Review: Mythic Odysseys of Theros

So, continuing on from reviews of Ravnica and Eberron, here’s D&D’s latest setting sourcebook. Theros, apparently, is a setting from Magic: The Gathering that’s a Mythic Greece style fantasy. I’ve written here before about how good this setting is for fantasy (see my review of Agon here), so it’s interesting to see how Wizards have transplanted this to D&D.

The Fluff

Theros map

Map of Theros from the MTG wiki

First up, I must admit I’m a fan of these Magic setting books. They carry their content in a much more manageable way – there aren’t bags and bags of setting history to digest, and the areas covered are more modest. For campaigns as well as one-shots, I like the focus that provides.

The key conceit of Theros is that the Gods take a great personal interest in the heroes and villains of the Mortal Realm – and indeed, travel beyond the Mortal Realm is relatively easy.

The Gods correspond to the Greek pantheon, although everything has been slightly changed – I’m not sure if I’d rather have the original group, although they’ve added some twists to make each one have potential as a patron and an antagonist and give them some flavorful hooks and details. Like Ravnica’s guilds, each God gets a section looking at potential adventures involving them, with a linked map of their temple that could be an encounter location. This is an excellent presentation decision – show don’t tell your setting to GMs! As I’ve said before, I’m also all in favor of D&D moving towards random tables for everything – it’s a neat presentation choice, even if you pick from them.

There’s a discussion of Omens as well, and some other similar background touches in the setting. Particularly interesting are the Returned, the dead who’ve escaped the Underworld, left with few memories of their previous lives, and no faces – they wear ornate golden masks to deal with mortals. It’s refreshing to find a new take on the undead, and – given their memories also haunt the world as Eidolons – a great opportunity for plot.

The Returned feature in the sample adventure, too – which is, I have to say, an absolute corker. A action-packed start, a range of encounters that could be solved by combat or roleplay in different interesting ways, and a hook for the next stage. A little tweaking would make it an excellent one-shot.

The Crunch

Mythic Odysseys of Theros coverFirst up, the new rules stuff – well, apart from humans you have centaurs, satyrs, tritons, minotaurs, and leonine (cat-people, like Tabaxi but significantly less annoying) – each gets the full treatment and goes a long way towards making Theros feel different, even though I’m pretty sure they could have snuck some dwarves in. There’s an extra Bard College (Eloquence), a Paladin Oath (Glory), and an additional Backgroun (Athlete) as well.

Each PC also has a Supernatural Gift, in addition to their Background, which shows how the god have touched them. These are great, and at 1st level give a significant boost to make players more heroic – they include the Anvilwrought – you were crafted in Purphoros’ (Hephaestus) Forge, so appear as a metallic creature, or the Unscarred – like Haktos (Achilles) you’re resistant to physical damage.

It’s assumed that heroes will follow one of the Gods, and there’s a system for them advancing in powers as they gain Piety – a measure which increases and decreases as they follow their God’s whims. I’m not quite as keen on this – it strays close to “good roleplaying” doggy biscuits, and leans a bit on DM judgement, and to not encourage difficult player behavior – this feels a bit looser than I’m used to from D&D.

The One-Shot

I think this is an excellent setting for a one-shot, and the heavy focus on heroes as devotees of the Gods provides keen hooks to motivate them. The Greek focus provides a good bank of tropes players can lean into, and the Gods’ attentions can lead them into all sorts of trouble, from a simple “slay the hydra” plot to more political machinations in the polis presented.

Crucially for D&D settings, it’s sufficiently distinct from Greyhawk / Forgotten Realms/ etc. to feel like a change of scenery. This would be an excellent setting for a break from your regular game or to offer at a game day (virtual or real) where there will be a lot of D&D-focused players there. As I mentioned before, the starter adventure provides an excellent structure for a one-shot, too, with multiple resolution methods for each encounter. If nothing else, I’ll be stealing the encounter with Broken King Antigonos – no spoilers, but he might be my favourite NPC in a published 1st level adventure.

So, I’d heartily recommend Theros, for high fantasy Greek-inspired derring-do. And while honestly I’d be happy with Dark Sun getting the 5e treatment, I’m really enjoying the MTG settings that are being put out by Wizards. Grognards need to stop bitching about Dragonlance and Birthright and embrace the new D&D settings coming out – they bring something genuinely different to the game.

D&D One-Shots Done Right – Review: Uncaged, volume 1

If there’s one thing that is like looking for a needle in a haystack, it’s decent one-shots for D&D 5th edition. There are hundreds of them out there on DMs Guild, but picking through them to find those with good quality and the style of play that I like is a challenge. After I spent last summer running D&D one-shots, I’ve kept D&D as a regular source of one-shot fun, particularly for newcomers to the hobby (read the posts linked above for my reasoning why I think D&D is right for this).

Uncaged CoverSo, there’s Uncaged (this review is of Volume 1 – there are now three more volumes). From it’s own product description, it’s a set of folklore-themed adventures that “subvert tropes around female mythological creatures.” If that sounds a bit complex, in layman’s terms each adventure is focused around a female creature of myth, and does interesting stuff with them.

So there’s a hag adventure, a lamia adventure, a banshee adventure, and so forth. RPGs have had, and continue to have, some issues with representation, so this is a great concept for a product – a book around female monsters produced by a team of female writers and artists.

In volume 1 there are a total of 26 adventures – 14 Tier 1, 7 Tier 2, 4 Tier 3 and a single Tier 1. I’m not surprised that there are more for lower tiers, and that suits me to be fair.

The Fluff

First out, these are proper one-shots. They’re each 2-4 hours of play, and contain just enough setting to make sense. The advantage of this is that they can be slotted in anywhere – I’d put some of these in to Ravnica or Eberron without any trouble at all – which makes them useful as drop-in adventures. In some cases, the setting is pretty integral to the adventure, so this makes them harder to drop into an ongoing campaign, but it’s great if you’re looking for one-shots.

Because of this, though, it helps when you run it to try and embed the PCs into the adventure and setting a bit deeper – I’ve used Backstory cards when I’ve run them to make sure the PCs feel like they have a shared past. It’s also a good opportunity to share out some of the fleshing out of the stuff that isn’t always in the adventures – in case they encounter some town guards, the PC who used to be in them can describe how the guards work in this city.

Each adventure comes with a featured piece of art, and the book is nicely laid out without being too fussy – there’s also a printer friendly version of each adventure you can print out individually to have at the table, and separate files for player maps. There’s a hardcopy POD option from Drivethru, but I haven’t explored that yet – I just downloaded the .pdf. Also worth noting that any content warnings are up front at the start of each adventure, again really useful if you’re running one-shots for people you don’t know.

The Crunch

First up, although the adventures are all by different authors, and there’s a refreshing diversity in their plot structure, they are generally excellent. None of these are dungeon-crawling adventures, and all involve investigation and roleplaying, presented in an easy-to-use way with skill DCs up-front and clear. The adventures aren’t long, either – and they have had a solid edit to take out any unnecessary waffle.

There is combat in them (this is D&D after all), but the conclusion of an adventure is as likely to be a negotiation or compromise, or discovering a secret, as a pitched battle. The combat encounters, in the ones that I’ve run (all Tier 1), have been balanced and fair for D&D5e – which is to say, I’d recommend running the CR numbers through the D&D system and beefing them up a bit. In most of the adventures there are, at most, 2-3 combat encounters, so you might want to make key battles more challenging. Likewise, some of the adventures have adjustments for different level parties, while some are just for the set level stated – all are easy enough to adjust up and down.

There’s also quite a few bits where skills are tested and investigations take place. This is an opportunity, if you’re inclined, to try out one of the skill challenge systems here – how they are presented in each adventure varies.

The One-Shot

This is a really good book if you want to run D&D one-shots. Particularly for new players, they showcase the social interaction aspect of play really well, in a way that can be missing in more ‘traditional’ D&D adventures – it is one of the three pillars of D&D play after all. Because they are tightly presented and edited, they are also easy to disassemble, rearrange, and adapt. In all honesty, many of these would be excellent run with different systems as well – and easy to adapt.

So far, I’ve run Maid in Waterdeep (level 1), Lai of the Sea Hag (level 2) – twice, and A Wild Hunt (level 2) – and all have been really satisfying. A Wild Hunt features the kumiho, shapeshifting fox-women from Korean folklore, and manages to make them both frightening and sympathetic.

Fully recommended – and I’m sure the other 3 anthologies are similar. These are also an excellent source of plots and explorations of creatures for systems other than D&D, which is testament to its quality. A great source of one-shot D&D adventures – and a great toolkit to pull apart and reuse in pieces too.

Review: Eberron, Rising from the Last War

EberronFirst, a disclaimer. My reviews aren’t thorough, and I don’t review things I don’t like – there’s enough negativity around. That’s not to say that I like everything – just, if I’m not a fan, I don’t see the point of telling the internet. But if something is good, I like to share why and how it’s good, and give a feel for how it could be used in one-shot games. And Eberron is bloody good. If you’re after more complete reviews, I can recommend Pookie’s site Reviews from R’lyeh – and there are many other review sites a google search will find you.

Eberron is D&D’s latest setting – although it’s not brand new to 5th edition. First emerging in the 3rd Edition era, it was an attempt to design a world from the ground up – it arrives completely free of old-timey weirdness in the way, say, Forgotten Realms has Elminster everywhere, and Greyhawk is full of dungeons and places called Geoff. It’s pulp, and steampunk-pulp, and is actually designed for exciting adventures… the whole world feels like it sits on a knife-edge, as if brave heroes could actually make a difference.

The Fluff

Eberron is your typical D&D fantasy world, magic everywhere, dwarves in the mountains, elves in the hills. They’ve just had a massive war, though – where warforged, sentient humanoid robots, became a thing, along with lots of magical-technological inventions. There’s lightning rail trains, airships (we love an airship), and magic item manufactories. The city covered in detail in the sourcebook, Sharn, use air elemental powers to grow vertically, so that it’s hundreds of feet high. There’s dragonmarked houses, families with weird birthmarks that give them magical powers, and a weird psychic spirit realm that some creatures are attached to. The last war ended when an unknown WMD destroyed an entire country.

There’s more along the same lines, and it’s a mixture of familiar tropes and neat little twists. Eberron is a world in flux, where things can collapse and be rebuilt very quickly. There’s intrigue and opportunity and everything is very factional – there’s a continent of monsters, Drooam, but PCs could easily find themselves working alongside its goblins and bugbears against greater human evils. There are dinosaur-riding halflings. There are half-werewolf shifters. There’s lots of stuff – it’s a kitchen sink setting – and just enough of it is twisted in a cool way to make it stand out. It’s very pulp, and very D&D.

The Crunch

You get a lot of extra game in Eberron – four entirely new races, a new core class (the artificer) and lots of variants and options, including for dragonmarks. There are guidelines for having a group patron which are more suited to longer-term play really, and they also provide a good framework to hang a one-shot on. There are monsters, including some really cool ideas that would transport into other settings (living spells in particular deserve to be in every mad sorcerer’s tower).

And as with most D&D5 supplements, there are a lot of tables, and plenty of maps. The move towards sourcebooks as inspiration-dumps is great, and Eberron, like Ravnica before it, demonstrates this brilliantly. Even where it becomes more of a traditional setting gazetteer (describing the districts and buildings of Sharn, for example) the information is presented with usability considered – there are lists of important buildings, rather than long sections of prose describing daily life.

The One-Shot

Eberron is a great setting for a one-shot. The pulp style makes it easy to come up with quests and missions to explore, and the way each area or faction is loaded up with plot hooks makes them ideal for one-shot play. Indeed, each of the Patrons given – from fairly standard (Adventurer’s Guild) to more unusual (Newspaper, Inquisitive Agency) give ample opportunity for mission-based play. Like Ravnica’s guilds, each of these provide a strong backdrop to hang a one-shot adventure on and still have it feel distinctively Eberron.

All in all I’m very pleased to see Eberron back as an official D&D setting – if a little worried that Ravnica might now see it’s star fade a little, as it treads similar tropes to Eberron with a more limited scope. I’ll be developing some one-shots for it, certainly, and I’ll share them here when they are in a polished-enough state.

 

Review: Legend of the Five Rings Beginner Game

After writing about the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, I thought I’d look at some other starter sets to compare how useful they are for the one-shot GM. Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) is a ‘classic’ system of Samurai action, where warring clans battle against taint and shadow (and each other) while labouring under the demands of Bushido. It’s a complex setting, and one that treads a careful line between authenticity and excitement; in previous editions, combat was lethal and fast, with a very ‘trad’ take on the realism of action. FFG’s new edition takes all that and adds, naturally, funky dice, and a variant of the Roll & Keep system. Hard core fantasy samurai intrigue may not be your thing, but the L5R Beginner Game is really good at one thing – in that it presents a tutorial level for the game.

 

The box itself contains a Rule Book, an Adventure Book, four very pretty pregen booklets (another three are available online for free at FFG’s website, under Player Resources), a nice map of Rokugan (the land of L5R) and a card set of counters with 59 counters for PCs and NPCs from the game. There are also, of course, a set of the dice – black d6s and white d12s for Rings and Skills respectively.

The Fluff

It’s like Feudal Japan, but every clan has easily-interpreted animal names, have a history of war and rebellion where they all maintain their stereotyped positions as their fortunes wax and wane. There are shugenja, tattooed monks, and ninja. Magic is dealing with Kami and learning spells if you’re a goody, consorting with demons and Tainted Shadow if you’re a baddy.

The clans have a long and storied history of who used to be in charge and who is now in charge – I remember starting to read the previous edition’s history chapter before remembering that this all comes from a CCG – clan loyalties, powers and even abilities were re-imagined for every new release. I’d ignore it if I were you and concentrate on skewering dishonor with a well-hewn katana.

The Beginner Game tackles head on one of L5R’s setting conundrums – the game is clearly designed to have a mixture of Clans in each party, but also begs the question of why they would work together? Some Clans are allied, some are rivals – there’s a challenge inherent in the setting as to why, say, your Dragon Clan Agasha Mystic is throwing in their lot with a brutal Crab Clan Hida Defender. It does this by taking a staple of the fiction and using it in a very efficient way – the PCs are to compete in the Topaz Championship, a chance for young Samurai to test themselves against one another and the best of all the Clans. Of course, intrigue ensues, and there are additional supplements that detail how the PCs can end up as Emerald Magistrates – roving Mouse Guard-like problem solvers – but the starter adventure throws them together and gives them a reason to stick together.

The Crunch

Where the Beginner Box really shines is in using the Topaz Championship to teach the rules. There’s a minor roleplay encounter first, without any dice rolling, before a short encounter that can be resolved with a simple skill test. There are contests (the Championship itself) and then a low-stakes ‘brawl’ before the PCs “level up” to the strength of full starter PCs (replacing their training swords with katana) and have to deal with the real problems.

This is structured in such a clever way that it could be the blueprint for a crunch-heavy one-shot. In teaching the system step by step, it manages to introduce a fairly complex and unforgiving rules set in a manageable way. Along the way, it manages to teach parts of the setting, which – as you may have gathered – is a little complicated as well.

Without turning this into a full review of the system, there’s an awful lot I like about the new L5R rules. Strife, for example – it accumulates as a result of complications on tests, and when you hit your Composure total you suffer an ‘Unmasking’ and you break what’s expected of you. This might mean you lash out angrily with a hard word – each PC has a suggested Unmasking action. It’s a clever way of reinforcing the expectations of Bushido, and gives a mechanical way to let players rub against it in a dramatic way.

The gradual introduction of rules is necessary, I think – there are some parts of the system that take some mastery. Dice pools are assembled from an Approach- the Attributes of the game, or Rings – and a Skill (of which I am pleased to say there are a relatively small number). There is usually more than one way to skin a cat when you make a skill roll – literally, I’d say, in that case – it’s probably Fire + Survival as you wouldn’t normally skin such an animal, but a case could be made for Earth, Water, or even Void if you’re skinning it to placate a Kami nearby. I think the best way to play this is to be flexible to the players, letting them negotiate which to use if they can make a case for it while being wary of players rolling their best Approach all the time.

The One Shot

If you’re looking to teach the rules of L5R in order to put a campaign together, this is brilliant. If you’re looking for a convention game to offer where some players may already be familiar with the system (even from earlier editions) – this may not be usable as-is. Buy it and read it, though – this is an excellent example of how to structure a complex system in a one-shot (I did talk a bit about this in this post, as well).

It’s also great for showing how to structure a ‘contest’ one-shot – from medieval jousts to Quidditch championships, it shows how to structure a game around this that lets players both compete in the events and investigate what is happening around them. And it’s great to pick up the rules for L5R yourself, too – I sometimes wish more adventures were around that spelled out the rules as they are introduced – but that might just be because I’m looking at lots of Starter Sets at the moment.

Myself, for a L5R one-shot I’d use a similar structure, maybe starting with a low-stakes social conflict, and use full starting PCs – they have a deal more flexibility than the 0-level pregens provided. I’d probably limit my pregens to two or three clans, and try and highlight the differences between them – zoom in on the conflict and different approaches of the two Clans’ traditional approaches to the problem. When I’ve prepped it, I’ll post it on here. I’ve never managed to get into an L5R one-shot at conventions – if you’ve run one, feel free to comment below about it – for this or an earlier edition.

Review: Call of Cthulhu Starter Set

I have a complicated relationship with Call of Cthulhu (CoC), Chaosium’s venerable, once disappeared, now resurrected d100 game of acute sanity-smashing horror. Like Traveller, terrible experiences in my early days as a player have made me resist it’s appeal. Unlike Traveller, I suspect that CoC is really quite good. It takes the right GM (or “Keeper,” in CoC parlance) to make it sing, certainly; but it’s an ever-present at UK conventions now – the tendency for PCs to die or go insane in the face of cosmic horror makes it an ideal one-shot game.

So, the Starter Set. It’s a slim boxed set, with three books, handouts, investigator sheets (some pre-generated – always useful, some blank), and a set of dice – with an extra tens d10 for bonus dice rolls. Like all Chaosium’s recent products, it has stunning art and layout, although the covers of the books leave me cold with their massive text and small pictures.

The Fluff

20190626_173110Alongside the pregens, there are four adventures in this starter set. The first, Alone Against The Flames, is a choose-your-own-adventure solo game, in which you generate your investigator (which is a nice touch!) and attempt to avoid being burned in said flames. I know from my own experience that these things are a bugger to edit and write, but it’s a great way to learn the basics of the rules and even character generation, and well worth the effort. It would be great if new games could have something like this – I can think of only this and the excellent Monkey 2nd incarnation that have this.

The next adventure is Paper Chase, a one-on-one (“Duet,” is I think what the cool kids call them these days) adventure; and Edge of Darkness and Dead Man Stomp, two ‘traditional’ group Cthulhu adventures. These are, I believe, all ‘classic’ CoC adventures that have been updated and revised, which is no bad thing. All do very well to showcase what 1920s CoC is all about – investigative, slow-burn but not boring, and satisfyingly dangerous.

What the adventures are also excellent for is explaining how to run them. There’s plenty of advice for the GM, sorry, Keeper, and reminders about rules which are really helpful. I wouldn’t mind more of this in all published adventures – I like a reminder of rules I’m likely to forget – and ideas for pacing and what to do if the players get off track. Dead Man Stomp also has a mature and helpful section on how to address racism in the 1920s – the adventure is set in Harlem – in a sensitive way.

The Crunch

The second book contains “introductory rules,” and is easily the slimmest of the three. It manages despite this to contain character generation, skill description, and sanity and combat mechanics, which is admirable. I’d go so far as to say you could just use this for long-term play – you could easily buy Doors to Darkness after this and continue your game.

What’s great is to see them condense what appears as a traditional “hardback book” game with plenty of rules into a slim pamphlet with just the important ones. I guess this does demand the question of what else is in those two big hardback books that makes your game better – and the answer of course is Chase rules; every game needs Chase rules, and Luck spends and more gorgeous art of course.

The One-Shot

This is an excellent resource for the one-shot GM. Both of the two full-party adventures are ideal for single-session play, and contain a lot of explained structure that really helps you to think about prepping your own investigative one-shot (for more on this, see the series I did that starts here).

Indeed, this is an ideal entry drug to the joys of Cthulhu one-shots, to the point where I’m actually considering running Dead Man Stomp myself at one of my meetups – as much to get my Cthulhu chops in as anything.

All in all, a great product – and a fine addition to the new crop of Starter Sets. Even if you play Trail of Cthulhu or Cthulhu Hack, all the adventures in it are classics that it’s easy to drift or steal structure from – and it’s excellent value.

Star Wars One-Shots: The “Way” is Strong in These Ones

star wars rpgsTo celebrate Star Wars day, here’s a review of the options you currently have if you want to run a one-shot in the worlds of Ewoks and Gungans. Why would you want to do that, apart from the aforementioned furry/aquatic aliens? Well, firstly, Star Wars has really clear tropes and expectations of its heroes – redemption, fighting the good fight, and starting from humble beginnings – which make it easy to motivate a group of adventurers to carry out a specific mission. It’s also got an unknowably huge canon, with cartoons, comics, and fiction alongside the films – and lots of sources of inspiration. And finally, there’s  lots of space opera tropes in it – human-like but diverse aliens, survivable and fun space combat, big beasts and monsters… it could already be a D&D campaign, just with blasters and laser swords.

But what system to run it with? I’m going to attempt a quick tour of them …. although I think I’ll probably only scratch the surface of the options…

Edge of the Empire / Age of Rebellion / Force and Destiny 

Fantasy Flight’s big RPG offering with the license, these are high-production value RPGs (and they are three separate games, although sharing almost exactly the same system) with a pile of supplements and adventures to go with them. Personally, I’d skip the player-facing sourcebooks that focus on specific character classes, leave the adventures alone (apart from the starter sets) and look at their ‘proper’ sourcebooks, where there are some absolutely brilliant sources of hooks and adventures – Strongholds of Resistance, for example, details rebel bases and is full of mini-adventures – I ran a really fun one-shot on Hoth based on the details in this. Lords of Nal Hutta does a similar job with criminal enterprises – you could plot about a dozen great one-shot games from each of these books.

It can be a bit of a rabbit-hole to fall down, particularly as, yes, it uses weird funky dice, and no, you can’t use regular polyhedrals. The dice are, for me, just about worth it – they give a range of successes and complications that add depth to task resolution. This means that, although the game is still towards the trad end of the trindie continuum, there’s always exciting consequences of actions. Decent and quickish space combat, and although it’s been criticised as a money-grab, I actually like how the 3 separate core books can focus on different kinds of games. When I want to run Star Wars, I need a solid reason to stray from using this system. Sooner or later I’ll write up my Hoth one-shot and put it on here.

West End Games’ D6 Star Wars

One of the original RPGs that gamers of a certain age wax lyrical about, there’s no doubt that the original Star Wars game has aged better than most of its contemporaries – a straightforward d6 dice pool system and a neat archetype character creation system – which you could almost complete at the table, if you really wanted to – yes the PCs aren’t always balanced, and yes the Force rules are awkwardly funky to the point of being broken, but the core mechanic is great fun, and works well enough to still be inspiring games.

There’s now an anniversary edition out from FFG, but there’s also the entire original game line available from Womp Rat Press here – really useful if, say, you wanted to run one of the classic Star Wars adventures with a different system. Some of the old adventures even start with a ‘script’ for the players to read out – playing the roles of NPCs before the start of the game – which is a weird and funky way to start a one-shot today, let alone in the 1980s when these modules were written.

Star Wars d20 / SAGA Edition

Remember the d20 bubble? In the explosion of mediocrity that it brought to RPG publishing (including, to be fair, the odd gem) – Wizards of the Coast brought out a whole line of d20 Star Wars built around the 3rd Edition D&D system. This early-2000s line produced loads of supplements, and to be fair if you are a big fan of d20 and it’s associated quirks it’s an obvious choice. SAGA edition saw lots of rule changes that for me improved the game a lot.

With both of these game lines, though, if you’ve got them you’ll run them, and if you haven’t they’re really tricky to get hold of, and probably not your best choice unless you’ve been invited to run for a group of D&D gamers from 2001 and want to meet their sensibilities. Wizards lost the license in 2010, so the link above is to the wikipedia page – be prepared for a longer search of ebay etc if you want to get hold of the game, since it also dates from when Wizards didn’t do .pdfs.

Scum & Villainy

The first of the big Forged in the Dark games based on the Blades in the Dark engine (for more about Blades, see here) is space opera that is very Star Wars. For Blades-style play it works really well – ideally for a double slot, or a tightly-run training mission like this one – in play it feels so Star Wars that it’s easy to forget. I played a Mystic once and really struggled calling my powers “the Way” and not the Force. Great fun for a lower-prep player-driven one-shot, and the “heist” system works well for smugglers and low-lifes if you want the Han Solo end of the genre.

PBTA: Star Wars World / Streets of Mos Eisley

I’ll highlight two Powered By The Apocalypse (PBTA) options for your Star Wars one-shot – Star Wars World, by Andrew Medeiros (I’m not entirely sure the link above is to the latest version – I got it via another blog – please correct me if I have it wrong), is a full-blooded hack of Apocalypse World with a moves and playbooks. I haven’t played it but from a read through it looks great and Andrew really knows his PBTA stuff (having co-designed the brilliant Urban Shadows).

Streets of Mos Eisley is a simpler game, a hack of World of Dungeons which is a hack of Dungeon World, on of the first PBTA games (are you keeping up?) – it’s a tighter playset, with a much looser system. I think if I was running, I would favour Star Wars World, but for a more relaxed, system-lite game, SoME looks great.

Cypher System

This final entry is probably a little leftfield, but Star Wars has influenced a lot of RPGs, and hidden in the Worlds Numberless and Strange sourcebook for The Strange, are details for playing in the Rebel Galaxy recursion – which is, like Scum and Villany above, very Star Wars. Because Cypher is so easy to adapt (or even to busk), it would be easy to run a game using this, either with The Strange of the core Cypher rules, and it gives a significantly different playstyle to any of the games above.

At it’s heart Cypher is, like Gumshoe, a game that’s led by resource management to affect probabilities, and so I’m not convinced it fits the kind of action heroics I want in a Star Wars game, but if I was running a murder mystery, or a one-shot focused more on exploration than conflict, I would certainly be looking at Rebel Galaxy. Cypher is also a really good system for newcomers to RPGs, in my experience, so it might be a good starting place for them.

So there are your options. As I’ve said, for me it’s FFG (Age of Rebellion is my go-to style of play for one-shots) all the way – with an exception for D6 Star Wars and maybe for PBTA if I want that sort of game. It’s far from an exhaustive list, either – I’m sure there are people out there running Star Wars games with D100 (shout out to River of Heaven, D101 games science fiction game, which is pretty straightforward to hack into Star Wars), Traveller, or even The Code of the Space Lanes. I’m sure I’ve missed some, and it’s not like Star Wars to divide opinions – what are your go-to Star Wars games for one-shot play?

Review: Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica (D&D5)

Let me begin with a disclaimer. I do not play, follow, or even really understand Magic: The Gathering. I understand that Ravnica is a setting in Magic, where some of their cards are set (?),  and that Wizards of the Coast own both properties, so it makes logical sense to bring a D&D supplement covering it as a game world. I had written this off as a game supplement I did not have to get into – that it would be much more useful to players in the intersect of the Venn diagram of RPG/Card gamers. And I’m not a massive fan of high-magic kitchen-sink setttings, so Ravnica probably wasn’t for me. (M:TG has got to be high-magic, yeah? It’s in the name).

GGRThen I browsed the book, and saw it had steampunk mad scientist goblins and anthro elephant men and centaurs and mushroom druids, and shrugged my shoulders and bought it. I’m glad I did. It’s a funky and original setting that shakes up some D&D expectations, and it’s also ideal for one-shot play.

The Fluff

Ravnica is a world-sized city; an entirely urban game world. What areas of ‘wilderness’ there are are rubble pits, ruined parts of the city, or ancient catacombs. It’s steampunky; there’s underground trains, bio-engineered human hybrids, and a scientific approach to magic from many of the guilds that bicker and fuel much of the conflict in the setting. There are ten guilds, each ostensibly running a part of the city’s functions, but also at each other’s throats. A tenuous Guildpact keeps them from open warfare, but it is currently manifested as an actual person, who keeps wandering off onto other plains, so it’s policed unreliably.

The guilds themselves are at the centre of play in Ravnica, and they range from the fairly vanilla (the Azorius Senate are the city watch, the Boros Legion are the army/mercenaries) to the interesting (the Cult of Radkos, led by an actual demon, provide performance and entertainment like bloodthirsty court jesters), to the brilliantly gonzo (the Simic Combine use bioengineering to augment evolution, the Orzhov Syndicate are a combination church/bank/thieves-guild led by a cabal of ghosts).

There’s a chapter covering in just the right amount of detail (for me at least) the Tenth District of the city, with lots of stuff for players to do and trouble for them to get into, and each guild gets a set of random mission tables, an iconic location mapped out, and a bunch of monsters and NPCs. The NPCs are great – the Izzet League, mad scientists and experimenters, have several NPCs who are basically flamethrower-wielding guards. D&D5 could use more NPC stat blocks, and this chapter is full of interesting ones, and they are easily adaptable to other settings.

The Crunch

You get six new races – Centaurs, Goblins, Loxodon (elephant-men), Minotaurs, Simic Hybrids (bioengineered humanoids), and Vedalkin (blue-skinned semi-aquatic humans). There’s an extra Cleric Domain (“Order,” yawn) and the Circle of Spores for druids, as well as detailed guidance for which classes and races would fit for each guild. Each guild also comes with a default Background option that links the PC into the Guild they serve.

There’s lots and lots of random tables. D&D5 has really embraced these and I think it’s a good thing. Where previous D&D settings sometimes left me feeling stifled at the weight of background needed to navigate it consistently (Forgotten Realms in particular), distilling implied setting into random tables is a much clearer way to set your imagination running. If you’re not convinced, you can listen the The Smart Party here use the DMG to create a random adventure, and see what I mean.

The One Shot

While there’s some discussion of how PCs from different guilds could work together, I can see lots of great one-shot play emerging with the PCs working for just one guild. The structure of the guild interactions, and the resources provided for each of them, mean it’s easy to think up some exciting scenarios – pick a Guild for the PCs, pick the Guild they are up against and a villain’s nefarious plan, and then throw in another Guild with perpendicular interests to get in the way and complicate matters.

There’s enough variety within each guild to make a sufficiently distinct group of PCs, and the mission-based structure works really well for a tight opening to your one-shot and an obvious climax. Conversely, the urban environment and the option to move around the city quickly make it easy to have multiple resolution options in the middle of your one-shot (the swell, which I talk about here). It even comes with a sample adventure, which is good (but not Great – I’d have preferred a more exciting enemy than a Goblin gang-lord, and you could fairly easily set most of the adventure in Waterdeep or Sharn), but it gives a good framework as an introduction to the setting. Of course, it’s written more as an intro to the setting than a one-shot, and so provides leads at the end for the PCs to follow up, but having an adventure as a matter of course in a setting book is a good thing generally.

In general, I’m really pleased with Ravnica as an addition to the D&D stable, and I think it’ll make for some excellent one-shot play. Now, how’s about Spelljammer and Dark Sun?

2018: The Year in Review

I’d like to spend some time talking about my gaming year in review. It’s been great, and I’ve managed to not just get lots of gaming in, but also expand what I’ve done – try some new stuff, if you like. Big thanks to everyone I’ve gamed with, who’s run games for me, or with whom I’ve set the industry right with – never have I felt more part of a UK RPG community than this year.

Conventions – Running Games

Not counting Go Play Leeds, the monthly gaming meet-up I run locally, I think I’ve made it to seven conventions this year. Most of them have been documented through the year – although there were two conventions, Dragonmeet and UK Games Expo, that I didn’t run or play anything at.

At Revelation I ran a Dungeon World adaptation of Forest of Doom, and 24 Hour Party People, an Urban Shadows game set in Britpop Manchester. North Star’s first incarnation saw me finally run Tenra Bansho Zero, a white whale of gaming put to bed (for now – although I’m tempted to get it out again sometime this year). At Seven Hills I ran 7th Sea (which now, makes me realise how much I liked it – must get it out again in 2019) and 13th Age in Glorantha (13G). At Continuum I went with 13G again and Blades in the Dark, and at Furnace I ran three different games of 13G. At Grogmeet, I ran Twilight 2000, a fun game despite a very dated system. I had a lot of fun trying to make it more enjoyable for my own style of GMing – although it’s not a system I think I’ll be returning to any time in the future.

One thing I did at Furnace I’m going to do more of – to make sure when I’m running multiple games at a con (I usually do) they are the same system, even if not the same scenario. Carrying around just one set of rules in my head made the weekend much less stressful than even if I’d run two games with different systems. I’ve also taken Simon Burley‘s advice and re-run some con scenarios; I think Beard of Lhankhor Mhy has seen three outings at least, and I’ve just finished running Night of Blood for WFRP4e for the second time. Simon is dead right about the benefits of this in terms of producing quality game time and being much more relaxing for the GM, and I wish I’d listened to him sooner.

Conventions – Games Played

I’ll start this off by saying that there are very few bad convention games, that even if it’s a game that I haven’t enjoyed I’ve always found it useful, and I haven’t had any real stinkers this year. I try to play as much as I run at cons and I think I’ve achieved that.

That said, the mark of a great game played for me is often that I go off and want to run it myself, and I’ve had memorable games of Blades in the Dark (from Pete Atkinson) and Warhammer 4th Edition (from Evilgaz) that have made me do just that.

I’ve also managed to get some ongoing play this year, in the form of a game of D&D5e playing through Waterdeep Dragon Heist. Scheduling has become tricky for this game – my job means committing to a weekly evening difficult – but it’s been great to see our PCs develop, and remember the fondness you develop for characters that emerge with a history and backstory – a great group of players and a great DM help with this too.

Plans for 2019

Looking forwards to 2019, I feel like I’ve got a few things already in mind to achieve in the coming year. Continuing with this blog, which has settled down into a mixture of game commentary and actual game material; I started this thinking I’d never look at hits, but you can’t help but do it and it’s pleasing that the number of people reading my words has increased to a level where this feels worthwhile! As always, feel free to suggest topics or games to look at either here or on other internet ventures (I’m @milnermaths on twitter).

I’ve got some writing and editing to do early in the year, with the Liminal RPG being released early in the year – I’ve got some case files, some locations, and a book on vampires to get down. There’s also a little project for the Cthulhu Hack, some stuff for 13G with D101 Games, and I plan on getting more one-shots up on here for people to play with for other systems. One of these is appearing in Role-Play Relief, a charity project from Simon Burley and others.

In terms of gaming, I plan to get some more online games under my belt, both one-shots and short 3-session minicampaigns. Go Play Leeds continues to grow, and it’s now got to the point where I no longer worry about having enough players, but having enough GMs to accommodate them, and I’ve taken up the reins with helping to organise the 7 Hills convention in Sheffield. I play to go to Airecon and Expo properly this year, and actually run some games. Go Play Leeds has also spawned a sister event, Go Play Manchester, which launches in January – which I aim to get to when I can. I seem to have a pretty full schedule already.

So, more games, more writing, and more stuff in the new year. People used to talk about the decline of the hobby, but it’s surely in another golden age now, yeah? Hope everyone has a great new year, and any gaming-related (or other) resolutions are easy to stick to!

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.