Monday, 22 February 2010

War Made Easy

As promised, here's my quick and easy replacement for the rubbish Rogue Trader mass combat system, which should work with any rpg.

Now, What's the THAC0 for northern France?the best way to handle mass combat in an rpg is to simply do what makes for the best story; abstract everything but the players' actions and use the space between their combat rounds to explain what's going on on the rest of the battlefield. Perhaps the GM wants to add a bit of uncertainty to the battle, or to reflect the players' effects on the wider conflict; that's where this system comes in. It still sits in the background, but also outputs enough data to give an uncertain GM pointers on how to describe the battle. It takes about ten minutes to do, and is probably best done before the battle begins, which might necessitate a small break in the action.

Step 1:
Get the statistics for the most common type of fighter on each side. If there is a disparity in army sizes, then you might need two from army A for every one from army B, but the idea is to get the numbers down to the smallest possible. Don't worry about champions, artillery or other special units right now; we'll factor them in later.

Step 2:
Run a number of rounds of fighting between these combatants, using the rules of your chosen rpg as standard, except for damage. No one gets killed or knocked out here, you're just determining who does the most damage, so tot up the hit points or damage levels, or whatever. The side that does most damage wins the round and scores a point. You'll want to do a few rounds of this; I'd suggest eleven as a good number, but any number is fine, although an odd number is probably best.

Now you have the basic shape of the battle, and the points total should tell you which side wins, and by how much. It is worth coming up with some narrative at this point, to explain how army A suddenly caused so much damage when they were getting beaten last turn, and so on.

Step 3:
This is the GM fudging bit. Any special abilities, elite units, champions, air support, etc. come in here. For every one of these which you think will have an effect on the battle, add an extra point to that side's total. If the players have come to you with plans for the battle beforehand, then these too may affect the score.

You are now ready to go back to the table.

Step 4:
Run your rpg session as normal, with the battle going on in the background. If the players are keeping tabs on the battle, give them occasional reports on how things are going. If the players are actively involved, then let them affect the battle score you worked out earlier. So if one player-character is wading into the opposing forces with his axe, run a duel between himself and one of the opposing troops; if he wins, add a point to his side's total. If another player-character is shouting orders over a loudspeaker, have her make some kind of command skill test, and depending on how well she does, add (or subtract!) points from her side's total. The highest total wins the battle, simple as that.

And that's pretty much it. It's not a perfect system, but it's both robust and loose enough to do the job. And of course, if you don't like the resulting data, then chuck it out and do what makes for the most entertaining story. That's the best way to do it, anyway.

Update: Fellow Rogue Trader GM Witchfinder General has come up with a much more elegant approach to the same problem.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Rogue Trader Session 03: God is Dead


Aphesius Alesaunder, zealous yet charming missionary of the Imperial Cult. (Manoj A)
Alfonso de la Creme, weedy and nervous priest-in-training. (also Manoj A)
Maximillius XVIII, tough-as-nails technician from a death world. (Ben F)
Octavius Sol, seneschal and quartermaster. (Stuart F)
Triptych, mutant navigator and his harem. (Ric R)

Well, we didn't use the battlemat. Everyone seemed more keen on keeping the game in our imagination, and one of the players confessed that it was something of a reaction to all the D&D4 we've been playing of late, which more or less requires battlemaps. I came up with a hybrid solution; behind the screen, I had a small-scale map which I was going to transfer to the battlemat, but in the end I just marked the positions of players and opponents on this mini-map, which was enough to let me visualise the action for the players, without the confusion of last time.

As it was, the main thrust of the session were the negotiations with Clarius, all of which were contained within one room. There were a couple of players outside Clarius' temple with shuttles full of troops at the ready, but the fighting in the streets was all done in abstract, based on a little mass combat system I devised myself, after discovering that Rogue Trader's was rubbish; I consider this somewhat ironic given the game's origins. I'm going to give the system a polish and post it here a bit later on, as it's essentially system neutral and should work with any rpg with a combat system (which is everything except the He-Man rpg).


So they arrived to discover that the duplicitous mechanoid had brought most of the children of the city into the temple, to act as human shields and make a direct attack much more difficult. There's nothing like a bit of NPC peril to force the players into roleplaying! The negotiations went well, and they even got Clarius to soften his antagonistic "get off my planet" stance, and agree to something more reasonable. I was interested to see where this compromise might go, but once again, a fight broke out.

The human shields were supposed to make the fight tougher on the players, but Ben's explorator had whipped up some grenades which would disrupt the robots' circuitry; I didn't want to call these "EMP grenades" because that's too high-tech for the setting, but it turns out that they used to exist in the wargame, as "haywire" bombs, so that's fine. These, combined with good attack rolls by the players, and atrocious rolls by the robot priests, led to the fight coming to an end pretty quickly. At one point, one of the guys outside turned their shuttle's lascannons on the temple doors, sending shards of molten metal spinning into the panicked crowd. Ric asked to burn a Fate Point here to avoid civilian deaths; by the rules-as-written, burned Fate Points are used to save the player-character from certain death, but I ruled that this would also be a suitable use, if uncharacteristically heroic for the 40K universe.

As the smoke cleared, the team secured the disabled robots, calmed the crowd, and investigated the temple, discovering that underneath the stone construction, there was an ancient machine, some sort of atmosphere processor, explaining how the area around the city remained fertile despite the arid conditions on the rest of the world. They failed to discover any control mechanism for the robots, so the source of their heresy remained unknown. "Clarius" turned out to be identical to the other robots, and the explorator conducted a holy rite to access the robots' memories, discovering that they took it in turns to be the high priest, adding to the mystery of just who exactly was in charge.

After leaving a garrison of troops to maintain order, and some of the crew to maintain the processor, and if possible expand its abilities, the players moved on. They sent an astropathic message to the explorator's Machine Cult to let them know about the robots, which combined with everything else they'd achieved, was enough to complete an endeavour (a profit-based sidequest in the RT system), so they collected three Profit points to add to their stash. Players being players, they're already thinking of horrible game-unbalancing things on which to spend this wealth.

They decided to head to Mianded, a system at the heart of a network of warp routes, and so a handy trade hub if it could be secured for their dynasty. The warp travel was difficult, and the navigator was visited by the spectres of his dead parents, killed years before by a chaotic warband. They were pleasant enough for ghosts, chatting to him as if everything was just dandy, despite looking just as they did when he discovered the bodies. Upon arrival at the system, the ship didn't want to leave the warp, or perhaps the warp didn't want to let go of the ship, resulting in a rough re-entry into normal space somewhere in the Mianded system. The crew breathed a sigh of relief, but then the ship was rocked by a massive explosion, setting off all sorts of alerts and alarms, and the bridge crew reported that something had crashed into the Banshee...

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Rogue Trader Session 02: Biker Robot Priests!


Aphesius Alesaunder, zealous yet charming missionary of the Imperial Cult. (Manoj A)
Maximillius XVIII, tough-as-nails technician from a death world. (Ben F)
Octavius Sol, seneschal and quartermaster. (Stuart F)
Triptych, mutant navigator and his harem. (Ric R)

After the events of the previous session, the players had access to a database of navigational information, which gave them an advantage over the other Rogue Traders, who would be navigating blind. After some poring over the starmaps, and a brief discussion on whether they should try to follow the Trader they suspected of attempting to assassinate their lord, they decided to head to Ansobe in a two leg journey, stopping off for a quick look at Bedaho on the way.

Last week, I gave them a map of the local systems and astronomical phenomena; the amount of useful material on the map depended on how well they did in repairing the data console they discovered, and they did very well so got pretty much everything. I think the players enjoyed the experience of looking over the map and deciding where to go, which is exactly the kind of sandbox-style play I am aiming for with the campaign design. I have mapped out the sector and at each point of interest I've got a brief summary of what can be found there; I've not gone into too much detail, as I've discovered that I'm quite comfortable with improvising, and I find that a few starting ideas give me enough to work with, while too much detail is a waste, as I end up forgetting bits, even if I wrote it myself. I'm always a bit concerned that players might be annoyed to discover that they're playing something that's being made up on the spot, but I think this is a decent balance.

On the way, some of the crew reported a ghostly presence in the forward decks, so the team went to investigate, discovering that a massive amount of damage had occurred to the ship, with torn bulkheads aplenty, and the front of the vessel open to space. They also ran into an apparition bearing an uncanny resemblance to the ten-year-old son of their Rogue Trader, only grown up and in his twenties. This encounter turned out to be spooky but harmless, with the damage to the ship proving to be part of the illusion, and the party spent the rest of the trip pondering its meaning. Upon arrival in the Bedaho system, they detected an Imperial beacon on a jungle planet which had been marked as a death world on their map. There was a bit of argument over whether to investigate the dangerous planet, but after the ship's psyker picked up a large and intelligent psychic presence on the surface, they decided to leave it for later and move on to Ansobe.

There they discovered Ansobe Secundus to be an arid world with a single settlement of just over 100,000 inhabitants, apparently at an industrial level of technology and with a surprising level of fecundity in the surrounding farmland, given the environment.Not quite what I had in mind... Descending to the planet in shuttlecraft, they were met by six cloaked figures riding motorbikes (it is Warhammer 40,000 after all) who introduced themselves as the priesthood of the planet and asked the players to leave. There then followed a very odd negotiation in which the players seemed to be pulling in two different directions, and which ended, of course, in a firefight. The priests turned out to be robots (it is Warhammer 40,000 after all), which I don't think are in the current 40K game, but used to be back when I first started, so I decided that they themselves were ancient and valuable artefacts, worth quite a lot if retrieved whole. This of course had the players worried about damaging their opponents. As it happened, the weaponry they had wasn't quite powerful enough to do much more than scratch the robots (that said, I think I may have been applying the armour penetration rules incorrectly) but they used some clever stunts to deal with most of the priests, although one escaped to the city.

I'm not a big fan of using miniatures in roleplaying games, and we managed to get through the combat without them, but it did feel a bit loose and ragged around the edges, especially with missile weapons and vehicles thrown into the mix. As such, I think I'm going to give the battlemat a go next time we play, just to see how it plays, and then as a group we can make a decision on which method we prefer. I have already decided to use miniatures for space combat, as the Rogue Trader system is focussed on movement and positioning, and I think it will help to have that visualised at the table, rather than in our heads.

In the aftermath, they kidnapped a local farmer and took him back to the Banshee for interrogation, which proved easy as he was terrified by the very idea of being in space. They discovered that the city was built around a large central temple, and that the head priest Clarius was rarely seen. They then attempted to contact Clarius himself, guessing that if he had robots working for him he must have a working radio, and managed to arrange a meeting the next day at the temple, although Clarius insisted that this time, the players come alone.

And that's where we left it. Next week, we'll play the meeting with Saint Clarius, and find out his connection to the robot priesthood.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Rogue Trader Session 01


Aphesius Alesaunder, zealous yet charming missionary of the Imperial Cult. (Manoj A)
Maximillius XVIII, tough-as-nails technician from a death world. (Ben F)
Triptych, mutant navigator and his harem. (Ric R)

My group found itself between regular games last night, and I've been itching to run a game after only playing for months, so we decided to try out something new, and I dusted off the copy of Fantasy Flight Games' Rogue Trader I'd picked up back in October. Flying cathedrals... IN SPACE!It's a space trading rpg based on the Warhammer 40,000 universe, with a ruleset derived from one of my old favourites, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I've played, but never run said ruleset, so I was a bit wary, particularly as the rulebook is a bit of a mess, full of vague writing, contradictory rules, and an unwritten assumption that the reader is familiar with the contents of an errata produced for FFG's previous rpg, Dark Heresy; there are whole sections of the book which make little sense unless used in conjunction with that errata, which strikes me as an odd approach. I decided to persevere however, as I've always liked the space trading genre, but found Traveller to be a bit stuffy, so the heavy metal excesses of the 40K setting appealed much more.

The players' experience of the setting ranged from complete unfamiliarity, through a broad dislike, to some vague memories of playing the wargame a decade or so ago, so I knocked together some basic fluff on the setting and sent it out via email before the game. They all got the hang of things pretty quickly once they figured out that it was essentially a game of lords and vassals... IN SPACE! I thank the group's experience with Pendragon for this, as the two games differ in the details, but are more or less about the same thing.

We started off with designing the players' starship, the Banshee, although as I recall, this is a shortened version of the ship's real name, which runs to something like fifteen words. The rules for this are a bit dry, reading much like an accounting exercise (although much less so than the Traveller equivalent), but the players all seemed to have a lot of fun with it, and spent about an hour and a half tweaking the Banshee to perfection. Then we headed into the game proper, as the team and their (NPC) Rogue Trader ventured into a new and uncharted area of space looking for opportunities for wealth and fame.

A local space station commander invited them to a feast thrown in their honour, at which they met the local representatives of the church and the Imperial Inquisition, picked up some rumours about other Traders and lost starmaps, and managed to foil an assassination attempt on their Trader, all before dessert. They followed this by interrogating the assassin, and the on-paper-socially-inept techie character got right to the heart of the matter with some inspired guesswork from his player, getting the name of the assassin's employer almost immediately. I would have run this as an extended series of skill tests, but Ben cut through everything with his direct questions, and there seemed little point to follow through with the mechanics; roleplaying beats dice-rolling! Not quite satisfied, the team's priest charmed the Inquisitor they met at the feast and convinced him to question the suspect; when the team saw what was left after the "questioning", the navigator freaked out, and the priest only managed to stay calm by reciting a litany to the God-Emperor.

We didn't use miniatures, which seems perverse and rebellious given that it's a Games Workshop title.Seeing enemies around every corner and in every shadow, the players retreated to the Banshee, and the next day returned to the space station in search of the rumoured starmaps, the acquisition of which would make the exploration of this new area of space much easier. They discovered a long-abandoned navigator temple, containing ancient technology which turned out to be some kind of navigation database, and began work on transferring it to their ship in secret. They were briefly interrupted by the strange mutated guardian of the temple, a chaotic combat intensified by some failed fear and insanity tests, as well as getting used to the way Rogue Trader handles initiative and combat rounds. Despite the fiddly bits, the combat went quite quickly, and the monster was torn to pieces by a critical chainsword swipe from the priest, without causing much damage at all to the party; I had designed the encounter to be a little soft, as I didn't want anything too complex in the first session, nor did I want any player-character deaths so early on, but even so I think it was a bit too easy. After the fight, the players sneaked the database on to the Banshee; now with a complete map of the sector, and revenge and profit on their minds, they are deciding where to go next.

We finished late, and were quite tired by the end, but everyone seemed to have good fun with the game, and I was asked to run it again this coming weekend. I'm still not won over by the system, which seems unnecessarily complicated in places and clever and elegant in others; I kept thinking how much easier it would be to run the whole thing under Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying ruleset, but there are lots of bits of the game we haven't tried yet (starship combat for one), and I'm determined to give it a fair try. I'm sure the system's eccentricities will be less jarring given time.

It desperately needs an errata though.