go,” Arion threatens. “And next time I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you all.” The tone of his voice makes it clear he is not bluffing.

“My, my,” Shakadan says as the zhuh-zhuh limps away, carrying his friend over one shoulder. “You have a lot of bottled-up anger, don’t you?”

“Not as much as before they came, but yeah. A bit.”

Cheremoshna Spaceport, Late December 2987

We’re still trying to find Mr Osheen… clearly a Find encounter.

Leaving the ladies alone on the ship, Arion heads out, looking for his friend.

It’s not often you find a razor investigator, even less often that you find one in a good mood, but it turns out there’s a relatively cheerful one on Cheremoshna, and she suggests some places Arion could look.

“Not many Empire types this close to Gaea Prime,” she says. “A grath saved my life once; I never knew his name. Maybe it was this one. So this one’s on me. No charge.” Arion thanks her, and moves on to the distribution hub she suggested as his first port of call, to talk to some of the delivery drivers; but they don’t know anything.

He turns up his collar against the rain, checks his list, and moves on.

Team Dolphin

Arion and Shakadan get 1 IRD each for the brawl, and Arion gets 2 IRD for successful interactions. Shakadan goes up to Rep 5, but Arion has 3 DRD for running the ship, so he only breaks even.

  • Arion: Rep 5 Star, Ship Crew. People 4, Savvy 6. Hard as Nails, Quick Reflexes. B2, Pirate ship (Dolphin). Lifetime Rep 13. Clues 1.
  • Coriander: Rep 5 Doctor. Pep 6, Sav 3. Free Spirit. A3. Lifetime Rep 18.
  • Mr Osheen: Rep 7 Grath Mercenary. Pep 1, Sav 2. Rage. A3. Lifetime Rep 6. (MIA)
  • Shakadan: Rep 5 Xeog Ganger. Pep 4, Sav 4. Smooth. A3. Lifetime Rep 1.

GM Notes

For a Rep 3 figure with the Runt attribute, outnumbered 2:1, that muggie zhuh-zhuh put up a hell of a fight. We might have to recruit him.

Arion has now acquired one Clue towards finding Mr Osheen – each time you get a new clue, you roll 1d3, and if the result is the number of clues you have to date or less, the next PEF is the person you’re looking for. Since she and Arion got on so well, I decide to give the razor investigator a name – Arashtirmak – and add her to his list of contacts.

Although mechanically there would be a better chance of success if Cori did the talking, she would then pick up the IRD, and Arion needs to boost his own Rep before she advances hers again, or she’ll leave. He and I are insecure about that kind of thing!

So ends the first of Arion’s Ten Good Years. Checking the Retirement table on p. 16, if he were to retire now, he’d wind up as a drunk living on the spaceport streets. After 10 years at this level of IRD generation, he’d reach a Lifetime Rep of 130 and end up working a steady job and living in the suburbs. He can do better than that, but to do so he will need to focus more on gaining IRD; the three main ways to get IRD are wages for a job (which are influenced by Rep), interacting with NPCs (which depends on the People skill), and defeating opponents in combat (which depends on Rep and luck); Savvy is pretty much a dump stat for the purposes of victory points. So he needs to look for jobs, talk to NPCs, and shoot them.

The Pathfinder for SWADE Kickstarter keeps on delivering; I think this is drop 8, but to be honest I’m losing track now, and this may have been out for some time before I noticed it. Since it’s a single item rather than a group, I shall review it by name rather than as a drop. 132 page PDF, price unknown at time of writing.

What’s Inside?

This book is almost all setting fluff taken from several Pathfinder 1st Edition books, and is split into nine chapters:

  • The Pathfinder Society. This is the default patron organisation for the PCs, and is devoted to exploring places of mystery, looting them, and documenting the findings. This chapter explains the history and organisation of the Society, whose lodges act as a source of mundane equipment and quests.
  • The Inner Sea Region. This chapter is largely a timeline of the 10,000 years of recorded history in the region.
  • The Inner Sea Gazetteer. Each nation in the default region of play gets a half-page or so of descriptive text. The Rise of the Runelords campaign takes place in Varisia, but there seems to be a nation for every fantasy subgenre you might want.
  • Adventure Generator. This is the chapter I would expect to use the most; one draws three cards to generate the skeleton of an adventure, with the suit defining one aspect and the value another. The first determines the objective and how the PCs become involved, the second defines the opposition and their motivation, and the third, a complication which will make the PCs’ task more difficult. The tables for the card draws are followed by d20 tables for random encounters in each major terrain type.
  • Factions. This describes five major factions in some detail, including their alignment, headquarters, leader, prominent members, structure, scope, and resources; each gets a couple of pages. These major factions are the Aspis Consortium (evil fantasy megacorporation), the Eagle Knights (missionary templars of the nation of Andoran), the Fang Monastery (evil monks inspired by serpentmen), the Hellknights (whatever-it-takes law enforcers), and the Red Mantis (assassins’ cult). We also get a paragraph or two on each of a number of lesser factions.
  • Adventuring in the Inner Sea. Additional character options, largely trees of ‘prestige edges’ which allow your PC to become a Hellknight, a Red Mantis assassin, or a Harrower (a mystical fortune-teller), backed up by mundane and magical items appropriate to those careers.
  • Religion. A general overview, half a page each on the 20 main gods of the Inner Sea, and brief notes on lesser-known deities, archdevils, demons and others. I found the most useful parts to be the tables listing the gods, their domains and areas of interest, and favoured weapons; that’s the level of detail I’d want to give the average player – “Okay, you worship Sarenrae, she is the goddess of fire, glory, good, healing and the sun, and she likes scimitars.”
  • The Great Beyond. If you want to expand into planar adventures, this describes the planes. I’ve been playing and running D&D-a-likes for over 40 years now and I have never left the Prime Material plane, so I don’t expect to use this much, but there it is if you want it.
  • Artefacts. What it says on the tin; magical McGuffins of immense power such as the Book of Infinite Spells or the Philosopher’s Stone, things that an entire campaign should be built around finding, using and destroying.

What Do I Think?

Most of the Companion is background fluff which would very rarely come into play in a session; I might read it for inspiration but I wouldn’t expect the players to know any of it. If you’re a fan of Paizo’s Pathfinder 1st Edition, you probably have a lot of this already.

I expect to use the adventure generator and the encounter tables, possibly in other settings as well as Golarion; I might lift the factions as background actors; and when and if I run a game in Golarion the tables of gods’ domains and weapons would be handy.

So, I would probably use two and a bit chapters out of the nine. I particularly like the adventure generator, which strikes me as better done than usual for a Savage Worlds product, and widely applicable to other campaign settings.

This time, let’s look at the big beasts in the campaign: The Aslan Hierate and the Third Imperium. These ideas will only come into play in one of two situations; first, if the PCs manage to kick off the Big One, open warfare between the Hierate and the Imperium, and second, if we’re still playing in 1116 and go down the Rebellion timeline, in which case while the Imperium is distracted by civil war, the aslan will help themselves to more land.

If either of those comes to pass, I’ll tackle them using a modified version of an idea from Zak S’ blog, Playing D&D with Porn Stars: Gods’ Chess. The idea is that you superimpose a chessboard on the campaign map, and play a game of chess on it; the closing position of the chess game determines what is where in your D&D game – a bishop in one square might mean some sort of temple at the equivalent location in your campaign world, for example.

I do a couple of things differently, I think. First, I use the progress of the game as the outline of a large-scale conflict, with each turn representing a suitable period of time and pieces representing military units; second, as I am not much of a chess player and have no opponent, rather than playing the game myself, I pick one of the thousands of games recorded online from grandmaster tournaments and use that.

Now, we need not consider this in detail, as it isn’t needed just yet, and in fact may never be needed; but I did go so far as to overlay an 8×8 grid on the Trojan Reach and see what that told me, as this kind of thing is good for generating plot hooks and adventure ideas. At this scale, each square on the chessboard is four parsecs by five, and contains something like half a dozen worlds; so even a lowly pawn is a combined-arms task force capable of taking, and holding, multiple planets.

A few things stand out when you look at the overlay:

  • Drinax itself is in square f4. Tobia might be the official sector capital, but appropriately enough, military command starts off in Pax Rulin where the chess king is set up, and is likely to move into Gazulin if the chess game involves castling.
  • The Hierate has a lot of forces in the Binary subsector, there is only one world they can be on, and to reach it they have to go through the Imperial research station on Sarage or a chain of unmarked fuel dumps. The obvious inference is that there is something of great importance going on there which will need massive force to suppress. There must be an adventure in that, surely; possibly Deepnight Endeavour or the teaser adventure for Deepnight Revelation.
  • The Imperium has an even bigger concentration of forces in the Menorial and Egyrn subsectors. If I recall correctly from Adventure 4, Leviathan, there is a source of natural anagathics in Egyrn subsector, maybe that’s what they’re protecting; or maybe they are concerned about a Zhodani flanking push from the Foreven Sector – I believe some such pincer movement is hinted at in some of the published materials. The way to handle this is to drop hints to the players about an Imperial buildup in that region, see what theories they come up with, and co-opt the most entertaining one.
  • From my limited understanding, most chess games focus on controlling the centre of the board, which lies at the intersection of the Dpres, Sindal, Goertal and Tlaiowaha subsectors; so if push comes to shove, both powers will be fighting over the PCs’ home turf. Perfect.

Obviously the aslan are playing white, because if anybody starts anything, it’s going to be them. Note also that while on the individual level aslan behave like “samurai of the Age of War”, as the Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society issue 7 remarked, at the interstellar level they behave more like ancient Greek city-states; so while a black chess piece might be an organised task for belonging to the Imperial Navy, a white one is likely a conglomerate of forces belonging to one or more clans and operating more or less independently, with not much in the way of central control or strategy.

Cheremoshna Spaceport, Ring 1, Early November 2987

This month’s involuntary encounter is a night-time robbery…

Arion and Cori are pounding the streets of Cheremoshna spaceport in the rain, looking for Mr Osheen, when a hishen ganger steps out of the shadows and demands they hand over their valuables in a buzzing voice.

“I have a gun,” it says, and waves an SMG around to prove it.

“You idiot,” Arion sighs, pulling his Karakush 12.5mm from its shoulder holster. “We’ve ALL got guns.”

His double-tap misses the hishen in the darkness, but Cori’s burst cuts it down.

“Come on,” she says. “We haven’t got time for this.”

Cheremoshna Spaceport, Ring 1, Late November 2987

As originally decided, Arion now undertakes a Savvy Challenge to fit the new weapons. He passes 2d6 vs Savvy and succeeds; I could say the task is Difficult (-1 to skill) but I should then also say he has a profession which is relevant (+1 to skill), so it’s a wash.

Arion steps back from the new weapons mount with an air of satisfaction, wiping lubricant from his hands with a rag.

“Finally,” he says. “Six months I’ve been trying to sort this out. Thanks for the help, ladies.”

“What now?” Cori asks.

“Now, we find Mr Osheen.”

Team Dolphin

Cori gets another IRD for killing the hishen, but it does her no good. Arion’s 3 DRD cost him another point of Rep, and he is now in danger of losing Cori as well. Time to start hustling.

  • Arion: Rep 5 Star, Ship Crew. People 4, Savvy 6. Hard as Nails, Quick Reflexes. B2, Pirate ship (Dolphin). Lifetime Rep 13.
  • Coriander: Rep 5 Doctor. Pep 6, Sav 3. Free Spirit. A3. Lifetime Rep 18.
  • Mr Osheen: Rep 7 Grath Mercenary. Pep 1, Sav 2. Rage. A3. Lifetime Rep 6. (MIA)
  • Shakadan: Rep 4 Xeog Ganger. Pep 4, Sav 4. Smooth. A3. Lifetime Rep 0.

GM Notes

As usual when I play 5150, Coriander is steadily pulling ahead in terms of Lifetime Rep and is dangerously close to overtaking Arion’s current Rep, at which point she will leave the group. We can’t have that, it’s bad enough losing both Dmitri and Mr Osheen in the first game year of play.

“Do not cite the deep magic to me, witch! I was there when it was written!” – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (movie version)

All of Sine Nomine’s publications have useful stuff in them, so although I managed to restrain myself from backing the Kickstarter for this, I did take advantage of the free version of the core rules…

TL:DR – Fantasy sandbox RPG toolkit based on B/X D&D and Classic Traveller, eminently pillageable to expand other game systems. Published by Sine Nomine Publications, written by Kevin Crawford, free to download.

What’s Inside?

Worlds Without Number consists of three main parts; Old School RPG rules (pages 1-93), an example setting (pages 94-113), and GM tools (pages 114-343). You can see from the page count that the last of these is the focus for the product.

The Old School rules essentially merge the character generation and combat systems of B/X D&D (also trading as Labyrinth Lord) with the non-combat skill system of Classic Traveller. If you’re reading this, I can reasonably make the assumption that you’re familiar with those, and that’s part of the reason the author chose them as the chassis for this particular vehicle. The other main factors in his reasoning are firstly, that these two game systems have been tested and tweaked in actual play by millions of people for over four decades now, and like ’em or not, they just work, right out of the box; and secondly, there is a vast array of published adventures and other materials written for those games that can be imported into your campaign with very little effort.

There are a few modifications though. The basic classes are Expert (a thief-like PC focused on skills), several types of Mage (spellcaster), and Warrior (what it says on the plate mail can), but there is also the Adventurer, who is a mixture of any other two classes and gets partial benefits from each. Then there are Foci, which allow you to customise your PC further – this is how the game implements subclasses such as Assassin or demihuman races such as Elf. All in all, these use a simple, streamlined method to give the flexibility of later editions of D&D, while allowing you to ignore this if you just want to roll up a basic fighter and crack some skulls.

The example setting is Earth in the far, far future, when humanity has lost all its technological knowledge and fallen back to a Mediaeval level – this is a relatively common approach to a fantasy setting and has been used by Jack Vance, David Gemmell, and Gene Wolfe among others. At some point in the past, Earth was conquered by one or more alien species, who attempted to terraform (xenoform?) the planet to suit their own needs; humans escaped this by burrowing underground, only to emerge later and overthrow the invaders. This is the in-game explanation both for areas of weird lifeforms and strange environmental hazards, and for megadungeons. This section includes a colour hex map of the main region of operations (‘the Gyre’), its history, a gazetteer of important areas, religons, races – all the usual stuff for a setting. This allows the GM to kick off a campaign out of the box, and migrate the party off one of the map edges into regions of his own devising later, if so desired.

As with all Sine Nomine products, though, the real value lies in the sandbox tools for the GM. This section begins with considerations of why and how you create your campaign and its setting, with a sharp division between worldbuilding for fun and worldbuilding for whatever adventure will occur in the next gaming session. The approach is top-down; think about the world, then develop a region about 200 miles on a side where the campaign will occur, then develop a ‘kingdom’ within that region where the first few adventures will take place. Only the latter two get maps.

The general advice on the kind of setting to choose segues into detailed instructions for building one, and by page 123 we’re into the random generator tables Sine Nomine uses widely to help fleshing out a setting or an adventure. What’s special about that terrain feature? How does this nation get on with its neighbours, and what kind of place is it anyway? What distinguishing features do the locals have – colouration, adornment, physical quirks? What’s the government like? What were the major historical events that shaped the region? What are the religions like? If you want to, you can generate all those things at random using the tables in this section.

Next, we come to my favourite part of Sine Nomine’s worldbuilding tools: Tags. Each location or organisation has a couple of tags which combine to give you a capsule description, and a short list of possible allies, enemies, complications, McGuffins and places associated with that description. There are about 200 of these in the book, split into tags for communities, for courts (really any group of NPCs intriguing against each other), ruins, and wilderness locations.

This leads into GM advice, and then a step-by-step outline of how to create an adventure, supported by a range of random tables. Adventures are composed of ‘challenges’, each of which may be focused on combat, exploration, social interaction, or investigation. While dungeons are an option, these are composed of interesting rooms and chambers (which are detailed) and stretches of connecting tunnels and corridors (which are handwaved). This is an extension and simplification of the author’s earlier diagram dungeons approach.

There are treasures, and monsters, and rules for creating your own. There are rules for Factions, which are the NPC movers and shakers developing the setting’s politics around the PCs as they adventure; these are another of my favourite parts of the author’s work, and form an abstract method for creating and resolving the inter-faction conflicts which generate adventures; these are much like the ones in Stars Without Number. New additions here are Major Projects, large but vague goals the PCs want to achieve, and Background Actors such as petty nobles or rival adventuring parties, who are a middle ground between factions and individual NPCs. Those both look useful.

Underlying Philosophy

Like all this author’s work, WWN is aimed at supporting sandbox play with minimal effort from the GM. It assumes that the campaign has no story arc, and that the players take responsibility for setting goals for their PCs at the outset and telling the GM what they want to do next session at the end of the current one, so he has time to prepare for it – the GM will not prepare anything unless he knows he will need it for the next session, or unless he enjoys the preparation for its own sake.

It also assumes that the PCs will succeed or fail based on the cunning and skill of the players, not because they know the rules in detail and have created the optimum min-maxed PC build for their character concept.

This is the Old School. It is the way.

What Do I Think About It?

I think of this as the latest iteration in Sine Nomine’s burgeoning line of settings and GM tools. It takes concepts from Sine Nomine’s earlier works (chiefly Stars Without Number and An Echo, Resounding), then refines and expands them.

The author’s earlier fantasy works have each been tied to a specific setting, but while WWN does include one, it is more of a build-your-own-setting kit.

The author anticipates that most users of the book will actually use it to support other rules sets or other campaign settings, and certainly that’s true in my case. I’m not likely to use the actual RPG or the example setting, but when and if I find myself running fantasy again, I could see myself using the GM tools, especially Factions and Background Actors.

Tag Cloud