Monday 18 March 2024

Lindenbaum 2021/22: The Eldritch Key (by Tiago Filipe Costa)

This is part of a series where I briefly talk about the Lindenbaum Prize winners and runners-up. This is a friendly gamebook writing competition, organised yearly by Stuart Lloyd. The entry discussed below was submitted for the 2021/2022 competition and won a Commendation Award. You can find the details of the competition here, links to all entries here, and the announcement of the winners here. Needless to say, all of these are available for free in PDF.

In this gamebook you play a master thief who must steal a dangerous artefact known as the Eldritch Key. Although there are multiple routes to get there, the end game plays pretty much the same, and there's only one "good ending".

The game is set in the lawless city of Makivel, located on Anarlan, the Prison-Island. There's magic and weird creatures, and the game has explicit Cthulhu mythos influences.

The combat mechanics are fairly involved: 2d6 + Dexterity vs. 2d6 + Dexterity, greater wins. Then the loser rolls 2d6 + Avoidance vs. the winner's attack score. If the defender succeeds, they avoid damage. Otherwise, the weapon's damage is deducted from the defender's HP. The character's basic stats are fairly decent, but to reliably defeat the stronger foes (especially towards the end), a handful of items are needed to boost the character's stats. I very much enjoyed the item-hunting aspect, but the endless rolling without any decision-making definitely felt tiresome.

At the beginning, the player chooses three abilities from a list of six (things like lockpicking, dark vision, or clean kill). These abilities can be used when explicitly offered as an option, and they are largely responsible for facilitating multiple ways to get to the finish line.

The writing is all right. It's simple, apart from a few embellishments here and there, much like an adventure game; the emphasis is definitely on solving the game like a puzzle.

The game features 100 sections, and the whole document has about 13,300 words, including the rules and background info. Apart from the fights, there are only a handful of game-ending choices (they can be avoided by gathering info or having luckier dice).

Things to improve upon:

  • the combat system involves too many rolls (this is especially true near the end)
  • the inventory system is nice; if expanded upon, I definitely want more of this
  • it's unclear whether damage from wielding multiple weapons stack (I assume the answer is yes)
  • a few of the "save or die" paragraphs felt too punishing particularly the loose stone block, but to be fair, some of these can be ignored with the right abilities and/or items

Friday 1 March 2024

The Underappreciated Combat Table of Barbarian Prince

Barbarian Prince is a great little game from 1981. James Maliszewski over at Grognardia posted a short retrospective in 2011, and in 2020 Anne from DIY and Dragons wrote an excellent three-part analysis (Map and Layout; Main Menu; Characters, Followers, Encounters, and Combat). It has been recently on my mind partly because of the Drifter series (see my review of the first game here) and a four-part actual play series by the Lone Adventurer.

Today I only want to look at one specific aspect of Barbarian Prince: the combat result table.

The gist of it is this: roll 2d6, add your Combat score, subtract the enemy's Combat score, apply modifiers if any, and consult the chart below to see how many wounds the attack inflicts.

taken directly from Anne's part 3 post linked above

Anne points out how the wording in the original rules is confusing and how the table above makes no logical sense. The Lone Adventurer criticises the rule for a similar reason. I didn't go looking, but I imagine other people being baffled by the above table.

However, this table is actually pretty ingenious. Let me show you a table of the average expected damage results arranged by final modifier to the 2d6 roll.

The first column shows the final result; next to it you can see how many wounds that roll inflicts upon an enemy. The columns after that alternate between showing the percentage chance of a result (given the final modifier noted on the first line) and the expected damage. The bottom two lines show the average expected damage per attack based on the final dice modifier as well as the percentage chance of inflicting at least 1 wound (i.e. the chance of hitting).

As you can see, the average chance to hit steadily increases (up until it plateaus at 83.34%, while also retaining the increase in average damage). The way the table is set up allows the chance to hit
(basically) to follow a gradual progression whereas if it was a standard 2d6 roll (something like 2d6+mods vs a target number), the progression would be much steeper.

Of course, whether the added granularity and hard-capped accuracy is worth having a chart is something we may disagree with; I can at least point out how deliberate the numbers are, and the fact that such granularity can be achieved on a 2d6 roll is just interesting to me in and of itself.

Wednesday 21 February 2024

RPGaDay 2023

I usually don't participate in any sort of community blog event for several reasons, but last year's RPGaDay questions seemed interesting enough to tackle. However, I quite dislike releasing a bunch of small posts so I combined all the questions and answers into this one.

Day 1: FIRST RPG played (in 2023)

It was early January that we started a new campaign of Werewolf: the Forsaken (1st edition). Although my love for the Storytelling System has waned considerably (compared to the late 00s when it was our most played system), the animistic nature of Werewolf and the particular implementation of the Shadow Realm (especially the way it was elaborated on in the Book of Spirits) still makes it one of my favourite settings conceptually. If I were to redesign the rules, though, I'd probably go for something close to Rivers of London and Imperium Maledictum, although the whole spirit rank system just cries for a level-based approach. I would have to make sure that either combat is quick (like, OD&D quick) or actually interesting (with the caveat that making it into a power-based tactical game would be pretty cool and a disservice to the setting at the same time).


I actually don't remember the first GM I met (probably someone in my first group, possibly Szabolcs running 7th Sea or Viktor running MAGUS that one time), so I'm going to interpret this as the first RPG I GMed, which was Shadowrun 3rd edition. Despite its many flaws, I would still be down to run the game. It might not come to pass, though, as Sinless, a retro-clone of old-school Shadowrun, will soon be released.

Day 3: First RPG BOUGHT (in 2023)

The first PDFs I bought were The Sword of Cepheus and Superpowered. The only physical gaming products I picked up in 2023 are a few gamebooks (the first batch was all by Victoria Hancox) and a wargame (Western Front Ace).

Day 4: Most RECENT game bought

The one I bought most recently is Super Action Role-Play. The most recently published one I picked up is Imperium Maledictum.

Day 5: OLDEST game you've played

It has to be OD&D, right?

Day 6: Favourite game you NEVER get to play

That's a tricky one, because I enjoy "running" RPGs way more than "playing" them. Nevertheless, if we talk strictly about "playing" RPGs, I wish I had more opportunities to play OD&D (I'm not elitist, though; Delving Deeper, Age of Conan, or Champions of ZED would also suffice). I want it fast and loose, with large skirmishes and each player (sooner rather than later) having henchmen and hirelings and mercenaries. Kinda like a large narrative skirmish game, actually. If we're talking about games I'd like to run but seemingly never can, well, that's a big list, but here's a few things on my mind at the moment: (1) a cross between OD&D and the narrative campaign in the Realm of Chaos books; (2) a Braunstein-like game of Boot Hill, with miniatures and asymmetric player forces (I would love to run something similar with Battle Troll, too); (3) a wuxia sandbox, either using Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blade or Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate.

Day 7: SMARTEST RPG you've played

Torchbearer is weirdly good (the ways its subsystems interact with each other is like a well-oiled machine), even though it didn't scratch the right itch for me. Lancer, although probably not the smartest overall, is also well-designed (if you're into 4E-style tactical combat and mechas), both in terms of player abilities (and their interactions) and enemy design (although there's really not enough GM tools in the core book to set up fights). Mazes & Minotaurs, maybe? It's so incredibly slick and robust, but is it smart?

It almost feels to me like the smartest one has to be the most versatile one.... something like GURPS, HERO, or EABA.

Day 8: Favourite CHARACTER

I am rarely a player, and I don't find my own characters particularly memorable... But there was a halfling warrior in Narmor's Dungeon World campaign, Finnegan, that I really enjoyed playing. I generally remember the games, not my characters.

If characters that played in my campaigns are allowed, then I have quite a few favourites:

  • Scott the hacker and John the cop from my first nWoD campaign back in secondary school
  • Csillámcsóró Csongor (Premier suggested Gilbert Glassglad, but it's impossible to translate accurately), a cleric of the Order of Glassbreakers; all because the character's random starting item from a d100 table was a piece of broken glass
  • Zöldfogú Harald (Harald Greentooth), a warrior in my Vikings & Valkyries campaign, the least successful member in a family of womanisers

Day 9: Favourite DICE

I was gifted a set of D&D-branded metal dice some time ago; I have underrated the incredibly satisfying tactility the heft of metal dice have for too long!

Still, my absolutely favourite dice are a set of plastic purple dice. They have been with me for ages, in sickness and in health.

Also, d12s are underrated.

Day 10: Favourite tie-in FICTION

I don't really read RPG-related fiction (although I copy edited a few short stories and novellas of the kind). In fact, most of the fiction I read is categorised as "classic literature" (my top three probably being The Count of Monte Cristo, Brave New World, and Előre, gonoszok!), although by now I have read some pulp fantasy and sci-fi as well.

Day 11: WEIRDEST game you've played

Either Puppetland or My Life with Master. While the former fell pretty flat for me, the latter I remember as one of my favourite games of all time (just to be clear, I used game as shorthand for "not quite one session but not really a campaign... two sessions, to be exact").

Day 12: Old game you STILL play

My taste in gaming has changed considerably over the years. Basically, I don't really play any of the games I started out with any more. I'm also largely over my "old-school only" period in gaming — now I'm into narrative skirmish games :P

Day 13: Most memorable character DEMISE

I'm not a particularly cruel referee, but there certainly have been a number of PC deaths over the years. Still, my favourite is probably the one which led to the birth of another: Kron literally rose from the ashes of the player's previous character (thanks to the quick chargen of Kazamaták és Kompániák).

Day 14: Favourite CONVENTION purchase

I don't have any. The local conventions I attended weren't usually selling stuff.

Day 15: Favourite Con MODULE / ONE-SHOT

My absolute favourite convention module, due to its sheer weirdness, was Urban's Dekomoran scenario (which is a tongue-in-cheek play on Boccaccio's Decameron and the Hungarian word "komor", E. sombre). It was run with the real first edition of Warhammer, but the true sauce was the highly absurdist setting. My memories are quite vague, but an oneiric recollection fits the scenario perfectly!

Day 16: Game you WISH you owned

That's a tricky question, because most games that interest me can be acquired at least in digital form, and I rarely purchase physical products (I do print out a lot of reference material, though, often of my own design). The first edition of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (now just Hyperborea) is something I wouldn't mind getting my hands on. Even though I like 2nd edition the most in terms of rules and layout, I find the first edition's unified visual style more appealing. Another one is The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition, which comes with all sorts of maps and counters and whatnot. Unfortunately, shipping costs make it a very unfeasible purchase for me, especially because most of our games are played online these days.

Day 17: FUNNIEST game you've played

Humour is a big component in virtually all of my games (it's inevitable and even desirable when you play with your close friends), so there's a bunch of weird little emergent events that we look back on fondly... Let me pick one at random.

The party fought some ghouls in a dungeon; some members have been paralysed, including the berserker (remember, it lasts for quite a while in older editions). The player made it explicit that he intends to start raging immediately when the effect ends (the characters were able to deduce his state of mind by looking deep into his crazy eyes; but honestly, this wouldn't have been the most meta moment anyways). The party moved the berserker to a cleared room a couple corridors away and locked themselves up in a different room (including a local NPC from the village above). Y'know, for good measure.

Paralysis ends, rage ensues. We're counting rounds. Open doors check succeeds. The player gives an equal chance to all directions. The berserker's heading straight towards the party's location. Decides he'll try forcing a door open no longer than 3 rounds. Fortunately, the party's holding up successfully.

Next door opens on the first try. In a pit, there's a girl — a werewolf (not in control of her transformation). She sees the berserker open up the pit. She starts transforming. Rage stops, berserker falls to the ground exhausted. Party members come out and investigate. They manage to grab the berserker and pull him in the same room they were hiding in, but the werewolf follows them.

They know they can't hold the door long enough, so they move into the crypt whence the ghouls originally attacked. Meanwhile, it turns out the boy knows the girl (in fact, they are in love, and freeing her from this dungeon was his secret motivation all along). People suspect the crypt door won't hold long either — they need to sacrifice something. Or someone. The berserker throws the boy at the rampaging werewolf and closes the crypt door. The girl, upon realising what she's done, wanders off into the dungeon — they never saw her again.

Day 18: Favourite game SYSTEM

That's a tough one. I obviously really like Kazamaták és Kompániák (you can find a few English posts here), but I'm also partial to The Fantasy Trip, Mongoose Traveller, and Call of Cthulhu / BRP.

Day 19: Favourite PUBLISHED adventure

One of my favourite adventure modules (one that I both played at a convention and later ran for my own group as well) is Melan's In the Name of the Principle. It's the perfect campaign starter: the players are tasked with a difficult mission of eliminating key figures in a city. It's an open-ended scenario with a clear initial goal — my favourite structure.

It might be cheating, but I'd like to nominate another favourite (campaign) module: Masks of Nyarlathotep. We haven't finished it yet with my group (although we're getting close), but I can already say it absolutely deserves being called the best published campaign module.

Day 20: Will still play in TWENTY years time...

I cannot really say. Twenty years is a long time... I will still probably run some form of OSR game (whether OD&D, Kazamaták és Kompániák, AS&SH, or something close to those). Aside from that, I have no idea.

Day 21: Favourite LICENSED RPG

I rarely play licensed RPGs. Does Dark Heresy count (as FFG licensed it from GW)? Or WFRP 4E?

Day 22: Best SECONDHAND RPG purchase

My very first RPG purchase was a used copy of a Hungarian game called Codex. Later I acquired a better quality copy of both the core rules and the magic supplement (Grimoire), and I haven't bought any secondhand books since (well, at least not RPG books).

Day 23: COOLEST-looking RPG product / book

The then-boyfriend of the older sister of a friend of mine had a Werewolf: the Apocalypse book with the claw marks cut into the cover. It really impressed me as a teenager.

Day 24: COMPLEX / SIMPLE RPG you play

I had a fairly extensive minimalist era with regards to rules, but I actually prefer crunchy games. One of my current favourites is Lancer (even though it's far from perfect), and I have also been impressed with WFRP 4E so far.

My favourite simple game is probably Mazes & Minotaurs (well, Vikings & Valkyries) followed closely by Ghastly Affair. Also Call of Cthulhu.

Day 25: UNPLAYED RPG you own

I have quite a few of those... The ones I really want to try at some point include Kult (1st edition), Modern War, Pendragon, and Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blade.

Day 26: Favourite CHARACTER SHEET

For a long while, my favourite character sheets have been those made by MrGone for the (old and new) World of Darkness. I'm also partial to the various d100 character sheets (Call of Cthulhu, BRP, WFRP, Against the Darkmaster, etc.).

Nowadays, I usually make my own character sheets in GoogleSheets, where I can semi-automate and share them with my players. It's definitely a function-over-form matter for me.

Day 27: Game you'd like a new EDITION of...

Hm, let me see...

  • Behind Enemy Lines (new layout and more examples of play; new and more maps)
  • ForeSight (an improvement and modernisation following the groundwork laid down in the previous editions and the James Bond RPG to become a generic system for modern and futuristic action-adventure games with a simulationist bend)
  • Magic World (along with supplements and proper support from Chaosium)
  • Mutant Chronicles (an improvement upon 2nd edition instead of the 2d20 system)
  • Rifts (with a cleaned up but familiar system with much better organisation; gun & robot porn should stay, but the various options need to be mechanically significant)

Day 28: SCARIEST game you've played

I'm not sure I was ever "scared" while playing, and I don't think I ever really inflicted terror on my players. Some of my earlier World of Darkness games were pretty freaky, although usually more surreal than terrifying.

Day 29: Most memorable ENCOUNTER

My players really liked the dung monster in Rappan Athuk. We've also had some good fights in Lancer so far.

However, most of the memorable events in my games aren't really encounters but rather my players' responses to certain situations that often spiral out of control. The tale with the werewolf I shared above... The time when they used a Trojan Horse Beornian Goat to get into a village... When they accidentally killed (and then replaced in My Fair Lady fashion) the bride of a noble whose precious stone they were after... The list goes on.

Day 30: OBSCURE RPG you've played

The three most obscure games I played in the last 20 years, I reckon, are My Life with Master, Puppetland, and Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy Roleplaying Game.

Day 31: FAVOURITE RPG of all time

It has to be a tie between Vikings & Valkyries and AS&SH (now Hyperborea). I generally like their mechanics, their settings, and all the memories we have generated playing them.

Monday 19 February 2024

Lindenbaum 2021/22: Archer (by Morten Gottschalck)

This is part of a series where I briefly talk about the Lindenbaum Prize winners and runners-up. This is a friendly gamebook-writing competition, organised yearly by Stuart Lloyd. The entry discussed below was submitted for the 2021/2022 competition and won a Commendation Award. You can find the details of the competition here, links to all entries here, and the announcement of the winners here. Needless to say, all of these are available for free in PDF.

In this one you play a young hunter. You need to gather the funds to enter an archery competition and be ranked among the best three to have enough money to support your family (and perhaps allow you to take some time off adventuring and travelling). In this sense, some outcomes are better than others, but you don't need to win the competition to get a "good ending".

Mechanically, it's very straightforward. You need to keep track of your money (you need ten crowns to enter the competition) and your single stat, Concentration. Tests are rolled on 2d6, and you succeed on an equal or lower result. Concentration begins at 8, but it may be modified depending on your actions. Difficult tasks are usually represented by adding a number to your roll, or sometimes having you roll twice or with a different number of dice.

The author writes in a competent manner, using fairly descriptive and evocative prose. Word choices are mostly fine, and the details mentioned indicate a clear vision in the author's mind. However, the text is full of typos and grammatical errors. It's not worse than what an average internet user may encounter in any international space, but it still felt distracting.

The whole game consists of only 83 sections (numbered from 1 to 93, with a handful of missing numbers, and one unreachable paragraph), in circa 20k words. There are 20 bad endings and 5 good endings. It seems pretty rough, and luck obviously plays an important role, but overall I'd say it's pretty fair. Maybe a few of the bad endings could have had a few more steps, but I'm much more tolerant of harsh consequences in a short gamebook. Plus, if you could wander about too much, it would lose focus and stop being a short gamebook in the first place.

Things to improve upon:

  • spelling and grammar (the prose would otherwise be pretty good)
  • making sure all sections are reachable
  • a few times the wording on modifiers was ambiguous (although the intent is trivial to work out)
  • the game didn't really need both silver and gold coins; one of them should have sufficed
  • I missed one particular outcome winning 1st prize in the competition but it's also sorta humbling not having it in the game
  • the deal with the pouch of dust felt disconnected; maybe because of the length constraints? I thought it was a little random, to be frank

Friday 25 August 2023

Review: Four Against Darkness

Disclaimer: Note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you or the publisher).

In 2023, we are truly spoiled when it comes to dungeon crawling. A plethora of games focus on or have a robust system dedicated to delving the deeps, from computer games to board games and RPGs. There have been many solo options, but the pandemic really helped developers new and old to find a market starved for the strange alchemy of killing monsters, avoiding traps, and finding treasure — like the subject of today's review, Four Against Darkness.

Friday 11 August 2023

Review: The Drifter

Disclaimer: Note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you or the publisher).

Last year I only played a handful of RPG sessions overall (about 10, according to my notes). However, in addition to picking up solo wargames and painting miniatures as a new hobby, I also played a fair amount of solitaire board games. Some of these were rules-light thematic games (mostly of the roll-and-write variety), while others were of the more involved, almost RPG-lite kind. I slowly intend to write about a few of these games, starting with The Drifter, an interesting paragraph-based hexcrawling game in the vein of Barbarian Prince.

Friday 10 March 2023

Benighted Betrothal on Kickstarter

I swear I'm not doing any more KS news for a while (although I do decided to be more conscious about promoting projects I'm involved in). However, this one's really close to my heart.

Not long after I started blogging in 2013, I started a new campaign — one that turned out to be one of my most significant campaigns. It was great fun, and it led to long-lasting friendships around and away from the gaming table. To this day, that particular campaign is one my favourites, so it was only natural for me to try and write up the quintessential parts and massage them into a coherent module for others to enjoy and pull apart for their own use. The manuscript was largely finished in 2017, I believe, and it already went through some editing in 2018, but every turn it was delayed more and more. I can hardly believe it's this close to release...

In short, Benighted Betrothal is a viking soap opera. It has romance, tragedy, and (in most likelihood) lots of violence. It's statted for B/X D&D as a sort of lingua franca, but it could easily be used with OpenQuest or Vikingr (personally, I really want to try it with The Fantasy Trip once).

Enough rambling, though. Check out the Kickstarter if you're intrigued.

Sunday 26 February 2023

I'm Back and Kickstarter: Sinless

Disclaimer: Note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you or the publisher).

Wow, it's been a hot minute since I last posted here. I didn't run or play that many RPGs last year, to be honest. I played a lot of boardgames (simple stuff with my family, like Catan, Codenames, and Mysterium, and a few interesting solo games, like Voyages, D100 Dungeon, and The Drifter) and a handful of miniature games (Five Parsecs from Home, a little bit of Lion Rampant, and even a fairly long session of Cursed City).

RPG-wise we moved our Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign to Discord voice chat. Before this, we only played about twice a year when all eight of us could get together for some marathon sessions. With this move we might be able to finish the campaign before Christmas! We also started another Werewolf: the Forsaken campaign with a new player joining our group, so that's been fun (even though I'm not as happy with the "new" World of Darkness (now Chronicles of Darkness 1st edition) system as I used to be). We also made characters for Warhammer Fantasy 4th edition, but with all the other things going on, we have yet to begin the campaign.

I kept one eye on all some things OSR, but truth be told, I have mostly been interested in tactical combat games (whether gamey or simulationist), historical games, and military games. I've mostly scratched that itch through collecting and painting miniatures and playing solo wargames, but I'm sure it'll bleed into my next few RPG campaigns as well.

Which neatly brings me to the other thing I wanted to say a few words about. Courtney Campbell (of Hack & Slash fame) is Kickstarting his new game, a heavily Shadowrun-inspired fantasy-cyberpunk game called Sinless. It's crunchy and tactical and has all sorts of guns and weapon upgrades and GM advice and procedures... I was contemplating running Shadowrun 3rd edition a few months ago (after reminiscing about old times with my brother), so this is weirdly providential to me. I need to confess that I have a working relationship with Courtney — on this project, too — but the game's already funded, my rate is a set number regardless of the project's performance, and you can check out an early version if you pledge at least a buck (which you can then cancel if you really don't like what you see).

I'll be back shortly with further good news, and hopefully some new reviews and whatnot.

Friday 3 June 2022

Review: Maelstrom

Disclaimer: Note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you or the publisher).

Maelstrom is a British old-school game written by Alexander Scott and published in 1984. The subject of this review is based on the current edition published by Arion Games.

Monday 9 May 2022

Kazamaták és Kompániák - Spells for MUs and Elves

As promised way back, here are the spells in KéK available for Magic-Users and Elves (albeit in an abbreviated form).

Tuesday 19 April 2022

Project Edgerunner: First Glance

An old friend of mine and I have been slowly working on a cyberpunk game engine (tentatively called Edgerunner) following our initial disappointment with Cyberpunk Red (which, in our estimation, oversimplified rather than improved an otherwise good combat system). It began as a house rules document, fixing CPRED in ways aligning with our preferences and priorities, but as we thought more and more about the various subsystems, it became clear that a complete overhaul would be necessary.

The goal of the system is straightforward: a fairly realistic, simulation-first approach to combat and technology; traditional GM and player responsibilities; no fate points or bennies; reasonably realistic outcomes (whether in or out of combat); a fairly accurate representation of character capabilities (i.e. a separation of raw talent, knowledge, and practical expertise). Ideally, the system should be able to handle most modern eras of history and speculative sci-fi. As for the default setting, we have a couple of assumptions that are a mixture of genre conventions (corporations overshadowing the state, the economical divide between the rich/corpos and the poor/punks) and our own estimations regarding a possible future.

Here are some of the features of the system as it stands now:

  • 2d10 + modifiers vs. Target Number as general resolution mechanic for that sweet bell curve
  • 2-second combat rounds; this makes combat rounds long enough for several things to occur but also short enough to allow quick reactions
  • stance is something that must be tracked (standing, crouching, and prone) with appropriate modifiers to movement, attacks, and defence
  • after much deliberation, we opted not to use hit location tables (as the chances of hitting a particular body part are subject to many factors, and we didn't want to go the silhouette route like Aces & Eights)
  • melee combat is almost entirely maneouvre-based and handled by opposed rolls
  • grabbing is handled like all other maneouvres, and it makes it harder for the grabbed target to do anything other than melee maneouvres specifically against the grabber
  • rules for choking, shoving, tackling, disarming, and dragging
  • ranged attacks are against a distance-based TN usually modified by cover (none, partial, or full), stance, and running
  • a single attack roll and the recursive application of the weapon's recoil stat determines the number of bullets hitting in case of autofire
  • actions can be prepared to a specific trigger ("I'm gonna shoot the first bloke who exits through that door over there" or "I'll start running as soon as I hear Jim drawing the corpos' fire"); a prepared action can be changed only in case of being attacked
  • damage die type is weapon-based; two dice are rolled on a normal success (+1 die per each 5 above TN)
  • armour reduces damage by its current Defense; the amount of damage absorbed reduces current Defense (subject to the armour's Durability)
  • hit points are a factor of Physique (a primary stat); taking 5+ or 10+ damage from one source cause bleeding or heavy bleeding

It's a pretty lethal system that encourages smart tactics and teamwork. It's pretty crunchy, which means it starts fairly slow but picks up nicely as the players get accustomed to the rules. Our latest internal playtest scenario involved 3 player characters versus 13 gang members in and around an abandoned warehouse (on a 48 by 48 grid) — in 4 hours and 45 minutes of riveting firefighting, two player characters fell (and were promptly replaced by backup characters) in a blaze of glory (or foolishness, depending on whom you're talking to), three gang members escaped, and the boss was apprehended for further questioning — the rest were killed viciously. All in all, a night of fun cyberpunk skirmishing.

We have only begun working on a skill system proper (after much, much headache and discussion) and the cyberware subsystem, and there's even more to do. Expect sporadic updates on the process with more details on both the system and the default setting.

Wednesday 22 December 2021

Review: Ballad of the Longbow

For future reference: the following review is based on the 1.01 version of the book.

I first became aware of Ivan Sorensen and his imprint Nordic Weasel Games through MeWe, where his posts I found quite entertaining and inspiring. I think I first checked out Five Leagues from the Borderlands (whose glorious third edition will soon be released through Modiphius, much like its sci-fi counterpart, Five Parsecs from Home). Upon joining his Discord server, I quickly learnt that a rules-light RPG was in the works. This review is about that game.

Ballad of the Longbow is a medieval fantasy role-playing game inspired by Robin Hood, Wilhelm Tell, Arthurian mythology, and various adventure novels. It's a game about outlaws and heroes fighting a central villain (the main cause of injustice around); it's fairly down-to-earth but never really grim or gritty.

The game first provides a basic outline of its assumptions: d20 roll under or equal skill, explicitly no fail forward or fail with consequence mechanic (as a very traditional GM, I heartily approve of this choice), medieval setting (although it's fairly easy to adapt the system for other adventurous settings), and no magic system of any kind.

Player characters each belong to a character type (Knight, Outlaw, Noble, Yeoman, Clergy, Veteran, Retainer, Scholar, Forester, Entertainer, or Beggar), and each type provides a list of starting equipment and a choice between three Abilities (although more may be gained during play).

Abilities can be used once per session each. They usually work without rolling (although a few of them turn specific failed rolls into successes). Examples include the Knight's Challenge (issue a challenge to another knight or noble; backing down is certain humiliation), the Yeoman's Common fighting (turn a failed attack/defence roll into a success with a quarterstaff), or the Clergy's Long-winded speech (hold up a person for 15 minutes by expounding theological doctrine).

Skills are rated from 2 to 18. There are fifteen of them in total (ranging from Agility and Deception to Religion and Stealth). Their starting values are determined by arranging 15 given scores in any order (keeping in mind character type and background).

Aside from success/failure, the game recognises Finesse and Perfection (rolling a success with a 10+ or 15+ die roll, respectively). Fumbles are explicitly missing.

Applying modifiers, helping each other, and opposed rolls are described succintly. A really neat idea is the handling of "weak link tests" where everyone has to succeed in order to avoid failure (like group sneak attempts) — in these cases the GM randomly determines which character has to make the test (with regular modifiers if applicable). I like it because it invisibly factors in each and every participant's score without having to compute an average skill value (whereas using only a "best" or "worst" value would disregard every other participant).

A few activities are specifically called out and described in detail (on account of being likely events in a game): picking locks, social interactions, doing physical things, building things, knowing things, searches, and languages.

Nordic Weasel Games is a miniatures wargame publisher first and foremost, so it's no surprise that the combat system is very miniature friendly.

A combat round represents 5-10 seconds of activity. A round consists of five phases: (1) Quick Action Phase, (2) Enemy Action Phase, (3) Slow Action Phase, (4) Ally Action Phase, and (5) Morale Test Phase.

Player characters must make a skill check (Agility if within 10 metres of an enemy, Alertness otherwise) — on a success they decide whether to act in the Quick or the Slow Action Phase; those who fail automatically act in the Slow Action Phase. Enemies and allied non-player characters simply act in the Enemy and Ally Action Phases, respectively.

Succeeding at the initiative roll with Finesse or a Perfect roll grants an immediate half-speed movement bonus (even if engaged in melee!) — a pretty neat reward in an otherwise simple initiative system.

Characters may move and take an action on their turn; the order can vary, but movement cannot be split (i.e. you cannot move-act-move). Characters can also attempt to defend themselves against attacks any number of times — up until they succeed once.

Attacking is a simple Fighting or Archery skill roll. Defending against an attack is either an Agility (evasion) or Fighting (parry) check — the defender must get at least an equal level of success as the attacker. A successful evasion must be represented by 1 metre of movement; a successful parry may be followed by backing down 1 metre. I like this kind of detail a lot; it creates a naturally flowing melee without relying on GM fiat.

Successful attacks are followed by a damage roll — a skill check using the regular attack skill modified by weapon and armour (although non-villain NPCs use a reduced skill value for dealing damage vs. player characters). On a success the attack inflicts a Wound. Grunts are out of action after 1 Wound; Expert characters can take 2 Wounds; player characters and villains may take up to 3.

Non-combat damage is handled very similarly, but instead of the enemy combatant's skill, a Hazard Factor is determined (e.g. 6 for falling from a horse); sometimes even more than one so multiple Wounds may be sustained (e.g. 14/10 for falling off a roof). A successful Agility or Alertness skill check is usually allowed to avoid risking damage in the first place, though.

The rules cover a lot of other action types — from interacting with the environment to giving first aid — but the one I most like is the Bravado action, which covers all sorts of swashbuckling and other dramatic activities (a neat little list of possible effects are provided).

Morale, of course, plays an important role in combat. Unless led by a villain, NPCs must roll against their Morale if they are ambushed and outnumbered, their leader falls, or a quarter of their forces are lost in a single round of combat.

Inventory management doesn't play a big role in the game, and the equipment section is mostly concerned with weaponry and simple goods and services. It's largely okay, and as the text says, suitable price lists are easy to find in other games, like GURPS Low Tech. I personally would've preferred a little more detail here.

Advancement is fairly simple. After each game session, increase a single skill by 1 point (up to 18). After 3 Good Deeds, gain a new Ability (this may be off-type if it makes sense, but only twice). Good Deeds are basically the goals of scenarios: rescuing folks from unjust imprisonment, saving the villagers from bandits, and in general foiling the villain's plans. The game assumes a medium-length campaign, suggesting that a few sessions after acquiring the third Ability is a pretty good time to wrap things up.

Stats (Attack, Defence, Skill, Morale) are provided for a number of NPCs and animals, including a few villain and ally abilities as well. Then guidelines ("The commandments") are laid out in the spirit of the game (e.g. surrenders are always accepted, villager NPCs are rarely traitorous, avoid gotchas, and never assume a fixed solution).

There's some minimal GM advice regarding impersonating NPCs (including a nifty reaction system), handling travel, adjudicating ally actions, considering loyalty, and setting up satisfying combat encounter (with regards to numbers and such). A few pages of optional rules and the obligatory design notes (the coolest recurring feature of NWG publications) end the book.

Overall, Ballad of the Longbow is a neat little game of dashing heroics. The combat system — while simple — shows just enough depth to remain interesting for the duration of a campaign, and the character Abilities help reinforce the genre in a satisfying way. At this stage the book has a bunch of typos, and it lacks a compelling starting setting/adventure. With a robust scenario generator and/or a reasonably detailed mini-setting and its bespoke villains that would facilitate quickly getting it to the table (much like how the character types accomplish the same from the players' side), it could be really good. As it stands, it's just good.