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FATE

Mecha vs. Kaiju – Review

Mecha vs. Kaiju at DrivethruRPG

Mecha vs. Kaiju at DrivethruRPG

FATE Core System at DrivethruRPG.com

FATE Core System at DrivethruRPG.com

Mecha vs. Kaiju has a fairly simple idea at its core – the player characters are pilots of giant robots (mecha) against gigantic Kaiju (Strange Beasts) – giant monsters (think Godzilla, Rodan, etc.). These mecha defend the islands of Japan against these Kaiju. The RPG uses the core FATE system as its rulebase. I understand there was a previously published True20 version of Mecha vs. Kaiju, but for review purposes I’ll focus on the FATE one though. You’ll need either the FATE core book, or FATE Accelerated Edition (FAE) to play the game.

The author is definitely a huge fan of Japanese anime, and this shows through in the writing. The style is clear and concise and the whole concept has been polished. The first version came out in 2008, way before the Pacific Rim movie or the Evangelion reboot. I watched Pacific Rim before running this and it’s definitely worth doing to get “fired up” creatively for this, or Robotech or Evangelion! He’s obviously done his research and his love of the subject matter is evident throughout the Mecha vs. Kaiju rulebook. Although I’m not a huge fan of the older Godzilla movies, I did feel the enthusiasm he has start to rub off on me as I read through the book.

So what do you get? The Mecha vs Kaiju book is pretty extensive (just short of 180 pages), so I’ll break it down into chapters, and summarise my thoughts at the end.

Chapter 1: Introduction

Not much to see here, but an interesting list of films for inspiration!

Chapter 2: Character Creation

This has a number of anime archetypes such as Dasaiko (“creepy girl/boy”) and Raiburu (“rebel/rival”). There’s enough here for you to come up with a basic character at least. However as one of my players pointed out no one really cares about the dice in your biology skill when your piloting a 100-ton mecha. The human aspect tends to boil down to how good a pilot you are or how accurate. As Mecha vs. Kaiju uses FATE, an example of character creation would have been great to have.

As an aside, FATE is very difficult to pick up if you’ve never played it before – or GM’d it in my case. The concepts of aspects, compels, stunts etc., is hugely overwhelming if you’ve never played FATE. Mecha vs. Kaiju could definitely have done with a bit more “hand-holding” in that chapter! Maybe an obligatory “what are roleplaying games?” chapter would be useful.

A number of new skills and stunts are introduced – one is “Mecha weaponry” which covers melee and ranged combat whilst piloting a mecha. I would have preferred two distinct skills for that.

Chapter 3: Mecha Assault Force

Largely a history and what I would call a “fluff” section, it’s designed to give players a bit of background of the Mecha Assault Force’s history. It’s rather good.

Chapter 4: Mecha-related Rules

Mecha vs. Kaiju allows you to design your own mecha, using the FATE rules. There’s a lot of flexibility here and there’s some great ideas. Some of the stunts are right out of Saturday morning cartoons and anime! A very well written and well thought-out chapter. The only criticism I have is that there’s only two mecha listed – again it’d be nice to see some more “off the peg” mecha than the two listed.

Chapter 5: Gamemaster’s Section

Like Chapter 4: Mecha Assault Force above, this section deals with some sample kaiju, and their design using FATE. There’s a lot of ideas here and again you can see the author/designer’s love of the genre. The descriptions of the kaiju are largely a dialogue between a group of NPCs which really make for great reading!

Chapter 6: Secret History of Japan

Under no circumstances should players read this section. This is what is really going on in Japan and around the world. I’ll not go into it here, but there’s some seriously good plotlines here.

Chapter 7: Campaign Scenarios

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Sadly, this section has a lot of really annoying errors or inconsistencies. Not to mention plot holes. Some are basic spelling errors. For example, there’s a “Battle at the docs”. It’s not always clear on the sections you need to read to the players, either. I’m not sure I understood those scene aspects – how are they used? Some clarification required.

There’s also some pretty big assumptions made – for example at the gravel pit, and the ninja pitch up. The players are unarmed. Against ninjas. That’s not going to go well.

They only have a few hours training before the roc-u kaiju turns up? What about the montage? Even with the milestone in training there’s a good chance they haven’t enough mecha-related skills so the whole battle with the Roc-u can prove frustrating.

Summary: Mecha vs. Kaiju

Mecha vs. Kaiju has some great ideas. The design of the Mecha and Kaiju are solid. The meta-plotline is very creative.

My only major criticism is, like Cthulhutech, you essentially have multiple games. One is a mecha-based slug-fest against the Kaiju, the other facet a secret war being fought by normal humans in the shadows. It’s all too easy to focus on one facet while marginalizing the other during a game – and frustrating for players too.

The production values are fine – the artwork, very evocative. Some images look stretched (e.g. page 59) though, and the spelling/formatting errors are jarring. The Kaiju on the cover should be stat’d up!

I’d have liked to have seen more suggestions for the GM to encourage new players to create aspects, engage players, etc. It takes the fact that you’re already RPG players as read. That aside, FATE is a tricky concept if you’re used to D&D 4e!

In conclusion: this is a great game if you’ve an established group that’s already familiar with FATE. There’s some great ideas. If you’re not, it might feel like you’re all ice-skating uphill – but that’s not Mecha vs. Kaiju’s fault, that’s FATE!

The Heart Of Chaos (WFRP adventure)

WFRP 1e logo
The Heart of Chaos was a straightforward WFRP game I ran earlier in the year. The concept of the Chaos Heart, and their Minotaur Champion, was originally published in Realm of Chaos: The Lost and the Damned. Minotaurs in WFRP are pretty tough with a few changes, and the Players were unsurprisingly cautious as  result (especially as many of them had also played Legacy of Praag!). A Minotaur Chaos Champion is also a force to be reckoned with. The Heart of Chaos was originally supposed to be a single session adventure, but it quickly grew into a couple of sessions (in the same way Legacy of Praag did). It became a journey into a sort of  “Heart of Darkness”. I’d use it with a group of PCs well into their second careers with someone used to living in the wild (Ranger class).

The Chaos Heart is essentially a chunk of warpstone acting as a conduit to a Chaos god, in the same way as an idol within a temple. Minotaurs are the appointed guardians of these holy items and jealously protect them from harm or theft (one becomes a Champion as a result). It did start off as a simple “Kill the Monster, steal its treasure”, but took on a life of its own. In my game Hieronymus Blitzen (Shadows over Bogenhafen/Death on the Reik) sent the PCs to fetch Minotaur horns he would use in a magic item’s construction.

Setting for the Heart of Chaos

A day’s journey from Delberz lies Whiterock valley (approximately 15 miles from Delberz), a particularly nasty marshy area that ends at Corpsecandle Tarn. Home to One-Eye, the Minotaur Champion and his warband, there are two places of note in Heart of Chaos: Corpsecandle Tarn, and the Chaos Champion’s Tomb.

Corpsecandle Tarn

The hand of the Chaos God Nurgle lies heavily on the tarn where a hidden cave conceals the Chaos Heart. Pestigors (Beastmen dedicated to Nurgle) are left to rot in the Tarn when they die, their dissolution and corruption an offering to Grandfather Nurgle, near a holy of holies as such.

The Tarn’s water is slimy and weed-choked and noxious mists rise from the waters. A unhealthy lambent glow comes from the depths where the bodies of the Beastmen float. The results of drinking the water are probably best left to how evil a GM is feeling: for instance, wounds become infected wounds, the belly flux, even Nurgle’s Rot is an option if you’re that way inclined (see the main WFRP rulebook). You’d have to be a very stupid PC to drink the water, but there’s always one.

What the players don’t know is that the lake is actually capable of raising the dead of the lake as zombies to defend the shrine. They didn’t find that out until later (more on this shortly). The Tarn is surrounded by diseased-looking vegetation, it’s cold and damp, and the sun is merely a watery blur in the sky. It’s pretty dreary.  Arriving at night, there’s a phosphorescence over the lake; during the day it is eerily quiet. Two paths lead to the Tarn: one the PCs have followed, the other leads deeper into the woods, towards the tomb of a Champion of Nurgle.

The Tomb

Eventually this other path emerges into a clearing, where the sunken ruin of a tomb festers. Dwarves recognise the stonework as being that of the “Dark Brothers” (Chaos Dwarves) on a successful Int test. I didn’t get a chance to go any further with this, due to time constraints, but it is the resting place of a Champion of Chaos, interred within a stone crypt – a carving on the crypt’s lid shows Nurgle’s symbol (PCs with Religion get an Int test to know this) and bas-relief of the Champion’s face, resembling a giant fly.

Enterprising or old-school GMs could probably use the Tomb to create a dungeon bash of sorts, and make it a bit more challenging. If you want you can throw in some undead, followers who are “faithful” beyond the grave. As it’s a Nurgle-esque dungeon, feel free to inflict infected wounds on PCs when they impale themselves on spikes in pit traps, rusty blades that spring out at groin level etc. After all, Nurgle loves a show – and don’t make it too easy for them.

Opening the crypt means the the PCs find the corpse holding a weapon of some sort, and greedy PCs will likely want to take it. GMs have a few options here. One: it’s a magic weapon, that the PCs can use (make them earn it though – traps or undead etc.). Rare enough in WFRP! Two: it’s a chaos weapon. And is obviously so. PCs wielding it may also attract attention from both Chaos minions and Witch-hunters. Three: it’s a Daemon weapon (for the really evil GM). The PCs are in serious trouble, as one of them will have willingly picked it up. In all likelihood the blade’s bound daemon will try and turn the bearer to Chaos, or force the bearer to attack his companions. Options two and three are campaign seeds in themselves – the PCs are cursed with it, may turn on each other, and have to find a way to dispose of it without falling to Chaos.

Below is a map of Corpsecandle Tarn as used in Heart of Chaos.

Corpsecandle TarnEncounters

It was very much the encounters that made this game so much fun. The journey through Whiterock Valley was definitely unpleasant. Two of the PCs fell into a rattlesnake pit (a la True Grit), and had to climb out while the rattlers began to stir. Giant leeches nastily wounded the Halfling when he ripped the critters from himself. Will o’Wisps nearly claimed the Elf one night, as she walked into the same quicksand that the party had only just managed to negotiate earlier that day. Giant Rats are used as “hunting dogs” by One-Eye’s warband, and all wear collars with Nurgle’s fly rune. You could also have the group attacked by a bog octopus or amphisbaena as they slog through the deeper parts of the marsh (all these monsters are in the WFRP rulebook). Basically, you turn a simple walk into an exhausting slog as a GM – by the time they reach Corpsecandle tarn, the PCs are filthy, tired, and sore.

Moon Calf

At one point, the group see One-Eye Kazgul, the Minotaur Champion, in the distance bellowing to the moon – he’s too far away, but he’s patrolling the edges of his territory. There’s also signs that he’s not alone: his warband is with him (which includes two normal Minotaurs). They’re hunting Ulfhednar’s group. This is designed to make the PCs nervous, and a bit more circumspect rather than rushing in.

“Ze Skaven”

I also had a raiding party of Skaven (Chaos Ratmen) in the area, drawn to the warpstone. The PCs will likely find their tracks, and in my game the Skaven set an ambush when they realised they were being followed. The PCs recognised the trap for what it was, and as a result avoided combat with the Skaven entirely, although it could turn out differently in your game. If your PCs have breezed through the game so far, then this is your chance to give them a few knocks before they get to the “Picnic”  encounter (see below). This was my way of foreshadowing events in Death on the Reik.

The Picnic

When the group arrive at Corpsecandle Tarn, they’re offered some “help” in the form of Ulfhednar, Chaos Champion of Tzeentch. He’s been watching the group since they entered the valley. He’s there to steal the Heart of Chaos from the shrine, but his divinations have shown that he needs the PCs help in some form. Ulfhednar approaches the group openly and in a civil fashion to parley. The PCs are acutely aware that they are surrounded by a band of homicidally-inclined Beastmen. Krakatz, Ulfhendar’s Bovigor Lieutenant is less than pleased at not being able to torture and eventually kill the PCs. Instead, Ulfhednar offers the group food and wine and makes polite conversation, while his followers lurk nearby. It was one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever seen: a hulking chaos champion sitting at a picnic, discussing the weather.

He also made some comments regarding the Red Crown (a Chaos Cult in the Enemy Within), Etelka Herzen( if anyone asks about her) is “that bitch” (see Death on the Reik). He offers to pay the PCs for their help, but makes veiled threats as to what could happen if the PCs refuse to work with him; the large party of Beastmen (enough to provide a serious challenge to the PCs, maybe three each) being a more overt one.

Ulfhednar’s plan is for the PCs to attack One Eye, while his warband engage their Nurgle-worshipping counterparts. The PCs may or may not accept this. If they refuse Ulfhednar will sigh, and then pack away – despite protestations from Krakatz he lets the PCs live, and they fade into the woods. The PCs will have to face One Eye’s warband alone. If they accept his offer, he tells them to attack the shrine (a cave at the side of the lake), and when One-Eye’s warband appears, Ulfhendar’s forces will engage them.

Get ‘im!

Whether or not the PCs have accepted Ulfhednar’s offer, they’re going to be facing an angry Minotaur and his minions. There’s a good chance that your players will come up with a lot of ideas before putting their plan into action. If Ulfhendar is part of their plans, he can point out obvious flaws – as far as he is concerned though, the PCs are the bait. It is up to them to draw One-Eye out. If they ask him to attack One-Eye on their behalf, Ulfhendar will say he’s not allowed – he has been forbidden from melee combat with One-Eye by Tzeentch. This amuses him greatly as a result. If they’re on their own, then they’re going to have to deal with One-Eye and his two Minotaur bodyguards PLUS a beastman retinue. At this point hit-and-run tactic may be their best option – if they decide to spend days wearing them down though, remind the players that their PCs food and water are limited (unless they fancy drinking the local water).

Either way it works, One-Eye will spot the PCs as they make their way alongside the lake. Bellowing in anger, he and his Pestigor retinue will charge towards the PCs (use the Beastman and Minotaur stats from the rulebook – One Eye’s stats are below). If the PCs run away, remember that One-Eye knows the locale; while the PCs don’t. Uflhednar waits till the last moment before thundering into melee – the Minotaurs will have outdistanced their smaller brethren when this happens. No quarter is asked or given – this battle is one of total annihilation between two enemies. If you really want to  mix it up, the Skaven turn up halfway through and try to steal the Chaos Heart while everyone else battles (see below).

Payback

If the PCs are on their own, you may be wondering what they’ll do with the Chaos Heart. That’s when the PCs discover that it has gone missing – the Skaven have stolen it already. If they chose to work with Ulfhednar, he’ll seize the Heart and fire the shrine within with Pink Fire of Tzeentch, after his forces withdraw to a safe distance (and with good reason). He’ll emerge whistling cheerfully, then screw the PCs over big time – he’ll chuck the bag of money for the PCs  into the lake. Almost immediately the water seems to froth and bubble as the beastmen corpses rise to avenge the desecration of their shrine. We’re talking zombie horde here (use the Zombie stats from the WFRP rulebook). Wise PCs will get moving – Ulfhednar and his band are already nowhere to be seen.

The PCs are tired and wounded in all likelihood, and there’s a lot of zombies. They don’t need to sleep or rest and will follow the group unerringly – if you’re feeling unkind, throw in natural hazards like quicksand or bogs, or other things to test the PCs endurance. The horde will follow the PCs to the edge of Whiterock valley, but won’t enter the Tomb (see above). However, the Zombies can still surround it… or their presence wakes a powerful undead spirit within 🙂

NPCs for the Heart of Chaos

One-Eye Kazgul

One-Eye is pretty much typical of any Minotaur. Prone to outbursts of violence, he’s not the brightest of Nurgle’s champions. He is fanatically protective of the shrine at Corpsecandle Tarn, and will stop at nothing to avenge its desecration should he survive. Despite his lack of intellectual gifts, he is cunning enough to let his Minotaur bodyguards weaken opponents before he steps to finish them, or to target obvious magic users. His name comes for  a singular (ha!) “blessing” from Nurgle: both his eyes have fused into one, similar to a Plaguebearer (BS x 1/2). A cloud of flies surrounds him permanently making it hard to see (-10 to hit), and his toughened hide is matted, covered in sores, and cracked. This gives him +1AP to all locations. He carries a wicked-looking axe, stained and rusty (I -10, D+2, 30% of Infected wounds). He has no skills to speak of.

M 6

WS 41

BS 12

S 4

T 6

W 17

I 20

A 2

Ld 66

Int 18

Cl 29

WP 24

Fel 10

Ulfhednar & Krakatz

Ulfhendar & Krakatz’s stats will appear at a later date, but you can always use the Chaos Warrior and Beastman stats from the WFRP rulebook if they are needed.

Summary

The Heart of Chaos is a seriously challenging adventure if it is done correctly (although GMs may run it very differently from me) and you have some time to spend plotting it out further. The journey through the Valley is  a tough slog for the PCs, especially if you have an imaginative GM. It is quite possible that PCs could lose Fate Points in the adventure, particularly if they refuse to deal with Ulfhednar and have to face One-Eye’s forces on their own! Like Legacy of Praag, your PCs may need some downtime to rest as a result.

Ulfhednar appears in Death on the Reik, but I’ve “reimagined” him for Heart of Chaos. He makes a fine NPC.

There’s not a huge amount of treasure in the Heart of Chaos (with the exception of the Tomb), but done correctly the players won’t mind – they’ll be happy their PCs have survived. XP-wise, I’d give:

  • 100-200xp per PC for the adventure (award more if you expand the Tomb into a dungeon bash)
  • 30-50XP when dealing with Ulfhednar
  • 30-50XP for their planning, dealing with the challenges in Whiterock Valley, etc.

That’s a fair amount, but feel free to award more if appropriate.

The Void RPG – Review

The Void RPG

The Void RPG is the latest offering from Wildfire, the makers of Cthulhutech. It’s a hard sci-fi setting, billed as part of the “Cthulhu Saga”. What follows is a review of sorts, although I should warn the reader that I do love Cthulhutech, so it may be slightly biased in favour of The Void RPG. Previously billed as “Cthonian Stars“, the book has been released as “Pay what you want” to want on DriveThruRPG. There’s quite a lot to The Void RPG, but the Core PDF gives the impression that its not quite finished yet. All the rules are there, but there’s often the sensation of something missing.

The System

The basic core test of The Void RPG is a familiar one; work out Attribute + Skill; roll that number of six-sided dice (a dice pool). A 5 or a 6 is necessary for a Success, and you need a number of successes to achieve one of four difficulties: Easy is 1 success, Hard requires 4. Epic fails occur in tests when you roll all ones. In all likelihood things will go very badly wrong – like botches of fumbles in other games.The GM can assign modifiers to the dice pool. In play, this worked very easily – it’s intuitive, easy to pick up, and works for everything, combat included. A welcome improvement onCthulhutech‘s poker system.

There are a vast number of skills, as there were with Cthulhutech, but this the dice pool system also allows for related skills. For example, if you don’t have the Guns: Handgun skill, but have Guns: Rifle skill of 4, you have a related skill (with one die less). This means you have one die less in the pool, but it gives a much better chance of success, and makes PCs a bit more well-rounded. The sheer number of skills is a little off-putting, but each Warden type has some skills recommended to them.

Character creation takes around 30 minutes. Starting PCs in The Void RPG have the option of being one of the three Warden types: An Enforcer (soldier), Investigator (detective), and Researcher (tech/library). Each of these give you a  number of skills that you can add points to, and give each PC their own distinct skill set. Interestingly too, the planet you come from also gives some extra skills, e.g. being able to move in low G, or being able to use EVA. You can also create your own PC from scratch.

All Player Characters (PCs) in The Void RPG have a number of additional components as such:

  • Fate Points, as they are called, allow characters to cheat death in the same way as they do in WFRP. For example If a PC is about to fall off a giant cliff on Mars, perhaps he falls fifteen feet and grabs a handhold or falls to a ledge below. The PC is still alive, but now only faces the difficult task of climbing back up.
  • Quirks are something I’m ambivalent about. Each PC has two of these, such as  Juggling or Recite Movie Quotes. While this may give a bit of depth to a PC, some groups or players may think that they are too jokey and not in keeping with a Survival Horror game.
  • Talents are special abilities, just like in Cthulhutech. They’re special abilities like “Wicked Smart” or “Double Tap”, much like feats in d20 games.
  • Qualities are various advantages and disadvantages, like Eidetic Memory or Persistent Injury. In the case of Disadvantages, extra points are available during character creation depending upon the scale of disadvantage. If Cthulhutech was anything to go by, Players often forget any Disadvantages during the game 🙂

The are also some extra rules for the group as well.

  • Nixes allow a group a veto on a specific roll. They can cancel a die roll one of the the group has rolled, but not the GM’s roll.
  • Tension Points are very similar to the Drama Points as used in Cthulhutech. They are assigned to the GM and to the group, not an individual. They can be spent by both GM and players. Players can use theirs to re-roll a single roll. A GM can use these to deny players finding a needed item or resource, force a player to re-roll, or give an NPC a Fate Point (see below). This probably works, but I didn’t use it in the game.

Combat

Combat in the Void RPG involves a contest; the successes compared to see if they hit or not. As things work, with individual initiatives (Awareness + Reaction), combat is relatively straightforward, even with firearms, and new player will pick it up quickly. Each weapon does a certain amount of damage in D6s, Armour reduces damage, then this is applied to your Health score. And it is here that I find a minor niggle that irritated me in Cthulhutech and has persisted in The Void RPG. Everything has a number of Wound Levels, five in total: Healthy, Bruised, Battered, Hurt, and Incapacitated. However you have to do some mental calculation when applying damage as a result e.g. most Humans have around Health 10. At up to 10 points they are Bruised, at 10 they are Battered, 20 they are Hurt, 30 Unconscious, and 40 Dead!  One rule I really like is Armour becomes half as effective once the Hurt level is reached. It still protects you but is nowhere near as effective.

The Book

I ordered the book as a print On Demand (POD) from DriveThruRPG (who use Lightningsource). Unlike Cthulhutech, which was a hardback  in a larger size, The Void RPG is a smaller paperback. It’s pretty robust and well presented, and the paper is good quality. If there are more pages being added to it I’d prefer a larger format hardback though, as the corners of the paperback are already a little worn – that’s not Wildfire’s fault though.

The internal content is well laid out in two columns with useful side bars that give you an “At a glance” summary. Like Cthulhutech the artwork is gorgeous, and is very high quality colour throughout. Both index and  table of contents make things easy to find. However not all of the pages are numbered and it’s not always easy to find the information in one place. I still can’t find the section on Personality Traits anywhere. The obligatory character sheet is at the back and available for download – everything fits on one side. I’ll likely make my own fillable version of the PDF. While I don’t mind the fiction fluff in the book itself, there’s a lot of it, and sometimes seems like filler text.

The Void RPG setting

There’s a lot to the setting, and it’s here there are gaps. There’s hardly any monsters, aside from the ones in the initial adventure (although they are available separately as a PDF download). What language does everyone speak since there are only three real power blocs left on Earth? How are the Wardens organised? I would have liked to see a map of the solar system together with the moons of each planet clearly listed. A floorplan of a space station or colony would have been good for the adventure (see below). The setting  feels unfinished as it were. I understand that Wildfire will add to the setting as their fans want, so that’s no bad thing.

Despite these gaps its a very rich setting, especially in regards to its Survival Horror aspect – the nearest help is days or even months away in many cases, and the setting is very evocative of films such as Event Horizon, Outland, Alien, and Pandorum. Everything is held together by spit and baling wire and everybody is slightly on edge. Good GMs will quickly find it easy to creep out players, even without the monsters.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the impression I get is that Wildfire would prefer to place more information in the book at a later date. There’s enough detail to get the game going but its not too heavy. Cthulhutech suffers that in spades, and it puts a lot of people off playing or running it.

The Introductory Adventure

I ran the introductory adventure with a group of new players. As well as the Void RPG rulebook, I downloaded the Void RPG Quick start rules, which are free and includes the adventure “To serve and survive”. Its very much a learning curve adventure for four players. I made it into six players as I wanted to create two new PCs for the purposes of this review.

If your players haven’t got the rulebook, it may be worth spending some time explaining some of their Qualities and Talents if they’re using the pre-generated characters. Players picked up the contest system easily and its pretty intuitive at that point. The biggest failing I made was not knowing where Chiron actually is (it isn’t stated) – it is a body orbiting Saturn. The adventure works well for introducing the players to the setting but there’s a few holes in the plot, and some GMs may lack the experience to deal with some of the complications resulting from the actions of the PCs. Many parts of the adventure will remind PCs of the movies, probably intentionally.

A map of the Mariner Valley Colony would have been great, along with floor-plans of both Chiron Station and Pandora’s Hope. All of these were missed, plus its never clearly stated how many infected are on board.

SPOILER ALERT!

However, given the creatures the group face in the adventure it is quite possible that the PCs may end up dead, even with Fate Point use. The Pandora’s Hope incident isn’t clearly explained as to how the crew of the Pandora’s Hope became infected from a drug destined for use by the miners of Chiron. The infected crewman are also very tough – 0ne infected crewman lasted several rounds of flame-throwers and shotgun blasts. That’s before the Karrak’in are found. So there’s a good chance your PCs will be running low on ammo and fuel, after a couple of run-ins with infected crewmen.

As a GM, you’ll need to tailor the adventure to your players – conceptually, it works in introducing the players to The Void RPG universe, the tests, horror, etc. but there are flaws. I would run it again but with the following changes:

  • More things happening in Mariner Valley, to give it a bit more colour (think Total Recall), possibly expanding Chloe or the Martian Outback.
  • Make sure the crew complements for each adventure site are noted down.
  • A bit more background on the Pandora’s Hope crew could be useful.
  • Figure out who owns the Pandora’s Hope, the Company (like Alien)?
  • Encourage the players to gear up their PCs before they go – ammo will be hard to come by.
  • You only need a handful of infected crewmen – the PCs will get swarmed under otherwise.
  • The radiation leak is getting stronger (nothing like a countdown to get your players moving!)

Summary

Overall, the The Void RPG system is really intuitive and easy to use, compared to others. The Tension Points and other rules may cause some issues for GMs, but such things are optional anyway. The design quality is clear and consistent, the content is of good quality and its a nice little game. It could do with less fiction and maybe more background info – as I’ve said elsewhere – and its a shame there are no maps of floorplans included. However, these are minor criticisms at best. The “Pay what you want to pay” for a book of this quality is pretty good value. If there’s more of The Void RPG still to come from Wildfire, I’ll be very happy.

The Void RPG is available from DriveThruRPG.com and RPGnow.com as PDF or a Print On Demand (POD).

Review © Bill Heron 2013

The Pragmatic GM approach (being a GM is hard work)

Being a GM is hard work. There’s no bones about it. Sitting down and planning an RPG campaign is a huge undertaking these days, even if it is only for a few sessions. A lot of players simply think that a GM spends his time thinking up new ways to kill their PCs. Let’s be honest, there’s a tendency for the GM to be portrayed by some media as power-mad evil geniuses – and some are – but there’s no Evil GM school! You also need to be fairly tolerant of materialistic psychopaths (and their PCs).  Also GMs don’t kill characters, players kill characters, usually through their own actions (or lack thereof).

Being a GM is immensely rewarding but you may not get out what you put in. By far the biggest issue most GMs have is time, and I’m no different. When I was younger I used to meticulously plan my AD&D campaign areas: each location had their own encounter tables, local flora, monsters, a travelogue, and the maps were created in intricate detail, encounters would be richly detailed and described. Nowadays I just can’t afford that level of detail – over the next fortnight I’m running WFRP, AD&D, and Pathfinder. I’m also playing in a Pathfinder game. Yes, that is a lot and maybe I am over-committed, but on the other hand that’s with a number of different groups at ORC Edinburgh.

There is also a sense of frustration among GMs when they plan games and players don’t turn up or cancel. I’m no different, but I’ve found a way around problems like that. It may require a bit of work on your part as GM, and possibly on the part of your players, but you’d be surprised at how it can make things run smoother. I call it the Pragmatic GM Approach.

The Pragmatic GM Approach

It could easily be called “the GM with no time”, but “Lazy GM” also covers it pretty well. The concept is pretty basic but requires minimal planning and allows you to be a bit more flexible. I’ve mentioned some of these ideas previously in various posts on running RPGs, but I’ll cover some of them here again. Apologies if it seems I’m repeating myself!

Don’t plan everything. Seriously, don’t. Running a dungeon bash is easier than running a free-form game like FATE, but the players will still find ways to surprise you. Sometimes winging it is fun, but you should try and keep a basic framework in your head or notes – even if it is the various plot points. Micro-managing your games will also lose you players if you start rail-roading them.

Keep an ideas book. It can be anything ideas for an adventure, an encounter, NPCs, maps, or anything. A5 or A6 notebooks can fit in your pocket, great for scribbling in when the urge takes you. They’re relatively inexpensive too.

Write for the group, not for players. Consider your players and give everyone their moment to shine – even games with lots of battles should give the wizard (“I recognise this script/spell”) or rogue (“Get the damn door open!”) a chance to shine. Take your cues from them, but don’t ignore the quieter players.

Tailor encounters to the group. Random bandit attacks aren’t much fun, but they can provide some useful combat encounters particularly if there’s a bounty/ransom involved. A common theme such as a motif or NPC leader can also help provide some consistency. Perhaps a particular kind of monster is drawn to the PCs – their loot/magic items/weapons/blood/souls are of particular value. Then there’s always revenge for wiping about that goblin tribe for instance. Don’t be afraid to create and encounter that could see the NPCs wiped out if they don’t run: the whole CR thing is overrated. You can have a lot of fun where the PCs are essentially keeping a low profile or running away!

Standby filler sessions are great when players can’t make it for a single session. You can slot in a bit of a character-driven side quest that may or may not advance the campaign, or even play to the remaining group strengths – e.g a lot of fighting or special skills – like planning a heist or conducting an investigation. Some classes require a number of trials for PCs to advance so these can also work well. If you can try and have these on standby, just in case.

Finish game sessions on a cliffhanger. It means you have a snapshot of the party that you can then plan for. You can do a lot with this – downgrading or upgrading opponents, upping the numbers of their opponents, extending the plot, and planning for new PCs. Not only that, it encourages players to turn up to find out what happens next and gives a GM a chance to clear their head.

Get your Players to write up sessions, not you – if you’re using forums or other online media this is pretty easy. It also means that any absent players can get a quick summary without the GM having to explain what happened. This does sound lazy but the chances you’ve already put a lot of work in, and likely haven’t got time to do that as well. If a player writes it up as their character even better. Encourage Players to do it with XPs if necessary.

Let PVP (Player Vs. Player) happen. Seriously. NO, IT DISRUPTS THE GAME! I hear you shout in anger. Unfortunately if both players are keen on the idea you’re better off dealing with it, and going with the flow. If it kicks off let the PC wait their turn.Find out how the group are acting before the dice hits the table. Don’ t let it slow down the flow of the game and let the Players role-play it (not based on some arbitrary die roll) – but not at the expense of the rest of the group.

Extra books and mniatures are great but can be a faff to carry around. Either get your players to bring their own or try sticking some images onto counters or coins. Only consider 3D dungeon terrain and flip mats (and extra books) if you have room, and if you also have transport! If players want to use the rules from a particular book have them bring it with them.

Play Aids for the Pragmatic GM

Borrow images or maps, they can help cut out  a lot of planning time .I’ve often found floor plans from estate agency sales pamphlets to be useful for contemporary games for instance, and a nautical chart revealed the existence of the now-infamous Devil’s Hole in my Cthulhutech games. The internet has a wealth of images or maps that you can use – it’s often a good idea to print them out to use as handouts.

GMs screens are useful, if expensive, and there’s often a bit of blurb that you can paste extra information onto. Or you can make your own out of a ring-binder with clear plastic inserts. Most PDFs allow you to copy and paste from them so you can use these to copy any charts or reference tables. Use with care though.

If you have a digital version of a map, “white-out” portions of the map using an image editor like GIMP creating a “fog of war” effect. You can print it out and don’t have to spend  time drawing out the map of where the PCs have been. Or upload it to the net, like the ORC Wiki uses..

Create a basic local knowledge guide and map for your game area – perhaps detailing places and local rumour. They don’t have to be true though, and maps are always nice to have as play aids. Years back I created a travelogue for my AD&D game which talked in paragraph or two about each area, its distinctive politics or terrain and any local rumour (I believe the old Volo’s Guides were similar for AD&D). It also helps head off some obvious questions you may get.

If you can, record PC stats in a note book – things like thief skills or Perception scores, sixth sense abilities, etc. This way you can make rolls against stats without the players knowing something is up and helps add to the tension and drama if they don’t know there’s a test involved… or if they’ve failed to notice the bad guys sneaking up, the tripwire or landmine, etc.

Stand up sheets like the one I created for ORC here are my own innovation so that Players and GMs have a handy reference tool. GMs can see relevant stats, players can identify each other, and there’s no “what’s-yer-name- again?” – well, there wouldn’t be if I used them more!

Hopefully the Pragmatic GM approach is of use to you – feel free to comment with any other suggestions!

Magic and Technology in RPGs

Magic and technology in RPGs are usually unhappy companions. Allowing players to get their hands on technology can often unbalance the game. Occasionally, technology is little more than a kind of MacGuffin and plot device, like in the D&D adventure, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or the Legends of Skyfall gamebook, The Black Pyramid. Fiction like the Shadows of the Apt series merge the concept of magic and technology well in a steampunk fashion, but the concept of magic is largely ritualised. The Dresden Files series has wizards unable to use complex electronics or technologies: light-bulbs explode, computers fizzle, and mobile phone reception dies. In Shadowrun, cybernetics interfere with the body’s aura, reducing magical ability.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Arthur C Clarke

However, what happens when magic is the technology? Babylon 5‘s Technomages use science to give the appearance of magic, through cybernetic implants created by the Shadows, but that’s not the same thing. Don’t get me started on genetics, and the midichlorians, in the Jedi of the Star Wars prequels. I’m talking about when magic sees everyday use.

Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom will feature characters of varying levels of magical ability. Even those without any magical skills will be accustomed to seeing its use in daily life. As I’ve mentioned before its likely that I’ll use the FATE system (Fantastic Adventures in  Tabletop Entertainment). I’m relieved to hear that in the new version of FATE (which raised funds at a near-astronomical rate on Kickstarter) will feature a new magic system as an extra – it is a bit confusing in the Dresden Files RPG as it currently stands.

Back to the original focus of this blog, and that’s the use of magic as an everyday technology. I’ve broken it down into concepts as to what magic might be used for.

Magic as a tool. A magic-culture is likely to use magic everyday. Water Elementals keep the streets and sewers clean, stone-shaping spells are used to work minerals and strengthen walls. Spirits or demons are bound into compacts or agreements that bind them to a family line for protection or favours. Magical constructs and items are commonly used by artisans or craftsmen.

Magic as a plot device. More for GMs, lost magical devices or knowledge can provide a significant hook for PCs. It certainly appears to be magic anyway – a lost device, cursed item, sword that will save the realm etc.

Magic is outlawed – those who practise magic are persecuted and even actively hunted by society. This may the “wrong” kind of magic, a misguided view of magical purity, or there are very real dangers in casting spells or using powers (like warp entities in WH40K!).

Magic as science – there’s very little difference between a golem and a robot (or Terminator!). Streets are lit by continual light spells. Magical fire is used to forge metals into far stronger alloys, burning far hotter than forge’s fire. Research carries on into making magical spells more effective and theory becomes reality. universities teach magic as part of their syllabus.

Magic for defence – do not mess in the affairs of wizards, particularly when they are organised. A high-level wizard is a nightmare on the battlefield, able to deal with a force many times larger than himself. If your entire nation of wizards and magic users are given military training then it is unlikely weaker nations will pick a fight (no one wants to wake the dragon!).

Magic for decoration – illusionary artwork, magical tattoos, cosmetic appearance – all these can be achieved using magical spells.

Economy of magic – it’s quite possible that magic itself can have an impact on the economy. Wizards that can transmute gold can devalue the coinage. Travel spells render normal land travel obsolete for the shipping of goods or people. Precogs can advise on investments.

Social status – magicians are the nobility or cultural elite, especially in feudal states. This “Pureblood” outlook often creates a cultural elitism that can itself springboard into an adventure.

Magic for travel – as well as mentioned under “Economy of magic” above, states that make heavy use of travel spells like teleport or Elementals will be able to move far faster than normal. They can also move people and objects quicker, including armies.

It is fairly easy to come up with ideas once you have concepts like this in mind!

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