Sunday, January 27, 2013

Savages + Intrigue

So...  Before last night's Pirates of the Spanish Main game, I floated the idea of dumping the Savage Worlds Skills and switching to Honor + Intrigue Careers.  Response was enthusiastic, so we made the switch and had some of the highest-participation, most-fun gaming the group has had.  So here's how Savages + Intrigue works:
  • The basic mechanic of "roll Trait and Wild Die and keep the best" changes to "roll Attribute and Career or Combat Skill and keep the best."  It's always bugged me that Attributes and Skills have such a limited relationship in Savage Worlds, and I miss the mix-and-match options of Storyteller and Unisystem (if you're rigging sails, it's an Agility + Pirate roll while if you're navigating it's now Smarts + Pirate).  This probably messes up the math a bit, but not so much that I'm going to notice.  
  • Attributes (Agility, Smarts, Spirit, Strength, and Vigor) are unchanged from Savage Worlds.  I'd love to switch to the more flavorful Honor + Intrigue Qualities (Might, Daring, Savvy, and Flair) but that would involve more conversion than I want to bother with.
  • Starting characters get eight points to spread among four Careers, with d4 being the lowest score allowed in any career.  As in Honor + Intrigue, having any rank whatsoever in a Career makes a PC proficient in all the skills of that Career.  Once per combat scene, a player can request to add a Career Bonus to a roll, at which times the player rolls Attribute + Combat Skill (or Damage Die) + Career.
  • Starting characters get six points to spread among the three Combat Skills: Fighting, Shooting, and Throwing.  You do not need to allocate a minimum d4 to any Combat Skill.  I suppose I could just minimize things to Melee and Ranged, but not yet.
  • Humans get a free starting Edge, as usual.  Edges and Hindrances work as usual.  I fancy I can adjudicate Skill requirements for Edges on the fly; Rope Monkey, for instance, requires Agility d8+ and Climbing d10+, so in this system it would require Sailor/Pirate at d10+.
  • Gear works as usual for Savage Worlds.
  • Because of the limited "skill list," advancing any Career or Combat Skill cost one Advance per die type, just as if a player were increasing a Skill equal to or higher than the linked Attribute in standard Savage Worlds.  This is subject to review through playtesting. 
I'm still debating how to best handle Extras.  I think they probably roll the worse of their Attribute or Career.  It doesn't matter much; I can keep using all the Savage Worlds NPC stats the way they are and it will hardly impact the PCs' interaction with them.

Pirates of the Spanish Main doesn't allow for PC magic-users, but if it did I'd allow a Career like Alchemist or Magician to function as a general Knowledge Skill for that Arcane Background and the Arcane Skill used for success on Powers.  A character still has to have the Arcane Background Edge to be a true practitioner and not just some nutcase who believes in psychic hotlines.

We didn't rebuild the PotSM characters from scratch, so I know the approach will probably need some tweaking whenever we start our next campaign.  I let everybody keep their existing ranks in Attributes and Combat Skills and then they got two Careers at d6 and two at d8 to reflect their Advances (nobody really had any Skills above d8 or below d6 anyway).  I think I'll  have to start imposing more circumstantial modifiers to balance the disparity in Careers in different circumstances (a Pirate's going to know how to forage for food, but an Explorer is going to be overall better at survival skills), but that should be a snap.

In any case, Savages + Intrigue worked really well last night.  Everybody had a ball and really felt like their characters could contribute to practically every scene.  That's a huge improvement.  Maybe I'll finally get to run some good naval battles in the near future.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Review -- Honor + Intrigue

Honor + Intrigue is a very clever RPG of swashbuckling action in the "cinematic" 17th Century written by Chris Rutkowsky of Basic Action Games using the rules from Simon Washbourne's Barbarians of Lemuria.  I bought it practically a year ago and then ignored it because I felt it really didn't offer anything more than Pirates of the Spanish Main did.  I recently reread Honor + Intrigue and I've discovered a game I really want to play.

The basic mechanics of Honor + Intrigue (and Barbarians of Lemuria, for that matter) will seem fairly familiar to players of 7th Sea, the Cortex System, d6, Savage Worlds, the Storyteller or Storytelling Systems, or Unisystem: roll to succeed based on a combination of attribute and skill, spend bonus points to get a better success, use special powers or bonuses from Edges/Merits/Qualities/Traits/whatever, etc.  There are additional similarities with Savage Worlds; amongst others, NPC goons are easily thwarted with a single hit while intimidating and taunting your foe can give you a combat advantage.  The mechanics are so familiar, in fact, that I glossed over the key difference in my first reading.  What separates H+I/BoL from the others is that characters don't have skills, they have Careers.

A beginning PC in Honor + Intrigue has at least four Careers that represent her life experience before play begins; these are ranked with a dice roll bonus of 0 to 3 with advancement capable of raising the rating to 5 or 6.  With each Career comes all the necessary skills that go with that Career.   An H+I PC with even a measly 0 rating in the Sailor/Pirate Career knows (in addition to a lot more) how to climb the rigging, navigate by the stars, splice a line, and swim for her life -- things that in Savage Worlds, for instance, would require four different Skills that take precious Skill points away from the all-important Fighting and Shooting Skills.  And then the Honor + Intrigue PC gets to choose three more Careers that round out her character and make a starting PC at least as competent as a fresh-off-the-farm d'Artagnan or Don Diego de la Vega when he steps off the boat from Spain.

On top of that, Combat Abilities are generated from a completely separate pool of points, so a starting PC doesn't have to sacrifice martial prowess for general competency!  How awesome is that?

I really, really like competent PCs.  I've hated level 1 since my first game of AD&D 2nd Edition.  Throughout my high school DMing career, we routinely skipped straight to third level.  I never start a Savage Worlds game out at Novice.  I don't think those who enjoy the risk of sudden death for disposable starting PCs are wrong, I just know I don't enjoy it myself.  Honor + Intrigue might be the first RPG I've read that feels the same way (and isn't bogged down by complex skill lists like 7th Sea).

The Good

In addition to a beautifully flexible basic mechanic, H+I offers a wealth of detail about the 17th Century setting and rules for magic and monsters, mass combat, and naval adventures.  My favorite part is the campaign seeds found in the "Secret Societies" section; I'd love to run a game about the Highway Cavaliers (dashing highwaymen loyal to Charles II) and the Shepherds (secret spymasters backing Cromwell).

The PDF version available on DriveThruRPG comes with a version that can be layered according to your printing needs and a separate tablet version for easy reading.     

The Bad

I could swear that some early press for this game claimed it had support material for other eras.  This is just not true, but ways to adapt it to other settings are transparent.  I could easily use Honor + Intrigue to run a Sengoku Jidai game without inventing a single new Career.

The mix between original art and clip-art to illustrate the game can be jarring and some of the original art is less than stellar.  That said, I love the illustration on the "Introduction" page; I can't help but imagine the Conanesque hero is meant to be Robert E. Howard's pirate, Black Vulmea.

The Ugly

Rutkowsky's conception of swashbuckling suffers a bit from the pernicious influence of The Princess Bride (how many times have I linked to that post?), but I can't help but forgive that in a game that quotes "The Court Jester" and references "The Brotherhood of the Wolf" (one of my top five favorite films). 

The other thing that has kept me from embracing Honor + Intrigue for my home games is the fact that it only uses two six-sided dice and I'm not eager to give up my varied polyhedrals.

Hmm... Perhaps I need to consider putting together a homebrew mash-up.  Savages + Intrigue, anyone?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Review -- Zorro 1975

One of my earliest memories is of Zorro.

I’m pretty sure it’s specifically a memory of the 1975 film starring Alain Delon.  It was a stormy night and our dachshunds, Pluto and Michael, had dug their way under the fence and escaped again. The adults were upset because this meant they were going to miss a big TV event: the airing of the new Zorro movie. I was far too young to go searching for the dogs (about three or so) so I got to stay home and watch this legendary event. The image that remains burned into my brain from that night is one of the most deliberately mythic in the Zorro oeuvre: a mysterious black figure approaches out of the heat haze rising up from desert sands, an ominous shadow viewed with awe by the gathered townsfolk, a figure that resolves into Zorro as a wide-eyed child smiles in glee. My reaction as a child seeing Zorro for the first time and the reaction of that child in the film were inextricably tied together forever.  It is one of my earliest memories and it is indelible.

This is not to say that “Zorro” (1975) is a great film, or even my favorite film version of the character (that’s a toss-up between Tyrone Power and Guy Williams), but it is my first Zorro and therefore important in my personal mythology. Your ability to enjoy the film will come down to whether you can enjoy (or, at least, ignore) the oft-repeated “Zorro is Back” song by Italian musicians Guido and Maurizio de Angelis (AKA Oliver Onions).

That song tells you a lot about the film:
  • It is a deliberate homage to the Disney series. Zorro is back – complete with a Sergeant Garcia (not Gonzales) dubbed to sound remarkably like Henry Calvin and a funny bugle-player who bears a surprising resemblance to Gene Sheldon. 
  • It is very, very European. Listen to Ennio Morricone’s score for “Danger: Diabolik” or his pre-Sergio Leone westerns and you’ll hear the connection. 
  • It’s pretty damned silly. 

“Zorro” (1975) definitely falls into the trend of slapstick ‘70s swashbucklers exemplified by Richard Lester’s “The Three Musketeers,” “The Four Musketeers,” and “Royal Flash.” Frankly, I feel “Zorro” director Duccio Tessari integrates the slapstick better than Lester does -- Lester cuts from his leads to bizarre period nonsense when he feels like throwing in a gag while Tessari works it into the frequent action scenes – but that’s the advantage of doing a fun-loving Zorro movie instead of the far grittier, often amoral works of Dumas and Fraser. It’s more family-friendly than Lester’s work (not a surprise, given the source material) with a comical romance between Zorro’s aunt and a clownish Prussian military advisor getting more screen time than the attraction between Zorro and Ortensia Pulido while Zorro swears an oath against killing early in the film that leads the action scenes to generally be bloodless acrobatic romps.

The film is mainly a remake of the familiar The Mark of Zorro origin story -- Diego arrives in town to discover a corrupt military government is oppressing the people so he starts dressing up as Zorro and puts a stop to it -- with a couple of odd embellishments.  When we first meet Diego at the beginning of the film, he's a rough and tumble adventurer on his way back to Spain, but then he runs into his old friend Miguel de la Serna -- newly-appointed governor of the fictional South American province of Nuova Aragon (sic) -- who is then promptly assassinated.  Driven to avenge his friend, Diego journeys to Nuova Aragon using de la Serna's name and takes over as governor.  He hears the legend of Zorro -- the totem spirit of the black fox -- from a young African child and adopts the identity to aid the oppressed.  Alternating between his two different disguises, Diego foments a rebellion against the avaricious Colonel Huerta and saves the day.

Alain Delon is charismatic as Diego/de la Serna/Zorro and Stanley Baker is menacing as Huerta.  Zorro's battles with the Colonel's lancers are filled with high-flying acrobatics that seem to have influenced Martin Campbell's direction of "The Mask of Zorro" and "The Legend of Zorro."  The final duel between Huerta and Zorro is one of the longest sword fights committed to film and contains a genuine tension lacking from most of the rest of the action.  It is a fun, swashbuckling adventure that's an enjoyable addition to any Zorro fan's library -- if you can tolerate the music.

Previous releases of the film were usually abbreviated affairs that cut the film down from over two hours to ninety minutes.  A restored version (that I have hawked previously) was released on DVD and Blu-ray last year.  Get it cheap from my Amazon affiliate link or brand-new widget.


The Fat Sergeant

"Lancers, to arms!"

Unlike the boastful Pedro Gonzales, the Fat Sergeant is a jolly man torn between his duties to the crown (or governor) and desire for a peaceful, harmless life.  He is often the most educated man in the presidio despite being a blabbermouth and a bit of a fool and can be both a willing and unwilling ally to a wily bandit.  He is often a brilliant singer.

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d8, Strength d10, Vigor d10
Skills: Fighting d8, Intimidation d4, Investigation d4, Knowledge (Battle) d4, Notice d6, Riding d8, Shooting d6, Stealth d4, Streetwise d4
Charisma: +2  Pace:Parry:Toughness: 8
Hindrances: Big Mouth, Loyal, Obese
Edges: Block, Charismatic, Combat Reflexes, Command, Command Presence
Gear: Lance (Str+d8, AP 2 when charging, Reach 2, only usable in mounted combat), musket (2d8, range 10/20/40, two actions to reload), rapier (Str+d4, +1 Parry), 1d4-1 pesos.

The underpaid, undereducated soldiers of the Spanish crown or the the Mexican governor, lancers are the primary line of defense for the pueblos of Alta California and the primary opponents of Zorro and his copycat bandits.  Most lancers aren't evil men -- just corrupt and foolish -- and player character vigilantes would be best off using the flat of their blades against them.

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d4, Spirit d6, Strength d6, Vigor d6Skills: Fighting d6, Intimidation d4, Notice d4, Riding d6
Pace:Parry:Toughness: 5
Hindrances: Poverty (The government is always behind on their pay)
Gear: Lance (Str+d8, AP 2 when charging, Reach 2, only usable in mounted combat), Musket (2d8, range 10/20/40, two actions to reload), Saber (Str+d6), 1d4-1 pesos. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Quiz Itself is Fun

Really Bad Eggs just put up his pirate name, so I had to give the quiz a spin myself.  Honestly, the quiz is funnier than the results.  Try it out!

My pirate name is:
Bloody Sam Bonney
Every pirate lives for something different. For some, it's the open sea. For others (the masochists), it's the food. For you, it's definitely the fighting. You can be a little bit unpredictable, but a pirate's life is far from full of certainties, so that fits in pretty well. Arr!
Get your own pirate name from
part of the network

Goblin Moon

Fantasy magazine Black Gate recently posted on the electronic republication of Teresa Edgerton's 18th Century-set fantasy novel Goblin Moon.  I've wanted to track this book down for a while, so it's nice to see it's back in a easily-accessible way.  The description sounds fascinating.  Silk and swords, elves and goblins!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Pirates of the Spanish Main Session Report 7

The Xmas season saw a return to swashbuckling for my little gaming group.  Way back in April of last year, I abandoned a promising Pirates of the Spanish Main RPG campaign due to personality conflicts with one of the players.  I could probably write one of those “The Problem with Problem Players” posts about the situation, but let it suffice to say for now that Gunter’s continuing selfish and asinine behavior really soured us on the campaign so we kicked his player out of the group and tried some other approaches. 

We first played a ‘70s exploitation homebrew setting with Savage Worlds that was supposed to lead to a new campaign but instead turned into a one-shot.  I take all the blame for that; I had a pretty difficult time doing my usual improv-style GMing in that particular gritty ‘70s New York.  I apologize to everybody who put time and effort into developing their characters for that game.  I suck.

The buzz about D&D Next being a modular system with different levels of granularity then suckered me in for a try at playtesting that system.  I’ve got a great deal of sympathy with and fascination for the OSR movement, but I am not and have never been an old-school gamer.  D&D Next seemed like a good opportunity to try out something closer to the OSR play style – and it was at first.  The earliest version of the rules was fun and flexible (if still bogged down by annoying 3rd edition crap like attacks of opportunity -- which I don't like in Savage Worlds either) and we had a few fun dungeon-crawling sessions with that.  Unfortunately, the last round of design changes for D&D Next soured me on the entire system, so we switched back to the late, lamented Pirates of the Spanish Main campaign. 

Hats from the Sean & Robin B Collection
Several players did not return, so the cast this time was Nana, Elias, Kit, Brother Seamus, and our new PotSM player (the redhead) as Silas – who is literally just a renamed version of Gunter without the stupid mechanical arm.  Nobody wanted to spend time making characters so the new player simply erased the name on the character sheet and wrote in the new one.  As Homer Simpson said, “That’s the end of that chapter.”  We politely assumed Lady Wendy, McSliceathroat, and the Mad Arab might return in future adventures, so we left their current whereabouts vague (though Kit assumed the title of captain of the Bloody Revenge). 

Silas’ player hadn’t played Savage Worlds before, so we got things started with a gratuitous fight scene to practice using the system.  Six incredibly stupid thugs jumped the three player characters and – for the most part – died from beheading.  I think a few actually ran away; I’m trying to work up some morale guidelines for myself so I don’t always play the NPCs like suicidal idiots.

The crew then slipped into the Silver Eel Tavern for a drink and met St. Nicholas.  They all found the old man charming (Nana was particularly fascinated by the presence of such an inscrutable kami while Brother Seamus was dumbstruck) but they declined St. Nick’s offer of freeing them from their vows to Dionysus and he vanished after giving them an ambiguous blessing that will only last until they do something bad.  Despite not doing anything particularly heroic, I don’t think they did anything particularly villainous this session so the crew should begin play next session with an extra benny each.  I completely subscribe to the “They’re all pretty nice” version of Santa Claus.

Kit was feeling restless, so he suggested the crew go on the account again.  When we last left the crew of the Bloody Revenge, they had acquired the Codex Brendani – an atlas of all the great mysteries and magical islands of the greater Caribbean region – and a Latin translator, the aforementioned Brother Seamus (though Silas reads Latin as well, something I hope the crew will take advantage of in the future).  The assembled crewmen badgered the unhappy monk into deciphering a selection of randomly-chosen notes on the maps in hopes of finding a rich prize.  Brother Seamus complied, but lied about a significant detail about the Codex that could have dire implications in the future.  (He really, really doesn’t like being a pirate but everyone wants to keep him around because he’s hilarious.)

About the Codex -- basically, I’m just using the adventure seeds listed in Green Ronin’s Skull & Bones and PotSM and reading them verbatim to the players.  When I get a new printer, I’ll probably put together a print-up compiling those seeds and some from “Buccaneers & Bokor” and just hand it to Silas’ player.  To simulate randomly flipping through the atlas, I borrowed a bit from what I've read about Vornheim (I don't own it) and just had the players roll dice across the map.  It worked pretty well. 

The random locations they rolled up were:

  • The Cayman Islands – home to super-legendary NPCs Calico Cat and Jack Sparrow Hawkins in the Pirates of the Spanish Main universe and “crocodiles that walk upright” in the S&B setting.
  • Guadeloupe - notable for a mysterious, ancient bridge between worlds in Skull & Bones and not much of anything in PotSM.
  • and someplace else that I've forgotten.  Something about hot springs.  Montserrat?

The players decided on exploring the possibility of making money from traveling between worlds and headed to Guadeloupe.  Funny enough, this actually puts me in the same position as Beedo is facing with his Goblins of the Spanish Main campaign: determining success for NPC experts.  Remember, Kit is actually a GM PC -- not a real player character – and he’s the only one of the pirates (excepting, of course, their redshirt crewmen) who actually knows how to sail.  I could spend five or ten minutes making multiple Boating rolls and consulting charts (or force the players to do that for me) or I could just cut to the chase and get this oddly landlubberly crew to the next adventure.  I erred on the side of adventure and determined that since Kit succeeded on his roll but didn’t get a raise that they got where they wanted to go but had to carouse to work off the Fatigue from cabin fever.

In the future, I might try running voyages as a Dramatic Task as per Savage Worlds Deluxe or try something like:
Skill Roll    Result
1                Lost; you are out of provisions; draw for a chance encounter.
2-3            Lost; draw for a chance encounter.
Success     You reach your destination with a bad case of cabin fever (-2 Fatigue).
Raise         You reach your destination with a mild case of cabin fever (-1 Fatigue).
2+ Raises  You reach your destination in record time.

They recruited a local houngan (whose name I’ve forgotten) who was using the bridge to smuggle escaped slaves to the other world (figuring anything was better than where they were) and the crew joined his latest batch of escapees to brave the crossing.  By keeping their eye on the pole star as they walked across the bridge on the night of the full moon, the crew of the Bloody Revenge found themselves in Caribdus, setting of Pinnacle's other pirate game, 50 Fathoms.

I've had the book sitting around for awhile; I figured I might as well use it.

Attempts to guilt the characters into joining the quest to save the drowning world were to no avail; the crew is very id-driven (maybe they did lose St. Nicholas' blessing after all).  It did give Nana a chance to finally strut her stuff with character interaction; they found themselves just outside of the Chinese colony of Deiking and so Nana was able to talk to people whose culture she understood.  They eventually wound up in the Red Lantern and helped the former geisha Hatsuoki and the human part of her workers escape back to Earth (for a cut of Hatsuoki's future earnings when she sets up shop in Tortuga).  There was a lot of talking and scheming and a bad Dr. Zoidberg impression on my part (what else should a scurillian sound like?) and Elias being his usual kleptomaniac self and it was fun.  It was really, really nice to be able to do some dialogue-driven scenes in the pirate game that didn't involve Gunter announcing his plans to go wenching.

The crew decided that their next venture would be to investigate the rumors of walking crocodiles in the Cayman Islands, which leaves me with the choice as to what these walkodiles are going to be.  The rumor comes from Skull and Bones, a d20 sourcebook, so I can assume that the authors had D&D-style lizardmenfolk in mind.  That’s always a possibility, but I’m thinking it will be “raptors” or Silurians – or Silurians with raptors – or Silurians fighting Robert E. Howard’s snake-men… with raptors. 

I regret not allowing Silas to do more, but I'll correct that next time around.  I'm sure he'll be able to charm the pants off a Silurian, right?  Well, obviously not Madame Vastra, but...

Yeah, it'll probably be Silurians.  Then I can do my Tenth Doctor voice.

Wine and Savages Team Now Co-Lead Developers for Savage Rifts®

While most interested parties already know this, Robin English-Bircher and I have combined forces with Sean Roberson as Lead Developers...