Saturday, May 23, 2020

Simpler Domains & Warbands. Part 4, Really Simple MASS COMBAT (Into the Odd version)

Once, there was Chainmail. Later, there was War Machine, and then Battlesystem. An Echo, Resounding has a battle system. For something lighter, there's Chris Kutalik's By this Axe or the even smaller-scale By this Poleaxe. Delta's Book of War. Etc., etc., etc. These (and quite a few other approaches) generally adopt some or all of the structure...and pace...of classic tabletop wargames. And then, of course, there are the myriad options for playing an 'actual' formal miniatures wargame, without any clear tie to an RPG.

Roight, me lads, form line...eh, wot's that?
We've no convenient mass combat rules? Aaarg, retreat!!!

None of those perfectly fit my current goals and needs as I think about weaving "mini-domain play" into my campaign. If my players are to lead little warbands of followers, clash with corsair crews or cultist gangs, and scatter enemies not just singly but by the dozen, then I'd like a way to manage it all that fits the following criteria:

+ ideally, the mass-combat rules will fit into a session's normal procedures of play as smoothly as possibly. The gold standard here would be integrated mass combat rules that do NOT form a separate sub-system. Yep, this can be done; read on!

+ similarly (or to stress a sub-point within point 1), if possible, tracking damage for gangs/warbands should use the same hp/harm system used to track damage for PCs - though I'm more willing to flex on this point, if necessary.

+ the rules should keep PCs' roles and fates clear and distinct; player characters don't just vanish into a mass of combatants, and PCs ideally should retain independent and critical jobs on the field of battle - they don't function just as bonuses to a larger unit's statline.

+ finally, in keeping with my love for minimalist design, I favor rules that aren't too taxing or complicated - they should work, and get outta the way!

Let's look at some options that I find interesting or appealing, and consider some observations on their strengths and weaknesses. I will also note, in passing, that recent blogoredditsphere conversations have also raised simple-mass-combat questions; for some other takes (and different recommendations) see, for example, here and here (look far down Norbert's post for mass combat guidance) and here [EDIT: and here, too!]. 

Now, for the stuff that I'm thinking about.


INTO THE ODD - DETACHMENT RULES 

Just as Chris M's Into the Odd (and now, Electric Bastionland) includes really nice, dirt-simple "Enterprise" rules that offer a very solid basis for one-brain-cell domain play (recently discussed here), Into the Odd (henceforth: ItO) also includes perfectly serviceable, simple but effective "Detachment" rules for handling combat with gangs, large crews, military units, giant monsters, etc.  If you aren't familiar with ItO, a few tips will be necessary to understand all this: damage automatically hits; instead of rolling to hit, then rolling for damage, you just roll straight to damage. Damage comes off HP without narratively doing 'damage' - but after 0 HP, you start taking "Critical Damage," which comes right off your Strength stat (usually), equates to actual bodily harm, and requires passing a STR save to stay in the fight). You die at 0 STR. 

To wit (taken from the free rules, available in the right margins here): 

DETACHMENTS cost 10 gold to start up, and cost a further d6 gold in upkeep each month, or else they revolt. ... Equipping a Detachment costs twenty times the individual item cost. Detachments start with 1d6 HP and advance in Experience Levels just as individuals do [which, in ItO, generally requires delving missions completed, not a gold-for-xp target]. 

In battle, an ItO Detachment is functionally identical to an individual character, with a few minor tweaks (this means a gang's stats fit on an index card, if not a postage stamp). 

A Detachment deals "Enhanced" damage against individuals (In ItO, this means it rolls 1d12 damage). Normally, an individual can't even attack a Detachment unless that individual's attack is "explosive or suitably large-scale" (so a dragon's breath weapon or a wizard's lightning bolts might toast your own gang of hirelings, but a PC with a halberd can't scratch a goblin warband; you either need to run away, or figure out some more creative way to affect the baddies). If you command a Detachment to do something risky, this "may require a WIL (Will) Save" by the player commanding that Detachment. 

"When a Detachment takes Critical Damage [i.e., 0 HP and damage coming off STR] they are broken and cannot act until rallied. At STR 0 the Detachment is wiped out. When half of a force is broken, the remaining Detachments must pass a WIL save or be routed. Hit Points and Ability Scores are recovered with Short and Long Rests just as with individuals. 

The newer version, Electric Bastionland, offers a few tweaks: Individual attacks against Detachments can cause damage, but they're Impaired (limited to 1d4); Detachment attacks vs. individuals do weapon +1d12, and have a 'Blast' tag - they affect all targets in an area. 

There are also a few other very short rules for ships, vehicles, structures, etc. Quite recently, one GM put together a very nice expanded model for using these rules in a pirate/nautical setting, quite worth checking out for play at sea or on land. 

Alright, let's discuss these. There are wonderful things here, but also a few points I'd like to change or expand. I love how smoothly these fit right into the (admittedly super-minimalist) rules for normal play in ItO; I like how the dirt-simple rules for financing Detachments work with the Enterprise rules (but don't require you to have an Enterprise to run a Detachment, or vice versa); and the fact that a Detachment can 'level up' in the same way as a PC (by running on adventures) is a very interesting design choice that pushes toward specific kinds of veteran units - rather than just throwing in more cash to make a specific, single unit stronger, you can always hire a new separate detachment, but individual detachments gain experience and Hit Points only by joining you, over time, on those terrifying ventures into the darkness below.

All that aside, as a general-purpose mass-combat/mini-domain-play system, I'd like to see a few changes. Past a certain point, Detachments seem a little limited by the binary way they are defined (something is either an Individual or a Detachment). No matter the size or experience of the Detachment, it still rolls the same amount of Damage. When two Detachments fight each other, only their Hit Points (and equipment, I suppose) differentiate between them. Equipping a Detachment with halberds always costs "Halberd cost x 20" no matter the size of the Detachment. Again, these are brilliantly simple  and will cover most of what anyone needs for a small gang, but I think there are enough edge cases to make some tweaks desirable.





HACKING THE ItO DETACHMENT FRAMEWORK

Several Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) systems that I have yet to discuss handle these issues in a nicely nuanced way; if I were running an ItO game right now, I think I'd borrow some of their ideas, and adjust Detachments like this: 

There are four classes of combatant, ranked by size: 

Individuals
Small Detachments
Medium Detachments
Large Detachments

Detachments can also be differentiated by their experience, which is reflected in their Hit Points, which only increase as they 'Level Up' (just as individuals do). Hiring/forming a detachment costs 1d6 for Small, 2d8 for Medium, and 3d10 for Large. 

In combat, individuals roll normally against other individuals. They roll Impaired damage against Detachments unless their attack has a Blast tag or other suitably extensive damage effect. Detachments roll Enhanced (1d12) damage against Individuals, and regular damage (by weapon type) against other detachments. 

When combatants of the same size-class fight, they roll damage as usual. When combatants of different size-classes fight, the larger combatant gains +1 Armor (damage reduction) and +1 bonus attack die for each step higher above their opponent's size. The attacker's hit dice are rolled together, including any bonus dice, but only the highest rolled result is used.

Examples: 

Small Detachment of musketeers is exchanging fire with a Large Detachment of musketeers. Both Detachments are fairly green, and have 5 HP and 1 Armor. The Small Detachment rolls 1d8 damage, getting a 5, which is reduced by -3 (-2 because the other unit is two steps above them in size, so they gain 2 bonus armor atop their worn 1 Armor). Then the larger unit opens fire. They roll 3d8 (1d8 for their weapon attack, plus two bonus attack dice since they are two steps higher in size), getting a 1, 5, 8. Taking the highest result rolled, they inflict 8 damage, reduced only by the -1 Armor worn by the smaller gang. The smaller unit drops to 0 HP, -2 STR, and they rout (this is a pretty plausible outcome...).  
A more fortunate Small Detachment of spear-wielding goblins  (3 HP, 0 Armor) gang up on a lone but large sword-wielding barbarian (6 HP, 1 Armor). Not-Conan rushes the goblin gang, swinging his blade in great chopping arcs, but there are just so many of the vile things...he rolls an Impaired attack against the Detachment (1d4), inflicting 3 damage. The goblin gang is 1 step larger, however, so they gain 1 free Armor; they are left with 1 HP despite the barbarian's assault. Now they roll to attack, dealing Enhanced (1d12) damage to an individual, and rolling it twice because their +1 size step grants them an extra attack die. Results rolled are = 4, 8. They deal 8 damage, reduced by the Barbarian's 1 Armor, and now the barbarian is out of HP and taking Critical Damage...time to run away, perhaps...


...In which our hero helpfully shows how these rules
let individuals interact with Small Detachments. 


As these examples show, a few tweaks borrowed from Apocalypse World and its spin-offs can add a fair bit of depth and nuance to the simple procedures in Into the Odd, without breaking anything in ItO's more "OSR adjacent" system. 


YEAH, BUT WHAT IF I'M RUNNING NORMAL D&D...

Games using some version of D&D's normal combat rules (instead of the rules as modified specifically for Into the Odd) would need some tweaks to make these ideas work. There are too many possible variations to address comprehensively here, but I can offer a few suggestions:

+ ItO uses Armor as Damage Reduction. If your system doesn't do that, that's probably one key obstacle (though I suppose you could still use these rules with gang-size damage reduction on top of whatever else you're doing with AC). 

+ ItO dispenses with to-hit rolls. Between ItO, my own OD&D homebrew, and Dungeon World, I've gotten accustomed to playing with rules that speed up combat, so I suppose I can only shake my head sadly if you're really, really committed to rolling 3 on 1d20 all the time and prolonging combat. ;-) With the normal to-hit roll procedure, damage between detachments will be less common and less decisive, but that's just normal for to-hit-roll combat anyway. 

+ ItO hands out low Hit Points to PCs, and sticks with fairly low damage levels, compared to many other rulesets. A 20-HP PC is a very experienced, resilient character in ItO. 1d12 is a substantial damage roll. If your system typically involves higher HP or damage totals, I'd suggest increasing the Armor bonus from +1 per size-step to something a little higher, reflecting whatever is the typical range of damage rolled by a basic attack.

+ Along the same track, damage between size-levels needs to be adjusted if you don't want to use ItO's Impaired (1d4)/Enhanced (1d12) damage system. Without letting Detachments roll 1d12 vs individuals, you can also rewrite the hack above so that each size-step up gives the larger attacker +3 damage, or +1d6 extra damage, or something like that (this fits with some of the PbtA/Dungeon World mass combat ideas I still need to write about). 


USING TINY RULES TO GO BIG

"Ok, folks, your scouts' warning was clearly correct; they know you're coming. As you crest the last ridge above Hearthfire Village at the head of your army, you look across the sun-dappled settlement to see that Baron Argov's troops are already drawn up in their battle lines on the low hill opposite from you. You see their banners flapping in the breeze: it looks like Argov's got a Medium Detachment of pikemen holding his right flank, and a Large Detachment of bannerless (and no doubt miserable) peasant levies spread out across his left flank. In the center, you see the red banner of the Venomspike, and you know that the Small Detachment of armored orcs standing there has strength and skill that belies that unit's small size. And if your eyes aren't failing you, that tall figure in black armor at their side is Argov himself, with the foul necromancer in her dark robes behind him...

Now, how do you want to deploy your five detachments as you enter the valley?

I think these simple rules would work really well to game out a mass combat between small armies, in a way that still lets individual characters interact meaningfully with each other and with large units. 





Since my current campaign is using modified Dungeon World rules, however, there are a few other angles that I want to incorporate at my own table. Please stay tuned; next up, I hope to talk about some PbtA warband-combat and simple domain rules in their own right, as they add some further helpful ideas for enriching this kind of play. 




Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Simpler Domains & Warbands. Part 3: Enterprise Rules from INTO THE ODD

Ok, preambles aside (here and here), let's dive directly into systems that could satisfy my desire for elegant, straightforward "mini-domain play" that let PCs run gangs, warbands, properties, or businesses - while keeping adventure front-and-center and without burning too many brain cells on administration.

Let's begin with the...


Enterprise Rules from INTO THE ODD

Into the Odd is a delightful, simple adventure game that can be hacked in all sorts of crazy directions, or played as-is with great enjoyment. Author Chris McDowall recently released Electric Bastionland, which is something between a 2nd edition and a sister-game to Into the Odd. I highly recommend his game designs. His really outstanding blog, Bastionland, includes links to free versions of Into the Odd and Electric Bastionland, or you can follow links from Bastionland to buy the full versions as well. [EDIT: on yesterday's initial post, I mis-spelled Chris' last name as MacDowall. Sorry!]

Because this stuff is right up there in the free version - and because it only takes half a page, which is a real credit to its elegance - I'm just going to walk right through Chris' "Enterprise" rules, which could cover anything from managing profitable land to running a business (whether a tavern or a smuggling ring). The rules are dirt-simple, like mud-under-your-fingernails dirt simple, but honestly...before dismissing these, ask yourself whether this wouldn't suffice for 90% of what a mini-domain game would need...

Let's look at those Enterprise rules (I won't touch the Detachment combat rules here, focusing just on the social-economic part of the domain game for now).

Into the Odd states that...
"Between expeditions, you can try your hand at business, or muster a military force. DETACHMENTS and ENTERPRISES each cost 10 Gold to establish. Detachments demand a further d6 Gold in upkeep each month, or else they revolt."

"Income: New ENTERPRISES generate 1d4 Gold of Income each month. They also face a Threat that will cause 1d4 Gold in Losses unless dealt with. If an Enterprise cannot pay its debts, it collapses. Growth: If an ENTERPRISE ends a month with Profit, its income moves up to the next type of die, to a maximum of d12. However, this larger die also applies to losses from Threats.

"Improvements: Equipping a Detachment costs twenty times the individual item cost. Detachments start with 1d6 HP and advance in Experience Levels just as individuals do." 
Chris just threw down a complete, if very basic, system for founding, running, profiting from, and maybe losing a diverse range of undertakings - his samples include "Underground Distillery," "Smuggling Ring," "Reptile Cult," and "Hidden Vineyard."

Some observations:

SOCIO-ECONOMIC CONTEXT: if the BECMI Companion rules for dominions assume a late medieval faux-European feudal context, Into the Odd's simple rules most directly evoke the latter game's implied setting: a whimsical but gritty early-modern/modern urban milieu, in which an essentially capitalist cash economy dominates society. Thus, for example, the mechanical benefit for successfully running an Enterprise = more cash (though nothing prevents players and GMs from making sure that 'Reptile Cult' has other benefits/drawbacks as well). Similarly, cash is the only thing needed to recruit and keep the services of a band of fighters - as opposed to, say, mustering men available from a given estate of land, or calling on troops bound by specific oaths of loyalty. There's nothing wrong with this, but this assumption should be noted; in a more typically ancient or medieval game setting, I'd suggest tweaking the relationships between precious metal, land, enterprise, and organized violence. As written, therefore, this stands out to me as an amazingly efficient and elegant system, but it would call for a bit more development in something like the faux-Iron Age setting I'm running for players now.

RELATIVE SCALE OF ENTERPRISES: mixing these rules with the abstract wealth mechanics I discussed here could make these even more effective. Currently, ItO's rules describe a total of five stages of Enterprise, those using d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12 to track their 'business' opportunities and risks. That is already a decent range, but one could add legs by making the puniest Enterprises cost 10 Copper to establish, and letting them 'grow' slowly up to the 1d12 Copper level - after which point they might graduate to the 1d4 Silver level, and so on. This would help accentuate the idea that regular access to the different precious metals involves not just different amounts of coinage, but different realms of social power.

As written, Into the Odd doesn't have a very long arc for character advancement (it goes up to Level 5, if I recall correctly). If one split the Enterprise categories into Copper, Silver, and Gold Enterprises, I'd suggest two options: either adjust the advancement array accordingly if you want the campaign to focus on the long 'domain' arc, or ... perhaps better yet...don't change it, but let each new 'generation' of PC keep running the business/enterprise handed down by their mentors. ItO already requires rearing up apprentices by the time you level up as a full veteran; handing the new guy your Enterprise, and then watching the new guy build that enterprise up into something even more grand, before trying yet again, could actually be a very satisfying way to run a deep, rich campaign using a very simple ruleset.

GIMME ADVENTURE! I noted in my criteria for my ideal mini-domain rules that I want them to function as a drive toward ongoing adventure, more than a pull away into the world of technical accounting. ItO's Enterprise rules do this by requiring each Enterprise, each month, to roll for profits against losses coming from some un-named Threat. During lucky months, a player might roll higher profits than losses and just decide to take the gain without any fuss. At other times, a player will have to tangle with those threats. This gives the GM a regular green-light to force the players into who-knows-what kind of trouble, ideally suited to the nature of each Enterprise, if they want to keep the whole thing afloat. Just imagine; what kind of Threats might impose losses for that Reptile Cult? And what kind of adventure hooks would automatically jump out from your answer? This is a very neat way to balance the needs of an adventure roleplaying game with a profitable domain system, without much overhead at all.


IN CONCLUSION

Well, I'm not sure I can settle exactly on ItO's rules as written, particularly since I want to rethink the core assumptions for a non-monetized, non-capitalist setting, but I think this shows just how short a ruleset can be while still satisfying most of the things I'm looking for - or, at least, offering a base for moving in that direction. One can imagine using the same core mechanic for non-monetary resources (like Honor or Influence or who knows what).

What do you all think, gang?

Happy gaming!



Simpler Domains & Warbands. Part 2: Ruleset Options and the 'Usual Suspects'

My last post invoked a desire for 'mini-domain' play, accessible even at middling levels, that would allow for fun management of modest warbands, property, and political shenanigans, going beyond mere hireling rules without slowing down the game with too much funky bean-counting.

This post first outlines further my theoretical goals - what kind of system I think I want to find - and then surveys some of the 'usual suspects' that people often use for domain play...and why I'm not choosing them. I'm sorry that the content-per-post pace is a bit slower than I anticipated; to break this series up into more manageable units, I'm trying to release shorter posts with discrete topics rather than cramming everything into one mega-read. Look for separate posts soon comparing and exploring in more detail the quite manageable "mini-domain" and also "mass combat" rules presented by Into the Odd, Dungeon World, Land of Ice and Blades, or even Apocalypse World, all of which I think could satisfy what I'm looking for in their own way - or at least support that most respectable of Frankensteins, the home-brewed, house-ruled heart-breaker hot mess.


WHAT I (THINK I) AM LOOKING FOR 

Actually, don't just take my word for it. Way back in the halcyon days of 2009, Grognardia ran this piece on the importance of D&D's domain-based 'end game' - emphasizing not Companion- but Expert-level play. Just a few comments in on that blog post, Jeff Rients pitched in, lamenting modern inattentiveness to hirelings and henchmen, with these interesting words:
I think between the hardscabble start and the barony is an intermediary phase where you manage the members of your gang.
That - right there - sums up what I think I'm looking for, at least for now. From Conan temporarily leading a pirate crew to Robin Hood with his merry men, I want a good way for my level-5s to exercise some authority, push some small units around, and maybe reap the fruits of some modest properties. And, of course, I wouldn't be upset if this might lead to a glorious game of thrones later, all modeled loosely enough to avoid major administrative headaches for GMs or players...

So: I want a fun, preferably elegant way to administer play in which PCs:
+ control a small-medium gang (ahem...warband) and/or a non-militant association of followers of comparable size/complexity/expense...
+ ...and therefore must factor in the relationships and plans of comparable, peer-level NPCs in the region. 

My ideal mini-domain rules, therefore, should include:
+ gang/warband rules - and, so, mass combat rules
+ 'company' or 'establishment' rules, ideally, for players running a property, mini-domain, or business;
+ faction network/relationship rules

Finally, my design and play preferences would favor rules that encourage:
+ adventurous narrative developments and complications... 
+ over mundane accounting
when in doubt, or when those two conflict.

Mini-domain play should be:
an asset for further adventure in a character's life above all else,
+ rather than an effective simulation of management above all else.

I also prefer rules that keep player choices and character in-game actions connected to logical fictional consequences, which means I'm not leaning fully into some flavors of 'narrative story-gaming' here.

These preferences are very pronounced for me, and will shape my entire discussion of options below and in subsequent discussion. Others may not share those preferences, which is perfectly respectable; but be aware that one's preferences will shape the personal suitability of different rulesets. As I'm not the kind of GM who wants to worry too much about each hex's historical population densities vs. tax rates, or the specific agricultural fertility of different soil-types, you won't find me digging too deep into the rulesets that allow for such things. :-)


THE USUAL SUSPECTS

There are some robust options I do NOT hope to use; let me introduce them, and explain why they aren't on my short list. (In no case will that mean these aren't good; they just don't fit the particular vision I expressed above. If you'd like to check any of them out, please be aware that the URL links below to products on DriveThruRPG are affiliate links, which support this site's activities but don't add cost to you as a customer).

But first: there is apparently a solid universal law of Physics that "any given blog-author 'X' will not discover an online discussion about topic 'Y' until after 'X' has written several paragraphs about 'Y.'" And so it was that only this morning (after writing for a while last night) I came across an interesting 13-part series (!) By Brandes Stoddard on Tribality, in which Stoddard surveyed the range of domain and dominion rulesets -- from Mentzer's Expert rules all the way to 3.5, Pathfinder, Harnmaster, 13th Age, and various other offerings both old and new. The link there to the Expert discussion offers part 1 of 13, and Part 13 (with links to previous entries) is here. Where relevant below, I'll simply point you to Stoddard's detailed survey of these options and try to avoid reinventing the wheel completely. At any rate, my own point will be to focus on some options NOT on that list (and perhaps not on many lists).

Let's begin at the beginning, noting that the B/X and BECMI sets already include Stronghold rules at the Expert level, and Dominion, War, and Siege rules (in BECMI) at the Companion and Master level. I've got proxy access to the Expert Stronghold stuff via the retroclones. Although I don't have a copy of the BECMI-based Rules Cyclopedia or the Companion volume, I do have the Companion module Test of the Warlords. Between those items and, well, now with Stoddard's detailed descriptions here and here, I feel pretty confident noting that this isn't exactly what I'm looking for, though it might do the trick for many others. I'd like to avoid even the level of accounting these systems call for, if feasible, and I'd prefer a more open-ended system that doesn't depend as much on the assumptions of the frontier hexcrawl or the structures of a fictional high-late medieval European feudalism (nothing wrong with that setting, of course, I just don't to be limited to it).

Moving onward. Nowadays, most even vaguely OSR-adjacent conversations about domain play usually end up mentioning either Autarch's ACKS (Adventurer, Conqueror, King System) and its multiple Domains at War supplements (Campaigns, Battles, Troops & Terrain) or, for something quite different, Kevin Crawford/Sine Nomine's AER (An Echo, Resounding). This forum discussion includes a lengthy discussion of the two systems in comparison with each other, made more useful by the fact that both system's authors (if I remember correctly) pitch in to talk about their differing design choices. Stoddard discusses them here and here.

As that forum discussion makes clear, An Echo, Resounding is the more abstract, somewhat more free-form option when comparing those two approaches to domain management. It sounded like my cup of tea, so I bought it a while ago. My impression? Well...it is a very high-quality, well-done system. It's also not what I'm looking for. Despite its relatively more abstract system, it remains hyper-detailed enough that actually running it just looked like a lot more work than I'd bargained for. I know of a GM who is currently running a kind of bifurcated campaign; RPG players do classic tabletop adventures and then, in-between sessions, a completely different stable of players use An Echo, Resounding to manage the political, economic, and military rivalries going on around the main party. That's a very neat concept, but it illustrates the depth and complexity supported - or maybe required - by AER. So, sadly, AER does not meet my desired criteria for "simpler mini-domain play." (If you do want a fairly involved domain system, I would highly recommend it).

I'm much less familiar with Birthright, which was an AD&D 2nd edition system-and-campaign-setting in days of yore that allowed players to begin Domain play right from the start of a campaign - by playing as noble leaders born into authority. My sense from reading others' thoughts is that this was a very imaginative, neat resource, but it fizzled, possibly for market factors outside the game itself. I will simply point you either to Stoddard's very positive overview, or to this 21-year-old review - and pick out two statements from the latter. On the one hand, "perhaps the core of the entire setting is the Domains themselves." Ok, sounds cool! But..."The Birthright boxed set contains ... a 96-page rulebook detailing the modifications made to the AD&D system when playing the Birthright campaign..." URRRRRK!!!! PULL THE PARKING BRAKE!!! SCREECH!!! Nope, sorry, not looking for any approach that involves a 96-page rulebook separate from the discussion of the domains themselves. Moving on - quite wistfully, as I do hear amazing things about running this...

Finally, there are also some other options, probably less well-known, that I want to mention in passing even though they aren't where I'm landing either.

For anyone interested in the popular but very specific niche of managing an urban criminal gang fighting for wealth, recruitment, jobs, and turf, you might check out Gathox Vertical Slum. It's a near-gonzo weird (science-) fantasy urban setting built on the back of a giant dimension-hoppin monster. No, really. But it also includes an approximately 10-page (IIRC) subsystem for managing urban criminal gangs whose various heists and investigations can support power-plays for turf in the city. Tables open to PbtA and its Forged in the Dark derivatives might instead consider the fantasy heist RPG Blades in the Dark, which has its own urban gang rules, too, or its descendant Band of Blades, about ensemble casts of PC soldiers fighting to get their military company to safety. There is an online SRD now for Blades in the Dark games; if interested, check it out before plunking down $$ to make sure the expensive but very well-reputed BitD is for you.

Legacy: Life among the Ruins is a PbtA game that includes quite different domain play; run a family or other faction across multiple generations, while periodically zooming in to focus on specific characters' exploits. The family/faction rules include a number of 'domain play' options. My players weren't looking for this kind of game, so I'm not using it, but it's worth knowing about (there are a couple of free quick-start options for this game, so check those out before jumping in for $$$).

Ok. So much for what I'm NOT using.

Please stay tuned, and happy gaming!

Friday, May 8, 2020

Simple(r) Domains, Warbands, Associations, and Gangs. Part 1: Rationale

My recent post on streamlined wealth/currency mechanics promised a follow-up on streamlined rules for domain play. Voici! Ok, it's time to start talking here about some simple(r) ways to handle domain play or gangs (ahem...loyal warbands or armies) of followers. 

From where I stand - at least at this moment - I'm inclined to favor thinking small in terms of domain play. I get the impression from a lot of GMs that the promise of very high-level domain play isn't always matched by the rewards of slogging through a detailed domain campaign. (To be fair, most campaigns don't make it that far anyway). This is not to say that this can't be great fun (I mean, just how many hours did I burn decades ago playing Civ 2, after all?), but there is a valid point that most of us play D&D because we like zooming in to the exploits of doughty individuals climbing rooftops and crawling dungeons - not tax-collectors reviewing the quarterly tithe rolls. Personally, playing a detailed boardgame about kingdom management sounds kind of fun, but as others online have mentioned elsewhere, that experience would not scratch the same itch as the desire to play a game of ol' fashioned D&D. No doubt many of us would like to be Aragorn, massing troops to march on the Black Gate while half the party goes commando (nope, phrased that one wrong) inside Mordor - but is a giant meta-game of domain management necessary to make that happen in an RPG? 

As Chris Kutalik argued years ago, however, mid-level domain play (maybe 'mini-domain play') using quite small spheres of influence might actually be just as or even more rewarding for many players. I'll focus on building with this idea. For one thing, 'mini-domain play' would be much more accessible for most of us. Moreover, if there are some good ways to streamline domain play in general at the mid-level, the same principles could be useful even at high levels, too. 

My players are close to the end of one low-ish level campaign arc (B10, Night's Dark Terror), and next up, I think, will be a great big jolly Isle of Dread crawl -- but repackaged in a faction-rich sandbox so that all the face-munching dinosaurs and jungle volcanoes are matched by feuding pirate admirals, envoys of scheming empires, agents of terrible subterranean powers, and probably a few thrones 'back home' hanging in the balance. Against that setting, I think it would be fun to give my players command of a few gangs of hoodlums trusty followers and see whether they build themselves up into a regional force to be reckoned with. But if my players stand a chance of taking out - or joining with or even replacing - great corsair lords of the Sea of Dread, I sure need some handy way to manage basic 'domain' play activity - even if the characters are a long, long way away from "Companion" level. Hmmm. Effective streamlined 'mini-domain' rules, however, should be perfectly workable at mid-level (or even lower). 

And - historically speaking - for some settings, this kind of 'mini-domain play' actually will represent something pretty close to the pinnacle of power. The laws of King Ine of Wessex, 7th-8th-c. Anglo-Saxon ruler, defined bodies of armed attackers thusly: up to seven men counted as thieves, seven to thirty-five attackers formed a warband of marauders, and foes more numerous than thirty-five were labelled an "army" (here)! This is a far, far, far cry from the range of militant powers available a few centuries earlier or more centuries later, but for any comparable setting it shows that you don't actually need a host of thousands to be playing "the domain game." To quote Ben Levick on the scale of early Anglo-Saxon warfare:
"A seventh or eighth century king most often came to his throne through violence or through the threat of violence, and kept his crown by warding off domestic and foreign rivals. Peace was simply the aftermath of one war and the prelude to another. In violent times such as these, it was necessary that a king secure (in the words of the Beowulf poet) "beloved companions to stand by him, people to serve him when war comes." ... The size of these armies was quite small ... Although the exact size of armies of this time remain unknown, even the most powerful kings could probably not call upon warriors numbering more than the low hundreds. Certainly in the late eighth century the æþeling (prince) Cyneherd considered his army of eighty-four men sufficiently large to attempt to seize the throne of Wessex. Time and again we are told in the sources that a new king had to defend his kingdom with tiny armies. Later in their reigns, these same kings having survived these attacks made "while their kingdoms were still weak," are found leading great armies. After all, victory meant tribute and land, and these in turn meant that a king could attract more warriors into his service."
That is kind of an extreme example, but it should illustrate just how plausibly 'domain play' issues could be well within the reach of an average party of level 5, or lower.

"Apologies, my lord...
only the floorplan without a 10' square grid was available print-on-demand.
Perhaps when you reach 6th level???"


Even in a more settled, sophisticated, powerful setting, there are places where this lower-level mini-domain scope of conflict would remain important. The Roman Empire, for example, could field mighty armies of thousands that could crush opposing forces even greater in number. Out in the provinces, however - especially in the more rough-and-tumble corners of empire, like Isauria/Rough Cilicia, there was sometimes room for little local warlords to carve out their own tiny domains - and the local land-owning magnate patrons who kept the empire running day to day, and controlled many of the levers of justice and violence at the community level, probably seemed like the Big Cheese to myriad souls now forgotten by history. 

Rather than dragging my feet while I write a long mega-post too thick to read comfortably, I'm going to break this up, and let what is here so far serve as preamble. Soon, I intend to discuss the following: 

+ why I'm not using the usual suspects - ACKS, An Echo Resounding, 'Companion' rules, and Birthright - and why a few much simpler rulesets look more useful. Oh, and I'll look in passing to honorable mention of Gathox Vertical Slum, Legacy: Life among the Ruins, and Blades in the Dark/Band of Blades...

+ simpler systems that I do think might solve most of my problems for me, or at least carve out the design space for me to hack a simple "mini-domain game" - I'm looking at YOU, A Land of Ice and Blades (and your big cousin, Apocalypse World), and at you too, Into the Odd! I'll survey their key 'domain' mechanics and why I think they're great - and what I might do to build on their foundation. 

+ how I think I'll be handling gang/warband conflict. The leading answer so far rhymes with Schmapocalypse Hurled, but I'll explain why. 

+ Not sure whether I'll get to this, but I'd really like to put all this to the test and write up a "playtest 'actual' play" report in which (say) a couple of 5th-level PCs lead thirty spearmen and a dozen archers through part of some dungeoncrawl module...to see whether these ideas really would work right in that itch-space so particular to classic TTRPGs. 

Thanks all. If this is your jam, feel free to leave comments, questions, or goads for further reflection in the comments as you await next installments. No doubt others have thought about this stuff already. Happy gaming! 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Current overland journey rules

My players are currently struggling through the wilderness north of Karameikos, on their way to find a certain significant ruin from an old TSR adventure (on this note, I should hint that reading this entire post might offer a few breadcrumb-sized spoilers for B10, Night's Dark Terror). As I'm using said adventure more as a template than a rule, this meant I needed to whip up some decent overland travel rules - or, to be more precise, cobble together a synthesis of other writers' ideas that I like. The rules here might help you, too; feel free to tinker and enjoy them. They use the Powered by the Apocalypse rules approach, but if you're an OSR or d20 player, you can approximate the same system by rolling two saves/checks at a time, and calling 2 failures a failure, 2 successes a full success, and 1 of each a partial success.

I should stress that I don't think any single piece here is original to me, though I'm not aware of anyone with this exact synthesis. My inspirations included the travel rules from Dungeon World and Freebooters on the Frontier/Perilous Wild, as well as the Journey rules from The One Ring rpg and a smattering of ideas from across the OSR blogosphere. Those systems all offer cool things, but I wasn't quite content with any of them overall. (Freebooters players in particular will notice similarities, but also differences).

Source


My goals for this system were as follows:

+ make the wilderness itself tell a story and feel interesting to travel through (the old bogeyman of making overland travel feel more like LOTR's journeys).
+ give each player meaningful choices to make and significant contributions (I have 4 players currently). Make each player's choices cascade with consequences for other players, so that the team has to negotiate their choices while preserving each player's specialty. 
+ recognize rations and all that as important, but just abstract out all the cruft I don't want to deal with. 
+ incorporate risks of getting lost, taking too long, running low on rations, and running into scary things that go bump in the wilderness. 

My players seem to have enjoyed using it so far and have given me positive feedback. So far, they've made good progress at first, had a starving, lost pair of prospectors stumble into camp at night begging for food (and giving information), then got delayed deeper into the woods, had a bear attack the campsite at night (that almost got ugly), narrowly avoided killing off roped-up horses as they climbed a sketchy escarpment, fought down a beastman patrol in the deep, deep woods, and had a pre-planned encounter to set them up for next time.

The system has a few core principles: the landscape is divided up into abstract areas/regions, each of which are nominally 1 day's journey across (with minimal tweaking, this could work with hex-crawling, point-crawling, or zone-crawling). Each of these areas gets a simple narrative description to paint a picture of the landscape being crossed; a navigation score, usually a penalty, which represents the difficulty of moving quickly and confidently across this area toward a desired end-point; and a separate day/night modifier to show how likely a random encounter is here. Each area also may contain a number of Discoveries and Obstacles (typically about equal to the value of the negative Nav modifier). Obstacles are handled semi-abstractly through presenting tough choices to the Pathfinder (see below), though the party could 'zoom in' to approach an obstacle more directly should they wish to try to avoid its sting by risking some Defy Danger action.

Each of the players takes 1 of the following roles: Pathfinder, Warder, Firemaster, and Watch Captain. For each day traveled, the players will walk through these roles in the order listed above, using the "moves" listed below. If a character gains Discouragement, it means they roll on their journey move with a Penalty/Disadvantage die until the Discouragement gets cleared. In a nutshell, the Pathfinder seeks a clear way forward and/or hidden ruins/sites of interest; the Warder watches against ambush and, ideally, guides the players around any potential threat; the Firemaster oversees food supplies but also promotes morale around the campsite (think of camping in Tolkien; it involves rations, yet, but also singing heartening songs in the dark); finally, the watch captain, well, watches against scary things at night (we can assume there's an abstraction here; I'm not tracking who is asleep when and on which watch, I just hand the whole responsibility to the watch captain).

Below, you will find:

- my moves for the player Journey roles.
- a workflow list describing the steps taken to resolve each travel day.
- sample areas through which my players have traveled.


+ PATHFINDER. Rolls + INT.  - Add +2 if you have navigated across this Section/Region previously.
May choose to Forage & Hunt in exchange for Penalty die. 13+     You find a way forward without delay, avoid any non-fixed obstacles, and detect at least some sign of any Discoveries present in this section.

10-12 You find a way forward, detect at least one of any Discoveries present, and progress to the next section without delay.

7-9      You find a way forward, though it takes some time. Choose 2:
  • you detect at least one of any Discoveries present in this section
  • you find a way around any Obstacles in this section 
  •  you make good time, and will mark off progress on your journey for this section

6-        You fail to find a way forward today, and don’t detect any Discoveries present in this section; after all other players have finished their rolls, you can try again tomorrow. Continue with the journey process, but the GM won’t mark off any progress between sections for this day. 

+ WARDER. Rolls + WIS. May choose to Forage & Hunt in exchange for a Penalty die. 12+     You successfully avoid any threats, but you also get a sense of what you might have encountered. If you’re actually looking for trouble, you may have an encounter, and take +Advantage as you get the drop on your quarry. 

10-11 The day passes, and you encounter no threats.

7-9      You have an encounter - but choose 1:
  • You all get the drop on whatever’s coming, and can act before it reacts.
  • The encounter happens on tactically advantageous ground - with the GM’s approval, you define two helpful terrain features at the encounter site.

6-       You stumble into an encounter, and whatever is coming gets the drop on you. 

+ FIREMASTER. Rolls + CHA. Roll with a penalty die unless you hot-camp with a fire. 

10+     any Discouraged are no longer Discouraged, spend no Rations…

7-9      either all test for Discouraged (+ CON) OR spend 1 Ration

6-        Spend 1 Ration AND all test for Discouraged (+ CON) 

+ WATCH CAPTAIN. Rolls + DEXRoll with a penalty die unless the Firemaster chose to cold-camp without a fire.  
10+     the night passes uneventfully.

7-9      there’s a disturbance of some sort, but you’re prepared; choose 2:
  • + You (the watch captain) get the drop on whatever’s coming
  • + You have time to wake and warn the others before whatever’s coming arrives
  • + Whatever’s coming is unaware of your dispositions, defenses, and preparations
  • + You found a tactically advantageous spot to camp; with GM approval, define two
  • tactical features at or near your campsite.

6-        there’s a disturbance (GM rolls/selects nighttime encounter); whatever’s coming gets the drop on you (without the Scout special ability).



OVERLAND JOURNEY PROCEDURE WORKFLOW…

For each day of travel, repeat the following steps (these will make more sense once paired with the Move list for the traveler character roles).  

New day. Check the weather, apply any effects.

GM briefly discusses the landscape of the next section.

Pathfinder announces whether they will accept a penalty to spend part of the day hunting/foraging.

PATHFINDER makes their roll, with penalty if Discouraged from the night before. This roll’s result tells the GM whether/how to present discoveries and obstacles.

GM presents, in order, any obstacles to be faced, asking the Pathfinder to make any relevant choices about how to handle them. (The Pathfinder may choose to zoom ‘into the scene’ to play out resolving an obstacle with concrete rather than abstract play, but be aware this opens the party up to possible harm and further loss of resources).

The GM describes any Discoveries made, and asks whether the party wants to divert to explore any of them in detail (dungeon-crawling style/pace). [If the party does explore a discovery, the day’s journey is paused; the Warder will need to roll once the PCs finish their exploration].

WARDER announces whether they will accept a penalty to spend part of the day hunting/foraging (only if not already disadvantaged).

Next, the Warder makes their roll (possibly at a disadvantage, if Discouraged, if Hunting, or if given a penalty die by the Pathfinder).
              They tell the GM the result, GM adds or subtract Section’s encounter risk modifier, and declares the final result.

The Warder’s roll result tells the GM whether/how to adjudicate any attacks/encounters.

The Warder makes any appropriate choices presented after their roll.

Play out any encounters or attacks.

If the PCs are pursued by enemies, you must resolve the pursuit before pitching camp.

The FIREMASTER makes camp. They choose whether to cold-camp or hot camp, then roll (with penalty if cold-camping) and make any relevant choices.

The GM asks the FIREMASTER to nominate one member of the party who will answer one character-background question (PCs get to know each better each night around the fire).

WATCH CAPTAIN now makes their roll (with penalty if hot-camping). They tell the GM the result, the GM adds or subtract this Section’s encounter risk modifier, and declares the final result (the category, not the number…keep the modifier secret).

Play out any nighttime encounter.
If the party has to flee from this encounter, they have to repeat the FIREMASTER and WATCH CAPTAIN roll again before morning.

If the party is still alive in the morning, check off a box of progress, move to the next Section, and repeat the process until the party reaches their journey’s end!!!


SAMPLE REGIONS

Finally, here's a rough example of what regions might look like: my players traveled through these regions recently on their way...to adventure. They seem to be enjoying the travel system. This presentation of 3 particular regions, note, is of a linear path in a mountain valley; there's no reason this system wouldn't work with non-linear travel instead, though writing up a description like this for a hexcrawl could get tedious (unless it's a pretty tight, focused hexcrawl, on the scale of Hot Springs Island).


Area 1
Parkland and broadleaf forest, criss-crossed by the trails of trappers and prospectors. Old, broken-hulled rowboats occasionally seen along the banks of the Foamfire river. 
Nav +0
Day +0 / Night +0 
Encounters (roll 1d6): 
Day/Night: 1-3 hungry prospector; 4-5 1d6 bandits; 6 1d6 hungry wolves
Discoveries: None
Obstacles: rotting bridge - you encounter an old wooden bridge along a path. It’s rotting. Do you, individually, test for Discouragement, or do you accept the time, wet, and effort of tromping around looking for a ford (give Penalty die to the Firemaster), or do you add an extra day to this Section? 

Area 2
Thick broadleaf forest atop rolling hills. The trail(s) fade and vanish. No humans are seen; the land is quiet apart from scattered birdsong and wind in the branches. 
Nav: -1
Day: +0 / Night -1
Encounters:
Day/Night: 1-3 A Brown Bear, 4-5 1d6 hungry wolves, 6 an owl bear 
Discoveries: 1) The stream drops over a noisy waterfall over the escarpment. Beside the lower stream bank, you find an overgrown grave with a carved headstone, barely legible, and a magical, un-corroded arrow (+2 hit/dmg, dissolves after first strike) lying athwart the grave. 
Obstacles: Steep escarpment blocking the way, un-scaleable with mounts; abandon them, add a day to this Region as you look for way around, or roll +DEX to climb up on 7+ … failure = 50% chance of losing each horse/mount (‘real time’ rules).

Area 3
Now atop the escarpment, the land rises gently but is covered by a very old, thick forest; the broadleaf trees above are even bigger here, while below the leaf piles swishing around your feet and hooves grow deeper. The forest closes in with long shadows all about, and there are dark, shadowy places you can’t peer through, in every direction you look. Picking your way through the thick, silent forest becomes more challenging. 
Nav: -2
Day: -1 / Night -1
Encounters: 
Day/Night: 1-3 1d6 wolves, 4-5 1d4+1 Beastmen, 6 b2d6 beast men + 1 Beast Ogre raid/patrol
Discoveries: 
- signs of territorial marking by feral humanoids (see the tower below).
- here and there, crumbling stonework remnants of an old road underfoot leading up into the valley (Hutaakan). If this is discovered, the Pathfinder takes a Bonus die for next day’s/section’s Nav roll. 
- a burned out 3-storey tower with an ancient sage’s emblem in the masonry above the door, now heavily vandalized by crude humanoid graffiti of violent scenes 

Obstacles: 
  • a marshy bog area (all PCs must test vs CON (7+ = success) vs Discouragement)
  • an Ironroot tangle (add a day to the region by going around/through, or give Penalty to Warder) 

Thanks for reading - and happy gaming!

[REVIEW] Hardwired: Cyberpunk Espionage and Mayhem


Mauser-Qin Inc. is guarding a dirty secret - the kind of secret you store on an air-gapped hand terminal in a secure facility on the 147th floor of the corporate regional HQ tower in New Kowloon. Good thing no one can get to it there. 

Yeah, right. My agents are coming…




Last year, Patrick Todoroff (author of the Osprey title Zona Alfa) released the subject of this review -  Hardwired: Cyberpunk Espionage and Mayhem. Hardwired offers an elegant set of solo/cooperative skirmish rules that provide cyberpunk (or other science fiction) action that is easy to set up, easy to play, and well-suited to the precise niche targeted by the game (in .pdf form, the rules cost $5.99 on Wargamevault). 

[Disclosures: I received a free review copy of the base game and its expansion book (also discussed below) in exchange for a fair review. Weblinks will include affiliate links to WargameVault/DrivethruRPG, use of which supports me and this site without adding cost to you. Thanks for reading!] 

The game includes brief info on a suggested setting (New Kowloon, a 22nd-century South-east Asian megacity) but notes, of course, that you can play the game in any cyberpunk or sci-fi setting of your choice. If you really want to get into it, spice things up and pick up a pay-what-you-want .pdf of Augmented Reality: The Holistic City Kit for Cyberpunk Roleplaying Games, and then quickly design your own scenario, neighborhood, facility, or corporate mission. 

Below, I’ll cover:

+ Setting up
+ Running the game
+ Writing and organization
+ Figure count
+ Expansion book
+ Solo/coop play features
+ Niche, focus, suitability for hacking
+ a brief play report
+ overall recommendation 


SETTING UP 

Hardwired doesn’t boast the world’s longest rulebook; to avoid giving away the game in this review, I’ll aim to balance between presenting the core mechanics in some detail, while skipping a bit more lightly over some of the things that really breathe complexity into the game (how the various gear options and special abilities interface, for example). 

To get started, grab some minis (around 4-5 would be typical) and pick an agent type for each of your figures: Ronin (shooter), Razor (melee specialist), Splicer (hacker), Sawbones (powerful support role), or Shiver (psionic commando!). The game offers a manageable variety of special supplementary actions that any character can take, but which specialists will be more likely to pull off, as agents will roll a bonus die when acting in their primary skill areas. That means that even your Support agent, for example, is still a competent shooter, just not as competent as the Ronin. 

Fill 3 equipment slots for each of your characters, drawing from a mix of Cyber, Combat, and Support items. I like the equipment list. It’s basic, simple, and functional, and includes just enough color to distinguish different kits — and bring the genre to life. Some of these items will be no-brainers (smart ammo should be pretty much a default for your shooters). I quite like the small menu of “pharma-derm” patches that can be taken in inventory; applying these combat drugs can do a variety of things like heal wounds, soup up reflexes for bonus dice, etc. - but the more powerful ones also bring nasty side effects that must be reckoned with after use, imposing a nice cost-benefit decision balance. 

There are detailed rules for using or fighting drones (whether they’re flying drones, walking dog-robot gun carriers, etc.). 

The game simplifies inventory by assuming that all agents have a suitable firearm and melee weapon. Guns used on the mission are broadly comparable and therefore don’t require differentiation: submachine guns, pistols, shotguns, etc., all use a common 18” range limit (thrown weapons go out to 12”). The game justifies this by noting that it “focuses on Dark Ops and Close Quarter combat in confined areas — office buildings, built-up urban sprawl, secret research facilities, etc.” This limitation of weapon type and weapon ranges worked ok for me; nowadays I usually prefer close-up skirmish shooter games to eschew range limits entirely, but I’m comfortable with treating the 18” limit as the ‘effective snap fire range’ of small arms - and with designing boards where most of the sight-lines are limited to 18” anyway! (Note that the expansion supplement, which I talk about below, includes some additional weaponry options, including guns that have longer range). 


RUNNING THE GAME

For each character’s turn, you get one free movement, plus 3 actions, and you have 3 dice to try to perform them: 1d6, 1d8, and 1d10. You roll one of these per action, which uses up that die for the rest of your activation. Actions might include shooting at something, moving again, hacking a network or enemy drone, throwing a grenade, applying a med-patch to boost your reflexes, directing a team-mate to perform an action on your behalf, shifting into overwatch to interrupt the enemy turn, etc., etc., etc. You can take your actions in any order and you choose freely which die to roll with which action. 

A die result of 4+ = success (the die roll is sometimes modified by tactical factors). You could (for example) roll 1d6 to take a pot shot at a not-so-urgent target, make your free move around a corner, open up on a second guard with your 1d10, and then use your remaining 1d8 to try to hack the local facility’s network and unlock the secure door behind that guard’s body. Again, a relevant specialization will help here; Ronin would roll two dice for each shot fired, whereas the Splicer would gain an extra die when hacking. (With the exception of the Shiver’s psionic abilities, any agent can attempt any action or use any special ability in the game - the specialists are just more likely to succeed. This means that every character is fundamentally a competent operator, which makes a lot of sense in-genre).

Targets stabbed or shot at also get a dodge/defend roll (which, also, can be modified by factors like weapon/ammo type or tactical action choices). The players’ default defense roll is a 1d6, though your Ronin/Razor specialists get to roll this twice. Whew! 

All enemy figures are taken out by a single wound, but player agents drop on their fourth wound. Elegantly, each sequential wound can be tracked - and affects performance - without ‘complicated’ book-keeping - because the first wound takes away a player’s d10 from their pool of dice, the second removes their d8, the third takes away all their dice (the only thing you can do now is run with your free move!) and the fourth wound kills the agent dead. As the game notes, after four wounds it’s “time to check the Dark Net for a new recruit.” I like the way this allows meaningful wound accumulation without cluttering up the table with wound markers, though of course you can use those too (the game is simple enough to play without a ‘character sheet’ but if you’re running multiple agents yourself, it probably makes sense to have a little page of details off to the side anyway). The way wounds degrade performance also makes the medical patch a more tempting choice for inclusion in your limited gear slots…There is also a first aid action characters can attempt in play, though by the time the bullets are causing wounds, there may be plenty of other actions that feel pretty necessary instead…Indeed, the core of the game is about balancing competing tactical options during an escalating situation under real time pressure. 

Once the players/agents have all acted, the enemy figures have their go (IGOUGO). The game uses a simple but elegant procedure to make the enemies a serious and growing threat. The enemies have four different spawn points on the board. Each turn, on-board enemies will rush you and try to kill off your players; after that, reinforcements - each wave more dangerous than the one before - will appear at randomly-designated spawn points. This means you have a general idea of which direction foes might come from, but you never really know for sure where the next waves will hit. 

You start out facing grunts (who use a d6 for one acton), then move up to more grunts, then ‘graduate’ to stronger enemy guards (using d8s and more actions), then more numerous stronger enemy guards, and finally (if you haven’t won or died yet) the BBEG boss figures hit the board. These folks roll d10s and get 3 actions each - and then an even bigger group of bosses arrives on the final turn, to make sure you’re very sorry you tried to hack/infiltrate/blow up this facility. 

The game normally has only 6 turns. Instead of an open-ended, drawn-out affair, each game will instead be a dash to the scenario objective and extraction point as grinding pressure from the opposition escalates, making tension and risk mount with each passing turn. I really like this simple play structure: not knowing what exactly is going to happen or where the enemy will come from, but knowing that they’ll be mean and ugly, is important to me for solo/coop game design. 

So, that’s the game as seen through the overhead skylight. Let’s break down my impressions in more detail.


WRITING AND ORGANIZATION

Sometimes the rules organization feels a bit weird (sure, talking in detail about rules for drones makes sense next to equipment, but not when the next chapter discusses “turn sequence, movement, combat, terrain, hacking”). Once I’d studied the rules a bit more, this organization didn’t really matter too much. I ended up spending a few minutes to make my own QRS (the one in the back of the book is ok, but I preferred a different array of information at my fingertips) and then didn’t really need to lean on the rulebook by my second play-through. 

Sometimes, confusing phrasings in the rules gave me pause. Again, once you’ve grokked the system, this doesn’t really matter, but it can slow down that initial familiarization. These momentary confusions involved minor hiccups, but they’re worth noting. The rules refer to a specialist receiving a “Two Dice Bonus” and also to a “‘Two Dice’ bonus” (notice the subtle difference between those expressions?) when in each case this is referring to rolling two dice together total, because the agent received a bonus of one extra die. The rules for the Overwatch action and interrupting an enemy turn are not actually very complicated, but they’re phrased in such a way that I had to reread them a few times to wrap my head around the rules. 

In general, I found that careful reading paired with limited consultation of info out there on the Interwebs cleared this stuff up nicely, but ideally the game’s phrasing and organization would more effectively facilitate quick mastery of the game. 

Typos exist, but they are rare and occasional (for example, on p. 31: “Doge/Defend”). 

Ultimately, these issues were just little speed-bumps on the road to an enjoyable game that is worth learning. 


FIGURE COUNT

One potential drawback to note: although you only need a few player figures, you do need a lot of enemy miniatures to play a full game. Happily, you know exactly how many you will need at most for a normal game: 10 grunts, 10 veterans, and 10 elite enemy security figures. Of course, if you kill or disable enemy forces quickly enough, you can recycle figures from one wave to the next, though you can’t really count on that going into a game. For players with a small miniature collection, these rules will frankly stress that collection’s limits. For players who already have a few squads of enemies that can hit the table, this won’t be a problem. 

For my test games, I used sci-fi stand-up cardstock pawns from the Starfinder science-fantasy core pawn set. This is a simple, relatively quite cheap way to pick up a lot of standees that suit sci-fi or cyberpunk games (no, really; these things would be great for Shadowrun-themed skirmishes). New players could also look into 15mm sci-fi figures, which offer a much cheaper road into building up a force of minis. 


THE EXPANSION BOOK 

Hardwired: The Tsim Sha Tsui Expansion (TSTE) is a 46-page supplement that offers new options for your game ($4.99 USD for a .pdf on Wargamevault). Included are more dangerous and challenging opponents, optional rules, new weapons, and an enjoyable array of extra equipment choices for players (including a couple types of body armor, even one that would fit well in a certain sci-fi franchise practically synonymous with the phrase soldiers in power armor…). There is a five-scenario mini-campaign, followed by guidance on designing your own campaigns with player advancement, too. 


Yikes, that face! 

I would suggest getting the core rules first, but if you play them and like them, TSTE looks like a really great way to spice up the game. 


SUITABILITY FOR SOLO/COOP PLAY

Hardwired works well as a game built specifically for solo or cooperative play. The solo “AI” rules governing enemy behavior are not very detailed or robust, however. They work quite well, but they are the kind of “AI” rules that offer a few lines of basic principles, then rely on the player’s interpretation of what makes sense for the enemy each turn. There are other solo skirmish games (for example Five Parsecs from Home) that offer comparatively more detailed guidelines for different enemy tactics. 

I didn’t find this to be a problem, however, because Hardwired promotes real uncertainty and surprise for solo players outside of the AI rules. The random spawn points for enemy figures mean that you know pressure will increase, but you don’t know where it will come from. The core action rules for players are generous - you can try to do anything with any figure - but failure is enough of a possibility that the best-laid plans each turn might crumble. The core decision loop on a player’s turn, then, involves balancing the risk that the actions you want to take might not work, and so arranging things to mitigate this possibility. 


NICHE, FOCUS, AND SUITABILITY FOR HACKING

This is a game that came to do one thing, and does that one thing quite well. As written, it has no (and needs no) rules for stealthy infiltration; this is a game about what happens when the perimeter alarm goes off, the agents storm into the enemy facility, and everyone knows they have about five minutes to get in and out - or die. Although the rules are fairly straight-forward, they push toward difficult choices between equally compelling tactical options as the pressure gets higher and higher. This means that the game doesn’t encourage a relaxed beer-and-pretzels feel. To put that differently, it may be low in rules complexity, but it isn’t low in drama. 

Being an unreformable tinkerer, I like my rule-sets simple but open to further hacking, re-skinning, and tinkering. Although Hardwired works well for its intended purposes, it’s also the kind of thing one could easily build on. The simplest way to change it up is to reskin the game without really altering it. With some superficial flavor changes, the rules as written should already support a variety of sci-fi encounters. Next time these rules hit my table, I’ll probably be using Warhammer 40k figures. As dedicated solo rules for Inquisitorial teams planting a bomb inside a Genestealer cult compound, or Marine assaulters rescuing a prisoner from a boarded enemy flagship, Hardwired (plus the power armor rules from the TSTE expansion) should work fine - I mean, it already includes rules for Psykers built-in! 

The core action and combat mechanics are also simple enough that I imagine they would support more aggressive hacks too - perhaps adding-in Infinity-style reaction rules, or changing things up to include infiltration. Note that the core game and the TSTE (expansion) do suggest a variety of ways to change things up if you want to mess around under the hood. That being said, I plan to keep these rules as a simple way to play high-action, fast, intense missions that are always a few steps from going wrong. 


PLAY REPORT / POST MORTEM

I played the game twice while preparing this review. The stark differences between the two sessions are very telling about what this game has to offer.

Mauser-Qin Inc. is guarding a dirty secret - the kind of secret you store on an air-gapped hand terminal in a secure facility on the 147th floor of the corporate regional HQ tower in New Kowloon. Good thing no one can get to it there. 

Yeah, right. My agents are coming…


Not feeling like taking the time to set up my Battle Systems sci-fi walls/scenery, I grabbed some scatter terrain to spread across a hyper-simple game-board: masking-tape marking out a maze of office hallways atop my desk. :-) Pretty low-fi, to be sure, but that’s the kind of quick pick-up play these rules are well suited to support (to be clear, the game would work just fine with a truly lovely table, too). 

An unregistered aircraft skims above the New Kowloon skyline…Then, with a deafening roar, a rocket blows open the hardened outer wall of the 147th floor of the Mauser-Qin Tower. Moments later, a team of equally-hardened professionals swoop through the hole, deactivate their antigrav glider suits, and advance across the facility, weapons raised…

Their mission is to cross the 147th floor, get to (and into) a secured lab, pick up the air-gapped hand terminal on the desk there, and then make it back to the insertion/extraction point with the goods. Of course, it won’t be easy: Mauser-Qin security forces are already arriving through stairways and elevators. Better get moving. 

The first time I played through this scenario of my own devising, I got SPANKED. My agents made it to just outside the secure lab, surrounded by elite/boss security forces, as the game ended in crushing defeat. 

Now, let me point out that it is a good thing IMHO that a solo rules system is capable of destroying me if I don’t play well. I have played a fair number of different skirmish games, and I’m pretty accustomed to winning games handily. 

My goal that first time had been just to try a quick game without digging far into the game’s tactical options. In hindsight, I think this is why I got clobbered, which tells me something revealing about the game rules. The rules are simple, but they allow for emergent complexity, and success requires mindful attention to those expanded options. Simply moving your figures forward and shooting at anything in their way will probably get you all killed - for this first game, I only leaned on the ability to use overwatch and a special ability that lets agents take a combat bonus. Clearly, this was inadequate. 

Ok, now let’s talk about Game 2 in a bit more detail. 

Our team: three Ronin and a Splicer. Each agent has brought Smart Ammo, and a Monofilament blade, and wears special Active Mimetic Camouflage (from the TST expansion). 

This time, fearing that I’d run out of time again, I prioritized the tactical action that lets players boost their movement range with an adrenaline stimulant (thanks, genre-highlighting core rules!). Meanwhile, the team’s Splicer hung back and got to work on the local network, popping open the secure lab door before my agents even got there. 

But on came the security waves. The first waves involved security droids, so the Splicer was soon busy hijacking bots to force-shut down their control software, while the team blasted a way forward. 

Security bots everywhere! Red blocks are enemy spawn points.
Note that Mauser-Qin Inc. spares no expense on suitable art and sculpture
to promote employees' sense of corporate identity. Very classy. 


A pair of agents reached the lab - despite an initial fumble and a quick shoot-out at the lab door, the secured hand terminal was soon in our possession and it was time to bug out.


We've reached the objective, but trouble's coming in the form of a white security droid...


Unfortunately, however, a swarm of veteran security androids were now advancing to block our way back! In the midst of a desperate shootout that left a lot of security troops lying on the deck, two of the Ronin - including one with the stolen hand-terminal - made it to the extraction point, passed a Move roll, and jumped right out of the Mauser-Qin Tower’s 147th floor, trusting in their antigrav glider suits to get them safely back to the rendezvous point far below. Mission success! 

Standing at the edge of my crude masking tape floorplan extraction point,
an agent prepares to swoop away from the 147th floor



Alas, the Splicer and another Ronin weren’t so lucky…providing cover to get the hand-terminal out cost them their lives, too, as they were swarmed by a crowd of security forces in the hallway…





So. Mission success after only 4 turns, with a patron-acceptable 50% casualty rate…another successful corporate espionage run, and just another day in New Kowloon…

I think that having a better understanding of my various tactical options made the difference in that second game. It was quite fun, and quite tense, despite the win at the end. 


CAVEATS AND OVERALL RECOMMENDATION

Hardwired probably ISN’T a great fit for you IF you aren’t a cyberpunk/sci-fi fan (duh!); if you don’t have many miniatures and don’t expect that to change; if you find detailed AI guidelines for enemy moves essential during solo play; if the stealth/infltration phase is your favorite part of shooty skirmish games; or if you demand a crystal-clear rulebook from the get-go. 

Those points aside, Hardwired is an excellent ruleset if you want fast, elegant rules for cyberpunk (or other sci-fi) missions that don’t waste a lot of time getting to the action. The game will offer meaningful tactical decisions on just about every turn (and those decisions will get more tense as the turns roll by). The game is also flexible enough to support tinkering and hacking if that’s your jam. RECOMMENDED.