There’s a good game in here…somewhere. Thoughts on Yarmuk (Command Magazine / XTR Corp., 1997)

Yarmuk (XTR Corp., 1997) was the second game in Command Magazine Issue #45 (Oct 1997). The game recreates an epic battle in 636AD between Byzantine and Moslem armies. Yarmuk is a relatively simple game that decently captures its theme but suffers from unclear rules and lack of a “gimmick” mechanic to make it truly unique and memorable.

Spelling errors litter the rules of Yarmuk. Thankfully, the rules are short and fairly simple. In some ways Yarmuk is an early Command & Colors-style game with alternating formation activations, a very simple combat resolution system, and several possible special “events” playable each turn. After going through the rules and playing the game, these are the ones that stand out to me:

5.2.A.2. Parley Check. One in six chance of skipping a full day in the game (the battle is six days long). In my play through I rolled Parley on Day 1.

5.2.A.3. Sandstorm Check. One in six chance of a sandstorm for the day. Reduces combat effectiveness.

5.2.A.4. Duel of Champions. First day only. Good chrome that makes the game “feel” more thematic with little rules overhead.

5.3 The Sword of Allah. One of two “unique” game rules that reinforce theme. Twice each day, the Moslem player gets an extra Action Phase using Moslem cavalry. This is the only time Moslem cavalry can charge (9.8).

6.0 Zones of Control. Units must stop when entering an enemy ZoC. To leave an enemy ZoC is a morale check. Units starting the Combat Phase in an enemy ZoC MUST attack. Units retreating though the attacking units ZoC must make a morale check.

7.0 Stacking. What should be a simple rule is actually confused by the rules layout. Rule 7.1 Stacking Generally specifies that at the end of each phase only two units can be in a hex. However, in the second half of rule 7.2 Stacking Specifics (which is unfortunately found on the next page from the rule header) states that, “only the top units in a single hex may attack or be attacked in a single combat. The stacking order in a hex may be changed only by shifting an activated units during its movement phase….” I missed this part of the stacking rule in the first few days of my game and it totally changed the complexion of combat.

9.1 Combat Generally. Combat is a simple affair. The difference of attacking units to defending units yields a column used on the Combat Results Table (CRT). Or it should be, but again the rules as written get in the way:

  • “…undisrupted units…may attack. Any such unit starting its combat phase in an enemy ZOC must attack.” (Units in enemy ZOC must attack, or may they?)
  • “A single unit may attack up to six adjacent defending units.” (One unit, six attacks?)
  • “Up to six units may attack a single hex.” (Surrounded unit)
  • “Each attacking unit may participate in only one combat per combat phase.” (So one unit – one attack, not up to six attacks as above?)
  • “A single defending unit may be attacked only once per combat phase….” (What about a single defending unit with two enemy units in its ZoC? Attack by only one? Or both? Per above both must, or may?)

I think the intent of the rules is that each unit can only attack (or be attacked) once per combat phase. I think this is the rule, but as written it is difficult to determine what the rules actually say.

9.3 Retreat. Requires very careful reading. A retreating unit that is forced to retreat into a ZoC of a non-attacking unit is fine, but if it retreats into the ZoC of the attacking unit it must make a morale check and, if it fails, disrupts of routs and must continue to retreat until reaches a hex not within ANY enemy ZoC.

10.0 Supreme Effort. The second unique game mechanic. Each formation has a Supreme Effort (SE) chit that can be played for extra combat power. Well, each formation should have a chit except for a printing error on the counters which has the back side of one formations SE chit on a combat unit. To offset the power of SE, using SE can lead to backlash (10.3 SE Backlash) which is a negative combat effect and risks morale.

At first glance, Yarmuk appears to be a game with simple rules and just enough theme. The sad reality is that confusing rules get in the way of enjoying the thematic elements. Furthermore, Yarmuk has a very Command & Colors feel to it. I cannot find a Yarmuk scenario for C&C so maybe making one is worth it. Doing so is more likely to result in a positive game experience because trying to sort through the Command Magazine/XTR Corp. version of Yarmuk is probably more effort than it’s worth.

Featured image courtesy By the way, the setup shown is wrong because, according to 3.0 Setup, “Each leader must be stacked with any unit under his command.”  None of the leaders visible are stacked with a unit but in a separate hex. Appears I’m not the only one confused by the rules….


#RPGThursday #StarTrek Adventures Alpha Playtest Initial Thoughts

Courtesy Modiphius Entertainment

I am participating in Modiphius Entertainment’s Star Trek Adventures (STA) living playtest campaign. Over the Thanksgiving Weekend they released the first playtest package, Alpha v1.2. According to their email:

Attention Crew! You have a short journey ahead of you to Narendra Station where you’ll be assigned to one of several ships…
This email includes a link to download the very first Alpha test of the Star Trek Adventures Living Playtest. For this adventure player characters are newly deployed cadets heading toward Narendra Station on a shuttle for assignment to their various vessels. During the trip, they receive a distress call from a science outpost on a planet that’s been struck by a highly irradiated ion storm. The shuttle crash-landed on the surface and the crew was attacked by primitive hostile humanoid creatures wielding clubs and rocks.
This first adventure is set in the 24th century (TNG era) and is for all crews regardless of which ship they picked. You are assigned cadets as characters for this very first mission but in subsequent missions you will be playing aboard your chosen ship with a wide choice of bridge crew. This first mission is to introduce you to basics of the rules however the results will affect the on-going Living Campaign plot. Additional rules will be introduced with each new playtest pack.
The Rescue at Xerxes 4 (by Shawn Merwin) is the first adventure in the Star Trek Adventures Living Campaign playtest series. This adventure is meant to be played by a Gamemaster (GM) and 3-7 player characters, using the pre-generated characters provided.
We will be asking for feedback in December so get testing as soon as you can!

The download package includes Alpha Rules v1.2, 12 playtest pregens, Playtest Summary sheets, the above referenced adventure, and a short background document.

I was a bit disappointed with the Alpha package because I specifically signed up for a Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS)-era playtest campaign. After reading the Modiphius Forums I understand the intent to use a single Alpha playtest package to introduce the basic rules before getting into era-specific adventures, but it still was disappointing to not start off like I expected.

Exploring the (Warp) Core

STA uses Modiphius’ 2d20 system. This is a core mechanic I am not previously familiar with so I am really entering the playtest as a newbie to the system. To put my Bottom Line Up Front, I feel the 2d20 mechanic generates limited narrative opportunities at the cost of somewhat cumbersome mechanical implementation.

Starting off, the Alpha Playtest document is hard to read. I know this is the Alpha version and not supposed to be fancy, but the layout/format is not friendly to a flow of reading that helps to understand the game. To get a better understanding I got the free Modiphius Robert E. Howards CONAN Roleplaying Game Quickstart from DriveThruRPG which I found explained the 2d20 system better. The Conan Quickstart and STA Alpha are not identical, but the game concepts are similar enough to assist in understanding the system.

Mechanically, in the 2d20 System, each Task is given a difficulty rating from 0 to 5. The player adds the character’s Attribute and Skill to get a Target Number. When rolling 2d20, each roll under the TN is a success. The number of successes needed is the difficulty. Skills can also have a Focus, and rolling either a 1 or the Focus or less equals two successes. Damage is expressed in terms of Challenge Dice [CD] which is a d6 read with 1 and 2 equalling that number of successes, 3 and 4 meaning nothing, and 5 and 6 meaning a single success and an Effect.

Narratively, the players have Momentum (extra successes beyond the difficulty level) and Determination to spend. The GM has Threat. To mechanically or narratively effect a Task or the outcome the PCs use Momentum, Determination, Teamwork, or pay Threat. The GM has NPC Momentum, Teamwork, and Threat. Values can also be used by the players or challenged by the GM to influence the action.

Send in the Redshirts

All this sounds straight-forward; that is, until I actually tried playing it out. To resolve a task the player may be rolling up to 5d20 (2d20 baseline plus up to 3 additional when Improving the Odds) to determine success with options to narratively/mechanically intervene both before an after the Task Roll. Then, a pool of Challenge Dice are rolled (often to determine damage).

One of the Playtest Pregens – an obvious combat build – has a Control Attribute of 10 and a Security Skill of 4 with a Ranged Attack Focus of 4. Shooting a Type 2 Phaser, the basic attack  for this character has a Target Number of 14, meaning each d20 that rolls 14 or under (70% chance) scores a success, and any one rolling 4 or under (20% chance) scores  two successes. Remember too that a natural 20 (5% chance) is a Complication (and even that can grow up to a 25% chance given the right conditions). Assuming success against the basic Difficulty 2, this character now rolls 7x Challenge Dice (Basic Weapon Factor of 3 plus Security Skill 4) to determine damage. Any attack scoring five or more in a single attack (or when the Stress Track is depleted ) can cause an Injury. Characters look to have from 8 to 14 Stress. Note also that any successes beyond the basic needed (in the case of here beyond the 2 Difficulty) generates Momentum, and each character has between 3-4 Determination at the start of a session.

My gut reaction is that there are too many “fiddly bits” going on here. When reading the d20 one has to look for three factors; success (TN or less), Complication (natural 20), and extra success (natural 1 or Focus or less). The Challenge Dice also require careful reading too (1 = 1x success, 2= 2x success, 3 and 4 are nothing, 5 and 6 = 1x success plus Effect). I feel that assembling the dice pool will slow the game down.

GM: It’s getting dark, but as you look across the clearing, you see a team of Jem Hadar troopers leading the prisoners away. A reminder; the Momentum Pool is now 2.

PC: Might lose them the dark; gotta act now. [Head nods from other players] I shoot the squad leader.

GM: You both are in the same Zone, so you can make the shot, but given the poor lighting I think it will add to the Difficulty. Make it a Difficulty 3 shot. What is your TN [Control Attribute + Security Skill] and do you have a relevant Focus?

PC (Consulting Character Sheet): Uh…I have Control 8 plus Security 2 for a TN of 10 and I have no Focus I can use. That’s not too good. [Pause for thinking] I need to improve my odds, so I am going to pay one Determination [player puts a d20 on the table with the 1 face-up] which gives me two successes, and I will roll my other 2d20.

GM (Interrupting) Is your attack Stun or Kill? How many Charges are you using?

PC: Uh….They’re Jem Hadar but my Value “Mr. Nice Guy” means I use Stun. Do I get anything for that?

GM: You get one point of Momentum.

PC: OK…I think I am going to only use two charges for the Vicious setting because I really want to take this guy down quickly. [Rolling – 18 and 7]. Whew! The 18 is nothing but the 7 gives me a third success! I don’t get any more Momentum and I don’t think I will use my one earned now to improve the quality or scope of the success.

GM: OK…how many Challenge Dice do you roll?

PC (Again consulting Character Sheet) I’m carrying a Type 2 Phaser so that’s 3[CD] plus my Security of 2 for a total of 5[CD]. [Rolling – 1, 2, 3, 6, 6]. Uh…that’s 5 damage plus two Effect. The Vicious effect means I add 2 damage for a total of 7. That should be enough for an Injury…Stun means a knockout, right?

GM: Given that you surprised the Jem Hadar squad they don’t evade your attack nor will the Squad Leader resist the injury. They also aren’t wearing armor so there is no Soak. The 7 damage is enough to injure the squad leader…stunned he falls over unconscious. There still is that other guard though…and he turns your direction and raises his rifle….

PC: Well, I’ve taken my Major Action for this round. I am going to add my earned Momentum to the pool making it three, but [looking at fellow players] I think we need to spend 2 Momentum here to keep the initiative and take down the other guard, right guys?

Need more narrative, Scotty!

Having played Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars RPGs with their unique dice mechanic and Destiny Points, or even Savage Worlds or Cortex Plus with Bennies and Plot Points, this reading of multiple dice and managing a game economy should not be a problem. But it bothers me. I think the difference is that those other systems use a single dice throw to determine success and impact. The Modiphius 2d20 system uses at least two throws for each attack. A small difference to be sure. There are also three game economies to be managed (Momentum – both individual and group, Determination by individual, and Threat). I am also not convinced that Momentum or Determination and Threat are powerful enough narratively; indeed they really come across as more mechanical in effect than narrative in nature.

Another part that bothers me is terminology. In parts the system has a very Star Trek vibe to it (like Skills named after departments) but in other places the language seems forced (like the “Vicious” setting for a phaser – never thought of a phaser as vicious). The ned result is that  I’m just not getting that Star Trek adventure feeling yet.

Maybe after the running through the first adventure I will have a different perspective.