Saturday, 25 February 2012

The One Ring - play test review

We've started playing The One Ring by Cubicle 7 and I must say it's not bad. I've always felt the RPG industry lacked a decent Middle Earth game ever since the demise of MERP back in the early 1990s. MERP (Middle Earth Roleplaying) was such a ubiquitous system in the 1980s and while the clunky Rolemaster system is derided by people I've been gaming with more recently, the rich supplements ICE came up with for Tolkien's world - painting in some of the gaps with vivid and lustrous colours (remember Ardor?) - have never been matched.

Enter The One Ring last year. This is a game which feels very much like Pendragon goes to Middle Earth. Character generation was very easy as it turns out. We've now got four PCs: Brunenhilde, a woman of the Woodfolk, two Beorning cousins, Sigeric of the White Mountain and Bjorn son of Bjorn, and a Barding from Lake Town called Brand son of Brigmar. You choose your cultural background, your role in the world (e.g. my character Sigeric is a Warden), and what motivates you, along with some interesting traits. This will then determine your Attributes and Skills, which can also be tweaked a little later in chargen to make your PC truly unique.

Equipment is also easily managed: you simply choose a set of weapons based again on your background culture and then pick some armour. The latter is dictated less by what you can afford to buy, and more by what you can afford to wear. Heavy armour slows you down when travelling, contributing to Fatigue.

In our first adventure we went in search of a pair of missing dwarves who had been taking a message to the Lord of the Eagles. Believe it or not, we did not fight a battle in the entire first session. Apart from seeing some mysterious lights in a marsh while camped one night, we didn't encounter any serious opposition.

The simplicity of the system means you can focus more on role-playing. It defines your character more according to who he is in terms of his standing within his culture than his combat stats. This feels more like a fantasy role playing game than Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons. Consequently, our Barding, while a skilled archer, is not so good when he is out in the field. A wealthy city boy, he is out of his depth when blundering around in the woods, as he lacks the skills needed. Sigeric, my Beorning, is an intimidating warrior with a massive spear, but his awareness of his surroundings is poor and his interpersonal skills leave a lot to be desired. This all boils down to the possibility of playing sessions with no combat and still having a good time.

Travel seems to be quite dangerous however. This game is set in and around Mirkwood forest, where a shadow is growing and evil is on the march, despite the victory over the goblins at the Battle of Five Armies a few years earlier. Characters become quite depressed when journeying through areas afflicted by evil, and the atmosphere weighs them down. This accrues Shadow points, which can make your PC Miserable once Shadow exceeds Hope. This is an oft-used mechanic in the game, and Shadow also keeps PCs on the straight and narrow much of the time: any behaviour that is out of character with the ideals of Tolkien's heroes (e.g. Brand abused a boatman who was acting as our guide) can lead to picking up Shadow fairly quickly (a GM award in this case). I like this. None of us have reached the point where Shadow gets the better of Hope, but I'm sure it is only a matter of time, as Siguric currently has Shadow 8 to his Hope 11.

Hope can be used to help boost dice scores in the game, but it means your Hope score will drop while your Shadow rises. Your hero strives but it is possible he will eventually become afflicted by the futility of his task (think about Frodo and Sam's many dialogues on the rocky road to Mordor). Deciding when to spend Hope is a tough call during the game. As novice adventurers, our characters seem somewhat vulnerable to Shadow, and become quickly depressed when traversing areas of wilderness afflicted by Shadow. It is a hostile environment, and the Fellowship/party can't remain inside dangerous areas of Mirkwood for more than a few days at a time.

The party is convened as a Fellowship, with a distinct objective. This gives it more meaning than a simple ''meet in a tavern to do some plundering" game, although this too has its charm for me. We've finally alighted on the goal of making the Old Forest Road safe for travellers, which seems a little more achievable than simply clearing Mirkwood of all evil. Our Fellowship also has a base at Laketown, although we may move this once we find somewhere closer to the Old Forest Road. The Fellowship has some stats of its own, like Fellowship points, which are a source of additional Hope if you need it. This is a nod to the excellent Karma mechanic in Shadowrun, which I loved.

Combat is streamlined too. I think we may have forgotten to factor in armour in the only battle we have played to date, however. Battles are defined by what zone you are in - e.g. whether you are going toe to toe, attacking the foe, whether you are hanging back, or whether you are defending other characters. They are not overly complex, and don't seem to burn up vast amount of gaming time. There is no detail, for instance, on subduing with non-lethal damage, although that is what we were doing in our first combat, nor are there intricate rules covering items like nets (we were trying to entangle a foe and then beat him senseless rather than kill him). But a GM prepared to improvise can get around this and hey, who says you need a combat system with rules for every eventuality?

Finally, because the setting is Middle Earth, all the players are automatically familiar with it, and can drop rapidly into the mannerisms and mores of the setting. This is also a strength of games like Call of Cthulhu and Star Wars, which employ familiar settings. It would make this a great game to bring beginners into RPGs.

I will blog more on TOR once we've had more time to play it, but thus far I'm really enjoying it.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Battle of Linden Way - Orc's Drift campaign

Well, first off, this blog just passed 20,000 page views this week. Thankyou to all who have supported it over the last year and a half since I started posting on it. Hopefully there will be more interesting insights and insane jibberings on various games in the months to come.

Secondly, if you're a regular visitor and wondering what happened to the conclusion of the Tatters of the King campaign, Kelvin has said all that really has to be said on the B&H Roleplayers blog. I can't really add more to what was said there.

Moving swiftly on, we come to the main event, namely the Battle of Linden Way. As you may know, Linden Way is the third battle in the old Bloodbath At Orc's Drift campaign pack, published by Games Workshop in 1985 and originally intended for use with the 2nd edition of Warhammer Fantasy Battle. We're currently playing through it using GW's newer Lord of the Rings rules. The premise is that three orc tribes are converging on a rendezvous point at Orc's Drift as part of an evil scheme to invade the kingdom of Ramalia and attack the army of the Grand League in the rear.

Thus far, the Vile Rune orcs have overwhelmed the elven garrison at Kachas Pass relatively easily. The Severed Hand have rumbled through Ashak Rise, slaying some dwarf prospectors and looting their gold nuggets. Here, however, they have lost their leader Hagar Sheol and over half the Severed Hand have been slain or fled. Now we come to Linden Way, where a small unit of militia from the town of Meledir have taken up position to defend the settlers there.

The sleepy and unsuspecting hamlet of Linden Way awaits the onslaught.

The Kwae Karr orcs had been reinforced with King F'yar's personal bodyguard of five elite orcs, although F'yar himself was not present. The orcs had two banners (one of them F'yar's personal standard), which helped immeasurably. As the alarm was raised by five sentries in the watch tower, sleepy militia and villagers stumbled out of their beds. The orcs now began volleying arrows down on Linden Way almost immediately, focusing on the old wise woman whol lived in a ruined shack on the edge of the village, as they were afraid of her magic.

The Kwae Karr orcs appear on the scene.

The witch was senile and confused, her actions determined by a random table. She only got a chance to cast one protective spell before stumbling off in the direction of the orcs and being pincushioned with arrows in short order.

Militia run to the barricades as sleepy villagers stumble out of their homes.

The militia meantime ran to defend the barricades while the villagers fled. The orcs split up into a number of groups, with two groups of archers keeping up a steady rain of arrows, two more groups sought to storm the hedge that surrounded Linden Way. Finally, another group, led by the orc shaman Bagrash, tried to get around to the southern exit of the village and break in there, while the leader of the Kwae Karr, Magyar Ironfist, led more orcs to cut off the retreat of the villagers towards Meledir.

Led by the inn keeper, the villagers flee from Linden Way.

A big battle developed around the southern exit, with Bagrash and the five elite uruks battling Leofwine, the captain of the militia. Four villagers escaped, while the inn keeper's wife fell to an orcish arrow. Then Magyar and his orcs cut off further retreat. Although Magyar was wounded in his fight with the village blacksmith, all the remaining civilians perished on the southern road.

Barracha (in purple) stumbles to her doom.

In a desperate attempt to get at Bagrash, and having cut down one of F'yar's bodyguards, Leofwine jumped over the hedge. He failed to kill the shaman, and was himself killed by the orcs along with a couple of militia.

As farm labourers flee (r), F'yar's guards lead the orc attack on the southern gate.

By this stage the original garrison of 25 militia was down to about 10. The orcs were into the village proper. After this, the remaining militia were surrounded and simply fought to the end in little knots. Five orcs died, including one elite. Overall, a successful day for Magyar, although four inhabitants escaped.

Militia seek to hold the hedge against the orcs as some orcs volley fire from the rear.

Having read other accounts of this battle, it seems as if Ben did well as the commander of the militia. With no King F'yar and his wyvern to contend with, some of the villagers managed to high tail it to raise the alarm in Meledir. What surprised me was that the orcs did not lose more of their number. Yes, they had the edge in numbers, and an extra personality, but some of the villagers were no pushover, equipped as they were with Fate and Might points. This made Magyar's ambush a more desperate fight than was perhaps first envisaged. Luckily Magyar himself blocked the exit to Meledir, preventing any more of the peasants from getting away.

It is hard to see how the militia player can win this one. I will be re-fighting the scenario in the near future a second time and then aggregating all the results for Orc's Drift.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Can you Savage Cold City?

Cold City is an excellent role playing game published by Contested Ground Studios. It is based on the premise that a special unit of police formed by the Allied powers is searching the ruins of Berlin for lost Nazi technology and scientists. We have played a couple of sessions of Cold City, and you can read my thoughts on this here and here.

I like Cold City because it has such a perfect setting for RPGs: there is the background of WW2, which has just finished, and the onset of the Cold War. The Allied powers are still working together, but only just, and lack of trust is starting to set in. There is also espionage, horror and sci fi, all mixed up in the same volatile pot pourri. And there's no Cthulhu Mythos in sight.

The characters are all assigned to the Reserve Police Agency, an inter-power police unit which seeks out any remaining Nazi technology which has not been accounted for. Because each character in the team must hail from a different power, an element of distrust is meant to creep into the game from an early stage.

The game is very rules lite, using dice pools to power 'conflicts'. Players can build pools for conflicts based on their attributes, advantages/disadvantages, and the levels of trust assigned to their character by other players. Trust can be re-adjusted after every scene.

The game is well-suited for playing shorter campaigns of about one to four sessions, which suits me down to a tee. Where I have issues is that the game still lacks an element of crunch for me: there are several concepts within it which I'd prefer to port over to another more generic system, while still preserving the setting and the RPA itself. The two systems I've alighted on as alternatives are Savage Worlds and World of Darkness.

Savage Worlds is one of my favourite systems at the moment. We've used it recently to play a skirmish wargame, which you can read more about here and here. But, I feel it is still better purposed as a roleplaying system. It features an element called Bennies: players are assigned three of these at the start of each session, and can use them to purchase a variety of in-game benefits. My focus is very much on the Bennies mechanic in Savage Worlds if an effective replication of Cold City's trust mechanic is to be adequately replicated.

Plain vanilla SW sees three Bennies allocated at the start of the session. The game used to allow players to convert unused Bennies into XP, although that rule seems to have been dropped in more recent iterations. In playing Savage Berlin (my Cold City variant), players would be given a pool of Bennies to allocate to other players. Each player would have a different colour, in order to be able to properly identify where the Bennie came from. Trust Bennies would be allocated at the beginning of a session, in secret, prior to their distribution to players.

In a typical game of SW, with each player being assigned three Bennies (four if you have the Lucky edge), the GM is looking at 12 player Bennies in a four player session of the game. The more Bennies in circulation, the higher the 'pulp' feel of the game. My idea would be to provide each player with THREE Bennies to allocate between other players in terms of their level of trust, and TWO Bennies that are linked to their hidden agendas (personal and factional). Players would still determine what their hidden agendas ARE, and would automatically begin each session with a Bennie in each.

Okay, so players could end up with five, six, seven or more Bennies in this game, but the pulp element would be restricted because Bennies can only be played if an additional condition is met. Hence, your hidden agenda Benny can only be played with an action in association with your hidden agenda. Trust Bennies can only be played if the character who assigned you that trust is somehow involved - even if you are working against them. So yes, players could have more - or less - Bennies than in a usual game of Savage Worlds, but they can't play them whenever they like, thus balancing it out.

The other alternative would be to restrict the Wild Die, the d6 all players get to roll with attribute-related tasks. PCs would keep their base Wild Die, but could add additional Wild Dice to a roll based on the number of Trust points assigned, or if their hidden agenda was somehow engaged. For example, if the Soviet player assigned two Trust to me, I could add 2d6 to rolls in which he was directly involved (on top of my 1d6 Wild roll). This means certain actions in the game could be turbo-charged with extra d6, if the characters that trust you are at stake. It is down to the GM to interpret whether this is warranted.

Another possibility is that I introduce a mix of both: Bennies are dictated by Trust, while the bonus Wild Dice are introduced when a character's hidden and factional agendas are involved. This will force characters to consider both the intra-team Trust mechanic AND their own agendas. I guess play-testing will sort it out in the end...

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Barbarians of Lemuria

Barbarians of Lemuria is a roleplaying game about barbarians. In Lemuria. But it is a bit more than that too. I've long been seeking a game that can reproduce for me the thrill and wonder that was conjured up when I first read Robert E. Howard's excellent Conan stories. I've long realised that generic fantasy roleplaying games like D&D would never quite provide the Hyborian-esque, gritty swords and sorcery atmosphere I was seeking. I ran a couple of adventures for the Conan RPG three years ago and felt even this, while rich in background detail for Howard's world (much of it in turn ripped out of Herodotus - but that's a different story), did not quite feel 'right'. It was more like a D&D 3rd edition game pasted onto Hyboria.

I bought Barbarians of Lemuria by Beyond Belief Games, because I was seeking a relatively rules lite swords and sorcery game that might be able to power a Hyborian campaign without the need for number crunching on the scale of a Pathfinder. I was looking for a number of characteristics:
  • A system of flaws and edges that would help players to round out a character;
  • Simple and rapid chargen that would allow players to create a PC in 30 minutes;
  • A fast and fluid combat system that could deliver cinematic battles and handle large numbers of combatants without bogging down;
  • Some rules elements that would encourage role playing.
BoL ticks many of these boxes, and goes most of the way towards delivering the system I wanted: an action-packed game with plenty of combat and all the usual trappings of classic Howardian adventures. There are some things I really like about BoL. For starters, it is rules lite: everything is stripped down to a single 2d6 task resolution mechanic, with a target number of nine. Characters are assigned four Attributes, and four fighting skills (hand to hand, brawl, ranged, and defence - the latter functions a bit like armour class, with armour itself being used to soak damage).

There are no skills: instead, characters are generated using four careers, with points assigned to each based on how long that character was in that career. Thus, tasks a character might have learned in that career will be easier: a character with Pirate (2) can get +2 to checks to mend a sail. You don't specify skills - it is assumed that the character knows the skills that profession is likely to have learned. If you have Thief (1), the likelihood is you know how to pick a lock, although specialist Thieves Tools can only be acquired via a Boon (see below).

It is open to abuse, however: a player with Gladiator might want to insist on using his bonus in every fight, but luckily my players were mature enough to see this was not the intention of the game's author. I did, however, miss having a proper skill system of some kind to hand, just as I did with Cold City. Maybe I'm just too old school for this?

Two of the pre-gen characters had levels in Gladiator.

The rules also have Boons and Flaws which can be used to round out a character. We used pre-gens for our session, but normally you would choose a region of Lemuria from which your character hails, and this would offer sample Boons and Flaws to choose from. I liked this: character advancement lets you add other generic Boons later on, but you end up playing an individual that is a typical citizen of his homeland, which does ring true for this genre of fiction.

Many of these attributes are also not combat-focused, which was refreshing, and it is obviously easy to create new ones of your own to flesh out characters further. My favourite so far is Hunted By The Witch Queen, which means the character has a 1/6 chance of running into agents of the Witch Queen looking for him every time he enters a major settlement. Brilliant plot device.

I merged two of the sample adventures in the book into a single longer scenario, which amply filled a three hour Friday night gaming slot. I felt these slightly railroaded the PCs, despite the game's author warning against just this in his GMing advice chapter. Again, I was helped by a group of mature players who recognised the milieu tropes they were meant to be hamming up and rolled with it. They quickly realised the advantages their PCs enjoyed over the opposition they faced, to the extent that four PCs were able to take down 16 cannibals in jungle ambush with just one of them being reduced to negative hit points (life blood in this game). The only serious opposition they faced was a giant subterranean slug critter that was slain out of hand by their barbarian character who rolled a crit in the first round of the battle, and a pirate lord who was conveniently knifed in his sleep!

Fearsome, but quickly carved up by our Heroes...

The combat system is very fluid, and encourages players to come up with their own feats and combat moves, like the barbarian character who used a spear to vault onto the back of a giant scorpion creature in an arena battle early in the session. Somehow it all felt more cinematic than characters being constrained by a rigid system of feats and intricately defined combat characteristics.

The players did get into the spirit of the game, and seemed to enjoy it. My reservations remain as to whether it is really crunchy enough for me. BoL works well for the sort of short one to three session scenario I like to run (I'm not an epic campaign dude any more, by any means), and covers off many of the milieu-specific themes I'm looking for. Plus it is 'lite' enough to allow players to focus on role playing without the distractions of learning a new system, which ain't bad! It is certainly easier to digest than something like Burning Wheel, much as I love its concepts.

I continue to toy with the idea of porting this over to Hyboria, and running a game of Barbarians of Hyboria, so to speak. We shall see. Meantime the PCs are relaxing with their loot in the city state of Parhool, where one of them has established a gladiator school and another is training a pair of sabre tooth tigers!