Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Conan meets the Black Company, powered by 2d20

In the last year of gaming I managed to run 2 Dungeon Crawl Classics campaigns (one through Roll20), my first (and unfortunately so far only) 13th Age campaign, a The One Ring mixed with John Wick’s The Flux and – finally – a Conan 2d20 game. Now I’m running Mage 20th and D&D 5th, besides keeping my irregular Dungeon Crawl Classic online table. Considering my scant free time I must admit that that is kind of a miracle.

So, 2d20. This is an amazing system - for me it is a weird mid-ground between d20 and FATE (and thus far the one system where I truly LOVE the way mental/social damage work… Tyrion Lannister would be a completely playable and lethal PC here). The Conan version of 2d20 is excellent, but it really needs an official FAQ (and a revision would help too). I heard that the latest versions of 2d20 - like Star Trek Adventures - are a huge improvement in the system, showing its strengths.

2d20 in a nutshell is a pool system where you roll a minimum of 2d20 (and a maximum of 5d20) and try to score equal or below your Ability Score + Skills. The Conan version of the game is really high-powered and most PCs start with high scores. In fact, in this aspect the RPG is a perfect match to the genre: you can really create a Conan-like PC from start, one that deals vast amounts of damage and cleave through minions, beasts and foes. I was really pleased that the core book offered a less powerful PC option (the ‘Shadows of the Past’ variant).

The hallmarks of 2d20 for me are the Momentum rule and the Doom Pool. Extra successes rolled by a PC generate Momentum, which can be spent to improve a test’s quality, reduce it’s time and other cool stuff. In combat Momentum can be used to generate additional maneuvers, increase damage, restore stress damage etc. The best part is that unspent Momentum can be placed in a party pool and used by other PCs if justified by the narrative. For example: your valiant aquilonian knight rallies the party (a Command check to generate Momentum and fill the party pool), so that the cimmerian barbarian PC that goes next can deal a massive strike against the main enemy. It is really neat.

The Doom Pool is even better! It is a narrative resource used by the Gamemaster to increase the current challenges and generate new complications against the party. It is a rule to increase the stakes and the tension at the right moment of the adventure. A fair warning: the Gamemaster isn’t an enemy of the players and the Doom Pool shouldn’t be used in that way. I see the Doom Pool as a resource to strength Howardian themes and tropes during play. Common uses for the Doom Pool increase a check’s difficulty, bring more enemies (usually minions), allow the Gamemaster to generate new traps and hazards etc. The Doom Pool is generated mainly through Complications (for example: rolling a natural 20), although PCs can buy extra d20s to roll on the their checks by paying Doom to the Gamemaster. Some monsters create Doom by their mere presence. There’s really a lot of potential in this mechanic, although I believe the Conan line could use a revision on the various ways to use and accumulate Doom (as the various supplements seem to follow slightly different guidelines).

But this isn’t a review and I have talked enough. Grab the excellent Quickstart and try it out (and if you don’t like it I recommend that you try the Star Trek or John Carter versions before really deciding you don’t like the 2d20 system).

That said… I used Conan 2d20 to run my long-dreamed Black Company/Malazan Book of the Fallen game. I’m a long fan of both sagas and I quite like using a military structure to run my RPGs. Belonging to an army, company or mercenary band is a simple and effective way of explaining why the party adventures together (it also offers an easy source of new PCs). Another aspect that I’m interested is in exploring is the “grunt” point of view. I didn't want adventurers, paladins, high fantasy mages and such concepts at my table. I wanted PCs that didn’t have a clue about the ways magic and the supernatural work; I wanted to keep both the PCs and their players in the dark about the magical side of the setting (in a very Malazan-like fashion). Conan 2d20 allowed me to do that - its sorcery system is geared toward NPCs and not very player-friendly (and is the part of the game that REALLY needs an overhaul revision). The Hyborian Age was also the perfect setting - the party could easily identify themselves with the tropes and cultures without the need to read anything (and Conan’s own view of the supernatural, in the novels, is a perfect start).

My small campaign (or its 1st Season at least) was located in Shem, in a decadent city-state that I created. Because none at my table have ever read The Black Company or the Malazan novels (heathens!), I stole shamelessly the Beryl arc from the first Black Company novel. The PCs were the sole survivors of a doomed mercenary company with a shady past. They arrived in Ashgar (my not-Beryl) and were promptly recruited by the Red Tigers mercenaries (my not-Black Company).

Asghar was a shemite city that invaded by Zingaran exiles a century ago. The Zingaran nobles deposed the local ruling families and took over the city but were slowly absorbed by the shemite culture. They created oppressive laws to keep the former nobles out of power (and petty rules to humiliate them; for example: the old nobles lines couldn’t grow a beard, which is a “right” reserved only to the Zingaran bloodlines). This of course generated a small rebellion. Besides, the Zingarans were always fighting among themselves, with the most hostile faction having converted to the worship of the dreaded shemite patron god of Ashgar.

The PCs were:

Alexus, an aquilonian guard and survivor of a black magic ritual, who now worked with his previous liege (Titus Ritulus, below). The “survivor of a black magic ritual” bit was generated through Conan 2d20’s cool lifepath tables.

Breanne of Cimmeria, a barbarian blacksmith and warrioress, with a criminal past.

Sif, a lone swordsman (and assassin) from Gunderland, trained by a mysterious master.

Titus Rutilus, an exiled aquilonian noble and (perhaps) responsible for the destruction of the previous mercenary outfit in which the PCs served.

Viccenzo of Mitra, an itinerant evangelist educated in the opulent courts of Ophir (and actually zamoran of birth, who runned away from Shadizar due to a scandalous affair).

After being recruited by the Red Tigers (and in true Malazan fashion) the PCs were given nicknames (‘soldier names’). The arrogant and ambitious noble Titus Rutilus became Recruit. Alexus, who had the higher body count in the party, was named Samaritan. Sif, because of his love affairs with the company’s witch, became Castrati (he was always deadly afraid of attracting the attention of other women, because his witch lover was quite jealous and once killed a desert princess just because she wanted to talk alone with Sif). Viccenzo and Breanne unfortunately never got nicknames.

The Red Tigers were the bodyguards of the Autarch, the Zingaran ruler of Asghar. The game was a mix of military missions (invading temples, surviving ambushes and scouting), skirmishes,  intrigue (inside and outside the company) and black sorcery (the company’s spellcasters were mysterious and dangerous even to their allies, and there were other sources of magic in Ashgar).

The 1st Season of the campaign ended with the party leaving Asghar, after an invasion of Asshuri from Askalon, a disastrous summoning of the god Anu (or at least his lovecraftian version) and the betrayal of their patron, the Autarch. To my great delight, the party reached the same conclusion as the Black Company at the end of the Beryl chapter. The cliffhanger for a 2nd Season was the Red Tiger were hired by a new and darker patron; while in the novel we get Soulcatcher, here I used none other than Thoth-Amon himself. We’re having a break from Sword & Sorcery right now and playing some D&D 5E, but I hope I can return to this game.

OK… to end this boring post with something (maybe) more useful: House Rules!

While I love the 2d20 system, I also love to tinker with rules. I used the ‘Shadows of the Past’ variant character rules to create more mortal PCs (thus better reflecting the feel of the Black Company). But that wasn’t enough, so I also used the following:
  • Minions rolled 2d20. In Conan 2d20, a Minion (a nameless NPC) rolls just 1d20 on his actions (which means that they fails most actions with Dif 2 and never pass checks with Dif 3+). Because Minions usually form Mobs, they pool their d20s and thus are able to pose a (pitiful) threat to PCs. Not here. I wanted something more gritty. Thus, even a lowly Minion starts with 2d20 in his pool. When Minions forms Mobs, one of them is chosen as its Leader and follows the normal rules for Mobs with Leaders (a Squad). Ironically, letting all NPCs start with a base pool of 2d20 was easier for me. This rule worked perfectly, letting Minions pose a higher threat and encouraging PCs to fight in Squad mode (which was something I wanted).
  • A New NPC Type: The Horror! Conan 2d20 has 3 types of NPCs - Minions, Toughened and Nemesis. Minions can’t take Harms (lasting injuries) and have very little stress. Toughened can take 2 Harms and have more resilience. Nemesis are full-fledged NPCs, with the same stats and resources of PCs. One of my main criticisms with Conan 2d20 is that monsters (things like frost giants, lovecraftian horrors and dragons) are “just” Nemesis-level adversaries. A frost giant should wreak havoc against an entire party of PCs and not be crushed in 2 or 3 rounds. So I created a new NPC category above Nemesis, the Horror. After a bit of testing, I established a new mechanical trait for them - the Horror Threshold. Besides having bigger and inhuman stats, Horrors also have a special stress threshold that is replenished at the beginning of every round. The Horror faced by the party was the Black Company’s forvalaka (a demon were-leopard). For it, I set my Horror Threshold at 5, with a base difficulty of 1. That means that before the party could inflict ANY mechanical consequence on the forvalaka, they had to remove this special stress track of 5 points. What could reduce the forvalaka’s Horror Threshold? A Command check to strength the party’s spirit against the demon’s fear aura; a Sorcery check to remember it’s weak spots; a Melee check to open the creature’s flank for further attacks; etc. After depleting the Horror Threshold (which fully regenerated EVERY round) the party could start to inflict normal stress, Harms and other consequences on the critter. As a side effect of this rule, the forvalaka could only be fought with Squads (exactly like the novel) and with the party working as a coordinated group. It worked rather nicely at the table.

I also tried other house rules, but the two above are the ones I’ll most certainly keep in the future. Please note that the Horror Threshold rule should be tailored and customized to reflect each Horror faced by the party.

At the end of my campaign, I was working in a major rules revision to the system with a fellow Gamemaster (who has a greater understanding of 2d20) - basically, we’re trying to make 2d20 a “pure” d20 system and get rid of those d6s. The official rules uses d6s to generate damage - 1 or 2 are read normally, 3 and 4 are ‘zeros’, 5 and 6 are ‘1 + Effect’. We don’t like very much how the d6s work (the ‘whiff factor’ is too high for our tastes and in our experience the act of rolling a different set of dice, with different rules, was breaking the game’s pace). But I will leave that for another post.

No comments:

Post a Comment