Category Archives: Other Systems

Preview: FrontierSpace Referee’s Handbook

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imageAs I stated in my recent review of the FrontierSpace PHB, FrontierSpace is one of the most exciting releases this year. Even though I have played and even written fantasy roleplaying games before, I am first and foremost a science fiction fan. Unfortunately a lot of SF RPGs out there have been written by designers who love rules. It feels as if crunch and science fiction often come in pairs. Luckily FrontierSpace is an exception. The rules are between rules-light and rules-medium, but there’s definitely enough depth for long campaigns. The referee handbook adds optional rules and various generators to expand your FrontierSpace game and help the GM (or Referee as it’s called in the game) to do their job.

This review is based on a unfinished copy of the RHB provided by DwD Studios. Thanks again, Bill. The 198-paged preview copy lacks a couple of pieces of art but aside from that it should be identical to the finished version. The RHB shares its look and layout with the PHB. The release is probably only a week or two away and like the PHB the RHB should be available both as POD version (soft- or hardcover) and PDF via RPGNow/DriveThruRPG. I guess it will probably set you back $10 just like the PHB, which is a very good price, if you ask me.

So what does the RHB add to the table? The first chapter of the book called Game Guidelines mostly expands on the rules on the PHB. In the first section of said chapter there’s a closer look at Character Rules including the morality system, how it applies to robots, and how the Referee can react when players let their character’s act against their defined moral code. Personally I don’t think codifying one’s morality is really necessary (especially in a SF game), but that’s just me.

More interesting are the information on earning DP (development points, FrontierSpace’s XP equivalent). In this section the author gives detailed tips on how to grant DP after each session. There’s a bullet list with ten item which if applicable grant you 1 DP each. This makes granting DP a much easier task, since you just have to check which criteria apply. Veteran Referees may just wing it, but if you’re new to the game it definitely comes in handy.

Another form of reward is also detailed: Loyalty benefits. These are special benefits granted to characters who have been loyal to a certain patron may it be a powerful corporation or a local government. Loyalty benefits are usually designed by the Referee but a list of examples is given which contains benefits like special skill training, the use of certain vehicles provided by the patron, or even company stocks.

Devil’s Staircase Aces High

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This time I want to get some ideas out about character progression. I am certainly not a fan of games that use levels and experience points. I suppose there are two reasons. I don’t like the way that levels often come combined with new abilities. It can seem very binary one moment you can’t and then suddenly you can do whatever it is that your new level conferred on you.  I also don’t like the lumpy nature of levels and experience points. You can spend forever and a day accumulating enough experience points during which time you do not improve at all and then suddenly *poof* you level up then it all starts again.

Games with detailed skills systems can get around this by allowing you to improve skills individually which makes progress more natural and tied to the skills actually being used in play or trained. I have house rules for Rolemaster that scraps levels and development points after 1st level in favour of this sort of Runequest progression.

This is not going to work for Devil’s Staircase as the skill system is too simple and lacks the granularity to allow one part to progress when it has been used while other parts remain static. It also does not fit with the fast and light ethic of the game so far and it would be a pain to try and fit that in with a card deck system.

What I want to achieve is that more experienced characters have greater control over their destinies. This is what better skills confer in the same way that getting more hit points and an improved proficiency bonus does in D&D.

I think I have a system that does this.

High Aces

A character can earn a High Ace. This is recorded on the character sheet. The High Ace can then be used to change the value of an Ace in the Endurance hand from a 1 to an 11. The High Ace can only be used once per day for each High Ace that a character has.

Over time a character can earn more High Aces and so can apply this boost several times each day if they have the aces in their hand to apply it to.

I like this idea as it adds an additional element of strategic thinking to playing the character.

So where do the High Aces come from and how are they earned?

What I am thinking is that they will be awarded by the GM for completing major plot way points. My first thought was actually to give them to the major end of level boss type NPCs and when they are defeated then any unused High Aces pass to the character that defeated them. In the Wild West themed game that would work well enough but in “Devil’s Staircase Espionage Role Playing” or an equally subtle genre based upon political intrigue or diplomacy villains may never truly be defeated.

Using major plot or story way points does not send the message that every villain must be killed to get the bonus.

So now all bar an equipment list and a starting adventure I think we are pretty much ready to play. This is what a basic character record looks like. We can stick a few possessions on the back of the post-it note!

Devil's Staircase Character Record

That’s kinda fancy gun work you got there Mister!

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Before we start shooting guns out of the bad guy’s hand or put a bullet through a silver dollar tossed into the air I want to take a tiny peek as some of the math and probabilities in this system.

I firmly believe that neither the GM or the Players should ever have to understand the maths that make a system work. If that is the case then there is a design flaw. That is my belief.

Now in some ways Devil’s Staircase has that design flaw. So far I have been running little test plays imagining one on one combats or one on one opposed skills. I tried to recreate the Gunfight at the OK Corral last night and something became apparent really quickly.

You need more than one pack of cards. This is not a big deal in my opinion. If I sat down with a group of friends to play DnD I would want more than one d20. I can buy a pack of cards on Amazon UK for 99p with free delivery. If the typical character is going to have 10 endurance every time you go into a tactical situation you are going to deal them 10 cards. At the end of the scene you throw in your hand and deal another 10 cards. At the start of each adventuring day you will start the day with another 10 cards. In a game session a single player will go through 50 or 60 cards. There are only 54 cards in a deck, 4 suits of 13 cards plus two jokers. In a game session every card will pass though the players hands. But what if you have 5 players. A single deal will use your entire deck. If you then have a few NPCs and villains a single deck is not going to cut it. So you have a couple of options. Either every player has their own deck, like most of us bring our own dice to a game session or the GM has several decks. As a GM you could by a few identical decks in which case you could deal out 3 aces of spades in the same hand. Alternatively you could buy several decks but with very distinct backs so you can easily sort them out. You can then have a deck for the characters and a deck for the villains.

So for all the trick shots I propose that you can play a joker to perform those extraordinary feats of luck or skill. At the start of play there is a slight chance that the character may have a joker stored on their character sheet from when they drew their stats. If you get a joker in your endurance hand you can play it or when the hand is thrown in you can add it to your character sheet. So now if have a small pool of jokers you can play to do those special actions.

The number of jokers in play comes down to the number of players and the number of decks. If for argument sake each player has their own deck and they typically go through 50 or 60 cards per session then each player will almost certainly earn 2 jokers per session, there being 2 jokers in every 54 cards.

If on the other hand the GM holds all the cards and has a deck that is shared amongst the 5 players then every time the hands are dealt someone will probably get a joker. The snag is that everyone knows that über lucky guy. He will get 10 or 12 jokers in a single session and you will probably get none.

If the GM has two, three, four decks in a single super deck from which everyone’s cards a dealt then there is a chance that you could deal 4, 6, or 8 jokers to the same player in a single hand. If your shuffling isn’t very good you could even do that more than once.

In the previous tests, some of the time I was using two decks, one for each protagonist and dealt my own hand each time. Sometimes, when I could rope in a second player, as GM I dealt all the cards. Having the GM deal the cards was more fun. It made the game feel more intimate. There was a physical connection between GM and player. The GM tossed each card at you and you collected them up and looked at your hand. Dealing your own had felt slightly more sterile.

So far, I am leaning towards the GM having two packs of standard cards mixed and shuffled together. 108 cards is not a mammoth amount of cards, it wasn’t too big to shuffle. The number of cards you are dealing out typically diminishes as the session goes on, injuries reduce Endurance so the size of the hand goes down.

The point of this ramble is that how you manage the cards does impact how many jokers the characters will get and how fast they come round. Continue reading That’s kinda fancy gun work you got there Mister!