Friday, 5 August 2016

Cthulhu: Call, Trail or Realms?

Well that's a big question to be ending the week with. But I feel like I'm qualified to answer it. I've been playing Call of Cthulhu since my last year at school (1989). It was my 'go to' game to run during the 1990s. In the early 2000s I started running Savage Worlds, and in 2009 Reality Blurs published a Savage Worlds Cthulhu hack called Realms of Cthulhu. Finally, at around the same time, Kenneth Hite's Trail of Cthulhu was published by Pelgrane Press, building on Robin Laws' Gumshoe system (originally used for Esoterrorists).

So, which should you be considering when starting down the road of Cthulhu gaming?

Call of Cthulhu has now entered its 7th iteration since it was published by Chaosium in 1981. It is still widely played and there has been an enormous amount of material published for it over the years. It still stands as a firm favourite with many veteran gamers, but this is more nostalgia these days than anything else. I'm not sure it is keeping up with some of the newer, slicker rules packages out there. I've only just started reading the new edition, so don't feel completely qualified to comment on how it compares with older variations. However, first impressions are that it does not represent a major change.

Realms of Cthulhu is really more of a 'pulp' take on the game. It uses the Savage Worlds engine, and you would still need to own a copy of the SW rules. Realms is essentially a supplement. SW is a fast-paced, high action game. I've been using it to run a campaign of Deadlands Noir, but to be honest, I'm not completely happy using SW for investigative games. You can tweak Savage Worlds to play a somewhat grittier game, but CoC characters feel a lot more vulnerable to me - they break more easily - than their Savage Worlds counterparts. If you want to run a campaign like Masks of Nyarlathotep, I'd suggest Realms, as it works better for those dangerous expeditions into the savage unknown.

Realms has some useful conversion rules if you would like to convert published CoC material into Savage Worlds. Its scenario generator is also excellent if you want to build an original adventure: I've been using it in conjunction with Tour of Darkness to write my 90 Days in the Valley Vietnam War campaign. Note also that you can use Savage Worlds with the Achtung Cthulhu books from Modiphius for WW2 survival horror or pulp action games.

I have not yet run Trail of Cthulhu, but I have GM'd its cousins, Esoterrorists and Night's Black Agents, and have to say that I like them loads. Gumshoe is a very good system if you want to run an investigative game. Now that it has an open license, writers are taking it into all sorts of intriguing directions, but ultimately Laws wrote this to be an investigative / conspiracy game, and it works superbly in this respect. I used it for a survival horror game inspired by the video games Resident Evil and Dino Crisis called Project Blue Tempest, and it has worked very well.

Trail also streamlines combat, and doesn't suffer from the plot road blocks that failed investigative rolls can cause in CoC. Its use of Drives also means that it feels a lot more like traditional Lovecraft stories, in that characters are driven into danger by a personal need chosen by the player. You role play someone who is not just a random victim, but has a reason to be plunging himself into the weird situations the Mythos can throw up.

Gumshoe is also very easy to mix and match: for example, I'm mulling a cyberpunk campaign using my proprietary Secession setting which would mash up elements of Ashen Stars and Mutant City Blues, but that's another story, although the recent coverage of gene therapy technology ahead of the Rio Olympics has me intrigued (cf the use of viro-ware in Ashen Stars).

I'm not going to come down on one side or the other here, and apologise if you were expecting this. It really depends on what sort of game you enjoy. But I hope this sheds a little more light on these games and helps you make a choice if you don't own any of them!

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Hyborian Heroes: the armour conundrum

Right now I'm in the process of converting a mini-campaign for low level characters written originally for the Conan RPG by Mongoose to be playable with Iron Heroes, by Mike Mearls (a project I'm now labeling with the working title of Hyborian Heroes). In actual fact, there is very little work involved, it seems. Iron Heroes, for those unfamiliar with it, was written as an alternative player's handbook for third edition Dungeons and Dragons. It was published in 2005. Its character classes generally do not have access to magic, there are few if any magic items, and if someone is casting spells, it should really be an evil NPC.

Indeed, in IH Mearls goes as far as to say that GMs can import whatever magic system they choose to the IH universe, it has been designed to be that compatible. I have run games of Conan before, and while it is a good system, IH seems to better capture the feel of Howard's heroes (and I'm not just specifically referring to the Cimmerian here, but some of his other characters, like Solomon Kane and Bran MacMorn the Pict). To quote Mearls:

"The player characters are a cut above other warriors. The gap between the nonplayer character and player character classes in Iron Heroes is steep. Anyone with PC class levels is noteworthy and important. By the same token, there are few such folk in the world. A 10th level weapons master is one of the dozen most skilled warriors in even a large city."

The interesting thing about using the lengthy catalogue of Mongoose publications for an Iron Heroes campaign is that there is so little actual homework to do here. NPCs can be powered using the Conan PC classes, while the characters, as the stars of the show, can draw on their Iron Heroes capabilities and rules breaks (e.g. stunts). The Conan magic system can be ported relatively effortlessly straight into Iron Heroes.

Conan the RPG uses a very similar mechanic to Iron Heroes to simulate armour. As with RuneQuest, armour acts as a damage reducer if someone is struck. In Iron Heroes, armour provides a random amount of damage reduction, depending on its quality.  However, there is a significant differential between the two systems - in Conan, armour provides a static DR, in IH it is rolled for.

Not only that, but IH armour is not as good. Chain mail in IH costs 150 gp (gold pieces are the currency standard in IH) and deducts 1d4 damage. It has a maximum Dex bonus of +5 and -5 armour check penalty.

Conan has a wider range of armour types, and DR varies depending on the combination of armour a character might be wearing. But, a mail hauberk costs 800 silver pieces (silver being the standard currency in Conan), delivers a static DR of 6, with a tougher +3 maximum Dex bonus and a -4 armour check penalty. Some of the superior armour in Conan, admittedly very expensive, can deliver a DR of 8 or 9.

So here's the conundrum. Mearls advises that combat can be speeded up by providing NPCs with static DRs - e.g. perhaps 2 or 3 if they are wearing chain mail. Monsters generally come with static DRs regardless. However, I suspect that IH characters are slightly more buff, so to speak, than Conan characters of equivalent level. I could be wrong here.

Obviously, NPCs in published Conan adventures come with stat blocks for that game, but it would be a simple matter to reduce their DRs to bring them more into line with Iron Heroes. There is also the very obvious fact that IH characters will quickly upgrade their armour by stripping the bodies of the fallen. The GM is faced with a dilemma:

  1. Player characters use Iron Heroes weapons and armour, all NPCs use Conan weapons and armour;
  2. ALL characters use Conan weapons and armour, and the random armour roll is dropped altogether - starting characters might need a little more currency to begin with;
  3. NPCs are converted to Iron Heroes weapons and armour.
Of the three, I'm currently leaning towards option #2, mainly because it would still capture the flavour of the Hyborian world, and provides characters with a wider range of armour and weapons than IH does. This would include the rules for primitive weapons and Akbitanan steel on pages 141-142 of the original Conan core rules. It should also be noted that Akbitanan steel weapons bring with them considerable armour piercing capabilities, that will ignore most of the DR that NPCs would present. Although expensive, I'm sure it is something the PCs would be very keen to pick up at the earliest opportunity (in the Conan stories Akbitanan steel is quite rare, and to be honest, is a stand in for magic weapons).

A two handed Akbitanan war sword in Conan does 1d12 damage and ignores anything with a DR of 5 or less. That means IH chain mail would be useless against it. Indeed, even a stiletto would have a good chance of getting through IH chain mail, but would have no chance against a Conan mail hauberk. An Iron Heroes greatsword, which is the nearest equivalent, does 2d6 damage but has no armour piercing capability.

It seems to me that the solution here is to go with the Conan equipment tables and dispense with the Iron Heroes versions, and just adjust starting silver for new Iron Heroes characters. My worry is that some IH characters may rely on higher Dex bonuses for many of their unique abilities, and heavier armour will just slow them down, but then again, that would explain why not everyone in the Conan stories is striding around in plate armour.

However, caveat emptor, I will finish with another quote from Mearls:

"Character classes in Iron Heroes have...much better saving throws than classes from other games, and their base attack bonuses and skill ranks are higher than normal, too. Iron Heroes characters have far more hit points, plus they have about twice as many feats as the average character from other games."

Friday, 15 July 2016

Playing to character in the Dracula Dossier

Frank Langella as Dracula, 1979
I think one of the more interesting things about horror movies, particularly in the survival horror genre, is the way in which characters respond in different ways to the exigencies they are subject to. In roleplaying games we sometimes lose sight of this. RPGs can become an exercise in problem solving - for example, the typical dungeon bash prioritises staying alive, and working as a team to meet various threats that arrive in the course of exploration of an environment. A team of adventurers is a delicately balanced congregation of participants, relying on each other's complementary skills and powers to achieve their objectives.

In our ongoing Dracula Dossier campaign, our team of agents have been working together as a team in the early sessions. They represent the employees of a small Zurich based 'security consultancy'. However, they come from disparate cultural backgrounds - a Russian, a German, an Israeli and a Brit. They used to work for different spy agencies, and may have conflicting agendas. As we creep further into the complex plot, the tensions between the PCs are growing, which is great from a dramatic point of view, although potentially dangerous too.

Sten Brodrington, our former MI6 man, seems like a dapper gent in the Roger Moore mold, but also seems to be keen to avoid dangerous situations. Sadly, in our last session, he was grabbed and bitten by a vampire, who now seems to have some level of telepathic leverage over him (possibly of a Sanity-eroding nature, although our GM has been kind so far). He has also suffered permanent nerve damage in his neck. Sten has always struck me as someone who has worked hard to keep out of harm's way, but harm still seems to have a habit of seeking him out.

Natasha Avram is a Russian hellcat assassin from the GRU stable. To be honest, she seems to have dished out much of the hurt to the opposition, and always seems ready to be the first one through the door. Despite almost getting the entire team killed by using a taser against a suicide vest, her brand of shoot first, ask questions later seems to be getting results. Her execution of an unarmed art dealer in the middle of an 'interrogation' session may bear further examination. Also, there is the issue of the missing vampire head - where did that go? Has Natasha really left the GRU? She needs to be watched.

Max Fischer, our German team member, seems the most ethical, and has close ties to the Catholic Church. He looks like a straight player and keen to avoid unnecessary collateral damage. He is probably the most trustworthy of the team at the moment, at least in my character's opinion (I think we may be seeing a realignment of trust points next session).

Which brings me to my character, Carmel Shaked. Carmel is mechanically the least stable, having started with 50 Sanity, although she has recovered a little from her recent encounters in London (when a house fell on top of her). Carmel is our explosives and infiltration specialist, formerly working for Mossad and now in the private sector. I've been trying to find ways to play Carmel's declining Sanity and increasing flakiness in the face of supernatural events. This has been manifesting partly in resorts to violence (although here she has been trumped by the deadly Avram) and partly in executing unilateral and slightly risky plans in the midst of pressure situations (she blew the roof off an office block in Rotterdam this week).

The team has retreated to Zurich to lick its wounds, following a run-in with a vampire in the Netherlands. We're still trying very hard to figure out what is going on. We've encountered four vampires in different locations, but only succeeded in slaying one. We're also still working out a means of being certain we can kill them, although Carmel has picked up some phosphorous grenades from a lock up in Zurich which she has distributed to the team members.

Next stop: Budapest. Who knows what we'll find there?

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Free RPG Day and Dungeon World

Dungeon World - a nice surprise
Saturday was Free RPG Day. I've read a great deal about it, but this was the first time I have had the opportunity to actually turn up to a store that was actually running it. I went down to Dice Saloon in Brighton, which is a very nice venue for gaming, hanging out and drinking coffee (they also do nice toasted paninis). For the most part, Dice Saloon focuses on board games, Magic the Gathering, and some of the more popular miniatures games (e.g. Age of Sigmar and War Machine). However, on the 18th of June it hosted several RPGs in three slots, kicking off at 12.00 noon. Sadly, I didn't have time to stay all the way through to 11 in the evening, but I did book myself into a game of Dungeon World.

When I turned up, I also asked one of the guys working in the store whether there was any free swag. "Oh yes," he said, and reached under the desk to produce a huge box full of free RPG goodies. "Take whatever you want," he added, and left me to rummage through it.

This I duly did, scooping up a big pile of swag. Most of it is one-shot adventures, but there is some excellent material here, including previews of the Atlantis the Second Age role playing game, the Thule campaign setting (with a one shot for Dungeons and Dragons), the Faith science fiction RPG / card game hybrid, a one shot for Night's Black Agents, and even a Feng Shui adventure. I also managed to grab some Reaper bones. My cup runneth over, as my school chaplain used to say. I'm still sorting through everything I picked up.

As for Dungeon World, the game was surprising well-attended, with all slots filled and THREE spectators. I felt like I was playing blackjack in Vegas. At an adjoining table, there were three slots free in a Pathfinder game, but it was standing room only at Dungeon World.

I wanted to play Dungeon World because I have been hearing all sorts of amazing things about the system, originally given life with Apocalypse World. I have even bought Monster of the Week with a view to trying that out. My problem with any new system, and it was certainly the case with Savage Worlds and Gumshoe, is that I need to play the game or listen to it being played to really get a good grasp of it. I have listened to the guys at RPPR play MOTW in an actual play podcast, but I wanted to sit down and have a go at actually playing Dungeon World.

I have to say I was favourably impressed and can now see what all the fuss was about. The game presents pretty much all a player needs on four sides of A4, of which two are your character sheet (i.e. you never need to refer to the rule book as a player). It is very easy for newcomers to grasp. It is cheap to access - with only one book you are up and running, as are your friends. You don't need everyone to own an expensive hardback book. Character generation is very speedy, with a range of options presented on your sheet to choose from. It took us 15 minutes maximum to get a party together, with only one player having played DW previously.

The game features a mechanic called 'bonds' which really ties the party together. You have suggested bonds to one or more members of your party. For example, my barbarian, Bonebreaker, was worried about the risks the druid was taking and wanted to try to keep him out of trouble (with limited success, as it turned out, as the druid was burned to a crisp by a goblin shaman). Players introduce their characters, after which they go around the table again, using the bond options on their sheets to link themselves to the other PCs.

Each character has all his equipment packages presented up front - you just need to tick what you want. You can add important kit as you go along. Encumbrance is a factor, but it is highly simplified, although still relevant.

The core of the system is 'moves': some are specific to your character, some are generic. They help you to really feel you are playing your persona. For example, my barbarian had a move that kicked in if he was fulfilling one from a list of barbaric urges (pure destruction and the quest for fame and fortune being the obvious ones I opted for). You roll 2d6 and adjust according to bonuses which might be in place at the time. Some accrue to your rolls, some are simply added to your damage. On a result of 10+ you succeed, at 7-9 you succeed, but with consequences, and at 6 or less, something bad happens. When in a battle, that something bad is frequently being hit by the other side. The GM never rolls dice. If you fail to hit an enemy, he hits you. You then roll the damage and apply it to yourself. This is quite a revolutionary concept, but it does produce entertaining combats that are a far cry from the slugfests of Pathfinder.

For example, we had a fight with goblins (who I think were intended to chase us into a magic portal), which saw a paladin wrestling on the floor with one goblin, my barbarian tripping over them, and then being swarmed by four others (using his war cry move to distract them from the paladin), while the druid ended up knocking over the goblin shaman, causing his spell to go awry, but taking most of its damage to his face. All good clean fun.

Weapons have distinguishing characteristics, like 'messy' (my battle axe), which was able to dish out gratuitous damage to the goblins, but later in the game was used to partly block a spell cast against the party's bard by a lich we were hunting. Battles seem to go very smoothly in Dungeon World. There is very little nitty gritty involving attacks of opportunity, movement rates, flanking, etc. Plus, the characters also have moves obviously designed to reflect their lives and activities outside combat, which is always a selling point for me.

The templates for characters are not rigid - the options provide players with the opportunity to customise characters, while it still feels like the sort of persona you would expect for a barbarian or a ranger, for example. XP is earned by failing tasks, rather than succeeding in them, and 'levelling up' is also very simple - just add a new move from your menu once you reach 8 XP.

Like Gumshoe or Trail of Cthulhu, Dungeon World is one of those games which you really need to see played before the light comes on. It took me ages to get my head around Gumshoe, but once I did, I began to realise I would probably never go back to running Call of Cthulhu. I suspect Dungeon World may be another example of this. Part of its strength is its accessibility to newcomers to role playing, the way it can get people up and running very quickly with very little rules explanation. This is why it is winning so many recruits among younger gamers - there are no massive tomes to leaf through. Older gamers may be used to hefty rules tomes as the barrier to entry, but not necessarily younger newcomers. Around our table, there were three of us over 40, and the rest I would say were in their twenties, including the GM.

Dungeon World does not feel like a war game or a miniatures game. It is a role playing game, adopting many of the fun aspects of Dungeons and Dragons, but not getting bogged down in the number crunching. It is drawing new blood into the hobby, and this can only be a good thing. Give it a go if you get the chance.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Iron Heroes meets Conan?

I've recently taken to reading the Iron Heroes rules again. I played in a short campaign using these many years ago (2006 IIRC). Anyway, it was before 4e Dungeons and Dragons came out, namely 2008. Reading through it again, it strikes you quickly how so many of the novel concepts in Iron Heroes have since been picked up by not only 4e, but also 5e and 13th Age. As a system, it does not seem as revolutionary as it once was.

However, what I still like about it is the fact that a party of adventurers is not composed of any spell casters, there are NO clerics, no healing potions and you can graft a magic system onto it from another d20 / OGL gaming system.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have been on a quest for a good system of rules for typical swords and sorcery gaming. I am currently looking again at Barbarians of Lemuria, which is a very nice game. But I'd also like to make use of the extensive library of Conan RPG books I acquired from Mongoose Publishing, back when they had the license. The valuable aspect of the Mongoose Conan line is that they were written for d20 / OGL.

You can see where I'm going with this, can't you? It looks to me like it should be relatively simply to run Iron Heroes in Hyboria. Most of the NPC stats and equipment in the Conan books seem like they can be migrated readily into Iron Heroes, as can the magic system. Since such a scheme would involve PCs only playing non-spell casters, the Conan d20 Scholar and Priest classes can still be employed in an NPC role. In addition, the lack of PC spell casters means that you don't experience the power creep towards arcane and divine spell casters that tends to kick in with Pathfinder about 10th level.

I need to ruminate some more on this and possibly look at converting a Conan adventure to Iron Heroes, but given the similarity of Iron Heroes to other d20 games, this doesn't look like it will involve an enormous amount of work. More on this if I get the time to develop it further.