Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Leaving Azeroth: Project Overview

There was a time when my brother and I would roleplay in Azeroth, the World of Warcraft world. Those were fun games, and the lore and story constantly changed and was a great living campaign with many twists and turns, and lots of memorable characters.

And then, times change.

Azeroth and World of Warcraft no longer feels compelling. The weight of misbehavior in their parent company and the cash-grab nature of the game makes the world no longer feel compelling. I loved to lore and those who live in this world, but get the feeling it is time to move on.

So, what now? Go back to my traditional fantasy tropes and forget such a place ever existed?

Or do what all great writers do, borrow and become inspired?

As D&D halflings are to Tolkien's hobbits, there is a way forward while honoring the feel and heritage of these fantasy races in a setting neutral way. Perhaps, like the beforementioned halflings, there are "sister races" out there in the cosmos enough alike in the mirror of reality, but not tied to Azeroth in any shape, way, or form. Like humans in another sci-fi or fantasy world that are not from Earth, there could be some out there enough alike the version presented in the game I used to love that I can somehow take the good memories with me and leave the bad ones behind.

So how do we do this?

Simple enough, I hold up a mirror and start imagining what could be.

The Moon Elves

What feels like the most wasted potential in story and consequence on that one world could be just one version of the infinite tribes of Elves of the Moon. Now, Moon Elves were once seen in the Faerun setting, but nothing like their counterparts seen elsewhere. Blue hued with colorful hair, tall, graceful, with eyes which glow of moonlight, this race of elves could inhabit the deepest and darkest forests where they climb the highest trees at night to celebrate the Elven Gods of the Moon - and there may be one, or many, who knows?

If I did these in Mystara I would not challenge the existing Elves, but sprout a giant tree and forest on an Island, like Safari Island in Irendi, and let them rule it and have tribes all over the island kingdoms.

The Sun Elves

Graceful counterparts who worship the Elven Sun Goddess, we could find the Moon Elves sister race living in places of the sun, deserts and bright, cheery forests where the sun shines and they follow the dictates of the light from above. I would change their eyes to glow with sunlight instead of arcane energy to help them match their Moon Elf kin, but leave them the seekers of pleasure, civilization, and fine arts - much like a high elf in normal D&D style lore. If it were me, I would put them in the desert and make them a magically advanced society of art and culture, allowing them to worship the sun all day and build trading routes across vast seas of sand.

If I were doing these in the Mystara setting I would drop them in that desert area, perhaps on a coastal oasis island, and let them gradually expand inland.

The Taurus

Why not have a minotaur race named after the astrological sign? This is an easy one, and most of the native lore could be used, or you could go in a different direction with them that does not borrow so much from Native American tradition. Like their namesake astrological beast, the minotaur race could fit in a Greek style civilization with a maze motif, to a more high-plains tribe of nomads with camp cities as they move about the land, never really settling down but following the migrations of the beasts they hunt and live from the land with - never exploiting but always keeping the sacred balance of nature to ever sustain them.

If I did these in Mystara I am sure the far north would have the space for them to roam and follow the Great Hunt.

The Trolls

One could continue the voodoo and witchcraft culture of the Azerothian trolls, but I would drop the Jamaican accents and Aztec motifs. I feel you could do so much more with them once you cut those stereotypes free. Give them an allied race of frog people and lizardmen near the jungles and swamps they love. You could make their temples more reptilian with giant snake heads, log forts, and temples filled with jungle gold. I would make them more a sort of interesting lost civilization with great jungle cities and temples that the hangers-on to an Orc alliance they feel to be in other worlds.

Yes, break up the homogeneous Horde and give each  civilization its own place to shine. In Mystara there is a huge swamp that would suite them fine.

The Orcs

They looked like Warhammer Orcs but are far more Shakespearean and militaristic. D&D's orcs always bugged me with that one hit die and never felt as epic as the Azerothian or even Warhammer variety of Orc. This one feels tougher since there are a heck of lot of built-in bias against Orcs in D&D settings. They are one thing and supposed to be that one hit die level one encounter list filler before we move on to bugbears and zombies.

I could do these as an evolutionary turn for the orcs, have them wipe out and send older tribes on the run, and these new civilized, magic-using, organized military and brutally diplomatic breed grew out of some pact with darker forces granting them great intelligence, cunning, strong tribal bonds, and ability to use magic. If I were doing these in the Mystara setting I would drop them in Thar and put them at war with the other tribes, only to eventually take it all over.

Humans and Dwarves

Humans and Dwarves are easy. Just make them however you want and put them anywhere. Mystara has plenty of theme park human and dwarf areas, take your pick and go. Just make them stocky and give them that Azeroth look and manner, and you are set.

Goblins and Gnomes

The goblins and gnomes, I would like these types of races honestly in a Steampunk setting so I may save them for that. If you did a lot of flying ships in the setting, let them have those and ally them with other flying races above the clouds. Maybe their home city is a huge floating island you can never really say where it is. This feels the easiest way to integrate them and get those fun flying ships that are sort of Spelljammerish into the setting while giving the crafty goblins and gnomes a home that is unique. Properly framed as sky-bound civilizations, they work a lot better and are easier to integrate.

The Undead

I never liked playing a zombie corpse, but I do see the fun in playing vampyrs and semi-undead. You could make a "dead area" somewhere in the world and open up cool vampire-like races that were sophisticated and cool. I could see even adding ghost-people as a race option, and open up the spirits for play. On their own with some cool idea work, like an alliance between vampires, ghosts, Spirit Elves, and Frankenstien like reanimated you could have something cool that is not a Horde vassal.

Spirit Elves? Now they sound cool and could give you that banshee-like option as a character race within the Undead alliance. Perhaps they make their home on forests that are between the realm of the living and the dead, and they could be moody, brooding, and ultra-cool to play as PCs.


There are more races than that in the game, but this hits most of the majors and gives me a good start to keep the feeling and meaning these races had in that world, but get them the heck out of it and off on their own stories and paths through a fictional world I create. I could have all sorts of fun with a werewolf race, feline races, and some of the other standards roaming around here and there. Just give them a proper home, give them allies that support their central concept, and let them flourish and bloom on their own without sticking them on one side or the other.

Perhaps Orcs and Moon Elves could find a place in the world the cooperate against demons? The stories should be your guide, not a game that honestly you may wish to leave behind - and take the best parts from for inspiration.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Savage Worlds: Classic Mystara

So another possible setting for Savage Pathfinder (or Fantasy) is a pretty cool one, the classic Mystara setting for the original B/X D&D games. I just picked up a set of the original PDFs (plus the PODs you can buy, please make more of them available) on DriveThruRPG, and this is a strong contender to take my #1 spot - just because I have a long history with these lands and they were the home of the first adventures I ran as a DM.

Everything is here, the world, a cool setting I have a history with, that familiar feeling, and plenty of places to explore and visit again. I could use this for classic B/X as well, just grab Labyrinth Lord and we are good to go for years of fun, no conversions, no waiting for the Savage Pathfinder books to come (I have the PDFs but books are so much easier), and I have everything I need to make it work.

So the question becomes, B/X or Savage Worlds?

B/X vs. SWADE: Goals

This comes down to if you are a fan of the "gamey games" that Savage Worlds implements as a part of the system, such as chases, initiative, bennies, raises, social interaction, and the other systems that Savage Worlds ships with that B/X does away with. Me? I am a fan, and while playing solo it is fun to navigate some of these systems and play through them. Also, initiative in Savage Worlds I feel is way easier than d20 style systems and it does away with a lot of math and sorting of up to a dozen combatants when a combat begins.

I like Savage Worlds combat as well, there is a lot more play and options in a modern system such as this, and you can make a lot of choices and switch up tactics from turn to turn, work together, and use edges or skills to manipulate the flow of the action.

One thing about B/X is you don't need to convert, and you have everything right there. You do lose things in the conversion, and things get mechanically soft (or you forget a monster ability). If you like rules-as-written and want things clear, do not convert. If you are shooting for more of a story and the type of action Savage Worlds simulates well, then convert.

For this playthrough I want more story and pulp action, problem solving and NPC interaction, and I am not as concerned with an old-school simulation. I love B/X and the old-school ethos, it is just for this game I want to play more with the characters and setting than the dungeons and the monsters. Some settings to me beg to be played as a grand drama, where others are a darker crawl into the dungeons and the nature of greed and power.

Focus on Quality, not Quantity

Old school modules are notorious for using quantity as quality, to make a fight challenging they will throw 13 rats in a room and expect you to handle hit points, initiative, and attacks per rat, and they will give you a hit point list for all of them individually (1,1,1,2,2,2,2,3,3,3,4,4,4). In Savage Worlds, that's one swarm. But if you are playing an old-school module in SW, adjust the monsters in quantity and shoot for quality encounters rather than the adventure-as-written.

Similarly, if you have a room with 10 goblins, think about knocking that down to a wild card goblin leader and four extras - and maybe give a few special weapons and attacks/defenses (bow with poison arrows, burning pitch, caltrops, or an entangle weapon). You just took a "bulk fight 10 goblins" sort of old-school hit point grind and turned it into a fight with some interesting options and challenges. Less combatants but more quality that leverages the special parts of the Savage Worlds rules is better than a boring bulk creature fight.

Similarly, consider non-combat options to resolving encounters such as stealth, skill rolls, negotiation, role play, and using powers or gear. Again this is obvious when you are playing Savage Worlds, but if you are in a certain old-school mindset you may get locked into the "if there are 15 orcs in the mess hall, you gotta defeat 15 orcs to get through the room" and all other options disappear from your mind. This happens to me on conversions, and I have to take a step back and wonder, could a food fight be started? Can you wait out dinner? Where would they go to afterwards? Is the time of day even right for a meal to be served? Could the food be spiced to be extra spicy (for laughs or other reasons)? Could an illusion be used to make the food less appetizing? What happens if a large rat or insect runs through the room?

Are there other ways of dealing with this encounter than the obvious?

Again, instead of a "fight quantity of X" sort of encounter, you are creating something that can be roleplayed through, skills used, or other inventive uses of the rules and leveraging the options and powers the system gives you. The resolution to the problem the room presents can be solved with more than just combat, so your quality is being reflected by a wide variety of resolution options supported in the rules and character abilities.

In B/X the referee ruling on player experimentation is the core of problem resolution, with a default focus on combat as the final resolution. You don't need special rules or abilities, maybe perhaps a save or ability check if there is a question of success chances. Nothing says you can't do any of the above in B/X either, you can be just as inventive and have a good referee play off that.

In Savage Worlds you have systems, edges, player abilities, skills, and the minigames built into the rules that help you resolve problems. These need to be considered when you think about how an encounter can be resolved. For a solo play experience, I find the structure here to be of great assistance when I make rulings and try to have characters influence the story through skills and abilities.

My Second Go Around

When we played this in our years-long campaign the stories started personal and NPC-based, and then naturally shifted into "superhero save the world" plots. When that happens I feel you lose the personal and dramatic stories that are lower-level and a lot more meaningful. By the time our campaign ended the only  reason to go anywhere in the world was because of a world-ending plot, and frankly, it got tiring. We were young and did not know any better, but what else can you do when you lack hindsight and experience?

I tire of superhero movies these days for the same reason. Plots where you start out invested in a few characters and their struggles always turn out to be an "end of the world" plot and you lose that connection to their personal stories. And honestly, in many cases the world never ends or can change much because the next movie needs a normal world to setup the next end of the world. The story becomes "too big" and we lose the intimate feel that drew us in.

I would run these on a lower-level and make all the plots driven by NPCs and stories instead of extra-worldly threats. You can change the world, things evolve, towns can rise or fall, and the world is a living world where making a difference in an area matters and continues on in the campaign.

Classic Modules

One thing about out campaign was that Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms did not exist in our minds. All the classic AD&D modules took place here. The Slave Lords, B-series, S-series, Tomb of Horrors, and everything else is scattered around the world here on the map. We have a world, just put the dungeon somewhere and let's play! We were kids, so we kit-bashed everything, played using D&D rules and tossed in AD&D as we needed it (like the classic Labyrinth Lord setup), and all the best modules and adventures were in this world.

Would I keep that? I probably would. If this is the D&D homage playthrough, this will be it. Everything is on the table here. I may change a couple things, add characters, change up the stories a little, but if I feel the need to pull these adventures in, they are there and they could fit in if I needed them.

And I can get the PDFs, so that is cool.

Fantasy Companion or Savage Pathfinder?

Classic Mystara can stand beside Pathfinder's Golarion and be an equal. The settings are comparable, and Mystara has the benefit of me knowing and playing in this world since I was a kid. Now, Mystara does not have all the things Golarion has, two I can think of off-hand are a Cheliax-like evil kingdom and a ruined starship fantasy-tech place. I could fit places like that in if I really needed them, and I could take a huge isolated area and crash Barrier Peaks S-series style starships into the planet and have my tech-fantasy area with that classic twist. A evil kingdom of demons (or just a city) could pop up somewhere as a story drama to play through.

I am leaning towards the Savage Pathfinder rules, with a scattering for the Fantasy Companion mixed in (like the magic item generator). I hope the printed books come quick, or I may be ordering some print outs from somewhere of the PDFs I have or printing out a few sections for reference.

More when this game gets going, since I have a couple things in the way of playing. I am now focusing on teaching another player how to play Savage Worlds, and she should be getting up to speed and happily having adventures soon.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Into the Borderlands: Play Report

The Goodman Game's versions of B1 and B2 is a really cool book, huge is one way to put it, with a full reprint of the basic module plus a 5E update of the same. You get all the maps, plus the 5E versions of the adventures are expanded and statted for that rules set.

And I played it as a part of a Pathfinder 1e game recently. I used the old-school module and converted up to Pathfinder, and skipped the 5E version.

Let's say, my experience was definitely old school, but not the type of old school I like. Going into the kobold lair, killing the guards, having a swarm of rats attack, and then holding off a hallway where charge after charge from the kobold's living area fell in piles in the hall felt...it felt wrong.

Not heroic. It felt like invading a tribe's home and killing them all because they have loot. We ended up a bit shell-shocked after the battle, and it felt really scummy for all involved. Like the party did something wrong, and my players felt that as well.

Wait, aren't we supposed to be the good guys here?

The Kobold Insurgency

We had a random event I rolled for later, and I ruled because the kobolds were attacked this way, the local tribes banded together and formed a "kobold insurgency" in the area and a general war broke out. It didn't make the party feel any better, and they knew they caused it, but it kind of put a bookend on a really ugly feeling encounter we had there.

But ugly encounters happen, and not every fight can feel heroic. I know and so do my players. This is the hardships of being an adventurer, sometimes bad things happen and you deal.

And this reinforces the idea of consequences outside the published module in the game world. You tip the cosmic balance and there is a possibility of a reaction happening. And here, one did.

And it was fun bringing up the insurgency every now and then as the kingdom battled it, the checkpoints, the fires in the hills, the soldiers marching out to the mountains, passing burned out farms, the town criers announcing wins and losses in the campaign - it became a fun backdrop to the game and the players enjoyed knowing the mess they made had a larger impact - although one where if it never happened none of this would have ever began.

But perhaps it was destined to all along.

And no, they did not tell anyone of their involvement. It became a sort of open secret to the party, and with each random event tied to the insurgency they knew they would have to go out there and end what they started.

But, what was wrong with us?

Times Change

Back when we were kids, yeah, they are all evil, here is a room full of them! Yeah! Blast them like a hall full of creatures out of the Gauntlet video game and grab their loot! The modules of those days were simple, room X filled with monster Y sorts of places, and just having a map with keyed rooms was cool and saved us a lot of work.

And I am not dumping on this module, the Keep on the Borderlands, my brother and I loved this place and had our first campaign here with characters that lasted for 40 years. This is where it all began for us, and I still have the home-made maps we made with graph paper and coloring pencils.

But I guess my tastes changed. I like stories, plots, and adventures now. I don't want to go in a hole in the ground "just because treasure" and kill everything down there for XP and GP.

Yes, the kobolds are technically "evil" in this module, it is assumed, but with no support or trappings like demon statues and the like, it felt wrong. I helped rectify that by making the united tribes evil and despicable during the game, so it sort of balanced out.

It would have helped if the original module eliminated the non-combatants and painted the tribe as evil raiders with loot gathered from raids on innocent villages, then the raid would have felt justified. Perhaps this was an oversight on my part, but I was running the module as-written to give them that experience, so this I felt was an interesting topic to write about.

To Be Fair...

The 5E material was excellent, and pointed out some of the problems of the original adventure. The criticism of B2 being a "monster hotel" was correct and a fun admission of the original material's shortcomings. They did try to fix a lot of the issues in the adventure, provided better descriptions and updated encounters, and I wished I would had started with the 5E side of the adventure before I put it aside for the original version.

The 5E material also mentioned when the group would surrender, and clearly laid out non-combatants (and did not stat them), so a more modern sensibility and adventure designer made some great tone choices here. I never likes the classic modules giving hit points for younger non-combatant monsters (or even mention their presence), it just felt wrong to put players in that position where they could accidentally injure younger members of the tribe with a misplaced oil flask or fireball. Let those on the map be combatants and leave those there as the ones responsible for evil occurrences.

There is also a reasoning why the monsters are all here, something to do with the chaos altar present here that draws the monsters to this area despite their antagonism and differences. It is a weak reasoning to hand-wave and say 'because magic' but it is something I could have worked with if I had wanted to. There is a difference between running the old adventure as-is, versus having the kobolds aware of a mind-altering presence in the area of "evil magic" and having that affect their actions.

The party could see a group of kobolds not attack a bugbear because some dark magic willed them to, and that would have aroused suspicion and played into that overall story arc of this place. Once the altar of evil is destroyed, the Caves of Chaos would be as well, and the party could have a sense of accomplishment within a larger narrative and the monsters could go back to being monsters.

I give the 5E section props (and one which I wish I would have read a little more before I ran this), and the tone change between expectations then and now is one thing to be aware of when running older modules. I know, it should be apparent, right? Not all the time, and in this case I stepped on that rake and it hit me in the face.

Turning it Around

By the end of the game, the insurgency did come home to roost and they got drawn into the fight and helped end it. It did sort of put an end to what the party started, and they felt they had corrected a mistake - that wasn't really a mistake because the module was written in a different time and expected a different type of player - one more interested in math and loot than story or plot.

It was a strange situation where and old-school module met modern sensibilities and a desire to play more plot-based games, and I refereed it as having a real consequence that became a backdrop and end to the game. They had fun and we talked about our feeling afterwards, and everyone agreed the insurgency was a fun way to take what felt like a morally-dark old-school slaughter into a larger story and they thanked me for turning what was an ugly situation into something they didn't like having to fix, but they did anyways because they felt responsible.

I pointed out that the situation was likely a powder keg likely to go off not maybe by this, but something else, and they understood and agreed. It was turning lemons into lemonade, but it made sense of something that felt wrong in the beginning and provided closure for the group.

Next Time?

I would make this an adventure location with a reason for coming here, not just to clean the place out, but a kidnapped merchant and a rescue mission, or some other plot based reason to be here, get in, and get out. This would go from a "clear out rooms 1 to 100" sort of game to a adventure setting that serves as a background for a larger story. Not a place to clean out, but as a set where larger plots and stories happen.

Then again, is it a great setting for that sort of story, or is this just fan service? Again, I am struggling. No, realistically, you would not have so many tribes - some hostile to each other - within walking distance of each other. They would not walk out of their caves every morning, punch their timeclocks, and say "hello Bob" and go off to raiding and looting only to come back here later to live in a small, easily accessible, openly known about hole in the ground when they have a whole wilderness map to go make a camp or fortress in.

And when you think about it, the larger and stronger tribes would have wiped out the smaller ones years ago and taken their stuff, perhaps collapsed their caves, and left to go find somewhere more secure, private, and defendable.

And next time, yes, I will be smarter and start with the 5E version with the tone fixes and updated content. I can still swap monsters to whatever system I am playing, but it helps having the fixes and additions to consider.

The Forbidden Caverns of Archaia

Yes, I know B2 is a classic and near and dear to the hearts of many, but I need to mention the Labyrinth Lord module of The Forbidden Caverns of Archaia. This is a way larger experience, but conceptually the same, and a bit better constructed. If I have a "goblin lair" or a "kobold lair" map that out as a standalone, and put it on a larger "adventure area" map (or let the DM place it somewhere), and then you can have a "Caves of Chaos" style area without having it feel too cramped or connected.

The bonus to this type of approach is you can create a classic experience, such as a kobold lair in the ruins of an ancient serpent cult temple, and have the room to create secret ways in, story and plot hooks, and even lost areas where remnants of the old serpent cult may still be around.

I prefer this style of setup to B2's, and this feels much more sandbox and open to me as a referee. The tribes of monsters have room to fight, skirmish, patrol, grab territory and resources, and retreat back to their defended camps and homes to plot another way to rule the lost valley where ancient power lies. Outside tribes could be called in as the war escalates. The players could pick a side, or their actions weakening one side or another could tip the balance of power and cause unforeseen consequences.

And you can ignore or move things around if you want to focus on one group of bad guys. You are not limited by the classic map's tight layout and structure. I would have liked the 5E adventure to space things out a little more with a larger adventure area and sites farther apart, but it is what it is. Messing with a classic that much would have been likely controversial.

In this sort of a "area map plus locations" setup there is more room for player agency and choice. If the story goal is a kidnapped merchant by one of the tribes, getting in, doing the rescue, and escaping are clear goals and you aren't "clearing a map" and you are not forced into areas that have nothing to do with the story.

A Great Book

Despite our strange play experience, I love the book and the work they put into this, and I am planning on getting the others in the series (and I hope they do the Slave Lords "A" series someday). It is clearly a labor of love with interviews, expanded material, a 5E conversion, and plenty to do. Highly recommended, but make note of some of the old school expectations and assumptions and feel free to wrap this into a larger story of yours that changes things up and makes "clearing the map" not the primary goal of the story or mission.

Then again, if you are just going for the old school feel with a modern rules set, dive in and have fun.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Savage Worlds Pathfinder: Finding a World

This is a hard one for me. This is 90% of what I want for a Savage Worlds Fantasy game, but since I am looking forward to playing through Pathfinder 2e I am saving the Pathfinder home setting of Golarion for that playthrough. So, for Savage Pathfinder - Golarion is out.

And I know the Runelords adventure path is being written for this. But no, I don't want to play "this is the classic world" versus "this is the 10 years after" sort of thing. If I play there, one rules system gets to shine so they won't compete. There is, however, an answer that does some creative recycling.

So, I have a number of old Pathfinder compatible game world books for different settings, and I got thinking. If I want to save Golarion for PF 2e, any of the old Pathfinder compatible campaign settings are fair game for a Savage Worlds Pathfinder playthrough. Let's break out the books and see what we got.

Note this is not rating one better than another, because this is not a complete list, nor is it intended to pick a winner. There are some considerations in tone, ease of use, and the pulp feeling of Savage Worlds (and the Pathfinder style content) and where the best fit for this would be given my interests, time, and preferences for a fantasy setting using these rules. Everyone has a favorite setting for different reasons.

All right, let's find a new world and re-use one of these old books!

Scarred Lands


This is an interesting setting since it has a war between the gods (civilization) and the titans (chaos), and it feels like civilization has won the fight. This setting feels most like the old Mystara D&D setting to me, sort of a fully settled theme-park world with every option you would want in a fantasy kitchen-sink setting.

This is my third favorite since it feels more like a "civilized fantasy" setting where the great risk is in losing what the gods have built, so you will get a lot of corruption plots mixed in with politics. There is room for exploring ancient temples and sites, but a lot of the world feels explored and mapped out, and just starting this world will require a fair bit of research and putting things together to get an idea of a region and its conflicts.

This setting also feels more high fantasy, higher magic and technology levels, and a well established civilization. The art of all the different people is a great resource, and makes me feel this is a world that cries out for a lot of social RP and intrigue. If you are looking for that more political fantasy setting with a strong axis of alignments and kingdoms, this is a great choice.

This one feels like a lot of reading to wrap my head around a place, especially with how it fits in with the surrounding places on the map. The book is beautiful, full of information, character sketches, and maps, so this is a high-value setting and a solid world to play in.

Primeval Thule


Let's take a D&D-ized version of a cleaned-up Conan the Barbarian and a cleaned up version of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos and put all the standard fantasy tropes in there, like elves, dwarves, halflings, and the rest. It still has that Conan feeling with lots of unexplored land, a huge map with 99% of the place names unexplained and ready for you to fill in, and enough explained places to give you an idea of what the place is like.

Thule is a great "this is not Conan but it is Conan" option and one that I am currently playing with the Savage Worlds Fantasy companion. This is my first choice in a ported over Savage Worlds setting since it has a bronze-age and pulp feel to it, 99% of the world is unexplored and for you to fill in, and if you get the general idea of a home city you don't need to read or know much else to fill in the surrounding area with your own places and creations. Everything you make will be Conan-themed, so the work of coming up with places, characters, and locations will already have a clear focus and feeling.

This is my favorite setting at the moment since the ease of getting started is there, and you can instantly drop in any Conan style trope as the adventure (the snake cult takes a village as servants to build an evil temple) and have an adventure that feels like it belongs without a lot of tying into the existing world and factions, and a lot of reading and research on the game master's side.

The terrain is all matte-painting impassible jagged peaks, jutting rocks, crashing waves, searing deserts with spire rocks, and twisted jungles right out of any overdone Conan book cover or incredibly over the top fantasy art. Everything in this world is a trope or stereotype of that savage setting feel, so it is easy to imagine things with that over-the-top style. The temple is on top of a cliff on a rock outcropping that looks like a skeletal hand. Hey! Cool! Put the skeleton-headed wizard and his strange followers in there and we're done.

Where Dark Sun wanted to be Conan and ended up being Dark Sun, this is a great Dark Sun replacement world with a lot more varied terrain and low-tech brutal bloodthirsty savage world feeling. This is less social RP and intrigue, and more beat up the evil cultists, talk like Arnold, save the innocents with sorcery and bulging muscles and great swords.

Also, any of the Pathfinder tropes (such as the goblins) can be easily (and hilariously) themed along Conan style tropes and they will fit right in. Add Lovecraftian corruption for the hat trick. Cue the Pathfinder style "Conan Goblins" worshipping the giant stone octopus head they found on the beach with the odd purple meteorite eyes that corrupt...done. Easy conversion. Feels like Conan, a little Cthulhu, but Pathfinder-like. Let's play.

Conan and go, as I like to say.

Note there is a Savage World PDF for this one, but since I am using (and have) the Pathfinder book, I will stick with that since I am porting in the SW Pathfinder content into this world. As mentioned,  I am playing this through with the older SW Fantasy Companion (as a test game) and would love for my hardcovers to come so I can dive in without having to reference PDFs all the time.



My number two choice is Midgard, sort of a steampunk style fantasy clockwork world with some beautiful art, a full-color map, and plenty of city maps and places to explore. This is a less dense version of Scarred Lands with less of the "grand plot" of gods versus titans, and more of a city-state driven world with lots of places to fill in between the points on a map. I would say Midgard and Scarred lands are very close, but what makes me like Midgard better is the lack of a larger metaplot and a more dynamic world where the map is supposed to change. Kingdoms are supposed to rise and fall, change will happen, and the campaign as presented is assumed to be a "year zero" starting point from which your story happens.

The art and maps are also beautiful, and evoke a lot of interesting ideas and feelings, so that helps push it to a strong second place behind the easy-to-create-for Thule setting. Midgard has a lot of potential to be interesting without a lot of reading and legwork, since each area is presented cleanly and you could live out of one chapter and ignore the rest of the world.

This setting, while having clockwork, falls more in a mid-ground of fantasy with a survival feeling to the world, sort of like a Skyrim where life is hard and the land brutal. There is enough art to set a mood, and to me this feels like a Forgotten Realms replacement with strong set piece places, but a lot of room between them to come up with your own plots and adventures, while still having room for intrigue and social RP. Also, less GMNPC than the Realms is a huge plus, though if you wanted to, you could easily slot interesting NPCs in (based on the abundant art and feeling) and have fun.

The places feel more iconic and the map a little less dense, which makes me feel like I have room for my own places and creations. The gearforged feel more like an Eberron or steampunk influence, so it is possible to use techno wizardry for them and they would fit right in, but their presence also shifts this more towards that more modern anything goes interpretation of fantasy and less towards the classic feeling settings.

Kingdoms of Kalamar


I have the old 3e book for this one. I lost the maps. It is worth mentioning because it is a detailed setting and a classic one, but I feel the test of time has taken the polish off of this one considerably. It feels like an epic, fun setting, I just wish it was updated with new art, better maps, and a more cohesive feeling and presentation to the world. It does kind of feel like an alternative Greyhawk style setting to me, and that is how I would play it with all the deathtrap dungeons, adventurer focused economies, and evil kingdoms with evil places style of feeling.

This one does feel more D&D-ish like the old Greyhawk, and less like Pathfinder, so I would have a lot of work to do wrapping my head around getting the feeling ported in. To me, that early D&D 3e feeling is key, and this setting has that in a strong way, but it is different than Pathfinder and more of a dungeon-y sort of dark fantasy dungeon deathtrap feel - at least that is how we played Greyhawk. Still, if you are looking for that early 3e feeling, this is a strong choice with a lot of room for your own creations, while still having a lot of information at hand to tell you what is where. The maps are not the best, and I want more art, but I could get by.

I do like all the personal stories mixed in with the kingdoms. There is always some sort of personal adventure hook in the descriptions of the kingdoms somewhere, like one noble jealous of another, treachery in a thieves' guild, a wax museum of monsters, or other interesting "on the street" level information useful to making a place come alive from a personal perspective. Greyhawk has that same sort of feeling for us, where it wasn't just about the location, but some of the important people there who made it come alive.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Savage Worlds Adventure Edition

Savage Worlds Adventure Edition? How could a game get this good? This is as close to being a perfect "rules light" game for me as it gets, and its universal nature does not get in the way of anything I attempt to play with it. In speed and ease-of-play it puts both GURPS and Champions on my shelf as universal systems and I can run a dozen characters in this system on single-sheet printouts no problem.

I tried a Pathfinder 1e game with a dozen characters and the game died of complexity overload. Having two or three double-sided character sheets stapled together for one character means you are running four characters maximum for one person playing alone. Here? I can generate a dozen characters in about an hour and be ready to go with them all. Just in this game's initiative system it beats most d20 games in ease of use and simplicity.

Note they did an upgrade of the system to the "Adventure Edition" also known as SWADE. There are very few differences and the editions are mostly compatible, but if you are looking to play skip of "Deluxe" and other editions for "Adventure" and you will be all set.

You need to wrap your head around the concept of the target number, the wild die, raises, exploding dice, and the condition/wound system. Once I did that, the system felt a lot less strange and I could easily play this in my head or on the board. Conceptually this is a lot different than d20, but it just runs a whole lot smoother - especially if you wanted to spin up an entire ensemble cast and play adventures with them. I could run a Star Trek ToS SWADE game using the core book only, have the cast ready myself in about an hour (less with players, give us 15m), and beaming down to planets and fighting the Klingons and Gorn before other games died in a session zero four-hour character creation session.

Long Term Play?

Does it provide enough depth for long-term play?

I feel it does. While it doesn't do the huge "multilayered decorated Xmas tree" style class-character builds you can do in Pathfinder (1e or 2e) or D&D 5, what it does is simplify everything down to a simple base that requires very little book reference and lets you simulate the parts of games (like magic systems) with generic-style powers that can be flavored to give you the end result you want. A bolt spell that uses arcane energy? Magic missile. One power point. Attack roll using your casting skill. Damage as listed. Fine. Done. Let's play.

It may have an issue for very-long term play, but most of my games don't last that long anyways even with accelerated progression. Progression can also be scaled or tweaked depending on how fast you want advancement to happen. The max power level in Savage Worlds feels like the "level 12 or so" fun zone for most d20 games, and the system can scale past that point to give greater challenges.


There are custom skills and edges too, if you really need a character to have a specialized skill such as "photography," "spy gear," or "demolitions" for a 007 style game. If you really need it and it makes sense, clear it with the GM and get playing. No need for a 300+ skill long list of every option for molecular biologists and hazardous material operations. The core skills cover 90% of what every setting needs, and if a setting needs to specialize, make an addendum skill list of a few more (and if you need to, use the more skills campaign option if you run out of skill points for that skill-heavy game).


You may have trouble selling this game to players already "bought in" on the depth and balance of other games, such as D&D 5E or Pathfinder 1e or 2e (more on the latter in a moment). There is a generic element, especially when you custom-craft powers or build your own character builds that could dissuade players used to a 600-page set of rules they know inside and out. You come at this from a rules-light angle, especially with a setting pulled from a movie or TV show, and you may have an easier time selling this to a group than proclaiming at as a D&D 5E replacement. Which it is not, it is its own different thing that can simulate a traditional fantasy RPG, but not replace it rule-for-rule or build-for-build.

High-level play here involves bigger dice, higher modifiers, and pushing the action economy of multiple actions system to the limit. The system feels capped at the largest polyhedral die supported for ability scores (d12 with modifiers), so there is a maximum power level. The game feels like there is a lot of sideways progression beyond (bigger dice) with edges, and giving yourself bonuses in situations where the edge would give you a better bonus than a larger die.

Scale is relative. You could play a game where everyone is an intelligent mouse and scale the world to that, with the dicing being the same and assuming the larger creatures (cats) are the giant-sized monsters. Superheroes work similarly, you can cap normal people to a 4d or d6 and let the heroes be the exceptional ones.

More Books?

If you wanted to mix in superpowers or horror elements there are books for that (previous edition but still 95% compatible), and now there are a few other reasons to play....

Pinnacle has been delivering themed games (licensed and their home settings) that are AAA releases. They have SWADE versions of Rifts, Pathfinder, and Deadlands out and they all are incredible. There is even a Flash Gordon one (previous SW edition, but still can be played either new or old rules) that looks incredible. I swear I have 20 more years of gaming in this set of books and I would be perfectly happy.

Savage Pathfinder

SW Pathfinder is an interesting creation, and this set I feel moves a lot of the current B/X de-jour systems down a notch on my playtime schedule. Here I have a rule system that gives me a complete zero-to-hero progression, rules-light, pulp-focused, skill-system, bestiary, magic items, and class-like builds? Ouch. This puts a dent in my Pathfinder 2e play time, and I am currently looking for an old "Pathfinder compatible" game world to play this in, since I am saving Golarion for my PF 2e playthrough.

And the rest of my B/X games (and other indie darling RPGs)  are sidelined for SW Pathfinder, since it does 90% of what I want in a rules-light fantasy game with enough "leveled creatures and items" support to keep the character progression part of my brain happy. More on this later. More on all of these later as I dive in. Especially Pathfinder and Rifts - two games I collected and have a long history with. Deadlands and Flash Gordon look fun and will be new for me.

But yes, Savage Worlds Adventure Edition, if you are looking for a rules-light toolbox generic system, this is one of those that sits on the top of the mountain and deserves a serious look.

More In The Works!

They are working on a SWADE Superpower companion next, and I hear Horror is also on that update list too. There is a previous edition Fantasy (kind of outmoded since SW Pathfinder is here) and Sci-Fi book to get, and those still have uses. I do want Pinnacle to do well and I am backing their kickstarters for the new books, and I want to see more in the lines of cross licensed games like the Flash Gordon one. Or even new books like the rules-swap Rifts and Pathfinder games for classic games (SW Paranoia would be fun, and I would love to see a SW Vampire/Werewolf/Mage/Hunter/etc. White Wolf style set of books).

It is nice to see the company doing well and its kickstarters for Deadlands, Rifts, Flash Gordon, Pathfinder, and now the Superhero book doing extremely good business. I am a fan and wish them the best with their new lineup of books, and plan on enjoying these myself in the near future.

More on all these soon as I dive in and play.

Saturday, September 4, 2021


I am glad I gave Starfinder a second chance. This game sat in our library for a while, the first printing, and it never really saw use except for a Star Frontiers to Starfinder crossover game we ran. It never really seemed to click for my brother and I, and we ended up ignoring the book and not really paying much attention to it past that point.

Beginner Box?

These days, I game alone, and I restarted our hybrid Star Frontiers meets Starfinder game in a 300 years after the Frontier setting. I started with the Starfinder Beginner Box, a move I ended up regretting just a little due to the incompatibilities between some of the BB material and the full game (item levels and a few other things), and I eventually finishes the BB adventure using the main rules once I was comfortable with the flow. There are not that many incompatibilities, just a cut down skill list and issues with damages and gear levels, and I would rather play a BB where I would not have to recreate my characters using the full rules once I finished the content in the box.

The BB is still excellent though as a primer of what the game expects from both players and referees, highly recommended with that small word of advice to create characters in Starbuilder or Hero Lab if you want to take them to the full game after you play here for minimal disruption, and just do a couple conversions along the way.

This is a quirky game with plenty to like, and it has this distinctly video-game feel with leveled ships, items, gear, and everything else in the universe having a "suggested level" tacked onto it. If you can let go of your "hard sci fi" feelings you will have a good time, and the tropes and gameplay are mostly standard d20-isms so you can pick it up quickly.

Everything is Here

This also needs some suspension of sci-fi biases, as this is a futuretech fantasy world with elves, dragon people, dwarves, monsters, space goblins, space demons, and fantasy tropes with bubble helmets and ray guns that do a d4 damage and you are cursing them out as doing as much damage as a hair dryer. If you want to do big damage it is magic or melee at the start and I see a caster-centric power curve here but not surprisingly.  Embracing magic seems to be the path to success.

It was hard for me to give up those built-in Traveller and Space Opera biases, and Star Frontiers with space-fantasy races feels like a good setting for me. Things have changed in the old Frontier, and new neighbors have moved in and everything is upside down. Volturnus is now my hub-world, and a permanent Stargate to Absalom Station links the two universe forever in orbit. This is a good setup because Starfinder's "warp to any planet" style of exploration where distance and maps do not matter is over there, and on the Frontier side it is a set, known area of space with more traditional map-based exploration and travel.

Everything is mixed in and mixed up from there, and I am having fun with the pairing.

The Strange Economy

One thing I find strange is Starfinder's "free ship upgrades" system where they do not put prices or costs on ship upgrades and equipment. The society is very socialist (or movie-like), and once you get connected with a space organization they take care of the upgrades and parts for your ship for free. And it is very odd to have characters scrounging for every credit on a mission like it was water on a desert planet and then go back to their multi-million credit ship that they got for free and sit inside poor and lacking money for personal gear.

Coming from Star Frontiers, Space Opera, or Traveller this is a huge shock. Those games are way more "space capitalist" than Starfinder, but then again, Starfinder has this "movie mentality" where you are not worried about paying repair bills or affording a new space torpedo launcher.

Again, you play by the d20 "this is how much money you get per adventure based on level" loot guidelines and that required a huge suspension of disbelief and hand wave from me in my mind. You know, a Traveller character would smile, say, "you need money for upgrades?" and start hitting the cargo manifests at different planets and start hauling cargo and taking passengers from A to B. There's enough money for a level 3 laser pistol that isn't used to 1d4 caramelize sugar on top of a creme brulee.

Yes, the money and reward system is flat-out strange and weird, especially when you consider free-ish starship upgrades that are handwaved off as your ship "levels up." Yes, ships level up with your party. And a party of four is recommended and again, pretty standard for d20-ish systems.

Is it fun?

If you keep your party size down to four, yes.

If you can toss out your bias against fantasy races and monsters in sci-fi, yes.

If you can get used to the odd economy of being poor and getting a free ship and upgrades, yes.

If you can accept "leveled gear, weapons, and equipment," yes.

If you dive into ship combat and not ignore the mechanics, yes.

If your party embraces magic and magical gear upgrades, yes.

If you like dungeons in space filled with traps, hazards, monsters, and loot, yes.


There are surprises in here, some fun synergies and class abilities, lots to discover as you level up, and this is fantasy with a fresh coat of reflective paint on it and a huge universe you are free to craft and expand in whichever way you want. Would I run solo campaigns for more than one 4-person group? Not at the same time, since like any d20 game the bookkeeping is pretty hefty and the rules references start to pile up the higher you go up in levels.

But as mentioned, you have to get rid of a lot of sci-fi biases you may have in your head to get into this game, and that took me a while to get the hang of. It helped for me thinking of it like a video game and just playing for fun.

Oh, and if you have the first or second printing, I advise getting the third printing or the PDF, since the changes (especially in ships) are significant enough to make this feel like a new game experience for all the bug fixes they had to make.