Call of Cthulu Parapsychologist’s Handbook

Call of Cthulu is invariably about a search into the unknown. As often as not, the characters get involved in this search purely by accident or are questers who never imagined just how large the unknown world they’re curious about is. Parapsychologists are just the kind of people who delve into this unknown, though they fit into the category of people who have no idea just how dark and dangerous the supernatural world can be. The Parapsychologist’s Handbook explains how these individuals fit into the Call of Cthulu mythos and how such research and characters can add to any game.
Most Call of Cthulu games occur in a world very like our own, simply with another layer on top of (or beneath, or permeating throughout) it. Because of this similarity to the real world, at least the descriptive portions of Call of Cthulu sourcebooks outlining things that exist in the real world can be very detailed and true to the subject matter. This is true of the Parapsychologist’s handbook, as well and it could as easily serve as a real world guide to the world of paranormal investigation as it does to the world of Call of Cthulu. Anyone with even a passing interest in the world of parapsychology would find valuable information in the Parapsychologist’s Handbook.
The descriptions of the methodology of parapsychological field and lab research as well as the different equipment that can prove useful to this research and investigation are quite thorough. There is also an in depth discussion of many of the fields of parapsychological research. This ranges from ghosts and poltergeists to spiritualists, mediums and psychics. Again, there is a great deal of real world research into these areas and the writer, being an actual parapsychologist not only has a firm grasp on the topic, but also possesses an excellent ability to explain it to newcomers to the field.
That’s not to say that there isn’t ample game material in the book as well, though the player’s portion is relatively light on rules. That’s in keeping with the feel of the genre, though. Breaking down something to its pure mechanics takes a great deal of the mystery and potential horror out of any subject and giving the game master the tools but keeping them out of the hands of the players helps add to the feel of the game. Players are free to attempt anything, but without being able to look at the rules, they have no idea whether or not what they’re trying is going to work or the probability of it working. Part of this game material includes equivalent rules for the d20 game system in addition to the rules for Chaosium’s version of the rules.
Call of Cthulu already has one or more mysteries inherent in the world that characters will be researching before, or in addition to the topics that parapsychologists normally look into. There is an extensive Mythos inherent in the setting and it is important to vital for any group to determine how the topics explored in this book fit into this larger world. Rather than simply stating how these two similar but divergent topics fit together, the author gives a number of options that each game master can pick and choose from. Adding to the mystery of the game for the players is the fact that the game master is encouraged to keep the paradigms that drive parapsychological phenomenon in the game world a secret. Players and characters will have their own beliefs about what is causing any particular phenomenon and should behave as though it were true. The game master can shape the results so that those beliefs are reinforced whether it is correct or not. After all, the entities in Call of Cthulu delight in deceiving and destroying foolish mortals and they enjoy it even more when mortals delude themselves.
No matter what paradigm the game master chooses, games that include these rules end as all Call of Cthulu games inevitably end: the characters either go insane or die and each envies the other his fate. Whether the character has his mind torn apart and devoured by a Great Old One, gets dragged to Hell by a demon, or simply ends up insane because he delved into things that were simply not meant for humans to know hardly matters to the character.
One of the other bits of game information in the book includes NPC’s from the early two eras common to Call of Cthulu stories. The 1890’s and 1920’s were two of the strongest times for parapsychological research so there are all too many personalities from history that the player characters can run into. Some of these historical individuals are known only to people interested in this sort of research while others are household names such as Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While these characters are not given game statistics, their general personalities, beliefs about the topics discussed in the book and their history in the time specified are all provided and give plenty of information for a game master to run with.
There is also a discussion of the historic groups that dedicated themselves to this type of research in all the eras of play. Many of the characters given were prominent members of these various societies. These organizations could easily serve as foils, allies or simply sources of information to any group that was interested in parapsychological research and some of the politicking that went on within them could easily add another layer of conflict to any adventure.
In addition to the mechanics provided throughout the book and the historical characters provided, game masters are also given a small group of adventure seeds to serve as inspiration. In addition, a quick history and timeline of each of the fields of research of interest to parapsychologists is provided. Between these two sources, even game masters who are not familiar with the source material should have an easy time creating appropriate adventures.
If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if the TAPS team found themselves in Innsmouth or if Gozer the Gozerian had taken the form of a Thing That Should Not Be instead of the Stay Puffed Marshmallow man, the Parapsychologist’s Handbook is just what you need to find out.

Nights of the Crusades

Who says you need a book thick enough to stop a bullet to have a heavy simulationist game? Nights of the Crusades proves that it can be done in only 106 pages.
As may be inferred by the title, Nights of the Crusades is set in the Middle East during Medieval Times. It is a time of conflict and bigotry of all sorts from racism to sexism to religious intolerance. But the historical crusades are not the only inspiration for Nights of the Crusades. The famous 1001 Nights also plays a role in the game, with the mythical creatures and supernatural dangers from those stories added to the already dark themes of war and conquest. This is not the Disney version of these stories and the djinn in the game are malicious, massively powerful creatures that delight in tricking and tormenting mortals.
Obviously, given these source materials, Nights of the Crusades is a very dark game. Even if a player does not particularly want his character to dislike another character, whether player or game master controlled, there is a system of allegiances which insure that it is much easier to be aggressive against people of opposing allegiances than it is to assist them. Of course, whether or not the character acts on these hatreds is up to the player. The ranks of these allegiances can change so clever players can manipulate their ranks to make it easier or harder to attack or negotiate with a particular group depending on the groups the player wants his character to be allied with.
Another factor that helps make the game very dark and increases the simulationist aspect is the trauma system. After each day that a character engaged in, or observed combat, the player has to roll on a chart to determine if his character is permanently affected by what he has seen. The results of these rolls can be anything from addiction to phobias to an increase in the character’s hatred for a certain type of opponent. It attempts, rather effectively, to mirror the true effects of battle on a person’s mind and resembles post traumatic stress disorder. This is an aspect of battle that is rarely discussed in role-playing games. Most characters either never kill or are homicidal maniacs, depending on genre and in either case the amount of violence is hardly considered by the players. So a game that actually deals with the mental repercussions of fighting and killing other human beings is fairly unique. Additionally, there are a number of situations in which a character can become scarred or otherwise permanently disfigured or injured physically.
Characters do not have attributes in the classic sense. There is no measure of their strength or intelligence. Instead, they have four expertises, or general areas of skill. Each skill is associated with one or more of these expertises and each skill taken in an expertise increases it, making the character more effective in that particular realm of combat or social interaction. There are a lot of skills to take. A whole lot. This is necessary to give enough skills to give significant levels to the expertises. Beyond this purely numerical addition to the character, each skill also provides a specific advantage either in or out of combat. There are plenty of skills for any player to make a character just to his taste and reflecting any number of combat or negotiation styles.
The combat system can be run either abstractly or on a battle mat, but is extremely detailed in either case. There are stances, maneuvers, statuses and ongoing effects that can make a battle exceptionally complex and quite realistic. There is no swinging from the chandeliers here, only the brutal grind of battle and there is often the chance that a character will do nothing more than cower or flee.
The negotiation and social resolution mechanic can be just as complex. There are numerous “maneuvers” that players can engage in during a negotiation to manipulate the final results of the exchange.
Perhaps most influenced by the 1001 Nights source of inspiration, there is also a detailed storytelling mechanic within the game. In addition to inspiring players to creativity, this mechanic provides concrete mechanical rewards to the characters when used. The Pearls of Wisdom earned from these storytelling sessions can be used for anything from re-rolling a die, to adding wealth, to gaining an ability, depending upon how many are spent.
The actual game system comes rather late in the book and while it is not uncommon for the character creation section of a game to come before the mechanics, there are a lot of sets of sub-rules that come before the basic mechanics. These are relatively simple and characters attempting a feat that is equal to their ability need a roll of 5 or below on a d10 to succeed. For each point lower than the ability, the chance of succeeding increases by a point. For each point above, the chance of succeeding decreases by a point.
As simple as this die mechanic is, there is a very long game play example that includes investigation, negotiation, storytelling and combat, everything a group might need, to explain it all. While this is certainly useful and helps ensure all these varying game systems are clear, it does go on for a bit too long.
One of the things that Pearls of Wisdom can buy is a Fief. A symbol of the character’s power, a base of operations and a source of wealth, the fief adds a hint of domain management to the game and helps represent the character’s advancement in society and influence over the world. This system is also relatively simple, but adds a nice touch to the game.
There is an NPC section which provides characters and a handful of animals/monsters for the game master to use to populate his stories. This section is rather short and there is no obvious organization to it, but it requires very little to create an opponent in the game so it would be fairly easy for a game master to create any challenges needed.
The book ends with a short adventure which captures the horrific nature of the game perfectly. It is no cosmic horror or fearsome monster that threatens the characters but a combination of fate, nature and human needs and failings that force the players into horrible decisions.
Nights of the Crusades is an exceptionally gritty, surprisingly detailed game system which explores a dark time in the history of the world. Groups who like high flying action or simple stories of good and evil will be disappointed by the game, but those who prefer investigating the infinite shades of gray of morality in more realistic stories will find just what they want in this game.

…In Spaaace!

Some sci fi games feature hard science settings with very realistic rules for gravity, faster than light travel and high tech weapons. Other games are basically designed for space operas. These games feature artificial gravity, ship travelling as fast as they need to to get to the plot and the only limitations on weapons are how cool they are. Then, there is …In Spaaace! by Greg Stolze. If Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a genre and there are other stories in it, this is the game to play them.
The game is fairly short, both the setting and rules encompassing only 15 pages but that is really all that’s needed for the subject. The setting information takes up the first half of the book but in those 7 pages players get all they need to know about the ridiculousness of living in this particular future. Much like the world in Hitchhiker’s Guide, the ideas presented in this book are nothing more than the trends that currently exist in the real world taken to their logical, ridiculous extreme. And there’s more than a hint of philosophy thrown into the descriptions for good measure. For instance, Artificial Stupidity is just as important a part of Machine Consciousness in …In Spaaace! as Artificial Intelligence. This makes perfect sense since we constantly rate whether or not a computer is self aware based on how much it acts like a human. A computer can be perfectly logical, far more logical than humans and thus quite intelligent but it is not considered sentient because it does not have emotions. And less face facts, emotions generally make us do stupid things in one way or another. Thus, it is the flaws in the machines that make them self aware just as it is our own flaws that make us individuals. Other science fiction tropes like cloning and aliens are presented as well and given the same insightful yet ridiculous treatment. A surprisingly complete vision of the world of …In Spaaace! ends up being given in those 7 short pages.
The remainder of the game explains the rules system behind …In Spaaace!. This system is known as Token Effort and I have had the fortune of playing this system twice with Tim Rodriguez of www.dicefoodlodging.com/ fame. This system is exceptionally good at freeing people to tell wild utilizing a shared set of rules. Rule Zero puts the goal of the game into sharp perspective. If someone does or says something in character that makes you laugh, you must give them one of your tokens. In both games that I played, the tokens flowed like water as everyone attempted to top each other in how ludicrous they made the story.
Beyond Rule Zero there are not many other rules in Token Effort. It is a diceless game and, in fact, there is no randomness at all. Instead, each player and the GM start the game with a certain number of tokens. When a player wants to take over the narrative, he secretly bids a number of tokens depending on how much he wants his story element to take place and the GM secretly bids a number of tokens as well. Whoever bid the most gets to narrate that portion of the story and hands over a token to the other person. Thus, even if a player loses, they get a token, making it more likely that they will be able to narrate a portion of the story later in the game and vice versa for the GM. The only exception to this rule is that if the bids of the player and GM are tied the player still gets to narrate but has to give up all the tokens that he bid.
Of course, this would make the game nothing more than trading tokens back and forth if this were the only rules. Characters in Token Effort also have traits and GMs have plot points with which to construct the challenges that the characters are going to face which are then translated into traits for those challenges. Each of these traits has a value between 1 and 5 and essentially serves as free tokens that can be used in each situation where the trait applies. These traits are fairly free form and can be anything that the player comes up with. Examples from the game include Hyperintelligent Chimp, Space Pirate, and Make Things Explode With My Mind, amongst others. Clearly these traits can be used in a wide variety of situations and players are encouraged to be creative in how they are used. In situations where players are not directly facing a challenge created by the GM, the GM sets a base level for the bidding exchange based on just how unlikely the player’s request is. “I find a hydrospanner that is the right size in this garage” would have a level of 1 for example whereas “I find a fully functioning pilot robot in this dress shop” would have a level of 5.
…In Spaaace! is a fun, freeform game with rules simple enough that a group could throw together a session and play it in a single sitting but utilitarian enough that a group could just as easily run a full length campaign. In either case, so long as the group accepts and follows the concepts of both the setting and the system, they will find themselves laughing uproariously every time they play.

Pie Shop Review

Let’s face facts: most adventurers are homicidal, if not genocidal maniacs. Even in the best of circumstances, they beat up the bad guys in less than legal circumstances and more often than not, they simply slaughter sentient beings and loot their dead bodies. In darker games, the characters are not even expected to have a moral excuse for performing such slaughter; they are simply giving in to their accursed nature. Pie Shop takes this often overlooked fact of role playing to all new levels. In fact, the game takes it to a level where it is the very core of the game. In Pie Shop the characters (it is impossible to think of them as heroes in even the loosest terms, even “anti-hero” is too nice a title for them) are serial killers.
The author goes to great lengths to convey the skewed, dark and downright creepy nature of his subject matter. Each chapter begins with a scene from Alice in Wonderland but the excerpts are altered so that Alice is a killer who leaves a bloody path in her wake as she travels through Wonderland. The game text itself is written in a twisted, slightly insane style and from the perspective of one killer talking to another, a sort of psychotic mentor. This writing includes the obligatory piece of flavor text but even this is knocked sideways from expectations by taking a sudden, violent, dark turn in the middle that is all too appropriate for the game. Reading Pie Shop gives a feeling not unlike reading the novel American Psycho. You’re travelling through a strange land that is the mind of someone almost completely alien, yet disgustingly human and it is hard to look away.
The most important part of a Pie Shop game is obviously the characters. More than most other games, this one is an exploration of the characters’ thoughts and motivations as much as any external story and the game revolves around that fact. Still, character creation is a relatively simple process. It is a points buy system, but unlike most such systems it is remarkably loose. Loose enough, in fact that many stats are optional. Characters are not required to have ranks in all stats, and in fact, players do not even need to bother listing stats that they do not raise or lower during character creation. Skills are approached similarly, with a discrete list of skills presented and costs for buying them at different ranks but no requirement to buy any. A few are given for free but players are free to choose or ignore others as they like.
But these simple mechanical rules only begin to communicate the essence of a Pie Shop character. What is at least as important is the character’s peculiar…hobby. The writer clearly understands or at least has researched his subject matter and does an excellent job of helping players define their characters’ pattern. The first part of the pattern is the Target. Serial Killers do not murder willy nilly, you’re thinking of mass murderers. Serial Killers have very specific types that they go for and they seldom stray outside their particular tastes. The author provides a wide variety of Targets as examples, from women to homosexuals to children but also encourages players to come up with their own specific Targets.
Of course, the victim of a killing is only one portion of the act and the reason behind it is just as important to a true serial killer. In addition to a Target type, characters must have an Emotion that the killing evokes. This could be called the motivation behind the killer’s murders though “motivation” implies more logical reasoning than is generally evident in these kinds of characters. Again, a wide list of potential Emotions is presented from love to hate to guilt to sexual pleasure.
Finally, each killer has one or more Methodology Quirks. These are the ways that the character goes about doing what he or she does. Beyond that, they are the things that the character must do to do what he or she does. Just as the characters are driven by certain emotions to kill certain targets, they are driven to do so in a certain way. This could be something like dismembering their victim, draining them of their blood, photographing them or a myriad other innocuous and not so innocuous things that go into the ritual that the character must perform to satisfy the demons inside. Each character must have at least one of these Methodology Quirks but if a player takes more they get a character point for each additional one.
To drive home the point that who, how and why a character kills is as important as any other part of a character in this game, the Advantages and Disadvantages portion of character creation comes after the section that defines his or her kills. These more mechanical portions of the character come after the character’s motivations and have a much more direct effect on the mechanics of the character than his Target, for example. But a Pie Shop character would not be a Pie Shop character without his need to kill and the way he has to do it.
As with any other points buy game with Advantages and Disadvantages, they can be bought to modify a character or taken to provide more points for other portions of the character. Of course, in this game, all these Advantages and Disadvantages have an effect on how the character kills.
The basic die mechanic is even simpler than character creation. It is simply a matter of rolling a d12, adding in any modifiers for applicable stats and skills and trying to equal or exceed 10. GM’s are encouraged to add or subtract modifiers as applicable though no they should modify it by no more than a plus or minus five. There is even a pair of charts to indicate levels of success and failure but these are optional and purely descriptive. And, in keeping with the narrative nature of the game, players can use any stats or skills that they can logically apply to a roll and can get the GM to agree to in any given situation, though only one stat and one skill.
Despite how simple the character creation section is and how loose the game over all is, Combat proves rather complex. Damage is measured in tally marks (the standard make four marks then slash across them for the fifth tally marks) and wounds (each chunk of five tally marks.) Taking wounds provides penalties to actions and eventually leads to unconsciousness and death. This is a perfectly acceptable damage system and one that is quite comprehensive enough for a narrative game but for some reason, an additional one is included. Depending on what sort of weapon is being used a person being injured might also take bleeding damage. In addition to being an entirely separate track of wounds to keep up with, bleeding continues from round to round and players have to keep track of the most bleeding damage they’ve taken in an encounter as this is how much damage they take in later rounds in addition to any other damage. To keep things from getting even more complex, weapons are provided in broad categories and do a set amount of damage.
As far as actually determining who damages who, only the character who wins initiative does damage, unless someone is fighting at range, in which case they also do damage. Fortunately, a combat round summary is included to help players keep track of the action as it goes on. Unfortunately, this summary is 8 steps long.
In keeping with the gritty nature of the game, healing is very slow. Your pet killer is not going to go out and get in a fist fight in a bar or shot up by the cops and pop up the next day to go killing again. Now you’re thinking of slasher movies. It takes months to recover wounds, meaning that your character will be impaired for those months while he or she heals up.
Vague suggestions are given for running a campaign for the game, though they are very vague. Again, the game is intended as more of a trip down the rabbit hole of psychosis rather than an ongoing campaign. However, one conceit of the game has the potential to pull the punch behind the concept a bit. The characters are all working for a shadowy organization after having been caught by the police for their nefarious deeds. With the right GM, this shadowy organization could be as casually malicious as the characters are actively malicious, but it is just as possible that the GM will make the organization a force for good using the character’s murderous tendencies in beneficial ways. While this is at least morally grey, it provides a glimmer of redemption for characters that should be wholly, unredeemably evil.
The last full section of the game is extras. The first of these is a d20 prestige class based on the concept of the game. This may be the only section of the game that is humorous, no doubt because the idea of translating the concepts of this game into a d20 game amuses the author. And it is hard to blame him. The loose, narrative nature of this game is at distinct odds to the granular, tactical rules of a d20 game.
Additionally, there is an index of suggested viewing/reading of movies, tv shows, books and comics that deal with the subject matter of the game to help players get into the right mindset. This list is by no means exhaustive and does not suggest any nonfiction, but should give players enough dark inspiration to get started.
Finally, the game ends with not a warning but a reminder. The game is very dark, purposefully so and is meant to take players to the brink of what they can handle emotionally. It is intended as a way to remind players just how dark and horrible some of the actions their characters in all games truly are. In a way, it is a catharsis, a way for players to plumb the dark depths of their souls and stare at the abyss in a relatively safe way.
Reading Pie Shop can be mildly unsettling. I’m certain that the intention is that playing it will leave you creeped right out. Whether this happens or not is up to each group, but Mr. Toad has certainly given any group interested all the right tools.

Abney Park’s Airship Pirates

I can never decide if I actually like steam punk or not. I like the idea of a simpler time with modern comforts, but I’m not a fan of the Victorian era. I like the idea of flying ships and air pirates but don’t find the usage of steam very plausible. After all it requires a lot of water to generate steam and water is really heavy which seems counterproductive on lighter than air vessels. I like corsets (when women wear them, not wearing them myself,) but I’m not a fan of goggles, especially goggles that someone never uses to actually cover his or her eyes. In the end, steampunk is generally a wash for me, I don’t love it but I don’t despise it. The same is true of Abney Park’s Airship Pirates, by Cubicle 7 Entertainment, a very steam punk game. While it has many good ideas and themes that I find interesting, there are a few things which push me away from it.
To better understand the idea behind Airship Pirates it might be best to explain who Abney Park is. Abney Park is not a “who” but a “what,” as the game is quick to explain. Abney Park is a steam punk band. If you’re like me, you don’t know what a steam punk band is, but after finding some of their songs on their website, http://www.abneypark.com/ and youtube, I realized it is pretty much what might be expected from the term. It is a strange, but entertaining and highly atmospheric mix of techno, classical and pop. The band features a keyboard, electric guitar, bass and a violin and seems to have chosen the only genre where all those instruments fit well together. Their music is entertaining but can get a little repetitious if you listen to it for too long.
Listening to their songs is a good idea if you’re interested in Airship Pirates, though. It has the right atmosphere for the game and, more importantly, the entire game is based on the world described in the lyrics of their songs. In fact, the band itself is incorporated in the setting and plays a large role in the history of the world in the game having inadvertently caused the apocalypse that transformed our world into the bleak land it is in 2150 through meddling with time travel.
It is a very complex world with a lot of themes. A whole lot of themes. Steam punk, post apocalypse survival, time travel and piracy are all themes that will have varying levels of influence on any Airship Pirates campaign. Entire game systems have been written revolving around any one of these themes. Throwing two together completely changes them both. Cramming all four together can be dizzying. While the post apocalypse can just be the setting behind the steam punk portion and piracy is a theme that can be slotted into almost any setting without rocking the boat too much, the time travel portion seems tacked on. It feels like the writers tried a little too hard to stay faithful to the music that inspired them as time travel does, indeed exist in at least some of Abney Park’s songs.
Still, each facet of the setting by itself is robust and interesting. Take the apocalypse portion, for example. It all began when Abney Park accidentally got their hands on a time machine and went back in time to “fix” things. Each of their alterations was good in and of itself, but their cumulative effect left the world’s population weak and easy to manipulate. It was a simple matter for a charismatic individual to come forward in this altered timeline with a clear message (environmentalism) and slowly but systematically gain domination over the world. Unfortunately, his method of saving the environment was to seriously curtail and eventually even eliminate humanity. Most people did not know this, of course and gladly went along with the message of saving the world, voluntarily moving into “Change Cage Cities,” places where innovation was outlawed and the technology was slowly rolled back to the 19th century and civil liberties were also slowly removed. Willfully ignorant, they eventually came to believe that the world outside the cities was nothing but a wasteland where no one could survive despite evidence to the contrary. Everything not in these cities was allowed to return to nature aided by the efforts of the new Emperor who had a number of prehistoric animals genetically engineered and released into the wilds. These uber-predators were created with a hardwired taste for human flesh, forcing anyone not willing to move into a Change Cage City to quickly adapt or die. Some became nomads while others moved to the sky, creating floating cities. While the Emperor’s descendants were still keen to eliminate anyone not in a Change Cage City and eventually all of humanity, a certain balance was achieved where it became impossible to wipe out the nomads and sky citizens but they did not have the power (or desire) to liberate the imperial cities. This is the détente as it exists in 2150, the year Airship Pirates is set in.
While technology was forced to go back to 19th century levels, the history of this world is different from our own so the technology of the 19th century is different. By “different” I mean “steam punk.” Automata, which are essentially androids and are available as player characters are common. There are no computers as we know them but there are difference engines, which depend on punch cards to function. Autophrenometers, guard secure locations and identify people by the shapes of their heads. In many ways it is a sci-fi setting, simply with a different science in place. And, of course, there is the Victorian element to it all. Pseudo-Victorian fashion is a must for any Steampunk setting but the darker parts of the era, such as classism and the oppression of people by the advent and progress of industry are also themes explored in the game. All people are simply cogs in the machine in the Change Cage Cities. Whether they are valued cogs or disposable cogs is purely a matter of class. And in very Victorian style, poor people are considered to literally be lesser to their richer counterparts. The free people of the sky cities are influenced by this society, even if it is only to contrast and rebel against it.
It is one of the ironies of the game that perhaps the core theme, namely the steampunk element is also the most evil and oppressive element. Steampunk does not exist without a longing for the simplicity and manners of the Victorian era and the Victorian culture in the game is clearly the villain of the piece. Without their influence, none of the rest of the game would exist.
The time travel portion of the game seems tacked on and, indeed, only the characters and Abney Park themselves are allowed to time travel. There are only two time travelling devices and Abney Park has one so chances are, the player characters are likely to find the other one. Time travel within the confines of the game is difficult and sets up any number of problems for the characters and even more problems for the game master outside the game. Some steps are taken to minimize these troubles, but it is still entirely possible that a GM could have to re-write the entire game world because of a party’s time travelling jaunt. The whole concept could just as easily be included in the game by simply restricting time travel to the Abney Park NPC’s and having the PC’s only know about it without having access to it.
Though there is a lot of setting to take in, the information is scattered throughout both the player section and the game master section, keeping the potential for overload at a minimum and keeping players interested in the setting throughout.
Given the dark nature of some of the themes in the game, it would be quite possible for a campaign to become truly grim and gritty. Fortunately, the nature of the game mechanics is such that things are driven more toward high adventure and swashbuckling.
The basic dice mechanics revolve around a pool not unlike that in the first World of Darkness games. Characters add their relevant stat to their relevant skill and roll that many 6 sided die. Unlike other games with a dice pool, rather than beating a certain score the player counts each 1 or 6 as a success and gets to re-roll each 6. Each 1 or 6 on these re-rolls also counts as a success and each 6 rolled gets another re-roll meaning that every roll is potentially open ended.
Rather than the target number adjusting the difficulty of a roll it is adjusted by the number and type of dice rolled. For very easy tasks, a player rolls 5 extra dice and counts any successes from them as well. A moderately difficult task is just a straight roll. Any tasks more difficult than this bring in black dice. Not necessarily black, these dice are simply a different color and must be rolled in addition to the player’s regular die pool. Each 1 or 6 rolled on these dice eliminates a success from the die pool, though they are not re-rolled if they come up with a 6. If there are more successes on the black dice than the regular dice then the character is said to suffer a foul failure, essentially a botch. Not only does the character fail whatever action he or she is trying, but he or she also suffers some catastrophe. Depending on just how challenging the action is, these black dice pools can get truly large, as many as 12 dice, making the possibility of a foul failure quite likely.
To ramp up the action even more, players are allowed to take advantage of the Awesome! bonus. Any time a player describes a very cinematic or exciting action for his or her character, the game master is encouraged to give out an Awesome! bonus. This translates to 3 or 4 bonus dice to each of the player’s rolls for the action.
As with any dice pool system, characters can end up rolling a large number of dice on any particular check. To help alleviate the fistful of dice problem, players can consolidate their die pools. They can trade three of the dice they would roll for a single guaranteed success. This is equal to the statistical chance that they would get a success on that many dice but negates the bonus rolls and thus potential successes they might get from rolling 6’s.
Character creation is relatively simple with the player choosing a race, a culture and a background and then adjusting their stats and skills accordingly and adding in Talents and Complications to further modify them. There are only 3 races in the game and 4 cultures but there are numerous backgrounds, which feel a bit like starting classes. These backgrounds are limited by a character’s race and culture and this is the most complex portion of character creation, in some ways.
The races and cultures are not in the least bit balanced. It doesn’t seem like the game designers even tried to balance them. Skyloft characters, those from the sky cities, are clearly the favorites with automata and neobeduins (the nomads) coming in close second and third. They gain much better bonuses than the individuals who live in the Victorian cities. It is hard to decide if this is a purposeful bias to shape players toward these cultures or if the creators are trying to give players the option to play oppressed characters, namely the Victorians, who are trying to find freedom in the larger world.
Characters end up with skills come from numerous sources. The character’s background provides skills but so does the needs of the ship and the crew’s schtick, which is the method the character’s use to hide the fact that they’re pirates assuming their pirates and the way they make money when pirating is not being particularly lucrative. A roving band, circus act or group of traders are all schticks that are suggested.
These schticks are just one part of the highly collaborative nature of character creation in the game. Players do not make only their characters they also create their ship and this has an influence on the characters. A portion of this ship creation includes the schtick. A cohesive crew is an important part of an Airship Pirates campaign and the game goes to great lengths to ensure this happens.
To help make characters unique, players can also buy Complications and Talents for their characters. As the names suggest, Complications make life harder for a character while Talents make them better at something. This process is relatively simple, however as all complications have the same value and Talents vary only slightly in price. Points gained from Complications can be used to increase attributes, skills and buy Talents.
For people who don’t want to bother with the details of creating their own characters, a full complement of sample characters is presented. They come with names and biographical data but any of this could be jettisoned if a player wanted to play a similar but not identical character and it would be easy enough to change a few things up to make a relatively unique character.
It is assumed that each group of characters starts with an airship. Designing the airship is done by the players as a group. There are a number of set airship hulls and each comes with a number of “Resource Points.” These coincide fairly closely with the size of a ship and represent the amount of space on the ship. Weapons, quarters, enhancements and all manner of other items might be bought and used to design a unique vessel that suits the players’ and characters’ needs.
If a crew finds that they don’t have quite enough resource points for what they want, they can take complications for their ship as well. These complications are much the same as complications for characters and simply buy more resource points for their ship.
Understandably in a game so focused on airships and in a steampunk/post-apocalypse setting, there are extensive vehicle combat rules. The game is not map based so all these rules are abstract but coherently and effectively abstract. In fact, these abstract systems for chases and vehicle combats generally work better than map based combat.
Also, understandably, in a game called Airship Pirates, airships have special rules for everything. These rules are adaptations of the rules for other vehicles but are definitely unique to this particular method of transportation.
At times the presentation in the game feels counterintuitive. Bits of the world and rules are presented before the overarching story or rules that they belong to. This can be confusing, though at times it is, perhaps the best way to present information that is complex.
The layout and design of the game are both well suited to the feel. It feels a bit like a travelogue from an airship pirate with pictures “taped” to the page. The art varies wildly both in style and tone. Some of it is cartoonish while some of the other art is dark and even other pieces of art in the book are realistic. While a single artist cannot be expected to illustrate a game of this size, such varied art styles get a bit distracting.
Abney Park’s Airship Pirates is a strong game for anyone who is interested in steampunk adventures. The extra themes in the game can add a new flavor to the genre without overwhelming it. For anyone else, the game is likely to get a bit too cluttered. The post apocalypse theme and the potential for time travel, especially are likely to distract players from the central idea of airship pirates.

D&D Next

By this time, most everyone who has even the slightest interest in the topic has chosen their side in the great D&D Civil War that goes on between proponents of 3rd and 4th edition. Of course there are some hangers on from 2nd edition and before, but for the most part, the people who are going to shout about which edition is the greatest are likely going to shout one of those two answers. Not ones to let things lie, Wizards of the Coast has decided to throw another side into the fight. 4th edition is ready to go the way of Spelljammer into the annals of D&D history and work on an even newer edition has just begun. Unlike previous editions, this one is going to have the help of the general public in creating its final design.

I’m proud to say that I have played every version of D&D in existence. I started with Advanced and dabbled in the Basic rules set with the Red Box. 2nd edition got me through high school and college and 3rd brought me fully back into gaming a few years after the loss of the free time available in college made me cut back on the hobby. My group was still greatly enjoying 3.5 when 4E came out so while we sampled it, we never really got too deep. Nonetheless, we tried two different campaigns, giving us a good feel for the system. Now that my glasses with the thick plastic rims are adjusted and my rat-tail is properly braided, let’s continue.

Every edition of D&D felt like a natural progression, a steady refinement and betterment of the system. Until 4E. 4E felt like a big jump sideways. It felt like a game that borrowed a lot of concepts from D&D but wasn’t quite D&D. That may sound like a criticism but, I like 4E. Not better than 3.5 but probably as much in its own way. I will be a gaming heretic and say that neither of those editions is better than the other, they simply scratch different itches for different people.

Of course, I would also like to mention that this whole discussion about editions would be moot were it not for the open gaming license. Perhaps there would still be an edition war with what I consider the dramatic shift from 3rd to 4th edition, but it’s awfully hard to fight such a war with no support and if the only place to get rules for 3rd edition was from books that Wizards of the Coast stopped producing, I suspect most 3rd edition proponents might grumble about it but would eventually adopt (and come to enjoy) 4E. It is only because Pathfinder exists and the dozens of publishers and hundreds of supplements that took advantage of the OGL that allows proponents of 3rd edition to remain relevant. Thanks to that revolutionary change in business practices, the d20 system is likely to survive indefinitely.

A few months ago, I finished running a 3.5 campaign that lasted for 7 years. Playing only 3 hours a week, with regular breaks for other games as well as myriad other calls on the players’ time meant that it took that long for the characters to reach 20th level and achieve the capacity to face the ultimate challenge on their world, the Tarrasque. Perhaps it was burnout or perhaps it was the fact that there are so many other great game systems in the world, but I planned to never run another D&D game. Playing was an option, of course. I still enjoy at least 2 versions of D&D and jumping into a campaign or adventure for either system appeals to me.

I wasn’t at all sure about D&D Next when I heard about it, though. While I realize that Wizards of the Coast is no charity and that they make their money by printing books, the time between the release of 4E and the announcement of the development of a new edition just seemed far too short, especially given the rapid pace at which the 4E books came out.

Now that I’ve sampled the beginnings of the playtest, I’m glad that I gave it a try. Obviously, D&D next is very early in its development cycle and it is a long, long way from being a full game, but what has been presented so far gives me hope that the Next D&D will be the best D&D.

What has been given samples from both 3rd and 4th edition. While this could easily be a disaster, it seems that Wizards of the Coast has done an excellent job of pulling what worked best from each edition out and mixing them together. Unlike 4th edition, there are not an overwhelming number of options to choose from or statuses to keep track of every turn. On the other hand, unlike 3rd edition every class seems to have plenty of options to keep their actions interesting and to allow plenty of tactical options for every character.

One of the stranger choices that has been made is that they’ve brought back saving throws rather than a variety of defenses, obviously avoiding the urge to reduce the number of rolls at every turn. However, skills are assigned much more the way they were in 4th edition rather than the myriad of skill points a character got in 3rd edition, making those decisions much easier.

The biggest change from both editions, however is advantage and disadvantage. Rather than have a laundry list of bonuses and penalties that can be applied in any given situation, D&D Next uses advantage and disadvantage. When a character does something that will benefit a later action, or if he has an ability that benefits from a certain type of situation, he has advantage and gets to roll two d20s rather than one. He then takes the better of the two rolls. If things are going against the character, he has disadvantage. He still rolls two d20s but in this case, he takes the lower of the two rolls. This radically changes the probability of success without completely destroying the possibility of a failure or success on any given roll.

The only disappointing thing about the rules as presented so far is healing. The healing rules in 4E were rather fun. Regaining hit points was relatively easy and characters had ample opportunity to stay in the fight and continuing adventuring without having a limitless pool of health. D&D Next is much more limiting. Healing takes much longer and there is far less healing to be had. In this regard D&D Next does not seem to be taking inspiration from either 4th or 3rd edition but jumping back to Advanced or 2nd edition when it was not uncommon for a party to adventure for 10 minutes in game time then set up camp and rest for 8 hours.

All that’s been presented so far for D&D Next are some pregenerated characters, the most basic rules set and a few adventures, so it’s hard to determine what the end result is going to be. And anyone who works in the corporate world knows that decision by committee often ends with the worst results, so crowd sourcing their design might be a big mistake on the part of Wizards of the Coast. But assuming they don’t completely change directions, D&D Next has the potential to be D&D Best.

Strike Force 7 Review

A little more progress on all fronts.  One True Thing has gone from being a pageful of notes for a game that was basically a variation on NEP to several pages of something unique.  There’s still a lot of writing to be done, not to mention getting art for it, but I’m really excited about it.

I continue editing my novel.  A little bit everyday.  No end anywhere near in sight, but it will come.

And, Jake has confirmed that he’s going to work on art for Adventuring! Company, the first scenario for NEP.

And to keep you all entertained (I hope) my review of Strike Force 7: Winter Strike…

Given the title, it’s not hard to guess what kind of adventure Strike Force 7: Winter Strike is going to be.  If there is any confusion, though, let me clarify.  It is an action movie turned into a Savage Worlds adventure.  That’s no criticism as the Fast! Furious! Fun! style of Savage Worlds fits an action movie plot perfectly.  In fact, a useful way to determine if a Savage Worlds adventure is going to be good is to try to imagining Arnold Schwarzenegger from the 80’s starring in it.  If you can, it’s going to be good.

In keeping with the action movie vibe of Winter Strike the plot involves the U.S. in a three way struggle with the U.S.S.R. and a terrorist organization known as Skorpion.  As if the cold war tension was not enough, having a group known as Skorpion gives the adventure a very action movie feel.

With all that, the adventure is not meant to be comedic or satirical.  It is actually presented rather seriously.  In fact, two ways to run the game are given depending on how intensely the GM wants to run the game.  The first way is cinematic and fits the action movie theme while the second is much more realistic, and thus lethal and dangerous.  But even with the cinematic method, the adventure is serious and is intended to be played as a Spec Ops adventure.

One of the interesting things that Winter Strike presents is the idea of Real Time Events.  These in game events involve a real world timer to determine in game actions.  For instance, players may have a minute in real world time to determine what their characters do in a scene.  As I learned in a recent Dread game, having a real world countdown amps up the tension in a game.  This, in addition to a few other suggestions for the GM to keeping the game moving, is certain to keep the players on edge and instill in them the dangerousness of the scenario.

Though the adventure is exciting and the story told in it compelling, there are a couple of flaws with Winter Strike.  The first is that some of the encounters are a bit too ambiguous.  While few Savage Worlds adventures provide an exact number of opponents in an encounter, they generally provide a ratio of opponents to the number of characters.  Some of the encounters in Winter Strike do not even have this guideline.  While a GM could come up with a challenging number of opponents on his own, this oversight only makes the GM’s job harder when the purpose of a published adventure is to make it easier.

Additionally, the art in the book is a bit unusual for an RPG supplement.  Rather than drawings or even paintings, most of the pieces of art are actual photographs.  This is a convenient source of images given the nature of the subject of the adventure.  Military photographs are prolific and are perfectly appropriate for this adventure.  There is some hand drawn art included as well, though.  The cover, one piece of art toward the back of the adventure as well as all of the pictures for the character profiles are hand drawn.  Perhaps the real life images are included to make the adventure feel more real and to give it more impact.  I’m not sure if that’s the effect that the pictures have but I prefer hand drawn art.  My criticism may simply be a matter of taste.

Overall, Strike Force 7: Winter Strike is a good adventure for anyone looking for a Spec Ops style Savage Worlds Scenario.  It’s full of excitement and action and makes me want to go take down Skorpion!

Horror Companion Review

Lest I forget what this blog is about, namely keeping everyone out there informed about the ongoing adventures of the Black Guard Press, here’s a little update:

For those of you who don’t follow me either on Twitter or Facebook, I wrote a book.  It’s called “The Becoming” and it’s about the dangers of scientific meddling in what we don’t fully understand and the impact that has on one man’s life.  You can find it on Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008190NYU

I also just finished the first Scenario Supplement for NEP.  It’s called Adventuring! Company and it’s about being larger than life fantasy heroes in a corporate world.  I’ve contacted Jake Ekiss for art for the project, and, depending on how quickly he can turn it around, I just might have it up on Drive Thru RPG next month.

And speaking of NEP, I’ve come up with a new idea for a game using the core mechanics, such as they are.  It is tentatively called One True Thing and will focus on magical worlds, whether fantasy, modern or whatever else.  That’s currently just some notes on a page at the moment so it’s a ways away from being done.

And finally, I’m working on another book.  I’m just over halfway through editing it, so again, a ways away from being done but it is called The Lost Temple of the Soulless World.  I’m hoping it’s as pulpy as that title implies and it’s about sword and sorcery people living in a world after a zompocalypse.

So, there’s what’s going on in the world of Black Guard Press.  Now for something completely different:  My review of the Savage Worlds Horror Companion:

It embarrasses me a little to admit that it took me three of the Savage Worlds genre companions before I realized that the same woman was presented on each cover.  She is simply changed to fit the genre contained within the book.  The red-headed Amazon on the cover of the Fantasy Companion is the red-headed flying heroine on the cover of the Super Powers Companion and the red-headed vampire on the cover of the Horror Companion, simply adapted to each genre.  The cover art is not the only thing the companions share, though.  Each of them also includes extensive rules to modify the simple core Savage Worlds mechanics to make them an appropriate gaming system for each genre.

As in the other companion books, these genre mechanics begin with edges and hindrances in the Horror Companion.  These edges and hindrances alone do a great deal to help foster the feel of a horror game.  Horror Companion hindrances include things like Bleeder and Screamer while the edges are things like Necromancer and Monster Hunter.  It should not be hard to guess the purpose of those hindrances and edges given the names and all of the edges and hindrances presented in the book reproduce classic features displayed by characters in horror stories.

The player section of the book also includes a number of new character races.  This is one place where the Horror Companion noticeably diverges from its sister books.  The Fantasy Companion has a short section of fantasy appropriate races which are carefully balanced and rules about how to create additional balanced races specific to each group’s campaign.  The bulk of the rules in the Super Powers Companion consists of balanced character creation, with the idea that alien and unusual races are simply created by generating them using the character creation rules.

All that balance goes out the window in the Horror Companion.  This makes sense in a genre that includes angels, demons, werewolves and vampires as possible characters.  It would be purely illogical to assume that these creatures start out at a power level balanced with that of even an uncommon human.  There is nothing stopping a member of a gaming group from selecting one of these strange races, except the rest of the group and the GM should it not be appropriate.  Getting the whole group’s agreement or at least the GM’s permission would be vital to using these character races as it would be all too easy for a player with one of these characters to steal the limelight from the rest of the group if they were playing ordinary humans.  For that matter, the unusual races presented in the game are not even balanced against each other.  The angels, for example, are far more powerful than the other races presented.

The last section of the book aimed specifically at players is gear.  This section of gear is quite extensive and it seems as though every piece of equipment that appeared in any horror movie ever has been included in this book.  This includes everything from armored collars that protect an individual’s neck from a vampire’s bite to cameras that can take pictures of ghosts to assorted types of ammunition meant to exploit the vulnerabilities of various supernatural creatures.

A variety of genre rules come next, including systems for handling all the usual tropes in any horror story.  This includes things like the Buckets of Blood rule which means that any attack that succeeds against any character causes fountains of blood to spray everywhere, causing fear in the people it lands on and attracting any monsters who feed on blood.

Perhaps the most important genre rules in the book involve sanity.  After all, what would a horror game be without rules to monitor just how close to the brink of madness the characters are?  It would be impossible in a game featuring Cthulu and even a high adventure game would suffer from not having such rules.  Without the chance that your character is reduced to a drooling shell of a man or a bloodthirsty, raving lunatic, it just isn’t a horror game.  In true Savage Worlds style, the Sanity Rules are fast and easy but effective.  Unlike dedicated horror games like Call of Cthulu Sanity is not a one way street in the Horror Companion.  While it is not easy, it is entirely possible to strengthen a character’s fragile grip on his frayed sanity in Savage Worlds.

Another valuable set of rules in the book involves magic in a horror setting.  While appropriate in a rare few horror stories, the usual fireball throwing, spell casting on the fly style of magic that is common to most Savage Worlds settings does not have a place in most tales of terror.  To that end, rules for ritual magic, including long casting times and assorted types of sacrifice are provided to replace the usual rules from the core rulebook.  There are also a number of spells provided that are particularly appropriate for a Horror campaign.

Additional magical actions for Horror Campaigns are provided by the Signs and Portents and the Wards and Binds systems.  The former system is a way for game masters to provide plot clues and motivation in a  way that is designed to build the tension and the story.  The latter system brings in all the strange rules in myth and legend for trapping demons and other supernatural horrors and the multitude of ways that the creatures know of to break out of such bonds.

Most horror stories also involve an arcane artifact or other magic item in some form or another.  To this end there is an extensive list of magical items provided in the Horror Companion.  Unlike an adventuring game, these artifacts are rare, if not unique and they are generally of a darker bent.  If they are not simply creepy in origin they require something from their user that impairs or corrupts them.

The game master section of the book starts with monsters.  A lot of monsters.  In fact, it may seem strange to say, but there seems to be too many monsters.  While the book covers a lot of different horror genres and there needs to be a wide variety of monsters to cover them all, the broad array of monsters in the book almost makes it feel like little more than just a bestiary for the Fantasy Companion.  After all, most horror creatures can be broken down to variations on a few of the same themes.

This customization of a theme is the approach that is taken with Vampires in the book and while there are a couple of different stat blocks for the creatures, most of the specifications for Vampires are given as variable special qualities that the GM can pick and choose from to make the creatures exactly what he wants them to be in his game.  The same is true of the Zombies in the book.  Given zombies’ recent rise in popular culture, there are a dozen or more different types of zombie ideas.  Rather than giving individual stats for each one of these possibilities, a number of variable abilities is given that can be picked and chosen to narrow down how a zombie behaves in each campaign.  The zombie section of the bestiary has a feel not unlike that from the zombie selections made at the beginning of an All Flesh Must Be Eaten campaign, though obviously much more simplified.  In fact, there are enough variables for each of these that a gaming group could play two campaigns back to back with a few different special abilities for the antagonists and make a completely different feeling game.  For that matter, there could be multiple types of zombies in the same campaign to keep the players on their toes.

Compare this customization approach to the section for Mummies.  Instead of there being a single stat block for mummies with some variable special abilities that could be added there are four different mummy stat blocks provided.  This limits what can be done with mummies.  This defining of a few mummies actually limits what can be done with them.  Of course, an experienced game master can tweak the stats to his liking, but it would be more difficult than the open way vampires and zombies are presented.  The same is true of the were-creature section.  Rather than providing the method for creating were-creatures, allowing GMs to make a wide variety of the creatures, three examples are given.  While these are useful examples, it simply feels like they are just more foes for the heroes to slay rather than creatures that can be made truly frightening in their capacity to hunt and torment the characters in a specific campaign.

Following the bestiary is a fairly standard discussion of the various genres and settings common to horror games.  As a worldless system, Savage Worlds has to fill any need a game master might have and this section does a good job of explaining how the various rules can be adapted to various settings as well as giving good advice about adding personalized twists to what might otherwise be mundane or common settings.

This section is most useful to the new or inexperienced GM but there are important bits of advice that even a veteran GM could benefit from thinking about and remembering.

The end of the book is some generic advice for GM’s about running horror games.  As anyone who has run a horror game knows, it is one of the hardest genres to present effectively.  While it is entirely possible to scare characters and good players can properly role-play their frightened characters it is all but impossible to actually scare the players or set up the kind of tension that would make the players truly feel like they are experiencing a horror tale.  This section includes assorted techniques a GM can use to overcome the difficulty of immersing the players in the story.

Much of the art in the book is done in what appears to be chalk and it all has a dark feel that is especially suitable to the genre.  This is another area where this companion matches its sister books.  The art in the Fantasy, Super Powers and Horror companions are each diverse but perfectly fit the genres they present rather than being the same sort of art again and again across the three.

There are more than a few typographical errors in the book, with some missing characters, misspellings and formatting issues, but no more than what are common to Pinnacle products and far less than many small gaming presses.  In fact, there are no more than one might expect from some of the sourcebooks from Wizards of the Coast.

It is not certain that the Savage Worlds system can really convey a good horror game.  There are a number of systems designed specifically for such genres and the Fast! Furious! Fun! style of Savage Worlds is antithetical to the brooding, tense feel that a horror game should have.  Still, the Horror Companion examines the genre as thoroughly as any of the other sourcebooks from Savage Worlds explore their genres and if nothing else, it is useful to GM’s who want to add an element of horror to their ongoing or future Savage Worlds games.

Fear The Con 5

You can keep GenCon and Origins. For my money, the best two days in gaming is Fear the Con. Now, I will admit to being ridiculously biased as I’ve never been to either GenCon or Origins, so there is nothing scientific about my opinion. But I can’t imagine either of those bigger conventions beating 26 hours of gaming in a 48 hour period interspersed with hanging out with some of my favorite gamers.

People say GenCon is like going to a class reunion at the high school you wanted to go to but my high school was only 200 people, so the idea of being surrounded by tens of thousands of people, even ones who share my hobby holds no appeal to me. I also get the feeling that GenCon is as much about announcements and sales as it is about really gaming. This is not true of Fear the Con. Other than a booth from a local gaming store, there is nothing for sale. There is no wandering the dealer hall because there is no dealer hall. While this might disappoint some people, it fits what I want perfectly as all the focus is on playing, playing, playing.

Hanging out with a hundred or so people who are focused on gaming, having fun and sharing their love of not only the games but the community and the con..that’s pretty close to perfect for me.

I’ve been to Fear the Con all five years that it has existed and almost without exception it has gotten better. Let me clarify that statement. This year was not quite as good as last year. Last year was ridiculously phenomenal, with 4 of the 6 slots I played being spectacular and the other 2 being only great.

This year, everything was just great. Under any other circumstances, it would have been the best Con ever. In fact it was likely better than the other 3 Fear the Cons. It simply had to compete against a Con with an unfair advantage.

And honestly, the reduction in my enjoyment was my own fault. I learned a lesson last year that I did not follow this year. Last year, all of my sessions except for 1 included at least one person that I knew well and had played with often. This gave me a person whose play style I understood and who I knew I could play off of. Not only did this help me relax around the other people around the table who were strangers to one degree or another, but also it allowed me to set up both my own character and theirs for awesome and/or hilarious situations. I knew how far I could go without offending them and the liberties that I could take without going too far with their characters. Likewise, there was someone at the table that I trusted and that allowed me to go along with their ideas knowing that the payoff would be worth it.

This year, that happened only a couple of times and my Con suffered for it. Not that there weren’t still some amazing sessions, including a couple that my friends were not involved in. I played in a game with a lot of creative role players that was the perfect introduction to the tension of the Dread system.

Of course, I was afraid that the Con would suffer for entirely different reasons. Fear the Con is no massive money making enterprise and, in fact, I suspect that the hosts over at feartheboot.com likely lose money on the proposition. Thus, I can’t expect them to have a fabulous convention center to throw the Con in and, indeed, the first 4 were held in a relatively small, out of the way, old venue. A relatively small, out of the way,old venue I loved. Free drinks all weekend (including booze, thank you Midwest,) cheap food and the sense of community that only exists when everyone has to help everyone out to make sure that things go well. Oh, and two older gentlemen serving drinks who clearly had no idea what we were doing but were polite and friendly to us weirdoes, anyway. It was not what I expected the first year but ended up being better than I could have imagined.

Two things were changed this year. The announcement that Fear the Con would be at the beginning of May rather than the middle of March did not affect me, much. In fact, I enjoy May in St. Louis much more than March. There is much less chance of snow. But the announcement that they would be changing venues made me wary. It felt very much like trying to fix something that wasn’t broken.

World Wide Wing night was as good as always, with St. Louis standard fare that reminded me that people in Texas don’t eat the unhealthiest food in America and conversation with old friends and new that was so good I stayed up way too late so that it wouldn’t have to end.

The next day, I entered the new convention hall sure that it would not be as good as the old one. I was pleased to discover that it was wrong.

There was a stage in the new one with a real PA system so that the announcements that were made throughout the con were loud enough for everyone to hear and in a place that everyone could easily see. The concession stand was also just a few steps away from all the tables rather than on another floor, a fact which no doubt pleased the volunteer waitresses as much or more than it pleased any of the con goers.

But most importantly, this place had carpet. This may seem like a minor thing but the floor in the old convention hall was made of lovely hardwood. Lovely hardwood that was incredibly conducive to echoes. To be heard across the table at a game you had to yell to be heard over the conversations going on at the tables around you and even at the other end of the hall. Of course, yelling meant that the people around you had to yell to be heard over you at their own table creating a spiral of voice shredding shouting that left everyone hoarse by the end of the weekend. With the carpet to deaden the noise it was easy to be heard by the people at the table. Fear the Con already nearly perfectly scratched my convention going itch but little things like this make a convention better.

Of course, the new place wasn’t better in all regards. I did miss the two old guys and there were no windows in the new convention hall. Without being able to see outside, I completely lost track of time and was continuously surprised when I went outside and the sun was still up.

Amusingly enough, there were not one but two children’s birthday parties at the community center while Fear the Con was there this year. Hearkening back to the famous Princess Party, one can only question what the poor parents thought of the conglomeration of nerdism and geekery they faced when coming to what should have been a simple celebration.

I think the best praise I can give Fear the Con is that there are many people there that I see only once per year who I consider friends. It is just as telling that the last day of the con I wanted just one more day to game, to talk and to hang out. I can’t imagine better praise for a gaming convention.

Mars Review

For those of you who don’t know, I occasionally write game reviews for http://ideologyofmadness.spookyouthouse.com/.  This is great for me as I get review copies of lots of games and I get to write, which I love, anyway.  Hopefully, my buddy Aron gets a little more traffic for his site because of my little articles.  Take a look at his site if you’re at all interested in geeky things.  And take a look at this to see the latest article I’ve written:

It is safe to say that John Carter did not do as well as Disney would have liked.  It is pretty clear by now that it is more on the Prince of Persia end of the profit scale than on the Pirates of the Caribbean end.  That’s a shame, really.  The original John Carter books are fine examples of good pulp action and tons of sci-fi stories and franchises have mined the stories for ideas and themes.  Many of the things that we take for granted as being part of the sci-fi landscape come from places like the John Carter stories, Flash Gordon and the writing of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.  If the movie had done well, there could have been an explosion of interest in these pulp stories that would have benefitted nerds everywhere.  That’s no doubt what Adamant Entertainment was hoping for with their Mars supplements.  But, despite the lack of success of the John Carter movie, we can still enjoy some of the gaming that gained its inspiration from the same source.

Adamant has published a number of adventures and supplements that revolve around the pulp Mars.  The first, Blood Legacy of Mars begins with a coup and a loyal servant fleeing the bloody massacre of the royal family with the infant heir to the throne in her arms.  It picks up decades later when this heir is a grown man who believes himself to be nothing more than the son of a whore.  He is a talented nobody who will likely only know fame and fortune through luck as much as talent and hard work.  Fortunately, his heritage is just that bit of luck.  Unfortunately, it is likely to be as much trouble as it is to be of help.  Enter, the player characters.  They arrive just as a bit of serendipity reveals the prince’s noble heritage and are dragged along for his wild ride to fame and fortune.

The roles of the characters in the plot vary widely, and this adventure seems designed not for a party that is already in place, but for a group that unites for this story.  Characters enter the story at different points, rather than all beginning at the beginning.  The adventure assumes that the characters do not know each other when it begins and, in fact, at certain points in the plot, the characters will likely be at cross purposes to each other.  To this end, the adventure suggests that, for an ongoing campaign the players set their characters aside and create new ones for this adventure.  The actions in the adventure then become a play that the real characters are watching.

The adventure is  driven by events rather than locations.  A handful of scenes are presented and it is the complex way that the characters and NPC’s interact with each other that make the adventure interesting rather than the unusual places in which they take place.  In fact, these interactions are so important that a large flow chart for the relationships of the NPC’s is presented to help the game master keep track of everything.  There is also a large section for the NPC’s that is much more a description of them and their goals and drives than their ability scores.  It is these goals that really push the plot along.

In keeping with the event based nature of the adventure, the descriptions of the locations that make up the sets for the scenes are exceptionally short.  In fact, there are no maps presented for any of them and only the outlines of the floor plans are given.  Even shorter is a small bestiary for the few creatures that appear in the game.

What plays more of a role in the adventure than the monsters is alcohol.  Almost all the scenes involve some kind of revelry and rules for intoxication are provided at the beginning of the adventure and are used often.

This adventure suffers from the same problem a number of products from small presses do.  There are a number of spelling and grammar errors that are simply annoying and at one point, a page number is referenced but is marked as “XX” rather than the actual page number, clearly a place holder that was never corrected before the adventure was published.

Another Mars adventure, Sky Tyrant of Mars has everything you could want in a Martian adventure; intrigue, action, an alien princess, an ancient unstoppable war machine created by a lost civilization and a power mad warlord who wants to exploit it.  To enhance the pulpy feel, the pace is quick and the story compelling.

It also has everything you could want in a Savage Worlds adventure.  While there are some simple, straight up combat encounters, Sky Tyrant of Mars takes full advantage of the flexible nature of the Savage Worlds system.  There are not one but three encounters that use the chase rules from the core system.  There is also a scene that uses a sort of choose your own adventure style of choice resolution rather than a well defined map when the characters are exploring a labyrinth.  This method keeps the fast flow of the adventure going as the party only has to deal with the important parts of the maze without playing out wandering for hours at a time.

In fact, there are no maps included in the adventure, at all.  Rather, for each scene where there will be combat, a quick description of the battlefield is given.  These descriptions are detailed enough to make the areas clear but give the game master some room for their own creativity, and saves page space that would otherwise be wasted with maps.

While it might be short on maps, the adventure does not skimp on characters.  Four pregenerated characters are presented for the players, though they can, of course, use their own characters.  In addition to their stat blocks, these characters have about a half page of description to help players understand their personalities and histories to make playing them easier.  A fair amount of the book is also dedicated to NPC’s and creatures.  Some description is provided as well as full stat blocks for them and each of the creatures has diverse abilities that make for interesting encounters.

At the end of the adventure, the characters save Mars from certain domination by a cruel warlord, but the massive war machine that was the core of his plan slips out of their grasp so they are not given a game changing piece of technology.  There are undoubtedly players who will feel cheated by this, but the story does a good job of doing this logically.

Face of Mars focuses on only one of the traditional subjects of Mars pulp stories – ancient, lost riches.  It has a very Indiana Jones in space feel to it with everything from traps that the characters have to outsmart to angry natives they have to deal with to a subtle clue that the characters have to figure out to get to the treasure.

Actually, the subtle clue that is the key to the story might be a bit too subtle.  The intention is that the players should have a hard time figuring out the solution to getting into the final treasure chamber but I consider myself a relatively clever person and did not catch the solution until it was presented.

In addition to the traditions from pulp, Face of Mars also capitalizes on some of the modern scientific discoveries about Mars.  For example the face of Mars referenced in the name is the face on Mars that was recently discovered and which made so much news when it was discovered.  Also, part of the concept revolves around the fact that there was once water on Mars, another idea for which there is some scientific support and that has been around at least since Total Recall.

There are a few mechanical problems with the adventure, though.  First, there is no consistent indicator of which opponents are Wild Cards and which are not.  A few of the descriptions explain whether a creature is a Wild Card, extra or mook but not every one and this can make a huge difference in how much of a threat a character or creature is to the party.

Additionally, many of the monsters seem exceptionally dangerous.  Creating appropriate opposition is always a problem with Savage Worlds and many of the opponents in this adventure appear to be more than a challenge for a party of the appropriate size.

Rebels of Mars is just as complex in its own way as Blood Legacy of Mars.  There are four different factions with agendas that both overlap and oppose each other.  Unfortunately, the motivations of these factions are not as well defined as in Blood Legacy of Mars.  In fact, at times the reasons for the conflicts seem somewhat arbitrary.

The adventure seems to revolve around a group of Confederate soldiers who are accidentally brought to Mars by one of the diverse natives.  Of course, these soldiers don’t actually appear in the adventure until the last two scenes so the story is not particularly about them.  In reality, the adventure is about an escaped sex slave, the man who is trying to retrieve her and the man’s wife who is trying to get her revenge on him.

Rebels of Mars seems more like two or three good adventures or scenarios that have been mashed together than one coherent story.  Each element would make a good core for an interesting adventure, but all of them together just makes things jumbled and confused.

Warriors of Mars brings the Savage Worlds Showdown rules to the pulp Mars setting.  Anyone who has seen the Showdown rules and the Savage Worlds core combat rules knows there is not much difference.  In fact, a GM can effortlessly take the stat blocks and battle scenarios from Warriors of Mars and use them as combat encounters in a Savage Worlds game.

For anyone looking for a fast, skirmish level miniatures game, this is an excellent offering.  Details are given for the common troops and officers of each of the four major factions of Mars as well as an extensive list of “Rogues.”  Red Martians, Green Martians, Grey Martians and White Apes make up the four largest factions on Mars and demonstrate the wide variety of sentient inhabitants of the red planet.  As if that diversity were not enough the rogues included are faction less individuals, mercenaries and creatures which can be added to any force or who just happen to wander across the battlefield.  They include both humans who have been transplanted from Earth and a number of weird Martian beasts.

Warriors of Mars includes several special rules applicable to the setting as well as a full range of suitably Martian weapons.  There are also several Showdown scenarios with terrain rules, special rules and squad breakdowns that are especially true to the setting.

Overall, it is a good supplement for the Showdown rules.  Unfortunately, it is atrociously written  and edited.  The grammar is horrible and often references to page numbers are left blank or left with only the ubiquitous and annoying “XX.”  The writers were clearly more concerned with the mechanical side of the supplement than they were with any aesthetic appeal to the writing and in fact, what is written is occasionally incomprehensible.  The supplement would have been immensely improved with a read through and edit.

Sellswords of Mars is the largest of the supplements from Adamant.  It is more of a campaign breakdown for a set of Showdown encounters than an actual adventure.  While this is appropriate for the story, which revolves around a war between two Martian factions, characters that do not have combat abilities or have poor combat abilities will likely not find much to do.

The plot of Sellswords of Mars is fairly straightforward, but the writers have done a good job having what the characters do have a distinct effect on the story.  The result of each battle strengthens or weakens the heroes’ positions, affects the enemy’s strength or changes the pace of the war, usually depending on whether the characters win or lose.  There are also a few side quests that are not Showdown encounters that can be undertaken to help in the war effort.

These if/then results are simple by themselves but can get fairly complex as they are chained together and the supplement includes a two page flow chart at the end.  It looks like something from a corporate retreat and is fairly unfathomable by itself, but it is an invaluable resource when running the game.  Following it brings the players and GM from encounter to encounter effortlessly.

The relative strengths of the two armies is tracked through the whole campaign, giving it a very good, consistent feel.  Every unit is accounted for and when one is lost during a battle, they are not replaced.

Everything builds up to a final, climatic battle to decide the fate of a city against strange invaders with the characters playing a vital role in overcoming the enemy’s final defenses.

Given how many encounters there are, and how long a Showdown battle lasts, this supplement could be a short campaign in and of itself or a rather long arc in an ongoing campaign.

A great deal of this book is dedicated to the terrain charts, unit stats and other information that is required to run the Showdown battles in the campaign.  This information alone is invaluable for people who want to run other battles using the Warriors of Mars rules.

The pulp Mars setting can seem a little clichéd to modern people but there are plenty of ideas and themes to appeal to anyone who loves wild adventures and is capable of some suspension of disbelief.  For swashbuckling sci-fi action, it’s hard to beat one of the original ideas.