Tuesday 23 December 2008

No need to take up a life of crime, free stuff to feed your fantasy RPG habit

I've been saving up a whole hamper of Christmas goodies. Firstly, we have a list of free paper models for fantasy, modern and Sci Fi, a computer tool for generating city maps at the click of a button and more tables than you can shake an entire tree at. Put down that shotgun, there's no need to raid that local supermarket to pay for your embarrassing RPG addiction, get stuck into some of this.

Free Paper Minis

Some people like lead. Some people like mild steel. Others like vulcanised rubber. For those of us who just like free stuff, there are paper minis. Paper minis are download-print-cut-fold and stick. Of course, with the help of a responsible adult. Looking at my player group of 20 and 30 somethings, responsible adults are in short supply! I like the idea of paper minis: you can squash villains with a fist, if tried with their lead counterparts would result in a trip to hospital and a rather embarrassing explanation of why a skeletal necromancer is embedded in the side of your hand. Here's a selection of places where you can get hold of paper minis, from little people through to buildings and other wargamey goodness.

City Map Generator

Obsessive cartographer types, avert your eyes! The City Map Generator is a Windows application that creates beautiful maps of cities at a click of a few buttons. Within a few moments, I had managed to create a city with buildings, rivers, a wall, plant life and more. Sadly, the website that it was home to has disappeared off the web (original here) but the downloads are available across the web. The maps do look a bit samey but then I'd argue that most fantasy/historical towns do. You can export to different formats for labelling streets. Even looking at my fiddling-about test runs, I can see mugger's alleys, bustling thoroughfares and market squares. And that's my Sci Fi addled mind. We can only hope that the original developer (who goes uncredited on the application) pops up and says hello, because I'd love to congratulate and thank him/her/them/it.

Tables for fantasy

Age of Fable has produced a plethora of Tables for fantasy games. There are 228 of them. That's staggering. Normally, quantity means a spinning plummet of the quality level. Not so here, all the tables I read through (admittedly not all 228) were well written and contained some great ideas. The tables are not specific to a single system, so even if you're using a system written in your own blood on the carcass of a swan, there's something here for you. Don't be put off with the simple design, they make for very easy printing or ready straight off a laptop at your gaming table. Many thanks

Just a brief note...
My next article will be published in the new year, I do hope you all have a fantastic holiday season and see you again in 2009.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Free images to spice up your game

Whether you are writing your own free game or looking to spice up the game you're running, free images always come in handy. I'm forever moaning about free RPGs not having quite enough images in them, so here's the help you need. I was inspired to put this together by Zach's post on the The RPG Site. Many thanks to those that contributed there.

Before I get into the linkorama it's worth noting that you should be careful what licenses are attached to the different images. If you are producing something for sale, may I recommend you pop over and throw some fabric at a proper artist. Most places would like a link back, which is no real hardship for any free RPG, right?

Art sites


If you're looking for a great tool for shaping these images for your own use, I can heartily recommend GIMP, which has radically improved in recent years to punch as hard as Photoshop.

Of course, if you are aware of any free (public domain or Creative Commons) images that might be relevant for your RPG, please pop the link in a comment!

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Zenobia by Paul Elliot, a classic

Plunge into the deserts and cities of ancient Egypt and Persia in Paul Elliot's Zenobia. A magic infused mix of historic places and myth. Search for hidden cities, plunder tombs and go toe to toe with scorpion men. Bound together by a simple D6 system, Zenobia is all about the setting. And what a fabulous setting it is.


Zenobia is set around the time that the Roman Empire was going to the dogs. The Empire is not referred to as Roman, which demonstrates Paul's desire to meander around historical accuracy (for good reason). It is set in the Eastern reaches of The Empire, which was fractured into warring Kingdoms including Persians, Palmyra (run by Queen Zenobia), and Galls. Hordes of filthy Goths rampage at the fringes of The Empire; providing a hairy, slavering and uncouth monster in the closet. The depth of description feels bottomless, I'd recommend having the map at hand (downloadable from the website) to assist in placing the barrage of names and locations. There is plenty of backdrop conflict to plaster a campaign across. Tales of Farthing Wood this is not.

The setting's core explanation is partitioned into manageable chunks, starting with a history of the area. If you've never read anything from this timeframe, it can be a bit of a jolt but judicious use of Google will sort that out. Geography is painted beautifully and with map clasped in a sweaty fist, you should have no trouble working through it. I certainly felt the light headed whirl of transportation to the ancient world when reading it through. I could almost feel the dusty mountains drying my throat and the relief of the moist Middle Sea (The Med). The most useful section, Everyday Life, is next and leaves nothing to chance. I challenge you to find a better social commentary in any free RPG. Clothing, economics, law and order, housing - I can go on - entertainment, how the calendar links with the seasons... You might be agahst at first but to read it through won't burn any grey matter (just yet) as it gets to the point on each subject and drills just enough to find oil.

Character Creation

The order of Character Creation is different to most RPGs, hammering a perfectly square peg into an ideal square hole. More emphasis is placed upon your origin, rather than the raw statistics. Characters fit into (but are not constrained by) one of three types: Adventurers, Crafters and the Learned. Adventurers are the heroic types, who live up to their name. A smorgasbord of archetypes are available from the monosyllabic, bemuscled and oiled Conan-clones camply swinging their 'swords' around the ancient world through to the dark and devilishly charming Prince Kasim played by Omar Sharrif in Lawrence of Arabia. Crafters are those people who work their fingers to the bone in the hard graft of the 5-to-9 (or ...29 hours a day in the mill and pay the mill owner for the priviledge of coming to work...) and the Learned are the scrolly types (like 'booky types' but before books) who aren't invited to parties and have trouble conversing with the opposite sex. Crafter and Learned creation rules are dealt with in different sections later in the book. Most players will opt for Adventurer because there are more than enough options.

Character creation has seven steps:
  1. Select a culture of origin, which gives you a language and some character bonuses

  2. Roll up attributes Might (1D6), Fate (1D6), Hits (2D6+10), Craft (starts as 1), Learning (starts as 1)
  3. Set previous experience (character class), which furnishes you with a special skill, cash and so on

  4. Select social class, such as peasant (I like the idea of referring to my players as peasants) that give different worthy bonuses.

  5. Pick skills (of which there are only few).

  6. Choose initial equipment, scimitars and such.

  7. Fill out background.
A lot more thought is required to get through the process than in many games and I think this fits the setting like a glove. It should (and does) matter where you come from. It should (and does) matter what social class you came from. Everything it should do, it does. You will end up with only a few specialist skills, marking your position in the team carefully. The process to fill out character background is a good example where Zenobia excels; it's not just a simple paragraph saying that characters with backgrounds are more interesting, it leads the exploration process with questions, tables to roll and a list of appropriate names! An idea I'm going to scribble down and shamelessly use for my own freeness.


This could not be simpler. Roll 2D6, add your Combat modifier, highest wins and causes the loser to bleed. The more you win by, the more the loser bleeds. Until they're dead. The Combat modifier is the sum of your Might attribute and any weapon modifiers. There are some 'elaborations' (delightful phrase I've lifted from the rules) but they only add richness to the simple system rather than overcomplicated. Damage is the difference between the two rolls (of 2D6+Combat) and you take that off your hits, accounting for armour first. If you get down to 3,2 or 1 Hits then you fall over. 0 is dead. You can opt to save the difference to use later to make 'crippling blows' (more in a moment) more deadly. If you lose a round, then you lose the points you've saved. This add risk to the whole deal.

If damage dealt is more than 4 then you get to do a Crippling Blow, which are brilliant. Crippling Blows are listed in a table ranged from 4 to 10, there are a couple for each level the player gets to choose from. For example, for a value of 4, you can choose between Chest slashed open and ribs cracked or Leg cut badly, slashed to the bone. Brilliant! You can use Fate points to shrug off damage in a typically heroic way. This system leads to some wonderfully descriptive combat, something I very much approve of. There are also some unarmed combat with less lethal but still satisfying descriptions such as 'Smash Face'. Hurrah! Missiles, nets and so on are also covered but only to demonstrate how the rules fit that too, rather than introducing a raft of new rulings.


Like all good Classical Epics, calling on Gods can make actions happen automatically but burn precious Fate points until you sacrifice something to the gods. The Gods are well described (and use the Roman nomenclature for you Classics buffs out there) and are the in-game explanation for experience points, which is rather neat. You can increase your God wielding by becoming an Initiate and then a Priest. You get spell-like powers based heavily in a Priestly. Cults firm up praising the gods into definitive camps, each shown in huge detail. Magic is wielded by Philosophers and Magicians and there are special Learned character types for them; the starting Attributes are rearranged as you might imagine - both being better at writing and less good at stopping swords going through their eye sockets. A Philosopher is the keeper of arcane knowledge - part scientific, part understanding the world. A Magician calls upon dark powers.

The Other Chapters

How far can you go in a day on a camel across a stony desert? I'm a computer programmer living in middle England, that doesn't really come up that much. The action resolution chapter covers this and a huge number of other things such as surprising people or gambling. The Monsters chapter covers all those favourite classical beasties: Giant Scorpions, Cyclops, Goatmen, Furies and more. Treasures are listed in their own chapter. The Golden Fleece isn't there but Paul does cheekily mention that you can plunder myth and I feel that he left out the bleeding obvious ones to make space for one you might not have thought of. For those who felt that the first section on local geography was a little light, after reporting to a mental health worker, you might want to check out the monolithic Lands and People Chapter should satiate your thirst. All 42 pages of it. I'm willing to bet that Paul is a GM because the GM's section is glorious. He has included a huge amount of Adventure Hooks, Campaign creation help, NPCs and other secret goodies.

The Book and Resources

Originally written in 1999 and revised in 2004, this 226 page PDF is neatly formed in 2 columns with a smattering of images by the superb John Hodgeson. The in-column graphics are charming and the Monsters chapter has a few poingnant pics. The front cover image isn't in the PDF (a shame) but you can get that from the website. Tables are collated at the back and the contents page lists only what is needed. The backup resources are all of a high standard too, some submitted by other authors. If you do think that you might run out of resources then Googling any of the names or keywords Paul has used will throw a plethora of information.

What I would do to it

I've scratched the surface with this review. Zenobia is big. It's huge. It's on an appropriately Classic(al) scale. I wonder if I can level the same complaint that's been levelled at me. Is it too big? I think that 'too big' is relative but as a game writer, you either want to make your game as accessible to as many people as possible or you make it for yourself and sod everyone else. Paul's gone to great length to smooth over historical detail and endless pithy argument (I'm married to a Master Classicist) to make a more interesting game, so I'd imagine the former. To make Zenobia more accessible, you could arrange it in more manageable pieces, a step-by-step approach. Broad description, character creation and mechanics, first adventure. Then add Magicians, Priests and Gods. Then another adventure. Then more detail. Then another adventure. Repeat. This format is rubbish as a reference book but I think people might get through it with a bit more ease. In a few places, a good general description might help (especially at the start of the Gods section). The geography section needs the map included. You can get it on the website but it really needs to be there, on the page. At the end of the history, a good 'Current state of play' round up would help show where to start from. I'd like to see more of the inter-God bickering you get in classical novels, also the players get to 'use' the Gods but I'd like to see the gods being their petty, childish selves too. Spending the Fate point leads to you winning that action but then the side affects could be less than desirable.


Have you ever read the Illiad? Did you get through it? Have you seen the film Troy? Did you get through that? There's a good reason why you've sat through Troy and not the Illiad, it's more accessible. However, which one is more rewarding? In Troy, the oiled Pitt prances gaily about with his 'cousin' Patrocles before going on a pouting rampage upon hearing of his death. In the Illiad, Achilles is a fully blown deus vox psychopath who seeks revenge for the one he loves, who died because he has a teenage strop. Zenobia is enthralling and detailled. I can't do it justice here. I nearly didn't publish this today. In its stead, throwing onto the stage the next entry nervously waiting in the wings - to give me more time - but this review would end up 226 pages long. I knew I had to just finish it.

If you download anything this year. Download Zenobia.

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Be horrified by Into the Shadows by Craig Griswold

Into the Shadows is a complete horror roleplaying game by Craig Griswold. The mechanics are based on West End Games' D6 system (like in the original Star Wars system) and setting inspired by H. P. Lovecraft (although not solely so). It's a modern take on horror with cars, guns, psionics and magic. A place where elephants go toe to toe with off road jeeps. It's got its ragged edges but between them is a real gem.

Character Creation

Characters are constructed from the typical mix of descriptive sections, attributes, and secondary attributes (although no called as such). The attributes in Physique, Reflex, Canny (Intelligence), Education, Technical and Will[power]. What I will refer to as secondary attributes include move rate; whether the character is magic or psyonic sensitive; Karma, Survival and Life points; special advantages and disadvantages and equipment and weaponry. If that sounds like rather a lot, you're right. However, not all are required during play so the character sheet is not overburdened. A player can choose to begin with the pre-built selections of stats or build from scratch, where you assign the stats yourself. The choice allows both quick character creation and stat wrangling, a very nice touch I've written down for the next version of Icar. Karma points allow temporary ability boost for those dramatic moments, rewarding flamboyance. Survival points work like XP, plough them back into your character. There are no levels although skills become more difficult to raise the higher they are.

Starting characters have 18 dice (which are D6) to share between attributes, special abilities, psionics and to learn magic. Simply, you can assign dice to a given attribute, the more dice you have on the attribute, the better you'll be at it. You're going to roll these dice, add them up to beat a target number, so the more you have, the more likely that will be. You can also split a single dice between lots of attributes by splitting a dice into 'pips'. A dice can be converted into three pips. A pips gives you +1 to an attribute. The upshot is that if you assign 3 dice and a pip, you would end up with 3D+1. You can receive more dice for taking disadvantages and burn more on special abilities. There isn't a big list of these but guidance on how to set them (which is enough). Psionics, Magic and Priest powers are bought in the same way. You then take 7 dice to spread between skills. This is well explained with some good illustrative examples. This system allows you to specialise in a big way or spread yourself thin. It gives the players more than enough rope to hang themselves.

Skill, Magical, Psionic and Priest abilities are chosen from large, well described lists. Skills are derived from various attributes. For example, the skill Gymnastics is derived from the Reflex attribute. The skills are not well balanced betwen the different attributes: Physique has 4 skills, Dexterity has 20. Balance is achieved later in combat as Physique can be used to avoid damage. Skill specialisations can be purchased to denote particular talents. The skill list is comprehensive and I think just about any modern world task can be found amongst them with a leaning towards the setting with skills such as Parapsychology and Mythos. The spells also have a good modern-horror taint, which echoes the setting nicely. Craig could have gone down the fantasy route but didn't. Nice one. Psyonic attributes are dealt with in a similar manner. Language is all important here and Craig has struck the right balance, giving you something of a feel for the setting through the description of the mechanics. A difficult thing to achieve.

The System

Task resolution is performed by rolling the dice next to the skill and adding any 'pip' plusses to the result. 3D6+2 means to roll three D6 and then add 2 to their sum. Try to beat a difficulty number with bonuses. One of the dice needs to be a different colour and is specified as a the Wild Die (which as a phrase in isolation sounds like the best way to shuffle off the mortal coil). Rolling 6 will add that value and then roll again. If you keep rolling 6, keep adding! This can turn marginal passes into landslide victories that could work interesting results into the narrative. Rolling a 1 either gives a penalty roll or a complication. A complication is a narrative hook, decided by the GM. A delightful opportunity for filthy evil GMs to get filthy and evil. Karma points are declared at the start of the round and double the values of the attributes. You can only save up to 5 Karma points, so they need to used wisely. Combat is performed by rolling against combat skills to hit, defensive skills to avoid. When damage is taken, you lose Life points and when they run out you're dead. Movement and vehicle combat is dealt with a similar system but there are more rules to digest.

The Setting

The given setting is with a invented modern day Bureau of Paranormal investigation, the characters playing new recruits. Assigned to a specific geographic area, the green field agents will travel around and investigate and solve. A considerable amount of background is available, including more equipment and vehicles specific to the Bureau. At this point, it seems like Craig shares my fetish for endless equipment lists! The bestiary is included in the campaign setting and includes everything from bridge troll to werewolf. Although there is enough description to get the creative juices flowing, I'd like to see more of an example adventure or two. There is a tonne of resource but the glue to bring them together for the new GM is missing. Go here, investigate this, find that, go mad etc.


The main book includes mounts (horses, elephants), humorously named vehicles that are recognisable, a huge array of weapons and equipment. Much of it doesn't have a description but I think that's ok. Little quotes adorn chapter starts and other areas of the book. All the examples are clearly labelled although some do demonstrate how complex the system can get when you're doing vehicle combat. A fully featured GM section is included, with some good advice and some slightly authoritarian ideals. That aside, it's by the most fully featured free GM guide I've seen yet and fits well with the slightly old-school feel the D6 system gives. What's more on the website there is also a bespoke GM guide (not reviewed here)and a series of adventures, each packaged in their own PDF.

For the next version

The current version is 8 years old. The last website update is 5 years ago. Impressive those statistics might be, I can only hope that a few tweaks might be made for the next version. The book is mostly single-column, making some line lengths too long for comfort, it is bereft of pictures which is a shame. As some of the sections are very text heavy, a few images would lighten the load. There are a few spelling and grammatical mistakes and although there are page numbers in the main contents page, the quick skill lists could use page numbers too. At some points rules are referred to without being explained. A little reference would help there. Finally, the setting is planted firmly in the GM section. I prefer any setting to have a player and a GM section. It's much easier to sell a game to a group of players if you can get them to read some publically available information. Perhaps some of the adventures on the website might be congealed into a single adventure to add into the book.

To conclude

I can only pray that Craig might read this and be inspired to revisit Into the Shadows. Not to paint the rules with a storyteller brush or add narrative control but to refine, expand and polish his creation. The D6 rules hold up well and the sheer weight of resources is impressive. It has that feel of something that really has been played. Into the Shadows is ideal for someone looking for system to throw a Lovecraftian setting idea at.