Alien: Chapter 3. Skills

Before we continue with the read through, let’s pause and head back to the credits page (page 2 on the PDF). What’s this?

Dave and I are listed as play testers! That’s nice🙂. We did offer feedback from our games, I wonder if anything has changed?

I have spotted at least one so far. As I predicted yesterday, Victory Points no longer exist. Instead we have Story Points. But that’s enough looking back, let’s crack on with Chapter 3. And let’s start with Story Points! Buried in chapter three is a new use for these newly named Story points. You can spend them, one for one, for an automatic success, after your roll.

There are twelve skills in this game, just three of each attribute. Not sixteen like in Free League’s other Science Fiction game, Coriolis. And unlike that game, all the skills can be rolled “unskilled”, on the attribute only, if you don’t have points in the skill. Attributes, skills and gear all contribute to your pool of base dice. Like Coriolis there is no damage to stats or gear for pushing, so you don’t need to split them out.

What you do need to split out are your stress dice. You earn one every time you push, and add it to all subsequent rolls, including the push. Sixes, on base dice or stress dice mean success. So the more adrenaline running through your system, the more successful you can be. But ones rolled on the stress dice mean panic. More on that later. Ones on stress dice mean something else as well. If you are testing Ranged Combat, and firing a weapon with a limited magazine, then that magazine empties.

There is interesting advice here in a boxout which should be heeded. Don’t roll too often say the authors:

In the ALIEN roleplaying game, a dice roll is a dramatic moment. Pushing rolls increases stress and can trigger panic in your character. With that in mind, you should never roll dice unless it is absolutely necessary. Save the dice for dramatic situations or tough challenges. In any other situation, the GM should simply allow you to perform whatever action you wish

Our experience suggest this is good advice. In my co-host Dave’s first playtest, he made his players roll the dice too often. Many rolls were pushed and stress points earned. Panic rolls can cause more stress, so there was a sort of cataclysmic chain reaction. I ran a playtest with that in mind, and made fewer (too few?) rolls, and didn’t experience a Panic cascade.

Dice rolls can be modified by difficulty (ranging from +3 for trivial actions, to -3 for formidable actions – though I don’t think we should be rolling for trivial actions, considering the advice above). Or, you can get help from other PCs, as with many Year Zero Engine games, by adding one dice per character helping, up to a maximum of three. Some rolls, for example when you use Mobility to sneak, can be opposed by the NPC with an Observation roll, you have to get more successes than they do. NPCs never push their rolls.

If it’s not opposed, then one success is all you need (difficulty modifiers are on the dice rolled, not the number of successes needed). And each skill description includes a list of stunts you can spend extra successes on. These include things like; rolling an extra die on a related skill check; completing the task more quickly or quietly; sharing a success with a PC in the same situation; or, in combat, simply dealing more damage.

Finally, for those wanting to compare the skills other Y0E games, they are:

  • Heavy Machinery (STRENGTH)
  • Stamina (STRENGTH)
  • Close Combat (STRENGTH)
  • Mobility (AGILITY)
  • Ranged Combat (AGILITY)
  • Piloting (AGILITY)
  • Observation (WITS)
  • Comtech (WITS)
  • Survival (WITS)
  • Command (EMPATHY)
  • Manipulation (EMPATHY)
  • Medical Aid (EMPATHY)

Alien: Chapter 2. Your Character

STOP PRESS! I just heard the first batch of the Starter PDF is coming though, so from now on, you will be able to read along with me 🙂

Continuing my “Where I read…” the starter PDF does not include full rules for character creation, but rather gives readers a guided tour of what makes a character. It’s a sort of introduction to the pre-gens included in the scenario.

As usual with Year Zero Engine games, there are four attributes, Strength; Agility; Wits; and Empathy, each with up to five points allocated. A sidebar indicates that Androids generally have higher physical scores. There are three skills attached to each attribute, but there is a whole chapter on skills later.

There are two other stats: Stress starts at Zero, but goes up by one every timid you push a roll; and Health starts equal to your Strength stat. So, I guess damage is not linked directly to the attribute like it is in the Mutant games and Forbidden Lands – you don’t become less effective as you take damage – but your “hit points” are just as few as in those games.

Personal agendas are mentioned briefly, if only to say the campaign version of personal agendas will be covered in the full rules, and that in cinematic adventures you get given personal agendas each act. If you take actions toward you personal agenda during the act, you can remove a point of stress before the next act, and you get a “Victory Point”. We’ll see if this last survives to the published version though, as there was talk from Free League that suggested Victory Points might get changed. You also have buddies and rivals, though with no game mechanics attached to them. If the other Year Zero Engine games are a guide, there will probably be experience points attached to them in campaign play. Androids can’t push skill rolls, don’t suffer stress and never make Panic Rolls. They also suffer damage differently.

Unusually for a RPG, there is a box out on PVP or, player vs player. Basically when tensions get high, the GM warns everyone that PVP is imminent, and the aggressor loses their character.

The most important part of a section on gear is the resource roll. Roll a number of dice equivalent to your resource, and for every 1 rolled, lose a point of resource. Ammo isn’t included as a consumable. We’ll read about that later.

Alien: Chapter 1. Space is Hell

Today, pre-orders for Free League’s new Alien RPG go live. To inspire you to buy it, I will start a “Where I read…” going through the Starter PDF that will be free to everyone who pre-orders. (Yes, I know I haven’t finished the Where I Read … Liminal, but I will return to that when I am done here. Sorry.)

Effekt co-host Dave and I have been asked to run taster sessions on the Free League stand at UK Games Expo, so we have had access to a not-quite-finished version of the Starter PDF to prepare. When I say not quite finished, I mean, missing a few illustrations, the text is there, all 168 pages of it. I wouldn’t rule out there being a few tweaks between this version and the final one, but I am pretty sure they will be minor.

Anyhow, let’s crack on with Chapter 1. This serves as an introduction to the world, and introduces us to the ships log of Captain Charlize, for whom I fear, things will go badly wrong by the end of the book.

We will be playing among “the rough and tumble colony worlds on the Frontier of known space.” There are three “great powers” in space, the dominant being the United Americas. The largest, not not the most successful economically is probably the Union of Progressive Peoples. I have a soft spot for the Three Word Empire formed from a formal alliance between Britain and Japan, and the merger of Weyland and the Yutani corporation. Weyland Yutani plays well with both the Empire and the United Americas, but it hedges it bets, also owning outright some independent worlds. These and other privately owned planets reject the three super powers and band together as the Independent Core System Colonies. Other companies, BioNational and Seegson being two examples, are also manipulating the national governments and, really, driving colonisation.

The game is set roughly three years after the events of Aliens, and Alien 3. Something of what happened on the prison planet in the third film is known publicly, because of of the prisoners published an ebook, that also implicates Waylamd-Yutani in bioweapons research. Some people argue that Wayland-Yutani may be working with a rouge nation to assume control of the frontier colonies. The chapter includes a timeline, from “Peter Weyland’s infamous TED Talk address of 2023” to the publication and subsequent banning of “Star Beast.”

The rest of the chapter is written for both newbies and experienced players. It starts with what you can play, adding Company Reps to the triad that pre-publicity had already mentioned: colonists, Marines and space truckers. Then there is a description of what the Gamemaster does, and the two different modes of play, saying in cinematic mode “In fact, most of your PCs probably won’t live to see the end of the scenario.” Whichever mode, the key themes of the game are: Space Horror; Sci-fi Action; and A Sense of Wonder. In its last few pages the chapter runs through the tools of the game, character sheets, dice, and cards, before finishing with “What is a Role Playing Game?”

Right at the end of the chapter? Well, if they didn’t know by now …

The Emissaries

This is a transcript of my piece in Episode 97 of our podcast, on The Emissaries. It reveals spoilers for the Mercy of the Icons campaign, if you are a player and don’t want to be spoiled, read no further.

Art©️FreeLeague/Gustav Ekland

If you can level one criticism at the Core book in Coriolis, it’s that it teases you with, seemingly, a million snippets of lore that it doesn’t explain fully. Most of these are fine, I have imagination enough to make something up, and indeed some of those snippets have provided inspiration for pieces on this very podcast.

But one bit of lore left me, and I expect, a lot of other readers very confused. Who, or what, were the Emissaries? In this piece I am going to answer that question, drawing exclusively from the published books, not adding any of my own ideas. The first we read of the Emissaries is in an extract of THE REALM OF THE ICONS – A HISTORICAL OVERVIEW OF THE THIRD HORIZON by Kaldana Mourir, quoted on page seven:

“Zenith heralded the dawn of a new era – and the Horizon blossomed once again. Three dozen star systems, linked by fate and by the will of the Icons, wandered together towards a brighter future. But as the Emissaries arrived, the happy days drew to a close, and the Dark between the Stars slowly came creeping back.”

The Emissaries are a BAD THING then, or at least they are in the eyes of Mourir, who is obviously a Zenithian apologist. Perhaps the Firstcome see them as allies? Perhaps not, because on page 13:

From the depths of the gas giant Xene rose the faceless Emissaries. Spectres from another world, Icons or Portal Builders? The theories about their origins are many. The Emissaries demanded a seat at the Council – and got one. One of the Emissaries claimed itself an incarnation of the Icon the Judge, to which the Order of the Pariah cried “sacrilege!” and closed their home system to all travel. A new age of shadows and suspicion has dawned, and the peoples of the Horizon all wonder: what is the true agenda of the Emissaries?

I think it was at this point, with their description as “faceless” that I started to imagine them as the Vorlons from the TV show, Babylon Five. On page 184 they are described as “ghosts from another world.” And, indeed on page 240 is says “often described as either spirits or spectral phenomena”. Often described? So, rarely actually seen it seems. And mostly spoken about in rumour. We are not even sure how many there are: “rumors claim that there are really nine altogether and that the Foundation and the Consortium are hiding the truth.”

But we know about only five of them, three of whom are out and about, location unknown, ready to meet your adventures whenever time, and story are right. This I like, we don’t need to pin them to a place your players might never choose to visit. One remains on the Foundation station orbiting Xene, now a place of pilgrimage, because that one claims to be the icon the Judge. The fifth is on Coriolis itself, as a (non-voting) member of the council. And one has to ask, what power do they have that one can “demand a seat on the Council”, and get it?

Talking of powers, we also know that people only started manifesting mystic powers when the Emissaries appeared. Obviously the two phenomena are connected, but how?

Moving on to the Atlas compendium, the back cover teases “the true nature of the mysterious Emissaries [has] only been myth to the common people of the Third Horizon – until now.” But does it really deliver?

It does explain the war between the Terran Empire of Ardha, and the Symmetry of the Second Horizon, which is known in our Third Horizon, of strategic value to both sides, as the Portal Wars. It also describes (on page 23) nodes: “A node can create a mystical and physical link between systems in a fashion that falls outside of the technology and methods used by the Portal Builders.” Nodes were created and destroyed during the portal wars as the First and Second horizons used the Third to attack each other. Eventually most were destroyed. But one survives on Xene, a weak point in the Second Horizon’s defences.

On page 25, the Compendium describes how, when a prospector ship made an emergency landing on Xene, mystics of the Second Horizon possessed the crew. Or tried to at least. Only one crew member was successfully taken over, with the mystic in the Second Horizon managing to retain her identity as she took over her host. That one is the one that now sits as an observer on the council. The other four (or eight?) were affected to varying degrees by the Darkness between the Stars.

So, not Vorlons after all, or Faceless, or even “described as […] spirits or spectral phenomena”- they look human it seems… except … in the book Coriolis: The Art of the Third Horizon there is an image captioned, The Spirit of the Emissary. It shows a cloud of fractal light and darkness above a writhing human on an altar or bed, so perhaps some people can see the Emissary as a spectral phenomenon in certain circumstances.

Most people can’t though, because we can witness actual possession if we play A Song For Jarouma, from Emissary Lost (page 228): “Mid-argument, or on their way to the next installation, a person believed to be dead or dying suddenly comes to life. With a spasmodic jerk and a terrifying scream, the team member tumbles onto the floor. Then, equally suddenly, they stop spasming, and stand up slowly. Looking around, they nod and blink, confused. They look like they are uncertain of their whereabouts (the person has been taken over by an Emissary.)” No mention of fractal clouds there. In that adventure we create the true story behind that prospector ship making an emergency landing. (It turns out not to be prospectors, and not quite the sort of emergency that the Atlas Compendium suggested.)

Emissary Lost has more to divulge about the Emissaries. It turns out they are Santulans, the highest ranking mystics in the Second Horizon. They introduce themselves to the people of the Third Horizon as “The Light of Peace” but whether they are remains to be seen.

Lingua Zenithia

Art ©️ FreeLeague/Gustav Ekland

*Update* I published this early because of a discussion on Facebook, and to get it out quickly, I didn’t do my usual check through the “primary source” – the published books. Preparing this for recording, I have now added references in.

Zeni is uncommon on Sadaal. The language is growing slowly on Bahram, but the indigenous tongues still dominate in Alburz. Priests and diplomats claim not to understand a word of Zeni and use translators in all meetings with foreigners. (Atlas Compendium page 17)

I am not generally a fan of language skills (or lack of them) getting in the way of fun roleplaying. But I appreciate the point of view of players who might be inspired by the cultural history of the Third Horizon to play with language difficulties. The core rulebook makes a number of references to the diverse languages of the Third Horizon, but apart from providing a couple of technological workarounds (such as the Language Unit on Page 109 and the cybernetic Language Modulator on Page 75), doesn’t offer much mechanically to emulate the complexity of communication. If I had a group of players eager to be explorers, traders in exotic goods, or missionaries, and turned on by the difficulties of communicating in the Third Horizon, I’d house rule it like this:

Zeni is the common tongue

“The language of the Zenithians, Zeni, has grown into the lingua franca of the Horizon today, as trade and commerce are dominated by the Zenithians. Most travelers (and PCs) speak Zeni in addition to their native tongues” (page 223). A closed community traveling for generations to the Horizon, would have a strong shared language. The work the Zenithians did in opening up the portals and bringing together Firstcome communities who had cut themselves off from one-another puts them in the place of colonial Britain, spreading English around the world and replacing French as the Lingua Franca. Even if what results in some places is a Patois like Singlish in Singapore, there will be enough Zenithian words in the dialect that even the least educated Plebeian can make themselves understood.

I am not ruling out the idea that different Zenithian families might have preserved their own language, or that the sleepers on the Zenith might have struggled to learn the Zenithian that evolved during the centuries of the voyage. But those are complexities that I am not going to get into here. Maybe in the future sometime, if I have a campaign based around the politics within the Zenithian Hegemony, there will be an opportunity to get into the nitty gritty. Speaking of the Hegemony, you just know they have a Language Institute defining Zeni grammar and vocabulary, and ineffectively banning words borrowed from Firstcome languages.

How many languages are there?

All Zenithians speak Zeni, and all Firstcome speak their native language and Zenithian. These are the base languages for every PC. Yes, this puts Firstcome characters at a slight advantage, but I don’t care. If you really do care, how about this? Only Privileged Firstcome speak Zeni like a Zenithian, Stationaries take a -1 modifier when rolling to, for example, manipulate a Zenithian of equal reputation, and plebeians a -2.

What IS their native language? Whatever the player thinks fits their character. A number are mention in book, including: Dabari; Miri; Kuan; Algolan; and, Zalosi. And we know that the Nomad tribes have enough different languages to make presenting themselves as a single faction to the political structures of the Third Horizon very … confusing.

One imagines that the Order of the Pariah have ensured there is only one Zalosi language, and everything else spoken in that system is heresy, but you can also imagine the heretics of Zalos B have also stamped out every language other than their TruZalosi. I like to think the planets of the Third Horizon are not monocultures, and that each has developed a variety of linguistic communities. But just how detailed your players want to go is up to each table to decide. If your native community is a particular forest of Labuan you could say that tribe’s dialect is your native language, but you might prefer to say you speak “Labuanese”. And let’s not forget the languages of the semi-intelligent – the ekilibri and the nekatra on Kua and the skavara on Amedo.

Cultured Linguists

“Ameda from Amedo is perhaps the most popular artist in [Tattoo] alley. She is well traveled, [and] speaks several languages” (page 256). In a multilingual Horizon, your PCs will have the opportunity to speak more than one language, but how many? A simple house rule I’d use to manage this would be that you can speak as many exotic languages fluently as you have points in Culture. Thus a Zenithian with three points in culture can speak a total of four languages: Zeni and three others. A Firstcome with three points can speak five: their native language; Zeni and three others.

I would recommend that players don’t pick which Languages they speak at character creation (though a Zenithian player character choosing to speak TruZalosi at creation is that player lobbying the GM for an adventure set on Zalos B, surely). Rather, when the party encounter an exotic language, any player with an unassigned culture point and a decent reason why they might speak it should claim to right to be translator for the party.

If none of the party have unassigned languages, or a technological solution, then it’s up to those with Culture to make a roll with any modification the GM chooses, every time they need to make themselves understood.

Liminal Chapter 4 – Game Rules

I am sorry, this read-through is taking longer than I expected. Now however, I am laid up with my foot elevated after a really bad ankle twisting, so I have no excuse not to get on with it.

I am going to get tired of saying this, but chapter four begins with more gorgeous art:

Blows me away. Golden apples of the sun indeed*. Then we get into a core mechanic that will be familiar to Traveller grognards – 2d6+skill rating a target number that is usually eight. Thing that male it different from Traveller are your traits – potentially giving you some sort of supernatural bonus; and opposed rolls, where the target number is based on your opponent’s skill plus eight. Unskilled rolls are just 2d6, and the target number rises to ten. If you end up beating the target number by 5 (impossible if you are unskilled) you get a critical success, and there is a list of critical effects the player can choose from, including your team-mate getting an automatic success on a related action, succeeding in a way that impresses somebody, or infuriates someone, or in a way that no one notices. In combat, crits include gaining the initiative, doing extra damage, or interestingly, making yourself a target, thus protecting a crewmate from attack.

Failure isn’t just the absence of success. The GM might sayyou succeed, but taking damage, if such a thing is appropriate, or that your action succeeds but takes longer than you wanted, or attracts undue attention.

But you can avoid failure by spending will, point for point to add to your dice roll. Your will points power your magic though, so don’t spend them all. Will must also be used if you want to take actions when zero or less Endurance (effectively hit points). You can recover 1d6 points of will by invoking your drive.

In this game, I don’t think combat is really the thing, social conflict is the way I imagine most changes are made, but the combat rules seem … functional. They don’t inspire me, but I don’t think they are meant to. Things I like are the abstracted ranges, things I don’t like include target numbers to hit, based on the opponent’s athletics skill. I do like the rules for fighting mobs though, as turning innocent high street shoppers against you is exactly what some fae trickster might do. I especially like the rules for saving the lives of those shoppers in the aftermath of any conflict.

I do like the social challenges though. Unlike many systems where a decent persuade roll is more akin to mind control, this instead imposes a penalty on actions which contradict the persuader’s intentions. You can shake off that penalty at the cost of 1d6 will points, which is a potentially high cost. Maybe it’s better just to do what he fae king wants…

There are rules for experience here too, and two levels of advancement. PCs get five experience boxes. And they can check one for things like closing a case, learning something new about the hidden world, making a critical fail, or advancing the crew’s goal. When all five are checked, you can raise a skill by one, up to your skill cap, and check and advancement box. You have three of these, and when you have checked all three, you can do things like increase your skill cap by one, gain a new Trait, or get a new asset for the crew.


The Redrunners

Who are the Red Riders? Elves of course, I knew that. And I remembered, from my initial read through of the books, something about them protecting the ruby red crystals that were elf souls, denuded of flesh. But that’s all. So when our party were attacked by a corrupted, undead elf, and recovered her blackened crystal heart. I thought I should pull together everything I knew about the elf faction that might make an appearance, should my party try to take the crystal to the still mist, trade it, or do something with it that I hadn’t yet imaged.

Eschewing the books, I turned instead to the PDFs, where I could search for words, and find every mention of it listed. And my first problem was that they were not mentioned at all. Not mentioned in the Gamemasters’ Guide, not mentioned in the Players’ Handbook. I was puzzled, where has I read about them? I turned to the Ravens Purge campaign book. Not there either? It took me a little while to realise that I was searching for Red Riders, not Redrunners. I gave myself a mental slap for stupidity and started my search again.

The Redrunners were founded by the elf Gemalda in an effort to reclaim the heart of her sister, who had been eaten by the Giant, Scrome.* So their founding purpose was indeed to recover the crystal hearts of fallen elves. They are named for the star that (legend has it) rained Elven hearts upon the world. Ashamed at humanity’s invasion of the Ravenlands, and angry at the Orc’s failure to obediently defend their realm, they have chosen not to retreat with their brethren into hidden Elven enclaves, but to roam the Forbidden Lands, defending life from Demons and Rust Brothers. I am sure they see themselves as heroes, but to the rest of the world they seem arrogant and condescending. Indeed, they despise the other kin, even when they see them as allies. They must, occasionally be able to befriend people of other kin though, as they maintain a network of spies. That said, as that network is said to consist of animals as well as other kin, perhaps in the eyes of the Redrunners, everyone else is an animal that can be easily trained…

The Redrunners maintain their intelligence gathering operation on behalf of the wider elf community, such as the Druidic order of the Golden Bough, and they are sometimes seen as the Druids’ boot-boys, tasked with demonstrating Elven strength when some-else has something that the Golden Bough druids want.

Kalman Rodenfell is a leader of the Redrunners, but I am not sure he is THE leader. An old elf, “his stone heavy with age, his feet rooted like trees in the blood of his enemies”, he spends most of his time in the Stillmist, but he is not adverse to wandering the Forbidden Lands if the need (or opportunity) is great enough. Adventures are more likely to meet his lieutenant, Ulmaya or her lover Alsuro. These centuries old elves, her skin like polished wood, and his hair like silver, are very different from each other. Alsuro is vicious, racist and warlike, but his lover, and commanding officer Ulmayer, while being a dutiful soldier, prefers to find more peaceful ways to complete her missions. Another Redrunner is Malina Redwing who has adapted her flesh to be able to fly a little, but who, like Alsuro, despises anyone who isn’t an elf, even Elvenspring.

And that’s about as much as anybody knows about the Redrunners. Which is a little disappointing. One of the things I loved about Coriolis was the deep and inspiring, and often contradictory history of the factions. Every paragraph, it seemed, could be a springboard for adventure. In contrast, the Redrunners are somewhat one-dimensional – haughty, militaristic elves. But Forbidden Lands is a young game, and the world and it’s Lore is young too. The intricate detail of the Third Horizon was created not just by its authors, but also its fans, some of whom became Fria Ligan. It’s up to us fans to add nuance to this fantasy.

And so, let me add a little here. Remember those Red Riders I was looking for? The ones that don’t exist? Well, they do now. Gemalda’s most trusted lieutenant, on that first fateful mission, was a young Elf called Lilya Redfox. Lilya came to lead the Cavalry division of the the Redrunners, which fought alongside the swordsmen and archers, mounted on fast, aggressive red deer stags. Eventually she was entrusted with Gemalda’s Entwood Flute. This long but simple, rustic flute was the war-horn of the Redrunners. Silent to any other kin, it could be heard by Elves wherever in the world they are. To most elves, it sounds like sweet musics. But to the Redrunners, the tune is a code, which can call all the Redrunners together to form an army, and in battle can direct that army’s manouvers.

However, Lilya fell out with the other Redrunners. Their oath to defend life in the Forbidden Lands, meant all life, she insisted. Even the orcs and invading humans. “We do not despise the Fox for eating the rabbit,” she said “so who are we to judge when humankind seek to farm the Ravenlands?” Eventually she could tolerate the Redrunners’ arrogant racism no longer, and left, taking with her her loyal cavalry and the EFG (Entwood Flute of Gemelda). Considered a traitor by the Redrunners, it is said that she and her warband still roam the Forbidden Lands. There are stories of the Red deer riders interceding in disputes, and defending villages from Demons, but otherwise they keep themselves to themselves. Some whisper that Lilya might maintain contact with Mergolene, but the Elven Druid denies it.

Lilya Redfox


SKILLS: Endurance 3, Melee 4, Stealth 4, Move 3, Marksmanship 5, Insight 3, Survival 2, Crafting 3

TALENTS: Inner Peace, Horseback Fighter 3, Path of The Companion 3, Bowyer 2, Fast Shooter 3

GEAR: Shortbow, broadsword, dagger, leather armor

Rådur, Lilya’s WarDeer


SKILLS: Move 4, Scout 4, Melee 3

Antlers Damage 1, Bludgeon or Stab

Movement rate 2

*Scrome the giant is very long lived. He was guardian of the Shadowgate pass, when Zygofer had a run-in with him, during the Third Alder war of 833-845, and now guards the Vale of the Dead.

Liminal Chapter 3 – Crews and Factions

Continuing my read though of the Liminal PDF, I continue to be impressed by the art. Some of it is photographic, heavily digitally manipulated, but even that shows up the paucity of really great creativity in the third edition of Unknown Armies. While I love that game, and value the effort of crowdsource the art, there are few pieces in that large work that, to my mind evoke the spirit of the game and stand and interesting and memorable art in itself. In Liminal, every piece of art feels right.

This chapter introduces factions as well as the concept of the Crew (the adventuring party). But we are promised more detail on the factions in a later chapter. The factions get a mention here, because you might decide you want your crew to be part of one of the Factions. So, if your players are inspired by Rivers of London, their crew could be part of P Division, the magic cops. Or, if they really wanted to play Vampire, they could be politicking within the Sodality of the Crown, the “Camerilla” of this world.

The other factions are:

  • The Order of St. Bede – Anglican and catholic exorcists
  • The Mercury Collegium – magical crooks
  • The Council of Merlin – wizards
  • The Court of the Queen of Hyde Park or The Court of the Winter King – Fae, or
  • The Jaeger Family

But, unlike the old World of Darkness games, this one is built to mix and match the occult creatures, so your Crew can include Wizards and Vampires (actually I remember from chapter 2 that players can only be Dhampirs, which have retained their humanity – at least if the listed concepts are a hard limit).

So the rest of the chapter walks you through a session of crew creation. And I wonder if it might have been better coming before the character creation chapter, as it builds the world in which your game takes place. That said, I remember how frustrated I was that character creation is only detailed in the GMs book of UA3, so maybe I won’t go there. In the end, th s is a process that’s moderated by GMs, so if that say go away and make or characters, then we’ll stick them together, or come armed with an idea of who you won’t to be, but we we’ll flesh out characters as we build the world, it’s up to them.

So we start off with a concept. And here the crew concept is definitely freeform, the book only offers “some possibilities”, private investigators, deniable assets of a faction (though we’ll come back to “deniability” later, or people that have been forced together because they share a common enemy.

Just like Unknown Armies, this game recommends the Crew think of a common goal, such as the defeat of of that common enemy, or a; ongoing task like keeping the Hidden World hidden. In the first “box-out” I think have encountered in this game (though there is no box) the author recommends that a character’s drive should not be entire antithetical to the goal of the Crew. Author Paul Mitchener also recognises that the goal needs to force the crew to go out and investigate Cases – just hiding from your enemy does not an adventure make.

Then, each player in the crew chooses one asset that the crew share, with suggestions and including: a base of operations, connections, hangers-on, informants, an occult library, a patron or a hated enemy. All of these, and more , of course help create the world the player characters operate in

Continuing the world building, the GM then presents the players with a list of the factions he plans to use, and each other play in turn names one with with they have a good relationship, and one with whom they have a poor relationship. Only three players can name the same faction as good, at with point the faction becomes an ally to the Crew, or poor, at which point the faction becomes the crew’s enemy. Other names factions will end up with a score of positive or negative one or two, which abstracts the nature of the relationship (and I am sure) will modify dice rolls in play.

For the final bit of worldbuilding, each player comes up with a hook, which should be the springboard for a case, not the whole adventure. Like the pre-credits scene of a TV shoe. It’s up to play to reveal what’s behind that opening scene.

The chapter ends with four example crews, academic researchers, Free-Lance investigators, a Norfolk crime “family”, and, SCD9 – a “deniable” “undercover” unit affiliated to P Division. Though I would argue that, as the illustration features them wandering around in disposable paper SOC coveralls, bagged with the SCD9 logo, they don’t appear either undercover, or deniable 🙂

Liminal Chapter 2 – Character Creation

We are introduced to a crew with a group portrait. One of them is, I think, Ygraine from chapter one. There’s a tall lumberjack with glowing eyes who, I guess, will be a werewolf, and a wizard in training and a former police officer. I think we’ll meet all four in examples thoughout the book.

Character creation starts off with a concept and a drive. As I mentioned in my previous post I am coming to this reading pre-equipped with a character I want to build: William Palmer, the Pilgrim.

His concept is easy: cursed with eternal life by the faerie King, he has walked the border between the mundane world and the Hidden for almost 1000 years. His Drive, to end his curse and die.

But we must choose a focus, and here the choices are limited, not freeform + we must be tough, determined or magician. I would argue the William Palmer is determined, but he has used spells more than once, if I recall correctly. You pick up a secret or two in 1000 years. If I must choose between the two I will wait to later in the chapter (or the book) to see haw it works mechanically, but given how rarely he uses magic in the series, I tend towards Determined. (There’s a note here about how a werewolf’s transformation is like a spell, but a werewolf character is not a magician focus, because their shapechangeing is limited to just two forms.)

The player must spend seventeen points on skills, with no skill more than four. Two points in a skill makes you relatively proficient, apparently. There are 21 skills. Traits are supernatural abilities, training or innate advantages that cost one or two points. You have five points to spend. But you can get extra points to spend on traits if you also take supernatural limitations. So I guess you can get extra vampire traits if you also have an aversion to garlic.

You also have three attributes: Endurance, Will and Damage. In many games, your attributes add to, or apply a bonus/penalty to skills. But in this one it’s the other way around. your skills enhance your attribute. Your endurance in eight plus your athletics skill, and will, eight plus your conviction skill. Hmmm I am intrigued to see how these are used mechanically. Your damage is defined by your weapon, it’s d6 for unarmed combat, d6+1 for a knife etc up to d6+4 for a heavy firearm. Again I shall have to wait until I read about the mechanics before I pass judgement, but right now this feels like clashing philosophies – a desire to abstract (mundane) combat because it’s not the heart of the game, yet the need to differentiate between heavy and light weapons for … what? “Tactical” reasons? My touchpoint for abstracted, yet deadly combat is Unknown Armies. We’ll see later on how this compares.

I turn the page, some more great illustration, and then something that catches me unawares – Character Concepts. I had imagined, earlier, that the Concept was entirely free-form. But here with a number of concepts, or archetypes, with suggested “builds”. The Concepts are:

  • Academic Wizard
  • Changeling
  • Clue-up Criminal
  • Dhampir
  • Eldrich Scholar
  • Face
  • Gutter Mage
  • Investigator
  • Knight
  • Man in Black
  • Warden, and
  • Werewolf

Are these just examples or are they the defined list of classes? The book doesn’t make it clear whether players must chose from this list or if they cane make one of their own. It seems freeform enough that making your own shouldn’t be a problem, but the lost seems comprehensive enough to suggest that you shouldn’t need to. I’d prefer some clarity in this matter, but right now I am opting for choosing a concept. If only because one of the Concepts, the Face, seems to work for our man Pilgrim.

Each concept comes with suggested skills (in the face’s case, Art, Business, Education, Charm, Empathy, High Society, Rhetoric – no increased Endurance or Will for us) and traits (Agent of Ravenstower, Graceful, Presence, Rich, Silver Tongue), plus a limitation (Obliged) and a focus (Determined).

Players get 17 points to spend on skills.You can start with no more than four in a skill. This is explained with reference to a Skill Cap which seems over complicated at this point, but other uses for the Skill Cap might become apparent later. Skills at three or higher can have specialities.”an area of focus within a Skill” which “grants a +2 bonus when using a Skill in that area.”

There are 21 skills, seven in each of three areas: physical, mental and social. I am giving my William Palmer Awareness, Melee, Stealth, Survival and Vehicles from the physical list. Five points spent, I could have five of each area, and two extra points, but maybe I should focus more. From mental skills, I’ll choose Art, Business, Education and Lore. I might come back for a point in Medicine. Socially, I’ll take Conviction, Empathy, Rhetoric and Streetwise. Again I am slightly tempted by Taunt – Palmer often solves issues by goading Fae into bad decisions, but I was thinking that’s how I would use rhetoric. Thirteen skills at one point. Four points left to spend. Let’s look at some of the skills in more detail.

William Palmer runs a rare books business, which he inheritable from a friend. He started a trust fund in the twelfth century, to maintain a chapel in which a roman centurion sleeps, but despite these example of business acumen, it’s the bit in the skill description about fae that tempts me to add some points to this skill “When dealing with the Hidden World, the business skill is relevant when it comes to making bargains, which can be a vital survival skill when dealing with the Fae.”

However, with only four points to spend, there are two other skills that deserve the points more. Palmer has picked up a lot of knowledge in his millennium of living on the earth, but it seems, all quite shallow, except for his knowledge of the hidden world, which marks him out from most “hotbloods”, so that deserves an extra point or two. The other one is conviction, Palmer is not the devout pilgrim he once was, but he is still a man of faith. I am tempted to put his conviction up to four, or to make it three but spend a point in the Religious Faith speciality, but in the end, I think I’ll leave it at three and make his Lore three too. All my points are spent.

When it comes to traits the choices are more difficult. But there is one obvious one. Palmer has been known to utter a spell, but isn’t a full fledged magician. There is a Countermagic trait (“You know defensive spells which protect you and others against magical attacks. You can use your Lore Skill as a defence against magic, and can make a Lore skill test to disperse a magical effect. In both cases, this will usually be an opposed roll”) which, if I recall correctly, is pretty much the only sort of magic I have heard him use in the drama.

I am struggling over Rapid Healing.

“You rapidly heal from any injury, recovering d6 points of Endurance every hour. This rapid healing even applies when you have negative Endurance. You even eventually come back from the dead unless decapitated or incinerated. You are resistant to poisons and all but immune to disease.”

Palmer is cursed with immortality, but I believe this doesn’t come with rapid healing. I am sure I have heard references to him taking “years” to recover from injury. That said, in a role-playing game, taking a year or two out to recover isn’t much fun for your fellow players, so were I playing for real, I think I would have to choose this. Except …

“Any character with rapid healing has a flaw—one source of injury from which they cannot regenerate damage. You will not come back from the dead when killed through your flaw.”

Now, if William Palmer had one thing that could definitely kill him, he’d have jumped in a pool of it/stabbed himself with it/swallowed it, or whatever, years ago. He wants to die. I think if I was playing this for real, I’d negotiate with the GM that something can kill Palmer, but only the GM knows what it is.

So, if I took fast healing, despite my doubts, I would have two points left for traits. Palmer isn’t an Agent of Ravenstower (though reading the description, he might have been) or Always Prepared. Despite running a rare books business, he was snot a Bookworm, or a least, he does not exhibit the mechanics of this trait. He is neither Brawny nor Forgettable., Frightening nor Graceful. Oh, but he is an Investigator. Not a policeman or a detective, but a man who can “tell when someone is lying or hiding something, […] and […] find contacts and witnesses.” That trait is worth two points, so that’s all I can have.

I could get more points to spend, if I took on a limitation. And Obliged is the one that is closest to the Pilgrim stories, but Palmer has categorically not given his service to the Fae.

I feel though that this is a game that suits “session zero” style character creation in a group, William might have to choose a different trait if someone else had set their heart on being a policeman.

We finish with four sample characters, the group we met at the front of the chapter, and yes, I had them right.

Random adventure site creation in Forbidden Lands

Some GMs may be wary of random encounter tables, worried that they will throw up something that makes no sense within the developing story. I hope this shared experience will convince you to try creating story entirely at random. It’s what I did last November. Which was an emergency situation: I had not been planning to run Forbidden Lands for a while, but after our one-off (which we released last year as the Ravenland Tales Actual Play) the party wanted to continue, and more than that they wanted me to run an extra game at our gaming retreat.

At first I thought that I could simply use a Ravens Purge adventure, but the party had already decided to head to the ruins of Wailers Hold, and I did’t think any of the published adventures really fitted that place. Of course my first error had been that I had not fed the party any legends which maybe would have tempted them to one of the published adventures. Now they were headed to somewhere I hadn’t planned, so I needed to work out what they would find.

Still feeling the chagrin of not givin them a legend or two, I started with the legends generator, to see what it might say about Wailers Hold. So I turned to page 26 and started rolling dice

“A long time ago, (roll … 32) during the Alder Wars, there was a (roll …44) beautiful (roll … 21) Druid (I immediately decided it was a Elven Druid) who sought (roll … 33) an enemy (hmmmm who I wonder) because of (roll … 24) a promise (made to a dwarf I thought, given that once Wailers Hold was a Dwarven city) and travelled to (I chose all of the following as I knew where they were going, and where they had got to, last time they played): a hill a days march away in the ruins north east ,

And the legend goes she (roll … 24 again) was never seen again, and that there is (roll 65!) an Elven ruby (which is cool because my Druid is an elf … this all fits!), but also (roll … 24 AGAIN!) cruel (roll… 66… ooh, roll again, just one dice … 3…oh just one) a cruel Demon. Aha! The enemy my elven Druid was searching for.

So a demon is my big bad. I went straight to the Demons section of the Gamemasters’ Guide to create one. But I am NOT going to tell you about that, as my players have not yet met him, and they, especially my co-host Dave, might read this.

Instead, let’s move to the village. I had decided, given the size of the ruins on the map, to make two adventure sites, I rolled the d6 twice and discovered that a there would be a village among the ruins, and a dungeon. I must admit I had hoped for a castle, but rather than ignore the rolls (which I could have done), I decided to run with it and see what developed.

I started by rolling a d6 to see what type (how large) the settlement is. A six – the village in the ruins of Wailers Hold is large. It was populated (d66, a 43) during the bloodmist. It’s is worth noting here that “during the bloodmist” is the most common result in this table, which gives me an insight into how the authors envision the world – very few of the settlements that existed before the bloodmist survived the demon invasion.

The ruler of the village is a (roll… 54) stern (roll… 43) oh, there is no ruler. It must be the people of the village who are stern.

The village problem is (roll… double one) Nightwargs… aha, probably because of that Demon the legend refers to. It’s famous for (roll … 56) worshiping demons. Aha, the villagers worship that demon in the legend! No wonder the Nightwargs prowl around. The village oddity is (roll … 14) an incomprehensible accent … hmmm, they must get that from communing with the demon. Now, I note here there is nothing to help you choose the kin. The assumption must be that villages are human, I guess, but or maybe I should refer to the map on page 46. Anyhow, I selected Alderlanders.

The village generator includes between zero and eleven “institutions”, larger villages get 1d6+5, which, for me, was Eight. They included two taverns, one inn (they drink a lot here), a mill, stables, smith, trading post (aha, I thought, this is one that buys and trades in stuff people manage to find in the ruins), and a militia. Quite how the milita is organised, given no system of civic government, I am not sure. I imagine them as a sort of “neighbourhood warg watch”.

Now here, I think I made a mistake. You can get some colourful detail for your Inn, but I used the same tables for the taverns too. The first had Barrels instead of chairs, planks instead of tables (15) served stewed turnips (24) and was frequented by old war veteran (37 – but I curious about this, surely the blood mist prevented most Wars for the last 300 years.) it was called (roll … 32)The Happy (roll … 35)Dog.

The second, The Old (16) Boar (32) Tavern was almost exactly the same, but instead of the … modest… furniture, it had a (roll …47) grumpy owner.

The place our adventurers actually went to, though, was the inn. Having had two places that randomly served stewed parsnips, I just assumed that the village grew only parsnips, so the inn served that too. I did roll (18) for its special guest and that turned out to be a “Scarred Treasure Hunter”. I had a name for him already, Wynchcliffe (no idea where that came from), and thought he would be the person who offered the location of the dungeon to the party (in return for a cut of what they found), having been scarred by whatever defended it. The inn’s oddity (63) was a birthday party, which I didn’t actually use when we played. The journey to Wailers Hold had taken enough play time, and I thought I would reserve it for the next session. The inn’s name was good though – 65 and 41, the Boisterous Girl.

Next, the dungeon. It is (roll … 4) an average dungeon with (roll … 9) ‘rooms’. It’s a (roll …61) tomb, built by Dwarves (I didn’t roll for this, as Wailer’s Hold was a Dwarven city). Neither did I roll for its history. I was having an idea, “it’s a tomb for the elven druid from the legend”, I thought, “built by her Dwarven lover, to whom she had made the promise… or maybe its HIS tomb. He was killed by the demon, and she came to avenge him… yes that’s it!” I did roll for the current inhabitants though, and got a 46 – Nightwargs. That fits with Nightwargs being a problem for the village, this is obviously where they are coming from. Is the demon trapped in the dungeon by the Nightwargs I wondered? But if it was, how do the villagers get to worship it? Still I did think then that our heroes might discover the demon as a big bad in the dungeon. That’s not how it panned out in the end though.

My notes, scrawled during dungeon creation.

The entrance to the dungeon is (roll… 26) down a hole. Right, so the scarred treasure hunter dug the hole. Its not the “proper” entrance to the tomb. It’s fresh, there may even be a rope dangling down. In my head I was already thinking he might have left one or two dead companions down there.

I won’t take you though all the rolls for the rooms. The hole led down through the ceiling of a corridor. At one end of which was a room with a creature, which I decided had a Nightwarg in it. And a valuable silver altar. This was (it would turn out) the most valuable treasure in the whole dungeon, in the (likely) first room the party would explore. I went off on some idle speculation that dwarves maybe built their tombs close to the surface because they live deeper underground and were tasking with building the world bigger to reach Huge’s hearth.

At the other end of the corridor was a stairway – a roll of six on the random room chart, which I rolled four times in a row… so it was a VERY long deep spiral staircase. That left only three more rooms in my dungeon. Thankfully they were all actual rooms, (well two rooms and a hall) not more staircase. But I was worried that this dungeon would not be big enough. Two of the rooms had multiple doors though. One had had two, one blocked and one trapped (I had the body of the scarred treasure hunters companion in this one to give my players a clue). The other had room three doors, I made one of those connect to the Hall but decided that, I could extend the dungeon through the other two, or deeper down the staircase, in play by rolling dice as the players explored. To do that though, they would have to defeat the two night wargs I put in that room. Actually I should be honest. I wrote “x? Nightwargs”. I’d decide how many exactly when I saw the challenge that the one upstairs gave the players.

The hall no items or traps in it. Just a creature. I rolled a 37. Undead. Not good enough. By now I had a story in my head about the elf who came to avenge the death of the dwarf and was cursed by the demon that killed him and now inhabited his tomb. I imagined the elf dancing for centuries with the cadaver of her Dwarven lover – and that’s what the players found.

As it turns out, by this time we were playing late into the night, so I had no need to extend the dungeon through those doors. Indeed I edited one encounter out … the Players were meant to discover the demon in that hall too, watching the cursed elf dance. But I decided the elf herself was threat enough for my players’ injured characters. The demon was … elsewhere. Perhaps they’ll meet it the next time we play…