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Review: Swordplay 2018

Chain Reaction provides a preview or demo of the Two Hour Wargames core rules engine as it applies to games where combat is dominated by modern firearms. Swordplay is the companion set for fantasy, where melee weapons, armour, and spellcasting take a front row seat.

In a Nutshell: The current iteration of THW’s core mediaeval fantasy rules, intended to let you try them before you buy one of the larger works. 31 page PDF, free to download. As usual for THW, the format is two column black on white text with a colour cover and the occasional illustration. This edition includes a sample battle board (a small forest clearing) and a set of counters so you can print and play.

The core rules are very similar to Chain Reaction 2018, reviewed here, so I’ll focus on the differences between the two demos.

Characters

As in Chain Reaction, your Player Character (Star) has three advantages over the NPCs (Grunts); Star Power to soak damage, Extraordinary Effort to boost one die roll per encounter, and Free Will to choose when to leave the encounter. Stars typically have Rep 5 and can recruit up to four Grunts as followers. Unlike Chain Reaction, where figures have only one Attribute determined by their Class, Swordplay Stars can have up to three Attributes; one from their Race, one from their Class, and one at random.

The main reason this demo is ten pages longer than Chain Reaction 2018 is that Chain Reaction has only one playable race (human), but Swordplay has ten (dwarves, elves, feral vampires, ghouls, goblins, men, ogres, orcs, skeletons, trolls). Each figure has a race which gives it one or two Attributes, which affect its behaviour in combat, and a Class (Caster, Creature, Knight, Shooter, Soldier, Thief) which determines how it fights and what else it can do. Demihumans and Stars may choose their alignment, but other races are aligned to the Red Sun (good), Black Moon (evil), or Neutral. Race and Class also determine the figure’s armour type (light, medium, heavy or extra heavy).

As I said in the Chain Reaction review, sometimes THW demos have rules for increasing and decreasing Rep, and sometimes they don’t; this one does. The same applies to the Challenge rules, which allow your Star to do things that aren’t explicitly in the rules, and Interaction rules, which let you negotiate with NPCs; Swordplay has those.

Combat

This is close enough to Chain Reaction that I won’t repeat myself – here’s a link to what I said last time. There are a couple of differences, though.

First, magic. While ranged attacks still occur before melee attacks, spellcasting goes before both. You can use whatever spell names and visual effects you like, but for game purposes there are three spells; Damage (ranged attack), Dazzle (which forces opponents to miss a turn), and Defend (which buffs armour type).

Second, Swordplay has different encounters (Explore, Defend, Raid) and a simple campaign system for linking them together, driven by what your last encounter was and whether you succeeded.

Third, armour. This affects damage rolls from ranged and melee weapons.

Conclusions

Much the same as for Chain Reaction, really; movement is now completely abstract, which speeds up and simplifies the game considerably at the cost of eliminating most tactical decision-making. The rules claim to be equally good for solitaire, same side and head to head play; I can see them working well for solitaire, but I doubt the jaded grognards I normally play with would find them complex enough to be interesting. I think even young children would want to move their counters or figures around the board, although the rules would otherwise be fine for newbies to the hobby.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. Normally I rate Chain Reaction higher, because guns, but in this case the experience, interaction and campaign rules in Swordplay, simple as they are, are enough to inspire me. This one goes in the queue for later.

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Review: Chain Reaction 2018

It looks like 2019 is going to be a year of solitaire play, with short sessions snatched between discharging other responsibilities; that usually turns me back towards the Two Hour Wargames stable, as those products are fast, easy to use, and focused on telling a story about your solo hero and his companions.

In a Nutshell: The latest iteration of the core ruleset from Two Hour Wargames, 21 page PDF, free to download. Its purpose is to let you try out the core rules before you buy one of the more elaborate games with some setting and campaign rules.

As usual for THW, the format is very basic; two-column black on white text with the odd illustration and a colour cover. The 2018 version includes the battle board and counters from 5150 No Limits Maiden Voyage so you can start playing as soon as you have printed and cut out the counters.

Changes from Earlier Editions

The THW game engine was remarkably stable over a decade or more, but now some major changes are being introduced.

First, the movement rules. Like other recent THW products, these are no longer focused on figures moving across a 4′ x 4′ table, but are abstracted onto an 8″ x 10″ area called a battle board. This means the turn sequence has also been rewritten.

Second, the various tables for In Sight, Man Down and other reactions have been collapsed into a single Will to Fight table.

Third, shooting is now a simple check against the figure’s Rep, rather than the previous 1d6 + Rep + tactical modifiers.

Overall, the game is faster, simpler, easier to learn – but less tactically rich. (THW games divided some years ago into those aimed at roleplayers, and those intended for skirmish wargamers; so it’s possible that the skirmish wargames ones have retained movement and tactics, but I haven’t investigated that.)

Characters

As the player, you control one ‘Star’, which most games would call a Player Character. By default, this person starts with Rep 5 and three advantages over NPCs or ‘Grunts’: Star Power, which lets you soak damage; Extraordinary Effort, which lets you roll an extra die once per encounter; and Free Will, which lets you decide whether you and your companions will disengage from combat – Grunts without a Star to lead them are at the mercy of the dice. Grunts also typically have lower Reps, usually 3 or 4 but sometimes 5.

Each figure also has a Class (Citizen, Ganger, Mercenary, Military or Police) and an associated Attribute which affects how it plays in combat – police, for example, are always the last to leave the battle board. The full products have a wider range of Classes and a much wider range of Attributes.

Your group can be no larger than your Rep, usually your Star and up to four Grunts. The opposition ranges from two fewer than your band to two more.

Sometimes the free demo rules from THW have rules for increasing or decreasing your Rep by experience, and sometimes they don’t. This set doesn’t.

Combat

There are three standard encounters provided; confrontation, defend, and raid, with a quick method for determining who you are fighting and tables of pregenerated opponents. The full rules and setting books usually have over a dozen encounters, and campaign rules to tie them together into an ongoing story. Each encounter type has special instructions that modify the basic rules.

I should also mention PEFs – Possible Enemy Forces – which in earlier editions wandered around the tabletop, but are now resolved one after the other with no manoeuvring to chase or avoid them. As usual, resolving a PEF might mean you encounter enemy forces, increase the chances of doing so later, or be a false alarm.

The core of the game is resolving firefights, so let’s look at the turn sequence for that.

  • Determine which side has advantage. This is random; the side with advantage begins the fight in cover, except at night when both sides are in cover.
  • Leaders now roll off against their Rep; winner goes first, draws go to the side with advantage.
  • Each figure on the active side may now shoot, melee, recover from duck back, or leave the battle board.
  • Both sides now take a Will to Fight check, which may mean that one or more figures involuntarily leave the board.
  • The other side now becomes active, and we repeat the above two steps.
  • When at least one side has completely left the board, the encounter is over.

Shooting: At least one figure on the active side must shoot at each figure on the inactive side. If they have any figures left over, they can start doubling up. Figures able to shoot more than once per turn may shoot multiple opponents. If you are hit, you roll vs Rep to see if you are killed, incapacitated, or duck back into cover. There are no wound levels here; if you get hit by a bullet, you’re going down.

Melee: When you charge into melee, the defender gets a chance to shoot you, and if you make it into combat, you roll against your Rep to see if one side or both is incapacitated or has their Rep temporarily reduced (it’s restored at the end of the melee).

Conclusions

This does what it sets out to do; it explains how the core rules work so you can decide whether they are for you, or not. There are some discrepancies between the rules themselves and the examples; in these cases I think the examples are correct. However, I have a better understanding of the combat rules from reading this a couple of times than I acquired by actually playing Maiden Voyage for some weeks.

While earlier THW products were designed as tabletop wargames for head to head, same side, or solitaire play as either wargames or light roleplaying games, I’d say the current crop are designed as abstract solitaire roleplaying games first and foremost. That makes them well suited for my purposes, but I can’t help feeling they’ve lost something as a result. The loss of all tactical movement and associated rules makes it much faster and simpler, but largely eliminates player decisions, which in my opinion makes it less suitable for group play.

How much faster? Previous editions aimed to complete an encounter in no more than two hours, and it often took me longer than that. Current rules make an encounter in 30 minutes entirely plausible, and I have yet to go over that limit.

Notice though that this has been achieved by dropping the reaction system which gave the game its name in favour of an IGO-UGO turn sequence.

If you want the old way back, go for the 2015 version of Chain Reaction, which is still available. I warn you though, the “AI” built into the reaction tables is ruthless and punishes poor tactics ruthlessly.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5, but still a lot of game for the money.

Miscellaneous Reviews (Or Not)

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

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

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

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

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

Review: SWADE Cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: SWADE World Builder and GM Guide

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

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

What has it got in its pocketses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: SWADE Mini-Settings

Another goodie from the Savage Worlds Adventure Edition Kickstarter…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Fantasy Trip Legacy Edition

Just one more Kickstarter. I can stop any time. I am not addicted.

TL:DR

Old school fantasy RPG with point-buy character creation. The core mechanic is to roll a target number or less on 3d6; if the task is harder, you roll more dice but the target number stays the same.

What’s interesting about it is you can play it at different levels of complexity; it works well as a basic arena combat game, but you can also scale it up to a full-blown RPG campaign.

Once Upon A Time…

I was in my early 20s, and it was still possible to own every RPG in existence even on a student’s budget. A “microgame” called Melee came out; cut-them-out-yourself cardboard counters, very simple rules, and a very small board. It was fun as a duelling system, and just about viable as a combat module for replacing the “alternative combat system” in Original D&D (at that time you were supposed to use Chainmail for combat, but we didn’t). Melee became a quick gaming fix between lectures in the Students’ Union coffee bar.

This was followed by Wizard, which did the same thing for spellcasters, then The Fantasy Trip, comprising Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard, In The Labyrinth (GM guide), and Tollenkar’s Lair (dungeon crawl adventure); there was a steady stream of choose-your-own-path adventure modules as well. By this point we had graduated, and the basic duels on a coffee table had expanded to a continent-sized fantasy world with a long history and a lot of repurposed D&D modules.

Eventually we moved on to other games, and TFT gradually morphed into GURPS, but the game remains linked in my mind to simpler, happier times – or at least they seem so, in hindsight.

Contents

The legacy edition includes both basic and advanced Melee and Wizard, In The Labyrinth, Tollenkar’s Lair, a range of assorted play aids, and two Death Test programmed adventures.

The beauty of the system is that you can play it either as a fast and simple hack-and-slash arena combat game, or as a full-blown fantasy RPG with whatever level of detail you fancy, or anything in between, and in any pre-gunpowder setting of your choice to boot. A setting is provided, but painted in such broad strokes you could add it to almost any other world, or vice versa; the default setting, Cidri, is a vast artificial world created by a long-vanished, dimension-hopping, science-fantasy race with access to both technology and magic, but the small wilderness area and village provided at the lower level would be at home in most fantasy worlds.

Characters are created using a simple point-buy system and have three attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence), a number of talents (which most systems call skills and advantages now), some armour, and a weapon or two. Your Dexterity, for example, is 8 plus however many points you put into it, and to hit someone in melee you need to roll that or less on 3d6. Strength is your hit points and also determines what melee weapons you can use. Intelligence defines how many talents and spells you can know; each has a numerical rating, and your Int score is the total rating you can know.

It’s a very fast and simple system, and encourages experimentation – one friend favoured a high-Strength fighter build in plate armour, dual-wielding flails; his chance of hitting anyone was abysmal, but if he ever did hit you, it’d leave a mark.

The battlemats use a hexagonal grid, and dungeons are mapped on hex paper too, so there are a lot of strange-shaped rooms and 120 degree bends.

One peculiarity we noticed in extended play was that spellcasters wound up with high Strength (to maximise power points for casting) while fighters wound up with high Intelligence (to maximise the number of talents they could take).

Tollenkar’s Lair has a unique map in which all six dungeon levels are visible simultaneously. In the old days that was a real pain as the map was printed in black and white, with different hash marks for different levels; it’s a bit better now the levels are colour coded.

Format

Size is much as it used to be; pocket-sized microgames, 8″ x 10″ advanced books. However, it all looks much prettier now; there’s more colour, and higher-quality art.

Suggestions for Improvement

That’s all been done, really. TFT grew up to become GURPS, which is not my cup of tea these days but is reasonably popular and a logical extension of Melee.

Conclusions

I shouldn’t have bought this, because there is next to no chance I will ever play it again, dreams of introducing my grandchildren to RPGs notwithstanding, and it doesn’t support any of my gaming goals. I was weak.

I suspect there are a lot of aging gamers like me, who back Kickstarters to reissue old games from the 1970s out of pure nostalgia. (Where’s Godsfire, eh? Where’s SpaceQuest?)

However, I feel a cosy inner glow that this game is mine once more, the same comfortable rules with improved art and layout. As Marie Kondo would say, it sparks joy, and that alone is enough reason to have it.

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