Monday, 12 September 2016

Savage Worlds Tour of Darkness

This week, while our regular GM takes a break to tackle work, I finally got to run my Vietnam War mini-campaign. I had originally intended returning to my Deadlands Noir urban sandbox, but the plot there has become quite complex, and with a new-ish player at the table, I felt it was a tall order expecting him to catch up on a complex tale that has been running on and off for more than two years.

This Vietnam campaign uses Tour of Darkness for Savage Worlds, but includes elements of Realms of Cthulhu as well. The year is 1966, and the players are part of a platoon of US Marines assigned to Firebase Tripoli in the Ah Shau Valley. The firebase is there to help interdict the flow of troops and supplies from the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam.

We have started off with a group of five player characters, namely:

  • Medical Corpsman Arnold "Arnie" Seine, who can irritate his comrades by spontaneously slipping into French. I'm not sure whether he is Quebecois or Cajun, but he's picked up a -1 Charisma penalty as a result!
  • PFC Billy-Bob Bottle, the team's grenadier
  • PFC Roland "The Rat" Wochowski, a graduate of the Marine sniper school and a natural linguist.
  • Corporal Hunting Feather, aka Jugula, a Native American starting his second tour in the Nam. He is tattoed and bloodthirsty.
  • Lieutenant Zeb "Coop" Cooper - a green lieutenant just arrived in country.
The squad flew into Firebase Tripoli as part of a routine supply run. They were introduced to the commander of the base, Captain Bill Veneziano. They also met some of the other members of their platoon (NPC soldiers being run by me). Jugula had a run in with Sergeant "Massive" Massie, a 6' 5" muscled black marine who made it clear that he was running the base, and that Jugula ought to respect his authority. Later. as the troops were bedding down for the night, The Rat found a poisonous snake in his bed, which Jugula removed, but he suspects it may have had help in finding its way into Wochowski's sleeping bag.

In the morning, they were briefed on their first mission, namely a routine patrol over 48 hours, visiting three villages and checking in with the headmen at each settlement to see if they have noticed any signs of enemy activity. The marines took five men with them, but decided against taking an M60 gunner. Bottle was toting his grenade launcher, and took point.



A couple of hours into their first patrol, Bottle stepped on a toe popper booby trap and wounded his foot. He was patched up by corpsman Arnie, but Lt Coop decided to replace him with PFC Niese on point. Just as a note, I do enjoy the way Savage Worlds manages allied NPCs. It requires less heavy lifting by the GM than many other systems.

The squad reached their first destination, Xanh Nam, close to midday, which they established to be completely deserted, although with obvious signs of recent habitation. A search of the village uncovered two small boys hiding in a rice cache under one of the huts. They had been hidden there by their mother, and said the villagers had been taken away in the night by men speaking Vietnamese, but did not know whom. The marines established the villagers had left heading north, in the direction of Nhur Chu, their next destination.

Taking the two boys with them, the squad moved north. En route, PFC Niese spotted what looked like some abandoned communist webbing and a pack on the trail. Bottle tossed a rock at it, and, sure enough, it exploded, proving to be a booby trap. Jugula also noticed a cigar stub of the type he has seen Sgt Massie smoking. Moving on, the soldiers noted that the tracks they were following left the trail before they got to Nhur Chu, but Cooper decided to stay on mission.

The M 79 grenade launcher


At Nhur Chu, the soldiers stopped to speak to the headman, who seemed nervous but claimed he had seen no enemy soldiers, although he had seen Sgt Massie move through the village four days previous. It was also made obvious that the villagers grow marijuana and sell it to Massie in substantial quantities.

Jugula noticed six of the villagers were young men with military hair cuts. The marines decided to interrogate one, and he was persuaded by the Vietnamese-speaking Rat to tell them he had been press-ganged into the North Vietnamese army. He said he and his friends were deserters hiding out. He also informed the marines that there were NVA units in the vicinity, and agreed to let them  know if he saw any communist troops. Cooper decided to leave the two boys at Nhur Chu. The headman told him that Xanh Nam had been inhabited as recently as two days ago, and said he suspected the villagers there had been abducted by the NVA, possiblhy to serve as porters on the Ho Chi Minh trail. He said that the inhabitants of Sau Vang, the next hamlet, were aloof and generally arrogant, and that relations between Nhur Chu and Sau Vang were poor.

Pressing on, the marines were ambushed by a sniper, who hit PFC Gee, bringing up the rear. The Rat spotted the bunker the sniper was using and pointed it out as the soldiers took cover on both sides of the trail. Bottle used his M79 to lay smoke across the trail, and then Jugula and Cooper led an outflanking move while Arnie treated Gee. A grenade was popped into the bunker's aperture. Cooper ordered a search for other access points, and a trap door was uncovered, leading down into a tunnel. Cooper decided to go into the tunnel himself, backed up by Jugula. It led directly back to the bunker, where he found a spent cartridge from an old WW2 M1 Garand rifle. There was no sign of the sniper. The soldiers debated whether to medevac Gee, but as he was still able to walk, Cooper determined they should press on. Now two marines are hobbling.



Approaching Sau Vang as dusk fell, the unit chose to bivouac overlooking the village and move in at dawn. Here they found the villagers preparing for a festival for planting rice; the headman invited the marines to stay for food and dancing, although Cooper ordered his men not to drink the rice wine. Jugula and Rat stood guard while Bottle joined in with the dancing - despite his bad foot. Cooper began to feel woozy, despite avoiding the booze, while Jugula noticed similarities in the dancing and chanting to a ritual he had seen enacted on a reservation back in America in his youth. Cooper then realised that three of his marines, Starr, Edgin and Pickman, were asleep. Staggering to his feet, he understood his men had been drugged. Luckily, Arnie was on hand to apply adrenalin to the lieutenant.

Jugula, realising something was wrong, opened fire with his trademark Thompson SMG into the air, bringing a halt to the festivities. At that point, some angry looking villagers began arming themselves with machetes and bamboo spears...

To be continued...

Thursday, 8 September 2016

We play Numenera

Following on from my last post, the second game I played at BURPS Reunicon was Numenera, by Monte Cook Games. Numenera is another post-apocalyptic game, but you could also describe it as science fantasy. Its intriguing premise is that the characters are living in the earth's far future, but that much of the technology of the past ages has been lost to them.

I was initially a little sceptical about Numenera, in so far as it only has three character classes, namely nanos, glaives and jacks. I played a glaive in this game, called Hawmett. A glaive is a combat-focused character, while jacks are all-rounders, and nanos seem to have some form of psionic capability and are probably the most familiar with the 'numenera' of the game's title, which seems to be the way ancient technology has changed the world, and continues to change the world.

Our party consisted of two glaives, Satha and Hawmett, a jack called Sados, and a nano called Perem. We entered a small village that had been built around the Shadewalker, a massive artefact from an earlier age that seemingly had the capability to actually get up and move a few hundred metres every few years. The village was very much a trading locale for people and settlements from miles around, but other than serving as a point at which to congregate, the Shadewalker did not seem to serve any particular role for the village.

Numenera uses a d20 mechanic, but has a highly streamlined system. Characters use a pool of only three attributes - Might, Speed and Intellect - which control many aspects of their actions, as well as measuring damage. There are no hit points. Damage is tracked against your attributes, and as each pool is reduced to zero, characters can become Impaired or Debilitated.

Recovery is cunningly contrived: like in 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, or Iron Heroes, characters have recovery actions: there are four, which you need to use in strict succession. Each takes longer than the previous one, with the last requiring 10 hours of recovery time. What this simulates is the increasing exhaustion a character might experience, until ultimately they are left with no option but to take a full 10 hours of rest. I really like this mechanic in particular, as characters can become debilitated and require help from their comrades; it feels a lot more realistic than hit points.

Another aspect I liked was cyphers: this is how the characters make use of the technology they find. Frequently, this technology may be used for something other than its original intention. Most of it is one use only, although there are some items than can be used repetitively. Technology jumps into the role of magic items in a fantasy game, but it does not quite feel like magic in the medieval sense. The game does seem to achieve the seamless interaction between a primitive society with advanced technology very effectively. I applaud this.

Returning to the plot, the Shadewalker suddenly decided to stand up and fly off, leaving the hapless villagers to turn to the adventurers and ask them to track the Shadewalker for them. Luckily, the machine was stopping occasionally to land, allowing us to track it effectively. After encountering a local trapper, who warned us about some of the hostile fauna in the area, we scaled a rocky escarpment to finally discover the Shadewalker at rest.



XP in this game can be used to advance your character or re-roll dice. You may be familiar with this if you have experienced 'bennies' in Savage Worlds. GMs can offer characters more XP to allow bad things to happen to them (I also assume that players can suggest that bad things happen to them, in return for XP). In this case, I was offered XP if my character fell down the cliff - luckily he was dexterous enough to avoid major damage, but the risk was there.

As the sun was going down, we encountered a camp of humanoids between us and our objective, but decided to assault it under cover of darkness. These creatures turned out to look very similar to Broo from RuneQuest (or Chaos Beastmen from WFRP if you prefer).

The combat system works very well indeed - as with 13th Age, damage rates are fixed, so there is no pause to roll for damage. In addition, NPCs don't roll to attack characters, characters dodge attacks made against them instead. Players do all the rolling. The GM does not actually seem to roll any dice. This works very well in practice, and means battles can progress smoothly.

Following our victory over the 'Broo', we discovered that the Shadewalker was up to something - it looked like it was drilling into the ground, and was now protected by a trio of mini Shadewalkers that were patrolling around the larger entity like huge crabs. Our approach, however, led us into an area of undergrowth that quickly made us feel unwell - with no obvious source for this effect, although we suspected some kind of vegetation - so we withdrew. Instead, we tried another approach through a wooded escarpment, where we encountered some kind of snake like creature with loads of tentacles.

Glaive, Jack and Nano


In this second battle, Perem, our nano, spectacularly rolled two 1s on his dodge roll, and was impaled by two tentacles and hoisted aloft. Luckily for him, the rest of the party piled in and quickly slew the monster. Perem was able to use his first couple of recovery slots (one action, followed by 10 minutes), to rest and recuperate, before we proceeded.

Our final approach to the Shadewalker was a bit more tactical: Perem had set up a telepathic link with Sados, allowing the jack to sneak around behind the Shadewalker while we distracted the guards from a different direction. Sadly, despite our best efforts, one guard detected Sados' approach, and we were forced to attack. The original plan was for Sados to jump up onto the Shadewalker and burn through its carapace using some solvent we'd found (another cypher). As it turned out, the mini walkers were almost too tough for our weapons, and Hawmett and Sados were forced to use our solvent on the guards, destroying two, but using up all the solvent. The third guard was finally destroyed, as it was forced to take on the entire party alone, and Satha was using an extremely dangerous staff sword, that seemed to demolish anything she came up against. Perrem, however, had rolled two critical failures in the fight, hitting Satha once, and then suffering a backblast from his own power, which knocked him senseless.

Huzzah! Victory. Climbing onto the Shadewalker, our knowledge of numenera led us to discover that it was mining ore to build more guards. We were able to figure out how to shut it down, and wait for the arrival of the migrating village. We also realised that our knowledge of the machine might allow us to barter for a larger reward than the villagers had previously offered us!

In the final analysis I must say I feel very positive about Numenera. It is a slick system, and while this was just a taster session, I did not feel that weighed down by learning the mechanics and the background. It still retains a degree of post-apocalyptic atmosphere, but where technology became so advanced before the Fall, its capabilities are scarily impressive.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

We play Mutant: Year Zero

This weekend was the annual convention of the BURPS, the Brighton University Roleplaying Society. While I have not had the privilege of attending that august institution, I was able to participate in their annual RPG reunion, which is what it is really. This year it was held at the Dice Saloon in Brighton, which I would heartily recommend you visit if you are interested in gaming, and happen to be down in Sussex. It is certainly growing on me as a gaming venue.

I signed up for two games this year, both of which I was curious to try out. I generally take the opportunity to play new games at cons, which I'm interested in getting a feel for. My first ever game of WFRP was held at Dragonmeet back in 2000, IIRC.

This post really relates to my first experience with Mutant Year Zero, from Modiphius. It is a post-apocalypse setting, many, many years after the downfall of human civilization. We played a group of inhabitants of the Ark, which was a community of about 200 souls living on the old Brighton Pier. MY0 characters are distinguished by their specialisms, hence we had a fixer, a junk head (mechanic), an enforcer (combat monkey), a chronicler of some kind (a historian who was meant to be able to provide us with intelligence on artefacts and knowledge of the by-gone era of the Ancients) and myself playing a stalker (scout). We also had a slave.

It is interesting to note that in our Ark, most of the population were slaves. It functioned as a sort of oligarchy. As a stalker, my character was one of the few with experience of traveling in the wilderness, capable of leading our party to its destination. In this case, we were tasked with finding another settlement called Deepwood, which was rumoured to have access to large supplies of gunpowder. We were to see if we could locate this group and negotiate a trade deal.

Our slave was played as a player character: he was the property of the fixer, but it was interesting how the two of them interacted, and indeed how the slave character worked his own agenda, on a couple of occasions finding and secretly keeping artefacts from the rest of the group.

Note: MY0 has a campaign component that allows players to help plan and manage the progress of their settlement. This sounds very interesting, in that it provides more purpose to the adventures, and is reminiscent of King Arthur Pendragon. However, as a one shot game, it does not work as well, as this part of the setting goes by the wayside.

MY0 uses d6 dice pools, essentially combining dice from core attributes, skills, other abilities (e.g. my stalker's capability with tracking and navigation, which gave him an additional 2D) and kit. So, in my case, my character had a pair of scrap binoculars (made from other bits and pieces rather than original ones) which added 1D to rolls where he was using them.

You only require one 6 result to succeed. If you don't have any successes, you can push the roll, by re-rolling. This time around, however, if you receive any 1 results, bad things can happen. A 1 on your gear die, for example, can cause that item to malfunction. The enforcer character, for instance, rolled a 1 on his gear die while using a rifle in a fight with Zone Ghouls, which caused it to jam. The junk head was not able to fix it, so it became a club.

Bullets are the main currency in the game: not only are they used as ammo in firearms, but buying equipment, food and shelter also requires them. Having said that, players need to keep careful track of food and petrol too, as this can be a useful trading commodity, and is consumed quickly as you travel across country.

MY0 does feel a little bit like a traditional hex crawl game, in that the map of the region you are located in is an important part of the whole game. We were using a very nice map of post-apocalyptic Sussex, which I suspect was home made and is not commercially available. For example, our encounter with the Zone Ghouls took place in Newhaven! In a campaign, I expect players are meant to gradually explore the area as they pursue the objectives of their settlement. Encumbrance becomes very important in this game, as if you are traveling on foot, you are very limited in what you can carry. We used a boat to navigate along the coast for part of our quest, but once we set off inland, we quickly became more limited in our access to equipment. Stashing materiel as you go looks to be a useful tactic.

Artifacts from the Ancients is an entertaining part of the game - there seems to be a deck of artifact cards available from Modiphius, which I would heartily recommend. We found some useful items, like a fully-loaded assault rifle in an abandoned light house, an unopened can of Coke, a book, and even a bicycle. One character found some caffeine pills which allowed him to take most of the night watches, although he didn't tell us he had them. We became aware he was becoming more jumpy than usual.

All characters have access to mutant powers, which are powered by mutation points. For the most part they seem quite subtle - mine was improved reflexes. Mutation points can be gained if you push a roll - you are rewarded for taking the risk. If you push a roll and fail while using a mutation, however, you can acquire a NEW mutation. Sadly, this did not happen in our game, but I got the impression that the player does not have the choice of what that mutation might be...



Finally, there is a sister game to MY0 called Genlab Alpha, in which the players can be hybrid animal survivors. Some commentators speculate that this is a homage to another game, After the Bomb, published by Palladium Games in 1986. In our adventure, we learned from some dinosaur-riding explorers we encountered, that Deepwood was actually a community of human-hating rabbit hybrids! Sadly, we ran out of time and were not able to complete the adventure. This was partly because we spent so much time planning and equipping our expedition. Again, I don't think MY0 works very well as a one shot experience, but I was very pleased to have an opportunity to play it, and would be keen to take part if a longer campaign arc was ever on offer.

Some people may be in two minds about Genlab Alpha, but personally I think that sounds like fun too. Post-apocalyptic gaming seems to be enjoying a bit of a rebirth at the moment (one feels that the end of the Cold War nudged it to the back burner for a while there). Much of this new enthusiasm can be attributed to Fall Out and The Walking Dead, I suspect, but I'm glad to see it back with a vengeance!

Friday, 2 September 2016

Book of the Month: Scoundrels

Timothy Zahn was one of the flagship authors of Star Wars fiction in the early 1990s. His Thrawn trilogy of books, which began with Heir to to the Empire, kick started an entire genre of fiction and video games that explored the universe after Return of the Jedi. Much of this expanded universe has been dumped, however, with the screening of The Force Awakens last year.

Scoundrels is really a rather unimpressive book. It takes place not long after the events in A New Hope. Fresh from the battle of the Death Star, Han Solo is desperately trying to repay Jabba the Hutt. However, having lost the money gifted to him by the Rebel Alliance for rescuing Princess Leia, he becomes involved in a scheme to rob 160 million credits from Villachur, a sector chief of the Black Sun crime syndicate.

Imagine, if you will, that someone watched Ocean's Eleven, and then decided that it would be great to take that story and somehow ram it into the Star Wars universe. Solo ends up as the architect of a heist caper against the fearsome Black Sun: he puts together a team of specialists, which includes Lando Calrissian (prior to their subsequent meeting at Cloud City) and Chewbacca, among others (although no other characters from the films appear in this disaster).

The book is highly complex: apart from the planning by Solo's team, Villachur has to cope with the visit of a senior member of the crime organisation, visiting the planet to blackmail local officials. On top of this, while the Empire largely takes a back seat, it does have a couple of agents looking for an opportunity to take Villachur down as well. Apparently Darth Vader does not get on with the Black Sun.

Almost all of the action revolves around Villachur's estate, which is a high security enclave in the middle of a big city. The crime leader is hosting a massive public festival on the grounds of his estate, something he refuses to cancel, even when it becomes obvious that there is something odd going on. Despite being excessively paranoid, he allows the thieves ample opportunity to come and go under cover of the crowds partying on his property, even after it becomes increasingly obvious they are trying to steal something from his vault.

Why? Villachur's crime syndicate, it is made clear, already enjoys massive influence on the planet. It is also emphasised that the chief of police is in Black Sun's pocket. Thirdly it is mentioned on numerous occasions that the festival Villachur hosts is quite expensive. He is not running for office, nor does he seem to be particularly focused on currying public favour. Why does he host this festival, and why does he not cancel it in the interests of his own security? This is never adequately addressed.
Would you trust these men?

Zahn paints a picture of a highly competent and vicious criminal organization, but then, when it comes to the crunch, Black Sun either pulls its punches, or makes idiotic mistakes, effectively trying to be too clever for its own good. How did they become this massive galactic mafia in the first place?

Lord Khazadi, Villachur's boss, is an alien called a Falleen, who has the ability to influence human emotions by way of pheromones, yet this is only used selectively, to limited effect. On other occasions, this highly useful power is just ignored, although there are dozens of ways it could have proved to be highly entertaining.

A great deal of the time, the team of thieves spend in some kind of luxury hotel suite, spying on the grounds of the estate, and eating sandwiches. Pages and pages of text are taken up with in-depth discussions on plans that are never really implemented, as characters go through their various options. It almost feels like Zahn is writing up the notes from a role playing session he hosted. But it does not make a gripping tale, to be honest.

If there is a mitigating factor in this travesty, it is the character of Deja, an ambitious and competent imperial agent working undercover in a sting operation against Khazadi. He pretends to be the serving man for his partner, who seems to be enjoying his own cover of a noble far too much. At one stage the duo discuss whether Deja should be whipped to lend credibility to their cover story. Deja himself ends up taking most of the risks, while his colleague seems to spend most of his time attending soirees. But sadly Deja on his own is not enough to save this book.

I usually write about books I've been impressed with in this column; I know Zahn has achieved considerable commercial success with his Star Wars line, but I don't think I'm going to be reading any more of his work. Scoundrels is simply a lame effort, and I'm very surprised it even found its way into print. With some many talented writers out there trying to make a living, I am flabbergasted that dross of this nature still finds its way onto the shelves.

My thoughts exactly...


Thursday, 1 September 2016

Back from the East

I've returned from a month in Ukraine and the Caucasus, largely just traveling around Armenia and Georgia, and soaking up some of the sunshine on the Black Sea coast. I enjoyed myself immensely, and if you have the capability to do so, taking more than two weeks away comes heartily recommended.

Part of my objective was to get off the well-trodden tourist trails, and avoid the legions of British tourists that tend to descend on France and Spain in the summer months. Ukraine fitted the bill, as it is popularly assumed to be a war zone. What many people fail to realise, however, is that Ukraine is a big country, and the area where there has been limited fighting with Russian-backed rebels is hundreds of miles away from the capital.

While in Ukraine, I took the opportunity to visit the WW2 museum in Kiev. Sadly it was closed, but there was a large display of Soviet-era armour outside to marvel at, including a Hind gunship and some Russian vehicles captured by the Ukrainian troops last year, complete with battle scars.

Captured Russian APC with wheels removed.


Kiev is a spectacular city, and despite Ukraine's economic and political  hardships, there seems to be a great deal going on there, particularly if you like to party! The old city is sited on an escarpment that overlooks the River Dnipro, and you can stand looking out over the river and then the miles and miles of forest that stretches away towards the east, unbroken apart from the odd factory or Soviet tower block. Kiev is an amazing place, extremely cheap compared with other parts of Europe, and a great place to learn more about Orthodox Christianity and indeed the entire history of Ukraine, much of it dominated by outside forces like the Poles, Lithuanians, Tartars, and of course Russians. Don't miss the church of St Sofia, which has a superb 6mm scale model of medieval Kiev.

I am now back in England, which is pleasantly warm. I am expecting work will resume with a vengeance shortly, hence I'm taking the brief opportunity to update my blog.

Gamingwise, I took several card games on holiday, including Skulls, Mama Mia, Cthulhu Fluxx and my now well-worn copy of travel Settlers of Catan. I am now at that stage where I am getting regularly pounded by my children at Catan. There's no holding back on my part now, but that does not seem to be saving me. In two games of Settlers, I ended last out of four, a desperate result.

Now we're back, hopefully the roleplaying season will be starting soon. I'm currently working to finish my Cthulhu Vietnam War mini-campaign 30 Days In The Valley, which I hope to be able to start soon, while our Dracula Dossier campaign is on brief hiatus. I've also been re-reading the modern Cthulhu scenario Cold Dead Hand by Adam Scott Glancy, which with any luck I'll be able to run at some stage.

On the acquisitions front, I have finally found and won a copy of Kuro on eBay, and recently coughed up some money for The Edom Files for Night's Black Agents and Beyond the Rim for Star Wars - Edge of the Empire. I also succumbed and backed the Kickstarter for Zweihander, a next generation version of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay rules engine.

Finally, this weekend I hope to be attending the Reunicon roleplaying convention in Brighton at the Dice Saloon here in our fair city. More on that later...