Blueholme Journeymanne Rules

Introduction

Three years ago I (briefly) reviewed the Blueholme Prentice Rules, a retroclone of the Holmes D&D Basic game. Since that time Michael Thomas worked on expanding his game to cover additional levels, and now the Journeymanne rules have been released. While I did help proof-read this game, it’s been quite awhile since I’ve looked at it, so I’ll be looking at this with fairly fresh eyes.

Initial Impressions

First thing of course is the cover, with artwork by Jean-Francois Beaulieu, is fantastic. I do think the title could be a bit larger, but overall this is one of my favorite OSR covers. Flipping through the book, the first thing that stands out to me is the plain San-serif font. I’m not a fan of it (even 1E’s San-serif font was far cleaner), and it’s blocky and pixelated. The headers and sub-headers should have been different fonts, and there’s not much spacing. I’m also not a fan of the tables; they should have alternating colors or such to make them easier to read, and they blend in to the surrounding text too easily.

But in contrast to all of that, it’s easy to see that the artwork Kickstarter paid off enormously! Instead of the sparse wood-block style of the Prentice rules, here we have a wide variety of artists on display. There’s very few images that fall short or look out of place, and several are among my favorite OSR/RPG pieces I’ve ever seen!

Introduction (Book)

Like pretty much any OSR RPG this game opens with a (rather short) story, and then goes over what each chapter covers. I do like how there’s a section for what “level” means in certain contexts, as at least for this game there are 5 different uses/meanings for that word. Very confusing for those new to these kind of games! Next is a short section on rounding and multiplying, which as far as I know is unique to this OSR RPG; the multiplying part was confusing to me and took a number of reads, but hopefully that’s just me! Finally are notes on winners and losers, and how the rules should be read/applied; these two sections make excellent points and I commend Michael for including them.

Characters

Alright, time to dive in and create a Blueholme character! Coming from any other OSR RPG you’ll likely won’t see anything really different, but one thing I noticed immediately is there’s no section of races (termed species here) to choose from. Instead, Blueholme follows Mythras and the like by stating that almost any creature could be played as a character, as long as it fits the game desired by the referee and other players (also, on page 11 is a class hit dice adjustment table depending on the creature chosen).

We have the 4 traditional classes, and unlike Labyrinth Lord the cleric does NOT get a spell at first level, which was the norm for B/X D&D. Where Blueholme does follow Labyrinth Lord is the amount of XP needed to reach a level, as it ends with 1 rather than 0. Interestingly, there’s one place where Blueholme follows Basic Fantasy RPG: thief skills, as they all use d100 rather than the traditional d6 for hear noise. I personally prefer this, or using 2d6 like in Sine Nomine’s games. In other words, consistency.

This game does have alignment, and I’m likely to use it as in other games, i.e. not at all. Finally this chapter ends with equipment and transportation. What I noticed immediately was that there’s no damage listings for the weapons; flipping ahead to page 56 shows that all weapons deal 1d6. Huh; I know variable damage was an optional rule in many older D&D editions, but I’m so used to it now that it throws me off when I don’t see it, and I really do prefer variable damage, even so far as different damage vs. Large creatures.

Spells

This is a standard section comparable to other OSR RPGs. I only bothered to write this short section to again commend the variety and amount of artwork this game has, it’s spectacular!

Adventures

Here we start to get into the meat of the game. I like that it denotes three different types of locales: the realm, wilderness, and underworld. Next it goes over time and turns, rounds, etc. For whatever strange reason in this game there is both the normal turn (10 minutes) as well as a combat turn (100 seconds?!), accounting for 10 10-second turns.

The rest of the chapter covers travel and obstacles in the underworld and wilderness, and then life in the realm and related construction costs, retainers and hirelings, etc. I do think this chapter is far better organized than most other OSR games, as it includes the city/realm portion in the player-facing sections/rules rather than split off to near the end of the book.

Encounters

This chapter starts off with some handy encounter tables, including variable chances in certain types of terrain. There are also encounters for while in the realm, and even broken down by class of the adversary. This is something I haven’t seen in any other OSR game, and it’s a potentially interesting variant.

This game does have the rule for reactions, which many other games either have as an option or not at all. I think it’s a handy rule to use, as it can be a little more realistic as well as potentially avoiding a combat encounter that could kill one or more PCs. Like Blueholme Prentice and Holmes D&D this game uses Dexterity to determine initiative rather than a random die roll. While it’s one less thing to worry about, I prefer to add a little variety with the die roll, and still use DEX bonuses/penalties to modify it. As this game uses descending armor class, we can’t forget those attack tables/matrices! While I prefer ascending armor class, I have no problem with descending either.

This chapter ends with two short (I mean really short, like a half-page each) combat examples and the saving throw tables.

Creatures

The first page of this chapter goes over using creatures as PCs; there’s a lot that may have to be adjusted. While most if not all of it makes sense to me, it is gonna slow down character generation, so be sure to have a session 0 for your game to get through all of it!

One little thing that I don’t like is that there’s no spacing between a creature’s name and its stat-block; it’s right below it. The stat-blocks are pretty much the same as any other OSR game, but it’s odd that the XP line is in the middle rather than at the end.

Like the Spells chapter this one also as a good amount of great artwork! Unfortunately before I know it I’m at the end of the chapter. While I haven’t counted out how many entries there are compared to other OSR games, there’s no doubt this is one of the shortest ones I’ve seen. Some of that is due to some of the entries being combined, such as the lycanthropes. But that also means a very shortened description block that doesn’t give any details to the different variants (not that I want a half to whole page on each, but I mean really). I’m sure if I went through and compared I’d find several of my favorites missing.

Treasure

In this game treasure is noted by a number from 1 to 20, rather than roman numerals in Labyrinth Lord and letters in Basic Fantasy RPG. I’m not picky on any system, although Labyrinth Lord’s bugs me for some reason. ANYWAYS, the table is otherwise the same, with certain categories having a percentage chance. Looking at the individual tables, it sure seems like this game has more than its fair share of treasure, possibly as much as in Iron Falcon. This chapter ends with a note on creating magical items, which is something that although in pretty much every OSR game I just don’t agree with. Magical items should be left mysterious, unknown, and beyond even the most powerful character’s capabilities of creating.

Campaigns

Finally is the obligatory chapter with advice for the GM, which I find is a bit lacking in most OSR games. Whether it’s because they’re strictly following the spartan pre-1E D&D games, relying on additional supplements, etc. to fill that role, or they just blindly shrug with the usual “just use your imagination kid!” attitude, I just think pretty much all OSR games could fill in far more detail.

Does this game do that? Well almost a page goes over designing an adventure, while almost two pages covers designing the underworld (i.e. the dungeon layout). The next page or so covers the wilderness and realm, and that’s definitely not enough material and detail. The final two pages gives some generic GM advice and optional rules.

Overall this chapter is painfully short, as this games has chosen to follow the other OSR games and blindly copy their predecessors rather than make an effort to add on even just a little bit more of what we’ve learned through time, experience, and trial-and-error.

Conclusion

With all of that being said, do I recommend this game if I had read it on its own and no other OSR games, and then compared to what must be dozens of other retroclones and such now available? There’s a unique feel and aspect to this game, being one of the rare few (or perhaps the only) games to model itself after the Holmes D&D game. Of course for this expanded game Michael had to postulate what Holmes would have included and written, but I can’t fault that any more than those who have tried to make a “AD&D 2E if Gygax had sole control” game.

If Holmes D&D has a special place in your gamer heart, then you’ll definitely want to check this game out. Going simply by look/design/layout, it’s a bit on the plain side, but with a generous amount of artwork that mostly leans on the fantastic side. It may not have been a pioneer like many of the other OSR games, but I think it can more than hold its own beside them.

The Blueholme Journeymanne PDF can be purchased on DriveThruRPG, and a hard copy from Lulu (softcover | hardcover).

Stars Without Number

Introduction

After reviewing Silent Legions, I figured it was due time to review Kevin’s first game (now out in a revised edition) Stars Without Number (hereafter referred to as SWN). Hailed for its simple OSR-based rules and plentiful tables for sector and adventure creation, SWN paved the way for Kevin’s future works, and he brings that additional experience and knowledge back to the revised edition. Just like the original game and Godbound, Kevin offers a free version with most of the game rules and material included, while offering just enough extra items to entice purchasing the deluxe PDF and/or a printed copy. For this review I’ll be covering the free edition.

The first thing that’s really hard to miss is the design and layout, which compared to the first edition’s bare-boned and straight-forward look is miles ahead. It’s sophisticated without being too busy or in your face. Headers (using an interesting font which surprisingly isn’t used for the main title) and tables are all over the place, and it makes this game very easy to both read through as well as reference during play. There’s also a notable increase in both the quantity and the quality in the full-color artwork, and it gives a wonderful atmosphere of a science-fiction game that has aspects of fantasy, cyberpunk, and more mixed in. Just like the rules, it shows that Stars Without Number is a wildly effective set of rules for so many kinds of games.

Character Creation

This chapter begins in a way that all other games should really follow: a quick 1-page introduction followed by a short summary with a numbered/keyed character sheet. In my opinion if your game can’t do this you need to either trim the fat or go back to the drawing board. ANYWAYS, starting off like this gives the reader a little confidence boost, because with the increased page-count it can certainly give the impression of a game that’s difficult to learn and so much to remember. But fear not!

As noted on the checklist, creating a character in SWN involves rolling attributes and its modifiers, choosing a background, choosing skills, choosing a class (not sure why this isn’t earlier), choosing foci, optionally creating an alien/VI/AI/psychic character, and rolling your hit points. Overall, not too painful!

Attributes are rolled 3d6 as standard, and the modifier range is a narrow -2 to +2 range. Skill checks are 2d6 as standard in Kevin’s games. The list of skills is quite short, which I’m glad to see. Here is where I kind of understand why a background is chosen before the class (although I just noticed that the order on the 1-page summary is wrong, as it has choosing a background before skills rather than after); a background is meant to be more what a character did for a job/career before beginning their life of adventure. Depending on the background you choose, you’ll gain a certain skill for free, along with either 2 more skills at random or a set of pre-determined/default skills. This makes sense to me, coming from Mythras, though now I see that the list is correct and in the chapter backgrounds should perhaps come before skills.

Next it’s time to choose a class; there are still three to choose from (Expert, Psychic, and Warrior) along with a new fourth one: Adventurer. This is really a catch-all, and it involves choosing two “partial classes”. Hmmm ok, this is where a class-based game starts to strain. Again, may just be my Mythras/BRP brain at work, but why even have classes at this point, rather than just backgrounds and skills? Next it’s time to choose a Focus. This is an additional perk evidently. Why it has to be separated out from skills I don’t know.

All that’s left is to roll up hit points (which isn’t going to be very high at first level, so no reckless adventuring!), noting your base attack bonus and saving throws (using the 3-branch system like D&D 3.x and DCC) and purchasing equipment. For the latter, there’s an interesting option. While there’s a separate equipment chapter that players can browse through, in this chapter there’s a page of standard equipment packages that players can choose from in exchange for their starting funds. It’s a neat way of quickly finishing up player generation and getting on with things.

The chapter ends with a 2-page quick character generation system, and while it looks handy for quick one-shots like at a convention, I don’t know if it would be utilized that much for at-home games, especially for those who would want to truly create a unique character (at least as far rules-wise as that allows with the small number of classes, backgrounds, and skills).

Psionics

Hmmm, psionics. Just like cults and magic, I don’t personally foresee using much of this chapter as I would be leaning towards a harder sci-fi kind of game. That being said, there’s quite a bit of variety including biopsionics, metapsionics, precognition, telekinesis, telepathy, and teleportation, so depending on what kind of game you’re looking to run you might want to use one, some, or all of these! Luckily each section is just a couple pages long, so it’s easy to read through and quickly ascertain its possible usage.

Systems

Well this is pretty much the meat of the book, explaining how things work. So it should be the largest chapter with lots of tables, etc. right? Nope! Under 15 pages including a 1-page summary at the end, this is another instance where the reader can breathe a sigh of relief. While combat is a couple of pages, it also sits nicely along with saving throws, skill checks, hacking, character advancement, and environmental hazards. Combat is fairly brief but it looks like a fun, simple system (but that doesn’t mean PCs should be eager to get into a fight!). The 1-page summary sheet really does look like it covers everything needed during play, and for a custom SWN screen I don’t think there’s too much else you’d have to add or otherwise change, at least right off the bat.

Equipment and Vehicles

Oh boy, lots of wonderful toys, including cyberware and artifacts! I don’t know what if anything has been included from Kevin’s previous works Polychrome and Relics of the Lost, but I have a feeling those are still relevant and useful if you want even more choices and details. Of course, many of the items are only available at certain Technology Levels and above, so depending on the kind of game you want to run (or at least certain planets visited) you may need to think up some custom equipment.

One section I liked was Lifestyle, Employees, and Services. These are helpful tables to make the GM’s (and players’) life easier for those who will be away from a ship for any length of time. Another section I didn’t know I wanted was Drones. While they’ve certainly become more popular in real life, both for surveillance and recreational flying, they are also popular on many shows and movies, and it was something I never really thought about until reading this section. I am quite pleasantly surprised that sections such as this are included in the free PDF, rather than a paid exclusive!

Cyberware is another interesting section, but I don’t know if I would personally use much of it in my sci-fi games. Of course, if I wanted to run something near-future or wanted to go all out Snow Crash, then this section would become quite mandatory. Next are artifacts, and while there are some interesting items I wouldn’t personally include many except as something relevant to an adventure’s central story, and/or perhaps an interesting way to introduce a new NPC or such. Finally are a couple pages for equipment modifications and maintenance. I think this is another neat idea that I’d likely use at least in moderation.

Starships

If there was a highlight chapter to really show off this game, I think this might be it! It covers the creation and customization of starships, as well as travel and combat. I can understand having the latter part grouped in this chapter rather than in the Systems chapter, but this is also something you’ll very likely need to add to your reference sheet/screen as well.

First it covers building a starship, including hull types, which will dictate how many and even which fittings, defenses, and weaponry can go with that ship. As you can imagine there’s a lot of different items available here, limited only by hull type and cost. It may seem like a lot to take in, but luckily there’s about 3 pages of example ships at the end of this section.

Next is modifying and tuning starships. This is likely something not done at character/ship creation time but later on in a game. There’s several options for changing the way a ship behaves, performs, and even how it’s maintained. Again, depending on the kind of game you’re wanting to run this may be something neat and the players will want to dive into, or your group may earmark this for later if at all.

Next are a couple of pages each for space travel, sensors and detection, and maintenance and repair. Space travel is the most detailed of these sections, primarily discussing spike drills, a potentially dangerous method for interstellar travel. Luckily a failed roll won’t result in the crew’s death, but it could put them stranded in a dangerous and uncharted territory! Maintenance is something that can’t be easily hand-waved away (I mean you could if you really want to ignore it), as every six months in game time a ship must have maintenance performed or begin accruing penalties on all rolls, ultimately resulting in a stranded ship. That could result in questionable help coming, if any, or perhaps attracting the attention of pirates or other non-friendly travelers.

Lastly, the chapter covers ship combat, combat actions, and crises. Evidently the starship combat has been radically changed for the revised edition, allowing all crew members to participate. Each starship rolls initiative, and on each turn the captain decides the order the various departments (ie each PC) will act; these departments include bridge, gunnery, engineering, comms, and captain. If there aren’t enough PCs for each department, then one or more PCs may have to double up. On each turn each department chooses an action, whether from one specific for that department or choosing from the general actions; some actions require command points, which are generated from certain actions. One interesting thing is that once per round a ship may choose to accept a crisis rather than damage from an enemy hit. There’s a good number of crises to choose from: armor loss, cargo loss, crew lost, engine lock, fuel bleed, haywire systems, hull breach, system damage, target de-calibration, and VIP imperiled.

The History of Space

This chapter goes over the default setting in the game. Like pretty much everything else in the game, this is entirely optional to use in your game, whether in part or whole. It’s not a very long chapter, and the ending timeline is a nice summary that’s easy to learn and reference.

Sector Creation

This chapter is the first of three (along with Adventure Creation and Game Master Resources) that makes this game worth having the free PDF at least, even if you never plan to play this game. The fact is there’s so many tables and helpful information to create your own universe, the worlds within it, etc. I find this indispensable, as I need all the help I can get in this genre to create a universe that feels grand, bigger than the players. To me that’s the point of science fiction and space travel!

The largest section is for World Tags. These are brief one- or two-word descriptions that are the defining trait of that world. After this key term and a short summary, each world tag has associated entries for enemies, friends, complications, thing, and places. SWN includes 100 sample world tags, and it’s easy to either customize or create totally new ones for an adventure.

After world tags there are sections for atmosphere, temperature, biosphere, population, tech level, and additional system points of interests.

Adventure Creation

This is undoubtedly the most useful chapter in the book, and is worth having the free edition of SWN even if only for that. After a long initial section on thinking, planning, creating, and polishing an adventure there are several sections and tables covering a wide range of topics including rewards, problems, people, and places. Following that is 100 adventure seeds. They start out fairly generic and slowly become longer and more specific.

Xenobestiary

This was a section from the first edition that I had hoped would be significantly re-written and expanded, but that is definitely not the case. Yes there’s some handy charts and tables for creating beasts and aliens, as well as customizing humans, but for me it falls far short for a game that touts to be a deep, compelling sandbox. Even Kevin’s other games, such as Silent Legions, at least had a few examples to help show the reader how the rules worked. In SWN there are NO examples or any pre-generated NPCs or foes! Unbelievable! This chapter does include robot and VIs, and also VI PCs. These are something I would definitely allow in my universe and games. This chapter ends with aliens and alien PC. That’s something I’m not sure I would have in my games, but it’s a possibility.

Factions

Groups, empires, and more can all have an impact on a game and on-going campaign. In SWN these are grouped into Factions. These groups will each have 3 attributes (Force, Cunning, and Wealth), Hit Points (this makes no sense to me, why not a morale rating or such?), Assets, and Tags. The actions a faction make are divided up into turns. These normally occur either once a month or after each adventure, i.e. not very often. There’s a lot that factions can be used for, and I can see their utility in a SWN game. However I don’t like many of the terms and related systems that are used, and I think that overall it’s more complicated than it needs to be.

Game Master Resources

While not as large a chapter as the Sector and Adventure Creation chapters, this one is still very helpful and will help get an adventure written or at least some notes on paper to wing a game. Among the many sections my favorites are the house rules suggestions and the tables for names, one-roll NPCs and PAtrons, and urban and wilderness encounters. This chapter ends with the character sheet (an interesting landscape-oriented layout, but not happy there’s no sheets for sector creation and such), a small index, and list of Kickstarter backers.

Free or Deluxe Version?

Here’s a list of what additional items are included in the deluxe version, and I’ll give my impression of each one (without being able to look at the deluxe PDF):

  • Transhuman tech – this is something that’s piqued my interest thanks to Battlestar Galactica and Eclipse Phase, but without the latter’s sheer bulk of rules. Some may not want any of this in their kind of game, but it’s still a nice addition.
  • True AIs – I’m not sure how these would differ from the included VIs.
  • Mechs – while I would likely never use this, I can’t deny how cool it would be to have a mech fight! I wish I knew if it uses the same or a similar system to starship combat.
  • Heroic PCs – Whether this simply means characters with astronomical hit points, skills, etc. or something more meaningful, I just don’t really see ever using this. I want my characters to be normal, fragile, human.
  • Society creation – I’m not sure how much more detailed I want to be beyond what the sector creation and world tags sections offer in the book, but there’s no doubt it could help flesh out a campaign or entire universe if a gaming group wanted to get that detailed.
  • Space magic – I really doubt I’d use this, but again it would be intriguing to see what all is actually offered.

So, in summary do I think the deluxe version is worth it, whether just the PDF ($20) alone or also in print (either $60 for standard or $80 for premium)? Well, the deluxe is an extra 50-60 pages, and that’s quite a bit of content. I know I would personally prefer printing the PDF myself, as I’m not a fan of a plain white page and would use a nice off-white paper (that’s also a bit heavier), as well as using comb binding to make it easier to lay flat. If I was going to get a hardback through DTRPG, I’d likely save the $20 and get the standard version.

Conclusion

It’s hard for me to know exactly where to place this game among the other sci-fi RPGs I’ve reviewed, as well as several others I’ve owned and/or read but haven’t reviewed. This game is certainly not the rule-heaviest, but also not the lightest. Despite lighter rules it does come in near the top looking at page-count, although much of it is useful charts, tables, and sub-systems. I do have to concede that despite not liking some of the vocabulary and overall tone of SWN, I can’t deny that it’s one of the better sci-fi RPGs available. Would I run this rather than simply using Mythras, as for example in A Gift For Shamash? That’s hard to say; I’d have to make some rules adjustments anyways, and likely add on quite a bit to fit a non-fantasy game. Overall it may not be as much work as using SWN, but since the basic rules for SWN aren’t that difficult to learn is there a point to NOT using it?

In the end, one of the best selling points for this game, similar to so many other games from Sine Nomine, is its modularity. Whether using the free or deluxe version, the fact is you don’t HAVE to use every single system, rule, etc. for your game. Taking a look at the free PDF, you should be able to get a rough idea of what you’d actually use. Then you have to weigh out if getting the deluxe version is worth the cost.

Unlike the first edition, this revised edition is only available in hardcover in either a standard or premium color version. The latter is priced at $80, which is going to be a tough pill to swallow no matter how good this game is. Is it worth that, even over the $60 cost of the standard version? A lot of people like to calculate an RPG’s value based on the number of hours of gaming and enjoyment you can get out of it, say compared to a video game. Looking at it that way, yes it is more than worth its price. Looking at it on its own, or compared to some other RPGs of similar page-count and amount of artwork, Stars Without Number does look a little pricey. For most printings it’s an easy decision to go with the premium color version, and there’s no doubt this game will look fantastic, but is it worth another $20? Would the standard version look that much worse, especially with the amount of artwork this edition has? Ultimately only you can answer that for yourself. For me, even I do decide to get a printed copy, I will probably get the standard version. But that’s when I know for sure I want Stars Without Number sitting on my shelf with the few other games I’ve kept.

Delta Green Agent’s Handbook

Introduction

As a huge fan of horror, as well as X-Files, I should have been playing Delta Green since its initial release in 1997. Hell I didn’t even know about the Call of Cthulhu RPG for years after getting into Rifts, D&D, etc. The original release of Delta Green is a sourcebook/supplement to the Call of Cthulhu RPG; it depends on that book for the base rules. This newer release makes Delta Green a stand-alone game. It still shares common or similar rules and systems as Call of Cthulhu and other BRP games, but it does stand alone, and from my reading it seems to be the simplest implementation of those rules, so one point for Delta Green! I must also commend Arc Dream for the gorgeous art and layout, along with a very clear set of readable typefaces.

However, we may need to already take away that point, because Delta Green has gone the way the latest edition of Call of Cthulhu has: increasing the page-count to the point of necessitating 2 separate books. Although in Call of Cthulhu the Keeper Rulebook is all that’s truly needed to play as well as run the game, for Delta Green you may actually need to buy both books. The Agent’s Handbook does cover most game rules including combat and sanity, but there isn’t any information on creating adventures, monsters and other opponents, etc. If you’re just wanting to use older Delta Green material and/or the new adventures being released, or simply your own custom material, the Agent’s Handbook may be sufficient for you. I suppose it wouldn’t be too hard to create custom monsters and opponents, or even borrow some from other BRP games, but having official guidance is what I’d prefer. Do I really mind having to buy another book? Well, in this case I don’t actually. Considering how easy (and fun!) it is to read through the Agent’s Handbook, and its amazing design and layout, I’m happy to spend a little more money to support this game and publisher!

Overview

In this short opening chapter we are introduced to what Delta Green is and isn’t. If you’re familiar with Call of Cthulhu, you’ll know what to expect: fighting against insurmountable odds and at the very luckiest may survive the day, with or without your sanity intact. In this game you aren’t a Victorian or 1800s investigator or socialite. In one way or another you work for Delta Green, a government agency that won’t even confirm your existence. You might already work for the government, in the military, or a civilian who was unlucky enough to witness something out of the ordinary. Understand? Good let’s proceed…

Agents

Now that you know what you’re in for, it’s time to create your agent. First are your statistics, the same you’ve seen in OSR RPGs and other BRP RPGs. Next are the derived attributes from those attributes. Next you’ll choose your profession; there’s not that many to choose from, but they’re fairly broad in scope, and you can always create one if you wish. Depending on which profession you choose you’ll receive professional skills to go with it. You’ll also choose bonus skill points. Next you’ll choose your bonds, the close meaningful relationships in the agent’s life. The final step is to provide some extra details about your agent; these include name, age, nationality, motivations, possibly a mental disorder, and/or adapted to violence or helplessness.

All in all this is one of the easiest systems for character creation I’ve seen in a BRP RPG, let alone any RPG.

The Game

Except for combat and sanity, which follow this chapter in fairly small number of pages each, this chapter is basically the meat of the game (especially as compared to OSR RPGs you shouldn’t be spending too much time in combat, as that’s likely certain death for your agent).

What this game comes down to, just like all BRP RPGs, is the use of skills. In this game your profession granted your agent a set of skills to use, at varying levels of competency. BRP RPGs including Delta Green are a roll-under system; you want to roll as low as possible on d100 to succeed; of course the higher your skill percentage/rating, the easier that is.

First it must be determined if something that your agent needs to do even needs to roll. Perhaps only sufficient time, patience, and/or energy are needed to succeed; other things may require a minimum percentage in a relevant skill to succeed, and if your agent doesn’t meet that then it’s an automatic failure. The game lists 3 criteria for rolling dice for a skill test: when it is difficult, when the situation is unpredictable, and when there are consequences. In some circumstances a specific skill may not be applicable or even required, but one of the agent’s statistics could be used (at x5 its value against d100).

Once an agent has rolled, there are 4 possible outcomes: critical success, success, failure, and fumble. The first two happen when the roll is lower than the skill number/rating, and the latter two for when the roll is higher. The outliers, critical success and fumble, happen when the roll is 01 or 00 respectively, or the roll is matching numbers.

The remaining pages of this chapter deal with time required, opposed rolls, pursuit, and willpower points. Each of these short sections are very easy to learn and logical.

Combat

Alright agent, the world is a dangerous place, and confrontations are inevitable. This chapter covers what all you can do, as well as the things you must deal with as a consequence of attacks and any other actions.

First is the concept of turns; each turn is normally a couple of seconds but may be longer, just long enough for everyone to complete an action. What are your agents’ options? You can aim, attack, called shot, disarm, dodge, escape, fight back, move, pin, wait, or anything else that can be done in a turn’s amount of time (so no screwing around).

Attack and defense rolls are both pretty simple and straight-forward. Delta Green introduces the lethality rating for massive weapons in both terms of damage and/or multiple attacks (such as a machine gun). This is an ingenious rule! I believe it is also used for monsters and their more devastating attacks. Next the chapter covers protection, including fragile, exposed, armor, huge, transcendent, and armor-piercing weapons. After that it’s time to go over other threats, including poison and disease, falling, impact, suffocation, fire, and cold. Last but not least is the aftermath of combat.

All in all this is also a fairly short chapter, which each sub-system and rule clearly explained. Each one has its uses and follows a logical order.

Sanity

As this is a Cthulhu-based game, sanity is an inevitable subject matter, as much to my chagrin. I certainlly understand that the unknown, strange, and horrifying can have varying effects on a person’s mind, but within the scope of a tabletop game I would want them to not take up a large amount of time, rules, and effect on the people playing and running the game.

The chapter starts with describing the SAN value, denoted as two numbers (the amount loss due to a success or failure). Next is a very small section about exploring the loss of sanity; if it’s a small loss, how does that look to the other agents and NPCs? It’s an interesting notion that I’m glad the book included. It also hits upon success, as the event could have been something that any other “normal” person would have certainly taken a toll (the book’s example is when someone is killed by the agent).

Next the game covers threats to SAN, including violence, helplessness, and the unnatural. The biggest sections of this chapter cover insanity and disorders. These can be potentially interesting things to roleplay, but I personally would ultimately limit the influence these have on the game. I don’t want the game to get bogged down, and let’s face it a royally screwed up agent is useless and would either be debriefed and dismissed, imprisoned, or even killed. Finally the chapter ends with sections on permanent insanity, resisting insanity, and recovery.

Home

While the majority of a Delta Green game should focus on the agents in the field, it can be a nice break and change of pace to have either a short portion or even an entire session focused on the agents’ home lives. With everything an agent has to deal with and confront, along with what’s happened while the agent was away from home (whether the agent is married or seeing someone of course adds more complexities and roleplaying potential), can all weigh on the agents’ mind and affect his or her actions.

First, take stock of what’s changed: bonds damaged or broken, permanent injuries, disorders, and anything relating to work such as resources and contacts. Next, each agent chooses a personal pursuit: fulfill responsibilities, back to nature, establish a new bond, go to therapy, improve a skill or stat, personal motivation, special training, stay on the case, or study the unnatural.

There are two possibilities an agent needs to be prepared for: getting fired (from their day job, not Delta Green) and prosecution. The former may affect some day-to-day things in their duties as a Delta Green agent, but it won’t ultimately hurt them. The latter will take much more luck and good skill rolls to get through, and may still end up paying a fine, spending time in prison, and likely losing their day job.

Equipment & Vehicles

Next it’s time to consider what all the agent will need to complete their mission. In Delta Green items aren’t listed by discrete dollar amounts, but rather by expense categories: incidental, standard, unusual, major, and extreme. Incidental purchases can be made pretty much as-is and will always be considered doable. Anything above that will either be a challenge, extremely limited, or require funding from dubious sources.

One option to obtain equipment is requisition. Of course this is official and therefore will have a paper trail. It is also equipment that must be returned. There is also the operational priority to consider, as well as complications (access, timing and risk, and official review). There are also sections for spending the agents’ own money, using possibly illicit cash, and restricted items (including the possibility of a black market).

OK now it’s onto the equipment. There’s many kinds, including those categorized under weapons, body armor, vehicles, and other gear & services. Each category has a short section with specific rules and information to go with them, followed by the tables of the items with their relevant skill, damage, range, armor piercing, expense, etc. There’s a good selection for each category, but there’s no doubt each game will require the creation of new and custom items. My favorite category is other gear and services, as its examples make me think of things I never would have and/or taken for granted.

Federal Agencies

This sizable section covers many (if not all) of the agencies of the United States. Your game may make use of few, many, or almost all of these. This chapter is broken down into sections: Law Enforcement (FBI, DEA, ICE, and U.S. Marshals), Defense (Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and SOCOM), Intelligence & Diplomacy (CIA and Department of State), and Public Safety (CDC and EPA). Each section has a good amount of information as well as suggested professions.

Appendices

Tradecraft

This small section goes over a number of unique situations and events the agents are likely to encounter in their adventures. I’m not too sure why it’s at the end of the book as an appendix; I think it could fit just fine in The Game chapter.

Glossary

One thing I must commend Delta Green on is its very extensive glossary, broken down into xx categories: Equipment, Individuals, (Mis)Information, Locations, Miscellaneous, Operations, Organizations, and Procedures. Even though placed near the end of the book, I would recommend referencing this section quite often while reading anywhere else in the book, as it will no doubt help to fully understand something, especially in the game’s context.

The index is extremely thorough (5 pages, 3 columns!), something that is painfully rare these days.

Look at that list of playtesters and backers, holy shit!

The OGL!

And more holy shit, is that the OGL license I see?! OK before we get too excited, let’s see exactly what’s been marked as Open Content, which is at the end of the OGL license: game mechanics on pages 14–22, 28–36, 42–47, 50–63, 66–75, 78–79, and 84–95. So what all is that exactly? That is the Agents chapter through Professions (14-22), skill descriptions and bonds (28-36), the entire Game chapter (42-47), the entire Combat chapter (50-63), the entire Sanity chapter (66-75), the first 2 pages of the Home chapter (78-79), and the Equipment & Vehicles chapter up until the tables (84-95).

Ok, so while it may seem to not be a huge portion of the game that’s Open Content, it does cover the majority of the rules of the game. I find it odd they left out additional professions, but perhaps they want others to create their own rather than copy theirs. In the Home chapter they left out getting fired and prosecution. I have no idea why they left that out. In the Equipment & Vehicles chapter I imagine they left out the tables for the same reason they left out additional professions: to force others to create their own equipment and vehicles. The rest of the book, primarily the large Federal Agencies chapter, has been left out of the Open Content designation, and I think that’s fine. I don’t think that means you couldn’t include a fictional FBI or special forces in your material, you would just have to come up with your own unique way of how that department works in your adventure, game, etc. I kinda bemoan that the Tradecraft section has been left out, but I can understand it’s a unique section of information and rules for Delta Green.

Conclusion

As I noted in the beginning I really wish I had learned about Delta Green as well as the Call of Cthulhu RPG much earlier in my gaming life. The logical and not-too-complicated rules along with the outstanding settings make these games that I can certainly envision all kinds of fun, terrible, and even haunting situations to put characters into! This latest edition of Delta Green has a very slick rule system, and I must again commend Arc Dream for releasing the rules under the OGL. I certainly intend for this game to remain on my shelf well into the future, sitting beside few other games that also stand the test of time.

Along with the release of the Agent’s Handbook and recently the Handler’s Guide, Arc Dream has already released a large number of adventures. Each has an interesting premise and more great artwork to help sell the mood. I highly recommend checking them out! They have also released the free Need to Know, a quickstart to the game that also includes an adventure.

Arc Dream’s main Delta Green page on DriveThruRPG
Need to Know: Amazon | DriveThruRPG
Agent’s Handbook: Amazon | DriveThruRPG
Handler’s Guide: DriveThruRPG

White Star RPG

Note: this review is for the older PWYW edition, not the newer and far larger Galaxy edition

Introduction

Similar to X-plorers (my review here), White Star is built upon Swords & Wizardry Whitebox. What does that mean exactly? In a nutshell, fewer rules, less confusion, fewer dice used (just d6 and d20), and a lot more improvisation and quick thinking required by both the GM and players. Upon a brief read, where would I place White Star compared to other sci-fi RPGs? It’s a bit rules-heavier than X-Plorers, but not by much. It has a far larger page-count (especially the Galaxy edition), but it is single-column 6″x9″ as well as having far more more material, classes, equipment, etc. than rules. It’s still quite a bit lighter than Stars Without Number (which also has fairly modular rules), and far lighter than Traveller, or anything larger and heavier (Eclipse Phase, Mindjammer, Shadowrun, and more).

On initial flip-through, White Star looks to be very easy both to read and reference. The default font is a little thin (fixed in the Galaxy edition), but the headers, sub-headers, tables, and asides all stand out (especially the asides, being white text on a dark gray background). The artwork is a bit sparse and small, but complements the game and doesn’t distract or try to overtake your attention (something far too many newer RPGs do).

Characters & Equipment

These two chapters deal with creating a character and preparing him or her for the game. In total it’s 22 pages, so not too long. Unlike the Galaxy edition, which includes all the optional classes, this edition has: Aristocrat, Mercenary, Pilot, and Star Knight. That last one is kinda a mix between a Jedi and a Magic-User, and in my games I wouldn’t use it at all. While the default race for characters in White Star is humans, there are a couple more options available, at the Referee’s discretion: Alien Brute, Alien Mystic (these I might allow very sparingly), and Robot.

Now it’s time to spend some of that initial money! We’ve got standard equipment such as clothing, med kits, and rations. For weapons there’s melee as well as missile/ranged weapons. Far too many games assume the use of guns all the time, whereas I would base at least many of my games around the players needing to grab an edged or club weapon at some point, whether due to lack of ammo, cost of ammo and maintenance, or such other circumstance which either prevented their use or strongly discourage their use (possibly detection of energy or even just the sound of firing).

Like Swords & Wizardry, White Star offers the option of either Descending or Ascending Armor Class. Urg. It’s time to let Descending go!

Rules & Combat

Like Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, White Star uses a single saving throw value. I have come to prefer this over the original 5-value system (strange-worded and overkill) and even the 3-value system (fairly logical, but still more complicated than needed). Everything else is fairly similar to other OSR games, including movement and hiring assistants. I like how for the latter it’s just one category, rather than separating hirelings, specialists, etc. Again, just another over-complication that’s not needed!

Combat is a very brief 6 pages, including a 1-page example. Initiative is either single- or group-based by GM preference. Again combat is pretty much the same as any other OSR RPG. Stick to ascending armor class to avoid having to look up table values. I do like seeing Morale included, and that it uses the saving throw value rather than another separate number. I must also note that I like the inclusion of several optional house rules, and I would personally include all of them.

Starships & Combat

This chapter was the one I was really looking forward to reviewing, as in my in-progress review of Stars Without Number starship combat is a bit more involved, and it’s taking my old grognard mind a bit to understand all of it. I think it’s a little confusing to have starship combat come before starship stats and listings, but as it’s not that many pages it’s not too big a deal.

White Star does note that for the most part starship combat functions the same as personal combat. In contrast to personal combat, I would probably go with individual initiative for all ships, except for perhaps fleets of similar ships in formation, such as a fighter squadron or command brigade. I find it interesting that a character’s Dexterity bonus is added to a ship’s weapon attack! I don’t know if I’d exactly run that as-is, but would perhaps consider that bonus as an equivalent to a Piloting and/or Weaponry skill. I am glad to see small stat-blocks for ships, as that makes it very easy to create custom ships. I like how for modifications the base cost is multiplied by the ship’s hit points; it’s very logical and one of those things that I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of! I would definitely include the optional house rule for immobilization, but not for pilot’s repair (as I don’t see a skilled pilot mean he or she knows anything about maintenance, repairs, etc.).

Gifts & Meditations

I skipped this chapter, as I don’t personally foresee using any of this in my science fiction games.

Aliens & Creatures

This is a somewhat-small chapter compared to other games, but it is more than what’s included in Stars Without Number, and the small stat-blocks again makes it easy to make up your own adversaries and allies. For the latter you’re more likely to use the first section, Aliens. The latter, Creatures, will certainly be gun and cannon fodder, although having one as a pet or such would always be an interesting twist.

Final Sections

White Star has a few remaining chapters, though I’m personally not likely to utilize them: Advanced Equipment, The White Star Campaign, Interstellar Civil War and Kelron Sector, and The Second Battle of Brinn. I do appreciate the inclusion of that adventure, however, and as always wish that ALL RPGs included one! After all of that is a 2-page character sheet (I would personally find or create a 1-page letter-sized sheet, maybe landscape-oriented). Finally is the OGL license page. While this game is based on Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, and therefore had to be released under the OGL, it was under no obligation to itself be released as Open Content. However, looking at the OGL page in White Star I see that besides the names, logos, artwork, etc. as well as Chapters 11 & 12, everything else is Open Content. This is a huge boon for White Star, and I have to take a shot at Stars Without Number for not even being released under the OGL at all! I comment White Star author James Spahn for releasing the game as Open Content, as this will ensure not only more material created for the game (either for free or purchase) but that the game can and will exist far into the future will possible support from anyone who wants to.

Conclusion

I went into White Star with a somewhat cautious stance. Leading up to and upon its release it was hyped up pretty hard (honestly over-hyped) on several well-known OSR blogs and other websites. However, upon flipping through and reading White Star I have to agree with most if not almost all of James’ design and rules decisions. With the release of the Galaxy Edition, James has made the original release and its Companion pay-want-you-want, not only for PDF but for print as well! Although I’m not likely to use a lot of what’s in the Companion (and therefore what’s included in the Galaxy edition), I will still highly likely purchase the Galaxy Edition to thank and support James’ work. I do also appreciate that the Galaxy edition is available in premium heavyweight in both a paperback and hardback version, as I much prefer the former. I think this game along with Star Wars D6 Re-Up has re-kindled my passion for science fiction gaming and urge to put together some adventures!

Silent Legions

Introduction

I’ve been a fan of Kevin Crawford’s work since the release of Stars Without Number. I’ve kept an eye on his releases since then, even though I didn’t purchase one until recently when I decided to get the hardcover of Silent Legions. I wasn’t quite happy with Call of Cthulhu, and the new Delta Green hadn’t been released yet, so I wanted to check out this game and see if it would work for me.

On an initial flip-through, Silent Legions looks pretty old-school. There’s some black-and-white artwork sprinkled around (in the PDF it’s quite pixelated which sucks), otherwise it’s plain 2-column text. It’s easy to read, even if the tables, etc. don’t stand out too well. If you’re a fan of the newest Call of Cthulhu and/or Delta Green and how stellar they look, you’ll be disappointed. Kevin’s newest releases are improved, and one day there may be a new edition of Silent Legions.

Creating a Character

Like Kevin’s other games and unlike BRP-based games such as Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green, Silent Legions uses classes for the characters (Investigator, Scholar, Socialite, or Tough). Yes you can fine-tune your character with backgrounds and the skill system, but up-front you will have to choose what general kind of character you want to play. If you tend to play D&D or OSR games, this won’t be a big deal. If you’re coming from a BRP game, then this will likely be a bit jarring. I personally don’t mind, as the classes are fairly broad in scope.

Similar to Kevin’s other games and BRP-based games, Silent Legions has a skill system. It’s not as fine-grained as BRP games, but it is a nice overlay and I think for this kind of game it’s sufficient. Unlike BRP’s logical d100-based skills, Silent Legions uses 2d6 for skill rolls.

The Rules of the Game

This chapter isn’t too long, and it briefly covers most of what you’ll need to know to run a game of Silent Legions. First skill checks are covered, and it’s a quick 1-page overview. Next is saving throws and natural perils, followed by expertise. It’s a neat way to re-roll a skill check or use a special ability.

Combat is next on the agenda, and it’s also just 1 page! This is something I really appreciate in Kevin’s games. Look, I’m older, impatient, hard-pressed for time, etc. etc. I don’t have all day to put my mind into a game like I could when I was younger. And coming from a D&D/OSR background, these rules just make sense to me and are almost too easy to pick up and understand. ANYWAYS. After combat is encumbrance; luckily this is very brief and fairly logical, as I tend to hand-wave it for the most part. Next is madness, which I suppose is a more PC and logical name rather than insanity as used in Call of Cthulhu. This a little more involved, as it’s 2 WHOLE PAGES. Most of it makes sense to me, but as I don’t really like to lay on the insanity/madness that much in horror games I’m likely to not use very much of this.

Character advancement is pretty straight-forward, gaining hit die, lowering madness, and gaining skill and expertise points. The last section covers injury and healing. Just like Call of Cthulhu and OSR games, combat in Silent Legions is deadly and will likely kill those who foolishly rush into a fight. At the very end of this chapter is a 1-page quick reference sheet, and it’s something that really should be in every RPG!

Sorcery

Magic and sorcery is something I never really paid mind to in Call of Cthulhu, as I always felt it was something to be used by opponents and monsters, not the characters. Silent Legions addresses this in a way, as there are two kinds of magic: gray and black, the latter being almost too much to bear for players. I’m not sure if I’d use much of this chapter, but like always Kevin puts in some incredibly useful tables, and so I just may have to try it out and likely be surprisingly pleased with the results.

Creating Your Mythos

This is a big chapter, with lots of information and a very large number of tables. What creating a mythos includes is the gods, aliens, cults, and artifacts. Depending on if you’re planning a one-shot adventure using Silent Legions or an entire campaign that could span months or even years, only small portions or the entire chapter would be beneficial or deemed necessary for your game. I would personally start with just artifacts and perhaps aliens, and later on introduce the gods. Cults, as I’ve mentioned in numerous reviews, just don’t appeal to me and I wouldn’t likely use them.

Building Your World

This is another big chapter, but probably the most helpful one in the book. Compared to the broad strokes painted in the previous chapter, this one narrows in and makes you get up close with a fine-point pen. It’s time to really sit down and think about what you want to happen in your game, and as always Kevin presents a lot of information and tables to help you find exactly what you want.

First it covers regions and locations, specifically using what Kevin calls location tags. Some of these tags are worded quite strangely to me, and I’m unlikely to use most of them.

Next is working on the adventure itself, and that is accomplished through creating an adventure template and utilizing scenes. Regarding the latter there are many categories, including resolution (not sure why it’s listed first), investigation, introduction, hook, ambush, conflict, escape, and respite. These are far more useful than the previous location tags.

Next Kevin gives a section and table for challenges tailored specifically for each character class. I wouldn’t have thought to create challenges in this manner, but it’s an interesting take that’s easy to work with as well as create my own. I might even think about doing the same for other class-based RPGs.

The chapter ends with 2 pages for quickly creating actors and crime scenes, along with a location and template creation example. The last one I’m very glad to see included, as with the other examples it makes these rules far easier to understand and remember, and this in particular does help a bit regarding location tags.

Cults

In this shorter chapter, the game goes over an aspect of Lovecraftian horror that I never really got into. The aspect of cults is something that I never came across in my reading, and yet they’re in so many RPGs! In Silent Legion this is a decent-sized chapter, going over the nature of cults, anatomy, assets, and more. The last few pages and tables specifically go over assets.

The Bestiary

This chapter is quite a bit smaller than I would have liked, although compared to Delta Green’s Agent Handbook I’m glad to get any at all! The intent is for the GM to create his or her own custom creatures, either completely from scratch or using the few included as starting points. A page is devoted to morale, which is odd to see as I’ve never seen it outside of B/X and derived OSR games. I do like that it’s included, and as noted it still wouldn’t be used by the most bloodthirsty or alien creatures. There’s also a couple of helpful tables, although I certainly wish there were more for this chapter.

Game Master Resources

As mentioned in the opening paragraphs this section was primarily due to the Kickstarter success for this book. While I think it’s nice other were able to support Kevin and have a say for thing they’d like to have included in the book, it also makes it sound like this section wouldn’t exist otherwise, and Kevin wouldn’t have even bothered to offer any more material. Coming from Stars Without Number, that would make this game appear to be a lot more bare-bones!

First is a Lovecraftian name generator. Garbled consonants, got it. Next is secret adepts of the world. Unless your game will heavily feature magic this won’t be of much use. Next Kevin covers using Silent Legions with other games, both of his own as well as Call of Cthulhu. This is certainly helpful, but aside from some monsters I’m not likely to try to combine other games and their rules. Next is an interesting bit called Dark Senses, whereas the players can suffer unique consequences as a result of their encounters with the strange and horrible. This is more of what I want to see! Next is an interesting item, an example society dedicated to human good. I think that’s a nice contrast to the typical evil cults and conspiratorial happenings that can be so prevalent in these kind of games. After that are a couple of example cults/societies, and again it’s something I’m likely to never use.

From there we finally get some more tables, these focused on mythos aberrations. There’s some interesting ideas in here, and may help you get some adventure ideas going. Next is another section regarding combining Silent Legions with other games. I’m not sure since this was a Kickstarter perk/add-on that it was put here rather than combined with the section in a previous chapter, so it does feel a little out of place, as helpful as it is. Next is another idea for potential hope and good in the world, and it’s something that I might include in a game that perhaps hints at otherworldly protectors and benefactors. Next is a section regarding running a game set in a university setting, namely Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University. While I can see a certain appeal to this kind of game (and hey I’m a huge fan of Re-Animator!) it wouldn’t be my first choice, but I am glad to see this included. The last section is an obvious take on Delta Green called Unit 13. Of course in 1 page there’s not much that can be included, and like most of the other sections it feels like something that really could have been fleshed out into its own chapter. But even if this section was, I’d still would choose Delta Green over it for many reasons, but that’s for a certain kind of game/atmosphere.

This chapter ends with a Kickstarter patron list, a character sheet (just one page and art/frill-free, such a novelty these days!), and an index that seems to be pretty short but I still appreciate it was included at all.

Conclusion

So in the end, can this game replace Call of Cthulhu for me? I think it can. It can’t replace Delta Green; it has a far better and logical rule system, clearer writing, and a much more modern and clearer layout that makes it so easy to both read and reference. But I do think they can happily sit side-by-side on my shelf, and depending on what kind of game I want to run (and really, it’s more about what kind of characters the players would want to be) Silent Legions could easily become a go-to game, namely due to the simple and OSR-inspired rules. I would also choose this over World/Chronicles of Darkness for a “normal/mortal” horror game. I would certainly like to see more material from Kevin for this game, and I must also criticize the lack of any free and/or open-source license (namely the OGL) to allow others to create materials and adventures for this and Kevin’s other games.

This was also the first hardback I purchased from DriveThruRPG, and I’m pretty happy with it. Granted it’s not in color and not as sophisticated a design/layout as Kevin’s recent releases, but unlike the PDF the artwork is sharp. My preference is still paperback, but fewer publishers are offering it through DriveThruRPG, and that’s a shame, especially for larger page-counts.