Salvage Union: a short playtest review

This weekend, I got some the Dublin West Marches crew got together to play the beta test kit for Leyline Press’ Salvage Union. We had a lot of fun exploring the rad desert, fighting off outlaws, and salvaging lost tech from the wasteland

Salvage wut?

Salvage Union is a rules-somewhat-lite tabletop roleplaying game funded on Kickstarter at the end of last year. I was lucky enough to get a backer-only print copy of the Beta Quickstart book at Dragonmeet in December. You can get the PDF for free on Leyline Press’ website.

The cover of the Beta Quickstart Guide for SALVAGE UNION by Leyline Press.
I love the weathered look of this book!

In Salvage Union, players take on the roles of mech pilots in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Living in the relative safety of a Union Crawler (a mobile settlement) they venture out to salvage tech from ruins, downed spaceships, and forgotten science complexes. Of course, there are many dangers out in the wastes: radioactive storms, outlaw mechs, possibly alien beasts, and corpo forces — because not all survivors are eking out a living in the wastelands, some are privileged enough to inhabit one of the many competing arcologies dotting the map. Basically, it’s Mad Mechs.

The quickstart gives you six illustrated characters and their mechs, as well as complete rules for running adventures, including salvaging and building more modules and systems for your mechs. The system is based on Quest with a few additions, such as a push mechanic that lets you reroll if you’re willing to add to a pilot’s Stress or to their mech’s Heat.

Running the game

The game explains the dice aren’t used to test someone’s competence, it is about luck and serendipity when things get hot. Characters are competent, so when they need to do something they’re fully capable of doing, they just do it. Everyone enjoyed the resolution mechanic, based on this unique table — no modificators, no advantage or disadvantage.

The resolution table for Salvage Union, derived from the Quest RPG.

20 Nailed it - You have overcome the odds and managed an outstanding 
success. You may achieve an additional bonus of your choice to the action.  When dealing damage you double it.

11-19 Success - You’ve achieved your goal without any compromises. When attacking you hit the target and deal standard damage.

6-10 Tough Choice - You succeed in your action but at a cost. The Mediator will give you a tough choice with some kind of consequence. When attacking you hit but something has gone wrong.

2-5 Failure - You’ve failed at what you were attempting, and you’ll face a consequence of The Mediator’s choice. When attacking you miss the

1 Cascade Failure - You have not only failed, but something has gone 
terribly wrong. You will suffer a severe consequence of the Mediator’s choice. When attacking you miss the target and something has gone
Just roll a d20! The equivalent table for NPCs lets player decide of consequences.

I appreciate this simplicity. It is actually something I am playing with at the moment in one of my projects. You don’t alter the roll according to circumstances; you take them into account when describing the results and consequences. No maths, no headache.

I haven’t read or played Quest, so I can’t say if the more old school part of the system comes from it, but I definitely appreciate the use of random encounter tables, as well as tables for reaction and morale. They help make the world feel alive, and bring some surprises to the GM as well.

I added a list of Dungeon World style bonds for players to choose from so we could start the one-shot with relationships already established. I want to think this kickstarted the group’s roleplay over the radio as they were crossing a dangerous patch of rad desert but in retrospect, these folks are great at back and forth banter.

The Downing of the Atychos

We played about half of the provided adventure The Downing of the Atychos. It is a simple seek & salvage mission, complicated by the fact that the target, a corp transport that somehow went down and crashed in the ruins of a city, is valuable enough to attract a lot of attention.

Our salvagers were efficient, doing their best not to waste too much time and disregarding possible time wasters. They ran into some outlaws, which was an opportunity to try out the combat rules — well, to try combat cause combat doesn’t use any extra mechanics save distance — in a low risk environment. It was fast and cinematic: lasers overheated, pilots messed up, metal was torn to shreds. Exactly my style of combat.

Stat block for a Heavy Mech (NPC) with a silouhette. 
Structure Points 9
Systems: Large phase array laser (range long : damage 4SP), Heavy locomotion system, Escape hatch
Modules: Comms module
The stats for an NPC mech – petty straightforward

I don’t want to spoil the adventure, so I’ll just say we had some more exploration and salvage, some interaction with NPCs, and another fast-paced combat with tougher opponents. The mechs are now fully loaded with salvage, but they agreed to keep looking for more valuable tech. We hope to conclude the game this weekend (and in person if all goes well!).

Final Thoughts

Salvage Union is fun! It has an engaging, easy to get in premise that the players and I could definitely appropriate, rules we already master, and plenty of toys to play with. I recommend checking it out when it’s released.

The cover of my Storm Kingdoms wip docupent

Diegetic Mechanics in TTRPGs

Apologies for the big words. But you know, I have to get some traffic to my neglected blog. By diegetic mechanics, I mean those mechanics pertaining to the collaborative fiction. Or simply, in-world. So how can mechanics be in the world if they are rules, you ask? Let me start with context and an example.

These last few months, I’ve been running a (yet unpublished) game I call Adventures in the Storm Kingdoms. It is my homage to the old Stormbringer game from seminal publisher Chaosium by way of experimentations in the Free Kriegspiel Revolution design space. I may write later how the game came from a long unfulfilled desire to retroclone Stormbringer 1st Edition, and how it surprised me and became an engine for Moorcockian multiversal heroic fantasy in a literary mode instead. The minimalistic game design work I’m doing on this game is teaching me how tabletop roleplaying games rules can come from the world, and why they don’t always need to be expressed in dice-and-numbers mechanics.

If you haven’t followed my link above about Free Kriegspiel, here is the tl;dr: players interact with the world as presented by a referee who adjudicates actions and applies whatever rules they feel necessary to simulate the world. Most FKR groups prefer simple rules and character sheets with few to no numbers on them, but neither of these is an obligation.

How an obfuscation spell made it all clear

It dawned on me last week, when one of my players wanted his character to call on a demon of Chaos to help escaping a haunted tower. James (the player) had previously defined the demon as The Mistress of the Hidden when Jo-Jo (the character) needed to turn invisible. We’d established that the price for the spell would be to hide something from someone in the future to please the demoness with some chaotic mischief. I could tell the whole story, and how it ended up retroactively explaining why another antihero couldn’t find his lantern (while the original reason was the item had disappeared from the virtual character sheet and we’d assumed it had been lost and we’d all forgotten about it), but the important part is: we collaboratively designed a set of magical rules that require neither numbers nor dice rolls.

Jo-Jo’s Mischievious Magic

When Jo-Jo calls upon the Mistress of the Hidden to misdirect or disappear, she must promise to repay the demon by causing mischief in the near future. The Mistress will state the price in advance (James and Eric can both suggest ideas, and they must agree on the price).
Jo-Jo doesn’t have to accept it, but no magic will take place is she won’t.
If Jo-Jo hasn’t paid the price for the last spell when she petitions the Mistress again, the demands escalate and the price becomes heavier and bloodier. The Mistress may refuse to work her magic, or even play a trick on the young sorcerer to teach her a lesson.

I am just writing this to illustrate my example, but this is more or less what I have in my mind — and as a half-decent FKR referee, I’ll explain the rule to the players when needed. I’ve also given titles to the demon, as the game requires to better define a spirit. She is the Mistress of the Hidden, Unnamed Duchess, First Spy of the Courts of Chaos, and lover of the Great Deceiver, Aronax the Black.

The List of Unpaid Prices

If the Mischievious Magic rules aren’t stated in the game (or even in my campaign notes), the situation prompted me to add one rule to AitSK: the List of Unpaid Prices. At any given time, the referee should keep in plain sight a list of what promised rewards and prices have been agreed upon by sorcerers and spirits. It functions as a reminder, but can also give inspiration to set up interesting situations and choices. I’m looking forward to see it work in play.

An icon of Arioch as a Melnibonéan youth with orange skin, a chaos star as a halo, and a bleeding heart in his right hand.The background shows black and white chtuloid chaos beasts with red eyes.
Arioch Icon by Tristan Alexander (used without permission)

RPG settings have tons of diegetic rules

If you have never stopped to consider the thought, look at how the worlds we play have many rules that don’t interact with the rules / system / mechanics. Wizards don’t have healing spells. Dragons fly despite physics. Megacorporations treat freelance street operatives like shit. These are all diegetic mechanics (or rules of the setting, if you like).

So my question is, why would any in-world rule have to be modelled by mechanics? Our magic rule doesn’t require any die rolls. It sure could have a bunch of them, with tables of modifiers and parameters and options, as detailed and headache inducing as you care to make them. It works just fine as is in our rules-lite context, but it would also work fine in Rolemaster.

So why do we play with all these dice pools and modifiers? Do we love late night arithmetics so much?

But rules make the world more real, Shirley?

People will argue that we need rules to simulate the world and/or genre we want to emulate.

Sure, you can give halberds a +1 Reach Factor, an extra Attack Die when grabbing at a mounted opponent’s plate armour pieces, and a better Penetration Quotient against quilted leather than it does have against chainmail. Oh, and don’t forget the rule for going under a halberdier’s guard and easily stab them with a shorter weapon!

You can also ask your players to trust you to take all these factors into consideration when they become relevant. You then are able to come up with rulings and/or odds of success that portray each given situation much better than any set of rules ever could, however detailed.

You’ll need to know what you’re doing, so maybe do some research on halberd combat, or use a table from Halberds & Helmets (okay I didn’t go and check how detailed Alex has made his weapon lists — probably not a lot, but you know what I mean). Or make your own list of science-fantasy weapons that explain what each of them are good for in plain language. Whatever it takes for you to feel comfortable adjudicating situations without slowing down the game to a crawl by looking up rules and modifiers every five minutes.

An ink sketch showing the Chaos lord Xiombarg in his female form, riding a skeleton headed bull demon
from a James Cawthorn sketchbook that I can’t seem to find online (sadface emoji)

More on the topic of diegetic mechanics

On this subject, I highly recommend a series of articles called Less Rules to Do More by Justin Hamilton of the Aboleth Overlords blog (I’ve actually asked him to riff of them in an article for KNOCK! #3). And for an example of how this could work, foremost OSR thinker Chris McDowall has recurring blog posts (and some modular games) about what he calls primordial gaming.

You can learn everything there is to know about Free Kriegspiel roleplaying by following the links in my Obliviax Oracle post.

Rob the Dragon! A dungeon map drawn on patterned paper

Make your homemade dungeon maps come to life with patterned paper

For half a century, we nerdmappers (ie, Dungeon Masters) have used graph paper for our homemade dungeon maps. I’m still happy to draw square rooms on blue grids like when I was a kid. But I have this notebook that has inserts of patterns reminiscent of Renaissance coffered ceilings, maybe. I had the idea of using these pages to draw maps, following some of the patterns, as inspiration comes.

These are the ones I’ve made so far (click for full size photos).

I have found a few benefits to this technique:

  • Even if the map doesn’t make much practical sense, its organic appearance makes it feel more real to the players;
  • These maps end up being more interesting to explore (if more difficult for the players to map);
  • Tactical challenges gain in complexity and interest because of all the nooks and crannies;
  • In a team building context, weird maps encourage teamwork, as players want to use the quirks in the architecture to their advantage;
  • Drawing these maps didn’t take me longer than regular ones would have (as I was following the patterns and my inspiration), and it was way more fun!

I guess I like odd but believable maps, mostly because I grew up reading Casus Belli magazine. ‘Casus’ was the most influential RPG magazine in 1980s France — and it still is nowadays, despite having needed a few necromantic rituals over the decades. One fondly remembered column was Bâtisses & artifices (Buildings & Stratagems) that described a location with detailed maps, taking pains to keep everything medieval looking. Here are a couple of examples from that time, and also a more recent one. I remember the first column explaining that all castle rooms shouldn’t be 30’x30′ squares.

And while I’m on the subject of French mapmakers, let me mention John Grümph’s Des plans sur la tomette (I’m not even attempting to translate the pun), a lovely little book of medieval maps to use in your games – you should grab it, it’s cheap and contains very little text ; and of course Guillaume Tavernier‘s masterful work. Now this is someone else who works tirelessly to make fantasy middle ages look more interesting!

Do you draw quirky maps? I’d love to see them (and maybe steal them for my games 😉 Share links in the comments!

Edit (24 May): Mystery solved!

The Pattern Journals from Laurence King Publishing. I use mine to draw my homemade dungeons maps.

I’ve been asked by several of you where did the notebook came from. And my answer was “I don’t know” — I’d picked it up on a rubbish pile when the Fumbally Exchange was moving this winter. Turns out Helen had put it on a different pile (the donations one) but it ended up there in the confusion.
Now JammerJun found it on the Laurence King Publishing website (I’d searched there, but there is nothing on their UK site). The US site seems to have more choice than the German one.

Eric Nieudan runs Dungeons & Dragons for a table full of kids

Tips for playing D&D with kids

While I don’t run team building D&D games for children, I’ve had the opportunity to run a few kids games in the last few months. I thought I’d share my experience as a game designer.

Exploring the Caves of Chaos for Culture Night 2018 in the Fumbally Exchange

Play easy games

When I say easy games, I don’t mean they should be easy to win — I mean they should be easy to learn. Whatever your tastes in RPGs, you shouldn’t waste your time and the kids’ enthusiasm on learning the intricacies of a rules system. Out with Pathfinder and D&D 5E, in with Pits & Perils and The Black Hack (and so, so many others). Of course, nothing prevents you from hacking into your favourite system to make it more accessible. That’s what I do with Lunchtime Dungeons, but it may be more work than what you’re prepared to do.

Games with engaging and ‘gamey’ mechanics are certainly a plus when playing with gamers, but in practice these mechanics can be difficult to implement. Recently, I tried using a variant of my krâsses mechanic from Lanfeust / the dK System, and I found no one had any interest in using it. Turns out straightforward dice rolls brought all the tension we needed.

Play heroic games

If, like me, you are an ‘adventure gaming’ enthusiast (aka an old school D&D fan), you may want to make your ruleset of choice a tad more forgiving and heroic. The pathetic aesthetic we like so much may not work so well with 10 year-old kids. Give them cool powers, magical items, pets… All the stuff they’re used to expecting from a video game.

I’m not saying you can’t teach old school games to preteens. You certainly can if you have the time. I tend to run one-shots, so I’d rather give my players some instant gratification. And again, I am not trying to help people build better communication skills using Dungeons & Dragons. I’m just here to give a bunch of kids a good time and — hopefully — give them a taste for tabletop games.

Play with props

Like most newcomers, kids can get confused when dropped into a theatre of the mind environment. Having visual and tactile props is a good way to alleviate this and maintain focus. Have some miniatures or tokens, a battle mat, terrain pieces, spell cards, health counters, etc. Illustrations for places and people will also help with everyone’s immersion.

I don’t do acting props, but it strikes me that a hat, pipe, glasses, or other simple accessory would be great to establish important NPCs. Even with a table full of adults, it can be hard to keep everyone’s attention. I’m thinking this would spare you the “sorry who’s talking now?” question.

That said, NPC interaction probably isn’t going to be the focus of your game. I’ve never seen kids get involved in a long conversation with a character, so I tend to keep it to a minimum. I wait for them to set the tone of the interaction, make sure they get the info they need, and we keep going.

Play with a chill zone

If you plan to play a couple of hours, you can bet that some kids will get bored or distracted once in a while. This is especially true if you have a large group of players. Having something else for them to do can be a good way to keep the table engaged.

Now make sure your chill zone isn’t more instantly gratifying than your game. I’d avoid the TV or console for example. If you have access to a garden, a football or trampoline can be a good way to blow off steam while they wait for their turn.

Play with talking rules

Not all kids are well behaved, and happy to wait until they’re asked to. Especially if it’s a birthday party and they’ve been hitting the sugary treats. Under these circumstances, letting the table police itself when asked what to do can become a nightmare. Not only will you be leaving the game with a headache, but you may have had to shout to make yourself heard (bad), or left out the more shy players (worse).

I’ve handled this in two different ways:

  1. Have a caller. The caller is a player whose role is to communicate the party’s plans and actions to you, the GM. This rule comes from Basic D&D, which was published at a time when 8- to 10-player parties were the norm. With a table full of kids, giving that role to an adult (or a responsible teenager) will be a lifesaver. They will also take over the ‘herding cats’ aspect of GMing, and remind everyone that it’s a team game.
  2. Enforce a table turn. Only let the players tell you what to do when it’s their turn: you just go around the table and ask each player what they want to do. Do this during combat, exploration, travel, down time… From the beginning to the end of the session. If players want to talk between themselves, let them do it, but the conversation takes up the player’s turn… and the next player’s if it takes too long. I lifted this from Index Card RPG, a great resource for making your games fast and fun.

Play now!

As with everything else in tabletop roleplaying games, jumping in is the best way to learn. So why don’t you run a game for the little people in your life? If you have already done so, I’m sure everyone would love to know your top tips.

Players deciphering a players map at Trolls & Légendes

Game conventions and team building

Running Dungeons & Dragons in a corporate environment isn’t something we nerds usually do.

Roleplaying games are traditionally something we play with our friends, and doing it with strangers for team building and wellness purposes is a bit of a leap. Fortunately for my self confidence, it turns out I’ve done this many times before. I spent the Easter weekend at a convention – the always amazing Trolls & Légendes in Belgium were I was invited to run my latest release, Macchiato Monsters. I’ve done this sort of thing maybe a hundred times in the last 20 years and I always love it, but this was the first time I ran at a con since I started Desks and Dragons. And interestingly, I noticed more than a few similarities between the ‘demo’ games you typically run at such nerdy gatherings and the ones I host in offices. 

Players deciphering a players map at Trolls & Légendes
“Do you think they wrote gnomes here, or gnolls?

Playing with strangers

Only rarely will you know anyone among the players. So make sure everyone knows what this is all about — from RPG principles to fantasy tropes to social contract to old school gameplay – before you even start explaining the rules of the game. You need to ask questions and adapt you brief to your audience. Be wary of neglecting the shy player who doesn’t know as much as the others. During the game, you’ll have to pay attention to everyone and make sure no one gets bored. This is probably the main responsibilities of a game master.

Playing under time constraints

Furthermore, the players don’t know each other either – some of them will have come together, but it will almost never be a table-full of friends. These teams within the teams may create interesting dynamics during the game, but they may also become a problem. Your job as the GM is to create a group purpose, at least until the magic of imaginary team building happens. Very soon, the players will realise that they need to rely on each other if they want their characters to survive and their party to achieve its goals. This is where team building happens!

Let’s be honest: tabletop roleplaying games are always too short. Handling time is another skill of a good GM. You try to keep things fun, balancing player choice and narrative pace. In a convention, you have three or four hours for people to experience as much of your game as feasible. A demo session cannot afford to be slow or unfocused; there won’t be a next time to find out who killed the Duchess or to escape the wizard’s tower. The session must have a satisfying ending, an interesting middle, and a compelling start.

This is doubly true in office games. Even if most of my clients opt for a four-part game (the recurrence is key to team engagement), it isn’t a lot of time for a full adventure. Like other veteran conventions GMs, I use all the tools and tips I know to make every lunchtime session engaging and fun – the rules and the adventure framework I have designed help me a lot, but I keep learning from other referees and coming up with new techniques.

Playing with the format

Short games, new audiences, these are both opportunities to get creative. Have guests, have props, or simply play around with the story structure. Keeping a stack of index cards with tricks like in medias res starts or flashbacks is a good thing. Or you can let players come up with small parts of the game world, pertaining to their character or not. The list is endless, but I’ll have to try and post about it sometime.

To give you an example, at Trolls & Légendes I ran the same dungeon delve on both the Saturday and the Sunday. As the first group made it out with some treasure and a decent bit explored, I asked them if they would sell the map they drew to the innkeeper at the village nearby before leaving the region. The next day, I gave the next group of players the opportunity to buy this map. Here’s some of them, puzzling on some hand written notes.

This made the dungeon come alive for the second group of players and gave them a sense of persistence.  Little ideas like this will make a game memorable — make sure you always have some in your pocket!