Dark Roads: A Centurion Adventure

It’s 272 of the Common Era, and the Emperor Aurelian has defeated King Cannabas and his Goths, but has abandoned Dacia. Now he marches on Palmyra. As his force crosses Anatolia, Aurelian calls his trsuted retainers to him, and assigns to them a secret mission: contacting an imperial agent in Ankyra, an agent who may have access to Queen Zenobia herself.

Deep in enemy territory, the retainers learn that the agent has disappeared. Captured, killed, hiding—the retainers don’t know. All they know is that the clock is counting down, their emperor is relying on them, and the forces of the Palmyrene Empire may be hunting them.

Because facing down a Gothic Army wasn’t exciting enough.

Dark Roads: A Centurion Adventure is a possible project slated for a vote on my Patreon.

Red Danube: A Centurion Adventure

It’s 271 of the Common Era, and the soldier Aurelian has defeated a host of rivals to become Lucius Domitius Aurelianus Augustus, the ruler of Rome. He faces a shattered empire, and marches on rebel Palmyra. But first he faces an army of the Goths, and their king, Cannabas.

Your characters are scouts and spies, forward elements of the Emperor Aurelian’s army during the Crisis of the Third Century. Aurelian has already taken the first steps to restore the world, but the obstacles before him are vast. You have crossed the Danube to hunt down the Gothic king Cannabas’ stronghold. Alone in enemy territory, your failure could doom the future of the empire.

No problem. You’ve come, now it’s time to see, and later conquer.

Red Danube: A Centurion Adventure will be May’s release from my Patreon.

Centurion Ruminations

A discussion elsewhere has led me to consider choices made in designing Centurion – one of my games that was not inspired by other systems but was wholly independently designed. Centurion: Legionaries of Rome, as its title implies, is a game about Roman legionaries, and more specifically the kinds of special troops that might find themselves in a testudo facing raging barbarians, but which are more likely to be in advance of the legions, scouting out the activities of those barbarians or even infiltrating the camps or cities of rival civilizations. The development of Centurion seems so long ago (I guess 2012 was a few years back), but I had some very clear design goals.

For a simple system with a strong focus on narrative, Centurion’s dice mechanics are somewhat complex, certainly much crunchier than the other aspects of the game. This was the result of an intent to develop a relatively light game that still required a level of strategy – or, to be more true to the definitions, tactics. Since it was a game about legionaries, the idea was to incorporate the kind of tactical thinking required when you were in a legion. Legionaries had to make decisions for themselves – when to receive attacks and when to strike – but these decisions also had effects on their squadmates – when shifting a shield for a strike, one left the legionary to one’s right vulnerable. So the decisions made on who to build one’s hand to best counter the GM was intended as an extension of the decisions required of a legionary.

In a Test, the GM must assemble their hand of dice first – the character’s stats are based on a number of d6, and these can be used to buy larger dice or used as d6s, and this collection of dice is the player’s “hand” – and this gives the PCs a decided advantage. This was not an unexpected result but was the goal of that design decision. PC s are intended to have an advantage – actually, a few – and the major advantage is the ability to respond to the GM’s hand. This is one way to mirror the incredible professionalism and level of training of the Roman legionaries in comparison to almost any foe that they faced. While PCs had certain other advantages, this one was the primary way in which the training of the legionaries was modelled.

Centurion is certainly not the most popular game that I have designed, but I think it is the one about which I am most proud. This was something that I designed completely from the ground up with a very strong idea about what I wanted it to do. I really believe that I accomplished that, though others might disagree.

Sword’s Edge, What is it Good For?

Swords Edge is a generic role-playing game, that is to say it is not tied to any genre or inspirational fiction. Instead, Swords Edge provides mechanics that can be used over a wide range of stories and campaigns. I should note that I am a believer that system does matter, and that I have created very targeted games using Swords Edge that have changed its mechanics those being Sword Noir: A Role-Playing Game of Hardboiled Sword & Sorcery, and Kiss My Axe: Thirteen Warriors and an Angel of Death. However, I have also run a bunch of campaigns in varying genres with the base Swords Edge system. I wanted to share some of those with you and some of the narrative characters and obstacles used in those games. This is a supplement to the Genres section in the book, which details character ideas, opponents, and inspiration for fantasy, swashbuckling, western, modern military, and science fiction genres.

For these examples, each will have the name of the character, then in parentheses their rank and type. The number is the base Target Number which their Concept, Traits, and Elements can modify (if they apply and if the character has them). Minions are the weakest and go down after one success, Regulars are slightly tougher, with Traits and the ability to sustain three Stress, and then Heroes are basically the narrative character version of the PCs, but who lose ranks equal to the Stress sustained until their rank drops below Weak.

Due to length, Im going to break this into separate posts. The first of these is going to be alternate history campaign.

Back in the day, before I updated the system, I ran a very short game set in an alternate Rome centred on Alba Longa this was before the creation of Centurion: Legionaries of Rome. The characters were are exploratores legionary scouts and spies with Legio VI Ferrata (Ironclad), under the Legate (general) Titus Fabius Valens based in a fortress along the Dacian Ister Wall, on the banks of the massive Ister river. The story involved a rising in the barbarian lands to the North and the PCs finding out about this and embedding with the barbarians to protect the Alban Empire from this threat.

A couple of narrative characters from the campaign were Buretaxes, a Roxolani (Sarmatian) champion and Ostios, an Alban spy among the Roxolani. For a Minion example the lowest level of narrative character there is one of the Julong, the fictional barbarian tribe that are an early version of the Mongols.

Julong Warrior (Poor minion) 5
Concept: Horse Archer, +2

Buretaxes (Average regular) 12
Concept: Barbarian Warrior, +2
Physique +2; Charisma +0; Cunning -2

Ostios (Good hero) 17
Concept: Alban spy, +4
Physique 0; Charisma +2; Cunning +4
Shadow (Cun) +4; Insight (Cun) +2

These examples would work just as well in an actual Roman campaign, especially if you were planning to run a more “cinematic action” style of campaign. Centurion: Legionaries of Rome is designed more for a relatively gritty tone, where the characters are not extraordinary, but it might be fun to run something with high octane action, and Sword’s Edge can totally do that.

Sword’s Edge is Kickstarting right now. Please support it.

Law vs. Chaos? Order vs. Freedom

In writing about the Centurion Overdrive overlap idea (“Centurion Overdrive – the Palmyra Connection“), I got to thinking about the Law vs Chaos dynamic, something Basic D&D introduced to me and Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories helped illuminate. It’s been something I’ve never really bothered with, given that Chaos – to me – denotes something much more abstract than evil. I think I can identify evil, and it always seemed to me that Chaos was just another moniker for evil.

The army of . . . Law? (from HBO’s Rome, which is awesome)

Rome as the champion of Law, in its constant quest to maintain order, helped to clarify this dichotomy in my mind. If one accepts Law as order and Chaos as freedom, this conflict becomes one with two acceptable sides, rather than good and evil which has one socially acceptable faction against one generally rejected by societies.

Both order and freedom have benefits and drawbacks, and most societies find some acceptable consolidation of the two. Even moreso than good and evil, they represent a continuum in which compromises are possible. If one wants a complicated conflict in which it is hard (but of course not impossible) to demonize the opposition, Law and Chaos could offer that.

The surrender of Vercingetorix as depicted by Kieron O’Gorman for Centurion: Legionaries of Rome

Consider Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Were these the conflict of Rome’s Order against the Gauls’ Freedom (and so Law vs Chaos)? I think one could reasonably argue that. If we look at Rome’s declining years, Law ceded more and more to Chaos as barbarian nations were commissioned as legions, creating armies of Chaos within the embrace of Law.

You could actually have a group composed of adherents to both sides in a game without it coming off strange. I think most of us have social circles with people on different parts of the Order-Freedom continuum.

This is actually a fascinating concept. I don’t know if it was just poorly presented or if I lacked the intellectual capacity to visualize it in the past. It’s now something I’m interested in exploring.

Centurion Overdrive – the Palmyra Connection

In the listen through for the Great Courses lecture series Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, I mentioned an idea for an adventure in Roman times with the magical crown of Egypt as the MacGuffin. While Centurion: Legionaries of Rome is all about adventures in Roman times, depending on how you wanted to approach this game, it could be run in Centurion, in Nefertiti Overdrive – using the system if not the setting – or any number of games. I’d be partial to running it in Nefertiti Overdrive because I’m thinking of it as more of an action-adventure than a historical game.

The conceit is that Emperor Aurelian, after conquering the breakaway Palmyrene Empire (we’re talking around 273 CE), gains intelligence that Zenobia – the “queen” of Palmyra and the real force behind it’s success – had sought for the crown of Egypt, an artifact dating back to 3150 BCE and Pharaoh Narmer. The crown reputedly has magical powers to help bring peace and prosperity by uniting divided lands, and Aurelian – the first real emperor during the Crisis of the Third Century – is desperate to gain any advantage in his fight against chaos. (Hey, maybe it’s a literal fight against Chaos, because Rome’s dedication to order makes it a good proponent for Law)

The PCs are a collection of specialists – probably some bad-ass legionaries for muscle, maybe a local Egyptian loyal to Rome or paid well, a frumentarius (spy), and Aurelian’s hand-picked troubleshooter – sent into Egypt and specifically to Thebes. At this time, along with a few soldiers and some Roman bureaucrafts, the town was small, and mostly a tourist destination. There was likely an auxiliary unit of unspecified size who had a headquarters near Luxor (according to “The Theban Region Under the Roman Empire” by Adam Lajtar in The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt, Oxford University Press, 2012, edited by Christina Riggs pp 173-4, a really good resource if you decide to try something like this) Although the size of the unit isn’t known, let’s say it was small, just a few hundred, giving Thebes a kind of rough-and-ready frontier town vibe at the end of the Crisis.

Zenobia’s people are still there, led by Iaribol, a Palmyrene loyalist who seeks the crown to help revive the Palmyrene cause – possibly linked to the rebellion in Palmyra led by Septimius Apsaios. The crown is maybe somewhere in the Valley of the Kings, part of a grave unknown even today. It could be hidden in a secret tomb of one of the High Priests of Amun who were the de facto rulers of Upper Egypt in the 21st Dynasty. An interesting conceit might be to have a flashback to the escape from Thebes as represented in Nefertiti Overdrive. Heck you could even change the Icon of Amun-Ra in that game to a piece of the crown – perhaps the crown of Lower Egypt. The Princess and her companions need to hide the crown because they are heading north to confront the Saite Dynast or are otherwise not following the last Nubian pharaoh south. That could be a kind of cool link between the Nefertiti Overdrive scenario and this one.

The PCs  in 273 CE are involved in political intrigue, archaeological investigations, perhaps some digging through historical documents or interacting with sages, and plenty of fisticuffs as the Palmyrene loyalists and locals opposed to Roman rule throw obstacles in the PCs’ path. And there is always aggression from the Nubian nomadic peoples of Blemmyes and Nobatia – the reason for the auxiliary unit – to keep up the pressure.

You can find “Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt – Narmer, Part Two” here.

You can find the Great Courses lecture series Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt here.

You can find out more about Nefertiti Overdrive: High Octane Action in Ancient Egypt here.

You can find Centurions: Legionaries of Rome at Amazon and Drive Thru RPG.

RPGaDAY2015 Day 12

#RPGaDAY2015 is the brainchild of game designer Dave Chapman. Basically, each day in August there is a question about RPGs. This is day 12.

Favourite RPG Illustration. Favourite RPG Illustration? Wow. He’s not making this easy.

I am going to cheat here. Deal with it. My absolute favourite RPG illustration right now comes from one of my own books. It’s a picture Kieron O’Gorman did for Nefertiti Overdrive.

Tell me that’s not awesome. Actually, don’t do that, because then I would be legally required to smack you in the mouth . . virtually, as in over the intarwebs, and since I don’t know how to do that, don’t make me.

This awesome piece of action artwork is kind of in a tie with two other pieces created for other games – one by Ed Northcott and another by Kieron O’Gorman.

Ed did some pics of my adaptation of an iconic fantasy pair which appeared in Sword Noir.

Kieron did fantastic work for Centurion, and this is my favourite from that.

Yeah, I guess otherwise, if I had to choose something from outside my own games I’d have to go with the first cover to the AD&D PHB. Not so much because it is something I think is particularly evocative on its own, but because it has become so iconic.

The Languid and the Focused

Most of my games have some way for the players to communicate with the GM their desires and what they want their PC to do in the game. In Nefertiti Overdrive and Centurion, these are Pivots. Pivots are not only signposts for the GM, they are reminders to the players of what they said they wanted their PCs to be about.

Pivots are pretty important when I design adventures. The players are telling me this is what they want their characters to do, so I better make sure their characters get to do that. However, there is a large difference between using Pivots in a regular, ongoing campaign and in a one-shot or convention game.

In a campaign, having each character hit at least one Pivot during an adventure is fine. An adventure might last a single session if you are lucky enough to have six-hour sessions. For the adventure I’m running over Google Hangouts for two backers from the Nefertiti Overdrive Kickstarters, our sessions are two hours.

In a one-shot or convention game, the session is the adventure, and it has to fit into a specific timeframe – generally four hours. The adventure in the Nefertiti Overdrive Quickstart was designed as a convention one-shot, and fits into a four-hour session. In it, each of the six characters can hit both of their Pivots. I’m finishing my Gen Con adventure right now, and I am wrestling with Pivots to try to make sure each character hits their two.

This is important because in a regular adventure, there might be scenes that have a purpose and might even spotlight a character, but that do not hit a Pivot. In a one-session adventure, each scene needs all three. That’s tough.

Think of the regular adventure or campaign as a novel while the one-session adventure is a short story. A writer can engage in diversions and sub-plots, characters that only tangentially touch on the story but are of interest, scenes that can explore at great length some small point. A short story needs to be laser-focused, everything contributing to moving the story forward.

A regular adventure can be languid and discursive while a one-session adventure must be focused.

You can find Centurion: Legionaries of Rome at Amazon and Drive Thru RPG.

You can find out more about Nefertiti Overdrive here.

You can find the Nefertiti Overdrive Quickstart here.

SEP State of Play

Every week I’m trying to get two articles up on the website, but some weeks it’s tougher than others. Tuesdays I generally like to have an advice column while on Thursdays I write about inspiration. This time, instead of providing advice, I’m going to let you know what is happening over at SEP.

The main concern for SEP (which is me) right now is Nefertiti Overdrive. It is in layout and the graphic designer – Rob Wakefield, who has laid out all our books since at least the Khorforjan Gambit – is optimistic about getting it back to me early July. Fingers are crossed. Once we get those files in a format with which we are both happy, the PDFs will be sent off to backers and to the printers to get some books done. I wish printing were faster, but due to schedules and the early start to Gen Con this year, I can’t see us having any Nefertiti Overdrive books to sell at the con.

However, I will be at the convention. The Nefertiti Overdrive games that I am running are all full, but I’ll be on the panel for a couple of seminars, and there are seats available to those. On Friday at 9 AM, I have “Indie RPG Matchmaker” with Jason Pitre of Genesis of Legend Publishing, while on Saturday at 1 PM, Ben Woerner who wrote World of Dew and I sit down to talk about “Historical Gaming.” I will be selling copies of both Sword Noir and Centurion there at the Independent Game Designers Network booth. Come by, say hi, shake hands and chat!

The play test for the game with the working title A Team of Pulp Losers is winding down, and the rules have proved successful through a one-year campaign. I am wondering about beta-testing these rules, but have had difficulty finding playtesters beyond my alpha-test circle. In the end, there is no business plan for these rules. I have not costed-out a release because I am a bit burned out on Kickstarter. What will happen to these rules? First, I need to find a better name. After that? We shall see.

Another system is ready to go for Gen Con. I’m calling it Fancy Pants because – as noted above – I suck at creating good titles. Fancy Pants is a game very much in the vein of Nefertiti Overdrive. It provides players with the opportunity to control the narrative and pushes them to get fancy – describing “success or failure in a way that is dramatic, cinematic, amusing or otherwise dazzling.” Unlike Nefertiti Overdrive, rather than providing an incentive by providing better dice or bonuses, getting fancy is tied to advancement. One Fancy Pants session at Gen Con will be based on Borderlands 2 while another is going to be a high octane action take on Sword Noir.

I honestly have no idea what will happen with Fancy Pants . . . even if it finds itself a good name.

There are two other completed systems that are steps between Nefertiti Overdrive and A Team of Pulp Losers: Direct Action and Starship Commandos. I’ve written about both games before, and they have both had shakedowns. They lack art or professional layouts, but they are ready to move forward.

And even with a backlog of four games, I have a new one for which I am about to pull the trigger on playtesting. This one is termed Riggers, although that name no longer applies. Riggers was tied more to the setting than the system, and I am working on playtesting the rules in a campaign attractive to my players. I intend to use the scenario generation system from Nefertiti Overdrive to create the campaign for the Riggers playtest. Maybe the setting will work with the name.

Riggers won’t be ready for prime time for at least a year. Like Centurion, it is a system built from scratch. Nefertiti Overdrive, like Sword Noir, was inspired by mechanics encountered elsewhere. Riggers was built from the ground up. I’m not going to say it’s totally new and unique, because I honestly expect someone at some point to say “this works just like X.” Still, because it’s new and unique to me, it’ll take a while to work out the kinks. Centurion changed dramatically during the playtest, and I expect something similar from Riggers.

So, there you go. Three completed games, two getting ready to have their tires kicked. Once Nefertiti Overdrive is in the hands of the backers, I’ll be doing some serious thinking about what I want to do and how I want to do it.

Until then, stick around. Let’s chat over at the SEP G+ group.

Gen Con 2015 – Planning

There is no doubt right now that I am going to Gen Con. I’m running four Nefertiti Overdrive games through the Independent Game Developers Network, and they are all sold out. However, I am also part of two seminars: Indie RPG Matchmaker and Historical Gaming. Indie RPG Matchmaker is a panel run by Jason Pitre of Genesis of Legend Publishing, while Historical Gaming is my brainchild, considering I published a game on historical Rome (Centurion: Legionaries of Rome) and am about to publish one set in legendary Egypt (Nefertiti Overdrive), it seemed apt. I roped in Ben Woerner who has published World of Dew to join me.

The Nefertiti Overdrive games are sold out, but I’m running them on Thurs at 2 PM (link), Fri at 6 PM (link), Sat at 6 PM (link), and Sun at 10 AM (and link).

I’m lacking my usual Gen Con crew, which kind of saddens me, but will allow me to focus on running games, being a good panel member, and selling my books.

I hope to see you there.

You can find my Gen Con Google Calendar here.

You can find out more about Nefertiti Overdrive here.

You can find out more about the Independent Game Developers Network here.

You can find out more about Genesis of Legend Publishing here.

You can find Centurion: Legionares of Rome in print and pdf at Amazon and Drive Thru RPG.

You can find Word of Dew here.