Sunday, 26 September 2010

Back to Rokugan

Some years ago I played in a very entertaining Legend of the Five Rings campaign, and today I returned to mystic Rokugan as my son Sebastian kicked off his own campaign, this time using the d20 Oriental Adventures supplement. One of the real challenges here is being able to take my Pathfinder hat off, and put my 3.5 D&D hat back on - not an easy undertaking.

A little background first. We have four characters in the party: a Lion samurai, who seems a bit dim and blunders around a lot; a Nezumi from the Crab; a Unicorn shaman; and a Phoenix shugenja. The campaign opened with the four characters dining in the house of the Lion governor of the city of Zimbwa when they were alerted by the arrival of a frightened priest, telling them some goblins had attacked a nearby temple. The city is already in turmoil, with regular riots between competing street factions, so no garrison troops were available.

The party duly armed itself, politely retired from dinner, and headed for the temple. The goblins were busy trying to set light to it, but we interrupted them and a fight duly ensued. The samurai was largely useless, despite wielding a katana; he did not roll above an 8 for the whole fight. The real surprise was the nezumi ratling, equipped with a naginata and a tail spike, who put three goblins down, and at one point scored simultaneous critical hits with both naginata and tail spike. Nice.

The shaman summoned a minor oni which was equipped with sharp claws, a poison barb and a breath weapon, and took care of two goblins itself.

More goblins had been hiding on the roof, and jumped down to join the fray, but by the end of it, 10 of them lay dead on the floor of the temple, with only the samurai wounded.

Securing the temple against further attack, we found a box containing a ring which can summon another minor oni, which we gave to the shugenja. We also found a Lion ancestral necklace which only a samurai can use and which summons the spirit of a dead Lion general. We were also rewarded with 40 koku by the grateful priests.

Chatting to the priests over a cup of cha, we were told that there is a high degree of political tension between the clergy and the local garrison, and that priests are regularly harassed by the random checkpoints set up by Lion bushi. One particular group of Lion samurai has been singled out by the priests for retribution, and they have asked our party - despite the presence of a Lion samurai - to deal with them.

The priest also mentioned that they had heard rumours of something dark and evil lurking in the Unicorn territories, and that they knew of a deserted castle on the main road on the other side of the river which might be worth an explore.

So, lots to think about as we consider what our next move should be!

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Pathfinder: "They can't touch the crow!"

Another session of Pathfinder this evening, to which I arrived late (working in London on a Friday messes with my schedule). By the time I got there the guys had cut a deal with the gnomes (whom you may remember we met last week), trading our magical music box for a map. We seem to be in the process of gathering an impressive amount of advanced intelligence on the wilderness areas we have yet to explore.

There was the usual city-building session, which we have now facilitated with the use of a laptop and a custom-built spreadsheet program for managing the ongoing evolution of our kingdom, and our glorious capital of Staghelm.

We were down two players tonight, so the druid Cassie and rogue Oban were parcelled out to Kelvin and Manoj.

On with the serious business of killing stuff, and our first mission was to track down a barbarian werewolf who had gone on a killing spree in Staghelm. We tracked him out of town and cornered him in a ruined barn, apparently once part of an elven kingdom that occupied this region centuries ago. The werewolf came at us with a battle axe plus his bite attack, but only lasted two rounds. Artemisia, my barbarian, cut him down to size with one hit delivering 52 hps of damage. The werewolf lasted two rounds. Oban was also impressive in this fight, being made invisible in advance, and sneaking up behind the werewolf to successfully backstab him. However, this seems to have driven the barbarian/lycanthrope into a frenzy, because he focused his attacks on Oban, hitting him twice. Healing magic from Cassie kept the changeling rogue in the battle.

We are now throwing in a range of spells to boost the combat characters, namely haste, protection from evil, and enlarge. This makes them incredibly potent combat machines, with bucketloads of dice being rolled. I'm pretty sure Wu Ya was at one stage delivering six attacks as part of his hasted flurry of blows monk attack.

With the werewolf dealt with, we then decided to do some more exploration, adding to our knowledge of the Skunk River. Here we encountered a nixie in a dispute with some woodcutters who had chopped down some valuable elven trees. The stand-off was dealt with by our elven mage, who was able to re-grow the trees in return for which the nixie released two wood cutters from her charm spell.

Two issues came to light here: firstly, the wood cutters seem to have been granted a legitimate license to log pretty much anywhere in the kingdom. We're not sure who by, and given we have a druid as our de facto head of state, thought lumber licenses a little anomalous. This prompted a discussion about legislation, and it was decided that all council members would report back with five pieces of suggested legislation by next week.

The second issue raised by the nixie encounter was the fact that the fay inhabitants, of which there are a considerable number in the kingdom, are not paying tax. They still enjoy the benefits of the rulers ridding the realm of evil critters like trolls and werewolves, but don't pay for that security. Artemisia has been wondering aloud about this, and the seeming two tier political relationship that is going on here.

Pressing on, we encountered a dryad who warned us about some sort of powerful evil treant that was coming to devour her life essence. As she was tied to her forest pool, she could not flee the approaching monster, and her satyr boyfriend had singly failed to stop it either. We duly volunteered. We told the poxy satyr he could stay behind, as he'd already injured himself, the nonce!

This last battle was massive. Our elven wizard summoned a pack of celestial hounds to help out. Artemisia, despite being hasted, fluffed two attacks with her lance. The treant hit her three times for more than 60hps. Enlargement plus her rage mean that in these situations she makes an easy target (AC 16), and she was forced to back off. This left the stage to Wu Ya, the mad Matrix crow, who, with AC 28, was impossible for the big wooden guy to hit, and landed a massive 75 hps on the treant in one round to finish it off.

We ended the session with the party chopping up the treant for firewood with the dead werewolf's magic axe. Fitting, really.

There was some mention of the rogue having a fling with the green hag/witch from the previous session, but as this happened before I arrived, I'll gloss over this somewhat sordid episode!

Friday, 24 September 2010

Cold City: who do you really trust?

Cold City, from Contested Ground Studios, is one of the most innovative RPGs I’ve played in a long time. I was first attracted to it by its setting, namely Berlin in 1950, at the beginning of the Cold War. It mixes the suspicion and politics of the early Cold War with the ‘weird science’ of an alternative WW2, quite a popular trope these days.

The PCs in Cold City are members of the Reserve Police Agency, a special detective unit established by the four Allied powers occupying Berlin. They are tasked with tracking down lost Nazi technology and occult artefacts in the ruins of a city which five years before was a major battleground between the Soviets and the Germans. The twist here is that each player must play a different nationality – i.e. from one of the occupying powers. With five players, which was the case in the game I ran recently, a fifth player can be catered for with a local German detective, actually quite an interesting role in many respects.

Cold City is very rules light. It takes 10 minutes to generate characters. Players can determine their own positive and negative attributes, which can then add dice to contests in the game. They also decide on their own hidden agendas, both personal and national. Using a PC from the game I ran, Thomas Goodberry, a British code breaker, we have “Recruit demons into British service,” as Goodberry’s national agenda (i.e. that is what his political masters have asked him to do during his tenure in the RPA), while his personal agenda, “Learn occult words of power,” is what he plans to achieve himself. This really helps to drive the game, as each player is working towards their own objectives, and the GM can also throw obstacles and opportunities in their paths.

Each PC starts with three positive and two negative traits, which can be added to during the game. Again, Goodberry boasts an addictive personality as one of his negative traits, but he is also confident, a positive one.

The really great mechanic in Cold City is the trust mechanic. Players allocate trust to other team members, both at the start of the game, and as it proceeds. If a PC you trust is aiding you, then you can add one die per point of trust you have allocated to him. Similarly, if he works against you, he can add your trust pool to his dice pool. In the game I ran, none of the PCs really ended up working against each other, so this aspect of the game was not fully utilised, but it is possible that with more sessions this might have changed. In a previous game I played in, one of my team members chose to betray me, and added my trust dice to his roll to try to shoot me!

Because of the Cold War scenario, the Soviet player usually starts off with a significant disadvantage, although in my game the fifth player, the German, Joachim Leder, was also barely trusted to begin with, but began winning the Allied characters over (only to be eaten by zombies in the penultimate scene of the session!)

Cold City has very simple mechanics, based around dice pools of d10s. These are driven by your Attributes, your Advantages/Disadvantages, and your trust pools. The game’s author, Malcolm Craig, discourages GMs from calling for tests unless there is a real, dramatic reason to do so. For example, in a scene where a player is picking a lock in an empty house, and there is no imminent danger to him, there is no point calling for a contest. It is a locked room, but the team is going to find a way into it eventually, so why bother rolling? In my game, a PC wanted to use a sniper rifle to shoot some street lights out, as he was afraid he was being set up to be killed by communist snipers. I decided that, as an ex-US Army Ranger there was no point making tests for this: first, there were no snipers, he was being paranoid; second, the existence or not of the lights did not advance the plot, and we’d have wasted time rolling dice as he sniped away at the lights; third, he was very competent with weapons. Better to progress the plot.

Contests also give the player an opportunity to add more traits, another reason to keep the dice rolling to a minimum. PCs start with five traits, but in one session one of mine managed to add three positive ones – Face Reading, Multilingual and Acute Hearing-through three successful contests. Obviously, the trait has to relate back to the contest, but as you can see, these are already giving him plenty of opportunity to add more d10s to his dice pools.

I have very few criticisms of this game. If buying it, do buy the Cold City Companion too, partly because of its alternative treatment of negative traits, and also for the useful background information, including setting scenes outside Berlin. This is not a game for long-running campaigns: I have twice played it as one-shots, and I feel it would work bests over 2-3 sessions maximum. It is a useful change of pace from playing a longer running campaign. If you liked Call of Cthulhu, but feel that it has become too samey, or gamers are too familiar with the Mythos, Cold City may be what you are looking for.

My only other word of caution: you may have to think on your feet in this game. A red herring in my adventure related to a hidden stash of porn became a major plotline when I inadvertently dropped in the fact that the pornographer had a coded client ledger with the names of senior Allied officers in it. In a previous game, which I played at UK Games Expo in 2008, run by game creator Malcolm Craig, a black market consignment of morphine distracted the team from its occult investigation.
The mechanics are so simple, you could even drop the game into other settings with similar levels of paranoia. I have heard it was successfully converted to Battlestar Galactica, which seems like a great idea.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

El Grande

This game won the Game of the Year award at Essen in 1996. This seems like a long, long time ago, and was well before I really knew what a eurogame was. El Grande is a eurogame. It sports many of the characteristics of one, including an emphasis on scoring points, a points track around the edge of the board, no dice, and while it represents 16th century Spanish power politics, it is still a Spain at peace – i.e. there is no killing.

Thus, El Grande is about acquiring power and influence. You do this by controlling caballeros, or knights. In many ways it resembles election strategy. You decide how many knights you want to commit to each province in Spain, and each time the game is scored (on turns three, six and nine), the player with the most knights in each province gets the most points. There are points for second place too, and sometimes third place. You may be beginning to see how this resembles the dynamics of British electoral constituencies.

There are cards in El Grande too. These regulate the flow of knights. Each player has two off-board areas to store their knights, the court and the provinces. I guess this represents which of your knights are with the lord (El Grande) and which are off on their farms. Those in the court are available to deploy on the board. However, piles of action cards (I believe one for each player) regulate how many knights you can move from your court to the board. Each player gets to pick an action card every turn, and apart from telling you how many knights you can place on the board, they inject other random elements of chaos too many to explain here.

A good example of an action card is one that allows you to move the knights already on the board, for instance shifting them out of a province.

The turn order mechanic is one of my particular favourites with this game. You have 13 initiative cards which determine when you move, but you can only play each one once, with 13 being the highest. They determine who gets first dibs on the action cards. They also determine how many knights you can move from the province area of your off-board zone to the court – that is, how many knights you can move from your ‘reserves’ to make available for deployment. Lower initiative cards will let you move more reserves, higher ones, like your 12 or 13 card, let you move NONE. You need to decide whether you want a better action card, that suits your strategy, or whether you need more knights.

I drew for first place in the game I played, and adopted the strategy of using a mid-level card when there were no action cards I really wanted and I had enough knights to play with. I can see there can be situations where you simply don’t have enough knights in your court, and have already spent your 2, 3, and 4 initiative cards (you can only use each number ONCE), meaning your ability to move more knights out of your reserves is limited.

The action card system reminds me very much of a game I own called Conquest of the Empire, which also displays potential strategies face up for players to choose/bid for.

El Grande also has the Castle. This is a cardboard tower into which you can pop knights as an on table reserve. It is located in Majorca, but I’m not sure that is significant. The Castle is scored like a province, in its own right, but the bonus it offers is that knights in the Castle get to come out in the scoring turns, to be deployed into a single province of your choice, BEFORE the turn is scored. They act like an emergency airborne reserve players can drop onto the board at the last moment. I liked this a lot, just like I love the ronin rule in Shogun (if you’ve played that). Castle knights are like ronin in Shogun – you send them where you need them most. They’re your troubleshooters. I didn’t think the other players really made full use of the Castle in our game, but it could be that El Grande is sophisticated enough that the Castle is not to everyone’s taste. We shall see.

Finally, El Grande has the king piece. You can always opt for the king action, if nobody else has taken it. The king brings in two important effects in El Grande: knights can only be placed in provinces next to the one the king is resident in, and no action cards can be played on the province he occupies. He also provides a +2 points bonus to the province when scoring. Nice. The king can be quite useful tactically: I used him to safeguard my very lucrative position in the Basque region once other players saw I was leading and tried to gnaw away at my points lead by various guerrilla tactics. They could not touch the Basque region, however, if I kept the king there. He became a royal insurance policy. But I’m sure there are other ways to make use of him. Due to the geography of Spain, moving the king away from New Castile, the central province (and nominally the richest, although I impoverished it early in the game with a card), can effectively shut off big parts of the board from caballero deployment: park him up in Catalonia, and Granada is going to go very quiet.

I really enjoyed El Grande. It took four people about three hours to play it, with three of us being newbies to the game. One player led for most of the game, before the concerted efforts of the other players forced him into third place eventually. I think I’d like to play it again before deciding whether to buy it. There are other strategic games of a similar nature that I already hold in my collection, but they are either much longer to play, or more focused on military conquest than influence building.

El Grande has pace, however. You need to keep a constant eye on what is happening if you are going to win. Everything every player does is important. Switch off for five minutes, and chances are someone has got something past you.

I’m going to put this one on my watch list, maybe play it again, and make a purchase decision then.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Pathfinder Kingmaker: A short cut to mushroom (soup)

I think at this point it is appropriate for me to provide a little summary of the Pathfinder campaign I participate in on Friday nights. We've got a decent-sized group, with five players and a GM, and we're currently playing the Kingmaker campaign from Paizo, which so far has seen our characters rise from the obscurity of 1st level to coming within striking range of 5th.

Kingmaker involves the adventurers being tasked with pacifying an area of wilderness, which they then have the right to develop as their own kingdom. It includes a kingdom building/management model that kicked in when we reached 3rd level, allowing our characters to found a kingdom, start bringing in settlers, begin farming, etc. The early phases of the campaign were simply exploration, using an old school hex-by-hex approach, complete with wandering monsters, that reminds me of early D&D Expert level adventures I ran back in the Eighties.

The current party consists of a Human Barbarian, a Tengu(!) Monk, an Elf Druid, another Elf, this time a Wizard, and a Changeling Rogue. We have also obtained a number of animal companions, including the Druid's pet elk(!) called Bullwinkle (!!), a trained dog called Cujo, and a savage war horse for the barbarian which currently goes nameless.

Playing Pathfinder over the last few months - with a bit of a hiatus for summer holidays - has brought home to me how powerful my barbarian character Artemisia is, when compared to previous incarnations of the barbarian class, for instance in third edition D&D. She has quickly turned into the primary combat weapon of the party, although I have to say the monk is shaping up well, and seems capable to being able to do a respectable amount of damagae (30+ hit points) with a single attack. This has to be a good thing, as it means we no longer need to rely on my PC to keep us alive! Whenever she gets knocked out, we have been faced with somewhat of a predicament, but I feel comfortable now that the Tengu monk Wu Ya, and indeed even our backstabbing rogue, are capable of doing some serious damage themselves.

We have also been able to make good use of a number of spells, effectively deployed by both our spellcasters (one of whom is usually played via Skype from Manchester these days). A particular favourite has been Entangle, which helps anchor critters to the ground before we move in to finish them off, and Summon Animal (?) which lets us bring woodland critters into a fight. They have been more than useful in flanking opponents, although controversially we once used a poisonous toad to flank a Huge centipede, only to find later this was ILLEGAL in the steward's enquiry. Even more recently we have been using Enlarge to turn my character into an effective giant, along with her warhorse, which provides the party with a tank option in outdoor encounters.

In the last couple of sessions we have been starting to develop our kingdom, and put together our ruling 'cabinet' composed of a mix of PCs and NPCs (a little bit like a Cameron/Clegg coalition). This has meant giving positions of power and responsibility within the new realm to NPCs which we do not necessarily trust completely - at least, I don't - but we need them in place to ensure the smooth running of our kingdom (VERY like the Coalition government in fact). I think we're still a little lacking in the Foreign Secretary department, and are trying to fix this, but it may take time (heck, the similarities with Westminster right now are darned frightening, come to think of it).

Pressing on to our most recent session, which was somewhat truncated by my late arrival and Dave the changeling's departure for Surrey, our party has decided it is running out of cash to run the kingdom with, and continue to develop our glorious capital of Staghelm (think: more Deadwood than Rome). Consequently, with tax revenues still insufficient, we have opted to explore more of the lands to the south in the hopes of coming up with some more loot.

The evening was comprised of three main encounters. Firstly, we rescued some gnomish explorers who had been ambushed by goblins but were having trouble getting their wagons across a river. I felt a little peeved that they were off exploring lands claimed for OUR kingdom, without so much as a by-your-leave, but given the referee has insisted all our characters are of Good alignment, there was little scope for roughing them up and plundering their wagons. Still, we were able to trade a little bit of local intelligence with them, and it does look as if there could be a dragon lairing to the south and west of our current position, which may be exciting.

We also encountered a hag, accused by some of our subjects of kidnapping and eating local children, although there is little evidence to support this yet. Apart from serving us soup - which my character politely declined - she provided us with a few interesting titbits of information, including warning us of the presence of a hydra in the nearby lake. The GM had been trying to encourage us to go out boating on the lake earlier in the session, but we decided this would be a little rash and give him far too many opportunities to place us in a difficult situation.

The hag finally asked us to go mushroom-picking for her. I think I may have been a tad overtired by this stage after a busy day covering the gold market (gold at $1276/oz at time of writing), but the party seemed to feel this request was fine, and off we went. Our journey took us to the far side of the big lake (called the Stagwater or something like that) that lies to the south of our little capital. Approaching the aforesaid mushroom patch, we ran into a huge carnivorous plant thingy, emerging from a muddy hole, which we defeated in about four rounds. It would have been dangerous had it managed to keep hold of a PC and actually swallow one of us, but as ever with monsters of this kind, if it is taking multiple hits from a dog, a stag, a summoned dog/wolf, and three combat PCs, plus is big enough to be shot at and magic missiled by the others, is it going to last long enough to do that?, as it turned out.

That's pretty much where we left it, with Changeling Dave having to rush off to Surrey. Druid Rich is in Majorca, and Skyped with us briefly from his couch there (we HOPE you were wearing your trunks Rich, and were not Skyping us naked!) More Pathfinder next week with any luck. I'm not sure what the plan will be, but I suspect we will scout further south along the west side of the lake, as we know there is a hydra lurking along the eastern fringes, which we're keen to avoid.

Tune in next week for more, kids, for more loincloths and broadswords.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Pathfinder vs 4e: the battle for the heart of D&D

Have we finally reached that point of schism, that Reformation moment when a religion splits apart into two distinct camps? Has the creative force behind the D&D game finally got to that Martin Luther point, that hammering of the 95 Theses into the door of Wittenberg Castle? Are we now going to split into two camps, those who follow the banner of Wizards of the Coast and their masters at Hasbro, and those who have decided to take the creed of Pathfinder? Which represents tradition, which revolution? And most importantly, which is more fun?

Every time the D&D game has been tinkered with, there have been concerns. Sometimes this seems to have improved the game, and doubters have finally been won over (the launch of 3e in 2000 being a good example). At other times, for example the launch of 2e, this has not improved the game, and has required numerous, and I guess profitable, tweaks to bring it back on course.

I stopped playing D&D in 1990 and really didn’t go back to it until 2003, a fairly lengthy hiatus. I got playing again with 3e and felt that, while the game looked a lot more intimidating at first glance, many of the changes were massive improvements. When 4e was mooted, I hoped for a game that might increase the amount of non-combat mechanics, taking it away from its roots in ‘kick-the-door-down’ dungeon exploration and bringing it up to date with other popular RPGs, both paper-based and electronic.

Having now played in two 4e campaigns, run by separate GMs, and a Pathfinder campaign, I feel obliged to come down on the side of Pathfinder, and here are my reasons.

D&D 4e, for those familiar with 3e who have yet to play it, takes a mechanic from the world of CCGs. PCs are given powers which they ‘exhaust’ once they are used. Combat abilities, spells, magic items, all are liable to be exhausted, although there are also some ‘at will’ powers that can be used without exhausting them. You can still make a basic attack, but rarely need to unless something has gone badly wrong, as there is usually a power you can tap.

Multi-classing is out, although you can still access some of the attributes of other classes via Feats.

The entire game feels much more ‘cartoonish’ however. The focus is more on specific combat encounters which are planned in advance by the GM to be as challenging as possible. The possibilities of an unscripted encounter degenerating into a brawl are reduced, despite the fact that some of the most entertaining scenes in an ‘old school’ game can be totally unscripted.

In a way, a 4e adventure feels more like a computer game, with a design rationale heavily influenced by video games. As a player, you do sometimes get the feel you are being railroaded, especially in commercial modules. The ability to talk your way through an encounter is virtually non-existent unless you have a very forgiving GM who is prepared to ditch a combat encounter and still give you the XP for a negotiated settlement.

PCs are defined, more than ever before, by what they can do in a fight. Magic in the D&D world is more focused than ever on battle effects. Yes, combat was always an important part of the game, but now it dominates it to the exclusion of all else. In many respects, D&D now resembles a linked series of battles where it is your tactical skill and ability to match your abilities with those of your party members that really count.

Some people still argue that you can use D&D to run a proper role playing campaign, even a free form, sandbox style of game of the kind that my group is increasingly focusing on. Perhaps, but there are a lot of other systems out there which could do this job better. Why bother with a game where you know, if the PCs pull out their swords 45 minutes before you plan to wrap up the game, you may as well not bother with the encounter, as it will take TWO HOURS to play through. This was my criticism of Exalted, and boy has 4e stumbled into the same trap. Much as the combat system in Exalted was overly detailed, I’d rather play Exalted than 4e.

Pathfinder, on the other hand, has taken 3e and simply improved on it. And I like what I see. They have been forced to drop many of the proprietary monsters from the Bestiary due to IP issues – no Beholders or Mindflayers for example – but you can always get these out of the older 3e literature.

Paizo has tweaked D&D – and I’m still going to call it that – in so many ways. Individual feats have been taken and improved; the skill system is not quite as complicated as it was; individual character classes have more powers and options (similar in some respects to d20 Modern); the ability for making dynamic Combat Manoeuvres has been introduced (a nod here to Iron Heroes). It is still d20, but refined, with the creases ironed out. It comes across as a slicker, smoother game than its predecessor, no doubt because of the hundreds of thousands of man hours of play testing which it now represents, going back over 10 years.

Which camp you will end up in will depend on what you are used to, what you expect from the game, and what forms your core experiences in RPGs. If you’re a hard core video gamer who has started playing social D&D with friends, 4e may appeal. If you are a wargamer dipping your toe in the tepid pond of RPGs, 4e, with its emphasis on tactical play, will appeal to you. If you’re a World of Darkness fan however, you may prefer the crunch in Pathfinder. If you’re looking for something to power a sandbox-style fantasy campaign, again, Pathfinder will probably fit the bill.

I’m not saying there’s a right system or a wrong system. What I am saying is that 4e is no longer the definitive version of the game; it has a new challenger to that title; the gaming community is split. Which way will you go?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Savage Worlds: the perfect blend of RPG and wargame

Savage Worlds is being hailed by some as the best generic RPG rules yet to hit the gaming table, and there is some justification for this. I’ve been using them for three or four years now, and I’ve seen them successfully applied to a number of different settings.

Savage Worlds was originally written by Shane Hensley, the creator of the very successful Deadlands roleplaying game in the 1990s. He also wrote Great Rail Wars, a set of miniatures rules that used the Deadlands ‘weird west’ setting for gunfights between cowboys, werewolves, Chinese tongs, zombies, you name it. While Deadlands was converted over to d20 some years back in the whole post-3rd edition D&D Open Gaming License mania, Hensley himself was increasingly dissatisfied with the way d20 was slowing down his games, and was looking for something different to run them with. He turned to Great Rail Wars.

Savage Worlds is essentially an RPG based on the GRW engine, although it has been tweaked considerably since it first came out. I first woke up to it when it was advertised as a set of rules that could be used as an RPG or as a wargame, something that has always grabbed me (older readers may remember how Rick Priestley’s original Warhammer set out to do this too back in 1982). Great – a game that can be played as a skirmish wargame, but also lets you run an RPG campaign!

Since then, Savage Worlds has graduated further towards an RPG, and away from wargaming, although the generic wargame rules are available online for free as Savage Showdown. I have used this game both as an RPG and as a miniatures game (it can manage a battle with perhaps 15-20 figures per side, but more than this and it will slow down).

Although marketed as a generic set of rules, Savage Worlds has spun off a number of campaign settings, both from its publisher Pinnacle Entertainment Group, like Deadlands and Rippers, as well as from third party publishers, who have churned out some great-looking settings like Runepunk and Necropolis. I have personally used it to run a typical fantasy game and some pulp scenarios very successfully.

I like Savage Worlds because, apart from the fact that it uses all the polyhedral dice you have, including d12s, it manages larger battles convincingly and in a short period of time. I once ran a game where a group of three PCs, in a riverboat, with five henchmen travelling with them, were attacked by 10 bandits. In some games, this would be somewhat of a challenge to run (think Exalted here!) In Savage Worlds we got a resolution of this battle in about 40 minutes flat. Compare this with some games – and I’m looking at you D&D 4e – where a battle can consume an entire night’s play, and that’s without henchmen.

Savage Worlds lets your characters recruit hired swords and then command them in battle. As a GM I like this because: you get to kill off some of the good guys in a bloody fashion without upsetting players too much; players whose characters are not in that scene can still play the mooks; and players end up spending money on their hirelings rather than on themselves. It is also surprising how quickly players get attached to their allies, and will place their own characters in perilous situations to rescue them.

Savage Worlds is also really generic. You can run pure fantasy games, you can run pulp, you can run a pirates campaign (Pirates of the Spanish Main campaign setting, or the 50 Fathoms fantasy pirates crossover), or a horror game (Rippers, Necropolis, Realms of Cthulhu). I’ve not seen it used for a science fiction setting yet, although I did use it for an overly ambitious Star Wars battle. I’ve seen existing campaign settings like Eberron easily converted to Savage Worlds.

And it is easy to teach too. The rules are simple. The primary mechanic is hitting a target number of 4 with a die linked to either a skill or an attribute. The better you are, the higher the die type you use (a weakling might have his strength listed as ‘d4’ while an ogre might have ‘d10’). Someone with Fighting d8 is going to be better at swordplay than someone with d6. But it is here that you can see the simplicity of the system: all melee combat is encapsulated in your Fighting skill, which is used to beat an opponent’s Parry score (one of two derived attributes in Savage Worlds, which dictates how hard you are to hit in hand-to-hand combat). Your ability to resist fear is your Guts skill, to resist poison use your Vigour attribute. The target number is always 4.

Player characters in Savage Worlds, and other important characters in the plot, are called Wild Cards. This means they roll an extra d6 with skill and attribute tests which they can use instead of their main die type if it ends up being better. They can also take Wounds, which bring with them penalties, while most NPCs die quite fast (no need to track how many hit points Kobold #8 has). A mook really only has three status types: normal, shaken, and dead. Nuff said. If he gets damaged once, he’s shaken. If he can’t recover (by making a Spirit roll) and he gets hit again, he’s dead. By contrast, PCs in SW are really hard to kill. Even when they lose all three wounds allotted to them, they can still be revived (albeit potentially with some permanent damage).

There is much more that I could say about this game, like the card-based initiative system, the simple way it deals with magic and weird science, the edges and hindrances, the absence of levels, the bennies, but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself. Suffice to say, the core rules, now termed the Explorer’s Edition, are available in softback and very competitively priced. If you’re looking for a decent generic system, give it a look.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Metro - getting into a tangle underground

Ever arrived in a foreign city, decided to go down into the underground to get from A to B, taken one look at the map and decided: “Er, maybe not”? If you’ve ever been to Tokyo, you will know what I mean. Paris by contrast is less of a challenge. Metro is a boardgame inspired by the confused tangle of major metropolitan subway/underground systems, particularly the French capital. I played it recently – twice – at a friend’s house and was favourably impressed. Let me explain why.

Metro gives each player a number of stations at the beginning of the game, named I believe after real Paris subway stations. These are arranged around the edges of the board. In the centre is a little island, of which more later. The rest of the board is blank. The object of the game is to build the longest – and by definition most convoluted – underground lines.

Each station has an outgoing and incoming platform. Players control the outgoing platform in their station, and lay tiles connecting this eventually to any incoming platform in another station (it doesn’t matter who controls it). The square tiles are very reminiscent of Carcassonne. Players take turns to draw tiles randomly, just as in Carcassonne, but in Metro each tile has to be aligned in one direction (there is an arrow on the tile which corresponds to an arrow on the board – all pointing the same way).

You have to lay the tiles in an effort to make your lines as long as possible, while restricting those of the opposition. You don’t have to lay tiles to extend your lines if you don’t want to – it is more fun to scotch another player’s ambitions by turning one of his tiles into a station and forcing him to score low.

The stations in the island in the middle of the board are not controlled by any player. BUT, if you can connect one of your home stations to them, you score double points. Obviously, players will strive to do this, while others seek to thwart them.

The great thing about this game is you really have to focus all the time to see how lines are developing. It is not always obvious, as they can suddenly turn unpredictably when other players place tiles. A typical tile will have eight entrance/exit points for lines, so just placing one can have consequence for multiple lines.

This is a very quick and quite addictive game. Even with five players, it took about 45 minutes to complete the second time around, once everyone was familiar with it. The rules are very easy to understand, and you never find yourself sitting there twiddling your thumbs waiting for someone else to move.

You can even try this game for free, as there is a free Java-based variant online which lets you control the number of players and how well they will play against you. Unlike the boardgame, it also helpfully illuminates the lines that have not been completed, making it slightly easier to play.

Metro does not have as many dimensions to it as Carcassonne – you can only score by completing lines. While I have played it, I wouldn’t buy it, largely because it is too similar to Carcassonne, and unlike Carcassonne, it cannot be expanded. But if you find Carcassonne a bit much, and would prefer something quicker and more easily digestible (and you’re fed up with the complexities of the Carcassonne scoring system), then Metro is worth giving a go.