'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,' the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. 'Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'

-Robert E. Howard
Beyond The Black River

Corrupt Cliffs

Corrupt Cliffs
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Places of Interest

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Conan 2099: The FUTURE!: An Initial idea.

Yesterday as I hopped around the internet this came across my feed...

Apparently, Marvel is looking to add a few characters to their 2099 universe in celebration of 80 years. Conan has been chosen along with a few other characters, such as The Punisher and the Fantastic Four to be full-fledged 2099 one-shots. We will then see the universe show up among regular titles as well. However, we are here to talk about the Cimmerian.

Upon seeing it I chuckled and thought of all the people who would lose their minds as Marvel completed a whole new twist on the character. That is not what this blog post is about. It is about my second thought, "I want to play this!", this would be a super fun setting for an RPG game! First I have no clue about Marvel 2099, so we will just drop that as the rosetta stone of the setting. Instead, we will use our own ideas and inspirations from my own head as well as ideas liberally inspired by other settings.

I thought it might be fun to do a series of blog posts on building this setting and the reasons for choices I might make. To start the series I figured it would be good to introduce the idea in this post and outline some questions and ideas I will fill in as I continue with the series, eventually arriving at a rule system and any other material I might need to play the system, such as setting descriptions, main antagonists, gear and equipment, etc.

Let's start with a list of ideas from the covers of the book.
  • High tech
  • Not post apocalyptic
  • Laser sword
  • flying cars
  • high tech armor or cybernetics?

Some other ideas we need to incorporate.
  • Barbarism vs Civilization
  • Magic/sorcery
  • Short tales
  • Earth
  • Why swords? Do we still use guns?

Finally where can we take some ideas from, I have brainstormed these settings and ideas myself or from online input from others.
  • Thundarr
  • He-man
  • John Carter
  • Bladerunner
  • Shadowrun
  • Starwars
  • 2099

As I go forward with this I realize I need a system to enact this idea.
  • Genesys
  • Modern Age
  • Savage Worlds

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Thursday, August 22, 2019

Age of Conan: Valeria #1

I have been away on vacation visiting the beautiful province of Newfoundland! I had intended on reading Valeria #1 and Conan: Exodus on the airplane on the way back, but that didn't happen. I did see a few reviews of Valeria #1, and while I didn't read them, the headlines lead me to believe the reviewers didn't like the book. I finally got a chance to read it on the train this morning.

Writer: Meredith Finch
Artist: Aneke
Colorist: Andy Troy
Letterer: VC's Travis Lanham
Cover Artist: Jay Anacleto & Romulo Fajardo Jr.

Cover Price: $3.99cad

When they released Belit #1, many of us were keen to see new tales of the Hyborian Age focused on some of our favorite characters besides Conan. What we got was a book that was not aimed, at the generally male, core fan base. This caused many reviewers to not get it, and to give it poor reviews. In general, the book was decent and clearly aimed at a different fan base, which I think is awesome. The more the merrier! Still, I hoped Valeria #1 would be different and maybe be aimed a little closer at the core fan base, call me selfish. I wanted to enjoy reading some more conventional stories about Valeria of the Red Brotherhood! The reviews, however, pointed towards something more like what we got with Belit.

Upon reading it I admit I was a little confused. Certainly, this might appeal to a woman reading it as the main hero is a heroine, but it wasn't what we saw in Belit. Valeria is fully formed and on a quest for vengeance, and while we do get some flashbacks to her as a young girl, outlining her character and reasons for wanting what she does, it isn't a tale of her youth. Further the '82 classic film, Conan the Barbarian, likewise showed early moments from Conan's life, even if it's not the main part of the tale. In my mind, it isn't obviously pointed at one or the other demographic.

The story we get is another origin tale, revolving around how hard life is in the Hyborian Age. Death comes swiftly to those around our main character and she rises to become the warrior we see in Red Nails. Her desires pushed by a quest for vengeance. Nothing new here, but this is based on pulp literature, we aren't looking for exceptionally deep tales. I understand that we don't always need origin stories, and when Valeria first appears in Red Nails, we don't have one. These titles are allowing other authors to explore the characters and the world, which I again think is a pretty cool thing. Bringing REH to more people is awesome in general.

The interior art is done by Aneke. I admit to not being hugely familiar with the artist, but having a look on the internet I see a fair body of work including Red Sonja. I have mixed feelings about the art. Some of it is great, like the opening fight sequence, and other panels are nearly comical, such as this fight between a merchant and a pirate. Despite a few odd poses, I think there is more good than bad in this issue.

Excellent opening fight.
Less excellent fight between pirate and merchant.

The cover of the title doesn't really deal with the story at all, and so maybe I should take issue with it as I did with several Savage Sword covers. However, it is a beautifully rendered cover of Valeria, and although it isn't directly about the story, it doesn't seem out of place either. The issue has plenty of swords, some blood and lots of action. It, however, has no sorcery as of yet, so I have a hard time fitting this solidly into the Sword and Sorcery genre it is current form.




Sword & Sorcery:

And so we fill 3.5 skulls with grog and toast this initial offering for Valeria!

This was, I believe, a decent start to the adventure. Despite a few missteps with the interior art, the story looks to be a nice pulp tale of swords and vengeance. I look forward to reading Valeria #2!

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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Narrative Terrain Decks.

At the beginning of the year I played a game of Primeval THULE via the Genesys system. During this game we had to make a daring escape, which involved cards drawn and skill checks made. That day is the direct inspiration for these terrain decks.

I worked on the idea and tried it for the first time at the Calgary Expo during my two Conan 2d20 games. The prototype, as you can see, isn't nearly as polished as the current offering. The decks changed from the basic idea to the current idea between day 1 and day 2 at the convention. Those cards would eventually become the "Weird Wood" deck. Since then I have created a desert deck, a cave deck, a passageway deck and a cliff climb. The cliff climb was my second attempt at a deck and I used to for my home players scaling a cliff, where they had a standard room encounter before finding their way into a set of caves which used another cave deck.

But why these decks over a more normal exploration system with a grid or a hex map? The two biggest reasons are player engagement and prep time.

Often some players are left in the back and don't get to contribute as much as the others, sometimes they roll less dice and this often can translate to less fun for them. The second reason is prep time and these cards require almost none. At most you might need a list of monster stats that players may or may not end up fighting in the dark passages or twisted forest.

The Decks

Generally the decks contain about 36 cards in total. 5 of these are the reference cards and the remaining cards are split between terrain and encounters.

  • Reference Cards - Basic instructions, sample monster ideas, sample cards.
  • Terrain Cards - Each card shows a picture of terrain as well as a skill.
  • Encounter Cards - Each card shows a skill or fight that must be overcome before continuing.

An Introduction to the Cards

Terrain Card
  1. Picture of the area the players are crossing. Strictly aesthetic.
  2. A good place to place a chit or a d6 to record the difficulty of the card.
  3. The default skill a player can use to cross the area. Use the cards base difficulty.
  4. When using another skill, add this modifier to the difficulty before making the test.

Encounter Card: Obstable
  1. Description of the obstacle and skill used to pass it.
  2. Difficulty of the skill check.
  3. Cost of skipping the skill check in doom.
  4. Damage a player suffers for failing the skill check.

Encounter Card: Fight
  1. Description of where the fight takes place.
  2. Base difficulty for physical attacks in the area.

Using the Decks

Step 1: Set aside the reference cards and split the deck into encounter and terrain decks. Determine the total momentum required to proceed through the terrain, this should be 1 per player at minimum.
Step 2: Shuffle the decks and place them in a convenient place.
Step 3: Draw a Terrain card and place it face-up on the table. Place a D6 or similar in the corner showing the "1", to symbolize a D1 skill test.
Step 4: A player either attempts the skill test listed on the card or chooses another skill test at a +1 or +2 difficulty modifier, depending on the card.
Step 5: Whichever skill the player uses, they must be able to narratively describe how it helps the party move through the card.
Step 6: Assuming success, place a momentum marker on the successful card. Place another terrain card above the first and increase the D6 by 1. ie a 1 becomes a 2. Any excess momentum can be stored in the pool as normal.
Step 7: Repeat the process increasing the difficulty until enough momentum is generated to move the players through the terrain. Each terrain card must be attempted by a new player until everyone has gone, then the process repeats.
Step 8: On a failure draw an encounter card and place the card beside the failed terrain card.
Sept 9: On a skill encounter each player individually attempts to succeed and move past the obstacle. On failure, they can pay the listed doom, or take the listed damage.
Step 10: On a fight encounter describe the terrain listed on the card and the base difficulty the players face. Run a simple combat encounter.
Step 11: Once the encounter card is complete place a new terrain card above it and reset the difficulty counter to 1, repeat steps 3-11 until the players are through the terrain.

NOTE: I don't specifically mention what to do with a complication. I believe they should be open-ended and make things interesting. That being said a simple idea is to draw an encounter card and have the player that rolled the complication resolve it, or the group if you get a monster card. Once complete place the next terrain card down and do not reset the difficulty counter.
*NOTE: The trek through the terrain should be viewed as a single scene giving the players no downtime. They should be weakened and haggard when they come out...iF they come out.

A Sample Play Through

We will assume our party of 4 adventurers need to find something within a dark and twisting forest. We set the number of successes they need to 4, one for each player.

Card 1: Terrain Card, Difficulty 1

Balor chooses to go first. He chooses to use his Survival skill instead
The difficulty becomes 2, as this falls under the "Other" Skill.
Balor says, "As we enter the dark forest I look around and try and see an open area to lead the party into the darkness."
He rolls 1 and a 15, and gains two successes. The party moves deeper into the woods.
Card 2: Terrain Card, Difficulty 2

Dorian takes up the lead. He chooses to use his Observation skill instead
This is the cards default skill, so the difficulty remains 2.
Dorian says, "Continuing into the darkness, I try and build on the path Dorian has found by looking for the signs of animals passing this way, indicating a path to something....." Dorian also chooses to use a bonus die and so rolls 3d20 (Either through Momentum or Doom)
He rolls 11, a 12 and a 15, and gains two successes. The party moves deeper into the woods.
Card 3: Terrain Card, Difficulty 3

Sarina takes up the lead. She notes acrobatics is not her strong skill and so attempts to use her Lore skill
Lore is again a +1 difficulty since it is not the default skill.
Sarina says, "Using my knowledge of the area and how trees grow from within my vast store of natural world knowledge I take note of the moss on the trees and use it to gain a direction and guide us further into the forest."
Sarina knows this will be a hard roll and so chooses to add 2 dice to her pool, rolling 4d20
She rolls 11, a 3, an 18 and a 15, and gains three successes.
Her failed roll leads the party astray......
Card 4: Encounter Card, Cliff Climb

The party's path leads them to a sheer, scalable cliff in the forest. The only way forward is to climb....
It is a simple D1 Athletics check.
Balor, Nualla and Dorian all choose to make the check and easily scale the cliff.
Sarina being less confident in her atheletics skill, chooses to pay the doom cost to join her companions at the top.
Card 5: Terrain Card, Difficulty 1

Nualla is the last party member to contribute to finding their way through, so it is her turn.
She chooses to use her resistance skill, so the test remains at a D1
Nualla says, "As we move beyond the cliff the insects begin to increase in numbers causing us to be maddened by their constant annoyance. I manage to push through the host of insects....."
Nualla rolls a 4 and a 20. A success and a complication.....
The party gains another success but is ambushed by a group of wolves.
Card 6: Encounter Card, Monsters!

Due to Nualla's complication, the party is set upon by a group of wolves! Note that the battle takes place in a thicket making the base combat difficulty a 2.
After taking some scratches the party defeats the wolves and presses on into the darkness, sensing they must be close to their goal!
Card 7: Terrain Card, Difficulty 2

We don't reset the difficulty as the encounter card was a complication, not a failure.
As the whole party has contributed we reset and choose someone else to start again.
Sarina using her keen sense of observation, at a difficulty of 2 tries to lead them to their goal.
Sarina says, "Excitedly I point into the trees and say, "Look I can see it through that break in the trees!"
She rolls a 5 and an 11, succeeding.
Finally, after the long trek through the forest, the party emerges at their goal......

And finally we see the final layout, and which cards gave the characters their successes.

As you can see we can create a large variety of terrain maps that are engaging on a role playing level as well as on a visual level with next to no prep from the GM. If you like these you can grab a set of cards over at the Game Crafter for about $10USD. You can also get a set of counters that include numbers which can be used for difficulty markers.

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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Why I think Zones Are Better Than Grids.

Over the last weekend, I again had the opportunity to play a game that used the more traditional grid-based system. It struck me that although it added the ability to more clearly move figures around and know "exactly" where each person was, it came at the cost of time.

Each time a character moved we needed to count the squares and try and determine the exact location we wanted to be. When casting spells with an area of effect, we needed to make sure the area was going to be what we wanted and count out carefully.

All of this additional time added up, and from where I was sitting slowed combat considerably. Combat should be an exciting time in the game, full of fun rolls and descriptions. We should not be seeking to slow it down. If I had any lingering doubts about zones before, they are pretty solidly gone now.

Instead of a battlemap composed of grids, zones break the map up into areas, let's see how that works in practice.

Basic Battlemap
Battlemap with Zones

Above we have two examples of the same map (From 2 minutetable top) described spatially. One with a grid where players can place a miniature on the map and move them in 5' increments. The other has the same map described with zones, where player miniatures are simply placed within a zone.

It is important to note that I have drawn the zones on largely for illustrative purposes, you could use a basic clean map and denote the zones through narration, small markers or just a small keymap. The zones don't need to be exactly delineated. We just need to know that a character is in the "Deep Stream" or on the "Rocky Incline"

Can you do much of what I am going to talk about with grids? Yes, you could, but I think zones are a simpler and more elegant way to accomplish it.

The first thing I think zones do are speed up movement in combat. You don't need to see if an opponent is 5 or 6 squares away. If you are both in the same zone you can engage them in combat, they are close enough to do so freely. Are they one zone over? Do you have a minor action available? You can also move to engage them easily. If a PC is at the bottom of the cliff and an opponent in the stream on the top of the cliff, you can fight. You don't need to count spaces. This in and of itself is a pretty big plus in my books.

What about terrain though? Surely the moving from the base of the cliff to the top of the cliff should impart some slow down. This brings us to another excellent thing about zones. They can each be made a little differently. Moving across the cliff zone might require an Athletics/Acrobatics test to move at full speed. It might even cause damage on a failed roll simulating fall damage. Essentially when a player is on that zone they are actively climbing up the cliff.

Some examples for the above battlemap written for Conan 2d20.
  • Rocky Incline - Steep incline - D2 Athletics/Acrobatics Hindrance. Incline plus loose rocks make the going difficult.
  • Skull - Cave entrance - 2cd Cover from missile weapons.
  • Steep Path - D1 - Athletics/Acrobatics Hindrance.
  • Path - Open ground, no penalty.
  • Cliff - D3 Athletics/Acrobatics Hazard for take 2cd damage on failure.
  • Stream - Flowing stream - current is stronger than it looks - D2 for all physical tests while in the zone.
  • Deep Stream - Flowing & Deep - D2 for all physical tests and D2 Athletics/Acrobatics Hindrance.
  • Path - Open ground, no penalty.

Now we have created a battlemap that has a lot of interesting things going on. Players may wish to try and fight on the open ground of the paths, but if they need to gain entrance to the skull cave, they are going to have to fight over some hindrances or hazards to get there. As I mentioned you could, of course, do similar with a standard grid battlemap. Not only do I feel the zoned approach is easier, I feel it lends itself to wanting those details more.

Finally, they are hugely abstract, they can represent whatever size you need, a large open field might represent a larger area on the table than the trees next to it. They might be player scale, or they might be army scale. Following on the abstract nature, you don't need your zone to specifically represent an actual 1:1 scale on the table, using a set of cards like RUNEHAMMER's ICRPG Graphic Index Cards or pictures of printed areas laid on the table you can quickly lay down easily identifiable and interesting zones for your players to interact with. If you need a set-up like the above you could grab a set of 8 index cards and write the name and details of each zone and just lay them out on the table.

And because of this abstract nature and ease of creating zones with a small card, you could lay out a complex area in a very small space, eliminating the need to carry around a large battlemap, you will just need something to represent players and enemies which fit inside the cards. Examples might be small chits or 15mm figures.

Lastly and this one may be a bit of a shock, I think think the abstraction of the exact position of a character within a zone is more realistic. Unless you subscribe to the idea that 1 roll of the die is the equivalent of one blow of the sword, keeping a character in a 5'x5' square is wholly unrealistic to me. The idea that combat is moving across and around the area is much more realistic to me. "The fight between the warrior and the bear rages in front of the skull cavern, the roar of the bear pushing the warrior back as he circles to find an opening on the massive beast" is descriptive of a battle occurring in a zone where the two combatants gain and lose ground and circle for the best place to strike from.

The downside is that players are a little more generic, in D&D you might have someone that can move 4 squares and another that can move 6 squares. With a zone-based system, each player is essentially moving the same distance. For me, though this negative is a very small one and is strongly outweighed by the positives. Similarly, other aspects of the game strongly tied to a location are lost such as an area of effect or flanking.

To sum up why I think Zones are superior to grids: They can save time in combat, they lend themselves to a more descriptive and interactive environment, their abstract nature allows more freedom of scale and I think it is a more realistic interpretation of the world.

Zones meet a nice middle point between the strict theatre of the mind and players measuring exactly where their miniatures move. They can speed up combat by eliminating exactly where everyone is. They can create rich and vibrant environments that are more interesting to play in. They can be scaled to fit the table size you have with minimal fuss. Creating their physical representation can be as simple as words on a card up to a full 3d layout.

If you haven't tried zones before in your games, I encourage you to give them a shot. If your system doesn't specifically include them a rough guideline is to allow players to engage and move within a zone freely, a normal move allows movement between zones and a sprint allows movement across 2 zones. You will need to give some consideration to how you handle area effects and flanking. Maybe you won't like them, or maybe your players won't and you'll go back to the grid. But just maybe you'll enjoy this new system free of range rulers and measuring.

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Thursday, July 11, 2019

Savage Sword of Conan: Issue #7 (2019) "The Gambler" Part One

Welcome back to Starships and Steel! I feel like all I do now is review comics! With the plethora of new titles (and old titles out there), they are taking a fair bit of my blog time up. I almost didn't even review SS7, which might be evident by that the review is out a day after the title was released. This review will be a little less spoiler free that what is usual. I am not going to fully discuss the story, but story layout and something I want to draw your attention to that occurs later in the story, that I feel must be said.

Writer: Jim Zubb
Artist: Patch Zircher
Colorist: Java Tartaglia
Letterer: VC's Travis Lanham
Cover Artist: Marco Checchetto

Cover Price: $3.99

The issue sits at 18 pages of actual comic content plus the serial prose by Scott Oden at the back. Although I don't review the prose, I encourage you all to flip to the back and have a read!

Starting with the cover of this book, we see a well-rendered piece of art. Conan sits at a table with a woman behind him, perhaps a witch or similar? Before him lies a table covered in gold, cards, and blood! Surely a great start, and compared to the original covers that simply paid homage to older covers and had nothing to do with the story, this one hits it out of the park. Even when I think the covers are more in line with the content of the book I feel like the artists are given a basic idea behind the issue and they go off and create it. We get a relevant image, but not an actual image from the story.

This image is completely different. The cover is a depiction of the story. The cards are in the story. The woman is in the story. This seems to be a home run. Clearly, Marco has been given a lot more direction than previous cover artists.

The interior art is likewise pretty well-executed, with some fun panels. Conan is well depicted as a young man, probably some of his first forays as a thief type character. The coloring is likewise well executed with it adding to the already lovely art. Shadows and light are both used effectively and the overall tone of the panels is excellent.

The book starts with promise. Conan comes across a man in Shadizar set upon by bandits. After being promised coin, Conan intervenes and we get a pretty cool fight scene over the next couple of pages. After this though we get several pages of pretty heavy dialogue between Conan and this denizen of Shadizar. We get more dialogue than we got combat. The next three pages are pretty dialogue-heavy and for me at least slowed down the pacing a lot. It is not what I have come to expect, and I can't say I really liked it.

Once we get past the overly wordy parts of the story, we move into the meat of the tale. We are shown a gem which I hope, plays into the tale later, as it is pretty much the only "weird" thing we see. I hope we see the woman on the cover be pivotal in the tale, and I ALSO hope she does turn out to be a witch of some description. That will all come later though, in the next parts of this tale.

We are also given a couple of pages of introduction to a gambling game. Yes, they take several panels to describe the rules of how the game is played. As it turns out this game is available as a print to play and will be made available commercially later in the year. If you follow me at all you know I am a pretty large supporter of new Conan games and merchandise. The more the merrier! Let us get Conan strongly back into the public eye! And with him Robert E Howard. I will further note that the cover as well depicts these cards, which explains why this cover is so different than every previous cover we have seen in the Marvel Conan run.

For me, this is simply product placement of their own stuff. I didn't like it. It felt overly detailed and out of place and frankly distracting from the pace of the story, yet again.




Sword & Sorcery:

And with that, this issue lands at 3 skulls.

There is plenty to enjoy in this book, but for me the story pacing and overt product placement took me out of the hyborian age. It also lacks sword and sorcery. It would have benefitted from less talk and less card game descriptions and more fighting.

I have seen plenty of reviews now saying Jim Zubb "gets it". He understands the Hyborian Age and the character. I won't say he doesn't, I see nothing to really indicate he is working in a vacuum or that he isn't a fan of the character, but I do find it puzzling that they think that Jim gets it and no one else in the Marvel run has yet. He may get it, but he doesn't get it any better than anyone else that has written in the short life of this character at Marvel who are also fans of Conan.

So while some people think this is the *BEST* that has come out so far, I have to disagree. For me, the only thing holding it up is the art and the potential. This book as a standalone falls pretty flat for me.

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