Sunday, February 24, 2013

Tommy's Take on Storm Battalion

One of those “perks of the blog” kinda things: I sometimes get to see things before they are printed. Case in point: Storm Battalion by Brennan Bishop, powered by the Dynamic Gaming System made famous by Third Eye Games’ Apocalypse Prevention Inc., Wu Xing and Part-Time Gods.
The cover, sans trade dress.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: This game is currently on IndieGoGo, trying to muster up its production budget. Also, while I have no direct hand in the production of this RPG, the author and I have a mutual respect for one another, which has in turn led to an NPC in the book being named after me.

Storm Battalion is set in an alternate reality in which mysterious storms have broken out over Canada, diverting the development of the world’s events and continuing to keep the Americans locked in warfare with the British on the Canadian front, while the European Union is making encroachments due to the advancements of the British and the indigenous peoples of Canada are trying to push everyone out of the country that they feel is rightfully theirs. There’s also the freaky monsters that emerge from the storms and the bizarre temporal effects. Nikolas Tesla tried to harness the power of the storms, but was frustrated when his efforts were used to power military weapons, rather than providing peaceful developments.

The storms not only wreak havoc in their wake, but also warp and mutate the world around them, from people to animals to even plant life. The storms also have another horrifying effect: They raise the dead. Some folks come back as essentially mindless zombies, but others come back as The Risen – people with another chance at life, now imbued with superhuman abilities, and often drafted into military units.

It is worth noting that the game is HEAVILY focused on Canada (what with the author being Canadian and all), with extensive descriptions of the state of Canada provided, though the US, British and European militaries are also covered in the opening section of the book, as well as the Kegintagi, the indigenous peoples of Canada who are fighting for their own survival as well.

There is a section on the elements of warfare, like the abuses perpetrated on the civilian populations of battlefronts, as well as looting, resistance and so on. All valuable themes and elements that can be used, either as adventures in their own right, or complications to missions.

Additionally, there are more than four groups jockeying for control, like the 4th Army (composed entirely of The Risen), Virtues Army (“peacemongers” who commit horrible atrocities while spreading their message) and the Blue 88s (a Jazz band who is secretly a spy ring).

Character creation, like other DGS-based games, is point-based, with players taking a pool of 70 points and creating from there. A few more choices remain before you actually spend points, like Passion (what you fight for, be it Revenge, Love, Code of Honor or what have you), Class (with choices like Medic, Infantry, Scientist and Sentient Teleautomaton, each of which provide their own bonuses, with Teleautomatons having their own Advantages and Disadvantages, too), and Country (with choices being Canadian, British, American, Kegintagi and European Union, each of which lets you purchase an aspect of character creation at half cost). Some of the more and less useful bonuses are balanced somewhat by having higher and lower morale scores accordingly (British have high Morale scores because they are fighting in fear of the Throne, not because they are necessarily braver).

Each character has six base stats (Power, Agility, Vigor, Intellect, Insight and Charm) which are used to derive stats further. Additionally, there are twenty non-combat skills and four combat skills to build your character from, and you select four of them to be directly affected by your Morale score.

If you are familiar with the other DGS games, you’ll notice that a lot of this sounds familiar (as it should). The Advantages and Disadvantages also have a lot of familiar entries, though Storm Battalion does add some nice new ones that fit the military setting, like Army Buddy (which gives you a bonus to skill checks as long as your buddy is in proximity…just hope they don’t die), Booming Voice (allowing you to be heard over firefights on the battlefield) and even Personal Airship, which is expensive but grants you just that: A personal airship, complete with a crew. Teleautomatons can also have advantages like bullet resistant armor, being Lifeless (which means they don’t scare easily or lose morale), or being able to electrocute their own body in order to zap enemies. Disadvantages include having loose screws (which makes firing weapons with recoil harder) and being squeaky (which kinda kills stealth for them).

Due to the Teslapunk nature of the game, the equipment chapter is cooler than usual, with stuff like boots that serve as conductors for anything you need powered to heated bedrolls…to much flashier stuff like earthquake generators, Clappers (electromagnetic gauntlets that allow wearers to climb metallic surfaces), Poppers (which are designed entirely to blow the batteries that other troops tend to wear), as well as a list of abandoned technology like Icarus Vests (essentially helicopter vests) and Stompers (30 foot tall robots that fell out of fashion due to being 30 feet tall).

The Risen have Kewl Powerz granted to them by the Storms known as Twists, and the Twists are generally ranked in three levels, from a basic Kewl Power to something terrifying. Take Bloat for instance. The basic function of the power allows you to twist and unlock your jaw to take a massive bite out of an opponent. At level 1, you can use this to heal. At Level 2, you can use this consumed matter to stretch your limbs. At level 3, you can actually regenerate lost limbs and organs, or even grow NEW ones (eyes in the back of your head, anyone?)!

Claws provides, well, claws…which can be used for melee attacks. At level 1, you can also use them to climb. At level 2, they can now shred armor, and at level 3, they emit a corrosive poison that makes them extra destructive!

There is an Unkillable Twist as well, which functions as it sounds! At Level 1, you can’t die inside a Storm. At Level 2, you cannot be killed period and at Level 3, not only are you unkillable, but you heal VERY quickly.

Two Twists also exist that allow you to influence how the Storms react, or even allow you to generate storms yourself! So, there are some nice, fun options for powers.

Morale is kind of a big thing in this game, as important to it as Yin and Yang are to Wu Xing. As Morale grows, you gain bonuses to skill rolls and at the highest levels, you can even boost the morale of others! At the lower levels you face penalties, and when your morale bottoms out, it can push your character into dark, suicidal places.

Special mention goes to the “object durability” listings, for folks hiding behind cover, which includes the durability rating of dead cows. Not sure how often that’s going to come up in play, or if it’s just the author’s twisted sense of humor, but its inclusion did make me chuckle.

Most of the rules stuff is going to be familiar to folks who play Wu Xing or API, but Storm Battalion does also include an extensive section on Storms and the effect they have on those within them, infecting them with Contamination (which is what Risen use to power their Twists). It’s not really a good idea for non-Risen to enter a storm at all, and it’s not really a good idea for ANYONE to enter a 3rd level (Reckoning) or 4th level (Maelstrom) storm.

The bestiary includes human opponents, provided as a base statline that is then modified by the human’s country (like Americans having more Health but basic equipment, and Canadians having a higher chance of being Risen).

Then we get into creepier options, like contaminated humans who are turned into things like Titans (giant powerhouses), Boogiemen (smaller, sneaky stalkers) and Bonesnappers (who hunt in packs and like to break the necks of their opponents). Contaminated animals include Grendels (mutated dogs), Gores (deer, moose or pretty much anything with antlers) and Threshers (mutated bears, as if regular bears weren’t scary enough).

Some introductory adventures are included, the first of which meant to be fairly loose, as it is not set in a specific geographic region, and it doesn’t assume the PCs to belong to a specific military faction, instead providing customization options depending on whether your players want to be Canadian, British, American, EU or Kegintagi. In a nutshell, a Lieutenant of the same army is reporting a growing number of his men going missing, and the PCs are sent to investigate. It’s a good starting point, as it features the horrific monsters in the setting, dealing directly with a Storm as well as running head to head with an enemy force.

The second adventure is more military and less weirdness, with the PCs having to infiltrate and stop an airship that is trying to absolutely demolish one of their bases. The two adventures provide a good cross section of the kinds of adventures Storm Battalion provides.

WHAT WORKS: The book feels complete while having room for expansion if the game proves to be a success. The equipment chapter is one of the funner equipment chapters I’ve read recently, and I really like the Twists. Like the previous games before it, Storm Battalion uses the solid base of the DGS, while making its own relevant tweaks to make the Teslapunk Military feel of the game come through.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: The Canadian-centric setting and viewpoint is jarring to me, because I’m a Typical American that sees things from this perspective first. I like point buy well enough, but I don’t like big point pools, and due to the half-costs of certain aspects this game has, it gets into spending half-points, which I really don’t care for.

CONCLUSION: A worthy addition to the DGS family, Storm Battalion is a gonzo mish-mash in a World That Never Was, with humans simultaneously dealing with the fallout of the Storms while trying to harness their powers, both in the form of new technology and in the Risen. Naming an NPC after me also helps. My gut says that the military aspect would play beautifully in Savage Worlds, but I’m not sure the work required to make the powers fit would be worth it.

If you grumble about American-centric games, or if you like non-standard military or alternate history games, or if you just dig games where you play zombie soldiers with kewl powerz who are waging war with rival nations and freaky storms that spit out stuff that would be at home in Stephen King’s The Mist, you might oughta check this out. I’m planning on putting my money where my mouth is, just debating between PDF, print and print + t-shirt (I just feel like it would be right at home with my API, Wu Xing and Part-Time Gods t-shirts).

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Tommy's Take on Achtung! Cthulhu - Zero Point Pt. 2: Heroes of the Sea

Previously, I reviewed Three Kings, the first Achtung! Cthulhu adventure. Now, it is time to take a look at the second adventure (Heroes of the Sea), in the wake of the new Achtung! Cthulhu Kickstarter, which is hoping to turn Achtung! Cthulhu from a series of adventures into a full-fledged setting. As with the last review, this review focuses exclusively on the Savage Worlds version.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: While the Achtung! Cthulhu adventures are also available in Call of Cthulhu and PDQ, I’m way more familiar with (and interested in) Savage Worlds, and so I’m focusing on that. The PDF is 63 pages at $14.99, and is meant to be ran after Three Kings, though it can also be ran completely standalone. As with Three Kings, you will want a copy of the Savage Worlds rules and Realms of Cthulhu.

As always, I will try to run light on spoilers, but that does get difficult, so be aware.

After the events of Three Kings, an undercover agent has gone missing shortly after uncovering a secret German project. It is up to the PCs to move in and try to figure out what has happened. If you think this is a cut and dried investigation, however, you clearly are not paying attention.

So now it’s 1940, the Allies are retreating from the Germans so they aren’t driven into the sea, and the PCs are having to find a missing intelligence agent in the embattled Dunkirk region. The opening of the adventure is a chaotic affair filled with all kinds of random encounters, including an encounter chart with options like booby traps, troops on sinking ships, dive bombers, criminal activity and more.

There are five “episodes” to the adventure, but the adventure professes that the “how” and “when” of each encounter is up to the PCs. Realistically, I don’t see a TON of variance in how the first couple of chapters play out, but I could be wrong.

The PCs should find the agent pretty early, though she is quite incapacitated. There are a couple of handy crazed notes that can be passed out to the PCs that ominously warn of things to come.

From there it does get a bit free flowing. There is potential for the PCs to travel into another dimension, where they can force an early encounter with the villain of the adventure, as well as catch a sneak peek at what the Nazis are up to. The grand finale is an epic confrontation in a raging storm while Allied Forces are retreating to boats en masse, only to face the end result of the Nazi plan (and fans of the Mythos probably have some idea what is coming). There are three likely outcomes included, one of which is a colossal failure for the PCs, one of which is a straight up victory, and one of which is very, very poetic.

When the smoke clears, there’s enough questions about what the Nazis are into, leading to the formation of a new branch of British intelligence designed to deal with just these things.

Four pregenerated characters are included, though ranks/XP aren’t listed. The Rules appendix adds a new skill that everyone gets at d4 (Dreaming), as well as a number of new Powers, many of which are utilized by the villains. For instance, Mindblast forces the target to roll a Guts check against the spellcasting roll or take 2d6 Mental Anguish AND suffer temporary insanity. Finally, rules are provided for trying to slip through a full on firefight.

Other appendices include new monsters and relevant vehicle stats for the adventure.

Several printable handouts are included, which can be used to give the scenario that extra punch.

An ad for Zero Point: Code of Honour, set in Constantinople, drops hints at the future of the campaign, as well as an ad plugging Weird War II, which has material that could be useful in a campaign like this.

The adventure does include a pair of alternate openings to the adventure, one of which casts the group as academics (archaelogists) whose explorations lead to them stumbling across the Nazi plot, and a second (very interesting) one, which features the PCs as German agents at odds with the SS!

WHAT WORKS: The adventure really is very flexible after the opening chapter or two, something I always appreciate. The gradual reveal of the Lovecraftian elements in the campaign continues and it’s a good thing. The alternate openings are also nice, if you don’t want to go the British Intelligence route and/or you want to skip Three Kings. The production values generally look fantastic. Nice ending, setting up the next adventure.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: A lot of material is repeated in the book, especially the handouts, which are included at the relevant parts of the adventure as well as one of the appendices. Organization didn’t feel quite as tight in this book as it did in the last adventure, though I couldn’t tell for sure if that was layout or writing.

CONCLUSION: Another very good entry in the Zero Point series, continuing the theme of Nazi occultism in World War II/Mythos influence while still feeling very different from the previous adventure. I also deeply appreciate that while the author has things that they assume will happen, notes are provided to help the GM along if the PCs go “off script” (like if they successfully take on the Big Bad of the adventure in Episode 3, or even if they completely skip Episode 3 altogether). Some organizational issues hamper the overall product, in my view, but the pros definitely outweigh the cons, with some nice new rules, cool powers and a fairly open adventure for your money.

Friday, February 15, 2013

At Last...Winners!

Through the delays of a dead hard drive and using the magic of the Invisible Castle online die roller, the winners of the contest by our wonderful sponsors are ready to be announced! And they are:

1. Joe (Mutant Epoch Print and PDF)
2. Jonathan Rose (Marvel Heroic Roleplaying)
3. Bifford the Youngest (Marvel Heroic Roleplaying)
4. Tim Razler (Savage Worlds Deluxe)
5. Emlyn Freeman (Marvel Heroic Civil War)
6. Adam Baulderston (tremulus)
7. Stephen King (Little Fears Nightmare Edition Bundle)
8. Jimmie Bise Jr (Reclamation)
9. Pat Estes (Cyberpunk Locations Set)
10. M L (Cyberpunk Locations Set)
11. Greg (Cyberpunk Locations Set)

The winners and the sponsors have been notified! Thank you once again to everyone that entered, all the sponsors that supported the contest and everyone that compelled me to push to get things back on track when the computer went down.  With any luck, we'll do this again next year!


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Tommy's Take on Curse of the Weaver Queen

I don’t like spiders. At all. I don’t go screaming from the room like a little girl (anymore), but I still don’t like spiders. I do like using spiders as creepy adversaries for RPGs, though, and Curse of the WeaverQueen has a more than a few spiders in it.
No, don't leave! It has nothing to do with Drizzt,
Drow, Lloth or Driders! Promise!
 WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Curse of the Weaver Queen is a fantasy adventure that is designed to be system free, using a set of benchmarks in the game stats to help you do the conversion work for Your Favorite RPG. Written by Tim Kask and published by Eldritch Entertainment, the PDF is available at RPGNow for $7.50. It is designed for “5-7 adventurers of moderate level” and comes in at 48 pages. As always when reviewing an adventure, it is difficult to go too in depth without spoiling too much, so be warned.

The cover image has a creepy spider-lady, but the look on her face kinda tips you off that there might be more here than meets the eye. The preface is very promising, talking about the possibilities in the adventure, as opposed to the hard-wired story. I like adventures with a bit of flexibility, even if they are probably harder to write.

The set-up is pretty simple…the local villagers have been set upon by swarms of overgrown arachnids of all types, and this leads to the older villagers talking about that lost temple of “spider-lovers”. This should be a good enough reason for most any fantasy adventuring group worth their salt to go investigating, no? This leads into some background information on the Disciples of Arianhrod, the Spider-Queen, who has followers that see her as a Lloth type wicked Spider-Goddess, but she was originally a more benevolent patron of weavers.

There is a section laying out the generic stat blocks, which use an Average Human baseline for you to work with, once you match up Eldritch’s Average Human scale with Your Favorite Game’s. Without naming names, the book seems to walk you through lining up the stats with D&D and (I think) Basic Roleplaying…but guys like me who are more likely to use this with Savage Worlds or the AGE System have a bit more work ahead of us.

The bulk of the adventure involves exploring the Temple of the Weaver Queen, presented a lot like an old school dungeon filled with giant bugs. It is a multilevel dungeon with the party eventually working their way beneath the temple and ultimately into the nest underneath it.

Along the way, the party has the possibility of encountering some VERY powerful opposition, or avoiding it altogether. In fact, many of the major adversaries of the temple have a non-combat method of handling them (even if it is purely avoidance).

Proper exploration can provide clues to help the party out, and can even springboard the group into adventuring into other such temples, each with an elemental theme (including one temple that is completely submerged).

The “final boss” has a tragic tale that the PCs may never get a chance to hear, though the tragedy doesn’t make them any less dangerous. Again, as with the enemies before it, there are at least two ways to resolve this conflict…neither one unheroic, though trying to find a way to resolve the conflict without violence could certainly be more rewarding for “good” groups.

There’s also some really cool magical item options, my favorites being a pair of eyeglasses that allow the wearer to see the corruption in another person, and a bridle that not only allows the user to control the steed wearing it, but enhances their speed and capabilities.

WHAT WORKS: I like the generic guidelines for stats, making it even easier to convert to Your Favorite Game than normal, in most cases. The option to travel to the other temples can really extend the gameplay of the dungeon. The twist with the final “boss” is very tragic and cool, making it fit in right at home in a dark fantasy setting, which tends to be my preferred flavor of fantasy.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: It’s a dungeon crawl…meaning there’s a few elements that just seem thematically out of place, at least to me, but that’s purely a taste thing. Pretty much every stat block is posted both as they appear in the adventure and after the first temple, which is odd because a) it is reposting the same material and b) it could have at least been at the end of the book, rather than the middle, which is an odd place to summarize things. Damage is the only thing that’s not “generic”, as damage values are assigned to most things, which may not work so well if used “straight” in your conversions.

CONCLUSION: I’m not the world’s biggest fan of dungeon crawls, but there are some cool elements in this adventure. My preferred use of it would probably be Savage Worlds or the AGE System as noted above, but I would totally have to rescale the damage as rolling 7d4 leaves waaaay too big of a chance of dice just absolutely exploding and taking people out fast.

Most people who know their game system can convert a lot of things fairly easily, but I know I get a little antsy about tackling, say, D&D4th Edition adventures because I don’t really KNOW the system. That’s not a problem here, as all you need to do is know your system’s human baseline and work out the math from the guidelines. While some of those challenges seem like they might be a bit much for a lower level adventuring party, the fact that there are built in ways for intelligent groups to sidestep them is a big plus: Play smart, don’t die.  Like I said, not the world’s biggest dungeon crawl fan, but I like a lot about how this was laid out, with the options for extra exploration, the backstory of the dungeon, the tragic undertone to the whole thing and the generic rules set.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Some Crowdfunding You Should Know About

Interface Zero 2.0: Full Metal Cyberpunk

I've reviewed a lot of Interface Zero stuff over the last few years, and the original Interface Zero was part of my first Top Six, even though I'm not a big fan of Cyberpunk. There is some fun stuff in this setting, and IZ2.0 is overhauling a lot of the stuff from the first edition to make it run smoother.

This one is already funded (by, like, a LOT), and has 18 days to go, with the sweet spots being the $20 pledge (which gets you digital copies of basically everything IZ related thus far), $30 for the above and the Explorer's Edition of the book and $50 for the full hardcover. Fabled Environments, sponsors of my Birthday Blog Giveaway, are also working up stuff for IZ2.0, which just sweetens the deal.

Storm Battalion

A self described mix of Hellboy, Davey Crockett and Tesla Punk, is the brainchild of Brennan Bishop, who is a frequent contributor to Third Eye Games titles like their Apocalypse Prevention Inc. line. The gist is that during the American Revolution, these storms broke out around the land and began twisting everything in it's wake. Now the year is 1935 and the Canadians and Americans are using cool powers and crazy technology to wage war against the twisted monsters brought about by the storms.

Last I heard, the book is using the Dynamic Gaming System that powers Apocalypse Prevention Inc., Wu Xing and Part-Time Gods, and is already written, they are just trying to cover the printing costs, art and stuff. They have 50 days left and still need to raise most of their $3000 budget. The sweet spots are $15 for the PDF, $35 for PDF and Print and $60 for PDF, Print and T-Shirt.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Free Random Adventure Generator

You know how I consistently complain if an RPG lacks a random adventure generator? Well, someone named OFTHEHILLPEOPLE was looking out for me, even if they didn't realize it, by making this 8 page random adventure generator that is completely free and adaptable to a good number of RPGs.

First, it's free. So you have no reason not to download it (unless you hate random adventure generators). But just for fun, I'm going to roll up some random adventures for a few of my favorite settings.

Let's start with Dragon Age, since it's fresh on my mind. All you do is roll a d12 on a series of tables and combine the elements.

Quest Contact: 1 - A Spirit, Ghost or Demon
The Adventure: 10 - Steal (or Destroy) Something
The Location: 7 - An Overgrown Forest
The Macguffin: 4 - Magical Experiments
The Antagonists: 1 - Bounty Hunter
Twists and Complications: 8 - Old Enemy
Dramatic Conflict: 2 - Economic Harm

So the PCs are contacted by the spirit of a Mage whose magical experimentation has killed him, but has left him bound to this plane and unable to move on. He needs the PCs to venture into the Brecilian Forest, which has become overgrown and wild, and free his essence from this reality. Unfortunately, the PCs are being tracked by an old enemy who knows them all too well, and is stalking them through the woods even as are having to fend off the forest's denizens. The magical essence being infused into the surrounding area is bolstering the craftswork of the local townsfolk, who aren't aware of the reason WHY the materials function so well, and destroying the essence of the Mage will reverse the effects of the enhancement and cripple the trade for this poor village.

How about Marvel SAGA?

Quest Contact: 12 - Roll Twice, getting Happenstance and Local Temple, where they bump into a Scavenger/Pauper.
The Adventure: 3 - Harm or Kill Someone
The Location: 9 - Mountains/Caves
The Antagonists: 10 - Magical Beast(s)
Twists and Complications: 5 - Dodgy Ally
Dramatic Conflict: 3 - Environmental Damage

One of the PCs, particularly a religious one, is at a local church when a frightened street urchin rushes in, seeking shelter from "monsters". It seems an enclave of Dire Wraiths have been hiding in the nearby mountains and have begun preying on the local homeless. The PCs set out to stop them, but have to track them to their layer, which is problematic because the Dire Wraiths are shapeshifters. They contact an uneasy ally who can track them (due to powers or technological, whichever), but the ally acts strange. The tracker leads them to the caves...and reveals that he is, in fact, a Dire Wraith! The PCs are stuck in a pitched battle with the Dire Wraith on a mountainside, and as they use their powers, they begin causing instability and landslides that threaten to crush the community below!


Quest Contact: 11 - Mercenary Group
The Adventure (rolling twice): 4 - Kidnap or Capture Someone and 11 - Transport Someone or Something and take them to (8) an Urban Location
The Location: 4 - Island
The Innocents: 3 - Family or Friend
The Antagonists: 8 - Mercenary Group
Twists and Complications: 11 - Time Limit
Dramatic Conflict: 10 - Reputation

Let's see...the posse finds out that the leader of a cut-throat gang in Denver needs a member of a pirate group in The Maze brought to justice ASAP, and brought back to Denver in time for the circuit judge to make his rounds, for the accused rape of his daughter. The PCs, upon reading the details of the notice, realize that the accused in question is a cousin, brother or other associate and decide that it behooves them to try to make sure they get to the accused before someone who is likely to inflict more harm does. The problem gets more complicated when they get to The Maze and discover that the pirate gang is serving a "Robin Hood"-like function in The Maze, and their associate is a stabilizing presence for said pirates...if they take him captive, it'll paint them in a bad light to the poor, downtrodden folk of The Maze, and maybe turn the rest of the pirates vicious without him there...but the alternative is that if they don't, then some other force may rain Hell down on their friend/relative.

Okay, not perfect, and like any random rolls, you gotta massage it a little bit...but still very, very cool.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Tommy's Take on Dragon Age Set 1

I kinda like boxed sets. So releasing Dragon Age as a boxed set was a cool thing, to me. I’m a big fan of the video games, and Jodi Black of Beautiful Brains Books & Games gave the pen and paper version a stellar endorsement, so I wound up ordering the first two boxed sets. This is the review of the first one…

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The set retails for $29.95, though the PDF is available for $17.50. This review is of the physical boxed set. The boxed set includes two 64 page books: The Player’s Guide and the Gamemaster’s Guide. Additionally, it includes a full color, foldout map of the nation of Ferelden, featured in the Dragon Age: Origins video game, and three six sided dice (two white and one red, the latter being the Dragon Die). Finally, it is worth noting that this set only includes information for character levels 1-5.

The boxes are sturdy stuff (I know because I accidentally set a chair on Set 2, and the damage is easy to miss), and the books are all full color and with some good production values. The Player’s Guide does a really good job of speaking to the reader from a “first time gamer” standpoint, probably a wise move.

The first chapter gives a decent overview of the setting, bringing you up to speed with the important elements like the Circle of Mages, the Chantry (who police the Circle), the lives of Elves and Dwarves and so on. It sets a rough starting point for the campaign, not pinpointing an exact year. It is also worth noting that Grey Wardens, a big feature of the first game, are mentioned at the beginning of the book, but only telling you that the Grey Warden information will come later.

Character creation is pretty simple, rolling 3d6 for eight abilities (Communication, Constitution, Cunning, Dexterity, Magic, Perception, Strength and Willpower) and cross referencing against a chart for a score ranging from -2 to 4. Additionally, you can gain Ability Focuses, which raise your effective Ability by 2 when using it for the related a Dwarf with the Constitution (Drinking) Focus trying to outlast a rival in a bar. Next, you pick a Background. The Background will either determine your Race outright, or limit your options, and will likely do the same with Class. For instance, an Apostate must be a Mage, and can only choose between an Elf and Human. An Avvar Hillsman can only be Human, but can be a Warrior or a Rogue. Similarly, a Surface Dwarf is locked in as, you guessed it, a Dwarf, but can be a Warrior or Rogue. (I use these examples because these were the backgrounds used in our game last weekend.)

Once this is selected, you generally get a choice of a relevant Focus, then roll twice on your Background’s Benefit chart (which can grant you Ability bonuses, new Focuses, new Languages or new Weapon Groups).

Once you have your Class, record your appropriate Class Powers. Mages cast Spells and have Mana, as well as a Ranged Attack called Arcane Lance. Rogues can backstab and ignore armor penalties for lighter armor. Warriors are skilled in more weapon groups. Additionally, you gain one or more starting Talents (one for Rogue or Mage, with Warriors gaining two Weapon Talents). As you advance in level, you gain new Talents (or improve existing ones), gain new spells (if you are a Mage) or learn to use some Stunts easier than other characters. Every level gains you *something*.

Characters are rounded out with a starting equipment package and money to spend on more personalized gear, and every player is encouraged to create goals for their characters, as well as connections between their PC and the other PCs.

While Focuses give your characters bonuses to your rolls, Talents grant you other benefits and are ranked (in this set) as Novice and Journeyman. For instance, a Novice rank Command Talent gives all of your allies a +1 bonus to Willpower (Courage) rolls as long as you spend an action making a grand gesture first. Journeyman rank Horsemanship allows you to mount as steed as a free action AND increases your steed’s speed by 2.

The equipment chapter is your standard fantasy fare, on the low magic end as you can’t buy things like healing potions and the like.

Magic is cast by making a roll, like anything else, and beating a target number. Additionally, you have to spend Mana in order to cast the spell. The first set includes 18 spells and five starting Spell packages that can be selected so you can make a Mage and drop right into the game. These include basic attack spells like Arcane Bolt, defensive spells like Rock Armor, standard healing stuff like Heal and slightly more off-beat stuff like Walking Bomb, which turns your opponent into a ticking time bomb, and if they die before the spell ends, they erupt in a damaging explosion. The book hints at more dangerous magic to come in later sets.

The mechanics chapter only takes up a few pages, as the game is pretty straight forward. In combat, for instance, you roll 3d6, add your relevant Ability and Focus (if you have one) and try to beat the opponent’s Defense. If so, roll damage and add the relevant ability (usually Strength) and subtract the opponent’s armor. Where the fun begins is if you roll doubles and succeed on the roll, because you use the value of the red die to generate Stunt Points, which let you do things like inflict extra damage, make your attack affect two targets, immediately reload a missile weapon or even change the initiative order! The Stunt system can also be used with spellcasting, making spells easier to cast, or making the spells stronger.

The game assumes that you will not be using maps and minis, but includes a sidebar on doing just that if you prefer.

The Gamemaster’s Guide is written very much to try to walk a new GM through the process of running a game, featuring a lot of material that’s going to be old hat to experienced GMs. For instance, I don’t need advice on my game space. I’ve gotten that one worked out over the last 20 years or so of gaming. This also includes pros and cons of GM styles (Adversarial or “killer” GMs, Benevolent GMs and Director GMs) as well as eight kinds of “Problem Players” to look out for (Rules Lawyers, Wallflowers, Hangers-On, etc). There is also a bit about Dark Fantasy versus Standard Fantasy, which is kinda helpful.

The GM has a chapter on the mechanics, guiding them through the penalties that might apply to tests, as well as advice on setting Target Numbers. Dragon Age also recommends the use of Morale rolls, rather than having every enemy fight to the death every time. There’s also a bit on Hazards, with some mechanical support and then examples, like a Pit Trap or a Burning Inn.

The bestiary begins with a pair of templates to make quick and dirty boosts to the stat blocks, to make Elite and Heroic versions of the monsters included. The bestiary covers animals like Brontos, Mabari War Dogs and Giant Spiders, as well as NPC types such as Dalish Raiders, Fereldan Brigands and Avvarian Hunters, plus undead types like Enraged Corpses (corpses possessed by Rage Demons), Fanged Skeletons (possessed by Hunger Demons) and Shades, and finally a selection of Darkspawn, such as Genlocks, Hurlocks and even Blight Wolves.

The Rewards chapter gives advice on awarding Experience points, as well as summarizing what each character gains by going up a level, as well as a guideline to treasure rewards and a list of magic items, from basic stuff like Healing and Lyrium (magic) potions to more powerful items like a Spawn Cleaver (a sword that gives a bonus to damage versus Darkspawn) and Boots of the Outlaw which penalize attempts at tracking the wearer.

The Dalish Curse adventure puts the PCs in a rough spot between some Dalish Elves and some human settlers, as well as introduces two new Darkspawn and a horrific adversary. There’s a couple of points where the PCs’ actions can definitely have consequences, which is always promising.

The back of the Player’s Guide includes a one page character sheet and the back of the GM’s Guide includes a summary of the mechanics as well as the Stunt charts.

WHAT WORKS: The stunt system is very fun in play, and character generation is optimized to be fast and easy, while still allowing for customization. The production values are top notch, and fans of the Dragon Age setting will find a lot to get excited about. We had a first time roleplayer play it, “get” the system quickly and have a blast. Did I mention I love boxed sets?

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: The “this will be included in later sets” thing can get annoying, especially if you were dying to play as a Grey Warden. As with any system that uses randomization in character generation, it can be easy to wind up with a character that just doesn’t work, which happened with one of ours. It could use a random adventure generator. EVERY book could use a random adventure generator.

CONCLUSION: The proof is in the fun and my first Dragon Age session was an incredible amount of fun. The four of us that sat down to play this had never played or ran it before, and it ran nearly as fast and smooth as Savage Worlds does for us now, which is really impressive for being our first time with the AGE system. The stunt system was HUGE for us, with everyone eagerly awaiting rolls of doubles. If I had to do it over again, I would have used maps and minis, as some of the tactical options would just work better with some kind of concrete imagery, I think. It IS worth noting that when we played, we also had access to Set 2, which includes three sets of handout cards, featuring the rules and Stunt Tables, and I would say those are almost invaluable in play, ESPECIALLY for the first time running the game.

Dragon Age gets picked on by some for being “incomplete”, but the tiered releases was done by Dungeons and Dragons first, and Dragon Age actually has character creation rules, unlike the new Star Wars RPG, which has had a Beta and a Quickstart and still doesn’t. The combat CAN get a little “swingy”, as stunts can make a huge impact on how quickly an enemy is defeated, an Dragon Age doesn’t have a Drama Point or Benny style mechanic in place to save PCs from great rolls by the bad guys.

As a Dragon Age setting fan and a pen and paper gamer, I’m incredibly pleased with my purchase and I dearly, dearly hope to run Dragon Age again soon.

Monday, February 4, 2013

An Arl's Ransom - A Dragon Age Actual Play

So last night I ran the Dragon Age RPG by Green Ronin for the first time. We had a new player at the table, my friend Russ, and I didn’t want to drop him into the middle of something with a ton of built up history (like our Necessary Evil game), because I thought that might make the first session a tad more uncomfortable. Everyone involved was new to the game, though I’ve owned the first two boxed sets for a while, read the rules and went through character generation before.

I decided to print off the Green Ronin Quickstart Adventure, An Arl’s Ransom - so, fair warning, there will be spoilers - and use that for the night’s session. Russ was a little disappointed that his first experience with RPGs was only going to use 3d6 and not “all the funny looking dice”.

Everyone went to work rolling up their characters, with Russ making an Avvar Barbarian Warrior named Nanoc, Tommy (not me, ANOTHER Tommy) creating a Surface Dwarf Rogue named Hard Bark and Kenny created an Elven Apostate named Pharaxis. I knew we were off to an interesting night when I asked them to create connections between each other…and they were linked by Nanoc having dated/slept with/defiled Pharaxis’ sister, who was now dating/sleeping with Hard Bark. It got worse when I saw that one of Nanoc’s Goals was to “kill the dwarf”, and one of Pharaxis’ goals was to kill both of the other two characters.

That said, character generation really went pretty smoothly for making three characters at once with players who had no prior experience with the AGE System. Maybe half an hour or so. Once that was done, we launched into the game. Right here having Boxed Set 2 was a huge benefit, as it includes three sets of reference cards for the rules and stunts, which I handed out to the players (and they actually used..I hand them stuff in Savage Worlds all the time that they ignore).

The adventure opens with the Arl of Stenhold hiring the PCs to accompany his Steward, a Circle Mage named Alenka, to retrieve his children who are returning from a trip to Denerim. He’s entrusting this task to mercenaries because his lands are under attack by Darkspawn. Alenka “drops” a gold sovereign, which Hard Bark quickly snatches up, and Pharaxis gets annoyed as he realizes the Arl has Elven servants who are not being treated well at all. The Arl offers them 50 silver each for the job and sends them on their way, though the Arl’s wife proves to be more sympathic, offering them an additional gold sovereign, which the dwarf politely refuses (having already stolen one).

We get our first taste of combat when the party comes to a chasm which has had the bridge sabotaged, and darkspawn attack (three genlocks and a genlock alpha). The genlocks unload on the party with throwing axes, and Nanoc is forced to rush in, as he lacks any kind of ranged attack. He pays for it when the genlock alpha hits him with a Crippling Attack, right after the dwarf is knocked prone by a genlock. Alenka unleashes her magic on one, freezing it (not solid, but hurting it each round) and draining its life to heal herself, while the elf tries to melee with another, afraid of using his magic in front of a Circle Mage. The dwarf draws his axe, still prone, and tries to fight his attacker, but gets disarmed. The combat was going pretty badly all the way around until the dwarf finally killed his attacker with a dagger, prompting morale checks for the other two normal genlocks, causing the one fighting the elf to break for the trees. The dwarf tried, but failed, to shoot it with his crossbow. Meanwhile, Nanoc was seemingly getting stronger as the genlock alpha was getting weaker, and he finally killed it with a brutal decapitation. The head rolled to the elf’s feet, and he kicked it into the chasm. If it hadn’t been the morale check, this could probably have gotten REALLY ugly for the PCs.

Now they had to figure out how to get across the chasm, leading to Nanoc chopping down a tree that the elf prepared as a bridge. Nanoc nearly dropped it into the chasm, however, so the elf and dwarf had to devise a new plan to get the bridge set…and then they both nearly fell into the chasm trying to cross, only being caught by swift action on the part of Nanoc and pulled to safety.

The group stopped for a breather, with the elf taking a nap while the dwarf went hunting. Alenka slipped away from camp and caught up with the dwarf. See, she had dropped that sovereign on purpose, and seeing what a greedy fellow she was dealing with, offered him the chance to make more money: Kidnapping the Arl’s kids for ransom, rather than returning them right away. The dwarf refused. And also failed to find anything to hunt. Alenka tried a more sympathetic approach with the elf, telling him that he could use the ransom money to maybe liberate some of the Arl’s servants. When THAT failed, she opted not to approach the barbarian, sending the group onwards instead.

As night was falling, the group wandered on, nearly oblivious to the dangers around them, until the elf spotted a horrific owl that was swooping down on them, ripping its talons into him! The dwarf tried – and failed – to hit it with his crossbow, but Nanoc shredded it with a brutal Lethal Blow, a combat stunt that adds 2d6 to his already impressive damage of 3d6+3. This led to a discussion about whether or not it was safe to eat the owl, with Alenka impatiently explaining that anything that is warped by the Blight is not safe to eat.

The night took a more serious turn when the group made it to the rendezvous point, only to find that it had been the sight of a massacre, with guards and darkspawn laying dead all over the place, including the body of a blight wolf in the campfire…which DID prompt the dwarf to ask if it was edible, and Alenka again explaining that it was not. The dwarf took to examining an overturned wagon and finding a strongbox…but he utterly failed at picking the lock. Meanwhile, the elf and the barbarian failed at finding any sign of the children, so the dwarf emerged, dropping the lockbox on the ground, and taking a look himself. This led the hilarious moment of the elf managing to pop the lock on the strongbox and taking the money inside. The dwarf did, however, find tracks leading away from the camp, and ample reason to believe that at least one kid was with the group that departed.

The PCs followed the tracks and found a guard, Ser Blaker, holding a defensible position while genlocks and a hurlock advanced up the hill. The PCs rushed to the edge of a gorge separating them, with Nanoc charging across the gorge while Blaker fired away at the genlocks and the hurlock with his crossbow. Inside the outcropping, Ser Bridget was trying to guard the children. As Nanoc made it across the gorge, he missed the blight wolves charging down from the hill and leaping into the outcropping, shredding the children. The dwarf, elf and Alenka unleashed magic and crossbow bolts to try to halt the hurlock and the genlocks, while Nanoc vaulted over the rocky outcropping and began savagely attacking the wolves. The boy, Joseph, tried and failed to kill a wolf to protect his sister, leading to mocking by Nanoc. A genlock knocked Ser Blaker to the ground to allow one of his allies into the sanctuary, but was then blasted apart by the combined magical might of Alenka and the Elf. Nanoc ultimately brought the combat to a close by hitting a powerful attack that went through the last blight wolf and killed the genlock that got inside!

In the aftermath of the fight, Alenka told Ser Blaker that the road was too dangerous and that he should return the children to Denerim…an exchange that set the PCs off as they realized that Alenka was in cahoots with Blaker. The dwarf and the elf made steps to intervene, accusing Alenka of being a kidnapper, but Alenka tried to convince Ser Bridget that the PCs were the danger, with the Elf being an Apostate and all. Nanoc had no idea about the kidnapping plot, he just knew he smelled a rat. As Alenka pushed the idea that the trip was dangerous, even Bridget agreed, noting the deaths their party had suffered. Nanoc countered that the PCs’ group hadn’t lost a single person. Knowing the big payday ahead of him, Ser Blaker tried to buy the group off with 200 silver, but when that wasn’t going to work, he grabbed the girl, Hana, and put a knife to her throat. This enraged Bridget, but it was the dwarf that struck first with a Backstab, causing Blaker to loosen his grip. Bridget blasted him with an attack and Nanoc finished him off. Alenka sneered and began attacking the PCs, using Winter’s Grasp to try to freeze the elf and draining Bridget’s health every time she was wounded. The combined might of the group was too much, though, and Nanoc ended Alenka as well.

Bridget said she would accompany the group back to Stenhold with the kids, but she wanted to bury all the bodies first. Meanwhile, the barbarian and elf were trying to work out divisions on the money, repeatedly cutting the dwarf out for being a failure. The dwarf tried to pick the elf’s pocket…but got caught. The elf let it go, mocking him for failing yet again. So he tried to pick Nanoc’s pocket…and got caught AGAIN. Nanoc, who had previously threatened to kill him if he tried that, mocked him and let him live.

When the team returned to the Arl, Nanoc made a boast about killing the Arl and taking over the Keep…and the dwarf decided to use the distraction to pick the Arl’s pocket…and got caught. This led to his imprisonment. Nanoc offered the Arl 300 silver to have the dwarf executed and the Arl figured “What the Hell?” and said he’d do it. Then he asked the barbarian if he was seriously going to fight him and his 200 armed men, and Nanoc backed down, saying he was joking. The elf confronted the Arl about releasing his slaves, the Arl said no, and the elf ultimately wound up locked up under vague accusations of being an Apostate.

THOUGHTS: The group popped pretty big any time Stunts came up, in or out of combat. I modified a few things on the fly, as I’d heard that the adventure could be pretty killer, especially the Blight Owl encounter, and I may have nerfed that one a bit too much…but the first combat did a ton of damage to the group. It has been a very long time since I’ve ran a game that turned that adversarial, but there was no bitter feelings at the table, just lots of jokes and very off color humor. The elf’s player is my player that is moving off soon. I think he was the least impressed with the game, but still seemed to enjoy himself somewhat. He did comment on the great chemistry the table seemed to have, and how fun it would have been to have had Russ with us through Necessary Evil. Tommy was less than thrilled with his character, ultimately, but he did come out with a rough combination of rolls. That happens in random roll creation. Russ seemed to enjoy Nanoc quite a bit, going for a Conan-like character and probably getting a decent “Level 1 Conan”. As a GM, I missed a few things (like that you only get Stunt Points if you SUCCEED on the roll, duh), but the handouts made it really easy for us to jump in and run. Russ did tell me after the game that one of the few things he struggled with was combat positioning, so doing it over again, I would have use a map and minis. That said, the whole thing ran about 5 hours, including character generation and lots of back and forth joking around (as much or more in character as out), which is really impressive considering it was our first time with the game and one player’s first time role-playing altogether. I think we wound up a little more humorous than what Green Ronin (and Bioware) assumes you will be with the setting, and it was certainly less serious than most games I run, but it was a great time (and it makes me wanna play with the AGE system some more).

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Path of Kane - A Solomon Kane Actual Play Volume 1

 In partial anticipation of resuming some of these games, and partially so that I can archive them on the blog "just in case", I'm gonna post some more of my Savage Worlds actual plays. Most of these are from circa 2009, but me and my one Solomon Kane player have talked about resuming it, and thanks to actually having these actual plays, we can pick up where we left off. Anyway, enjoy.

The Path of Kane

Set-up: So my friend Tommy wants to play Solomon Kane, and has bugged me for a couple of weeks about making a character. I relent, and he starts making a rich, foul-tempered sorcerer named Jonathon Winthorpe. A whim strikes me, and I make his twin sister – Christina Winthorpe, and NPC Wild Card fencer, and their Extra allies: Roger Therrien, their butler and Tenzan, a samurai sworn to protect them. Each had encounter Solomon Kane in their past. When Jonathon was younger and on a daring adventure, he stumbled into a cave where he encountered a rat the size of a small cow! Solomon Kane saved him from that rat. Kane also rescued Christina after she was kidnapped by hooligans who wanted to ransom her back to her family. She watched Kane dismantle a dozen men, fighting with two blades at once, and was forever awed. Tenzan was pulled from certain fiery death by Kane, who walked fearlessly through a blaze to rescue the trapped warrior. Roger doesn’t like to speak of Solomon Kane and his connection, however.

The four have been sharing mysterious dreams, and have found themselves drawn to the small village of Torkertown…

[Note: Spoilers for the Path of Kane plot-point will certainly follow.]

Arriving in Torkertown late in the afternoon, the Winthorpe party passes a funeral as well as a grieving woman in black, whose belongings are being loaded onto a cart.

Passing the cemetery, they can’t help but notice that several of the graves are very fresh.

Coming to the local inn, The Lamb, the Winthorpe party heads inside, seeing the patrons all sullen and quiet. Jonathon scoffs and asks what the drab cloud over the town is, but his attitude rather puts off the innkeep. Christina has a little more luck, and they discover that local merchant John Prestwick passed on the other night…and he’s the fourth such to do so. All were found dead, pale as a sheet.

Jonathon’s curiosity is piqued, and he inquires about libraries or town records, and the innkeep directs him to the church, a Protestant church overseen by Rev. Jeffrey Timothy.

Jonathan sets out immediately, and meets with the Reverend…though that quickly goes nowhere as once more, Jonathan’s attitude sours things for him. Reverend Timothy instead directs him to Squire Hardwicke’s estate, and Jonathan actually runs into Hardwicke on the streets. Claiming to be writing a book, Jonathan tries to get Hardwicke to cooperate with his investigation, but Hardwicke refuses to work with a sensationalist.

Rebuffed at every turn, Jonathan returns to the inn and tells his much more personable sister to see what she can’t learn.

As Roger, Jonathon and Tenzan are sitting down for a meal, Christina returns with news from the Squire that Hardwicke ruled the deaths to be caused by alcohol. She can tell something else is up, but she can’t say what.

Roger politely rises and asks Jonathan to accompany him to the Squire’s home, where he forces his way inside when Hardwicke opens the door. Roger quickly Intimidates the missing information from Hardwicke: That all the bodies were covered with tiny puncture wounds. Hardwicke relents and allows Jonathon to search all the records he has on the town. Scanning the reports, records and details, Jonathon discovers all the deaths are linked by certain things: namely state of the bodies and that all were merchants, and he can’t help but notice that a Roger Ivens, another merchant, died a month earlier, falling to his death in his home. Hardwicke does mention that the lot of them were known to gather socially.

Leaving the Squire’s house, they see Christina and Tenzan exiting the church, and Christina tells her brother that the Reverend was going on about puncture wounds and drained blood…Jonathon says that Squire Hardwicke says much the same…and Christina says that the Reverend believes the town is under assault by a vampire! The Winthorpe party heads to the cemetery with Reverend Timothy to exhume the body of Roger Ivens! Jonathan is BESIDE himself when his sister and Tenzan begin doing the digging, and only gets worse when Roger joins in. He finally decides to be useful when they strike the coffin, and begins whittling a stake as Tenzan draws his katana.

Christina slowly pulls the coffin open…and Jonathon nearly loses it, while Roger stumbles away in horror: At the rotting corpse. Just to be safe, at Jonathon’s suggestion Christina stakes it and chops off its head anyway.

The four decide to pay a visit to the Widow Ivens, waking her in the middle of the night. They do find out from her that her husband was swindled by his friends and a fifth man, Alfred Dawlish! She vehemently denies playing a role in their deaths however, claiming only that she did visit each of the four merchants to plead for a loan and was rebuked. The Winthorpe party quickly moves to the Dawlish home, where they find the master of the house is actually expected to be returning tonight, by the cemetery road!

Hurrying to intercept him, they find a scream FROM the cemetery, where Dawlish has been cornered by a creeping red mist! Christina, Tenzan and Roger move in, drawing their weapons, but none can find purchase in the cloud! Jonathon spots a tendril snaking from Ivens’ grave to the cloud and begins casting a spell on his kodachi, attempting to enchant it, but failing.

The cloud creeps toward Dawlish, who is paralyzed with fear, but also begins to feed on Christina! She snaps out of the attack with a vengeance, and strikes the cloud, somehow harming it! Jonathon again attempts to enchant his blade, and again fails. As he finally casts the spell, the enraged Christina lashes into the middle of the cloud and somehow disperses it!

Dawlish thanks the Winthorpes repeatedly for saving his life, and Jonathan immediately takes that gratitude and turns it around on Dawlish (with a little backup from Roger) as they point out that ugly things can are spawned by greed, and those things don’t necessarily die.

Jonathon convinces Dawlish that until he makes retribution to the Widow Ivens that the red cloud could well return, and they wouldn’t be there to save him again! Dawlish tearfully agrees and says he will make it as right as he can this very evening!

That night, while sleeping, all four are visited in their sleep by N’Longa, who tells them that they have been touched by the Path of Kane, and now a beast, no The Beast is rising…The Beast has many names…Satan, Apep, The World Serpent, and he tells them to seek out six gems of power, scattered around the world…

Notes: My friend really wanted to play Solomon Kane, and I came up with the NPC ideas for his character, so we decided to play a game after finishing our Deadlands game earlier in the day. Since I had nothing else to go off of, I ran the first adventure in the Plot Point game and my friend loved it to death, so now I’ll PROBABLY be running THIS on and off as well.

In other games, he plays Socks (Necessary Evil), Tontchay (Deadlands: Crooked Branch) and Jubae (Deadlands: Shanghai West) so it is kinda cool seeing him play something I’ve never seen him do before: A Rich, Mean Sorcerer. The twin NPC and the Samurai are there to do the heavy lifting in combat, while Roger is an Intimidation monster and not much more.