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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.

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

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.

RPGPundit Reviews: Red Tide

This is a review of the RPG setting/supplement "Red Tide: Adventure in a Crimson World",
written by Kevin Crawford, published by Sine Nomine publishing. The review is of the print
edition, which is a softcover, 170 pages long or thereabouts, with a full-colour cover (mostly red,
though) featuring an imitation of the Japanese style of classic drawings of waves (only red, of
course). Interior art is all B&W, with many interesting pieces of what seem to be typical D&D-
style fantasy art, art with a slightly "Asian" thematic, illustrations of monsters, maps, and a
considerable number of sample floor-plans at the back of the book.

You know, when I first heard of Red Tide and what it was about, I was fairly worried. In part
because of some accounts that were not altogether accurate, but in any case, what it sounded like
it was going to end up being is a typical anti-imperialist modern college-liberal self-righteous
bullshit hippie-morality tale masquerading as an RPG. And with what the premise of the book is
all about, in the hands of a lesser writer no doubt that's exactly what it would have been. Had it
been written by one of the Swine, it would have been your standard throwaway utterly-unclever
"Civilized Humans BAD, Noble Orc Savages GOOD" pseudo-activist fairy-tales, and the author
would no doubt have been really satisfied at how "brilliant" he was for making such a "bold"
(that is, stupid) statement, and had all the pseudo-activist crowd pat him on the back for it.
But Kevin Crawford is clearly not one of the Swine, and he went a different route: instead of
doing something along those lines, he went ahead and did something that was REALLY clever
and bold, by not falling into that trap and instead writing something about the pragmatic
complexities of a bad situation.
Mind you, that's not what's really smart about Red Tide. No, what's smart about Red Tide is that
he did it in a way that you actually have a playable and interesting setting! That is, it actually
fulfills its stated purpose of being a game setting to play D&D in, rather than just a facade so that
the author can hammer a morality-story of his ideological-choosing down your throat.

At this point, you may not have any idea what I'm going on about, so please allow me to explain
the basic premise of Red Tide: its a fantasy setting, ostensibly compatible with Labyrinth Lord
(which of course means its basically compatible with any old-school edition of D&D or its
variants), that details a world where most of reality has been consumed by an apocalyptic event;
the aforementioned "red tide" that has swept across the world devouring everything in its path,
except one small chain of islands. Here, the last civilized survivors of this world came in search
of refuge. They found these islands full of native humanoids (collectively called the "Shou", but
mercifully termed orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, etc.). The civilized humans, elves, dwarves and
halflings proceeded to conquer the island and make a fairly merciless war against the barbaric
natives, who until then had spent much of their time fighting amongst themselves. Mostly
victorious, they drove the humanoids back into the wilder parts of the islands' interior (though
since then the Shou have fought back in various waves, sometimes retaking significant
territories), and the civilized folk then proceeded to establish various different types of small
kingdoms on the islands.

Now, the setting does have some elements of questioning this invasion, though the author has
also gone to great pains to demonstrate the Shou as brutal and merciless in their fight against
the refugees; but the real secret kicker of the setting (the sort of thing I don't normally divulge in
a review, but in this case I think its important to do so) is that the Shou are key to having any
hope of holding back and defeating the Red Tide.
Again, in the hands of a less interested or talented world-builder, we'd see a black and white
soppy morality tale of evil imperialists and noble savages with mystic powers who are
unquestionably right, but fortunately Crawford avoids this trap. Instead, the Shou are depicted
as brutal in their barbarity and unaware of their own significance, and the colonists as a
desperate mix of good and bad, all trying above all to survive. The Red Tide itself is more than
just a macguffin for the story, rather its an alien entity bent on consuming all reality in its path,
and capable of insinuating itself into peoples' dreams, twisting their minds and bodies to
corruption by playing on their hopes and desperation. Both the Shou and these "tidespawn"
make fascinating opponents for any adventuring group, though the latter are of necessity to be
destroyed while the former must usually be destroyed for pragmatic purposes, but in any long-
term campaign would need to ultimately be made aware of their destiny if there's any hope of
stopping the end of the world.

There's notable sophistication in this setting and a GM can run it in a number of different ways.
Like his former work, Stars Without Number, the inclination of the author is to direct GMs to
run it as a sandbox, with an open style of play directed by the PC party and their movement and
choices, in how they interact with an emulated living world. There is a chapter of the book
dedicated to how to do this, and a number of aids I'll talk about a bit more below.

I should note, in case it was not already obvious, that Red Tide is not a complete RPG; it is a
setting and sourcebook, but requires that you have LL or some other D&D-esque ruleset to play.
In theory, you could also play it with some other fantasy rule-set but this would require some

So what do you get in the book?

For starters, there's a lengthy background on the setting itself; important in this case because of
the unusual particularities of the setting. Next you get guidelines of how the various races of
baseline-D&D (humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings, plus humanoids) fit into the setting; all of
them are familiar but also particularly tweaked to fit the setting. Humans are divided into
various racial backgrounds; you have the Eirengarders (who are "european"), Eshkanti (who are
"arab"), Gadaal ("celts"), Imperials (the most significant/dominant civilized human group in the
setting, who are basically "Chinese"), Kueh ("japanese"), and Skandr ("vikings", who were
actually settlers on some of the islands prior to the time of the apocalypse).

You get quite a few details on the geography and topography of the islands, called the Sunset
Islands, including very decent random encounter tables (only the first of a plethora of excellent
random table material in this book; like with Stars Without Number, the author has gone out of
his way to provide a great deal of awesome random elements to help with play!).

The setting itself is by its nature geographically limited; everywhere outside the Sunset Isles has
been consumed by the red tide, after all. However, the islands themselves are still quite large
and provide an ample amount of diverse locales for adventuring. There are vast areas of
wilderness still ruled by the Shou, and then a number of different city-state areas settled by
some of the major racial groups of refugees. These each have their own particular character:
Xian is the great capital city of the Imperials, Tien Lung a corrupt and decadent city ruled over
by degenerate wizards, Altgrimmr is a dwarven stronghold, Hohnberg is the Eirengarder city
with a european feel, Kitaminato is the Kueh city which has given itself over in a dark pact with
the demonic Hell Kings in order to survive, and Nordheim is the chief city of the Skandr vikings.
There are several major islands (including one that is larger by far than all the others) and a
number of smaller islands that feature remote and peaceful villages or dark and sinister lairs of
powerful wizards or demons. The setting features ruins both in the form of the Westmark, a
region that was once settled by the colonists but then overrun and and destroyed by the Shou,
and also in the form of more ancient ruins that were created by ancient lizardmen that were
once the original inhabitants of the isle but have long since collapsed into decadence.
The setting material provides a number of excellent maps, both hexmaps and otherwise,
detailing the geographical features, points of interest, climate, and political boundaries of the

About 17 pages of material are provided detailing the important city states, and their views on
things like slavery, magic, religion, gender and economy. You also get a chapter dedicated to
explaining the roles and how to play the different classes/races in the setting. Largely speaking,
these are the standard LL classes/races, but there are a couple of additions, such as the Scions
(elves born in a human body), Shou Witches, and the Vowed (a monk class with some
interesting wuxia-style martial arts).
There's also a section on magic and how magic works in the setting, along with a few new styles
of magic (including the atrocious Stitched Path magic of the decadent Tien Lung wizards), new
cleric spells, magic user spells, magic for shou witches and Scion "Wyrds", as well as some new
magic items.

There's a ten page "bestiary" chapter, which covers some of the specific monsters of the setting,
including the Hell Kings, the various Shou humanoid types, and the somewhat cthulhuesque
"tidespawn" (the mutations created by beings who've been warped by the Red Tide).

The chapter on how to run a Sandbox is impressive, in fact more impressive than its equivalent
in Stars Without Number, including guidelines for creating specific sites in the sandbox,
complete with random tables to help you define the natures and challenges of these places. This
is an incredible resource for a sandbox game. A "court site", for example, might be a noble's
court, an extended family, a business, a school, a temple, or a Tong (gang). Each one of these will
then have a (optionally randomly determined) number of important people, and a conflict
(again, randomly determined if the GM wishes, through tables in the book). Each specific site
type has its own tables for determining the type of important people, the sources of these
people's power, and other NPCs that might be met there. And just as there are "court sites",
there are also "borderland sites", "city sites", and "ruin sites" (in this case complete with NPC
statblocks). This chapter is one of the largest of the book, covering 55 majestic pages.

The book also has a shorter chapter detailing the secrets of the nature of the Red Tide; I think
I've already divulged more than I should on this subject, but suffice it to say that the Red Tide
has been thought out, and while obviously any GM could change its nature if he desired, or just
leave it a mystery in his game, the book itself doesn't abandon GMs to their own speculation on
the matter. Instead, it has a definite nature, purpose, and a way (however slim) of defeating it
(though that would clearly be the herculean task of an entire campaign, probably one that would
require reaching very high levels).

Finally, much like in SWN, the end of the Red Tide book contains a number of truly excellent
"game resource" tables: a set of tables to quickly create a Red-Tide cult, person and place name
table for Dwarves, Eirengarers, Elves, Eshkanti, Gadaal, Halflings, Imperials, Kueh, Shou, and
Skandr; notes on the types of businesses that might be found in villages, towns and cities; quick
NPC-creation tables, room dressing tables, and a spectacular (and useful!) set of sample
blueprints for villages, temples & shrines, underground tunnels, border outposts, deep and
hillside caves, estates, and ruins.

So, on the whole Red Tide is an excellent product. It certainly cements Crawford as one of the
truly great writers of the OSR, and one of the rare ones who can write not just system (which,
let's face it, is not all that hard when you have D&D as a base to go from) but setting, which is a
much trickier beastie. As a game setting it makes for an excellent campaign world, and while its
quite contained, there's certainly decent amounts of material that a GM of any other setting
could borrow for use in their own world; both in terms of actual setting details and in terms of
methodology (the book might just inspire me to do similar "site" templates for my own Arrows
of Indra game).


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