Return with the Slaver

I have maintained radio silence for some months while I finished my thesis and got used to the fact that there is a life on the other side of graduation. Now I’m back!

I am unfortunately not currently in a situation where I foresee a lot of roleplaying taking place in my immediate future. For this reason, the next while may see me returning to my original mission statement for this blog, dealing with storytelling in all its forms, and not just a roleplaying blog. I may post reviews and thoughts of/on books I read, films I watch, and radio I hear. I also foresee some posts on a couple of computer games, just as I may well discuss boardgames. Also, don’t be surprised if non-fictional storytelling crops up – I didn’t graduate in journalism for nothing.

But for now, I’ve got a couple of roleplaying posts coming up. The reading group is returning after a hiatus – keep an eye on this spot (and this) on the 15th of December, when a review of Occulus Tertius, the first Fastaval scenario, I can remember playing, should crop up. And the rest of this post is dedicated to the latest scenario I’ve played AND GM’ed: The Slaver from Ascalon, a Red Box Hack hack scenario by Johannes Busted Larsen

Over the plains they came running

This game is, plain and simple, awesome. It features awesome heroes doing awesome things on an awesome quest to bring down an awesome foe. The plot is linear, the characters (PC and NPC) are stereotypical – and it doesn’t matter, because this scenario is about being awesome and telling an epic tale while having fun.

In this Sword&Sorcery epic, the heroes happen upon a monk, whom they save from faceless assailants on a rickety bridge. The monk explains that the inhabitants of the village near his temple has been abducted by an infamous slaver, who has taken them to parts unknown. Quest acquired: Save Villagers!

The first stop is to go through a swamp to get to the ancient crone in the middle, who can tell them where the slaver (Slavoz) has taken his victims. From there, the story goes on to the old, decadent city of Ascalon to find, face, and vanquish Slavoz, and bring back the slaves.

From the very beginning, the game follows a certain formula: a couple of non-combat scenes are spent giving texture to the narrative, until it climaxes in a spectacular battle scene. Rinse, repeat. The mechanics of the game mean the non-combat scenes provide  a jumping-off point for the battle scenes: if didn’t avoid the snapping turtles, you start the next fight injured, or you might otherwise be disadvantaged. Meanwhile, good storytelling in the non-combat scenes earns you Awesome tokens, meaning you’ll be more effective in the battle.

Hacking the hack

The game is based on the Redbox Hack mechanics, changed somewhat by Johannes. The Face Die gives more damage; on the other hand, all damage vanishes after combat. Face Die, I hear you ask. Well, yes. In Redbox Hack, you roll 2d10 to hit. One of these should be red; if this die lands on 10, you hit your opponent in the head. And deal more damage, obviously. In normal Redbox Hack, you deal one extra damage, but in Johannes’ version, NPC’s deal 2 extra, while PC’s deal no less than 5 extra damage. That’s enough to take out most of the opponents the heroes will encounter.

The main difference in Johannes’ version is of course the classes. The original classes, including such classes as “Mystic,” “Longrunner,” “Fox,” “Bear” and  “Naga” (or “Snake”? I forget), have a distinctly asian feel to them. Johannes replaces them with a set of much more Sword&Sorcery inspired set, including the Norseman, the Mesopotamian, the Necropolitan, Hashashin, Desert Runner, Trixter and the Slavefolk. These classes are far more well-defined than the somewhat generic classes of the original, and serve as a good starting point for quickly creating an awesome cast of characters.

Providing the clue

The game is not just a hack and slash game, though. The game has a healthy dose of storygame. This is most clearly expressed in one particular scene, in which the players have arrived in Ascalon, and are trying to find their nemesis. In this scene, the players are given the clue they’re looking, along with a list of Ascalonian townsfolk, and told to play one scene per player, telling how the heroes meet people in their search for the clue. In the last scene, they’ll get the clue.

In this way, the player’s “investigation instinct” is sated, and they can get down to the business of telling some small stories from Ascalon. It works very nicely, and is a trick to use in similar situations, both in scenarios and campaigns.

Oh, right – the plot

As is probably apparent from the above, I quite like The Slaver from Ascalon. The game has a couple of weak points, though.

The most important of these, in my opinion, is that the first two battles have nothing to do with the plot. When the players save the monk at the beginning of the scenario, it’s implied that the assailants are employed by the Slaver – but it’s never stated, and it has no real impact on the story. It’s just a random fight. And the second fight, which is an awesome fight with a giant spider and her young in her web, has nothing at all to do with the plot – Johannes has apparently stated that it’s there “because there is a giant spider in the preview.”

While it’s okay to have battles without a direct relation to the plot, I think it’s a weak point. For this reason, when I ran the game, I changed the initial scene: instead of happening upon the monk, the players arrive at the village just as the slavers are flying off with their captives on giant flying lizards.

Another weak point in the game is the scene with the crone. She has a very certain (and not insignificat) price the players must pay for her to tell them what they want to know. Problem is, if they don’t pay, the game can’t progress. In other words, the game can potentially grind to a halt here, while the players look at each other and try to figure out what to do. It’d be a good idea if the game had a plan B if the scene isn’t moving.

Go a-running to the plains

I like this. If you need some fast-paced entertainment, The Slaver from Ascalon, and Redbox Hack in general, is a good choice. The good thing about this game is that the plot is there, along with battle maps. I could easily see myself using Johannes’s classes for another plot; in that case, I’d do my best to draw out battle maps in advance to keep up the pace.

A few tweaks

Free move: In the first group I played this with, we agreed that it was bad that you couldn’t move and act in the same turn. It meant that you could easily be left behind if you are left behind, helping the others or using ranged weapons. Also, it meant that moving into an opponent’s arena is a wholly bad idea, as that means that he’ll get a strike on you before you can strike at him. Finally, when everyone else is spending almost a minute rolling and narrating, your turn feels somewhat wasted when you spend five seconds saying “I move.” In the second group, we had a free move per action, which was far more dynamic. It isn’t perfect – it makes it easy to swarm enemies, amongst other things – but it kept things going at a much faster pace.

Awesome-b-gone: In both games, some people ended up with hoards of Awesome Tokens towards the end of the game. This meant they could one-shot the final boss, if they so desired. This is not exactly my idea of an awesome showdown. Maybe you should decree that players reset their awesome tokens alongside their wounds – or maybe allow them to keep a limited number of tokens between battle.

[spoiler] Transforming the Slaver: In the game, the slaver is revealed to be the servant of a snake demon. I changed it, so he was himself the demon. Seemed more epic. [/spoiler]

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Nice.

    Regarding the changes. Could you move freely at all times or only when no enemy was in your arena as we discussed?

    I think having to discard awesome tokens as you heal after combat is a good idea. It forces players to spend them (and be awesome) in all battles, not only the hardest ones.

    Regarding the spoiler change. Did you still use the same spoiler as written as the spoiler?

    Think I’ll have to write the sequel (I’ve been talking about for quite a while). Any changes to the classes that you suggest? Did you change the two-things-at-the-same-time ability?

    Reply

    • Posted by eliashelfer on December 3, 2010 at 1:31 pm

      Hmm… I think I decided to KISS, and not make distinctions (or maybe I just forgot to think about it). Anyway, I think it only happened once that someone pressed on past an enemy. I do think that in the long run, requiring an action to move past a foe might be better.
      I wouldn’t mind allowing people to keep a few tokens. That would allow people who never got to use their tokens (and thus be awesome) in one battle to have a little reserve awesome. But I had one guy in my group who, as far as I can recall, didn’t use a single token – untill we came to the final confrontation. That meant that he would have been able to one-shot the final boss, almost no matter what he rolled. He was also the guy who pressed ahead past a foe, in order to get at the boss. And, on seeing the threat he posed, I used as much muscle as I could to take him out – not because of any real, in-game reason, but because of the massive stack of tokens sitting in front of him. That really annoyed me, but I felt it would be very anticlimatic if he could just waltz over to the main baddie of the game, hit him once and take him down.

      Reply

  2. Posted by johs on December 3, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Thanks for the kind words and feedback.
    It’s super that I had a awesome time.
    Thanks a lot Elias.

    Reply

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