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!

Review: Starfinder – or, how I learned to stop worrying and love d20 again

I’ve been sniffy about Pathfinder for years, and I have to admit it’s jealousy. I played, and ran, a ton of D&D3.5 back in the day, but Pathfinder’s release coincided with me finding other gamers to play with whose tastes were broader and more in tune with my own expectations of gaming – I was discovering Fiasco, playing Spirit of the Century for the first time. Why, I asked myself, would I ever go back to counting squares and moving minis? And it simmered inside me as I watched game store shelves groan under their beautiful books with their great artwork and, and… And so many Pathfinder players seemed to play only Pathfinder, I couldn’t help but feel a bit above them – what did they know of shared imagined spaces, or GM-full improv techniques, or the freewheeling narration of 13th Age between-combat montages?

But last week, I bought Starfinder. And it’s great. So many of my feelings towards its fantasy forerunner, I realise, are unjustified. So, if you’re like me and haven’t touched d20 with a bargepole since you started buying FATE dice and freewheeling narration, here are 5 reasons you should give Starfinder a whirl:

1: The gonzo gauge is carefully calibrated

Okay, science fantasy is inherently gonzo. Do you come down on the He Man side (for which you’ll be looking at Master of Umdaar as the ideal game), or do you try for mystery and technology and magic as interchangeable (it’s post-apocalypse, but Numenera is probably the gold standard for getting this right). Starfinder walks a careful path between these – yes, it’s got magic and technomancy and priesthoods and, er, space goblins, but it’s also got a consistent background that makes these fit together in a somewhat-logical way.

Paizo did excellently with Pathfinder in reinventing a kitchen-sink D&D world in Golarion, and by setting Starfinder in Golarion’s far future they leave the door open for Pathfinder monsters to be used/adapted as well. They have space-elves, space-dwarves, and such, but wisely put them at the back of the book, leaving their more sci-fi themed races at the start. There are half-human Androids, insectoid Shirrens, and anthropomorphic rats called Ysoki, among others. The Ysoki can store small items in their cheek pouches; they do bring to mind the legendary Giant Space Hamsters of 2nd Ed. AD&D’s Spelljammer setting (talking of gonzo…), and for me that’s a good thing.

2: Everything else in the game is carefully calibrated

When Paizo set out to make Pathfinder, they took D&D3.5 and fixed it, trying to make it smoother and cleaner. Smoother I’m not sure, but it is perfectly balanced. They’ve changed a few things in Starfinder (like having Hit Points and Stamina Points, and giving equipment levels) – but it all fits together lovingly. Yes, there are those that will obsess over builds, trying to find the most powerful game-breaking character, but the fact that this generates so much discussion just goes to show how tightly balanced it generally is. While it’s not quite mastery-proof, with a little common-sense it looks to be very difficult to accidentally generate a significantly sub-optimal character.

And the classes look fun. There are Solarians, who generate spectral weaponry and armour, and Mechanics who all get funky drones to follow them around and do their bidding. It’s fantasy, so the Mystic and Technomancer are classes too. PCs get to choose Themes as well, which add another layer to the character so that several different options exist for similar characters.

3: You don’t have to use minis and count squares

This is one of the best-kept secrets of Pathfinder. It is entirely possible to play Pathfinder, and by extension Starfinder, without using miniatures or a grid. Just replace it with, well, common sense. A rough idea of encounter ranges helps, as does players who are happy with this approach, but it’s easy to negotiate, for instance, how many opponents are in an area of effect attack or whether you are flanking an opponent.

Obviously, you lose a bit of tactical grit if you do this, but you have to make the judgement that you do gain a bit more narrative flexibility with this system – I guess it goes down to how you picture a combat in your mind, and having minis and squares can help that in some ways, or hinder it in others. But genuinely, if the grid is the problem, trust me and try it without.

4: You can totally use minis and count squares

If you haven’t seen the Pathfinder Pawn collections, they are a great idea. You get a box of thick card standees with bases, and Paizo has started producing Pawn sets for its Adventure Paths as well… so if you want to run through one of its campaigns you can get the standees for everything the PCs are likely to face in the adventure. It’s cheap, easy, and all you need is one of those roll-up latex mats and some OHP pens and you can get your mapping on. The first Pawn collection for Starfinder is out now, and I’m sure Paizo will continue to support them. Worth noting that you can get the Pathfinder ones pretty cheap on Amazon and Ebay if you keep an eye out for them.

5: It can be played one-shot

The default play style for D&D 3.5, and by extension Pathfinder, was the long campaign. The progression from 1st to 20th level was carefully mapped out, and for me this meant that one-shot play was off the table. Another factor was the general encounter approach – which focused on lots of small encounters to wear down player resources without many big, dangerous fights.

Just a few tweaks can make it much more one-shot friendly though. Getting rid of the minis and maps helps if you’re cool with that, for a start. Reducing the number of fights, and making them each more challenging, is a good idea, as is having plenty of skill-based encounters – which of course is a little easier in a science fantasy setting than a dungeon-crawling fantasy one. I’d also ditch 1st level too; the sweet spots for one-shot play are about 3rd-8th level in D&D, and I’m sure Starfinder will be the same. You can, of course, use the collapsible dungeon advice from this blog to make sure you keep to time, and I’d recommend following the advice for crunchy games here.

So, you can probably expect to see some content for Starfinder appearing on here. I’ll begin hawking it at conventions, and Go Play Leeds – and especially at North Star, a newly-birthed Science Fiction RPG con in Sheffield next year. What do you think? Have I been charmed by the high production values and anthropomorphic hamsters? Or is there something in this? If it helps, the .pdf is only $9.99 at the moment from Paizo… although you’ll want the big, shiny print version once you see it.

Review: Fate Worlds – Camelot Trigger

Questing knights fight a posthuman AI threat across the solar system in this Fate World that sets gonzo to Flash-Gordonesque and gives a great mixture of options at a carefully curated level of complexity. Detailed exploration of the Arthurian legends this is not – think of changing the names to be more sci-fi (or more Paranoia – you’ll see) and adding in giant armour. This Fate World came out pretty early and is, I think, only available in the Volume Two: Worlds in Shadow anthology, and I’m kicking myself I didn’t give it a proper read through earlier.

The Fluff – Arthurian Knights… in spaaaaace!

When insane AI MerGN-A attacked Earth, humanity was scattered and defeated until John Arthur found MerLN, another AI, and worked together to turn the tide of conflict. Now Arthur, Valerie Le Guin, and (wait for it) L4-NC3-L07 lead brave knights in giant mecha suits crossing the solar system trying to fight the remnants of MerGN-A’s hidden base and defeat her remaining Exurgent armies. As I said, Pendragon in mecha this is not.

There’s lots to do, all described in enough detail to get you there and going – Mars is a manufactory dedicated to war machines, with arenas where hopeful knights can battle it out, the Asteroid belt is home to brigands and Edge Knights who have been cast out – maybe because of chivalrous misdeeds – and Saturn is wealthy and successful but refuses to acknowledge Arthur’s claim to the throne. Each planet gets a paragraph of description, and each has lots of plot hooks – there’s a reason why adventurous knights would go to each one, and what problems they could find there.

It’s a great setting, if it could just get past those clunky names. L4-NC3-L07, apparently, has kept the alphanumeric name he had as a slave in honour of all those beaten down, and… well, it’s my one problem with the setting. How do you say it? I’m guessing like “Lancelot.” So why not call him Lancelot? What’s wrong with the AIs being called Morgana and Merlin? It’s not like the original IP is in copyright. Other conceits – like Knights usually inheriting their Armour, and so keeping heraldic designations on them – feel like they fit the setting, but the names just grate for me.

The Crunch – Giant Mecha Combat Rules!

There’s an allure now about new FATE supplements as the rules have evolved to cover lots of different scenarios, whether it’s steampunk combat that actually gives great rules for Age of Sail ship battles, or trapped-in-a-flooding-room traps that emulate the best pulp scenarios, and it’s wise to remember that Camelot Trigger came out relatively early in FATE’s lifetime. Nevertheless, the mecha rules are refreshingly smooth, giving just enough complexity without adding too much handling time.

Your Armour has systems (normally 5, one in each body location) that can have either skills – which replace the pilot’s skill if it is less – or stunts, which function just like stunts in regular FATE. You use your pilot’s stress tracks, but can shut down systems on your Armour like Consequences to avoid them. You might be accompanied by air support, in which case you’ll get some extra stress boxes – it’s all very streamlined and simple, and actually makes me want to see it in action. There’s a very sensible discussion on scale where humans are fighting Armour – that it should be resolved as a contest and not as a combat encounter, and a reminder that chivalry means this is unlikely to happen in an open battle. There’s a whole pack of sample Armours, as well, which neatly show off how the design system works, and rules for tweaking it to allow transforming mecha and combination mecha.

The One-Shot – Knights or Lords?

This game would work great as a one-shot – the setting is complex and weird while still having enough classic tropes to get players on board quickly. There’s loads to do and I can easily see a range of missions for a group of questing knights. But the game also includes write-ups for Arthur, Valerie (the Guinevere analogue), L4-NC3-L07, and MerLN – and I can see a great one-shot where 4 players each play one of these big movers and shakers in the setting dealing with MorGN-A’s return. It’s rare that I read a setting and want to jump in so immediately – again, I’m disappointed this has been sat on my bookshelf unplayed for so long!

 

Review: Thews of Iron – and Three Kinds of Resource Economies – Conan 2d20

I’m forced to admit I was wrong. I tried to be polite about it when I appeared on The Smart Party podcast and was innocently asked about the 2d20 system from Modiphius games – but it was pretty clear I wasn’t a fan. A couple of games, and a few hours spent trying to navigate character generation in Mutant Chronicles (MC), had left me switched off to this new hotness of a system.

I guess I need to admit that some of my problem with MC probably isn’t the system on its own – but there’s probably a whole other, much more snarky, blog post about that. So I gave it more time, and after playing a game of Star Trek 2d20 that left me, well, ambivalent, I had a go at running their Conan game.

And it was great. I enjoyed myself as a GM, and as far as I can tell the players had a blast as well. I might have been wrong. True, it’s crunchy as hell and relies on an awful lot of bean-counting to achieve, but it combines multiple tactical options with the opportunity for players to do pulpy awesomeness all the time.

The Fluff

I ran the adventure The Red Pit, from the Jewelled Thrones of the Earth adventure supplement, using the quickstart PCs. I had 6 players – one arriving later – and at least one of them hadn’t had much experience of gaming since D&D in their past. For balance, another of my players was Remi Fayoumi, indefatigable 2d20 evangelist and Modiphius fanboy. The adventure is a classic pulp that I know many GMs would dismiss – the players start weaponless and shackled as slaves in the Red Pit and have to fight their way out to the surface. It’s one great big series of linked combat encounters, but works surprisingly well with a few hacks. I did add in a neutral/sympathetic NPC in the form of a suspicious fellow slave who might or might not join their rebellion, and cut out some of the relentless dice rolling of the constant arrow fire, but it still allowed enough opportunity for heroics and roleplay – in part because the system is rich enough to make it interesting.

I also started the game with a pulp montage by telling the players to imagine they are playing characters in a TV series – and asking the players to describe the opening credit scene where their PC is introduced. They just have to say what they look like and what they are doing when their name appears below the credits – it helps get everyone in the right frame of mind, and set the tone for the game. I did the same for the villains too, including the ominous shadow of an animatronic giant lizard.

The Crunch – It’s a Dice Pool System

At its core 2d20 has more in common with dice pool systems than it admits to. Your dice pool is just normally two twenty-siders. You roll your pool and count successes – one for each die equal to or under your skill, and two if equal to or under your Focus – usually much lower and often just 1. You might need just 1 success, or you might need more – up to 5 for Epic tasks, which clearly you don’t have much chance of succeeding on if you’re just rolling two dice. So in order to succeed in difficult tasks, or to make sure you are really effective (extra successes generate Momentum which can be spent immediately to improve your outcome – say, more damage in combat, or extra effect on a skill roll), you’ll have to buy more dice.

The Crunch – Three Resource Separate Resource Economies

You buy extra dice in three ways – by spending Momentum or Fortune, or by adding to the GM’s Doom pool. Fortune is straightforward and gives you an extra die set to 1 – so almost always guaranteeing 2 extra successes. You start with 3 Fortune points and although there are some rules for refreshing them, I didn’t let my PCs refresh in the one-shot.

Momentum is trickier – after you generate extra successes, you can either spend them on extra effect – more damage and the like – or bank them into Group Momentum. This resource can be spent by the players to add an extra dice up to 5d20 on a one-for-one basis – but these dice, you have to roll. There’s a maximum of 6 Momentum points in the Group pool at any one time, and it reduces by 1 at the end of every combat turn, so there’s an incentive to use it or lose it.

Doom is the GM’s pool, and it starts at 3 x the number of players – the same as the total number of Fortune points. The GM can spend it like Momentum, or the players can get extra dice by adding points back into the Doom pool. Players also need to add to Doom to react to attacks – by Parrying or Dodging – and the GM needs to spend it for almost anything, so there’s a good flow of Doom throughout the game. I kept my Doom on show so the players could see it grow and fall through the session – and allowing some tactial play where one player took a telling blow rather than avoid it using Doom so that my pool was run down before the final confrontation – and there’s clearly some tactical nuances to running games with it which I like as well.

The One-Shot

In order to make it work as a one-shot, you need some straightforward resources, I think, in order to help the players make sense of a particularly crunchy system (also see this post on running one-shots with crunchy systems). I had some of these, but not all of them

  • You need 3 different sets of counters. I used skull tokens from All Rolled Up, and glass beads for Momentum, and I wish I’d had something else – maybe poker chips – for Fortune. I kept my Doom in one place in front of the players, and chucked Group Momentum in the middle of the table, but ideally two different bowls would have been great – maybe one skull-like and evil and one, er, pristine and heroic.
  • A sheet with what you can spend Doom and Momentum on would have been great. There are nuances with Momentum spends – you don’t always have to spend it on extra damage – and it would have been good to have it out in front of the players to encourage more creative use of this.
  • An actual copy of the rules. I realized half way through the game that I hadn’t downloaded the rulebook onto my tablet – while the Quickstart rules covered nearly everything, I couldn’t find the recovery rules in there and had to busk them when it came up halfway through the game.
  • You need well-marked-up, clear pregen sheets. The Quickstart PCs are great for this.

So, I’m prepared to admit my own mistakes and will certainly be running 2d20 again – Conan for sure, but almost certainly Star Trek as well, and maybe even Infinity or John Carter when they get released. Mutant Chronicles, maybe not – but that’s for a future post.

Review: Fate Worlds – Sails Full Of Stars

Steampunk planetary romance / naval adventure across the solar system that doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be, Sails Full Of Stars is one of the Fate Worlds series of short settings for the Fate RPG, and is available here, and in print in the Worlds Take Flight anthology. It takes a neat, grabby setting and paints it in broad brush strokes, before adding in some complex and not-always-clear ship combat rules.

The Fluff

It’s 1850. The world, and indeed the Solar System, is dominated by three great powers – Napoleon’s France, the Ottoman Empire, and China, who first discovered how to travel between planets using handwavy rheosilk that catch currents between planets. Navigators read the vibrations of these currents by ‘sounding’ glass spheres and so the solar system is now full of massive rheoships hauling cargo, being pirates, and smuggling goods. Oh, and dragons. They were there before, though.

The presentation of the setting is great, but I can see how it might frustrate some. What is given is very broad-brush, with all the detail left for GMs (and players) to fill in. For instance, it doesn’t mention whether each empire has a base on every planet, so you have to sort of infer this from an idea of the tropes the designer is trying to pull in (and from some extra detail in the starting adventure). It gives a paragraph for each planet, so we know that Venus is full of dangerous jungle – but no clues as to what animals might live there. Mars is full of Martian ruins, naturally, and the promise of ancient tech / alchemy – again, all left up to be filled in. And there are the dragons, who allegedly gave the gifts of sailing the cosmos to the Chinese around 1200, but they are left similarly vague.

It’s an interesting technique, but compared to the other Fate Worlds it can feel a little sparse. This is clearly an epic setting with lots of moving parts, and a conscious decision by the designer to show the overall picture and leave the minutiae to the GM, but it feels … unfinished. Where some of the other Fate Worlds get round this with random tables and an explicit permission to make it up as you go along, this feels altogether more serious, which makes it feel more constrained. Perhaps it’s because there isn’t as tight an idea for what the PCs actually do in SFOS – in the sample adventure, they’re Traveller-style edge of the law merchants, but you could just as well be spies, explorers, privateers or mercenaries based on the implied rules and settings here.

The Crunch

There are a few variations from Fate Core here – two new skills; Alchemy lets you craft compounds – left a bit handwavy even for me, and perhaps more concrete examples of constructions would have helped. Sail is much more clearly defined, as a lot of ship combat rotates around its use. Also, around twenty new stunts – an excellent way for settings for Fate Core to define themselves and give the flavour of their genre – which is useful.

There are detailed – and tactical-feeling – rules for Rheoship combat which look like they capture an age-of-sail style ship combat with vast crafts trying to outmaneuvre each other using only the rheospace winds. There are a few bits that I’m not sure I can get my head around – such as how many actions you actually get to take in a round (I’d assume one per PC) and an absence of difficulties for most of the tasks (my usual Fate approach of Fair (+2) or Good (+3) difficulty probably applies here). There are also some variant rules for mass combat, which need the Fate System Toolkit – to account for crew actions like boarding and capturing a ship – again, very age of sail.

I’d need to see these in action, but I suspect they are very good – they are just sometimes a little hard to parse, but I’ll put faith in Fate’s resilience against any rules shonkiness. The ship combat would definitely work for an age-of-sail conflict, and as we’re not exactly overwhelmed with games to play 19th century naval adventures (except for the excellent Beat to Quarters) there’s probably a niche for them.

The One-Shot

I can see this being a great setting for one-shot play, providing the GM is fine with filling in plenty of the setting blanks. There are lots of ideas for satisfying one-shot adventures that leap out, and as usual it comes with an adventure as well.

If I’m honest, though, the adventure, Secrets of the Red Planet, feels a little flat. It’s not quite as clearly presented for running as I’m used to (I’d need to make some bullet-points of scenes to run it, as they are often long paragraphs with plenty of options) and it has some twists for the PCs that might lead to disgruntlement from players. It feels a little like an example of the setting and what PCs might do rather than an adventure to play for. In fact, I’d write my own.

It also doesn’t have any pregen PCs, which is a shame as they would’ve been a great chance to show some points of detail about the setting. Again, there’s enough promise here for me to want to make my own, but it’s a shame there aren’t ones supplied, though I guess word count was an issue.

Overall, an intriguing setting, and a shame it’s not as immediately usable as some of the other Worlds of Adventure supplements. I will definitely give it more thought though, and it’s on my convention / one-shot prep list to do some work on it – I’ll try and remember to share it here too.

Review: Lone Wolf Adventure Game

In Lone Wolf, psychic rangers fight Darklords – eventually, after first dealing with colourful – if clichéd – low-level quest fodder. Cubicle 7 has published this, a neat little box set full of goodies to play with; a complete RPG set in the fantasy world of Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series of gamebooks. The product itself is lovely – a set of counters, a nicely illustrated set of pregens, three books – one player-focused, one GM-focused, and one with two starter adventures in it, a map and a couple of reference tables. It’s all very slick – and I do appreciate a full box when I buy a boxed set.

The Fluff

Although the Lone Wolf world of Sommerlund started out, apparently, as Joe Dever’s own D&D campaign world, it’s always felt a little darker, edgier, and, weirdly, more pastoral than a regular fantasy world. It’s got some distinctive elements – you’re basically playing psychic rangers who venture forth from their monastery to right the wrongs of the world, and defend it from the Darklords of Naar away to the West who are constantly trying to corrupt the land.

As Kai Lords, the PCs are generally respected – in the starter adventure most of the NPCs are falling over themselves to offer them room and board – and have a heavily implied moral code, reinforced awkwardly as said NPCs also keep offering the PCs rewards for their heroic behaviour – which the adventure then reminds the GM they should turn down. When I ran it, in the way of D&D clerics through the ages, the coffers of the “Kai monastery maintenance and upkeep fund” were kept well topped up by their generous donations.

It’s a nice balance of the familiar and the original – I like the players being respected heroes, although without their supplement Heroes of Magnamund a party composed entirely of Kai Lords is likely to struggle for niche protection as the PCs can all be a bit samey.

The Crunch

The system is very light. And comes in two levels of complexity, one ultra-, ultra-light. Skill rolls, in an homage to the gamebooks they are based on, are made by flipping a token into the inside of the box, where a matrix of numbers from 0 to 9 are laid out. If this sounds fiddly, and potentially clumsy, it is. The book does suggest that you can use a regular ten-sided dice, and that is likely to be an easier option, particularly if you’re precious about losing any of the tokens. For a normal test, you just need to get a 6 or more, and there are no modifiers – which is quite a nice touch.

Luck tests are neat too – you flip one of the coin-like luck tokens and if Kai, god of the sun results you pass – if Naar is uppermost you fail. It’s a pretty neat, and quick, way of resolving luck tests. Combat is resolved by looking at a table – at which point I begin to yawn – but this resolves damage to both parties, making an already quick system twice as fast. With this inbuilt folding of the exchanges it’s easy to work some narrative of what is actually happening in the battle into it.

The Master level rules, while still around the complexity of, say, Dragon Warriors, add a touch more nuance and some combat maneuvers which should make combat a bit more interesting.

The One Shot

The set comes with a starter adventure – that I’d advise following only loosely as it makes a couple of massive one-shot pitfalls. To its credit, it aims to teach the system – and it meets this goal admirably; I read the adventure before running it, but not really either of the other books. The players have to track down a missing caravan, which has, it turns out, been taken by bandits – there’s no complex subplot or theme for the GM to hold in their head while they’re trying to remember the rules.

The problem is, there’s no subplot at all. There are no reasons for the bandits to have captured the caravan, other than their general bandit-ness, nor why this wagon or merchant were their target. Running it, I added a loose reason – still not massively original, but it added the investigative bit to the adventure that was missing.

There’s also two encounters – if they can be called that – that happen for no discernible reason. Near the start of the adventure the PCs encounter an injured deer, and can attempt to free it or put it out of its misery – ostensibly a scene to teach the players how to make tests, but it can be resolved without any tests at all. There are no consequences for their action, nor any signposts that the course of action my players took – putting the deer out of its misery, then taking it as an offering to the merchants – is going to lead to the post-adventure admonishment that it instructs.

There’s a similar miss-step where the PCs see a bandit scout spying on them, and if they give chase they, er, find his body – he runs away from them, trips over a log, and instantly dies. It doesn’t make sense – the only reason I can see for it is to avoid the GM having to run an interrogation scene with the bandit (which is unlikely anyway given the implied lethality of combat) – I let them catch him and fight him, when I ran it.

There is a follow-up adventure, which has a bit more oomph in it; and some roleplaying opportunities – and I wouldn’t complain too much as everything else about this product makes it great for one-shot play. But when I run it again, I’ll have a mixed party of different cultures, use the master rules, and write my own – straightforward – adventure.