The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

Pontus, February ’01

Arion, Coriander and Dmitri find themselves in another bar, on another planet; this time, the Gaian Hegemony colony world of Pontus, and the bar where Cori has agreed to meet Captain Chapman of the Russell’s Teapot, who promised to hook them up with a patron.

This is a voluntary Chillin’ encounter (pp. 32-34) during daytime, and our heroes encounter 1d3+1 = 2 PEFs, one of which is the job offer itself. Rolls of 2d6 then 1d6 on the Class 2 Planet table on p. 28 tell me the other Possible Enemy Force is a group of Basic Joe Labour types, and my own group size (3) +1d3 -1d3 shows they are 4 in number.

Cori looks around, taking in a group of four ordinary citizens in a booth near the window before spotting Chapman and her crew, who raise a hand to attract her attention, and leading the others across to them.

For the first time I grasp why you might want to bypass PEFs. You’ve arranged to meet someone in a bar. You walk in, and there they are, waving at you. Is it realistic that you wander up to a group of total strangers and interact with them first? I put it to you that it is not, that you would in fact sweep past them and focus on the person you are there to see.

Pages 44-46 deal with finding a job. I’ve already decided it needs to be something that takes the Dolphin back to New Hope, where the pregenerated campaign continues, so I reroll 2d6 then 1d6 on the Employer and the Job Table (p. 45) until I get something suitable, because you can’t stop me, hahahahaha! Bypassing an improbable number of Criminal patrons who want me to persuade business rivals to leave town, I eventually alight on a Mover who wants me to Haul Passengers, taking two of his employees offworld, and I apply GM fiat to make the destination New Hope. That will be worth 11 increasing Rep d6; base pay of 2, +5 for the Mover’s social status, +2 for the number of passengers, +2 for the number of Rings involved in the trip.

“Hi,” says Chapman, before Cori can say anything. “Names are not necessary for this deal. This gentleman in the nice suit wants a couple of his people taken to New Hope – they are the ones in the not-quite-so-nice suits. You don’t need to know who they are, or why they’re going. What you do need is the eleven blocks they’re willing to pay you.”

“That’s a lot of money,” says Cori. “Two questions. First, why aren’t you doing the job yourself, and second, are we OK to land normally at New Hope starport, or do you want to avoid meeting anyone in an official capacity?”

I check the table on p. 43 to see if these guys are contraband – 2d6 vs Arion’s Rep yields 1, 6 and since those are not doubles, the passengers are legit. Passing 2d6 (Arion has Rep 6 at the moment) means 1d3 passengers (2) to be delivered 2 Rings away from Ring 1 – perfect, Ring 3 is where New Hope is.

“First, I’m going the other way – I have a contract I’d rather not break. Second, they’re not travelling illegally, they’d just rather their business rivals didn’t know they’re travelling at all.”

“Fair enough. When do we leave?”

“Now.”

Character Update

No changes this encounter.

GM Notes

It seems sensible for Cori to take the lead in this encounter, as she is the one that Captain Chapman knows. However as it turns out there are no dice rolls so all is well.

The rules refer to 1/2 d6 throughout, but I prefer to write 1d3.

Checking the rules, I see that the actual monthly sequence of events is involuntary encounter, campaign movement, voluntary encounter. As this is the voluntary encounter for February, I should have saved the increasing Rep d6 rolls until now; no harm done, I feel, since no more increasing or decreasing Rep d6 dice emerged in this encounter.

On this passenger run, we will meet two PEFs using the Contact in Space encounter rules, and possibly an Involuntary Encounter before we arrive back at New Hope. But first, the Involuntary Encounter at the beginning of March beckons.

I’m getting rather carried away with this, aren’t I? In hindsight the review rating for this game should have been 5 out of 5, I will update it when I remember to. The campaign rules for No Limits are certainly easier to understand and faster in play than their equivalents in Fringe Space. Although I think that had a better title.

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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.

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie –
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!
– Rudyard Kipling, A Smuggler’s Song

Deep Space, February ’01

A series of humming noises deep within the Dolphin told the crew that the attitude gyros were lining them up on the jump point to Ring 2. There was plenty of thruster propellant, but the Dolphin‘s AI considered it a point of pride not to use any to dump momentum from the gyros.

“Contact on our six,” the Dolphin announced. “Looks like another trader, but it’s coming in hot.”

“Intercept course?”

“Maybe. It could just be heading for the jump point. Orders, Captain?”

“Maintain course and acceleration for a zero/zero intercept with the jump point. Dmitri, just in case, heat up the turret, would you?”

“Sure.”

We’re now up to encounter 3 in the preplotted campaign, and have an encounter in space on our way to Pontus. That brings the rules on pp. 35-38 into play. According to the special rules for the scenario (p. 56), we have one Possible Enemy Force, and a roll of 3 determines that it is a trader with a crew of basics from an independent world. According to p. 37, NPC traders meeting one in space will acknowledge you and then continue on, unless you specifically do something to force an encounter; attack, have a Chillin’ encounter with the other crew, exchange pleasantries and move on, or use the Friends or Foes procedure on p. 29. Let’s try the last one, shall we?

The pregen NPCs on p. 57 for this encounter include a trader with a Rep 4 Captain. Each side rolls 1d6 and adds the number of figures; 3 for Our Heroes, and let’s say the NPC Captain has as many followers as her Rep – 4. Arion rolls 3, for a total of 6; the NPC rolls 4, for a total of 8. As neither side has twice the other’s score, we go to the interaction table on p. 70. I haven’t found any rules for when other party members can be used instead of the principal Star, but this seems a situation where it’s reasonable for Cori to take the mike. She has Free Spirit and Smooth, which makes her pretty good at schmoozing people; both sides roll 2d6 vs Rep normally, but Cori rolls 3d6 and can reroll one die she doesn’t like; as the NPC is a Joe interacting with a non-Joe, she loses one die. I determine she is Charismatic, but that only helps if you have a higher Rep than the person you’re talking to, and they are both Rep 4. The NPC rolls 6 and passes 0d6; Cori rolls 1, 3, 2 and passes 3d6. As Cori passes more d6, the NPC gives her a favourable result and one increasing Rep d6; Cori can try again, and tempted by the benefits does so; this time the NPC passes 1d6, and Cori passes 3d6. Having succeeded the second time, she gains another increasing Rep d6, and the NPC can be recruited or give Cori a job.

“Unknown vessel at our six,” says Coriander, “This is the Gaia Prime vessel Dolphin, en route to Pontus. Please identify yourself.” She flicks an overhead switch to put the conversation on speaker; a year on the Dolphin has taught her where most things are.

“This is the independent trader Russell’s Teapot, bound for Ring 2,” says a female voice. “Captain Megan Chapman commanding. Listen, Dolphin, we’re running late, mind if we go first?” Cori looks at Arion, who shrugs to convey they’re in no hurry.

“Go ahead, Russell’s Teapot, we’re clearing the approaches now. Godspeed.” Arion rolls the yoke gently and throttles up slightly to go around again.

“That’s very civil of you, Dolphin. Look me up on Pontus, and I’ll hook you up with a cargo run.”

“It’s a date, Captain.”

We encounter one PEF per Ring, but the second one is also a trader, and I decide not to push my luck, so we exchange pleasantries and go our separate ways.

Page 26 explains that I roll 1d6 after each move; I roll a 3, so my movement is successful and there is no involuntary encounter at the end. The Dolphin delivers its cargo; everybody gets 10 increasing Rep d6 for the job, one for incapacitating an enemy in episode 43, and Cori gets an extra two for her smooth talking this episode. Everybody also gets 3 decreasing Rep d6 for ship expenses – I decide this should apply to everyone, as otherwise the rest of the crew will quickly build higher Rep than Arion and abandon him. So Arion and Dmitri have 8 increasing Rep d6 each, and Cori has 10; these are added to their Lifetime Rep totals.

Arion rolls 11124566 and as at least one die scored more than his current Rep, he gains one Rep. Dmitri rolls 12234556 and gains one Rep. Cori rolls 1122344556 and gains one Rep.

Character Updates

  • Arion: Rep 6 Spaceship Crew, Quick Reflexes, Resilient. BAP2, P1, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: 5.
  • Coriander: Rep 5 Doctor, Free Spirit, Smooth. A3, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: 7.
  • Dmitri: Rep 4 Investigator, Logical, Smooth. BAP2, P1, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep: 5.

Contacts

  • Berengei, owner of the Brass Monkey in downtown New Hope City. Rep 5 Zhuh-zhuh Storeowner, Rage.
  • Captain Megan Chapman of the Independent Trader Russell’s Teapot. Rep 4 Basic, Charismatic.

Worlds

  • Ring 2: Pontus, G22.
  • Ring 3: New Hope, G22.

GM Notes

This is not what I expected to happen, but then that’s kind of the point. It does dovetail nicely with the campaign, as encounter 3 ends with the Star leaving New Hope with a cargo, but encounter 4 begins with him back on New Hope again. My answer to this is to insert an extra couple of encounters, in which Arion & Co. go Chillin’ on Pontus to pick up a cargo, then return to New Hope.

If I keep adding contacts and worlds at this rate, I may be better served by keeping them on a separate page.

“Remember, later: You wanted this.” – from Jack Reacher

New Hope, February ’01

“One last drink at the Brass Monkey, you said. What could go wrong, you said,” Coriander grinds out, as they leave that fine establishment.

Arion looks past her at the three guys talking animatedly and following them.

“Just three? That’s insulting. What do they want, anyway?”

Coriander concentrates for a moment, then says: “Me, basically.” The leader of the group frowns and holds his head for a moment, not familiar with the feeling of a telepath reading his mind.

“You’re not going to stand for that, are you? Kill ’em with your brain, or something.”

“Aren’t you supposed to protect me?”

“I’d be happy to. Just wanted you to know I think you can take care of yourself.”

“Well, I can, but frankly they’re not worth it.”

“Fair enough.”

This is a straight-up confrontation encounter with a group of sales clerks out on the town. First I check if it is lethal or non-lethal; one of them is carrying a concealed lethal melee weapon, let’s say a knife. It’s worth facing down these punks because defeating them is worth increasing Rep d6, one per NPC dead, incapacitated or captured.

Arion has Quick Reflexes, so counts his Rep as one higher than usual, i.e. 6. The opposing leader has Rep 4 and no attributes. It’s night time, so everyone counts as being in cover. The punks have advantage (50/50 chance). I line the groups up: Arion vs the opposing leader (Rep 4), Cori vs the second person in the group (Rep 3 and has a knife), Dmitri vs the last (Rep 3).

Turn 1

Both sides pass 2d6 on the Action table (p. 71, you saw how passing d6 worked last week), so the side with advantage can initiate combat by shooting, charging into melee, or leaving the battle board. They opt to charge into melee (p. 24), having no guns and no reason to run. Our Heroes are inactive at this point.

“Let them come to us,” Arion says quietly. “If they had any guns, they’d be waving them around, so let’s play nice.”

The opposition jeers loudly and makes a number of lewd suggestions.

Arion and his opponent each roll 2d6 on the Melee Table (p. 71); Arion rolls 2, 5 vs an effective Rep of 6 and so passes 2d6, while his foe rolls 3, 5 vs Rep 4 and passes 1d6. Arion passes 1d6 more, but is not using a lethal weapon, so rolls 1d6 vs foe’s Rep – a 2, so the foe suffers -1 Rep.

The second time, both pass 1d6 (a roll of 6 is always a failure on this table), so both suffer -1 Rep and fight again. Arion is now effective Rep 5, his opponent is Rep 2.

The third melee combat round sees Arion pass 2d6 and his opponent pass 0d6, at which point the enemy leader is Out Of the Fight. Arion gets an increasing Rep d6 for this heartless act.

Cori and her assailant both lose one Rep in the first round, another in the second, another in the third, and are both now on Rep 1. In the fourth round, Cori passes 1d6 and rolls more than her enemy’s Rep on 1d6, so that one goes OOF as well.

Dmitri and his foe both lose 1d6 in the first round, he inflicts a loss of 1 Rep in the second round; now he is Rep 2 and his opponent is Rep 1. Dima rolls 5 for damage, which is more than his opponent’s Rep, so that one is OOF as well.

A second turn is not necessary.

A brief flurry of blows sees the attackers all on the ground, unable or unwilling to continue fighting. Arion is still in good shape, but the others are not, so they hobble away into the night, intent on leaving New Hope in the morning. As they pass her opponent, Cori pauses long enough to kick the foe’s knife into a drain.

Character Updates

Note that because increasing and decreasing Rep d6 are totalled at month end, I need to track them between encounters within a month. The damage to Rep during melee wears off at the end of the encounter.

  • Arion: Rep 5 Spaceship Crew, Quick Reflexes, Resilient. BAP2, P1, melee, SBA. Increasing Rep d6: 1. Lifetime Rep: -3.
  • Coriander: Rep 4 Doctor, Free Spirit, Smooth. A3, melee, SBA. Increasing Rep d6: 1. Lifetime Rep: -3.
  • Dmitri: Rep 3 Investigator, Logical, Smooth. BAP2, P1, melee, SBA. Increasing Rep d6: 1. Lifetime Rep: -3.
  • Dolphin: Trader, Thrust 3, Firepower 2, Hull 3.

Contacts

  • Berengei, owner of the Brass Monkey in downtown New Hope City. Rep 5 Zhuh-zhuh Storeowner, Rage.

GM Notes

Notice that a lot of melee rounds can happen in a single “combat round”, and your friends can’t really help you during that combat round.

It looks as if it is possible for two melee combatants to hammer each other to Rep 0, at which point both will pass 0d6 and become locked in a never-ending melee which neither can win. Strictly, that would mean the encounter never advances to the next combat turn, so everyone is stuck. So if this happens I will treat both as Out Of the Fight, simply too battered and fatigued to carry on.

“There is always a segment of society that wants to hang out in bars and hire shady people to steal things from other people, or even steal other people.” – Interface Zero

New Hope, January ’01

“You seem very familiar with the local back alleys,” Coriander observes.

“Twelve years in the scout corps, you visit a lot of places. And to be honest, after a few weeks in hyperspace, you mostly want some entertainment, so you spend most of the time between trips in bars,” admits Arion.

“Okay,” Dmitri says, “We’re looking for people who are rich and morally flexible. Where’s good to find them?”

“I know just the place,” says Arion.

“Why am I not surprised?” Coriander mutters to herself.

“It’s called the Brass Monkey,” Arion continues, affecting not to hear her.

I’m running through the campaign in the 5150 No Limits rulebook, Maiden Voyage, to familiarise myself with the rules – it’s been a couple of years since I played THW and this ruleset is a little different to the ones I’ve used before. The first encounter in that campaign is Chillin’ (p. 55), which is based on the Chillin’ encounter type (p. 32). It’s an exercise in handling PEFs (Possible Enemy Forces), which are the THW version of random encounters. As I’m learning the ropes the next few episodes will be heavier on rules explanations than usual.

There are 1 + 1d3 PEFs, in this case I roll a 1 so that’s two PEFs. Per the scenario rules, I need to use one of those to meet a contact for a job, so there is only one to resolve. As I can resolve as many or as few of the PEFs as I like, I could bypass the PEF, but where’s the fun in that? The number of NPCs in the PEF (p. 33) is the number of characters in my band (3) + 1d3 – 1d3, which turns out to be 3. As I’m using the pregenerated campaign, the NPCs are already statted up; a roll of 5 tells me these are Exotics, which fits in nicely with the storyline – counting off the first three of the Exotic pregen NPCs, we get a transporter, a xeog smuggler, and a grath mercenary.

The trio enter the Brass Monkey and belly up to the bar. One of the tables is occupied by another group of three; a basic and a xeog, deep in conversation, and a grath with a lumpy jacket whose eyes sweep the bar like searchlights around a prison compound. They lock on to Arion, Cori and Dmitri for a second, long enough to assess the relative threat level, then return to scanning the other clientele.

As per p. 29, I now check if the PEF is friend or foe. Each group rolls 1d6 plus the number of members; the PEF’s leader rolls 2 + 3 = 5, Arion rolls 3 + 3 = 6. As neither score is more than twice the other, there is no fight as yet, so we go to p. 70 and the NPC Interaction table. Cori is the Face of the group, but the implication of the rules is that the group leader (Arion) handles interaction – this is a shame as Cori’s attributes would add +1d6 and have the chance to reroll any one die. Oh well. Arion has no applicable attributes, and is a Joe Labour interacting with an Exotic, so rolls 1d6 less. Arion rolls 1d6 vs Rep 5 and gets a 3; as this is lower than or equal to his Rep, he “passes” 1d6. The NPC group leader rolls 2d6 vs Rep 4 and gets 1, 6; he too passes 1d6. As the groups passed the same number of dice, they ignore each other. Probably just as well with a xeog and a grath involved. I’ll call the new world Pontus.

As Arion and Dmitri exchange glances with the grath, Cori and the stunning blue-skinned xeog female check each other out as potential opponents in a different kind of competition.

A brief discussion with a muggie zhuh-zhuh gets them a table, and they sit, looking at menus, while a human waitress brings over a large pitcher of beer.

“No sign of Berengei… oh wait, there he is,” says Arion, exchanging nods with a zhuh-zhuh who lumbers over to their table.

“Arion,” rumbles the zhuh-zhuh, “Always good to see you. Who are your friends?”

“This is Coriander, my first mate, and this is Dmitri. He’s… good at finding things.” The zhuh-zhuh throws back his head and laughs good-naturedly, showing impressive teeth.

“First mate, eh? I haven’t heard that one before, most of the high end customers bring their nieces, if you know what I mean.”

Berengei helps himself to half the pitcher of beer.

“So,” he says, wiping foam from his lips. “I hear you’re looking for a job, eh? Well, it just so happens I know a guy, who knows a guy, who needs some cargo hauling… quietly…”

The campaign doesn’t say what the cargo is or where to take it, but that’s easy enough to find out by rolling on the tables on pp. 42 and then rolling for planet class and law level on the table on p. 27. Arion rolls 2d6 vs Rep 5 (5, 6) and passes 1d6 – I don’t like the look of that so I use Extraordinary Effort (p. 10) – once per encounter a Star can roll an extra d6 on any table. This one comes up 5 as well, so now Arion passes 2d6 on the Hauling Cargo table and gets 1d3 = 3 points of cargo to carry to (1d6 = 5, 1d3 = 1) Ring 2. The world is class (1d3 = 2), law level (1d6 – class = 2), and controlled by (1d6 = 3) Gaea Prime. As the 2d6 passed were doubles, the cargo is contraband.

“What, to where, and how much?”

“Pontus. A class 2 planet in Ring 2. You’re better off not knowing what, but don’t let any officials peek in the containers. All up it will be worth 10 blocks to you.”

“Sounds good. I’m in.”

The trip is from Ring 3 (New Hope) to Ring 2 (destination). Arion will be paid 2 increasing Rep d6 (2), plus 2 per hull point of contraband cargo (6), plus one per Ring travelled through (2), for a total of 10 increasing Rep d6. That’s netted off by expenses of three decreasing Rep d6 which are the operating costs for a Trader class ship, leaving a net 7d6 increasing Rep.

Character Update

The Maiden Voyage campaign fits best into the campaign rules if you assume encounter 1 occurs in January, and 2, 3, and 4 occur in February. That means those 7d6 increasing Rep dice come in next month, and this month, Arion has 3 decreasing Rep dice for the upkeep on the ship and crew. I roll 6, 2, 2 and fortunately his Rep holds at 5, but his lifetime Rep is now -3. It’s not 100% clear, but it looks like everyone in the group rolls the same dice (p. 15), so Cori rolls 4, 4, 3 and is OK, and Dmitri rolls 6, 1, 1 and is now Rep 3 – note that although a roll of 1 on a decreasing Rep d6 reduces your Rep one point, you can only lose one Rep per month.

  • Arion: Rep 5 Joes Labour (Spaceship Crew), Quick Reflexes, Resilient. BAP2, P1, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep -3.
  • Coriander: Rep 4 Shaker (Doctor), Free Spirit, Smooth. A3, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep -3.
  • Dmitri: Rep 3 Exotic (Investigator), Logical, Smooth. BAP2, P1, melee, SBA. Lifetime Rep -3.
  • Dolphin: Trader, Thrust 3, Firepower 2, Hull 3.

Contacts

  • Berengei, owner of the Brass Monkey in downtown New Hope City. Rep 5 Zhuh-zhuh Joes Blue Service (Storeowner), Rage.

GM Notes

Gorilla gorilla beringei is the scientific name for the mountain gorilla, the largest and rarest kind. There are lots of theories about the origin of the expressions involving brass monkeys. Pontus is one of the children of Gaia in Greek myth.

That took me about half an hour overall, which I expect to speed up as I learn the game. As there was no conflict, I didn’t need the battle board. The pre-rolled encounters are a definite plus point, saving a lot of time. Unlike earlier games from THW, you can tackle PEFs in sequence, in an abstract way, and avoid any you don’t fancy tangling with; that felt like cheating at first, but on reflection it’s not so different from manoeuvring around a tabletop, it’s just a lot faster in play.

I’ll have to reread the rules and see under what circumstances other group members’ attributes come into play. There’s not much point having a Face in the group if she can’t use her charisma. However, I’m happy enough with how this turned out. So far I am really enjoying the game, to the point I think I may have underrated it at 4 out of 5 in the recent review.

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.

Before I kick off Season 2 of the Arioniad in earnest, I need to rate the PC group and their ship.

All three are Stars, and members of the Basic race. I’ll rate Arion as Rep 5, and the other two as Rep 4, largely so they don’t abandon him if he loses a Rep point early on. I decide not to bother with Pep and Savvy, as skills are optional.

As for gear, as usual in THW games, I pick by choosing the usual figures (eM-4 ganger prepaints) and looking at what they have; both Arion and Dmitri each have one Big Ass Pistol and one normal pistol (“BAP2” and “P1” respectively in the rules), while Coriander’s figure has an assault rifle, which in No Limits I’ll treat as an Auto weapon (“A3”), effectively a machine pistol. (We can infer from this that once the shooting starts, Cori does not mess around.) Everyone has a melee weapon and Soft Body Armour (“SBA”, the only type available in No Limits, which gives a +1 on the shooting damage table). Note that the BAP is mentioned in No Limits, it’s just buried in one of the PC statblocks on p. 54; I’m not sure why being bigger gives it more shots per turn, but as weapons have no other stats in the game I guess that’s the only one they could tweak.

Profession is tricky; fortunately PCs (sorry, ‘stars’) have a lot of leeway here. I decide that Arion’s best fit is Joes Labour (Spaceship Crew), Coriander is a Shaker (Doctor), and Dmitri is an Exotic (Investigator). Coriander is the biggest stretch as 5150 has no psionics except for the razors’ mental blast.

The hardest part is Attributes, as there are comparatively few of them (24) in No Limits and none is a direct and obvious match for the Savage Worlds Edges and Hindrances I’m trying to match. Each star should have two, and rather than roll for one I decide to pick both, using established characteristics and personalities as a guide.

  • Arion gets Quick Reflexes and Resilient.
  • Coriander selects Free Spirit and Smooth.
  • Dmitri has Logical and Smooth.

I may adjust these later as I get a better understanding of the rules.

The Dolphin is straightforward; it’s a small, weedy ship in combat, with a small crew and limited cargo capacity. I decide the closest fit is the Trader. In No Limits, the crew size is limited by the Captain’s Rep – your group can’t be bigger than that, in this case 5, with the ship assumed to carry however many your Rep is good for, plus passengers.

Summary

  • Arion: Rep 5 Joes Labour (Spaceship Crew), Quick Reflexes, Resilient. BAP2, P1, melee, SBA.
  • Coriander: Rep 4 Shaker (Doctor), Free Spirit, Smooth. A3, melee, SBA.
  • Dmitri: Rep 4 Exotic (Investigator), Logical, Smooth. BAP2, P1, melee, SBA.
  • Dolphin: Trader, Thrust 3, Firepower 2, Hull 3.

Let’s see how that plays out. Meanwhile, on with the motley!

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