Unboxing Emissary Lost

I got my copy of Emissary Lost, the first part of The Mercy of the Icons campaign today. And I am boyishly excited at seeing my name in print – not only as a KS backer, but (with my co-host Dave) on the main credits page. Find out why (at least why I think we’re there) in the video.

This is very rushed job, so I haven’t adjusted sound levels. Just feast your eyes.

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Review – Forbidden Lands

From today, Forbidden Lands can be ordered from Fria Ligan, Modiphius or DriveThru . I was a Kickstarter backer and so have had early drafts, completed PDF’s and now the physical product for a little while, so I think it is worth  publishing a review for those considering purchasing it. This is based upon experience of playing, reflection and, having the books in my hand.

Conclusion

Lets cut to the chase. This is what you really want to know. But if you want a little more detail, on how I came to these conclusions, there’s more below.

You might imagine that, as a Kickstarter Backer, and one half of the Coriolis Effect podcast, I may be predisposed to liking this game. And I am. But my expectations were high, and I have not been disappointed. Yes, obviously I would recommend this game. We played a one-off scenario, and my players wanted more. One of the starts running his own campaign on Monday.

Specifically I would recommend it for two audiences. For many around my age, the team at Free League have created the game were wishing for back when we were twelve. All the possibilities that the games of the early eighties offered us, are here finally realized. Intuitive mechanics make combat gritty and heroic, magic thrilling and even resource management entertaining and fun. For people starting out in the hobby, this is an excellent value box, that gives you everything you need (apart from dice and a pencil) to build your very own world of adventure.

Who is it not for? Well, I know somebody who hates dice pool systems, and prefers a d20. It’s not for him I guess. But even if you are wary of dice pools, let me reassure you that this one is simple, fast and fun.

The physical product

This is a boxed game, a conceit that reflects its origins. In Sweden many games RPGs are still boxed, in the way that early Dungeons and Dragons, Runequest and Traveller were. The publishers, Free league (or Fria Ligan), set out to create a modern take on the classic games that some of us remember from the early eighties. So by boxing this game, they are not just conforming to the Swedish market, but also asking the rest of the world to remember the good old days. Open the box however, and the old hands may be somewhat surprised the the quality.

In the eighties, the boxes would contain a few (maybe as few as two) stapled, softcover and slim books, plus quite a lot of air. (To be fair my D&D box also contained my first set of polyhedrals). In contrast this box is full, and heavy. Most of the weight consists of two hardback, faux-leatherbound volumes, with a tasteful dark-ages design in gold on the front. and nothing but the Free League logo (also in gold) on the back. The Player’s Handbook is burgundy red and 208 pages. The Gamemaster’s Guide has 264 pages bound in Green. each of these books also has a black ribbon bookmarker.

There is a lot of wish fulfillment in these books. Forfilling the wishes of a very niche part of the market. The staples on those early games rusted, staining the pages, and those thin softcovers were not really up to being referenced back and forth again and again by players and gamesmasters alike. I am sure that many of us who enjoyed those very first RPGs sometimes wished for a rulebook that better reflected the fantasy world we were playing in. Indeed I am sure a few people collected together their rulebooks and a few supplements and and had them bound together to make them look like the sort of tome that graced a gentleman’s library. If you didn’t have the money or the initiative to get them bound though, these are the RPG books you have been waiting for for almost four decades.

But that’s not all. If you want a book that more closely resembles the thin, stapled, softcover game books of yore, Free League has you covered. Under the hardbound volumes you will find Legends and Adventures a booklet with an alternative character generation system, and monster and legend generators. And there is even more – a folded, full colour map and a sheet of stickers. The map is double sided (though sadly with the same map on both sides) and the stickers are transparent hexes so that you can place them on the map as your party explores the Forbidden lands, and make the map your own.

This last component is the most disappointing production-wise. The printing on the stickers is a little muddy, and thus the icons and labels on them are hard to see. Also, the implication of the doublesided map is that you could run the campaign twice with two different groups, but there are not enough stickers to use both sides.

Opening the two main volumes, you’ll find a version of the map on the endsheets at the front and back. These are black and white, clear and beautiful and they almost make you wish that the the main map was black and white too. Which brings me to the illustrations. In creating their modern but retro game, Free League were inspired by the black and white drawings of Nils Gulliksson, who illustrated the first Swedish language RPG, a Runequest clone called Drakar och Demoner. Indeed most of the illustations are classics from the early days of Swedish gaming, complimented with newly commissioned pieces from the same artist. These have a certain beauty which younger gamers might find difficult to fully comprehend, especially when compared with the exquisite full-colour work of Martin Grip in Free League’s other fantasy game, Symbaroum.* There is certainly a degree of nostalgia in their appeal.

Playing the game

The heart of the system will be familiar with players of Mutant: Year Zero; Coriolis; and Tales from the Loop. Of the three, its closest to MY0. Which is entirely appropriate because it is a game of survival, in a fantasy world that has had its own apocalypse of sorts. Like that game, it is best played with enough dice of three different colours. There is a custom set available (more on that in another post) but MY0 veterans can play with those, and lets face it d6 are not something most gamers are short of. Most rolls are made by pooling a number of “base” d6 for your attribute, with a number for your skill and maybe one or two for your gear, and rolling. All you need to succeed is one six (which is marked with crossed swords on the custom dice) to succeed, but more successes improve the effect of your action – more damage in a fight, for example. If you fail, or if you want more successes, you can “push” the dice, rolling again. But the cost of this can be harsh – you can not re-roll any base dice or gear dice which came up one. And these, plus any more ones you roll on your base or gear dice, will do you, or your gear, damage.

This version of the dice pool might seem complicated at first, to those who have come from Coriolis or Tales from the Loop, but you soon get the hang of it, and it creates a wonderfully nuanced and narrative flow to the game.

Unlike MY0 or its sister games, Forbidden Lands also uses d8, d10, and d12, mostly for magical artefacts, but I particularly like the Pride mechanic, which enables a player to name one thing they are very good at. Once per game session, when a player has failed a vital role even after pushing their dice, if they can explain how their pride applies, they get to roll the d12. This has a greater than 50% chance of turning your failure into success, and not just one, but up to four success, which could mean a critical effect. The catch is, if you roll 1-5, your pride was obviously a false one. You strike it from your character sheet and must play a whole session before you can pick something to replace it.

Its a tough combat system, your strength attribute is your “hit points”, and only the most exceptional character will ever have as many as six. Given even a glancing blow from a heavy axe can deal three, your players will find combat short, gritty, exciting, and something to be avoided. A quarter day’s rest will restore all your attributes, but if you are broken in combat, you also take a critical hit, for the possibility of permanent damage, a slow death or, if you are lucky, a quick one. My advice to players is hit first, hit hard, wear armour, and take up archery.

Character generation is speedy and fun, especially if you use the random system found in the Legends and Adventurers booklet. If you do though, note that unfortunately a number of talents are named in that booklet that don’t appear in the Players Handbook. In Horseback Archer becomes Horseback Fighter, and we had to replace Scrounger with Quartermaster. I guess the talents named were in an earlier draft. If random generation isn’t your thing, then there is a simple point-buy alternative. One feature I particularly like is that you can start out, young, adult, or old (unless you are an elf – elves are ageless). As you get older you loose attribute points but gain skills and talents. Talents I should say, are specialisms and abilities that turn your relatively broad skill set into a very individual character.

I am generally not a fan of magic systems based on lists of pre-defined spells, but that said recognize the difficulties of creating more freeform RPG magic systems, especially in regards to spotlight  balance in games where not everyone is a magic user. This is spell list based but flexible in the casting. Players should learn quickly though that magic is risky – a couple of unlucky rolls can see you cast into a terrible hell with no hope of return – as a PC at least. The risk can be mitigated with preparation though, taking time to write your spells down and gather ingredients.

Which brings me onto a key philosophy in the game. This system makes resource management easy and fun to play. By breaking activities down in quarter days, by using simple mechanics like resource dice for ammunition, food and water, and a carrying capacity defined by lines in your gear list the system neatly abstracts and gamifies the more simulationist tendencies of (what we used to call) wilderness campaigns. We’ve played a couple of adventures so far and my players have enjoyed the scavenging for roots to supplement their food supplies. The resource management has not got in the way or story, indeed its has informed  the narrative.

There is one resource that you can only get through failure. When you push your dice and take damage (or wear for your gear) on ones, you also earn willpower points. Willpower powers magic spells and a good number of talents. There has been some debate about this mechanic. Some people are unhappy that only physical strain earns you the power to do spells (players start with no willpower and can only store up to ten points), or they can’t see a connection between taking damage and gaining resolve. It may not lend itself to immersion, but I like the way it builds the narrative beats – your triumphs are all the sweeter after failure, after all.

The World

Part of me wishes the setting was a humanocentric one, like Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones or The First Law books, but this is a retro game, and so of course there are not just humans, but Elves, Half-Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Orcs, Goblins and (less obviously retro, except perhaps to Traveller players) Wolfkin. Swedish genre author Erik Granstrom manages to give us all the nostalgic fantasy tropes our heart desires but put a subtle spin of novelty on them which makes this world strange and beautiful. Part of the strangeness is due to this world being described mostly in myth and legend, with some of the stories contradicting each other and very little (but just enough) explaining the “true” ecology. The elves in this game have a marvelous yet non-game-break-y immortality that makes them seem truly alien. Halflings and goblins have a link that is both novel and yet a reflection of the Frodo/Gollum relationship, and Dwarves build the world as much as mine it. Humans in this world are the invaders, and orcs the (by no means hapless) victims. There is just enough cliche to recognise and plenty of novelty to explore and excite the imagination.

One of the best assets of the GM’s Guide (and the Legends and Adventurers booklet) is the help it offers in world building. There are three sample “adventure sites”, none of which offer an “on the rails” story, but NPCs, motivations, and opportunities that allow your party to truely create their own adventure. On top of these sites however there are random generation tables that enable any GM, even the greenest, to confidently prepare an adventure in advance. A quick thinking GM could even create an adventure on the fly, while it is being played.

As I was ready the GM’s guide indeed, I was thinking this  might well be a perfect gift for a young and aspiring potential GM. It could be an ideal first RPG even. All you really need (apart from dice) for a world of adventure is contained in just one box.

Further Reading

If you want even more detail, check out my previous read-though of the PDFs.

* Free League and Jarnringen have merged.

Forbidden Lands has arrived

No podcast this week as we are preparing for #DragonMeet ~PodcastZone tomorrow Saturday 1 December. But in the place of our dulcet tones, a quickly made video of my Forbidden Lands unboxing. There may be other boxing videos out there (I was one of the last of the Kickstarter backers to get their copy, earlier today), but do they show the GMs screen? Didn’t faff around mixing the sound for this, so I am quiet, but its not what I say but what you see that counts.

The Draconites

Last episode, we speculated that the Draconites knew what dreadful racists the Zenithian Hegemony would become and set themselves up to defeat it. So I am going though the books looking for evidence of the nazi-punching heroes I hope the Draconites will turn out be.

If we paint the Hegemonists as the dark uniformed Imperial space nazis of Star Wars, then it follows that the Draconites – a secretive “Order” with a system of Apprentices, are the Jedi Knights of the Horizon, though they have no history of guiding a Galactic Old Republic to the light …

On page 183, we read of the Draconites as “traitors” , a third faction in the nascent disagreement between the the Hegemonists and what will become the Consortium. But we don’t get told whether any particular family leads them. Are the Draconites made up of more liberal members of all the Zenithian families? It doesn’t seem that they are “liberal” at all, actually, with their worship of the Executioner aspect of the Lady of Tears, and their motto “Through conflict, the truth.” Do they have sleeper Agents imbedded in both sides of the Zenithian debate?

It seems to me, that they actually left the Zenith before it finished it’s tour of the Third Horizon at Kua. I wonder if they discovered some ancient secret on that tour, and, without revealing it to their crew-mates, abandoned ship to take advantage of what that secret offered…

But there is very little detail in the core book, where again and again it says how little is known about the faction. And even in the Artefacts and Faction Technology supplement it mentions only Meson weaponry and an (admittedly impressive) camouflage sphere. No mention is made of any truly ancient artefacts that they might have discovered.

One thing we do know is that pretty much the first thing they did as an independent faction was not join with the Consortium and the Legion to wipe out the Hegemony, but rather to join with the Order of the Pariah (and the Legion) to wipe out the Nazareems Sacrifice. Why? Were the Sacrifice the greater threat? Or did they think the continued survival of the Hegemony would be useful to them, if only to keep the Consortium occupied?

One last unanswered question. What is a Draconite Dragoon? Sometimes, I feel that when writing the sub-concept suggestions, the authors just chose words that looked kind of cool, without really thinking about what it might mean. And perhaps that’s OK, it’s just a couple of words slammed together to prompt the player’s imagination. But Draconite Dragoon rubbed me up the wrong way. It’s in the operative concept, which is kind of about secret agents. But it’s a word which, to me invokes images of grav-bikes and dashing uniforms.

At this point, regular readers are probably shouting at their speakers that EVERYTHING makes me think of grav-bikes and dashing uniforms. But this time I genuinely have a historical precedent. You see, a Dragoon is a specific type of 18th century soldier, a sort of mounted infantry. They would ride into battle on horses, but dismount to engage the enemy. Unlike traditional cavalry, they carried guns, short barrelled muskets called carbines. The name still exists today, for highly mobile pathfinder troops operating lightly armoured vehicles. All of which seems a far cry from the workings of “the most secretive” faction in the Third Horizon.

But … everything I just said about Dragoons is from my memory. And I have just gone to Wikipedia to fact-check myself. And I learned some interesting things, not least that the British Army converted all its cavalry regiments to Dragoons in the eighteenth century, because Dragoons were paid less than cavalry. But that’s by the by. What’s most interesting is the the French persecuted Protestant Hugenot households by forcing them to accept a Dragoon as a ill behaved “houseguest” until they either converted to the catholic faith or left the country.

Now, I like the idea of this sort of “secret policeman”, even if it doesn’t quite fit with the nazi-punching hero faction I was looking for when I started with research. We don’t know, from the published books about any systems where the Draconites are the governing faction. And indeed the core book suggests that they is no system which the Draconites call “home”. But I can imagine that, somewhere, they might well aggressively repress other ideologies in this way. In such a case, the Dragoon would be a thuggish, lower caste policeman, not privy to the secrets of the Draconites but steeped in their philosophy. And let’s face it, if that philosophy included punching Nazis, we’d possibly forgive other boorish behaviours.

But it doesn’t seem that the Draconites are the Nazi-punchers I was looking for. If anything they hold the Hegemonists in contempt. But only because the Hegemonist’s racist dogma is so far removed from the truth that they seek, and the secrets they keep to themselves …

Reflecting on a weekend of gaming

We had “the best three days of gaming” again last weekend. Not a convention, just four of us renting a cottage in the countryside and playing games, with the occasional break for a meal or a walk. It went well enough that we are already discussing which weekend we will be booking the same cottage it for next year.

Log fire lit, we kicked off on Friday night with Dave’s excellent spaghetti Bolognese, and Forbidden Lands. The adventure was entirely randomly generated, using the excellent tables in the book and the Legends and Adventurers booklet. (And that generation went so well that I should write a separate blog post about it, maybe later this week.) There were two disappointments: we had hoped that we might have had physical copies (and the combat cards) by then, but we are still waiting for distribution to start in English; and, having spent some time setting up the recording rig, I somehow managed to get my laptop to revert to its own mic. So, all along I was thinking “wow, this is great game for the podcast”, but I ended up with a recording no-one will want to hear.

So, what did I learn from this game? Always do a final recording check, just before you start playing, even if you already did one when you were setting up half an our ago.

It’s particularly galling because our previous Forbidden Lands AP has been among our most popular episodes, demonstrating a demand out there for more. That’s a demand that will have to be sated by the Grindbone Challenge at Dragonmeet on Saturday 1 December in London. Join us at the #PodcastZone to create a character, then see how they survive the slave-pits of Grindbone.)

These evening games were enhanced with beer. And whisky.

After a late night, it was time to move on to Tony’s Legends of the Five Rings adventure. We are still using the 4th edition ruleset for this, bit we hardly needed any rules at all. Most of the session was pure role-playing as we tried to uncover the Emerald Champion’s involvement in a cabal before my character had to duel him (which given my character is insight rank two, would not have gone well). What did I learn from that game? Not much, other than having my love for the game confirmed. And while I love this ruleset so much, I can’t imagine going out of my way to get fifth edition. It’s funny, this is the first time I have been an old stick in the mud, in danger of falling into the edition wars. But its not a war actually – if I were invited to a L5R 5th game I would happily play, I am just not ready to invest in the books.

We split this game with a walk of a few kilometres to a pub for lunch. This was about as much exercise as we got all weekend.

In the evening we played Symbaroum, wherein our characters finally had to venture into the forest of Davokar. This recorded well, so you will hear Dave running an excellent adventure that followed on from the one that is currently being serialised on our podcast feed. What I learned about this, is that I am finally forgetting my issues with the system, and the binary nature of the d20 resolution. There may be two reasons for this. The first is knowing that Dave’s multiple dice vs reduced effect houserule is there if I want it. I can’t remember invoking it, but I might have done, I’ll have to listen again to find out.

On to Sunday morning, which started off with a full English, meat supplied by Andy, and cooked by me.

Then Andy ran a session of Savage World of Solomon Kane for us. I love this game, I love playing a deeply flawed character on a redemption path, my Dutchman Willem Van Der Hoorn is “jingoistic” as it’s called in the rules – nationalistic and racist. And given the cosmopolitan (if somewhat orientalist) setting of the original stories that means he can be a real pain to be around. We’re not recording this campaign, and it’s just as well.

What did I learn? There was a moment when my character had the opportunity to sacrifice himself for the greater good, and I would have done it too, were it not for a guy we killed (!) earlier in the story who appeared in a deus ex machina manner to take my place. So I guess my character may have learned that even faeries can occasional be better braver than him, and perhaps he has seen how he might try and be better himself. The Savage Worlds rules are rollicking good fun though. I wanted my character to be an excellent swordsman, and even at novice level, he is pretty damn good, hard to hit in a fight, even though he has to spend the first round of any fight explaining how much better he is than his opponent.

In the evening I ran Coriolis. I am quite pleased with this adventure, and I might write it up to share it. It’s been a year since we last played. And in my desperation to use all my darkness points, I threw more and more reinforcements at the crew in a chase across the icon city in Mira. By the end, they were well and truly broken. This sort of picks where they left off, having been hospitalised, tried and convicted. I started with their stasis pods getting ejected from a prison ship, to make planetfall on an un-named “prison planet” where the adventure was set. We have recorded this one, so I won’t spoil it. What did I learn? That late at night, or rather in the early hours, is not the time to introduce players to a stubborn AI, who offers them an impossible choice. Looks like this adventure has become a two parter…

A problem like The Zenithian Hegemony

I am going to say it straight. The Zenithian Hegemony are the bad guys. The Syndicate are actual criminals of course, but the Hegemony are the evil empire. I put it to you, that this is the faction you should love to hate. The Zenithian Hegemony is Imperialism writ large. No, more than that. The Zenithian Hegemony are racists plain and simple, convinced that they are superior to the Firstcome, and obsessed with preserving their al-Ardhan bloodlines.

Their attitudes are so extreme they spurn biosculpting and cybernetics because of their obsession with blood purity. Indeed they consider themselves superior to other Zenithian factions like the Consortium, who have intermingled, culturally, with Firstcome. That said, some Firstcome might qualify for acceptance into the Hegemony. The Hegemony have a branch of science, hemographers, tasked with surveying, recording and testing pure Zenithian bloodlines. I imagine it’s those professionals who identified the Expatriates living in Xhi, a domed city on Amedo. Though their forebears arrived with the Firstcome, they claim to be related to the Families that left al-Ardha in the Zenith

In keeping with the duality that Fria Ligan build into all their work, there is a “less racist” part of the Hegemony. Some of the great families, who call themselves neo-Zenithians, at least believe in co-operating with the Consortium, and even with the Firstcome. It is this, slightly more liberal (but I am sure, just as patronisingly superior) part of the faction, which created the Judicators, to help police Coriolis. When I read on page 206 of the core book that the Zenithian Hegemony sends people to the courtesan academies of Ahlam’s Temple “to be taught the mysteries of subjectivity and sensory input” I can only assume it’s the Neo-Zenithian families. The Hegemonists are surely too arrogant to think that can learn anything from a Firstcome faction.

Their arrogance is somewhat justified. Their elite pilots and so called “peacock troops” defeated the Legion, who “were originally hired by the Consortium to wipe out the fleets of the Zenithian Hegemony, but suffered terrible losses and retreated, instead being tasked with hunting corsairs” (p198). The Consortium backed off after that, but they were right to try I think. The Hegemony obviously intend to replace the Consortium as the supreme Zenithian power in the Horizon.

And if the Hegemony achieved their ambitions, and took over from the Consortium to become the most powerful faction in the horizon? What would life be like under them? We can glimpse that terrible future in the Conglomerate, the city that surrounds the Hegemony’s base of operations. “They […] leave most of the daily affairs to hired Algolan colonists, who in turn rule the plebeians and slummers with an iron fist.” What are Algolans famous for? Their slave trade. No one with any sense of fair play wants the Hegemony in charge.

So, how do they work in play? Could they be a client or patron for your crew? Possibly. Very probably one you don’t like very much. Let’s explore possibilities for each of the group concepts:

Free traders will work for anyone, for the right price. If the Zenithian Hegemony are handing work out to any trader without a blood connection, it’s probably dirty work they don’t want to be connected with, like smuggling slaves from Algol to the factories of the Conglomerate. Alternatively, if you have a blood connection with one of the families, you could get a franchise on a lucrative route, which while perfectly legal, you might still find a little distasteful. I am thinking something like the British Empire’s Opium trade, transporting the drug to China, and bringing Tea back to the Empire.

Mercenaries might get a job enforcing trade. When the uppity Chinese tried to stop the British selling drugs to their populace, the Empire sent the gunboats in to ensure the trade continued. The Zenithan Hegemony doesn’t need mercenaries – they have some of finest militaries and fleets in the horizon. But they might subcontract some work out to a mercenary company with the right connections. Actually if your players want a military campaign, there is a concept I am half inspired to develop and run, but I’ll tell you about that later.

Explorers might well find employment seeking out the “lost colonies” of true-blood relatives that the Hegemony believe might have arrived on the Nadir, or indeed travelled with the Firstcome, but descended from those members of the great families that were left behind when Zenith and Nadir left al-Ardha. Or you might be seeking out portal-builder relics for them. Actually though I think it’s more likely that some Hegemony archaeologist is your rival, like Doctor Belloc or Major Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Agents, these are your enemies. The Astûrban seem to be set up as antagonists for your players rather than allies or patrons. As it says on page 215, “they are not prone to hiring freelancers, but it happens, if unofficially.” If they only hand out the shady jobs to Free Traders, then the sort of work they give to freelance Agents is going to really dirty, with ultimate deniability. Take a mission from the Astûrban, and I reckon you are expected not to survive. And if you do, I have a sneaking suspicion that might may have a terrible “accident” later on when you least expect it.

Could you play Astûrban agents? Could your character be a factionary in the Zenithian Hegemony? Do you want to play an arrogant racist secret policeman? I am reminded of what Denis Detweiler and Greg Stolze said about playing Nazis in their excellent World War Two superheros game, Godlike. Or rather in Will to Power, their supplement about the SS. In fact, let me read you some choice lines from that book, an answer to a hypothetical question about playing the game with SS player characters: “Will I can’t stop you – but if you do, you’re an idiot. […] If you want to play a black-uniform-wearing baby-killer – if that’s what gets you off – go ahead, but don’t pretend this book is inviting you to do so. The characters, organizations and facilities presented within are targets for the players’ characters to kill, disrupt and destroy.” Yeah, I am calling it, The Hegemonists are Space Nazis.

Pilgrims? What sort of pilgrims would they be? Atheist blood-cult space-nazi pilgrims, looking for the lost tribes of the Nadir? I’ve had to put my Nazareem Sacrifice campaign on hold to concentrate on my thesis, but those mad chaotic evil cadaver clock building nutters are preferable to the cold, calculating LAWFUL evil of the the Zenithian Hegemony.

Actually I quite like the idea of giving a character the problem “Pure-blood Zenithian Heritage” If you are descended from one of the great families you could find yourself rescued from a dire situation in a Deus Ex Machina extraction by a Hegemonic strike team. Indeed you might find yourself being “rescued” when you didn’t think you needed recusing, if there is any danger of being “brainwashed by anti-Zenithian interests.”

Seriously though, how could player characters come from the Zenithian Hegemony without their players having to wash the foul taste of racism out of their brains afterwards? I have an idea that has been floating about in the back of my head for decades. (You may have already read a version of it) Seriously, I remember sitting in my Dad’s study when I lived with my parents to plot some of it out. It was for Traveller, but not set in space, rather it was planet based, on a sort of Luxurious University Planet called Academè. It was a mix of Oxford, West Point, and those universities in Victorian era Germany, where student would duel and wear their facial scars as a badge of honour. I imagined the players as privileged students with many many surnames, competing for house points, uncovering deeper mysteries, and realising their idyllic life was serviced by an underclass that never saw the daylight of the sculpted landscapes in which they had their adventures. It didn’t go anywhere back then, but I think a story set in and around a Hegemonic Military Academy might be quite fun. Think of it as part Harry Flashman, and part Harry Potter, with a dash of Jane Austen thrown in for good measure. Everyone would be a scion of one of the major families. And would get to wear a colourful uniform, because they would also have an honorary rank in a family regiment, one of the so called Peacock Troops. The good guys in this context would be the NEO-ZENITHIANS, slightly more liberal, and patrician in their outlook. The families of Arianites; Laskarid; Vanna; Din Eusidia; Aristides, would in this scenario be like Gryffindor and Hufflepuff. The bad guys would be the HEGEMONIST families: Quassar; Din Hrama; Konstantinides; Zenone; Astir, some Ravenclaw, but the Quassars and Astirs definitely more Slytherin. Players could choose to be from any family and initially family rivalries and blood-bonds would form the basis of the drama. In the end though, I hope the characters might see the inherent evil of the Hegemonists, and graduate not to serve the faction but to fight against it…

Thoughts about extended Manipulation challenges in Coriolis

You have heard me grumble about the Reputation and Manipulation mechanics in Coriolis. My biggest gripe, as I explained in season 1 episode 17, is the potential for two starting characters to have a modifier of plus or minus six on manipulation rolls.

A few weeks ago, I played the QuickStart for the new Expanse RPG. It didn’t make me want to kick in for the game but I did like their social encounter rules. In that system, you have to work on building a relationship with your interlocutor, winning them over with a sequence of approaches and rolls. So for example, though they might be suspicious of you to begin with, you might buy them a drink to shift their attitude to a more neutral one. Then you might, for example flirt with them to make their attitude more positive, friendly even, then hit them with the question you really wanted to ask in the first place.

We’d recently been playing Tales from the Loop, and this longer social encounter mechanic, reminded me of Extended Trouble from that Year Zero Engine game. That is only really used in the climatic scene of an adventure. Most of the Troubles player characters face in Loop adventure can be overcome (or not) its one simple roll. Remember in Loop, the GM doesn’t roll, it’s a player facing game.

So, I thought, could we create something like an Extended Trouble for more dramatic manipulation rolls? I think we can.

Now I have to be clear, I have not tested it in play yet. I am having to take some time away from my local group, so the opportunity to do so won’t come up for a month or so. But this is my idea: Rather than use the difference in reputation as a modifier on manipulation rolls, make it a target. Make it the number of successes one party has to roll to manipulate the other.

Here’s how it goes:

1. Work out the difference between the reputation of the person you want to manipulate, and that of the member of your party present in the scene with the lowest reputation. (Which is to say, that you may be a courtesan with a high manipulation skill, and an excellent reputation, but you you bought your humanite soldier, with a rep of one or zero with you, it’s that reputation you are comparing, not yours. Faceman always worked best without BA around. )

2. That difference is the TARGET, the number of successes you need to get (though it never goes below one). You always have to get one success of course, which means that between two characters with the same reputation, manipulation rolls would work pretty much as they do already. The same would be true if the characters had one rank of reputation difference between them – although the one die modifier that the rules mandate would not apply under this system.

3. If the TARGET is between one and two, or maybe three, the manipulator can risk a single dice roll. If it is four or more, an extended manipulation attempt is required. The manipulator (and their allies if they wish) must work their way to achieving the objective.

4. Make a series of social gambits, which might include: offers or requests for hospitality, the exchange of gifts, ceremonial tea, compliments, chat up lines etc, banking your successes against the target.

5. Each roll will be modified by your opponent’s attitude towards you. Zero modifier if their attitude is neutral, minus one die if they are suspicious if you, minus two dice if they are hostile, and maybe minus three dice when there another aggravating circumstance. You can get positive modifiers too, maybe plus one die, if they owe you a favour, or plus two if they are a real friend already.

6. You must bank at least one success against your TARGET with every roll. If you fail to do so at any stage, the extended manipulation challenge is over. If you get extra successes with any roll, you can bank them against your TARGET too, or you can spend no more than one extra success to reduce a negative modifier by one die.

7. When you are close to your TARGET, you can risk asking your opponent for your objective. (If you achieve your TARGET number of successes with previous social gambits before the gambit that gets your objective, you still need to make one more roll, to ask for your objective.)

So for example, if you want a favour from some high ranking factionary, you might need six or seven successes. But you don’t need them all in one roll. You would, of course, if you demanded that favour straight away, but a wise traveller in the Third Horizon knows not to be so rude. You and your crew know how to be polite. So you might start by humbly requesting hospitality, make a roll for that, maybe with one less die, because the factionary is suspicious of your motives, and earn one or two successes. Bank those against your target, and compliment your host upon the quality of their baklava. You earn another couple of successes there, and chose to spend one to reduce his suspicions to a neutral attitude. Offer to pour the tea, roll and earn another couple of successes. That’s four successes against your TARGET of six. You could butter up the factionary some more, but time is short, you ask for the favour, and roll. You can always offer a prayer to Icons if you say the wrong thing…

Forbidden Lands – Artefacts, Encounters and Adventure Sites

The potential spoilers come think and fast in the last three chapters of the Gamemasters’ Guide. And so, we come to the last instalment of my “Where I Read…”

There is hardly anything I can say about the artefacts chapter without spoiling anything. Eighteen artefacts are described, potential sites of discovery suggested in each description. But the authors stress that’s its entirely up to you, where your players actually find these things. Unlike the demons in the bestiary, there is nothing randomly generated I can get excited about (Though there is a d66 table if you want to randomly decide which of the 18 artefacts your players discover). If you want to know more you’ll have to get out there, exploring the Forbidden Lands. Or volunteer to be GM.

The Encounters chapter starts with a table, cross-referencing d66 with terrain type, to provide a number between zero and 43. Zero means nothing happens, each of the other 43 encounters are subsequently described, with stats where required, or pointing you to stats elsewhere in the book. These encounters are not just wandering monsters. They could become adventure hooks. Some are repeatable, but others, once played through, couldn’t really happen to the same party twice. That’s not a problem though, if you had nots about what happened last time, and one of the NPC survived, you could continue the story, or take inspiration from the encounter but change the details, or simply re-roll. There are some intriguing references to SIMPLE, VALUABLE and PRECIOUS finds, suggesting, a random treasure table.

And indeed, in the final chapter, Adventure Sites, we discover a number of such tables, beginning on page 186. There are d66 tables for Simple, Valuable and Precious Carried Finds, and Finds in a Lair. Each lists the item, it’s value in coin, and its encumbrance. The items range from coin (the most common result – a few coppers in simple carried finds, to gold silver and copper in precious finds in the lair) to, on a roll of 66 on the precious lair table, an artefact, which explains the random artefact table in the chapter. When the encumbrance column shows a number rather that usual light, normal or heavy, that’s the number of people required to carry it. There’s a supplementary table of oddities, which modifies the items you rolled in other tables: it might be bent, burned or have bite marks in it, for example, each of which halves the value. Or it might turn out to be twice as valuable to a dwarf.

All these tables though are preceded by extensive tables for creating a random adventure site. The chapter starts off with a very important note, which applies to both the pre-written sites, and the ones you may generate.

An adventure site is not a scenario in the traditional sense. It has locations, NPCs and events – but it does not provide a pre-determined narrative for the adventurers to follow. Instead, they can interact with an adventure site in many different ways

In fact there may well be more than one narrative opportunity at each site. It’s up the players, and the GM to make the site into a narrative of their very own. Over them, the player character actions might well change sites so that when they return, other narrative opportunities are on offer.

You start off creating a new site by defining it as a village, dungeon or castle. In play this may well be prompted by what’s on the map, but if you want, for example if there are ruins marked on the map, you can roll randomly. a village is then defined by its size (population) and age, before moving on to how it’s ruled. You can roll twice on a d66 to create a bickering Rust Brother or Brutal council, for example.

Other d66 roles give the village:

  • a problem, including widespread drunkenness or Bandits;
  • a claim to fame, delicious bread or strange disappearances; and
  • an oddity like inbreeding or a Old Burial Site

Then depending on the size of the village you roll for between zero and eleven “institutions” such as inns, stables, militia etc. There are an inn generator too, with randomly rolled names like The Rumping Druid or The Singing Jar. A few more rolls provide each inn with an oddity, speciality and special guest. So you might see a singing sister serve blood soup to a secretive spellbinder (shouldn’t that be “Sorcerer”? Ed.).

Your Dungeon on the other hand can be anything between d6 and over 1,100 years old. With between d6 and 6d6+50 rooms. It could have had one of seven original uses, one of ten builders, elves to a demon (with ten motivations, vengeance to passion) or developed naturally. You can discover one of ten fates for those original builders too. It might nave have between one and three different inhabitants (or groups) from a choice of 24, and one of 36 oddities. There are seventeen different types of entrance (shades of #D&Dgate).

There is even a dungeon room generator, that allows you to create a dungeon on the fly, with treasure and traps, as the players are exploring it! (Or in advance if you prefer)

Similarly, Castles can be defined with random rolls to determine:

  • Type and size;
  • Age;
  • Original purpose;
  • Founder (and the founder’s Reputation)n
  • Condition;
  • History;
  • Inhabitants (including an “Is it really empty?” table or a “Who has moved in?” table);
  • It’s Oddity of course (gotta have an oddity); and,
  • It’s name.

But wait! We’re not done with the random generation. There are stat blocks here for typical NPC, and else where of course for other kin and followers of religious orders. But here too is the table for discovering a their occupation, defining characteristic (from eye patch to unkempt eyebrows, which on reflection doesn’t seem far enough for a “from … to” example) and a personal quirk.

Reading though the adventure sites themselves, you can imagine them being created by rolling on these tables (well maybe not for Inn names), and they demonstrate what a powerful tool set this is. Part of me really wants to run a totally emergent story, relying on dice and the imagination of the players to create the narrative. With just a little note taking after each session, a savvy GM would quickly work out when to forgo a dice roll in favour of reintroducing a NPC or developing situation from a previous adventure.

So this is the last of my posts in this “Where I read…” and I have to say, I am very excited for this game. We played an adventure already (and recorded it, so you will soon have the opportunity to hear us groking the rules), and o think we all love it. It was meant to be a one-off, to fill a gap in our schedule, but my players already want another session and are growing into their randomly generated characters.

All hail the return of the dice!

Forbidden Lands – Bestiary

At the end of this chapter there are lists of normal animals, from Bear to Crocodile, and Dog to Scorpion. I am a bit disappointed that there are not more exotic mounts – the lists include only Horse and Warhorse as obvious mounts. I hope we might get some more when the cards are published. For now though, I have let my goblin ride a wolf, and my Elf a Stag. But you don’t want to read about those. You want monsters.

Now we are getting into spoiler territory. I am going to keep my notes on Monsters to a minimum, because such creatures, their abilities, behaviours and weaknesses are things that players should discover in play.

But to begin with it’s worth talking about rules for monsters, or rather, how the rules are different for monsters. You generally can’t parry, grapple, or feint monsters, and being xxxxxxxx, they are immune to xxxx attacks (actually that last might count as a spoiler, so redacted). You can disarm and shove some monsters but you will need multiple successes to do so, depending on their strength. The key difference is that they Strength rating behaves more like traditional hit points. Unlike player-characters they don’t get less effective as they take more damage.

Although actually their melee attacks are not based on strength anyway – one of the coolest features of the bestiary is that each monster has six monster attacks. Six, so that you can choose to roll randomly, although if you prefer your monsters to be more tactically astute, you can choose which attack to you. Each attack tells you how many dice to roll, and how much damage a single success does. Extra successes each add one more point of damage.

As I said, I am going to keep most of the monsters secret from any players who might be reading. But by way of example, let’s imagine you see a huge figure with a bulls head approaching, carrying a two-handed axe. This isn’t a monster unique to the system, but a Minotaur. the creatures monster attacks range from Bull Fist (using eight base dice to deliver at least one point of damage and blunt force crits) to:

STOMPING ATTACK! The Minotaur jumps high in the air, landing hard on top of the adventurer. The victim is felled to the ground if hit. The attack is performed using twelve Base Dice and Weapon Damage 1 (blunt force).

A demon, but probably not the one you are going to meet…

My favourite monsters though are Demons, and I can tell you a little bit more without spoiling your players’ fun, because Demons are randomly generated! Five tables, each d66, with some results asking for a further random roll, means you are unlikely to meet the Demon I just created. It looks human, but when it opens its eyes or mouth it in filled with a blinding inner light (Fear attack, 9 base dice). It’s fingers are calcified into fearsome claws (7 base dice, 2 damage) but it also carries a trident. Don’t let it touch you or it could take you over (works like Rank 3 Puppeteer spell). Only music will drive it away so make sure you have perform skill.

Forbidden Lands – Kin

This is a meaty chapter, but already I find it more accessible than the earlier history. Why? Because it’s about geography. It starts with a double page spread, showing a version of the map with labels indicating the distribution of kin. We learn that there is a notional division between East and West, with most human communities in the East under the protection of the Shardmaiden, while those in the West look towards the Rust Brothers and Zytera. We learn indeed that the Shardmaiden, Rust and Heme are more vital to everyday life, and that Wyrm, Wail, Flow and Clay are regarded as “the old gods”.

The traditional Congregation of the Serpent can be found everywhere, but often keeps its head down so as to not challenge the newer faiths.

Alderlanders, Aislanders and Aslenes are lumped together with half-elves (both Frailers and Elvenspring) and the Misgrown as “Humans” in this chapter. Each culture though gets a summary of its origins, history, aesthetics and attitudes and a “typical” stat-block.

So if half elves count as human, the elves themselves must be pretty homogenised, right? No so, even other kin recognise there are two types: Stillelves – normally those who have lived a long time, and now spend years “lying under an oak tree to observe the changing seasons of the year or the slow withering of a rock”; and The Unruly – more active elves which the authors hope players will choose to be, because they haven’t written any mechanics for watching rocks erode. But within the Stillelves and The Unruly there are other groupings of elfkin, druids of The Golden Bough; observant Melders and violent and arrogant Redrunners.

The Stillelves lovingly tolerate this rage, saying that all elves tend to go through a few centuries as Unruly while they are young. Wisdom comes with age.

Which somewhat contradicts the Players’ Handbook where, on page 31 it says “Elves don’t age in the normal sense of the word. Technically, they all count as adult.” Reading that book, I had thought that all elves appeared when the red star dropped its rubies on the world, and the only “young” they had were half-elves. This chapter does reveal though, a method by which a Stillelf might be broken apart to create more new elves. It’s important to note that elves are not the elegant pointy eared bodies we see, but the ruby crystals they have for hearts. Stillelves may choose to meld they hearts with trees to become ents. Or just hang around as rubies in a temple chatting (silently) with each other. It’s said that even if their body is totally destroyed, the ruby can grow a new one.

There is an interesting thread running through these cultures that reveal an awareness of the cosmos. The Elves understand the Redrunner as s shooting star or comet, the Dwarves understand the Earth as a sphere, and the sun as the nearest star. When they have built the earth big enough to reach the sun, they expect to reach beyond that to the more distant “hearths”.

They do not think of themselves as miners as we imagine them, quarrying stone with which to build, but creators of stone. And given some of the spells in the Players Handbook it seems likely that they are. For the first time we hear of “massive ruins across the Forbidden Lands, seemingly useless constructions the dwarves claim are the foundation for the next layer of the world.”

The Dwarves are organised into clans, who argue with each other about “how to perform their great work and where they will be seated at the god’s table in the next world and the next.” The Beldarrians consider themselves the royal clan, and the Meromannians the ones who have most conflict with humans. The Canides or Iron Hounds though are the ones who someday most time on the surface world, and are darker skinned that their very pales cousins. They fought alongside the Meromannians when the humans invaded. I the impromptu game I ran at the weekend, I gave Andy’s goblin rider a Canide Warhound. I see I shall have to fix that in the next session. The final clan named are the reclusive Crombes. There is also a mention of Dwelvers, who Dwarves regard as their forefathers.

Ogres are the dependents of dwarf/human half breeds, and very much a law unto themselves:

Ogres love their freedom and celebrate life and are as erratic as they are curious. They are also brutal beasts who take whatever they want using brute strength. For entertainment, they might rip the arms of a prisoner, let him go free, and then wager stolen kegs of beer on how far the unarmed prisoner can run before bleeding to death.

However, as has been hinted at before, not all dwarf/human hybrids behave this way. Without naming them, the text refers to the Valondians who stay with the dwarves as blacksmiths and craftsmen. I begin to get how Fria Ligan works with these little unexplained mentions – perhaps the Valondians will feature in Ravens Purge.

I have a lot of love for the Orc story here, because they are slave race, righteous in their anger at how they have been treated. What I like in particular are how some of the popular (post-Tolkien) tropes of Orcs in games and media, are given reason in this imaginary society. I like their matriarchal leadership, because only one in eight Orcs are born female, and only half the males survive to adulthood. Half of those survivors, any who show fear and will not fight, are enslaved by the others. There is no dishonour in losing a fight, though winners are of course the highest ranking.

There are some contradictions. Though clans are run by the females, they do so though the most dominant male Orc. So, for example the Urhur, or purple, clan “is ruled by the self-proclaimed Emperor Hroka the First and the Greatest.” Hroka’s imperial ambitions mean this is the most outgoing, “civilised” clan. General Archa’s Roka clan are the most militaristic, but it’s the Isir clan who hate the other kin the most. The Viraga are the glue that hold the clans together. A group of female Orcs who are dedicated to increasing the knowledge and power of the Orc kin. So far, in my read-through, it’s the write up of the Orcs that has inspired the most thought of stories I might add to the campaign, or characters I might want to play. But there is a bit missing piece of the Orc story – do they worship gods?

The Wolfkin worship Heme, and like the Rust Bothers, were somewhat immune to the terrors of the Blood Mist, and do their is some affinity between the two groups. They are despised by pretty much everyone else, many of whom consider them to be some failed experiment of the Sorcerer Zygofer. The of course take exception to such slurs.

They despise civilization intensely and believe they have found their way back to nature and the original form of their ancestors, away from the weakening and destructive ways that caused the human kin to lose their fur and distort the land.

The marsh dwelling Saurians use crocodile as beasts of burden, and trade with the other kin for metal tools which they can not make themselves. Whiners are a sentient kin, hunted by both Orcs and humans for their “sweet meat” and for their ability to grow gold when it inserted under their skin. I think, to be honest, this just shows us how unlikeable the humans of the Forbidden Lands are. The entry on halflings and goblins teaches us very little new, except that goblins have night vision, and suffer one point of damage to agility every quarter day if daylight, which players of goblin characters might want to know.