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RPGs, science fiction, fantasy, gadgets, and anything else that comes up.Daniel Stacknoreply@blogger.comBlogger489125
Updated: 20 hours 32 min ago

We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties

Wed, 11/15/2017 - 01:56

I've put this blog on a brief hiatus. We had a bit of a health scare with one of our daughters at the end of October, requiring a hospital stay. We're past the immediate crisis. I'm playing catch-up in my life, including a research paper that I need to book some solid time on.

Hoping to resume posting in another week or two, we'll see.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Child and Adolescent Protagonists in RPGs

Mon, 10/30/2017 - 01:14

I'm working my way through season 2 of Netflix's Stranger Things. I've commented previously that one of the things I find fascinating about the show is I was the same age as the characters at the time the show takes place - in fall of 1983 I was 12, just like the characters on the show.

With an 12-year old with a massive taste for reading (some very advanced stuff), I've had cause to reread It to make sure I was able to discuss it with her. It's caused me to reflect on the amount of fiction, film, etc. where some or all of the protagonists are children - preadolescents to adolescents. Just from media consumed in the past few months I can think of:

  • The main protagonists of Stranger Things
  • The Losers' Club of It
  • Ellie in The Last of Us
  • Mark Petrie of Salems' Lot
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Seasons 1-3)
I'm also contemplating the overlap of these with young adult fiction - both feature children - typically of early to mid adolescence - while young adult fiction is primarily targeted at young adults. In this category I can think of Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, the Fifth Wave, Divergent, etc. Looking through that list, apocalypses are big...
Looking at the list I've compiled, when I think of RPGs with child protagonists, the model I would go for is one with a normal society and a monster that is "hidden". Something like It and Stranger Things - the world appears normal - the kids aren't part of an elite monster hunting organization, though they may be special in some way. The world is normal - people don't believe in monsters. What is striking to me about both those examples is they were written by their authors such that the time period marked the authors' own childhood time period - It's early sequences taking place in 1957-1958 while being published in the mid-1980s and Stranger Things taking place in the 1983-1984 (so far). 
I can see some good logic behind this. Though I've two daughters, 12 and 15, I'm not with them all day. I don't know perfectly the give and take of the school day or the "language" of them and their peers. It's a lot easier for me to go back to my adolescence of the 1980s. The 1980s weren't a retro period, they were normal to me and my peers. I remember the explosive emergences of Michael Jackson and Madonna. Party invitations distributed on paper (not that a geek like me got invited to much). 
As I write this, it seems the horror/paranormal genre is what I'm thinking of. You've got your kids who have a connection with the supernatural. No one will believe them - certainly no adults. And in a period game, they lack the technology to record proof of such encounters. Such characters aren't "warriors" so while combat may be a part of such a game, running and fleeing will be an essential combat strategy. Kids need to worry about curfews, making it to school, etc. One of the things that makes such tales so compelling is we experience the challenges of the protagonists' mundane worlds. 
While I've played a game or two with one of the PCs as a child, I don't believe I've ever played one with a children-only set of protagonists. As many of us become parents, there's certainly a bit of a trigger in playing a game with children in danger. There's not many games specifically meant for child PCs. From memory I can think of Monsters and Other Childish Things, Little Fears, and Innocents (for New World of Darkness/Chronicles of Darkness). I suspect a Gumshoe game would work rather well for such a game. Most such tales tend to be limited in duration, though Stranger Things looks like it will eventually span several years. It presents an interesting challenge - the monster you defeated as children has returned. Can you defeat it now, no longer able to believe in magic as you once had?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Trying to Grok Champions

Mon, 10/23/2017 - 01:38

With the release of the new Golden Age Champions, at some point in my future there's a Golden Age superhero campaign (not this calendar year though - still adventures to do in Hyperborea). Though much of the writing and art of the Golden Age of comics is extremely juvenile (with a much younger audience in mind), I've always liked many of the "big ideas" of the era. I'd love at some point to do a game that establishes a superhero universe from the start.

I'd like to get a good campaign going with Champions itself - the Hero System, of which Champions is a part of, is one of those games that have been on my bucket list for some time. One additional hindrance to me is given I use Roll20 for gaming nowadays and there's only a basic Hero System sheet there. Mind you there's none for our current game of Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea at all, though I sometimes think of trying to tweak an AD&D sheet into one. My hunch is I'll want some additional digital support to pull it off. I've picked up the Hero Combat Manager in the hopes of both using it to allow me to do some tinkering on my own time as well as to have a tool to use during games (and possibly share using Skype).
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On Realizing the 1980s Have Become a Historical Setting

Wed, 10/18/2017 - 02:11

Back in my day we didn't have cell phones or text messages or Snapchat. If you wanted to make plans with someone you called their house, maybe asked their parents or siblings to get them on the phone. And you had to plan out where and when to meet like you were planning an amphibious fault. And we liked it. We loved it!

I've been looking through some old 1980s games, either old ones from my collection or new acquisitions. I've realized if I were to, for example, play a game of 1st edition Chill or Top Secret, my inclination would be to run it as a historical game as opposed to running it in the present. Chill has a modern day 3rd edition and a new, modern day version of Top Secret is being made. But to me, those classic games really feel rooted in the eras in which they were made. That's not to say they couldn't be adapted to modern times - and Chill would also work great as a Victorian-era game.

Not all games from that era scream their time periods as much. For example, Call of Cthulhu with its firm connections to horror of the 1920s and 1930s and Star Wars (D6 version) taking place in a galaxy far, far away, don't have that 80's feel to me.

I encountered a bit of this when we played a brief Ghostbusters mini-campaign about a year or so ago... The 1980s just felt like the right era for it.

So what's different? The technology is a biggie. It's an interesting period - the technology of today is beginning to take shape but it's not there yet. MS-DOS debuted in 1981 - though without hard disk support. Car phones existed but were very, very rarely seen. I remember the vans that took us to high school using a two-way radio to coordinate with its dispatcher. VCRs began emerging in the 1960s and 1970s but they became much more common in the 1980s. There were a variety of music formats - the CD emerged, the vinyl record was still around, and cassette tapes were omnipresent. I also remember how darn difficult it was to get photocopies of character sheets - asking mom or dad to copy something at the office or splurging for the library photocopier...

The global politics were very different. As a kid who graduated high school in 1989, I grew up in the final days of the Cold War - but we didn't know they were the final days. We had maps in our social studies classes showing the spread of communism. There was a nagging fear that a nuclear war could emerge from a conflict spiraling out of control.

It's harder for me to judge society. I remember homophobia being pretty commonplace - "gay" was used as an insult in the schools I attended - as was "gaywad". I remember racism and sexism finding its way into a lot of humor. The Moral Majority rose and fell in the 1980s.

On television and film, it's easy to caricature eras from our past. Obviously shows and movies from that period capture the era well, often in ways they never intended - for example the establishing scenes of Back to the Future scream out 1980s while at the time they were intended to showcase the present day (as opposed to the 1950s that Marty would soon travel to). More recently, shows like Stranger Things and films like It and Let Me In do a nice job of giving a feel for the era without tuning it into a caricature.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Chill 1st Edition First Impressions

Sun, 10/15/2017 - 02:56

It's very strange doing a "first impressions" type of review of a game from 1984 but Chill was one of those games that I never managed to get ahold of when it first game out. I remember the numerous advertisements in Dragon magazine at the time for Pacesetter Ltd. RPGs - they all looked interesting to me but alas, my middle and high school funds to did not allow me to pick them up. Though for some reason I was sorely tempted to splurge on Chill so I could get the Elvira adventure compilation. I suspect puberty may have had something to do with that...

I've recently had the opportunity go through the original game. It's definitely an old-school game, based around percentile-based ability scores and skills. There are two types of task rolls, general and specific checks. A general check is a straight percentile roll, looking to roll equal to or below your stat. With a specific roll you do a lookup on a table to see how well you did, using your margin of success to determine your row and your column being somewhat variable. In combat the defender would actually roll a d10 to determine the column, with higher being more advantageous to the defender. See below for the Action Table included in the game:
It definitely reminded me of the old Marvel Superheroes RPG from TSR - and I'm not quite certain which came out first - they both have 1984 copyright dates.
Characters have two pools to be concerned with - a Stamina pool which is used to track physical damage and a Willpower pool which can be lost on fear checks the characters might be forced to roll - a bit like Sanity in Call of Cthulhu.
As can be seen from the table, damage is independent of weapon type, much like original D&D. Weapon types do matter for range, attack rates, special qualities, etc. 
Moving a bit away from the technical aspects to the nature of gameplay, Chill characters work for an organization of good guys, dedicated to fighting the supernatural baddies of the world. This organization is S.A.V.E. - the Societas Argenti Viae Eternitata. Reading through the book, I get a feel of classic horrors - Dracula of both literature and film fits in well in this setting - indeed Dracula has been featured in the adventure Vengeance of Dracula, very much in keeping with Bram Stoker's incarnation of the vampire. The game assumes one of two main era - the late Victorian era or the "modern" day (which, when published, was the mid-1980s). Rules-wise, there is no real difference between the two eras.
Chill seems to occupy an interesting middle ground between your cosmic horror of Call of Cthulhu and your monster hunting of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Humanity is not necessarily doomed but it is very much threatened. Our heroes may have some mystical ability in "the Art", but no one is going to be hurling fireballs. The suggested reading gives an idea as to the tone of the game:
  • Bloch, Robert. Psycho
  • Bradbury, Ray. Something Wicked This Way Comes
  • Haggard, H. Rider. She
  • King, Stephen. Night Shift
  • Jackson, Shirley. Stories, The Haunting of Hill House
  • Lovecraft, H.P. Stories
  • Poe, Edgar Allan. Stories
  • Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein
  • Stoker, Bram. Dracula
I have a very vague recollection of a friend GM-ing a one-on-one Chill adventure for me - I was Jonathan Harker in Dracula's castle. I got to be dinner for Dracula's brides. I didn't do so well but I remember it being fun. Looking at the rules today, they definitely reflect their era - a lot of specific tables for various tasks the characters might perform. That said, it's very much the kind of game that one could be given pregenerated characters and be able to play with the briefest of rules explanations. Like early versions of Call of Cthulhu, it has no real concept of difficulty modifiers outside of combat. It's the sort of thing that seems awfully easy to house rule should one wish to. 
I'm aware there's two "successors" to Chill. A 3rd edition of Chill was put out a few years ago by Growling Door Games. I don't know much about it, though some quick internet searching shows it has its share of controversy, with some loving the new game, some despising it. (Mayfair put out a 2nd edition of Chill for a time after Pacesetter ceased operations). Goblinoid Games, with rights to the Pacesetter name and rules, has published a kind of retroclone of Chill 1st edition named Cryptworld. Alas, there is no legal PDF version one might purchase for the 1st edition. 
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Saltmarsh in Hyperborea

Thu, 10/12/2017 - 02:54

In our Hyperborean campaign I've been adapting the AD&D 1st edition Saltmarsh series for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea.

There's spoilers here for the entire series so if you're unfamiliar with the adventures and have reason to want to stay that way, you might want to hold off reading.

Alrighty... So the Saltmarsh series is marked by a series of discoveries:

  • A "haunted" house is being used by smugglers.
  • Those smugglers have been selling weapons to a group of lizard men alarmingly close to Saltmarsh. 
  • The lizard men were kicked out of their original lair by sahuagin. Who also pose a threat to Saltmarsh...
  • The lizard men have been assembling an alliance of aquatic folk against the sahuagin.
So how does this fit in Hyperborea? With its long winters, Hyperborea is a horrible place for cold blooded creatures like the lizard men. I posit they must go into a long torpor as their swamps freeze over. 
In the current 13-year cycle, these lizard men had barely awoken as winter ended but to find themselves under attack by the sahuagin. Like in the original adventure, the survivors escape to an older lair, one close to Saltmarsh.
AS&SH does not feature the sahuagin in its monster list, though reusing them from the 1st edition Monster Manual is easy. I was sorely tempted to change the sahuagin to deep ones, a nice Lovecraftian monster. However, when I think of them I think more of subterfuge. Of slowly taking over a town. That doesn't feel right for this adventure. 
I'd been flirting with the idea of using Hyperbroea's Atlanteans in this series - the original adventures feature an aquatic elf, a species not present on Hyperborea. Instead, I went with the idea that at some point in the distant past the Atlanteans genetically engineered some of their number, using long-lost science (indistinguishable from magic), to live underwater. 
One idea I got from the AS&SH Google+ group was to have the Atlanteans have made the sahuagin. This fits really well with my idea of aquatic elves being replaced by undersea Atlanteans. Perhaps, in an effort to protect themselves, perhaps from the deep ones, the undersea Atlantean made the sahuagin - an effort that was disastrous, creating their own worst enemy. One which also threatens the land as well.

Note - I found it interesting that Swords & Stitchery blog recently made a post about Saltmarsh as well - OSR Commentary On U1 The Sinister Secret Of Salt Marsh Adventure By Dave J. Browne & Don Turnbull For Advanced Dungeons & Dragons First Edition

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Adventure Writeup: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh Part Two

Sun, 10/08/2017 - 22:32

Based on the TSR adventure of the same name written by Dave J. Browne and Don Turnbull. Tweaked to fit in the Hyperborean setting.

Year 576 (Tempest), Month II, Day 26
Cast of characters:

  • Aaron Cèampach, Kelt Warlock
  • Hoom Feethos, Hyberbrean Thief
  • Morrow, Pict Druid
  • Saratos Ochôziakos, Ixian Fighter
  • Sarukê thugatêrOchôziakos, Ixian Witch
  • William "Billy" Welsh - Common Human Pyromancer
Henchmen hired by Saratos and Sarukê:

  • Tai, Medium Infantryman
  • Zell, Heavy Infantryman

Random tied-up dude found in the upper floor of the house:
  • Ned Shakeshaft, "thief" (or is he?)

See also Part One.
Peeking their heads up in the attic the adventurers didn't find anything of interest (and in so doing, avoided a nest of stirges hiding up there) and went down to the basement. The basement was a wine cellar, though alas all the bottles and casks were broken. Investigating a dead body, Tai was infested by a rot grub which, despite Billy's pyromancy, proceeded to kill him. Searching further, they found a secret door. Ned advised caution but our adventurers were made of sterner stuff. 
Unfortunately at this point they discovered Ned was an assassin hired to stop their explorations. A poison dagger finished off both Hoom Feethos and Zell before they were able to take him out.
The secret door opened into a barracks style room, clearly in active use. A small room off of it led to the leader's room, apparently an illusionist of moderate power, one Sanbalet. They found sea charts and a schedule of rendezvouses with a ship called the Sea Ghost, along with a series of signaling instructions - it was becoming apparent the house was actually "haunted" by smugglers. Another side door near Sanbalet's vacant room was marked "Danger". The diminished party decided to not seek out that danger...
They did take a door that led to a series of caverns. Sarukê sent her bat familiar to scout around and Aaron took the potion of invisibility to join the bat. They discovered the caves held a variety of goods, apparently contraband avoiding taxes. The caves led to a cave that connected to the sea and held a jolly boat. Moving the contraband were a group of smugglers, led by a man they assumed was Sanbalet along with a small group of hyena-men - gnolls in their own tongue. By careful waiting they were able to put almost all to sleep via Sarukê's sleep spell and Aaron and Billy unloaded magic on the remainder. They captured Sanbalet and learned about the operation - including one on the council made use of it. They then eliminated them and made plans to take it over for themselves...
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

"The Last of Us" from an RPG Perspective

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 13:31

With a two week break between classes at Brandeis, I had a little bit of time to goof off and make use of the PS4 I received as a birthday gift last month. I finally made my way through Naughty Dog's The Last of Us. This isn't really a review of the game, there's about a gazillion out there on the internet - though I will give a brief overview of it. I'll also note there are spoilers about the game in this post so if you've not played it and want to play it unspoiled, you should read no farther. A bit unlikely for a game released in 2013, but just in case...

The Last of Us tells the tale of Joel and Ellie in a post-apocalyptic world. Joel is a survivor of the original outbreak in his late forties. Ellie is 14 and for unknown reasons, is immune to the infection.

In September of 2013 a mutant Cordyceps fungus wipes out civilization. Cordyceps is a real kind of fungus and is a parasite, with some species able to alter the host's behavior. Luckily for us, Cordyceps species prey on insects. Stranger Dimensions has an article about this creepy fungus. In the setting of the game, a mutant form is able to infect humanity and brings about, for all intents and purposes, a zombie apocalypse. To be technical, these are not zombies - they are still alive. There are two ways of getting infected - by airborne spores (stock up on gas masks) and by, of course, a bite from an "Infected".

A host goes through different stages of infection, leading to different types of Infected:

  • Runners - After being infected, a host will become a Runner within 2 days and it lasts for a week to a month. Runners still look largely human and are animated as if they are in agony and can often be heard screaming. One definitely gets the impression that the human within is aware of what is happening but powerless to stop it. They are normally fairly stationary and largely oblivious to their surroundings but when something gets their attention they sprint towards it. They're not incredibly tough (you can engage in unarmed combat with them) but in numbers they can present a great danger.
  • Stalker - after a week to a month the infection will reach this second stage. Now the fungus is visible externally and the infected has begun to develop a form of echolocation. They are still rather fast like Runners but they are much more tactical - often taking cover as they hunt a foe, though once they close in they will charge, much like a Runner. They too can be beaten in unarmed combat but it is far more difficult.
  • Clicker - The most iconic form of infection in the game and rather creepy. The infection has entirely covered their eyes, though they have further developed echolocation. In the game, one must move rather stealthily to avoid detection. Technically that's not how echolocation works, but one might posit that they don't take notice of slow changes in their environment. They are nasty in combat, pretty much able to deliver an insta-kill if they get close to you. It typically takes an Infected 2-4 years to become a Clicker.
  • Bloater - The final stage of infection in the game, the Bloater is entirely covered by fungus (which acts as a form of armor). They are slow and lumbering with their echolocation less effective than it was as a Clicker. They are able to hurl mycotoxin at foes (a form of poison gas in the game) as well as being incredibly strong. It takes about a decade for an Infected to reach this stage.
The game, after a brief prelude in the early stages of the infection, takes place about twenty years after the outbreak. All that remains of the United States are a series of "Quarantine Zones", ruthlessly administered by a FEMA expy called FEDRA. Most of these zones have fallen, either to the Infected or due to revolt. The only one that is certain to still exist is in Boston - zones in Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Salt Lake City are known to have fallen. A revolutionary organization, the Fireflies, hopes to restore the United States and is looking for a cure to the infection. They're not saints and can be very ruthless in pursuit of their goals. They successfully organized a revolt in Pittsburgh but in the aftermath the rebels also wiped out the Fireflies and became "Hunters" who preyed on "Tourists". 
As can be seen, beyond the Infected, other humans are often a great threat. At the start of the game, Joel, a survivor from the original outbreak, wants nothing to do with any of the major factions, working as a smuggler in the Boston Quarantine Zone. From dialogue one gets the impression he and his estranged brother Tommy did some rather ruthless things to survive themselves. Tommy wound up working with the Fireflies for a time, but became disillusioned. He eventually goes on to become one of the leaders of a settlement in Wyoming which is in the process of restoring electricity. 
In the outskirts of Pittsburgh a group of survivors had, for a time, a succsesful settlement hidden in the sewers, founded by a man named Ish (a reference to the early post-apocalyptic novel Earth Abides). Some time before the game starts it is overrun by Infected. In Colorado, another group of survivors has resorted to cannibalism to survive.
The game itself follows Joel and Ellie. Joel has been hired by the Fireflies to escort Ellie out of Boston to get her to a Firefly lab where they hope to find why she is immune. Over their long journey, the two begin to bond. She is much like Joel's daughter who was killed in the first days of the outbreak. 
The setting serves as a great example as to how one might have a long-term RPG campaign in a post-apocalyptic setting - in this case, a form of zombie apocalypse. It gives us characters with a variety of motivations. There are a number of human factions. The "zombies" are varied (much like in the Infected! RPG from Immersion Studios). It offers great opportunities for sandbox style gaming, allowing the PCs to form and/or take charge of a community and become involved in defending it. In the game, Ish's sewer complex and Tommy's Wyoming settlement offer great examples of "good guy" type settlements. One can also picture a campaign set in a city like Pittsburgh where the people rebel against FEDRA but the revolution devolves and savagery.
It's worth noting that in many places the scenery of the game is absolutely gorgeous. Often apocalyptic settings are portrayed in muted and dark colors. The Last of Us is often alive with green. Aside from the fact that either an Infected or a fellow human is out to kill you, it looks beautiful. 
Were I to use this as an inspiration for an RPG, I don't know that I'd necessarily use the setting as-is - it can simply serve as a great inspiration for an All Flesh Must Be Eaten or an Infected! campaign. Oddly, I can think of a number of OSR style games that could be used for this style of game. I think ACKS's domain play rules could make for an awesome post-apocalyptic community management system. Sine Nomine's An Echo Resounding, an add-on for OSR games also would work well and the setting of their Stars Without Number could also use elements of The Last of Us for inspiration - both how communities might have survived the Scream and for threats faced by an individual world. 
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

First Impressions of "The Orville"

Wed, 10/04/2017 - 02:12

I'd not really been plugged in to the fact that Seth MacFarlane had created a science fiction show until I started seeing people on my Facebook feed talking about The Orville - some people claiming it was the "real" Star Trek show as opposed to Star Trek Discovery. 

The Orville is a comedy-drama science fiction show strongly inspired by the original Star Trek. That's not surprising given MacFalane's well known love of that show. I'm not a huge MacFarlane fan - I've probably only caught an episode or two of Family Guy though I will acknowledge Ted as a guilty pleasure. I'm sure Mila Kunis starring in that had nothing to do with it...

As of this writing, The Orville has aired four episodes, so it's still a little early in the run. It is about the crew of the exploration ship Orville - no big surprise there. Her captain is Ed Mercer, a once up and coming officer whose career stalled after his divorce. The only first officer available to him is his ex-wife, Commander Kelly Grayson.

The humor on the show is hit or miss for me. I occasionally get a chuckle out of the tension between Ed and Kelly but it is often quite groan-inducing. I seem to recall someone describing The Orville as being like a goofy gaming group playing a Star Trek RPG.

While the humor has been hit or miss for me, I've greatly enjoyed some of the issues the show has covered. For example, it has aired episodes dealing with sexual identity and clinging to religious beliefs even in the face of contradictory scientific evidence. 

From a gaming perspective, The Orville shows the way to do a game inspire by Star Trek but is not Star Trek.  Venger Satanis has written that Orville is a Retro-Clone and I think that's a great way to look at it. Love a lot of aspects of Star Trek but hate the transporter and trying to squeeze into the timeline? Make your ow setting inspire by it.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Actual Play Review: Cthulhu Dark

Mon, 10/02/2017 - 01:41

With a brief break from our Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea game taking place due to some travel going on in our group, we recently had the opportunity to try out Cthulhu Dark. It was just three of us, myself and two players, which in my experience can work pretty well for horror games.

Cthulhu Dark is designed for Lovecraftian horror. It is about as stripped down a set of rules as I could imagine. Your investigator has a name, a description, and an occupation. He or she has one stat, Insight, which begins at 1. If it reaches 6, your investigator is pretty much insane. Game over, man.

How do you resolve tasks? It's pretty straightforward. If your task is something a human could do you doll a d6. If it is related to your occupation, you roll another d6. Finally, if you are willing to risk your mind to succeed you can roll an Insight Die. You pretty much always "succeed" unless Failure Dice are bing rolled. Your overall roll is the highest of all your dice rolls. If the highest is a 1 you get the bare minimum needed to move the investigation along. If you roll a 4 you get everything a competent investigator would get - or if doing a non-investigative task, you succeed competently. A 5 gives a little extra. So does a 6... But you also get a glimpse of something beyond human knowledge. Giving you an Insight Roll which we will discuss below.

If your Insight Die is higher than any other die you also make an Insight Roll. If its the highest and a 6 you make two Insight Rolls.

An Insight Roll is a bit similar to a Call of Cthulhu sanity check. You also use it if you encounter something horrifying. If this d6 roll is higher than your current Insight, your Insight goes up by 1. The game is designed to quickly bring your Insight up to a 3 or 4, something we encountered in actual play as well.

There is also the Failure Die. If the Keeper (i.e. the GM) or other players think a failure would be interesting on a test, then you also roll a Failure Die. If it is the highest roll then the task fails. This is not an option if failure will block an adventure from proceeding, only if it is potentially interesting.

That's pretty much the rules. They fit on two pages. Cthulhu Dark is a lot longer than that, with sections for player and keeper advice as well as sample settings and adventures. The main game contains Victorian London. Other settings include Arkham 1692, the fictional West African country of Jaiwo in 2017, and Mumbai in 2037. I'm not certain if those other settings will be in the final Cthulhu Dark or if they are Kickstarter backer exclusives.

I first encountered these rules in author Graham Walmsley's earlier Stealing Cthulhu book. To be honest, I glanced at them but found them too "light" for my tastes. After some successes with Fate coupled with considerably less free time due to attending grad school part-time I gave it another look and began appreciating it more and more.

From our single trial, I'll say I liked the game quite a bit. We played in Arkham of 1692. I'll not do a full writeup here as it is a new adventure and I'd rather not give it all away. Suffice to say the protagonists are involved in something very much like the Salem Witch Trials. In play I found the players reaching for the Insight Die on their own, with little prompting from me. By the end of the adventure they had done unspeakable crimes and were no longer the sane normal mortals they were at the start of the adventure. It also played extremely fast - we got a pretty full adventure in, character generation included, in under two hours.

I think it could be used for campaign play as well - the adventure we played was very much designed to remove characters from their normal life by the end, one way or another. Graham Walmsley indicated he tried out the Cthulhu Apocalypse adventures he had written for Pelgrane Press's Trail of Cthulhu game with these rules. I don't think it would work for all styles of play, nor do I believe it was designed to. I definitely had fun with it and my players seemed to enjoy it as well. That's not to say I'll never play Call of Cthulhu again - and I still have a good Trail of Cthulhu (or maybe Night's Black Agents/The Dracula Dossier) game in my bucket list.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Thoughts on Final Frontier Gaming

Sun, 09/24/2017 - 01:19

It's been a very long time since I've played a Star Trek RPG - around a dozen years I'd estimate. I'd flirted with the idea of playtesting the new Star Trek RPG but we were in the middle of a campaign I was rather enjoying. With Star Trek Discovery about to premier I've been flipping through some of my old Star Trek stuff as well as the new RPG.

There's a lot to recommend the Star Trek universe for RPGs. The original Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation are great examples of episodic adventures. While I often dream of a 200-part campaign of tightly interlinked adventures, reality tends to make such things difficult in the extreme. A Star Trek campaign offers characters a mobile "town" that can visit adventure locations. One adventure can be high-octane adventure, the next can be an exercise in diplomacy, the next a murder mystery.

Deep Space Nine showed that a 173-part campaign is possible in the setting of Star Trek, as an outpost becomes the flashpoint for conflicts that eventually leads to a major war. However, like other Star Treks, it still offers a wide variety of adventure possibilities. It also opens up the types of characters one can play.

Star Trek games also have their challenges as well, probably a large part of the reason I've not played in a while. Players are far less cooperative than characters in a television show. The technology of Star Trek is very powerful and, if used intelligently, can serve to make creating and running adventures more challenging than it is in other settings. The transporter is probably the classic example, functioning as the ultimate get-out-of-jail card - "transporter interference" becomes a rather annoying phrase. Also, Star Trek has been rather inconsistent with just how useful sensors are but they are powerful devices that players will rightly want to make good use of.

I've only given the new Star Trek game from Modiphius a cursory scan - it looks well done. One thing I'm curious about is how well it covers realizing the tropes of the Star Trek setting. I've a hunch that a strong injection of narrative rules so as to better simulate television show is a useful tool in such a game.

I do find myself having a nagging desire to try out some Star Trek again at some point. I've been pretty deep in research papers for my current class at grad school (the fun of being a part-time student) but I hope to find some time to do a deep dive into the Modiphius rules in the near future.

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What's Shiny? September 2017 Edition

Wed, 09/20/2017 - 02:21

Continuing the occasional series of shiny stuff that is capable of distracting me...

The fortunate thing is there's a new edition of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea that just came out. It's good when the shiny is actually what you are currently playing - and that it's backwards compatible.

We're going to be down to just three of us for a few games in late-September early-October so we might be doing a standalone adventure/two-parter. I've been giving some serious consideration to Cthulhu Dark as I'm curious how we'll find the extremely lean rules system.

I've been doing a lot of espionage viewing and reading over the past month or so. It's resulted in me flipping through Top Secret a lot - though I am finding the hand to hand combat rules a bit tough on the brain. I've also been thinking about Cthulhu and company in such a setting. There's a bunch of games and/or supplements designed just for that... I've been rereading Charles Stross's Laundry Files series, about a secret British spy agency dedicated to protecting the Earth from eldritch abominations - all while making certain they stay ISO 9001 certified. The novels have a dark humor to them, one Cubicle 7's RPG preserves. Getting a little (a lot) grittier, we have the Delta Green RPG. And finally I can think of the World War Cthulhu: Cold War RPG supplements from Cubicle 7.

Getting away from tentacles for a while, with a new Star Wars movie perpetually on the horizon, there is the eternal distraction of doing a Star Wars game... It's been a while since I thought about a Star Trek game, but with a new RPG just out and a new show about to begin...

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First Impressions of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea 2nd Edition

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 01:50

I just received my backer PDF for the 2nd edition of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea. Often when a backer PDF is released I'm playing something else so sometimes it may take days or even weeks until I get around to downloading it. Since I'm actually GM-ing an AS&SH campaign currently, I actually downloaded it right away.

I've given the original version of the game a review as well as a more recent actual play impressions. This isn't a full review of the new edition - I've only had time for a quick skim. But from that skim it's worth noting that the game hasn't changed - there's some rearrangement here and there, some tweaks, and a bunch of additions. So it's important to note that my earlier reviews are still very much applicable. Indeed, unlike many games, the fact that this is a new edition isn't even advertised on the cover. This reminds me of the way revisions to the D&D Basic and Expert sets were released in the 1980s - new cover art, new contents, but no big banner proclaiming a new edition.

So what's changed? There's new art - a new cover and some full-color art at the start of each of the six "volumes" within the PDF. There's additionally a lot of new art, art which co-exists with the original art which reappears in this new edition. All of the classes are from the original edition are still here. Additionally, there are four new classes - a new subclass for each of the four main classes. The new classes are:

  • Huntsman - a fighter subclass, a wilderness warrior and hunter
  • Cyromancer - a magician subclass, specializing in ice magic (Fafhrd, your mom is looking for you...)
  • Runegraver - a cleric subclass who specializes in rune magic. This magic requires the expenditure of caster hit points to cast which seems in keeping with some of the sacrifices found in Norse mythology.
  • Purloiner - a thief subclass with some priestly abilities. Often serves the god of thieves...
A quick scan of the spell lists shows it has been expanded somewhat with new spells. The adventuring section looks pretty much unchanged from a quick scan.
As before, the referee's section covers monsters, magic items, and details of the world. The monsters section has some additions from the 1st edition as does the section on magic items. It's still the same world, though one addition I really appreciated was a series of random tables for generating weather. In a world with winters lasting for years (and dominated by a year of eternal darkness), weather is more than a background detail in Hyperborea and these tables (complete with game effects of certain weather conditions) make for a great addition. There is also an appendix with a starting village and nearby dungeon location.
In addition to the rulebook there is a PDF of a new color map of the setting - it's the same geography as the original map but much prettier.
It's worth noting that as a while the game looks much nicer. I found the layout enhanced in such a way to make for overall easier reading. The new art nicely complements the art from the 1st edition - and both styles of art evokes the setting - from elder things to laser-wielding zombies to orcs Atlantean spacemen. 
If you've the 1st edition, do you need to upgrade? Probably not. For the most part, the upgrade reminds me of the changes you'd find when going form one edition of Call of Cthulhu to another (though the 7th did make for a fairly major change, though even there backward compatibility was maintained). If you enjoy the game I think you'd like the improvements and would be happy you upgraded. If you don't like the game, I can't imagine any of the minor tweaks would change your mind. If you're curious about the game then the 2nd edition is a great starting point - there's no metaplot which has been advanced some years - it's the same setting as before. And as before, it's really well equipped for the insertion of most old school adventures you could think of, albeit with a tweak here and there for more of a swords and sorcery feel. 
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Film Review: The Falcon and the Snowman

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 01:53

I was discussing grittier spy movies with a member of my gaming group and this film was recommended to me. It's one of those movies that I have a vague recollection of - it might be from hearing the basics of the events this film is based on or it might be from catching it on television. Released in 1985 it is based on events that happened in the 1970s (which is when it takes place).

Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn play Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee, young adults who have a friendship going back to childhood back when they were altar boys together. Boyce has just dropped out of the seminary and his father gets him a job at RTX, a government contractor. Despite having only a high school diploma, Boyce is very bright and does well at the company - and having an ex-FBI guy as father helps. He eventually gets assigned to the "Black Vault" stores top secret documents and receives secret transmissions. Boyce becomes very disillusioned as CIA teletype transmissions are occasionally erroneously sent to RTX and he learns of plots against foreign governments.

Daulton Lee is a drug smuggler, often brining drugs across the border from Mexico. He is extremely high strung, something which his growing dependency on cocaine and later heroin does not help with. Boyce, wanting to take some action against the CIA, enlists Lee's help, having him sell the information he has access to at RTX's Black Vault to the Soviet Union. Lee does this via the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City.

The film is an extremely engaging experience. It is not an action packed thriller. Boyce and Lee are kids from wealthy family who get in way over their heads. Lee is the only contact the Soviets have, Boyce not dealing with them directly. Their Soviet handler, Alex, is expertly played by David Suchet. He doesn't make appeals to doing the right thing, he doesn't praise communism or demonize the United States - he's a very practical man. It's a business transaction to him. But when he finally meets Boyce, Boyce is at the point he wants out. Boyce complains that he's not a professional, something Alex rebukes, telling him they became professionals the instant they took money in return for secrets.

We also see some exercises in tradecraft, something Lee is no good at all, sometimes messing up the signal for a meeting, frequently breaking protocol and going directly to the Soviet embassy. Alex and the embassy staff grow to quickly despise Lee.

Hutton and Penn give stellar performances. Hutton plays Boyce as a young American man who has brains, good looks, who seems to have everything going for him - despite his inability to really get his life going after high school. I greatly disliked Penn's Lee, but in a good way - I feel I was supposed to dislike him. He can't keep his mouth shut, jokes at parties that he's selling secrets to the KGB. He's extremely high strung with an elevated sense of his own performance.

It seems amazing that the pair would be motivated to sell secrets to the USSR - Boyce's frustration with the CIA and government is absolutely understandable, but he takes one hell of a leap to begin selling secrets. Not that is isn't believable in the context of the film - the film really sells the idea that the two made this decision - and it brutally shows the consequences of selling out your country.

From a gaming perspective, it gives a great view on the types of people who might sell out their country. From that perspective, the most sympathetic character is Alex, presented as a professional who wants to do his job but is forced having to deal with the high-strung and unreliable Lee.
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Reflections on the 9/11 Memorial and Museum

Mon, 09/11/2017 - 11:23

A few weeks ago, my older daughter Victoria and I paid a brief visit to Manhattan. Vicki's been giving some thought to going to New York's Fashion Institute of Technology (still a few years to go for that) but one thing we wanted to make certain of was that she'd be comfortable with the city itself - she'd only been there once before, and that almost ten years ago.

Overall it was a great trip. She fell in love with the city. I got to meet someone from my virtual gaming group for coffee - it's always nice to really meet with people I initially get to know via email, social media, and webcams. I'm looking forward to meeting a number of people next June at North Texas RPG Con.

One thing I wanted to make certain we did was spend some time at the World Trade Center. For Vicki  (and her younger sister, Jasmine, who chose to stay home in Massachusetts with mom), 9/11 will always be a matter of history. We first found out Vicki was on the way on the Saturday after 9/11.

I'm not going to make the offensive claim that 9/11 hit me harder than other people - thankfully I lost no one I knew on that awful day. But like pretty much every American who was old enough to be aware as to what was going on, it was a horrible day. I'm originally from New York City and my grandfather had taken me to the World Trade Center countless times. As I grew older I learned he didn't particularly care for the Twin Towers, an attitude shared by old timer New Yorkers. He loved the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building. But he loved his grandchildren. The last time he took me there I was around 15 and he tried to get me up to the observatory as 12 and under for a reduced rate - one of the more humiliating moments of my youth now that I think of it.

The memorial itself is beautiful and painful - a pair of wounds where the Twin Towers used to be with the names of all the victims. On a victim's birthday, a white rose is placed next to his or her name. Looking up, one can see the new One World Trade Center. It really drove home to Vicki what was once there as I asked her to picture the two pools both rising nearly as high as 1 WTC.

The 9/11 Museum was another experience. It is located primarily under the Memorial, with remnants of the Twin Towers visible such as the "bathtub" walls. It memorializes those who died and the first responders. It brings back memories of that day, with news footage, people describing how they learned, etc. 

 There was also much to celebrate the Twin Towers - their construction, the "man on a wire" incident - Philippe Petit's tightrope crossing. I talked with a volunteer who told me how he witnessed it on just a normal workday, seeing Petit going back and forth. We got a laugh at my grandfather's proud disdain of the towers. Had he lived to 9/11, he'd've nevertheless been crushed to see them destroyed with so many innocent lives taken with them - they might have been in his view ugly towers, but they were his (and other New Yorkers') ugly towers.

There was also some beautiful, haunting, and horrifying artwork - most of it being all three at once. For whatever reason, Ejay Weiss's images of the sky through the towers stuck with me the most. The weather here near Boston was similar to that of New York City on September 11, 2001 - a beautiful day with a gorgeous blue sky.

It was a difficult trip for both of us. For me, it was a way to remember what was lost. For Vicki, it made it real for her in a way that all the school assemblies and videos never could.

Reading what I wrote, I see I focus a lot on both beauty and pain - which seems apt for the experience. The 9/11 attacks were horrible - 2,977 people were murdered that day by 19 terrorists who turned commercial airplanes into weapons. Many more were injured. In the years that followed, thousands fell victim to 9/11 related sicknesses, some fatally so. It's hard to find anything good from that day. But I think of people who when they saw burning buildings, chose to run into them in the hopes of saving people. I think of the passengers and crew of United Flight 93 who denied the terrorists a complete victory, with the plane crashing far short of its objective. On balance though, I'm still struck by what a horror that day was, with so many whose lives were cut tragically short.

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Adventure Writeup: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh Part One

Sun, 09/10/2017 - 22:56

Based on the TSR adventure of the same name written by Dave J. Browne and Don Turnbull. Tweaked to fit in the Hyperborean setting.

Year 576 (Tempest), Month II, Day 26
Cast of characters:

  • Aaron Cèampach, Kelt Warlock
  • Hoom Feethos, Hyberbrean Thief
  • Morrow, Pict Druid
  • Saratos Ochôziakos, Ixian Fighter
  • Sarukê thugatêrOchôziakos, Ixian Witch
  • William "Billy" Welsh - Common Human Pyromancer
Henchmen hired by Saratos and Sarukê:
  • Tai, Medium Infantryman
  • Zell, Heavy Infantryman

Zell told his employers about the legend of a haunted house near his hometown of Saltmarsh, a fishing town located about.a day's sail from Kromarium. There might even be a reward from the town council.

Seeking adventure, the band traveled to Saltmarsh, a moderately sized town of approximately 2,000. To quote the original adventure...

Four miles east of Saltmarsh, just inland of the old coast road and looking out to sea, stands the Haunted House. Until twenty years ago it had been the residence of an aged alchemist/magician of sinister reputation, and even then had been shunned by reason of its owner's mysterious occupations. Now, two decades after the sudden and unexplained disappearance of its occupant, the house has acquired an even greater air of evil and mystery with the passing years.  Dilapidated and now long-abandoned, the house presents an unwholesome appearance to the eye. Those hardy souls who have on infrequent occasion sought entry to it (for rumours of a secret hoard of alchemical gold have persisted since the old man's disappearance) have all returned with naught save grim tales of decay presided over by monstrous perils. In more recent years there have been reports of fearsome hauntings —ghastly shrieks and eerie lights emanating from within the dismal place. Now not even the bravest dare so much as to approach the house, leave alone enter it. Indeed, such is the reputation of the house that the fields around it, though prime agricultural land, remain untended and rank with weeds.Some discussion with locals revealed a would-be adventurer who briefly visited it, going so far as the back door and kitchen/scullery area. However, noises frightened him away. The town council wasn't quite willing to give a reward for exploring the house, but they were willing to let the adventurers keep the house should they clear it of any menace (though it was clearly a fixer-upper).

The ground floor of the house didn't challenge our adventurers too much, giving them encounters such as:

  • A huge spider and a metal box, both in a chimney. The box contained a single ring, apparently enchanted...
  • A living room with some sort of enchantment causing a magical voice to cry "Welcome fools - welcome to your deaths!", followed by maniacal laughter. Investigating further they found a hidden trap-door to the basement. But they decided to continue exploring (plus having discovered another stairwell to the basement in the kitchen area).
  • A library with a number of valuable books by mages Tenser and Nystul.
  • A study with a locked desk. Later they made use of Ned Shakeshaft to force it open, finding it contained a rose-colored potion of neutralize poison (which proved handy).
Traveling upstairs they found a number weakened floors. In one bedroom they found a pair of large spiders, one of which poisoned Morrow. The poison wasn't extreme but it did render him ill and unable to do anything but curl into a ball and empty his insides. They left the henchmen with him as they continued on. In another room they found a man bound and gagged. Questioning him he told the his tale. Again quoting the original adventure...
He was simply that he is a thief from Seaton who entered the House under cover of darkness the previous night to find a place to sleep during his journey to Saltmarsh where, he had heard, there was possible work for adventurers. He entered through the back door and had only reached the kitchen when he was attacked from behind, overcome and knocked unconscious. He awoke some hours ago — bound, gagged and stripped of his possessions — in this room. He did not see his attackers nor, until the party came along, had he heard any sounds in the House. Now he would like to be released and to join the party in their adventure. Deciding to test him out, they brought him downstairs to open the locked desk - Hoom had been unable to. Ned wasn't able to either, though Hoom could tell he was indeed trained in the arts of subterfuge. Ned eventually opened the desk where they found the potion which they used to treat Morrow.

In another room they found Ned's gear which he was glad to get back. 

Having explored the ground and upper floors, the band debated whether to tackle the attic or the basement next...
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Random Thoughts on Stale Beer Espionage Gaming

Thu, 09/07/2017 - 02:31

“Intelligence work has one moral law - it is justified by results.”
― John le Carré, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
With John le Carré's A Legacy of Spies coming out this week I've been rereading his George Smiley novels. Doing so has been getting me thinking about espionage RPGs.
I don't have a ton of experience running or playing in espionage RPGs. I've been involved in a number of one-offs using Top Secret, Top Secret S/I, and James Bond. Back in my middle school and high school days of the 1980s such games tended to emulate the James Bond movies - some investigation/information gathering, with a lot of thrilling chases. 
A lot of Call of Cthulhu gaming over the past several years has taught me that gaming can be quite exciting with a high degree of tension with minimal combat. In Call of Cthulhu combat is dangerous. If you need to fight someone, your best bet is to ambush. A fair fight is dangerous, even for someone with a high degree of military training.
I'd love to see an espionage game which gives very mortal characters. With characters of questionable moral character. With difficult decisions, abandoned agents, dead drops, double agents, betrayals, blackmail, etc. This has been referred to as the "Stale Beer" sub-genre. Examples of this include include Ian Fleming's James Bond novels as well as the first two Connery movies, Doctor No and From Russia with Love. John le Carré's novels fall into this. Tvtropes points out that Stephen Maturin of the Aubrey/Maturin Napoleonic Wars-era novels fits into this as well. So does FX's The Americans. If you are comfortable with a dose of the supernatural, Delta Green and Tim Powers would seem to fit in here as well.
How would I run such a game? I'm curious how the new Top Secret game will handle such gaming - my impression is it's a bit more action-oriented, but the original Top Secret was rather flexible. I think Chaosium's BRP engine is very well suited for such a game. The passions and traits from Pendragon would adapt well to such a game - they'd be a great way to see what would motivate a PC or NPC to betray their agency/country/allies/etc. PCs could use them on enemy agents to flip them and on foreign national to recruit them. Delta Green, which shares a ton of design pedigree with BRP and Call of Cthulhu would work incredibly well for this as well - the mechanics have ways for agents to fall apart as they get caught in a web of lies and betrayals, all for the "greater good".
My own inclination would be to do such a game before the fall of the Soviet Union. The historical aspect lessens the chances of real world politics causing trouble in a group. And I find the technology level of that period works better for maintaining suspense - no instant communication, no finding the answers on the internet...
When I began writing this my inclination was to say I'd stay clear of the supernatural. Giving it some more thought, I don't think I'd be totally against it actually. It would really depend on what the group is looking for. If I did use the supernatural, I'd probably stay clear of the idea that Nyarlathotep is responsible for the rise of the Nazis, the Soviet Union, the Viet Cong, and everything else that goes wrong. I don't think the Old Ones would care one bit about our politics... 
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On the Use of Henchmen in OSR Games

Mon, 09/04/2017 - 03:37

When I first starting playing D&D in the 1980s, Charisma was the most common dump stat. We pretty much ignored the rules on hirelings and henchmen.
From what I've read online, our experience was not unique. However, I've also seen for many groups henchmen were an important component of the early game and the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide bears this out, with considerable space dedicated to the acquisition and loyalty of henchmen.
In our AS&SH game, one of the players had two characters, both of whom had high Charisma scores. He decided to use some of his starting cash to hire some mercenaries. It wound up being an extremely good investment - giving the party additional firepower while at the same time giving the monsters additional targets to aim for. I suspect should the henchmen survive up to the point where the characters make it to second level, I might allow the henchmen to gain a little bit of experience and reach 1st level, with an eye towards allowing them to lag behind the main characters but be available as standby PCs should some of them meet unfortunate ends. And of course, that assumes the henchmen survive as well, something that is not a given.
One thing I'm a little curious about is what the inspiration for henchmen in the original game was. Having descended from wargaming, I can imagine part of it is a leftover from that. In fiction, I can't think of many scenarios where henchmen played an important role for the protagonists - I do seem to recall some Lankhmar stories where Fafhrd and Grey Mouser had some mercenaries but I can't think of much else - though I've also not read the entire Appendix N canon...
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RPG Review: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

Sun, 09/03/2017 - 03:05

We're currently working our way through The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh in our AS&SH game. It adapts pretty well and at a later point I might write up about adapting the series. This post however is simply a brief review of the adventure itself. If you're in my group it's probably best to hold off in reading this until we're done, though I'd not be surprised if some or all of you have played or run this in the past, as it is a fairly common adventure from the 1st edition...

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is an adventure from the UK branch of TSR, copyrighted to 1981. It has a bit of a different feel from most adventures of the period. It has a bit of a heavier plot than most adventures back then - it's not like later adventures which sometimes go so far as to render player decisions moot. Rather it has a set of NPCs with their own agenda who aren't likely to sit waiting for the PCs to arrive.

Saltmarsh is a two-part adventure as well as being the first adventure of a trilogy. In it, the adventures visit the town of Saltmarsh. It is designed to be a fishing town like that of 14th century south-coast England. Near the town is a "haunted house", once the home of a sinister alchemist.

As it turns out, the haunting is a sham. The ill reputation of the house is being used by a band of smugglers who mainly operate out of the basement and cave system under the house. The house itself is poor condition, with creepy giant spiders living in chimneys and stirges in the attic. The illusionist leader of the smugglers has used magic to reinforce the reputation of the house.

The second half of the adventures deals with the PCs investigating a sailing ship which transports cargo to and from the smugglers in the house. There's a crew of nasty smugglers, some lizard men passengers receiving a weapons shipment, and an imprisoned aquatic elf. In previous play the second half can be rather dangerous - the boat is small and once the smugglers become aware of the PCs it can prove a very dangerous environment.

For the most part I like this adventure. Nominally set in the World of Greyhawk setting, it is easily adaptable to other settings. I like the fact that the NPCs all have their own agendas - for example, a member of the town council, upon learning that the adventurers are planning on investigating the house, quickly puts together a plan to hinder them, as he is doing business with the smugglers.

I did find the links between adventures to be a bit rough. The only real clue that the PCs receive about the smuggling ship is a scrap of paper with shorthand for light signals to communicate with the ship. It's very tenuous and in actual play I've found it an easy clue to miss. Typically, I've found it works better to have a logbook the smugglers use to record their meetings as well as the possibility of interrogating prisoners. Similarly, the next adventure deals with the fact that the lizard men on the ship are arranging a weapons shipment to their nearby lair. I've often found players miss this clue, just figuring the lizard men are part of the crew. I've found it best to add extra evidence in the form of logs as well as the aquatic elf prisoner being able to provide additional information.

With those caveats, I've found Saltmarsh to be a good low-level adventure. In our game, the characters are 1st level, albeit with a single prior adventure that didn't quite get them to second level. I'm guessing it will be threes sessions to complete - two to cover the haunted house and a third to handle the smugglers' ship.
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Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: Actual Play Impressions

Wed, 08/30/2017 - 01:36

Including a character generation session, we had our third session of AS&SH last night. I reviewed it over four years ago but sometimes there's a world of difference between reading a game and playing it. So how does it play?

As I've mentioned, as far as the rules go it is in many ways a cleaned up version of AD&D. A bit more complicated than Swords & Wizardry but nothing anyone with gaming experience would have trouble with.

Having played it a few sessions there's a few things that I've noticed in play. First, despite being based on AD&D, the lack of demi-humans makes a big difference, even when you aren't going for deep immersion characterization. It definitely gives off the swords & sorcery vibe that the game is going for. While it lacks multi-classing, it does give some sub-classes that represent a number of fantasy and swords & sorcery tropes. For example, it is possible to play the traditional fighter/magic-user as a warlock. They favor the fighter side but make for reasonably effective magic-users. There is also a thief with some magical ability, feeling much like the Grey Mouser of the Lankhmar tales.

I am still coming to grips with the combat system - I excerpt the sequence below...

The idea is tour break down a combat round into two phases with characters who do not move being able to act in the first phase. So as I read it, a character who lost initiative but is stationary will act before a character who won initiative but is moving. I'm unclear if the intent is also within a side's phase if the sequence is melee, missiles, magic, then movement. That's how we played it but I've found that to be a touch awkward. I might give it a good rereading prior to our next game before I make any tweaks.

We've just begun playing through the classic AD&D Saltmarsh series. I'll likely do a full writeup on adaptation but for the most part it's been pretty smooth adapting it. There's certain creatures that don't feel quite right for the Hyperborean setting but for the most part I've found adaptation to be quite smooth. I suspect most classic adventures would port pretty easily which is quite handy for those of us in grad school part-time...

Overall I've been enjoying the game quite a bit. Like many old school games, the game rewards careful planning - the players quite value the henchmen they've hired to go into the adventure with them. I think the cosmic horror stories of HP Lovecraft remain my first love for gaming inspiration, but when it comes to fantasy, the Swords & Sorcery genre shares much in common with Lovecraft (indeed, many of the creatures in the setting are straight from Lovecraft).
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