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  • Enter Ever-Changing Dungeons in Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated, Then Settle a New Planet in Circadians: First Light

    by W. Eric Martin

    I jumped straight from previewing Gen Con 2019 releases to working on our SPIEL '19 Preview with lots of game announcements getting sidetracked along the way, seemingly half of them from Renegade Games Studios, which previewed a number of these new titles at Gen Con 2019 itself.

    The biggest of these announcements is for Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated, designed by Andy Clautice and co-published by Dire Wolf Digital and Penny Arcade. This title had the unusual distinction of being preceded by its own expansion, Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated – Upper Management Pack, as that item serves as an expansion for the Clank! base game, as well as all other things Clank!

    As the name suggests, Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated is a legacy game in which your successes and failures in exploring the dungeon carry over into future games, with you being able to play through a 10+ game campaign that will result in you having "a unique and fully replayable Clank! game". In this game, everyone represents a franchise of the Acquisitions Incorporated adventuring company, with AI having started as a podcast collaboration between Penny Arcade and Wizards of the Coast in 2008.

    Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated will first be available at PAX West in late August 2019 ahead of its retail release in September 2019.


    Component spread of Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated at Gen Con 2019

    • Should you prefer a more traditional (sort of) take on Clank!, Renegade and Dire Wolf will release Clank! In! Space!: Cyber Station 11 in November 2019. This expansion for Clank! In! Space! from Evan Lorentz and Tim McKnight includes a new game board representing Cyber Station 11, a new boss to avoid in Commander Preon, and cyberware upgrades that you can install for benefits throughout the game.

    • After Raiders of the North Sea, Architects of the West Kingdom, and the October 2019 release of Paladins of the West Kingdom, Renegade is continuing its collaborative publishing efforts with Garphill Games with S J Macdonald's Circadians: First Light. This worker-placement game is due out in September 2019 and bears the following description:

    We were light years from our home, galaxies away, when we first discovered this ancient celestial body — a planet filled with intriguing, intelligent lifeforms, not too unlike our own. Some built kingdoms below the surface of the green seas, while others controlled the desert-filled plains and cliffs. Among them we found scientists, inventors, farmers, traders and fighters. While our presence has been unsettling for some, we have had very few incidents with the locals. Still, we Circadians, Earth's famed explorers, must do what we can to ensure peace. We must respect this world and its hosts. The heads of Moontide passed down orders from above. We are to open negotiations with the three clans, in hopes of gaining their favor, along with our own security while on the planet. We must also collect organic samples for the depository on Moontide. This is new ground for all of us, but we must be brave and resourceful. The future of the Circadians depends on it.

    The aim of Circadians: First Light is to lead a team of researchers on the planet of Ryh. Players need to manage their crew (dice) to visit various parts of the planet for trade, farming, construction and research. Players score points for negotiating with the locals, harvesting resources for the depository, upgrading their research base, exploring the planet, and collecting gems. The game is played over eight rounds. At the end of the final round, the player with the most points wins.

    • On a far smaller scale lies the game ClipCut Parks from Shaun Graham and Scott Huntington, a "roll-and-cut" game for 1-4 players due out in Q4 2019 in which a die roll determines how many cuts of which lengths you must make in the current round.

    When bits of your individual player sheet fall to the table, either you place them on the park cards in front of you in matching spaces – this space needs an animal shelter, this one a playground, and these three must be placed all at once — or you place them aside as waste, which could penalize you later. Race to complete five parks first to win!


    Ready to play at Gen Con 2019!

    ClipCut Parks was the one game I played during the Renegade media event at Gen Con 2019. Everyone starts with the same sheet of paper that's subdivided into tiny squares, and you have two unique "blueprint" park cards that show what you need to place where. If the die shows 3/3, you must make two cuts that are each three squares in length. You could, for example, make a cut of three squares on one side of the paper, then rotate the sheet and make another cut of three squares elsewhere, whether perpendicular across the first one to "release" some squares or somewhere else completely.

    When you complete a blueprint, you receive a bonus of some sort, maybe an animal token to satisfy the requirement on a particular space or a bonus cut on your sheet. You then take a new blueprint card and continue.


    Victory!

    That was only about half of what's coming from Renegade in 2019 and 2020. More to come! Read more »
  • Designer Diary: Yukon Airways, or Designing from Memory

    by Al Leduc

    This game was inevitable: I grew up in the Yukon, my father was a bush pilot, and I like to design games.

    We Welcome You to Yukon Airways

    The real-life Yukon Airways originally began as a small charter outfit in 1927 when Andrew Cruickshank bought the Queen of The Yukon. This plane was the sister plane to the more-famous Spirit of St. Louis, which was flown by Charles Lindbergh on the first non-stop, transatlantic flight from New York to Paris on May 20, 1927. Today the Queen of the Yukon is still on display in the Aviation Museum in Whitehorse. When I grew up in the Yukon, my father was the owner and operator of Yukon Airways, so I was pretty familiar with bush planes from a young age.

    When I started working on this game, I knew several places that had to be included: two-thirds of the Yukon's population lives in Whitehorse, which is the territory's capital. It serves as the communication/transportation hub in the game, as it does in real-life. Plus, that's where I was born and raised, so my ego required its inclusion.

    Dawson City is most famous as the setting for the Gold Rush. When gold was discovered near Dawson City in 1896, word quickly spread across the world, which brought an unprecedented number of gold-seekers to the Yukon. Over 100,000 prospectors stampeded to the Klondike region, which led to the establishment of Dawson City and, eventually, the Yukon Territory. Dawson City quickly became known as the "Paris of the North" and in 1898, it was the largest city north of Seattle and west of Winnipeg.

    Old Crow is the most northerly community in the Yukon and the only one that is not accessible by road.

    Image on TripAdvisorCinnamon Strip is famous in the Yukon because you can land your plane beside Braeburn Lodge to pick up cinnamon buns that are almost as big as your head!

    Taco Bar is known to local bush pilots and outfitters but you won't find it on any map. Despite the name, it's not a Mexican restaurant; rather, it's a small gravel island, the end point for canoe trips along the Snake River. The waters here are deep and straight enough to allow a float plane to land. It was named after a memorable dinner made there.

    You'll find some personal touches in the objective cards, too. "Paid with Gold Nuggets", which was not an uncommon practice, reveals that yellow dice represent miners. "Better Safe than Sorry" rewards you for having fuel left at the end of your flight; it was also one of my father's favorite expressions. "Love is in the Air" is a nod to how my parents met. My mother was a doctor who used to work in small communities around the Yukon, and she was often flown around by my dad. These cards also hint that red dice are mounties, green are adventurers, pink are tourists, and blue are doctors.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, Please Buckle Your Seatbelt

    I recall the day I decided to try to design Yukon Airways. It was June 2016 when I was driving back from a Protospiel with Gerry Paquette talking about themes we'd like to design games around and mechanisms we'd like to use. I had been trying to make a game using dice drafting in which the board location from which the dice were drafted was important, but hadn't come up with a good theme that worked. Once I realized the dice could represent passengers at a terminal, I was off to the races.

    I knew that managing fuel and passengers would be the crux of the game as fuel management is a bush pilot's most important skill and any error can be fatal. Because I didn't want to include player elimination in the game, there is an assumption that you always reserve the necessary fuel to return to Whitehorse. Now you only need to worry about having enough fuel to get all the way to Old Crow. As you can imagine, the further you want to travel, the more fuel you'll need to carry. That said, this is a game, not a simulation, so there are other ways to increase your range.

    Passengers limit the distance you can fly. A plane can carry only a fixed weight, and when you're flying solo, you can use all that capacity for fuel and travel a longer distance. If you've got passengers on board, then you can't take as much fuel and consequently you can't fly as far. I wanted to invoke the importance of fuel management without unnecessarily burdening the players, and the trade-off between passengers and fuel seemed like an elegant way to do that.

    My first ideas included helicopters and airplanes. It was overly complicated, and involved players having a small fleet of unique aircraft at their disposal.




    It took only a few months of iteration for the game to start looking like its present form. The map board geography looked the way it does now, the dice-drafting system operated smoothly, and there were a deck of destination cards and colored cubes used in conjunction with locations. Of course, the details of these elements evolved over time, but none of them were changed much in outline.




    We Will Be Experiencing a Little Turbulence

    In September 2016, after three months of progress, I started working on the engine-building aspect. I like to add things that increase variability to a game only after the core design is stable; otherwise it's difficult to tell which elements are causing the game to crash, and whether changes implemented over time are genuine improvements or simply patches to a shaky design.




    I started by giving players a bonus when flying different types of passengers. This was a bit dull as it just gave a scoring bonus and wasn't engine building at all. You could get better at scoring for certain colors of dice, but you didn't get better at actually doing things in the game.

    I also tried giving players skill cards that gave them unique bonuses. Ultimately, this proved to be too fiddly and increased the cognitive load of new players. A simpler and ultimately more satisfying solution was to give all players access to the same objective cards. This fostered competition between the players since they both raced to complete the objectives and vied with each other to gather and use the elements required for their completion. It also increased the variability from game to game without accidentally giving any player an unfair advantage.

    You can also see in this photo that the player aid was a part of the player board and that I recorded a player's fuel using discarded cards. I was pretty darn happy with my cleverly efficient use of the cards.




    Things Look Different from the Air

    I thought the game was on the right track — until I went to Europe for a vacation. I find that traveling helps with creativity as a change in surroundings can give you a new perspective on old problems. Being captive on an airplane (or in an air terminal) can sometimes do wonders if you choose to use the time creatively. Several new ideas started to rattle around in my head while I was away, and I was excited to get back to work.

    The first thing I did when I got back was to totally rework the player board. The dashboard look fit the theme of the game perfectly, and the dials granted flexibility to the engine building. As an added bonus, it was very clear to read and easy to use. Later on I added "switches" that gave players a bonus once they were turned "ON".




    Shortly afterward, I reworked the dice pool board to differentiate each terminal. At this point, I tied player order to the terminal number. The pairing of a special ability and turn order was inspired by Viticulture, but the choice has a bit more weight in Yukon Airways as it also dictates which dice are available for you to draft — a decision central to your turn.




    By the start of 2017, I had fleshed out the map board, too. The cubes and cards worked quite differently than they do now, and they would go through a few iterations before the final version. At first, cubes of your color were placed on a location when you dropped a passenger off there. The cards told you which color of passenger you could drop off at the indicated location.




    In addition to game design changes, I also made improvements to the game's look and feel over the next three months, including the addition of my old family photos to the plane cockpits.






    On Your Right, You Can See Niagara Falls

    In April 2017, I attended Alan Moon's Gathering of Friends convention in Niagara. It is attended by designers, publishers, and other game industry professionals, so it represents a staggering wealth of game knowledge. I talked with friendly, intelligent people about the game and made almost daily iterations (having brought my laptop and printer to the hotel).

    The most notable change was changing the whole turn structure from drafting dice and delivering them on your turn to a two-phase system in which each player drafted dice in turn order, then all players delivered them in the new turn order dictated by the value (1-6) of the terminal from which they had drafted the dice. Another significant change was the addition of barrel, card, and improvement symbols to the destination cards, a set of which could be turned in for a bonus. This set collection added some interesting depth without much complexity. (Truth be told, it resulted in more complexity than I personally like, so I don't focus on them too much when I play, but when used well, they allow for epic turns.)




    I gave the almost-final version a few playtests in the Yukon when I went home for a visit in the summer of 2017. Here we see my mother and sister playing a game:




    We Will Be Landing Shortly

    The game was signed by Spanish publisher Ludonova in November 2017 and will debut at SPIEL '19 in October. They've done a great job of the artwork while generally adhering to the look of my prototype. While I was happy with the graphic design of my prototype, they wisely chose to hire a professional artist and graphic designer, so their version is orders of magnitude better. Have a look at the new player boards; each one even has a recreation of one of my old family photos:






    These are samples of the new ticket and plane cards:






    This is the map board with the seaplane dock on the left:




    Thank You for Flying Yukon Airways

    While I'm very pleased with how Yukon Airways turned out, I'm saddened that my father — who passed away in 2014 — will never see it . His life provided the impetus for the original design, and I hope you will enjoy this little tribute to the man who taught me how to soar. I think he would have. Have a nice flight!

    Al Leduc Read more »
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    DriveThruRPG.com Newest Items

  • RPGPundit Presents #89: F*ck Station Aleph
    RPGPundit Presents #89: F*ck Station AlephPublisher: Precis Intermedia

    This weekly OSR periodical from the mind of RPGPundit features a different theme or topic in each issue.

    Issue 89 (August 22, 2019): F*ck Station Aleph

    From the annals of the RPGPundit's (in)famous Last Sun gonzo fantasy campaign, this issue discusses the massive skybase known as F*ck Station Aleph. Located in the Upper Band of the Floating Islands, it was once a battle station used by the Pythian Elves. After they were forced to abandon it during the Great Disaster, the station passed down to various parties over the thousands of years. Refurbished by the Techno-Walruses, it is now a very profitable trading post and mega-brothel for traders and sky-pirates.
    Price: $3.99 Read more »
  • Occult Skill Guide: Headbeast Corruption
    Occult Skill Guide: Headbeast CorruptionPublisher: Rogue Genius Games

    By Alexander Augunas

    Unleash occult secrets penned in antiquity, long forgotten to the modern world into your Starfinder RPG campaign with Everyman Gaming’s new Occult Skill Guide series! From occultic rituals to terrifying corruptions, from powerful pacts and terrible corruptions, the Occult Skill Guide has what you need to bring the mysteries of the occult into the far-flung future!

    This installment of the Occult Skill Guide introduces: an all-new corruption to afflict unsuspecting Starfinder RPG characters with, the headbeast corruption! This unnervingly adorable corruption causes a victim’s body to wither away in size and girth while leaving their head normally sized. By the corruption’s end, they’ve transformed into a bubbly quadrupedal creature consisting of nothing more than a giant head with small, stubby limbs. Also included are rules for building your own headbeasts and a sample statblock for a kitsune headbeast.

    With Everyman Gaming, innovation is never more than a page away!

    Price: $2.95 Read more »
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    Gnome Stew

  • Band of Blades Review
    Band of Blades Review

    Fantasy is a huge, almost too wide term when applying the word to genres. Many times the word invokes the idea of heroic fantasy like The Lord of the Rings, or Sword and Sorcery stories, like Howard’s Conan. Over the years, fantasy has picked up a lot of sub-genres with their own specific tropes. One of those specific sub-genres is the gritty mercenary genre. In this case, characters aren’t the chosen one, and they may not have even chosen the life they live. They have a job to do, and don’t expect to survive the execution of their tasks.

    Glen Cook’s The Black Company series, some of Joe Abercrombie’s World of the First Law books, and various installments of the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erickson help to define gritty mercenary fantasy. Characters aren’t a band of adventurers, but members of a military company, usually with ranks and responsibilities that go beyond their battlefield roles. Magic is rare and powerful, is usually devastating to the field troops, and the magic on the side of the protagonists’ forces is often dangerous and unpredictable.

    There have been a lot of games built on the Forged in the Dark chassis first seen in Blades in the Dark. Off Guard Games and Evil Hat, the team that produced Scum and Villainy, have now teamed together to present a Forged in the Dark game of gritty fantasy mercenaries called Band of Blades.

    Defining the Chronicle

    This review is based both on the PDF version of the game, and the physical copy. The game is 450 pages, with full-color endpapers depicting the map of the setting. There is a seven-page index at the back of the book. As with most Powered by the Apocalypse or Forged in the Dark Games, while the playbooks and reference sheet material exists in the book, it will be useful to download and print out the PDF versions of these items for reference during the game.

    The interior art is black and white line art. Headers are bold, and there are numerous bullet-pointed lists throughout the book. The artwork depicts daily occurrences in the lives of the mercenary company, including days at camp and days in battle. There are illustrations of the various locations in the setting, as well as pictures of named characters in the setting, such as the various antagonists that the player characters may eventually encounter in the course of their missions.

    The book has the same general form factor as Blades in the Dark and Scum and Villainy, but it is thicker and feels very substantial.

    The Basics

    The opening section of the book describes the setting, the tone of the game, and what elements are present. It also introduces the Legion Roles that the players will be assuming, as well as the Specialists and Squad Members that they will be playing between missions. In this case, the players have multiple roles—they play their Legion roles when planning the missions, and they play their Specialist or Squad Member characters when executing those plans.

    This section also introduces the special characters of the setting. The Cinder King is a master of a huge undead army that threatens the world. The Legion is trying to survive and dig into a better position to resist his forces. On the Legion’s side are Chosen, people picked by the gods to manifest special powers. On the Cinder King’s side are the Broken, former Chosen corrupted by the Cinder King.

    The game has similar phases to other Forged in the Dark games. In this case we have the Campaign Phase, where the players in their Legion roles choose what missions to undertake, and they spend resources and advance on the map. Then we have the Mission Phase, where the players play out their actual mission, modified by the decisions of the players in their Legion roles. There may also be free play, seeing how characters interact in camp or deal with fallout that isn’t directly related to the success or failure of missions.

    Unlike many introductory sections, this one is very extensive. Not only is it discussing things like the dark military tone of the game, horror elements, and getting player buy-in, it also introduces the core Forged in the Dark mechanic, explaining the resolution of actions, resistance rolls, stress, trauma, corruption, blight, and progress clocks. It is a lot to absorb upfront, and while there are explanations of the broad shape of missions, I felt like there was just enough still undefined that this section does have the potential to get overwhelming.

    Like Blades in the Dark, individual rules packets are very simple and intuitive, but even more so than Blades in the Dark, there are a lot of moving parts. Some of the campaign level tracking has been offloaded from the GM to the players in their Legion rolls, but in some cases, there are similar systems in place that increase what gets tracked. For example, trauma is still a measure of how many physical or mentally taxing moments you can take before your character isn’t an active protagonist any longer, but corruption now tracks the influence of the downside of supernatural elements, and blight is a physical, supernatural manifestation of what is effectively magical “trauma.”

    Characters

    This section begins to give more specific examples of the broader terms introduced in the previous section. In this case, we’re looking at the playbooks to play individual troops in the Legion that will be carrying out missions. The playbooks include:

    Specialists

    • Heavy
    • Medic
    • Officer
    • Scout
    • Sniper

    Squad Members

    • Rookie
    • Soldier

    Later on in the book, we’ll learn more about this when discussing missions, but because you only play out the primary mission your company is undertaking, you may need to send one of your specialists on the “offscreen” mission, meaning that a player may end up playing a rookie or a soldier instead of a specialist. Additionally, if a specialist gets taken out of the fight, the player can slide into playing one of the other characters in the unit with these playbooks.

    While a player can play the same character repeatedly, the book also mentions that it is possible to leave all of the characters as options for troop play as well, meaning one person may make up the heavy and play them on the first mission and then let another player take that character on the next mission. Not everyone will want to do this, but it is mentioned as an option.

    The playbooks have the traditional Forged in the Dark structure, where different playbooks have different gear available, and have different starting points for the ranks of different actions. Characters can take a heavy, medium, or light load, which have different implications for military missions versus the criminal activities seen in Blades in the Dark or Scum and Villainy. For example, characters with a heavy load may have issues if they need to quickly retreat from a battlefield after an objective has been met.

    In addition to their gear and starting abilities, the specialist playbooks also have specialist actions. While these are measured in dots as well, these are not actions that are rolled. The dots represent the number of times a character can use their ability during a mission.

    The Heavy’s anchor ability increases their scale in combat, meaning they act like a small unit instead of an individual. The Medic can cause a character to function without any penalties they have suffered from wounds. The Officer can produce resources for the mission that weren’t allocated by the Legion positions during the mission planning phase. The Scout can also provide additional resources, but in the form of discovered loads of equipment, safe resting places, or rations. The Sniper gets the ability to aim, which doesn’t change the dice they roll, but increases the effect their shot has, meaning they can take out higher threat opponents than they could normally harm. The Rookie can advance in multiple directions, but doesn’t start with a specialist action, while the soldier has a specialist action that gives them bonus dice to resistance rolls, reflecting their ability to keep themselves alive in a fight.

    The Legion

    This section details the Legion Roles that the players will take on, which they will play in the campaign phase. These roles represent the highest level of the Legion, and the decisions they make in this role can make their own missions more or less difficult, but how resources are spent also affects the long term ability of the Legion to progress to their objective at the end of the game.

    The roles include the following:

    Required Roles

    • Commander
    • Marshal
    • Quartermaster

    Optional Roles

    • Lorekeeper
    • Spymaster

    This means that you need at least three players to fill all of the required roles for a campaign. The text does mention that you can assign “deputy” roles so that when a player isn’t present, another player makes the decisions for that role.

    The Commander determines if the Legion advances on the map, where they advance, and what missions they undertake. The Commander can also spend the Intel resource to put the teams in a better position at the beginning of a mission or find out advantageous information about a location.

    The Marshal determines who goes on what mission, and what character assigned to the mission is in charge in the field. Some missions will have a requirement that certain specialists be present, so assigning the wrong characters to a mission can doom it from the start. The Marshal is also tracking the number of troops in the individual squads. Some missions will cause a squad to lose rookies, and some areas may allow you to recruit new troops.

    The Quartermaster can spend resources that the Legion has gained, such as horses, to make travel less dangerous, or to better supply the group for their starting efforts. The Quartermaster can also determine if the group has special personnel at camp, such as a Mercy or an Alchemist.

    The Lorekeeper role comes into play when characters get back to camp, as the Lorekeeper reciting specific previous mission details can provide benefits for the characters.

    The Spymaster gets to pick from a stable of spies that gives them different ways to manipulate the objectives in different types of missions, and may allow the Commander to spend Intel to unlock special missions available in some locations.

    There is a limited amount of time that the Legion has to make it to Skydagger Keep for the finale of the campaign, so each phase costs time, meaning that the Legion may want to spend an extra unit of time in an area recovering, but they may feel compelled to push forward to avoid a time crunch.

    Pressure is the amount of undead and corruption collecting in the nearby area, which can make missions more difficult. Spending resources like horses when advancing can lower Pressure.

    One mission will be the primary mission. This is the mission that gets played out, with players portraying the members of the squad doing their jobs and meeting their objectives. The secondary mission is determined “off-screen,” using only the initial engagement roll to see how well or how badly things went.

    The Divine

    This section details the Chosen and the Broken in the setting. The Legion will have a Chosen traveling with them, and depending on what Chosen is selected, this will modify how the Legion starts the game, and what benefits they have by having this Chosen travel with them.

    • Shreya—Chosen of the healer goddess, focused on military strategy
    • Horned One—Chosen of the forest god, focused on mysterious powers and trickery
    • Zora—Ancient Chosen focusing on big and direct actions

    Each of the Chosen has a subset of special abilities that trigger under special circumstances. For example, Shreya may cause the Legion to receive 1 less corruption when they take corruption, or regain one additional tick on a healing clock when they recuperate.

    After choosing the Chosen that travels with the Legion, the group then chooses two Broken that are working for the Cinder King. The Broken include:

    • Blighter—Toxic scientist
    • Breaker—The storm witch
    • Render—The armorer

    Each of the Broken has a list of abilities they have that make the lives of the Legion more difficult, and they gain new abilities whenever time ticks forward too far in the campaign. For example, Blighter might have an ability that causes supply missions to remove one die on their initial engagement rolls.

    The Broken chosen also affect what kind of special undead might show up in a mission as well. Blighter’s special troops might be stitched together masses of body parts, while Breaker might have mutated animals, and Render might have giant undead encased in armor.

    The Mission Phase

    This section goes into more details about how to execute the mission phases of the game, as well as listing the common mission types, and what the rewards and penalties are for these missions. Depending on the mission, they will need a specific type of specialist, or their engagement rolls will suffer a penalty (meaning the mission is more likely to start badly for the primary mission, and more likely to outright fail for the secondary mission).

    Mission types include:

    • Assault—Requires Heavy, Medic, or Sniper
    • Recon—Requires Scout or Sniper
    • Religious—Requires Medic or Officer
    • Supply—Requires Heavy, Officer, or Scout

    Different missions will have rewards for completion, and penalties for failure. Mission rewards might include time, morale, supplies, assets, or troops. Penalties may include pressure, time, supply, and morale.

    This section also goes into more detail about rules like teamwork, scale, and flashbacks. For anyone that hasn’t played or read previous Forged in the Dark games, players pick the skill they want to use, and based on that skill, the GM determines the position and effect. Position is how bad things can backfire, and effect is how much you get done with the roll you are making.

    When a character has scale on you, it’s even harder to affect them. A character that might take a controlled action for limited effect on someone with scale is now taking a controlled action with no effect (meaning at best, they may be able to spend stress to affect them at all).

    Teamwork has always been one of my favorite aspects of Forged in the Dark games, and it’s even more relevant in military campaigns. There are multiple ways to work as a team, but my favorite involves one player leading the action, and everyone rolling. If you get any successes, you do the thing, but for every failure, the leader takes stress.

    Flashbacks are essentially retroactive planning that you may be able to declare. When you see opposition you weren’t planning for at the gate you wanted to enter, you might be able to declare a flashback that your scout looked for alternate entry points when you first arrived, and depending on how significant the flashback is, it might cost more stress to introduce.

    What this also means is that there are a lot of tools available to the PCs in an active mission that can’t be used to affect the single roll that will be made for the secondary mission. While it may seem like the right thing to do is to spend resources to make the primary mission easier, it may be smarter to spend intel and supplies on the secondary mission so it succeeds, because the PCs playing the primary mission have more opportunities to batter and bruise themselves to success.

    The Campaign Phase

    This section is shorter than the mission phase chapter, but it details the specific steps that are taken in the campaign phase of play, presents options for the campaign phase, introduces questions to consider in this phase of the game, and includes a summary of what happens in this phase.

    How to Play

    Almost all of the rules in this section have been touched on elsewhere in the book, but this section revisits the briefer summaries and gives more detailed examples, including descriptions for the actions and what they are best suited to accomplish, examples of what controlled, risky, and desperate actions look like and examples of what reduced or full effect might look like.

    This section also goes into more detail on the Specialist actions that those playbooks receive, setting up a series of questions to get players thinking about what they do in the fiction of the games to make those actions true.

    There is also an action that does not appear on the playbooks that is introduced in this section. Weave, the ability to spend an action to perform an act of magic, is detailed. This is a special action that the GM doesn’t need to allow, but one that may be learned as an alternate advancement.

    Behind the Scenes

    This is the GM section of the book, and includes a general list of GM duties, GM principals, GM actions, and GM best practices. One of my favorite pieces of GM advice given here is to avoid making the PCs look incompetent. If they fail, its because they are doing difficult things under difficult circumstances, not because they aren’t trained professionals doing what they are good at doing.

    There is a section on setting expectations, especially given the game’s horror adjacent themes. Not only does this section touch on making sure everyone is on the same page over the level of horror and comfort levels, this section also talks about tone and theme and how everyone should be aware and agree on them before starting the game.

    The final part of this chapter explores how to set up the starting mission, including the first scene, and how to handle the first time the group cuts back to camp, to properly set the feeling for the rest of the campaign going forward.

    The Larger World

    This section summarizes some of the setting elements that have been touched on in other sections of the book. It’s a fantasy setting, but with no dwarves, elves, or dragons. Alchemy is the world’s science, and magic is filled with peril. The gods only really care about humanity in the abstract.

    There is a two-page timeline that summarizes the progression of the setting relevant to the modern events that frame the game. The different cultures that the PCs are likely to hail from or encounter are detailed on their own individual pages.

    There is a section explaining what alchemy can and can’t commonly accomplish, and how Mercies, special healers in the setting, work.

    None of the cultures detailed are direct real-world analogs. The Panyar are the most “magical” of any of the cultures, being humans that have some animal-like trait about them, due to the influence of the forest they call home. While they give some traits commonly associated with each culture, it is specifically noted that no individuals have all of those traits, the traits aren’t universal, and many people don’t conform to the broad elements outlined for them in this section.

    Locations

    The map that appears in the endpapers of the book is presented in this section of the book as well. Various locations are presented on the map, with lines between them. At one end is the starting point of the campaign. On the other end of the map is Skydagger Keep, the location the PCs need to reach to weather the winter and have any chance of standing against the Cinder King.

    There isn’t one path that goes directly to Skydagger Keep. Each time the Commander decides to advance, they may have to make choices between which locations to move the company to as they advance on the keep.

    There are descriptions of each of these locations, as well as example scenes and challenges native to each place on the map. There may be special rules for different locations, so, for example, some locations may always add a die to pressure rolls because they are under siege. Each location also has special missions available, which can be learned by spending Intel.

    The special missions generally provide bigger rewards than the standard mission types provide, so they may be worth spending Intel to uncover. The standard rewards may be bigger (+2 instead of +1, for example), but there may also be items like special relics, or even extra XP awards for completing these.

    The special missions play into the “flavor” of the location presented. The lore surrounding the special missions is more specific than the broader missions, and helps to tell the story of the region’s past and/or what is going on currently in the war.

    Skydagger Keep has a special section on all of the missions that need to be undertaken to dig in for the winter and fortify the place for assault. Depending on how the campaign has turned out, there is a scorecard to see how the Legion has done in the war, which determines whether the Legion is on its last legs after the winter, or ready to take the fight to the Cinder King.

    I love how the locations are detailed in this section. There are essentially two pages of information, including special rules that reinforce the theme of a region. There is another page of special missions that help to tell the story of the region. The first page is a full page of general information, but the second page focuses on what kind of scenes characters will see and experience in the location. It’s a living means of presenting setting information that I love and wish might be adopted by more people presenting RPG settings.

    Changing the Game

    This is a section about optional rules and how you might drift the game for other stories and genres. There is advice for introducing new heritages, creating new special missions, new relics, and dealing with more players than the core rules assume.

    There are optional rules for medals and how they mechanically could affect the game, rules for how the different existing squads in the game might have traits that affect members that belong to that squad, and rules on weapon master forms that can be learned by PCs.

    The final section of this chapter briefly discusses wider hacks, such as changing the game to a grim sci-fi military campaign, with the PCs choosing what systems to jump to next, and how to drift concepts like the Broken and the Chosen, such as making the Chosen and the bonuses they provide actually belong to a starship in the Legion’s fleet.

    The drifting rules provide some fun brainstorming, but the most fleshed-out ideas in this section are those that assume the baseline of the setting presented, and add more details to that baseline.

    Successful Campaign
     I love how the game details locations and ties the relevant aspects of the locations to game rules to give the lore mechanical weight. 

    The setting is very evocative. You can very easily feel like your characters are the underdogs in a fight against an intimidating foe, but yet you still have a lot of tools to accomplish missions moving you closer to your goal. Part of what helps reinforce this feeling of the underdog fighting to survive is that you have to navigate the map to be successful, so there isn’t a “quick win” option. In addition to the evocative feeling of an underdog mercenary company scrabbling to survive, the setting itself is well-drawn. I love how the game details locations and ties the relevant aspects of the locations to game rules to give the lore mechanical weight.

    The Long Winter

    It’s always tricky to determine how much information to put upfront in a book. Too little, and a reader is going to get frustrated by not understanding all of the terms you are introducing. Too much, and they have a lot to process as soon as they engage with the book. Band of Blades feels a little front-loaded to me, in that a lot gets introduced, and some of it is harder to parse before you see the framework in which that information is used. There is an “end” to the campaign, but there isn’t a specific resolution for the game’s main conflict. I actually would have less of a problem with this, if it weren’t implied that the ”ending” of the game determines starting position for a new campaign, since there isn’t much in the way of guidelines for what that new campaign would look like. The current rules are more about scrabbling to survive until you can reach cover, so several elements would need to change to reflect being on the offensive.

    Recommended—If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

    The book may feel a little intimidating at the outset, but I feel like it pays off the further into the book you get, and if you are a fan of Forged in the Dark games, you will likely be very interested to see how the mission structure works and the extra gaming tech added into this iteration of the game.

    Even for non-Forged in the Dark fans, I think there is some value to seeing the way that individual locations are quickly summarized, given iconic scenes, and a mechanical modification. It’s a great model for other games to use for detailing a setting and keeping details relevant to the action of the story. The overall plot of the game, and the decision points getting from one section to another, advancing on Skydagger Keep, could be drifted to other game systems or used for a model of other campaigns.

    What are your favorite grim and dangerous fantasy mercenary stories? Did they ever get an official game treatment? If they did, what did or didn’t work to evoke the feeling of the setting? We want to hear from you below, so please, drop us a response!

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  • Downtime Training
    Man in front of chalkboard

    As many of my close circle of friends know, I was late to play the fifth edition of the world’s greatest role playing game. It’s a long story, but the fourth edition of the game burned me badly enough, I didn’t want to risk my time, energy, and money on the next version. I have to admit that I regret this delay because I’ve been running a game of fifth edition for the past few months, and it’s been incredibly fun. However, this isn’t a review or commentary on fifth edition, but I did want to set the stage.

    I have ideas for expanding the “Training to Gain Levels” concepts in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and I thought I’d drop them here for your consideration, consumption, and possible commentary. So here goes with the brainstorming….

     I’ve never been a huge fan of “trapping” someone at their current level. 

    The “Training to Gain Levels” section of the DMG has a very brief segment on page 131 regarding an optional approach at training to level up. I’m glad they made it optional because I’ve never been a huge fan of “trapping” someone at their current level until they leave the adventure behind, find a nearby city, track down someone better than them, and train for a certain period of time before they can leverage what they’ve already learned “on the job” or “in the field.” It just doesn’t seem fair or right. It also interrupts the flow of the storytelling because players want (or even need) their characters to be as cool and powerful as possible while running through the storyline.

    Xanathar’s Guide to Everything expands on the idea of training to allow a character to learn a language or pick up a proficiency with a tool. That’s an excellent expansion of the training concept, and I like it quite a bit. I’ll even go on record to state that I love this style of training because it improves the character by “spending” some downtime moments on it.

    I am a fan of is training to gain experience points.

    In the level-based training, what I am a fan of is training to gain experience points. These XP can, obviously, trigger a “level up” moment if enough XP is gained. That’s where my concepts and ideas come into play. If a player simply doesn’t have anything to do with their character during a downtime segment, then I don’t mind if they run off to a trainer, expert, mentor, or some such to spend a downtime segment (and some gold) to earn a few XP.

    Basing my chart on the one found in the DMG, here’s my proposal:

    Current Level

    Downtime Segments

    Training Cost

    XP Gain

    1-4

    1

    20 gp

    100 XP

    5-10

    2

    40 gp

    1250 XP

    11-16

    3

    60 gp

    2,500 XP

    17-20

    4

    80 gp

    6,500 XP

    This also assumes the PC can track down someone better than them to do the teaching. As the character reaches higher tiers of play, this will become more difficult. I’m going to leverage the rarity system from the DMG for magic items, and state that trainers are going to be common, uncommon, rare, or very rare. The more difficult the trainer is to find might lead to side quests to find the trainer, or even downtime and gold spent to find the trainer. I’m going to throw out an optional table here for my optional ruleset of training. This one pertains to finding the trainer.

    Current Level

    Rarity

    Downtime Segments

    Finding Cost

    1-4

    Common

    0 (Automatic)

    0 gp

    5-10

    Uncommon

    1

    20 gp

    11-16

    Rare

    2

    40 gp

    17-20

    Very Rare

    3

    60 gp

    The above table shows how long it would take to find a trainer and how much it would take in bribes and other expenses to track down the trainer. I’d also recommend someone who is flush with liquid funds to spend more than the base “finding cost” to reduce the downtime segments, so they can find their trainer faster. How this plays out in your game is entirely up to you.

     I’m completely aware that this may create a party imbalance. 

    I’m completely aware that this may create a party imbalance to some extent because this may allow one character to obtain one level more than the rest of the party, but they’ll also be behind the other characters in gold, renown, social contacts, and so on. I think it will even out in the long run because the XP gains from training that I’m proposing aren’t that extreme and won’t allow the higher level PC to remain at that higher plateau for too long.

    Those are my ideas and approaches on training to gain experience points in fifth edition. See any gaps in the proposal? How about some ideas to use or improve on the concept? Let me know!

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  • VideoGhosts of Saltmarsh Session Zero

    Chapter 17 of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master describes the value of running a "session zero" for a new campaign. In a session zero, our players can build their characters together while also discussing the story of the campaign. It's a great time to reinforce the main themes of the campaign, integrate the characters together into a group, and discuss any sensative issues anyone might have with these themes.

    With our Waterdeep Dragon Heist campaign complete, my two groups both began their adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. This was the perfect time to start fresh, take a deep breath, get together with our friends, and learn about the world and the characters who will sit in its center.

    The Ghosts of Saltmarsh Player's Guide

    Download the Ghosts of Saltmarsh Player's Guide

    For this session zero I wrote a Ghosts of Saltmarsh Player's Guide. This one-page guide, influenced heavily by Matt Coleville's video on the value of player guides, is intended to give the players everything they need to understand where the campaign is going and how their character might fit into it. It offers some history of the region; the notable details of Saltmarsh such as inns, taverns, and other landmarks; their potential backgrounds; and, most importantly, the central theme for their characters:

    Above all you are companions who, together, seek to bring safety and prosperity to the village of Saltmarsh.

    Such a refined and focused drive for the characters helps ensure the players bring characters to the table who will work well together and fit the theme of the campaign. This avoids the oddball character who comes in with a clearly different motive and drive that never quite fits either the group or the adventure.

    Getting to Know Saltmarsh

    Session Zeros are a great time to relax with our friends before the adventure begins. We don't need eye-popping strong starts at the beginning of the session. We can describe the locations of Saltmarsh, letting players jump in when they hear of a place about which they want to know more.

    It's a great time to introduce notable NPCs such as the council members, Wellgar Brinehanded the cleric of Procan, and Ferrin Kastilar the druid with his pet bullfrog Lorys. The characters can learn of the tension between the traditionalists and the loyalists. They can pick up some rumors at the docks.

    Session zeros are great times to let the characters explore Saltmarsh and learn what it has to offer before they go out with swords drawn into the dangers surrounding the seaside town.

    Some Session Zero Props

    Props can help make the ethereal ghosts of our campaign begin to feel solid and real. I recommend both a color map of the village of Saltmarsh and a black-and-white map of the Saltmarsh region. The D&D Beyond version of Ghosts of Saltmarsh includes high resolution versions of both of these maps along with high-resolution maps of all of the locations in the whole book. The Saltmarsh village and regional maps can be printed on 17x24 for about $3 each at your local Staples or Fedex print center and they look great on the table when you're running your session zero and describing the locations. Players can fill in the blank regional map as they discover new locations throughout their adventure.

    What Sources to Allow

    We're getting to the point where there are quite a few books containing a wide assortment of races. In some campaigns this doesn't matter too much but it's hard to figure out why a githyanki or yuan-ti might be involved in the issues surrounding a fishing village. You might either select a specific list of allowed races that fit the theme of the campaign or allow certain books such as Xanathar's Guide to Everything, Volo's Guide to Monsters, and the Elemental Evil Player's Companion. You could also let the players know that anything in the Player's Handbook is fine but they should bring up any other options with you before they pick it so together you can decide if it fits what's going on.

    You also might be the sort of DM who lets players choose anything and come what may. That's a fine option too but you might have to do some story-yoga to figure out why a githzeri makes sense in Saltmarsh.

    The Body on the Beach

    As a fun way to get the story started, you might have a body wash up on the beach. A woman, drowned, clearly looking as though she was recently bound and died trying to swim away. The state of her clothing shows her as a potential prisoner. Are the slavers back? Where did she come from? Someone might recognize her as one of two adventurers, brother and sister, who came to town with dreams of finding the alchemist's gold at the haunted mansion only to never be found again.

    The loyalists see the body as a sign that the town needs more protection and a heavier hand. The traditionalists see it as meddling by the outside iron gauntlet of the king. Both groups, through the council, want to send the characters to the haunted mansion to see if they can find her brother and uncover the woman's mysterious death.

    Thus our adventure begins.

    A Time to Build the World

    Session zeros give us a chance to spend time with our players and watch the world come together. With a whole session dedicated to understanding the town, the region, the themes of the campaign, the characters, and their relationships we have a much better start to a nice long campaign. The next time you're getting ready to start a new campaign, start it off with a session zero and watch the world come together.

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  • Learning About the Characters

    The first step for Dungeon & Dragons game prep recommended in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is to review the characters. The characters are the primary interface between the players and the world. For each player, their character is the most important aspect of the game. Thus, it behooves us DMs to not only do our best to understand the characters, but help the other players understand them as well.

    Before we begin any other preparation activity we can spend some time reviewing the characters. This helps us get their backgrounds into our minds before we start building out the rest of the adventure for our next session.

    During the session, however, we can do some things to elicit more details of the characters so us DMs and the rest of the players can better understand each of the characters in our story.

    Today we're going to look at a few ways we can learn more about the characters in the games we play.

    What's Their One Unique Thing

    If we want to make our characters truly unique in the world we can steal an idea from the excellent roleplaying game 13th Age. Beyond being a wonderful d20-based superheroic fantasy game, 13th Age includes a ton material to steal and throw into our existing Dungeons & Dragons game. "One Unique Thing" is one such example. In 13th Age, each character chooses one unique thing about their character; one thing, often fantastic, that makes them unique in the world. For example, in one such game I had a paladin who was actually guided by the ghosts of three hags only I could see.

    We can bring this idea right into our D&D games if we want. We can ask, often during our session zero, what makes a player's character unique in the world. We can keep this somewhat mundane or make it as fantastic as the world allows depending on the theme we're shooting for in the campaign.

    Tales Around a Campfire

    The game Savage Worlds includes an interesting mechanic for players to talk about the backgrounds of their characters. At some point in the adventure, when the characters are around a campfire or the like, a randomly-selected player can pull a card from a deck. Depending on the pull they can share a story of love (hearts), victory (diamonds), tragedy (clubs), or loss and defeat (spades). This rewards the character with some sort of boon. In our D&D games we might reward inspiration, for example, or some other interesting effect to that character, maybe even a boon from the Dungeon Master's Guide that lasts for the day.

    Ask Guiding Questions

    Aother option is to write down one question for each character during the character review in our game prep and then ask it at our next game. We don't have to do this every session but it might be fun once in a while. Our questions can be specific, with a veto option by the player if they have some other aspects of the character they want to discuss. Here are some examples:

    "Shelby, what made you leave Ahoyhoy?"

    "Stone, what happened on the ship when all those civilians died?"

    "Feski, how did you learn about your ancestor, Fausto the Reluctant?"

    "Truth, when did you decide to end the source of the Death Curse?"

    "Fromash, when did you find your true connection with the preservation of the natural cycle of death?"

    Write down the answers when you get them and add them to your game notes for your next prep session. Doing this every few sessions can define interesting details of the characters we would otherwise never know and gives those details to the other players as well as us.

    Downtime Activities

    If the story of our game offers some in-game time between sessions, we can ask the players what their characters did during that time. At the beginning of the session, even before our strong start, we can ask for a volunteer to tell us what their character did during this downtime. Maybe they conducted some research in a library. Maybe they spent some time with an old flame. Maybe they talked to some seedy contacts in the rough bar in the docks district. Sometimes these descriptions might lead to a skill check to see what they learn. It's a perfect opportunity to drop in some secrets and clues depending on what they do and how well they do it.

    These independent montages may help us learn about the character while they get something done. The players are filling out a piece of the world right in front of our eyes, while, at the same time, telling us more about their character than we otherwise know. Sometimes these events might completely change a session, which is perfectly fine for us flexible DMs.

    A Little Bit At a Time

    It helps us when we learn about a character a little bit at a time. We might often start D&D games with large backstories for characters (when we do them at all) but the most interesting characters evolve over the course of the game. We don't need huge backstories. A little bit each session lets us all watch characters grow and evolve as we play.

    This is particularly true in convention games. Our friend DM David talks about this his article with the pithy title How to Get D&D Players to Make Unforgettable Character Introductions That Take a Minute or Less. We can ask for more than a race and class, instead asking for a line or two that describes the character. Even in one-shot games this helps us add some flavor to the overall adventure.

    A Greater Understanding of the Characters

    All of this is intended to help us, and the other players, get a better understanding of the characters in our story. The more we know about them, the more they can interweave into that story. We don't need a novel's worth of material, sometimes just a line or two can do it. Spend time next game getting to know a thing or two about the characters in your world.

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