Wednesday, 31 May 2023

[Homebrew] Mordschlag Hit Location and Damage

Tis but a scratch!
We had the second session of my Fauxhammer campaign sometimes in April. Session report is coming soon, but in the meanwhile, here is a glimpse into how I ruined the core system of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay! I have a rule of thumb for house rules: if the players don't forget to use it, then it's worth keeping, otherwise just throw it out. How we handle hit location and damage withstood this test, despite being poorly explained early on. Hopefully I will do a better job this time!

I fucking love hit locations in WFRP. Swapping the tens and units to get a number you can refer on the hit location chart is elegant. Alas I had two goals that forced me to defenestrate this classic solution: less rolling when making an attack and putting a bigger emphasis on choosing hit locations. Also, the front facing hit location tables are prone to giving nonsensical results, and fixing that would require either further hit location tables, or tampering with the numbers - and I'm too lazy to do either.

Damage: When you land a successful blow you don't roll damage die. You take the units instead, and add your damage bonuses to that. If the units die landed on 0, your damage is a 10, and you roll an additional d10. Each additional d10 also explodes in a similar way on 0. For example, if you hit someone with a roll of 18 while wielding a battle axe of +7 damage, your damage total is 15. If you hit someone with a roll of 20 and your additional dice lands on a 5, your damage total is 22.

Yeah, there is still a 10% chance you have to roll an additional die, and 1% chance that you have to roll two of them, but I'm okay with that. Rolling maximum damage already breaks the game's momentum, because everyone stops to cheer, and rolling an additional dice actually builds anticipation in this case.

Hit Location: Fasten your seatbelts, because we are getting dangerously close to narrative game territory here! When you make a successful test the tens of your result is your Success Level. When you fail a test your Success Level is -1 for every 10% you rolled above your success chance. Yes, we went with a blackjack method, where instead of rolling as low as possible, you have to get as close to your success chance as possible for better results. For example, if your success chance is 51%, a roll of 39 is a success with SL 3, while a roll of 71 is a failure with SL -2. SL 3 usually comes with some boon, while SL -3 is where the really bad things start to happen.

When attacking your foe, choose a hit location you can reach! If your SL is 3 or higher, you hit the targeted location. If your SL is less than 3, you hit the location your target chooses. Normally I allow chosing a location one step away from the targeted one - e.g. if you went for the head and rolled an SL of 2 only, your target can choose to put their left arm, torso, or right arm in harm's way. This option can become critical when someone starts taking criticals, since arm and leg criticals are usually less painful, than getting your skull cracked or gutted.

That's it. So far my players actually liked these changes, though wrapping their head around the alternative SL calculation took some time. Stay tuned for a session report in the near future, where our intrepid adventurers visits an old hag, meets a young feral druid, and kills a Fiend of Slaanesh - all in a day's work!

Wednesday, 29 March 2023

[Musings] Reminiscing About Swords & Wizardry Complete

True original S&WC fans have this cover.
The Otus titan cover is awesome too.
The box set is okay. Let's forget
about the weird uterus stag, though.
It's safe to say this year's Mothership is going to be Shadowdark. While we can argue all day long how much of an OSR game it is, Shadowdark is admired by a lot in the OSR community and had a shockingly successful Kickstarter campaign. On one hand, it's nice to see the game gain such a huge popularity, even if it's not my cup of tea. On the other hand, I was afraid it is going to smother other projects that start after it - particularly the revised edition of Swords & Wizardry Complete, which launched its campaign yesterday. It seems I was wrong - while it is a more humble project with far weaker marketing, it had a pretty strong start.

But why is Swords & Wizardry so important to me?

When I started GM-ing again after my high-school burnout I experimented with different games and styles, until I finally found my expectations in running sandboxes using OSR games. My first memorable sandbox campaign took place on the exotic Coconut Island and used Swords & Wizardry as its core. The party arrived into the single bastion of civilization on the island called Merchant's Port, a colony founded by the imperial Roman-like thuleans. The adventurers explored the darkest depths of the jungles, pieced together ancient maps, dug up buried treasures, traded with slaves1, saved hostages from the local tribes, murdered their shaman2, and finished the campaign by exploring a crashed spaceship.

Soon a cooperation with Frog God Games and Swords & Wizardry Complete was announced, and I immediately jumped on the bandwagon. I had a soft spot for OD&D plus its supplements, because they provided a good amount of content while still being less crunchy than AD&D1e. Wrapping your head around it was no small feat though, so a more accessible entry point was more than welcome. S&WC mostly delivered that, though it lacked some of the content I wanted to see in it. Thus I took the effort to write up some house rules that introduced percentile ability score improvement, Empire of the Petal Throne's skill system, Eldritch Wizardry's psionics rules (that was a tough one to digest), half-orcs, amazons, maybe even bards. After I was done with it, I grabbed my Ready Ref Sheets, Wilderlands of High Fantasy, and Modron booklets, and started what I called the Fantastic Wilderlands campaign.

It was one of my favourite campaigns ever. It is easily in my top 3 campaigns. I still have all my session reports, which I posted on the forums back then. Alas they are all in Hungarian and it would take too much effort to translate them to English. Besides, this post is first and foremost about my experiences with running S&WC, not reminiscing about what happened during that fateful campaign.

Character creation is blazing fast in S&WC. Unless you have a player who likes going through every fucking thing from the equipment chapter and ask mindnumbing questions about them3 it takes a few minutes only. This is a blessing first and foremost for the Referee, not he players. The players will have to roll up only a few characters during a campaign compared to the Referee, who needs an unlimited amount of NPCs, often out of the blue. After the first few sessions I stopped preparing NPC stat blocks, because I could do it in seconds on the fly. Class, level, important equipment, maybe some fitting spells, and you are good to go.

Gameplay is similarly swift, even combat encounters. After messing with the wrong people the party's henchmen were kidnapped by a local bandit chief, who delivered the torchbearer's head in a box as a warning. That warning ended up becoming a campaign of revenge. With some kobold help the party sneaked into the bandit hideot, an old manor through the cellars. There they angered the chief's pet gorilla, whom they had to murder. The scuffle alerted the entire manor. The party of 7 level 2-4 adventurers fought a mixed group of 28 bandits, dogs, altanian barbarians, halfling cooks in one of the most intense battles of my refereeing career. I felt exhausted once it was over, and surprised when I checked the time and realized, that the whole encounter took less than 30 minutes. I wasn't used to this. I just finished a D&D 4e campaign where even a 4v4 match could take up an hour.

This swift and light gameplay is combined with a surprisingly large amount of content. S&WC packs a lot of punch for its page count. It has a solid amount of character options4, monsters, magic items, spells, random encounter charts and so on. And just like the source material, it doesn't limit itself to arbitrary sweetspots in gameplay - it goes all the way up to high levels, with +5 Holy Avengers, Meteor Showers, and 30 HD Orcus! Alas the Fantastic Wilderlands campaign never reached such high levels, although my players did fight several red dragons (at once!) and some tough demons.

How good it is at being a retroclone though? S&W diverges in several ways from its progenitor. Using a single save value instead of categories is a well known, and generally liked one - even by me! The way it handles random treasure is radically different, and far more divisive - I still have issues with wrapping my head around it. The lack of some content like stat blocks for gods, some monsters, hit locations, psionics are understandable, while others morale table, reaction table, random castles, and some other minor stuff from are still baffling even today. Matt said there are legal reasons for that, but if he can revamp the treasure tables then so can he make an alternative for these. I have a hunch they weren't included becase he didn't use them - after all the game is partly meant to represent how he plays OD&D. Fortunately I had other clones and the Ready Ref Sheets to fill in these holes. Despite these differences I could use old Judges Guild products5 with zero effort, which should serve as a benchmark for the OD&D compatibility.

For a long time Swords & Wizardry's three variants (Whitebox, Core, Complete) served as the definitive retroclones for the various flavours of OD&D. That's not really the case nowadays. If you want to play 3LBB OD&D, Delving Deeper is more faithful and WhiteBox: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game is sexier than S&W Whitebox. If you want to play 3LBB+Supplement I, Iron Falcon is superior to S&W Core. But S&W Complete is still the king of a niche, which while often overlooked by purists, provides a fun, fast, and substantial old-school experience. It has near-AD&D amount of content, but far less crunch. While most OSR games out there are pretty light and flexible too, they often offer a smaller scope and less stuff out of the box, and if you want to run a campaign, especially a long term sandbox, you are going to need stuff. Lots of stuff.

I don't plan to run S&W Complete in the near future, because I have enough already on my plate and if I wanted to run an OD&D campaign I would use my reprint boxed set and a few sheets of house rules instead. I'm still buying it though, because it is a game I have fond memories of, it helped me to learn and understand what makes old-school games and sandboxes tick, it might come handy when I need a quick and dirty rpg for a quick session, and also because Matt Finch proved several times that he is one of the nicest designers of the OSR scene. Tomb of the Iron God deluxe edition next, please!

1 Needless to say they weren't really good guys, and were prone to abuse Sleep.

2 Killed by the fighter Rogar, who survived a lightning bolt, then threw the invisible shaman in the head with a coconut he bought on the market the day before. His descendants carried the coconut as a +1 weapon in future campaigns.

3 In our case that was the lawful evil grey wizard Anonymous' player, who did a great job at forging a team from a party of ne'er do wells using Sleep, Charm, and various disciplinary tools.

4 For race you can choose from human, elf, half-elf, dwarf, halfling. For class you have assassin, cleric, druid, fighter, magic-user, monk, paladin, ranger, thief. Yeah, rangers were not in the OD&D booklets, they are from Strategic Review.

5 Of course this means pre-JGU Judges Guild products. Using post-JGU products requires doing tricks like ignoring half the stats and covering the last number on each.

Thursday, 16 March 2023

[Session] Fauxhammer S03E01: Back in the Saddle

Another excellent module overshadowed
by The Enemy Within.
On the 3rd of March I finally GMed my first session after almost two years of hiatus. While my son's arrival came in the middle of our Portals of Eremus campaign, I decided to keep that game on hold, and dust off our Zweihänder campaign instead, which took a pause because of the pandemic a few years earlier. Those who have been reading this blog for a while now might remember that I had some session reports for that campaign, but eventually discontinued writing them because they took more energy than I was willing to spend on them.

We has our 18th session behind us when the virus intervened, which marked the end of what we called "season 2". During the first season the party thwarted several skaven plans, had to leave Nuln as wanted criminals, and accidentally freed a daemon prince of Tzeentch. The second season started with them trying to tie up loose ends, which resulted in blowing up an entire quarter of Altdorf, waking up on a skaven train, and ending up in Tilea, which was invaded by a greenskin horde at the time. Thus began the party's long and weird way home...

Season 3 starts with the party returning to the Empire, with a warm up adventure using bits and pieces from the excellent Death's Dark Shadow. It's not only the scenery what changed: we also left Zweihänder behind in favour of my homebrew system Mordschlag1, which I jotted down during the winter to have something that's much lighter than Zweihänder or WFRP4e, and works well with WFRP1e and WFRP2e stat blocks on the fly2. I might talk about that later, but for now, onward to the session report!

Dramatis Personae

Blitzkrieg, dwarf veteran slayer: Half-deaf, naked, and in possession of a magical axe he fished out from the belly of the legendary Moby Squig. He is on his way to Altdorf to find the love of his life: the dwarf priestess Agonia.

Edgar, human [redacted]: The former monster slayer's skin turned black & white after a short trip to the Realms of Chaos, where he saw several of his clones crucified, was granted apocalyptic visions, and obtained an ominous sword. He is also followed by the black and white horse of a former chaos warrior.

Paether von Sternwart, human astromancer: Eager to get back to Altdorf, graduate as an archmage, and put his elven sword back into the daemon prince it was pulled out of.

Ruben Shultz, human mercenary captain: Downtrodden sylvanian noble on his way back home from a breatonnian trip. He firmly believes there are no vampires in Sylvania. New character.

Brünhilde, human hedge master: A huge burly woman with an addiction to mandrake. Alas she was pulled away early from the game to fulfill some motherly duties, but still deserves mention. New character.

Session Report

Let's throw a troll at them!
Aaand it's gone...
After orcs burned down Alimento and the party made a deal with some vampiresm they were finally on their way home on a strigani bargue. While still on the underwater river leading to the Empire, they learned that Altdorf is in turmoil: there is a huge hole in the city, the green mist billowing out of it is spreading sickness, a new extremist sigmarite cult is on the rise, Emperor Karl Franz is dying, and his son is missing.

Near the end of the journey Blitzkrieg and one of the sailors pulled up a stinky river troll along with the webs, who immediately attacked the group with a rusty anchor chained to its hand. He was one unlucky bastard... First a pot thrown at his head distracted, then Ruben threw an oil lamp in his face, then all his attacks were dodged or parried (though Ruben's sword shattered while parrying the  troll's anchor), and after getting critted by the dwarf he tried to jump back into the water, only to get torn apart by attacks of opportunity. Lazlo Lazlovicz, the captain, offered to pay the party's drinks in the Helmsman Inn once they are in Kreutzhofen.

Kreutzhofen was full of tileans, bretons, and refuges. They quickly learned the city is currently under the control of the pompous militia captain Bruno Trottel, who abuses some legal fuckery to announce martial law everytime there is something suspicious, which is a day or two later is revoked by the dorfrichter Sigismund Klippel - until Bruno discovers some new threat.

After buying suppliesthe party went to the Helmsman, except for Paether, who performed some divinations on the edge of the village. After getting some baleful visions he noticed a giggling girl running away and his daemon-slaying sword pulsing at his side. He lost the tracks, then heard a commotion across the street. It turned out a tilean syndicalista was brutally murdered and mutilated at the bridge, and Lazlo Lazlovits was found looting his corpse. Needless to say the strigani captain was beaten senseless and taken in by the militia.

In the Helmsman the party gathered some gossip while drinking herbal tea and schnaps with three old crones:

  • The town was founded by the tyrannical Reichenbach family, whose last members burnt to death in their manor during a bandit attack many years ago. Some say the old Reichenbach lord is back as a vampire, murdering people.
  • Whether there is a vampire or not, graves were dug up recently, and the third victim's scarf was found in the mud near the Reichenbach manor.
  • The village has strong pagan ties. There have been no priests for a while now. Recently a teenage girl showed up in the nearby wilderness, whom many revere as a druidess.
  • The pious believe the druidess is up to no good, and someone claimed she saw the girl near the house of the theologist Rudolf Furst.
  • Rudolf Furst moved in recently from Altdorf and paid rent in advance for a year so he can perform his studies in peace. He is rarely seen and doesn't mingle with the locals.

At Rudolf Furst's house the party the dead tilean's missing genitalia at the doorstep. After pretending to be with the militia, Rudolf let them in for a drink. The theologist was absolutely clueless about what's going on. He didn't notice anything and the party didn't find anything interesting at his house - but at least Paether messed up casting Witch Sight, waking up all the animals and children in the vicinity as a side-effect3. Rudolf was eager to join the party on their way to Altdorf when they leave, because he has to do some paperwork at the university.

The ragtag hand of the law.
At the militia house Bruno explained this was the fourth murder in four months, and he needed to arrest someone to calm the people. Lazlo was in the village during the last murder, he is known to be on bad terms with the tileans, he used to walk around with a huge machete, and he was found right next to the corpse, so he was ideal for scapegoat. Other than the wounds being too brutal to be done by human there isn't much evidence in his favour, but those have yet to be examined. The local doctor, Jakob Entesang wasn't at home when the militia knocked on his door. The party can save Lazlo by providing evidence or doing a mission for Bruno... Magnus Richthofen, a local landlord, has been working on something in his barn and ordering all kinds of weird stuff. The last cargo he received was a crate of guns and gunpowder, which Bruno confiscated and used as an excuse to proclaim martial law. He is sure Richthofen is planning to incite a rebellion to take over the village.

After the chitchat with the militia, the adventurers visited the doctor's house. The Herr Entesang arrived soon on his couch along with his hunchback assistant, Igor. He said he was visiting an old patient in a nearby village and will check the mutilated corpse tomorrow. The party returned to the Helmsman, discussing what should they do tomorrow.

Big thank you to Paether's player, who took and shared his session notes. Maybe I should do the same for his next Call of Cthulhu session...

1 Might be temporary title. I wanted to go with Mordhau, but that's already taken.

2 One of my biggest mechanical issues with Zweihänder is how it handles characteristics and bonuses. Conversion isn't hard, but it takes some effort, and isn't much fun if you have dozens of stat blocks.

3 It's a pity he didn't roll the big brother of this effect, which makes the nearby animals and children so angry they will seek out and attack the wizard.

Tuesday, 7 February 2023

[Kickstarter] Keep Trollin'

This dude was love at first sight.
Last year I only managed to finish three miniatures, but that didn't keep my pile of shame from growing. I find it hard to resist well sculpted Oldhammer miniatures. I'm a sucker for tiny pieces of metal that effortlessly blend dark fantasy aesthetics with comically exaggerated features. And since I'm preparing for an Oldhammerish campaign, painting them enjoys a higher priority than before.

Satanic Panic Miniatures is one of the projects I gushed about before. Mark Hides does a great job at touching forgotten and unique topics, like greater gnolls, lesser goblins, or giants, and finding the right sculptors and manufactures to make them come alive. I'm bringing him up because he started a new Kickstarter campaign just recently for 28mm scale old-school trolls. Big bulky trolls, with huge ass heads, and charming smiles. What's not to love about them? And I only have one Reaper Bones troll and one Tim Prow Heartbreaker troll painted! I cannot let our troll slayer, Blitzkrieg down! I'm sure he would find death by a dozen or so trolls climactic and satisfying. This is also a good opportunity to grab some of the lesser goblins and giants until the Satanic Panic Miniatures webstore is available online again.

Mark is well worth supporting, he is devoted to his hobby, has a no-bullshit attitude, and he delivered everything he promised so far. He also has some more intriguing projects in his pipeline - like steppe dwarves and orcs. If you are interested in it, I recommend following his facebook page.

Wednesday, 11 January 2023

2023 - The Year of D100?

Hey kids, today we are going to learn
about the resistance matrix!
Happy New Year Everyone!

It has become a meme with my group that the next year will be the Year of D100, because two of us kept saying it for several years. We were hellbent on running something d100-based in the near future1;, but alas none of that come to fruition so far. Maybe this year...2; Still, nothing holds you back from turning 2023 the year of d100. If WotC being busy killing third party publishers and shooting themselves in the foot at once, large number of people migrating from D&D to other games, and the general excellence of percentile systems wasn't enough to get the ball rolling, here are some more things to turn the tide:

OpenQuest drops the OGL and moves on to Creative Commons license. There's your publishing platform for d100! I mean Chaosium has its own OGL too, but it was deemed so hazy, only a few bothered to use it instead of Legend or OpenQuest.

Speaking of Chaosium, Basic Roleplaying is $1 on DriveThruRPG at the moment. It is one of the best generic rpgs out there: it is flexible as hell, easy to grasp, and not as intimidating as GURPS or Hero System. You can get a print copy too from Chaosium, but alas it's available from the US warehouse only, which for poor European chaps like me means a horrible $55 shipping fee. Come on Chaosium, make it available print on demand!

Mythras is also on sale for $5 on DriveThruRPG. Even better, there is a print on demand option too both there and on Lulu alike. Mythras is a crunchy gem that packs a lot of punch on 300 pages, though that page count is partly achieved through the use of tiny fonts. They also have the Mythras Gateway license by the way, which you must apply for to use, but hey, many already did so with success.

And while we are at it, here is a quick shoutout to a few neat blogs about d100 gaming that I enjoyed recently:

Samwise Seven posted a good deal about their BRP Skyrealms of Jorune campaign. The skill list on his character sheet is impressive.

Tomb of Tedankhamen's Stormbringer redux is an intriguing experiment. I would be happy to see it in practice.

Chris Brann's Diadochi Warlords campaign is an excellent read.

Those fed up with my recent gushing about d100 games shouldn't worry, I will post about OSR and D&D too. I have to face some critical encounters and must embrace my love for hacking first.

Update: The Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest starter sets are also on sale for a buck.

1 This includes my now dead project Hecatomb, Mythras, WFRP, and Stormbringer. I did play Call of Cthulhu 7e though, which is nice.

2 I am tying up loose ends, so the first thing will be finishing Zweihänder, but undre something lighter. Dragonbane is a good contender too. And I will keep kicking my dear friend's ass till he runs at least one session of Kopparhavets Hjältar.

Disclaimer: The DriveThruRPG links on this site are affiliate links. If you buy something through the link we'll get some credit for your purchase too.

Wednesday, 28 December 2022

[Preview] Dragonbane / Drakar och Demoner Beta

At the end of november Dragonbane's beta version dropped, which I started devouring with gusto. Three days later Free League announced that they are going to heed the wishes of the swedish Drakar och Demoner community, and overhaul the skill list to be more in line with previous editions. I did not expect to see the forthcoming changes before the final version, so I continued reading the rulebook, and took some time to digest the current version. Literally a few minutes after I opened Blogger's editor to write this preview a mail arrived about a major update to the beta rules. Oh well, here I go reading Dragonbone again, cover to cover...

Merry Christmas, everyone!

So, the current beta contains the complete Rulebook, the half-finished Adventure book, initiative cards, improvised weapon cards for inns, caves, forests, a map of Misty Vale, and a map for the town of Outskirt. Each one of them is pleasing to the eye with a predominantly brown and green colour scheme, breezy layout, and stunning illustrations. I would have loved to see some Paul Bonner art too, but I guess his mythic tone would not fit the "mirth & mayhem" motto1.

The Rulebook is 116 pages long and covers both how to play and run the game. The short page count is largely the result of terse, effective, no-bullshit writing. The latter still needs some refinement: some abilities would benefit from more clarification, some skills should have more telling names, and sometimes the text feels awkward - probably the result of English being the second language of the writer.

Character creation is swift and straightforward. There are six kin (human, halfling, dwarf, elf, mallard, wolfkin), each with one or two unique abilities and a table of six names. There ten professions (artisan, bard, fighter, hunter, knight, mage, mariner, merchant, scholar, thief), each with a recommended key attribute, skills, heroic abilities2, three equipment packages, and six names3. Age category is a surprising artifact: the older your character is, the shittier the attributes are, but the more skills they start with. Once you have your kin, profession, and age, you can roll up your six attributes (Strength, Constitution, Agility, Intelligence, Willpower, Charisma) using the 4d6k3 method. After each roll you must assign it to an ability score, and can swap two scores in the end4. Now you can calculate your derived ratings (Movement, Strength Damage Bonus, Agility Damage Bonus, Hit Points, and the mouthful Willpower Points), choose your trained skills, and you are good to go. The base chance for skills is based on their relevant attributes, which is doubled for trained skills. Other than these you must also define motivation, gear, memento, appearance. Every step offers you to choose or roll on a table - whatever floats your boat.

Yes, you can play as a wolfkin
with a catfolk fursona.
Encumbrance and experience are also explained here. They follow BRP traditions with some changes. You can carry STR/2 items, but worn armour and weapons at hand don't count. Heavy objects count as multiple items, while others are so small, that you need multiple pieces to count as one item. Skills gain advancement mark for critical and fumble rolls, plus by answering a post-session questionnaire about your achievements. Once you have all your advancement marks set, you roll for each skill. If you exceed their current score, the skill improves by one point - up to 18. You can also train skills with a teacher, though there is nothing about how much they would ask for their services5.

The mechanics use a d20 roll under method for attribute and skill tests alike. There is no resistance matrix like in older BRP games, they are handled by opposed tests. Instead of bonuses and penalties there are boons and banes, which are akin to D&D's advantage and disadvantage: roll twice, take the better roll if you have a boon, or the worse if you have a bane. Fumbles happen on 20 and are called demons, criticals happen on 1 and are called dragons. Failures can be pushed, meaning you can reroll at the cost of gaining a condition. There is one condition for each attribute, and while they are in effect you roll every test affected by it with a bane.

The current skill list offers 20 general skills, 10 weapon skills, and 3 magic skills. That's around twice as much as the quickstart and first beta had, and probably the most controversial change. Fans of Free League systems argued, that having more than 16 skills is too much and adds a considerable amount of crunch to the game. I disagree with them, for several reasons.

First, a few more skills don't add more mechanics to the game, but they do help on defining and differentiating the common tasks one can encounter during an adventure. The previous list was uneven in this regard. Social interactions, physical activities, and education alike had only one skill (Persuasion, Athletics, Lore in this order), which made them a cheap and trivial choice for characters who want to focus on either. For other activities it was hazy, which skill one should use. Then there were tasks like performance and crafting, that got no skills, but were tied to professional heroic abilities, which is all fine and dandy for a class-based system - but Dragonbane ain't one of those.

Second, this is a skill-based game (duh). Your characters are differentiated by what skills their had. Their mix and match is what gives these games the flexibility we love these games for. Too few skills, and your game is no better than a class-based game. Heck, some games reduce their skill lists to a point where they should just drop the idea of separate skills and ability scores, and just merge them6. Why write a skill-based system at all if you don't want a proper skill list?

Third, this is a game with 40 years of legacy. You have to keep some degree of similarity and compatbility with older content and appeal to fans of earlier editions. People who know Drakar och Demoner want to play Drakar och Demoner, not "Forbidden Lands D20 Roll Under Edition". Dragonbane already gets way too much crap for having too many D&D-isms and Forbidden Lands-like mechanisms.

Speaking of D&D-isms, we have feats too, called Heroic Abilities. They include passive bonuses (like improving HP and WP) and active abilities (which cost of WP) alike. You get one Heroic Ability in the beginning, and a new one after reaching 18 in a skill or performing a grand heroic deed.7 It is a diverse list that has both some characterful options and some musthaves - like those that allow multiple attacks or parries, dodges.

Onward to battle! The biggest difference from BRP-based games is the lack of strike ranks or DEX/INT ranks. Initiative is determined by drawing from a deck of cards marked one to ten. You can delay action by swapping cards with those coming later down the line, and there are Heroic Abilities that allow you to manipulate initiative. Your character can move and perform a single action. Parries and dodges use up your action too. Because of this brutal limitatation you must take into account the initiative order to make smart decisions. A wasted action can be the difference between life and death. If you are familiar with BRP, the rest of combat will be nothing new: attack rolls are contested by parry or dodge rolls, on a success you roll damage, subtract Armor Rating. There are rules for critical hits, fumbles, severe injuries, weapon vs armour type, and of course a bunch of spot rules for all kinds of hazards. Fear is surprisingly elaborate with is table of random effects.

That's some cool art. It would be a shame
if the chapter didn't have rules for demonology
and necromancy...
Spellcasting requires WP and a successful skill test. Your character can memorize INT spells, but can also cast from a grimoire at a slower speed. Some spells have multiple power levels, which increases their effectiveness and WP cost. Once out of WP, your character can sacrifice HP for more, but it is an unpredectible process. There are bonuses for criticals, and d20 table of mishaps for fumbles. Similar to RuneQuest, iron hinders spellcasting, so you don't dress your mage in plate armour. Besides generic tricks and spells that everyone can learn there are three schools: Animism (nature and healing), Elementalism (elemental attacks and summoning), and Mentalism (psychic powers and chi). The spell lists are solid but short. Some spells even feel redundant, because they are basically the upgraded versions of other spells. There is a hidden spell tree too: advanced spells require another spell as prerequisite before you can learn them. Overall what you get is a generic spell point-based magic system. There is nothing new under the sun, but it gets shit down. Necromancy ASAP, pls!

Gear is usually the most boring chapter of every rpg. I was pleasantly surprised, that even the blandest item got a meaningful effect neatly summed up in a single sentence. Clothes can protect you from environmental hazards, tools can assist you in tests, wearing an extravagant hat can help with persuading others, etc. Sure, there is a short armour and an exhaustive weapon list too, but here it is the rest of the equipment chapter I fell in love with.

The monster list is barebones with its 15 entries and short chart of 11 common animals. You won't find imaginative weird abominations here, just tired and tested classics. Dragonbane introduces the monster mechanics from Forbidden Lands, which lead to a lot of confusion, partly because the unfortnately chosen name. There are "monsters", who act like environmental hazards with HP, and include supernatural creatures, colossal monstrosities, and swarms. They have a crapton of HP, a chart for attacks, they always hit, but some attacks can be parried, dodged, or resisted. Then there are "not-monsters", which includes NPCs, humanoids, and animals, who work just like your player character. While the monster mechanics are interesting, I would have preferred a more consistent system8. On the other hand, the attack charts have some fun moves, not just Fifty Shades of Damage, and I also dig the Ferocity value, which means how many times a monster can draw initiative9.

The final chapter about running the game is a mixed bag. The rules for handling journeys, foraging, hunting are concise, yet comprehensive - I adore them. The stat blocks of typical NPCs and the random NPC generation table is servicable, though I would move them to the bestiary. There is some generic GM advice and a short guideline for writing adventures supplemented by three random tables, but beyond that you are left to your own devices. Like most modern games, the rulebook doesn't teach you how to properly design an adventure10. I don't expect an entire Tome of Adventure Design in the back of the book, but some more advice accompanied with exact examples would be welcome.

Kudos to Free League for listening to the community and including a printer friendly character sheet in the back.

All this map needs is a hex layer.

The current version of the Adventure Book is 54 pages long and introduces the town of Outskirt, its points of interests, its important personalities, regional random encounter tables, and three adventures: Riddermound (the one from the quickstart), Bothild's Lode, and Temple of the Purple Flame. All three adventures are shorter affairs with simple layouts, but they all have some cool encounters, interesting NPCs, and memorable gimmicks. The presentation is top-notch, with terse writing, clear layout, and effective use of highlighting, colours, and bullet points. I won't take a deeper look into the book for now though, because it's far from complete. Rest assured when the final version drops, I will return to the topic.

Free League has no easy job with balancing between their in-house design principles and the legacy of Drakar och Demoner, especially with both sides having fervent advocates among the fans11. Rewriting the skill list and professions was a big decision that will get a lot of praise and booing alike on the forums. As for me, I am happy with which way then went, and how quickly they applied the changes. Dragonbane promises to be a fun game. The boxed set will be perfect for one shots and short to medium length campaigns, and with proper support I can easily imagine Dragonbane as one's primary game for years long campaigns too.

Until next time!

1 Boy, do I hate this slogan... The game isn't as light, goofy, and heroic as the motto suggests, thanks to its nigh-BRP level of lethality. I guess they had to justify ducks somehow...

2 In the previous version the beginning Heroic Abilities were set in stone for each profession. Opening them up is a welcome change.

3 While I dig the profession-based nicknames, the racial names table feels pretty low effort and useless. Those charts should be at least twice as big. Heck, the Creating NPCs table later has 60 names on it!

4 This method feels awkward. It makes more sense to me to roll first, swap two scores, and then decide about kin, profession, and age.

5 Baffling considering it took a half sentence to do so for the original Magic World back in the day.

6 RuinMasters is a good example: with four attributes and six skills based on them, what's the point of having both? That game also suffers from badly defined attributes and skills, which is partly the result of the excessive minimalization.

7 Originally they were awarded every fifth session. I prefer this approach.

8 Consistency is a key feature of BRP-based games for me. That's why BRP works well as a generic system and why it was big deal compared to D&D back in the day: everything worked the same way. Separate mechanics for monsters feels like a step back, no matter how mechanically intriguing they are.

9 This way monsters can have multiple attacks spread out over the combat round, instead of fucking someone up with one long attack routine once it's their turn.

10 While it's absolutely not my cup of tea, WFRP3e still deserves some praise for having a GM's book that actually tells you how to design adventures and build up a campaign.

11 And then there are the OneD&D refugees too!

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Monday, 28 November 2022

[Kickstarter] Open for Simplicity

You can't have enough John
Hodgson covers
After my gushing about OpenQuest (even made a character sheet for it while practicing Affinity), I think it's no surprise, that I'm excited about Newt Newport's newest project, which is simply called SimpleQuest. The Kickstarter launched just recently, and if you are quick enough, you can catch the early bird pledge, or be an early bird that catches the pledge worm, or whatever. Once again, there is an option for both dirt cheap print on demand booklet and for a quality sewn printing.

SimpleQuest is a small format, lighter iteration of OpenQuest. The biggest difference mechanically seems to be swapping out the original three magic systems with the unified MP-less One Magic System already introduced in the OpenQuest Companion, otherwise it mostly focuses on trimming down the rules, content, and stat blocks. I won't delve depper into the details about about the differences between the two games, because there is already a preview for a book and a comparison with OpenQuest on the Kickstarter page.

In several ways it seems to be closer to what OpenQuest 3e was intended to look like, before the author decided to stay truer to the roots for the anniversary.  With Dragonbane and SimpleQuest in the pipeline, 2023 already promises to be a good year for fans of BRP and its derivatives.