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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Free RPG Day 2010

A bumper swag-bag!
Started in 2007, Free RPG Day has already become something of an institution in the international rolepaying community. I was alerted to this year's event- which took place last Saturday, by FFG's recent announcement that they'd be contributing an introductory scenario- Final Sanction; for Deathwatch, their soon-to-be-released and long-awaited volume completing the 40KRP trilogy.

My other plans for last Saturday having proved impractical or just plain fallen through, what else could I do but hie myself to Static Games, there to avail myself of the opportunity presented by this annual celebration of roleplaying. And what a lucrative opportunity it turned out to be!

I grabbed myself 7 different products:
  • Quickstart rules with scenarios:
  1. Final Sanction (PDF link; 2 more PCs to download here).
  2. The Trail to Esavar; for Claymore Entertainment's upcoming old-school FRPG Hero's Bane.
  3. Heirs to Olympia; human-centred medieval fantasy by Countess Games.
  • Introductory scenarios:
  1. Legacy of Disaster; for AEG's recently released Legend of the Five Rings RPG4e.
  2. The Murderer of Thomas Fell; for Pelgrane Press' 2008 Ennies-winning horror RPG Trail of Cthulhu (pregenerated character handouts here). Trail of Cthulhu is just one of many games based on the Gumshoe investigative RPG system by Robin D. Laws. This system has intrigued me for a wee while now. I expect I'll be investing in one of its versions sooner or later.
  3. Dungeonbattle Brooklyn; for Goodman Games' unique take on fantasy sport, Xcrawl. This game looks like it could provide an interesting change of pace for fans of classic dungeon-bashing.
  • Setting and background:
  1. Punjar: the Tarnished Jewel; part of Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics range, this is a complete city gazetteer. A GM can never have too many mapped and detailed cities to hand so this is a very nice package all told.
Oddly enough, only Final Sanction and Legacy of Disaster were part of Free RPG Day's 2010 giveaways. The rest were from previous years; Dungeonbattle Brooklyn actually dating back to 2007. Roleplayers passing up on free stuff? Who'd've thunk it?

By and large, the quality of these products shows how seriously the RPG industry takes Free RPG Day. The Murderer of Thomas Fell is the only one of the bunch which isn't in a full-colour cover; three of them are in full colour throughout- Final Sanction, Heirs to Olympia and Legacy of Disaster; and no shortcuts appear to have been taken with the layouts, which all look to be up to professional standards. Some aren't quite as nicely illustrated as others but that's often the case with smaller companies operating with limited budgets. So these are all decent or better in other words.

I'll look in a bit more detail at this year's products.

Final Sanction
As soon as I saw the first previews for Rogue Trader in the pages of White Dwarf back in dim and distant 1987, I wanted to be a space marine; so much so that it took me a few years to get over my initial disappointment that 40K was a miniatures game and not an RPG. So the Deathwatch RPG is quite literally the single longest awaited new product of my roleplaying life. There was a lot running then on FFG's contribution to Free RPG Day 2010 and I am pleased to be able to say that the 37 pages of content in Final Sanction contain an admirably complete introduction to Deathwatch.

The booklet begins with 4 fully-detailed PCs complete with all the rules needed to use them in the introductory scenario. The PCs look like pared down versions of those which will be available in the full game, but they are an interesting enough bunch nonetheless. Most important IMO is that they all enjoy special abilities- due to wargear or otherwise, which should allow each character to make its unique contribution to the various problems the Killteam will have to face- in or out of combat, during the scenario.

The rules covered are:
  • Characteristics.
  • Skills.
  • Tests.
  • Combat.
  • Hordes.
  • Demeanours.
  • Weapons and wargear.
Of the material new to Deathwatch I particularly liked the rules for Demeanours and for Hordes. Demeanours are two aspects defining each Marine's identity: one from their Chapter; the other personal. They provide a means to unite roleplaying with mechanics when a marine steps up to do something heroic or otherwise significant during a game. The Hordes rules provide simple rules for the waves of foes which Deathwatch Killteams will inevitably face sooner or later; a system essential to the game's atmosphere in other words.

Some sections are more extensive than others- as you'd expect, but the overall effect is concise and thorough. I could only find 2 points lacking:
  • Penetration; ie. how weapons reduce armour protection.
  • Ammunition; the marines' bolt weapons' clip sizes are included but there is no mention of their initial allocations; this is unfortunate because restocking dwindling ammunition is noted as an important feature of the scenario.
These are minor points it must be said- an experienced GM (or one who already knows the 40KRP system) should easily be able to sort them. Even so, they are unfortunate lapses in a book aimed as much at the complete beginner as at anyone else.

As for the scenario? I'm not giving away any spoilers by telling you that it features the Killteam responding to Ordo Xenos Inquisitor Kalistrandi's warning of a genestealer infestation on the backwater agriworld Avalos. It's simple- as you'd expect for a quick-start package; and there's lot of combat- as you'd expect from a game featuring the elite of the 40K Imperium's supreme killers; but it's more than a mindless slugfest. There are plenty of opportunities for the PCs to use quick thinking, smart tactics and good roleplaying to solve problems non-violently. GMs should indeed encourage this, or an already dangerous situation might veer completely out of the characters' control.

The setting and its locations are presented in adequate detail, with plenty of useful tips to help GMs bring the place to life and to create a sense of the atmosphere of doom caused by the crisis into which the Killteam is plunged. The structure of the adventure also provides a neat introduction to the Missions system (more here) in Deathwatch. Essential to creating the military feel appropriate to the game, Missions in Deathwatch break adventures down into various objectives which the players can tackle as they wish. Each objective brings it own rewards- both XP and material or information to assist with other objectives; and provides guidelines for determining the Killteam's success or failure, and the consequences thereof.

One final note about this quality package: it is beautifully illustrated. There is already a vast library of pictures which has established the unique imagery of the Dark Millenium. FFG has already added to this with its previous products in the 40KRP line: Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader. The new pictures of space marines are a wonderful addition to the pictures already available of this most iconic of 40K archetypes. Lovely stuff!

Legacy of Disaster
After the excellence of Final Sanction I have to say that Legacy of Disaster is a bit of letdown. Why? Ultimately because it's not as well focussed as the former on delivering what it's supposed to be: in this case an introductory adventure for existing owners of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG4e. This starts immediately: after having been told that you'll need to know how the game works you are then introduced to some rules, the basic dice engine and the combat rules to be more specific. All well and good you might say. The problem is that you're not told enough about any of these actually to run the adventure without the main rules; you couldn't even run combat with the limited rules selection provided.

The sense of padding this creates is deepened by 11 pages of 16 pregenerated characters followed by 5 pages of 31 spells. Again, none of these can be used without owning the main rules and no doubt some of them are reprinted straight across from those rules.

You might think that it's a bit churlish to complain about something we're getting for free (and maybe it is). The problem here is that this largely redundant material consumes 22 pages from Legacy of Disaster's 30 pages of content. So we're left with 8 pages of scenario. Compare this to Final Sanction's 17 pages of scenario in 37 pages of content, all of which can be used with just the booklet in your hands. This might be OK if all that material useless to those who can actually use the contents of Legacy of Disaster accompanied an otherwise good scenario. Unfortunately I can't say that.

The scenario here is a one-track railroad to a pre-ordained denouement written so as to prevent the players from discovering the plot until after the event. On top of that, the PCs' progress to this sorry end is so reliant on social skills tests that I found myself seriously questioning the value of this time-honoured mechanic while reading Legacy of Disaster. There's got to be a better way to do this, I kept thinking.

After all those complaints I must admit that I quite like the look of Legend of the Five Rings. The setting interests me and the system looks like it has potential to bring it nicely to life. And the illustrations are beautiful and evocative. It's just a bit of a shame that my introduction to this popular game (you don't get a 4th edition of a game no one likes) was this rather ill-considered freebie. ;)
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