We Should Play Nice

Greetings Filbanto Stew readers! Icculus here. I’m going to first preface this post by saying this is my opinion, not necessarily Filbanto’s. 

In a previous post, Filbanto reviewed a game which included a link to the X-Card tool, created in (as near as I can gather) 2013 by John Stavropolous. I had run across the name of the tool and it’s general concept before, but had never actually read any details of its use in RPG games. This probably puts me squarely into a particular demographic of “RPG gamer of a certain age.”  I don’t like to think of myself as old or old-fashioned, and having just recently had another birthday, I determined that it was time for me to look into this “newfangled idea.” For those of you who, like me, were unfamiliar with X-Card, the idea at the heart of the tool is that participating in a RPG game is a social activity that should be fun and emotionally safe for all participants. Its use involves the GM introducing the idea to the gaming group that any player at any time, if they are uncomfortable with game content or plot that has transpired can display the X-Card (literally a card with an “X” written on it), a simple, even silent request for the awkward or offending game content to be edited/removed/evolved, for any reason, with no questions asked. That idea has now been around long enough that we should have some sense of the need for it and for its efficacy. Looking into it a little, X-Card hasn’t vanished into obscurity, but has gained momentum and popularity for game groups, not only in North America, but worldwide wherever RPG games happen. I could foresee a day when it, or an idea similar to it, is part of every new RPG game published. And after some reflection about it, I think that would be a good thing. 

I almost hate to admit that my initial reaction to the X-Card concept was, “well that seems a little unnecessary and over the top.” Again, this probably dates me. As a point of reference for you, and in order to explore my initial response to the X-Card concept, please indulge me a moment in tracing the history of my involvement with RPG games. It goes way back the era of scantily-clad-heroines-in-distress and chainmail-bikini-clad-warrioress paintings of Boris Vallejo, and the racial stereotypes of first edition D&D (orcs=ugly and stupid, dark elves=evil, dwarves=grumpy and money grubbing, etc.) So, for me, coming up during the 70’s and 80’s, there wasn’t a whole lot of nuance or emotional consideration involved with playing RPG’s. At that time, it never really occurred to me that girls or women would even want to take part in such an activity. I guess, to their credit, the 1940’s and 50’s born white suburban (or small town) men who created D&D in the 1970’s did at least include some artwork of female characters, and the rules they wrote didn’t distinguish between sex or gender in terms of statistics and attributes the way they did with character races. Nowhere that I recall in 1E D&D did it state that female dwarves had to have beards or that female elves were smaller and had a lower strength score than males. But neither did those guys choose to depict characters who were queer (I am using “queer” as a reclaimed term, inclusive to refer to those who fall outside of cisgender or heterosexual identities—NOT as a pejorative!!), or black- or brown-skinned, or who had Asian features. I don’t believe that the intention of those game publishers was to deliberately exclude groups of people, simply that inclusion just wasn’t a thing most people thought of then, especially for something as “trivial” as a game. Nor was diverse representation common in much published fantasy or sci-fi literature we had access to then, which inspired our games.

My own personal horizons expanded hugely when I escaped the suburban middle class world I grew up in to attend an urban university and study art and theater. Coincidentally, the world was changing as well. AIDS activism and gay rights became a public discussion. There at college, I got to meet people who were different from me, and got to play games with a bunch of them. 

One group I played with was made up largely of guys (yes, all men) who were theater actors and members of a comedy improv group. Those were some of the most hilariously unpredictable and absurd game sessions I ever experienced, but ultimately it was still a group of people from backgrounds pretty much like mine, using current fantasy and sci-fi novels as models for the storytelling. The odds that one of us would be likely to really offend another, or to go down a path that was untenable for another player were lower because we shared a similar background. We spoke the same “game language” and so had few, if any, misunderstandings about game content, or what lines should not be crossed. Truth be told, there weren’t many lines that weren’t crossed at some point.  

Another group I played with in college was made up of roughly half queer members, which, in all honesty, , seemed like it was reflected in the game content almost not at all. The games we played were still heavily influenced by the fiction of the time, which was all hetero-normative (with a few scif-fi exceptions I can think of) and only just beginning to contain a larger share of female protagonists. I don’t remember any specific examples of anyone in that game group being offended or uncomfortable with the content of the games we had, but I’d be willing to bet that was because there weren’t any specifically queer characters or story-lines being explored. It was most likely (in retrospect, I’m guessing) a case of the queer players not “rocking the boat” by introducing queer themes into the game. In fact, this was probably the most “normal,” traditional fantasy-themed of any group I’ve played in. This was the late 80’s/early 90’s (tough to recall too many details of the games we played) and that is only my speculation about what took place back then.

A little later, one of the most memorable groups I gamed with was comprised of people with backgrounds that were different than mine. They were a trio transplanted from the Deep South, to the Midwest for school and work. They were a married couple, both openly bisexual, she very “Goth” and Wiccan, and he basically a tobacco chewing good ol’ boy who wore plaid shirts, a long ponytail and a ragged ballcap, always. And their roommate, a gay man who worked as a chemist (who always brought to mind a young Truman Capote). All very intelligent, creative people. I was introduced to them by a mutual friend who soon after left town for grad school. Every time I went to this trio’s house for a game session, I knew something truly weird and unique was going to happen. In this group, I was the odd one. And I enjoyed that. The storyline of the D&D game we played took place all within one huge city, and had the party (comprised of evil-aligned, often scheming characters, kept in check by mutual fear of our boss) working for a wealthy patron who ultimately turned out to be a vampire lord, who at one point had the party drink a potion to become undead so we could carry out a mission on the Negative Plane of Existence. The DM wove this whole weird, dark story completely out of thin air (or at least I hadn’t read anything remotely like that she could have borrowed from.) There were endless explorations and detailed drawings for a tower stronghold we designed and built, down to the secret passages, deadly traps and furnishings therein, and by one player, super meticulous accounts of the extravagant apparel his character designed (complete with watercolor sketches) (yes, it was the gay chemist, okay?) All in all, it was a bizarre and wonderful experience that I still think about almost 30 years later. 

What’s my point in going down this memory lane? 

First, that gaming with people who come from similar backgrounds to you can be really, really fun. 

Second, that gaming with people who come from different backgrounds from you can be really, really fun.

It’s not the easiest thing to do, to seek to join a diverse group. I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t done it as often as I should. The likelihood for a heterogeneous group to experience something really unique and eye-opening exists. And to have our eyes opened is good for us. Intuition tells me that gaming groups, like the world at large, are becoming more diverse. And as a result, the chances that someone might be made uncomfortable by the game content increases. Groups from diverse backgrounds don’t necessarily come equipped with a common “game language” of shared experience or even a contextual body language for communicating any discomfort that might arise. I can see where an X-Card might be really useful for a diverse group of people who aren’t as familiar with each other and each others’ backgrounds, as a tool for broaching the subject. If the alternative is a player biting the bullet, not having fun, experiencing discomfort or pain, or even feeling traumatized, and maybe ultimately needing to leave the group, then the group as a whole suffers. A simple edit of the story might be enough to move past it and prevent that discomfort. 

Also, since we live in a time when we are (or should be) aware that we need to be more open about emotional and mental health issues, the X-Card could be just the ticket to initiate a difficult conversation, or at least acknowledge the fly in the ointment. There are bound to be in-game triggers for discomfort, fear, or anxiety from traumas people have experienced in real life. I don’t believe that people today are experiencing more trauma than they used to, merely that we are better at recognizing it and more aware that we need to talk about it in order to conquer it, or at the very least manage it. Talking about mental health is not easy, so here’s a tool to make it easier. That’s a positive shift for all of us. 

An offshoot (an essential one, if you ask me) of the X-Card, the O-Card, encourages players (and the GM) to use the opposite O-side of the card to approve of game content, a signal to encourage more story in the same vein. Our game group uses a similar convention, the “red chip” (a red poker chip or its virtual equivalent) that the GM awards to players for developing fun game content. Players can also share “red chips” with other players (and by the same “token,” we should probably be sharing them with the GM as well) to encourage fun storylines. The red chips can be “spent” on a re-roll and to avoid “GM-intrusion” (for a fumbled dice roll most commonly) in the storyline. We all need encouragement and positive strokes in life, right? Here’s a specific way to show that we appreciate someone’s creativity and contribution to the shared game.

I’m glad our society is evolving and the gaming community is coming along with it, if not pioneering it in some ways. Thanks to Mr. Stavropolous for creating this needed tool. As I write this, I just saw a blurb about a wheelchair-accessible dungeon adventure that WoTC is publishing for D&D. How cool would that be for a kid who uses a wheelchair to at least have that content available to game with? With a little thought about other people, we can include them in our fun. As a straight white suburban male, RPG games were originally created for specifically for me. Now we can and should share the joy of gaming with everyone who wants to join in.

Thank you for indulging my musings on the X-Card and gaming in general. I feel so grateful to be part of a RPG and boardgame community. Gaming is one of the things in my life that makes me happiest, and I am old enough and (questionably) mature enough not to feel self-conscious about that. For a big chunk of my adulthood, I had set aside gaming as something that “grownups” did not partake in, as too “trivial” for the real world and its real problems. What a loss! From here on out, I’m doing my best to make up for that lost time by saying “yes” to as much shared game experience as I can.

Alien RPG: Liars & Shadows, Act 3B

Our GM keeps telling us that we’ll finish the scenario “that night”, but we still haven’t wrapped up. Now I get why “Liars” is in the scenario title:-)

Last week we had entered a pirate complex. It was converted from an old mining works. The portion we had explored was shaped like an “H”. The entrance was in the lower right leg. We went in, turned left at the first intersection, turned left again into what looked like a crew lounge where we had a big battle with some terrible mutant. We had not explored either of the upper passageways. We picked up the game from here.

The characters are all catching their breath from the fight. Miller is trying to calm some of them down when Addie gets pings on the motion tracker. Multiple bogeys coming from both of the upper passages. After a collective “oh shit” we decide to get the hell out of Dodge. We’ve got no place to retreat where we are now. We make it to the first “T” intersection when the mutants hit us. Four of them:

The Marines are brining up the rear and open up on the things. We decide to “shoot and scoot”. I’m pretty sure Rye pegged that centaur-looking thing with her bolt gun for 6 points of damage and it was hardly phased. They jumped the Marines and brought them down. The rest of us hauled ass towards the entrance. The best part of this combat was Miller’s character tried to trip up Fowler during the panicked dash outside. Her player flubbed both the original roll and the push. He used s story point to make it happen. As it was, this tactic probably saved the original crew. We all got outside and tried to pile into the Daihotai tractor.

Here’s where the game system let us down. The Marines were overwhelmed in hand-to-hand combat and the GM decided that Pvt. Asaph would pull a “Gorman/Vasquez” and set off a grenade. He rolls 9 dice for blast power and not one success.

The grenade rules need some serious help, or we interpreted them incorrectly. I’d like to house-rule that grenades do their blast damage (e.g., 9 points) to anything in the square it lands in and immediate surrounding squares. They do 3 points to anyone up to 20 (?) meters away. Armor and cover can be used to mitigate damage.

Padilla lost it and ran off to hide in some of the crates. Miller was behind the wheel of the Daihotai. When she saw that Padilla wasn’t going to make it, she gunned it and smashed into one of the mutants. We reverse and holler at Padilla to get into the car. Now Monroe opens up on the mutants with our plasma gun and (you guessed it) “click” out of ammo. He loses his shit and goes berserk. “Rye, I’m going to kill you!” Rye, retreats into the rear of the tractor to get away from Monroe. Addie freaks out and jumps out of the truck running as fast as she can move. Miller jams it into drive and hits another mutant. Basically, we ended up killing all of the damn things by running them over. Monroe and Addie had gone catatonic by the time the battle was over.

We gathered up enough stims to get everyone calmed down and assess the situation: The Marines are dead. Monroe went in to check on Fowler and we hear shotgun blast. Fowler’s dead, his head blown off so he won’t come back as a mutant and Monroe has more of the black goo on him (and guess who failed his Stamina roll this time…). We don’t have the parts we need to repair our ship. Our Daihotai isn’t running anymore. Oh yeah, remember that we are going to all be cooked alive when the planet turns to face the dual suns? Yeah, that’ll happen before we can get back to the mining colony in our mostly destroyed tractor…

We go back into the complex. We really don’t have any other option. We take the right passage this time and come into a kitchen/dining area. The place looks like an abattoir. Dead bodies, blood and some of that goo all over the pace. We take a passage off to the right and find the reactor room and an armory. The door to the armory has been blocked off due to a cave-in. Rye and Padilla manage to get the reactor started, so at least we can see now. We head back down and determine we’ve pretty much explored this level, but there is a ramp leading down to a sub level. We end the game looking at a big set of doors and Addie noticing a ping on the motion tracker.

Review: The Powder Mage Roleplaying Game

TL/DR: Buy if you are a fan of the novels.

One of the cool things about Christmas is you’ll occasionally get a present you’d forgotten you’d even put on your “wish list”. This is how The Powder Mage Roleplaying Game made its way into my collection. In case you are unfamiliar with Brian McClellan’s work, the Powder Mage series postulates a fantastic world where magic exists alongside technology similar to the Napoleonic period in Europe. I read the first trilogy set in this in this world several years ago. They are well worth a read. A Kickstarter for a Savage Worlds roleplaying game set in this world was done back in the Fall of 2016. I had weaned myself off jumping on every RPG Crackstarter by then, but always intended to pick up a copy.

My copy was from DrivethruRPG. It is a 6×9-inch, full color paperback. For the most part, the art is nice. There are some really good maps that have appeared in the novels. The size of this game limits their utility for actual gaming, I’d love to have larger copies of these, even if in PDF form. Much of the art looks like “watercolor sketches” of the various peoples of this world. The artist has concentrated on the military uniforms and this is a great choice, both given the nature of the Powder Mage stories and because the uniforms are quasi-Napoleonic in design. Most of the art appears a little dark, or “muddy”. I think this is less an issue with the art itself and more due to the paper quality and printing process.

The game begins with brief introductions from Brian McClellan (who I think did most of the work on the background chapters) and Alan Bahr (who I am guessing wrote all the rules). After that we get four pages on how to be a GM in this universe, including a page and a half about using the X-card. It is an interesting tool and could be useful for some groups Given the stuff that is missing from the game, it would have been nice to spend less space on it. The last two pages of the chapter are a concise overview of the Powdermage universe.

Character Creation is the next chapter. I haven’t played Savage Worlds in years, but it looks like you generate characters pretty closely to the core rules. There are no non-human races in this game. Characters do get some starting skills, based on their homeland, to add a little variety to the game. There’s a new skill, Third Eye, which characters with arcane backgrounds have access too. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it onto the character sheet. There are also two prohibited skills, Driving and Piloting, but (you guessed it) they are on the character sheet… Next we dive into the rules for the new arcane backgrounds. Powder Mages gain their abilities by ingesting blackpowder. The rules handle all the “normal” abilities that I recall from reading the novels (faster, stronger, more observant and able to do amazing things with a firearm). The special abilities that Taniel and Tamas have are not discussed. Privileged are very similar to mages in other games. The conceit of this universe is they can reach into “The Else” and manipulate reality. They must where special gloves to do so, or they will burn their hands on the raw magic. Knacked are characters with special abilities. For the most part this means they have an Advantage. Many of the Knacked advantages, like Darkvision, would not require an arcane background in other games. The final arcane background is the Magebreaker. These are characters who gave up the ability to be Privileged, but can instead suppress magic if they are near to the caster. You’ll notice there are no rules of “Bone-eyes”, the type of magic that Ka-Poel uses. This type of blood-magic is supposed to be rare and powerful, but it is a shame that we didn’t get a hint about how to run a character like this. The chapter rounds out with a few rules changes for the game (update to Shaken which always seems like a contentious condition in Savage Worlds) and tables for weapons. I’m going to go off on a little rant about this section: there are no Muskets only Rifles. My bet is Mr. Bahr doesn’t know what the distinction is, but it is important in a game using this technology. Muskets should have shorter range and be quicker to reload than rifles. Also, the melee weapon table is predominantly a list of medieval weapons. I don’t think anyone was swinging a great sword in these tales and there is no entry for a bayonet – a crucial weapon for armies of this period.

The next three chapters: Nations of the Nine, Lands Beyond the Nine and A Brief History of the Nine contain the background and history for the world of Powder Mage. I’m spending the smallest part of the review on this section, but honestly this is the best part of the book. The chapters form excellent reference material for fans of the novels and give a lot more details on some of the nations and peoples that the novels have only touched on. I really loved the “current schemes” sections and all the adventure fodder they contained.

The Pregenerated Characters chapter was a considerable let down. It looks unfinished. There are five characters, but they are just the stats, hindrances, etc. There are no names, background or sketches to go with them. Each of the characters takes a full page up in the book, but half of that page is blank. As is, this chapter feels like a waste of space. If the characters had been named and had a background fleshed-out they could be handed out to players for a quick gaming session. Even if we were only to get the stats, these characters could fit two to a page to avoid the white space.

The final chapter, Adventures, has four scenarios for the game. I’m always happy when a game book includes some sample scenarios. Even if I don’t use them “as is”, they give you ideas on how to structure your own scenarios. Each scenario looks like about a single session’s worth of play. None of them really knocked my socks off. They felt a little unfinished and the endings… Well, there were so many loose endings that the GM would need to do a lot to resolve them. I’ll give an example. (I can’t figure out how to do “spoilers” in wordpress, so I’ll change the background to black. Highlight the next paragraph and hopefully you can read it, but only if you don’t plan on playing the first scenario.)


The first scenario is a murder mystery. A nobleman has been murdered. When the characters track down the killer they discover that he was not murdered. He has a Knacked ability to switch appearance with another person. He faked his own death because his sister was trying to poison him. Well… He is still a murderer and there is no information on checking out the story about his sister the poisoner. The premise of this adventure is really interesting and I think it could be made to work. First, let’s make the nobleman a more sympathetic character. Instead of him murdering someone and switching identities, what if he was attacked and killed the assailant while defending himself? Seeing an opportunity, he switches identities with his attacker. He has a manservant who can vouch for the story and the characters could try to locate a Knacked that can detect lies if they still don’t believe him. Now we can move onto the sister… What if she was getting tired of failed poison attempts and hired that thug to murder her brother? They find evidence of it… Maybe a handwritten note explaining where to collect payment? The nobleman suggests switching appearance with the character with the best social skills to talk to his sister and get her to admit to the deed. Of course, the sister wants no loose ends and has planned to get rid of the assassin. She springs an ambush after admitting the deed and all hell breaks loose.

I’ve already mentioned problems with the character sheet; it is also nearly too small to be usable. The lack of rules for Bone-eyes is disappointing. All magic in Savage Worlds uses the same mechanic, so we really just needed the types of spells that blood magicians can utilize and some ideas for “trappings”. The lack of information on Wardens is a real oversight. They play a significant role in the novels and stats for these sorcerously-warped beings should really have been included. Heck, they show one on the cover of the game for Hastur’s sake!

If you are a fan of the series and want more information on the world this game is certainly worth picking up. I don’t think the rules for playing Powder Mages, Privileged, Knacked or Magebreakers are revolutionary enough that they are worth the price alone. This game could have been a lot better and it would have only taken a little polishing on the adventures, characters and inclusion of Wardens and Bone-eyes to take it to that level.

The Powder Mage Roleplaying Game is available at DriveThruRPG.

Review: The Darkening by Chris Sarantopoulos

TL/DR: A good page-turner, but hard to get over the premise.

The Darkening is not a book that I would have normally picked up. I was looking for post apocalyptic fiction in the vein of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033 series when I stumbled across it. The “back cover” description sounded intriguing and the reviews were generally positive so I picked up a copy.

I want to start with the premise of the novel, because it was the hardest thing for me to come to grips with: light, or rather the shadows cast by light can kill. Imagine this for a couple of minutes… People would have to learn to adapt to complete darkness in order to survive such an environment. You’d need to stay indoors, in a room with no window, except during the night hours when the moon was not in the sky. I couldn’t suspend disbelief long enough to fully enjoy the novel. I kept questioning how people could survive these conditions. Anyone who’s ever tried to navigate a Lego-strewn living-room floor to let their dogs out in the middle of the night understands how utterly dangerous it is to be without any light. Also, you can’t make a fire to boil drinking water or cook food. Even if you didn’t break your leg stumbling around a forest on the first night, you’d probably die of dysentery in a week.

OK. Put that paragraph in a box for a little while and let’s dig into what this novel does well. The first thing that struck me was the excellent portrayal of the main character. John Piscus is a survivor. He’s seen horrible things. He’s done horrible things. He’s filthy, frightened, practically starving to death and he’s batshit crazy. It’s not surprising. He’s been living on his own since the world changed. His personality has fragmented. He constantly plays with his cigarette lighter, but can’t bring himself to light it up and end it all. I simultaneously loved and loathed this character. He was a complete and utter son-of-a-bitch, but the author still managed to portray him as someone you could empathize with. Hastur only knows how far any of us would go to survive if the world ended.

After the author established John’s character, he introduces the big wrinkle. John meets a girl. A girl who glows with a soft light. Light kills, remember? Is she a demon? Is she the ghost of his daughter back to haunt him? John doesn’t want anything to do with her. He tries to drive her off, even threatening her with violence so he can go on with his miserable existence. It doesn’t work and when he finally believes she is not there to hurt him, John begins to regain some of his humanity.

The girl is being pursued by unknown forces. Men who can walk in the light. John reluctantly decides to help her and continually confuses her with his long-dead daughter. The author shows John’s inner turmoil during this portion of the novel. The “survivor” in him wants him to kill or abandon the girl, while the “father” in him is desperate to help her. John is no hero though. He’s barely capable of taking care of himself. He stumbles through the next sections of the novel bringing death and pain to the only people that tried to help him.

I really can’t describe the rest of the book without spoiling it, but I do want to say that it was a real “page turner”. I spent a couple of late nights reading chapter after chapter to find out what the next calamity would be. It’s a bang-up job. Despite my inability to come to grips with the premise, I was drawn into the story and wanted to see where it would go.

Unfortunately, it took a wrong turn. The “big reveal” was another place that I had a lot of trouble suspending disbelief. The main adversary was two-dimensional and seemed a little too much like a mustache-twisting villain in some sections. The final showdown was messy and left of lot of things unresolved. I had come to like the main character despite the horrible things he had done and while there was redemption, the ending of the novel didn’t give me the closure I had hoped it would.

Would I recommend it? Probably no… There are better tales out there. If you are interested in how far someone would go to survive a holocaust, the portrayal of John and many of the other characters in the book would be great source material. Check the library for a copy or if all else fails you can grab it at Amazon.

Alien RPG: Liars and Shadows Act 3A

We continued the Alien game last week. As a reminder, a couple of the characters that survived the Chariot of the Gods scenario are trying to recover the Montero that had been lost at the end of that adventure. We took work as smugglers to a distant star system where the Montero is supposed to be. After a tangle with a Marine Corvette, we crash landed at an illegal mining colony and our smuggling ship, the Demeter, needs parts badly. We needed to travel to a “pirate base” several hundred kilometers away to try and secure parts for our vessel. Marines are on patrol for these pirates and we were pretty sure that they engaged them at their base since we overheard gunfire and screaming when we tried to raise them. Out of options, we decided to drive on over there and see if we could scrounge anything. We were nearing the base when a Cheyenne dropship crested a ridge a few klicks in front of us. We picked up the session from there…

The GM described the dropship as listing and smoking. I think Icculus was really hoping we’d be spoiling for a fight here, but we all decided that discretion was the way to go. We handled the encounter by laying out the starship combat map. I’d made a few tokens for Icculus of some ground vehicles and a dropship. We needed to “sneak” by the Cheyenne by opposing Monroe’s Pilot skill against the dropship pilot’s CommTech. Addie was able to run interference by jamming sensors (when she wasn’t dropping her tablet due to stress). Rye tried to get the pirates to help out, but there wasn’t anything they were able or willing to do for us. After some incredible piloting rolls from Monroe’s player and some lousy sensor rolls from Icculus, we slipped by the dropship and made it to the pirate base.

Addie is our sneakiest character and we sent her out to check out the base. It was basically a landing area in a mountain pass. The base was dug into the mountain face – probably an old mine drift. There were crates and shipping containers scattered about, but she didn’t see any sign of life. We got on the horn with the pirates to see if they would have bolted to a safe location if they were hit and Danko Morrison told us “yep” and gave us coordinates. We decided our best option was to check out the base while it was clear. If we could help ourselves to any supplies we needed and cut out it would be the best option.

We pull up to the front of the base and suddenly three marines pop out from behind an overturned APC and tell us to get out of our vehicle. “Fuck that.” Padilla says cutting loose with the plasma gun. The Marines decided that it wasn’t worth fucking with us since they were so outgunned and they had a wounded man to deal with. Miller and Rye got out to see if they could help. The Marines were Sgt. Pat Yeong, Pvt. Harold Asaph and Cpl. Isa Detroit. While we were trying to patch up their squad-mate (who’s throat was practically torn out), another Marine stumbles out of the pirate base and raises his pulse rifle at Padilla. The gangster opens up with the plasma gun again, making short work of him. As if on cue, the guy with the wounded neck gets to his feet and grabs Yeong in a bear hug. With a sickening crunch, we hear the poor bastard’s spine snap. Rye bolts for our vehicle and Miller follows suit. With the help of the Marines we eventually put down the maddened Marine.

Tensions are running high. Rye thinks we can call down the Montero’s shuttle remotely if we can get the radio in the APC working and if we can find out where the damned ship is. Fowler, one of the men from the mining colony, tells us that this base was their listening post and there should be plenty of sensor and radio equipment inside. If nothing else, we can probably find the equipment we need to repair the Demeter in there. Of course, a squad of nine Marines went into that hole in the ground and the only one to come out started shooting randomly. Something is seriously fucked up in that place…

We make a deal with the Marines: let’s not kill each other, find any survivors and get our asses off this rock. They take point and we head in. The base is in shambles, the interior lit by dim red emergency lighting. It’s hard to see anything and only the Marines have flashlights on their suits… The first thing we encounter is a pair of horribly burnt Marines sitting in a pool of black gunk.

Addie manages to find a motion tracker that has somehow escaped destruction in the mess. We go deeper into the complex and eventually come into the living quarters. Abbie gets a ping on the motion tracker. The jarheads kick open the door. Holy fuck! What is that thing?

After a lot of ineffectual blazing away, Cpl. Detroit finally gets it in the sights of her smart gun and cuts it in half. The thing splatters the whole party (except Rye who was still out in the hallway) with black goo. Stamina saves anyone? Fortunately everyone succeeded, although Monroe needed to use a story point for it (his player is not quite ready to swap out this character for another one I guess).

As you can guess from the title of this post, Act 3 is not quite done. We still need to make our way through this complex without getting killed by horrible mutants or turned into horrible mutants. Oh, did I forget to say the base looks structurally compromised after they lit it up with grenades earlier? Assuming we make it through this deathtrap we need to either loot it for spacecraft parts or find out if the Montero is close enough that we can call in its shuttle for extraction.

Review: Paleomythic

TL/DR: Another winner from Osprey!

Paleomythic, written by Graham Rose, is the second role playing game from Osprey Publishing. I picked it up at the same time I picked up Romance of the Perilous Lands and I am glad I did. The title of this game immediately drew me in. “Paleo” roughly translates to “ancient”, so I started thinking about a game of ancient myths. The sub-title: “A Roleplaying Game of Stone and Sorcery” sealed the deal.

Physically, Paleomythic is a great product. It is a “novel-sized” hardback clocking in at about 280 pages. The formatting is well done. (I could quibble over the lack of column headers on some of the tables, but they are easy to make sense of.) The book is very readable, with black font over a light tan background. The art is top notch and sets the tone of the game perfectly. It is a mix of color plates and “stone age” art that reminiscent of the cave paintings at Lascaux. Again, Osprey has chosen to include a racially diverse mix of people in the art which is nice to see.

The Introduction explains the premise of the game (Stone & Sorcery – I love it!), role playing games in general and an overview of the ancient continent of Mu. The author covers a good bit of ground in the first few pages. I’m very much a fan of concise introductions that set the tone so quickly. The remainder of the chapter is an overview of the game system. Paleomythic is a “Roll A Six to Hit” (RASH) system. Characters are defined by their Traits and Flaws. When a character attempts a task, they gather up a number of D6 equal to the total number of Traits the character has. If they have an applicable Trait (for example, the character is Strong and is attempting to shift a heavy boulder) they add a bonus die. If they have an applicable Flaw (Weak if we use the above example) they subtract a die. If they have a tool (maybe a lever?) they add another bonus die. Now roll that handful of dice and hope for a six.

Characters, the next chapter, includes rules for creating the heroes that populate the ancient land of Mu. Character generation can be completely random, player-controlled or any combination. Paleomythic does not attributes like many other games. Instead, they are defined by their Traits (advantages), Flaws (disadvantages) and Talents (skills). Characters can have 5 Traits and 1 Talent, 4 Traits and 2 Talents or 3 Traits and 3 Talents. You can choose to increase Traits by up to 2, but you must take an equal number of Flaws. I am not sure if it is well-balanced. You give up 1D6 for all rolls when you take a Talent, but they are pretty limited in scope (they do give you extra starting equipment though). There are also a lot of Talents in the game: 36 of them. Each of them have special snowflake abilities. Some seem much more useful than others. I think it was about this time I decided that Paleomythic was not a game I would want to run. Paring that list of Talents down to about 12 or so and making them more broadly applicable would help.

Adventuring in Ancient Mu delves into the rules of the game. It begins with combat and there are a surprising number of tactical options in the game. For example, all weapons have special effects that come into play if you roll a “6” on your “tool die” during combat. It’s a very cool mechanic. Special effects are based upon the material your weapon is constructed from. The problem is there are many variations of weapons; six, yes that is right, six kinds of spears for example! It makes you look at the list of polearms in the old D&D books with new respect… Anyhow, it looks like a lot of time will be spent mastering the combat system and referring to the special abilities each weapon has. You’re also going to need to do it a lot during fights. Weapons break if a “1” comes up on the “tool die”, so combatants will be using different weapons during the fight and probably finishing off their enemies with bare hands. Characters don’t have hit points, rather when they are wounded they temporarily lose a Trait. This is an interesting mechanic since each Trait lost will make your character weaker at everything. The rest of the chapter discusses pretty much every other action your character may do in the game. Climbing, hunting, crafts and so forth are all detailed. There are some great random tables in this section for hunting as well.

The World of Ancient Mu describes the people and places that inhabit this primordial continent. In case you’ve never heard of it, Mu is purported to be one of the “lost continents” of earth (along with Atlantis and Lemuria). There is no map included in the book, the people of Mu do not make them. The author divides the continent into four areas. The north is snowy and mountainous, the east is a lush jungle, the south is an arid desert and the west is a temperate region. The people of Mu, their beliefs, customs and so forth are described next and the author provides a method to randomly generate the various tribes and settlements the characters may encounter in their travels. The spirit world is discussed at length as are the stranger places of the continent. The chapter rounds out with a section on the gods of ancient Mu. This is really great material and the tribe/settlement generators can be purloined for any game.

Adversaries in Ancient Mu discusses all of the foes and creatures that stalk the continent. For the most part, the fauna of Mu is derived from the Pliocene and Pleistocene. They even have Glyptodonts! Creatures have Traits just like characters. Big creatures (like mastodons) can have “double traits”. This makes them harder to bring down, but they don’t add any extra dice in combat. I’m not sure how I feel about this… Creatures don’t use tools so they feel a little underpowered when facing a group of warriors. There are plenty of monsters for your players to engage too. Beast men, serpent people and other primordial beings stalk the dark places of Mu. Finally, there are plenty of spirits to tangle with as well.

The Game Moderator Section is all about running exciting adventures in this fascinating world. The author provides a series of tables to help generate adventures and even dungeons (called “paleo-delving”). I really appreciate all the work the author put into this section. I’ve purchased so many games that don’t explain what kinds of adventures work well in the world. This is great stuff and can be mined or lifted for almost any fantasy game. The chapter rounds out with ideas for how to use the game in a couple other genres: the “real world” Pleistocene (including rules for Neanderthal and Homo floresiensis) or for running a more traditional “sword and sorcery” game.

The game ends with an adventure (an old-fashioned “paleo-delve”) and an appendix of useful tables, character sheets and so forth.

Paleomythic is chock full of adventure ideas that you can mine for other games even if you don’t plan on playing in Mu. I’m not sold on the system. Don’t get me wrong… This looks like a solid game and certainly doesn’t seem any more difficult to learn than Coriolis for example. I’ve never been keen on “RASH” systems – especially GMing them – since I have trouble figuring out the odds. I’d probably use Savage Worlds as an engine to explore the primordial continent of Mu.

I have degree in Archaeology and Geology, so it is not surprising that I enjoy prehistory. I think I love “fantastic prehistory” – those imaginings of Atlantis, Lemuria, and Hyperborea – even more. Did you watch 10,000 BC? Did you enjoy Farmer’s Hadon of Ancient Opar books? Does the idea of the stories of Kull or Conan taking place in a stone-age era appeal to you? If the answer is “yes” this is a game you’ll want to take a look at.

Review: Romance of the Perilous Lands

TL/DR: A great little game!

Osprey Publishing has been supplying gamers and modelers with reference books for almost as long as I’ve been alive. The Men at Arms Series books are thin volumes (60-70 pages) with a little history of a unit and several glorious color plates of the uniforms. They are awesome for any miniature painter and I’ve got a shelf-full of them. It was maybe ten years ago that Osprey jumped into gaming proper. Frostgrave is probably their biggest game… They’ve partnered with NorthStar to make miniatures and have a ton of supplements for it. Their first published game was Dux Bellorum, an Arthurian miniatures game. Osprey recently (last year) made the jump into role playing games and it seems fitting that the first RPG, Scott Malthouse’s Romance of the Perilous Lands, is also based on Arthur.

The book itself is excellent. It is a hardcover volume about the size of a small novel (~250 pages long, dimensions 6×9 inches). The book is laid out and information was presented very well. The text is dark and has a high contrast against a lighter background making it easy to read (something that is getting more important as my eyes get worse). Osprey is known for its high quality art, and this game is no exception. Everything is in full color – battle scenes, monsters, characters – it is very evocative and certainly sets the tone of the game. The cover art is a prime example. It features a female knight front and center, next to her is a male archer and a black wizard brings up the rear of the party. This is a long way from Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur. It’s refreshing to see Osprey take an inclusive position with their games.

The book begins with a brief introduction to role playing and an “example of play” that all games apparently need to include. It then launches into a description of The World of the Perilous Lands. This is a great section. The author outlines the history and current state of the world in about eight pages. I really applaud this work. It’s concise and makes me want to get out in game instead of feeling like I am slogging through a history text book. You can also tell right away that this world is not the traditional world of Arthurian myth. This is a firmly fantastical world that bears many similarities to the stories of Arthur, but it is definitely not a “fantasy earth”. I really enjoyed how the author combined the world of Arthur with the world of Robin Hood. I read these stories back-to-back when I was young and they’ve always been tied together in my mind.

Character generation comes next. Characters have five attributes: Might (strength), Reflex (dexterity), Charisma, Constitution, and Mind (intelligence). Attributes use the classic “roll 4D6, take the best 3” method, or players can choose an “array” (9, 10, 12, 14, 16) and allocate the scores. I would have been happier if the game had combined the Might and Constitution attributes. There are six classes for the game: knight, ranger, thief, cunning folk (wizard), barbarian, and bard (why is there always a bard???). Each of the classes gives the player skills, talents (special abilities) and determines their hit dice. As characters adventure, they will gain levels and become more powerful. It’s a pretty slick system and allows enough customization that two characters of the same class won’t feel the same.

A chapter on equipment follows. Suffice it to say the weapons, armor and other gear are listed. I’m not a fan of how armor works in this game. It’s “ablative”. For example, chain will absorb the first 10 points of damage and then be useless for the rest of the fight. There are talents that let characters “rejuvenate” their armor during a battle though. I also don’t think there is enough difference between heavy armor and medium armor. Knights are supposed to be the tanks of the game, and plate plus a tower shield grant 16 armor points. A barbarian with chain and wooden shield can get 13 points of armor (and catch up to knights at level 5 due to their natural armor ability granting 3 AP). The easiest way to balance it out is to make chain a heavy armor and make leather into medium armor.

The game is very easy to understand and anyone with experience in D&D should have no trouble learning this system. Attributes are very important in this game because players must roll below the “associated attribute” on 1D20 to succeed on a task. For example, if my character wanted to spear a bandit, I’d need to roll below my Might attribute to succeed. There are situational modifiers of course. There is also an Advantage/Disadvantage system (roll the D20 and take best or worst outcome as appropriate).

The Spellcasting chapter outlines the spells available to Cunning Folk in the game. There aren’t huge reams of spells in this chapter and honestly, I think that is a good thing. I’m not a fan of D&D lists with dozens of subtly different “blast ’em” spells. Spells each have a level to denote how powerful they are and each has a cost (in spell points – a currency that cunning folk use to power their magics). An interesting approach this game takes is that cunning folk can attempt to cast a spell of any level; even if it is higher than their character level. If the player fails the casting roll though, watch out. They will need to roll on a backfire table to see what happens.

The World is described next. This chapter weighs in at about 50 pages and contains a lot of info about the Perilous Lands. It describes magical artifacts, locations, deities, factions and the major personalities of the world. The locations were particularly fun to read. The author has included a lot of adventure seeds in this section and a talented GM could probably let his players “hex crawl” and uncover adventure anywhere they go. The deities are based on the old Celtic gods. The rules suggest that characters have a patron deity, but there are no mechanical advantages too doing so. I think allowing players an advantage on a skill roll in the deity’s “domain” might be a nice touch. Of course, there should be some kind of geas to go with it and a disadvantage to those rolls when a character breaks the geas. Factions are next and there are some really great organizations for the players to get involved with. Of course the Knights of the Round Table are an option, but there are intriguing groups for non-knights to get involved with too. Adversarial factions that look to bring down Arthur’s rule or are not aligned with either the light or dark powers are described as well and will certainly inspire any GM with adventure fodder. Finally, the major characters of the world are “statted out”.

A very comprehensive bestiary is included. There are about 50 more pages devoted to adversaries (human, animal and monstrous). Most of the monsters are taken from Celtic Mythology, but some of the old classics like vampires and werewolves make an appearance too. GMs who wish to focus their campaigns around monster hunting will have ample creatures for their players to battle.

The final chapter is a guide for game masters and gives advice on how to structure the campaign, write adventures and some advice for running exciting combat encounters. I’ve deliberately avoided drawing a comparison to Pendragon in this review, but I’ve opened that can of worms and might as well address it here… Pendragon is a tightly defined game about playing knights in the Arthurian setting. Romance of the Perilous Lands allows you run more traditional adventures against a backdrop of an Arthurian-inspired setting.

Romance of the Perilous Lands is great game and well worth picking up for the art and setting material even you don’t choose to use the system. I think it’d be easy to convert to D&D (if that floats your boat). I don’t think I’d run this as written because the armor system grates on me too much. It wouldn’t take take too much hacking to turn it into a system that I’d want to use though.

Alien RPG: Liars & Shadows, Act 2

We picked up the Alien game last week. As a refresher, we’re working as smugglers for a Brazilian crime lord and have taken a run to the wildcat mining colony in the Gamma Geminorum system, about 32 parsecs from Earth.

Apologies, but I’m going to veer into some science for a bit… The Gamma Geminorum system is a binary star system. The primary is a Type A sub giant and its companion is a Type G about the size of our sun. The companion has a pretty eccentric orbit. At its closest it is about 1AU from the primary and at its furthest, about 20 AU. The colony, colloquially known as Alhena is on a Luna-sized moon orbiting an ice giant. While the moon is about the same size as Earth’s, it is far denser and gravity is about the same. The atmosphere is dense enough that a pressure suit is not required. There are some pretty nasty trace elements in the air, so everyone needs a filter mask to avoid choking to death. There is life on this moon. Several native plants grow on the surface. No animal life has been detected. The colonists do have some bioengineered cattle that can tolerate the surface conditions.

Back to the adventure: We (crash) land The Demeter at the colony site. They quickly cover our ship with a camouflage net while Rye gets a damage report. It’s not good. We’ve wrecked a lot of critical components and we don’t have any spares. We’re not getting off this rock without help. The colonists have gathered around the ship and look like they are getting antsy to get all of their stuff. The first thing we notice is everyone is packing a gun. The second thing we notice is almost everyone is periodically lifting their filter mask to spit a stream of juice out. (We find out later that one of the native plants – pilgrim plant – gives a good buzz when chewed. The bigger bulbs can get you pretty lit.)

Miller, Monroe and Padilla go down to talk to the colonists, while Addie and Rye stay on the ship to effect as many repairs as we can. The leader of the colony is a woman named Singh. She was described as “compact”. Her second is a man named Fowler. (I don’t recall his description, but I picture him as a tall, scruffy douchebag with wild hair.) After a quick meet and greet, we learn they don’t have any of the parts we need to get The Demeter off this rock. They do mention there is another band on this moon. They have a base called Dis Pater and it is about 500 klicks away. Rye thinks we should hold onto some of the cargo so we have something to bargain with the other colonists, but Miller overrules and we start unloading the ship. Singh invites us to the mess to discuss options.

One of the cool features of Roll20 are “player hand outs”. Icculus and our Numenera GM use this to great effect. We got a bunch of shots of the interior of the mining colony to really help set the tone. I don’t know where they find all these great pictures, but it really adds a lot to the game.

We have a drink with Singh and she lays it out for us. Apparently the people at Dis Pater were former colonists and are led by a man named Danko Morrison. They had a small ship and had been making a living salvaging wrecks for years. They hit it big when they found an armed freighter and were able to repair her. It didn’t take them too long to make the jump from salvage to piracy. Singh is royally pissed at them. This mining operation is already illegal and piracy is only going to draw the attention of the authorities sooner. In fact, it has. That corvette we tangled with wasn’t in system to intercept smugglers. They were looking for the pirates. Singh wants the pirates taken out. She offers us a vehicle, weapons and a little backup (in the shape of Fowler). Rye is dubious… There are 20 pirates and while Miller, Padilla and Monroe can handle themselves in a fight, Rye is a mechanic and Addie is just a kid. It’s about now that Rye thinks Miller is losing it. She probably thinking those pirates have found the Montero and is willing to take any risk to get it back. Oh, there’s another snag… Remember that wildly eccentric orbit of Gamma Geminorum’s secondary? Yeah, it’ll be at perihelion in a little while and nothing can be out on the surface when that happens or it’ll get fried to a crisp.

While we’re absorbing all of this, suddenly the miners start mobilizing. Singh tells us she has to go and Fowler will meet us with a vehicle and gear near the main entrance. We make our way towards it, but we get separated during the trip. Miller is on her own when two asshats, high on pilgrim plant, decide to attempt to rape her. About 30 seconds later, their brains are splattered all over the tunnel walls (literally – 2 head crits against these douchebags). We collect Miller and meet up with Fowler who doesn’t seem all that apologetic about the incident. We push him for info on why everyone is scrambling about the base and he tells us they got a message from Dis Pater that they were under attack. Addie patches into the comm system and we hear calls for help, gunfire and finally the line goes dead. Awesome, now instead of a bunch of pirates, we’ve got a band of pissed-off Marines to deal with. We really need those parts though, so we decide it is worth our while to go out there and at least have a look around. Maybe we can steal what we need if the Marines aren’t watching too carefully…

Travel to that pirate base is 500km over a bladed “road”. It’s dark (as if you’d ever set this game in a well-lit environment) and a big storm is brewing. Fowler climbs in the back of the rig and promptly falls asleep. Monroe takes the wheel and heads out. We’ve all accumulated a lot of stress and Miller tries to talk us off the ledge to varying degrees of success. Of course there’s no smooth traveling. First we run across this horde of eerie-looking plants slowly rolling across the road. Damn things are everywhere. Monroe wants to barrel on through, but Miller tells him to wait. We finally shake Fowler awake and he tells us not to drive over them. There are filled with acid and will blow out the tires. They finally thin out enough that we can continue the journey and then the storm hits. It is raining buckets (cue Eddie Rabbitt’s “I Love a Rainy Night”), visibility is next to zero and we need to slow way down. Next comes the hail. Big hail. Like softballs. WHAM! We’re hit and warning lights on the dashboard go off. We’re leaking atmosphere! Everybody masks up and Rye climbs out to fix the leak. She totally loses it due to stress and winds up curled up in a fetal position in the truck. At least she patched the leak. We find a sheltered spot to hole up and wait out the storm. As it clears, we spot a UD-4 Cheyenne dropship. We lay low and wait until it passes. Addie is pretty sure that the interference in the atmosphere is scrambling their sensors or they would have caught us by now. We really don’t have any other course of action, so Monroe puts the pedal to the metal once they are out of sight.

Addie picks up a tight beam transmission that should be aimed at the colony. It’s the pirates. Danko Morrison is trying to find out what the hell happened at Dis Pater. We ask Fowler* if he can speak for the colony, but he says “Fuck that guy, I hate him.” So we hail the pirates and let Morrison know the score. “Dude, your base was likely hit by the Marines. We need parts for our ship. Can we do a deal here?” Morrison is not in a great position to help out. His ship tangled with that Corvette and is pretty shot to shit. He’s sure he hit them hard too, but he has no sensors and can’t land until he repairs. He’s playing hide and seek with the Corvette. The only “good news” he has is that the Corvette only holds one dropship – so that’s what? Only a dozen Marines to deal with??? Anyhow, we cut a deal. We’ll scout Dis Pater, look for and/or collect any survivors and be his eyes on the ground. In return, he’ll help us get our boat back into the black.

We keep trucking; like the do-dah man. Monroe comes to a stream that is swollen thanks to the recent deluge. Fowler says we can ford it and we just barely make it across. We’re nearly a craggy range of hills and judge that Dis Pater is just up ahead, when that Marine dropship comes over the rise.

It’s getting late, so we call the game there. I spend the next 5 minutes regaling the group with the various types of rockets available to the UD-4 dropship from my copy of the Aliens: Colonial Marines Technical Manual. Again, a really fun game and Icculus is using the Stress mechanic to ramp up the tension. We’ve not encountered anything horrifying**, but my character is already up to 5 stress from the journey. Hastur knows how Rye is going to hold it together in Act 3…

*It’s going to be satisfying when that dickhead catches a bullet – hopefully my character will outlast him.

**That’s not true… The attack on Miller was terrible, but only she had to deal with that.

Teenager Mood Generator

Roll 1D20:

  1. Dad’s corny joke made me smile for 1 second.
  2. Ready to snuggle with the dogs.
  3. Meh
  4. Annoyed with little brother.
  5. Meh.
  6. I can’t tell my parents they are idiots, so I’ll just lift my eyebrow.
  7. Meh.
  8. Annoyed at school.
  9. Meh.
  10. Hmmm, I think I’m… Meh.
  11. Meh.
  12. Tired.
  13. Tired and meh.
  14. Meh and tired.
  15. Hungry.
  16. Hangry.
  17. Really annoyed with little brother.
  18. Really meh.
  19. Willing to put up with the family long enough to eat dinner.
  20. Am I interested in hanging out with the family? Wait, nope, it’s meh.

Review: The Watchful Dead & Dark House of Dreams

TL/DR: Don’t read just one.

I stumbled across Joe Pawlowski’s books and when I saw “A Tale of Old Hastur” on the cover, my interest was piqued. Gothic horror, dark fantasy, the mythos and the title – The Watchful Dead – I was caught like a voormi in Atlach-Nacha’s web.

The central character of the story is a young boy, Ring Gargery. Ring is no typical protagonist. His father and uncle are slavers. His mother has been bed-ridden since he was an infant. He’s lived most of his life confined to his house with only household slaves as his companions. Ring is clever, introverted and a somewhat fascinating character. Many of the characters he interacts with are terrible excuses for human beings, but rarely does Ring judge them as such. This is a subtle, but incredible piece of world-building by the author. Wherever the city of Old Hastur lies, it seems culturally different than any place we are familiar with.

The The Watchful Dead is a not complete story. It introduces a lot of characters. I learned their motivations. I felt sympathy for some, despised others and was intrigued by how they all interact. While reading this book, I kept wondering, “what the heck is going on here?” When there were only a handful of chapters left I began to despair that the answer was “nothing”. I was right. The book never really had a story, rather it is the introduction to the real story that is told in the next novel in the series.

Things start to heat up in Dark House of Dreams. Ring, takes part in his first real adventure. Back in Old Hastur, the machinations set in place by his father’s cronies turn pear-shaped. Dark sorcery is practiced, the dead walk and soon the gods themselves contest over the right to rule over the ancient city. There were some really terrible happenings in this book… Rape, necromancy, and a child killer make an appearance. I found Pawlowski’s depiction of the dead haunting Old Hastur to be particularly enjoyable. After the initial shock wore off, people just started going about their lives. The wealthy could afford to exorcise obnoxious spirits. The poor just adapted. It seemed so… Reasonable?

Should you read these books? I’ll be honest, I would have given up after reading The Watchful Dead if I hadn’t bought both. I am glad I stuck with them. The story, world building and characters were really interesting, but I feel like it is an “acquired taste”. These are not action-filled romps with competent heroes, but slower and darker tales similar in vein to Clark Ashton Smith or Ambrose Bierce.

The Watchful Dead and Dark House of Dreams are available on Amazon.com.