Review: Are You Thirsty? – Thirsty Sword Lesbians

Thirsty Sword Lesbians (TSL) is a Powered By The Apocalypse (PBTA) game from Evil Hat, designed by April Kit Walsh, of swordplay, queer action hijinx and romance. While this genre might sound weirdly specific, it actually covers a really wide range of genres, while staying really consistent in the kind of adventures you can have in those genres.

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PBTA games really sing when the Moves and Playbooks can tightly support the genre they emulate – I don’t think there’s a better game for teenage superheroes than Masks, for instance, nor slice-of-life Coronation Street petty crime than The ‘Hood. TSL manages to tightly support the play style it shoots for, while still offering a wide range of options. This does potentially make it trickier to one-shot successfully – but I’ve offered some suggestions in the relevant section below about how to make it work.

The Fluff

The link above takes you to .pdf – but it is in print as well at retailers such as Bonhomie (UK)

Within the general style of “sword-fighting romance-seeking lesbians,” everything else is pretty flexible. There are six campaign settings ready-made in the book, from steampunk freedom-fighters to cyberpunk revolutionaries, and six scenarios – shorter-form, more “plotted” games. There’s also a guide to drawing up your own settings and ensuring they match the play style of the game.

Continue reading →

Review: Brindlewood Bay

Brindlewood Bay is a Powered By The Apocalypse (PBTA) game of cozy mysteries written by Jason Cordova and published by The Gauntlet. In it, you play elderly widows investigating murders in a quiet New England coastal town, while gradually revealing the dark mysteries of an ancient cult. It’s also a fantastic game for one-shot play, with an innovative mystery system that makes investigations improvisational and fun. I’ve run two one-shots of it so far, and will definitely be adding it to my one-shot repertoire.

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The Fluff

You play elderly widows, members of a book club, solving crimes. The game’s sources are are Agatha Christie murder mysteries, 1970s-1990s TV series, very much in the ‘cozy’ tradition. In chargen, you broadly define your PC and their cozy activity (knitting, gardening, cooking, etc.) – and then, as a group, you all add items related to each others’ activities. In play, these offer a bonus to rolls, and it’s great to see players find opportunities to use, for instance, their late husband’s tiki set, in order to help their investigations.

This is not a common genre in RPGs, but it’s very recognizable from popular culture; my players had no trouble feeling the setting and tropes of the game, especially after the cozy places group activity at the start. Characters are both broadly competent and physically vulnerable – while Brindlewood Bay is a generally safe environment, shadowy figures stalk around and the suspect is still at large.

The setting is well painted in broad brush strokes, and the mysteries that are provided (with more available in a supplement, Nephews in Peril) add further details and locations to the town. Implicit in longer-term play is a metaplot about discovering the sinister cult in the town – which is perhaps the reason for there being so many murders – but this doesn’t come into play in a one-shot.

The Crunch

This is a really streamlined evolution of the PBTA engine that keeps what’s important front and centre. There are two ‘action’ moves – Day and Night, which being rolled determined by the time of day, and a Meddling Move, which is the main vector to gather clues. There are a few additional moves, but these three form the bulk of play. While MCing, I really appreciated the simplicity of this – I never had the “uhh, this seems like you’re trying to… go aggro?” moments that I often get when running PBTA games with a broader selection.

Mysteries get solved by you gathering Clues, usually by using the Meddling Move, which are snippets of information, deliberately left loose – a note writing somebody out of a will, a missing dog, signs of a struggle on the victim’s body. After some investigating, the PCs get together, decide which suspect they think was the murderer, and make a Theorize Move, adding the number of Clues gathered and subtracting the Mystery’s complexity – on a Hit, they can catch them – on other results, they may have got the wrong person, leaving the murderer free. In my two games, in one case they apprehended the butler in time – the second, with a 7-9 result, led to a car chase and the eventual escape of the killer when a PC’s cat ran out in front of their car!

The Clue / Theorize economy is amazingly elegant. I have my own issues with investigative games, and the tension between finding the right answer and playing an entertaining game irks me, and in more player-led / story-now games even more so. I discussed it during our after action report of Vaesen with the Smart Party – at a point in the session, you click from “playing my character / making a fun scene” to “solving a puzzle.” Brindlewood Bay avoids this by not needing to join the dots until the Theorize move – up until then, players can just go poking around wherever they want, and clues – if they’ve got the dice for it – will keep showing up. As MC I still felt involved in building the mystery, by choosing which clues made sense to place, and seeing the players have license to freewheel and solve the mystery themselves gave it a satisfying feeling of collaboration.

The One Shot

Although clearly ideally built – like most PBTA games – for short-run campaign play, Brindlewood Bay has so much to recommend it as a one-shot. A setting and genre that is both instantly recognisable and a fresh break from standard RPG genres, an easy-to-MC PBTA framework and a structure that genuinely supports collaborative storytelling made it a hit in both games that I ran. Indeed, although the TV series source material was often long seasons of shows, in practice before media-on-demand we watched them in snippets of individual shows out of order, so it doesn’t feel out of genre to be looking at a murder-of-the-week with protagonists who already have a past together.

I’d recommend for a one-shot not cutting down the ‘cozy place’ prep step at all – as I’ve written about previously, spending up to an hour at the start of a PBTA one-shot is always worth it to get a great setup and have the players able to really get into their characters for the rest of the session. I used Dad Overboard, one of the Mysteries included in the game, and it was a great solid plot structure for a satisfying conclusion in one session.

One thing that I’d also recommend is being really open about the collaborative nature of the mystery – on the sign up description (if you’re running at a con), at the start of the session, even a reminder during the game if you see a player start to cut out investigative channels. For some fans of investigative games, this collaborative stuff, and the MC not even knowing who did the murder, requires a real shift in approach that you need to make sure they’re up for.

In summary, this is a brilliant game, and one of my highlights of 2020 – I’m not sure if I’ve ever found MCing a PBTA game as relaxing and flat-out enjoyable as Brindlewood Bay in a long time. The simplicity – elegance even – of the moves, the wealth of pre-made Mysteries available, and the easily-grokked genre make it an absolute one-shot hit. One of my players went straight from my game to download and read the rules himself – so intrigued was he by the system – you can’t say fairer than that.

Low Fantasy RPGs – Part Two

In the last post, we looked at some of the options for Low Fantasy gaming – here are three more if you want some one-shots where magic is awful and terrifying, and the players are rooted in mud.

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Wolves of God

Cleanse yourself of any lingering anti-Saxon sentiment from Pendragon with this Sine Nomine game from Kevin Crawford where you play brave Saxons exploring Roman ruins and skirmishing with the Welsh in England. With a system that’s sort of OSR-based, with some heavy shifting, it’s well grounded in the setting and you can feel the mud seep off it.

Pros: It’s a straightforward system, and the game comes with loads of tables and guidance for populating a low fantasy sandbox – applicable to any of the games we’ve talked about.

Cons: For the one-shot, Sandboxing is tricky – you want to add some structure and plan to the exploration to prevent any turtling or getting stuck in a rut. Get them rescue a lost herdsman from the Roman ruins, or parlay with the Wealh to defend your common lands from the undead. Kevin Crawford’s stuff deserves a future post about this, after I’ve run some one-shots with his system.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

This is one of the originals, and a heavy touchstone for TTRPG gaming for any (especially British) gamers of a certain generation. With 4th ed, there’s a system that works well for one-shot play, and it’s a brilliantly realised world that manages to be quasi-European without being awful. There’s even a review of 4th edition on this very blog.

Pros: There’s loads for this – including loads of one-shots already done, some of which are awesome. Night of Blood is great, there’s a .pdf of One-Shots (soon to be reviewed here), and lots of resources even for previous editions that are easily adapted. Tons of art, rich lore and a rich history are all there to help you.

Cons: It’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness – it can be difficult to make a WFRP game feel new, when there are so many already out there. It can get a bit Monty Python, as well – such a commonly referenced touchstone can be hard to make serious. Personally, I’m not a fan of comedy *orcs or chaos cultist conspiracies, either (largely due to them being overdone in WFRP) – there’s plenty more to use here, so look a bit further away from the “classic” antagonists.

Wolf’s Head

This is a FATE World, set in feudal Britain with no magic in it as written – but it’s super easy (it’s FATE, after all) to add evil sorcerers and savage beasts roaming through Norman England alongside the oppressive authority the game is based around. Lean into this by making the Baron have all the cards where magic and weirdness is concerned, thus keeping to the theme of it being a terrifying and inaccessible practice.

Pros: It’s heroic and easily modded. I see this as a basis for a wide range of semi-Historical low fantasy games, and FATE is a great ruleset for mixing it up (see advice for running it as a one-shot here).

Cons: Alone, there’s not as much fluff as you might want – you’ll have to use other sources (or other games on this list) as sources if you run out of inspiration.

So, a selection of six RPGs you can use to bring the mud and guts into your games. Next week, we’ll look at low fantasy-ing a more traditional fantasy RPG, to bring some of the feel for this into a more high fantasy game, and the advantages that gives a one-shot. What have I missed off? Message me on Patreon, or on twitter @milnermaths, to make your suggestions!

Low Fantasy RPGs – Part One

In this previous post, I gave some general tips for making low-fantasy one-shots memorable and exciting. I’m going to begin some reviewing of the systems you can use for this sort of play now, beginning with a mixture of big hitters and lesser-known systems.

I’m sure that some of the ideas here will provoke cries of “that’s not low fantasy!” from commentators – I’m using a broad definition that basically just limits the PC access to fireball spells. For each game I’ve given a brief overview of how I think it’ll work for a one-shot, long with some pros and cons.

Pendragon

See my post on historical gaming here – in Pendragon, a game from the days of the grognards that has aged amazingly well, you’re Cymric knights gallivanting around England solving problems.

Pros – it’s a big touchstone, not just as a genre but as a game, and there are easy hooks to get the players involved (e.g. your Lord tells you to do it). Everyone playing knights is less of a problem than you might think, and there’s a funky Passions system that lets you do emotive stuff as well

Cons – a lot of the depth of Pendragon is in ongoing play, watching your Passions etc go up and down. While there’s a huge library of published material for it, most will take some solid adapting to make them really sing as a one-shot.

Romance of the Perilous Lands

A Black Hack-inspired romantic fantasy game, while there are playable wizards they’re much more embedded in the setting than in traditional D&D, and the quasi-historical setting means you’ll be getting muddier than you might expect.

Pros – simple, quick system that gives players plenty of options while remaining easy to grasp in a one-shot. Nice range of character options give some niche protection.

Cons – it might end up being a bit too heroic if you’re heart is set on full-on low fantasy.

Cthulhu: Dark Ages

A supplement for the classic horror game that takes you into the 12th Century, with all kinds of scary cultists, goat-headed hermits and stuff

Pros – a really straightforward system that still gives enough depth in resolution – the book also comes with great setting material and sample adventures that would be brilliant one-shots right out of the box.

Cons – I mean, really, it’s a horror game. Pick the right archetypes and I think you’ll have a lot of fun with this though, and there’s only a tentacle-width between grim fantasy and apocalyptic horror after all.

Next time, another 3 systems for low fantasy gaming – and after that, guidance on hacking D&D5e to make it a grim and gritty low fantasy system. Easier than you might think, I’d imagine.

What are your go-to systems for low fantasy gaming? Any you’d like to see my thoughts on? Let me know in comments.

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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.

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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.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

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?