Wednesday 27 December 2023

[Session] Fauxhammer S03E03: Daemonslayer

The epitome of gothic horror.
The third session of our Mordschlag campaign was on the 22nd of June, where we finished our adventures in Kreutzhofen.

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] (cameo): 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.

Session Report

Following last night's events the adventurers interrogated Rudolf Fürst about what's going on. It turned out the scholar got interested in daemonology while studying in Altdorf. He summoned a daemon of Slaanesh who promised to appear at a random time in the future to kill him. Fürst went to the edge of the Empire hoping that he can run and hide from the daemon. The adventurers promised Fürst to keep an eye on him so they can catch the daemon.

The interrogation was interrupted by Bruno, the militia captain. He informed the party that there was another murder attempt, this time against one of Magnus Richthofen's farmhands. The victim is alive, but dying, and Dr. Entesang is nowhere to be found. Edgar stayed with Rudolf in the inn, while the other went to the doctor's house.

Blitzkrieg kicked in the doctor's door and entered the house with his comrades. Paether sensed a slight magic inside, so they started going through the doctor's belonging. They found spell components, books of necromancy, books of science, and a large number of bills and payment notices about various scientific devices. Many of these were for a different name, so Paether started to suspect that the doctor is in incognito here. He put some of these away as potential tools for ransom.

The investigation was disrupted by the drunk gravedigger. He wasn't too keen on talking until he got some of the doctor's finest wines. It turned out he earned some beer money by digging up fresh corpses for the doctor, who has a laboratory hidden under the Reichenbach manor. The old tale of the Reichenbach manor being burned down by bandits also turned out to be bogus: the gravedigger said it was the villagers of Kreutzhofen who lynched the Reichenbach's for being tyrannical assholes.

At the ruins of the Reichenbach manor the party found a metal pole that was time and time again hit by lightning bolts, and the door to the cellar. Despite the mess down there it was obvious that the place was occupied from the magically sealed door and runic traps. In the laboratory the doctor and his hunchback assistant were about to raise his patchwork Frankenstein's monster bye the power of weird science! As the lightning zapped it the body raised and with a bone chilling groan it said: "Just five more minutes..."

Our intrepid heroes weren't startled by the sight, which surprised the doctor. Entesang declared that he never hurt anyone and explained how on the long his research can benefit mankind. The adventurers didn't care about what's going on, they just need a doctor, right now. So Entesang and Igor left the creature in the laboratory to clean up while they visited the victim.

Back in the inn Rudolf was enjoying the safety of being tied up next to a weird warrior meditating with white eyes and a black and white hellblade on his lap. Paether realized that Edgar's sword created an anti-magical area, which is what probably kept the daemon away. The party thought about pulling Rudolf out of his shelter to use him as bait for the daemon, but ended up dropping the idea. Instead they visited the scorched house to see if they can salvage anything from Rudolf's burnt notes and books.

"Someday - and that day may never
come - I'll fuck you up. But until
that day, accept this justice as
 gift on my summoning's day."
Paether sensed an ominous presence within the house, but found no one inside. Instead the adventurers heard voices that tried to tempt them into treacherous acts against their comrades. They were tenacious though. Pather cast light on Ruben's sword, hoping it will reveal the daemon, to no avail. Then Blitzkrieg had a brilliant idea: if the daemon likes playing with his prey, Rudolf Fürst, then he is going to go back to the inn and kill him. That angered the daemon enough to make them manifest and attack furiously.

Ruben wanted to flee at the sight of the Herald of Slaanesh, but Paether helped him regain his cool and join the battle. Blitzkrieg held his ground against the daemon, until finally Paether - perusing the stormy weather - cast a lightning bolt that blew the herald to pieces. Rudolf was grateful for what the adventurers did for him. To cleanse himself from his sins he offered to join Ruben as a squire. Ruben promised to leave him at the first monastery if he doesn't perform well in his new role. Edgar woke up from his meditation and didn't remember jackshit. The guests at the inn were paid a few rounds to make sure they don't remember the weird shit happening around the inn tonight.

Except of course when they had to testify for Lazlo Lazlovich, who was let out of prison. Bruno also learned that Richthofen wasn't planning a revolution, but to deliver supplies to Mortensholm via his balloon. Since the recent beastman attacks and the daemon were enough reason to upkeep the state of emergency, he got what he wanted and let Richthofen recover his guns - at the cost of leaving a few of them in hands of the militia.

Lazlo said good bye to the party and continued his journey to Altdorf by boat. Richthofen took off with the adventurers to fly south first, then try his balloon at a longer trip after that, to Altdorf. Alas on the way to Mortensholm they lost control of the balloon because of some mechanical malfunction, then the balloon got punctured and started losing air as they ploughed through a huge cloud. After a bit of a panic and prayers though the balloon's passengers realised they weren't losing altitude - in fact, something was carrying them... Once they left the cloud they found out that their balloon was punctured by the nose of a dwarven zeppelin!

And that ends our adventures in Death's Dark Shadow's Kreutzhofen. After that I took some time to revisit rules and continue the Eremus campaign too (using Mythras, for the sake of variety). We'll continue sometime next year, once I recovered from our second kid's birth.

Saturday 4 November 2023

[Review] Basic Roleplaying: Universal Game Engine

While the OGL-Gate scandal earlier this year might not have toppled the 800-pound gorilla of the tabletop industry, some publishers still benefited greatly from it. Chaosium was one of them. They held kickass sales, quickly made a bunch of out of print books available again, jumped early on the ORC bandwagon, and churned out a new edition of Basic Roleplaying in under three or four months1. Yes, we are talking about the same Chaosium, that told us last year that there are no plans for BRP in the near future, released a lackluster OGL/SRD2 a few years ago, and has books in the pipeline that have been delayed for years3. But I digress...

Past and present.

History

Back in the day when OD&D was released there was much rejoice, but of course it didn't satisfy everyone. There were people who thought it was a complicated mess. Enter Tunnels & Trolls. There were others who preferred sci-fi over fantasy. Thus Traveller was born. And then there were those who thought D&D is too unrealistic, including SCA founder Steve Perrin and his friends. They created RuneQuest, a percentile skill-based system with revolutionary features like freeform character creation, abilities improving by usage, realistic combat with opposed attack and parry rolls, point-based magic system, per hit location damage, and so on. Later they realized that their system works well for other genres too, including eldritch horror (Call of Cthulhu), dark fantasy (Stormbringer), superheroes (Superworld), science-fiction (Ringworld).

First released in 1980, the original BRP (pronounced as "burp", at least by me) condensed the core of the Chaosium system into a 16 pages long booklet. It was handed out with other games as a tutorial, packed into the Worlds of Wonder boxed set along with four genre books, released on its own, and got expanded by a stream of supplements. Fourth edition, also known as the Big Gold Book after its chunky size and iconic cover, is different beast: it is a compilation of all kinds of mechanics and content Chaosium found worthy to include in a single volume generic multi-genre rpg.

The brand new Basic Roleplaying: Universal Game Engine is the revised edition of the BGB. If you are familiar with the BGB, you can skip the Mechanics and Content sections and jump right to What's New.

Style

As expected from Chaosium, the production values are top notch. The Vitruvian Person montage on the front cover is both a great piece of art that emphasizes the generic nature of the ruleset and a cool homage to the BGB's cover. The interior illustrations showcase a good variety without becoming a cacophony of inconsistent art styles. With a subtle but background, a clean layout, and warm brown headers and headings the rulebook is pleasing to look at. It is also printed on a thick matte paper, has a proper sewn binding, comes with a neat ribbon bookmark, and smells good. I love it!

There is one thing that slightly bothers me, which might be a dealbreaker for some. BRP:UGE has roughly the same amount of content squeezed into its 264 pages as the BGB had on 404 pages4. This is only partly because of better editing and layout, and has more to do with tiny fonts and dense text. The charts are the worst offenders here, with their small condensed font that's straining to read even for my youthful eyes. Feels like a step back after the immensely readable Call of Cthulhu 7e Keeper Rulebook or RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

Mechanics

Nice loot. I hope your GM doesn't
use the encumbrance rules.
BRP describes characters using seven or eight characteristics (Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Power, Dexterity, Charisma, and optionally Education) ranging from 3-18 for humans5, a bunch of derived characteristics (Damage Modifier, Hit points, Power points, Fatigue, Sanity, etc.), a few dozen percentile skills, powers, and personal details. How complicated, lengthy, and random the character creation process is largely depends on what checkboxes the Game Master ticks for their campaign from the many available options. By default you roll for characteristics, choose a profession, and distribute a number of skill points based on your age among your profession's skills. Professions are not like D&D's classes: they are just premade skill collections, something you can easily make on your own.

To resolve a test you have to roll less than or equal to a percentile success chance on d100. This is 90%+ times one of your skills. There are two edge cases though, artifacts from days of yore. If there is no proper skill for a task you might need to make a characteristic roll, where your success chance is a characteristic multiplied by an integer. If you have to compare two opposing integer values (like two characteristics), you have to check the Resistance Table to get the success chance6.

BRP differentiates five degrees of success. Besides the self-explanatory success and failure you can have a critical success when rolling under 5% of your success chance, a special success when rolling under 20% of your success chance, and a fumble when rolling in the upper 5% of your failure range. These can be a nuisance to calculate or look up on the fly, and the very rare criticals usually do the same things as special successes, but better. Stormbringer 1e-4e and Mythras has a more elegant solution, with criticals being at the 10% of the skill and fumbles happening on 99-00. You can ignore degrees for most mundane tests, but they become important for opposed tests, where the antagonist's degree of success lowers the protagonist's degree of success.

Combat is divided into 12 second rounds consisting four phases: statement of intent, activating powers, taking actions, and resolving their results. Phases are part of the game's old-school heritage (or baggage, depending on your taste). I'm curious how many actually still use these as written. Combatants act at their DEX rank, going from highest to lowest. If you move during a round your DEX rank gets reduced. If you can perform multiple actions, you can do the follow up actions at 5 DEX rank lower than the previous one. RuneQuest's fiddly strike ranks were left out.

Attacking someone requires a weapon skill test versus their weapon or dodge skill. The results are a bit more nuanced than for the usual opposed tests, but thankfully the Attack and Defense Matrix neatly sums up all the possible outcomes. If you hit someone you roll damage, subtract their armour from it, and subtract the result from their hit points. Parrying may also result in the defending or attacking weapon taking damage depending on who wins. It is completely possible to hurt someone and breaking your weapon while doing so, or to take damage while parrying because your weapon was shattered. Depending on your weapon a special success may cause a bleeding, crushing, entangling, impaling, or knockback effect7.

Following Chaosium traditions BRP has an entire chapter for various spot rules. BRP has more than 60 entries that covers a wide array of situations, from environmental hazards to combat manoeuvres. Learning all of them is pointless, looking them up on the fly can grind the game to a halt, so the best a neophyte BRP GM can do is collect the few they want to use, and make judgement calls for the rest.

Content

Probably not an adult constrictor
snake, those roll STR with 3d6+12.
BRP doesn't joke about being a skill-based system. Those used to the modern trend of tight skill lists will be shocked to see the whopping 57 skills the game has to offer, many of which have specialties. Some of them are very setting specific though, so it is unlikely you will ever play a campaign that requires all of them. Each skill has its own base chance, and there are two optional rules that allow characteristics to influence skills - one simplified, and one more complicated borrowed from RQ3e. For some reason there is no option for root skills like RingWorld8.

BRP offers five power sets right out of the gate: magic from the Worlds of Wonder boxed set, mutations from Hawkmoon, psychic abilities from ElfQuest, sorcery from Elric!, superpowers from Superworld. It only covers the essentials for them, so if you want to expand the tools you have to either homebrew new powers or borrow more from other books.

Equipment covers all tech levels from stone to space age. Prices are given in abstract value categories, which can be compared to your Wealth level and Status skill to see if you can buy something. If you want an exact system for currency, you have to borrow one from other sources - ...and a 10-Foot Pole is a good candidate, if you can get your hands on it. The equipment list is exhaustive when it comes to weapons and armour, but it is a bit lacklustre for other objects. The chapter also covers important topics like crafting, powered items, and how much damage it takes to tear down a wall.

Creatures chapter offers a small selection of animals, monsters, NPCs for various genres, along with guidelines for customizing them and using them as players. We only get one typical adult as an example for each creature, and no way to reverse engineer what their base chances were. I would have been happier with having a separate template for some races, like in RQ:RiG Bestiary. The list itself is overall decent, and because creatures work exactly the same way as player characters, it is easy to come up with stat blocks and compare them to PCs to figure out their relative strength.

Tackling such a smorgasbord of rules and content can be intimidating even for experienced GMs. BRP tries its best to help even the neophyte GM in getting a campaign started, handling players, preparing adventures, using various tools to enhance the game, et cetera. I found the Optional Rule Checklist and the premade campaign packages with recommended character types, powers, technology, adventures, and rules options especially useful. It would have been even better if they marked which rules they deem basic or advanced. Way too many campaigns recommend hit locations among its options, which can be  an overwhelming option for newbies. Speaking of campaign options, there are rules for allegiances (your alignment with cosmic powers), passions (personality traits that can alter your behaviour and influence your rolls), reputation (helps others in identifying you, helps you in influencing others), and of course sanity (psychological injuries) too.

Kudos, for including a conversion guide and a bibliography of what sources were consulted while writing BRP. All that's missing is an Appendix N for various genres, but that would ramp up the page count quite a bit.

What's New

All female Highlander campaign?
Say no more fam, I'm in.
The new BRP is a revision, not a complete overhaul. The goal9 was to keep it compatible with the large family of previous Chaosium games, which comes with the cost of ignoring the mechanics of some newer games. Those who expected novelties from Call of Cthulhu 7e and Rivers of London like pushing, advantage and disadvantage dice, hard and extreme successes, Luck characteristic, or damage categories, will be disappointed. Except for pushing, I don't miss any of them. Some of them I consider pointless additions to the system10 and some already have equivalent mechanics.

That doesn't mean though that BRP is stuck in the past. The new edition cuts down a lot of fat, streamlines some systems, fixes tons of errors, and of course introduces new ones. The biggest change is that weapon skills are no longer split into a separate attack and parry skill. The former insanity mechanics have been swapped out with a more generic system. There are rules for reputation and passions á la Pendragon, Mythras, and RQ:RiG.

Skill descriptions is where the book lost most of its weight. In BGB every skill had the exact results for each degree of success spelled out in a paragraph. These were most of the time pointless, but at least those with an OCD had an urge to crack the book open for every test to see if there is anything special to account for. Only a few medical and combat skills have kept these, the rest at best have an ambiguous example about how the degree may alter the result.

If you already own the BGB, you don't miss much if you don't get BRP:UGE. Your book isn't getting replaced by a shiny new editions and future BRP products will be still compatible with it. So buy it only if you want a second copy or you want to support the publisher.

Warts

It's probably not surprising after the introduction, but the book feels a bit rushed here and there. Despite the community actively contributing in rooting them out, there are still inconsistencies, issues, mistakes. One of the new features is using the weapon skill for both attack and defence, yet there is still a Parry skill. Weapon skills now use weapon categories for specialization, but base chances are per individual weapon. While having a separate Knowledge and Science skill makes sense, there are edge cases which are not clear where they belong - in case of Natural History even the authors could not decide, because on the profession list it is a Knowledge specialization, while in the skill chapter it belongs to Science. And the list goes on...

There are also some legacy issues of the engine that are here to stay. Skill base chances are all over the place, skewed heavily toward physical skills. Social and knowledge skills have such low starting values that they become skill point sinks if they aren't your focus but you want to be at least half decent in them.

Because the main way of improving your skills is by using them, the way your character improves depends largely on what kind of adventure the GM prepared. At the end of the session there is still an improvement roll for each skill, which in case of failure means your skill does not improve jackshit. The higher your skills are, the more checkmarks you will have, and the lower chance to actually improve at anything. You can end a session with no skill improvement at all.11

Increasing characteristics is even more tedious: with the exception of POW, which is increased by POW vs POW tests and is meant to fluctuate during a campaign, your only option is rigorous training12.

And then there is a good old whiff factor. I don't think it is as bad as many make you think13, but the ways to bypass it do feel lacking compared to the huge range of options Mythras has to offer.

It is worth noting, that because of the original system was written with realism in mind, BRP works better on a human scale. Epic heroes and street level supers are fine, but if you throw in late season shonen-level shit, it will break the game.

"Hans, ze Flammenwerfer is useless!"

Summa Summarum

BRP is a system that stood the test of time. Its flexibility in rules complexity and power levels was proven by the large family of games using it, and thanks to the lack of major shakeups to its core the old content is still relevant and easy to use with its modern iterations. It is both an awesome toolbox to create your own game and a great supplement to enhance other members of the family. Its age shows in some of its clunkier parts. It lacks artsy, flashy, trendy mechanisms you can bedazzle players with. But it is a system that gets shit done, and will remain, even when the current Kickstarter sweetheart is long forgotten.


Rules system: BRP
Publisher: Chaosium
Publication date: 2023

Format: print, pdf
Size: letter-size
Pages: 266

Available from:
  Chaosium (print, pdf)
  DriveThruRPG (pdf)
88%
A timely facelift for one of the best
rpg toolboxes, though some of
the wrinkles still show.


1 And it went to printers with a still unfinished ORC license. Yes, they were that keen on keeping the momentum.

2 On the other hand, their community content platforms are exceptionally lively. So much so, that Call of Cthulhu 7e is basically on autopilot nowadays.

3 It has become a running gag between me and my CoC7e Keeper, that whenever he complains about a CoC7e product being delayed, I complain about Mythic Iceland 2e.

4 Despite its relatively humble page count the book is as thick as the BGB.

5 At least for humans, who roll INT and SIZ by 2d6+6, and everything else by 3d6.

6 You can do the calculations even on the fly though, if you aren't mathematically inept. The success chance is 50% plus/minus 5% for each point of difference between the two values.

7 These specials and some of the combat manoeuvres explained among the spot rules are the forefathers of the special effects seen in Mythras.

8 Root skills in Ringworld have specializations with their own values and a root maximum, which is the sum of two characteristics. This root maximum represents your generic knowledge of the field - anything above is handled by the individual specialization's value.

9 Besides putting it on the shelves as soon as possible.

10 I like pushing, which is a fun risk vs reward mechanic. I find advantage and disadvantage dice to be unnecessary additions. The game already has modifiers and multiplication/division to handle difficulty levels, why add another mechanic for it that is less transparent than the already existing ones? Yeah, I know, rolling dice makes people feel a tingle in their tummy...

11 Training and research are also an option, but the former is limited to 75% and an awful Teach roll from your tutor may result in losing valuable percentiles from your skill, while research improves skills in a snail's pace.

12 SIZ and INT by default aren't even meant to be trained, although BRP has a more lenient wording than RuneQuest in this regard.

13 You can choose whether your high level combat becomes tedious because the large number of HP you have to chip down over time to kill something, or because of your blows getting parried and absorbed by armour.

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Tuesday 8 August 2023

[Session] Fauxhammer S03E02: Revelations

With that tongue they can easily
reach your back molars.

We held the second session of our Mordschlag campaign on the 4th of April, with two players present in person, and one virtually - staring at miniatures and maps through a shitty little webcam attached to my table. That's what you get for loitering in Scotland!

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.

Session Report

After a hearty breakfast our intrepid adventurers decided that they should visit the nearby village of Weilerberg, to find an old woman who knows one of the suspects of last night's murder: the young druidess. Frau Eberhauer turned out to be a retired elementalist. She told her visitors that the druidess they are looking for is a feral child called Wanda, who appeared two years ago around the Moon Pool. She is in her teens, has some magical talents, and more than likely innocent, because she never wanders far from her territory. She is also respected by the locals, who send her baskets of food in hope of a good harvest. Frau Eberhauer told the party where do people leave their gifts, and even sent a basket of jams.

After plowing through a dark forest the party arrived to the glade they were looking for, then got ambushed by five beastmen. Paether conjured a pair of wings to fall back to a better position, while Blitzkrieg and the Edgar held the beastmen back. A combination of magical windblast, lightning bolts, and steel killed three of the beasts. One fled south along the river, the other fled west into the forest, until he was caught by animated vines. When the adventurers found him they saw it's capable of regeneration, so they dispatched him a swift and brutal manner. It was only then that the druidess showed herself.

The girl was suspicious, but thanks to their valiant efforts shown against the minions of Chaos and the jam they brought the party quickly earned her trust. Wanda lead them to a lake deep in the forest, and told them, that she too has felt that an evil presence appeared lately near Kreutzhofen, and that the waters of the pool will offer them guidance.

Paether was the first to take a bath in the pool. He saw a vision of a sick old oak with six saplings growing under it - but five of them seemed insubstantial, with birds unable to rest on their branches. Then he saw the vision of three blue faces on the sky reminding him of the daemon prince whom he pulled his sword out of a year ago. When the wizard raised said sword to the sky, the demonic faces were distorted by agony and disappeared. When Blitzkrieg took the plunge, he didn't get anything other than wet. When Edgar gave it a shot, the lake catapulted him out.

Without new leads the party returned to Kreutzhofen to investigate Magnus Richthofen, a local landowner whom Bruno, the milita captain, suspects of planning a rebellion. After presuading his two dimwit, labourers the party entered the barn, where they met the landowner. It turned out Magnus was just a selfmade scientist and engineer, who wanted to create a balloon. His plan was to use his invention to ship the guns Bruno confiscated to Mortensholm in the Border Princes, to aid the fight against the greenskins. He offered the party a ride to Altdorf, if they help him recover his guns and join him to Mortensholm.

After the deal was made the adventurers returned to Kreutzhofen to visit Rudolf Fürst, the student whose door got a penis nailed to it last night. There was a storm coming, and far away to the north they saw several lightning bolts strike around the same location. While that was suspicious, they didn't have time to take a detour, because there was another vulgar surprise on the student's door. There was a strange smell in the air and Rudolf's reactions were hostile to the knocking. Soon a Fiend of Slaanesh burst through it, while Rudolf ran up to the attic to start a fire.

Edgar came under the effect of the fiend's musky odour, trying to hold Blitzkrieg back from attacking them, but was pushed aside. Dwarven steel and magic destroyed the monster, who melted into a fragrant rainbowy puddle. By the time the locals came to check out what's going out the house was burning and a hysterical Bruno was brought down by the party. Paether knew that Bruno was trying to incinerate occult books in desperation, yet they told the locals that it was some greasy stuff that caught fire.

While the villagers were busy fighting the flames, Bruno admitted to this captors that he summoned the demon to protect himself from something more horrifying...

Pushing Things Over the Edge

One of the things we are experimenting was throwing out Luck Points, which allow you to reroll tests in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Instead, if you are really not satisfied with your roll, you can choose to push the test. This allows you to make another roll, with two caveats: the second roll is final and you gain a number of stress (which leads to insanity), or corruption (which leads to mutation), or wounds equal to half the units of your final roll. Which one you gain depends on what kind of roll you pushed - e.g. breaking down a door will likely cause some wounds because you bruise yourself, while regaining control over a spell will result in corruption.

Three sessions in this is one of the rules that will likely stay. My players like using it when things look desperate and I'm satisfied with the pace corruption and stress accumulates. I also like reminding them when things go south, and tempting them into using it. That short moment while they hesitate whether they should give in or accept failure is priceless.

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 lfg.hu 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.