The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

Archive for September, 2018

Arion, Episode 39: No Show

Bulan, 273-3401

  • World encounter (p.58-60): A crime, but we manage to avoid losing anything.
  • Plan (p. 23): Go hang out at the Birdwatchers bar, drop off a package in the agreed dead drop, and see what happens. That’s a shaky, dangerous plan. A roll of 9 shows it fails, but further rolls of 11 and 5 show that there was a good outcome, specifically it took half the expected time.

“This isn’t likely to work,” says Dmitri, over boat drinks at the Birdwatchers. “The are at least two groups looking for Ihsan; one wants him dead – probably us too, because they have to assume we’ve found out what he knows – and the other knows he’s the better part of two months late for the rendezvous and their contact on Changa is blown. Either of them might have people here watching to see who shows up, but the smart move would be to roll up their network and start over.”

“Just put that back in my pocket and walk away,” Arion says, and turns to look at a local urchin. “These are my party clothes and I don’t want to get blood on them again. Understand?” The child turns to run, but before he can get away, Arion grabs him by the wrist and takes back his wallet.

“You’re new at this, aren’t you?” Dmitri asks the urchin. “Look, if you’re going to pick pockets, you need friends to box in the target and distract him.” He reaches into his own wallet and pulls out a note. “Here, get yourself something to eat, you’ll think better.” The urchin takes the note and runs off.

“And you, Arion,” Dmitri says, “Follow the local rules please. Most places where they still use cash and have pickpockets, the done thing is to leave a low-value note visible in one back pocket. That gets taken, and nobody gets their head smashed in with a pipe. Think of it as a toll.”

“Come on,” says Coriander. “Dmitri’s right, we’ve been here hours and no-one has shown up. Ihsan, you sure you want to stay on Bulan?”

“Yes. Look at it – it’s beautiful. Warm weather, beaches, boat drinks…”

“You sure you’ll be okay?”

“Sure. I’m a good mechanic. Everyone needs a mechanic sooner or later.”

Dmitri adds a cautionary note. “Ihsan, one thing. See all those guys with the high, tight haircuts? And the big lizards? Confed marines. If I were you, I’d keep my head down. Talking about Karpos or piracy will get you an all-expenses paid vacation in a Confed interrogation facility, and maybe a bullet in the back of your head.”

GM Notes

Here we see a current trend in RPGs; it’s possible to fail but in a lucky way, or succeed but at a cost. Fantasy Flight Games implement this using funky custom dice, and Solo deals with it by the way the plan resolution rolls interact. I prefer the latter.

I’ve decided not to pursue what Ihsan is up to, as previous solitaire games have shown me that the optimum party size for me over the long term is 3-4 PCs, and I already have a basic group of three humans and an AI. So this writes Ihsan out of the story. He’s untrustworthy, so he probably stole something – maybe a tool kit, if he’s going to set himself up as a mechanic – and he might try to sell information and wind up in an unmarked shallow grave, but if so it will happen offscreen.

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Review: Agents of Oblivion

“As far as I’m concerned, our characters should be running through burning alien fortresses, guns blazing, pausing only to say something heartbreaking and witty and true, and then more things blow up. This is why Savage Worlds tends to be my gaming system of choice.” – John Rogers, creator of Leverage

I got this because I am planning to start running the Dracula Dossier under Savage Worlds next year, and hoped it might save me some effort; it won’t. But since I have it now…

TL:DR

This is a 218 page PDF from Reality Blurs, a setting book for Savage Worlds which bills itself as “the perfect cocktail of horror and espionage”. The intent is that you should be able to play, as Rogers says in his foreword, “anything from Spellslinging Spy vs. Alien Brain Eater to Harry Palmer vs. That Unpleasant Fellow from Bulgaria.” Personally, I think it would work much better for the former than the latter – YMMV.

This is a game that I might cannibalise for parts, but am not likely to GM in its current form.

Could I Do This with Stuff I Already Have?

Well, depends what you have, obviously. But my answer was “Yes, I can, and I will.”

Tell Me More…

Slightly more than half the book is GM-only territory, with the first not-quite-half aimed at the players.

AoO is essentially urban fantasy; the modern world, but with some combination of elder gods, insane villains, and ancient aliens lurking in the shadows. The PCs are agents standing between these indescribable horrors and ordinary citizens.

Character creation follows Savage Worlds core for the most part; there are some new hindrances, edges and skills, and arcane backgrounds are slightly modified, but the general approach is the same. PCs start with four skills at d4 and a major hindrance tying them to their agency, which doesn’t count against their hindrance limit. They also pick a branch within the agency – assault, occult, or operations – which loans them a free edge so long as they work for it. In effect, they start somewhere between Novice and Seasoned. Ten archetypes are provided for those who just want to grab something and start playing right away, and a number of standard loadouts for those who feel the same way about gear.

Setting rules cover:

  • Extended trait checks – the core rules have moved on since AoO was written, and now offer dramatic tasks, which address the same problem (how to handle tasks over an extended period without risking everything on one die roll) in a different way.
  • Skill applications – things like how does my PC disguise herself as a customs officer? These will be useful to me, actually.

Gear is handled using “equipment picks” and “resource points” rather than actual currency, but the principle is the same; gear costs points or picks, and you have a limited number of them to spend. Picks can also be used to customise gear, points can also be used to have something on standby like a cover ID or an air strike, or to gain temporary use of an edge or power (justified in-game by special gear or focused training).

At this point we move into GM-only elements, starting with the secret history of the world, and moving on to describe Oblivion, the PCs’ patron organisation, and Pandora, their great foe, before speaking to how the GM should use the shared elements of the horror and espionage genres – action, violence, suspense – to merge them into a satisfying game. Before the campaign begins, the GM decides whether it will include aliens, conspiracies, the occult, horror, or technology, and if so, how much of each; the book provides half a dozen example campaign seeds – turn all the dials down and you get Spy vs Spy, the Cold War; turn them all up and you get the Company Line, in which everything is true and alien sorcerors in UFOs abound. The Company Line is the default option. There’s also a range of GM advice on how to run an AoO campaign.

Next is a region-by-region view of over 30 assorted secret organisations the PCs might bump into, each rated for its involvement with aliens, conspiracies, magic, horror, technology, and influence, with notes on its nature and agenda. A mission generator is provided, using dice for the mission’s structure, target, goal, plot, and what complications might arise, and in case you need more spy agencies and strange new creatures, there are a dice-based random generators to create your own.

Seven example adventures are given, each consisting of 2-5 barebones session descriptions, and a sampler of foes – mostly human(ish) opponents, these.

Pirates of Drinax 1: A Chance of Glory

It’s been a long time since the last Old Musky session, and after some discussion and an acknowledgement that this group are pirates at heart, not well suited to playing a naval patrol, we agreed to reboot the campaign in the Trojan Reach, which as a published sector rich in adventures should be less work for me.

There are eight players; two of the PCs are freshly generated, three are pregens from the core rulebook and the starter set, and three are recycled from the Old Musky campaign because why not. I plan to split the players into two groups of four, running in alternate weeks.

Aboard the Harrier: Brigadier Lennox Kirrin, military adviser to King Oleb; Dr Anthony Sanpo, Chief Planetologist of Drinax; John Sanders, engineer; Jack Harper, scavenger. It pleases me that the Doctor and the Brigadier are in the same team – obviously the others are the Doctor’s companions.

About the-whatever-Wivel’s-scoutship-is-called: Dr Moon Moon, Vargr physician; unnamed survey scout; unnamed Vargr pilot; Senior Scout Wivel.

NPCs encountered to date: King Oleb of Drinax (played by Brian Blessed); Crown Princess Rao of Drinax (played by Scarlet Johannsen); Rachando, free trader who runs an emporium on Drinax (played by Michael Emerson).

The first session was heavy on exposition as the players explained who their characters are and why they are here, learned about Drinax and its neighbours, and met the local rulers. Having broken the news to King Oleb that [a] Drinax is not going to be habitable again anytime soon (Dr Sanpo) and [b] Drinax’s military is well-equipped but neither large nor well-trained, the Travellers were secretly commissioned as privateers by King Oleb of Drinax as part of a plan to restore the Kingdom to its former glory. This plan requires them to befriend worlds while harassing shipping and minimising civilian casualties.

Team Harrier has been lent a ship to execute the plan – but it’s a “fixer-upper”. Their first task is to find the raiders who recently struck the nearby worlds of Torpol and Clarke and take them back to face justice. The Harrier is distinctive to the point of being almost unique, so their ability to undertake covert missions is limited.

The other lot are in a ubiquitous Type S scout/courier, so much easier to hide. They will be sent off towards Noricum, to find the descendants of the Sindalian Emperor and persuade them to acknowledge Drinax as the Empire’s rightful successor.

GM Notes

Team Harrier are starting the first adventure of the Pirates of Drinax, which worked well when I ran it over the summer for the crew of the Rattenbury Ghost, and the others are going to scope out the Sindal Subsector and play through the premade adventure seeds in the core rulebook.

I had sworn off running multiple parties in the same setting, but it seems to be happening again anyway, in the Trojan Reach this time; the crew of the Rattenbury Ghost have been there since the summer, and the VTT group started last weekend. Perhaps there will be fewer problems if they are in larger, pregenerated campaign setting? Let’s find out.

Arion, Episode 38: Pump and Circumstance

Jumpspace, 266-3401

  • Starport Encounter leaving Changa (p. 39): Not applicable because we didn’t land.
  • Starship Encounter leaving Changa (pp. 40-46): Type M subsidised merchant, politely ignores us.
  • Onboard Events in jump (p. 56): Fuel pump fails again.
  • PC Reaction Tables in jump (pp. 19-20): No problems this week.
  • Starship Encounter arriving Bulan (pp. 40-46): Mining cutter, politely ignores us. (Being ignored happens a lot, but then it is statistically the most likely result.)
  • Piracy warning arriving Bulan (p. 40): No.
  • Starport Encounter arriving Bulan (p. 39): Cargo is pilfered or damaged. Since we have no cargo, this is of little import.

Arion and Ihsan are back at the fuel pump again.

“We need to get this replaced, you know,” Ihsan offers. “It might last until the next overhaul, but do you want to bet your life on it? Or Cori’s?”

“No,” says Arion. “It doesn’t matter how good the warranty is when you’re three parsecs from the nearest stockist. We can run on one pump to the end of this jump, but I’ll get the scout base at Bulan to replace it when we land.”

GM Notes

Well, that was an unusually quiet week. The Dolphin obviously has dodgy fuel pumps because this event keeps happening; I hadn’t anticipated that the Onboard Events table would spontaneously create ship quirks, but it does.

Normally I would try to elaborate and weave something more out of even this sort of quietude, but things are busy of late in real life, so I’ll roll with it.

Review: The Universal World Profile

“Realistically, how much do you know about an international destination you have visited just once, perhaps on vacation? Let’s say you visit Jamaica. After having visited this holiday island for a week, do you know the name of the prime minister, or the names of its major cities and provinces? Do you know its history, decade by decade, the method it uses to elect its judiciary or the national level of literacy? Of course not. Why expect a player to pay the slightest bit of attention to these same facts? There are plenty of ‘quick guides’ to Jamaica on the internet, imagine if something similar existed for Deneb or Algol…” – The Universal World Profile

TL:DR

A world-building supplement for Cepheus Engine and other 2d6-based science fiction games *cough* Traveller *cough*. 62 page PDF by Zozer Games.

It’s a useful adjunct to Traveller world creation, with some good advice on how to interpret world statblocks; if you prefer another game, it will be less useful.

Could I Do This with Stuff I Already Have?

Sure; the value of the book is that the author (Paul Elliot) has done a lot of the research for you, and summarised it in a usable form. But, if you have the time, inclination, and either an internet link or access to a good library, you could replicate that.

Tell Me More…

I’ve become aware that without any deliberate intent on my part, Zozer Games has been slowly and quietly taking over a corner of my hard drive. ZG products are unassuming, but useful at the table, which gives them a longevity many other games lack.

This latest addition is based on the earlier World Creator’s Handbook, which was explicitly for Traveller. It’s divided into four main parts; Introduction, Star Systems, The UWP, and The Process. After that, we find a blank subsector map and some legal information, but I won’t go into those.

Introduction (2 pages): This explains the purpose of the book; generating Traveller-style planetary statblocks and then turning those into short descriptions that the players can use to understand the world, and the GM can use to inspire scenarios. The author also explains where his thinking comes from; his background in physical and human geography, geology, and ancient history.

Star Systems (2 pages): This gives a quick recap of how star mapping and system generation works in 2d6-based SF games.

The UWP (44 pages): Here’s the meat of the book; a recap of Traveller-style world generation, followed by a more in-depth look at each of the eight characteristics a world has under that system, and what can be inferred from them, which turns out to be quite a lot. Section by section:

Size suggests surface gravity, density, vulcanism, and notes one can use rotation, axial tilt and orbital eccentricity to explain the other stats, what weather you create by doing so, and likely impact on local lifeforms and colonists.

Atmosphere focuses on the possible pressure and composition of the local air, and likely effects thereof. It touches on a problem I’ve often noticed, namely that all airless and trace atmosphere worlds tend to turn out much the same in play; Elliot recommends placing settlements at interesting locations to make them stand out in the players’ minds.

Hydrographics splits worlds into dry, wet, and waterworlds, and speaks briefly to the implied physical geography; it’s one of the shorter sections.

Population is likewise divided into low and high; the author’s contention is that the high population worlds dominate the subsector and determine the culture of the subsector as a whole (and in his home game he caps population at 8 to control this), but the low population ones are the frontier locations where the fun happens; and since the low population worlds are dependent on their high-population cousins, the book recommends thinking about what that relationship is exactly, and flavouring each world accordingly to make it unique.

Government is covered in more detail, and is used to “provide form or shape to the lump of clay that is the population”. I won’t go into detail, but each possible government type gets about half a page of examples and suggestions. I tend to focus on how the author of such works – for there have been several – handles government type 5, feudal technocracy, which has no real historical counterpart; Elliot advises treating them as cyberpunk corporations headed by a noble family. I’ll have to try that, as well as his suggestion that charismatic oligarchies are historically transient governments, created as a reaction to an unpopular regime and quickly morphing into something else. (This made me realise that I’ve never really considered where my planetary governments came from or where they’re going, they just are; maybe I can freshen them up a bit by thinking about that.)

Law levels again are divided into bands; none, low, moderate, high and extreme, with a paragraph or two about the implications of each. This is a short section – understandably so as Law Level has actual rules about its effect in the source game.

Technology level is treated by the book as a guide to the technology currently in use, as this is easier to explain than why a planet of a few thousand nomads can produce its own grav vehicles. Each tech level in turn is discussed, explaining what technology is likely available at each; the author considers TL 12-15 as so closely related as to be arguably subdivisions of one tech level.

Starport type comes at the end of the generation sequence in Cepheus Engine, rather than at the beginning as in Classic Traveller. Starports are adequately defined in the rules as things stand, so the useful addition here is the set of examples comparing starport types to modern airports. The most useful part of this section is the advice on using the starport to introduce the planet and its unique aspects.

The author recommends not using the later addition to the process, temperature, as it constrains the outcomes too much; better to apply it later, with malice aforethought. This matches my own experience; I tried using temperature in Mongoose Traveller world generation and found that it slowed the process and stifled creativity without actually adding anything that helped me. YMMV of course, but judging by the published materials not even Mongoose themselves use the temperature or factions rules.

Trade classifications are derived from the other statistics, and while originally intended as an aide to interstellar trading (showing what goods are cheap, or expensive, locally), this does allow one to infer a good deal about local industry, agriculture and so on.

Bases are assumed to be naval, scout or pirate bases, and there are a couple of paragraphs on each type, considering their likely size and impact on the local economy and population.

Likewise, the two restricted travel zones – amber and red – are briefly considered, with short discussions of possible reasons for their status, and how interdiction might manifest itself.

Next, we move on to a brief discussion of interstellar governments and trade routes, something that isn’t much covered in the core rules. To be honest, it isn’t discussed in much detail here, either.

The Process (7 pages): Here, the author explains his process for creating worlds, first looking at the physical characteristics, then the social ones and trade codes, then flipping back and forth between the two to explain the social as a logical development of the physical, and finally creating a unique hook for the world, a gimmick to tie things together if the statblock doesn’t inspire – note that this is not necessarily a plot hook for a scenario. Three specific examples of the process are given, and leave me with the impression that the author treats a high law level as an indication that the government is unpopular; food for thought there.

-o0o-

You’ll notice that if you only want to generate a subsector for play, you can pretty much do it with this book. This makes it a useful supplement not just for Traveller, but for other games whose world generation systems either don’t exist or aren’t to the GM’s taste; it’s a mini-game you can drop in to another RPG for that purpose.

The book is liberally peppered with examples from the real world and science fiction movies and literature, which helps in visualising the author’s ideas.

The obvious comparison here is Stars Without Number, but it has a different approach. The Universal World Profile is more Old School, in that it generates random statblocks and seeks to explain them, thereby generating scenarios; Stars Without Number starts by assigning tags (its equivalent of what this book calls hooks and trade codes), which link directly to adventures, and only then generates the world background, which – at least in the revised edition – is then edited to fit the tags. In fact, I’m sure you could create an SWN sector just using the tags. Other contemporary SF games tend not to go into such detail about worlds, often because they have a set list of worlds baked in to the setting.

Either the SWN or the Traveller approach works well in game prep; SWN is faster, but the Traveller-style rules create worlds I find easier to use at the table, principally because they speak directly to the starport and government types and the law level. That’s probably because my players and I have a lot of Traveller experience and thus certain expectations of what one should know about a world, rather than because of any innate superiority of the rules.

Arion, Episode 37: Whistle Stop

Changa, 259-3401

  • World encounter (p.58-60): I can’t see any value in landing, so we won’t; that seems to rule out a world encounter, so I’ll roll for another ship encounter instead. It’s a Type C cruiser, which politely ignores us.
  • Plan (p. 23): Get the Hell out of Dodge.

“Does anyone actually want to stop at Changa, AKA Pirate Heaven?” asks Arion. “Show of hands?”

No hands are raised. Ihsan purses his lips and shakes his head.

“All right then. We’ve got enough supplies, and I can’t see any good outcome from docking, so wilderness refuelling and immediate jump outsystem it is. Dolphin, the nearest gas giant please, and step on it.”

GM Notes

Sometimes, in solitaire play, nothing happens. And that’s OK.

Review: Sundered Skies

TL:DR

180 page setting and adventure book for Savage Worlds; sky pirates in the post-apocalyptic ruins of a fantasy world. It’s part Slipstream, part Firefly, part 50 Fathoms, part Tales of the Ketty Jay, part plain vanilla fantasy setting.

Like All for One, I didn’t expect to like this, but I do. It has much more promise than I anticipated.

Could I Do This with Stuff I Already Have?

Probably not. Sundered Skies is weirdly unique.

Tell Me More…

The Sundered Skies (4 pages): This introduces and describes the setting. The premise is that millennia ago, a standard fantasy world was shattered, leaving behind only a few islands floating in the void, connected by skyships under the control of a Trade Council. The void is lit by an orange glow which drives humanoids slowly mad with rage.

Characters (20 pages): This follows the standard Savage Worlds method; playable races are drakin (who eventually grow up to be dragons, but remind me of Traveller droyne), dwarves, elves, glowborn (souped-up goblins), humans, orcs, and wildlings (anthropomorphic animals). There’s the usual range of new edges and hindrances, and six fleshed-out characters, ready to play.

Gear (12 pages): The usual fantasy staples, plus items suited to fantasy sky pirates, notably flintlocks and skyships, together with rules covering trading between islands.

Magic and Religion (12 pages): Available arcane backgrounds are engineer (Weird Science), sorceror (Magic) and priest (Miracles). As usual in Savage Worlds, priests select a god to worship (there are 9) and there are new spells (about 20 of them).

Setting Rules (6 pages): These cover glowmadness (which drives characters into a rage); and skyships – combat, travel, repairs and crews.

Gazetteer (6 pages): The basics known to every PC; capsule descriptions of the various islands, guilds, notable NPCs, organisations and so on, in alphabetical order, much like the old Traveller library data.

A World in Hell (4 pages): This is the beginning of the GM section, and explains the secret history of the world – what really happened.

Islands of the Skies (12 pages): This is the GM’s equivalent of the Gazetteer, with random encounter tables for travel in the void and on islands, and more detailed information on the main 17 islands of the setting.

Adventures (14 pages): This is an unusually thorough random adventure generator, one of the best I’ve seen. It also looks like it would be easy to repurpose for Traveller freighter crews.

Savage Tales (43 pages): This is actually a plot point campaign in 30 scenarios, each keyed to a location – the idea is that the PCs meander around the void, and when they land on an island, there are a couple of adventures waiting for them; over time, these form a long-term campaign, punctuated by the 8 plot point scenarios.

Characters and Creatures (38 pages): Roughly 90 monsters and stock NPCs, followed by a dozen major NPCs who appear in the plot point adventures.

The book ends in an index.

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