Review: Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (4e)

WarhammerFor a certain demographic of gamer, Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (WFRP) will always have a special place in their heart. The first edition was the very first RPG I owned, probably bought with some Christmas money, and first read sat on a crowded diesel train back from Leeds, rat-catchers, road wardens, and stevedores pressed up to my eager eyes.

If you’re not familiar with the hold WFRP has over gamers, you could do well to listen to the Grognard Files episodes about it. It’s history is storied; it was a lumpy, workable but odd (although it felt fine at the time) 1st Edition, and a tidied-up and well-supported (which also took some magic out of it) 2nd edition, before Fantasy Flight debuted the funky-dice shenanigans they would later scale down for Star Wars with a massive boxed set of 3rd edition. The system was completely different (although recognisable now with FFG Star Wars being a stripped-down variant) and the idea of £70 for a base game was sniffed at by many in the hobby. Oh, those innocent years, before slipcases and Invisible Sun and kickstarter add-ons (and postage) made such a price seem mainstream.

But, anyway, the 4th edition is out, from Cubicle 7, and it stays closer to the original system while tidying it up and making it work. A few key design tweaks make it a much better game, in my opinion, and it’s crawling with C7’s usual high presentation standards. But is it one-shot suitable? Let’s see…

The Fluff

This is proper grimdark fantasy. Late medieval pseudo-europe is great for a one-shot, and all the Germanic names give plenty opportunity for accents at the table (always a winner form me). Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, and an assortment of colourful Careers make characters easy to inhabit for players, and the setting is realistically grimy while still leaving plenty to do for erstwhile protagonists. The 1st edition supplements are now available in .pdf, which detail locations full of plot hooks, and there are rumours that the classic Enemy Within campaign is to be updated for 4th edition.

It’s a great example of system wedded to setting; it’s clear when you look at a WFRP pregen what kind of world they’ll be adventuring in. The Reikland (the default setting) is beset on all sides by skaven, orcs and goblins, and the insidious taint of chaos in the form of beastmen and chaos cultists, so there’s lots of obvious opportunities for adventure and low-down heroics. And, as you’d expect from C7, the book is a thing of beauty – the art is lovely and harks back to the old 1st edition illustrations.

The Crunch

WFRP has always been a percentile system; where it differs from other D100 games is that you roll against characteristics, with bonuses for skills, rather than skills themselves. Historically combat in particular could be a drag; when you’ve both got a 30% chance to hit and a 30% chance to parry it can take a while for somebody to score a blow. A small tweak has solved all of that and made combat much more exciting – it is now opposed rolls, so you only have to score a better success (or a less-worse miss) than your opponent to make contact. Degrees of success determine damage, so no extra dice roll, and damage takes from Wounds until those are used up and a set of amusingly lethal critical hit tables are rolled on.

Combat is lethal, and rightly so, but it plays out as giving plenty of options in the game. PCs have a Career rather than a Class, and these ground them very much in medieval society rather than setting them up for orcslaying (excepting the Slayer, of course). In contrast to previous editions, each Career is given 4 levels of expertise, so your Townsman can progress from a lowly Clerk to a powerful Burgomeister. Each level unlocks new Talents and Skills, and manages to capture a level of progression while still remaining very much low fantasy.

The One-Shot

There’s a few reasons why you might think is a long-form game rather than a one-shot; the richness of career progression, the wealth of lore about the world, and the prospect of the legendary Enemy Within campaign being some of them. But I’d urge you to try it as a one-shot too. I played it at Grogmeet run by Evilgaz of the Smart Party and it was an excellent game.

Firstly, the setting is so familiar and cosy to so many gamers it really does feel like slipping on a comfortable pair of slippers to adventure in the Old World. Having so much of the setting baked into the characters makes it easy for players to inhabit the setting, and the streamlined combat system of opposed rolls makes combat fun and fast. And never mind Enemy Within, C7 have released Night of Blood, a classic one-shot from the days of old White Dwarf, as a free download, with more to come.

So I’d heartily recommend a doom-laden adventure with WHFRP. It’s definitely something I’ll be bringing to the table soon at Go Play Leeds, and you should too.

Review: Invasions: Target Earth

Invasions target earthI know, I know, I’m reviewing a supplement from over 25 years ago. I blame finding it on the All Rolled Up stall at Student Nationals last weekend. Invasions: Target Earth (I:TE) is a supplement for Champions, 4th edition, from 1990. It is available in .pdf here. It’s a cracking book, which I’m glad to have reclaimed a print copy of – particularly since it’s a very good supplement for any sort of invasion plot, whether superhero roleplaying is your bag or not.

The Fluff

I:TE presents a review of how to structure a plot involving invasions, giving a solid list of events that you can expect to happen in an invasion storyline, modified for whether it’s an open invasion (aliens rampaging through the streets) or a secret one (subversive shapechangers taking over Earth’s military). It has a useful breakdown of the likely command structure of invading forces, and several examples of both superhero and more mundane invasions.

It then gives a full-length example of an invasion, which is very… 1990s. Demonicus Rex and his army of Demons and Demon Lords (including ratlike Kobolds and flying Furies) have come from an alternate dimension to invade earth. The Demons look and feel an awful lot like Rocksteady and Bebop from the old Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles cartoon, and it gives a quirky Saturday morning cartoon feeling to what could have been pretty dark subject matter.

The Crunch

This being a Champions sourcebook, the majority of the crunch lies in stat blocks for the demon invaders, along with details for some weird Breeder aliens, anodyne “Space Invaders,” giant animals, and robots that could be used with multiple invasion foces. Honestly, unless you’re a the particular type of grognard who still actually runs Champions 4th edition, I can’t see this being very useful. Hero System doesn’t just feel like an algebra textbook, it also reads like it, so don’t expect to be able to make sense of phrases like “1 pip HKA (1/2d6 w/STR), bite” in the Breeder Hatchling description. You’re better off using the pictures to convert some stats.

Don’t buy this for the crunch.

The One Shot

Buy it for the story structure! Seriously, this gives a very good structure for a short, or longer mini-campaign dealing with an invasion. The 10 steps it gives for plotting an invasion, together with numerous examples, are easy to adapt to whatever system you’re running with and give a nice structure to work on.

For a 3-4 hr one-shot, I’d simplify the sections to these 4 (which I’ve picked from the longer list):

  • Arrival
  • Invaders win Battles
  • The Defenders get Organised
  • Final Battle

This gives a good, if tightly railroaded, structure to use as a basis. As with one-shots everywhere, though, the key to making it not feel like a railroad is to make everything else flexible.

The idea of The Defenders get Organised is that you rally enough support or manufacture a special weapon that the invaders are vulnerable to, so I would have several options there. Likewise, the location and environment of the Final Battle and the vignettes you use for Invaders Win Battles can be flexible and informed by player choice.

With a few stat blocks (with or without phrases like “Transform 5 1/2 d6, Area (1250 hexes), any shape Non-selective target”) and settings, there’s your superhero alien invasion sorted. I’m very pleased that the plot sections of this supplement seem to hold up as well as they do, and it makes me wonder what other gems are lurking in the 1990s supplement time machine.

One-Hour One-Shots: Starfinder: Into the Unknown

SF into the unknown picI’ve blogged before here about trying to prep and deliver an effective one-hour introductory game (and attempted to use the #1H1S abbreviation!), so I was pleasantly surprised to find out about the Starfinder Quests packaged together as Into the Unknown (ITU). The link takes you to Paizo’s website, but it’s a free download, and it’s worth a look even if you’re not keen on Starfinder (although you shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it) – as we’ll talk about here (If you want to see another example of a #1H1S, written by yours truly, head to D101 games and download (also free) Bite of The Crocodile God, my 1-hour game for Hunters of Alexandria).

The product consists of five linked adventures (“Quests”) designed to take an hour of game time for five 1st-level characters (and of course there are pregens available separately – along with some useful guidance about what starship roles they will be most effective at in the ship combats.

The adventures are simple and straightforward – three are ground combats with a mixture of exploration/investigation, and two are starship battles. I can see why Starfinder wants to show off its space combat, but I’d imagine these are the weakest to run on their own – they do just consist of a battle against another starship with a bit of plot context (and it doesn’t sell me on Starfinder – although the system is I’m sure fun – that these will take an hour on their own!)

If I was to run a few of them in sequence, the first three, in which the PCs follow a trail of clues (and a starship battle) to discover a missing starship, is a great 3-hour set, and if you were to run one on its own as a one-hour game, the first one would work well – there’s a good opportunity for roleplay as well as an interesting but relatively simple (as in complexity, not challenge) combat. It’s a good, tight design, and I’ll be stealing the structure to plot out similar traditional games for #1H1S.

Stick to One Set-Piece – but Seed with Roleplaying

With any kind of crunchy system (and see this post for more generic advice), in an hour you will only tackle one rules-heavy scene. That probably means if you’re planning one #1H1S, it’ll be a combat, so try and make it challenging and interesting and build stuff around it. For instance, in ITU’s first quest Station, there’s a neat investigation with an NPC leading to the confrontation, and probably an interrogation afterwards – so the combat is set in a context that justifies it.

Highlight the Best Crunch of the Game

As above, this is likely to be combat, but if you’re allowing yourself the luxury of a set of #1H1S games to piece together, you might like to expand. For instance, if I was planning something with Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures (and I really should, given the popularity of the franchise), I’d probably want to include some sort of Extended Task scientific challenge for one of the segments – my scenes probably have a starship combat, a science-y extended task, and a ground combat – and maybe another extended task which is a negotiation or similar.

Either way, think about the rules you are showcasing as you prep. I’m sure that the Starship combat is deliberately showcased in ITU, which is why 2 whole Quests consist of an extended space battle. In other games, you might want to show how great social conflict can be (Burning Wheel springs to mind) – so include it if you can.

Episode it up and embrace the railroad

There’s a lot of guff spoken about railroading, especially when it comes to one-shot play, and even more if you’ve only got an hour to play with. Yes, in an extended campaign, forcing your players’ hands either explicitly or on the sly is certainly not good practice, but it’s necessary – advantageous even – in a one-shot to guide the players towards the good bits.

Also, try and make each #1H1S a complete and distinct chapter. This isn’t always easy, and it’s a stretch for some of ITU’s sections (I’ll come back again to the starship combat sections – yes, starship combat is a neat system in Starfinder, but I can’t see why you wouldn’t just play X-Wing for an hour if that was your jam).

Go forth and #1H1S

I must admit, since posting about them last year, I was a bit stymied about the #1H1S project – but finding ITU has got me seriously thinking about them now. Watch this space for further developments – and probably ready-to-play modules – and feel free to comment or contact me to suggest or request systems. As I said, Star Trek Adventures feels like a good fit for it. And let me know if you’re doing anything with them yourselves!

Review: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (D&D5e)

I’ve been saying for a while that playing, and running, more 5th edition D&D is definitely something I want to do this year; and in this post, I dissected the beauty of random tables and promised a review of the product that inspired them, Wizards’ latest D&D5e supplement Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Well, here it is. Disclaimer first: I’m hardly the most knowledgeable person to talk about D&D5; if some of the new rules are imbalanced and hazy, I probably won’t have noticed them – other reviews are available, that will no doubt have a different focus to mine. I’m not going to be analysing the mechanical balance and options of each subclass presented, for instance – as usual in my reviews, I’ll be looking in broad brush strokes at what’s useful for one-shot games in the publication.

The Fluff – Roll 1d6 for your next three adventure hooks

While at first glance Xanathar’s contains little in the way of setting information, background or explicit ‘story,’ it is filled with is implicit, flexible background. Each character option and random table populates your game’s world with NPCs, factions, and hooks – and these are yours, not some silent D&D canon. This is a map-free book, but in using the optional rules just for your PCs you’ll find setting leaping out at you fully-formed.

What and how? Well, each background has additional tables, and there are a set randomly-rolled life events for each character. Each class has them; and they’re short and simple, easily picked though and just the relevant ones used. Wizards, for instance, now have three 1d6 tables that they can optionally use to determine what their spellbook looks like, what their mystical ambitions are, and what eccentricities they have developed through their studies of the art.

There’s also a set of random encounter tables by terrain and tier that give a good inclination of what different areas are like. It’s a long time since I’ve used any sort of random encounter table (and my procedure tended to be to roll up 2-3 in advance, make them tied to the world and interesting mechanically, and throw them at players if they came up, rather than rolling directly on them while in play) but they give a good sense for the setting and just what kinds of D&D creatures inhabit each kind of terrain.

Another nice bit of fluff is rules for Common Magic Items, which are cantrip-like magic items that provide small, but useful, functions – like the candle of the deep which never goes out, even underwater. Each one suggests multiple different uses – I can imagine a city beseiged by seasonal storms to have a roaring trade in candles for when the storms come, both from the wealthy seeking to keep their houses well-lit and those wanting to do business under cover of them.

The Crunch – there is a lot of this

Let’s start with the big stuff, the stuff that most readers will go to immediately – there are tons of character options, at between 2-4 new subclasses for each class. Some are familiar (I was pleased to see the Cavalier back, as well as the Kensai , Swashbuckler, and Hexblade) – and some are funkier suggestions (there’s a drunken master monk style, and a samurai). I’d really appreciate these when rolling up pregens for one-shots, as they provide a really clear distinct concept for players to latch onto. Because they’re subclasses, they don’t really add extra complexity to play, either, as they’re a one-off option that replaces other rules options in the class.

There’s lots of new spells, too – and extended trap design rules and systems for downtime. There’s tables and rules for buying, crafting, and selling magic items – not likely to see play in a one-shot, but fills in a handwavey part of play that’s been really poorly supported in previous editions. Back in youth of playing D&D, we’d always be heading back to town trying to fence yet another longsword +1 or potion of feather fall, and it always felt we were at the DM’s mercy as to how generous he was feeling.

There’s a new reading of the encounter design system, which appears much simpler and easier-to-use than the previous one in the DMG. My own experience from building encounters for one-shots right back from 3rd Edition would be to make every encounter harder than the rules say – you’re aiming for exciting, dangerous combat rather than the gradual resource-drain of regular dungeon exploration – and on the face of it this system makes it easier to twiddle those knobs to make that work.

Also there are extended rules for using tools – which I can see being really useful in a one-shot to make non-combat skill use a bit better supported in the game. Each set of tools is also linked to which skills are used with it – and if you’ve got any kind of mystery or investigation, these are good sources of inspiration for where clues might come from.

The One-Shot

Truth be told, most of the use this will see in a one-shot is embedded in the options above, but there are 3 excellent pages in an appendix at the back that are really useful. They detail how to setup and run a shared campaign, and although they clearly are geared towards running Adventurer League games, there’s some useful estimates such as how long combat encounters should take and how you can pace experience so everyone stays on the same page. I’m a big fan of linking one-shots into episodic campaigns, and this gives you most of the tools to do so, as well as sharing GM duties.

In an ideal world, for me this would have been 30 pages, not 3, and maybe explored using D&D for one-shots, different campaign formats (the 3-session minicampaign, sandbox play with a player pool like in West Marches, etc) – ook at structuring games and giving players ownership and genuine choice while also managing your prep (stuff like The Alexadrian’s Node-Based Design) – but hey, if it had all that stuff in, there’d be less for people to blog about, I guess.

To sum up, Xanathar’s brings an awful lot of extra ‘stuff’ to the game, but in a format that makes it pretty easy to drop in bits of it at a time to add to, rather than complicate, your game. I’ve still got a lot more thinking and exploring to do about running D&D5e as a one-shot (and I’ll be posting my thoughts here), but Xanathar’s increases the range of tools available to do so. What approaches or prep have you found useful in setting up a D&D5 one-shot, and am I right in thinking that using supplements like Xanathar’s and Volo’s can add richness without complexity?

An Xmas Mixtape (a Mixtape is like a Spotify Playlist from olden times)

This blog is now 8 months old. While I’ve not maintained it with as much regularity as I’d foolishly expected, I’ve spent a bit of time reviewing my content – and taken the step to actually shell out some cash to make this ad-free (sorry, those of you who were wanting the chance to win an iPhone 10 every time you clicked the link).

I’ve got big(ish) plans for the blog next year, and am planning to get serious about writing (and editing) RPGs more widely – while it’s only a tiny one-shot, seeing Bite of the Crocodile God get art and layout has convinced me to get my act together a bit more.

My plan in the new year is to continue with a mixture of different things, all through the lens of one-shot play. In the meantime, in case you’ve missed them, here’s a mixtape of what you can expect more of:

Reviews, with a particular focus on one-shot play – I started trying to do all of the Fate Worlds series, but I got a bit distracted – this is probably my favourite, of the frankly bonkers Masters of Umdaar

Prep and play advice, such as this post which I’ll be rereading before Revelation (the Powered-by-the-Apocalypse convention in Sheffield, UK) on prepping PBTA one-shot games

Rules tweaks, like this for making Cypher system (and other games’) experience system fun

And the occasional beard-stroking bit of sentimentality, like this post about the nature of the hobby, and why you shouldn’t feel guilty about all those game books on your shelves.

I’m hoping to get some actual ready-to-play one-shots on the blog as well, and have several percolating in various stages ready for editing and uploading. I haven’t forgotten about the #1H1S thing, either – so expect more about running 1 hour RPG sessions soon too.

And, in case I haven’t said before, thanks for reading. I hope you continue to enjoy it. Anything else you’d like to see, stick it in the comments!

Review: 7th Sea, Second Edition

7th Sea, Second Edition, is a trojan horse RPG – a hippie-smoking narrative indie game disguised as a big-budget trad game. Even its pseudo-European setting and swashbuckling, piratical leanings imply it will have rules for swimming, climbing rigging, initiative even. And it doesn’t, really – it has one unified resolution system for everything. It’s beautiful, fast-playing, and very, very good.

The Fluff – “Are we doing accents?”

In the pursuit of high-stakes swashbuckly pirate action, 7th Sea sets itself in a squished up map of Europe where each nation in Theah is very easily identified as its real-world analogue. Even the map is recognisably European, so if you can’t work out that the red-haired kilt-wearing barbarians of the Highland Marches aren’t Scots, you can check an atlas. I’ve no problem with this – and it is of course just an iteration of the setting of the first edition, which was apparently a much-loved aspect of the game. I’d expect a good deal of outrageous accents in play if I’m anywhere near the table.

The setting descriptions in the rules are a bit, well, basket-weavey. I’m not sure if I really needed to know what the average Castillan peasant eats to jump into the game, and it feels rather like a potential barrier to play rather than a boon; I found myself skimming once I’d worked out it was Spain, and then coming back to find the adventure hooks hidden within the descriptions of fashions and history. And this is the first bit where it comes across as a traditional game; there feels like an expectation that you should read the 96 pages of setting chapter before you start creating your character, even though there’s probably no need at all.

It’s worth giving a shout out to the system’s alternate settings – The Crescent Empire, which is the near / middle East analogue, is out now, and offers an inventive take on Arabian Nights-style swashbuckling, and New World – Jaguar Knights and pseudo-Aztec sacrifices and Ifri – their Africa – are lined up for release. I’ve only really dived in The Crescent Empire, and it really is impressive – and probably merits a separate review which I’ll get to soon.

The Crunch – Ready you magnetic fish!

As I said in the introduction, this is the most indie you’ll find in a shiny 300-page hardback. You roll a pool of dice, count Raises (which you make by summing dice to 10), and take action in order from them. That’s how you do everything. Action Scenes see you act in order of the number of Raises you have at each turn, Dramatic Scenes use a more narrative initiative order (as in, one determined entirely by the GM as suits the fiction). There are no difficulty levels, and an implication that players might try to use whatever combination of Trait and Skill they like to accomplish their task, under some negotiation with their GM.

One wrinkle is that every challenge or scene seems to be bespoke to the specific situation, and there’s advice that the GM will pre-plan these out, which makes it seem more complex than it is. What 7th Sea really needs is some general examples of, for instance, a shipboard battle, a tavern brawl, a chase through alleyways, a high society ball – that the GM can quickly grab and pick options from to invent scenes on the fly.

At every turn, it feels like there’s more to the system – and many of the early commentators on the system I think were disappointed in this – but, brilliantly, there isn’t. PCs have various Advantages that tweak the rules in certain circumstances, but like Fate’s Stunts, they are exceptions rather than interfering with the core mechanic. Even duelling, which adds the most additional rules, really just allows you to zoom in on the action in a combat sequence. Villains have two stats and one dice pool, and  groups of mooks – Brute Squads – just have a Strength.

The sole exception to the unified-system appears to be magic, which is specific to each Nation and both game-breakingly powerful and awesomely cool. You won’t be slinging spells regularly, but you can be sure that if there’s a magic-user in the group they will have additional – and very flavourful – ways to interact with the story and bring trouble their way.

The One-Shot

In fairness, there are a couple of cool things about the system which I don’t think translate well to one-shot play. Firstly, the experience system (such as it is) is player-specific multi-step Stories that are collaboratively written and plan out what the PC needs to achieve to get his next XP boost. The villain rules have resource management stuff for the villain to try schemes to raise his strength and an economy for sending stuff after the PCs. I can see an awesome game (not a one-shot) where the players just arrive with their own stories and the GM plays his villain’s schemes and gets in the way of them – but I’m not certain how that would work for one-shot play, although setting it up in a similar way to player-led PBTA might work.

These are the pregens I’ve made up for this game, and they give a fair indication of how straightforward the system would be to grasp for players – although you want to ensure that a player who is happy to get to grips quickly with additional rules and exceptions takes any PCs with magic or dueling. The setting is certainly easy to grasp, and the unified system will certainly make sense – but, as with everything, watch out for players who are drawn to a big hardback book expecting more rules than they find!

I’m looking to tidy up my own quickstart adventure and post it on here, and I might even have a bash at some generic scenes for the game and put them out there – but in short, this game might be my new hotness for a while.

Ready, Set, Game! – in Search of the One Hour One Shot

Earlier this year, in preparing to fulfil my regular gig as D101 Games‘ stall monkey at UK Games Expo, I sketched out a demo adventure for the Fate game Hunters of Alexandria. It was designed to play in 30-45 minutes for 1-3 players in a crowded convention hall, and although it never got the chance to hit the table at the Expo, it’s just been released as a free download. It’s made me think about an idea I think we should all try to make happen – the One Hour One Shot (1H1S) RPG Game.

At the same time, Baz from the Smart Party podcast has been mulling over some prep for a 1 hour demo of Blades in the Dark… I can’t give you more details but watch out for it, because what I’ve seen of it looks really good!

Why?

The key resource that keeps the RPG entry point high for the casual potential gamer isn’t money (you don’t even need to have your own dice) or exposure (pretty much everyone knows what D&D is these days), it’s time. How can you sell a hobby that involves 3 hours of your time every week? Even if you’re going to restrict yourself to one-shot / episodic games at conventions and meetups like Go Play Leeds, this means an informal commitment of one 4 hour session every month. That isn’t easy to get your head around if you’re not sure if you’ll like the game.

At the same time, more people are playing board games – and geeky board games – than ever before. I have seen copies of Pandemic on the shelves of some of my least geeky friends’ bookshelves; board games are mainstream now.

Also, aren’t there lots of games you want to try out? If you allocate even a short, sharp 4 hour session to each of them, you’ll be here forever working your way through them. One hour, though – even the busiest gamer can spare an hour, surely…

How?

At the moment this is early in the design stages, so I’m not exactly an expert, but I’ve got a few ideas of how the 1H1S game might look:

  • simple, grabby pregens that give an easy idea of what they can do in the setting and game
  • a really tight structure – 3-4 scenes that showcase the setting and what the PCs do
  • an opportunity to learn the rules. Think about the first level of a well-written videogame, and how it teaches you to jump and move around before you learn to shoot; an attempt to walk through the core mechanics in a logical way
  • leave them hungry. Add hooks to further adventure, an obvious way out that they can lead on to if they want more. Aim to leave them wanting to know what else happens to their character, and how they can continue the game
  • really clear social structure. Some of this will come out in the way the GM (who we’ll assume has played RPGs before) presents it, but also with clear guidance. The social setup of a tabletop RPG is arcane if you haven’t played one before, and your players need as much help as you can get. Even games that explicitly spell out the social structure of play such as PBTA games get misinterpreted, and we’ve all been in games where the loudest player gets to hog screen time

What next?

Well, I guess the next step for me is to actually get on and prep some 1 hour demos. I’m confident that Bite does what it says on the tin and is a possible model for Fate or similar games, but I’d like to write the same for some of those games I haven’t played enough of, too – especially ones with interesting rules twists like 7th Sea or Dogs in the Vineyard. What else is out there? Have you run any 1H1S games, succesfully or otherwise? Let me know in the comments!