Skyscrape 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.

Three months ago, I reviewed Echoes of the Prior Worlds by Ryan Chaddock Games (RCG).  I was surprised with how much I enjoyed it: its take on Numenera, and how much it focused on the part of Numenera that I enjoyed most, exploration.  RCG has returned to the themes of Echoes with their new release, The Skyscrape.

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The Skyscrape Review

The Skyscrape is a 56-page pdf that is available on Drivethrurpg.com (for $3.00 at the time of this post).  RCG has settled into a great format for their pdfs, developing a unifying style and layout that is very professional and easy to digest.  There are three creatures in the book that are not blocked out in callout boxes like the rest, but this is a minor fix that can be addressed in an update.  Just be prepared to find these stat blocks nested within the description text of their location.

The focus of this pdf is discovery – specifically the exploration of a floating Numenera city known as the Skyscrape.  RCG returns to the Points of Discovery adventure design that they introduced in Echoes.  Each area of the Skyscrape has seven discovery points, and players earn XP by exploring these locations.  It is a great framework for setting up Numenera adventures and helps reinforce the differences between Numenera and traditional RPGs.  In fact, the Skyscrape could be looked at as a dungeon crawl that focuses on the exploration rather than the monster slaying.

Chapter 1 – Ascension

Before the adventures, the Skyscrape gives three new descriptors and foci.  Players can now craft Erudite, Impervious, or Voracious characters who Decipher Signs and Symbols, Remove Barriers, or Repair Ancient Devices.  RCG continues to provide descriptors that are different from what have been presented in other books.  For example, Erudite characters are masters of a single field of knowledge to the exclusion of all others, and Impervious allows characters to be resistant to the toxins and chemicals found throughout the ruins of the Ninth World.

The foci, like those found in Echoes, are discovery-based.  Of all of them, I feel like Repairs Ancient Devices has the most broad application, but RCG does pepper the others with Tier abilities that are more applicable outside of the scope of the foci.   For example, Deciphers Signs and Symbols gives the ability to identify Numenera without a roll, and Removes Barriers allows character to carry an extra Cypher, as long as it is a travel cypher or one that allows the character to bypass an obstacle.

Chapters 2 – 7 – The Skyscrape

The majority of this book covers the sections of the Skyscrape.  The floating city serves six location-based adventure sites.  Each site gives a skeleton adventure within a section of the site, totaling seven pre-defined locations for the players to explore.  Each section has a map, of which the seven locations account for less than 25% of the area.  RCG gives you a great taste of each of the city’s zones, but you can flesh each one out into a much larger adventure.

Within each chapter are new monsters, puzzles, and artifacts.  RCG does a great job of giving each area its own unique challenges and tone.  We also receive 100 new oddities, which are always a welcomed addition to Numenera games.

Chapter 8 – Skyscrape Cyphers

36 Cyphers round out this supplement.  Like their other books, RCG formats these Cyphers in an easy to print-and-use card format.  The Cyphers are themed for the Skyscrape environment, but I did not see any that could not be useful elsewhere, and they are a satisfying blend of the bizarre and beneficial.

Conclusion –

The Skyscape is a great deal for $3.  RCG packs a lot into their books.  This one has 3 Descriptors, 3 Foci, 100 oddities, 15 monsters, 5 artifacts, 36 Cyphers, and six adventure frameworks.  Personally, I would run the Skyscrape as a reoccurring location.  The PCs, having traveled there once, continually leave and return as the campaign unfolds, allowing the Skyscrape to evolve with gameplay.  It also would serve as a fantastical location for a contained story-arc, where the PCs crawl through the dungeon in the sky.

As a final update, you can now order Echoes of the Prior Worlds in hardcopy!  I am hoping that Celestial Wisdom, Whisper Campaigns, and Angels & Ashes soon get the same treatment!

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Faction Status – A Parallel Use for Relationship Rolls

Recently, I bought a number of Planescape products.  These books and box sets were thoroughly scoured and have been sitting in the back of my mind.  I have been slowly churning them around with the various other gaming products I have been reading, which have been mostly 13th Age related (as I have been working on the Iconic Podcast).  It seemed pretty clear to me that the Factions of Sigil would be a great place to start looking for Icons within the setting, and with the recent posts on the G+ community on alternative uses for relationship rolls coupled with the fact that we are looking at doing an entire show on these rolls, the following idea hit me.

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The ideas laid out here will be fleshed out and revised through use, but this seems like a solid first pass.  Or at least enough of an idea to share.  The GM can (and probably should) limit the Icons for which these rules apply on a campaign basis.  While any of the following ideas could be simply used as a variety of options for Icon Relationship Rolls (IRRs), my goal was to provide a loose framework for a GM to use within their games to allow for factions and Icon organizations.  I tend to be an improvisational GM, so loose frameworks like this provide me a lot of aid at the table.

Faction Status revolves around the idea that the Icons (whether they are true factions or not) have a power structure that they influence and control.  The Icon Organization paragraph from page 38 of the 13th Age Rule Book shows this to be true for the Icons of the Dragon Empire, “Most of the time that you’re interacting with an icon, you’re actually interacting with his or her lower-level functionaries, acolytes, disciples, bureaucrats, lieutenants, barons, or priests. Functionaries are the GM’s best friends, and they can be your worst enemies.”

The PCs, therefore, can interact with these organizations (which for our purposes will be referred to as factions) during the course of play as their Icon dice show 5s and 6s.  What if these successful IRRs represent moments where the PCs stand out and gain status with the Icon’s organization?

The GM would keep track of the total of 5s and 6s the players rolled with their Icons over the course of the game.  The total would represent the PC’s current status within the faction.  PCs, as they triggered interactions with their Icon, would climb in status with their Icon’s organization and as they crossed certain thresholds, gain benefits from their status.  This would be in addition to any session bonuses the players & GM used the IRRs for.

False Heights & Sudden Crashes

Before I get into the tiers of rewards for faction status, let’s talk about those pesky 5s.  5s on an IRR represent a complication to the interaction with the Icon.  In terms of Faction status, this represents an inflated standing in the organization.  Perhaps it was exaggerated in the telling or was secretly a plot by the Prince of Shadows that turns out to hurt the faction in the long run.  The next time a PC takes a campaign loss, the bubble bursts, and they lose all the points they had with the faction that were generated from 5s.  Harsh, but a faction’s love is fickle, and rising stars can come crashing down.

Tiers and Rewards

Ideally, each Icon would have a tailored list of faction rewards by tier, and if this idea takes off, I may further flesh out this idea on the blog.  Rewards are static bonuses as well as additional ways to spend IRRs(e.g. ways for PCs to use their 5s and 6s during a session).  But for the purposes of this post, I am going to give some general ideas as well as some themed examples.  These would be in addition to any faction specific story bonuses that the GM would want to exploit.

“Who Are You?” Rank 0 – (0-5 Status)

The PC is defined solely by their Icon dice.  The Icon reaches out to them or they can draw on the connection for knowledge, but no real benefit is gained beyond the basic IRR.

“Initiate” Rank 1 – (6-15 Status)

At this level, the Icon’s faction become aware that the PC exists.  The faction can be sought out, and basic aid will be rendered.

Static bonuses include:

Faction Safe House – The PC is able to find the faction’s base of operations and procure safe lodging or passage for the group.  A 5 could represent that the term ‘safe’ is relative.

Faction Goods – The PC has a sure source of replacement or new gear, as well as access to 1d6+1 potions or oils.  For a reasonable price, of course.

IRR bonuses include:

Power of the Icon Rewards (e.g. Emperor, Dwarf King, Orc Lord) – Short term tactical knowledge gives the PC a +1 to hit or damage with weapon attacks (+2 at Champion, +3 at Epic) for the session.

Wisdom of the Icon Rewards (e.g. Archmage, Diabolist, Prince of Shadows) – Using the wealth of information available to such Icons, the PC gains a +2 to background rolls on a specific subject for the session.  Like how to pick the locks within the Stone Thief, or riddles in the dark.

“Up and Coming” Rank 2 – (16-25 Status)

By this point the PC has established himself by word and deed.  The Faction is willing to take some risks in dealing with them, as they have proven that their relationship with the Icon is not just a passing craze.

Static bonuses include:

Faction-Specific Ability – The PC is granted an ability that is iconic for the faction.  Such as the Dustmen’s ability to be ignored by undead until they take a hostile action in Planescape.

Faction Background – The PC gains a +2 background that is faction based.

Sure Source of Aid – The PC at this point counts on the faction to provide aid beyond just shelter.  The resources and manpower of the faction may be put to use for short-term gains.

IRR bonuses include:

Specific Gear Loans – Need a flaming sword to clear out a troll den?  Or perhaps the crystalized soul of a dead god of light for a ritual?

Power of the Icon Rewards (e.g. Emperor, Dwarf King, Orc Lord) – The PC is granted a martial bonus appropriate to the Icon for the rest of the session.  Perhaps the Orc Lord grants Dangerous to his followers or the Emperor provides a buffer of ‘fake’ HP that exists only for the purposes of resisting fear, shoring up the PC’s defenses with righteous fervor.

Wisdom of the Icon Rewards (e.g. Archmage, Diabolist, Prince of Shadows) – The PC is granted, through research or interaction with the great minds of his faction, the answer to a question he seeks.  Perhaps a campaign goal is now understood, a riddle is solved, or a word of binding sends the rampaging demon back to the Abyss.

Face of the Faction” Rank 3 – (26 – 35 Status)

The PCs are the movers and shakers of the faction.  While there are those higher up in the organization, the PCs have become powers in their own right within their Icon’s faction.

Static bonuses include:

Faction Background – The Faction background increases to +4.

IRR bonuses include:

Henchmen – The faction sends out a junior member with the PC to accomplish a specific task.  The Henchmen provides a bonus to hit = to ¼ of the PC’s level (rounded up) and a bonus to damage of 1d6x ¼ the PC’s level.  It has an appropriate background of 6+¼ the PC’s level (round up).  The Henchman only has 20 HP per tier, and if he dies, the PC loses 1d6 faction points (x2 at champion, x3 at epic).

Faction Assault (1x per tier, subject to GM approval) – The power of the faction is at the PCs disposal.  Rather than deal with an encounter, the PC can have his faction handle it.  Narrate how the PC sent this aid, and do not count this towards the group’s four-battle counter.  Also, make sure to let the Faction grab what it can for itself in the way of gold or treasure from the encounter.  After all, this kind of aid is never cheap.

Resurrection (1x per tier.  Costs 10 status points) – The faction protects its own at this level.  They have invested a lot in the PC and don’t want to see all that effort go to waste.  But getting killed is a huge drain on their resources, so expect it to burn some bridges.

Gift of the Icons – Whether a piece of sacred knowledge, magic token, or insightful training, the PC gains the use of a daily power from a class, or may cause a power the currently possess to recharge as a save one step easier (hard becomes normal, normal becomes easy).

Note: This list of powers and Ranks is not supposed to be exhaustive.  It is but a sample to be expanded and built upon.

Consequences

In my Ta’nar game, I have a nice web of how the Icons interact with each other.  This is important, because as the PCs gain status with their faction, opposing factions begin to align against them.  Also, no one rises high in an organization without stepping on some toes.  PCs’ rise to status can be seen as happening at the expense of others.  This framework provides some interesting interpretations for 5s on IRRs.  Are the PCs’ plans opposed by a rival faction or sabotaged from within by rivals jealous of their status?

It would also be possible for this status to represent a more nebulous “enemy of my enemy” rank.  PCs could be calling on these favors from factions opposed to the Icon in question.  For example, if you are gaining ranks in Opposition to the Lich King, the faction benefits could represent aid from the servant of other factions.  The PCs status would be representative of their resistance status in opposing a Negative Icon.

Conclusion

Hope this provides a basis for an interesting use for IRRs as well as some great story fodder for your campaigns.  Any thoughts or feedback would be greatly appreciated.  Let me know what you think.  Would you use this system?  If so, how?

 

13th Age Bestiary Review

Bestiaries.  Books of monsters that are available for most game lines are among my favorite RPG products.  I enjoy reading adventures more than bestiaries, but bestiaries are a close second.  A good bestiary sparks my imagination and provides me with hours of enjoyment from behind the screen.  And, enjoyable is the word I would use to describe the 13th Age Bestiary.  The pure fun of this book is evident on every page and can be seen in the design of the creatures in this book.  The authors clearly had fun as they created this book and had fun as a goal.  They succeeded, and for me, have raised the bar on what I consider a great bestiary.

The 13th Age Bestiary

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This bestiary is a gorgeous 240 page book with 202 monsters for use in your game.  You can snag a PDF preview here.  I would recommend purchasing the hardcopy (which you can buy through your FLGS or here).

Introduction

The book begins with a brief introduction on what you will find within.  Then we are presented with a unique set of encounter lists.  Rather than giving us lists by environment, the 13th Age authors give us lists of monsters who might negotiate, ransom you, lay eggs, etc.  My favorite list is ‘Monsters Voted Mostly Likely to have Slain an Icon’.  The introduction wraps up with some advice on building interesting and unique encounters.

The Beasts

Like the Numenera Bestiary review, I will be focused more on presentation than statistics.  This goes beyond just not wanting to spoil the monster line up for the readers.  Some of these monsters, the ones that really capture my imagination, have mechanics whose fun could be ruined if revealed.  In 13th Age, the designers have given us beasts that are as fun to run for the GM as the classes are to play for the characters.  So make sure you read through the mechanics as you are skimming the book; there is a lot of humor and cleverness buried within this book.

Each entry has a brief introduction of what a campaign’s take on this monster could be.  You are actively encouraged to make each monster’s story your own for your campaign.  Monster stats then follow in typical 13th Age format.  Included with some monsters are nastier specials, which really turns their difficulty up.

Advice is given on how to build battles with the creature.  This includes where they are found and what other creatures they would work with.  With the importance of Icons in 13th Age, it is no surprise that typical Icon relationships for the creature are touched on.  Some monsters have a section on what players might find on the bodies, which is usually humorous.  The monster entries wrap up with adventure hook ideas.

The monster mechanics bear mentioning.  We find typical RPG fare coupled with 13th Age-specific mechanics (using natural d20 rolls to trigger powers).  There are, however, some great mechanics that break the rules of the game.  Whether the breakage is of a specific rule found in a 13th Age book or the implied rules of how RPGs work, you will find some unique monsters that play with players’ preconceived notions (check out the Redcap).  They also simplified some standard fantasy tropes, making them easier and more enjoyable for the GM to keep track of.  Kobolds, known for their penchant for trap creation, are just one of the creatures that spring to mind that received this treatment.

Monster Creation & Appendices

The Bestiary wraps up with advice on monster creation, everything from tweaking existing monsters to building them from scratch.  The authors give some advice (as well as design insight) to the use of abilities that key off of natural d20 rolls and the escalation die.  It is a nice peak behind the curtain to view the design ideology behind these mechanics.

The appendices collate the random ability rules for demons, dragons, and dire creatures as well as an unified monster table.  This is already obsolete with the release of 13 True Ways, but Pelgrane provides an updated monster table on their website.

Conclusion

If you are running a 13th Age game, go get this book.  Beyond the ready to use monsters, the book contains a lot of abilities and design methodology that you can steal for use in creating your own beasts.  The 13th Age crew did a fantastic job expanding the creatures found in the basic book into realms both familiar and strange.

Setup for Year 2

In pondering this post, I started to contemplate what I wanted from this blog over the next year.  I really would like to see the blog to have more focus.  It seems that the reviews that I do for this site have been my most popular posts over the last year, so  I plan on keeping Thursdays as my review day.  But that left Mondays without a clear focus.

The first year this blog was about me getting into the habit of writing about gaming consistent basis.  I wrote about whatever struck my fancy, with no rhyme or reason.  That is about to change.  Starting in two-weeks, I will be doing monthly series on Mondays.  Each series will be four posts on a different GMing subject.  It may be world design, or how to improv from behind the screen (which will be August’s topic), or other GMing advice.  My thought is to allow you all to chose the next month’s series with a poll.  Leave a comment if this interests you at all.

Hopefully this will provide me with more focus as a blogger and you as the reader, with more useful content.  Check back Thursday for my review on the 13th Age Bestiary!

 

Domains at War: Battles Review

Here is the second half of my Domains at War (D@W) review (the first part can be found here).   The second book that makes up Autarch’s mass combat supplement is Battles.  Where Campaigns looks at the sweeping scope of war, Battles focuses on the individual engagements.

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Domains at War: Battles Review

Domains at War: Battles is a 132-page PDF.  You can get it either by itself or as part of the Domains at War: Complete Set at drivethrurpg.com.  Like all Autarch products, D@W is a sharp-looking book with great art.  What differentiates Battles from Campaigns is that Battles is designed as tabletop wargame where you will play through the individual mêlées of your war campaign.  It is fully compatible with Campaigns as well as the Adventurer, Conqueror, King System.

Introduction

Battles starts off with a two-page introduction which includes a brief retrospective look at the origins of the RPG hobby.  From tabletop wargaming we have come, and to tabletop wargaming we return.  The introduction covers an outline of important terms and how to use Battles, either as a standalone game or in conjunction with Campaigns.

Chapter 1 – Basic Rules

This is the backbone of the Battles system.  With this and the first scenario in Chapter 9, you will be ready to play your first game.  The game is played on a hex map with markers that (at the basic scale) represent units of 120 infantry or 60 cavalry.  Units are broken up into divisions, which places a number of units under the command of a division commander.

Units are divided by type (foot, mounted, or flyer) and sub-divided based on formation.  Each entry on formation gives great historical and fantastical examples of that type of troop, except for flyers:  “Historical examples are sadly absent.”  In the basic rules, commanders help determine initiative order, morale bonuses for units, and have a pool of activation points used to control their division over the course of their turn.

Each round of Battles has the same sequence: Initiative Phase, Command Phases, and Morale Phase.  In the Initiative phase (which is happens each round), each division commander makes an initiative roll, establishing the order of the Command Phases.  In the Command Phase, commanders spend their activation points to move and attack with their units.  And in the Morale Phase, the overall army’s morale is diagnosed, and players’ check to see if their army breaks.

The resolution system will be very familiar to ACKS players; units have AC, Attack Throws, and Hit Points.  Attacks are resolved by rolling a number of d20 equal to the unit’s attack profile, adding the opponent’s AC to the unit’s Attack Throw value to determine what you need to roll.  Each hit nets 1 damage on the unit. Morale checks are resolved with 2d6 rolls along with a table of modifiers.

Autarch does a great job of making the integration of D@W with ACKS smooth and simple.  If you have played ACKS, especially to the point where your characters are eligible to participate as commanders in D@W, you will come to the table with a good grasp of the resolution mechanics.

Chapter 2 – Terrain

This chapter covers the placement and use of terrain for your Battles game.  With just the basic rules, it is assumed that the armies found an open level ground to battle each other on.  This chapter, plus the hex-token sheets provided with the Token Set, enables you to create a variety of diverse battlefields.

Terrain types are given special rules and characteristics, which affect movement and line of sight.  Look at the summary of the terrain types on page 33; it provides a nice overview of what you will need to keep in mind when using the different types of terrain.

Chapter 3 – Strategic Situations

When you are using Battles with Campaigns, not every battle will be fought in the same way.  Based on your choices during the campaign turn, your army might encounter another in ways besides a pitched battle. This short chapter gives you the setup and special rules for each of the battle types found in Campaigns.  The scenarios change the basic deployment rules as well as impose a variety of conditions upon one side or another.  FYI, ambushes are brutal in Battles, so set those up as often as you can.

Chapter 4 – Heroes

This chapter covers the full rules for heroes, including how to convert them from the base ACKS game and how to use heroes independently of units.  The rules here also cover the scenarios that would arise from taking a fantasy hero from an RPG and throwing them onto a battlefield. Heroes may use their spells, special abilities, and magic items at their disposal while on the battlefield.   The rules give you plenty of options for what heroes can do within a unit or out on their own.  This will provide your players opportunities to shine even in the midst of a mass combat.

Chapter 5 – Assaults

Sieges get their own chapter here, and I feel like this chapter is tied directly to its sister chapter in CampaignsCampaigns covers the initial siege, which will eventually flow into the assault of the stronghold, which you can play through with Battles.  This chapters covers the specific special rules needed for using fortifications, as well as siege engines.

Chapter 6 – Scale

Battles defaults to a company scale, meaning your armies will have between 600 and 3,000 bodies on the field.  This chapter covers how to adapt the unit stats to account for a larger or smaller encounters, as well as how this will affect heroes on the battlefield.  Spells, items, and Assaults can also be scaled.  This chapter highlights the level of detail and thought Autarch puts into their products.  The scaling changes are simple but effective, and the fact that they are included is a huge boon to the usability of this product.

Chapter 7 – Rosters

Much as you would expect, the unit stats are found here.  If it is mentioned in ACKS, or D@W: Campaigns, its statistics are found here.  Interestingly enough, unlike games like Warhammer, there is no way to ‘purchase’ units to build an army.  All of the mustering rules are found in Campaigns and are not based on a balancing of armies but what a player can realistically draw (or dares to draw) from their domain.

Chapter 8 – Conversion

This chapter contains the rules for building units for use within the Battles system.  Much like chapter 3 of Campaigns, this chapter will allow you to pull in creatures and races from other OSR and d20 based games.  If something has AC, Hit dice, HP, and To-Hit modifiers, you can convert it for use on the battlefield.  Examples are plentiful in this chapter, which is a huge help.  And at the end of the chapter, the rules for calculating Battle Rating and Wages (both very important stats in Campaigns) are listed here for a complete conversion rule set.

Chapter 9 – Scenarios

Two scenarios are given in the main book.  The first, Peril at the Fangs,is intended as an introductory scenario for use with only the basic rules.  Battle of Zidiumuses the full rules of Battles and moves the scale of the battle from the company to the brigade.  Both scenarios are grounded in the history of the Auran Empire (the ACKS’ default setting).  Peril at the Fangs pits beastmen against an understrength Auran legion, while Battle of Zidium is an epic conclusion to a massive war.  If you are familiar with the history of Rome, this battle is based on Zama, where Scipio Africanus fought Hannibal!

Chapter 10 – Armies

The final chapter is a list of special armies and units co-created with backers of the D@W Kickstarter.  These two armies are full of exotic units and special rules that were created specifically for these armies.

Glossary

Like Campaigns, any bolded word throughout Battles is found here with a definition. Also, like Campaigns¸ I suggest printing this out if you buy the PDF copy and annotating it with page reference numbers.

Conclusion

Autarch has created a lens with D@W.  This finely crafted piece allows you to view mass combat within your game.  It is up to you to focus the lens, choosing when to pull back and see the whole of a war campaign and when to zoom into a single battle.  The rules of D@W work seamlessly, allowing a group to flow back and forth between both rule sets as the story of the game and their interest demands.

While you can buy the D@W books separately, if you have even the slightest interest in Battles, I would highly recommend buying the Complete Set.  This set comes with Campaigns, Battles, the battlemap PDF (which I printed out and looks gorgeous), and a token set.

As a Warhammer player, I was not really interested in another fantasy miniatures game when D@W was announced, but I wanted to give this book a comprehensive review.  So my buddy, Chris, came over, and we worked our way through the first scenario.  Despite being trounced soundly by the beastmen who rallied to Chris’ banner, I had a blast.  (Chris really seemed to enjoy the trouncing as well.)  The basic game was simple to pick up, and within a couple of turns, we were hardly referencing the rules.  I am sure there were things we did wrong, but we had a blast and are going to get together and play the advanced scenario soon.

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Bonus Episodes!

Lots of things are spinning behind the scenes with me today.  Most of them are things that I can’t share as of yet.  But I can share this; IconicPodcast.com is live!  Episodes 00 (an introduction to the hosts) and 01 are available for download from the site, and will soon be available on iTunes.

Iconic will release one show every other week, packed full of 13th Age content.  While the show is primarily about 13th Age, I wanted to talk about the bonus episodes we have planned.  The goal of these bonus episodes are to talk about other games we are passionate about.  Iconic will be doing reviews of various games and interviews with game designers across the industry.  Our current lineup of bonus episode topics are Mice and Mystics, Dungeons and Dragons, Legend of the Five Rings, Cypher, and Adventurer, Conqueror, King.  If you have something you would like us to talk about, leave a comment here or email us at whitedragon@iconicpodcast.com.  I am very excited about this show and hope you are as well.

I am setting up my D@W: Battles playtest for later this week (hopefully before my review goes live on Thursday).  I leave you with this picture from my Battles project this weekend.  They are all cut and collated.  My buddy Chris has agreed to play some beastmen vs. the heroic Auran Empire forces in the starter scenario.

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Domains at War: Campaigns

Disclaimer: This pdf was provided as a backer reward for supporting the Domains at War kickstarter.  All opinions within the review are my own.

Autarch was the third company to get money out of me on Kickstarter.  By that time, I had already found Adventurer, Conqueror, King (ACKS) and was feverishly working my way through it.  As I stated here, ACKS’ rules reminded me a lot of what I loved about Birthright.  I found myself wanting rules for mass combat so that PC kingdoms could go to war.  Then Domains at War popped up on Kickstarter, and much money and many months later, I have the PDF copies of the Campaigns and Battles books.  (My hardcopy is in the mail!)

Domains at War (D@W) is actually two books (one that focuses on abstract campaigns, and the other is a table top wargames) so I will be giving each book their own in-depth review.

Domains at War: Campaigns Review

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Domains at War: Campaigns is a 105 page PDF.  You can get it either by itself or as part of the Domains at War: Complete Set at drivethrurpg.com.  Like all Autarch products, D@W is a sharp looking book with great art.  Alexander Marcis, the author of the book, does a great job distilling the abstract and concrete elements of rule set into a readable format and provides great examples every step of the way.

Introduction

This one page introduction gives us a brief overview of the book’s inspiration, what to expect as a reader, and important terms.  Take time to read the fourth paragraph on this page, and look at the references that were listed.  This is a book that is grounded in a classical understanding of war.  ACKS cleaves to a simulationist style of game design (especially in world design), and D@W is no different.  However, what makes ACKS so attractive to me is the verisimilitude that this historical grounding gives the game.

Chapter 1 – Armies

This chapter covers how to create and manage armies within your D@W (and ACKS) campaign.  Hiring mercenaries, conscripting peasants, levying militias, deploying followers, buying slaves, and calling up vassal troops each receive detailed rules for every aspect of using them in a campaign.  Costs are given for acquiring, equipping, and maintaining these units.  Want to figure out what the standing army of a kingdom is?  There is a table for Vassal Troops.  Want to know how much an Ogre trained as a heavy infantry will cost you at market?  D@W covers that (it is 2,625 gp in case you were curious).

The chapter then goes into how to structure your armies, what command requirements your PCs must meet, and what military specialists are good for and why you need them in your army.  Chapter 1 finishes up with the Unit Characteristics tables for a huge variety of troop types.

Since D@W focuses on mass combat in a fantastical world, it doesn’t just give information for the troops of men, but for Dwarves, Elves, Beastmen, and other exotic creatures.  The information for fielding a unit of werebears, 12 headed hydras, or Ancient Dragons are all here practically begging to be used.

Chapter 2 – Equipment

Chapter 2 covers all the gear you and your army will need on the campaign trail and in the field.  Like the ACKS equipment section, do not just read the little table at the front and move on.  There are subtle rules for a number of pieces.  If you don’t read the whole description you will miss things like the rules for helmets or the mirrored shield.  Following the PC-focused gear, we get to costs and statistics for siege weapons.  What mass combat book would be complete without catapults, trebuchets, and ballista?

One small paragraph explains how armies become their own market based on their size.  It got me thinking how you could run an entire campaign on the campaign trail, with the camp counting as a mobile home base.

The rules and costs for building strongholds to assault or defend are also found here.  This section, which will be very helpful when using D@W in your ACKS game, refers the reader back to chapters 3 and 7 of the ACKS main book.  This section will play out in your conquests as you assault, defend, and conquer strongholds with your army.  The Sieges chapter will refer to a number of statistics that can be found in these tables.  While D@W does give options for abstracting strongholds, I feel you would be missing out on a significant chunk of the game’s enjoyment if you didn’t flesh out your castles with these rules.

Chapter 3 – Campaigns

Before you can get your armies from Chapter 1 to Chapter 5, you have to move them around the map.  Each campaign turn is broken down in to a simple four step process.  And I do mean simple; only 13 pages of rules are given to this section.  And it covers moving armies, supplying armies, reconnaissance, and what do with domains once you conquer them.

Each turn, which lasts about a week of game time (plenty of time to players to get their characters into all sorts of adventures between turns), breaks down into four phases: Initiative, Movement and Battle, Supply, and Occupation and Conquest.  Each phase is well laid out, easy to understand, and presents a number of clear and influential choices for players who are in command of the armies.  One thing that stands out is the use of magic in D@W.  The book provides guidelines for how scrying will influence an army’s ability to hide itself or track the enemy. It is easy to read this book and become entranced with the idea of seeing ancient world or medieval battles played out.  The author does a great job of remembering these rules are intended for use with a fantasy game, even if the reader might sometimes forget.

While some of this chapter is clearly designed to dovetail into the ACKS domain rules, a large majority of it can be picked up and dropped into almost any OSR or modern d20 based game.

Chapter 4 – Battles

And now the rules for fighting.  After you establish the type of battle (based on choices made during the Campaign turn), you are ready to engage in either bloody conquest or righteous war.  We zoom into a 10 minute turn, and each turn is again broken down into simple steps.  Army leaders select participating units, calculate their strength, PCs get to be awesome, each side rolls to hit and removes casualties, checks are made for morale, and then see if they want to (or can) fight another round.  The abstract combat is fast and deadly, giving the game a feel of the grinding wheel of war wearing down the masses.

Rules are given for calculating battle strengths, including formulas for calculating unlisted monsters and PCs.  This is where D@W shines as a product for systems other than just ACKS.  Want to figure out what the Companions of the Hall would be like as a unit in an army?  Do it.  Want a squad of floating spheres with one large eye and multiple other eyes on stalks?  If it has an armor class, hit dice, and a list of special abilities, you can abstract it with D@W.

But what stands out for me is the Heroic forays.  Once problem with mass combat in most RPGs is how they tend to handle what the characters are doing while the battle is happening.  Let’s be honest, RPGs focus on the character level, and mass combat…well has mass in the title.  The story lens can pull too far back for the players to feel like their characters have any say in the outcome.  D@W does a fantastic job of preventing this from happening.  First, and simplest, your PCs could just be one super awesome unit.  It is quick, and allows the overall combat to move faster, but still might cause the story to be too panoramic for most players (I know my players are like this).

So, players can make Heroic Forays.  These boil down to heroic gambles that the players make to cause the tide of battle to swing in their favor.  They wager their unit strength (the GM presents them with enemies equal to that strength), and you play out an encounter right there while the battle rages on around them.  If they win, those casualties are inflicted on the opposing army right then and there before the standard attacks are rolled.  Players can choose to foray multiple times over the course of a battle.  There are also some slick rules for Hero vs. Hero Forays, but who runs games with pvp?…. Oh wait.

How battles end, what the winners can do to the losers, how casualties are treated, and what makes up the spoils of war round out this chapter.  Just remember, if you are leading a horde of carnivorous warg riders to glory, captives are not just for interrogation or ransom.  Wargs gotta eat….just saying.

Chapter 5 – Sieges

This chapter covers everything you would want to know about Sieges.  It also provides rules for abstracting those sieges.  We find rules for blockading to starve out defenders, breaking their defenses, and how to assault their broken walls. It includes simplified rules for quickly establishing how long a siege would take if it happened in the background of a game.

Once again, we see how magic will affect combats in a fantasy world.  Rules for how spells can be used against strongholds are looked at here.  Your clerics and wizards will be able to raze to strongholds with spells, while the rest of the party climbs through the breach in the wall the fighter made with his horn of blasting.

The rules for this section, as I stated earlier, refer heavily back to the stronghold creation section of Chapter 2.  This is another part of D@W that can be ported directly to another system.  Ignore the building costs, create your castle, then throw a siege at it.

Chapter 6 – Vagaries

The last chapter is devoted to tables of how the twists of fate may affect a campaign.  There is a table for vagaries of recruitment, war, and battle.  These table interject those things that are uncontrollable but inevitable over the course of a campaign.  The quote by Julius Ceasar at the start of this chapter sums up what you will find.  ‘Fortune, which has a great deal of power in other matters but especially in war, can bring about great changes in a situation through very slight forces.’

Glossary

Finally, the glossary.  Any bolded word throughout D@W is covered here.  In fact, I printed out the glossary immediately before I read through the book for this review.  It is a great reference which I recommend handing out to your players so they have it as well.

Conclusion

As you can probably tell, there is a lot crammed into the 105 pages of this PDF.  D@W: Campaigns is a great supplement for people who want mass combat added into their game but still want it abstracted into in an evening of play.

ACKS books are well thought out, and there is a high level of interplay between all the moving pieces of the rules.  D@W is no different.  So much of the structure of D@W ties back into the ACKS rules about economics and domains.  So when you get this, I would advise reading through it at least twice.  Once to get a wide view of the Campaigns system and a second to dig deeply into each section.  D@W provides cross-references to the other ACKS books where they apply, which is very helpful.

If you are looking for a rule set for a d20 game that abstracts mass combat in a fun, simple way, while still providing players influential choices, check out D@W.