Thursday, 28 July 2016

Hyborian Heroes: the armour conundrum

Right now I'm in the process of converting a mini-campaign for low level characters written originally for the Conan RPG by Mongoose to be playable with Iron Heroes, by Mike Mearls (a project I'm now labeling with the working title of Hyborian Heroes). In actual fact, there is very little work involved, it seems. Iron Heroes, for those unfamiliar with it, was written as an alternative player's handbook for third edition Dungeons and Dragons. It was published in 2005. Its character classes generally do not have access to magic, there are few if any magic items, and if someone is casting spells, it should really be an evil NPC.

Indeed, in IH Mearls goes as far as to say that GMs can import whatever magic system they choose to the IH universe, it has been designed to be that compatible. I have run games of Conan before, and while it is a good system, IH seems to better capture the feel of Howard's heroes (and I'm not just specifically referring to the Cimmerian here, but some of his other characters, like Solomon Kane and Bran MacMorn the Pict). To quote Mearls:

"The player characters are a cut above other warriors. The gap between the nonplayer character and player character classes in Iron Heroes is steep. Anyone with PC class levels is noteworthy and important. By the same token, there are few such folk in the world. A 10th level weapons master is one of the dozen most skilled warriors in even a large city."

The interesting thing about using the lengthy catalogue of Mongoose publications for an Iron Heroes campaign is that there is so little actual homework to do here. NPCs can be powered using the Conan PC classes, while the characters, as the stars of the show, can draw on their Iron Heroes capabilities and rules breaks (e.g. stunts). The Conan magic system can be ported relatively effortlessly straight into Iron Heroes.

Conan the RPG uses a very similar mechanic to Iron Heroes to simulate armour. As with RuneQuest, armour acts as a damage reducer if someone is struck. In Iron Heroes, armour provides a random amount of damage reduction, depending on its quality.  However, there is a significant differential between the two systems - in Conan, armour provides a static DR, in IH it is rolled for.

Not only that, but IH armour is not as good. Chain mail in IH costs 150 gp (gold pieces are the currency standard in IH) and deducts 1d4 damage. It has a maximum Dex bonus of +5 and -5 armour check penalty.

Conan has a wider range of armour types, and DR varies depending on the combination of armour a character might be wearing. But, a mail hauberk costs 800 silver pieces (silver being the standard currency in Conan), delivers a static DR of 6, with a tougher +3 maximum Dex bonus and a -4 armour check penalty. Some of the superior armour in Conan, admittedly very expensive, can deliver a DR of 8 or 9.

So here's the conundrum. Mearls advises that combat can be speeded up by providing NPCs with static DRs - e.g. perhaps 2 or 3 if they are wearing chain mail. Monsters generally come with static DRs regardless. However, I suspect that IH characters are slightly more buff, so to speak, than Conan characters of equivalent level. I could be wrong here.

Obviously, NPCs in published Conan adventures come with stat blocks for that game, but it would be a simple matter to reduce their DRs to bring them more into line with Iron Heroes. There is also the very obvious fact that IH characters will quickly upgrade their armour by stripping the bodies of the fallen. The GM is faced with a dilemma:

  1. Player characters use Iron Heroes weapons and armour, all NPCs use Conan weapons and armour;
  2. ALL characters use Conan weapons and armour, and the random armour roll is dropped altogether - starting characters might need a little more currency to begin with;
  3. NPCs are converted to Iron Heroes weapons and armour.
Of the three, I'm currently leaning towards option #2, mainly because it would still capture the flavour of the Hyborian world, and provides characters with a wider range of armour and weapons than IH does. This would include the rules for primitive weapons and Akbitanan steel on pages 141-142 of the original Conan core rules. It should also be noted that Akbitanan steel weapons bring with them considerable armour piercing capabilities, that will ignore most of the DR that NPCs would present. Although expensive, I'm sure it is something the PCs would be very keen to pick up at the earliest opportunity (in the Conan stories Akbitanan steel is quite rare, and to be honest, is a stand in for magic weapons).

A two handed Akbitanan war sword in Conan does 1d12 damage and ignores anything with a DR of 5 or less. That means IH chain mail would be useless against it. Indeed, even a stiletto would have a good chance of getting through IH chain mail, but would have no chance against a Conan mail hauberk. An Iron Heroes greatsword, which is the nearest equivalent, does 2d6 damage but has no armour piercing capability.

It seems to me that the solution here is to go with the Conan equipment tables and dispense with the Iron Heroes versions, and just adjust starting silver for new Iron Heroes characters. My worry is that some IH characters may rely on higher Dex bonuses for many of their unique abilities, and heavier armour will just slow them down, but then again, that would explain why not everyone in the Conan stories is striding around in plate armour.

However, caveat emptor, I will finish with another quote from Mearls:

"Character classes in Iron Heroes have...much better saving throws than classes from other games, and their base attack bonuses and skill ranks are higher than normal, too. Iron Heroes characters have far more hit points, plus they have about twice as many feats as the average character from other games."

Friday, 15 July 2016

Playing to character in the Dracula Dossier

Frank Langella as Dracula, 1979
I think one of the more interesting things about horror movies, particularly in the survival horror genre, is the way in which characters respond in different ways to the exigencies they are subject to. In roleplaying games we sometimes lose sight of this. RPGs can become an exercise in problem solving - for example, the typical dungeon bash prioritises staying alive, and working as a team to meet various threats that arrive in the course of exploration of an environment. A team of adventurers is a delicately balanced congregation of participants, relying on each other's complementary skills and powers to achieve their objectives.

In our ongoing Dracula Dossier campaign, our team of agents have been working together as a team in the early sessions. They represent the employees of a small Zurich based 'security consultancy'. However, they come from disparate cultural backgrounds - a Russian, a German, an Israeli and a Brit. They used to work for different spy agencies, and may have conflicting agendas. As we creep further into the complex plot, the tensions between the PCs are growing, which is great from a dramatic point of view, although potentially dangerous too.

Sten Brodrington, our former MI6 man, seems like a dapper gent in the Roger Moore mold, but also seems to be keen to avoid dangerous situations. Sadly, in our last session, he was grabbed and bitten by a vampire, who now seems to have some level of telepathic leverage over him (possibly of a Sanity-eroding nature, although our GM has been kind so far). He has also suffered permanent nerve damage in his neck. Sten has always struck me as someone who has worked hard to keep out of harm's way, but harm still seems to have a habit of seeking him out.

Natasha Avram is a Russian hellcat assassin from the GRU stable. To be honest, she seems to have dished out much of the hurt to the opposition, and always seems ready to be the first one through the door. Despite almost getting the entire team killed by using a taser against a suicide vest, her brand of shoot first, ask questions later seems to be getting results. Her execution of an unarmed art dealer in the middle of an 'interrogation' session may bear further examination. Also, there is the issue of the missing vampire head - where did that go? Has Natasha really left the GRU? She needs to be watched.

Max Fischer, our German team member, seems the most ethical, and has close ties to the Catholic Church. He looks like a straight player and keen to avoid unnecessary collateral damage. He is probably the most trustworthy of the team at the moment, at least in my character's opinion (I think we may be seeing a realignment of trust points next session).

Which brings me to my character, Carmel Shaked. Carmel is mechanically the least stable, having started with 50 Sanity, although she has recovered a little from her recent encounters in London (when a house fell on top of her). Carmel is our explosives and infiltration specialist, formerly working for Mossad and now in the private sector. I've been trying to find ways to play Carmel's declining Sanity and increasing flakiness in the face of supernatural events. This has been manifesting partly in resorts to violence (although here she has been trumped by the deadly Avram) and partly in executing unilateral and slightly risky plans in the midst of pressure situations (she blew the roof off an office block in Rotterdam this week).

The team has retreated to Zurich to lick its wounds, following a run-in with a vampire in the Netherlands. We're still trying very hard to figure out what is going on. We've encountered four vampires in different locations, but only succeeded in slaying one. We're also still working out a means of being certain we can kill them, although Carmel has picked up some phosphorous grenades from a lock up in Zurich which she has distributed to the team members.

Next stop: Budapest. Who knows what we'll find there?