Forts & Frontiers: 5E in 17th Century North America

I came across Campaign GamesForts & Frontiers quickstart “The Feast of the Dead” browsing the box of options for Free RPG Day this year, but ended up going home with something else and somewhat regretted it— Forts & Frontiers was something new and different over the familiar skeleton of 5E, so I was excited when they announced they were putting it up for free at DriveThroughRPG and followed up with a kickstarter campaign that kicked off this last week.

My initial thoughts are pretty much based on a first read at the airport and a few brief interactions on with them on Twitter, so when I finally get a chance to try this at a table, I’ll be sure to follow up here as well.

The PDF and booklet both have an old-school RPG feel, the cover format evoking old TSR modules like “The Keep on the Borderlands”, and the original artwork throughout is fantastic and expressive— I especially love the Wendigo encounter. The featured image above is from the quickstart— it and the rest of the illustrations are by Stephen W. Gurtowski.

The RPG drops us into 17th/18th century North America built on the D&D 5E SRD, with European settlers expanding through and exploring the new world, and the existing nations they encounter along the way. This quickstart is set in 17th century Wendake (present-day Ontario).

Since it’s designed on top of 5E, on-boarding is quick and easy, with a couple pages of history/background and a page or so of new content and rules adjustments before we dive into the adventure.

The rules adjustments are lightweight— Firearms take an an extra action to load, black powder an additional action on top of that. Archery ammunition is also more limited, and takes a survival check (with degrees of success) to recover. I am definitely all-in on the choice to use the Dungeon Master’s Guide’s realistic rest times— 8 hour for a short rest, 7 days for a long rest. D&D’s fantasy magic does not exist per say, but some kind of magic/faith/medicine is used by the Jesuts and some of the Wendat. Three of the PCs have minor spell casting abilities (“prayers/rituals” using a couple of D&D’s cleric spells), with no spell slots, but recovered on a short/long rest.

The pre-generated characters are (almost) all part of the same Wendat tribe, and the module suggests which of the six could/should be run as NPCs if you play with four or five of the six possible PCs.

One new mechanic introduced is a character’s Belief, which reads (in part),

When an extraordinary event occurs, for example a European priest heals someone by laying on hands or a creature of North Ameri- can legend is encountered in the wilderness, players must make a Wisdom saving throw with the DC set by the magnitude of the event. On failure, their characters gain a point of belief. The more belief points characters have, the more disposed they are toward the influencing civilization.

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I’m onboard with the concept of it, but it’s not immediately clear how mechanical use of it works as it increases, it just is. If a failed wisdom save increases one’s belief, it would seem the higher-wisdom characters would be less accepting/“believing” than others? It’s only in the context of the adventure (in fact, the second-to-last page), that it’s explained belief points are a pool to be spent— In this adventure, they can be added to a persuasion role trying to convince a shaman to allow Anatole Berger, the Jesuit priest, to assist in helping a sick man, but they also have the possibility to hinder rolls— We’ll get to that below.

The Adventure

The Portage & The Hunt

Sunset on the water in Bowron Provincial Park, BC.
I couldn’t find any of my photos from canoeing in Ontario, so here’s sunset at Bowron Lake Provincial Park, BC five years ago.

I don’t love kicking off the adventure with “Roll of Exhaustion”. I’ve encountered this with a couple Adventurer’s League modules before, and it can make the session rather frustrating. This story starts with two back-to-back, one for the journey “up to this point” (they’ve been traveling for about six weeks), and another as the party attempts a portage around rapids— the first task of the game. Spending the entire rest of the adventure rolling all your checks at disadvantage is no fun, exhaustion is an unforgiving mechanic even in full-flavor D&D, and with limited healing/recovery (and seven-day long rests!), I can’t imagine it’s going to be any less debilitating in 17th-century North America. I would definitely drop one, and maybe drop both of the exhaustion checks at the top of the session. I’ll have to think on what other consequences (if any) to use instead.

The check for this portage is also a bit vague. It notes the DC depends on how many people are helping with each boat, but it’s unclear the cost of either choice— they are a party of two boats for six people (originally four, but the original trading party has picked up two more, Anatole, the Jesuit, and Yahounk, another Wendat), why would two of the party not be helping? As GM I’d try to offer up alternative options for what two of the party might do instead of carrying— are they scouting (thereby giving advantage to everyone else making their rolls for the portage)? Getting a head-start on hunting/foraging (which is the next encounter, and oh look, another chance for exhaustion!).

Downtime and Storytelling!

I love campfire downtime and the chance to spur on conversation and roleplaying between party members. The module includes a short Wendat creation myth, and suggest giving the handout to one of the players to share the story with everyone else (and most importantly, their Catholic companion).

A couple days of camp time to rest and prep food from hunting/foraging also lets us see the belief mechanic in action, although once again, it’s there, but it’s unclear how to use it until later.

A Monster, More Travel, More Exhaustion

The Wendigo encounter should be fun, dialing up the creepy factor with a player character who thinks he hears his family’s voices. More travel rolls on the part of the guide means more possibilities for Exhaustion CON saves, putting us at the fourth or fifth check for some of these characters and (if their not rolling well) getting into the truly debilitating stuff. There is a note to roll for random encounters in the event they need to repair a canoe at one point, but I didn’t see any kind of encounter table to use.

Finale & Using Belief Points

We get to the last act of the encounter and get to see these belief points in use, but I’m still a little fuzzy on it all. The points can be pooled to help in persuading a shaman to allow Fr. Berger to help a sick man (and specifically call out “points gained through interaction with Anatole Berger”), but also, in the event the shaman tries to stop Berger, belief points Berger gained from interacting with the Wendat are subtracted from Berger’s roll.

Wrapping up with a strong social encounter (with the possibility of combat) gives us a satisfying ending, and one of my favorite parts of running a one-shot/quickstart— There are no personal stakes for the player and their PC, so they can be just as satisfied with drastic action, death, and/or any other failure. They’re likely never going to play this character again, and they may have become emotionally invested in the last couple hours of gameplay, but killing, banishing, or capturing a PC carries none of the baggage that it might in an ongoing campaign. Instead you and each player can give a quick one or two sentence epilogue— ask them what is is that happens, and just like that, it does.

Final thoughts, quick notes and open questions

  • Belief— My initial understanding was Belief was something that would grow over time/encounters and build, but once I got into the adventure understood it to be more of a pool to spend and regain again. I find myself trying to draw half-baked parallels to the Sanity and Mythos skills in Call of Cthulhu, but it’s not quite right. As noted above, it seems to sometimes help, sometimes hinder. Does one want belief in all cases? I would think the increase in cross-cultural belief and understanding should be a good thing, if it denotes a grown in one’s knowledge and acceptance of the “other’s” culture, but it also gets in the way of Fr. Anatole’s ability to heal someone.
  • Degrees of Success. After picking up Expanse AGE I’ve tried to work on ways to incorporate degrees of success and “failing forward” in my 5E games (something Call of Cthulhu also handles well with its “pushed” rolls). Most/all of the checks described in the scenario include details on what to do with a critical success/failure, a failure of five or more, or multiple DCs (for example, recovering one spent arrow after a fight is a DC11 survival check, recovering all of them DC16).
  • The adventure does a great job of checking the quickstart boxes (this is an exploration heavy game! Here’s an example of combat! Oh look, the supernatural is at least a little bit real! Here’s a social encounter, see our new belief mechanic in action!), but does expect an understanding of 5E’s basic rules and mechanics, with little hand-holding beyond pointing to the SRD or Player’s Handbook).
  • Be careful with that exhaustion! I could be being overcautious about how this would actually play out (and indeed, having travelled by canoe in Canada for two weeks, I can imagine traveling by canoe for two months would be rather exhausting), but I’m a little afraid of how a number of failed CON saves will stack up— With a long rest unlikely in the course of the adventure, the party could be only a few unlucky rolls away from To Build a Fire.

I have a feeling much of vagueness or questions I encountered will be addressed by the fleshed-out version coming from the Kickstarter, and I’m interested to see how the nationality-based “race” replacement will work for character creation, as well as more details on how the classes are defined— Between the six PCs, we have two flavors of cleric (priest), and one fighter (warbearer). Check out the kickstarter for the rest of the month, and I hope to followup with a reflection on actual play before the end of the summer.

Trying Out The Expanse RPG

I’ve been excited about The Expanse’s RPG kickstarter for a while now. Sometime late last year I saw mention of it, but for a while the only information I could find was a press release from Green Ronin saying it was coming August 2018 alongside Gencon. I would keep my eye on Twitter and Reddit as the excitement of The Expanse’s cancellation and new contract with Amazon came and went, but there was frustratingly little to find on the game. Finally the kickstarter launched, and blew through its funding goal within an hour. I downloaded the quickstart, and was quickly impressed with the Adventure Game Engine (AGE) mechanics, but it took a few more weeks to get it on the table and give the quickstart a go. A friend mailed me a copy of the quickstart paperback from Gencon, and we got a group together on Hangouts this Wednesday. What follows will be a combination of reflections on the mechanics themselves (at least how I understand them from the parsed-down basics), the scenario Cupbearers, as well as help filling in the minor details and holes that cropped up teaching and playing the game in a “here, learn from my mistakes” kind of explanation.

** The following contain plenty of spoilers for the quickstart adventure, Cupbearers **

Ganymede (before any station construction) NASA/JPL.

Getting to know the characters

I’ve not played any of the other AGE RPGs, but I loved how simple this was to pick up and teach. 3d6 + ability score + focus bonus if you have it— give me the total and the value of the drama die. Easy and done. After the second or third test, almost everybody knew what they were doing and where on the character sheet they were looking. We played with four of the pre-generated PCs, and they got going pretty quickly. It was very helpful to have the focuses and abilities defined and explained on the character sheet— no need to flip back and forth between the character sheet and rules when everyone is still getting their feet under them. The first version of the quickstart did have a number of typos on the character sheets and NPC stat blocks, but many of those were fixed in version 1.2 of the PDF, which is what is linked from the Kickstarter/Green Ronin. Unfortunately version 1.0 is what made it to print, so I had to doctor my rule book when it first arrived. Most of the errors were in the calculated attack bonus and damage rolls, the rest were minor spelling or formatting typos. The few I’ve caught that are still in the 1.2 PDF Are:

  • Izzy’s pistol attack bonus should be +3, not +2 (accuracy)
  • Ade’s pistol damage should be 2d6 +3 (perception)
  • Pinkwater Security’s speed should not be 0 (I assumed 11, like the Tough or Wendell)
  • Orn’s unarmed damage should be 1d6+2 (Like Casey, he has the Striking Style talent)

Wait, where is that explained?

There were also a few features or conditioned that were not well explained in the course of the rules or the adventure. The trap on page 18 points you to the Conditions section (p 7) to learn what “Exhausted” means, but that’s not actually listed as a possible condition— instead it’s in the explanation of Wounded: “their Speed halved and [are] unable to take the Run action”.

There are also two pieces of the NPC stats blocks that bear no explanation in the rest of the document: penetrating damage (Pinkwater Security + Wendell), and Wendell’s Pinpoint Accuracy talent. Fortunately, the  community that has grown up around this Kickstarter already had my back. Posting to the Facebook group for help, I got the following from someone with the Modern AGE rules on hand:

Penetrating damage ignores most armor and comes from special weapons, hazards, and abilities, such as raging open flames or the Called Shot stunt. Very few things reduce penetrating damage. Page 39.

Page 61 Modern Age. Pinpoint Attack

Requirements: Accuracy or Fighting 1 or higher, and Dexterity 1 or higher If you can see it, you can hit it. Hard.
Novice: You can strike where it hurts the most. Once per round, you can add 1d6 to the damage of a successful attack if your Dexterity is greater than your target’s.

Other than that, the rest was pretty much the learning curve of running a brand-new system with brand-new players all around— there were bound to be mistakes on all sides.

Mistakes on all Sides

When we got into combat for the first time, I think I was forgetting pieces a lot more than the players were. I was happy to see little of the Analysis Paralysis I’d seen in first-time D&D players facing a pair of dead horses and a couple of goblins with short bows for the first time. A short list of major and minor actions and as much description as you can muster for flavor. The first time around I often forgot the NPC’s minor actions on their turns— if they weren’t moving they would take a shot, but I’d forget to let them aim and get the +1 bonus. I also forgot to use the injured/wounded rolls— when they ran out of hit points fortune, they dropped. Oops! So all that to say, things went fairly well for the players their first combat round. I also could or should have played the NPCs a bit smarter— in the final fight they should have given up Kai after their leader went down (per the scenario description, and common sense), but I had the last two toughs keep firing.

It also took me a few tests and checks to get better about using the drama die to explain their “success level” and how easily they accomplished their various tasks. I was surprised how often doubles actually came up during the game. I haven’t really done the math on the probability of rolling any set of doubles across 3d6 but after a bit of play, it’s clearly lower than I thought. The stunts are a great mechanic, and I hope/expect there are more options that come with the full rules, or perhaps come into play at higher levels.

Another mechanic that got a little rocky for us (or at least me) was shifting the attitudes of the NPCs towards the characters. The rules and suggestions in the book are fairly straightforward, but it was really the first real moment of gameplay for us, and I’m not sure I explained particularly well what they were supposed to do or how interacting with the people in the brothel really worked mechanically. All the same, they won over a bartender soon enough and got the introduction they needed. Next time, I would probably be more explicit in asking whats expected of them, especially with new players, since this is literally the first place they end up after arrival.

Advanced Tests and the Locked Room

One of my favorite mechanics in Expanse AGE is the “advanced test”, skills checks across multiple rounds to reach a running total. Since my first reading of the rules I’ve already been thinking about how to run something like that in D&D (my brother and I already had a lengthy Telegram conversation about it). In practice, I was actually surprised and a little disappointing in how it went. It was over quickly— I can’t fault them for rolling well, they noticed the dropping oxygen quickly, got two successes on their technology rolls, with a 5 and a 6 on the drama dice. I was considering that on another pass I’d probably bump the running total up a bit, but things could just as easily go badly for the group with the dice landing slightly differently.

The part I found more frustrating was that I didn’t have much else for anyone else to do— Each test takes one minute out of the five they have before they’re in a vacuum, and only one character performs the check. I played around with an “assist” mechanic, but I never really settled on anything I liked well enough that I put into play— If Naomi is trying to hack a computer system, the last thing she would want is Prax elbowing in and trying  to help Two Idiots One Keyboard with her. There needed to be a cost, or at least a danger, alongside the benefit of someone helping. I kept the rest of the team involved and asked what they were doing elsewhere in the room, and one of their alternative solutions might have gotten them somewhere (or bought time) if the hacking player had failed or taken more time, but it ultimately ended up not mattering.

The scenario I see this option really shining is someone trying to do something mid-combat— The rest of the party holding off waves of security over a series of rounds while one person tries to hack the communications array and get tight-beam message out.

But… Why?

The players never actually talked to Orn Aquilo directly about Kai, instead opting to make a bit of money selling the location of the stolen luxury goods in exchange for some good old-fashioned cash.

I’ve no idea what did or didn’t get pieced together on their end without all the pieces, but they never really got a straight answer about why Kai was fleeing Ganymede or why Moneta had him in the first place (other than Orn told them he thought she was going to ransom something “particularly valuable” of his. When they DID get to Kai and he found out the crew was taking him back to Titan, he tried to book it out of there, at which point Casey knocked him out and fireman-carried him to the ship in a good old-fashioned black bag kidnapping.

Clearly they got enough story (and had fun with it), but I’m sometimes left with the feeling that I’ll leave players more confused than they probably actually are.

So I’m Injured, Now What?

This fortunately never came up, but it’s a likely one— how can we help an injured Player Character? The rules tell us First Aid can be used to stabilize a dying character, but offers nothing on healing an injury or wound. Can these only be helped with proper treatment in a medical bay? Is there any sort of battlefield medicine option to help? We already don’t have hit points, instead just our fortune, so anybody with an injury or wound is clearly already in dire straits. I assume we’ll have to wait for the rest of the rulebook to figure this out.

Misc: Open-Ended Thoughts and Questions I’m Looking Forward To Getting Answers to

  • Do Stunt Die stack if they take the Lighting Attack stunt and roll doubles again?  Do they get to take another round of stunts immediately? Could that include a second Lighting Attack, or are they disqualified from stunts they’ve taken this turn?
  • How else is fortune used? Clearly there are options other than “avoid damage”, but none are detailed in the quickstart. I tried to implement a “luck roll” kind of mechanic using an over/under based on the PCs fortune, a la Call of Cthulhu,  but it wasn’t particularly well thought out. I assume there will be an option to use fortune to succeed when a test would otherwise fail.
  • When circumstances, player choices, or just particularly good roleplaying call for a + or – on a test, is it better to give the bonus to the player to calculate with, or adjust the Target Number behind the scenes? I used a mix of both, and will likely continue to do so, I’d just love to hear opinions.
  • How does leveling up and interlude time work? Would they have hit “level two” after a scenario like this?
  • Assuming this merry band of misfits comes together again, what can they do with decently large sum of cash they scored from Orn? They already had their ship paid off per their agreement with Daddy Dardanus. Perhaps a minor upgrade to one of their ship’s systems? A (very) nice coffee machine in the galley?
  • I didn’t use any of the mechanics Green Ronin has been teasing out during the Kickstarter (although I think The Churn is the only one really applicable/usable with the quickstart at the moment), but I’m really looking forward to the ship combat released today and the various Interlude/Downtime options to fill time between chapters and scenarios.