RPG Review - Beat to Quarters
Beat to Quarters
by Neil Gow, 2009, 162pp
TLDR: 3.5 out of 5 stars for a pretty solid with a few question marks and mechanics that don't really cater to my style. The presentation and flavour are top notch.
Beat to Quarters describes itself as an RPG that puts you in the roles of the men who sailed the Seven Seas during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. It's clearly a game about adventures in the style of Horatio Hornblower, Aubrey, Bolitho, and Drinkwater.
The physical book looks and feels like an Osprey history book, which lends it a sense of adventure and historicity - it's a nice touch.
Introduction and Basics (12 pages)
This outlines the setting and gives the basic concepts of character creation - Measures, Reputations, Skills, and Experiences.
Characters (35 pages)
This section runs you through the creation of characters. Characters are assumed to be men on a sailing ship of any rank except captain. Any character that is promoted to captain becomes an NPC. The purpose, I suppose, is to maintain a sense of play balance. But note that it's possible to have one character who's a lieutenant commanding a small ship, in charge of the remaining characters who are able-bodied seamen. The book doesn't spend a lot of time on the concept of game balance, but in my experience most GMs are quite capable of using their heads. This game isn't really geared to beginners, in any case.
This chapter takes you through a life-path system of sorts, in which you describe your past experiences before becoming a sailor and after. Sailor origins (including press gangs) are discussed. Ship ratings, rank, nationality, religion, and class are all covered. The steps are: Concept, Personal Station, Life Before Recruitment, Your Ship, Naval Recruitment and Training, Naval Experiences, Traits, Wealth, and Final Details. That's nine steps. Character Creation look to be quite fun, very suited to the setting, and deep enough to satisfy without being overly long. There are no long lists of things to choose from. OK, not many, anyway.
Tests, Challenges, and Missions (35 pages)
This chapter takes you through the mechanics of the game, and gets into the role of the GM a little. The game uses a playing card mechanic, in which all tests are opposed (by the GM or other players/npcs). This is highly setting appropriate (skill at playing the game of whist was important for naval officers) but a little difficult to parse from a probability standpoint. It would have been nice if probabilities had been discussed in the book. As it is, I'll have to trust that it works until I can playtest it.
Also discussed in this chapter are Damage states (things like reputations can be damaged), and then missions and challenges. This last section disapointed me a little - the game is clearly a scene-framing game in which all the players come up with story ideas together. As an explorer, I personally dislike that kind of adventure structure, and having tried it several times with my groups have found it to fail in satisfying our sense of discovery. The framing of scenes is also quite difficult for most trad gamers - especially when not really familiar with the setting - and this book provides no advice on how to teach them.
The MISSIONS (read: scenarios) are defined as consisting of a fixed number of CHALLENGES. Challenges are defined as TESTS with a dramatic storyline outcome - the example given is if a character wishes to shoot a fleeing French spy before they reached the safety of a tree line. I'm not sure how many challenges are meant to be in a mission, but it seems like anywhere from 2-8 are mentioned. So, going strictly by the rules, if you shoot a French spy 2-8 times, that's your mission done. This section feels either under thought-through or under-explained. In any case, as a trad gamer used to playing more free-form, this kind of attempt to define missions by the number of challenges the characters face always feels rather forced. In my experience, it's usually pretty obvious when a mission is done, regardless of how many challenges you're supposed to have faced.
Combat Challenges, Naval Missions, Crew Actions, and Skirmish Rules are also loosely covered here. The combat seemed quite fine to me, potentially quite fun. I'd like to try it.
Matters Nautical (13 pages)
Here's a section on spot rules, looking at weather, wealth, equipment, prize money, grog, the Captain's Favour (which seems a neat mini-rpg within a story game) Ear of the Gun Deck (same as above, but for the below-decks), The Articles of War (rules of the ship - to be used with discretion), and Promotion.
Heat of Oak (23 pages)
This section describes the ship mechanics and naval combat. Naval combat is fairly abstract, relying on a range chart. It looks quite fun, and has a reasonable amount of detail (ship types & customization, ammo types, and setting fires, weather gauge, broadsides and boarding) but in it's abstractness it also missed a lot of the kind of detail you get from the novels listed above - night actions, fog of war, cutting out parties, fire-ships, deception, and many other details of naval warfare are not covered. Realistically, a game writer needs to decide how big the book is and who detailed the game is - Beat to Quarters takes a reasonable middle path, here, that I think will appeal to most people.
Friends and Foes (21 pages)
This section describes several foreign navies, several NPCs, and several theatres of naval warfare, including the Channel Fleet, North Sea Fleet, Baltic Fleet, Mediterranean, North America, West Indies, and Cape/East Indies, with a small amount of advice for playing in each region.
Clear for Action! (10 pages)
This section gives some generally quite good GM advice, ideas for alternate campaigns (such as having a player captain, or playing privateers) and a bibliography.
Appendices (19 pages)
This section has some experience tables (which should have been in the character section), list of British ship names, or personal names, some captain templates for NPCs, nautical phrases, masts, riggings, character sheets, ship sheets, mission sheets, range chart, afterword, and an index.
Overall, I found this to be nice product. It steers you toward a style of gameplay I don't really care for (collaborative scene-building), but I suspect a group can ignore that style and safely play in their own style and have quite a good bit of fun. I quite like the presentation, the writing, and the book is full of good ideas. The mission-building section didn't quite satisfy, and I think some advice of probabilities for the card-based resolution system would have been nice. It feels like a game that would be suitable for a short campaign. I'm not sure at it has the chops for a long one, and a one-shot could be fun but won't make use of all the rules. This game is a 3.5 out of 5 for me - pretty solid with a few question marks, but not quite catering to my style.
Turns out the PDF is Pay What you Want on RPG Now - you can't beat that if you're curious!