The Rise of RPG PDFs

It’s been a very long time since I last bought a pen and paper RPG book. It’s been well over two years since I last played in an RPG game at all. It’s been so long that I don’t even remember where my whisky tin full of dice is, although I know my collection of RPG books is safely buried in a mound of boxes somewhere in my mum’s house.

It’s a bit depressing – even after I’ve effectively abandoned the hobby – to read about how eReaders and tablets have taken over from giant hardback tomes.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I bought a Kindle and I found my iPad invaluable when I was still gaming, but I found that neither device could replace my RPG books. My Kindle hasn’t even come close to replacing any type of book in my life thanks to a nasty habit of buying the same book in both hardback and digital forms.

RPG books are a particularly special case though. There is something about the scent of the paper, the glossy illustrations and the crack and snap of the pages that is an essential part of the role playing experience. It’s a particular joy when someone has a newly released book which is getting handed round a group or when you find an old, out of print game in a FLGS or on eBay.

There are also advantages to paper books over their digital equivalents. It’s not unusual for game masters to ban players from reading or referring to particular books to prevent cheating, reading ahead in stories or rules lawyering. If the source books are 300 pages of glossy A4, you can’t really hide them at the table. With a Kindle or an iPad, you could be reading anything at the table.

On the other hand  PDF game books are a massive benefit to independent game designers and small publishing houses because they cut out the overheads and the middlemen, allowing direct sales to fans. Which is why they are here to stay.

What’s In A Pound-o-Dice?

The Chessex Pound-o-Dice seems to be quite common in the States, judging from posts on the RPG Bloggers network. In Europe, it’s a significantly rarer creature, with few retailers stocking them. Some games shops don’t even stock brand name dice such as Chessex, and there is little chance of seeing brands such as Gamescience over here unless you order them from America.

That said, eBay makes the world a smaller place and I have a Pound-o-Dice just three days after ordering it, thanks to a UK based importer. At £17 for 90 odd dice, it’s pretty good value for money as well.

So, what did I get in my Pound-o-Dice?

  • 14 d4s
  • 11 d6s with numerals
  • 26 d6s with spots
  • 7 mini d6s
  • 6 d8s
  • 4 d12s
  • 30 d10s
  • 5 d%
  • 11 d20s

Since the two games I’m playing just now use d6s and d10s, this is particularly useful since I can retire dice which cause me grief much more easily. A few dice are clearly damaged, in particular, the d4s with have strange paint streaks on them and one of the d20s, which has broken points, with the rest of the dice in perfect condition.

I’d certainly consider buying another Pound-o-Dice, but given I now have in the region of 175 dice, I’m not sure I’ll need to buy any more any time soon.

The Most Embarrassing Player Death…

This is the story of how I (almost) died in session three of the on-going Rogue Trader campaign I’m playing in. It was, at least, a glorious near-death experience. The only reason I wasn’t rolling up a new character there and then, was use of the fate point mechanic and a Teleportarium.

It was meant to be a simple operation. Grav-chute out of shuttle at high altitude to avoid detection, land on the roof of a temple, break in, grab the Armour of Sanguine and get out out. The temple was circular, with a 10 kilometre diameter dome with 8 tunnel-like structures radiating from it. The target area we were aiming for was a two kilometre wide area of stained glass in the centre of the dome. A true masterpiece of pre-Imperium engineering.

Vendigroth and Anastasia (the party’s Astropath and Rogue Trader respectively) both landed successfully, near the edge of the dome. Both myself and Salia (a powerfist and chainsword wielding ball of psychopathic fury), landed with slightly less grace. Salia was headed towards a collection of unpleasantly spiky structures on the dome, until I knocked into her sending us both towards the stained glass in the middle of the dome.

Then things got slightly nasty. After failing two rolls to correct my decent, I hit the dome at speed, taking critical damage. I then rolled down the dome, failing five rolls (one per kilometre plunged). Eventually I passed out, shooting off the edge of the dome and plunging through a multi-storey hovel, much to the surprise of a number of mutants within. On the upside, they are now the proud owners of a bag of Mechanicus equipment, a Boltgun and an optical mechadendrite.

At that point the Teleportarium finally locked on to my bubbling and broken body, transporting me to the ship’s Medicae bay. I played my Servo-Skull familiar for most of the rest of the session.

For those who doubt my lack of luck when it comes to dice rolling, I made 9 rolls (1 initial roll, 1 re-roll, 1 correction roll, 1 re-roll, 5 rolls as I fell). Of those, all but one was more then 90, with at most of them coming within Rogue Trader’s ‘probably fatal’ band between 96 and 99. It was a wonderful and glorious piece of action.

It also demonstrates my favourite part of the fate point mechanic. In addition to the standard rules, which allows fate points to be spent to re-roll a skill check, house rules allow a fate point to be burnt permanently, avoiding certain death by the skin of the teeth. This does allow for quite wonderful, action-movie style events such as this, without cheapening death to the point that it’s an inconvenience rather then a serious consideration (as in some games where a revive spell doesn’t cost much).

Rogue Trader Trophies

One of the more interesting ship components in Rogue Trader is the Trophy Room. This gives a few nice bonuses to your ship, but also allows you to display your past victories.

Here are some of my suggestions for the contents of the Trophy Room on The Tempest, the ship inhabited by my Rogue Trader dynasty.

Ceremonial Axe of the Omnissiah

Taking the the form of a large Poleaxe with the symbol of the Adaptus Mechanicus in the place of one of it’s two heads, this is a traditional symbol of a Tech-Priest’s authority. Unlike those used in the field by many Tech-Priests, this version is solely for ceremonial use, lacking the lighter construction material and power-field generator of it’s more functional counterparts. As such, it’s only potential use as a weapon is that of an over-sized bludgeon.

Consequently, it was deemed a fitting gift of appreciation following the quest to eradicate the Magno Crydom.

The machine spirits of the ship seem particularly attached to this device, and if it is removed from the Trophy Room, unexplainable power failures and faults occur around the Axe until such time as it’s replaced. On sole occasional it has been removed from the ship, the results were so catastrophic that the Axe was bound with chains attached to the wall of the Trophy Room lest it even happen again.

The Bedraggled Grox-Head

No-one knows where this traditional symbol of farm-life came from. Judging on it’s condition, it probably originated from a refuse planet.

Annoyingly, no-one can actually work out to remove it from the wall it’s attached to.

A bit of an embarrassment to the normally boastful Rogue Traders, it spends most of it’s time covered by a black velvet drape. If anyone inquires about it, oblique references are made to unspeakable horrors of the warp.

Mantle of the Dark Jester

In M40.887, the Tempest was boarded by a Troupe of the Eldar elite warriors known as the Harlequins. The servants of the so-called “Laughing God” spread through the ship, slaughtering it’s crew and spreading mirth.

They were eventually stopped through the actions of Lord-Captain Kobalt (a man known equally for his pig-headedness and stupidity), who donned a suit of near ruined power armour in an effort to deflect the deadly wires of the Harlequin’s Kiss. Unfortunately, the power armour had absolutely no effect. However when the ‘Kiss hit the plasma containment unit in the power-pack, the resulting explosion vaporised both Lord-Captain Kobalt and the troupe of Harlequins (as well as a considerable portion of the bridge).

This garishly painted and slightly scarred helmet was the only remain found by Kobalt’s second in command (who had been preparing the Murder Servitors to engage the Harlequins).

The Armour of Hun the Unkillable

This armour is a rare relic from the lifetime of the Emperor, being the second model of armour given to the Space Marine chapters.

This particular suit belonged to Hun the Unkillable, a legendary member of the White Scars. Before and during the Horus Heresy, Hun was a machine-like killer, cutting his way across battlefields with his twin power axes, felling Orks with a tenacity that was unrivalled.
The merits welded to his suit testify to his success, with legend telling that some of them were placed there by the hand of the Emperor (Indeed, some more religious crewmembers refuse to look upon the suit).

Hun’s rise within the ranks of Imperium was brought to a rather untimely end. During the Battle of Tyr’s Bastion, the White Scars were deployed in support of the 3rd Titan Battalion. Hun, more used to fighting without armoured support made the mistake of ignoring the closest Titan, to his cost.

The suit is approximately 3 centimetres thick, 2 meters across and 4 meters tall.

_______________________________________________________________

Of these, only the Amour of Hun the Unkillable and the Ceremonial Axe passed mutual agreement. The rest of the Trophy Room contents were created by other players and include the brain of a previous enemy, imprisoned in a chess-playing device, a cake-topper from the wedding that created the Heinstein-Fueller Dynasty, a miniature world and a Ork weapon.

These are all small things, with little in-game use, but they add a really nice touch to the world.

Review: Rogue Trader

RT_CoverRogue Trader, is the second core rule book in the Warhammer 40K Roleplay series. While it’s predecessor, the extremely successful Dark Heresy, followed the adventures of a group of Inquisitorial Acolytes, Rogue Trader returns to the roots of Warhammer 40K by putting you in the shows of a Rogue Trader and his crew as they ply the stars seeking fame and fortune.

It should be made clear that Rogue Trader is in no way a second edition of Dark Heresy. While there are a few mechanical changes, both games use the same system and characters from either game can be used in the other. Likewise, the fluff books (of which there are quite a lot now) are 100% compatible with both books, although I’m expecting Fantasy Flight Games to announce some books which are more focused on Rogue Trader in the near future.

Anyway, without further ado, we shall proceed to the review:

Art & Design

Fantasy Flight Games is well known for it’s award winning art-work. Dark Heresy and several of the expansion books have won well-deserved awards for it and it looks like Rogue Trader will be winning a few more pieces of silverware.

The overall design is identical to that of Dark Heresy, with the red and yellow colour scheme replaced with a blue, silver and metallic scheme instead. This gives a rather near feeling of continuity. The illustrations in a variety of styles and all fit the subject matter excellently, adding much needed pictures of Xenos and ships to already staggering visual palette of Dark Heresy. If you want an idea of how good the art is, then click on the image above to see a much larger version of it which was released as a wallpaper by FFG.

I was initially worried that there would be a degree of recycling in Rogue Trader, potentially with chunks of previous books being recycled. Thankfully, this is not the case, with the only non-original illustrations being wire-frame drawings of the weapons and a take on Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

As for the book it’s self, it’s roughly 400 pages long (the same as Dark Heresy) and hardback. Paperback copies of Dark Heresy were previously available but disappeared after FFG took over the licence, so it’s unlikely that a paperback version will be making an appearance. Print and binding quality are good, but unfortunately my book arrived with a slightly damaged spine (although the packaging was undamaged).

Mechanics

The mechanics of the game are pretty much unchanged from Dark Heresy. It’s still a d100 based system, you still have all the same stats, insanity, wounds and so on. All that can really be said about it is that it’s inspired by Call of Cthulhu and works very well.

The main changes come when you look at the skills. Dark Heresy had a lot of skills, in particular weapons skills. They took a ridiculous amount of time to get and you got quite large negative modifiers if you weren’t skilled with a weapon. Thankfully, there are now four universal weapons skills (Pistol, Basic, Heavy and Melee) and most of the classes start off with at least one of these.

The advancement tables have also been changed. While Dark Heresy presented you with several very similar and slightly pointless sets of skill and talent options when you got higher up the XP ladder, Rogue Trader doesn’t. Instead there are quite simple tables for each class which allow some customisation. There is also an emphasis on “Elite Advances”, which are skills which aren’t on your classes table but can be awards by the GM on conditions of his choosing, allowing massive customisation.

There are also two new sets of mechanics. Spaceship use and the Navigator powers. I have to admit, I don’t fully understand the way that Navigator powers work, although they are much more controlled then the Psyker/Astropath powers, which are notorious for their high chance of unleashing demons and so on when a party is mid-combat. They also have some nifty tricks, like being able to shift dimensions momentarily, kill people by opening their third eye and predict the future. The downside is that they also have to roll to navigate the ships successfully through the Warp.

On the subject of Ships, ship combat is a cross between character combat and Battlefleet Gothic, but it remains quite straight forward. Ships have their own ‘character sheet’ and a selection of traits to give it personality. They are also highly customisable, with a lot of different modules available for kitting out the ship.

Unfortunately there are only a few ship hull initially. It would seem likely that there will be a ship expansion release at some point. With any luck, this will include more and bigger ships.

Characters & Gear

The character classes in Rogue Trader are all new, but are also all similar to older classes. Most of them are much more refined and all the classes have a much clearer purpose and more combat utility. It’s suggested that at least one member of the party should take the role of the Rogue Trader, the captain of your ship. The other classes are Astropath (Psychic Communications Specialist), Arch-Militant (Ballastics Expert), Explorator (Engineer, Archaeologist and Explorer roled into one), Missionary (Flame-thrower wielding cleric), Navigator (Psychic Pilot), Seneschal (Indiana Jones style brains and brawn) and the Void-Master (A Merc by any other name).

All of these classes look interesting to play, and few fit traditional character tropes. The Missionary does have a Medical skill, but so do several other classes and there is a good deal of skill overlap, allowing player more freedom to do what they want. For further customisation, there is a large choice of background options, all of which add skills or stats without tying a character down. This origin path system is a bit limited if you follow it to the letter, but as the book says, it’s a case of guidelines rather then rules.

The gear is much improved on that in Dark Heresy. Stats have been buffed and most of the weapons have had their armour penetration increased. There are also a nice list of Xeno and other rare weapons – these were originally printed in some of the expansions, but they’ve also been buffed to do much more damage. Starting characters also get some very nice gear.

Fluff

Like most 40K spin-off material, Rogue Trader’s setting is some distance away from areas used by Games Workshop in their core material. Instead, it takes place in the Kronus Expanse, a poorly explored area adjacent to the sector which provided Dark Heresy with it’s setting. This area plays home to Orks, Eldar, various groups of Pirates, Kroot and all manner of heretical beings (stats are also provided for most of these). It is a gigantic area of space, with uncounted worlds and perils waiting for an adventurous Rogue Trader.

There are three chapters dedicated to providing material on the Imperium and the Expanse. It’s more then enough to help someone who has never played a Warhammer game to get started. There is also a sample adventure called “Into The Maw” and another two sample adventures, “Forsaken Bounty” and “Dark Frontier” available from FFG’s website.

Faults

So far, I’ve been nearly 100% positive about Rogue Trader. I’ll admit, I’m biased by the fact that I am in love with the system and the setting. There are a few faults with the game.

The first, and least critical is actually to do with the advertising. FFG proudly declared that the game would go on sale during Gencon. Unfortunately, it didn’t actually become available until mid-October and for a while FFG were rather cagey about when it would arrive. Thankfully, it got here eventually and was worth the wait.

There are a lot of small spelling errors in Rogue Trader. There are also a number of tables which have been incorrectly numbered and reference. This is particularly noticeable in Chapter 9, where there are nearly 40 tables, and the references are extremely inaccurate by the end of the chapter.

There are still a few too many similarities between classes. This was Dark Heresy’s main flaw, and while it has been drastically reduced, I can’t help feeling that there is at least one extraneous class in the form of the Void-Master.

Finally, while there are a selection of enemies ready for use, they’re are very few of them. My particular bugbear is that there are only one example each of Ork, Eldar and Kroot characters. No doubt there is an entire book of Xenos in the works, but it would have been nice to have been provided with some more examples.

Conclusion

Rogue Trader is almost certainly my best big name buy this year. It’s a stunning book that refines an already good system and I highly recommend it to anyone who is in the market for a straight-forward, pitch black space romp.

RPG Blog Carnival October ‘09 – Concluding the Moral Dilemmas

RPGBlogCarnivalLogoThanks to everyone who participated in this month’s carnival. There have been loads of great, thought provoking articles from around the blogosphere.

Ravyn from Exchange of Realities kicked off the month on high form with her article On the Moral Code of characters and then followed it up by discussing the Underlying Concepts & Moral Codes. A pair of very useful posts when it comes to creating complex characters or important NPCs.

Jade at the wonderfully-named Evil Machinations explores the ins-and-outs of Dancing with the Dark and letting your evil side out to play.

Satyre from Fame & Fortune draws on some medieval thinking, as well as a variety of other sources when he looks at the idea of the moral holiday in Morality Play.

Fitz at Moebius Adventures takes the prize for longest entry this month with his four part series on Moral Ambiguity in which he explores alternatives to the established alignment grids. I highly recommend Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

Sea of Stars takes on the meaning and use of evil in a campaign, in Game Theory – Moral Dilemmas: Playing Evil.

At the Geek Life Project, Chuck makes an apparently rare appearance in the Carnival line-up to talk about one of his currently characters and what it’s like playing Lawful-Evil. Part of the answer is in the title; the Fun of Evil, but that doesn’t come close to summing up the humour in the article.

Mike from Campaign Mastery gives us some amazing advice for GMs and players with his wonderfully indepth article on The Moral Of The Story: The Morality and Ethics of playing an RPG.

A warm welcome to Colmarr at The Astral Sea. He’s recently entered the RPG blogging sphere, and I hope that he’s started as he means to continue. Morality: Behind the Scenes takes a look at group moral and the effects of it on the game.

Bob from The Dice Bag, who is partially responsible for this months carnival topic as a follow up to his carnival on religion, tackles the thorny issue of alignment, by asking Alignment: Do We Really Need It?

We have two articles from tenletter. The first, by peasantbutcher looks at some of the questions I asked in the initial post with some thoughts on morality, all brought together under the wonderful title What Goes Around Comes Around. Jatori also tackles my questions head-on, suggesting Maybe I Should Include This In My New Player Interview Kit.

My own entry happens to be rather late. In it I tell a couple of stories about things I regret doing in game and what my moral limits are in game, in an article On Going Too Far.

RPG blogger stalwart Stargazer’s World rounds off the month, looking at the questions I initially posed in the simply-titled Morality.

Some great and thought-provoking stuff. Of course, it was one of the last entries that left me with a particular lasting though, so, if I may quote Stargazer for a moment:

I’ve to admit it’s not easy writing about this topic because questions of morality are usually very personal. And sometimes a player character’s action reflect on the personality of the player.

So, thank you all for exposing a bit of your personality for all to see. Keep up the good blogging 🙂

RPG Blogger’s Carnival: Going Too Far

RPGBlogCarnivalLogoWhere are the ethical limits in Role-Playing?

There are different challenges in different games. In D&D, Vampires are a creature of evil, nicely clean cut and lined up for your party to slaughter without a second thought. On the other hand, Vampire: The Requiem and Vampire: The Masquerade set you up as the vampire, having to take into account the required for frequent doses of fresh, human blood, so even if you’re character is good, you still have to engage in a hunt for humans and a rather horrible act which has been compared to a variety of other morally reprehensible crimes.

Some games, such as the Warhammer roleplaying games even go so far as to encourage what we would regard as immoral behaviour. In WFRP, in the Human Empire, Elves are not allowed to enter buildings and must be chained up outside. Dark Heresy goes one step further, with all Alien races deemed heretical and subject to summery execution.

So given this context, where do you just turn round and say no?

Of course, at the extreme end of the spectrum there are a variety of games that no right-minded gamer would every touch. F.A.T.A.L. and Racial Holy War are two of the more notorious example – both glorifying a very real-world racial hatred against various groups. F.A.T.A.L., of course, takes this right up to 11, with the rules encouraging rape and demonstrating a lack of taste, common-sense and general human decency.

Very far over the acceptable line indeed, but then not at all representative of your average gamer.

So where is the line for the average gamer, to wit, Me?

Well, I’ve done some pretty bad things in character.

One of my favourite gaming stories is the complete and utter carnage that half my Dark Heresy group got caught up in a one-shot story. The plot involved a Death Cult on a graveyard planet and remains the only time I’ve ever seen a Party actively try and kill it’s-self. The short version is, through the use of disguises made from the skin of dead Imperial Guard, we infiltrated the Cult, didn’t realise when we should probably have stopped and opened fire and ended up conducting a Demonic summoning. I ended up killing a pregnant women as a sacrifice.

I’m not terribly proud of that, even though on of my colleagues promptly scarified me in return for immortality or some such. I even rolled a dice to decide to go through with it or not, because while I thought my character would be happy with it, I wasn’t. Would I do it again? Probably not, because I admit that was over my personal line and I didn’t feel comfortable doing it.

The second time that I know I went too far was shooting a Kobold pup. This was during Castles & Crusades, in a world where we were religiously mandated to kill all evil creatures. The Cleric even got bonus XP in an earlier session for a stunning in-character tirade laying out exactly why evil creatures couldn’t be redeemed.

To be clear, several people did say that they weren’t comfortable with the pups being introduced (this was in an ‘official’ module as well, not the product of a particularly sadistic GM’s mind). I also roleplayed a loss of faith after that, although not particularly well.

So, yeah, where do I think the moral lines are in a roleplaying situation?

Killing kids of any type is right out. It’s not smart, it’s not clever, it’s not funny, no matter how annoying the pint-sized MacGuffin the GM’s saddled you with is.

Anything relating to sex is out. I’ve heard of people introducing rape as a plot element, in particular in World of Darkness, but it’s not something I’d be comfortable dealing with.

In-game racism varies from game to game. It can be a good way to generate friction or provide plot. It’s still not something I feel that comfortable with, but backstory and motivation make a world of difference. Any game where I was asked to hate on a specific real world group or a fantasy group without motivation would be out.

Murder, theft, pillaging, unleashing demonic hoards, destroying planets, killing PCs: No problem with any of that. That’s just good old fashioned fun.

This post isn’t really what I was expecting it to be, although it has given me quite a lot of things to think about. I do like to play my own values in some games, which is why my brand new Rogue Trader character is a heretic, an idealist and a renegade. Maybe this is a bad thing, maybe I should be trying to roleplay outside of my moral comfort zone. But then again, if I feel bad after roleplaying a situation I’m not comfortable with, then eventually I’m going to stop wanting to roleplay.