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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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.

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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.

Review: All Things Zombie Evolution

In a Nutshell: Zombie apocalypse roleplaying/skirmish wargaming hybrid 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 All Things Zombie: Final Fade Out. 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 trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. Just remember: In the zombie apocalypse, it’s not the zombies you need to worry about…

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 All Things Zombie you’ve found one of the survival horror games.

Now read on…

Contents

The book isn’t really split into chapters, so I won’t review it that way; and it’s pretty big for a THW game at 104 pages (116 if you spring the extra cash for the edition with the set of 12 battle boards), so I’ll hit the highlights, calling out where it differs from All Things Zombie: Final Fade Out.

Characters

Character generation is straightforward; your PC (or ‘star’ as THW calls them) has a Rep, and optionally  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. Unlike previous editions and other THW games, there are no attributes (which would be Edges or advantages in other games).

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 extra dice for success, and Free Will means you can bypass reaction table rolls to flee an encounter and do what you want instead.

Combat

The heart of the game is the combat system, and if you want more detail on that, download the free version of Chain Reaction here. Be warned though, the AI running the NPCs is ruthless in punishing poor tactics.

ATZ Evolution can be played in with figures moving about a tabletop (although the table is now smaller than in Final Fade Out, 3′ x 3′ rather than 4′ x 4′), but what happens in one of the nine sections of the tabletop doesn’t impact other sectors (e.g. gunfire drawing zombies) and the active part of a section is represented by an 8×10 battle board. The detailed movement rules of Final Fade Out have been replaced by moving one section per turn.

You can also play “theatre of the mind”, ignoring the tabletop and just going straight to the battle boards. The difference between the two is that on the tabletop PEFs (tokens which might be NPC opponents) move around according to some random rolls, while in theatre of the mind you just engage PEFs one after the other.

Either way, once on the battleboard, there’s no real tactical movement, sides line up on opposite edges of the board and engage each other. This is probably the biggest single change from previous editions. Take heart, the earlier tabletop movement rules are included as an appendix for convention games.

Other differences from earlier editions: There is effectively a limit to how many zeds you can attract by gunfire, which ought to make things easier for the humans. As well as the basic form of zeds (the traditional shambling zombie), you can also meet ragers (much faster moving, insane cannibals rather than actual zombies – like the ones in 28 Days Later), or smart zombies (who retain some memory and can use weapons – these are a playable race if you want to try that).

Campaigns

Where ATZ really shines, though, is in the campaign system. You start on day one of the outbreak as a Citizen, and in Evolution your goal is to survive 10+ years and become the leader of a sizeable settlement. After the first 30 days, PCs choose whether to become Survivors, who hang on to their moral code, or Gangers, who don’t. Police and Military are always NPCs in this game, run by the rules.

In each game month, you can have two encounters; one involuntary (forced on you) and one voluntary (you choose). Each encounter specifies your objective, forces on each side (including NPC statblocks), and any special rules. Typical encounters include exploring new areas, clearing an area so you can move in, raiding or being raided by another group, and so on. There are also three introductory encounters that take you through the first 30 days and teach the rules.

Evolution has adopted some of the mechanics from more recent THW titles like Fringe Space or No Limits, specifically nerfing star (PC) abilities a little, introducing the concepts of increasing, decreasing and lifetime Rep for character advancement, and job offers; however, you still have to track food, medical supplies and luxury goods separately. Evolution is larger than most THW games partly because it includes a lot of extra material from Final Fade Out’s supplements; if so inclined, as well as zombies you can face off against aliens, spellcasters, werewolves and/or vampires, and there is a sample town where you can base yourself, complete with place descriptions and NPC statblocks.

Format

Very basic layout, two-column black on white text, very few illustrations by game standards. You get a sheet of 20 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).

Suggestions for Improvement

I’d like to see stats for dogs. They still turn up as random events.

Conclusions

ATZ is still the best zombie game around for my money, but this feels like quite a different beast from earlier versions of the game. There’s a much wider range of encounters, and the lone wolf protagonists have been replaced by an assumption that survivors quickly take over towns and your PC visits them regularly. It’s much easier to play without figures and terrain than before, and much faster to create NPCs when you need them.

If you invoke aliens, note that these are razors from 5150, suggesting that Earth is somewhere in Hegemony ring 7, 8 or 9, and that the 5150 universe is going on in parallel. That could give Arion an excuse to visit later.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. I’ve always enjoyed ATZ immensely, and intend to kick off a campaign with this later in the year, once the Arioniad reaches the end of season two.

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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