Dark War Player’s Guide

All good stories need a setting.  The Dark War is no different.  As shown by previous maps, the war that drive the Empire of Sentali to the brink of chaos will start in the Desolates.  The unincorporated borderlands caught between a variety of powers, it is a place ripe for adventurers to conqueror on their way to become kings.

As Ta’nar exists, for the most part, strictly in my head, I decided to create a player’s guide for the region the game will take place in.  You can find it here.

Any feedback or comments are welcome!

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Whisper Campaigns – Review

Disclaimer: This pdf was graciously given to me for the purposes of review by Ryan Chaddock Games.  All opinions within the review are my own. Whisper Campaigns is finally out; Ryan Chaddock Games’ newest Numenera pdf brings courtly intrigue to the Ninth World.  As seen in my reviews of Echoes of the Prior World, Celestial Wisdom, and Angels & Ashes, I am a pretty big fan of RCG’s books.  Whisper Campaigns is the newest addition to the line of quality gaming products from this company. Whisper Campaigns Image Whisper Campaigns is a 99-page pdf that is available on Drivethrurpg.com (for $5.00 at the time of this post).  Sometimes third party products, I am looking at you OGL, have great content but the layout makes the book practically useless.  RCG’s books keep growing in size but they maintain the quality and ease of use found in their smaller products.  The layout of Whisper Campaigns matches that of Angels & Ashes; it looks clean, is easy to read, and comes with pages of cyphers designed to be printed out and used at the table. Chapter 1 – Whisper, Cloak & Dagger Intrigue games are tough games to run.  Not only do they require a high level of PC proactivity (as opposed to the more reactive attitudes found in traditional fantasy plots), GMs have to invest a lot of extra attention to the game, as intrigue games will tend have more NPCs, more plot thread, and more reactive situations for the GM to handle.  The authors take the time to lay a good foundation for what an intrigue game entails, then give both players and GMs the tools they will need to create stories and plotlines among the shadow courts of the Ninth World. You are given 16 intrigue plots and advice on how to start your game and avoid common problems found in intrigue games. The chapter ends focused on how the mechanics of the Cypher system can be used in this type of game.  We are introduced to intrigue cyphers, and five new descriptors are provided: Deceptive, Esteemed, Informed, Protective, and Seductive.   Intrigue cyphers work just like regular cyphers, but each player is presented with the max they can use at the beginning of each session and lose any they have not used at the end of the session.  Mechanically, their use is very familiar as they are single-use items. In addition, intrigue cyphers are broken out into Anoetic and Occultic activations and represent the plots, agents, assets, and tools a character has to leverage against her foes in the battle of courts. This is an amazing way to give players a familiar framework for direction and focus during the tangled mess of an intrigue plot.  36 unique cyphers in all are presented here, and they cover everything from an assassination attempts to clandestine meetings to betrayals.  If you want to introduce intrigue as a focus to your game, this will facilitate the transition for your players. Chapter 2 – Blood & Lines Now that the themes, plots, and tools are established, Whisper Campaign gives us the players.  Eleven elite houses of the Steadfast are outlined here, each with descriptors or foci for players who want their characters to be noble scions of these houses. RCG does a great job of giving each house their own flair and tying traditional political powerbases into the Ninth World.  Some are powerful due to connections, either with stronger powers or  with information-gathering organizations.  Another’s power base is built upon the drug trade, only this drug slowly gives its users reptilian features.  A third house is guided by its elders, but they transfer their essence to their younger descendants, granting them effective immortality with which to oversee their plans. Each house is given an introduction, brief history, a description of where their influence lies, how they interact with other houses, and who the major players are.   Seven foci and seven descriptors present players and GMs a lot of options for integrating these houses directly into their home games. Chapter 3 – Duty & Honor Numenera has one foot planted in the realm of fantasy while the other one rests in science fiction.  RCG’s supplements have focused on bringing fantasy tropes into the Ninth World, and Whisper Campaigns is no different.  What book on courts and nobles would be complete without a chapter on the iron fist of the courts, knights?  Seven knightly orders are explored in this chapter.  A player can join an order at the cost of 4 XP.  Moreover, by sacrificing a skill at character creation, they can join the order and gain the ability to select that order’s available descriptor or foci. Some of the orders directly tie back into the setting of the Ninth World, such as the order that protects those who travel the Wandering Walk or who were empowered by the octopi.  One is a varjellan-only order.  Others stand alone or are linked to the noble houses of this book.  Each order entry tells about the order’s introduction, member benefits, origins, initiation, training, fealty, and major players before giving the order’s descriptor or foci.  One descriptor and six foci bring the book’s total to thirteen descriptors and fourteen foci. Chapter 4 – Swords & Daggers 100 new oddities, 36 new cyphers and 6 new artifacts make up this chapter.  The cyphers have an intrigue bent, and with names like the Farscanner, Duplicate army, and the Spy Creature, this is not hard to see.  The oddities are unique and, well, odd.  All in all, they are great additions to the numenera of the Ninth World. Chapter 5 – Iscobal on the Brink In the main rule book of Numenera, on page 158, Monte Cook Games introduced us to the nation of Iscobal.  It is a nation on the edge of civil war.  This is an appropriate setting for GMs who want to use the new options in Whisper Campaigns.  RCG digs a bit deeper into the factions within Iscobal, providing a GM with plenty of ideas for intrigue plots. Conclusion Whisper Campaigns is a great addition to Ryan Chaddock Games’ product line.  As usual, their grasp of the Cypher System mechanics provides the reader with a wide range of new Descriptors, Foci, and numenera.  This book is also worth the price even if you don’t play Numenera.  The first chapter is a great guide for anyone wanting to run a game filled with intrigue, whispers, and shadows.  The advice that the authors assembled goes beyond Numenera and is something I wish I had when I was running a Song of Ice and Fire.  The advice given in Chapter 1 could have helped me avoid many of the pitfalls that I suffered at the start of that game.  I can’t wait to use this book at the table and am looking forward to the next product from RCG.

Buried Under Books

Today’s post is more of an update/organizational post.  I had a bunch of books come in last week, and need to dig into them so that I can get reviews up.

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Pretty aren’t they.  I am two products closer to my complete collection of Planescape books.  The Planes of Chaos was a great find, and I got a complete copy of the Eternal Boundary.   While I won’t necessarily be reviewing them, they are near the top of the list of reading material right now.  While I have read Eternal Boundary before, this is my first time reading through the Planes of Chaos.

Ryan Chaddock Games sent me their newest addition to the Cypher world: Whisper Campaigns, a book on adding political intrigue to your Numenera game.  I am about 20 pages into it, and the design is inspired.   RCG created some exciting new mechanics to give players access to intrigue maneuvers that work a lot like cyphers.  Look for that review this Thursday.  Next week’s review will be a co-written (with one of my editors, Nick) review of Kort’thalis Publishing’s Liberation of the Demon Slayer, and the Island of Purple-Haunted Putrescence.

Finally, I have two new Legend of the Five Rings books to get through to review: Sword & Fan and the Naishou Province.  They have been ordered but won’t be in until the end of the week.

Lots of great gaming material to get through and write about.  Stay tuned!

The GM’s Dilemma

A buddy and I have been chatting about this concept for a while, and so I wanted to take a break from ACKS and Dark War to chat about the catch-22 of GMing.  The idea behind what I call the GM’s Dilemma is: We run the games we want to play.   At first this seems to be a pretty statement, and one that shouldn’t need explanation.  Of course we run the games we want to play, that is why we bought them.  We devour the settings and rules that spark our imagination.  We pour over them, and learn them and write stories within them.

But here is the dilemma.  For most of GMs, what this actually means is that they will always run the games we want to play.  I, personally, want to run a Supers game, because what I really want to do is play in a Supers game and no one else will do it.  Unless you have one of those mythical gaming groups where everyone is a GM and you are all passionate about the same game (which do exist and I had the pleasure to be a part of one for close to seven years), as the GM role rotates around the table the group ends up playing in the game the GM really wants to.

What is the answer to the GMs Dilemma?  I have no good answer.  It is tough, because part of being a good GM is being passionate about the game you are running, which a desire to play provides.  Here are some thoughts that I have been kicking around to deal with the dilemma.

GMs Choice

After a campaign wraps up, my groups hold a pitch session to decide on what game to pick next.  After some discussion and a vote, we jump into the new game.  What if the GM of the previous game got to toss a game system into the vote for someone else to run?  The idea is, if you step up to learn and run system X, then when your campaign ends, someone else will run system Y for you.

It requires a huge amount of trust and by in from the group.  Because the first time no one is willing to pick up game Y, then the whole system crashes.  You could make it even less restrictive & more appealing to potential GMs by letting the previous GM just pick the genre for game pitches.  So the guy who likes Sci-Fi gets to play in a Sci-Fi game, but the new GM gets to pick a system he wants to run.

Troupe Play

When you assemble your gaming group/prepare for a new campaign talk with your players about founding the campaign as a Troupe Style game.  Let them know that you would like to pick a system that everyone is ok with, and then rotate the GM chair over the course of the campaign.  The plan would be for everyone to take the reins of the game for a week or two.   While there might be the primary GM, the game group turns into a pool of GMs. 

This could encourage faster system mastery as players prepare to run, interesting takes on the campaign setting that one person could not have thought of, and a chance for everyone to enjoy the view from both sides of the screen.  If feel this would work best with a kitchen sink setting (Forgotten Realms, Golarian, Numenera, Rifts) where there is something for every GM to gravitate towards.

What are your thoughts on the GM Dilemma and possible solutions?

ACKS Player’s Companion Review

Last week, I looked that the core book for Adventurer, Conqueror, King.  It was a lengthy review, primarily due to the amount of great content that Autarch crammed into the book.  Seriously, for a 270 page book there is a lot of mechanical information that is clearly and concisely detailed.  The depth of the rule set is staggering.  But Autarch did not stop with just one book; they followed the Core book up with the Player’s Companion.

Player’s Companion Review

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The Player’s Companion is 158-page book that follows closely in the footsteps of the Core ACKS book in terms of art and layout.  There are some full-page pieces of art in the Player’s Companion that are stunning; and the cover for the book is even more striking than the core book. 

Chapter 1: Introduction

A one page introduction to the book gives us a brief outline of book’s content as well as a very interesting note to the Judges of ACKS.  “Every campaign is a law unto itself,” is Autarch’s motto, which is prominently displayed on their website.  This book gives a lot of options to make your campaign world unique.  If the Core book provides the mechanics to realize the world and domains of your setting, the Player’s Companion gives you the tools to make the races, classes, and spells just as realized.

But the writers make it very clear, the rules in this book are optional.  Nothing in here is mandatory, which is reminiscent of the 1st and 2nd edition days of fantasy gaming.  The authors give ideas on how to use the Player’s Companion in a campaign.  Whether you want a modern approach where everything is fair game, an à la carte rules and class selection, or an old-school, highly specialized class game, this book has something for every campaign.

Chapter 2: New Character Classes

The Core book gives us access to 12 character classes.  The Player’s Guide over doubles our choices with 18 new classes.  Iconic fantasy classes such as the Paladin, the Anti-Paladin, the Barbarian, the Mystic (monk), and the Paladin are all realized within ACKS.  Dwarves and elves each get three new classes, and we get a gnome class as well as a Thrassian gladiator (which is essentially a lizard man).

The Player’s Companion, however, does not just contain classes that you have seen in a myriad of other fantasy games.  Some classes, like the Thrassian Gladiator, the Nobiran Wonderworker (a class that can cast both arcane and divine spells), and the Zaharan Ruinguard (a chaotic necromantic knight) are tied to the mythology of the Auran Empire, while others like the Venturer (a bard-like master of a world’s economy) are designed to tied directly into the unique campaign rules of ACKS.  There are other classes that stand out, like the Dwarven Machinist (who creates and uses automata), the classic archetypes of the Elven Enchanter and Elven Ranger, and totem aligned Shaman.

The classes presented in the Player’s Companion open up a lot of gaming options for players and Judges.  While players will love the new classes, in my opinion, they are not the true gem of the Player’s Companion.

Chapter 3: Character Class Templates

The whole of this book, much like the Core book, is packed with fantastic mechanics.  But if the Player’s Companion only consisted of Chapter 3, it would still be worth the $10 they are asking for the PDF. 

I mentioned in my review of the core book that the classes in the core book came with a single template.  This template was a selection of gear and proficiencies packaged together to make customize your class (like making a Fighter a Mercenary) and let you jump right into the game.

This chapter gives 8 templates for each of the 30 classes now available for ACKS.  Now your fighter can be a Thug, Ravager, Corsair, Guardsmen, Mercenary, Gladiator, Legionary, or Lancer.  They make character generation fast and easy, supply great role-playing and background cues for players, and provide a level of customization to each of the classes.  Look at the variation of the fighter provided above.  And, from a GM’s perspective, the templates make it easy to generate NPC parties for your game.  7 sets of 3d6 and you are done, gear and all.

 Chapter 4: Custom Classes

Autarch also provides you with the tools to create your own classes and races.  They both work very similarly.  Building a class requires the Judge to allocate points among the classes: Hit Points, Fighting skills, Thieving skills, Divine skills, and Arcane skills.  Each point spent in a category gives the Judge choices to make for the class and its abilities.  It is a simple process that contains a lot of flexibility.  Races are built much in the same way, with point allocation. After establishing the race, you can start building its custom classes.

The chapter ends with a huge list of custom powers and some great guidelines for developing your own powers.  At first blush, it seems that all of the custom powers from the classes within the Player’s Guide are available to Judges in designing their own classes, once again showcasing the internal consistency of ACKS. 

An important thing to point out is that ACKS is not looking for game balance across the range of classes, at least not in the way modern games define the term.  ACKS balances classes with their XP chart.  In ACKS, a first level fighter is far more versatile and durable than a mage.  However, as the mage levels, her power expands far beyond the scope of the fighter, so her XP table is tougher.  Like-wise, Elves have more bonuses than humans, so their classes are inherently tougher to level in than a similar human class. 

Chapter 5: Spells

This chapter covers some supplemental rules to the ACKS magic system.  The main expansion on the system is for improving the results of all the magical research possibilities in the Core book with experimentation.  However experimentation is not without its risks, as can be seen by the many mishap tables provided.  There is also a great table for generating random spell signatures, the personal flavor each mage gives to the spells they cast.

Autarch provides rules for creating your own spells for ACKS as well.  Again, there is a simple elegance to the way you construct spells.  The book takes you step-by-step through the design, allowing you pick and choose the effects till you get the spell that you desire.  I have designed a variety of custom spells for my Dark War game, and I have found that with a good idea of the final effect in mind, you can create a custom spell in under 10 minutes.

This chapter ends with updated spell lists and an index of new spells and high level rituals.

Chapter 6: Supplemental Rules

The Player’s Companion wraps up with a mélange of various additional rules.  Character starting ages and aging effects, new equipment, and modifications to the follower tables for the new classes are presented here.  New proficiencies and the costs of adding pits and traps to your structures round out this chapter and the PDF finishes off with a nicely hyperlinked index.

Conclusion

Aptly titled, the Player’s Companion contains a wealth of information for any player of ACKS. For a book that declares that its entirety is optional, I find that I would be hard pressed to run an ACKS game without the majority of the Player’s Companion.  I know I could, but I feel like I would have one hand tied behind my back.  I can’t stress how useful the templates are or how simple the custom creation rules are.  This book is a great addition to the ACKS system, as well as any OSR game, for much of the material in here could be easily ported to another game of choice. 

If you are running ACKS, this book will help tailor make the system to your world.  If you are on the fence about ACKS, check this book out.  Its flexibility and substance just might make you a convert.

You can buy the Player’s Companion PDF here or here and can order the physical book here or through your FLGS.  

Focus of Dark War

Now that I have selected Adventurer, Conqueror King as my game system for Dark War, I wanted to outline what Dark War would be about. (Players in my games beware, as there could be some spoilers for Dark War ahead).

Story

There are many ancient evils that have long plagued the peoples of Sentali, the eastern most continent of my world, Ta’nar.  The ancient god-king of Abin-Syl, the fallen line of Pathihn Kings, the dark lord known as Thoan, the Daemon lords Demoloth and their respective cults have threatened entire the continent at various points in the millennia of Ta’nar’s history.  This does not take into account the world wide threats from entities like Thoan, or Dragon Emperor’s.  One of these ancient threats was recently revived due to the misguide efforts of a handful of PC’s.  This has set into play a malevolent power on an unprepared world. 

The peoples and nations of the 7th Age have just established themselves, and are starting to build something lasting on Sentali.  This revived power seeks to return the land to a more malleable state.  To do this, it has targeted the primary bastion of law on Sentali, the Kardane Empire.  From the outside, there will be no Dark War.  There will be many smaller conflicts, which will each threaten to plunge the Lawful Empire into Chaos.  Events like the Plague of Spectres, A Threat From the North, the Fall of the Dead, an Infusion of Chaos, and the final conflict that will reveal the fell hand behind Dark War.

 

Theme

I really want this game to focus on the conflict between Law and Chaos.  ACKS has simple three point alignment that really resonates with me.  Law stands for the light of civilization.  Neutrality stands for its own self-interests, those who enjoy the benefits of law without fighting to preserve them from evitable erosion.  And Chaos lurks in the dark edges of the world, subverting Neutrality and waiting for the time to strike to bring Law crashing down.

Chaos is not just found in the enraged faces of beastmen and Var.  It is not just the corruption of flesh from dark magics and deals with Daemons.  Chaos is seductive.  It is enticing.  It is manipulative and fell.  This is the Chaos that I want to oppose the players.  A beautiful one that beckons from the darkness, and whispers ‘join me’.

The 7th Age is still new, and has yet to find a tone.  This game will seek to define the Age as one of light or darkness. 

Feel

I want this game to have a threefold feel: paranoia, a looming threat, and hope.

First, I want to portray the hand organizing Dark War to be way smarter and subtler than I am.  I want to lay clues that go unnoticed at first to build upon each other, till the preponderance of evidence threatens to crush the characters.  And then I want them to know that few believe that any one creature, let alone ‘that’ one, could be behind something like Dark War.  It will be a tricky thing to pull off, and require some heavy planning on my part.

Secondly, I want that paranoia to lead to a realization that there are things out in the darkness waiting for them.  Not ‘them’ in the sense of all members of Law and Neutrality.  But the player character’s personally.  This ancient evil has been put down before, and knows how much fate loves its group of 4-6 beings with class levels.  So while some threats will be global, some will be very personal.

The final feel I want to thread through Dark War is hope.  It may seem in bright contrast to the previous two goals.  But, hope, and the events that provide characters hope, are what drive the story forward.  I want players to have moments of silver lining from hard won victories, when they can look at events and say ‘this is why we did this, this is why we took our stand here.”  I am shooting for more of a Steven Erikson feel, than a George R.R. Martin one.

Goal

Definition and change are the goals I have for Dark War.   Up until now, Ta’nar has had some events shaped by the characters in the game, but the big events have all been in the past.  I want the characters coming out of Dark War to have shaped the nature of the 7th Age.  Do they succeed and declare this Age to be one of Light and Law, or do they succumb and usher in an Age of Darkness and Chaos? 

That goal goes hand in hand with change.  I have set up a lot of behind the scenes moving pieces to Ta’nar.  I know how the world works (much better since I started using the Secrets chapter of the ACKS core book).  It is time to truly see how this world interacts with players, and allow them to leave a lasting mark on the world.  I hope to see gods die, characters walk the Paths of Divinity, important NPCs change, and even, possibly, an entire city redeemed. 

Who knows what will happen in the course of Dark War, but I for one want to see my world bloodied up, and to be able to see the boot prints my players leave on its surface.