Four soldiers are fleeing a Soviet counter-offensive in the aftermath of World War III. The three American soldiers and a Polish liason officer were thrown together when the 5th US mechanized division was broken outside of Kalisz. The final radio call was: “You’re on your own. Good luck!” This is their story.
Welcome to episode 3 of this solo role-playing campaign! I’m playing the post-apocalyptic RPG Twilight: 2000 in its fourth edition from Free League Publishing. In the first part I go through the events of the game. At the end of the post I have a couple of more “meta-considerations” on how I’m running it solo and the rules. Episode 4 will feature my first big combat encounter.
Last episode, the team encountered Soviet forces, when they tried to get fuel from Ostrzeszów. They were discovered sneaking into the town, were shot at and had to flee. Driving off road, as well as a navigation error, cost them a lot of fuel. Ultimately, they camped at a ruined farm, where they hid their pickup truck.
Minor Spoiler Alert: Because I am using random elements from the core ruleset, you may encounter the same pieces of content as a player. Sometimes they aren’t what they seem, which can ruin the surprise. I am not using the big scenarios sites, however, so there are no major spoilers.
Being less than 2 kilometers south of Syców, they again opt to approach town on foot in the early morning, hoping to find someone to trade with.
Moving into the town, they suddenly hear sustained gunfire, but only for 10-15 seconds. Then it is quiet. The group sneaks forward. The noise has clearly scared any inhabitants into retreating to their hideouts.
Perez peeks around a corner and pulls back quickly.
“Shit man, they’ve been mowed down. Slaughtered!” “Easy now. Do you see anyone?” King asks. He peeks out again. “No hostiles that I can see. It is real fucked.” “Cover us,” says the captain and points to Perez and Kelly. They both nod and Perez takes up position as the captain and Zielinski runs forward into the street. Kelly follows behind the two officers and takes up position opposite of Perez.
Perez is right. It is a slaughter. Around a dozen American soldiers lie shot up in the street between ruined buildings. A couple of them are still moving. They have been stripped of all their gear – even their helmets and boots.
Zielinski and King move among the bodies. Most are riddled with bullets. One is still trying to crawl away, and Zielinski quickly moves closer and examines him, speaking to him gently. He has a bullet hole in his upper abdomen and blood is pouring from his mouth. He gasps for help. King steps over to help her save him, but before he gets there, the man is dead.
“He was bleeding internally. I couldn’t save him,” she says. She isn’t crying, but King senses her immense frustration.
“They can’t be long gone. I don’t like this,” King says.
“Are you American?” someone suddenly says with a strained voice. It is coming from one of the “corpses”. They rush over to him, and a young African American man in bloody fatigues sit up. His nose is smashed and blood has run down his face. Zielinski helps the man to a better position and checks his wounds. A bullet has also torn one of his arms and the nose needs fixing, but the wounds aren’t lethal. She spends her personal medkit bandaging the wounds and cleaning them.
“What’s your name kid,” King asks?
“Lee. Miles Taylor Lee.” He speaks with a nasal voice because of the nose.
Where are you from?”
“New York. Harlem.”
After treating Lee, Zielinski discovers another soldier still breathing. He is conscious, but can’t move his legs, and she determines that he has been hit near the spine. He needs treatment, and King wants them out of the vulnerable position, so Kelly finds a couple of planks and jury rigs a stretcher for the critically injured soldier. Unfortunately, when they move him, he dies.
Rules: the rules for critical hits in Twilight: 2000 are brutal. 70% of the critical head and chest injuries are potentially lethal, and whenever you attempt to move a lethally injured, if you fail your medical aid roll (which Zielinski did, even after pushing) the wounded must roll Stamina or die. On a side note, a scene like this with new players would be great, because it demonstrates the lethality of the critical rules, without risking a PC death very early in the game (not that that is necessarily a problem).
Boots & a brew
Inside a nearby ruined house, they question private Lee. He was a truck driver with the logistics section of the 2nd Armored Division, but ended up with a rifle and a group of stragglers on their retreat after the truck ran out of fuel. They were ambushed by about a dozen marauders and cut down. He played dead while they stripped him. Only his canteen is left. Lee can’t really move about in the ruins without boots or shoes at least, so King asks Zielinski to see if she can find someone to trade with for boots and maybe fuel. He also asks Kelly to give the kid the Glock they found, so he can defend himself, which the big Irishman reluctantly does.
In the ruins of Sycow, Zielinski manages to find a bar and trade station. It is located in the basement of a semi-ruined apartment building and is well guarded. The basement has a large room with a couple of locals huddling close to a warm stove in a corner gossiping and drinking home brewed vodka. It is early – or maybe late? – for the small group. But someone is brewing alcohol…
In a room next to the bar she finds items for trade. The “store” is a counter with a system of shelves behind it. A woman looks to be the “shopkeeper” and a big Polish man with a sawn off shotgun is guarding the valuables, which includes a pair of polish army boots size 11. The woman at the counter wants 20 bullets for it. Appealing to her good heart and the fight for Poland against the aggressors, Zielinski manage to get her down to 15. When she asks about fuel, she is told that they might have some, but that they need to talk to Janusz, who owns the place.
Zielinski returns to the team with the boots and relays the information. They help Lee move there and get him situated in the bar room with Perez aiding him and keeping watch. Perez spends 2 ammo to get them both a drink. It burns all the way down, but it helps with their morale and Lee and Perez both regain one stress, from the drink and being in relative safety.
Rules: Stress is the “mental hitpoints” of the game, which you lose from getting shot at, rolling 1s when pushing INT or EMP skills or from horrific situations like experiencing the massacre of your friends. Losing all your stress points incapacitates you. Characters can be pushed back on their feet using the Command skill. Regaining stress from a strong drink isn’t according to RAW, but in this situation I felt it would be appropriate.
In the trading area, the rest of the group gets a meeting with Janusz Kucinski. He is the leader of the operation and after they have talked for a while, with Zielinski translating, he has a proposition for them.
A mission, of sorts…
The people who ambushed the American soldiers are a gang of marauders, who occupy a small abandoned factory on the edge of town. They are led by the town’s former police chief – a man named Mleczko – who was the Police Commander of the town during the previous regime, a vicious man, who is now trying to create a petty fief for himself.
The marauder gang is full of former criminals, ex-police and a couple of deserters. They are a menace to the town, and Janusz wants their help to assault the marauder base – ideally take out their leader – and break up the gang. He claims that they have a lot of equipment, probably also fuel, as well as the weapons they looted from the US soldiers. They have an old police jeep, but he hasn’t seen it for a while, and he doesn’t know if it is working. Janusz is willing to aid them with five of his “fighters”. His fighters are not military, and are not as well armed as the marauders, but he claims they can hold their own. If they succeed, they will split what they find – including the American gear – 50/50. Further, Janusz claims that he has some information for them, which he believes they will find valuable.
Janusz also briefly describes the enemy position. The factory is walled, has an office building – where many marauders are holed up – and a factory building with more marauders and the leader, Mleczko. On the roofs and inside the walls there are a total of three fortified positions. But he knows exactly where many marauders sleep in the office building, because he has talked to women who have stayed there. He is sure that an effective surprise attack will work, even though they will be outnumbered at least 2:1.
King and the rest of the team withdraw to the bar and discuss their options.
Clearly, Janusz is not doing this out of the goodness of his heart. The marauders are probably both a threat and competition, but does that matter, because their interests are aligned? At least until they get the loot, they will be allies.
The real question for the group is: is the risk worth the reward? Will they be able to pull it off without anyone getting killed? The facts are: they are almost out of fuel, have only a couple of days worth of food, aren’t particularly well armed and now have an extra man who is wounded to care for – who basically has no equipment. Their options are basically to start walking out of Poland with what they have, or to accept this risky undertaking.
They accept, under a couple of conditions:
They need time to scout the location, get to know the “fighters” a bit and perhaps get Lee ready to join them, and Janusz must feed and house them while they do so.
They need to borrow a rifle with scope and a shotgun or a rifle with ammo to increase the chance of success.
He can keep the vehicle, if they have one, but they have first dibs on fuel, up to the first 100 liters.
If the attack fails, they will all withdraw, covering each other, and part ways without anyone being in debt to anyone else.
Can they trust Janusz? I drew an Oracle card to help me judge how Janusz might respond, when the mission is done – for good or bad. You will have to check out the next episodes, to learn what card I drew… I did allow the three characters doing the negotiations to roll a straight empathy roll, to ascertain his character. King certainly gets the vibe that he is a cold, very dangerous man, whereas Zielinski and Kelly aren’t so sure.
These events are evolving from the random encounter of the ambushed US soldiers and the motivations of the team. If the American with the wounded spine had survived, it would have brought interesting tension between the characters who don’t want to burden the team with “dead weight” and those who have more altruistic motivations.
The medical care rules is also something one might consider house-ruling. Obviously, an officer with some basic first aid training would not – in reality – be able to save someone shot so bad they require full surgery. You could rule that tending some of the worst crits requires the Field Surgeon or General Practitioner specialities. Or add a significant penalty to the rolls without proper equipment/specialities.
I’m developing the two opposing factions exactly as I would in a “real” game. With my gaming group, I am certain that they would “bite” on this opportunity for tactical combat and action with the promise of loot. I’m sure “realistically” a small – skilled but under-armed – team would balk at taking on superior numbers in a fortified position, even with surprise, as quite a few things need to go right.
As a side note, Twilight: 2000 is a game where you shouldn’t roll dice too often, because succeeding is hard. As soon as I had the idea that there was a rival of the marauders in town whom they could trade with, I didn’t need Zielinski to roll RECON or anything to find the trader. Traders want to be found – even in destroyed Poland! And, as a referee, I want them to find it. It is more dramatic to have this development, and it ensures that there is some “meat” to the plot. So why insert a roll that might fail?
Rest & Experience:
This is what I consider the end of “session 1”. Each character, except Lee, gets three XP, Lee gets two. None of them risked anything in relation to their buddies, moral codes or big dreams to get more. Five XP is the minimum to buy anything at all, so no upgrades after this session. As King and Perez had to roll Coolness Under Fire (CUF), I roll to see if they improve their CUF, which requires I roll a one. I do not. Lee succeeds his empathy roll and doesn’t suffer permanent mental trauma after being incapacitated by stress.
The next part of this series will feature a very long battle. I will probably break it up into two parts, as it is taking a while to play out. But I have already learned the following:
Kevlar and cover are your friends! Or your enemie’s friends, depending…
Grenades are great for suppression, and you want to keep your foes suppressed
It can really suck not having a side-arm…
I look forward to sharing the action with you. I hope your next gaming session is great!
When the 5th US mechanized division was finally broken outside of Kalisz, three American soldiers and a Polish liason officer were thrown together. This is their story.
Welcome to episode 2 of this solo role-playing campaign! I’m playing the post-apocalyptic RPG Twilight: 2000 in its fourth edition from Free League Publishing.
Last episode, the team fled in from the advancing Soviets in a pickup truck with half a tank of fuel. For the first day, they kept out of serious trouble and picked up some information from a couple of Polish hunters.
Minor Spoiler Alert: Because I am using random elements from the core ruleset, you may encounter the same pieces of content as a player. Sometimes they aren’t what they seem, which can ruin the surprise. I am not using the big scenarios sites, however, so there are no major spoilers.
A chill, but sunny, April morning dawns in central Poland. With a concealed fire and a good camp, the team managed to stay hidden and warm in the camp a couple of kilometers from the small town of Ostrzeszow. The morning will be spent exploring the small town, which they decide to approach on foot, as a working vehicle could make them a target.
Their goal is a man named Cezary Pawlak, who has a distillery in town with his two sons. Ostrzesow was a town of more than 10,000 people, but is now probably home to less than 1/5 of that, and full of shelled buildings, burnt buildings, buildings riddled with bullet holes and roads clogged with rubble and car husks.
Going on foot, turns out to be a good decision. Advance Soviet forces must have reached the town during the night (this is another random encounter from the core rules). They have set up a roadblock at the main road into town about 300 meters (330 yards) from where the group approach the ruins. There are a dozen soldiers guarding the roadblock and they have a T-72 main battle tank positioned in the shell of a house covering the approach to the town. Going off road in the truck around the town would almost consume all of their remaining fuel, so the group agrees to circle around the town and sneak in from the northwest, but if they are discovered they will retreat to the truck and get the hell out.
Perez leads them towards the ruins, but despite giving it all he’s got, a Soviet soldier keeping watch for stragglers from atop a ruin spots them and opens fire from a long range of about 120 meters.
Rules: I made a mistake here and had the best person (Perez) roll Recon for the group, and not the one with the lowest skill. However, as I understand it, two of the team would be able to use the Help action to improve that person’s chances. With the bonus from wearing fatigues, their dice pool would still be pretty good. In any case, the team got one success, and the Soviet soldier also got a single success in the opposed roll, which means the group is discovered.
Round 1: The Soviet private gets to act first, as he discovered them (I rule). He fires his Avtomat Kalashnikova at the team. He gets +1 for firing from his elevated position, but -4 from firing at long range (-2), at moving targets (-1) which are partly concealed by vegetation and other terrain (-1), for a total of -3.
At that distance, the burst of bullets are off but the gunfire is sufficient to alert the rest of the soldiers nearby.
King orders the team to retreat at a run, retreating around 40 meters across the streets and long abandoned gardens.
Round 2: The Soviet soldier gives them another burst at extreme range as a parting gift. The private has clearly not had his vodka ration this morning, or is simply born under a lucky star, and both PFC Perez and King are hit. A bullet hits Perez in the head, but luckily the helmet takes the worst of the damage. King is hit in the back, where his kevlar also absorbs the brunt of the damage.
Rules: the Soviet rolls a hit with both his single success dice and one of the “ammo dice” he spends, sending a third of the lead in the magazine in their direction. King and Perez are both hit in locations where they wear armor, which subtracts 1 damage. An AK-74 does 2 points of damage, so the result is 1 damage on both. The Soviet could have spent the additional “hit” to increase the damage on Perez, but with his helmet it wouldn’t have been enough to score a crit anyway. Still, the one point of damage reduces King’s “hit points” by 25%.
Perez and King must roll for Coolness Under Fire. Both succeed. They can use the Unit Morale because they are within line of sight of the others. Therefore they are not suppressed and can continue fleeing.
They move an additional 40 meters and have now moved out of range of the Soviet soldier’s AK-74, and are impossible for him to hit.
Bedraggled and shaken, the team hauls ass and retreat back to their vehicle, with most of the morning gone.
“Can I see where hit is,” Zielinski asks King haltingly?
The captain is leaning on the hood of the truck, his chest heaving from exertion, and inwardly he is cursing himself for not keeping in better shape when he was in the reserves. Kelly leans his back heavily on the car and takes a swig of water, while Perez scans the fields beyond the small hillocks for any pursuers.
“Sure,” King answers the lieutenant with laboured breath.
With a wince, he takes off his combat webbing and the kevlar vest, then the fatigues and shirt. He has a black and purple bruise the size of a two palms on his lower back. Zielinski gently touches it, and he almost jumps from the pain.
She examines it more closely.
“Motherf… that stings,” he says with clenched teeth. “Very big bruise. But not serious, no,” Zielinski says and washes the area with a bit of water and soap.
“Kelly, please take over from Perez, so the lieutenant can see to his wound,” King says, when Zielinski is done. Kelly stomps up and takes over the watch from the younger private.
Perez trots down with downcast eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I was sure we were out of sight. I should have spotted him.”
“Nonsense. It is my fault,” says King. “I led you there. It is my responsibility. It was far too risky, with that kind of firepower nearby and no knowledge of how many reinforcements might be nearby.”
Zielinski says something in Polish that sounds dismissive.
Then in English.
“You are both fools. We took a risk, but to get something very valuable, yes? Something we need. And, as you say in America, “shit happens”.”
King grumbles something, but says nothing.
She gently lifts Perez’s helmet. He has a bloody scratch on the back of his neck.
“Look. Just a …” She searches for the word. “…Ricochet.” She turns over the helmet, so he can see. “Hit the lower side of the helmet first, and then down, giving you this little cut. You are very lucky, I think.”
“Yes, mam,” he says, and pulls a little crucifix from inside his shirt and gives it a kiss and mumbles a prayer, while the lieutenant cleans the cut and puts a band-aid on the scratch.
“So far,” he mumbles as she patches on the band-aid.
“Should we stop chattering and get the fuck out of here,” Kelly barks nervously from the small hillock.
“Absofuckinglutely. Let’s go!” King says.
Rules: Zielinski attends to their bruises with success (which means they avoid risking an infection) and it turns out their armor is still functional (when penetrated, it risks becoming defunct – a 1 in 6 chance). Medical attention only heals 1 damage, if the character is broken (at 0 health).
On the off-road again…
They are now forced to flee around the town, off road, and the group tries to get to Sycow to the southwest. Their hope is that the Soviets don’t have enough troops or vehicles to pursue their small band.
Unfortunately, Zielinski is unable to find a road that leads west. Instead, she ends up driving south between the two towns hitting the east-west bound main road between Sycow and Kepno (because she fails her survival roll – but driving succeeds so no mishap).
They agree to head west along the road to get further away from the Soviet lead elements. If the Soviets are anywhere near as depleted as the 5th division was, they will have spent themselves in a couple of days, King is sure.
The pickup rumbles along, avoiding the odd obstacle until they reach a traffic jam, frozen in time. Almost every car holds skeletal commuters. They never made their destinations but instead died here, victims of a direct chemical attack or a wayward cloud from some battle. The most banal of ends. A few managed to crawl out of their vehicles and lay white and bony on the road. A bird’s nest crowns one boxy, European car. The road is entirely blocked, and the team needs to go back and down a side road for a while before hitting Sycow – costing precious fuel (this last part is from a list of random mood elements from the core game).
King is listening in on the radio while they drive. Suddenly, he gesticulates. “Stop!” Zielinski stops, and King concentrates. The rest try to listen in. “There’s an American soldier on this frequency. He says he is wounded. He is holed up in a ruined farmhouse. Must be nearby,” King says. “Could be a trick – an ambush,” Perez says, still scanning the road and ditches around them. “Could be,” King says and purses his lips. “We should go and help him. He is comrade. No? It is what we would want from others,” Zielinski says. “Kelly, what do you think,” King asks? “Whatever you think, boss. We just gotta go in careful,” he says.
The captain contacts the soldier. He says his name is Donovan, and he is hurt. Hurt bad. But he can direct them to a farmhouse with a blown red roof and a burnt barn. King spots the roof using his binoculars and they all drive there, but park at a safe distance. They sneak closer, but there is no sign of an ambush, and they locate the wounded soldier on a mattress in a bedroom. However, when they arrive he is dead. He has a civilian walkie-talkie, a Glock pistol with a full magazine, a kevlar helmet, a water and a food ration and a knife. King collects his dog tags, takes the helmet, gives the pistol to Kelly and the knife and walkie to Perez. Donovan’s insignia indicates that he was with the 2nd Armored Division, which advanced south of the 5th division. Perhaps there are more of them somewhere?
Rules: The radio message is from the game’s random radio chatter table. Here I used the “Oracle” mechanic and drew a card. It was a six of hearts – mildly helpful, according to the table. Therefore, I determined that the soldier would be dead – it would be quite useful if they were able to rescue him, and he would have a little useful equipment, but not much. Had it been a high black card, it would have been an ambush.
Having spent 2 liters of extra fuel for a walkie talkie, a pistol and helmet, they drive away towards Sycow. King is not unhappy though, as the pistol is probably good for trading.
Before they reach Sycow, however, Perez spots a derelict bus parked in a large – mostly intact barn – next to a shot up farm. It looks to be in better condition than most vehicles, and they agree to park there for the night and make camp in the barn. The area is flat farmland, but they hope the ruined buildings will conceal them and it is a defensible position. They are down to 10 liters of fuel – or 1/10 of the tank. The bus and barn looks like prime scrounging grounds, and while King makes camp Kelly looks for parts they for example could use in an improvised still. Zielinski stands watch, while Perez sleeps in the barn before he has to go on watch at night.
Kelly turns out to be a lucky scrounger. He recovers one vehicle spare part from the bus engine and an electric toothbrush inside the house (1 electrical part, worth 25).
When he enters the bus, he (almost miraculously) spots a viper lurking in its nest, and avoids an ambush. He acts first in initiative and clubs the viper with his rifle butt. He did however get quite the scare and he hammers fruitlessly at the creature. Fortunately for Kelly, the viper also miss. At this point King has joined the frantic corporal, who manages to hit and kill the snake just as he arrives.
“Holy, shit Captain. A snake. A fucking snake! I hate snakes!”
When Kelly calms down, he searches the bus and comes out beaming. He’s found an intact baseball bat – which he keeps for himself. “Keeping this handy for close encounters,” he says.
The captain has concealed the pick-up with some old, mouldy sackcloth and a couple of pallets he found and makes a very small fire inside the barn in a metal bucket he punches some holes in.
It turns out that bashing the M16 into a bus has broken it (this is in fact a camping mishap that I interpret this way, as Captain King failed his camping roll). Luckily, the Captain is good with his hands and fixes the rifle, which raises Kelly’s estimation of him as not being a totally useless officer.
At nightfall, the weather turns from fair to cloudy. Perez takes the watch for the night, and the next morning both have effectively healed their bruises and stress.
That was the end of episode 2. Episode 3 will focus on exploring Sycow and trying to get their hands on fuel or parts for a still. The story takes a bit of a turn though, and a new character joins the team…
What you are reading now is the first episode of my solo Twilight: 2000 campaign. I’ve written a blog post to explain the setup and my thoughts in more depth. Reading on, you will find brief bios of the characters and further down their first “adventuring day”. I hope you enjoy it – comments are welcome!
MINOR SPOILER WARNING: I am using the random events from the core ruleset. A few of them contains surprises, which will act as minor spoilers. I’m NOT using the big Scenario Sites, so there are no major spoilers.
A pick-up truck painted with a brown and green camo-pattern blasts down a country road in central Poland. In the driver seat is a not quite young Polish woman wearing the worn uniform of a second lieutenant. Next to her, in the passenger seat, is a somewhat dazed African American Captain pushing 40, wearing glasses. In the cargo bed lies a red-headed corporal, M16 in hand with blood stains on his face and clothes – none of it his own – staring into the sky. Looking back from where they came is a young hispanic private in fatigues with his M4 carbine ready.
Welcome to: Escape from Kalisz! This text is the result of the first “in game” day of my Twilight: 2000 4th edition solo-campaign. There is a more comprehensive introduction, but you can also just read on. Knowledge of the game is not a requirement!
The characters are:
Captain Charles King King went to community college on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia and got a degree in electrical engineering. He subsequently joined the army to become an officer. He ended up doing intelligence work as a staff officer, but got stuck as a captain. Maybe his superiors thought he wasn’t aggressive enough, or maybe it was a race thing? King mustered out and became a manager at a power plant. In the meantime, his marriage had failed, and when the war broke out he was called up as a reservist. In Poland, he was attached to the Intelligence section of the 5th division. However, shortly before Operation Reset and the push on Lodz he was given command of an understrength company, basically a platoon and a half of maybe 50 grunts.
The company suffered many casualties pushing towards Lodz and had to retreat with the rest of the division. 10 minutes before the game begins, the “battalion” has fought a rearguard action, and is soundly trounched: attacked by ground forces and hit with both mortars and a bit of artillery. When the defense breaks down the survivors scatter.
Charlie actually turned out to be a capable leader in his short stint as a company commander, despite his looks as a desk jockey. He is ashamed that he didn’t save more of his men, and considers his past a failure with two failed careers and a failed marriage. He is determined to save this little group. This will succeed!
Lieutenant Krysia Zielinski The 34 years old Second Lieutenant was a history teacher at a highschool in Warsaw before the war. But in 1997, when the Soviets attacked, she joined the Polish army as an officer. She got rudimentary training and ended up being in charge of handling conscript labour and security after the first nuclear attacks (she has 6 permanent Rads). For the last offensive, she is transferred to be the brigade liason officer between the Polish and the US. She is not an English expert, but knows enough to get along. Her dream is to find her mother, father and younger sister. They fled west after the invasion.
Corporal Jason Kelly Kelly is a young-ish working class Irish-American from Michigan. After high school he became a construction worker, but found the job tedious and decided to join the army in 1995. He deployed to Poland in 1997 and has fought in a mortar team the whole war. Before Operation Reset he was given the leadership of the team, which scared him. Kelly has never really found something he was the best at – or even great at – but given the chance, he could shine as a loyal survivor. He has never been afraid of a good brawl, and is not the type to back down if people push him.
PFC Juan Pérez Juan came to Texas as an immigrant with his violent uncle and loving aunt and became a runner and spotter and messenger for a gang before he entered his teens. When he was arrested as a juvenile, he got the option to join a military school in return for a lenient sentence. He took that out, and when he was 18, he joined the army just as the war began to loom. He was sent to Poland in early 1998, and excelled in a reconnaissance role. He prides himself of his ability to handle this chaotic environment compared to all the soft Americans. He hates the cold though. Maybe he can get to Spain or Portugal, or somewhere else warmer?
After a couple of kilometers…
Zielinski pulls the pickup truck to the side of the road inside a small copse of trees in the otherwise fairly flat farmland. Captain King has recovered his wits and thanks Zielinski, whom he knows somewhat from his work at HQ. He checks on Kelly, who isn’t wounded, and talks him into a more coherent state. Kelly explains that his mortar squad was hit by counter-fire, and the rest of the team was killed. Pérez is alright and maintains watch, while they do a status. Zielinski gets on her radio, where she picks up the message from HQ: “Good luck. You are on your own!” The 5th US Mechanized Infantry Division has ceased to exist and the Soviet 6th Independent Guards Motor-Rifle Brigade seems to keep pushing west. Gunfire and explosions can still be heard to the east.
King manages to center the team and get them to focus. They agree that using the main road and driving towards Kalisz would be too risky, and they therefore decide to head southwest and see if they can find a small bridge or ford, where they can cross the river (looking at Google Maps versus the game map, it is in fact a stream, not a river, with many small bridges).
From both a meta and in-game perspective this is the status of the small group: Good:
Fair ranged combat skills
Strong command and persuasion skills, fairly good team morale (B)
Enough food and water to last a few days – 18 total food, 14 total water rations
A working pickup truck with 50 liters of alcohol fuel
One anti-tank weapon (M136 AT4)
Captain King has decent tech skills
Not so Good:
Weak firepower. Only two assault rifles in the team with a meager total of five reloads
Not great survival or driving skills
Fairly weak medical skills
Only one with any Recon skills
The team agrees that the following are priorities:
Get further away from the advance of the Soviets – as fast as possible
Avoid violent engagements, unless no other options are available
Acquire more fuel for the pickup, or get enough parts to build a small still
Pick up US stragglers, if they have room
King and Zielinski only carry a pistol and an underpowered Polish submachine gun, respectively. Acquiring more ammo and decent range weapons for the officers would be an advantage.
Rules: A group gets one “group item” per character at the beginning of the game. I’ve picked: M136 anti-tank missile, a pair of binoculars for King (bonus on recon rolls), a basic toolkit (which means they can maintain and repair the truck) and D6 extra rations. Whether the group gets a vehicle is also random. I rolled a pickup-truck.
Day 1 Begins
Location: Map grid Q24 about 10 km southeast of the ruined town of Kalisz
Shift 1 was spent fighting the Soviets and fleeing. The game begins at the outset of Shift 2. The weather is fair. Zielinski is driving, Perez is on watch, while King is resting and Kelly sleeping.
Rules: Each day is made up of four shifts of six hours each. For each shift there are different actions each character can take (rest, take watch, scrounge, hunt etc.). Typically, the team travels during the morning and the day shifts and makes camp in the evening and sleeps during the night. To enter a new hex off road, they need to succeed in a survival roll, and the driver must succeed a drive roll every shift to avoid Mishaps. Zielinski succeeds at both.
Zielinski skillfully navigates the truck across the small country roads. Most of the farms are abandoned or in ruins after the front moved over the area a couple of times. The fields are fallow and full of weeds and progress on the small roads is frequently stopped by fallen trees, craters or mudslides. They do spot a farmhouse that seems inhabited, but with Soviets not far away, they do not stop to investigate (it was the first encounter that shift).
From a small hill, using his binoculars, King spots a bridge that was probably mainly used by farmers back in the day (very successful Recon roll). The team drives another hex. Now they’ve spent 16 liters of alcohol fuel out of their total of 50.
Rules: normally the pickup consumes 2 liters per 10 km hex (6 miles), but as it is driving offroad that number is doubled, and it is doubled again because it runs on alcohol and not gasoline.
After a short break, the two officers decide to use the main road a couple of kilometers up ahead to move south towards Ostrzesow, as it will conserve fuel and they will move faster. Further, it seems like heading towards Wroclaw is the best option if they are to cross the large Oder River further west.
On the way to the road, three Polish civilians (one with a shotgun, another with a rifle and the third with a bow) hails them. Zielinski stops and talks to them in Polish. They are hunters who have managed to kill a deer and want to trade with the characters. They have four rations of meat they want to sell for 25 (the game uses ammunition as currency). The team only has 10 extra ammo as spare “cash”, but Zielinski thinks that purchasing the food will both win over her teammates and help befriend the hunters, so she trades an entire reload for her submachine gun with a couple of rounds to spare. She gets on such good terms with them (she rolls 3 successes on Persuasion) that she gets a discount and when she asks them about fuel they know a guy in Ostrzesow who produces some, which they may be able to trade for.
The trade and negotiations take up some time, before they drive to the main road. The road is pockmarked by artillery and has many empty husks of vehicles. They make it safely to the outskirts of Ostrzeszow a little before evening sets in. The group decides to make camp a couple of kilometers from the town. Moving along two hexes with roads, they spend another 8 liters of fuel. They are down to a quarter tank.
In the evening, King will make camp and try to conceal it, helped by Kelly. Perez will be on watch, while Zielinski goes out to forage for some more water.
“It is almost like barbecuing back home,” says Kelly, grinning. He is turning the meat on a green pine branch, blood and fat dripping into the fire, sizzling. The fire is concealed in a hole in the ground.
The big man looks around in their small camp. The pickup is parked down between a couple of hillocks covered in pine trees and brambles with open fields beyong. King has made a bivouac that rests on the pickup. In the far distance they hear artillery or maybe a tank firing its main cannon.
“Well, not quite,” he adds in a quiet voice.
“Where are you from,” King asks?
“Outskirts of Lansing. Used to work construction. Demolition too. Before I joined up, that is. You, Captain?”
“Small town close to Savannah. But then I moved all over. And now I’m here.” He sighs. “I wonder, what happened back home?”
King has the quarter-master specialty, and is skilled at making camping despite not having other survival skills, and with the aid of Kelly they manage to make a good camp and conceal it fairly well and cook the four rations of deer to perfection (help from another character adds +1 – meaning your dice goes up one step, eg from D6 to D8).
By a ruined house, Zielinski finds an old garden rain barrel and fills their canteens and water bottles. They eat their fill of delicious venison and relax a bit. At night, Kelly is on watch, as he slept during the day in the truck.
I have decided to run a solo-campaign for fun and to test the new Twilight: 2000 4e rules. Playing an RPG solo, how is that possible, you might be forgiven to ask!? Well, the game has a solo-rules component and is – even as a group game – quite a “gamist” hex crawl. It is designed to be player driven with random elements being key components to a campaign.
The resulting narrative is based on character goals (called Big Dreams in the game), motivations and responses to whatever they encounter. A classic goal is “Escape back to America” or establish a “safe haven – a base”, but that is very long term. A more immediate goal is: survive – get away from the advancing Soviets.
My intentions are to document the game on this blog, mainly focusing on the narrative, but with brief explanations of core elements and references to the rules when I feel it is appropriate and to demonstrate how they inform the narrative. This will allow people not familiar with the game to follow the game. I’ve added small dialogue and fiction elements in order to bring out the character motivations and personalities.
Why this solo game and posts?
I thought it would be fun!
It would be interesting to see how a narrative would develop using the solo rules
I would familiarize myself with the rules, hopefully for a future campaign
To provide a game example to other referees or potential referees
To do so, I have created four player characters using the game’s Life Path system, where the character is fairly randomized (you roll stats, and start with an 18 year old, aging 1D6 year for each new career step). I have adjusted a couple of minor details to make for an interesting group.
I’ll be using Roll20 as the VTT to play the game.
The game and background
In short, Twilight: 2000 is a survival game in a past that never was. Our timelines diverges after 1991. The Soviet Union remains after a coup against Jeltsin – but the Warsaw pact was dissolved and Poland allies with the West. It ends in an escalating conflict, which turns into all out NATO – Soviet warfare with Poland on the NATO side. Nuclear weapons are exchanged, but the two sides show enough restraint to avoid complete nuclear holocaust. The result is nuclear winter, collapsed infrastructure, famine and disease. When the game begins, NATO has tried a last push in Poland, called Operation Reset, but they underestimate Soviet strength, and it fails. The characters are part of the collapsed 5th US mechanized division, and are given the final message by HQ: “You are on your own. Good luck!”. They must now survive, as the Soviet forces expends their last effort in a counter-attack.
Twilight: 2000 differs from most role-playing games in that there are zero supernatural elements (not that you can’t run a great zombie apocalypse game with it!). It is all about humans. Human failure, morality, hard decisions, violence, hope, friendship, loyalty – or disloyalty. Stuff that incredible dramas are made of.
The ruleset is fairly crunchy – simple at its core, but with many details and modifiers. Survival requires multiple rolls per day to determine weather, drive a vehicle (if you have one) on wartorn roads or off-road, spotting potential hazards (encounters), setting camp, foraging and hunting, maintaining equipment weekly etc.
The core mechanics is four attributes with a value of A to D. Each letter represents a dice. A is D12, B=D10, C=D8 and D is D6. The 12 skills have similar values + F which is no skill, and you add them together in a dice pool. When attempting a task, you need to roll a six or higher. You can attempt all skills using only your attribute dice. Rolling a 10-12 counts as two successes. More successes can give extra damage for example.
*Use the links to see PNGs of their character sheets.
Intentionally, there are also obvious conflicts in the Moral Codes of the characters.
The Solo Rules
For the solo rules, you turn up the randomness. The game comes with 52 random encounters selected by drawing cards from a regular deck. These can be everything from meeting a group of US stragglers, vehicles hit with a tactical nuclear weapon, Soviet soldiers to civilian refugees etc. The solo rules add an “oracle” where you also draw playing cards. Red is a boon. Black is a hazard. And further information can be gained from the exact number on a table – for example, 6 of black: mildly dangerous or Red Ace: life saving. In addition, there is a similar table to determine NPC intentions. It is up to the player to interpret these and represent characters and the world fairly to create the narrative.
The core set has four ready to play “Scenario Sites”, which I won’t be using. They are quite complex places with multiple NPCs and plots. Using them would also introduce major spoilers.
If you think that sounds interesting, more details of the characters and the first day of the lives of these survivors is ready:
This article could also be called: Why should I try The One Ring RPG? But I picked this title, because there are 50 million D&D players and many have never tried another roleplaying game. Many would like to, but which one to pick? I think there are many arguments for why The One Ring RPG should be a top option.
This article is also a review, but it is NOT a comparison as to which game is best. I love D&D, but the One Ring does things differently – and sometimes better – than the most popular RPG in the world. I have used D&D 5e as context for The One Ring’s mechanics, because that helps explain them to a large audience.
Reading this article, I hope that you get a taste for this game, or get inspired by the mechanics, whether you are a D&D player or not!
In short, I think the One Ring 2nd edition is an excellent fantasy RPG and a great pick for D&D players who want to try something new, yet familiar. The game will appeal to a lot of fantasy lovers, and I think it can be a great way to introduce new people to roleplaying games. The game is designed by Francesco Nepitello and Marco Maggi, and now published by Free League Publishing (Mörk Borg, the Alien RPG, Tales from the Loop, Vaesen and many other award winning, great games).
The rules are fairly simple and the setting is familiar to anyone interested in fantasy. Furthermore, the game system facilitates characters and stories that fit the world and captures the mood of Middle-earth perfectly. The artwork is amazing and the writing oozes of the designers’s love for Tolkien’s world.
This game lets you step right into the Prancing Pony, smell the pipeweed, hear the songs and meet an intimidating Ranger. Or perhaps you cross the cold Misty Mountains as a homesick hobbit alongside a couple of doughty Durin’s Folk to recover lost treasure while being hunted by orcs of Angmar? I could go on but you get it!
Below, I’ve listed some of the things that the One Ring does well, and less well, for quick reference.
There are two major reasons, why the two games are very different: their design history and being generic versus focused on one setting.
The original D&D was a system cobbled together as they invented it – and expanded upon it gradually – ending up with a hodgepodge of mechanics. More than 30 years later, the designers of D&D 5th edition created a game that is faithful to the first editions of the game, but fairly modern in design, with a very robust and fun tactical combat system.
D&D is also a fairly generic fantasy roleplaying game which can be used to create many types of heroic fantasy games, and is easy to homebrew monsters, magic and worlds for, which is a big advantage. It can also be used for gothic horror, low magic fantasy etc., but isn’t really tailored for it.
The One Ring is different. It is a consistent modern system that focuses on creating a very particular game experience. The rules are interlinked to enhance the game’s particular focus, mood, tone and themes. After the bullet points below, I will go through the major parts of the core rulebook and provide insight into how the new edition of The One Ring works – using D&D to provide context. Players who aren’t D&D fans will still get a solid understanding of the game. If you are used to many different games, many of the mechanics will be familiar to you.
First, a quick summary.
What does The One Ring 2ed do well?:
Low magic, high fantasy
Mood, atmosphere and epic adventures (with a taste of sorrow and futility)
Provides a perfect “Middle-earth experience”
Character development in the hands of the players
Travel and exploration
Combat and logistics at a more narrative level
What does The One Ring do less well?:
Tactical combat on a grid
Hackability – this is not meant to be a generic system, but is tied closely to the source material
Long dungeon crawls and hack & slash
The One Ring (2ed) is probably for you if:
You want to adventure in Middle-earth
You want to try a low-magic fantasy RPG
You want a fantasy RPG with more focus on narrative and less focus on tactical combat
You want to try an RPG with interesting mechanics that support the core aspects of the game
The One Ring (2ed) is probably NOT for you if:
You don’t like the Middle-earth setting
You prefer high magic games, with lots of flashy spells, magic loot and big BOOMS!
You just want to relax bashing monsters and looting their stuff (I love that too, sometimes)
You prefer games with extensive character customization options
That was the short version. Do you want to know more? Then, read on dear guest.
Where and when does the game take place?
The default game is set between the events of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings in the Eriador region, where you find places like Hobbiton, Bree, the Old Forest, three petrified trolls, the Barrow Downs and many other locations known from the source material. It also contains a number of locations not featured prominently in the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit, such as Fornost and Tharbad.
More specifically, the game is meant to begin around 2965. This takes the setting forward from the 1st edition (and Adventures in Middle Earth) which begins around 2947, and shifts the geographical focus away from Wilderland – the region beyond the Misty Mountains with Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain. At least for now.
That said, you can use the rules to play in any area of Middle-earth, and even shift the time to the Second Age or the Fourth, if you find that suits your purpose. Sourcebooks for many of the well known regions came out for the previous edition of the game. Furthermore, you can pick up sourcebooks for Middle-Earth Role Playing, which came out in the early 80’s.
The system in The One Ring is very player-facing.
Characters in The One Ring have three attributes: strength, heart and wits. They range from 2-7 – rarely 8. For each attribute there are six associated skills. As strength covers everything physical, from keen eyes to a great singing voice, skills associated with strength include things like Awe, Athletics and Awareness. Heart covers skills like the Travel, Insight and Courtesy while Wits has skills like Lore, Riddle and Persuade. Combat skills are separated and there are only four: axes, spears, swords and bows. Ranks in skills go from 1-6, but beginning characters typically have ranks from 0-3.
The game uses a dice pool system to resolve actions. Players roll one or more dice and if the total added together reaches the target number, you succeed at your task. The player rolls one Feat Dice (D12) and any success dice (D6) they get – which usually comes from your skills or combat abilities – or two D12 and take the highest/lowest if the character has advantage/disadvantage, which is called ‘favoured/illfavoured’ in this game.
EXAMPLE: Let’s say the Hobbit Mirabella tries to sneak past an orc guard. She has three ranks in Stealth, so you roll 3D6, but the player has picked Stealth to be a favoured skill, so she rolls 2d12, picks the highest and adds the result of the 3D6. Does she succeed? In The One Ring, the Target Number isn’t decided by the game master, it is player-facing. As a player, your target number is derived from your own character. If you try a Wits skill, you roll against 20 minus your wits. As Stealth is a wits skill, Mirabella with Wits 5, would need to roll a total of 15 to sneak past the orc. Certain conditions may make rolls harder or easier, of course, usually by adding or subtracting success dice.
However, the dice have some additional features. In the accompanying dice set, the 12 on the D12 is marked with the G rune and if you roll a 12 your action always succeeds. The 11 on the D12 is the Eye of Sauron and counts as zero – or worse depending on circumstances. On the D6, sixes gives you a superior success, and you can convert sixes to bonuses in the game, such as doing a task silently, more damage or cancel a failure for another character. You can use normal D12s or D6s to play, or get the special dice for the game.
On the surface, the core system of The One Ring is more complex than rolling 1D20 and adding a number. But in play, The One Ring doesn’t have dozens of complex special abilities and hundreds of – cool – but complex – spells. Looking at the sum of its parts, the One Ring will be simpler for the vast majority of players.
The gameplay has a structure divided into an Adventuring Phase, where the Loremaster (DM/GM) has primary control, and a Fellowship Phase, where the players have primary control. You could say it is the ‘play’ and ‘downtime’ phases. Unlike D&D however, the One Ring has different rule structures for three important aspects of the adventuring phase: combat, journeys and councils. Further, there are concrete rules for their downtime, which fits the setting and interacts with the recovery of the characters, advancement of the characters and further exploration of the setting.
Below, I will try to describe – as briefly as I can – how the different parts work, and what makes them cool.
The characters you can play are explicitly heroes. However, they can be lost to The Shadow through greed, pride, wrath and a few other things.
Cultures and Callings The character’s abilities are mainly defined by their Culture, not by their “class” which is named Callings. Examples of Cultures include: Men of Bree, Hobbit of the Shire, Elf of Lindon and Dunedaín.
When you create your character, each Culture has six different distributions of attributes you can pick from (or roll a random distribution). How these are distributed depends on the Culture, but all of them contain 21 attribute points, so they are equal, but different. For example, Men of Bree get a maximum of 4 in Strength whereas Dwarves of Durin’s Folk get 7, but max 4 in Heart.
On top of the three primary stats (strength, heart and wits), you also calculate three derived stats: endurance, hope and parry.
Endurance is basically your hit points (but more interesting, so I will get back to that). Hope you can spend to get bonus D6s and Parry is the target number for monsters to hit you – ie your armour class.
These three derived stats differ from Culture to Culture. Bardings have an Endurance score of their strength +20, but Hobbits only get +18.
Finally, each Culture comes with a couple of special bonuses called Cultural Blessings. For example the Dunedaín gets: Kings of Men, and receives a bonus attribute point.
After picking Culture, you select your Calling. The calling is what motivates the character to go on adventures. The six callings are: Captain, Champion, Messenger, Scholar, Treasure Hunter and Warden. The mechanical effects are slight, but they define their Shadow Weakness, such as Lure of Secrets and Path of Despair (more on that later).
Virtues, Rewards and Gear The One Ring operates with equipment and treasure at a higher level of abstraction than most fantasy RPGs, such as D&D. All characters are expected to have normal travelling gear, but are allowed a number of “useful items”, depending on their culture’s prosperity level. These items can help the character using a particular skill under certain circumstances, such as a great pipe or a liquor to infuse strength. Characters also start with the weapons and armour they desire, again based on their prosperity. The abstraction also applies to treasure which isn’t counted in an exact number of coins, but Treasure Rating. When you gather a specific amount of treasure, your prosperity rating goes up.
At the beginning of the game each character gets one general Virtue and one Reward. As the character gains experience they can gain more virtues and rewards. Virtues are akin to Feats in D&D 5e. and includes general abilities such as Dourhanded and Prowess, and virtues tied to your culture, which you can’t begin the game with but must buy with experience, such as: Dragon Slayer, Elbereth Gilthoniel! and Brave at a Pinch. Rewards are special gear with a mechanical advantage, typically weapons or armor you have earned, such as a Keen sword or Cunningly Made mail shirt.
I want to mention the three derived stats in a bit greater detail, because, particularly Endurance, is a very interesting mechanic.
Your parry rating is the value which adversaries must roll to hit your character. Enemies don’t have a parry rating though. Instead, players roll against their character’s Strength target number, to see if they hit modified by the adversary’s parry rating – normally 0-3. Shields and other factors can add to a character’s parry rating, whereas armor helps you avoid Wounds.
Hope are points players can use to fuel certain abilities (sometimes to make a success ‘magical’) and to add additional D6’s to their rolls. Characters don’t recover Hope that easily, so they should be spent wisely.
Endurance is like Hit Points, and you can lose them from attacks or simply from events on your journey. When you reach zero you drop unconscious. But it is also related to your encumbrance rating (which is called Load in The One Ring). So, when you don gear or armor or carry treasure, you add Load, and when your endurance rating drops below your Load score, the character becomes Weary, which is bad because all rolls of 1,2 and 3 on the D6 then counts as zero.
The mechanical effect of this is that players must weigh carefully the benefit of more armor, shields, weapons etc. versus their ability to fight after a long journey or last through multiple encounters. In D&D, and many other games, more armor is almost always better, but that is not the case in The One Ring. The core mechanic is further supported by the explicit action of dropping your shield or helmet, to decrease your Load during combat, and the explicit rules for pack animals (if your prosperity rating is high enough) or you can bury the treasure you found, because each point of treasure counts as one Load point.
The Endurance mechanic beautifully creates interesting choices for the players AND it means that the fiction of the game will emulate the source material, where few characters wear armor and treasure is buried for later or left behind. I really dig that!
I am a bit baffled, however, that it seems like a strong starting character with 26 in Endurance, who wears a mail coat, helmet, spear and great shield is left with only 1 point of Endurance. That figure can be mitigated with Virtues and Rewards, but still. It might work mechanically for player characters, but it seems like the heavily armoure bands of Bardings or Gondor aren’t viable (dwarves halve the Load, so they are).
The concept of Shadow in the game affects both the characters and the adventure, so I’ll deal with it here at a high level.
There is one overall foe in the game and that is obviously Sauron and all his servants. In The One Ring, player characters are heroes and explicitly adversaries of Sauron.
In the game, there also is a very clear dichotomy between Servant’s of the Enemy, which are irredeemably Evil, and other foes like regular robbers, haughty elven guards or Dunland raiders, which are not.
I very much subscribe to the views that Matt Coleville lays out in the video “Everyone Loves Zombies”, basically saying that players sometimes need to face foes they can unambiguously fight and slay without feeling bad about it, and sometimes they should face foes where there are moral complexities. I am therefore very happy with how explicit this is done in the One Ring, and the support it has from the game system.
The mechanic to support this for characters is called Shadow points. Characters will gain Shadow points when they indulge in their darkest desires or from the fear and despair which the Enemy can induce. Players can roll to resist gaining points of course. Simple Greed, whenever the characters discover treasure, can result in Shadow points and they can gain them from Misdeeds: actions that are unheroic, such as stealing, threatening with violence or ending the life of a foe who isn’t evil. Further, dark sorcery can cause shadow point “damage”.
The result of accumulating shadow points is a descent along your character’s Shadow Path and into madness, and ultimately the end of the character as a PC. Whenever a character’s Shadow points reach the level of their Hope they have a Bout of Madness – a loss of control to their worst inclinations, like Boromir trying to take the ring or Thorin being overcome by greed for a while. This takes the character one step down their Shadow Path. A character’s Shadow Path is determined by his calling, and they have evocative names like Dragon Sickness (greed) and Lure of Power. Each path has four stages of character flaws – roleplaying traits for the character. As an example, Lure of Power goes from resentful to tyrannical.
Mechanically, it has more features than this and ties into the down-time phase for example, but this covers the basics.
There is also a group-level mechanic. When more experienced heroes work against Sauron, it is possible that the enemy will respond. This is governed by the Eye of Sauron mechanic, which is a meter that slowly fills during an adventure when the heroes use magic or gain shadow points. When it reaches a certain point – depending on a number of factors – it has a negative narrative impact on the characters. It could be a direct attack on them, or perhaps the quarry they chase gets away or someone they thought an ally becomes an enemy.
I will need to play a longer game to really judge how the shadow points mechanic works in practice. In Adventures in Middle-earth (the 5e version of the game) the accumulation of shadow points seemed too slow to have a big impact, but it seems to be a bigger factor in this edition.
The adventuring phase has three major mechanical components, but in practice works like any other RPG with an adventure composed of various scenes or with the group exploring a location, like a dungeon.
Combat Combat in The One Ring has been designed for play without miniatures, but using minis or drawing on a mat or screen can still be helpful.
When combat begins, there is usually first an opportunity for both sides to use missile fire before the melee begins.
Subsequently, during the melee, each character selects one of four stances: forward, open, defensive and rearward. The stance you pick also determines the order in which you act and gives access to particular actions, such as intimidate foes or rally comrades. Only the rearward enables characters to use ranged weapons, and it can be restricted, depending on how many enemies there are compared to the characters. The enemies are then distributed between the different PCs.
I will not go into great detail on the mechanics, but there are some interesting features: Players can decide to halve the endurance damage they receive by deciding to get knocked back (an fall prone), and rolling sixes enables special bonuses/effects, depending on which type of weapon you use.
Endurance represents grit and the slow grinding down of your ability to defend yourself, where the final blow knocks you out of the fight – just like hit points in D&D. BUT! in The One Ring you can also get Wounded (similar to the Major Wound mechanic in Call of Cthulhu 7ed). Rolling 10 or 12 on the D12 causes a piercing blow (some effects can modify this) which can cause a Wound. Characters now roll a Protection roll – 1D12 and add the D6s they get from their armor. To avoid the Wound they must roll equal or higher than the Injury Rating of the weapon they were hurt by.
Only by getting Wounded can your character die. At the first Wound there is a 1 in 12 chance that you go down and is dying. A second wound always causes the character to drop and become “dying” and only a successful heal check will prevent them from dying within the hour.
One of the things I really like about the weapons is that spears are very viable and more likely to cause Wounds, if you roll 6s on your attack. Too often in fantasy games, swords are the superior weapon. Furthermore, I like that missile weapons don’t have a range. It is rarely relevant in RPGs anyway and just an annoying thing to track.
In addition, weapons that are special or magical can influence many aspects of combat, and characters can perform additional actions based on their stance, certain virtues etc.
Councils Whenever the group tries to convince one or more important NPCs to aid them, the Loremaster can use the rules for councils. It works like a skill challenge or an extended test, where the characters have to gain a number of successes using different skills to convince for example Lord Elrond, a village council or the Shire Mayor to do what they want.
Journeys Travel is a huge part of Tolkien’s writing, and it is supported by rules for travel. When the group is on a journey, the players designate four roles between them: Guide, Hunter, Look-out and Scout (similar to the Forbidden Lands RPG).
The group decides on a path, and the game comes with a hex map of Eriador, where the different areas are colour coded depending on their difficulty, and a few places have additional dangers. When the group starts marching, their Travel skill determines how long they get before they encounter an event.
The events aren’t combat encounters (they could be in Adventures in Middle-earth), but things like Ill Choices, Mishaps and Shortcuts that the group must face. The events are randomly determined and targets one of the four roles. Through narrative and a skill roll, the group determines how they overcome the event. Failure can result in fatigue, which counts as Load, and can make the characters Weary. With luck, the events can also be beneficial by meeting a potential friend on the road, for example.
The game also comes with a nice Journey Log, where players can record their journey’s and any sights they might see or people they meet.
This system does not prevent you from springing combat on your players or adding more complex locations or events to the journey. I think it has been designed to add story and mood to the game, while not preventing your characters from ultimately reaching their journey’s goal – they might be weakened by their fatigue when they get there, though.
The Fellowship & the Fellowship Phase
In keeping with the source material, the group of characters isn’t a group of self serving sell-swords or loot happy anti-heroes. They are a fellowship – a Company working together – and there are some mechanics to support that.
First of all, each character has Fellowship focus – another character whom he or she is has a special bond with – and when they aid that person with Hope, the character gains two dice instead of one. However, if the character is seriously injured or suffers a bout of madness the character who has a bond with them gains a point of Shadow.
Typically the Fellowship is supported by a Patron – a benevolent and experienced NPC who aids and guides the group. This could be one of the very well known characters from Middle-earth such as Bilbo, Gandalf or Elrond or one of the lesser known figures, such as Círdan the Shipwright or Gilraen (Aragorn’s mother).
The players normally decide which Patron they wish to have at the outset of the game. Each patron comes with a special ability the group gains and adds a bonus to the group’s Fellowship Rating. The Fellowship Rating is a pool of points the group has which they (most often) can use to regain Hope, but having Gandalf the Grey as Patron allows them to spend Fellowship points to make Shadow rolls favoured, for example.
In the Fellowship Phase – the down time period of the game – the players take more control of the narrative. They normally stay at their Safe Haven – such as Bree or Rivendell – and can then select a few actions (called Undertakings) they wish to do during this period. During the winter season (Yuletide) there are also some additional special options, as that period is typically several months, and allows the characters to go back to their families or kin, visit far off patrons and the like. Undertakings include Gather Rumours, Study Magic Item, Strengthen Fellowship and Write a Song (yes, songs have a mechanical effect!).
The Fellowship phase is also the time where Hope can be renewed Shadow scars can be healed – and it is the time that players can spend their hard earned XP!
If a character gets a reward from his culture – an grievous weapon, close fitting armor or the like – this is where the player narrates how they get it.
Lastly, the character can raise an heir. By spending XP and Treasure on raising an heir, the player can prepare a new character for when the current one dies or retires – a fun feature for a long campaign, and completely in keeping with the novels.
Adventures, Monsters, Magic & Lore
The game also comes with around 30 pages of information about Eriador, rules for generating magical treasure and Nameless Things from the dark, monster mechanics and 21 monster stat blocks and an example of a Landmark – an adventuring location with lore, NPCs, plot, treasure and monsters.
As is clear from the rules, the game is focused on adventures consisting of a number of scenes, potentially with a ‘dungeon style’ location. It is however not meant to be 4-6 encounters per adventuring day. I would expect to have combat in most sessions, but certainly not every session.
Lore & Landmarks
The lore in the book is a good foundation for gameplay briefly covering Bree-Land, the Shire (which is fully developed in the Starter Set), the Great East Road, the Green Way, the Barrow Downs and a few other locations.
It contains additional random tables for some of the locations and plenty of hooks for adventure. The tables include what you might find in a Troll Hole, what happens that night at the Prancing Pony or what you discover in an ancient ruin along the Green Way – could be a crumbling tower or a recently torched homestead? There are also NPCs for the characters to meet and problems that they need solved.
Looking at the original maps, they seem fairly empty of “civilization”, but in the lore and in the game, these regions contain many small villages and holdfasts, ruins of ancient keeps and so forth.
I like the tables, as they are a quick way to add the right flavour and a touch of something surprising to your game.
Adversaries Compared to many fantasy games, the list of monsters is shorter in Middle-earth, but there are several variations of trolls, orcs, undead and spiders the characters can face.
The rules governing monsters differ from characters, as they don’t have three different attributes, but only one, and they don’t have Hope but points of Hate or Resolve depending on the type of monster. These points can be used as additional dice, just like Hope, or to power special abilities – akin to Legendary Actions from D&D.
Personally, I wish the monsters had 2-3 abilities instead of the typical one to make combat a bit more interesting. The method for creating Nameless Things in the appendix actually contains quite a long list of abilities, which is good inspiration for mechanics to add to monsters.
The designers also left out several groups of monsters for future publications, such as Giant Spiders and Dragons.
I would also have liked stats for at least one very powerful creature, like a Ring Wraith or a dragon, to put things in perspective.
Magical items Characters are expected to find 1-3 magical treasures over the course of their adventures, but in The One Ring these items aren’t random – the characters are fated to find them.
In game terms, it means that the Loremaster is encouraged to draw up a list of 2-3 items for each character including names, a bit of lore and stats for each item. And when they find an appropriate treasure, the LM can pick one or more items from that list. This means that items are narratively bound to that character: they can’t be traded within the group and they will go with the character to her death, or into retirement (unless an heir has been raised).
A neat little feature is that you can spend an action in the Fellowship phase to unlock the next ability of the item, and if the player has spent valor in getting heirlooms from his culture, these “gifts” can be handed back, and in effect be “traded in” for upgrades to the wonderous artefact or magic weapon they recovered. It means the effort/xp spent earlier isn’t lost when they discover something better.
I think The One Ring RPG 2nd edition is an excellent game fully focused on delivering the Middle-earth experience, enabling players to immerse themselves in Tolkien’s setting and have their own adventures meeting all the famous characters and foiling the plans of the Enemy. My imagination is certainly spurred.
The game is medium – towards light – crunch, and aims towards using rules to drive the narrative forward and make sure the game hits the right mood and atmosphere.
There are a lot of mechanics that I really like, and from my – very limited – experience the combat moved smoothly.
Reading the official forums, some fans of the 1st edition liked some aspects of the previous edition better. The previous edition had more mechanics for example for Councils and more uses for Hope. I can see that. As I understand it, in this edition, the designers have moved towards less rules for councils and more focus on letting the group narrate how it plays out. I think it is a matter of taste what you prefer.
If you have mostly played D&D 5th edition, I hope this article inspires you in your own game, and perhaps to pick up one of the many other great RPGs.
I’ve run the adventure That Jazz Craze from the excellent Harlem Unbound 2nd edition source book and adventure collection by Chris Spivey for Call of Cthulhu 7th edition from Chaosium. In this article, I will describe how That Jazz Craze ran for us, and the addition I made to its ending, and the reasons why. I will also provide some thoughts on the ‘source book’ part of Harlem Unbound, and why I think you should get it – because you should. It is great!
The other six adventures of the book, I will not cover in depth, as you don’t really get a good understanding of an adventure from simply reading them, you need to prepare to run them – and then run them – to see what really works and where you might experience some problems.
I ran That Jazz Craze as the second adventure in a mini-campaign of three scenarios, before we got back to in-person gaming. For the first adventure, we played None More Black. The three characters were part of the detective agency Duke & Whitlock.
If you are normally a CoC player, you should stop reading, when you get to the: How I ran That Jazz Craze part. There will be spoilers!
What is Harlem Unbound?
Harlem Unbound is a beefy 368-page sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu and Pulp Cthulhu (or Trail of Cthulhu for that matter). The first part, about 100 pages, describes Harlem from around 1920 to around 1930 – the Harlem Renaissance – and the many important people and NPCs in it, and it helps you handle racism in your game. It also has new occupations, back story elements and 10 Talents for a Pulp game. The next 280 pages contain seven ready-to-run adventures, all of which are tied to Harlem, and which can be woven into a full episodic campaign.
The adventures use the locations and people described in the supplement and expand on them with more details and make them come alive, like the mostly obscure Harlem Hellfighters, an all African American regiment that served with great distinction and valor in World War I (despite incredibly demeaning behavior and racism from their country and the army they served in).
Interspersed in the entire book are boxes with ideas for plots and additional information.
The art is mostly in red, grey and black and white, like the historic photos. It enhances the atmosphere tremendously, and underscores Lovecraftian themes of madness and despair. Photos and art in this post is from the book.
High level review
The book is a top tier supplement, which I think belongs in every Keeper’s library. The first 100 pages gives the Keeper a solid foundation for running games in Harlem, and helps you run a game which deals with racism.
I am not the most experience CoC player or Keeper out there, but I really enjoyed (and so did my players) how different the setting felt, compared to most CoC adventures we have played. The vibrant, dark and mystical area of one of the biggest cities in the world, is very far from dusty New England manors. New England in CoC has a sense of decay, deteriation and of time standing still, to me. Of old families with old money and old secrets. Harlem is full of optimism, hope and culture, but flavoured with ancient secrets and powers and intense struggle between those who want to claim power ower their own lives and those who wish to keep their power over others.
For a white European, like me, the NPCs were especially enlightening. Almost all were new to me, except for a few I knew from university and pop culture. They represent a broad mix of people, but everyone of them are extraordinary in some way and made their mark on Harlem, often on the United States and sometimes the world.
I think it is a particular testament to the quality of the writing that I often can’t tell where the facts end and the fiction begins. It is really skillfully woven into each other, so I felt like I got a good historical perspective on Harlem and the black experience but with this subtle connection to the mythos.
The adventure I ran was really good, and I like the organisation of the scenarios, with the links between different scenes and locations clearly indicated at the beginning of each part.
There are also many great handouts and maps, which made running the game on Roll20 very easy.
As I haven’t run – and in some cases not even thoroughly read (GMs must be pragmatic) all of the adventures, I can’t judge them. But from what I have read, they are all of very high quality and drip with atmosphere. Further, I think it is a great strength of the book that I could read the synopsis of them all and pick the one that suited our mini campaign and characters well, and just drop it in there with great success.
Racism and diversity is at the core of the book. It discuss some of the issues your group might have with racism as a theme and how players and keepers of different ethnicities handle a game set in an area with Jim Crow laws and deep set racism.
The section contains very concrete advice for a white Game Master like myself, which I found very helpful. And it is useful and applicable to all role-playing games. For example, you can’t always have the white NPC disregard the black player character or have him thrown from the premise, because it is ‘whites only’. It wouldn’t be fun to play. So what can you do? Spivy suggests three different tiers of application of this reality, going from more casual to full immersion. I would personally love to play in a purist Harlem campaign with an American Keeper, who has lived racism. I’m sure it would alter my entire perspective on life and history.
It also has a simple (optional) system to reflect racism, called a ‘racial tension modifer’, where the difficulty of the roll changes when engaging socially with people from other races/cultures.
As our group isn’t American (but Danish), we don’t ourselves deal with the issues of oppressing ancestors of an enslaved population, civil war, dispossession etc in the same way in our own society (we have our own sins, like colonizing Greenland). That creates some distance, and makes playing an African American or an Asian woman in the 1920’s a little less risky, or perhaps less likely to create tension between the participants, I think. Although we probably are more prone to create stereotypes. Nonetheless, the advice given is great and universal, and it made me feel more comfortable stepping into this world.
Only one of the three players in the group isn’t white, but the scenario did spur a very positive talk about his experience with racism and, anecdotally, how his mom and aunt, who grew up with white men being considered the superiors, still always serves the white man at the table first.
The only choice in the book I disagree with, is the organisation of the locations described in the book. There are a lot of locations, but they don’t each have a header in the text (partly, I would think because some are mentioned briefly, and many headers would take up space), but I found it makes referencing them while you are running the game more tricky. I had to find the entry on the Harlem hospital during the game, and even with the good index in the book, I would still have liked clearer text markers.
All in all, it is the best historical RPG sourcebook I’ve encountered. It is very high quality, and has material enough for multiple campaigns, and it will both educate and inspire you. I highly recommend it.
How I ran That Jazz Craze
What follows is a summary of our game, including an explanation to some of the changes I made, and where I ran into some bumps that you might want to be aware of if you intend to run it. I also added an extended ending, which you can find at the end.
We played on Roll20, and I transferred the very good maps and handouts to the platform and plotted in the locations in the GM Layer, so I could reveal them later. I also added a couple of NPCs that I might have to roll for. Other than that, it was simple to familiarize myself with the adventure. But it meant that we ran it in short 2-hour sessions, which isn’t ideal for CoC short adventures, as the tension you build during the game is hard to rebuild in the next session.
The three characters were:
Trevor Jones: black Jazz musician and Harlem native
Madame Akumi: medium and seer born to a Japanese crime family on the US West Coast, who fled east away from her family
Doctor Derald Heathe: MD. and mortician from an old New England family
To quickly summarize the plot, a Harlem musician named Wendell Young has recorded the first ever jazz record by a black musician. Unfortunately, he feared failing, and called upon the power of the Baron in Blues (an avatar of Azathoth), and anyone who listens to the record is cursed and loses the ability to communicate and make sense of the world – somewhat like late stage dementia. As all the musicians in the band are cursed they go missing; most simply wandering off. This is bad, but initially the characters are only tasked with finding Wendell.
The musician, Trevor, gets a call from Mr. Holstein, a Harlem gangster, who has invested in one of his old aquaintances: Wendell Young. Holstein has invested in Wendell’s recording. He can’t get a hold of Wendell, and he has heard that Trevor works at company renowned for finding missing people, and he is convinced that someone local with the right skillset best can manage this case. He also flatters him, by relaying how he saw Trevor play first trumpet at a concert at the local WMCA, when he had just arrived in Harlem – a big band which Wendell also played in, but without as much distinction. Finally, he gives them the first two locations to visit: his home address and the recording studio address, so they have a place to start.
Casper Holstein was born on the Danish Virgin Islands, hence his very ‘Danish sounding’ name (Holstein is a region in now northern Germany, but was once a dukedom under the Danish king). The islands were sold to the U.S., but was for me a ‘spot on’ link to our own slave owning past.
The characters take the job and drive to Harlem. They decide to stay at Trevor’s mother’s house – a house on Sugar Hill, which still shows signs of wealth, but which also has seen better days. The aged butler lets them in, they meet his mother and get some rooms.
I played the mother as very happy to see her son, who doesn’t visit often, but I also made her very deferential to the white physician, which was a good RP moment.
Trevor then begins to call around, and he also learns of the speak easy that Wendell normally frequented. I did this without dice rolls, as I was sure he could turn up that information, and I want them to find it.
As it is late in the day, they decide to go out to the speak easy. They talk to the bouncer and the waitress, and it is a very atmospheric experience, where they get their first clues that something wasn’t right with Wendell getting drunk, talking about trumpets and such. Trevor also borrows a trumpet from one of the locals – he of course carries his own mouth piece – and plays a tune. As the character has 90% and rolls an extreme success, the audience is very impressed, and they have a great – and very atmospheric evening.
The comment I got was: “I wish I could BE in that bar.”
The next morning they go to Wendell’s flop. Here I changed things a little bit, as the adventure assumes that the characters will have to go through a locked door, but it seems to me like there would be quite a lot of other people hanging out there in some of the other rooms (as Harlem is crowded with migrants from the South and it is summer), and that they would know Wendell to some extent.
So they get in without fuzz and find his place (I think I forgot the cigarette bud clue), and they find the keys to the rehearsal room. They go down there and see Wendell clanking away at his piano.
And on that note, I ended the first session.
For this session, I only had two players, so Dr. Heathe I faded out a bit, but he did influence the first scene. I’ve never found that this method strains verisimilitude.
The characters approach Wendell, and they try to get something out of him, but this of course fails. Trevor shines, as he rolls an extreme success, when he examines the sheet music on the floor. And because of that level of success, I do provide him with the information that the music contains some kind of summoning – he does have mythos of 4%, so he is no longer completely ignorant of this kind of horror.
I then use the doctor – temporarily and NPC – to provide his evaluation that Wendell looks like a person suffering late stage dementia. They then call an ambulance, and put him up at the Harlem Hospital, and I have Heathe ride along, as with a white doctor along, he is ensured better treatment (and I get him out of the action). They also recover the contract.
The next stop for Trevor and Madame Akumi is the recording studio. I add a band smoking cigarettes outside the building complaining about having a recording time, but apparently the sound engineer hasn’t shown up.
They go up and meet Cliff Perkins, who is annoyed and irritable and hard to talk to. They do get the information from him that he has new business partners and that he hasn’t heard the record Wendell recorded. The characters don’t have great social skills, so a charm attempt fails, but they do get the name and address of the recording engineer.
Then they proceed to the engineers apartment and are let in by the janitor. The apartment smells, and they go in, while the janitor stays in the hallway. They find the body, the illegible suicide note and can asertain that no one have been there. They take the note, and then call for an ambulance. The scene is a dead end, but it serves to underscore that something is very wrong.
They aren’t sure about the owner of the recording studio, so Akumi shadows him the rest of the day, while Trevor goes home to calls contacts to find the rest of the band members. Both efforts turn out to be dead ends. Perkins only goes out to get a new recording engineer – because I play him as a callous pure business guy.
At the end of the session, in the evening, they go out to the production facility. They find the scene as described in the module, and after trying to engage the catatonic and crying worker and the one pacing without success, Akumi decides to engage the two arguing workers, who have now struck the first blow. This means a fight ensues, and that is where we ended the second session.
At the beginning, I make the conceit that the third character, the doctor, has been waiting in the car, and Trevor goes to get help from him. We then have a big fight and, despite the workers being outnumbered and on par with the character’s combat ability, it is a hard struggle. A lucky punch drops Akumi and Dr. Heathe gets a major wound, but stays in the fight. When they get the first worker down, they have a bonus dice against the remaining guy, and despite Trevor’s meagre fight ability, they manage to get him down.
They do first aid, but we quickly learn that being fully healed is a long way off, which influences the rest of the session.
They search the workshop, and recover the mold and the important clue with the production record, but the rest is clearly thrashed.
With the production ledger in hand, they go and check out the storage unit, but there is a guard there, and as everyone has a handful of hit points – at most – and one has a major wound, they don’t even want to tangle with a single thug.
They – wisely – try to parlay instead. They go and see Scarlotti, but he is a tough cookie, and – as mentioned – their social skills aren’t great. However, he does make them the offer of buying the records, but even though two of the characters are fairly well off, they can’t scrape together the money, and are unable to bargain him into do-able territory.
Instead, they go back to Holstein, and agree to get backup from a couple of his tough guys. With those in tow, they jump the guard at the storage unit and get the recordings, and ensure that they are destroyed.
Because time is running short, I narrate how they locate the missing band members over the following days. They get the newspaper clip and a handout I made myself – a photo of some of the bandsmen, with another soldier, who isn’t part of the original adventure.
They go and find this Conrad Haywood, who owns a store of Music and curiosities in Harlem, and he tells them how Wendell was so nervous over his recording session, that he wanted some extra “help”. Haywood did not want to give him that insight, but he called upon their bond as soldiers, so he had to do what he could. He gave him the diary of a blues virtuoso, who reached new heights of perfection, which contained the spell needed to contact The Baron in Blues. The group buys the book, and gains some more mythos knowledge and closure.
All in all, it was a very good and atmospheric scenario. The mood around Harlem and its people was inspiring and powerful, and a great change of pace from more “traditional” Call of Cthulhu adventures.
My players really enjoyed it, and I would be happy to run more adventures from the book, if we go back to CoC in the future.
Of the NPCs I especially liked Perkins, the record label owner, because he isn’t evil, he is just a normal asshole boss casual racist, who doesn’t care about the art they record in his studio, just the money.
The no-name speakeasy is excellent and provided one of the top-3 atmospheric scenes of our 3-adventure mini-campaign.
I think Wendell’s flop is also very atmospheric, but it was detrimental to the scene, that it was the opening of session two, instead of the first big ‘beat’ of a 5-hour session.
I think the business aspect of the scenario is a bit fuzzy. Perhaps it is my ignorance, but why would the mobsters want to sell the records off a truck instead of letting the recording company sell it through regular channels – why does that make financial sense? Or maybe I missed something in the text? A possible change could be that Scarlotti is more visionary than he seems, and he understands that a jazz record by a black group will sell like hot cakes in Harlem, unlike the casual racist Perkins? And perhaps that being first, will enable him to jack up the price? This isn’t indicated in the adventure, and does not fit well with the tone I get for Scarlotti, but it could be an interesting reversal of expectations. My group didn’t think too much of it, but I found him harder to play, because I didn’t fully understand his plan.
Scarlotti would never believe that it was “cursed”, so I liked that characters can’t convince him to hand them over, but can buy them, if they have the credit rating or cash.
Also, the financial deal between Holstein, who finances the recording and production, Wendell and the recording company – is a bit too vague for me to understand how he would get his money back from the investment, and why Scarlotti raids his place.
The adventure does hinge a bit on the characters being altruistic, because “the job” of finding Wendell is quite easy – my players were like “hey, that was easy, job done!” when we ended the first session, but later understand the gravity (and play along).
I can see the arguments for the characters being unable to get an “explanation” – to not get closure. Keeping things in the dark and unknown adds that sense of mystery and danger. However, I decided to change it for two reasons: 1) I think my players would be more satisfied with it and 2) because the character Trevor’s background fit well with getting the temptation of calling on the Baron himself. As he couldn’t see the ritual from Wendell’s music, I needed to provide that final clue. Alternately, I could have let him understand the summoning ritual from the notes in Wendell’s flop.
You can find my notes for the additional content below:
A New Ending – The occult music shop connection
Wendell was in the Harlem Hellfighters band with Fred Kerns, and wandering mid-town he might get picked up and dropped off at the Harlem hospital. On him, he has a photo of himself, Wendell, and Conrad Haywood, who knew them both well, and who also played the cornet.
Conrad was cut off from his squad during a push in the Argonne forest, and he stumbled upon a German dugout, where he discovered a weird statue and two german soldiers, who were singing entranced at the thing. After that, he fought his way back, and was a bit crazy and had an infected wound in his thigh. He began mixing with the other coloured regiments from Senegal and North Africa and frequenting weird shops in Paris, after they were finally taken off the line after 192 days. When he came back to Harlem, he brought with him a lot of sheet music and curiosities. The man set up a shop in Harlem on West 142 st. The shop is called: Music, instruments and curiosities.
In it, you can find many instruments, mostly of peculiar materials or construction, guitars with errie histories (found at a murder scene) or only possesion of a dead vagabond found in a closed train wagon. There is a lot of sheet music, and a decent collection of records of various kinds.
Conrad has glasses and a limp. He was the one who showed Wendell – because he insisted – an old notebook, found in the hands of a dead blues virtuos, named Gentel Robins. The notebook speaks of the Baron in Blues, whom he bested in a horn cutting contest and gained a sublime moment and saw the road of blues ahead. Mythos tome 1%/2%. Teaches the Call Baron in Blues spell.
He did not want to show it to him, as he didn’t think he had the skill, but he called upon their old bond, and so he had to show it to him. He didn’t let him take the notebook from the shop though. It is still there.
The Call of Cthulhu adventure None More Black, by Brian M. Sammons, appears in the Doors to Darkness adventure collection for the 7th edition of the classic horror game. All the adventures in the book are meant as introductory to the world and system, and this adventure succeeded very well as that. It was fun to play, with variety in the challenges and it had a very cool ending.
The adventure features an unexplained death of a young college student, Walter Resnick. He was found dead in his room at a local boarding house, after he had been missing for a few days. The characters could either be local officials, such as police, coroner and perhaps a college professor, or friends of the dead student, or alternately hired investigators who get embroiled in the cause of his death.
I can highly recommend the adventure as the first adventure for a longer campaign, as the threat isn’t overwhelming, or as a stand-alone ‘one shot’ introduction to Call of Cthulhu.
It was the first adventure for our pandemic-downtime Call of Cthulhu mini-campaign. We run two parallel groups of three characters. All the characters are part of the same detective agency, Duke & Whitlock, and we switch up the characters for the next adventure, where I will be running That Jazz Craze, from Harlem Unbound. The other Keeper ran the Haunting for three other players.
We played four 2-hour online sessions with 2-3 players for a total of eight hours of game time. It can be done faster, as some of the investigation is optional.
Online play is an inferior experience to meeting physically, particularly when you try to build mood and atmosphere, but playing with only two or three players, which CoC is great for, enhances the online play experience, compared to four or more players.
In the following article, I will briefly go through what happened in our play-through and provide some advice and highlight areas where I noticed issues or areas for special focus, in case you are running the adventure. The rest of the article will have spoilers. So, if you want to be a player in this story, stop reading and send the link to your Keeper!
Preparing for the adventure:
How you prepare for the first part of the adventure, depends on how you involve the investigators. As my characters were private investigators, I decided that Walter’s parents hired the investigators to establish a cause of death, because they couldn’t believe the ‘natural causes’ explanation coming from the authorities.
We’ve set our game in Springfield, Massachusetts, and so I needed to have an idea of the locations where the investigators would get the initial information: the coroner’s office, the police and the boarding house. I also needed some names of students, who were part of the ‘bad element’ Walter was involved with. I’ve written that into a document you can download and use.
One of my few points of criticism for the adventure would be that there is only one physical handout for the adventure. It would have been nice, if the adventure came with eg an autopsy report and some excerpts from the Dover journal. If you feel like you have the time and skill, you should consider making handouts for an autopsy report and an excerpt from the Dover diary.
I also changed the timeline somewhat. I found it unrealistic that Jacob Dover had amassed enough money to buy a new car and an old property and got so many followers in only a few weeks, so I increased the timeline to three very active months. One of the reasons I found it unrealistic was also that three deaths among young – upper middle class – people in a university in three weeks, would certainly be a scandal and create significant police and public awareness – and not just “throwing the campus into a panic”. Even if it happens over three months, it would be a big problem for a college and something you could play up in the adventure, with for example a nervous rector as employer and the like.
First session: initial investigation
The characters three characters were: a war veteran up and coming bootlegger of Irish descent, a classically educated black jazz musician with an occult experience and a Brazilian immigrant struggling actor/stuntman. The group was introduced to the adventure when the client – the deceased’s parents – called the detective agency. Through that brief, they learned that he was dead, that it was explained as ‘natural causes’, but it was an explanation that the parents had a hard time accepting, as the young man was known as a cheerful healthy man who did lots of sports.
The players then went to the natural first points of interest: the coroner’s office, the police and Walter’s home. They had good luck getting details from the coroner, for example that the tongue was black. The police detective was up to his ears in another case, and was stumped on this one, so he shared the highlights, but they failed a persuade roll, so didn’t get speculative details. At the boarding house where he lived, they got to speak to the neighbor and learned that he had nightmares and was ‘out of sorts’.
They proceeded to Springfield College (which I found this really nice old postcard of), where they spoke to the administration and found some of the ‘bad company’ that he had been keeping.
They managed to get Paul Rodger’s name out of them, and they followed him back to his house, when he came by to sell this ‘new thing’ later on. At Rodger’s house, I had them notice O’shea, in a car on a stakeout. As one of the characters was an up-and-coming bootlegger middle-man, he knew of him, and he decided to go talk to O’Shea.
From him they learned that Rodgers was selling something new on the market, and the O’shea family was interested in learning more. When Rodgers goes out later in the evening on a date with his girlfriend, O’Shea follows him, but the characters investigate the house. One character decides to search for a hidden extra key, and with an extreme luck success he finds one. They enter the house and find the stash (which they grab), the hidden notes and obviously the boots. That is where we ended the scene. If I had had more time, I could have had Rodgers coming home with his girlfriend to add tension, but they had learned a lot, and were ready to move on in the adventure.
Second session: scrambling scouting mission
There were only two players for this session, and it still worked very well. The jazz musician and the boot legger decided to scout the old slaughterhouse, without doing a lot of research. They drove out there, parked the car and snuck closer. They could see a car outside, and a little bit of light from inside. They also noticed a guard wandering around outside from time to time.
In the adventure, there is very little detail about where exactly the different NPCs are and what they are doing, so I decided that there was a Blackhead outside walking the perimeter once in a while, smoking a cigarette and such, but not very worried or aware.
The characters managed to sneak up to the side of the building, and from cracks in the gate on a loading ramp they could hear the chanting and Dover’s voice ordering them around, when a Blackhead had finished his spell. They try to peek into the slaughterhouse, but they need to climb to a window up under the roof. They fail their stealth test (which they are pretty bad at), push, and are discovered. The Blackhead who was patrolling comes running, and Willis Carter, the linebacker bodyguard moves outside and starts the car to use the lights on the car.
One of the few things I found missing was a more detailed description of the slaughterhouse, which my players visited twice.
I then initiate a chase scene. Unfortunately, the bootlegger is very slow, and is quickly caught up to by the Blackhead, so they enter combat, while the not very physically impressive black academic and jazz musician runs all out down a dirt road. As I’m not that familiar with the chase rules anyway, I move into a more fluid scene.
Carter drives after the musician and the bootlegger ends up shooting the Blackhead with a .45 and crits, and he falls over dead (neatly demonstrating the lethality of guns). The musician reaches they edge of the corrals and dives into the hedges to hide, but not before he sees, over his shoulder, some shadows rise from the roof of the slaughterhouse (the Nightgaunts). Carter stops the car on the road and calmly walks in there with his .38 and finds the musician trying to hide behind a tree. He orders him to walk with his hands up back to his car, as he intends to get him back to the slaughterhouse for interrogation.
But in the meantime, the bootlegger has arrived after his struggle, and takes a shot at the bodyguard. In the confusion , the not very combat capable musician kicks the bodyguard between the legs and runs away. The two combatants trade shots, the bodyguard is winged and seeks cover behind the car, and the bootlegger uses the opportunity to run away – as he is also out of bullets. With the two characters fleeing back to their car, we end the session.
Third session: deeper investigation
To account for the missing player in the previous session, we ret-con that he was sleeping in the car. We play out a scene where the two characters come rushing back and semi-panicking shouting that he needs to get the car moving. They drive back to Springfield and catch each other up and make a plan.
The group begins by following three avenues of investigation. The boot-legger seek out O’shea to get his family’s assistance. The musician research newspapers and town hall archives and the actor/stunt man will test the Black sample on a dog.
O’shea agrees to go and meet his uncle with their information and offer and they decide to meet later. Behind the scenes, I’ve decided that Dover concludes that the people spying on him was working for the Irish mob, and he will have his Night Gaunts kill O’shea in the evening, when they are to meet.
The musician digs out a lot more information – about Dover’s family history, the transfer of title to the slaughterhouse and thereby his address.
The experiment on a stray dog was a fun – but inconclusive – avenue. He lured a dog to him and feeds it with some meat with the Black on it. I explained how it fell asleep and made the ‘dog kicks’ of a dog dreaming. And then he had to wait for several hours before it awoke. Later on, it began whining and becoming restless, which is how I tried to indicate it was addicted. No matter what, the players didn’t dare to test the drug – which is of course wise.
After digesting all the information, they go to meet O’shea, but arrives at the scene of his death, with a man raving about him dropping from the sky. This underscores the danger they are in and increases the pressure on them.
They move on to Dover’s address and locate his apartment, which they force open. As I understood the adventure, Dover spends most nights at the Slaughterhouse, so he and Carter are not home. They find the journal, and the end of the session is the musician doing a first reading of this ‘mythos tome’, but he decides not to learn the spell Call the Black, mainly because of the additional time it would take.
Fourth session: the showdown
This time, all three characters approach the slaughterhouse stealthily in the spring rain. Now there is a guard circling the outer perimeter, and the bodyguard was sitting inside the car smoking (out of the rain). They get to the north side of the building and with a very good strength roll kick one of the old gates in. Both the bootlegger and the stunt man/actor are good with shotguns, and they kill two blackheads in the first round.
In the second round, Jacob Dover emerges from the old office and begins casting his spell and the two Nightgaunts attack, but the bootlegger manages to fight off the two Nightgaunts and the stuntman blasts Dover. At this point the bodyguard has also entered the room, and shot at the musician, who is in cover. But in the third round they gun down the two Nightgaunts, with some good rolls, and the bodyguard flees into the night, after seeing Dover gunned down.
The musician begins to search Dover’s room, as I decided the old inspection room was used as his office, and that the deed to the slaughterhouse, as well as his cash, was in there, given that there is nothing in his apartment, and he spends most of his time there. At the same time, the others search the main area.
At this point, I decide to introduce the Raw Head and Black Bones. I did that for two reasons: I think they deserve a ‘big monster’, and I felt like the fight against Dover and the Blackheads went a little too easy to be a good climax. If they had been less capable gun fighters and they had been wounded and barely made it, I think surviving the Blackheads and Dover would have been victory enough.
But as it happens, it forms out of the black ooze and bones. The musician fails his sanity roll and flees in the car parked outside. The two tough guys shoot a couple of shots, with little effect, before it glides over to the stuntman and whacks him with an average damage roll … and kills him instantly. At this point, the bootlegger runs for his life. RIP Francisco Oliveira (you can see the obit I wrote afterwards to the left, which reflects how the characters had to obfuscate the cause of death).
The musician flees to a bar and begins drinking, and he regains his memory and composure in the morning.
The two remaining detective regroup at the office. They decide to go back with gasoline and burn the slaughterhouse in the early morning, and – as it is still raining, which should keep the monster inside – I let them end the adventure with that.
There is of course a police investigation of the fire and the bodies found, but I think the police simply want to quiet things down at this point, and are happy the Black is gone, so nothing further is done, even though I’m sure they could easily figure out that the characters were involved in the shooting (see the newspaper clip at the end, for my wrap-up).
Conclusion and final thoughts
We had a lot of fun with the adventure. It is classic Call of Cthulhu investigation, but it isn’t overly complex to reach a conclusion, so it is good for players new to the game. It also has enough optional elements that it will not feel railroaded, despite it being linear from the college to the slaughterhouse.
I was perfectly happy to have the players meet the Irish mobsters and make a deal with them even after O’Shea died, but they players didn’t want to wait a couple of days – until the funeral was over to try to negotiate that deal – so they went to the slaughterhouse themselves. I think, if you introduce O’Shea, that many groups will consider allying with the mob, unless they are very upright citizen types, and having a few mob goons along means that you can really use Raw Head as a terrible foe at the same time as they face the Blackheads.
I wish that the slaughterhouse had more information about its contents and that the map of the slaughterhouse clearly indicated what was where. I also think the slaughterhouse is too small at about 50×30 feet. I regret not increasing the dimensions to double or triple the size, as I think it leaves more room for dark corners and a wild skirmish.
You can also play up the political elements of the story. Three dead college students would be a big problem anywhere. Particularly for a game with characters more tied to the institutions of the city, this could be a big factor in pushing them to resolve the situation.
As I mentioned above, it would also have been great with a couple of more handouts, as it is one of the aspects of a CoC adventure that really entertains and adds that special ‘feel’.
Next up for our mini campaign is the adventure That Jazz Craze.
I wrote a newspaper article to ‘wrap up’ the lose ends, which enables us to move on to the next episode of the mini-campaign.
20 years ago, I co-wrote a thesis paper for my BA on gender, women and horror in the Alien films. We would have looked at it differently today, but the paper can still serve as an inspiration for Game Mothers and academics who wish to delve deeper into this universe and these topics.
Gender and gaming is a much more discussed issue today, thankfully, and I find it fitting to post this on International Women’s Day. The discussion of women and gender makes complete sense to me, especially when you discuss fictional universes and games, because it is so rewarding to examine them in the form of art and entertainment.
Ripley, as a character, undergoes radical changes through the four films, and we liken her death to the death of Christ.
Much of the theory used in the paper was already 20 years old when we used it, so from that perspective I think it could inspire others to dive deeper into the topic. That said, it is not a field I’m keeping on top of or working with, and there might be a lot of new more important theory out there which this article does not reflect.
The horror theory used I think can help Alien Game Mothers to more consciously incorporate horrific elements. As the paper describes, there are very strong links between what we consider horrific and women, reproduction, sex, birth and so on – themes that are extremely prevalent in the Alien universe. Understanding that theory can help GMs craft adventures, I believe.
The paper was written with my friend and fellow role-player, Per Frederiksen.
If these topics interest you, I suggest you give it a look!
The last message you hear on the radio from the battalion HQ is: “You’re on your own now.” Then it’s just static. The 5th US Mechanized Division is no more. It is just you, the sarge, a befuddled lieutenant you dragged out of a fox hole yesterday, Ramirez and her SAW and a local Polish kid, who had been running errands in the company. And an ol’ beat up truck nicknamed Hauler. How the hell are you going to escape the advancing Soviets, let alone get home?
This is the premise of one of my old role-playing loves, Twilight: 2000, a World War III post-apocalyptic game in a future that never was, now being republished by Swedish Free League Publishing, using another custom version of the Mutant Year-Zero ruleset.
In short, I think they’ve done an excellent job adapting their ruleset to make an intense game about humans and survival in a scary and hard future. I would very much enjoy to play or run it, and it is currently tied with Alien as the game I would most like to run for my next campaign (after I finish my now four years long D&D game).
The game system has the right level of abstraction versus crunch (to my taste), the design seems very well executed and the art and layout are excellent.
Why should I check this game out?
If you like post-apocalyptic games
If you enjoy more down to earth RPGs with some crunch
If you enjoy alternate history and the Cold War
If you want to explore very human emotions, conflicts and scenarios
If you enjoy movies like Black Hawk Down, Fury, Apocalypse Now, Mad Max etc.
A lot of military veterans play it
Alien RPG players, who want more crunch for combat in Alien, can get a lot of ideas from this game.
One of the parts that made me love the 2nd edition of the game was Tim Bradstreet’s atmospheric pencil illustrations. They added that sense of the setting being in a gritty, worn real world. They remind me of Hermann’s excellent Jeremiah comics.
It is in Alpha
I got access to the Alpha-version as a Kickstarter backer, and I will in this article give an overview of my initial thoughts, and maybe convince you to check it out, or give fans of the old version a few insights. It won’t be a game for everyone, but it would be great if the audience could grow. The full game is released in 2021.
Given that it is an Alpha version, the final version of the game will obviously differ from how I describe it here, and there is content clearly left out, like more locations for the characters to visit, rules for making a base and the experience system to a name a few.
I should say that this is the 4th edition of the game. My first experience with the setting was in 8th or 9th grade, where we would play the 2nd edition at my friend Tonny’s house. I just loved it. We didn’t follow all the rules (which are complex and old fashioned), and back then I already found the skill system and character creation rules annoying, because it was impossible to make a young and skilled character. But it was where my love of the post-apocalyptic setting was established, and I was already lurking on Twilight 2000 fora when news of the new edition hit.
Tell me some more…
So, what is the game about? Well, the world has basically collapsed after the next world war. The war included significant exchanges of – mainly tactical – nuclear weapons between NATO and the Soviet Union. Nuclear winter and the collapse of infrastructure has caused wide-spread famine and disease and the and civilian authority has mostly broken down. It is a very bleak world, but Free League notes that you need to add some hope, or the whole thing becomes too depressing!
It is also worth noting that the designers clearly state that this is not a game about soldiers or the military, it is about survivors, which I really like.
The default campaign is that your unit was part of a last-ditch NATO offensive that failed, and when your division is defeated outside of a Polish town called Kalisz, you are simply let go. The group of characters are a few soldiers from this division, and maybe a couple of civilians or a CIA spy. They also might have a vehicle, but that is usually randomly determined at the start of the game. The immediate goal will be to avoid – ie flee – the oncoming Soviet troops. But then what? That it is really up to the players to decide, depending on their motivations and characters. They might try to get to comparative safety in France, or see if they can find a ship to take them home somewhere in Western Europe, or they might decide to settle down and create their own base, or perhaps follow the new meta-plot line of Operation Reset? What is certain is that it will be difficult to survive and there will be hard choices ahead.
The second campaign option in the book is playing in a collapsed Sweden, which got involved in the war. Free League is Swedish, so I find it a great addition. Especially since the Baltic Sea is a key theatre for a WWIII scenario involving Russia. Sweden has been nuked, has US Marines fighting alongside Swedish regulars and partisans against Soviet troops, and a wounded US aircraft carrier has been parked in Stockholm. A fine new twist.
The game comes with big hex maps for both Poland and Sweden.
Each hex is 10 kilometers (about 6 miles), and the referee will typically draw one encounter per hex.
Who can I play?
There are two ways to make a character: picking one of the archetypes or going through a Life Path. The key difference is the level of control you have over what your character will become. If you pick one of the archetypes (Civilian, Grunt, Gunner, Kid, Mechanic, Medic, Officer, Operator and Spook), you will have a high degree of control over the character you want to play, and they are equally skilled.
The second choice starts you out as an 18-year-old, and lets you pick the different steps in your career – both civilian and military. Each step will make you 1D6 years older, and at each step you gain skills and potentially specialties and promotion, but you also roll to see if your attributes drop or if the war breaks out, at which point you get a “final” War Career. This system is more random and can make your character both more or less skilled than the archetypes. It emulates the system the old GDW games, which Twilight: 2000 was one of and Traveller was another, in which – infamously – your character could die during character creation!
The Free League version is more abstract, which is also in line with the more stream-lined set of skills. It takes up six small pages, whereas the second edition has 12 full pages with for example 18 different officer careers – eg Naval Aviator Officer or Ranger Officer. In this edition they make do with one officer career. I think it is plenty for a core book, and for the fans who want a higher level of detail, it will be easy to make your own or – I’m sure – Free League will add new options in supplements, such as aviators.
I tried the Life Path process and ended up generating an American (you can also play a local or a Soviet), which grew up as a street kid, but who joined the military and became a medic (Combat Service Support). She only served two terms before the war broke out when she was 25 years old. Compared to the Medic archetype, she had one more stat point and three specialties versus one for the archetype, but three fewer skill ranks. Definitely a viable character, and the extra stat point she was lucky to retain, will be consistently useful, if she lives long enough in game!
The system For the people who’ve played other Free League games, the Twilight: 2000 system will feel familiar, but there is still a significant departure in the core mechanic. I’m going to gloss over details here, but put simply:
The game has a dice pool system, but the core dice is one from your attribute and one from your skill. You need to roll a six or higher to have a success, but your rating goes from A-F. A is a D12, B is a D10, C is a D8, D is a D6 and F is nothing (which only applies to skills). Rolling 10 or higher counts as two successes. Modifiers increase or decrease the dice you use. It is reminiscent of the rules for artifact dice in Forbidden Lands – their fantasy RPG. So, you want to try to sneak past a sentry, and you have Agility B and Recon C, you roll a D10 and a D8 and try to roll a six. If you roll two ones, you have a mishap. As in other Free League games, you can “push” the roll once, and roll again, but this causes stress or damage.
So, that is the basics. You can also have skill specializations, eg Machine Gunner or Forward Observer, but there are no talents to add additional capabilities (at least yet, I hope they add them).
There are also a couple of new mechanics.
You have a stat called Courage Under Fire, which you typically need to roll when getting shot at. Furthermore, your unit has a morale equal to the highest Command skill level in the group.
When you fire a weapon, they’ve also added Ammo Dice as a mechanic – a D6. For each of the dice you roll you get an additional chance to hit by rolling more sixes. Additional hits can be applied to nearby enemies. If you roll ones, they contribute to the chance of rolling a mishap, which will degrade your weapon. When you are done, you add the D6 together, and that is the ammo you just used. Simple and elegant – at least on paper. I haven’t tested it.
In some of the other Mutant-Year Zero games, you also rolled dice for water and food every day, but in Twilight: 2000 you need to keep track of daily rations. It was an abstraction I liked, and I hope they will reintroduce. But, of course, characters in a modern world have more options for storing and carrying rations.
Combat is quite tactical, and the default assumption is that you use a hex map (10m a hex) and the counters that comes with the game. This is where most of the crunch comes in. You need rules for various weapons, from knives to mortars to phosphorous grenades. You need to know how mines, barb wire, chemical weapons and explosions work and you need to get vehicles, from motorcycles to main battle tanks, into the mix.
The dangers of combat are accentuated by a nasty critical hit system. If you get a critical hit in the head or torso, they will nearly all be fatal, unless you get medical attention. Just moving a fatally wounded will force a Stamina roll to avoid death – a mechanic I’ve never encountered in a game. I won’t explain the system here, but I like it. It fits with the game.
The system is very deadly compared to other current games, as there is no way to mitigate getting hit using “Fate Points”, “Luck Points” or the like. A medic will be a critical component to a group.
In addition to suffering damage, you can also suffer Stress, like in the Alien RPG. It happens when you push, see a mate get critically injured or if you experience other traumatic events. If you reach zero, you are incapacitated by fear, and someone with the Command skill needs to revive you (like in Alien), but there is no “panic roll”. You can risk long term effects though, like phobias and alcoholism.
The system is less complex than previous editions and has the right level of abstraction for me.
For comparison: In the second edition of the game calculating the Concussion Effect of demolitions, you needed to “divide the DP value of the charge by 2, extract the square root of the result, and multiply by 5.”
I prefer not using a calculator, when I play RPGs.
In this edition, you look at the map, and roll a number of base dice depending on the blast power of the explosion, and for each hex beyond the center you reduce the dice with one step.
The vehicle rules are where I see the most complexity.
In this, and previous editions, vehicles play a significant role. You need to maintain them and find or make fuel (from an alcohol still), and you need to repair them if you can, when they get shot at.
The vehicle can have different armor on each side, which means its facing on the map matters. Furthermore, a hit that does not penetrate the armor might have an effect, and a penetrating hit might continue to damage other parts of the vehicle. This includes the crew and passengers of course, and as a GM I am a little concerned by the likelihood of a TPK if their vehicle is hit with an explosive shell that penetrates the armor. It is realistic – but not that much fun – if 75%+ of the group is killed by a T-72 hidden behind a road-block…
Equipment Your kit is essential for your survival, so the game spends quite some pages on various guns, vehicles, accessories, grenades, explosives etc. Compared to previous editions there are fewer small arms, fewer vehicles and less details on equipment in the core book. The section takes up more than 40 pages in the Alpha edition (versus 78 in 2nd edition), so it isn’t like they breeze over it, especially compared to other current games.
What I loved then – and now – is that all the vehicles and weapons each have an illustration – in color in this edition.
To me, it seems a bit excessive that the Polish weapons get so much space, as they are basically identical to the Soviet weapons, but with different names.
There are no aircraft and only a few boats. However, especially the maritime aspects Free League has promised to follow up on, as sailing down the Vistula river to the Baltic Sea (and then home?) has always been a key part of the game.
Sand box play True to the original, the game is a ‘sand box style’ game. The new edition core books does a better job supporting that style, however.
The original did have a solid section on Encounters and some adventuring sites, but the originals were more generic, whereas Free League has organized them to be drawn from a regular deck of cards and include intentions and drama to many of the pre-written encounter. The referee can then add additional meaning to by including references to the different factions that are also described in the game or play off on previous events. For example, if the referee draws 7 of Clubs, it will be a group of angry starving refugees, but if it is 7 of Hearts it will be three orphan kids in a house and marauders approaching.
There are also a few encounters that feel too similar, and won’t work close together, such as the four different nuclear craters, which differ very slightly. I hope they beef them up a bit.
The game also includes random radio chatter, two pages of “mood elements” and a list of rumors, which is highly useful. It also has a solid system for survival, making camp, scrounging and trade.
That said, although the events and random encounters of previous edition aren’t as “ready to play” as this version, because the Referee will need to roll additional dice and check more tables, there is plenty of inspiration to be drawn from them.
In the Alpha edition there is only one premade location, but they should include four in the full game. The style will be familiar to people who owns or plays Mutant Year Zero or Forbidden Lands. The description contains a map with locations and brief descriptions, NPCs with motivations and rumours and plot hooks.
There is a Meta-plot about Operation Reset, but the Alpha-edition has few details on it. In the previous editions there were also actual “adventures” with a plot-line like you will find for most RPGs. I assume they will reappear.
The Backstory The 1st edition of the game was published in 1984, when the Cold War was still a thing and the year 2000 in an unknown future.
As it turned out, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were a lot weaker than they appeared. Therefore, when you in 2020 make a game, where you start with the original conclusion (a clash between NATO and the Soviets in the middle of Poland around year 2000, and a global nuclear exchange) and go backwards to write an alternate history to get to that point, you will inevitably strain realism.
I am completely fine with that, and ultimately, for most games, the details of the backstory won’t matter the slightest, because it has little to no impact on the game – just like the ancient lore in most fantasy games has very little relevance to the actual game – so who cares what China did? Or if Israel was attacked by a coalition of Soviet and Middle-Eastern forces? You have more immediate problems!
There are however a minority of long-time fans, for whom creating a “realistic” backstory is almost a sub-hobby in it itself, and – funnily enough – most of them claim to have made a backstory that IS “realistic”, from their perspective. They are right of course in saying that the Soviets would never have the capacity to invade the UK, much less supply their troops there. But that won’t matter to the vast majority of players. I say this, to flag to newcomers that there are some vocal critics out there.
If am I to criticize the current backstory a bit myself (ironic isn’t it), I think the brief backstory needs to touch on what China and India are doing in this conflict, as they are the two most populous countries in the world and nuclear powers to boot.
Conclusions & concerns The problem with the old editions were – in my view – that they were very simulationist and not very playable for more casual players. What Free League have basically done is to take their default system, which is already meant for survival-games, and use modern game design conventions to make the game enjoyable for the more casual player.
It is still the most complex – crunchy, if you will – iteration of the Mutant Year-Zero ruleset, and I think one of the reasons is that you still need to provide game mechanical variety in a game with nothing supernatural. It is just humans with guns, motivations – and sometimes tanks or mortars – that you need to worry about. Therefore, there must be a meaningful difference between a Soviet T-72 and T-80 tank.
The Alpha edition seems very well done to me, and most of my points of critique are minor or a matter of taste.
To me, Free League, strikes a balance where the die-hard fans of the previous editions can still recognize the game that they love and making the game relevant and accessible to new players. Hopefully, that means that the veteran players will see an influx of “new blood”.
It will however be important for new players to “manage expectations” when they join a group. There are many current fans out there, who are experts on weapons and military life and who enjoy debating various Soviet tank configurations. Some seem to be very focused on “realism”, which I’m sure may include everything from extensive details on various ammunition types to the inclusion of slavery and sexual violence in the game. If lots of logistics or very dark topics are to your gaming taste, go play! But others with different perspectives on gaming might not, and I think in this game in particular, a solid conversation on what the game will feature and what it won’t, will be critical.
In my experience, even the sand box style of gameplay can be hard to manage and is not to everyone’s taste.
I will certainly look forward to this game, and I might even be able to convince my usual group to give it a go. If you’ve read this far, perhaps you will too?
Destroyer of Worlds is the second cinematic adventure published for Fria Ligan’s award winning ALIEN RPG written by Andrew E.C. Gaska. It is an excellent, action packed adventure in the style of the Aliens movie. The first part of this blog post is a review, done after having run it. In the second – longer – part I will provide an overview of our experience and my thoughts and tips on running the adventure – which means there will be spoilers in the Game Mother’s section.
In short, the player characters – a group of badass Colonial Marines – are ordered to locate and capture four AWOL black ops marines. The AWOLS fled Fort Nebraska, a UA frontier staging point located on a frigid, half-abandoned, insurgent ridden moon, currently begin evacuated because a Union of Progressive Peoples invasion is imminent, and that is just the beginning. Shit just keeps hitting the fan. Sounds cool? You f…ing bet your scrawny marine behind it is!
The adventure was published in 2020 and comes in a box. The book in the box is 88 pages, and contains a description of the setting, six locations, several NPC’s, a detailed description of Fort Nebraska and the additional rules you need, if you only own the ALIEN Start Set. The box also has seven pre-generated characters, a deck of cards with vehicles (the UPP APC, a Marine Core tank etc), equipment, agendas for the characters and visuals and stats of most of the NPCs. And lastly, there are maps, including a big-ish one of Fort Nebraska. The production value is extremely high and it looks great!
It is fair to say, you get a lot of value for your money. It should also tell you, that this is not a ‘one-shot’ adventure, in the sense that you can run it in one evening. It is advertised as being a 3-session adventure. That can be done, but you can also easily have it last four or five sessions, depending on the attrition of the characters. The amount of content also means that you can find a lot of value in the box, if you want to convert it for a campaign game. The GM can easily ditch – or change – the plot, and simply use the maps, the setting and the NPCs.
I ran the adventure for a group of five players in a vacation house over a long weekend. We played for a total of 10-ish hours, and I had to rush the ending a bit and cut down on some of the events.
Whereas the first cinematic adventure – Chariot of the Gods – emulates the first Alien film, and is a really good adventure, this adventure explores the second pillar of the ALIEN RPG: science fiction action, and does it extremely well. Destroyer of Worlds is in my view the stronger of the two adventures.
All in all, we had a total blast with the adventure. So much so, that most of the board games we also had brought along were not used.
“Alien: Destroyer of Worlds was a great visceral experience with strong cinematic ties to the movies, which left me craving for more upon completion of the adventure.”
Adrian Jensen, playing Charlie
The adventure has a cool, dramatic atmosphere. It combines investigation, inter character roleplaying with tons of drama and action. The characters are very playable with a clear goal in the beginning and with agendas that will lead to plenty of drama in Act III. The adventure is tense and action packed, where the player’s get to act out any “hell-raising, air assault, breach the door, smart-gun firing” fantasies they might have.
Like I also wrote in my ALIEN RPG review, I think this adventure is very well-suited to introduce people inexperienced with role-playing games to the hobby, because it is so easy to imagine the setting, if you just watched a little of the Alien franchise movies. They need to be keen, however, as it takes more than one evening to complete.
It is also a quite demanding adventure to run. The separation of locations and events makes sense, but it means that the GM needs to prepare carefully, and pre-select some of the options presented. There are also a lot of details to keep track of.
The only real issues I have with the adventure concerns some structural issues around Act II and III, where the timeline seems to break down and with the implementation of some major events, but the players are probably so busy fighting to survive and riding the roller-coaster that they won’t notice.
I would also have like a timeline for what happens before the adventure begins, as you have to piece it together from the description, and I’m still not sure how exactly it should be understood.
“I loved it. An action packed rock’n’roll trip down paranoia lane, as if Jeremy Saulnier was given the task of directing an Alien movie.”
Martin Svendsen, playing Hammer
Why should I buy this adventure?
You want to run a great Alien adventure
You don’t want to run a full campaign, but a one-session game is too short a fix
Your player’s love scary, hopeless, out of the frying pan and into the fire action science fiction
You want additional setting information and maps for your campaign
You want to run a Marine Campaign, and want an easy option for a grand ending to the campaign.
Why should I avoid this adventure?
Your players hate everything science fiction and only wants to cast spells and swing swords (which is fine, some people are like that!).
Advice for Game Mothers
Firstly, as you can see if you read the adventure, this text is with the caveat that the modular nature of the adventure means your experience will be very different from ours. But I still think reading a walk-through of our experience will help you run the game more smoothly and avoid a couple of pitfalls.
From here on, there will obviously be spoilers.
It is important to note, that I ran this game knowing I was on a strict deadline. After I had run the first four hours, the players were so enthusiastic that we decided to play the following afternoon for a couple of hours as well, which enabled me to do a bit more with Act II. But the choices I made reflects the time limit and the pacing of running it for two and half session, as well as the actions of the players/characters. If you have more time – especially with unlimited time – your choices, and the player’s choices will create a different flow and experience.
However, you should note that whatever happens, the main clue to reach the end of Act I is an insurgent divulging the location of the compound. There are also dice rolls involved, and there is at least one place in Act III where a failed roll can screw up the ending.
Act I: the Hunt
My players started with the Oblivion Bar, moved on to the Marshal’s Station, then the oil refinery and finally the Insurgent Compound, so the space port and the San Rocco medical facility were never in play.
They went into the bar, and, as the veteran players they are, they stationed two at the front door. This meant that the two insurgents there could not plausibly get out without being noticed, as is the intention in the adventure. And already at this point, I made my first change!
According to the adventure, the girl insurgent was supposed to contact Botos, but I didn’t want the characters to already be aware of the insurgent leader and potentially start looking for a path via radio calls to Botas, so I had them working for Stolls instead as low level mooks.
First, however, Captain Silver went to talk to the bar owner, and as Fei2 is sympathetic, I had her ask them to come in through the back instead, as it would be bad for business for her to let them in through the front. That made the players appropriately suspicious.
I also mentioned Captain Edie, but they thought him too drunk to be worth speaking to.
When the characters notice the two insurgents, and start to interrogate them, it turns into a brawl, before Petre can take a hostage. A brawl is a good way to get the players familiar with the combat system, without too much at stake, so roll with that.
They capture the two, and put them in the APC, where they interrogate them. They let them know that they were to contact Stolls about any marine coming to look for the AWOLS. But when they now contact Stolls via radio, there is no answer (as he is at the marshal’s station).
All the while, they have good fun mispronouncing Zmijewski’s name and he retorting in kind – which seems to be a common experience.
Talking to Fei2, they get to see the security footage, and how the AWOLS argued and split.
To get more information about Stolls, they decide to go to the marshal’s station, if I recall correctly. They certainly didn’t see the potential for Reese having been picked up by the marshals. If you want a more direct clue, you can change the adventure to Fei2 or the dancer seeing Reese getting picked up by the marshals inside the bar, instead of afterwards.
It is great to have the NPC portraits. If I have one complaint, it is that their stats don’t entirely reflect how badass they are. They should have had a talent or two more.
The Marshal’s Station
This scene turned out almost perfectly, and we had our first character death. The characters get past the receptionist and talk to the marshal. They learn about both Stolls and Reese and decide to go and participate in the Stolls interrogation first. They are reasonably successful and decide to also bring him back to Fort Nebraska for further questioning. The Captain decides that she and Hammer will go and check on Reese, while the rest get Stolls into the APC. Yes, a split party!
So, when the two lone marines find Reese’s corpse, and Captain Silva walks back out to the team, she encounters the xenomorph hidden under the ceiling. We draw initiative, she fires and runs back to Hammer (we had forgotten about this rule, but the smarter move, would have been to switch initiative with Hammer, so he would act first, move up beside Silva and get a shot at the alien).
Instead, the xenomorph charges down into the cell, where both the marines now are. It doesn’t kill anyone in the first round, but when Hammer opens up with the Smartgun, the acid spray breaks Captain Silva. Zmijewski comes running, and with one more character engaged they finally get the xenomorph killed.
The rest of the characters rush to their aid, and Chaplain (Jaell) now steps into his role as commanding officer, and as he is the medic, decides not to save Silva’s life, even if he could. This can be seen as a controversial ruling, but I decided it didn’t count as PvP. Of course, the player who ran Silva was disappointed that he already had to get a new character and didn’t get to experience her arc. As GM, however, I must admit I think having someone you – from a movie-perspective – could view as a “main character” die in the first act, enhances the mood and tension – like Samuel Jackson getting eaten in act 1 in Deep Blue Sea.
Not the best movie, but a memorable death and it sets the tone!
At this point, I introduce Ms. Eckford, who simply walks up to Dante guarding the APC and asks to speak with his commanding officer. She tries to engage with Chaplain, but he calls Colonel Meyers, who I doubt would want Eckford meddling more, so Chaplain shuts down the building and moves everyone back to Fort Nebraska for a debrief.
In the interest of time, I let them get back to base and have Stolls crack and reveal the rendezvous at the oil refinery.
The scene ended with a very “realistic” mood of confusion, suspicion and sorrow. The player, who played Silva, decides to play Gunnery Sergeant Mason, instead.
I had foreshadowed the snowstorm, and I move that in at this point.
Ultimately, I didn’t use Eckford again in the adventure. There was simply not enough time to make it work well. But I didn’t know that in the beginning, so I needed her in play early, if I were to deploy her to good effect later. If I had more time, I might have introduced her already at Fort Nebraska, when they get ready to go out after the briefing. That way, they will be less suspicious of her, given that she in on the base and therefore a “legitimate” part of the military operation.
The refinery The action at the refinery didn’t take long. They sneaked up on the men in the building, with the assault team leading the way in, and the rest waiting outside as backup. They opened with grenades and then went in full throttle. There was a small firefight and they finally capture one of the people there – the one with the radio, whom they interrogate, and learn of Wójcik and the compound.
The players debate, whether to ambush the insurgents when they get there for the rendezvous, but end up deciding to assault the compound.
I think an ambush at the refinery should be a viable option, and I was thinking that the insurgents would arrive in a couple of tractors and trikes and at the same time Vice Sergeant Major Davydocih would appear with his commandos. The stress of the ambush would trigger Wójcik, and she would run amok inside a tractor or something.
In any case, they are asked by the Major, if they want a Cheyenne dropship available to deploy as an air assault – and OF COURSE they say yes.
This is where we ended the first “session” of around four hours.
The Insurgent Compound
The group decides to do a two-pronged assault. The assault team and the Gunny will rapel onto the compound and the rest of the squad will fight their way through the gates with the APC.
The initial assault goes well, and they get through the gate and down to the roof, respectively. However, the two insurgents with rocket launchers in the inner yard gives them some problems.
It is important to note here, that the dropship can be a problem for the progression of the game, as an intact dropship gives them a way off the moon. Therefore, either the insurgents or UPP attack craft need to damage or wreck it.
In our case, a rocket puts a big hole in the dropship, and it flies away to provide firing support from a distance, but is, when the UPP arrives, re-tasked to defend the colony.
The assault team, Hammer and Dante led by Mason enter the compound from above after taking out the lone guard on the roof, and quickly encounter Wójcik. With three opponents to pick from, and a couple of lucky parrys, the group manages to defeat “her”. But are very freaked out.
Meanwhile, the other half of the team blasts into the inner compound, after shooting everything that moves outside, but the APC is hit with a very efficient RPG shot, which wrecks the armoured vehicle, and sends a blast of flame through it. Only the NPC Iona, driving the APC is damaged, but they get out quickly, and fight their way into the compound, lighting up the RPG-wielding insurgent with an incinerator.
The ground team discovers Stolls and his insurgents inside the living room, and sneak in a couple of grenades. That isn’t enough to take them out however, and they end up in a cool gun fight. I will say, the grenades seem like they are less effective than they would be in real life.
Stolls escape to the outside of the compound, but the characters take him and a fellow insurgent out, when they attempt to climb the wall.
At the top floor, they discover LC Wright, chained in the next room, and she promises to help them, if they release her. The scenario highlights this as a secondary option for her location, and that worked well. It was especially useful to have a ‘voice’ in the rest of the adventure, who could talk about Fort Nebraska and the xenomorph problem.
The radio comes to life, and Act II begins in dramatic fashion.
Playing this scene took almost two hours, and it was great fun – chaotic and dramatic, with shit blowing up and cool close quarter battles.
Giving them the chance to blast gates and insurgents with gatling guns and plasma cannons was all kinds of fun.
I confused stage II and III for her Anathema forms, and used stage III attacks for both segments, but it didn’t influence the outcome.
ACT II: Invasion
Going into Act II, I knew I had to cut it fairly short, to stay within our time limit, but I also needed to make it feel significant enough to provide a break between the two acts, let the players play out their agendas and increase the tension.
The characters find Wrights gear, restocked on grenades from Botos and pick up his radio, so they knew someone was coming, but Chaplain collapses and begins to reboot. They were out of transport but take two of the quad bikes from the compound – one was destroyed when the gate house was blasted by the plasma cannon – and use them for the wounded and Wright (whom they don’t trust fully yet).
They hoof it through the snowstorm, while seeing the bombings of the space port, celebrations and incoming drop ships and dog fights above them.
I think it was an observation test to see their pursuers that prompted the high-strung Hammer to roll a face hugger on his stress dice, and as a result he dropped something. I ruled that he suddenly realized that his pocket with X-Stims had torn during the previous fight, and he must have dropped his drugs just a few moments ago in the snow (as I’m sure he obsessively checks that they are there). He immediately turns back to look for them, which forces the team to face their pursuers.
A hard firefight in the relative open begins, and the team gets the upper hand – mainly because of their many stress dice, and with Wright they have superior numbers. But Zmijewski gets a crit (gut shot). I forget to use the actual stats of Davydovich, but in the interest of time, it doesn’t matter. If I had had more time, he could have become a recurring threat, or reused as an ally later. But I was actually happy with how this encounter went. After the fight, Dante has a couple of blood drops run from his nose, even though he wasn’t hit (event).
I then add meeting Fei2 and her UA loyalists, and as Mason wants to save everyone, they bring them with them.
I also mention the ruptured oil pipes, but they don’t investigate them closely.
Finally, I introduce the tank and the insurgents sneaking up on it. The team takes out the couple of insurgents without dice rolls (again, I need to conserve time, and it seemed a foregone conclusion) and they order the tank crew to take them to the base, with Chaplain inside, while the rest of the team rides on top and Fei2 follows behind with the refugees.
The act ends with the electromagnetic burst and the black goo.
The electromagnetic burst gave me problems, and I admit I missed that broken equipment could be repaired with a COMTECH roll. I think it is a bit too vaguely described – it says “most electronics – even those that would otherwise be shielded” are destroyed. How much of their equipment is actually electronic – and what might avoid being burnt? Is Mason’s CBRN detection kit electronic? I mean, it can be a very important piece of kit in Act III. What about their pulse rifles or Smart Guns? It seems like they would be affected. But it isn’t like the game explicitly expects them to be disarmed going into the fort and going to an armory to re-arm. Is anyone inside the tank or an APC protected, since “shielding” doesn’t work?
It raised a lot of questions, and my players asked multiple times: does this work, still? I usually said yes, because it was easier , especially given the time pressure (and had overlooked Comtech). Furthermore, the writers suggest that the tanks could be used to blow the gate, but wouldn’t they have been blown by the EMP? Because my players certainly wanted to go that route – and it would have been fun? And what about the sentry guns on the fort walls?
With more time, perhaps I could have broken much of their equipment, and made it an imperative to replace it at the base. One idea would be to roll a number of stress dice according to the equipment’s bonus dice, and break it on a Facehugger.
The EMP mostly seem like a plot device to “kill” all the hardware before the black goo is deployed, but the authors don’t seem to have thought through the consequences. Or maybe I missed something…
ACT III: Getting off the moon
Fort Nebraska works like a dungeon crawl with random encounters, and where the group has to go back and forth to various objectives. I wish I had more time to run it, but on the other hand, I think with the tension built high, it shouldn’t run on for too long.
First, a word on ‘game stoppers’. In both this adventure, and Chariot of the Gods, there are a couple of times where a failed roll will completely derail the game. In Chariot of the Gods, failing to open the first air lock is such a time. In this adventure, it is when they try to restart the reactor in Act III. If that fails, it is basically game over – go blow a nuke. That kind of failure can be interesting in a campaign, where there is always another potential option, but here it kind of screws the ending. So, watch out for that!
I also ran into a bit of a problem with the black goo bomb, although I don’t think my players noticed. Given the time I think I needed to pass in Act II, they also moved most of the distance to the fort (about 5 clicks). Most groups will be coming from the compound, which means the black goo bombs have been dropped south of the fort, and the consequence of that is that the group shouldn’t run into the worst hit anathemas.
I let them experience one, before they reached the wall and its defenses. They decided to blow a couple of sentry guns with their rocket launcher, and I hand-waved that effort, although it cost Dante an ammo count. I didn’t find that part critical, given the time constraint. It is also a situation, where a freak, non-dramatic roll can kill a PC, which would be anti-climactic, given the stage of the game.
So, they climb the wall and enter the fort. They are told by Wright about the need to find a Major’s dog tag, and I added the ‘End of a Good Marine’ event, and Hammer picks up the marine saber.
They enter the lobby and find the area secreted and with several in cocoons. Later, the players remarked that it seems very quickly that the xenomorphs have accomplished all this work. I fully agree. It also seems like an odd location. Furthermore, shouldn’t there be ovo-morphs to impregnate the cocooned? However, the function of it is to telegraph that the base has been taken over by xenomorphs, to increase the tension. You could change this to an encounter with a single xenomorph or move the area to deeper inside the base and add a few ovo-morphs.
In short, they try to get down to sub-level 2, but discover the radiation in one of the shafts. Wright suggests that there are Hazmat suits in the armory, which they go get, but as there are only five, only the PC’s enter the second floor.
I roll a xenomorph encounter for the passage to sub-level two, and with Dante on point, I introduce the ‘cuddly xenomorph’, which is noticed by Hammer, and they begin to freak out and it ups the tension.
They reach the maintenance pits and the reactor relay room, and sneak past. Then they have the cunning plan, that they send Dante into the reactor room, to prepare it. This turns into an excellent scene, where Dante – sweating profusely in a HAZMAT suit – works for 15 minutes in the room, while the three xenomorphs in there come up and check him out. Very tense! And spot on for the mood.
Meanwhile, Hammer sneaks out to test himself. He walks into the maintenance pit and charges a xenomorph with the Major’s blade. Here, I made a special ruling, because I thought it would be cinematic, that Hammer would be able to use Move to avoid acid sprays.
At this point, he is a killing machine, with 10 stress dice and the Overkill Talent, and he rips through the xenomorph. It destroys the blade of course.
This is where the whole thing hangs on a dice roll. Charlie rolls easy Comtech to restart the reactor. But fails and can’t push as an android. Fortunately, he has a story point available, and succeeds (barely) with the second roll (he should have succeeded automatically as per the rules). Without that success, the adventure will grind to a halt, so maybe have a backup plan, like going to the mainframe and ask Mother/Jaell to boot it up?
At this point, I overlook that they need to go back up to A.P.O.L.L.O to reboot the mainframe. In retrospect, I’m actually glad I didn’t, because it would have added time to complete the adventure, which we didn’t have.
Next, they go to set some nukes. They succeed in sneaking past the Charger – which is good, because I don’t have time to run the combat. They set a nuke, but fail to deduce how much time they’ll need to ascend. I’ll get to this point, when I discuss the climax.
Climbing to sublevel 1 via the chains in the ammo depot requires a push, and I use it to deploy the Charger, where the final character climbing up the chain barely escapes.
The team then proceeds to sublevel 3 with the NPCs.
Sublevel 3 and the finale The characters go directly to the medlab and quarantine lab, where Charlie preps Dante for surgery. But while they are in surgery Hammer makes his play (according to his objective) and drops two frag grenades on the rest of the team and hauls ass.
After recovering, they pursue him to the space elevator shaft (I did not consider combat resolved, so Hammer is still a PC). As Dante and Charlie are doing surgery, the players get Iota and Wright.
Hammer opens the gate and is face to face with the Queen – the moment I think everyone was waiting for. Hammer opens up with his SmartGun, and with his total of 20-something dice, does a ridiculous amount of damage. His attack is followed up by grenades and other munitions, which takes out the Queen (I forgot to roll on her Critical Table, and make an epic come-back. FAIL! But I was tired…). Hammer is rushed by the xenomorph sentries and is broken, and when the rest of the marines rain fire on them, he is (deservedly) killed by the acid spray.
The remaining marines kill the last couple of xenomorphs and they get ready for departure. Because they discover that the inoculation had worked on Wright, they decide that everyone needs a shot, before getting on to the elevator.
I narrate how they go up the elevator, and as they begin to turn anathema, the nukes go off, and the space elevator tether collapses and the whole thing ends in a massive impact event.
Roads not taken
If you’ve read all of the above, you will notice that I never got to use the space port, the medical facility and most of the Act III events and the NPCs useful for Act III ( Colonel Meyers, Eckford and Davydovich). With a full session for Act III (or even two), it would have been great to at least use a couple of events with surviving marines and the frozen body of the Colonel.
And they never met Jaell. But I forgot about A.P.O.L.L.O. It was a lose end that would have been nice to tie up.
Things I learned and things I should have done differently
First of all, rolling to understand how long the elevator will take to get up there is dumb. They should know, more or less, how long it takes, because several of them must have taken the elevator, or have an understanding of that kind of tech.
I forgot COMTECH to fix equipment broken by EMPs.
A few hours after the game was over, I knew how I should have ended it. I should have let them use the escape capsule, while the elevator is getting destroyed. and land somewhere on the moon. Then more than half the characters would turn anathema – and if we’d had the time – played that encounter out, with the survivor waiting on a crashed escape module in the middle of a frozen wasteland. But – even experienced GMs – don’t always make the perfect call.
Overkill and plenty of stress plus armor piercing guns, means that marines can without too much effort kill Stage IV xenomorphs with one attack – or Stage 5 with an RPG. I think that is by design, but even though 14 armor looks like a lot for a Queen, it doesn’t hold up to RPG attacks, sniper rifles and SmartGuns, when players roll 4+ successes every time. Consider bumping the Queen up a bit, depending on who/how many survives at the end.
The recommended “three session” length for the adventure isn’t too far off, but it obviously depends on the length of your sessions, and there are many variables: Act I can be long or short, depending on how quickly the players move to the compound, Act II can be stretched out with events, roleplay and combat, and Act III has the potential to be very long, if you use the events and “random encounters”.
I would schedule at least 12-14 hours of game time for the adventure, and I would try to avoid doing Act III in one session to make sure you have some awake and fresh players for the conclusion.
Maps and stuff The maps for the adventure are very cool, but also too small. I had a local print shop double the size of the Act I locations, which was very useful, and at a reasonable price.
Unfortunately, it turned out the fold-out map of Fort Nebraska is also too small. None of the players could actually read the text on the maps, which was a bit frustrating. If you have the spare cash, especially if you expect to run the adventure more than once, consider getting a print of Fort Nebraska double the size of the original (BIG).
For background music, I used some tracks from Aliens, but I also found that the score for the movie Hunter Killer also worked quite well.
Hunter Killer is a quite poor to mediocre action flick, but the sound track worked well for this adventure.
Final thoughts and verdict
I think I can speak for all of my players to say we had a blast, and ultimately none of my mistakes, or any flaws of the adventure itself, ruined our fun.
The game is so action-packed and dramatic, that it is very likely any lack of logic or irregularities will be overlooked until after the game.
The time you have to run it, and the paths your players take, will mean that your choices and experience will differ significantly from mine, and I think that is ultimately what really elevates this to a superb adventure. It provides a very solid framework for a fantastic role-playing experience, but ultimately it will be up to you and the players to make all the parts come together and have an epic, action-packed movie-like science fiction horror experience.
With new or immature players, the “following orders” and use of hidden agendas could create problems. On the other hand, the official chain of command might make it easier for an inexperienced group to play as there is a defined structure as to who makes decisions – as opposed to a fantasy adventuring group free for all.
It is a challenging adventure to run, where you need to keep a lot of moving parts at your fingertips. I personally like how Free League structures the adventures, with locations first and then events you can sprinkle mostly as you please. But it does require careful preparation. I made a flow chart for Act I, where I plotted in the various clues that could bring them to other locations, to ensure I didn’t forget to deploy the relevant hooks.
I can see the need for the mysterious outsider attack with EMP and black goo, to ensure that the base is mainly deserted and to get the UPP attack out of the way, but it also seems a bit overkill for an adventure already mainlining cocaine and adrenaline!
In Act III, as a Game Mother, you need to consider if you still want to kill PC’s with “random shit”, and let them take over NPC’s, or make sure they die at cinematic moments? The slow whittling down of the group mirrors Aliens perfectly, but it might not be that much fun – as a player – to have your character killed two hours before the climax of the game.
Three points of critique
The EMP blasts and the Goo attacks don’t seem to have been fully thought through and their consequences applied to Act III
The timeline for a xeno-morph takeover of Fort Nebraska seems off
As written, a couple of dice rolls in Act III can derail the fun.
The two cinematic adventures have covered two of the three themes (Space horror and Sci-fi action). The one left is Sense of Wonder, so I assume the third adventure might involve some colonist stumbling on some Engineer ruins and something about the Draconis strain, which is present in both adventures.
If you got this far, I hope that you will pick up the adventure and run it with as much – or more! – success. I for one hopes that Free League will continue to publish such excellent content for a really great game.
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