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Monday, 20 March 2017

A Planetary Romance Starter

A Festival of Blades: A Cavaliers of Mars Jumpstart is the quick start rules for the forthcoming RPG of swashbuckling action and planetary romance in the last great days of Mars. As swords flash, courtesans give their most seductive smiles, princes slip into decadence, and revolutionaries plot their downfall, sands blow into canals and further the fall of the once great cities of the Red Planet. It provides a simple introduction to the background, the basic rules, four pre-generated characters, and a three-act adventure. All the players and Game Master will need is a full set of polyhedral dice each and a copy of A Festival of Blades and they will have everything necessary for an enjoyable session or two’s worth of gaming. Published by Onyx Path Publishing, A Festival of Blades: A Cavaliers of Mars Jumpstart is available here as either a twenty-seven page, 4.3 MB or a twenty-eight-page booklet.

 A character in Cavaliers of Mars looks like this. This is an approximation given that I only have A Festival of Blades: A Cavaliers of Mars Jumpstart to hand, but it serves to illustrate and explain the game’s mechanics. Characters are defined by their Motivations—why they do things; Methods—how they do things; and Traits—motivations, methods, origins, careers, and relationships. These are all rated by die types. Lastly each character has several Talents that create exceptions to the rules.

Nerusk – Wily Thief

For Honour: d8
For Love: d6
For Self: d10

With Cunning: d8
With Force: d6
With Grace: d10

Thief d10 (What I take is mine); Slum Rat of Vance d8 (I fished the docks for rich men’s trash, but now I take it); Patience d6 (Without patience a plan is nothing and the dangers cannot be seen); Entertainer d8 (Sing the songs of the city as you steal from its pockets); Gambler d8 (When the dice are in your favour…)
Trouble: Selfish (When push comes to shove…)
Equipment: Multiple knives, harp, dark clothing, rope

Speed: 3 (roll 3 dice per round)
Weapons: Knives of every size and quality taken from his victims
Damage: 1

Distraction, Invisible Blade, Slip the Knife Deeper, Keeping up with the News

Cavaliers of Mars uses the DEIMOS System for its mechanics. This a dice pool system in which to undertake an action, a player rolls several dice and adds the two best results to beat a target rolled by the GM. A character’s pool is typically formed from a Motivation, a Method, and an appropriate Trait. Another character might be able to help by contributing an appropriate die. If the character’s total is higher than the GM’s total, then the GM narrates the outcome. If the GM’s total is higher than the character’s total, then the character has failed and the character’s player narrates the outcome.

So for example, Nerusk has to sneak past a guard to get into a merchant’s house. His player decides that Nerusk’s Motivation is Self—he is being paid to steal some papers; his Method is Grace—he is a burglar after all; and his Thief Trait—this is his job. So the player has three ten-sided dice to roll. If Nerusk had an accomplice, then perhaps she could distract the guard and add a Cunning die to the pool. The GM rolls two dice, one for the NPC’s Resolve and one the NPC’s most relevant Trait. So this gives a six-sided die for the guard’s Resolve and an eight-sided die for the guard’s ‘Alert to the Hoi Polloi’ Trait. Nerusk’s player rolls one, five, and eight, giving the Thief a total of thirteen. Fortunately, the GM rolls a two and a three and so narrates how Nerusk slips into the shadows as the guard merely yawns and wishes he was elsewhere.

Where an action has lasting consequences, it can earn extra dice, typically four-sided dice, depending on the outcome of the roll. If beneficial to a character, this is a Windfall die and it can be rolled and added to an action or combat roll after a player has selected his two dice. This allows a player to keep a Windfall die until he really needs it and it means that at least in mechanical terms he never wastes it and his character gets to be that little more capable and dramatic. For example, Nerusk’s accomplice might have encouraged the guard to take a sip of drugged wine that slows him down and will help the thief get back of the merchant’s house, whether unnoticed or not.

If a character fails an action, then the GM earns a Misfortune die. The GM can add this to a player’s dice pool at any time. If the result of the Misfortune die matches a die result in the player’s pool, then something bad happens and the Misfortune die is used up. If there is no match, then the GM keeps the Misfortune die. This means that when Misfortune dice enters the game, everyone knows that something bad—and dramatic—is going to happen, just not when.

A character also has Talents and whilst these grant a character special abilities and actions, they require another Trait, Method, or Motivation to be exerted or exhausted. Exerting a die steps it down one step, for example, from an eight-sided to a six-sided die, whereas Exhausting a die mens stepping it down to a four-sided die. For example, with his Keeping up with the News Talent Nerusk can exert his Entertainer Trait to pick up the latest rumours and news, but he can Exhaust the Trait to use his Distraction Talent. An Exhausted or Exerted Trait lasts for the remainder of a session.

Lastly, a character begins play with three Drama Points. These can be spent to count three dice rather than two in an action roll, recover Strain—the equivalent of damage in Cavaliers of Mars, to gain a rumour or other piece of information that the player is encouraged to create, to add a plot twist, to rally and improve a combat die, and to gain an extra die to add to a Motivation die. They are gained when a disaster befalls the player characters that they could not cannot stop, good roleplaying, making a self-sacrifice of note, and whenever a character’s Trouble causes him difficulty.

Combat can be run in simple fashion using the basic DEIMOS System for quick resolution, but a more complex system is provided. Each character has a number of action dice equal to his Speed rating. At the start of the combat round they can be rolled as red Strike dice for attacks and aggressive actions, black Parry dice for blocks and dodges, and white Stunt dice for manoeuvres and other actions. All of these are ten-sided dice, whilst the additional blue four-sided dice represent bonuses from Drama Points and scenery. 

At the start of a combat round, in the Taking Up Dice phase, each player decides how he will roll the dice pool derived from his Speed rating—as red Strike, black Parry, or white Stunt dice. Once the dice have been rolled, the Clash of Steel phase begins and the GM counts down from ten to one, a character being able to act with a Strike or Stunt die when the GM calls out the number rolled on them. When a Strike die is called out, it is compared to the target’s Parry. If higher, the Strike lands and the Parry die is discarded, whereas if the Parry is higher than or equal to the Strike die, the attack is blocked or dodged and both dice are discarded. Stunt dice are used to grant a bonus to the Strike and Parry dice of other player characters or to move. Beyond the basic Strike and Parry maneuvres, characters can use various combat manoeuvres, such as Lunge which changes a Parry die into a Strike die or a Sweep Attack which exerts a character’s Force and penalises his highest Parry die, but allows him to attack multiple foes. One combat manoeuvre can be carried out per character per turn. Damage is inflicted on characters and NPCs as Strain or conditions like Trapped or In love that will work like Trouble to earn a character Drama Points when they impede a character, though Mook generally take a single hit to take down. In the Break at the end of a round, a character makes a resolve test—rolling a die equal to an appropriate Motivation—and if the result is higher than the character’s Strain, he can continue fighting in the next round.

Now the combat system in Cavaliers of Mars works well enough, in effect combining an initiative mechanic and a resolution mechanic in one. The problem though is that the mechanic is entirely random without any real skill involved and at least in A Festival of Blades: A Cavaliers of Mars Jumpstart, none of a character’s Motivations, Methods, or Traits play a role in combat. If it did, then the different dice types from the Motivations, Methods, or Traits would have a significant influence on combat, with experienced combatants having an edge, whilst less experienced needing to opt for Parries and Stunts. Without this influence, there is a certain flat quality to the combat mechanics—at least in this quickstart.

In the middle of A Festival of Blades: A Cavaliers of Mars Jumpstart are the four pre-generated characters. They include a scholar-assassin, an astrologer with telekinesis, a soldier-thief, and a desert-noble. Their character sheets are clearly laid out and easy to read. None of the quartet come with a background, but there is enough information stated and implied between each character’s Motivations, Methods, Traits, and Talents that a roleplayer can get his teeth into.

The second half of A Festival of Blades: A Cavaliers of Mars Jumpstart is devoted to the adventure included in the quickstart. It takes place at the Festival of the Small Moon being held at a plaza in Vance, a city standing at the intersection of several canals and thus rich in water. All four characters are attending the festival as is  prince from another city, but as the party proceeds black-cloaked assassins cut him down and the plaza erupts into chaos. This assassination gives the characters their motivation or hook to act—the GM should read these out or give them to the characters’ players—and thus propel them into the action. It is a three act affair, one that takes them from the swirling action across the plaza and onto the murky canals of the Dredge quarter, their investigations eventually leading to the tower crypts high above the city. It involves lots of action, whether that is jumping from statue to statue to cross the plaza, dodging upturned vendors’ carts in the plaza, or balancing on the ropes and bridges between the tower crypts, but there is investigation too. It is a good mix and not only does it contain scenes where each of the characters has the chance to shine, it includes hooks as to what each character knows or can do to continue the investigation. It is a solid adventure and should give the players and GM alike a taste of the setting and the mechanics.

Physically, A Festival of Blades: A Cavaliers of Mars Jumpstart is well written, well laid out, and well presented. The rules themselves—at least the basic rules where the players are rolling based on their characters’ Methods, Motivations, and Traits—nicely encourage both the ways and whys of a character’s actions and how they are being roleplayed. It is unfortunate that the combat rules—as workable as they are—do not encourage this. Now to be fair, this is just in the quickstart, so the rules are not fully explained and the likelihood is that they will be in the full rules, but here they feel flat and disconnected from the primary DEIMOS System mechanics. Another issue perhaps is that there could have been a little more background to the Cavaliers of Mars setting. There are hints in the text, but imparting these to the players is another matter. 

This all sounds as if A Festival of Blades: A Cavaliers of Mars Jumpstart is poor product. This is not the case. It is at worst an imperfect product, the issue being the underwritten background and the issue with the combat rules. It is though, a good introduction to A Cavaliers of Mars and its mechanics, and supports it with a fun adventure of planetary romance and swashbuckling action.