RPG Quickstarts

Introduction

One of the best ways to get into a roleplaying game, especially if you’ve never played and/or run one before, is a quickstart. Now, to be pedantic I’m only talking about these specific kinds of documents, and excluding beginner box sets (although those are a possible addition or alternative to a full rulebook) as well as completely free full-game RPGs (I’ll address this in the conclusion). The quickstarts I’ll go over are ones that are free to download, whether from the publisher and/or through DriveThruRPG. Some of these I’ve had for years, while many are new either to me and/or everyone. Some of these won’t have too many remarks from me, as I’m frankly still diving into their rules and worlds. But, I will at least state whether that game’s quickstart did its job of enticing me to want to learn more about the game or not. Onward!

Against The Darkmaster

This is a relative newcomer, and honestly like a lot of people my eye was drawn to the Against the Darkness quickstart due to looking like the old MERP books; oh those were the days! Clocking in at 122 pages, this is a monster of a quickstart! At the beginning is a page for the CC-BYNCCA license, and it’s a pleasant surprise to see a game released under a relatively open license!

Looking at the table of contents, almost half of this game’s length is due to the listed grimoires and apparently all of the spells that’ll be included in the main rules. It’s nice to have them all included, but for a quickstart it could be pared down to the first few levels (or like some other quickstarts where only some of the spellcasters are available). The artwork, in start black-and-white, is simply stunning! The overall look and design of the game is simple and effective, making it easy both to read and reference. This is something so many games fail to do, so I must commend layout artists Tommaso Galmacci and Nikola Segoloni.

The game has an interesting rule system. It is skill-based, so d100 rolls will be the common made during play. But, unlike BRP this is a level-based system, so levels and XP are still around (although not as many levels and nowhere near the amount of XP of OSR and modern d20 games). But, like BRP and Mythras a player chooses a kin (ie race), culture, vocation, and passions.

Overall this is an interesting game, almost a hybrid of BRP and OSR. If you’re entrenched in either kind you may find this game odd, while if you play both you may find more strengths than weaknesses combined here. I think I lean more towards the latter, and while this may not replace either I will certainly keep an eye out for the full game and see how well it does.

Blue Planet

I’ve had Blue Planet on my radar for a long time. An innovative sci-fi RPG, it was something I had always meant to check out. Recently I was pleasantly surprised to learn a new edition is coming from Gallant Knight Games.

Blue Planet: Recontact is a pretty substantial quickstart at 82 pages. The layout and design is modern and slick, but easy to read and navigate. The first 20 pages or so is all fluff, setting information for this near-future world. At first I thought I wouldn’t like a quickstart that didn’t immediately get into the rules and how to play the game, but at least for Blue Planet I wanted to know more about the setting before wanting to learn how to play, so this was organized exactly as it should be (at least to me). The next 15 pages is for a sample adventure, Trouble in Paradise. As I’ve mentioned so many times, an included adventure is rarely included in full games these days, let alone a quickstart!

The next portion goes over rules details, and there’s quite a bit packed into these 15 pages. There’s also quite a bit of vocabulary to learn, but for some reason I was able to pick up on these far better than any Fate-based game. Maybe it was just the lack of side-bars to distract me… The rest of the quickstart is rounded out with sample hardware, biomods (“wetware”), sample alien life, and pre-generated characters.

Overall I think this is an excellent quickstart, and it already shows that Blue Planet is in good hands with an updated rule system and fresh new look. I look forward to the full game and future supplements!

Call of Cthulhu

The venerable horror RPG Call of Cthulhu has been around since 1981, initially authored by Sandy Petersen (who would later work as a level designer on Doom!). Since then the game has gone through six more editions, the latest bringing the most drastic changes (although still nowhere near the changes in the various editions of D&D). For the 7th edition quickstart, Chaosium stuck with its notable introductory adventure, The Haunting, along with slightly updated rules as well as a fresh new look. This edition was put together by Paul Fricker and Mike Mason, but you’ll still see Sandy Petersen’s and Lynn Willis’ names on the cover. Now, I don’t know if they had to do that, but I commend Chaosium for honoring them, especially with having Sandy’s name first!

In its 34 pages, this quickstart is roughly split in half between rules and the adventure. The rules portion seems quite brief, as many readers might be surprised by the relative lack of tables, numbers, etc. That’s the strength of the BRP system, and while I don’t exclusively play games using it I certainly think it’s superior in most cases and use it when I can. The biggest departure in this edition is that the characteristics are now primarily listed in d100 form, with the half and fifth values also listed (skills are now also listed in the same 3-way manner). All three values are utilized for different things, and while it makes sense I think it could have certainly been simplified even further. Otherwise this is pretty much the same game, and even compared to the new Delta Green you won’t find too many glaring differences. Even I can be comfortable playing both games and remember the rules differences between the two, so if I can do it I know you can too!

The included adventure, The Haunting, has been THE introductory adventure for the game, and it’s no surprise to see it in this newer quickstart. While many including myself would have preferred a different or entirely new introductory adventure, I can understand why The Haunting was included. I think the main purpose was to show how well and easy the revised ruleset works, and updating an older, existing adventure is the most straight-forward way to do that.

If it wasn’t clear already, I really like this quickstart. It showcases one of the oldest and best RPGs in a clear, concise manner, in a modern and improved layout and design. Even as a huge fan of Delta Green I’m still tempted to get the full Call of Cthulhu rulebook, and this quickstart, along with some excellent adventures from Chaosium, is to blame for that!

The Cthulhu Hack

One of the most popular “neo-wave” OSR RPGs is The Black Hack. Since its release many hacks and variations have since come out, so it was inevitable that a Cthulhu game using these rules would come along.

Like the Call of Cthulhu quickstart, Nocturnal Rites is split between rules and an introductory adventure. But, in this case it’s four pages total! Yes, four! While the page-count is higher on the DTRPG page, those files (pre-generated characters and a blank character sheet) are actually separate. The actual quickstart is divided between two pages for the rules/overview of the game, and the other two for the demo game/adventure.

In Cthulhu Hack there are two main concepts: Saves and Resources. Saves are simply rolls against a specific score to counter a threat, whether it’s something physical, mental, etc. Resources (Supplies, Sanity, and Investigation) are checked when needed, and that’s also covered by a die roll (of varying sizes depending on the supply, situation, etc.) rather than in minute detail.

The demo adventure/game, Nocturnal Rites, immediately sets the players in front of a supposedly-abandoned warehouse, charged with finding a missing reporter friend. While the players can roleplay any previous research, etc. this demo assumes the players are ready to charge into the warehouse. The demo provides some additional details and a suggested conclusion. Overall at two pages it’s obviously going to be a short adventure, skimpy on any details, mystery, etc. but it does get the job done. I have personally already purchased another adventure from Just Crunch Games (Save Innsmouth), and found it a much-better way to dive into this game, although it still requires either the quickstart or full rules to play (I will personally adapt it to Delta Green).

Overall I found this quickstart to be very that much in name, and possibly a little too light on rule explanations, examples, etc. It’s not a bad way to see if this game might be useful for you, but like most very rules-light games you’ll need to be prepared to fill in a lot yourself.

Delta Green

While Call of Cthulhu supports multiple time periods, its default is the 1920s. But what if you could play in modern times, and not just as a regular person but a soldier, or federal agent? Mix all of that together, add a sprinkle of X-Files and Twin Peaks, and homey you got Delta Green. Originally an add-on for Call of Cthulhu, a few years ago Arc Dream Publishing released a new edition of Delta Green that is now standalone (I wrote a review), while also eschewing the rule changes in the newest Call of Cthulhu and going with its own (and IMO superior) ruleset, still d100-based. I will try to review this objectively, but to be clear Delta Green is my favorite and #1 RPG of all time.

Like the rest of Arc Dream’s Delta Green products, the design and layout of Need to Know is top-notch. This complete quickstart includes an introduction to what this game is about, agent creation rules, the basics of the game system, and an introductory adventure. Unlike most quickstarts, it also includes a table of contents; not a necessity, but it’s nice! You’ll also notice the OGL license, as also included in the main Delta Green book. Basically the rules/mechanics are Open Content, everything else is Product Identity. I won’t go into details about this, but basically the rules themselves are able to be used in your own products, adventures, etc. under the OGL license!

What I really like about this quickstart is that before getting into the rules details it first goes over what the game is about, what the players should both expect and do during the game, how to be a Handler (ie Gamemaster), and an example of play is shown. Next the quickstart goes over the character sheet (my god I love the design of the character sheet!), as well as how to generate all the needed numbers. Next the quickstart goes over some rules details, primarily those relating to combat, damage and death, and insanity (this wouldn’t be a Cthulhu game without it!).

The last portion of the quickstart is for the included adventure, Last Things Last. After the death of a former Delta Green agent and Friendly, the players are tasked with clearing his apartment of any evidence of the organization. There isn’t much left behind, except evidence of a cabin he owned. Following this lead, the players will encounter something surprising. Without giving away anything further, this is a good starter adventure for those new to Delta Green. It covers involvement of a control officer and other aspects of the organization, but it also provides freedom and leeway for the Handler to refine and customize the game to his or her liking.

Unsurprisingly, re-reading this quickstart has only affirmed my choice of this game as my all-time favorite, and I certainly hope others will complete this quickstart with a good impression and want to learn more about the game.

Mythras

Coming from their work on RuneQuest, Larry Whitaker and Paul Nash created The Design Mechanism. First licensing the name to create RuneQuest 6, that license was lost with Chaosium’s near-death and reorganization. Thankfully, Larry and Paul didn’t throw in the towel, instead salvaging their work not tied to RuneQuest and creating their own game, Mythras.

While the full Mythras rulebook is focused on fantasy, the quickstart Mythras Imperative is more open, presenting options for modern, sci-fi, and other genres to game in. A lean 34 pages, it includes rules for creating characters, skills, combat (taking up the most space), a few spot rules, and five sample creatures. An interesting tidbit, seen on the title page, is that this quickstart can be used as the basis for your own game variation under Design Mechanism’s Mythras Gateway License. It may not be as open as CC-BY or the OGL, but it’s nice to have something available, and I commend Design Mechanism for offering it (one example game I know of is M-Space).

Unlike the RuneQuest quickstart, there’s no introductory adventure included here, and I think that does hurt it a bit. While there’s several excellent adventures available from Design Mechanism for not too much money, they really should have included a basic adventure here (they could have updated the free Caravan or Sariniya’s Curse adventures from their Downloads page).

RuneQuest

As mentioned above, after Chaosium nearly self-destructed the original founders and employees returned to set things straight and re-prioritize. One of the first things was bringing RuneQuest back in-house and developing a new edition. Instead of building on top of the 6th edition rules, they decided to cut back and start from 2nd edition.

While the full game was still in development the RuneQuest quickstart was released (the most obvious evidence is the different logo). Another noticeable change was the great design and layout, continuing the improvements seen in the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu.

As I’ve previously written about the RuneQuest quickstart I won’t repeat it here, but I’ll summarize and say this is a pretty solid introduction to what will hopefully be a long-running and long-supported game.

Shadowrun

Do you like cyberpunk, but aren’t quite ready to let D&D go? Well no problem! Thanks to Shadowrun, you get your high-tech hacking, guns, and more, along with elves, orcs, dragons, and more! Confused? Good, now you’re getting it! Shadowrun’s unique setting (and just as “unique” ruleset) has helped set it apart for decades now. In its 5th edition the game has bloated quite severely, but even underneath all of that is still a fantastic game that shouldn’t be dismissed. Can the quickstart encourage those interested in the game, or is even it too much?

Like most good quickstarts this one is split between the rules and an introductory adventure. One notable addition is a GM screen at the end; very nice! The design and layout is pretty slick, and the text is easy to read (although the boxed text is too narrow for me). One criticism is like Fate Core there are an absurd number of side-bars. I can see how these might help, but when some pages have them running down the ENTIRE side I have to question if that’s the best way to do it (boxed text perhaps?). With an already-dense text layout there’s simply too much here for me to try to read and wrap my head around the rules. I certainly hope if there’s a new/revised quickstart for the 6th edition that it’s re-done from scratch to make it easier to get into and make it far more encouraging to want to learn more about the full game.

Star Trek Adventures

In recent years Modiphius has become an absolute MONSTER of an RPG publisher, with both its own game lines as well as working in association with Free League, Mindjammer Press, and more. It was quite the news when they secured the rights to make a new Star Trek RPG, which has been tossed around quite a few times. Would they be the ones to do it justice?

The Star Trek Adventures quickstart is fairly lean at 33 pages, and 2 of those (right after the credits page) are ads; if you have to include any (ugh), put them at the end. If you’re not a fan of the LCARS look/interface then you’re gonna have a bad time here, as that’s how the pages are laid out. The white text on black background is very easy to read on a tablet/computer screen (but the pregenerated characters at the end are on a white background; it’s inconsistent and jarring), but the full game’s hardcover rulebook is the normal white-on-black (the PDF is white-on-black however). Unlike most franchise RPGs this game uses original artwork, and overall it looks great. The design and layout, while a tad heavy on that LCARS look, is very easy to read, especially with the non-white header colors. Despite it being 2019, so many publishers STILL can’t get PDF bookmarking correct (or done at all!), but Modiphius has done their homework.

The quickstart begins on page 6, with a brief introduction and then going over rules for characters, tasks, and conflicts. The rest is the included adventure (sorry, away mission) Signals. Like many other Modiphius games this uses the 2d20 system; it’s an interesting departure from d20 and other systems, but it works and is fairly simple to learn and use. I think it’s a good fit for Star Trek, and could see it easily adapted for home-brewed games in other existing shows and movies.

The away mission, Signals, is a short but fairly good adventure. A runabout ship has gone missing, and it’s up to the crew (players) to discover what happened. A simple but workable Star Trek premise, it involves Romulans as well as an alien signal/mystery.

Overall this is a pretty good quickstart. Before even running the included adventure, it didn’t take me more than a single read-through to grasp the concept of the game and the rules. Believe me, that’s not a simple task! I would still have to debate using this rather than a generic system like Fate Accelerated or BRP, but thanks to this quickstart I may just have to pick up the Corebook PDF and/or hardcover anyways!

The Witcher

R. Talsorian Games has been on quite a roll lately, and it has at least CD Projeckt Red to thank for that, with the latter’s announcement years ago of Cyberpunk 2077. Taking the popular cyberpunk RPG, advancing it a few decades, and giving it the attention to detail and elaboration it did with The Witcher series, and both PC and console gamers are salivating at the mouth waiting for this game (I know I am!). Along with this game will come a new edition of the tabletop RPG, but before it R. Talsorian released a Witcher tabletop RPG. This game marked a new era of activity for the publisher, with a much improved look and design along with a refinement of rules. Not too long ago they released a quickstart, Easy Mode.

In a compact 32 pages, Easy Mode contains a very brief introduction to The Witcher world, pre-generated characters, rules basics, and an example adventure (Still Waters). As mentioned the look and layout is modern and easy to follow. There are side-bars, but for some reason these didn’t bother me as much, as many as there are throughout the document. The rules are primarily based on skills, although stats are used as well. Overall the rules, including combat and magic, are not that difficult to learn. The included adventure is fairly short and simple (basically a “one-shot”), but it’s exactly what I would both expect and want in a quickstart. In conclusion I think this is a great introduction and enticement to the tabletop game, whether you’ve played the game series on PC/console or not.

The World of Darkness

White Wolf was most famous for Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and Mage: The Ascension, but there was evidently a call for a game to play normal humans within the World of Darkness. While those aforementioned games were each stand-alone, in the New World of Darkness White Wolf developed and released a single core rulebook, which would indeed allow the creation and development of mortal characters; the new Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, etc. games built off of that book in their own ways.

To showcase those core rules, as well as to show that playing mortal characters was just as viable as an iconic monster, White Wolf released A Nightmare at Hill Manor. At 66 pages this is a fairly meaty quickstart, with about 25 pages dedicated to rules and 25 to the included adventure. The rules cover most of the major areas, including attributes, skills, virtues and vices, merits, combat, morality, and derangements.

The adventure, A Nightmare at Hill Manor, is a small focused story of a haunting in an apartment building. The first few pages provide an overview, and then it’s split into sections based on key events. It’s fairly simple to follow along and run this adventure, and besides the text there isn’t too much besides the characters’ stats. While there’s a rough diagram of the flow of events, I did notice the lack of an actual map. Like the full rulebook, the artwork is mostly good but a bit inconsistent. The layout and design is ok, but the main text size is a bit small for my eyes.

Personally, I’m a fan of the mortals-focused World of Darkness. Its setting is pretty close to what I like in modern horror and mystery, and the rules support the style of play without getting too complex or hairy. With that focus, without the God-Machine Chronicles cruft added on top, as well as Onyx Path not in the habit of releasing free quickstarts, I personally do not like the newer Chronicles of Darkness game. I don’t think I’d choose the World of Darkness over Delta Green, but it’s certainly a contender for a modern RPG, even today. With White Wolf now owned by Paradox and the tabletop portion essentially run by Modiphius, I would LOVE to see a new World of Darkness tabletop game!

Conclusion

In my opinion quickstarts are the absolute best way to test out an RPG and see if it will fit your needs and group. Far cheaper than a beginner box let alone a full game, quickstarts are in my opinion essential for a publisher to show off their game and get people playing as quickly as possible. Some existing quickstarts do this admirably, while others fail miserably. Far too many publishers don’t offer a quickstart, and I think their sales and word-of-mouth suffer for it. Many publishers instead rely on more expensive beginner boxes, some of which cost almost as much if not more than the actual full rules! It doesn’t matter how pretty they’re put together, or what extras come in the box as far as die, miniatures, etc. If your game can’t be distilled down to a dozen or two pages, along with an included fun adventure that makes everyone want to play more of that game (ie spending $$$$), it’s not a game I want to spend time and effort trying to learn and glean from.

So what about those that give away their game completely for free? OSR RPGs are the most obvious example, but there are several others such as Stars Without Number and Fate Accelerated/Core. Do I think they should still offer a quickstart, or have they “put in enough work” and “been gracious enough” to be exempt? Well, in my opinion, even those STILL need to offer a quickstart, because it all comes down to time and effort. You could write and give away a 600-page rulebook, but it wouldn’t matter to me. I just don’t have the time to make sense of things when I could just spend $20, $40, or even $60 for a well-written and far shorter page-count rulebook that will take far less time to learn and want to play.

Art & Arcana

From Empire of Imagination author Michael Witwer, joined by Kyle Newman, Playing at the World‘s Jon Peterson, and Michael’s brother Sam, Art & Arcana is a very comprehensive look at the visual history of Dungeons and Dragons. Starting from the beginnings of the original game and going up through the current 5th edition, this book is absolutely crammed full of artwork! The accompanying text is not too bad a read, though the text size was a tad small for me. Also, I did appreciate the slight ribbing at the 3rd, 3.5, and 4th edition rules and the exaggerated artwork that came along with it (seriously, I CANNOT stand Wayne Reynold’s artwork!), but glad it wasn’t too overbearing. I bet there’s plenty of artwork you’ve never seen before, and it was nice to re-visit some of my favorite pieces from David Trampier, Erol Otus, and Jeff Easley!

Apes Victorious

Introduction

One of Goblinoid Games’ recent releases, Apes Victorious, arrived with very little if any hinting or fanfare. As a one-man operation (although now often with additional writing by Tim Snider and even material from original Starships and Spacemen author Leonard H. Kanterman) Dan Proctor rarely promotes/updates his work on the now-bare GG website, let alone the blog and near-dead forums. Once the shining star of the OSR, so many others have risen in popularity and taken over where the founding OSR authors began. Is it worth taking a look or even purchasing this recent Goblinoid Games RPG, especially something in as niche in genre as intelligent apes?

Initial Impressions

In contrast to all previous releases, the first thing I immediately noticed about Apes Victorious is that it’s set in 6″x9″ rather than U.S. letter-sized. Moving to this size (and 1 column) will certainly make this easier to read on a tablet, though it does of course bump up the page-count.

Like most other recent GG releases this game is exclusively illustrated by Mark Allen; thankfully I haven’t tired of his work and think it works perfectly, though I would still love to see stuff from Peter Mullen and/or other (perhaps even new!) artists as well. I know artwork isn’t cheap; perhaps Dan and Mark have a great deal worked out, who knows. Sadly this is somewhat addressed in the game’s forward, where Dan notes this is the first game to come after Steve Zeiser’s death, and that he would have otherwise contributed artwork.

The title and header font is unique, if also a tad hard to read at a brief glance. The rest is the traditional B/X Souvenir, which is fine if a tad boring at this point. Tables are fairly easy to read, although they utilize a multiple-row highlighting/shading which still throws me off.

Introduction (Game)

Apes Victorious is a post-apocalyptic game. But unlike Mutant Future and so many other similar games in that genre, it doesn’t focus too much on radiation and doesn’t mention mutations, etc. A third world war devastated the planet and brought in a nuclear winter. The end of that winter brought about many changes, both to the planet itself and its inhabitants.

Humans were split at the onset of the nuclear winter: those who remained on the surface, and those who retreated underground and were safe within their constructed homes and shelters. These latter human evolved differently than their primal cousins, advancing in technology and even developing PSI powers. Meanwhile apes, gorillas, orangutans, etc. also evolved and have gained intelligence as they built their own settlements and societies, coming into conflict with both human groups.

Of course the planet has changed as well, much of it either still radiated from the nuclear winter or left as barren desert. Only small areas have regained plants and foliage, but where there is more water and plant life has seen animals and other features return in both familiar and unexpected ways.

The rest of the game’s introduction goes over RPG basics such as die rolls and terms used. Of course in this game the person running things is called Ape Master; ugh I’ll just stick to Gamemaster, thanks!

Characters

The basic Abilities (I still tend to call them Attributes) are the same as in other OSR games, with the addition of Psionic Potential (PSI). So far it seems pretty simple, then I look at the Ability dodifiers table; it’s not just the standard one column of -3 to +3 or such; there are five different columns/categories of modifiers for the range of Ability scores! Whyyyyyy?! At first I thought it negated the need for saving throws, but I looked ahead and nope those are still in the game. So that’s another table I’ve gotta bookmark and/or put on a GM screen to remember…

Apes Victorious has seven classes: Astronaut, Bonobo Agent (total nitpick but this should have been page-breaked), Chimpanzee Scholar, Gorilla Soldier, Humanoid, Orangutan Politician, and Underdweller. Like other OSR games there’s a Ability requirement for each class, as well as a 1E-like Ability adjustment. All but one class (Astronaut) also have a maximum level. After getting used to BRP RPGs and Stars Without Number Revised, it’s almost comical to see the tens if not hundreds of thousands of experience points needed to advance in levels.

Money and coins are expressed as simian copper, simian silver, and simian gold. Can you hear me roll my eyes? Just keep it copper pieces, etc. jeeeez. Of course if you’re an Astronaut you’ll have some equipment to start out with. Among the equipment available to purchase are guns, but personally I would exclude those kind of weapons, as they would likely have been used up, destroyed, etc. in a nuclear winter and associated “fallout” (not the literal nuclear kind).

Psi Powers

The PSI system seems pretty simple to run, but I personally wouldn’t use this in my game. At just 5 pages, this chapter might seem more like an afterthought or little add-on than an integral part of the rules/game.

Adventure Rules

Similar to any other OSR game, this chapter covers the rules to run the game, including combat. None of this section is new or different if you’re familiar with those kind of games.

Dangerous Evolution

Here we get a quite-small selection of creatures and opponents to use in the game. All but one stat-block is single-column (the other 2-column presumably to fit the artwork on the same page) and shows the same/normal stats as in any other OSR game (with the addition of PSI). A note at the end states that additional creatures can be brought in from any other Goblinoid Game product (there is a conversion section near the end of the book).

Ape Society

As the chapter name is self-explanatory, it covers ape governance, religion, science, and technology. This chapter will of course be more useful to those whose games will give most (if not all) attention to an ape-centered game, whereas my game would feature very little of this. It also assumes a caste system, with orangutans and bonobos rule over chimpanzees (still considered intelligent) and gorillas (presumed to be all brute strength and very little intelligent). While there may be a biological basis to some of those assumptions, I would again ignore most of that. What if I did want to play an intelligent gorilla?

The Underdwellers

Should 3 pages even be considered a separate chapter? Anyways, here we learn a little more about the humans that survived the nuclear winter underground as well as some example technologies that might be found/utilized by them.

The Ape Master

The last “actual” chapter of game rules, it’s also the most useful. It covers many things including running a game with a 1970s view, adventure themes and locations, ruins and artifacts that can be found there (including 2 very useful tables of random objects as well as random book subjects), along with tables for male and female ape names. The chapter concludes with an example outdoor/wilderness map.

Escape Ape Planet

Something I REALLY wish other Goblinoid Game products included, this is an introductory adventure. This is a nice small, quick adventure that can absolutely help out new players (and new GMs as well!) get a feel for what kind of game is possible with these rules.

Conclusion

The book ends with a Conversion chapter (covering Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, and Starships & Spacemen 2E), a character sheet (very plain and symbols are a tad annoying for double-digit numbers), and the OGL license. I must commend Dan for making the large majority of the book Open Content, including the example outdoor/wilderness map as well as the adventure!

This was a tough game to review. I’m a huge fan of Goblinoid Games; I still consider Labyrinth Lord the ground-breaking and pinnacle OSR game. I really like Tim Snider’s continued involvement; his material for Mutant Future and Cryptworld have been great and I think he helps encourage Dan to develop more material, as busy as he is in other aspects of his life. In this game I like the new 6″x9″ single-column layout, and Mark Allen’s artwork continues to be a perfect fit, as much as I miss Steve Zeiser and would love to see more varied material from others. The rule-set is pretty close to other OSR games, with a few little changes that I personally think are more annoying than innovative. I would need to have the right group to run and/or play this, and perhaps I need to brush up on my movies in this genre to generate a little more understanding and excitement.

Nevertheless, I’m glad to see new games from Goblinoid Games, and I do like seeing those that cover other genres besides the standard fantasy and sci-fi, and not just simply retroclones. I look forward to seeing what else comes down the pipeline!

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.