Review: Thews of Iron – and Three Kinds of Resource Economies – Conan 2d20

I’m forced to admit I was wrong. I tried to be polite about it when I appeared on The Smart Party podcast and was innocently asked about the 2d20 system from Modiphius games – but it was pretty clear I wasn’t a fan. A couple of games, and a few hours spent trying to navigate character generation in Mutant Chronicles (MC), had left me switched off to this new hotness of a system.

I guess I need to admit that some of my problem with MC probably isn’t the system on its own – but there’s probably a whole other, much more snarky, blog post about that. So I gave it more time, and after playing a game of Star Trek 2d20 that left me, well, ambivalent, I had a go at running their Conan game.

And it was great. I enjoyed myself as a GM, and as far as I can tell the players had a blast as well. I might have been wrong. True, it’s crunchy as hell and relies on an awful lot of bean-counting to achieve, but it combines multiple tactical options with the opportunity for players to do pulpy awesomeness all the time.

The Fluff

I ran the adventure The Red Pit, from the Jewelled Thrones of the Earth adventure supplement, using the quickstart PCs. I had 6 players – one arriving later – and at least one of them hadn’t had much experience of gaming since D&D in their past. For balance, another of my players was Remi Fayoumi, indefatigable 2d20 evangelist and Modiphius fanboy. The adventure is a classic pulp that I know many GMs would dismiss – the players start weaponless and shackled as slaves in the Red Pit and have to fight their way out to the surface. It’s one great big series of linked combat encounters, but works surprisingly well with a few hacks. I did add in a neutral/sympathetic NPC in the form of a suspicious fellow slave who might or might not join their rebellion, and cut out some of the relentless dice rolling of the constant arrow fire, but it still allowed enough opportunity for heroics and roleplay – in part because the system is rich enough to make it interesting.

I also started the game with a pulp montage by telling the players to imagine they are playing characters in a TV series – and asking the players to describe the opening credit scene where their PC is introduced. They just have to say what they look like and what they are doing when their name appears below the credits – it helps get everyone in the right frame of mind, and set the tone for the game. I did the same for the villains too, including the ominous shadow of an animatronic giant lizard.

The Crunch – It’s a Dice Pool System

At its core 2d20 has more in common with dice pool systems than it admits to. Your dice pool is just normally two twenty-siders. You roll your pool and count successes – one for each die equal to or under your skill, and two if equal to or under your Focus – usually much lower and often just 1. You might need just 1 success, or you might need more – up to 5 for Epic tasks, which clearly you don’t have much chance of succeeding on if you’re just rolling two dice. So in order to succeed in difficult tasks, or to make sure you are really effective (extra successes generate Momentum which can be spent immediately to improve your outcome – say, more damage in combat, or extra effect on a skill roll), you’ll have to buy more dice.

The Crunch – Three Resource Separate Resource Economies

You buy extra dice in three ways – by spending Momentum or Fortune, or by adding to the GM’s Doom pool. Fortune is straightforward and gives you an extra die set to 1 – so almost always guaranteeing 2 extra successes. You start with 3 Fortune points and although there are some rules for refreshing them, I didn’t let my PCs refresh in the one-shot.

Momentum is trickier – after you generate extra successes, you can either spend them on extra effect – more damage and the like – or bank them into Group Momentum. This resource can be spent by the players to add an extra dice up to 5d20 on a one-for-one basis – but these dice, you have to roll. There’s a maximum of 6 Momentum points in the Group pool at any one time, and it reduces by 1 at the end of every combat turn, so there’s an incentive to use it or lose it.

Doom is the GM’s pool, and it starts at 3 x the number of players – the same as the total number of Fortune points. The GM can spend it like Momentum, or the players can get extra dice by adding points back into the Doom pool. Players also need to add to Doom to react to attacks – by Parrying or Dodging – and the GM needs to spend it for almost anything, so there’s a good flow of Doom throughout the game. I kept my Doom on show so the players could see it grow and fall through the session – and allowing some tactial play where one player took a telling blow rather than avoid it using Doom so that my pool was run down before the final confrontation – and there’s clearly some tactical nuances to running games with it which I like as well.

The One-Shot

In order to make it work as a one-shot, you need some straightforward resources, I think, in order to help the players make sense of a particularly crunchy system (also see this post on running one-shots with crunchy systems). I had some of these, but not all of them

  • You need 3 different sets of counters. I used skull tokens from All Rolled Up, and glass beads for Momentum, and I wish I’d had something else – maybe poker chips – for Fortune. I kept my Doom in one place in front of the players, and chucked Group Momentum in the middle of the table, but ideally two different bowls would have been great – maybe one skull-like and evil and one, er, pristine and heroic.
  • A sheet with what you can spend Doom and Momentum on would have been great. There are nuances with Momentum spends – you don’t always have to spend it on extra damage – and it would have been good to have it out in front of the players to encourage more creative use of this.
  • An actual copy of the rules. I realized half way through the game that I hadn’t downloaded the rulebook onto my tablet – while the Quickstart rules covered nearly everything, I couldn’t find the recovery rules in there and had to busk them when it came up halfway through the game.
  • You need well-marked-up, clear pregen sheets. The Quickstart PCs are great for this.

So, I’m prepared to admit my own mistakes and will certainly be running 2d20 again – Conan for sure, but almost certainly Star Trek as well, and maybe even Infinity or John Carter when they get released. Mutant Chronicles, maybe not – but that’s for a future post.

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The Long And The Short Of It

I’ve recently been in the position to plan (and in one case deliver) one-shots that have stretched the time constraints common to one-shot play. In the first, I ran a game of Vampire: Dark Ages over a full day; in the second, I prepped a 30-45 minute demo game of Hunters of Alexandria, a FATE-based historical fantasy game from D101 games.

The Long Game

A few months ago we hatched the plan for the Vampire game; a two-part, weekend-long game where I would run in the Dark Ages on Saturday and my co-GM would run (with the same PCs) a modern-day Vampire: The Masquerade game on the Sunday. What started as an epic plan led to a fair bit of chin-scratching at the challenges of it; apart from a few terrible experiences as a player in my teens, I had never run or played Vampire. All of my fellow players / GM had a wealth of experience with it. Part of my choice of Dark Ages was that I didn’t need to learn the extensive Camarilla bureaucracy or pretend to know what, for instance, a Primogen was (I still don’t – I think it’s a sort of clan boss or something? I smiled and nodded when it came up in game).

I began by reading my source book (the excellent Constantinople by Night) and making a massive R-Map of all the factions at work, and then started working out which bits I should focus on. I’m not sure I gave the authentic Vampire experience with my game, which was a race against time to find the four relics stolen from the Hagia Sofia, but I think they had fun – and it led to a more satisfying conclusion in the modern day as they re-tracked down their enemy.

In terms of what I did differently to a normal one-shot, I just had more stuff and didn’t push as hard. I put in a couple of encounters that weren’t immediately resolved, and basked in the opportunity to call back to them three or four hours later. I couldn’t quite shake my one-shot conditioning, starting the PCs in a prison cell and having them broken out by a mysterious NPC, which in retrospect was probably an unnecessarily hooky hook, but it all calmed down once they had their mission.

What would I do differently? I might, well, prep a bit more. I pulled more of the plot out of thin air than I would have preferred to; I joked at the time that I was running Vampire using Apocalypse World – I had Fronts and Countdowns for all my factions, and tried to bat through whatever choices the PCs made, but a few more ‘scripted’ encounters could have set up a more satisfying conclusion. I’d do it again, though, and am even now planning some shorter con games of Vampire (again probably Dark Ages so there’s more sword-fights with witch-hunters and fewer cocktail parties).

The Short Game

I spent last weekend at UK Games Expo, working on the D101 Games stall; we had space for demo games, so I prepped one for the FATE-based Hunters of Alexandria (HoA), a monster-hunters historical fantasy game. This was much easier prep. I didn’t actually get to run the demo, and am trying to work out when I will, but it was a blast to prep and I’m looking forward to when that opportunity arises.

I took a 3-scene approach and used the pregens in the book – they come with a range of skills, and some character portraits that looked grabby. There’s a skill check / overcome task to research some murders, a chase, and then a showdown. I’d be confident I can run it with in 45 minutes for up to 3 players; shorter for fewer, and that it gives a good overview of the FATE system. I’d post it here but there’s still a chance it might see the light of day in publication, so watch this space.

I found prepping the shorter game much easier, and I’m tempted to try it for a few more games in advance for conventions etc (aren’t there some Games on Demand things offering similar short offerings? Interested in these) as I think it can be a good taster for games.

Have you run, or played, in a particularly long or short one-shot? What was your experience?

Review: Lone Wolf Adventure Game

In Lone Wolf, psychic rangers fight Darklords – eventually, after first dealing with colourful – if clichéd – low-level quest fodder. Cubicle 7 has published this, a neat little box set full of goodies to play with; a complete RPG set in the fantasy world of Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series of gamebooks. The product itself is lovely – a set of counters, a nicely illustrated set of pregens, three books – one player-focused, one GM-focused, and one with two starter adventures in it, a map and a couple of reference tables. It’s all very slick – and I do appreciate a full box when I buy a boxed set.

The Fluff

Although the Lone Wolf world of Sommerlund started out, apparently, as Joe Dever’s own D&D campaign world, it’s always felt a little darker, edgier, and, weirdly, more pastoral than a regular fantasy world. It’s got some distinctive elements – you’re basically playing psychic rangers who venture forth from their monastery to right the wrongs of the world, and defend it from the Darklords of Naar away to the West who are constantly trying to corrupt the land.

As Kai Lords, the PCs are generally respected – in the starter adventure most of the NPCs are falling over themselves to offer them room and board – and have a heavily implied moral code, reinforced awkwardly as said NPCs also keep offering the PCs rewards for their heroic behaviour – which the adventure then reminds the GM they should turn down. When I ran it, in the way of D&D clerics through the ages, the coffers of the “Kai monastery maintenance and upkeep fund” were kept well topped up by their generous donations.

It’s a nice balance of the familiar and the original – I like the players being respected heroes, although without their supplement Heroes of Magnamund a party composed entirely of Kai Lords is likely to struggle for niche protection as the PCs can all be a bit samey.

The Crunch

The system is very light. And comes in two levels of complexity, one ultra-, ultra-light. Skill rolls, in an homage to the gamebooks they are based on, are made by flipping a token into the inside of the box, where a matrix of numbers from 0 to 9 are laid out. If this sounds fiddly, and potentially clumsy, it is. The book does suggest that you can use a regular ten-sided dice, and that is likely to be an easier option, particularly if you’re precious about losing any of the tokens. For a normal test, you just need to get a 6 or more, and there are no modifiers – which is quite a nice touch.

Luck tests are neat too – you flip one of the coin-like luck tokens and if Kai, god of the sun results you pass – if Naar is uppermost you fail. It’s a pretty neat, and quick, way of resolving luck tests. Combat is resolved by looking at a table – at which point I begin to yawn – but this resolves damage to both parties, making an already quick system twice as fast. With this inbuilt folding of the exchanges it’s easy to work some narrative of what is actually happening in the battle into it.

The Master level rules, while still around the complexity of, say, Dragon Warriors, add a touch more nuance and some combat maneuvers which should make combat a bit more interesting.

The One Shot

The set comes with a starter adventure – that I’d advise following only loosely as it makes a couple of massive one-shot pitfalls. To its credit, it aims to teach the system – and it meets this goal admirably; I read the adventure before running it, but not really either of the other books. The players have to track down a missing caravan, which has, it turns out, been taken by bandits – there’s no complex subplot or theme for the GM to hold in their head while they’re trying to remember the rules.

The problem is, there’s no subplot at all. There are no reasons for the bandits to have captured the caravan, other than their general bandit-ness, nor why this wagon or merchant were their target. Running it, I added a loose reason – still not massively original, but it added the investigative bit to the adventure that was missing.

There’s also two encounters – if they can be called that – that happen for no discernible reason. Near the start of the adventure the PCs encounter an injured deer, and can attempt to free it or put it out of its misery – ostensibly a scene to teach the players how to make tests, but it can be resolved without any tests at all. There are no consequences for their action, nor any signposts that the course of action my players took – putting the deer out of its misery, then taking it as an offering to the merchants – is going to lead to the post-adventure admonishment that it instructs.

There’s a similar miss-step where the PCs see a bandit scout spying on them, and if they give chase they, er, find his body – he runs away from them, trips over a log, and instantly dies. It doesn’t make sense – the only reason I can see for it is to avoid the GM having to run an interrogation scene with the bandit (which is unlikely anyway given the implied lethality of combat) – I let them catch him and fight him, when I ran it.

There is a follow-up adventure, which has a bit more oomph in it; and some roleplaying opportunities – and I wouldn’t complain too much as everything else about this product makes it great for one-shot play. But when I run it again, I’ll have a mixed party of different cultures, use the master rules, and write my own – straightforward – adventure.

His Hair Was Perfect – Monster of the Week at Seven Hills

Over on this post I talked about how I approached my prep for my game of Monster of the Week (MOTW) at the Seven Hills RPG convention in Sheffield, UK, and since the con was last weekend I’ve had time to reflect on how it went and some of the highlights (and low-lights).

I had a great set of players. Their characters were created easily, and (in a way that wasn’t obvious without reading the game) the History step (where players describe a link to each of the other PCs) really fleshed them out as characters. What it didn’t do was provide much scope for inter-party conflict – not too surprising, I guess, given the premise of the game – but more on that later.

In prep, I’d decided on a loose premise in the background, and sketched out, as per the guidance in the book, a Countdown for the enemy’s plans. Lee Ho Fuk, legendary Chinese sorcerer and restauranteur, was possessing hapless customers with his delicious black bean sauce and turning them into werewolves, and triggering the beast-spirits within to hunt down enemies of the restaurant – initially, bad TripAdvisor reviewers. He had a plot to launch his range of home-cook sauces, attack the Blue Dragon conference of Chinese Food with his werewolf-possessors, and eventually take over the world!

He got to stage 2 of his Countdown; the players rolled really well on their initial investigations, limiting the number of hard moves I felt justified in doing to advance his plot, and meaning they worked out the twist (that it wasn’t your traditional, infected lycanthrope werewolf) quickly. They went from the crime scene to the restaurant directly and, after some edgy spirit banishment, eventually defeated Lee Ho Fuk and his dragon-spirit demonic soul. Partly this was due to some good rolling, but I think I also made a crucial error in my prep, showing my lack of experience at running mystery games; I had one level of clues, and after they’d explored everything, it was obvious that the restaurant was the place to go. Better mystery construction would have led them to an intermediate location or scene where the clues there lead them to the restaurant. Still, the timings worked well – we finished about 15 minutes early (as far as I can remember) in a 3 hour slot.

It was still a satisfying game; as I talked about here, part of the attraction of one-shots of Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) games is the shared fictional universe creation, and although I had clear guidance for the kind of agency the PCs worked for, it helped the players get comfortably into character after the hour or so of at-table prep. Another area where I showed some naivety was in the amount of plot the players could eat up without any real in-party conflict; in every PBTA game I’ve run previously, barring Dungeon World, there’s an edge of PvP conflict that self-generates addition subplots.

I’ll blog more about mystery creation and investigative one-shots as I get better at running them; I can admit that my usual genre to run is all-action pulp where the scenes, if not on rails, are at least signposted very clearly to everyone involved. I’m beginning to think that the mystery plot for a one-shot is to point very clearly towards one thing at first, and then when that thing is confronted to point very clearly towards the actual thing that resolves the adventure. But I might be over-simplifying.

I know there are a lot of readers with much more experience of running mystery one-shots and investigative games than me – does that sound correct? Or am I howling at the wrong moon with this one. Anyway, I’ll certainly be running more one-shots of MOTW – with the same or different premises.