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Archive for January, 2019

Review: 5150 No Limits – Maiden Voyage

In a Nutshell: Science fiction roleplaying/skirmish wargaming hybrid. 81 page PDF from Two Hour Wargames, written by Ed Teixeira. Based on the company’s Chain Reaction rules engine (reviewed here) and to my mind an upgraded and simplified version of 5150 Fringe Space (reviewed here). The best thing about the games from this stable is that they work equally well played solitaire, co-operatively, or competitively. In this particular one, you’re a freelance space trader operating on the edge of the law and looking to make enough money to retire in comfort. Preferably somewhere without any extradition treaties.

If You’ve Never Played a THW Game Before…

They’re skirmish wargames with roleplaying elements, designed from the ground up to be used for solo or same-side play as well as the usual head-to-head wargaming.

In most such games, side A moves, shoots and conducts melee, then side B moves, shoots and conducts melee. In the THW “reaction system”, side A activates and moves some of its figures; side B reacts to that movement, which in turn may cause side A to react to that reaction, and so on. That goes back and forth until it peters out – usually one side dies, is incapacitated or flees – and then side A moves another group of figures. It plays much faster than that description would lead you to think.

The combat scenarios are stitched together by some really clever setting and campaign rules which generate background on the fly as you play. In terms of equipment, your characters have whatever you think they should have, but they can only carry a handful of items at any given time.

Each player only really has control of one figure, the rest move according to dice rolls and the rules. That’s like Marmite: You’ll either love it or hate it.

The basic rules have variants for most common genres; if the title is prefixed with 5150 you’ve found one of the science fiction games.

Now read on…

Contents

The book isn’t really split into chapters, so I won’t review it that way. The heart of the game is the combat system, which is supplemented by a barebones setting, character generation, spaceship and space combat rules, scenarios, and a campaign system.

Setting

The 5150 universe is dominated by the Gaian Hegemony, which competes with multiple other powers, often violently. Gaia Prime is at the centre of a series of ‘rings’, each of which has its own selection of races. Each ring has an effectively infinite number of worlds, and each world is defined by which race owns it, a Class (which determines what kind of NPCs you can meet), and a Law Level. The latter two are both generated by rolling 1d3, which is easier than Fringe Space’s table lookups.

Characters

Character generation is straightforward; your PC (or ‘star’ as THW calls them) has a Rep, one attribute of your choice and one rolled at random, a race and a profession. NPCs have only one attribute. Optionally, characters can have two skills as well, People or Savvy.

Your initial Rep is probably 5, but you can choose another level if you want. Rep dominates combat, controlling your initiative, hit chances in melee and ranged combat, and recovery from wounds. Rep can go up or down during your adventures, and its final level determines your level of success in the campaign game.

People and Savvy deal with interpersonal and technical challenges respectively. Attributes are like Edges or advantages in other games, each gives the star a little edge under some circumstances. Tucked away in the summary tables at the back is a note that a relevant Profession gives a beneficial modifier on Challenges – that’s the rule you use when none of the other rules seem to cover what you want to do, and would be a skill task in most modern RPGs.

Stars have three advantages over NPCs, Extras, or as THW calls them ‘grunts’. Star Power allows you to soak damage, Extraordinary Effort allows you to roll an extra die for success once per encounter, and Free Will means you can bypass certain reaction table rolls and do what you want instead. These have been toned down a little in their effects since I last played a THW game; Free Will in particular now only affects the Will to Fight table.

There are six playable races; basics (humans), grath (regenerating ragers), hishen (cruel slavers), razors (fast-moving aliens with a psychic blast), xeogs (blue-skinned space babes) and zhuh-zhuh (sentient apes).

Gear consists of weapons (limited to pistols, SMGs or melee weapons) and assorted enhancements: Enhanced body parts and loops are both cybernetic upgrades, while stims are combat drugs. Basics use these to increase their chances against the other races, all of which have some sort of combat edge over humanity. Other gear such as commlinks is handwaved to the point of not being mentioned at all. There are six different types of spaceships, rated for Thrust, Firepower and Hull size.

Combat

Unlike other THW games, combat is played out on a small 8×10 battle board, with the two sides forming lines on opposite edges. Initially, THW produced tabletop skirmish games relying on figures and terrain, but recently the roleplaying games have shifted away from that to something you can play without either. Also unlike other games from the stable, both sides take a Will to Fight test (effectively a morale check) at the end of each round of combat; I suspect this will make fights shorter.

If you want more detail on the combat system, I strongly recommend you download the free version of Chain Reaction and check it out. Its strong point is that it has the best AI for solitaire or same-side play I’ve ever encountered; simple to use, brutal, and relentless in its punishment of poor tactics.

Space combat is entirely abstract, with ships cycling round a system of tables until one side is destroyed or achieves its objective.

Campaign Game

The campaign is a story you tell by linking your combat encounters together. There are 13 basic encounter types, each of which has an objective, rules for NPCs you may encounter, and any special rules. Some encounters trigger other encounters. There are still PEFs (Possible Enemy Forces, tokens which may be groups of NPCs or just the wind in the trees), but while in earlier THW games these used to move around the tabletop according to dice rolls, in No Limits you just meet them one after the other. I suspect this will remove some of the drama, but it also makes setup a lot simpler.

During a campaign month, you have an involuntary encounter, optionally move to a new area (which may yield a second involuntary encounter), and either have a voluntary encounter or lie low. Some encounter types can only occur as voluntary encounters.

Fringe Space had a complex movement system involving moving between sectors in rings, between rings, and so on, but this has been replaced by the simple statement that you can go anywhere you like in one month.

Your objective in the campaign game is to survive ten years and retire in the best possible style.

Unlike earlier editions of 5150, No Limits has an example campaign with some pregen characters and a sequence of 16 encounters to get you started and show you how things are done. All the NPCs are fully statted up and can be reused later on.

Format

Very basic layout, two-column black on white text, very few illustrations by game standards. You get a sheet of 40 counters and a sample 8×10 battle board (there’s a set of 12 that can be bought separately, or you can make your own, or you can play with figures and terrain on a tabletop; the author says in the forum that he often plays in PowerPoint, and I could see myself playing in Roll20).

Suggestions for Improvement

There’s a bit about military careers in the introductory flavour text that seems completely disconnected from the game. Maybe they use the same text for the companion game of squad-level military combat, 5150 Missions – Infestation.

There are several different explanations for how to determine world law level.

I miss the ship map from Fringe Space, which I thought was very cool (the city map is still included).

Weapons and armour are very basic. Nothing stopping me importing them from other titles in the range I guess, say Chain Reaction.

Conclusions

Like all THW games, this one packs a lot of meat into a very small package. Unlike most of the others, it de-emphasises weapons, armour, and encounter terrain; in this one, it really is all about the story. It is also unusually focused on solitaire play; I don’t see how head-to-head would work, and I think co-operative play would be harder than usual.

If you’re hankering for a more military focus, I expect Infestation covers more gear and more combat-oriented encounters, but I haven’t read it yet.

In its drive towards simplicity and great story mechanics, this game looks like it will be very fast and easy to play. But I can’t help feeling it has lost something along the way.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. I plan to use this in 2019, because it’s a good fit to my current requirements, but to be honest it doesn’t enthuse me as much as earlier games. Perhaps I’m just getting jaded.

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Arion, Episode 41: New Hope

The Arioniad – Season Two: No Limits

Elsewhere

A man with a short brown goatee and a woman with a pixie crop sit before a bank of consoles, manipulating code through a haptic interface.

“You should get yourself a proper rig,” says the woman. “None of this neolithic haptic crap.”

“I like it,” the man replies. “I can feel the code better, and this bit’s delicate; I need to splice memories from about five different runs. If I get that wrong, one of ’em might notice the discrepancies and wake up early.”

“Why bother? Just initiate a new set.”

“Audience feedback. They don’t want to see the first date again. Do it in flashbacks, they said. Get on with the real story, they said.”

“Wait, they think there’s a real story?”

“Apparently. Go figure.”

Discontinuity

Arion wakes with a start and a slight feeling of giddiness. He looks around, feels a familiar warmth snuggled up to him: Coriander, breathing deeply, still asleep. There’s an insistent noise from the door.

“Door, one-way clear, sound,” he says. The door clears, at least in the direction he wants, to reveal Dmitri outside in a corridor.

The gravity feels wrong.

“Dmitri, what time do you call this?”

“Oh five hundred.”

“And why are you waking me at oh five hundred while we’re on leave and the ship is being overhauled?”

“What? What were you two drinking last night? We’re shipping out in two hours, and the Boss wants to see you at six, remember?”

“No.”

“Sometimes I wonder about you, buddy. Now come on, there’s a lot of preflight to do and I’m not doing it all myself.” He turns and leaves, and the door decides it’s appropriate to go opaque again.

“What was that?” Coriander yawns.

“Duty calls. Apparently our date is cancelled, we’re off in two hours. Hey, what’ve you done to your hair?”

“Slept on it. What date?”

“I don’t remember to be honest, but I’m sure there was one. There was a big forest park, with giant riding beetles. Maybe I dreamed that part?”

She laughs. “Probably. I think you’re spending too much time in VR, losing track of what’s real and what’s not.”

“Maybe.”

But Arion can’t shake the feeling that Cori was a redhead last night.

Aksunar Karagoz’ Office, 0600 Hours

“This,” says Karagoz, scaling a world map from his desktop onto the wall where they can all see it, “Is New Hope. The official Hegemony position is it’s ours. The official Xeog position is it’s theirs. The local government says they’re part of the Hegemony, but refuses to recognise any extraplanetary jurisdiction, so they’re saying it’s theirs without actually saying so.”

“I want you three to go there and do two things for me. First, set up a tripwire cell to alert the Hegemony to anything the Xeogs try there, and if necessary execute an appropriate first response. Dmitri, you will go to ground in the capital, New Hope City, and set up the cell.”

“Second, New Hope has no viable exports, but a high standard of living fuelled by imports. Rumour has it that most illicit trade in the region has some sort of connection to New Hope. Arion, Coriander, you will embed yourselves in the smuggler community and find out what’s going on.”

Arion muses on that for a second. “How can we do that without breaking the law?”

“Whose law?” Karagoz asks. “Hegemony law, which the local government itself ignores? Local law, which is different on every inhabited planet? Xeog law? I’m not even sure what that is.”

“That sounds a lot like ‘you can’t, and we don’t care’,” Arion points out.

“Arion, this is a covert intelligence operation in disputed territory. You’ll have to break somebody’s laws. Try not to get caught.”

GM Notes

This storyline is in a separate continuity, as anime would put it, from season 1. Meanwhile, my plans for 2019 have not survived contact with reality; between getting married, having babies, moving house and starting their own businesses, a lot of players have dropped off the radar, resulting in me parking a number of campaigns. What’s left on the horizon are half a dozen sessions of Beasts & Barbarians, and whatever solitaire gaming I can fit in around another increase in workload, for which I have selected THW’s 5150: No Limits – more of that decision anon.

Review: Savage Worlds Adventure Edition

TL:DR

The latest edition of the Savage Worlds core rulebook, the Adventure Edition, formerly known as the Black Edition. 210 page PDF from Pinnacle Entertainment Group, $10 at time of writing.

You will not be surprised to learn I was an early backer of this on Kickstarter… I reviewed the last edition here, so let’s look at the changes since then.

As usual, I backed this at a high enough level to get all the PDFs, so expect reviews of those later.

If You’ve Never Played Savage Worlds…

It’s a multi-genre roleplaying game with a point-buy character generation system, best suited to pulp action adventure.

To succeed at a task, you need to roll the target’s Parry score (when rolling to hit someone in melee), or the target’s Toughness (when trying to wound them), or a 4+ (for anything else). More experienced characters roll dice with more sides, giving them a better chance of success. If you beat the required roll by 4 or more (called a “raise”), you get a better result. Any die which rolls its maximum (an “ace”) allows you to keep that score, reroll the die, and add the new result to your total.

PCs roll a d6 as well as the die for their skill or attribute whenever they roll, except when rolling damage; you can choose to use the result from the normal die, or the d6. PCs also start each session with three “bennies”. You can use a benny to reroll any one die, try to recover from wounds, or influence the narrative. PCs have 3 wounds, NPCs have one.

The combat system encourages swashbuckling and teamwork. You can attempt multiple actions per turn, although the more you try, the worse the penalties to your die rolls. You can also taunt or intimidate foes to reduce their chances of success, or support friends to increase theirs, meaning a PC can play an important part in fights even without combat skills.

Do I Need This?

To be honest, only if you want to keep up to date with Savage Worlds. There are no dramatic content changes from the previous (Deluxe) Edition, just a number of tweaks for speed and clarity, and the incorporation of a few rules from the key settings. I expect Pinnacle to release a free-to-download conversion guide at some point, but even without that you could carry on playing previous editions without much trouble.

What sold me on it were the changes to the Situational Rules, now renamed the Adventure Toolkit – essentially the improved collection of GM tools.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

The most immediately noticeable change is the format; Savage Worlds will henceforth only be available as a PDF or as a hardback with the “graphic novel” form factor, i.e. 6 5/8″ x 10 1/8″ (168 x 257 mm if you live anywhere except the USA). I shall miss the old Explorers’ Edition softbacks, which were extremely portable and great presents for fellow gamers; but they’re no longer commercially viable, and nothing survives that for long. The new format works well on modern smartphones and tablets, with their “letterbox” screens.

The artwork and layout have been completely overhauled. I especially like the illustration of a couple of kids in chemotherapy being cheered up by a roleplaying session. That is an excellent idea.

There have been a lot of mechanical changes from SWD to SWADE. Individually, none of them are dramatic, but together I expect them to change the feel of the game significantly.

General mechanical changes – shifts in philosophy, if you will:

  • There’s been a shift from the specific to the general. A lot of things that were scattered and repeated in the rules have been abstracted into more generic statements; status conditions and power modifiers are good examples. At first glance, it looks like the rules have become more complex, but actually they haven’t, they’ve just been consolidated and clarified.
  • There are now options for more narrativist play styles. The rules for Networking and Quick Encounters show this best; if you think of your SW sessions as movies, you now have options for montages, in which hours of (say) relatively unimportant legwork is condensed into a single skill roll.
  • There’s more scope for player creativity. Want to change your power trappings on the fly? There’s an Edge for that. Want to use your Persuasion to support your buddy in defusing a bomb? Go ahead.

Specific rules changes worth calling out:

  • A few subsystems have been deleted; Charisma is now subsumed into specific dice roll modifiers, experience points have been replaced by guidelines on how often PCs should advance. We’ve also lost the archetypical PCs (boo!) and much of the World War II gear (meh).
  • Some rules have been rewritten; chases are the most obvious example, but there is now a hard cap on how many actions you can take per round (namely three), power points recharge more quickly (5 per hour) while powering spells for longer (usually 5 turns rather than 3), and there are a couple more things you can do with bennies.
  • Some things have been added; an abstract Wealth system for those who don’t want to track every last coin, and (at last!) a summary sheet of powers. All PCs now begin with a d4 in five specific skills, and have 12 points instead of 15 to buy others.

Conclusions

I think this will take a little getting used to, but once I’ve internalised the changes the game should play faster at the table – mind you, this means it will chew through plot even faster than it already did.

Game masters and players alike have more options now, and more scope for creativity.

I have always wanted Savage Worlds to have options for solitaire play, and with the new options in the Adventure Toolkit, it’s getting very close to having them. I’ll have to try that and see how it works.

Overall? I will adopt SWADE, but not with a feeling of “OMG I have to play this right now!” more with a nod and a comment of “Yeah, some solid incremental improvements here.”

Forecast for 2019

“Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” – Allen Saunders

Over the last month or so, I asked my players what they what to do next, and none of them gave the answer I expected. I shall adjust my plans accordingly, as there is no point forcing them into campaigns that don’t interest them. The players fall into three groups which I think of as Reading, VTT, and Wantage.

I expected the Reading group to go for the Dracula Dossier, but actually they asked for more Beasts & Barbarians.

I thought the VTT group would want to continue with Traveller, but when talking about their perfect game, they unknowingly described early-edition D&D.

Finally, I predicted that the Wantage group would prefer Beasts & Barbarians, but what they asked for was more Savage Worlds in a science-fiction setting.

So, despite my intentions, the forecast for 2019 is dense patches of Beasts & Barbarians, with scattered outbreaks of Labyrinth Lord and Savage Traveller.

I did not see that coming.

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