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Friday, 6 March 2015

RPGPundit Reviews: Scarlet Heroes

This is a review of the slightly inappropriately named "Scarlet Heroes" RPG. It should really be called "Scarlet Hero", because it has a most unusual premise: it is a book specifically designed to be used by a GM and one single player. It is written by Kevin Crawford (the kickass author of such OSR RPGs as Stars Without Number, Other Dust, etc.), published by Sine Nomine Publishing.  It is a 132 pages long, in a nice looking hardcover with a full-colour cover, and well-done black & white interior art.  The setting of the book is the same as the one Crawford already presented us with in his really excellent "Red Tide" book; and like everything else Crawford has done, Scarlet Heroes is very much an OSR product.

Crawford states in the introduction that he has two big goals for this book: the first is to craft a set of old-school rules specifically intended for single-PC games usable in any setting, the second, to provide a complete game for the particular "red tide" setting.  We'll see in the course of the review how well he does at these goals.

Now, I have to state, for my own part, I'm definitely not a fan of small groups in RPG play. I like my parties big.  My current Traveller game has six players, Dark Albion has six at the moment but had as many as 8, and my DCC game is a more easy-going affair that has anything from four to nine players at any time. When I ran Amber, I wouldn't even bother to do a campaign with less than six players, and was a lot happier with seven or eight.  I'm enough of a hot commodity as a GM in the local gaming scene that I know I will never ever be at a lack for players, and there's usually waiting lists for playing in my groups. In short, this book really isn't meant for me.  But, I can understand that in the current hobby, there are places and people who suffer from a serious deficiency of players, as well as some gamers who might want to run a game with a single player (inflicting RPGs with varying degrees of actual interest or reluctance on their significant others or their kids, or just being stuck with only one other person in the whole area at all interested in RPG gaming).  So I'm sure there's some kind of market for this.

So the first 25 pages or so are the core rules of the system.  For simplicity's sake, I'm going to assume that the reader is familiar with the basic system of old-school D&D and how it works, if you're not, well, I'd be surprised that you're reading this.  Go get a good old-school rulebook and take it from there.  For the purpose of the review, I'm going to focus on talking about some of the differences and changes Crawford has used to shift the system to work with a single player "hero".

For starters, ability scores roll on 4d6-drop-lowest, arranged to taste; and at least one score gets bumped to 16 if there isn't one already.  Hit points are fixed (e.g., at level 1 it's 8hp for fighters, 6 for clerics, 4 for m-us and thieves; modified by con bonus).  There are four standard classes (the classic four) and rules for multi-classing.

There are two major additions to the system in the form of "fray dice" and "traits"; the former I'll get to in a second, but "traits" are basically a set of bonuses that can be applicable to most of what you'd do with 'special abilities' of different sorts (so for example, all of what were thief skills now fall under 'traits', but are all covered usually by a single trait like "Adventuring Thief"; you'd use the "adventuring thief" bonus to do any sneaking, lockpicking, trap-searching, etc).  Traits can be given for your race, class, and background.
Traits are resolved through "checks", which are also how saving throws are handled (something that trait bonuses can often be applied to).  A check involves rolling 2d8, adding ability score and trait bonuses, and seeing how things went against a DC.  The difficulty for saving throws is always 9+the level of the creature, caster, or trap/hazard causing the saving throw.

Now, the trait mechanics are interesting; I like how they are very streamlined.  But I'm not sure they're specifically doing much of anything special as far as solo play is concerned, except with regard to the more open-ended up-to-the-GM type of haziness as far as resolving things is concerned.  That could be an advantage, where a generous GM will let someone use their "grizzled sailor +3" trait bonus to do a large number of things, instead of requiring that one single player try to have a wide variety of skills to handle challenges that would usually take a whole party to deal with.  On the whole, though, it seems more like the kind of choice someone could use for any OSR game, not specifically only for a solo game.

The second big change is the mechanics for damage.  First, while weapons still do variable damage by weapon type, there's also an upper limit of the damage each weapon can do by class (so a fighter can use any weapon to full damage, but a Cleric can never do more than a d6 damage with a weapon, even if he has a two-handed sword that a fighter would do a D10 with, the cleric still does a D6). BUT, and here's the really important part: your damage dice no longer actually tells you how many hit points you take off.  Instead, you roll the die on a table, to see how many hp of damage you've caused with a hit (which will always be between 0-4hp damage, though a thief gets to do triple the result on a backstab).  Here's where the "fray die" comes in: every hero gets the extra 'fray die' that they roll to do automatic damage on any opponent they're in combat with, every round, so long as that opponent is their level or lower.  That means that if your 2nd level pc is fighting a group of 2-hd or less monsters, he gets a free damage roll against them each round, in addition to whatever else he tries to do, and regardless of whether his other actions succeed or not. This is all here obviously to give the PC better survival odds to make up for his operating alone.

A hero also has the option, if they are completely overwhelmed by a danger or opposition, to try to "Defy death".  This means that they immediately take a number of damage dice equal to their level (the die type escalates every time that day which they 'defy death'; it starts at a d4 roll on the table, which is between 0-1hp damage).  If they would be reduced below 0hp from the damage, they are actually reduced to 1hp AND they're still in exactly the same mess they were before.  But if they do not get reduced below 0, then they take whatever damage they took but somehow manage to fight, jump, run, trick or spellcast their way through the dangers.
This strikes me as probably the most radical new rule of the system.  I get why it's there, as a last minute... well, "death-defying" save for a heroic character.  But it does feel tremendously like the Player is being invited to go totally meta and 'create story' here. The one thing that saves it is that it is explicitly stated that it is the GM, and not the player, who decides how the PC got through a successful defy-death check.

The experience point system is not the standard OD&D system; instead it is a much simpler system awarding XP per adventures played.  I generally approve of this, since I've been getting less and less satisfied with the standard gold/monsters-for-xp method and more pleased with more open mechanics that can emphasize things other than combat or the acquisition of treasure, but some die-hard OSR gamers might consider this a bit treasonous. When gaining a level, characters gain a set amount of HP (modified by CON), thieves get more trait points, wizards and clerics get more magic, everyone gains attack bonuses (at varying rates by class).

The basic rules section ends with a convenient reference list, and an example of play that I don't find super useful.

You might have expected that, this being a solo-game, magic users and clerics will have the ability to cast more spells, or at least to make multiple attempts per day at a spell (like in DCC).  But that's not the case; however, the Cleric's turn-undead power is ramped up a bit (always actually damaging, rather than just turning, the undead), and for magic-users their relatively poor Fray Die can be used against any opponents (meant to represent low-grade mana bolts or something, no doubt).
Spells are listed up to level 5, for both Clerics and Magic-users; Clerics get a list 8 spells per spell level, magic-users get 10. The spells all have very creative names that fit the setting, but most of them are also quite recognizable as variant of the standard cleric/MU spells from D&D (light, summoning, phantasmal force, etc.).

The actual section on the setting is about ten pages long, mostly re-treading some of the ground found in Red Tide; it's adequate enough for explaining the setting; the biggest criticism I'd give of it is that (at least in my review copy), the map looks a bit too dark and is not very detailed.

The monster chapter that comes along next is very good, and would likely provide more than a bit of inspiration for GMs that wanted to cannibalize the book for their own projects.  There are a few familiar creatures in there, but there's a lot more that are either twists on prior concepts or new monsters inspired by the Asian flavor of the setting.  A note, since the setting has a horror quasi-mythos type element to it (with the Red Tide being a force that exerts a corrupting apocalyptic influence on the universe), a lot of these are what we could call "scary" monsters in the horror-story sense.  At least a couple of them amount to undead children (one is technically the spirit of a dead fetus!) so I guess that could call for a "trigger warning" in some circles.  On the other hand, if you're a horror buff you're likely to find this pretty appealing.

Next up, we get into territory that is really all-around useful: there are tables for encounters that go beyond 'random encounter by terrain', and into stuff like random tables for "encounter twists", the encountered creatures' attitude to the hero, and size and condition modifiers for number encountered.  These are, again, good tables to strip out and use in any OSR product, I would think, and maybe beyond.
The section on treasure and magic items is quite complete, more than what you might expect from this size of product, and likewise has some great random tables. Treasure types are listed by very particular types of encounters, rather than just hit-dice/lethality, which I think is great; for example, there's a treasure type for a "village tax treasury" or another for a "shiny-loving beast's nest", for a "major Tong leader's stash" or for "Ancient ghost's relics". Great stuff. Magic items are largely imitative of the standard D&D items but given a cultural flair to fit the Asian-esque setting, which is also to me the best of both worlds (similar to what I did with Arrows of Indra, including the addition of some items that are very culturally/mythological-specific).

Next you get the spiel, by now pretty standard in any of Crawford's books, on how to run adventures, with a focus on guidance for creating sandbox play. Also good stuff. Again similar to his other products, Crawford includes a number of "adventure tags", in essence a build-system for quick sandbox-scenarios and locations.  These are a great mix of setting flavor with practical structural guidance for the GM to easily set up locales (and events within those locales). You get 12 pages of these tags, which is ample to populate any number of adventures.
After 2 pages of relatively nice generic location maps (ruins, dungeon, etc), you get several tables for creating random NPCs, including tables for names, age, attitude, motivation, etc.

Then there's the section for solo-gaming, where the whole concept goes one step further into just plain playing with yourself.  There's a "general oracle" which is just a basic rolling-table to determine "yes" or "no" for when the abominable player/gm amalgam can't decide about some detail (which I think is kind of pointless).  There's the "Threat Level", which is a score the player assigns between 1-10 on how threatening a situation might be; the default threat level will usually be the PC's level, but it can also be rolled randomly (or, I would think, though Crawford strangely omits it, based on whatever is actually going on in the setting).  Threat is important because it can determine things like the number of hit dice of opponents (which might be listed as something like "T+1"), or the damage of traps (listed as something like "Td4"). Then, tons of random tables!  With things like "how far away is a thing?", "what's the weather like?", "Actors and NPCs" (divided into commoner, underworld, and elite/noble), relationships, reactions, traits, temperaments, desires, etc.

The reader is given a very specific sequence of how to frame a solo adventure: draw a plot (set either in an Urban adventure, a Wilderness adventure, or a Dungeon adventure), with a particular setup and "victory points"; decide how the PC fits into the plot, draw a scene (which is to roll/set up a scenario from a specific list of types of scenarios).  There are "victory points" that can be given to the player or to the "opponents" (the forces the PC is fighting against).  If the PC gets to 10 victory points he can fight a final 'action scene' with the main villain, to win or fail (with failure possibly still giving him another chance, assuming he survived).  If the villain gets 10 victory points first, they win.  Either way, when the action is all done, a comparison is made of relative victory points and this "fallout" affects the world.
Each type of scene has a particular kind of challenge, each also gives a particular kind of reward; some scenes offer "clues" as rewards, which are needed to get to certain kind of (Action) scenes.  For long term play, there's also a "heat" mechanic which reflects just how famous/notorious/problematic the PC is getting for the local community.  There are also specific submechanics that apply only in the particular frame of the adventure type (in urban environments, dungeons, or wilderness), like for example rules governing hex movement and terrain types in the wilderness.

Anyways, I find this kind of solo play practically meaningless.  I've done solo wargaming, for comparison, but that is not the same as this. You can run a wargame solo because it is purely a tactical (or often historical) simulation, but you can't really engage in the full magic of the tabletop RPG without there being other actual human beings involved; you'd be better off playing on a computer and being done with it.  And yet, I somehow suspect that of the people who will actually use Scarlet Heroes, as opposed to those who'll just cannibalize it for some rather worthy parts, there'll probably be more who'll end up playing Scarlet Heroes Solo than being able to do so with even one other human being.  It's kind of a sad statement in the condition of the RPG hobby in many parts of the world, or in the insularity or flaws of far too many gamers who can't or won't find and keep a gaming group.

As to the solo rules themselves, I think they're somewhat usable, but it would take quite a bit of manipulation by the player to make everything fit together.  Ironically, all the random tables for setting up the various scenes and plot to make the adventures would probably find their best suitability being used by a GM, as a tool to help him create adventures for a group of players.
Preferably a nice big group.

There are a lot of things to like about Scarlet Heroes.  It's definitely got old-school chops, it has an interesting setting (albeit one we've seen before), it has some creative ideas that can be ripped off shamelessly for just about any old-school campaign.    But the question is whether it succeeds at its goals, and whether those are actually laudable goals?
In answer to the first half, I'd say that it does succeed at creating a rule-set specifically intended for one GM and one Player, but (in spite of a seriously valiant and impressive effort that created a lot of great random tables as a useful byproduct) doesn't really pull off making Solo play into something that would be any better or even equal to just loading a good roguelike on your computer.  As to the second half of the question, I guess it depends what one considers 'laudable': I'm sure that there will be a lot of gamers who would find it really useful to get Scarlet Heroes, but that's because they have failed at getting a real gaming group going. So Crawford could in fact be filling a niche here, which from a purely capitalist kind of perspective means he's done good; but on the other hand the niche is a little bit like being the guy who's figured out how to smuggle snickers bars into the fat camp.  This may be what his audience wants, but I'm not convinced its what they really ought to be encouraged to have.  
And personally, I don't feel either of the modes of this book (either playing with your one and only gamer friend or someone you've forced into it, or playing completely by yourself because you're apparently somewhere that you can't get or aren't allowed to have internet) is so great at it that it in any way approaches the awesomeness of playing with a full group; so in any case it is still encouraging a sub-optimal play experience.  Again, that might be the best some people feel they can have (for any number of reasons) but this still feels like settling.  If I can't get a decent brand of pipe tobacco, I'd rather not smoke than put cheap rolling tobacco in my pipe; and dedicated carnivore that I am, I would rather go full on vegetarian done right (Indian Curry, for ex) than eat some hippie bullshit "fake meat" that promises its 'almost' like the real thing.  My point is, there's no way to substitute the real experience, and 'settling' for something close-to the real experience is, to me personally, worse and more pointless than just abstaining altogether.

So, conclusion: should you get it?  If you liked Red Tides you could use it as a kind of sourcebook (though from what I saw it adds no setting detail that isn't already in Red Tide; but the random tables are all oriented to fit right into the setting).  If you're an OSR person in general you can always get the book for ideas, inspirations, and snazzy random tables.
If you're an actual gamer with a playing-group deficiency? I don't know.  I'm not going to tell you not to do it. Just for fuck's sake try to figure out why you don't have a group to play with and if there isn't really anything you could do (note: it might mean having to actually CHANGE things about your life or behaviors) in order to get to a place where you can have a group of more than one person, and that would probably be a lot better to resorting to actually playing Scarlet Heroes as intended.  I mean, let me be clear: it is probably the best book for single-player/solo tabletop RPG gaming ever devised!  It's just that this is still like being the very best "Realdoll Sex-toy" ever designed: it's still not a girlfriend; and while you can admire the skill of the designer, there's really nothing to be proud of in being the person using it for its intended purpose.


Currently Smoking: Neerup Poker + Brebbia no.7


  1. Yeesh, I kind of enjoyed this review but it's heard to get past your hangup about this solo gaming thing. I think you have a very warped perception of the sorts of folks who enjoy solo or 1 player 1 GM games. There are plenty of great reasons (interest, geography, convenience) for folks to want a game that works for one or two players.

    Personally I have a weekly group (9 of us in total, when everyone shows up). But I adore playing solo RPGs by myself as well to explore new systems or write unpredictable stories, or playing 1 on 1 RPGs with my son. The inference in this review is that this makes me a neckbeard halitosis monster with personality issues.

    They may not be for you, but there are plenty of us out here who enjoy a slice of solo RPG a whole bunch alongside all our other flavours of gaming, and who might just take a bit of umbrage at being labelled sub-gamers.

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  2. My AD&D campaign had the usual group game with a table full of players every week or two, but I also DMed solo or duo adventures on the side at every opportunity.