Today’s prompt was map. There’s the obvious way to go with this: do you use maps in your games? but I think I’m going to combine this word with one of the alternate prompts — plan.

For a long time, and I suspect like many young GMs in the brightly colored, British New Wave and rockabilly infused, “crap, nuclear war could kill us any day” past of the 1980s, my adventures were mostly one offs. Kill the monster, get the treasure. We ran a lot of James Bond: 007, so I ran them like movies, each discrete, with a bit of character growth accounted for between them, but little overlap. Characters were much the same — archetypes like D&D and Top Secret would give you: fighter, ranger, assassin, analyst, or whatever. Characters defined by their cool car or gun, and maybe a flaw thrown in to make them interesting. You weren’t think about character arcs, and much of the time you weren’t filling backstory. Hell, most of the movies of the period the backstory was something like “I’m a cop from New York who got invited to the party by mistake”, or “obtainer of rare antiquities”.

For me, the move into serial stories came about five or six years into gaming, and was mostly influenced (I suspect) by a move away from episodic TV toward shows that might be mostly stand-alone episodes, but stanrted to experiment with ongiong story arcs. (The first I really remember for this was Hill Street Blues…) I got into comics about that time, and similarly there were ongoing storylines mixed with one-offs. This was the period of Miller/Mazzuccelli’s Davedevil, Claremont on X-Men, and good indie stuff like Grendel. (It’s no coincidence that most of the stuff cribbed for the Marvel and DC movies pulls from this period — the film makers are of a similar age, but also it was a damned good period for comics and storytelling.) I still mostly made stuff up as i went, but would sort of organically grow toward an end point.

The first time I mapped out a campaign was for The Babylon Project campaign i was running in the late ’90s. the game group was into Babylon 5 and I built the campaign to be a side campaign of the Shadow War. The characters were rarely directly involved in the events of the show, but I strung their adventures around it, filling in the spaces between the main events. It ran well and gave the characters the chance to be real heroes whose actions made those of the TV show characters possible. This point also coincided with the writing of my first two novels, so the skills developed in one endeavor crossed over to the other. Characters started getting backstories that might be vague and open to tweaking, but some were quite detailed.

After that, I went back to my old build stand-alone adventures and string them together in long stories on the fly. However, I got talked into running a five-year long Star Trek game. I watched all the TNG/DS9 period stuff (save Voyager, which just did not hook me) then decided on mapping out a campaign with the main themes (post-war politics, the issues of an economy where no one had to work, artificial intelligence) and started building key moments/episodes that would have to happen. I was much more intrigued by the Deep Space 9 series than Next Generation, and liked the story arc approach they used. For the first time, I built the stories as “seasons” — with a mid-season and finale “mission” that would push the story and work on the character’s motivations. Characters, this time, were more fleshed out with more detailed backstories — things that are often left out like family members, best friends, hobbies, etc. The game ran well and progressed mostly in the directions i hoped it would go. In the end, the campaign finally fizzled out after five good years and an interest in other games coming out.

The next major game to get planned out was Battlestar Galactica (noting a trend here…), and I used all of the tricks i learned from the Trek game — seasons, mid-season and finales, story arcs that were a season long, and having a finish to the whole thing. There were certain major points on the way — the Cylon attack, Kobol, I used the thrown out “the Blaze” idea from the Kobol episodes for a bad guy, finding not a map on Kobol but one of the Lords to help them, a final battle with the blaze, finding Earth. The game gained and lost quite a few players over that period, but after many deviation and turns in the narrative, in the end, it finished the way I had hoped.

Characters are another element of the story that can be hand-waved — no one really had much of a backstory for James Kirk, or Indiana Jones, or Thomas Magnum; just a few tossed off lines. Or you can build a character obsessively (I find the aspiring actors and writers in a game group do this most often.) down to their favorite foods and what they were doing last week. These maps give you the character’s past and maybe their present self, but having an idea of their goals, weaknesses, and aspirations can give players a map to not just how they might react, but what kind of adventures they might seek out. Discussing this with the GM gives them material to plan encounters to help you explore those elements of the character. The more you plan out the character and their hoped for future, the less wiggle room you have to tailor the character as they grow, and also there’s the possibility of not seeing your character go in the direction you expected — after all, there are other players pursuing their agendas, and there’s the GM, who has planning out this great scenario for you that — in all likelihood — you and the others will destroy on your way to the end of the game night.

I realized that most of the time, when I’m doing the RPG a Day blog, I tend to focus on GMing. It’s the role I’m thrust into most of the time — I can whip together adventures pretty quickly, so I usually wind up being the Johnny on the Spot. I’m goign to try and apply some of these posts more to playing this year.

It’s that time again! Time to celebrate our hobby with a bunch of vlogs, blogs, and other media. I’m not much on the vlogging, so here we go. The first prompt was SCENARIO. I decided to go literal with this prompt, so let’s talk about scenarios — adventures, modules, scenarios, whatever you want to call them.

Adventure “modules” have been around since the early days of D&D. A lot of folks don’t have the time to work up their own adventures, so having a packaged story with bad guys and maps, etc. is a great help. It’s also how my company, Black Campbell Entertainment, got started. I had a ton of stuff I had written up for my Hollow Earth Expedition game, and with Jeff Combos’ blessing, we started throwing out modules…scenarios…for people to use.

It’s funny, in some ways, that adventure modules (even in our city sourcebooks for the 1930s have them) have become part of my side gig. I never use them. That’s not true; I never used to use them, but lately, the quality and length of the adventures for some of the new games have allowed me to save time jumping people into a new game without me having to do all the foundational work. Even when I use them, they’re rarely in the form they were published. The GM has to adapt the adventure’s plot line, the timing and beats of the scenes, and the characters to suit his or her game group’s personalities and interests.

So here’s a few I did use recently. The group has been playing Alien by Free League out of Sweden, and Lex Arcana by Quality out of Italy. Both were games that i had a few ideas of where i wanted to go, but no clue of how I wanted to launch. As a result, I wound up using Andrew Gaska’s excellent Chariots of the Gods scenario, but with some tweaking. Mostly, this consisted of dropping the Montero subplot, and sticking much more tightly to an exploration/ rescue vibe. The players knew they were playing in an Alien game so they were much more cautious than some might be, which let to reduced change of infection from the Engineers’ “black goo” on the hulk, Cronus, which they were investigating. Once things finally went awry, they worked well together, and managed to keep the death toll down to one particular character vs. the monster; the rest died after the scenario ended when the sleeper android offed them — but they weren’t told that. Satisfied with the first run, the group was wiling to give it another go, so I went with a short campaign in which another ship is sent out to recover Cronus for Lasalle Bionational, which was jumped the Weyland-Yutani sponsored mission from the published scenario. The McGuffin — Cronus — had landed on a nearby world due to damage from the published adventure and decades of floating through space. I used the published adventure as a pilot, to jump start a new campaign with characters designed for or by the players.

I didn’t do this for Lex Arcana. We have been playing a D&D campaign set in an alternate Roman Empire that was originally low magic but has been increasingly more classic fantasy as the “old gods” return. I was more interested in Lex Arcana as a resource for that campaign, but reading the rules, I was intrigued. One of my players is a fan of Roman military history and the other I met while we were doing our graduate work — he in late antiquity, the period the game takes place in. instead of using a module to jumpstart the Lex Arcana game, I banged up a short mystery about a haunting in a small Raetian town to get the characters together, then used the published scenario Beyond the Limes to move them into a place where they could face the enemies of the empire.

Another scenario I used was The Minoan Affair quickstart for the game The Troubleshooters — a new RPG that Kickstarted last year, is currently being distributed by Modiphius, and which should have the physical books showing up soon. This game was based on the 1960/70s Franco-Belgian adventure comics, like Tintin and the like. I backed it on a whim, but i tried it out with the wife and daughter, and they loved it. It was a spur of the moment “Let’s game!” moment and I needed something fast — the perfect thing for using a module.

There are other scenarios I’ve bought over the years, but more to mine them for ideas — Odyssey of the Dragonlords for D&D 5e (and excellent Greek-styled campaign!), Ghosts of the Saltmarsh, for Tales from the Loop the Our Friends the Machines and Out of Time compilations. I’ve got everything published for Space: 1889 — but again, I never used these modules for the scenario, but for the material they had that could be cribbed for my own ideas.

This time, I’m going to try and get my blog posts for RPGaDay knocked out before August. Inevitably, work at the school and college overtakes me and I don’t get all of the post out that i want, so I’m going to use some of the downtime in the summer to knock this stuff out. Here’s the subjects for this year’s event. I like that they purposefully gave us related alternate prompts this year. Sometimes, it’s hard to come up with something off a single word.

This is the latest report on the ongoing work on my 2021 Royal Enfield Interceptor. I had traded my 2017 Triumph Street Cup with the new water-cooled 900 motor for the new Interceptor following an unscientific drag race with a friend. The Triumph got off to a good start, but once we hit third gear, the Enfield took off and smoked the supposedly more powerful, more refined Triumph. After a few weeks, and learning that my local Triumph dealer, New Mexico Motopia, picked up the Enfield line, I made the switch. I went with the “Mr. Clean” because the badge on the tank is so much better than the lettering on the Continental GT. Here she is on the floor…

I had them tear the awful plastic fender extensions off and install S&S pipes with baffles, and the flyscreen. I added a K&{N air filter and DNA airbox removal next. Stock, these bikes are supposed to make about 47hp and 34ish ft/lbs of torque at sea level, but the gearing overcomes a lot of the supposed anemic power. She certainly was capable of taking on the Triumph. the first few weeks of playing with it, we found she would reliably hit the ton, but just barely, and occasionally could squeak out a titch more. But there was more there, so in a moment of insanity or COVID-restriction induced insanity, i decided to do something I don’t do: we did engine modifications.

The dealer had never done this, of course; they were new to RE and the S&S guys haven’t really thrown a lot into advertising or explaining these modifications. Point of fact, it seems very much like they’re insinuating some of this stuff is plug & play. I bought a 650cc bike and I didn’t want to bore it out. If i wanted an 865cc, I’d have gone and gotten an old air-cooled Triumph Thruxton. So we installed the high power cams and high-compression piston kits. Allegedly, we would be looking at a 14-18% increase in power. Right off the bat, she was torquier, but I was getting serious lean knock on the motor. The dealer had a look and adjusted the timing, which was off almost 4º from the stock. Once corrected, she seemed better, until I really thrashed it on the local mountain road — a 12 mile stretch with 120 turns and an elevation change of over 4000′. That’s a lot of altitude change, and the bike was detonating like crazy! Fuel booster didn’t help. A booster plug to fool the bike into thinking it was cooler to get more fuel didn’t help.

We turned to the folks at Speedin’ up in Farmington, New Mexico — the only guys with a decent dyno setup. Motopia installed a Power Commander V and took her up to Farmington to get dyno’d. This was also not as easy as you might expect. The probes for the 02 sensors were getting a lot of interference and the guys were suprised by the amount they had to enrich the fuel map (upwards of 60% in some places.) The welded in bungs to get the sensors away from the headers and get a cleaner read. Nope — still needed a massive push in some places, but by the time they were done, they had a serious improvement. Here’s the dyno chart from the final run:

That’s a hell of a torque “curve” — a flat line at 42-43 ft/lbs. from 3500 to redline, with a max power of 49.25hp. Now that doesn’t sound like much of an increase ’til you factor in the altitude. Farmington sits at 5,220′ in elevation; about the same as Albuquerque, where I live. Figuring the (altitude in feet/1000)x 0.03 xHP gets you a rough horsepower of 39.7hp for the stock motor. So the jump to 49hp is about 18.5% increase in power! On return, Scott at Motopia took her for a ride and declared in an unqualified success. I was a bit dubious after five months of messing with the bike…but he was right.

The first run up the Crest road had no knock or detonation, although since then I’ve gotten it to mildly knock by whacking the throttle open hard in sixth gear or higher on the highway. Torque and throttle response is fantastic, and she’s a solid match for many of the 600cc sportbikes. Fuel mileage, of course, has been impacted, but nowhere near as much as I feared. I went from high 60mpg (and as high as 72mpg) to the mid-50mpg range…about a 18-20% decrease in fuel mileage. That seems a fair tradeoff for the performance increase.

So was it worth it? The bike was nearly a straight trade for my Triumph, with $600 for the pipes, $100 for the filter/airbox, $1500 for the cams and pistons plus install, and $750 for the PCV and dyno. That’s a total price of around $9000 compared to similar performance out of Triumph’s 900 classics, which are another $2000 or so out the door. Yes, it’s worth it.

If you choose to do this particular set-up, you’ll find that no one else seems to have done it. Big bore kits, sure; not the heavy-piston and cam kit for the 650. You will want to get a PCV for the Royal Enfield, and you will need a tune. DynoJet doesn’t have it, but you can get my map from the guys at Motopia (see link above.)

I also did the usual cosmetic mods expected of people with this sort of bike to “make it my own”: a chrome fneder to match the tank, bar-end mirrors and shorty levers, the proper Interceptor side plate, not the US “INT-650” (up yours, Honda!) and a side panel bag for hat and sunglasses, and the flyscreen.

I wanted to use a few more of the bells and whistles (not that there are many) in Broken Compass in the next adventure I ran for my daughter. In this second scenario, her character, Ellie Calhoun, the 18 year old Texan pilot who left her home under a cloudy past, is helping her boss “Cleopatra” Lythgoe, the Bahama Queen with her last rum run from Nassau to Alice Town in Bimini on her schooner. It’s all legal and above board in the Bahamas, but rumors have been flying about the Americans putting pressure on the Bahamian government to hand her over.

In the first scene, she learns from another pilot that Avi Loenstein — the Brooklyn gangster that has recently relocated to Ft. Lauderdale, has been talking a lot of guff about moving in on Cleo. She related the story to the boss over a few hands a baccarat, at which point she stated that the “jinx” had caught up with her. She was wealthy enough and it was time to pack it in before the mob or the feds finally got her.

Later, at her hotel, Ellie was approached by Moses — one of Avi’s goons — who tried to convince her to sell Cleo out by giving the course and time of the run. He left her his hotel room on a matchbox so she could give him her answer. Instead, she let Cleo know and was sent with one of the other henchmen of the Bahama Queen, “Jimmie”, a local man, to set him straight. This led directly to a fight scene, which allowed us to run our first fight with a privileged henchmen. He was rated a critical danger and required three successes to drop him. The fight was quick, and while she didn’t knock him out, other basic successes led to Ellie and Jimmie being able to secure him. They rolled him up in the bedcovers, snuck him out to the waiting Cadillac and took him to the boat for questioning.

While he was tied up in the fiorelocker of the boat, Moses was able to cut his binds with a knife they had missed and he was able to throw himself overboard and disappear into the night. Cleo decided to get the schooner moving and head out.

The next major scene involved navigating to Alice Town, driving the boat, and spotting a seaplane approaching. Avi’s people had found them! There was a trio of dangers to overcome at this point — avoiding the strafing run by the passenger in the plane, who opened up on the boat with a BAR .30. i rated this a critical danger and Ellie scored two basic successes. She used one to push Cleo below, took off a point of the three luck points from the attack, and took a “bleeding” feeling. The second test was to outrun the speedboat that had been led in by the plane, another critical due to the difference in speeds. The last was to avoid the speedboat coming alongside and grappling. Both rolls were failed and the bad guys — two goons I rated a critical threat, and Moses — boarded the schooner.

Ellie handled the initial threat with a burst from her Chicago Typewriter and scored a extreme success; they got mowed down and her Tommy was dry! Moses attacked her with a hatchet, but she rolled a critical success, blasting off her 1911 .38 Super but he had managed to catch her hand and the shot missed (but took one of his luck points and I gave him a disadvantage for his ruptured eardrum.) They wrestled at the rail of the boat and he got another critical success with an added basic. She fired the gun again but missed, however, she plented her knee in his groin and disarmed him. On the next test, she got a critical and basic success again. She decided to throw him over the side of the boat where he was quickly left behind in the open ocean. She and the crew cut the speedboat loose and left if and the dead bodies, as well.

They got to Alice Town, where they offloaded the goods. While cleaning up in her hotel room, Ellie was interrupted by Avi Loenstein and a couple of mooks. She was able to scare them off with her .38 Super, rolling four of a kind. She then complained to the hotel owner and local big-wig, Sir James Guthrie, of the assault and he had them thrown out. Later, she was pulled aside by Guthrie — Cleo has set her up with a few of his friends so that she is out of the line of the feds and mob, with a 2nd class ticket to Gibraltar, and the Fairchild 71 she’s been flying for Cleo as a goodbye present.

We wrapped up with her heading to Gibraltar to link up with a buddy of Gthrie’s from the Great War, a member of the Foreign Volunteer Force, a group of mercenaries known as the “Sky Rats”. (For more on the Sky Rats, see Black Campbell’s Sky Pirates of the Mediterranean. )

While we are waiting to get our pool back into action for the summer, I needed something to do to keep my daughter busy, so I ran her a quick one-shot in Broken Compass, an RPG system by Two Little Mice out of Italy, that i had backed on Kickstarter. They did well with their first two campaigns — the first being the original game and “Golden Age” (1930s pulp) setting, and their second the Jolly Roger (pirates) and Voyages Extraordinaire (steampunk/Victorian sic-fi). The game system has been reviewed by me before, and our first run at it with the gaming group left us thinking it was an excellent lightweight set of rules that works better than Ubiquity or Fate for pulp settings. (Although it’s hard as the GM to get used to not rolling dice…)

The kiddo built a “gunslinger pilot”, so I tried to think of a quick game without digging into some of the Black Campbell stuff I’d already published. I wound up running a game set in early 1926, with her character — a Texan girl of 18 who had run away/had to run away for legal reasons. She had somehow wound up in Bimini, where she had been working as a speedboat and seaplane pilot for Gertrude Lythgoe, sometimes known as “Cleo” or “Cleopatra” for her exotic looks — the so-called “Bahama Queen” of the rum-runners. The adventure was designed to be a quick run, maybe two hours, for a solo character but could be easily buffed up.

Following a night of drinking and jazz music (put on some 1926 hits at this point for atmosphere) at the Port Alice Hotel in Alice Town, Bimini — Cleo, the Bahama Queen gets into an argument with an arrogant gangster in from “Fort Liquordale” (Lauderdale), who is trying to worm his way into the rum trade. Along the way, he insults her and the character — a “slip of a girl” and bets them his crew can get a ton (about twenty cases) of booze into Lauderdale before they can do the same in the plane. The boat can offload on the shoreline, but the seaplane (a new Fairchild 71 — yes, I know it’s a bit early for that particular bird to be out) has to have a more stable landing poinbt and it’s not inconspicuous, so they’ll be landing at a spot inland in the wood on a canal, about ten miles inland…just to make it fair. They load up at the same time in Alice Town in the morning, race the 45 miles (55 for the plane) to Florida and drop to the waiting crews, then return to Bimini. First back wins. To make this more fair if using this idea, you might have both use speedboats.

This led to a series of challenges, usually grouped in threes, at most, in Broken Compass: the first stand-alone challenge was a leadership to get the dock crew to load the plane properly. If failed, they’ll immediately need a successful critical pilot test not to crash; they will then need to set down on the water and balance the load properly with a pilot or observation test. If they need to rebalance, this will give the boat a 15 minute head start. Once in the air, they need to 1) do a basic navigation test to the drop zone using survival or observation, 2) a basic (or critical) if they had to land pilot test to fly there and arrive about the same time as the boat — roughly 50 minutes after they left Bimini, and an critical alertness to notice something new and dangerous — the Coast Guard makred Voight UO-1 seaplane (which had just been picked up and was radio-equipped) that will spot them and report back. Once over Florida, it’s a critical pilot test to put down in the canal where a truck and two man crew is waiting to offload the booze. To do it quickly, requires a critical stunt or leadership test and will take about 15 minutes (the boat crew can chuck the booze into the shoreline for their crew and it only takes 5 minutes.)

The next challenge/danger is the arrival of the T-Men warned by the Coast Guard — two cars of feds! It’s a basic alertness or observation to spot them and have time to respond by launching or shooting up their cars. (My daughter’s choice…she loves her Tommy gun!) A critical shoot to take out the lead automobile will leave the T-Men in the cars having to bail out on the small dirt road and run to the dock. This gives the plane crew time to get into the plane and take off, or to get into a shootout with the feds. To escape into the plane and launch, 1) a critical stunt test not to get shot up by the trigger-happy Treasury men, then 2) a critical pilot to get out of the area without the plane getting shot up. (And possibly an alert or observation to note if they were hit.)

By this time, the speedboat’s got a 15 minutes headstart, again, and they have to dodge the Coasties in the UO-1 and get out of US airspace. A critical pilot gets them out over the Atlantic and a critical observation or survival gets them back first.

If the characters do this adventure using a boat, there’s more opportunity for action with their offloading being interrupted not just by T-Men, but a Coast Guard “6-bit boats” or 75-foot cutter. Then, it can be a series of challenges like 1 critical stunt test to get the hooch over the side fast enough, then 2) a critical pilot to escape the cutter and get into the open sea, then another critical pilot test to beat them to the 12 mile limit, before having the race the other boat (if still in play). If they are caught by the Coast Guard, they can resist a 6-man crew as a 2 critical-level enemies.

We were again impressed with the speed and ease of play using Broken Compass, and I’ll have a nother play report for the daughter’s second adventure.

There’s a lot of ink and pixels spilled over these little devices, and most of the folks opining seem to have no experience with them — which makes them obvious experts! Then there’s the people that swear by these. We’ve got one in Albuquerque’s Royal Enfield community. I did some research and the basics are this: the booster plug fools the ECU into thinking it’s cooler than it is, getting the computer to kick more fuel into your mix. Pretty basic. There’s a lot of folks that then go on to sing the praises of this device, which apparently cures everything from rough idle to hair loss.

As mentioned in other posts, I’ve gone temporarily insane and had the bike hopped up seriously — S&S pipes, the high performance cam, 11:1 pistons in the 650 cylinders…and after scouring the interwebz I seem to be the only guy that’s done this and not gone big bore. I’m also a mile up, so there’s that. As a result, I’ve been having issues with hard starting and mild to moderate detonation under high throttle between 4500 rpm and up in 5th and 6th gear. Initially, there was a serious timing issue that we sorted, and the problem lessened with the “summer gas” here in New Mexico. (They stop putting the ethanol in the gas — so you get better gas mileage and performance.)That got me thinking that my 65-72mpg I’m getting on the 91 octane (the best we get here), I might be running way too lean.

We’re going with a Power Commander V to try and sort these issues, but we’re waiting on a slot to dyno my Interceptor out in Farmington (5-6 hours away…) What the hell? I thought; if this widget sorts being lean, let’s try it. So does it work?

First: TEC Bike USA was excellent to deal with. I explained the situation and they told me if it didn’t solve the issues to return it, no questions asked. I got here quickly, and I popped it in without issue. You simply take the seat off and there’s a big white connector right there. Pop it apart, stuff the leads from the Booster Plug in and shove the sensor somewhere out of the way. You’re done. If it doesn’t work, you can just as easily pull the plug and reconnect the original sensor.

She fired up easily and the idle did seem smoother. Around town, in the lower gears and rarely getting above 3500rpm, she was smooth and did seem to be pulling a bit more. No scientific, I know, but basically, it seems like there is a minor improvement in the fueling at the lower gears/RPMs. That’s not enough, however, to know if this was going to sort my issues, so I took the bike to the Sandia Crest road — a long twisting 10 miles that climbs 4000 feet from base to top. It’s perfect for putting a heavy load on a motor. On the ride out I noticed the bike seemed to be running a bit cooler, indicating she might be a bit closer to balance on the fuel and air.

What I found quickly was I was getting detonation at 3500rpm in 3rd and 4th gear under heavy throttle! She hadn’t done that since the initial modifications when she was way out fo time. I returned to the bottom of the crest and pulled the booster plug, then did the same run and about the same speed, snapping the throttle where I had, leaning on her hard in the same spots. No detonation in 3rd gear, and mild detonation in 4th and 5th gear at 4500 to 5000rpm, then it settled down. Two tries yielded the same results.

So what does that mean? Keep in mind, I’m not a mechanic, don’t play one on TV, and won’t claim to know a ton about motors, but… This does make me think that 1) yes, this enriches the fuel/air mix a bit, and 2) most of the effect is going to be low down in the power band. It didn’t sort my issues, but it was a handy diagnostic tool, as it now suggest that in addition to being lean, I’m still a bit off on the timing — something the new PCV can sort on both fronts.

Is the booster plug a replacement for a good fuel map and/or PCV on a heavily modified bike? Nope. Might this be useful for a stock bike running a bit lean? I think so, although at $125-175 (that’s what I’ve seen these go for), the price might be a bit too much for folks looking for real improvements in the bike’s operation. If you want a quick fix that isn’t too expensive (the PCV will set you back between $325 and 400, then if there’s no map for you, there’s a dyno run or the autotune module at about $500) for minor improvements, it might be worth a go.

So is it snake oil and useless? Provisionally, no. It depends on what you want out of it. It’s not going to turn your 45ish HP Enfield into a Ducati, but it might smooth out some minor foibles caused by manufacturers bowing down to Euro4/5 emissions requirements.

After months of waiting, the Colonial Marines Operations Manual has dropped for Free League’s Alien RPG. I got my PDF in the other week and intended to scope the gear assuming that was going to be the real meat of the book. While it’s good and adds a plethora of hardware — vehicles, vehicular-mounted weapons, small arms, spacecraft — it’s the world-building that really makes this worth a look. Andrew Gaska has really fleshed out the Xenoverse, with new history, material on colonies, new templates for marine characters, and gear.

Is it worth the price? Yes, and resoundingly so. If you’re running Alien, buy it.

Here was another Kickstarter that caught my eye last year (gah! it was an expensive year for me with Kickstarter last year!): The Troubleshooters, a Swedish game based on the old Franco-Belgian style of comics from the 1960s/70s. Think Tintin, and you’re on the right track; this is set in the Jet Age, when tourism became a think and much of these comics revolved around traveling the world for adventure (similar to the I,Spy series or James Bond movies…). The artwork was superb (I like it when I can identify gear in RPG art!) and caught the style of the comics, so I backed the project. After some delays caused by an injury sustained by the main writer/artist, the PDF dropped a week or so ago.

That gave me the opportunity to kick the tires on this games system with the wife and kiddo this weekend. It got a solid thumbs up from both of them, and I found it worked well to help the story along with only a few hiccups that were mostly the first play session blues of getting used to the system. We ran the quickstart adventure they dropped last year The Minoan Affair — a quick “save the friend and stop the dastardly smugglers” one-shot.

The basic mechanics: Troubleshooters uses a percentage test. You roll for a challenge and have to roll under your score in a skill like Agility or Drive. If you succeed and get “doubles” (say a 33 on a skill of 45) you also get good karma — this lends benefits to other test, etc. Likewise, a double on a fail is bas karma — your gun jams, and so on. You have certain abilities that allow you to use the game currency — story points — to either flip the roll (a 73 becomes a 37 for 2 story points, but if you have “Born Behind the Wheel” than allows the flip with a single point) and complications that give you story points when they affect you. Your health/damage is tracked with Vitality and is usually somewhere in the 4-6 range. You get hurt and lose enough to hit Vitality 0 and you’re “out cold.” You don’t die in this game unless its story appropriate, you do something really stupid, or you trade the Vitality hit for a “wounded” or mortal peril” tag — that puts you in danger of death, but keeps you in the action for longer.

The system also has an advantage/disadvantage system using “pips”. A +2 pip means that if you get a 1 or 2 on the ones die, you succeed, no matter the tens, and vice-versa for disadvantages. It’s a bit odd but works well. There’s also a tweak to allow you to use a +/- 5% per pip. We found the pip system worked fast and well. Karma, your signature item (be it a car, or a gun, or whatever), and more difficult tests give you an advantage or disadvantage rating, usually +/- 2 or 5. It sounds confusing when you’re reading it, I found, but played very well.

Combat is simple opposed tests, the character’s appropriate skill vs. the bad guys, who tend to have generalized skills like “basic” or “boxing” or even “bam! biff! whop!” to match the style of sound effect for their fighting. Challenges can be met with the appropriate skill, or sometimes a related one — agility or endurance for running away from a threat, for instance. There are also extended challenges that require multiple tests together (and often can be done by different members of the cast): looking for the island where the hostages are could take a Vehicles test to get there, a search to find them, an investigations to navigate properly…

Character creation: You get a group of templates you can tweak, otherwise you can put together your own with a set number of skills you can assign a percentage number to, pick a couple of appropriate abilities and complications, give the character a name and a look, and figure out how the characters net to allow them to get straight to it. It’s easy and fast. You get a signature item — like the pre-generated race car driver character’s Lancia Stratos, that give you benefits.

The game has it’s own comic universe set in the 1960s. Cool is definitely a factor here: the clothes, the cars, the look of the comics of that period will enhance the play. The stories are French comic styled — there’s danger and villains, but the gunplay is kept to a minimum, and characters are expected to punch or outsmart their way out of trouble. There’s the global bad guy organization, a la SPECTRE or CHAOS — in this case, the Octopus. In reality, the “Octopus” has been a name for various organized crime syndicates from the Cammora to a Bulgaria gang, and it was even the imagery used for the early capitalist trusts. SPECTRE in the James Bond books and movies used the Octopus as its symbol, linking it intentionally to these shadowy “Octopi” groups of the middle-20th Century.

The Kickstarter had a lot of extras with it — a few canned adventures, character “passports”, and a GM screen, maps, just for starters. I pledged at the Business class which was about $100US — so is it worth it? Yes — if you are looking for a game that captured the Jet Age cool and the comics or movies of the period, it’s a fun game that’s nice to look at and has mechanics that are easy to learn and help the flow of play. I’m not sure of Helmgast’s plans for producing and marketing this beyond the Kickstarter; my hope is that Mödipiüs or one of the other Euro-game publishers snaps it up and keeps it going.

A friend of mine turned me on to the Broken Compass role playing game that was being Kickstarted last year by a small Italian company, Two little Mice. (Man, the Italian RPG scene is hopping!) I’m a bit fan of the classic pulp era for a game setting (as evidenced by the plethora of 1930s stuff Black Campbell Entertainment has done for Fate and Ubiquity), so I dove in. About a month ago, all of the physical books and material came in. We had a week’s downtime from our Lex Arcana (another Italian game company!) to give it a try.

Broken Compass has the same goals that Fate and Ubiquity had — to make play fast and easy, and to get the rules out of the way. Fate does this well through extremely simple core mechnaics, but has a few elements — tagging scenes, for instance — that can be difficult for new players and for those used to the GM doing all the setting work to grab a hold of. Ubiquity does well until combat, where it bogs down into gronyard-like crunch. This system keeps it simple with core mechanics that do not change from managing a task, confronting a danger, or getting into a fight. the base die mechanic has the player roll a number of die equal to an attribute and skill and look not for a specific number, but for matches (kinda like Yahtze.) For basic tasks, you need a pair; for critical ones, three of a kind and so on. You could standard d6s or the company’s snazzy specialty d6s which feature the cardinal points of the compass (N,S, E, W, a broken compass, and a skull).

The character creation is simple and fast: pick two tags, like “action hero” or “femme fatale”, which give you an extra die on two of the six attributes (Action, Guts, Knowledge, Society, Wild, Crime) and on eight of the skills (there are three under each of the attributes. Simple. You’ll have between 3 and 6 dice to roll, not counting bonuses from gear and conditions. You get a two “expertise” tags that give you an extra die when appropriate. you start with 10 luck points — when you get to zero, you have a “luck coin” to help you out of danger. The system is not designed to kill a character (though it can), but give you conditions like, exhausted or scared — negative ones that take a die if you have it, or positives like confident or daring which add a die.

Villains and opponents are handled like a challenge (which don’t cause you to lose luck) or a danger (where you do get hurt.) A bunch of ordinary mooks attacking you might be a basic or critical danger, depending on their skill, or higher if they are a privileged henchmen or big bad. In a brawl, you roll an Action+Fight vs. the difficulty of the challenge, and take out the baddies dependent on how well you did, but if you fail, they do you an appropriate number of luck points (and possibly pick up a condition.) In a firefight, there’s the usual back and forth — first you shoot with Action+Shoot (or Guts+Shoot), then they shoot and you try to avoid with Action+Stunt. The GM rarely, if ever, rolls; it’s all on the players, who are encouraged to narrate their actions.

It plays very quickly and easily, and our first run of the game was as a playtest of an adventure for an upcoming product that usually would have been run in Ubiquity. I have to say, Broken Compass has won me over. It’s more intuitive than the +/0/- dice mechanic of fate, and simpler when it should be than Ubiquity — my go-to pulp action RPG systems to this point. The system is lightweight enough to carry any genre with a bit of tweaking.

The physical product is superb! The core book or Adventure Journal features a classic pocket journal look: faux-leather with a proper stitch binding and heavy gloss paper in 9.5×6″ (the same size as the Fate books). The edges are curved, it’s got a bookmark ribbon, an elastic strap to hold it closed, and elastic pencil holder. It’s a brilliant bit of design. Internal layout is clear and simple, with a minimum of nonsense to distract. The art is good (although these days, with Free League and Wizards’ art design doing stunning work, this is good for most products out there) and the typeface and sizing is clear and easy to read. (The more I publish stuff, the more impressed i am by these things.) Here’s the example from Two Little Mice’s Kickstarter page:

It came with a GM screen that is similarly sized: 9.5×6″/per panel, with a 4-panel spread on heavy cardboard with appropriate artwork on the player side, and most of the basic rules on the GM side. Again, clear, concise, and workable. I didn’t have to access the book more than twice during play. also included in my pledge was their First Season book Golden Age with some tweaks and canned adventures for the 1930s. A Spin Off: Luck Tales book similarly give a few new rules and adventures. There was a world map (circa 1999), a cloth bag of specialty dice, a plastic luck coin, and posters featuring the art from the book, as well as a Rival Passport (a listing of big bads for your game), an Adventurer Passport to record characters, and a selection of period postcards from exotic locales.

Two Little mice is currently running a Kickstarter for the next two “seasons” of the game — a pirate setting and a Victorian fantasy/steampunk setting, and the original books, GM screen, maps and dice with luck coin, and posters can be had with the right pledge.

So is it worth it? Absolutely. The physical materials are top-notch: the books are on good quality gloss paper, have a faux-leather cover, decent art with simple and clear layouts. The existing books can be had in PDF format on for $30 and $19.