Sunday, June 9, 2013

Tommy's Take on Hulks and Horrors - Basic Black Edition

Not every dungeon crawl has to take place in medieval fantasy ruins…Hulks & Horrors: Basic Black Edition takes the classic roleplaying structure and transplants it into a sci-fi setting.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Hulks& Horrors: Basic Black Edition is a retroclone that takes D&D and places in space, with the PCs playing space travelers exploring the ruins left behind in the galaxy by a horrible Virus. Hulks & Horrors is available in PDF for $10 and print for $20 at RPGNow. This review is based off of the PDF version, which was provided to me for review purposes, and the affiliate link provided may provide this blog with a portion of all sales through it.

Hulks & Horrors keeps to simplistic layout reminiscent of early roleplaying books, which – I would imagine – is both cost effective and evocative.

You are probably familiar with character generation: Roll 3d6 six times, once each for Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma. From there, you pick a class. There are four Human classes (Pilot, Scientist, Soldier and Syker), as well as three alien classes (Hovering Squid, Omega Reticulan and Bearman). Interestingly, the last one is the only of the three that is human, as the Reticulans are amoeba and the squids are, well, squids.

The classes only go to level 6, and each class has a requirement. Pilots are built on Dexterity, and have a decent weapon and armor selection. They also get bonuses for using computers and attacking with ranged vehicle weapons, as well as getting to roll two 20 sided dice when making piloting maneuvers and taking the best of them. Scientists use a Multitool that allows them to perform extraordinary feats, and are Intelligence based. Soldiers use Strength and Dexterity and are the all purpose combat monsters, but get a bonus to stealth checks as well. Psykers use Wisdom and have Psychic abilities. Hovering Squids have a Dexterity requirement and a Strength *maximum*, can survive in water and have multiple arms that they can bring to bear on their opponents. Omega Reticulans are akin to Scientists, but with better weapon and armor options. Bearmen are a lot like Wookies...with psychic powers. Scary, huh? If you somehow don’t manage to qualify for any of the classes? You can be a Redshirt.

As mentioned, a couple of classes have Science! powers and a couple have Psychic powers. Science powers include Skin Graft (your basic healing power), Targeting Display (a bonus to hit), Smart Drone (think “moving landmine”), Create Nutrient Pill (so your whole party doesn’t starve while out exploring), Micro Wormhole (short range teleportation) and Neural Disruptor (which can KO opponents without harming them). Science uses Charges based on the level of the effect used.

Psychic Powers use a pool called Psi, and include abilities like Mind Trick (“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”), Pyrokinetic Assault (“Burn!”), Levitation Leap and Mind Blank (which makes you invisible to organic foes).

Equipment runs the gamut of “basic” weapons like slug throwers and shivs, on up to laser swords and particle beams. Armor uses the descending armor class of older editions of D&D, and the various suits of armor serve to protect your PC from the environment as much as from damage. Other equipment includes shields, grenades, motion trackers, wrist computers…as well as synthetic rope, 10 ft. collapsible poles, backpacks and electric torches.

The basic mechanic is a d20 roll under stat check. Penalties are applied to the stat, not the roll. A Natural 20 is an automatic failure and a Natural 1 is an automatic success. Opposed checks go to the person that rolls the highest while still rolling under the relevant stat. Saving Throws are based on Dexterity, Constitution and Wisdom. Environmental effects like Temperature, Radiation and Gravity take on a larger role here than in the games Hulks & Horrors was based on. When leveling  up, at levels 3 and 6 you can increase a stat, gain more hit points, apply your new attack bonus and (if applicable) pick new Psychic or Science powers.

Combat is handled along the lines of pre-d20 D&D, complete with “To Attack Armor Class 0” (or TAACO) numbers and charts. Morale rules are also included.

Spaceships are important here, with Spaceships divided between Landers and Orbiters, with the smaller Landers able to enter the atmosphere, while Orbiters remain in space. The three methods of acquiring a ship are mortgaging one (which gives you more options, before is more expensive), buying used (cheaper than mortgaging, but you’re not always getting what you expect) and inheriting a ship (it’s yours, clean and clear…you just may not get what you want, and you may find the upkeep to be outside of your budget). Ships are defined by Hulls, Armor, Main Engines, Weapons, Thrusters and Additional Systems (waste recyclers, fighter bays, cloaking devices, Ground-Penetrating Radar, Sickbay, Gaming Room, Microbar, etc). If you buy new, just pick what you want and pay for it. With Used, you take the best of random rolls and with an inherited ship, you completely roll the ship randomly. A selection of sample ships is included. Ship to ship combat is included, but it seems like it would leave non-pilots on the outside looking in.

The chapter on space exploration wins points for a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference (when traveling through subspace, things may go wrong…like making a sperm whale or bowl of petunias appear out of nowhere).

I’m a big fan of random charts, and there’s an extensive section that allows you to randomly generate star systems, on down to a planetary level…complete with what kind of civilization exists (or existed) there. A helpful worksheet is provided for this. Of course, once you have detailed the solar systems and the planets, you have to decide what kinds of structures are present to be explored, from Pod Colonies to Urban Ruins to Hulks, which are giant ships left floating in space. Random charts are provided to add “flavor” to the exploration, as well as loot tables. Random tables for the weapons can provide beneficial, and humorous, special abilities…from bonuses to damage against vertebrate life forms to built-in MP3 players. Extra special armor might have Cloaking Fields…or it might… “vibrate”. Some of the higher end items include The Meatpuppet (a suit of armor made from flesh) and The Axe – part guitar, part weapon.

The bestiary includes four random encounter charts, depending on the environment the PCs are exploring. Monsters include Blind Trolls (who are difficult to battle in melee, due to the cloud of diseased filth that surrounds them), Centipods (12 foot spider-centipedes), Gorilloids (purple apes with poisonous horns), Living Weapons (who are every bit as terrifying as they sound), Seeker Drones (dropped onto the planet to destroy anything that moves), Skinless (who will try to strangle you with their own intestines), Space Whales, Toxic Ooze and more.

The GMing chapter has a lot of common stuff in it, but it also reminds the reader that no room should ever be “empty”, even if there is no monster or loot (remember, you are exploring the dead remnants of intergalactic society…these places had reasons for existing). A little information is given on gearing the game towards a different type of space game over exploration, as well as alternate character generation rules and rules for extrapolating the character classes above and beyond level 6. There are also rules for converting from older editions of D&D (which is awesome, because I LOVE using monsters “out of genre”), as well as non-Psyker and Scientist players learning Science! and Psionic abilities as well.

WHAT WORKS: I love the random charts. I *always* love the random charts. The Redshirt option for characters that don’t qualify for a character class is great as well. I do like how the classes have been balanced for the game, instead of just doing a straight renaming of the D&D Classes. Some of the tongue in cheek effects for various pieces of loot are also great as well.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: I’d prefer a d20 chart over a d12 chart every time. Less chance of repeating an option. The space combat rules seem like they would leave non-pilots in the cold…moreso than non-Pilots will be left out on the ground. Contested checks are just clunky (rolling higher than the opponent but under your stat).

CONCLUSION: I’m not a big fan of the older school D&Ds, and I think that’s where I wind up displeased with some of the mechanics here. That said, I actually like the premise of exploring space hulks and dead planets more than I do straight up dungeon crawls. The extensive use of random charts is always a plus, and I do like that there are multiple options for acquiring a ship. If you’re a fan of old school D&D and you want something more than a different coat of paint on it, then definitely check this out.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Tommy's Take on Volant - Kingdoms of Air and Stone

Not really interested in yet *another* cookie cutter fantasy game? Well, clash bowley may just have a solution for that, with Volant: Kingdoms of Air and Stone.
Do flying cities and giant bird mounts interest you?

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Volant is available at RPGNow for $12.00. This review is of the PDF version, provided by the publisher for review purposes. Purchases made through the affiliate link I provided do provide this site with store credit at OneBookShelf.

That stuff out of the way, what IS Volant? Volant is a fantasy RPG set in a world after a magical catastrophe has sucked all the magic out of humanity and placed it into the stones, causing mountains to fly above the world. This is where the bulk of humanity now lives, traveling via giant birds and airships. Down on the blasted surface are the more primitive members of humanity, as well as the monsters moving across the surface. Magical effects as still possible, via Alchemy (as the opening fiction nearly explains in a nice and tidy piece).

Players of other games by clash will recognize a lot of what’s here on the structural level. For instance, the first thing you do is create the association your PCs belong to. They can be a religious sect, a group of assassins, treasure hunters, knights, military, mercenaries…whatever. Just as long as they belong to the same group, giving them a reason to share goals at the beginning of the game. The group has starting capital with which to purchase a headquarters, assets and so on, as is relevant to their association’s purpose.

Once the association is complete, then comes character generation. You pick a starting age, and the older you are, the more skills and experience you have…but as you get older, your attributes decrease. You have six attributes, assigned either an array of scores or determined by a pool of 45 points. PCs have a number of Template Points based off of their age to chart their professional development. The first two templates (Background and Apprenticeship) are free, the rest have point costs based on the benefits provided. You might have been a Street Rat who was taken in as an Apprentice Scholar. From there, they have become a budding Alchemist and so on. Each step gives skills and perks, based on your professional choices.
Several handy template tree charts are provided to guide one through the common career paths.

Characters are further defined by Traits, which are a mechanical definition of a character’s personality. If a trait is relevant to an action, you can use it to add points to your skill roll, while traits that would impact your action negatively can be used to gain points back. Edges are kind of like Traits, but not necessarily linked to personality.

Characters also gain Maneuvers, which are impressive tricks that they can utilize in gameplay, both in and out of combat. Shield Maneuvers let you stun the opponent with a quick shield strike. Sword maneuvers let you take small penalties on your attack roll, saving them up for one massive hit a few rounds later. Staff maneuvers allow you to do things like pole vault over the opponent for a free attack. Team maneuvers can let you apply “shock and awe” tactics to the opponent. You get the idea. While most of the maneuvers are combat-focused, there are a few social maneuvers as well. A lack of aerial-focused maneuvers seemed like an oversight, given the setting, though many of these maneuvers will be usable in the air as well as on the ground. I also couldn’t pin down whether or not a turn and a round are used interchangeably, but if not, then two of the pole fighting maneuvers have the issue of one being noticeably better than the other, for the same cost.

The StarCluster system has evolved in an interesting manner, as you can take the same basic stats and set-up, but choose your resolution mechanic from StarNova (the grittier option), StarZero (which produces more average results), StarPool (which has powered most of the StarCluster games I’ve reviewed) and StarWorm (which has more player negotiation, stake setting, that kind of thing). StarPool and StarWorm use d20 pools, while StarZero uses a d6-d6 (ala ICONS), and StarNova uses exploding d6s. With four different, varying, resolution mechanics, you have a lot of room to play around and find your comfort zone.
The equipment chapter has several tables for modifiers for weapon craftsmanship and materials which is neat…but doesn’t seem to have an impact other than cost. There is a section talking about station and how “clothes make the man”, so one can assume it also applies to weapons, but it does seem off to put that detail in there without any real follow-up.

The Alchemy section is simple but cool, with different ingredients giving you different Edges. This includes both plants (Cold Root giving you Ice and Cool Edges, or Lion Weed giving you Courage and Hope Edges) and Creatures (like Spider-Kin Venom giving Climb and Still Edges).

The Skylands creation chapter is similarly impressive, with lots of charts (with random roll distributions) to guide you in the creation of Skylands, from their government structure to the resources they produce and an optional set of charts to create a caste system if you choose.

Religion is also similarly defined by the GM. The game makes no assumptions regarding the number of deities or how they react to their followers.

Airships and birds are a big deal, each with their own creation section. My favorite of the two is the bird creation, as you can select their best senses, their reaction to aggression, their intelligence and so on. And, well, the idea of playing a guy riding around on a giant bird just sounds awesome to me.

With the Aerial Combat chapter, I think I can see why Aerial Maneuvers weren’t present earlier on, as there’s already a TON of options to keep track of, tactics-wise, when birds are fighting in the air. Generally, the riders are trying to get behind their opponents, and one need not necessarily kill their opponent or its mount, as birds face severe consequences from failing Vigor rolls in combat.

The chapter on the surface world follows the pattern of the rest of the book, giving you tools and options to create your surface world, rather than telling you just how it is. Wizard ruins on the surface often still have ambient energy that can warp and transform seeds or eggs, which some individuals will pay a pretty penny for.

There is no bestiary, per se, but there is another set of charts that one can use to construct their own.

The book does provide examples of character creation, monster creation, religion creation, nation creation, airship creation and so on. An aerial combat cheat sheet/picture guide and an index round out the book (although, oddly, the page numbers for the index are 1-6, despite being at the back of the book).

WHAT WORKS: I love the setting concept. I love the idea of playing an adventurer riding around on a giant bird. It’s just cool. I really appreciate all of the tools provided to make Volant your own, right down to the resolution mechanic used. All of the various examples at the back of the book are certainly appreciated, and the maneuvers are a cool feature to provide mechanical support for more versatile combat.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: The extra cost tables on weapon creation just seem out of place because, unless I missed it, there is no real benefit to paying more for better quality weapons…so why would you? As much as I love tools and random charts, I do also like having ready-made material to work with, so I would have appreciated a larger bestiary.

CONCLUSION: This one “sings” to me more than clash’s other games do, because of the fantasy element over the alternate history element. That and it’s just overloaded with cool factor. Also, I can’t NOT love this many random charts in one book.  This is definitely not your average fantasy game. There’s no dwarves, elves, gnomes or halflings, or orcs, goblins and drow here. That said, if you’re wanting something you can just jump right into and run, that’s not going to work unless you’re adept at running with the random results. That’s not a knock on the game, just an observation. My favorite iteration of StarCluster yet.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Tommy's Take on Stealer of Children

In theory, I review games. Haven’t had the time or opportunity to do that in a while. Let’s remedy that, shall we? Starting with the latest release from Small Niche Games: The Stealer of Children.
Yes, there's a REASON the dead guy is in a tree.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: This is another Labyrinth Lord adventure from Small Niche Games, set in the Chronicles of Amherth setting. The PDF is $4.95 and is 31 pages long, and you can order a POD softcover for $7.95. The assumed number of heroes is 3-6, of first level.

Now, I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m not a big Labyrinth Lord fan, but I sure do like Small Niche adventures, which have all had a quasi-Ravenloft-ish feel to them, which I DO like.

Set in Leandras Row, The Stealer of Children is a fairly open ended adventure. The PCs are assumed to have come to Leandras Row for their own reasons, when they find a farmer being attacked by an undead warrior. This should set the group on edge, but despite their investigations, they won’t be able to do tooooo much…yet.

Soon, a child turns up missing (hopefully just one), and the group is the only realistic hope of calming the townspeople. If the group decides not to get involved, the kidnappings continue…and if the group still doesn’t get involved, the townsfolk begin to suspect that they may be involved, due to the timing of events. While this doesn’t have any IMMEDIATE ramifications, it will haunt the group going forward.

The investigations have a couple of places they can go, a ruined manor and a stretch of woods. The woods are FILLED with encounters that are short enough, but weird enough, to raise the interest of the group, and they can be spun off into their own adventures after the fact. (Unicorn hunting, anyone?)

Though the adventure is meant for level 1 characters, there are tips for scaling it up for larger characters. I don’t recommend using those guidelines, because more capable parties will be able to handle the adversary of the module without the adventure’s macguffin, which in turn takes away from the uniquely awesome finale of the adventure.

WHAT WORKS: A nice change of pace for a level 1 adventure, with one of the coolest workarounds for a level 1 party having to deal with an enemy that’s immune to non-magical weapons. The encounters in the Tanglewood outside of town are cool and potentially awe-inspiring for a level 1 party.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: Nothing that can’t be fixed with a conversion to Savage Worlds or the AGE system, something other than a D&D derivative (purely subjective, of course.) Oh, the color selection for the cover is just downright ugly. I would have picked something, anything, other than pink, I think. And maybe an art piece that fit the theme more closely (though the art is directly linked to the adventure).

CONCLUSION: Another great adventure with a unique adversary. If I were to nitpick anything about the SNG adventures, it would maybe be the production values, but remember that this is coming from a guy who’s looking at the material from outside the OSR fanbase. The art and layout perfectly matches the aesthetic they are aiming for. For the material itself, I have no real complaints, as the adventures have been unique and interesting, with conversion work being no real problem. Stealer of Children continues to fit that pattern, providing low-level fantasy adventure with a weird/horror twist.