27 July 2012

Barbarian Versus

Barbarians Versus. That title sure conjures up a very specific image, doesn't it? An image of muscled brute of a man charging down from the hills, loincloth fluttering in the wind and at least one axe raised above a face tangled in beard. At the bottom of the hills is something, it doesn't matter what. Whatever it is will be destroyed or pillaged. Barbarians Versus is exactly what you expect.

I'm not sure when or why I purchased this game. I found it in my DriveThruRPG library, so I must have bought it at some point. Maybe it was on sale? Perhaps it was in one of those charity bundles? I don't know. What I do know is that I had to take a look.

What is it?

Barbarians Versus is a short, 32 page RPG from Mystic Ages Publishing. Players take on the roles of the titular barbarians and proceed to wreck shit up. By default the game is set in a typical fantasy universe with one tiny, little twist. When the barbarians arrived for their annual pillaging of the kingdoms they discovered that reptilian aliens have conquered the kingdom.

How does it work?

The game starts with everyone, except for the person in the role of the GM, creating a barbarian. This is a straightforward process that has each player naming their character; creating a clan; distributing 20 points among 5 attributes (Smash, Throw, Feet, Craftiness, Contemplating.), special abilities and equipment; creating a warcry and coming up with some goals and fears. This sounds like a lot more than it really is, all of these rules are clearly communicated across just five pages.

Once everyone has their barbarians ready it is time to go raiding. At this point the game moves into traditional GM/Player territory. The barbarians will stumble across the aliens and proceed to get into trouble. This is all handled with the old back and forth between GM and Player that anyone that has played a tabletop RPG should be familiar with.

The core mechanic of the game, that which you will be using whenever your barbarians actually want to do something is dead simple. You select the relevant attribute and add one die for each point in it you have, then you add more dice goals (or what your barbarian bleeds for), your clan, equipment and abilities. Then you subtract any penalties from that you might have from fears or use of abilities. Then you roll your mitfull of dice and total them. If your number is higher than the GM's target you win the test and something good happens. Otherwise, you are at the GM's mercy.

There isn't much else to say about the system or the rules. There are some sections on creating new abilities and things, which are going to be useful for anyone that wants to play this for more than one or two sessions, and a fun little GM section that has some ideas and tips. There is also a section on getting your barbarian drunk, a necessity for a game like this.

Final thoughts.

Fun is the word here. The theme of the game is what sells it. If  lighthearted barbarian hijinks sounds like a good time to you then you will like this game. If not, you won't. The system hardly even enters the equation. It does its job, it is simple and it works. It doesn't do anything special and it doesn't do anything bad either. It's the kind of system that gets out of the way so that you can have fun bashing things with your barbarian.

Barbarians Versus is available on DriveThruRPG for $5.

26 July 2012


I have been thinking about adventures as a game of tug-of-war. On one side is the goal, the thing that the adventurers are trying to accomplish. On the other side are the goals of the aggressor or what happens if the adventurers are not successful in their venture. In the middle of all this lies the adventure.

Click to enlarge.

Imagine if everything that a character did (or didn't) moved the tug of war in one direction or another. If the  heroes successfully repelled some raiding orcs that would move things one notch in favour of a positive outcome or overall success for the heroes.

Now imagine there are some zones or markers along the field. Each of these zones represents a change of overall circumstances or attitudes. As the villain gets dragged through these zones they might become more and more desperate, resulting in more dangerous and risky schemes in an attempt to drag things back in their favour. On the other hand, if the adventurers get dragged towards the Negative Outcome their own circumstances worsen. Allies die or abandon them, traitors appear, evil poisons the land, monster attacks become more frequent and so on.

You could also apply positive effects in the zones. As the heroes draw closer and closer to their ultimate goal then perhaps more and more people flock to their cause and the less control over the world the villain has.

What is the point of all this?

I came up with this idea as a way to give an overall structure to a game of Rollplay. In my playtest of the game I found that since players could create any obstacle or circumstance they wanted in each scene that this lead to a disjointed, somewhat manic and unfocused narrative. This can be fun in its own right, but isn't really the overall feel I was going for.

What I hope to accomplish with a mechanic like this adventure tug-of-war I hope to create an overarching narrative in an improvised game. By using this mechanic a win and lose condition enter the game and consequences affect the story on a macro level. Using this method I can have players define the adventure or goal at the beginning of a game, something like "prevent Sauron from conquering Middle Earth".

Other uses

While I had originally conceived this as a mechanic for the Rollplay Engine, I think it could also work very well as a way to move through an adventure module for other role playing games. I envision a non-linear adventure with a primary antagonist of some kind. Any number of zones could be placed on the adventure "line" and each could be associated with a number of different encounters. As the players move back and forth along the line the GM selects (or randomly chooses) an encounter from whatever zone they have moved into.

There is some risk of the players getting caught in a loop where they bounce back and forth and end up running out of new encounters for a specific zone. To deal with this a time mechanic might be added. A villain really only needs to slow down a group of adventurers until they can complete their plan. If the group runs out of time then the villain achieves their goal, but this may not be a complete victory if the players are far enough along the line towards a heroic success.

I suppose a GM might also use this mechanic as a way to track progress on in any RPG. It could be useful just for determining the attitudes of a villain to the player characters or keeping track of progress towards defeating a villain in an improvised game.

20 July 2012

Heroes Against Darkness: Beginner Friendly?

I have mentioned before that I am on the look out for great free RPGs that have a knack of teaching the basics of role playing to new players. None other than Justin Halliday took a moment to humbly (or at least as humbly as one can self promote, anyway) suggest his own game, Heroes Against Darkness as an option. Seeing as how Justin took the time to read my own scribbles I felt that I should take a peek at his game.

Heroes Against Darkness

What is It

Heroes Against Darkness is a free fantasy role playing game wrapped up in an attractive package and stuffed with style. Heroes is built on top of the d20 system, but it draws inspiration from every edition of D&D to date.

The rules of the game state that it comes without a setting, but it definitely implies one through the flavour text that is dolled out liberally throughout. The world of Heroes is one of built on the crumbling ruins of ages long past. It is a world where deities roam the earth and magic runs rampant. There might not be a map or world specific lore, but there is clearly a high magic, high adventure setting assumed.

How it Works

The mechanics that power Heroes Against Darkness will be instantly familiar to anyone that has played D&D before. Most everything is handled by a single roll of a d20 with the results modified by a variety of factors. If the resulting number beats the target set by the GM then the action is successful. This is spelled out on page 3 of the book in a great section that sums up the main concepts in just a few bullet points. Every single game should have a page like this.

Modifiers, by the way, are much easier to deal with in Heroes than they are in vanilla d20. The reason for this is simple: there are no feats or skills in the game to keep track of. The only modifiers to worry about are ability modifiers (bonuses from strength, dexterity, etc.) and situational modifiers. The choice to strip feats and skills from d20 is really the first place that the game starts to move into more old school territory. Halliday's mixing and matching of D&D editions becomes even more evident when Heroes borrows a page from the D&D 4e by giving powers to classes (yes, even the melee ones). In fact, a lot of the feat functionality finds its way into those same powers.

Heroes Against Darkness doesn't just mix and match elements from different versions of D&D, though. It does make its own changes to the well worn formula. The most far reaching of these, the one most likely to turn off D&D fanatics, is that the Vancian magic system was given the boot. In its place is something called Anima, which is really just a mana system. Spells have associated anima costs that must be paid in order for the spell to be cast. Some players will love it and others will hate it. I have never really felt strongly about Vancian magic one way or the other and am indifferent about the whole thing.

I haven't really touched on Character Creation yet, so let's do that now. Players build their characters by selecting a race from classic choices such as Elves, Dwarves and Humans or more unconventional options such as Tartareans (essentially Tieflings) and Drow. From there players select from 11 different classes, including old standbys like Barbarians and Rogues as well as newer options like Necromancers and Mystics. Once those two choices are out of the way all that is left is to roll up the character's ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, Wisdom, Constitution, Intelligence and Charisma) and work out all of the derived stats, such as hit points, anima  and defense. Oh, you will need to purchase equipment as well. The whole process is shorter than building a d20 character and longer than building a 0e/1e character.

Taken altogether the system looks solid and manages to go its own way without straying too far from the D&D DNA that pumps through its ink.

So, Is It Beginner Friendly?

Heroes Against Darkness is more beginner friendly than most. Aside from the nearly boilerplate "What is an RPG?" section there is a short Role Playing 101 section on pages 53 and 54. It isn't anything fancy, but it does give some advice on role playing and an example of play. This should be enough to get players in the right ballpark when taken in with everything else found in the book. I'm not sure that putting it 50 pages in was the greatest idea. I think I would have preferred to see it in the introduction along with the rules summary and "What is an RPG?" stuff.

About halfway through the book there is a good section on Game Mastering which shows how to put together an encounter, among other important GM tasks. It has enough information to get someone started, but could offer a bit more advice on the actual act of GMing. It is mostly concerned with preparation.

The real beginner-friendly jewel of Heroes isn't found in the rulebook at all. The Sundered Tower is a solo adventure done in a choose-your-path style that teaches the basics of the system. This is probably the most valuable tool for a newcomer because it shows how things should fit together and allows a reader to play with it.

Final Thoughts

Heroes Against Darkness is one the of the slickest free RPGs I have seen yet. Don't let the $0 price tag fool you, this is the full package. This is a game that feels like 0e/1e D&D with a more robust tactical framework and a unified system. I get a feeling that Heroes Against Darkness will appeal to fans of the E6, Fourthcore and people that subscribe to the OSR ethos, but not necessarily the games.

18 July 2012

The Rollplay Engine

About a month ago I posted about eschewing character sheets in favour of managing everything through dice. I have been mulling the idea over and over the recent long weekend I whipped together a basic RPG system built around the concept. I am tentatively naming the resulting game the Rollplay Engine. It is a silly name, but also a relatively apt description. It is also a bit of a cheeky nod at the term "rollplaying", which is one of the few hobby-related words that make me want to strangle my monitor.

A lazy mockup of a die used by the Rollplay Engine.

What I have written is a basic system using fantasy archetypes which we can call Fantasy Rollplay for now. I have used fantasy archetypes for the basis of the system because I find them easy to work with. If I find that the system is fun then I will probably expand it into other genres. Actually, when I was writing this I thought that the game would work very well adapted to a mech theme. Right now the game is very much in a draft form, but if you take a look (or play the game) please let me know your thoughts.

I should note that I have included dice values next to things in the rules because I haven't actually made any custom dice yet (I am planning to do this with stickers). To play this game you will either need to refer to these rules or write the numbers out on cards or pieces of paper. 

Some Design Notes

Spotlight and Opposition Players

I decided to make the Rollplay Engine one of those artsy story games that feature shifting narration responsibilities. There are a couple of reasons for this:
  • Narrative controls seemed a natural fit for a system that gives players limited options. By using narrative control the game becomes more about taking the options the dice give you and narrating something fun than it does about rolling to see what your character does. It puts the control back in the hands of the players instead of leaving things at the mercy of the dice.
  • I wanted the game to be something that could be picked up and played with no preparation. In a game that is about improvised narration the GM role was already reduced, so it made sense to remove it entirely as a requirement
Despite the game defaulting to having no player wearing the GM/Storyteller mantle in the traditional sense, there is no reason why a group of players couldn't select someone to take on that role. The game should work fine with a single player acting as the Opposition for every scene.

Difficulty Isn't so Difficult

I think this is somewhere where I really veered off into unfamiliar territory. Most role playing games, if not all of them, have some kind of difficulty mechanic. Players need to roll over or under some target number or they need a certain number of successes or they have a percent chance of being successful at something. The only games that do not do things this way are the ones with bidding and similar narrative control mechanics, but the driving force behind these mechanics is in narrative competition.

With Rollplay I knew that I needed some kind of difficulty mechanic some way for players to succeed or fail at what they are trying to do. I came up with the difficulty dice. The idea with these is that the dice represent a chance for something to go wrong, which is something I found to be much more flexible and easy to manage than a bunch of contextual values. I then mixed things up further by having players set their own difficulty in a kind of gamble mechanic. The more difficulty dice they bet the greater the narrative reward.

If players manage their dice well and are able to tackle any complications that the difficulty dice throw their way then they should be able to overcome any challenge. Cowardly players can always gamble the minimum and be all but assured success, but a minimal success like that would be... well, minimal.


There are a number of different classes and backgrounds listed in the rules I linked above, but the beauty of Rollplay is that more can be made with such little effort. New faces and narrative keys can be created and arranged as desired. During the very first playtest of the game we whipped up a new background (craftsman) in less than a minute for a player that wanted their character to have worked as a smith before they went adventuring.

First Playtest Observations

I playtested this game with my regular group of players last Wednesday. It went surprisingly well. Overall things flowed quite naturally from scene to scene and the constant barrage of obstacles set a kind of manic pace. 
  • A flowchart laying out the game structure would be useful. I wasn't having problems with it, but I wrote the damn thing. I think it would have been very helpful for the other players to have it written down somewhere.
  • We tried different was of selecting the opposition, different XP mechanics and even different ways of deciding which player narrated what. All seemed to work equally well in practice, with the exception of randomly determining Opposition. One of the players kept getting left out when we tried that and I don't think that is a good thing.
  • It is clear that the advancement/XP mechanic needs work. Right now it isn't particularly satisfying and I don't like needing to write down XP on scrap paper. Rewarding a single die at the end is also pretty boring as the players seem eager to have a more fast and furious approach to advancement.
  • The injury/hits mechanic also needs more thought. Right now it seems simultaneously too lethal and not lethal enough. I'll need to think about this one.
  • One player expressed that they would like to be able to lower their chance of success in exchange for trading their Narrative Key for something they didn't roll. I'm not sure how I feel about this one. It is worth considering. What I might do is group Narrative Keys into categories that can be swapped in this manner. For example, Might and Melee are similar enough that a player could trade one for the other at the cost of adding additional difficulty dice.
  • It might be a good idea to define an overarching adventure somehow and have "successful" scenes push towards some eventual conclusion. During the playtest there was no end goal and we/the players jumped around from minor conflict to minor conflict without hitting a nice flow.

16 July 2012

Food & Drink For Your Random Tavern

Last week I posted this set of tables aimed at generating a random tavern name. I made that table for a spot of fun on a lazy Sunday afternoon and I thought I would enjoy supplementing it with a pair of tables for random food and drink.

This interest in tables is a new thing. I don't recall ever making more than a basic table before last week and here I am cranking out another two. I'm finding table creation to be a strangely engrossing pastime.

Food Table

To use the Food Table roll d6 once per ingredient you wish to have in the food, I suggest 2-4 times. Then roll d10 under the corresponding category. Roll d10 again under the Preparation heading to find out how the food is prepared.

For example, I want to come up with a menu item for the The Dancing Kobold Tavern. I decide to use two ingredients and roll 2d6. I get a 1 and a 4, which means I need to roll once for meat and once again for Fruit. I roll d10 on each and end up with pork and plumb. Finally, I roll Preparation and get stewed. The menu item is Stewed Pork and Plum, a combination I can't say I have tried in my life. I never claimed that the tavern would have good food.

5Fryed5DuckSquidCarrotBlackberryOlive OilGarlic

* Choose a monster, humanoid or monstrous plant as the source of this ingredient.

Drink Table

The Drink Table is easier, simply roll 1d8 once under each of the headings to find out what is being served. The thing to remember with this table is that the Accents column could be the full blown flavour (Apple Cider) or just a hint (a touch of orange in an India Pale Ale).

d8Source/PreparationAccentsAlcohol Type
Well, now I'm thirsty. Time to swing by the fridge and see what I've got to drink. I doubt it is anything so exotic as Gnomish spiced kumis.

9 July 2012

Random Tavern Names

Last weekend I decided to try my hand at making a tavern name generation table. Well, it actually consists of three tables. Is that too complicated to use outside of a computer application? What is too complex for dice tables? I don't know the answer to that, but maybe you do. Let me know in the comments.

I had a good time making this and combing adjectives and nouns that I thought could be fun. I looked at a lot of traditional English pub names for inspiration (which was also fun). I am thinking about following up with some tables for finding out more stuff about the tavern. Things like rumours, house special, quality of accommodations and other customers. I don't think I will need two d100 tables to make those work. I didn't really need them for this one, but I just couldn't fit all the words I wanted on d66.

Random Tavern Name

  1. Roll d100. If result is even roll once on the Table 1 and add to name, else proceed to 3.
  2. Roll d100 on Table 2 and add result to name.
  3. Roll d100 on Table 3, if result 1-60 then continue to 5.
  4. Roll d100. If result is even roll once more on Table 1 and add to name, else continue to 6.
  5. Roll d100 on table 2 and add result to name.
  6. Add "The", "Ye", "Inn", "Pub" and similar words to taste.
Table 1

Table 2


Table 3

1-20Add “and” to name.
21-40Add “and the” to name.
41-50Add “or” to name.
51-90N/A - No further rolling needed.
91-95The sign is broken and no further title can be made out.
96-100As 61-90, but the sign is a picture/carving and features no writing.


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