RPG Thursday – Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Basic Game

Courtesy MWP

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying has received great honors this year, winning the 2012 Gold Ennie for Best Rules and 2012 Silver Ennies for Product of the Year and Best Game. The game, from Margaret Weis Productions, is the latest implementation/evolution/application of the Cortex Plus system that I first became acquainted with in MWP’s Smallville RPG.

My first impressions are framed by the Ennie awards. Since it won the Best Rules and was the Runner-up for Best Game and Product I have high expectations.

Rules – I have to admit the presentation of the rules is very good. I especially like how the rules are cross-referenced in the text and margins. If you look at my Smallville comments above, you see that I was having a hard time wrapping my head around several game concepts. I have used the Cortex system since Serenity and Battlestar Galactica RPG’s and it has certainly evolved over time (better to say “changed significantly”). This is by far the best explanation of the Cortex Plus system I have yet to read, in part because of the numerous helpful graphics and gameplay examples used. However, I feel the Datafile Creation rules are incomplete. Indeed, they come across as more guidelines than rules. In one case – Assigning Specialties – the book directs the player to “compare your hero to those heroes and villains known throughout the  Marvel Universe….” This is an example of being too closely linked to your license; makes being a Marvel fanboy a near-necessity to play. I don’t think this is really MWP’s intention but it comes across as such.

Product of the Year – My product is the Basic Game, which includes the Operations Manual and the Mini-Event “Breakout.” The Operations Manual weighs in at 126 pages (page OM00 is unmarked) and as I already stated is lavishly illustrated and assisted by helpful graphics and play examples. The blank Datafile, Glossary, and Index are here but numbered as part of the Breakout Mini-Event. The Mini-Event is definitely geared towards learning the game. It is 97 pages long and composed of two Acts (the second Act is optional) and has 23 Hero Datafiles and 48 Villains/Minor Characters/NPCs. This large selection is very helpful in designing your own character. It is also provides insight, especially comparing Black Widow the Hero (Natasha, BR58) with Black Widow the Villain (Yelona Belova, BR32). Overall, this does well as a stand-alone product. Minus the dice, of course. But for $19.99 retail this compares very favorably with the 2012 Ennie Gold Winner for Best Game, Savage Worlds Deluxewhich is also a rulebook sans dice.

Best Game – I have not compared all the 2012 Ennie nominees so I cannot judge if this is really the game of the year. What I will say it that this game is not a hack-and-slash supers game, but much more narrative in approach. To get the maximum enjoyment out of the game will demand a high level of player involvement as it is the players and not the Watcher that creates most of the action. The rules also require more than a passing acquaintance to understand and get the most out of. Regardless of the genre, this game is probably best with seasoned RPG players and not players just starting RPGs or kids.

RPG Thursday – A Little History (Space: 1889 Red Sands)

21ST LANCERS. LANCER IN SUDAN KIT Original watercolor signed by C.Y. (after Caton Woodville), reproduced in The Illustrated London News, Sept. 3, 1898; mounted lancer in campaign dress,

A while back I was working on a RPG setting I called Savage Aeronef, which was a matchup of the Savage Worlds RPG and Wessex Games Aeronef seting. In the course of developing the setting, I created a character named ‘Ace’ Woodley who had a burning desire to get to Mars where his explorer Uncle died. His only connection; his Uncle’s Radium Gun.

More recently, I got a copy of the RPG Space 1889: Red Sands. This fits well with my Savage Aeronef setting and actually requires little change to use. So when I decided to draw up a Space: 1889 character it was logical that I would draw up Ace’s dead uncle.

In Space: 1889 you start character generation with a concept. In this case, I had a (now) dead uncle that died on Mars. Looking over the book and chargen tables, I decided that “Uncle Martin” had been an Army Cavalryman who ended up on Mars and eventually invented his own Radium Gun. In game terms he can be described as a Veteran-level character:

Agility – d8/Smarts – d10/Strength – d6/Spirit – d6/Vigor – d4
Fighting – d8/Knowledge (Battle) – d6/Notice – d8/Persuasion – d6/Repairs – d6/Riding – d8/Shooting – d8/Survival – d6/Tracking – d8/Weird Science – d6
Airsickness (Major)/Disowned (Minor)/Enemy (Minor)
Army Cavalryman/Arcane Science

Space: 1889 also introduces the concept of “status” which roughly equates to social class.  Given that Uncle Martin has the “disowned” hindrance, this reduced his social status to 1, or the underling class.

Looking to flesh out his life history a bit, I went looking for some background information. As one of his languages was Russian I at first imagined that he may have been involved in the Crimean War and the “Charge of the Light Brigade”. This event took place in 1854, or 48 years before ‘Ace’ and seemed to me to be a bit of a stretch. So I kept looking for something else.

One of the books I looked at for the “Charge of the Light Brigade” was Men of War which was edited by Ernest Hemingway. This book is a collection of short stories. One story that jumped out immediately was “The Cavalry Charge at Omdurman” by Winston Churchill.

The Battle of Omdurman took place on 2 September 1898. The key event of the battle was the charge of the 21st Lancers which included a young Winston Churchill. In Churchill’s account, the battle was exciting, but other accounts point to the slaughter of helpless Dervish troops. Churchill wrote to his mother, “I shall merely say that the victory at Omdurman was disgraced by the inhuman slaughter of the wounded and that Kitchener was responsible for this.” (Cited in Farwell, Bryan; The Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Land Warfare: An Illustrated World View; W.W. Norton Company, New York; 2001; pp 613-614.)

So what could have turned Uncle Martin into the wild Martian explorer? Maybe he was repulsed by the slaughter at Omdurman and left the service in disgust. This could account for his minor enemy (Winston Churchill?) and being disowned – or in this case turning his back on society. Eventually he ended up on Mars, “invented” his Radium Gun, and then met his death. Two or three years for all that to happen is a bit tight but not unrealistic. It also explains how ‘Ace’ and his uncle were close.

In the end, creating Uncle Martin turned into a bit of historical exploration that helped flesh out a character. If one had to play Uncle Martin in the time after the Battle of Omdurman and before his death, the little bit of history creates several interesting hooks. Is Churchill his enemy? What does he do on Mars? Does he join the opposition to the British? How did he invent his Radium Gun? Looks like Space: 1889 and Savage Aeronef are a good match!

Red Savaging – Review of Space 1889: Red Sands

Space 1889: Red Sands (RPG Geek)

The Game: Space 1889: Red Sands (Pinnacle Entertainment Group/Studio 2 Publishing, 2010)

The System: Savage Worlds. Only the Core Rulebook is required for play.

The Appearance: My copy is the full-size (8.5”x11”) hardcover with 192 pages. Cover is very evocative of the Victorian-era theme with a line of British soldiers firing, a wounded soldier (officer?) being tended to by a lady showing a bit too much cleavage, and ironclad-like flyers in the background. Front- and end-pages are a three-face map of Mars. Interior pages have a cracked-mud background and are in brown and red tones. Layout is two-column. Illustrations are reflective of the setting.

The Setting: This is the Savage Worlds adaptation of the original Frank Chadwick/GDW and now Heliograph Victorian-era RPG. It is not a pure adaptation of H.G. Wells but rather a blending of several Victorian science-fiction authors into a “steampunk”-like setting in the solar system.

The Content: The back cover of this book states “…this book contains everything you need to play….” The book is actually two books in one; a 55-page player’s guide and a 130-page referee’s guide complete with index.

  • The players section starts out with “Red Sands”, a four-page introduction to the setting.
  • “Making Heroes” (12 pages) modifies the core rules and also adds setting-specific Edges and Hindrances as well as defining several races and hosting a listing of NPCs.
  • “Possessions” (14 pages) is the ironmongery and ships/vehicles collection
  •  “Setting Rules” (22 pages) not only introduces new rules but also Weird Science, a ship construction ruleset, sand ship-to-ship combat
  • “Gazetteer” (4 pages) lays out in very general terms the known locations in the solar system with a bit of an emphasis on Mars
  • “Captain’s Secrets” (7 pages) is the first part of the referee’s section and lays out the major antagonists and revisits the Weird Science rules again
  • “The Many Worlds” (12 pages) is an expanded gazetteer with more information and setting rules as well as links to later “Savage Tales” adventures
  • “Red Sands” (36 pages) is “a grand adventure in serial form.” The 13 episodes are designed to take the players through the entire campaign.
  • “Savage Tales” (44 pages) are short adventures that can be added to the grand campaign or can be used seperately
  • “Allies & Enemies” (22 pages) is the bestiary and NPC collection

The Verdict: There is a reason Space 1889: Red Sands was nominated for a 2011Ennie Award for best setting. The use of the Savage Worlds (“Fast, Furious and Fun”) rules is a natural fit for Victorian science-fiction adventuring. The changes to the rules are not so onerous as to make the game hard to learn after the core rules have been learned. The changes are appropriate to the setting. The game can be played sandbox-like or with a programmed adventure. I like Pinnacle Entertainment products and this one does not disappoint. It certainly shows how a RPG setting for a universal game system should be done. Mongoose, are you listening?

RPG Combat

Being a wargamer first and a pen & paper RPG player second, combat has always played a major role in my RPGs.  These days there are as many combat systems as there are RPG mechanics.  Much like I did a long time ago, I think a comparison is in order.  This comparison of various combat systems will look at two areas of combat, personal and mass (or unit-level) combat.  For each comparison I will use a mid-level character (whatever that means!).

No production timeline promised, but I will look at the following games:

Is that enough to start with?

Christmas Games 2010 – Savage Mars RPG

Courtesy RPG Geek

The Game:  Mars: A Savage Setting of Planetary Romance

The System: Savage Worlds RPG

The Setting: This item is a Savage Worlds RPG sourcebook for a Swords & Planets setting.  It draws heavily on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series and HG Wells’ War of the Worlds.  It is not either one of those, but rather draws upon those works to create a unique setting.

The Appearance: Full-size hardcover.  Cover art is subdued but evocative of the setting.  All interior content is black & white.  Interior art is all-out pulp with swashbuckling males in loincloth or little armor and buxom females, some without clothes!

The Content: There is alot of material stuffed into the 192 pages:

  • Part One: Mars is much of the background.  A map is included but the greyscale used makes interpretation difficult.  Download the full-color version from the Adamant Entertainment website (part of the pdf version).
  • Part Two: Characters helps you generate your Martian characters in the Savage Worlds system.
  • Part Three: Gear is the obligatory equipment lists (get your Radium Gun here!).
  • Part Four:  Setting Rules is where the changes to the standard rules are detailed.  Most importantly, Wild Card characters cannot die but are incapacitated.  Actually, they can be killed but it requires a finishing move against an incapacitated victim.
  • Part Five: Gamemastering is hints to running a Sword & Planet genre game but also includes a Random Adventure Generator.
  • Part Six: Beast of Mars not only includes a Beastiary but also a “Marsifier” that assists the GM in making just about any beast into a Martian version!
  • Part Seven: Slavers of Mars is a five-part Plot Point campaign that is useful for ideas on how a Sword & Planet adventure may go.
  • Part Eight: Encounters includes easy tables and pre-generated NPC’s for use.
  • Throughout the book there are short stories to help set the mood.

The Verdict: Mars is a comprehensive product that presents a Sword & Planet setting about as completely as one will ever find.  Adventures are easy to produce based on this material.  There are not many changes to the basic Savage Worlds rules making it easy to introduce to new groups.

That said, to play a Swords & Planets setting you really need the right group.  Frankly speaking you probably need all males.  Let’s face it, the source materials itself (especially Barsoom) is sexist.  I am sure you can get around this issue but doing so likely loses the core of Sword & Planet genre.

Savage Aeronef – Dawn Patrol

My first Aeronef battle featuring the Savage Worlds character of ‘Ace’ Woodley….

Dawn Patrol

Flight Lieutenant James ‘Ace” Woodley entered the bridge just as the phone-talker repeated the look-out’s call.

“Four Aerostats. Bearing 000 relative. Range maybe 15,000 meters. Constant bearing, decreasing range!”

Ace spoke up, “Could be that German aerostat flotilla that was poking around last week. Four Heildelberg-class if I remember correctly.”

[Heildelberg/Class 5(DM)/Hull 3/Gun 1/Bomb 3/Speed 12/Turn 3]

The First Lieutenant, Mr. Card, spoke in a dismissive tone, “The Germans use the Heildelbergs as reconnaissance ‘stats. They are gunboats like us but with smaller hulls and only half the weight of fire. We are faster by a factor of half. Even though they outnumber us four to three we outgun them three to two. Should be no problem.”

[Achilles/Class 5(M)/Hull 4/Gun 2/Bomb 0/Speed 18/Turn 4]

“Ever the statistician, Mr. Card,” said the Captain. “Mr. Woodley, it seems your gunners will get some practice today,” the last comment was direct to Ace.

“That would be a first,” came the taunt from Lieutenant Card. Ace looked the First Lieutenant with a slightly bemused expression. He really wanted to strangle the pompous fool but knew that would be bad manners in front of the Captain. Instead he replied to the Captain, “My gunners will do their duty, sir.” Ace turned to leave the bridge.

“Speaking of duty,” Card said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “Your white scarf may have been acceptable in the Aeroplane Corps but I remind you that you are now a ‘Nef officer. In the future, I am sure you will dress for duty in an appropriate manner, yes Flight Lieutenant Woodley?”

Ace’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Card. Noticing the Captain looking his direction, he threw a sharp salute to the Old Man and dismissed himself with a “By your leave, sir!” As he exited the bridge, Ace was sure Card was smiling at his ability to needle the younger officer.

As the Assistant Gunnery Officer, Ace’s battlestation was in the gunnery plotting room. As he entered, another Lieutenant, Wilson, looked up from the plotting table. “This constant bearing is playing havoc with the plot! Getting a range is really hard!”

“I expect the Captain to turn soon. He has to in order to bring the guns to bear,” Ace spoke. No sooner had he spoken than Ace felt the ship bank into a port turn. To Ace, a former aeroplane pilot, banking into a turn felt natural. To many an Aeronef officer who had come from the wet navy and expected a ship to heel over, the maneuver felt foreign.

Wilson was listening intently to the soundphones over his ears. “Looks like Odysseus is staying astern of us as we swing north, but Theseus is still going due east. Captain isn’t too happy.”

Ace grunted. The Old Man was the Senior Captain of this small squadron, not enough to rank being called Commodore but still, he was in charge….

The call from the bridge came over the ship-wide speakers, “Starboard gunners, stand by!” Ace quickly plugged his soundphones into the speakerbox. The starboard guns were his. The phones were silent except for the occasional order from the Leading Petty Officer in each casement.

“Hey boys,” Ace called out, “we ready for some fun?” The cheers he got back brought a smile to his face and a grimace to Wilson’s. Being a former pilot meant Ace was a lot friendlier with the enlisted men. He may be popular with his men, but many of his fellow ‘nef officers frowned upon his actions. None so more than First Lieutenant Card.

“Range 8,000 meters!” Wilson announced.

“Open fire!” The order came from the bridge. Quickly Achilles started spitting out fire from its light, quick-fire guns. By order of the Captain, Ace relayed to his gunners to concentrate on the lead ship. As the two squadrons approached one another, the Germans had shifted to a line abreast formation. The lead ship was actually the second ship from the right.

Ace could hear the cheers from the gunners as solid hits were scored. With all three ships concentrating their fire, it was a short few minutes before the first enemy aerostat plunged to the sea a burning wreck.

The first 10 minutes of the battle and the downing of the enemy aerostat was certainly joyous, but the next 15 minutes were full of frustration for Ace and his gunners. The remaining three aerostats split into two groups, two swinging to the north and one going to the south. Achilles and Odysseus swung behind then alongside the lone southern aerostat and raked its hull several times but it refused to go down. Meanwhile, Theseus took on the two other aerostats by herself. Not long after, Theseus was visibly trailing smoke and slowing down.

“Mr. Woodley!” Ace had not noticed the arrival of the First Lieutenant in his spaces. “The Captain is most disappointed in your gun crews. Because they seem unable to finish this lone aerostat, you are to cease fire while we move to protect Theseus. If it were up to me, I would throw you and the lot at the enemy because even that has a better chance of hitting them than your guns apparently do!”

Ace passed the orders to his gunners and wiped the sweat from his brow. He didn’t even look at Lieutenant Card who glared at Ace for a short time then left for the bridge. It took only a few minutes for Achilles and Odysseus to near Theseus, given how damaged that ship was already. Seeing the British squadron together once again, the German aerostats turned to the east and retreated. At least two of the three were trailing a good deal of smoke.

The loundpeaker boomed, “Mr. Woodley to the bridge!” Wilson looked at Ace and shook his head.

As Ace moved to the bridge he realized that Achilles had not been unhurt in the battle. The damage was noticeable as he entered the bridge. The Captain sat in his chair with his head wrapped in a bandage. Lieutenant Card was pacing the bridge like a tempest.

“Mr. Woodley,” the Lieutenant practically spat out the name, “your extremely poor performance today is a disgrace to the service! I should have you cashiered out for such a poor showing!”

The adrenalin was still coursing through Ace’s veins and this was one fight he was not ready to back away from. “My gunners did as well as could be expected under the circumstances! We need good stable optics to take ranges and a faster way of making calculations so the gun crews can do the real dirty work!”

Card shot back. “So we all need one of those new Babbage machines, yes? To hear that from you of all people; yourself that abhores technology. Well, I don’t need a difference engine to tell me this; the German ‘stats got five good sets of hits on the squadron. One against Achilles, and two against Odysseus and Theseus each. The look-outs tell me that at best we got eight hits on the Germans. Three took down the leader but we only got one hit in the second and maybe two hits each on the other two. That is unacceptable, Mr. Woodley! We outgunned them three to two! We should have at least downed a second aerostat! Your incompetent gunnery crews will force us to land this ‘nef for repairs. Time wasted, Mr. Woodley, time wasted!”

The two men glared at each other. Card glanced down at Ace’s belt and smiled. “Fingering your dead uncles Radium Gun, eh? Admiralty regulations on mutiny are quite clear. Just what are you thinking, Flight Lieutenant Woodley?”

Ace took a deep breathe and slowly moved his hand away from his holster. Someday, Card would pay. Someday, but not today.

Wargame Wednesday – Veterans Day Outlook

Looking forward to a long weekend and hoping to get in a few games.

Aeronef – Will try to get my “Savage Aeronef” battle done.  What will happen to ‘Ace’ Woodley?

Imperium – Will try to find out what happens in the Second Terran War.

Star Wars Saga Edition – Following my Star Warriors and Star Wars Silent Death games I am going to give a similar scenario a shot using the SWSE starship combat rules.

‘Ace’ Woodley – RNAS Pilot (Savage Worlds/Aeronef)

The background of Aeronef and the pulp-feel of the Savage Worlds RPG system just seem to go too well together.  Presented here is my first “Savage Aeronef” concept character:

Flight Lieutenant James ‘Ace’ Woodley, Royal Navy Aeronef Service (RNAS), Gunnery Officer, HMS Achilles (Achilles-class Aeronef Gunboat) [Seasoned Character=25XP]


  • Agility – d10/Smarts – d6/Strength – d6/Spirit – d6/Vigor – d6


  • Driving – d8/Fighting – d8/Persuasion – d6/Piloting – d10/Repair – d6/Shooting – d10/Weird Science – d6


  • Heroic (Major)/Doubting Thomas (Minor)/Enemy (Minor)


  • Ace/Arcane Science/Command


  • Leather Flight Jacket
  • Radium Gun
  • Rapier

‘Ace’ Woodley started out flying aerofighters for the Royal Navy Air Corps.  He proved himself a capable pilot over the course of several campaigns and battles.  His burning desire is to get to Mars where his explorer Uncle died at the hands of natives under mysterious circumstances.  The only connection Ace still has to his uncle is his uncle’s Radium Gun which Ace was able to keep after his Uncle’s possessions were returned to Earth.  However, the RNAS is not keen on this aeroplane pilot intruding upon their service and has assigned Flight Lieutenant  Woodley to HMS Achilles, a small gunboat to “gain experience” while the Aeronef Service evaluates the junior officer.  It is an open secret that Achilles’ First Lieutenant, one Oliver Card, intensely dislikes the upstart ‘Ace’ who is very popular with the deck hands  [Lt Card is treated as Hostile in all interactions with Ace].

It is now 1902 and BBC Radio is playing a funeral dirge for the death of Queen Victoria….

Savage Worlds of Aeronef

I really believe that wargaming and RPGs go hand-in-hand.  Maybe this is because my earliest RPG was Traveller which had many wargames that went along with it (see Mayday or Imperium for example).

So the other day I was looking for my next wargame to play and pulled out Aeronef by Wessex Games.  Aeronef is a Victorian Science Fiction game loosely based on writings of authors like H.G. Wells or Jules Verne.  The Aeronef Captain’s Handbook expands the Aeronef universe by adding Martian battles.  This in turn got me thinking about Savage Worlds: Mars which is a Planets & Sword RPG using the Savage Worlds engine.

Still thinking, I drew up a Savage Worlds: Explorers Edition character to populate my Aeronef world.  I see battles forthcoming featuring this character.