Monthly OneShot Reflections: Demon Hunters A Comedy of Terrors

Disclaimer: Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a massive fan of the Demon Hunters setting, to the extent that I have self-published multiple adventure starters for the game. I was also a high-level backer of the original Kickstarter, to the extent that I was able to submit a chapter for inclusion in the upcoming Players Guide. Take that into consideration when reading this reflection as a review of the game.

A World of Dimness

With its close proximity to Halloween my choice for November’s Monthly OneShot was easy – Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors. Built on a drift of Fate Core, the setting is one of supernatural comedy.

In a world where gods, wizards, vampires and werewolves are real the forces of good fight have come together to fight as one, as the Brotherhood of the Celestial Torch. Demon Hunters. They fight and die in the shadows, so the world can go on, drinking overpriced mocha-frappe-chino lattes in the light. Blissfully unaware that the world ended last Tuesday, only to be dragged kicking and screaming back into existence by a well-placed subclause snuck into a demonic contract.

It’s a dangerous job, but somebody has to do it.

Just not you. To new Agents go the thankless tasks. Negotiating with sentient forests, chasing goblins off of the 18th tee, delivering pizza, locating missing pets.

The OneShot: Missionary Opposition

Called in to investigate an unusually large number of missing pets in a small village the team got to work, enthusiastically knocking on doors under the cover of being missionaries from an obscure church. Their blunt approach of simply holding a bible up and intoning the word ‘God…’ didn’t go down so well. Until they knocked on number 37, whose occupant was all too relieved to have somebody, anybody, to talk to.

It didn’t take long to discover that there had been strange comings and goings during the night, or that people were gathering in the abandoned house at the end of the street. While Gabriel, Jim and Bijoux took off to investigate that Albrecht followed his nose, literally, as he tracked down a scent he knew all too well. Fresh blood, originating from the boot of a nearby car. Inside, another pet and files from the local veterinary clinic.

Over at the abandoned house, the rest of the Chapter came face to face with what they had been seeking, a skinless creature the size of a bear, layer upon layer of muscle twitching in anticipation. It proved no match for the Chapter and was quickly dispatched back to whatever hell it had been pulled from. A quick investigation of the house discovered its gruesome origins, the decaying body of a man inside a ritual circle. While his wallet had been emptied the Agents found a scrunched up business card inside his pocket. Carl Jackson, Personal Injury Attorney. The address was local, and as it turned out only doors away from the Veterinary Clinic.

A bungled attempt to break into the attorney’s office triggered a silent alarm, drawing the attention of a trio of… irate middle-aged businessmen who were quickly dealt with. Drawing from Bijoux’s knowledge of human anatomy the Chapter concocted a basic, yet surprisingly effective, truth serum to conduct a quick interrogation. They learned that the trio were following orders from a woman going by the names of Lilith and Jackie. Bitter at some perceived slight by the local community she had gathered a small group to get revenge… by summoning the creature and letting it loose during the upcoming Summer Fayre. A subsequent investigation of the veterinary clinic revealed Jackie to be not only a member of staff but the wife of the deceased Carl Jackson.

The Chapter hightailed it to Lillith’s home, where they discovered that she had already begun the ritual to once again summon the beast. Quick thinking by Bijoux put an end to that, as she hit redial on the mobile taken from the man they had interrogated. The ritual chants of “Ix’Kalla, Ix’Kalla, Ix’Kalla” that had been calling out were disrupted by a familiar sound – the Nokia ringtone.

Then came the screaming.

With the cultists being devoured by the beast the Chapter leapt into the fray, knowing that they had to banish the abomination before it broke free of the ritual circle. Albrecht dived after Lillith and the tome she was carrying, while RM, Jim and Bijoux worked to contain the creature. Securing the Tome of Ix’Kalla from Lillith the Chapter used its forbidden knowledge to banish the beast from the mortal plane.

Having saved this little corner of the world the Chapter started the long walk back to base… they’d missed their ride and their calls to HQ kept going to voicemail.

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The Roundup: Riotous Fun

I love Demon Hunters. I love both the setting and the system and once again this session reminded me why. In contrast to many of my previous adventures the game didn’t descend towards slapstick, but the absurdity of the setting shone through. From the opening where the players had to improvise at being missionaries but didn’t know which church they belonged to right through to disrupting a ritual summoning by ringing the villains mobile at a critical moment. Possibly the only downside was that one player took a little bit longer than the others to grasp the humorous potential and thus spent the first half of the game worrying about the police arriving. With a sillier adventure (such as Channel Surfing) this wouldn’t have been an issue but it did highlight the difficulty of running adventures that rely on a dry sense of humour.

From a mechanical perspective, the players picked up the system quickly, though I do feel like a cheat sheet would have helped with some of the finer details of invoking aspects. Demon dice were particularly fun, the players were nervous about using them, which helped add to the tension of the rolls and more than one action failed because they were paranoid about what I might do with the dice if I added them to my pool. I’m still not sure that I put them to proper use, I struggle in particular with the concept of needing to spend them to have events happen (represented mechanically by adding aspects) rather than just declaring that it happens.

While preparing the adventure I took some time to reread the core rules. The book is a fun and relatively easy read but there are a few points where the text is confusing or even contradicts other parts of the book. For example, the rules on recovering conditions state at one point that succeeding with style on the action automatically clears a condition while a different page states that it clears two conditions. There are also a couple of sections that would benefit from some additional examples. The prime candidates are spells and badness tables. I appreciate why the writers didn’t want to include lists of spells or tables but personally, I would have really benefitted from additional guidance and examples.

Overall though? The book is great and full of detail. There’s a detailed setting including a secret history of the world, plenty of artwork and a full range of sample NPCs to drop into your game. The best part of the book may be the mission generator, which breaks the process down into a series of simple steps. A basic mission profile can be generated in as little as five minutes and if you get stuck? Just roll on one of the random tables for inspiration. Want even more guidance? Then pick up the first supplement for the game, Demon Hunting Manual A771, which takes a deep dive into mission planning and organisation.

The Demon Hunters RPG can be purchased from DriveThruRPG via:
Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors (PDF and Print on Demand)
Demon Hunting Manual A771 (PDF and Print on Demand)

While my adventure outlines for the game are available as Pay What You Want downloads from LunarShadow Designs on DriveThruRPG

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Thoughts on Marvel Heroic

Alongside my Monthly OneShots, I’ve recently finished playing in a mini-campaign of another Cortex Plus system, the short-lived Marvel Heroic RPG. While I was fortunate enough to buy it while still in print it’s a system that has languished on my shelf for some time.

Unfortunately, with the campaign over, I feel like it may return to that position for some time as overall it just did not work for me.

First up was a personal issue – I prefer shades of grey in my games. Four colour heroics just don’t sit well with my style of play. Especially when trying to be a clean-cut hero such as Captain America. It’s something that I’ve struggled with during previous superhero games and it clearly remains something I need to work on.

As for the system, well something just failed to click. To a degree, it felt over-engineered, with too many moving parts. Rolls were typically built around a base of Affiliation + Distinction + Powerset + Speciality. That’s before considering any possible boosts or variations such as Sfx. Each of those had to be considered and actively chosen, there is no default combo so each action felt slow, though I will admit that they sped up as we became more familiar with the mechanics.

My other mechanical issue was one of focus. While I understand that the superhero genre is heavily combat orientated my non-combat options felt like they were lacking. Again, I appreciate that Captain America is pretty much the archetype for ‘super-soldier’ but it still put me off when I saw that my non-combat rolls were relatively limited.

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-movie-hd-wallpaper-my-top-10-of-2014This isn’t to say that my thoughts on the system entirely negative, as there was a lot that I did enjoy. The doom pool was central to this, allowing the GM to bank dice for later use rather than having to create complications in the moment (ala Firefly). It’s definitely a mechanic that I’ll be including in my future Prime games, likely alongside the Firefly type complications for when I want to immediately challenge the party.

Second, was the ability to counter actions on a successful defence, allowing the heroes to inflict stress even when it wasn’t their turn. This really felt like it played to the genre and made the heroes feel special, as with enough plot points it is (theoretically) possible to take out a mob of low-level antagonists without even taking an action!

Finally the idea of switching out power-sets between adventures to highlight different facets of a character really appeals. Demon Hunters, which blends some Cortex concepts onto a backbone of Fate, does similar by allowing you to spend milestones to rewrite Aspects. Over the course of a campaign, I could see a character building up a repository of options to pick from. Want to focus on mysterious backstory this adventure? Simply swap in that aspect. Want to highlight your stealth? Add in the power-set you acquired during the recent downtime.

So overall, mixed thoughts. I won’t be rushing back to the system but on the other hand, I would like to play it again (or run it) to see if I can get a better feel for it.

Christmas in July: A few of my highlights

There’s a week to go in drivethruRPGs Christmas in July sale, the annual promotion to clear the virtual shelves before GenCon ushers in a wave of new shiny goodness so I wanted to quickly promote a selection of publishers that are included and worth looking at. All of these are personal picks based upon my own purchases and I did not receive any review or promotional copies.

Spy Master by CM Games

Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 16.59.54When it comes to spies and espionage there are few individuals more iconic than James Bond, sat the casino table with a martini in his hand. Utilising a system inspired by the equally iconic casino game of blackjack Spy Master works aims to emulate the genre with rapid fire mechanics where players must push their luck as they draw cards to build upon their characters specialities. The rules are designed to support play that sticks closely to the spy genre and avoids the trap of many games that try to build in eventualities for every gadget or weapon. Agent characters are just as deadly when wielding a pencil as they would be with a silenced Walther PPK, allowing for the action to spring forth from each and every scene.

You can find Spy Master on DrivethruRPG

The Cthulhu Hack by Just Crunch Games

Built upon the popular Black Hack OSR system the Cthulhu Hack applied the lightweight approach to the otherworldly incursions of H.P. Lovecraft to create a standalone game of investigative horror. With a focus upon simple, elegant mechanics the system is quick to learn yet provides enough depth to facilitate campaign play and the near infinity mythos of the parental material. Character creation is quick, befitting a setting where character death should be expected and campaigns may require a rotating cast of characters who interact only through the diaries and clues they may leave behind. Well worth picking up for both Lovecraft fans and those who have just begun their journey into the cosmic mythos.

You can find The Cthulhu Hack and its supplements on DrivethruRPG

RPG stock art by James Shields

Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 17.04.36JEShields should be a familiar name to anybody following my Demon Hunters or Project Cassandra posts as the majority of the artwork I have used in them has been sourced from him. Why do I keep going back to his art? First and foremost because of the consistent high quality and clear style that is available across a range of genres. Second because of the price, both stock art and direct commissions are extremely well priced. Finally because every interaction I have had with James has been positive and professional, both through his patreon and when commissioning artwork directly.

You can find his work on DrivethruRPG and on Patreon

Printable miniatures by Trash Mob Minis

Using miniatures at your game table can turn quickly become either expensive or restrictive as you either expand your collection to allow for the adventure your players seek or limit yourself to what you have at hand. Trash mob mini’s provides a way out with their themed collections of printable mini’s. For only a couple of pounds per pack you get multiple mini’s (most packs have 6) with front and back artwork plus bases. Simply print onto thick paper and cut out to build your encounter. Need a mob of goblins? Then print out multiple sheets and quickly expand your forces. With clear artwork in a fun, cartoony style Trash Mob Mini’s make a perfect addition to any fantasy RPG combat.

You can find Trash Mob Minis on DrivethruRPG

Review: DnDice Copper Bone metal dice

DSC01206aWhen it comes to dice you get what you pay for, which is why high quality metal dice sets are expensive. I’ve been interested in buying a metal set for a while. The Easy Roller sets come highly recommended but once you factor in exchange rates and international shipping (US->UK) they just become prohibitively expensive.

Fortunately the UK is not without its own retailers of metal dice and so I recently decided to acquire one of their Metallic Dragon sets in a Copper Bone finish from DnDice. They come in at £25 (with free postage in the UK!) and are cast in zinc with an electroplated tarnished copper finish. The product speaks for itself – the dice are beautiful (not sure the same can be said of my photography) and well worth the money.

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I went for the bone finish for the improved readability, which is apparent all the way from the d20 down to the d4 and nicely complements the solid feel of the dice. There is no way that you’ll mistake these for a cheap plastic set. While the d4 is relatively light (and very sharp!) the larger dice all have a nice weight to them and there’s that solid thunk you’d expect from a proper metal set. Fortunately the case, which includes a custom cut foam insert to hold the dice, also functions well as a miniature rolling tray so no need to worry about denting your gaming table. If you require something a little larger they also sell rolling mats and trays at reasonable prices.

My only issue with the set is really one of individual preference – that it comes with 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d10, 1d% and 1d20. Personally I’ve only ever played in a single campaign it has been necessary to make percentile rolls and that can be accomplished by rolling a d10 twice. So for me the d% is superfluous and will mostly just get used as a second d10. Given that I’d have rather seen either a second d6 or second d20 in the set, as I’d use them more often. I understand though that the d% die is part of a standard set of dice and so can’t really fault DnDice for including it. While they don’t currently offer them I hope that in future it will be possible to order individual dice (and extra storage tins) to build a custom set though I can fully see myself buying a complete second set at some point. I just wish I could afford enough for some of the dice pool games I play.DSC01224b

Review: Don’t Starve Giants Edition (PS Vita)

This was originally written for the Nearly Enough Dice podcast blog.dontstarveAs Liz mentioned towards the end of Episode 147 of the podcast I’ve been playing a lot of Don’t Starve lately, mostly on my way to and from work. When I say playing what I actually mean is running around in a panic trying to survive another night (my first game I made it to all of the 3rd night before dying) or running away from whatever monster I’ve managed to provoke this time.

But wait, playing it on my commute? Yes, for Don’t Starve is now out for the Playstation Vita!

The Game

For those who may not be familiar with Don’t Starve it is a survival adventure game by Klei Entertainment where your character is thrown into an unforgiving landscape and must work their way up from building simple objects like a flaming torch or an axe to managing a complex set of resources that allow you to survive the harshness of winter and the various giant monsters that inhabit the world. The game is notoriously difficult, with little in game guidance of how to progress, made all the more difficult by the permadeath that figures heavily in the early stages of game play. Liz’s actual plays (Episode 1, Episode 2 & Episode 3) provide a good example of the early stages of the game.

Survival through exploration is the key to the game and thanks to the large maps, randomly generated for each playthrough, no two games are ever the same. The world can be customised to suit your preferences by reducing or increasing the frequency of particular features such as monsters or resources while the multiple different characters each bring a unique ability to the game, such as Wilson’s ability to grow an amazing beard (which is more useful than it sounds).

Beyond the default Survival mode there exists a secondary Adventure mode, accessed by finding a special location in the survival mode map. Adventure mode ramps up the difficulty by challenging you to escape your imprisonment by travelling to other locations which are even less hospitable. My one and only attempt at this mode dropped me straight into a harsh frozen wasteland with sparse resources and an extremely long night period. I lasted a day before being thrown back into the Survival mode world though to be fair I’ve also yet to make it past day 22 in Survival mode (winter is harsh).

Panic!
Run away!

The PS Vita Port

While the game was originally designed for the PC the PS Vita is, in my opinion, extremely well done. The world looks amazing on the OLED screen of my 1st generation PS Vita and the controls have been smoothly adapted to the dual analogue sticks of the handheld. For me the smaller screen size of the PS Vita also helps to build the tension somewhat in the game, just because there is less on the screen at any one time and I just don’t know what I’m about to encounter next. Included in the port is the Reign of Giants DLC, which introduces additional complexity to the game such as full seasons, more environments, two new characters and of course giants. Best of all the game is covered by cross-buy, which means that if you purchase it on the PS Vita you also get the PS4 edition for free (or vice versa), making the £11.49 cost of the game even better value, though unfortunately the save games are not cross compatible.

Being on a portable console does, however, come with a couple of downsides, notably with regards performance. The majority of the time you will encounter this is in the longer loading times, especially during world generation. Not in itself a big issue though I have experienced a couple of times when the game hung on loading screen, typically this is when moving between worlds and the game is trying to both save an existing map and generate a new one. The second performance issue I’ve experienced is one of frame rate slowdowns when there is too much happening at once. I’ve personally only run into this a few times, such as when my forest base got struck by lightning and everything caught on fire but I’ve heard of people also encountering after creating large bases later in the game. If you’re aware of the issue it should be possible to work around it by spreading your base out more but it’s still not an ideal solution.

Roundup

All in all Don’t Starve is a game that I would highly recommend if you’re looking for a challenging survival game and the PS Vita port is a great way to experience it as the game works well played in short bursts. Just remember, you’ve not truly played the game until you’ve run around in a panic screaming “it’s trying to eat me!”, which if you’re anything like me will happen pretty quickly.

Review: Steelheart

steelheart1One of the things that I ensured I did during my recent holiday (in November, posts since then were absent due to a crazy few weeks at work) was to read fiction, something I don’t get to do as much as I’d like these days (the real world, work etc being what it is). One of the numerous books I got through was Steelheart, the most recent novel by Brandon Sanderson who is perhaps best known for his Mistborn series and for finishing the Wheel of Time series.

Some minor spoilers below, you have been warned.

Continue reading “Review: Steelheart”

Review: Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide

cortexplusThe Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide by Margaret Weiss Productions is, as the title suggests, a book all about hacking and tweaking the Cortex Plus system. The book collects together a series of essays written by both the Cortex Plus creators and fans and published following a successful Kickstarter project. It is available now through DriveThruRPG. As a big fan of the Cortex system and of hacking games in general this wasn’t a product that I wanted to miss out on so I got in early on the Kickstarter for both PDF and print copies of the book, though as seems to be the case with RPGs on Kickstarter the print copy has been delayed and has yet to be delivered. The Hackers Guide breaks is comprised on three main sections, Mechanics and Structure, Game Hacks (further divided into History and Fantasy, Modern Life, and Science Fiction and the Future) and Core Rules.

Mechanics and Structure

The first section of the Guide serves to introduce the concepts underlying Cortex Plus and it’s Action, Drama and Heroic variants then expands into the various ways of hacking the system. If you’re new to Cortex Plus or hacking systems in general then this is perhaps the most important section of the book, as it not only introduces the basic mechanics of the system but explains logic behind them in a setting neutral manner, aiding you in choosing which of the system variants will be right for your game. Following on are chapters on hacking stress and timed actions, a system for generating random features on the fly and finally chapters focused on learning the Drama variant of the game (which is the most complicated due to it’s use of the pathways map).

Overall this is the section of the Guide that I found most useful and I’d have liked to have seen it comprise a great proportion of the overall page count than it does. The Hacking Stress chapter was of particular value in prompting the would be hacker to think about the logic behind a change and highlights the fact that often simply picking the right name for a stress (for example a spy game might have a stress called paranoid) is often more appropriate than trying to introduce a new related mechanic.

Game Hacks

Moving on from the overview and general hacking are the three Game Hack sections, which provide a range of example games that can be achieved through hacking the system. The hacks presented are, in my opinion, a mixed bag. Some provide a good example of innovative ways to use Cortex Plus but a few come across more as ‘here’s how you can run my home game’ without any explanation of why a certain mechanic has been altered. In addition the examples presented are overviews, with a limited amount of space devoted to each none can go into extensive detail and the majority spend a large portion of that space detailing the composition of characters in the given setting. After the first few examples this does feel a tad repetitive. My recommendation to anybody looking to use this section of the book is to view it in one of two ways. First, if one of the examples closely fits the game you wish to run then use the material presented here as a very loose foundation, that will need to be shored up by details of your choosing. Second, if none seem to fit what you want to do, use these as very loose examples of what you will need to think about for the start of your game before making more extensive use of the core rules presented section of the Guide.

Core Rules

The final section of the Guide is something fans of Cortex Plus have been waiting for since Leverage was first published, generic setting neutral rules for the three variants which can be used as the building blocks for your own game. These cover pretty much everything that you could need for running Cortex Plus and include all of the material that you’d typically find in the rules and GM sections of a typical rule book. About the only thing that is absent is an extensive list of generic talents / abilities / pathways etc however, examples are provided for each in addition to notes on how to make your own. It’s worth noting here that the Heroic variant presented is Fantasy Heroic and thus not completely generic though the use of a limited setting does mean that there are more details provided for this variant than for Action or Drama.

Other details

Before I finish this review I want to just cover the non written aspects of the Guide. As you’d hope from a company with the experience that MWP has the book is professionally laid out, visually clear and easy to follow with each of the sections and chapters clearly defined along the edge of each page. The PDF version is well bookmarked, down to the level of subsections within each chapter and unlike some gaming PDFs I’ve look at recently the addition of notes or highlights haven’t been locked; given the aim of the Guide I expect it’ll be something that I highlight and annotate extensively. Visually perhaps the most disappointing aspect is the artwork, which appears to have been sourced primarily through stock photos and is used rather sparingly throughout the Guide.

Roundup

Overall the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide is definitely something that I’m glad I backed and that I’ll make use of personally. The Guide is aimed squarely at those that who want to tinker with the system and is, therefore, of limited wider appeal. I’d recommend it to those already familiar with the Cortex Plus system, if you’re new to the game however I’d suggest picking up one of the main rulebooks first before purchasing the Guide.

Overall score for a general gamer: 3/5

For the tinkering GM: 4/5