Play Report: Mob/Horde/Swarm Combat

Yesterday I ran a game of my Alternate Star Wars campaign where the party was traversing a spaceport infested with rakghouls (fast, nasty, infectious space-zombies). I wanted to throw a lot of them at my players so I looked around at various “horde” rule offerings. They started in GURPS Horror and were expanded upon in GURPS Zombies, but over at gurpsshooting.blogspot.com there’s an interesting article on Tactical Swarms, where the author took the materials from Horror and Zombies and adapted them for his own needs in modern gunfighting combat. I liked it a lot and used some of it in my game.

At first, I threw four swarms of six rakghouls each at the party, so what would be a total of 24 individual combatants otherwise. Inspired by tactical swarms, I increased the swarms’ effective skill depending on the number of constituent units, but instead of a flat +1 per unit after the first, I used the SSRT. My initial feeling was to read the number of rakghouls in a pack as linear measurement and use the corresponding SM bonus, but seeing 2 individuals would’t get any bonus I increased the bonus from the table by 1. I also decided to read in-between values opposite as to how the SSRT usually works, using the lower instead of the higher breakpoint. With that, a full pack of 6 rakghouls or one with 5 got +3 to skill, which dwindled down to +2 at 3-4 and +1 at 2. I liked those numbers.

Also inspired by tactical swarms, I rolled vs HT for the rakghouls if a major wound was indicated, “killing off” a unit in the swarm on failure. I did the same without a roll if they suffered a reeling or worse injury. The primary reason for automatic elimination at a reeling injury was simplification – I didn’t want to bother with parts of the swarm getting slower than the rest, even if the rakghouls themselves were tough enough to continue fighting in such a state. I may reconsider this in the future, eliminating units in such, thematically speaking “resilient” swarms (maybe indicated by having High Pain Threshold) automatically only on a full-HP or worse wound. As for the reeling condition in such cases, I would either ignore it entirely for the sake of simplicity even though it would give the swarms an advantage, or maybe reduce Basic Move of the swarm by an eyeballed value for each reeling constituent, down to a minimum of 1/3. Reduction by 1 in 6-unit swarms seems fine, but mobs of 3 or even 2 units could get slower. I think I’d be fine with ignoring it, because swarms generally consist of relatively weak opponents anyway.

Now, both the tactical swarm and Horror/Zombies rules also track total swarm HP and “dissipate” it once it reaches a certain threshold, but I use Conditional Injury so that was one less statistic to keep track of. I could imagine running it like that even in games that otherwise don’t use it, just paying attention to individual major, reeling and full-HP injuries.

When it came time for my swarms to join the melee, the Horror/Zombie rules for making a single rapid-fire like attack per swarm with recoil 1 and RoF equal to the total number of attacks the swarm’s constituents would otherwise have worked quite well. I went with the victims defending as against separate attacks and not against a single rapid fire attack with multiple landed shots, because my initial impulse was “swarms are abstracted, player characters aren’t”. I learned after the fact that this is how Horror/Zombies does it as well, though I could still see it working the other way without causing problems. 

Having swarms of 6 units proved very pleasing because 6 opponents can encircle and attack a single victim at reach 1 anyway. I did experiment a bit when it came to grappling however, because Basic indicates that at most 3 combatants can effectively grapple a single target. So I decided that the first 3 attacks that landed were grapples and the rest were strikes; this worked quite well. I use Fantastic Dungeon Grappling so I could repeat this even after the initial grapple was established, whereas it would likely have to be more complicated with the default grappling rules.

At a later point during the game, I attacked the party with a single 6-unit security droid swarm plus an individual much tougher droid. Combining all the security droids’ attacks into just one with a very high RoF worked out very well. I used the rapid fire skill bonus based on half the SSRT as (I believe) proposed by Douglas Cole, which threw a small wrench in my gears – I calculated the skill bonus due to swarm size according to the full SSRT bonus, but the rapid fire bonus equal to half that. This took a bit more cognitive effort than I’d like so I’ll be considering alternatives. If I went with the full SSRT bonus a squad of 6 shooters with rapid fire weapons could easily get +8 or more; I’m not really sure if that would be too much or not, so I’ll need to playtest it. Another alternative would be to take the greater of the swarm size bonus and a rapid fire bonus like this instead of adding them up.

And then… one of my players threw an ion grenade in the middle of the swarm. Anticipating situations such as this, I played around with swarm formations, or rather “packing densities”. A 6-unit swarm could occupy what’s usually called a 2-hex radius in GURPS, so a single empty hex and all of the hexes surrounding it. In case of smart adversaries they’ll likely want to spread out a bit to minimize area effect and explosive damage. So that’s how the droids were positioned, with 1 empty hex between each of them. I figured the average distance from the center of the grenade was 3 yards, applied the appropriate bonus to the resistance roll (effect similar to warbler/strobe from Ultra-Tech, but disables droids), and then looked up the Statistically Speaking table on GURPS Zombies page 113 to see what fraction of the swarm would resist. And lo, all but 2 droids in the swarm dropped in electric spasms! I think that having to open the PDF and find the table took me the same time as rolling for each droid would have, so I’ll be able to save some time here by  putting that table in a convenient spot to look it up. I definitively recommend it for use in scenarios like these.

Getting back to packing densities and the area occupied by swarms, I’ve had success in changing those during swarm movement in situations where they had to squeeze through tight corridors or between obstacles. MapTool makes it very practical with four different predefined token sizes. And if you force a swarm to assume a tighter formation to get through a choke point, you’ll have a fine opportunity for more effective area attacks. I was also reducing the size of swarm tokens as their constituents were getting eliminated, which was very fun for my players. So that’s definitively something that’s interesting to play with for both tactical and illustrative purposes.

I haven’t tried swarms containing more than 6 units, but I think I’d tweak those slightly. Instead of making a single rapid fire attack, they could make multiple depending on their size, to spread the love among player characters. I could even see doing this for 4+ unit swarms if they intend to grapple; one attack would be performed by the 3 units grappling the target, and another by the rest striking it.

That’s it for now, I’m looking forward to further experimenting with this in my upcoming games. The rules presented in Horror, Zombies and Tactical Swarms are very good, especially if combined with Conditional Injury and Fantastic Dungeon Grappling. And facing players with screaming hordes of enemies was immensely fun.

GURPS Kickstarter Challenge Review Part 4

This is the fourth and final part of my GURPS 2020 Kickstarter Challenge review. The article series includes:

  • Part 1
    • Action 6: Tricked-Out Rides
    • Action 7: Mercenaries
    • Boardroom and Curia: Tomorrow Rides
  • Part 2
    • Dungeon Fantasy 21: Megadungeons
    • Dungeon Fantasy Adventure 3: Deep Night and the Star
  • Part 3
    • Horror: Beyond the Pale
    • Hot Spots: The Incense Trail
    • Monster Hunters Encounters 1
    • Reign of Steel: Read the Sky
  • Part 4 (you’re here!)
    • Steampunk Setting: The Broken Clockwork World
    • Template Toolkit 3: Starship Crew
    • How to Be a GURPS GM: Ritual Path Magic

Steampunk Setting: The Broken Clockwork World

The Broken Clockwork World is a small worldbook about the eponymous TL(5+2)^ steampunk world that recently literally broke apart, devastating its civilizations and revealing its underlying clockwork mechanisms. Transdimensional gates started appearing soon after the calamity, leading to a TL8 world much like our own. In that “unbroken” world the secret isn’t out yet, but both government organizations, conspiracy theorists and random people have already traveled to the other side and returned. That is also the central premise – inhabitants of the unbroken world exploring the fantastical clockwork one.

The broken world is is described in broad strokes, just enough to set the stage – its history, technology and culture are all covered, as well as the Breaking and the situation thereafter. The unbroken world didn’t need much explanation since it’s basically our own, so attention was primarily paid to how governments and other parties interact with the broken one.

The supplement mostly just gives a brief overview of various steampunk elements present in the setting but references GURPS Steampunk for details, although there is a section on several endemic clockwork automatons. It concludes with a section on running adventures in the setting, suggesting character traits, archetypes and activities.

Of all the supplements in the Kickstarter challenge, I’d say this one suffers the most from lack of available wordcount. There is simply not enough material present to run a game without investing significant effort into further developing the setting. It can certainly ignite the imagination of readers, but you’ll need to build your own setting on top of the foundations.

Template Toolkit 3: Starship Crew

The most laser-focused of the batch, Starship Crew delivers a collection of character templates covering all the typical tasks required for operating a starship. They are 150 points apiece, in the familiar format from Dungeon Fantasy, Action, Monster Hunters and After The End. Each comes with a “legendary” lens increasing its core competencies for more high-powered games and a “multi-role” lens for applying to other templates when a single character should cover multiple areas of competence. The supplement concludes with a chapter on typical crew compositions and sizes, giving a nod toward popular tropes in spacefaring fiction.

The templates are very well thought out and while they’re oriented towards a campaign where running a starship is the primary concern, I’d recommend the supplement to anyone running a campaign where player characters are expected to operate a ship. Short, sweet and to the point.

How to Be a GURPS GM: Ritual Path Magic

RPM is one of the systems in GURPS that I like very much but have abandoned due to various reasons. This supplement didn’t bring me back into the fold, but I appreciate what it’s doing and I’d definitively recommend it to anyone using RPM.

It opens up with advice on how to adjudicate various effects, such as the often asked question if something should be a lesser or greater effect, when to add the damage modifier, when to use altered traits, how to treat conjuring or modifying weapons, leeching spells, margin-based effects, etc. Special attention is paid to some of the most often abused or game breaking situations, such as suggesting limiting the number of active buff spells, introducing familiarity penalties for spells to rein in the Swiss army knife effect, or making monster summoning and mind control more difficult as well as better balanced between each other. I was delighted that a lot of advice in this section is flat out invoking Rule 0: if something breaks the game world or campaign, it can just not work, or even better, the GM should talk with the players and explain that it simply isn’t fun.

Two one-page chapters conclude the supplement. The first is “RPM Ultra-Lite”, basically a cheat sheet listing the energy costs of most commonly used spells, assuming some parameters such as a 10-minute duration or 100-yard range. If I were to use RPM again, I’d definitively make heavy use of it. And finally, there are the writeups for half a dozen spells which were used as examples in the previous chapters.

GURPS Kickstarter Challenge Review Part 3

This is the third part of my GURPS 2020 Kickstarter Challenge review. The article series includes:

  • Part 1
    • Action 6: Tricked-Out Rides
    • Action 7: Mercenaries
    • Boardroom and Curia: Tomorrow Rides
  • Part 2
    • Dungeon Fantasy 21: Megadungeons
    • Dungeon Fantasy Adventure 3: Deep Night and the Star
  • Part 3 (you’re here!)
    • Horror: Beyond the Pale
    • Hot Spots: The Incense Trail
    • Monster Hunters Encounters 1
    • Reign of Steel: Read the Sky
  • Part 4
    • Steampunk Setting: The Broken Clockwork World
    • Template Toolkit 3: Starship Crew
    • How to Be a GURPS GM: Ritual Path Magic

Horror: Beyond the Pale

Another adventure, this one is intended for modern-day horror campaigns where players are investigators of the occult. Framed as a murder mystery, it can serve both experienced investigators and (with just a little bit of work from the GM, if at all) as “initiation” for those still mundane. The plot is interesting, contains some fun gruesome scenes, and presentation is top-notch (I don’t recall having to jump between sections of the adventure, or anything being unclear) except for a single small detail.

The antagonists are written up as a racial template instead as a full stat block. This was apparently inherited from GURPS Horror, but I’d much rather have full stats for any relevant critters in a published adventure than having to figure them out myself.

Otherwise, the only thing I can really lament is that it is rather short. I could imagine the adventure lasting for just one session with a team of players experienced in this kind of thing. Allowing for a bigger word count would have flat-out improved it.

That being said, I could see this used in many other contexts aside from the one it’s presented it. A Monster Hunters adaptation would be trivial, the GM would just need to beef up the antagonists a bit. Taking it down to TL5 would require very little effort, and not much more for even lower TLs; it could make for a fully functional and very fun low-tech mystery. I think even adapting it for higher TLs and setting it in space wouldn’t be too much effort, it’s right up the Doom or Dead Space alley.

TL;DR: sweet little investigative adventure you can use in any setting.

Hot Spots: The Incense Trail

GURPS used to have a reputation for well researched historical supplements back in its heyday, and this supplement is a continuation of that proud lineage. It gives an overview of the Arabian Peninsula in antique times focused on the eponymous trade route. It covers geography, history, economy and culture of the land before giving a short gazetteer of the most well known settlements. It concludes with giving advice for setting-appropriate characters and adventure ideas.

Since this is a historical worldbook its use is rather limited, but aside for its intended context I would also recommend it if you’re looking to represent a believable Arabian-themed land in a fantasy game. I don’t have any complaints about the supplement, but also can’t sing any praises because it’s really just a brief, decently compiled overview of antique Arabia without any extraordinary elements to wet my appetite.

Monster Hunters Encounters 1

This supplement contains two “encounters” for Monster Hunters campaigns: the first is about a bordello ran by vampires, the second about a hidden village of cannibal witches and lycanthropes in the woods. They can be straight up dropped in as “monster of the week” episodes into existing campaigns, or with some additional effort spun up into more encompassing adventures.  They are presented in a clear and concise fashion following the structure of monster hunting / investigation rules from Monster Hunters 2 with a lot of interesting and useful details. I love them.

The only complaint I can field, aside from “I want more!”, is that the second encounter features spellcasters (one of which has “dozens of prepared charms”) and explains what kinds of spells they could use against the players, but doesn’t write them up. I imagine it would take quite a bit of effort to come up with those spells, so this is yet another case where an extra page would have added significant value.

Similar to Beyond the Pale, I can see this being used in a wide variety of settings. The adversaries could be toned down for much lower point totals and the settings scaled all the way down to antiquity, or even adapted for use in space-bound campaigns. I’m personally considering using this for a Dungeon Fantasy oneshot. Can definitively recommend!

Reign of Steel: Read the Sky

As someone with only slight familiarity with Reign of Steel I must say that initially this adventure confused me, it wasn’t clear at all for whom the PCs worked for. Are they human survivors / rebels, or working for the local robot government? I kinda think it’s the former, but can’t confirm as I don’t have access to the 3e Reign of Steel book, and the 4e Will to Live doesn’t address it.

Otherwise, this is a nice adventure written on a “heroic but realistic” 200-point baseline with notes on how to adjust specific elements for running it with Action. The PCs are special operators sent to investigate a small town fallen out of communication, finding out that it’s been having problems with pirates. They need to get rid of them without stirring up too much of a scuffle as that would result in the robot overlords deciding that the town needs to be purged.

I was a bit disappointed that the adventure doesn’t really have much to do with Reign of Steel other than being set in the setting, as the involvement of robots is minimal. It’s just about avoiding their general attention from afar, and maybe getting to fight a single malfunctioning unit. On the flipside, this makes it very portable to other settings. It could be used with very little adaptation in most After the End games, and just with a bit more effort in any kind of TL5+ (even into Ultra-Tech levels) setting where checking up on a frontier settlement gone dark makes sense. It could even be reskinned into a Low-Tech adventure.

GURPS Kickstarter Challenge Review Part 2

This is the second part of my GURPS 2020 Kickstarter Challenge review. The article series includes:

  • Part 1
    • Action 6: Tricked-Out Rides
    • Action 7: Mercenaries
    • Boardroom and Curia: Tomorrow Rides
  • Part 2 (you’re here!)
    • Dungeon Fantasy 21: Megadungeons
    • Dungeon Fantasy Adventure 3: Deep Night and the Star
  • Part 3
    • Horror: Beyond the Pale
    • Hot Spots: The Incense Trail
    • Monster Hunters Encounters 1
    • Reign of Steel: Read the Sky
  • Part 4
    • Steampunk Setting: The Broken Clockwork World
    • Template Toolkit 3: Starship Crew
    • How to Be a GURPS GM: Ritual Path Magic

Dungen Fantasy 21: Megadungeons

Similarly to Action 7: Mercenaries, this supplement is a genre book on running megadungeons in your Dungeon Fantasy game. It describes what a megadungeon is, how it differs from a “normal” dungeon and how it can be used as the central element of a Dungeon Fantasy campaign. Topics include placement (where it is in relation to town and what consequences that has), how to map a megadungeon, how to stock it (with monsters, traps and treasure), different playstyles, considerations on spells which could short-circuit a megadungeon campaign, and an experience point award scheme based on loot found.

A lot of the material can be used in contexts other than megadungeons. Placement and stocking is relevant for all kinds of dungeon, while the section on magic and the experience reward scheme could be useful in any kind of Dungeon Fantasy campagin.

Even though a lot of what this supplement covers could already be known by experienced Dungeon Fantasy GMs, I would definitively recommend it to anyone running a DF game. It offers useful insights applicable to DF in general. My only complaint is that I’d like for a genre book on such a seminal part of Dungeon Fantasy to be longer than 10 pages. It’s not that anything is acutely missing, but more material would be very nice.

Dungeon Fantasy Adventure 3: Deep Night and the Star

Without going into too many spoilers, this adventure is a very neat concept if you like your Elder Things. Visit an exotic locale, kill some Elder Things, and get home in time for supper. It’s a fun and interesting romp I can heartily recommend…

… unless you have a druid in your party. They eat a -10 penalty to all spellcasting rolls for the whole duration of the adventure. I have nothing against low or no mana/sanctity/nature but it has to be used sparingly. I’d argue this would be too much even for wizards who routinely shoot for skill level 20 with their spells, but for druids where that mostly isn’t the case it’s simply no fun. It makes perfect sense given the setting and flavor of the adventure, so it really isn’t bad adventure design, it’s more of a “this adventure isn’t appropriate for you if you have X in your party”.

A couple further issues:

  • There’s no loot given out in the adventure. None. While this once again kinda fits the setting, I don’t really think “saving the world is its own reward” is how most people play DF. Aside from some junk, there are not even opportunities to find loot in the environment or among corpses of slain foes, something which would be very appropriate in this case.
  • Ok, the above statement isn’t strictly true. There is a single item potentially worth a massive pile of money, but there’s a good chance players won’t be able to retrieve it. Even if they do, there’s no discussion about its worth.
  • There is a hex map given for one of three very similar points of interest, and all three locations are keyed to it with somewhat different inhabitants. But to avoid all three locations looking the same, the GM will need to at least sketch out the layout of the remaining two locations himself.

None of this is a dealbreaker or even a significant problem, but they all have something in common. Please don’t make me do homework if I buy a published adventure! I realize that page count is limited, but this PDF could have really used an extra page or two to fill in these gaps. It would have made for a much better product that way.