Saturday 20 July 2013

The Great Shamutanti Swindle

So, Crown of Kings – Graham Bottley’s adaptation of Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! gamebooks to Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e – got on the table a couple of evenings this week. Come Tuesday afternoon, while I was prepping for what I had expected to be a WFRP2e game, I found that I would have an extra player. For a number of reasons I decided that we’d keep the WFRP2e game on hold, but rather than switch to a boardgame I decided that we should still play an RPG, but at short notice I would need to run something that I have an intuitive feel for. Advanced Fighting Fantasy fitted the bill, and as I have trekked across the Shamutanti Hills more than a few times a lone hero (most recently by playing Inkle’s nifty iOs app) I have a good feeling for the setting.

I printed out the pregenerated characters from the Arion site, the reference sheets, and the John Blanche map of Kakhabad, and with just the barest of prep time we were ready to run. ‘A’ chose the ‘Rogue’ (Cramer), ‘C’ the ‘Knight’ (Mopsy - ?!), and ‘D’ the ‘Sorcerer’ (Ho Lee). Over about four hours on Tuesday and Thursday night the party made it as far as just beyond Birritani and a desperate fight with FLANKER THE ASSASSIN and his BANDITS. The fight might well have been straightforward, even though the party was slightly outnumbered, but, thanks to AFF2e’s rules on Critical Hits (double 6s) and Fumbles (double 1s), it ended up with Mopsy and Cramer losing their swords, having to fight on with daggers (and therefore losing 2 points of their Swords Special Skill) AND being wounded by Critical Hits which cost them a point of their SKILL proper. And as anyone who has played a Fighting Fantasy gamebook will know, a few points difference in SKILL and a fight can be very one sided. 

Luckily Ho Lee had a couple of teeth that he had pulled from a gigantic skull, as so was able to cast the YOB spell and summon a HILL GIANT into the action, who made mincemeat – well, pate, actually – out of the BANDITS.

The players enjoyed the fast paced play, and the fact that – as I pointed out in my rant about the Pathetic Aesthetic – Fighting Fantasy characters (whether in AFF2e or in the books) are extremely competent characters*. I hadn’t appreciated just how effective the Critical Hit and Fumble system is as introducing a real element of risk into fights. I was actually worried that the fact that a GOBLIN is as likely to cause a Critical Hit as a master swordsman – and that they would both Fumble as often – would be a problem. But not so. The PCs most often had/have the edge in SKILL (+Special Skill), which makes them highly likely to win most fights. But the fact that a PC is always at risk of an opponent rolling a double six and knocking a point off his or her SKILL score, or rolling snake-eyes themselves, means that the PCs cannot just wade in carelessly – that needless fight against a GOBLIN, even though it was won, the result never In much doubt, might have consequences that last longer than a rest to eat Provisions. Snowballing consequences that, when the PCs do meet monsters or NPCs of roughly equal competency, might be their undoing.

Also, I do not know how many times players in my games will randomly attack powerful wizards. In Tower of the Stargazer, it led to a TPK. In Crown of Kings, Mopsy decided that he’d had enough of Vancass’ riddles and tried to cut him down. A lost SKILL point later and the party had no choice but to marching into the Troll Woods to continue on the road to Khare.

The players appeared to enjoy the strange, fantastical style of encounters typical of Fighting Fantasy. There was some complaint that it was ‘like a dungeon’, and that there wasn’t much ‘story’, but given that the players can’t hold the names of the three villages they had passed through in their heads, or have the wit to write them down (a memory lapse that left Vancass hopping from foot to foot, singing ‘wrong, wrong, wrong!’, prompting Mopsy’s unchivalrous attack), I’m not sure what they would do if we were playing, say, Call of Cthulhu… 

However, I DO feel that the Shamutanti Hills could have been turned into something more sandboxy – it would be more to my taste to have had advice in the book of how to handle ‘off path’ travel that didn’t amount to ‘frustrate the players until they follow the path’, but this is at least in part a legacy of the source material, gamebooks – and an injection of a sense of the connections between the villages/encounters. To be fair, I could have done more of this – with more prep time, of course – and I DID create more opportunities for the PCs to gather information that would allow them to make (somewhat/imperfectly) informed decisions on the path (literally) to take. The adventure could also do with some kind of ‘ticking clock’; unlike in the gamebook, in which YOU can only move forward, there is nothing to prevent PCs retracing their steps and taking the path not (yet) taken. And there is nothing wrong with thorough exploration, but when the Crown of Kings is winging its way to Mampang, there ought be reminders of the urgency of the quest In this adaptation, as in the gamebook, time is linked to encounters – the villages populated by stunted hill people are often a day’s travel apart (which is not too unreasonable), but the presumption written into the adventure is that the PCs have not dallied, retraced their steps, or otherwise upset the schedule. Again, this is nothing that a GM could not add in, with a little thought.

But I’ll moan about anything! I have enjoyed running Crown of Kings so far, and the players have enjoyed playing in the Shamutanti Hills. Fast paced and flavoursome, I’d sum up so far. So, where’s the swindle? Well, pretty much everyone in the Shamutanti Hills is charging obscene amounts of money to stay in their mud hut, to eat Hillfox stew, or to drink some rough local ale. It is like some tourist trap, with the naïve, rich visitors paying many times the price the locals pay. Hell, the PCs even encounter a bona fide tourist attraction, the Crystal Waterfall, and even that costs 3GP a dip (though the price does come with a complimentary towel!). The PCs (the players?) got so annoyed with the grasping locals I am surprised that we didn’t see them engage in some terrible act of murderous infamy that would echo across Analand. Still, there is time… 

*I must, say, I thought I was making it clear that the Pathetic Aesthetic is not (necessarily) about playing incompetent characters, by using an example in which even the lowest rolled character, SKILL 7, is still more able than most of the monsters of Titan. The Pathetic Aesthetic is about the presence of catastrophic risk in which (by the nature of ‘trad’ RPG gameplay, in which player choice is about what their PC does, not what happens to their PC) negative outcomes might well not be meaningful (say, by being a plot-related sacrifice, or tragic), but meaningless (pathetic). Of course, the negative outcomes don’t have to be meaningless, they are, after all, the outcome of player choice vis-à-vis risk. But as with ‘story’, this is something that emerges (or should emerge) after play. A PC ‘hero’ dying in a pointless fight with KOBOLDS at the beginning of a quest to return the Key of the Hellgate can be meaningful after the fact – the bards would sing (if any are left after the shapeless horrors of the Inferno have spilled forth) of the hubris of the hero who thought himself invulnerable. But it would not be anyone’s idea of a ‘character arc’ (or what have you) when the group sits down to play module PA1 Quest to the Gates of Doom!


  1. My group was supposed to play this -- using True20 for some reason -- but it never happened.

    I ran a short AFF campaign in my teens and it was great fun but the wheels flew off the thing very soon as it was clear that they hadn't really playtested it. I've not played the second edition yet but it seems from your experience that the tweaks have made it a bit less broken.

  2. Computer game RPG (big bucks little brothers of TG) designers have adopted an attitude that the passage of time shouldn't matter. They hold encounters within 'bubbles' placed at chokepoints (that you are eventually funnelled into) that are triggered by your approach. This allows complete freedom to explore each nook and cranny fully and on those rare occasions when players are handed time critical missions these are almost always regarded with frustrated hostility by gamers.

    I suspect it is a basic human response to feel stressed when placed under pressure and that many modern gamers prefer not to play stressful games with deadlines as a result. Your crowd certainly sound as though they want to have the DM be more of a storyteller than, well, a DM; so it's possible they are expecting AFF to be like immersing themselves in a relaxed, legendary retelling rather than a lethally capricious world of peril. When playing a game with a strong narrative thread I usually dish out the good stuff (clues and items) for following the correct path and merely clues about where the good stuff is if the party go mindlessly exploring. That said, there is nothing wrong with having an 'off the beaten track mini-adventure' ready for those sessions when the party is feeling particularly uncooperative.

    Gold. It sounds so valuable and yet buys so little. Evan did a masterful piece about currency over at his blog (swordsodminaria.blogspot, AKA The Border Princes). It helps to change the name to silver pieces or schillings or something similar and use them as fractions of an actual gold piece.

    1. For my AFF revision, I stuck with gold pieces, but introduced the idea that gold coins were commonly cut into four pieces, thereby creating the smaller denomination of gold quarters. Gold remains the standard material of coinage, but with a bit more flexibility.

    2. Yep, perfect solution. It doesn't need to be more complicated than that and it helps so much.

  3. The Sorcery campaign is in some respects, but there tends to be slightly less danger in the fights due to the spacing of encounters. On the other hand, there is more resource management of money, food, spell components etc.

    When i have run it, priests and wizards have a slight advantage due to their more frequent recharges. Well, not so much in Khare and the fortress!