Friday, December 30, 2016

Spelljammer - Rocks of Shardspace

The day singers of Chapel Crag sing the World Lay in ten hour shifts, rejoicing and wallowing in the beauty of the world when it was whole: water, air, greenstuff and plenty.  The toilers along the Crag's terminator take solace in the songs as they cut the pumice soil with worn hoes and nurse every seedling with monastic care.  The night singers face out apertures in the opposite side of the towers of song to cry the Dirge of the Fall of Man into the unforgiving night. The Dirge's endless re-imagining of the great shattering, and the first childlike cruelty of the infant god's hatching, echo from the slumbering ruins and cracked cold earth, haunting the dreams of scavengers and outcasts who struggle on the Nightside.

Aiming for not Quite Fantasy, not Quite Sci-fi
- Chris Foss

My ship, "The Groomsman's Demure", floats among the rocks and crags, it's old hull of spun night silver over hard iron ribs, a frigate cut down, razee to a 24 port sixth rate, 89 souls aboard, but well founded and with sturdy tanks, newly tarred to allow us to cruise long among the shattered crags of the Shardcloud.  A letter of mark from Brawl Rock gives us the justification to seize what we will, but more it is a pass to travel where we wish, and pick the rich bones of the shattered world.  We seek rare prey, Dread Spindral or Boward's Luck, a bastion world of the 3rd Arcane Integrem, plundered once in a cursory manner 80 years ago by Captain Boward of the "Lark", before retreating again into the deadly cold space of the Licheside. The Spindral hurtles back now on a long elliptic and with Boward's notes, the services of a Red Sage, and the visions bought dearly from the Night Singers, I know where she'll cross the Green Belt.   

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Total Party Kills, Death Saves and Character Mortality

I was recently exchanging comments with a Dungeon of Signs reader regarding the use of dragons and other extremely scary high-level creatures in low level adventures.  I'm for it, but my interlocutor made the point (a decent one really) that for new players character death, especially a total party kill is a really discouraging thing and might discourage someone from tabletop roleplaying.  This got me thinking about "Total Party Kills", and I realized that I've never run one, and never experienced one as a player, at least since returning to games as an adult. The very next time I ran a game though there was a furious animated furniture based massacre of the entire party, and everyone felt pretty good about it.
Edger Samuel Paxson - Custer's Last Stand (1899ish)
This general lack of 'TPKs' may seem shocking, especially as I run and play games using older systems, or retro-clones that have a reputation for being exceptionally deadly to characters (Like LOTFP - which actually has lenient death rules).  It's also not to say that characters haven't died with frequency and finality in games I've run and played with - even beloved characters, nor to say that this isn't upsetting.  I was quite aggrieved when my Hill Canton's character, the Eldish renegade "Tizzird" died from the single blow of a strange fractal demon thing.  His replacement "Killer" Ponzi the mob enforcer is somewhat less enjoyable.  Yet despite frequent character deaths, things never seem to come to the dread Total Party Kill, and I think this has a lot more to do with play-style and GM attitude then ruleset.  

In the past I've suggested that the death of characters and even entire parties is positive to the tabletop roleplaying experience - and I stand by the idea that character development is more fun when it happens through play cooperatively with setting development, and that the death of characters is part of this development.  This may seem contrary to a lot of players and GM's experience, and I've seen plenty of discussions about how character death is campaign destroying.  So the question becomes, why one would want a game where character death is a regular risk and how to do so without having problems or spoiling the fun of the game.

I think the why is very clear.  Games are more fun when there is a way to lose or when there are setbacks, and for a story of fantasy adventure character death is a clear loss condition.  It is also a way of signalling a loss that has little impact on the other players in a group.  If loss results in a negative effect to a character (turned to stone, sucked into a dimension of punishment) reversing this effect or rescuing that character almost always becomes the other players' goal, unless the player whose character has been negatively effected insists otherwise.  This can be a fun element of a tabletop game, but it should be rare and not the dominant result of in-game failure, because it prevents the players from completing or working on their own goals and plans.

The Saint of Killers is a vary boring Player Character
One of the key things to legitimizing character death is to make sure that everyone at the table thinks it's fair, and recognizes that it's the result of informed player decision or risk taking, rather then GM fiat, trickery or malice.  This means that where there is high character mortality, non-adversarial play is even more important then ever.

What do I mean by "non-adversarial play"?  It's pretty simple, playing tabletop role-playing games as a cooperative game or story telling venture between everyone at the table, but especially between the GM and the players.  The GM is not trying to 'get' or trick the players into losing, but rather attempting to create and environment/setting for the players to explore and adventure in.  The best way to do this while including terrible monsters, deadly traps and  this is to be a magnanimous GM and remember that the players are operating only based on the information you as the GM are giving them.

First it's good to assume that when a player has their character do something seemingly self-destructive (say leap into a very deep well) that they misunderstood your description.  Always double check and even re-describe the danger.  Something like "The well vanishes down into the blackness, it looks like a really long drop - do you really want to jump down it?"  More often then not the player will reveal that they misunderstood your description (i.e. they thought the well was a five foot drop to water or something) and change their plans.  If the character still does the seemingly suicidal activity, then it's not as if anyone at the table can reasonably feel the GM tricked a player into killing their character when the inevitable happens. That's being fair to one's players and it goes as far as giving the players reasonable clues about traps and how dangerous monsters appear, even when they don't specifically ask.  Remember that as the GM you control the entire subjective experience of the characters.  If you say "There's this big lizard in the room, and it looks cranky" the player may envision an iguana, while the GM knows this thing is closer to Godzilla.  Use description, and if you're terrible at that, even provide a clear statement that the enemy is dangerous. Remember the character certainly knows a 30' long lizard can likely swallow them whole, even if the player hasn't been given enough information to recognize that fact.

Adversarial, "killer GMs" have another terrible habit beyond withholding information about dangers, they also demand that the players provide 'perfect' responses to dangers.  The classic example of this is a swift moving underground stream. A killer GM will make the players roll a series of saves to avoid being swept away and drowned unless the players carefully describe their efforts to cross the stream - doffing armor, setting up ropes, using poles to prob the stream bed etc.  Now a non-killer GM might make the players make the same rolls to avoid being swept away, but only after letting them know about the risks, because their characters, being competent dungeoneering types, would spot that the swift moving water was dangerous to enter without removing their armor, or taking some other precautions.  GMs should assume character competence. Does a beast look diseased?  The characters will notice the acidic puss dripping from its jaws, before they have to save v. death when it bites them.  Does the rope bridge look ancient and frayed?  The characters will notice that it might be unsafe, before plunging into the depths. Is the narrow bridge above the lava made of slick obsidan, characters will notice and cross slowly and carefully - without the player telling the GM. Again, by giving both players and characters the benefit of the doubt, and accepting that errors in player observation are most likely errors in GM description (boxed text makes this worse as often neither players nor GM pay attention to it).

This same tactic works for traps and similar engines of character destruction - the key is being consistent.  Whenever a player says "I open the door" for example, I always confirm - "You reach out and grab the handle to pull it open?"  Usually the player adds something else, usually about using a 10' pole with a hook on it.  That means they survive some simple door traps, but are far less likely to complain when the door opens to reveal a howling vortex into the depths of space because as a GM I have been playing fair with them (howling space vortexes make for very chilly doors if you ever need to check for them).

Both of these ideas, confirming if players want to commit to potentially dangerous actions (or any serious action really) by making sure they have all appropriate information, and assuming character competence, go a long way toward making sure that player choice leads to character death not confusion, GM vindictiveness or bad GM description.  Yes, as a GM you can present situations where almost all choices are deadly, and this isn't adversarial - as long as you provide hints, clues and signs of danger, and don't prey on player's failure to explain simple precautions as the mechanisms that lead to character death.

More then making character death or a total party kill feel like part of the game rather then the end of the game, one needs to treat them as such.  This is one of the dangers I see with narrative based campaigns.  If the heroes of the story die it is very hard for the story to continue.  Yes, sandbox players develop plans, discover world-wide NPC schemes and build backstory - but they do so without the baked in expectation that these elements are the focus of the campaign, and because the setting is designed around setting, not narrative, changes, including character death, are much easier to incorporate.  This isn't an attack on narrative play, or it's not intended as such, and it's not something novel - Dragon's of Despair famously requires the GM to keep canonical characters alive to keep the adventure path's story moving forward.  It's just that in a narrative based adventure structure (where adventure moves through a branching set of story options) character death is extremely undesirable, and forces unanticipated, drastic rewrites of the core game structure - the narrative.  This seems especially true in D&D based games where the mechanics aren't really built around narrative progression as much as exploration.  It may be much easier to work out in different systems that are built for narrative play.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Fallen Empire, Carcosan Nonsense - A table of metaphors, lies, and explanations.

Inspired largely by this post at Rotten Pulp, and by a nice big hangover binge on Calvino, I've prepared this handy table.  Useful perhaps for when people ask scholars or oracles how the game world came to be a sublime ruin teetering toward the aesthetic of grotesque.  Of course you might find it useful for other reasons as well - for example I'm keeping it open on my phone to help talk to relatives at Thanksgiving.

Michael S. Hutter paintings are always good for inspiration.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

BlackSun DeathCrawl - A Review

BlackSun DeathCrawl was published in 2015 by James MacGeorge.  It’s a pay what you want PDF
and I’d call it one of those great free (or nearly so) products of the OSR that are made with heart and singular vision.  The book itself is 64 pages, though much of that is made up of ominous prophetic statements in large fonts and lovely full page etchings from the common domain (I recognize a lot of Gustav Dore’s illustrations from Dante’s Divine Comedy) that really add to the setting feel.  Actual, game ready content takes up far fewer pages, but that’s okay, because the Deathcrawl at its best is less of a module or adventure then setting for playing very grim survival based dungeon crawl. The adventure part of the books is actually its weakest, a set of scene based encounters that while unrelentingly bleak and open-ended provide a bare skeleton of an adventure that doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the setting.  That promise though and the horrifically spare setting itself are wonderful and make up for the minor weaknesses of other areas.

One such minor issue is that Deathcrawl uses DCC as it’s basis, which makes for some rules kludge that needs to be converted for most, but this is minimal and Deathcrawl generally avoids the fidgety nature of the DCC system by eliminating all classes except fighters.


“And yet the Cursed dig...because they have forgotten what it means to do anything but dig, fight and flee.”

That’s typical of the somewhat lyrical, somewhat overwrought declarations that MacGeorge  uses as the main setting vehicle.  Even setting rules (all players begin as a level 1 warrior) are communicated in this way, and it makes for an effective enough system to communicate setting and feel.  It’s rather evocative really, and allows justifies Deathcrawl’s interesting rules changes (Death occurs by burning up a character’s ‘hope’ - formerly Luck in the DCC rules and by the steady accumulation of terrible mutations).  More than anything Blacksun DeathCrawl feels bleak and allegorical, a mystery play from some religion based on Black Metal Album covers rather than normal tabletop fantasy or the series of evocative vignettes that the module sets out to promote ‘moral’ play (in the sense that more of the play derives from making moral decisions, not that it forces players into having a specific moral stance).  Yet I suspect it’s best played as a dungeon crawl where finding a way deeper to escape the Black Sun’s torturous light and unstoppable minions while discovering food and water are the only goals.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Monster Design and Necessity

So D&D 5E is about to put out a new monster manual... Volo's Guide to Monsters  it might be awful, and it might be really cool.  It sounds like they are focusing more on unreliable narrators and ecology to tell a lot more detail about the monsters in the book, rather then just provide a cacophony of statistics.  Now I fear Volo's Guide will not amuse me, though it is definitely taking cues from Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princesses "Fire on the velvet Horizon", but only because I don't think Elminster flavor text can be anything but dreadful.
Arthur Rackham
(because one needs better goblins)

Still there are things to be said about monster design, and I agree with Mike Merles and 5E when they want to focus on the intangibles of their monsters: their behaviors, ecology, hooks related to them and similar inspirational information for the GM - up to a point.  Monsters are iconic and a central theme to table top fantasy, and doing them well goes a long way towards doing a game well.  The issue is - what's really useful and necessary in a monster design, especially one published as a supplement.  For this I think to the games I've played recently and what makes encounters in them good.

I'm been playing in Ben of "Marazin's Garden's" Dreamlands game a bit and I have noticed that one of the things I enjoy is that we've yet to encounter any monster from a book, at least as far as description and characterization goes.  To me this is a mark of a good campaign and good world building. 

Using unique monsters means among other things that the GM needs to describe them and that the players need to think about them as more then a reference to a Monster Manual.  One of my major complaints about published modules, and even the 5E Monster Manual, is a lack of description for monsters, beyond dull formalities.  There is a balance in designing pre-made monsters, somewhere between several pages of (likely dull with Elminster invoked) of genre fiction the Volo's Guide promises and the terse statistics based descriptions found in the Little Brown Books. I'm not sure where exactly it lies, certainly Fire on the Velvet Horizon is pretty lyrical in its monster descriptions, but its a fun read because its descriptions are full of evocative detail that gets a GM thinking about how to use the monsters described within - and of course anything done well is better then the best thing done badly.

Personally however I have little use for Monster Manuals, even good ones.  For me, the aesthetics of monsters aren't hard to think up and design, and the most important element about an encounter is that it makes sense in the setting.  I tend to run non-standard settings, and making monsters that fit those settings, tell stories about the setting and generally provide a point for player interaction, wonder and decision making is often far easier then fitting monsters from other sources into a non-standard setting.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Curse of Strahd - Table of Cheap Jewelry (and implicit criticism)


My readers may think that I have absolutely no time for the tabletop products produced by Wizard's of the Coast and would rather laud "Maze of the Blue Medusa" and everything Hydra Co-op puts out, but this isn't entirely true.  Let's face it OSR/DIY D&D types, WOTC has the best market penetration and is going to be far more widely read then any other tabletop product.  I want these products to be good, I want people who plunk down $50 for a hardcover high production value (though frankly not up to the production value of the better LOTFP products and Maze of the Blue Medusa) book to think "D&D is awesome!" - they just haven't been in my experience.  Until now(ish)!
A sad lady one meets early in the Curse of Strahd
one of many decent, topical pieces of art
Yeah I'll say it Curse of Strahd is good.  It has problems, some the typical Hickman problems of being campy and thinking it's more clever then it is (a problem that almost all OSR/DIY self published products - say "Maze of the Blue Medusa" and "Slumbering Ursine Dunes" arguably share in a different ways and degrees) and some typical WOTC problems of trying to cross market product and play to video-game sensibilities (that no OSR product - even the worst bit of Gygax emulating randomly generated from the 1st edition DMG cruft - shares).  I may write a full review at some point, but really it doesn't have unforgivable problems and provides plenty of material for a GM (as well as good GMing advice - shockingly). 

One thing Curse of Strahd suffers from, though at least they are trying - clearly they are trying - is mediocre treasure. I can't shake the suspicion that 5E doesn't see treasure as important and still relies heavily on the idea of character advancement through dynamic 'combat as sport' murder (of baddies, clearly only the murder of baddies) which I like to call "Judgmental Murderhoboism", but at least they are trying to make treasure interesting.  One area where Curse of Strahd fails utterly, predictably and awfully is the repeated use of "Cheap Jewelry" - often found in wholesale lots and always worth 25GP as treasure.  Now eliding the question of if 2.5 lbs, or say 2 for craftsmanship, using the classic D&D weight for GP, of gold can be considered 'cheap' (and one can't blame Curse of Strahd for this system and genre wide failure), I think this was a missed opportunity to add a lot of evocative setting  detail to the adventure.  It's funny too, because the module does provide numerous small random tables for an ongoing joke about macabre children's toys - clearly the wit and wisdom was there - but the two pages a good 'cheap jewelry' table would take were less important then a few more paragraphs of typically Hickman purple prose about the twisted narcissistic love of Strahd or some copy repeating the idea that the vampire lord is evil via more boxed text.

Barovians from Curse of Strahd - again pretty good art that is setting specific.

I give you the "Barovian table of Cheap Jewelry" below:

Thursday, September 29, 2016

HMS Apollyon Art

Lately the HMS Apollyon is drawing me back in, I've started doing some doodles and here are a few.

This first is of the vessel from a birds eye view - not sure it captures scale well, but really there's nothing in the setting to measure it against so it'll have to do.

The second image I think does a better job of implying size, with a 50' yacht in the inset.  The location of the yacht is a similar marina entrance to the one used in my last online game, which I really should post a play report for.

The final two images are of different eras of Steward armor.  The first a steward in the molded garrison plate common when Sterntown still controlled a few heavy industrial factories and could roll and stamp heavy steel as well as mass produce rifles.  It's based on the experimental 'light body armor' prepared for the US army in 1918 - alloy steel over a rubber backing (WW1 armor is fascinating, from the heavy German armor for machine gunners, to the British layered silk stuff.  The US armor that the HMS Apollyon armor is based on was designed by the rather interesting eccentric and renaissance man Bashford Dean who was also a noted collector and expert on early modern and medieval armor. The second steward wears the standard armor of the Stewards (with rather garish parade helmet crest) from the period after "the retreat" which all of my games have taken place in.  Hand forged banded armor modeled after the roman lorica segmentata.  In game terms both are identical suits of AC 17 heavy armor.  I have decided that "Adsmus Custodes Pacis" or "We Assume Guardianship/Custody of the Peace" is an appropriately ironic motto for the stewards (They also have a motto about helping people and such maybe the Latin version of "Your Leisure is my Pleasure" spoken by Spud in "Train Spotting", but I haven't really decided yet.)

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Monster Archaeology - Greater Undead

 If animated corpses, ghouls, wights and wraiths make up the common undead, D&D has always had room for more dangerous abdead foes, and unlike ghouls wights and wraiths, these more powerful undead are not simply increasingly dangerous versions of the same creature.  It's unclear exactly what purpose greater undead, as I've taken to calling spectres, mummies and vampires, serve in Monsters & Treasure, are they tougher versions of wraiths and wights to threaten higher level players, are they puzzle monsters designed to threaten mid level parties in small numbers or leaders of undead factions?   Whatever the intent powerful undead are an important part of the higher level random encounter tables and each represents a significant threat to characters.  Following the trend established with Lesser Undead, the danger from the more powerful creatures is largely the result of immunity to some attacks and the ability of their attacks to do permanent damage in the form of status effects.

Warhammer Fantasy has this wonderful way of breathing life into the cliche
MUMMIES: Mummies do not drain life energy as Wights and Wraiths do, but instead their touch causes a rotting disease which makes wounds take ten times the usual time for healing.  A Cleric can reduce this to only twice as long with a Cure Disease spell if administered within an hour.  Only magic weaponry will hit Mummies, and all hits and bonuses are at one-half value against them. Note, however, that Mummies are vulnerable to fire, including the ordinary kind of torch.

Mummies are strange creatures then, not much stronger then Wraiths, but more accurate and very slow (they have the same AC and 5+1 HD to a Wraith's 4), moving a a rate of '6', the same as zombies and skeletons.  They have a seemingly less terrible special attacks then wraiths and wights, causing a disease rather than draining life force but they are invulnerable to regular weapons, not just missiles.  It almost sounds like the Mummy is a stronger form of the animated corpse, the skeleton/zombie, rather then a quick, self-willed form of revenant like the ghoul, wight or wraith.

The most complex aspect of the mummy is it's special attack seems like a clumsy and confusing mechanic, especially in a system where a common convention is re-rolling HP at the start of each session.  My own take on "Mummy Rot" is that the disease prevents magical healing and reduces HP total to 1/2 the rolled amount at the start of each session. I'd also add a permanent -1 to HP even if the rot is cured by cure disease spell, plus the rot is disgusting and makes the character smell bad. Obviously there's a lot of room for a far more horrible disease, something with statistics loss and progressive HP damage culminating in death.  I'm not really sure if it's necessary as the consequences as written have a pretty nasty overall effect.  The only plus side of death by Mummy as opposed to death by Wraith is that the victim of a Mummy will not rise as a Mummy.

Monday, September 5, 2016

ASE CAMPIAGN - SESSION XII - The Irrefutable Offer

Looking through an old folder I found some notes on the last few seven session of the ASE campaign that started this blog back in 2012.  I've decided to maybe write a few up and see where it goes.  This is the first, starting directly after this Play Report.  I think this season was played late 2012 or something, before Huxley's player had a kid.

Huxley McTeeth - (m) Fighter (Lvl 2) - Short, strong, grizzled, armored, and wielding a magic white saber from the tomb of a Rocket Man.
Grimgrim "The Seared of Monstcrom"- (m) Cleric (Lvl 3) - Recently extra fervent. pig masked.
Druizzilnax (aka Drusilla) - (f) Elf (Lvl 1), physically frail, spear wielding, hideous armor wearing and from a society of militarized cannibals.
Nell Hassenphafler "The Topstown Gore Bird" - (f) Assassin (Lvl 3), Scarred face, sinewy physique, fancy purple metal dress and poison hatpins.
Lemon Jackson, Evoker - (m) Magic-User (Lvl 2) Gun totting, hell-bolt flinging and heavily tattooed.
Gurgur, Greymol - (m,m) Moktar, Moktar Holy Tom, (Lvl1,Lvl1) Moktar henchmen , serious catbrawn. 


Geof Darrow - A Denethix Street Scene?
Back in their dingy apartment, covered in the tiny scabs of grunkie inflicted wounds, Huxley, Nell, Lemon, Grimgrim and Drusilla wake to another day, stunned and sore and for the first time cannot begin an immediate debauch, the last bottle of hooch purloined from the depths of the Old Brewery having been spilled down Lemon's sweaty torso the night before. 

The booze brought back from their last adventure may be gone, but the desperation lingers. Nell's arm set in a crude cast, but clearly broken to the point where even Grimgrim's divinely aided ministrations won't quickly restore it to functionality.  The band needs a rest, a long rest, preferably somewhere peaceful, but it seems doubtful that their enemies will allow them one.  It's been a week since the raid on the Old Brewery's lower levels and each of the adventurers knows there will be a price to pay.  It's not clear who will come to collect, the Unyielding Fist, drug running gangsters, the death cult of Furter, or even Drusilla's anthropophagic relatives - but a debt has come due and payment is going to be rough.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

HMS APPOLYON PLAYERS GUIDE PART 1 - Combat and Exploration

It's perhaps long overdue, and really this document has been sitting about, mostly edited, mostly complete for some time now.  I've finally decided to release it and hopefully others will find it useful.  In addition to being the combat and exploration rules I've used extensively for my last campaign of HMS APPOLYON, it's a set of fairly well tested rules that I've used in modified form for other games.


From the Introduction to this ruleset:


Player Manual Part I

I never set out to write a retro-clone, only my own esoteric setting material, but HMS Apollyon has turned into a retro-clone of sorts – specifically a sort of homage to the earliest editions of Dungeons and Dragons.  I have a copy of the “Whitebox”, the later “collectors’ edition” that I bought long ago in my youth, but I never really read it with a critical eye until playing in Brendan S.’s Pahvelorn game on Google+.  Most of the basic rules and mechanics here are pulled or interpreted from the “Whitebox” and the “Little Brown Books” it contains, but they are more the product of other’s work and games – Nick W., Ramanan S. and most of all Brendan S., as well as the players who have stuck with the setting as it has contorted and evolved, especially Chris H. and Eric B.

I have tried to keep my rules concise, but rather than just offer another set of retro-clone rules I want to provide my reasoning for why I have adopted them.  You may notice small text boxes below some of the rules, and in these I have tried to justify why I am using a rule and what I hope to accomplish with it.  It’s my belief that while setting is largely formed by evocative description, NPC interaction and collaborative storytelling, that rules are still important as they can destroy or support a setting’s tone.  I shy away from too many player-facing mechanics and try to emphasize “player skill” over “character skill” but mechanics do help make a setting, especially combat mechanics which largely set the game pace, character turnover (lethality) and how important central is to the game.

The intent of the HMS Apollyon setting is to provide players an exploration game in a setting where life is cheap, the world cruel, and combat against the denizens of the haunted hull a desperate, not altogether wise gamble. These combat rules are written with this goal in mind.  The rules were slowly developed and modified through play and thus are esoteric as opposed to systematized.  While systematized rules have an intuitive appeal, I have found that the effort to fit everything into a structured rule set rather than a collection of smaller subsystems or individual rules tends to stifle the sort of “rulings not rules” mindset that early Dungeons and Dragons fosters as well as discouraging the individualized house rules that are necessary to fill gaps in any rule system in a comprehensible manner that doesn’t rely on metagaming or “build science” more appropriate to war games.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Funnel Equipment Lists for Fallen Empire's Desolation of Zubrab



The Fallen Empire is a place where the lives of the citizenry are constant hostage to contingency.  No day goes by without rapacious tax assessors turning a village into desolation ready for sale to outside interests, a sink beast surging up and invading a nearby croft, or that the simmering conflict between two ancient houses is finally settled in a bacchanal of slaughter.  The survivors of these tragedies, insignificant to the callous and exhausted powers of the world, find themselves without sustenance, support or succor in a time where the oppression of time and the past means that even compassion has guttered down to the barest coals.  Some die. Most suffer and then die.  A few survive, and the rarest prosper.

Those individuals that are able to withstand the buffets of ill fortune mostly become treasure hunters, grave robbers, and mercenary agents.  Guides, wildmen, spies, travelers, chroniclers, prophets and reavers - adventures, starting from nothing these men and women shift and bully the Empire’s somnolent powers, dusty mores and resigned masses, carving themselves places of note. 

Before riding a wave of blood, magic, fire and cunning to wealth and power all adventurers were something else – usually something contemptible and piteous.  To start an adventurer on their path to death or glory roll 3D6 once for each of the following stats: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma.  If the score is 5 or under the adventurer has a -1 in that statistic, fifteen of over it’s a +1.  Strength grants a bonus or penalty to melee damage and to hit. Intelligence a +1 or -1 to initiative, Wisdom to Saving Throws, Dexterity to Armor Class, Constitution to Hit Points on a per die basis, and

Equipment in the PDF below  is defined by the region and past of the adventurer, with  several potential tables to determine starting equipment and past for adventurers in the regions around the Desolation of Zubrab – The Pyre Sea, The Pyre Coast, Provence Maritime, and Green Hive Canton.


Sunday, March 6, 2016

Fallen Empire - Rules of Setting Creation


Thinking about settings and the generic assumptions of fantasy games and where I want to place "Fallen Empire", my current online game, within those constraints made me realize I need more than just a vaguer sense, I need some ‘rules’ or ‘truths’ about how the setting works at a high or conceptual level. I visualize the setting as my version of 'vanilla' fantasy, a sprawling world of jumbled faux-medieval, classical and renaissance bits where dragons and unicorns exist (likely in a twisted form - but still there).  In order to make the setting consistent I want to create some core ideas, and I want them to be interesting, ideally running against some of my least favorite fantasy archetypes.

This is complicated by a couple of factors, first I abhor vanilla fantasy settings, and second classic settings are already ably represented by numerous products, many of them far, far slicker then anything I could ever deliver.  Consequently I want a setting that is high fantasy, but not derived from Tolkien, Greyhawk and The film Excalibur. Even dispensing with the obvious influences, high fantasy settings come with their own problems – principally really high fantasy is sprawling, better suited for heroic games of conflict between great forces with players acting to pursue world changing adventure.  The titanic conflict between forces of good and evil, order and chaos don't really work well with the rule sets I like, which are at their best providing when a game is about exploration and trickery and picaresque adventure for personal gain. An open world is therefore essential, with room for the players to scheme and explore but there is very little open world left in many high fantasy settings. High fantasy games of great empires, kingdoms and might wizards logically leave very little of the map to explore – there problems aren’t on a human scale, they are epic: ancient evil awakening, barbarian invasions from the realm of nightmare or conflicts between stately pantheons of deities.  OD&D doesn’t really support that sort of game, and while running a version of Journey to the West about reformed demons and pagan gods fighting back against the bureaucracy of heaven and sometimes on behalf of an upstart populist religion has an appeal – it’s not the game I want to run right now.

I find having high level setting truisms helpful keeping my setting and adventure design focused, for creating expectations and building a sense of how the game should works.  One traditional way of doing this is to focus on a monster manual for the setting - what are the common creatures encountered?  A world where goblins are on every random encounter table is radically different than one where dragons are.  An abundance of either implies something about both the world and the goblins or dragons involved.  I want to do this for fallen empire - define its singular monsters (I’ve been doing this in my Monster Archeology posts), but more I want to create a few other ‘truths’ that define the setting.  While it's likely these setting constraints will grow and change in play, it seems useful to set up specific guidelines for everything I produce for Fallen Empire so that it has a distinct look and feel.

While a good chunk of that look and feel is purloined art from Roger Dean and other 70’s/80’s progressive rock album cover artists, I want that to be a bit more than an aesthetic draped over a standard D&D game.

Rodney Matthews (Not Roger Dean) - so smooth

Sunday, February 21, 2016

I6 - RAVENLOFT - Review


I'm not sure if this is a review or a mediation on adventure design principles, but I've recently been thinking a bit about the horror genre and tabletop adventures - while running a location based wilderness point-crawl with a post-apocalyptic high fantasy setting.  My long running game set aboard the HMS Apollyon attempted to have horror elements, though perhaps failed in that regard, and with that in mind I find myself looking at the first really successful horror themed D&D module - I6 Ravenloft, -written in 1983 by Tracy and Laura Hickman, a few years after two other modules I've reviewed here (somewhat unfavorably): Rahasia (1979 republished/rewritten 1984) and Pharaoh (1980), but before the couple launched into Dragonlance.

To understand Ravenloft, and perhaps to give my critique of it a more appreciative cast I think it's first important to look at the Hickman's adventure design in general.  If Gygax's adventures can be identified by a certain actuarial abundance and callously fair mercilessness (The deadly but entirely rational traps of S1-Tomb of Horrors, or the highly detailed Keep in B2-Keep on the Borderlands), the Hickmans' adventures are about: storytelling and heroic narrative.  They may be the creators of this school of adventure design.  If one should thank Jennell Jaquays for interesting non-linear map design, the Hickmans stand tall in the annals of game design by offering an alternative to the location based adventure and approaching tabletop games with a novelistic eye rather then that of a wargammer.  That is to say that even Rahasia, written at the same time as Keep on the Borderlands, wants to tell a specific story where the player characters are heroes of an epic fantasy struggle and does so with set piece encounters that flow logically into one another.  Of course this "story path" style of play can lead to the sort of awful excesses that deny player choice and freedom to have a say in the story of their characters - the railroads, forced decisions, coercive encounters and  quantum ogres that mark 00's and 10's mainstream tabletop products. The Hickmans' own work isn't usually as bad as all this, it's not even as bad as a contemporary OSR influenced WOTC product like Lost Mines of Phandelver, and the saccharine vanilla fantasy flavor of most of the Hickmans' work is done earnestly, with a certain unique flair and in general far more forgivable in 1979 or 1983 than 2016. Ravenloft is likely the best of their adventure design work, and it contains a lot of interesting ideas that sometimes fall flat or are two big for the module they're in, but are generally not boring. It's a novel and useful effort at design - one that I personally wouldn't run expect under certain circumstances, but would be tempted to steal some ideas from.

Yup, That's Pretty Gonzo

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Monster Archaeology - Lesser Undead


I'm not sure if the animated skeleton is the most iconic Dungeons & Dragons monster, but it's certainly close.  Interestingly there are few undead in Tolkien (other then the Ring Wraiths who are a clear inspiration for the wraith in D&D), but plenty in the other Swords and Sorcery inspirations for Dungeons and Dragons. In the Monsters & Treasure undead are broken down by power level, but unlike humanoids each variety has some variation in abilities and a variety of statistical differences.

Interestingly, Skeletons and Zombies are grouped as a single class of enemy with only minor indications that they might be considered different sorts of monsters.  The taxonomic mania of AD&D is less fully evolved in the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons, with monsters having a variety of Hit Dice or types within a larger class and with almost none of the detail and ecology that defines later monster manuals.  While this doesn't go as far in building a default setting for the game, that is a blessing of sorts, encouraging GM creativity and interpretation of these monsters and by extension the fiction they inhabit.

The description for Skeletons and Zombies is long on behavioral description by Monsters and Treasure standards and provides some interesting ideas:

SKELETONS/ZOMBIES: Skeletons and Zombies act only under the instructions of their motivator, be it a Magic-User or Cleric (Chaos).  They are usually only found near graveyards, forsaken places, and dungeons; but there is a possibility of their being located elsewhere to guard some item (referee's option).  There is never any morale check for these monsters: they will always attack until totally wiped out.

The statline for Skeletons and Zombies (or animate bodies more generally) includes Hit Dice and Armor Class distinctions allowing for 1 Hit Dice(HD) or 1/2 HD and Armor Class of seven or eight.  Possibly, or even likely, these distinction are meant to be the difference between Skeleton or Zombie as separate creatures, but such limited variety seems far less interesting then a mere random variation between creatures.  Other more bizarre or interesting reading are possible, even if utterly unsupported by the text.  One could reasonably use the higher stats for undead thralls that are undamaged, but the weaker set for ones that have been damaged (knocked to zero HP) after they get back up or reform.  Another option would be to use the higher Hit Dice and Armor Class for creatures directly under the control of their creator, rather then left as guards.  

Also interesting in the description of skeletons and zombies is that they are the same creature, animated dead bodies.  There's no reason to make a distinction between the amount of bone vs. flesh on the horrifying shambling corpses (and the do shamble with a move of 6 rather then the 9 for most humans).  For a GM this is a nice change, breaking free of the overly taxonomic approach to monsters that table top games seem to relish sometimes, and encouraging the GM free creative reign.  The real limitation here is that Skeletons/Zombies are mindless undead, raised and controlled by magic.  While Monsters and Treasure grudgingly acknowledges that they might be left as guards somewhere it almost demands that a wizard or evil priest is controlling the flock of stumbling corpses - this makes skeletons and zombies far more interesting, not because it effects them much, but because it implies that all undead encountered outside of the thrall of some sorcerer are something else - wights or mummies seem the logical candidate

The animated dead in Monsters & Treasure are also something designed for use as war game opponents - figures on the field rather then narrated enemies in a table top Role Playing Game. Skeletons and Zombies are the bodyguards or an accompanying unit for evil priests and wizards rather then an enemy on finds while disturbing a tomb.  These creatures chance of being in a liar is listed with a 'Nil' (Nil being one of those D&D anachronisms that while originally a shorthand slang for not on list and the Latin for nothing, has returned thanks to Gygax's esoteric brand of pedantry and autodidact's vocabulary).  What this means it that Skeletons and Zombies are never in their own location, and never have treasure of their own - they are purely automatons, created and commanded by others.