Saturday, 20 July 2019

Star Trek Adventures: A Play Test Review

So we wrapped up our Star Trek Adventures mini campaign this week. We were using the adventure which comes with the boxed starter set for the game, published by Modiphius. Star Trek Adventures uses the 2d20 Modiphius house rules system, which they seem to now be grafting onto a range of licenses. The starter set comes with pre-generated characters, a rules digest, some nice floor plans and some counters for the crew of the ship and their adversaries.

We had five players taking part in the adventure, which stretched across 6-8 sessions but could probably be played in a shorter time, as this group is happy to make even the most routine of encounters stretch over a couple of hours. There's no bad thing in that, but some groups which are more focused will probably play through this adventure in a shorter time span.

I was a relative Star Trek newbie and started watching the first couple of series of Star Trek - the Next Generation while we were playing the game in an effort to familiarise myself with the background. But our GM and most of the other players were well versed in the canon, which was lucky. I played Lieutenant Commander Liang Zhang, the Chinese helmswoman / con of the USS Armstrong, which was dispatched to deal with a distress call from a Federation research vessel, uncomfortably close to the Neutral Zone.

You need to be a dab hand with the phaser in this game.

The introductory adventure is a good one, featuring a range of roleplaying and combat encounters, and which gradually introduces the GM and players to the rules systems and to the 2d20 system generally. For example, the away team quickly gets caught up in a battle with Romulans early on in the adventure, which helps players to get their heads around the combat rules.

I found the combat rules as played a little too abstract for my tastes, as they are even more light than Dungeons & Dragons. The game uses the somewhat quaint approach of players deciding among themselves who gets to go next, with the bad guys alternating with the crew, and it still feels a little odd to me. IIRC the third edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, from Fantasy Flight Games, used something similar. It tends to result in a standard turn order, with occasional changes when it suits the players. Encounter areas are divided into zones which regulate weapon ranges and movement.

It is a very simple system at its essence, with an additional layer of crunch in the form of special abilities which allow crew members to provide each other with re-rolls, extra actions, and so forth. Additional dice can be gained through using Values and Determination points. Damage is a little more involved, as it requires these black, proprietary dice (don't they love those in RPGs these days?), with special Star Trek symbols which can have special effects, or do nothing at all.

Space battles can quickly turn into TPKs.
The space combat system, on the other hand, is a mess. Neither the GM nor a couple of seasoned wargamers around the table, myself included, could get our heads around it. I suggested some sort of flowchart might be required. There isn't one, though, but maybe Modiphius might want to look at one for the next edition, if they can hold onto the license. We stumbled through an encounter with a pair of Romulan cruisers, but a resolution was only achieved by winging it a little. It looked to me that further work would be needed before we got to the bottom of the system.

Every science fiction game which involves starship combat needs a system to resolve what can be a vital part of the plot. After all, mess up here and you could quickly find yourself in campaign ending, total party kill territory. I recall d20 Star Wars simply grafted its tactical combat system into space, itself raided from third edition D&D, but that did not look satisfactory by a long stretch. I've done some reading of the starship combat system for Ashen Stars, but again, this looks highly convoluted. Star Trek is no different. For some reason games designers start to inject massive levels of unnecessary complexity into a separate rules system which is only occasionally going to be used.

On the upside, the starter set comes with a nice radial map which allows for combat between ships to be tracked around a planet, possibly with multiple moons and maybe an asteroid field. A lot of encounters in Star Trek take place in the vicinity of planets, so I can see how this makes sense. Usually only 2-3 ships will be involved. There are no hordes of fighters in this universe.

As helmsman my character was particularly useful during a space battle with a Romulan cruiser, but I did feel that she was out of her depth in many other situations. We had several firefights on ships, space stations and planets with frequently tough and well-equipped opposition, and my character was less valuable than, say, the medical officer. All I could really do was snipe away with my poxy phaser and hope for the best.

The crew of the Armstrong busy 'interacting' with new friends.

Star Trek characters are not routinely equipped with the sort of hardware that, say, Judge Dredd can call on. Perhaps this is the fault of the setting, but certainly, I noticed that our security officer, who was a blue alien that carried some kind of traditional melee weapon, was killing bad guys quicker by thumping them with it, than the rest of the away team kitted out with phasers.

Ultimately, phasers are pants in this game - you are better served by hitting the bad guys with rocks. We did forget at times to use the aiming rules, which might have made them more effective. But still, I was rolling 4D for my damage, versus a security officer who was rolling 6D by hitting things with a glorified spatula.

It may be that Star Trek Adventures should be less combat focused than perhaps the starter adventure would indicate. Watching ST:NG on Netflix, my impression was that in many episodes violence is either never resorted to, or if so, only reluctantly. In the RPG it happens regularly. Maybe players just want to work off some latent aggression by shooting things rather than seeking to talk to them? Maybe after the first couple of attempts to negotiate lead to conceding initiative to the opposition, the temptation is to shoot first and ask questions later?

It always helps to have a muscly, blue security officer to kill stuff.

We were aided by the fact that the ship's NPC captain was not interested in micro-managing the away team. Our on-site PC commander, the first officer, was more inclined to enforce some level of civility on the part of the crew, and in most cases we tried to keep phasers on stun, although it was noticeable that in the climactic encounter, when we could have used stealth and diplomacy to resolve the situation, we went in with phasers blazing and killed everything we could. Perhaps we'd had enough of the opposition, which had been running us ragged for weeks.

The actual core rules for Star Trek Adventures is badly written. It takes a long time to find what you need in it, we all found it hard to get our heads around some of the many moving parts the game has. I'm not sure whether this is the fault of the 2d20 system, or the fact that there are several additional systems grafted on to it to provide the flavour of the setting...but I was finding that each time we returned to the table, we were either re-learning things, forgetting things, or simply missing things altogether.

Would I play 2d20 again? Yes, I think so. I think the core mechanic is a good one (I believe it is going to be used for the next edition of Achtung Cthulhu), but the presentation of the rest of the game needs work, especially as far as Star Trek Adventures is concerned. I think you could run a good Star Trek game with this, and it would feel like Star Trek, but it would need adventures that challenged other aspects of the characters other than their combat skills. Too many RPGs are still firmly rooted in their wargames origins, and combat still takes up too much of the bandwidth in my view. Rarely does a session seem to go by without someone trying to kill something. Star Trek feels like it has the potential to support a good scenario where a phaser is never actually used, but it would require adventure designers and indeed players to step up to that plate.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Blood Bowl: the season continues!

My Blood Bowl season has continued apace, although frankly I've been a little too busy to keep up with this blog recently. Below are some short summaries of the next three matches in my Blood Bowl campaign.

Brighton Bloodlusters 3, Lambs to the Slaughter 0

This was always going to be a tough game. It was an interconference match up against a Khorne team. The Bloodlusters were coming into the game with two journeyman pit fighters after one of their pit fighters was injured in their previous game. My plan in this match was to try to keep their Bloodthirster busy using my Minotaur, Big Jim.

Big Jim takes down a Bloodletter daemon!

This match was always going to be a tough ask for the Lambs, and despite having two close opportunities to score whipped away from us, IIRC the score was 1-0 to the Bloodlusters at half time. The Lambs had cabled the Chaos Wastes for the services of star players Chaos Warriors Lewdgrip Whiparm and Bilerot Vomitflesh but sadly they did not make the impact I was hoping for. Bilerot is an interesting star player to field as he has such a nauseous stench that even heralds of Khorne were finding it difficult to be in the same area as him. He makes a great defensive player to field.

Lewdgrip Whiparm lines up for a pass.

I think I made a mistake in opting for a couple of expensive Chaos star players for this one - I should have bought some more team re-rolls and a lack of these really punished me. I also did not show enough awareness of where we were in terms of the game clock, which also cost me. It was a learning experience, let's leave it at that. Helmut Hooves was seriously injured while Rudiger the Cruel picked up MVP honours for the Lambs.

Lambs to the Slaughter 0, Squig Sin City Bengals 0

Doom Diver Down...!
The Lambs managed to draw against this goblin team, which was an achievement if you ask me. It did not start well, with Big Jim being taken out by a chainsaw in the first turn of the first half. Luckily the offending goblin was sent off not long afterwards, but the damage had potentially been done.

This team did not allow me much in the way of inducements, so I was playing with no re-rolls against a team with an arsenal of specialist players, including a pair of trolls, a doom diver and a fanatic. The trolls kept trying to maneuver into a position to throw the doom diver, and at one point he was almost eaten, but luckily the Lambs stayed in the game with the Chaos Warriors making their presence felt.

It was the first time I played a team with Dodge skills and this was difficult to cope with for a Chaos team more used to smashing things until they stopped moving. The goblins were quick and agile, but when we made contact with them they went down hard. In the second half Big Jim came back on and the goblin injury bench started to get more crowded. We had a journeyman Beastman playing to make up the numbers as Helmut Hooves was away hurt, and he succeeded in putting a goblin in the hospital, so was promptly offered a full time contract.

Goldie Lookin' Pain 2, Lambs to the Slaughter 0

Another shut-out, this time against a fearsome team of orcs. My luck was against me all game long. I had an absolute shocker. It was one of those matches where even my opponent was taking pity on me and offering helpful hints. That said, these orcs were formidable, no arguments on that score. I think the result could have been a lot worse.

Black Orc blitzers and their troll buddy warming up.

The Lambs were crippled on turn 4 when Big Jim was sent out for the rest of the game. This was the first time someone had succeeded in doing this all season, so respect there. My impression of this team was that they were almost as tough as dwarves, but faster and more agile. My traditional advantage with my heavily armoured Chaos Warriors was negated by the infamous Black Orcs.

The Pain vs the Lambs
Some honours were salvaged in the second half when Mikkel Ironfist put one of the Black Orcs in hospital. But the Lambs had to fight tooth and nail to keep the score to 2-0. The orcs kept a tight wall of blockers around the ball carrier, anchored on their troll, and making liberal use of the Guard skill. But they seemed a very versatile team. Luckily they lacked a passer, having lost theirs KIA in their previous match, but did have a lone goblin they could toss, and it was he who grabbed one of their touchdowns.

That's it for now; I'll be returning with a summary of the rest of the season as time allows. Thus far my impressions of the league have been very positive indeed. All the players are keen. The levels of experience vary, but primarily people are there to have a good time, first and foremost.

Although I have been playing Blood Bowl since around 1990, long hiatuses in between mean I am no expert, and the first few games were really just learning experiences for me, as I got to grip with the rules and learned from my errors. I think the Lambs would definitely have done better with more re-rolls earlier on and I fundamentally failed to appreciate the importance of these to the overall game. Also, I understand Chaos can be a hard team to play in its early stages. My players are starting to pick up some experience now, and I may start adding new figures to designate my stars. We'll see.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Building a noble house for the Game of Thrones RPG

One of the areas of tabletop roleplaying which I'm interested in exploring at the gaming table is the political intrigue game. I never really got to properly realise the potential of the Vampire RPG line for this kind of game and the only Vampire campaign I played in did not really pay as much attention to this as might have been possible.

Vampire seems to have been THE system for high political drama and intrigue. At some point I'd still like to see if it is possible to run a Dark Ages Vampire chronicle. Who knows? I've also been looking at Iron Empires which is an impressively political science fiction setting. You can see some of my earlier work on that here.

In the meantime we have A Song Of Ice And Fire from Green Ronin, which looks to me as if it could fit the bill. This uses Green Ronin's Chronicle System, which to my knowledge has really only been used to power Game of Thrones roleplaying to date. I'm wondering whether it might be adapted for a samurai political drama, say during the decline of the Ashikaga shogunate in the 1400s?

I like the way players can work together to build a house, a noble clan that can participate in the power politics of Westeros. While you could just as easily use the core rules to run a game of conventional adventurers, the default campaign has characters as members of the same noble house, or their retainers. In some ways it reminds me of the chantry construction process in Ars Magica.

Creating House Karstark

Picking up my trusty dice, I began rolling. Firstly, I had to determine the location of the fiefdom, as that affects its other attributes. Westeros, after all, has quite diverse geographical regions. The dice came down for the North, so I was looking at Stark bannermen here.

Each fief has a number of core attributes,which you also roll for and then apply regional modifiers. For example, fiefs in the North are better defended by default, include more land, but tend to be poorer overall. I've included my initial rolls with regional modifiers already applied:

  • DEFENCE (33) - quality of the fief's overall defences / strongholds, including natural obstacles that might obstruct an invasion;
  • INFLUENCE (41) - determines the Lord's maximum status, which at this stage is 5;
  • LANDS (55) - how much land the house controls, in this case quite a lot;
  • LAW (21) - overall standard of law and order in the fief;
  • POWER (21) - military muscle, in this case a modest force but we may change this;
  • POPULATION (30) - measures the number of people living in the fief and number of larger settlements;
  • WEALTH (21) - "enough to get by" according to the rules.
Looking through my Game of Thrones campaign guide, also from Green Ronin, I wanted to see if I could match this house to one of those listed. I quite like the look of House Karstark, so decided to go with them. 

Each player now gets to spend 1d6 to boost the above attributes. I decided there are four hypothetical players in my campaign, so have 4d6 to play with. I feel the Karstarks are still lacking in military heft so 2d6 goes to that. I roll a total of 6, which takes it to 27 points. The other 2d6 goes to Wealth - I don't want the Karstarks just "getting by", even in the North. I roll 7 in total, which boosts their Wealth to 28.

History of the Karstarks: power won through treachery?

Rickard Karstark
Now we get on to the history of the Karstarks. I roll to see how long they have been established for. As the rules explain, "Each house has a history, a chronicle of deeds and crimes that shape its identity. Great deeds might elevate a house to greater heights, while scandal and tragedy can shatter a house's foundations, forcing it to fall into obscurity."

We roll to find that the Karstarks have been around since the time of the Andal invasions, so they qualify as Very Old as a family. The campaign book has them as a factor in the North over 1000 years ago, that they are descended from the First Men, and that they became lords as a reward for helping Karlen Stark put down a rebel lord.

As a Very Old family I roll to find out how many significant events they have in their history. Treachery comes up first, so must be how they actually won their fiefdom. I decide they were likely part of the rebellion against the Starks but betrayed the prime movers in the insurrection at a critical stage, and were rewarded for their treachery. Nice. This was a long time ago, obviously, but memories are long in the North too.

Since then they have been favoured by the Starks and the Kingdom of the North, as I roll Favour twice, followed by a Windfall. I suspect one of those Favours might have been a marriage with the Starks at some point in the distant past. The Windfall might have come as a consequence of the Karstarks' support of their Stark cousins during the War of the Usurper.

This history means the family is net +1d6 Defence, +3d6 Influence, +3d6 Lands, +2d6 Law, +1d6 Population, +5d6 Power, +2d6 Wealth. Truly, the Karstarks have done well.

Their scores now stand at Def 38, Inf 52, Land 69, Law 29, Pop 36, Pow 46, Wealth 39. This is beginning to look like more of a contender for some serious power.

The Sun of Winter!

I now have to spend my points to build the Karstarks' realm. First, for Defence, they have a castle at Karhold. It is a small castle (30pts) with a single small keep and a couple of towers. Nothing fancy. They have some points left over (8) for further construction in the future, but can't afford anything more right now.

The family has tons of influence, so we spend 20 for a first born son and another 10 for a first born daughter. It is tempting to go for a second son with 10 more, so I do it, leaving 12 points in reserve. Three of my player characters will be of the blood. Awesome. Looking at the entry in the campaign guide, it looks like Eddard Karstark, his brother Torrhen and his sister Alys will all be PCs. The head of the house, Rickard, will be an NPC. Rickard's maximum status is 6.

Now it is time to allocate my Lands points into actual domains. Karhold is out in the north-east of the Northlands, on the Bay of Seals. It looks mainly forest, with some coast and a river valley. I decide to break the domains down as follows:

  • Karhold - plains (5) - dense forest (5) - small town (20) - pond (5)  = 35pts
  • The Valley - plains (5) - river (3) - road (5) = 13pts
  • Seal Coast - plains (5)  - coast (3) - road (5) = 13pts
  • Eastern Woods - plains (5) - light woods (3) = 8pts
I know these are not imaginative names. I like Karhold and the Seal Coast. I see another domain south of Karhold along the river and then a final domain to the east of Karhold between the castle and the sea. These are actually quite small holdings, even though the family has a relatively high land score. The rest will be under their vassals. This just amounts to land directly under their control, which is less than 40 square miles of territory. The estates may not even be contiguous. 

I think Karhold and the Valley and Eastern Woods are likely all easily reachable, but the family has another manor out on the coast which is further away, although still directly owned.

Law and Population actually contribute to House Fortunes. More on this later, but for the time being, the Karstarks have a -2 from their Law of 29, and a +3 from their Population, so looks like a net +1 at the moment.

Next time: we look at the Karstarks' army and their banner houses.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Making Branna the Fat for d20 Glorantha

Branna the Fat
Further to my earlier ruminations on the topic of running d20 games in Glorantha, I’m working on a party of pregenerated characters as a way to explore some of the ideas I had there. First on the list is Branna the Fat, who is going to serve as an illustration of some of the collated ideas for Gloranthan characters.

If this system goes anywhere, it is going to be a gradual, organic generation of ideas and rules rather than something that is going to erupt, ready made from the creator’s mind.

The first step, as with Dungeons & Dragons, is to roll Branna’s attributes, using 4d6 and dropping the lowest. This provides him with:

STR 14, INT 7, WIS 12. DEX 6, CON 11, CHA 8

Branna is a fairly obese and unpleasant individual by the looks of things, but beneath the rolls of fat lies some muscle. I let the dice roll where they may as I love old school random character generation systems.

As the adventure is going to be in Sartar I decide to make him an Orlanthi. Right now this has not a great deal of bearing on the game stats, other than his initial proficiencies: light armour, shields and simple weapons. This would be basic for all Orlanthi, reflecting the minimum weapons training they receive up to adulthood.

Being of human stock Branna's basic hit die is d8.

We now come onto Branna’s Rune affiliations. Players would generally roll for these. I have not worked out the full range of Glorantan runes in D&D terms, but here are some starters for Branna:

  • AIR rune for being an Orlanthi: +1 DEX; Base walking speed increases to 35 feet; unpredictable (this latter is a personality trait that comes with the Air rune).
  • STASIS rune (random Power rune); +1 STR; advantage on saving throws vs poison; stubborn.
  • DARKNESS rune; +1 WIS; darkvision 60’; secretive.

Thus you can see how the runes impact characters, their attributes, behavior and abilities. I’ve not linked Saving Throws to Runes yet, at the moment I’m inclined to allow this to be player choice, but it may be I shift these into the Runes too.

I decide to choose a tribe for Branna – but again this could be generated if you were putting together a multi-tribe group of warriors – and make him a member of the Torkani tribe. The tribe brings some additional abilities, in this case: proficiency in Deception and Survival, and the ability to speak Uz (troll). He also gets two Circles dice, Torkani 1 and Uz 1 representing his familiarity with these societies. More on Circles later.

NB: in Sartar the Torkani are a tribe that has been driven off their lands several times, have feuded with the Telmori werewolves and who are thought to be associated with the trolls.

Next we come to Branna’s profession. Again this could be rolled for. I go with Farmer. This brings him Wealth 2 (status of a Carl), proficiency in medium armour, Animal Handling and Nature, and some equipment. A farmer’s starting equipment includes a spear, shield, a sword and a chain shirt.

Note – your Wealth score equates to roughly 20 cattle or livestock equivalent (I’m thinking three sheep to the cow here). So Branna could own 10 cows and 30 sheep for example. He’s relatively well off.

Next we come to magic and religion. Branna gets two cantrips. I’m thinking of linking cantrips to profession for the time being, and as a farmer this makes the most sense. I give him Guidance and Resistance.

Branna is an initiate of Argan Argar, which is the main cult within the Torkani tribe. There is the option for him to join the Deloradella cult later on or stick to Argan Argar. Characters don’t have to be a cult member when they begin and don’t have to join their tribal cult. But they do get a free advance in the cult right away and there is no way to access divine magic any other way other than maybe via a heroquest.

Branna gets Bane as his first spell from the cult (with d20 as his exhaustion die if cast at 1st level). He also gets Argan Argar 1 to add to his Circles. This allows him to access the resources of the cult whenever he is close to a centre of worship.

Finally, Branna gets to add his own clan to his circles. In Glorantha, the clan is a sub-group within a tribal coalition. Branna is a member of the Gahagar clan, so gains Clan 1 (Gahagar). I'm thinking his status as a Carl might raise that to Clan 2.

That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. I’m still working on the ideas underpinning Circles and Wealth/Resources. Those may be appear in another post if I decide to take this exercise any further!

Useful reading:

  • D&D Player's Handbook , Mearls / Crawford, 2014
  • Sartar - Kingdom of Heroes, Stafford / Richard, 2012
  • Burning Wheel, Luke Crane, 2002
  • Talislanta - the Savage Land, Sechi, Williams, Bamford, Conrad et al, 2018
  • 13th Age, Heinsoo / Tweet, 2013

Friday, 3 May 2019

Star Trek Adventures: a first foray into the new Modiphius RPG

I’ve been playing some Star Trek Adventures recently. Star Trek has never really been my thing, but I’ve been strong armed into playing in the starter adventure for the new RPG from Modiphius. I’m also curious to try out their 2d20 system as this is something they seem to be using as the mechanics for many of their other RPGs, including Achtung Cthulhu.

I am surrounded by Star Trek fans with an encyclopaedic knowledge of what is a vast and rich universe going back to the 1960s. I think to GM this setting you really need to know your Star Trek, but luckily we have a GM who is a mine of information.

I’m still feeling my way with this universe, about which I know very little of the technical detail, and have started watching The Next Generation as part of my home work on Netflix. That’s when I’m not catching up on my Game of Thrones.

We are playing the starter adventure which Modiphius has put out for the game, which seems to come with some very nice floor plans and some pre-gen characters. I think it seems to scratch the itch for my fellow players, although there are a number of other science fiction settings I’d prefer to game in, including JudgeDredd and Warhammer 40,000, but that’s just me.

In Star Trek you are very much playing to character as the crew of a starship. In this case we are crewing the USS Armstrong in its efforts to work out what has happened to a missing research ship. I’m playing the conn – responsible for piloting ships and shuttles, tinkering with computer systems, jury rigging recalcitrant technology, and getting shot at regularly.

There is an entire sub game here around ship to ship combat which we have not explored, although we are on the trail of a rogue Romulan cruiser which I expect we are going to stumble on at some point. For ship operations you do get to draw on the rest of the crew and your vessel which acts almost like a separate character with its own stats.

The game abstracts much of the rest of the crew, as the focus is very much on the senior officers – i.e. the players – and not the grunts. Rather than provide actual NPCs like in Savage Worlds who function as mooks, crew are there to assist with critical rolls when required. The game tries not to get bogged down in the minutiae of the rest of the crew - the player characters are the heroes here.

The captain is interestingly an NPC in this campaign. He seems to be a conduit for the GM to feed instructions to the players and occasionally stop things from getting out of hand – e.g. a proposal to set phasers to kill during a recent encounter with Romulans in the Neutral Zone.

The 2d20 System

The 2d20 system is an intriguing one. The base check uses 2d20 while characters can assist others by rolling an additional 1d20 if they are not directly involved in an action. Additional dice can be added through various abilities, as can re-rolls. The players add an attribute with a skill to produce a target number they must roll under on each d20. The difficulty level is actually based on the number of successes you need. If you need three or four successes, you need to be finding ways to add more dice to the basic roll.

Further granularity comes from specific character abilities, core values and interest areas. There is no lengthy skill list and equipment is issued as and when required in Star Trek. Most crew have their basic tricorder and phaser.

The game also uses a couple of pools of counters. Momentum points seem to be a way for characters to buy extra actions and re-rolls to push the action in their favour or along routes they want to go. There are also some kind of challenge points which are used by the GM to create difficulties for the characters. There is something of the Savage Worlds bennie system in here. I don’t think we have fully got to grips with this yet.

That’s pretty much 2d20 in a nutshell. It does not seem to be a difficult game and is not very granular. Bear in mind we are only about four sessions into this with a GM who is still learning the ropes, but it seems to be going well. Overall there are other systems I prefer – e.g. the aforesaid Savage Worlds – and I’m writing my Achtung Cthulhu adventures using Call of Cthulhu at the moment. But never say never.