Thursday, 22 October 2015

First Session Report: Journey to the Keep

Last Monday we kicked off our first real session of our new 5e D&D campaign set in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos and the Known World of the BECMI D&D era. A historic night here in Canada for all sorts of reasons but for my players it was their first game ever.

All the good stuff for the first session!

For two people who had never played an RPG before they dove right in and played well. During character generation last time they chose to link their bonds. The Tiefling Monk with the Hermit background learned his monk skills while on his hermitage and it completely changed how he interacted with the world for the better. His hermitage started because he was implicated in one of the scams run by the Elven Rogue with the Charlatan background. The Rogue's bond is guilt over burning the Monk by shifting the blame to him. Thrilled with his new worldview, Traorin (Tray) feels grateful to the Rogue, Ano, for setting him on the right path and he returned to Specularum to help her see the light too. Sadly his return caused problems for Ano, who was in the middle of a Scam at the time and they had to leave the city in a hurry. These background choices helped us get the party moving and give a reason for them to adventure. The party headed north to the Barony of Kelvin but didn't stay long because of the harsh rule of law attitude of the place. They continued north along the Duke's Road to the Barony of Penhaglihon in the Wufwolde Hills. That's where they heard about the Keep on the Borderlands which seemed like a good place to lay low for a while and scam the odd merchant from Darokin.

The pair made friends with a halfing trader named Bobberto Farstrider, who was taking a wagon load of dry goods up to the keep. Bobber was pleasant company who was flattered to be travelling in the company of an exiled elven prince from Alfhiem (Ano's default persona - she's actually a Vyalia wood elf). He happily gave up his tent to make Ano more comfortable while he and Tray slept under the wagon.

Tales of the Scarecrow cover image by Jason Rainville

The magic started when they came upon a ripe cornfield by the side of the road. They knew something was fishy right away since it was early spring and there's no way corn was going to be ready for harvest at that time of year.

Megan, who plays Ano, was not down with the cornfield. She felt her character would see no profit in exploring it and she thought it was a pretty obvious trap.

"This is a frickin people-hunting alien cornfield and it's going to eat us!"

They argued in and out of character with great reasons on both sides. Jeff, playing Tray, wants to explore and check out the strange things and Megan, playing Ano, doesn't want their characters to die in the first session. To break the deadlock, Tray asked the NPC, Bobber, what he thought. Of course the NPC wants you to go down the trail through the unnatural cornfield to the strange farmhouse! Bobber felt adding a few bushels of ripe corn to the wagon would definitely make this a more profitable trip for him and wanted to inquire at the farmhouse they could just barely see from the road.

I'm impressed with these two. Once inside the clearing in the centre of cornfield they did well. They investigated the interior and exterior of the cottage with care. They worked under the assumption that everything would kill them but were still open to possibilities. They were compassionate with the lone survivor in the house and managed to get quite a bit of information out of him because of it. They tried to save him even though they figured out he was cannibalizing his friend.

They lost all the NPCs but managed to come up with a great plan that saved themselves involving the harpsichord and the wagon. They also lost the oxen though, so they left the wagon by the side of the road with a sign warning others away from the field. I was a little worried about inflicting a Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventure on brand new gamers, but as scary as they are there is always a way to think yourself out of them. I had been through the Tales of the Scarecrow once before as a player and my character came out of it well ahead. It's just a matter of figuring out how to use what you have. Besides, I gave them extra resources with the merchant and everything in his wagon (that they dumped on the ground for their plan). Turns out I didn't need to worry. They have the natural paranoia necessary to navigate an LotFP adventure.

They took the two books even though they discussed the option of just leaving them there. Both books now link them back to Specularum and I'm hoping I can use them to pull the party into B6 The Veiled Society or some other kind of shenanigans in the big city. They are hoping to sell the books since the receipt they found says they are so valuable.

They kept the Sword Which Is Uncertain, a beautifully crafted magical rapier. The rapier treats all targeted ACs as 14 no matter what armour they have. It also strikes a random target on a modified roll of 16 or 17. I'm thinking of simplifying it to an unmodified roll of 13 or 1. Ano is using it despite the curse because Megan thinks Jeff deserves to get a few random stabbings for dragging them into that cornfield.

The Keep on the Borderlands by Erol Otus

After that they hiked the rest of the way to the Keep, travelling safely and sleeping comfortably in Bobber's tent (one of the few things they were able to keep and still escape).

Once at the Keep they got a room and made friends with a Gnomish Wizard (Abjuration Tradition) who was able to identify and put a value on their loot. Their new friend managed to get close to the Caves of Chaos once, before her party was slaughtered by goblins. She knows vaguely where the Caves are and has agreed to join the party to provide some magic support.

The Tales of the Scarecrow turned out to be a great encounter adventure for the road. They could have driven past with no consequence, but I'm glad they played it out. For new players I wanted them to play a modern adventure before they got stuck into the Caves at the Keep so they'd realize there are all kinds of possibilities and more than one way to play any situation. I was also glad to see they were willing to talk and investigate since that will help them in the Caves of Chaos. They are a small party so they need to be smart.

I enjoyed seeing them get a little more sense of the world as well. Talking to the NPC they learned he was travelling out of the Duchy into the Republic of Darokin and specifically to his home city of Vornheim.

This version is WAY better! Go get one at RPG Cartography!

Next session will be the Caves of Chaos. I'm using the DnD Next conversion from the playtest for the Caves while using B2 for the Keep. I have a beautiful, colour coded map of the Caves of Chaos with the monsters listed in their locations I downloaded from RPG Cartography here. I'll be converting anyone from the Keep on the fly as needed.

It will be interesting to see how they approach the Caves of Chaos. There is a lot going on there, and they could definitely play the different factions off against each other. With a Rogue, a Monk and a Wizard, the party is also light and stealthy. They might be able to do a lot in the Caves with hit and fade tactics. I can't wait to see how they play it!

The gear for the first session:
B2 Keep on the Borderlands, GAZ1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos,
LotFP's Tales of the Scarecrow, the map of the Known World from X1 The Isle of Dread,
 and my little black book of campaign notes.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Review: "The Hell House Beckons"

This is a first look at Kiel Chenier's haunted house adventure and tool kit, The Hell House Beckons. If you are looking for something different for your table that embraces the spirit of the Halloween season, keep reading!

Before you read this review it's important to note a few things in the spirit of full disclosure. Kiel gave me an advanced copy of the PDF. I didn't pay for it like everyone else so my copy has typos and other errors that yours will not. I won't be able to comment on the editing. I've also gamed with Kiel as a GM and I like him. It is possible I am biased in his favour even though I will do my best to be objective. This review will be a bit spoilery, but I won't include any information players can use to beat the adventure.

My first impression of the cover was that it mixed cartoon style silliness with some serious creepy horror. It reminds me of the Hilarious House of Frightenstein TV show for kids from the 1970s (Vincent Price was a cast member). I scrolled further expecting some Evil Dead style shenanigans. The Evil Dead impression fit as well as anything. Kiel is drawing on many horror tropes for this adventure, making it a kind of Frankenstein's monster itself.

Kiel is upfront in the GM advice section about how his goal is to make the House a malevolent character in its own right. The House is trying to harvest the party's blood, souls and sanity for its own evil purposes. The House itself has a long, terrible history and the PCs will have easy access to it. The background gives some clues to what they'll find in there but none on how to deal with it.

Even the successes of the group can feed the House. Any blood spilled or souls destroyed gives the House the power it needs to confront the party directly. The other thing feeding the House is the sanity mechanic. The adventure adds a new Sanity statistic to the PCs and NPCs. The Sanity stat is where the system agnostic approach comes up a little short. The Hell House Beckons is designed to be used with pretty much any D20 RPG but it is clear that the adventure was written with Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons in mind. If I used that system I'd add a few rules of my own. The text encourages this behaviour but doesn't make any suggestions.

The first thing I'd do is give some fantasy races a bonus to the Sanity statistic. Tieflings would definitely get a bonus of one or two from their infernal heritage. Others would depend on the setting although Dark Elves would certainly have a bonus at my table. Dwarves would also be a good choice and work well with the back story. Since the house only claims its Sanity points from the characters after a save I'd give certain classes proficiency bonus on the save as well. Warlocks are a must for proficiency on a Sanity save. I would consider giving them advantage on it with certain pacts as well. I think Clerics, the adventure-specific NPC Medium class and maybe Wizards of the illusion or necromancy school should also add proficiency to Sanity saves.

The deadly countdown is a mainstay of horror so the Hell House Beckons supplies some endearing NPCs as red-shirts. While I liked the NPCs for the multiple ways they give clues about the House (dying is only one of a few), I find the NPCs add a Scooby Do element to an adventure that punishes such actions without mercy (let's split up and look for clues gang - oh no, a ghost chopped off Daphne's head and is wearing it!). It's not necessarily a bad thing, as it increases the party's vulnerability without directly harming the PCs and the players can work to overcome it. The NPCs also cover off particular archetypes usually found in horror movies that the player characters are not likely to supply without turning the thing into a railroad or story the players are watching rather than playing in.

The House keeps the souls of the recently departed from going far so all dead PCs hang about as ghosts who can still play. There's even a possibility of returning a ghostly soul to its body and coming back. That means even the staunchest non-killer GMs can indulge in a little PC slaughter guilt free.

My character will have bacon in his or her pockets to avoid this fate.

The best thing in this adventure is the way Kiel handles the ghosts. In the Hell House Beckons ghosts are all unique creations. There are a few linked directly to the house's history, there are some more general entries that could easily be dropped into nearly any adventure, and there is a table for creating random new ghosts. This variety makes the ghosts far more interesting since different ghosts will respond in different ways and can be defeated or helped by different strategies. My favourite part is how the ghosts are tied thematically to the place or way in which they died. This addition makes the ghosts more like what you would find in a good ghost story or horror film. That they fit the expectation of the source material rather than the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual is a huge win in my book. I'm not fond of all the ghost descriptions including: "Usual Undead powers and immunities apply." It means your GM needs to have a bestiary or monster manual with ghosts in it to have everything you need to play. Some of these other elements from whatever bestiary may not work well with what is already here. I would have preferred Kiel include complete descriptions and make whatever changes he felt were important to the theme of the ghost for the Hell House Beckons himself. Zak Smith completely rewrote vampires in A Red and Pleasant Land and that adventure won four ENnies. There's no reason to hold back.

The ghost of the succubus might be my favourite image in this adventure.

The ghosts can inflict some strange and horrible effects on the characters. For example, ghosts that drowned can fill a character's lungs with water. One ghost that spent much of its life in the form of a cat can infect a character with cat-ness. You think cats are cute until they are replacing your character's limbs and sprouting from random body parts. The juxtaposition of the ordinary with the horrific has worked well for the more frightening episodes of Doctor Who. A skilful GM could make the cat disease a frightening experience. It leaves the character completely helpless as their body is high-jacked by fluffiness. I'd be tempted to drive that home by meowing loudly whenever that player tried to talk. It depends on who is playing though.

I'm starting to think Kiel is afraid of cats. Who could blame him?

There are plenty of unsettling effects throughout the House and a great horror staple of a monster who harasses the party with hit and run attacks from random hiding places all over the mansion until killed. The 1970s classic horror movie qualities of the Sackcloth Boy should satisfy the expectations of the horror true-fans in your group.

Think a mutated feral halfling child with garden shears is no challenge for your party?
Yeah, you're wrong. So very wrong.

The tables are useful for developing the House but they could be used to flesh out any similar haunted house type adventure. Since the die drop table uses room names as well as numbers that correspond to the map you could use it to quickly populate any mansion, manse or manor with the macabre. Kiel also includes unnumbered floor plans of the house at the end of the PDF in case you want to do exactly that. We have a fully realised adventure and excellent example of how to use all the tools with the Hell House Beckons, but the tool kit included allows you to quickly make up your own haunted house with ease. This adventure could be used as is, cannibalized for parts (yum!), used as a design tool, or simply mined for ideas on how to run ghosts. I think I'll run it as is with 5e, and then use it as inspiration for adventures built around the haunting of a single ghost with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. If you are going to use this adventure with an older edition or a retro-clone you might want to adjust the hit points. Everything has a pile of hit points which is again, pretty consistent with 5e play.

Die drop tables are the new blue dungeon map.

The layout of this adventure is solid; two columns with a fair amount of white space. The tables are easy to use and read. Small uses of red are effective in creating emphasis or controlling how you move your eyes through the document. Neither too much nor too little, the use of red is just right. The whole PDF is also hyper-linked for efficiency so you can use it on some kind of electronic device at the table (with the apparent exception of my Chromebook - computer nerds who feel the need are welcome to tell me it's because the Chomebook is linux based or I'm not using the right ap or whatever in the comments below). The cartography is clean, easy to understand and well thought out.

I would be remiss if I didn't say anything about the art. Anyone familiar with Kiel's blog/RPG Tumblr page Dungeons and Donuts will recognize Kiel's whimsical art. In the Hell House Beckons, the art conveys the character of the NPCs and the horror of the situations while remaining in his personal style. This weird mix works for me because it only adds to the creepiness of the whole thing, but I'm already a fan. The occasional use of heavy blacks conveys a sense of the tone but may drain your printer's ink cartridge. I also like the use of red in specific places, especially with the Pale Artist.

Had I'd paid the $9.99 USD for the PDF, I'd be happy with the purchase. There's a lot that can be used in the Hell House Beckons. It's obvious that Kiel put a great deal of effort into this adventure. I admire his ambition to change how ghost like creatures (ghosts, spectres, etc) are used in D20 RPGs. He created some good tools to do exactly that.

If you want a good ghost story for your table, check out the Hell House Beckons from Kiel Chenier!

Friday, 9 October 2015

Starting my new 5e D&D campaign...

"I've always wanted to play D&D and never had the chance."

This phrase implies a barrier to play that I have never known. Based on what I've heard from others I was lucky that no one stopped me because I was too young or doing it wrong or whatever. I don't understand the wall that keeps someone from our silly little hobby but I am happy to cut a hole in it and wave them on through.

Last Monday was full of firsts. It was the first session for my new group. It was my first time running Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons. More importantly, it was also the first time ever that my new group played an RPG.

We went with fifth because they have copies of the 5e Players Handbook and wanted to play the latest, greatest version of the world's most popular role playing game. As far as the editions go, fifth edition is probably my favourite. It has a good balance of streamlined rules and extra parts that can be used or not without breaking anything. If I have to run D&D (and for these guys I did) I'd rather run 5e than any of the older versions.

The character building system for 5e really shines with new players. It presents solid choices and each choice leads to another. I found the background section particularly useful. It allowed them to quickly flesh out their characters, giving them a grounding in the world. We ended up using the suggested bonds as inspiration, creating a shared history that bound them together.

(The Gazetteers and old adventures print up into a nice A5 booklet!)

After we got the characters all done I asked them about what they wanted out of the world. For people steeped in the genre like we are, the possibilities are virtually endless. As newcomers they were looking for a "Traditional D&D" experience. They wanted all the D&D stuff like elves, goblins, dwarves and dragons. Intrepid heroes pushing into the uncivilized wilderness to explore forgotten temples in search of adventure and treasure!

As we talked I got a feel for what they wanted and suggested we play in the "Known World" that was used as a backdrop fro the "B" and "X" D&D modules. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos was my introduction to the world of D&D so it's a joy for me to share it with them. It features pockets of civilization stretched across a vast expanse of untamed wilderness full of monsters, ancient ruins and mystery. The open nature of the original setting fits the modern style of sandbox play I prefer and it will give them control over their characters' fates. It also gives me plenty of room to place some of my favourite locations and adventures from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. To give them a balanced experience, I plan to use the better classic adventures like (B2) Keep on the Borderlands along side the best the OSR has to offer like Death Frost Doom. Other play will be stuff of my own and the things that develop out of their decisions. I'm wicked excited about this campaign! I don't know how long it's going to last, but I can keep us going for years!

The group is excited to play the Keep on the Borderlands. Our next game will start with them heading up the Duke's Road from the Barony of Kelvin. Perhaps on the way they'll come across a cornfield that is suspiciously lush for the time of year and investigate. Maybe they won't investigate and I won't get to use Tales of the Scarecrow after all. Who knows?

(Some of the stuff my players could stumble into over the course of the campaign.)

I'm looking forward to leaving trails of rumours and other breadcrumbs to all the corners of the sandbox. The classic modules already have their place in the Duchy so I just need to dust them off (or print them out) and read through them before they get there. That's settled, but the stuff I have from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, especially the older adventures that don't fit the new assumed real-world historical setting, can be placed anywhere.

Some of them are obvious choices. The town of Pembrooktonshire is crying out to be placed on the edge of the Black Peak Mountains north of Threshold. The hidden country of Voivodja (A Red & Pleasant Land) needs to be cradled in the Altan Tepes mountain range. Nestled between the Duchy, the Empire of Thyatis, the Emirate of Ylaruam and the Republic of Darokin, it is well positioned to secretly influence the many countries of the Known World. Rumours of the ruins of the great palace of the vampire lords that ruled Karameikos during the dark age point toward those mountains. There might be stories of gardens full of treasure for anyone brave enough to follow the Volaga river to its source.

Speaking of the Republic of Darokin, Vornheim needs a home. Corunglain, the northernmost city, seems a natural spot. Foreboding and dreary, next to the Broken Lands while sitting astride important trade routes. That's the locale that mixes melancholy and wealth together to produce Vornheim! The mountains that border Darokin and Rockhome is probably the best place for The Hammers of the Gods, an old LotFP adventure centred on the Dwarves. I bought it strictly to find out the big, bad secret of the dwarves. Maybe I'll get to use it and my players will find out too.

The Grinding Gear is another old one, with its goblins and stirges, that could be used as is anywhere around Threshold. Likewise the Black Peak Mountains could hold the little cottage from Death Frost Doom. I think I'll place it near the Lost Valley of the Hutaaka and weave into that story. Still, it might be better in the Altan Tepes Mountains, near the frost giants and Castellan Keep. I have time before I spring that one on them and I can put it pretty much anywhere if I wait until play delivers us a macguffin worth the effort.

The horror-show adventure Forgive Us could fit in any town in the Duchy on a trade route (nearly all of them). The same could be said for Death Love Doom, bu if I use that one it will be on the outskirts of Specularum. That adventure would be a good impetus to get the players to leave the Duchy for a while and head south to the Thanegioth Archipelago and the Isle of Dread (X4) or the Isle of the Unknown. Perhaps they would even go as far as the southern continent to find Qelong. I was going to put Qelong on the western edge of the map, on the other side of the Malpheggi Swamp where the Atruaghin Clans are supposed to be, but I'm thinking that's a better spot for the Slumbering Ursine Dunes (by Chris Kutalik and the Hydra Cooperative).

What I'm really going to have fun with is the God that Crawls. It can be placed in any remote location but instead of St. Augustine of Cantebury as the cursed monster prowling the maze it could be Halav, the first king and saviour of Traladara. Gnoll warlocks could have captured him after their defeat and used a ritual to transform him into the crawling monster. Zirchev would have captured him and placed him in the holding place for the cursed Blackmoor artefacts for everyone's safety. Petra built the original Traladaran temple on top of the maze so Halav could be cared for. That's probably the easiest way to work the adventure into the setting. The secret would not undermine the Church of Traladara if it got out because it only increases the suffering of Halav for his people, but it would completely destroy the Cult of Halav who depend on the idea of the Duke as the reincarnation of Halav. Halav can't be the Duke and a monster at the same time. But if he can be restored he could lead the Traladar back into a golden age. That's something the Thyatian ruling class might want to keep a lid on.

(Inside foldout image from The God That Crawls by Jason Rainville)

I'm hoping to get that one in right after they are done with the Keep on the Borderlands. It would be nice to do it earlier but I'm not sure they will take the bait and head off the Duke's road to some remote village while they have a goal in mind. It will likely depend on how things go in the first encounter.

I'm excited about this hybrid setting! All this material blends well and gives me a lot to work with before we add the influence of the players who may change things as they go knocking bout the world and looking for trouble and making assumptions about how things work. There's no better source for material than the paranoid musings of the players after all.

The rush of ideas came after I printed out the old Gazetteer for the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. I wanted to read through it to give the Keep a world to have a place in. The more of these old Gazetteer PDFs I read the more I am impressed with the Known World setting. It has its own rich history and intrigues but nothing is so important that it can't be tweaked or changed to taste.

My big challenge will be adapting the experience awards in the adventures to suit 5e. I'm reading through my new DMG in the hopes that I can figure out a fair way to assign experience since the adventures I'm using where designed to use treasure as the main source of XP rather than the conflict. I'm hoping there's something in there like the old Palladium System had or the 2e optional experience system that rewarded good ideas, RP and problem solving. If not, I'll come up with something based on what I've done in the past, test it out and we'll have an exciting blog post about experience points in 5e D&D!

Because of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend here in Canada we won't have another session for a week-and-a-half. You can expect a session report sometime after that. Good or bad, I'll be talking about it.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Problem With Damage In RPGs

Role playing games feature many kinds of conflict but physical conflict is nearly always a big part of the game. With that comes the problem of tracking damage to Player Characters and its effects. I haven't written much about the system I'm developing here on the blog, but now that I'm ready to playtest the "3D System" that's going to change. Here's a look behind the curtain at my reasoning for how I dealt with the problem of damage in RPGs.

D&D and many of the games that came after it use the idea of: "Hit Points." A character or creature can take a certain amount of damage before it's mortally wounded and goes down/dies. Hit Points as an abstraction of a character's survivability causes some confusion since it's tied to weapon damage. The concept is more of an expression of script immunity and games like Neoclassical Geek Revival are more explicit about it by calling them luck points instead.

Hit Points as a concept are illustrated by the typical action hero movie. Action heroes take a tonne of punishment over the course of a typical film. They are banged up, bruised, cut and bleeding all over, but never seem to loose their effectiveness as bad-guy-killing machines. Sometimes a particular wound will have some kind of dramatic effect for a while, such as John McLean's feet cut up by the glass in Die Hard, or Jack Bauer's heart being stopped during torture in one of the 24s. Even these consequences for critical hits are not permanent, resulting only in a quick bit of first aid or an ill-timed, dramatic nap. As characters "level up" in an RPG of this type they gain more ability to stay in the story despite the negative impact of opposing forces. Basically, they are allowed to be heroic longer and have bigger adventures. It's only that last swordstroke that really gets through the character's defences that actually connects in a way that matters. The one that brings the characters down is the mortal blow that can put a character into coma or a fight for it's life.

The Fifth Edition of D&D embraces this model by allowing characters to recover some Hit Points merely by taking a break to rest and recover and get them all back with a good night's sleep. Barbarians of Lemuria is similar, allowing the recovery of half of what is lost in a combat merely by taking a break to have a drink and rest. If Hit Points are just a matter of staying power and not actual serious wounds, they should be easy to recover.

My favourite part of 5e D&D is the fight for survival after losing all Hit Points. Rolling saves to either stabilize in unconsciousness or die without help show how deadly that last hit was. Old D&D countered the massive hit points with some things like poison and magical effects like a Medusa's stare coming down to a single roll to avoid death. Fail that saving throw and the character is dead, no matter how many Hit Points they had. Even the greatest hero could be killed by a serious threat. A poison dart was all it took to kill Achilles after all.

Playing big damn heroes is fun, so this abstraction works pretty well for a lot of games but some of the genre fiction that these games are based on takes a grittier approach. The idea that you could take a beating and still be as effective as you if were fresh also requires more suspension of disbelief than some people want in their fiction or games.

Some games stick with the hit point approach and limit them to keep things tense. Games like Talislanta and Barbarians of Lemuria have hit point values for characters that allow the character to handle a few hits, but there is no expectation they will ever be tougher than that. Traveller, which I talked about in a recent post, uses a random physical stat as a stand in for hit points. These values are pretty low compared to the damage that can be done so combat is over quickly, usually going to whoever surprises their opponents. It also makes combat in Traveller a deadly prospect that players will want to plan with care. In these cases every combat has the potential to be the last one but there's no expiration of the characters like you get with the hit point model.

At least as characters run low on hit points the players become more wary and don't want to commit to a fight they might lose. Even the highest level characters are slowly run down by a succession of combats. This change is a way of mechanically expressing the exhaustion caused by life-or-death struggle and the change in play to a slower, more careful pace is representative of the effects of exhaustion without having a direct mechanic for endurance. It's also why the Constitution stat in D&D is used to modify hit points. The healthier you are the more staying power you have for fights, adventures and shenanigans.

(One of Frank Frazetta's many paintings of Conan)

Hit locations are sometimes used to create effects from damage beyond coma/death so characters could lose the use of an arm or leg and have penalties to actions instead. I find that annoying to track for NPCs and it gets even more silly than hit points when the luck of the dice spreads the damage of lighter hits across all the locations for no effect. This one has always felt fiddly to me and never worth the effort to track.

Hit points are a nice simple solution to express a complex situation. Even when people don't understand how much is going on it still works as a game mechanic. As much as I like it in D&D and other games, I don't want to use it for the one I'm designing. Because my game embraces the pulp feel where heroes are worn down but still succeed, I decided to make damage an increasing penalty rather than a ticking clock.

Part of the inspiration came from reading Robert E. Howard's Phoenix on the Sword [Spoilers! this paragraph only] in which an older Conan is set upon by a group of assassins.  Because he's Conan, they can't get around his defences to land a definitive killing blow, but they do wound him making it impossible for him to do much more than defend himself. As the minor hits and cuts pile up he slows down and becomes more vulnerable. It is an awesome fight with great tension! It would be so much fun to play that way! As damage makes the fight more desperate players get creative to end it quickly. When that happens it's more fun for me whether I'm playing or running.

The old D6 System from West End Games had a wound track with increasing penalties. This method worked great for the cinematic action they were going for with games like the original Star Wars RPG.  There are other games that use wound tracks and some of them integrate them into the game exceptionally well. Mouseguard is a great example. I have a lot of love for D6 Star Wars though, and the more I think of it, the more I realise it may be game that gave me the subconscious push in that direction when I was deciding on the damage system for the 3D System. The pace of the game and the pulp-cinema swing of the action are things I love in a game. I've said it before, D6 Start Wars only needs little tweaking to be a sweet sword and sorcery game itself. Based on the pedigree of the wound track, I'm confident it will fit the feel of the play I want at my table.

My take on the wound track is pretty simple. Humans and their equivalents have two boxes in their tracks that correspond to Wounded and Down similar to the Wounded and Incapacitated statuses in D6 Star Wars. In the 3D System each box ticked means another -3 penalty so that Down character is rolling -6 to do anything and is more likely to push too hard and wind up dead than succeed. Other creatures will have different tracks but this model is the character kind of resilience.

The wound track is not enough though. It still doesn't catch the flavour of the fight in The Phoenix on the Sword or the other pulp fiction I'd like my games to feel like. That's why I added minor hits. These light wounds are the flesh wounds and bruising that can be shaken off or ignored with a little rest and quick medical treatment. These cumulative -1 penalties can build up in a fight and make it hard to continue a fight without ever threatening the actual life of the character. First blood is a serious advantage.'

"It is but a scratch"

The difference between wounds and minor hits is the size of the penalty (-3 vs -1) and speed in which they are recovered. A proper wound will take time to heal whereas a minor hit can be recovered from with a roll after some rest and possible medical treatment. Rolling to recover means some of these light wounds will persist in hampering the character's ability. The timeline is tight, and it means the characters can continue on, but fate will catch up with them eventually if they push things too far. This system blends the grittiness of low hit points and would tracks with the limited endurance of the hit point system.

From what testing I've done in scenarios for my #3DSytem, it looks like will work. We'll see how it plays soon enough. There's no perfect solution to RPG damage, but I'm hoping this one works out for my gaming style.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Religious Magic in RPGs

This post was inspired in part by the contest Zak S is running over at his blog: Playing D&D With Pornstars. The Thought Eater Tournament is a series of match-ups of two writers per topic to encourage better, deeper writing about RPG topics. The first one is about religion in fantasy role playing games and is something I've thought about a lot myself. More specifically, I've thought about the source of religious magic in RPGs while designing my own fantasy RPG.

We don't need to have actual gods to have religious magic in a game. D&D and other fantasy games have a long history of making gods characters in the setting. Certainly there was plenty of inspiration for meddling gods from the stories of Greek and Norse myth. Some of the fantasy stories that inspired the original Dungeons and Dragons had extra-dimensional beings locked in a war between the forces of law and chaos that spilled over into the fantasy world. It was often expressed as a kind of dimensional cold war fought through proxies who were champions and spellcasters given extra powers by their extraplanar backers. It also mixed in the crusaders, saints and biblical stories. D&D, especially the older editions, calls back to the legends of the middle ages and invokes the Arthurian tales of chivalry and knighthood.

With such material informing the setting it's no surprise you end up with gods granting spells to clerics and special powers given to paladins. For me it's never quite sat right though.  The idea of gods showing up, messing about with human affairs and having the odd affair of their own to create demigods has a certain quality to it, but it's more like the brat pack era of Hollywood than a group coming together over a common belief. Fantasy religions are less about faith and devotion to the idea than they are hierarchies with a supreme being at the top. They are more like corporations with clearly defined goals based on the godly portfolio coming down from head office.

With freelancers like adventuring player characters it's often a kind of contract. There's give and take with the godlike creature. Some characters who deal with extra-dimensional beings, performing sacrifices, other services and advancing their patron's goals in exchange for powers are called Warlocks/Witches/Cultists and others are called Paladins/Clerics even though at the core they are doing the same thing.

There's no reason why the existence of a god needs to be settled to account for religious magic. In a world where magic exists, reality is already disrupted. It can be bent and even broken with the correct pressure. In such a world a large enough group could form a kind of psychic pressure that could be used to disrupt reality in the form of miracles and other faith-based abilities.

A large enough group of people believing in an idea gives that idea power. The more people that believe, the more power that builds behind the idea. This power might manifest randomly in miracles and other unexplained phenomena. They could be mysterious like burning bushes, epic like earthquakes and thunder, or ridiculous like the visage of the god appearing in common food items like toast. Where it becomes interesting and gameable is when there are individuals who can tap into this power provided by the belief of faithful. People who can shape the will of others into particular effects like healing or even a plague.

These conduits of the faith would be as rare or common as is needed by the setting. They could be found leading a faith, drawing on the power of the faithful to perform miracles and gather more to their religion through these demonstrations of godly "intervention." They could even begin as charlatans who are suddenly surprised by their ability to perform real miracles thanks to the faith of their flock, despite having no belief of their own. The idea that a religious leader could fake it until they make it has all kinds of possibilities. They could also be individuals operating outside of a hierarchy as chosen champions, druids leading their communities, or even hermits serving in remote shrines.

It's the champions of the faith that are the most likely to become adventuring characters and played. Powerful missionaries carrying their message into the wide world or passionate believers living as examples in the dark times. Certainly a player character might want to build their own religion or religious faction of an established church. Depending on the campaign your group is into, the intrigue and challenge of creating a new religious order might provide the best adventure hooks.

When the characters get their power in the form of spells from some deity or demon prince there's not much incentive for them to do much in the way of religious boosting. If the character's power is tied to the faith of those following the same religion there is a good reason to spread the good word.

In game terms it could break down to numbers and distance. The larger the group the more power that would be available to an individual able to tap into it. How much of that power they could access would depend on the talent and experience of a particular character though. There would need to be some critical mass to get the minimum required to perform the most basic of miracles, the cantrip in D&D for example. It could be a number with some kind of meaning or completely arbitrary. Each level of power could require a different number of believers, growing exponentially from a single village to the population of a country or empire.

The distance would come into play as the champion moved away from the centre of religious belief. As they move farther away from the faithful the harder it is to tap into the psychic power provided by the belief of the masses. This could be overcome by setting up missions and chapels as outposts of the faith to form a kind of psychic corridor back to the power base of the faithful.

The idea that the smaller groups of worshippers could connect to the larger faith and carry the signal forward to the conduit of that faith like radio relay towers. If war or change disrupted the reach of the original religious organization the new churches could provide their own faith for the character to draw on. Regardless, there's an incentive for them to convert new followers and set up churches wherever they go. Also giving them something on which to spend any treasure they happen to find. The rest of the party might be keen to chip in since the one character's ability to access the power of faith affects their fortunes as well. The amount of available power would drop by one level for a particular distance so the faith of a theocracy might be felt and used on the far side of a continent or even ocean while a village of believers might only provide useful power out to a day's ride away.

As a factor of belief the faith magic becomes more dependant on religion and the religious instead of the terms of a contract with a god-like creature. This changes the game and creates some new incentives for players of religious characters to play their role as proponents of their religion or religious order. These are the reasons I chose this direction for the system and setting I'm working on for my own game but I don't see why the concept couldn't be used for any other fantasy RPG. It's just a matter of tweaking the setting a little.

In this model of using the common belief of the group as a source of magic rather than a god or group of gods gives the GM quite a bit of latitude in defining the place of gods in the game world. Their existence could be a question that is not answered, which is my favourite but certainly not the best. They could be remote and uncaring like Conan's Crom with the worship of lesser beings passing unnoticed. They might be like Terry Prachett's Small Gods that draw power from the devotion of mortals and are even created by it. They could need the worship to allow them power in the world. Perhaps with enough believers they could even enter it. That makes the Cthulhu cults a little more dangerous if they can frighten or bribe or fool enough people into devoting themselves to the great old one it might show up!

NOTE: This is an updated version of the original blog post. The original had an unnecessary definition of faith that people were stumbling over. I'd rather people engage the premise than debate my use of an overly simplistic definition, so I took it out.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Classic Traveller: Playing for the First Time!

Our Classic Traveller campaign is still fresh at one month old, but my wheels are spinning in my brain already!

I'm enjoying it so far. This little game is a tonne of fun! I was fortunate that our group decided to play Classic Traveller around the same time the charity Bundle of Holding put the majority of the books together for download at a huge discount. One of the beautiful things about the, "little black books," is how economical it is to print them out in A5 booklets on a typical office laser printer. I printed out a pile of books just to read them!

(Why yes, I did colour in the margins of the covers with a Sharpie. What of it?)

It seems a strange thing that I didn't play Traveller in the early 80s when I was starting to play so many other games, but the world was a much larger place back then. I lived in a city that could be best described as "remote" at the time. Without the internet and the new divided highways that connect us to the major cities in the south nowadays, we took what we could get up here. As far as RPGs went there were the TSR boxes in the Sears department store, the tiny collection of dice, modules and AD&D books at the hobby shop and a shelf at the comic shop located in the downtown core. Traveller just never made it to Sudbury. For science fiction RPGs we had Star Frontiers and eventually GURPS Space, but Traveller was a game I merely read about in Dragon. I played a myriad of sci-fi RPGs over the years, but Traveller continued to elude me.

After I joined the RPG enthusiast party that is Google Plus I heard more and more about Traveller and how awesome it is. It became something of an RPG bucket list item for me so I'm thrilled that we finally played it in our infamous Tuesday Night Hangout Game!

We decided to use the classic version of the game. The one that originally came as three, "little black books." Since the only one of us to play Traveller before was our GM he elected to keep it simple with the original game and only the basic books.

Those three books are a complete mess. They make the game harder to play than it needs to be. Don't use them. Seriously. The original books from 1977 are 'organized' along the similar lines to the original D&D, "little brown books," with one for characters and rules, another for starships and space rules, and the final one for world and adventure building. They look like they were typed out on a typewriter and cut and pasted together (which they probably were). There's no art and the layout is awkward at best.

(For the love of sanity, don't use these books!)

The good news is the game was re-released in a "starter box" in 1981 with a new layout and books separated into the core book, all the charts and tables, and the adventure book to get a new GM started. Arranging the rules in one book and referring to the reference book for charts makes gameplay a much better experience. Our group has already switched to the starter set. If you are new to Traveller, do yourself a favour and start there. The art certainly is typical of its era, but at least it breaks up the text and shows you what the standard designs of ships look like.

(Use these books instead. Trust me.)

What I love about Traveller is the scope of it. The universe is a vast sandbox of worlds where anything can be happening! The rules of space travel make communication a matter of going to a place with the news as cargo with weeks of time spent travelling in hyper/jump space. This means worlds can be lost. Wars are slow and devastating. Opportunities abound for the people who have managed to be at the right place at the right time.

Fortune favours the bold.

The implied setting is in a massive galactic empire that is preoccupied mostly with defence and commerce. The individual worlds and small collections of system are left mostly to their own devices in the vast bureaucracy that is the Imperium. There's plenty of room for adventure in such a place, doing freelance missions for Imperial intelligence, operating as a tramp freighter moving cargo from system to system on speculation, explorers searching for lost technologies from a forgotten age, couriers bringing sensitive information and packages to clients with discretion, finding opportunities for high risk cargo transport (smuggling), salvage teams/pirates taking what they can from the space lanes, power brokers getting involved in planetary politics, mercenaries doing the jobs that patrons need to keep some distance from, bounty hunters bringing in dangerous people or even kidnapping innocents... there's no limit!

There's a lot in this game that feels like the gritty sci-fi of the late 70s and early 80s. I can see the influence of Blake's 7 here and there. The movie Alien could be a Traveller adventure. So could the sequel Aliens for that matter. The psionics section looks like it is lifted directly from scripts of The Tomorrow People. With these rules I could even turn the old Canadian sci-fi classic The Starlost into a campaign.

Part of the beauty of the system is how well it has kept over the years. It still seems like a great RPG to run something like Farscape, Cowboy Bebop or Firefly. There are plenty of rumours on the internet about how Firefly is based on Joss Whedon's college Traveller campaign. It certainly translates well and the idea of it shows how a GM is not bound by the implied setting. It can be taken down to a single star system full of inhabited/terra-formed worlds clustered together in an almost clausterphobic proximity. Take away jump drives and you are back to the same age-of-sail speed of game. There's no reason to have a successful Imperium either. It could be crumbling like the last days of Rome or Asimov's Foundation series. The coming chaos creates opportunity for adventure and the necessity to search for older, better technology!

So far our game has a Firefly/Cowboy Bebop vibe to it. Playing morally flexible opportunists out in the far reaches of space is pretty sweet. Turns out we are not bad at crime. Not so good at mutiny or stealing ships, but low-violence crime is definitely our bag.

(everything I needed to fall in love with Cowboy Bebop is here in the opening credits)

That's a lot to say about the fluff for a game that is not terribly attached to the setting! There's plenty to say about the crunch too!

Crunch in the far future...

People talk a lot of crap about the character generation system and how you can die while making a character. Traveller characters are experienced, capable people. The character generation is a process of rolling up the experiences that made them that way. Not everyone makes it. Push it too far, stay in a dangerous service too long and your character is dead. The risk makes the reward sweeter and the whole process a lot more fun. There's an old joke about D&D that backstory is everything that happens before level 5. In Traveller you just roll all that nonsense and move on. Some characters don't make it to level 5 in D&D, so it goes in Traveller. If you get lucky with your stats survival is pretty easy. We haven't lost any characters during character generation yet. A couple of us had to make new characters after our first ones were blasted out of orbit by the authorities though. That was a rough lesson.

Combat is deadly! It is resolved after only a round or two. You don't want it going past that or someone on your side is going down. It gives the whole thing a pulpy, old-school feel.

(Poor Blake, maybe that surprise roll is important after all)

The basic mechanic for the game is a modified 2D6 roll for a target that is almost always 8+. The roll is modified by skills and occasionally exceptional stats. For our group success comes pretty easy when rolling two dice and adding one or two to the roll to get eight or more. Statistically, it is hard to fail as long as your characters are performing a skill they are proficient in. There's a -3 penalty for non-proficiency which is devastating on the 2-12 spread. This system reinforces the idea that you assemble a team of competent specialists to get things done. If your characters try something they don't know how to do they need to get lucky or it's not going to happen. Even rolling with zero bonus the odds are stacked against you. The simplicity of the system and the way it supports the basic assumptions of the game is elegant. I get why people who played it back in the day preferred Traveller to the mish-mash of different rules and resolution mechanics that was (and essentially still is) D&D.

("I make navigation look good.")

It's the little details that make this game feel like it could happen. For example, the ship a group is most likely to have is the Scout/Courier. A small ship designed for long distance jumps with a little room for special cargoes it's an obvious choice. The fact that one of the characters is likely to have one as a benefit of their service is important too. This ship has a weird thing about it though. The air filtration is a little wonky and the whole ship begins to smell like ass after a few weeks. There are quick fixes and expensive solutions, but the end result is the GM needs to track smell along with time for this starship. I can see the workhorse of the imperial fleet ending up smelly because some planet-bound bureaucrat decided the extra tonne of cargo was more important than the air quality.

The only thing I felt was missing from the starter rules is options for careers outside of the military or merchant services. There's just "other" as an entry that seems like little more than an interplanetary vagabond. I was thinking about writing up a set of six options to replace the single "other" option on the enlistment chart. Turns out there's already a book with 12 options already made up! I found out about The Citizens of the Imperium supplement on a G+ thread and purchased the PDF right away. It's not the all the same choices I would have made but there's no reason why I can't add to it. It certainly does the job of filling out the character options.

There are some wonky rules I'd like to see tightened up. The skills for combat are silly and inconsistent with the other skills. You have a skill for engineering to cover all work on drives and such. You have a skill for electronics for all electronics stuff. If you have a skill in flying fixed-wing aircraft you can still fly a helicopter at one less than your skill with planes. That's all well and good, but for some reason there is a separate skill for revolvers and automatic pistols. There's also separate skill for broadswords and cutlasses. All characters are assumed to have a zero level skill with all weapons so at least they aren't rolling at -3 with a weapon almost exactly like the one they are skilled with.

"It is my very favourite gun."

As a GM I'd hack that into weapon groups: Pistols, long guns (shotguns, carbines and rifles), automatic weapons, black powder weapons, laser weapons, pole-arms (including spears and fixed bayonets), short blades (daggers, knives and blades) and long blades. All of these are different enough to require a different skill. I might use the familiarity (one less than the similar skill) from the flight skill with similar weapons like short/long blades or similar firearms. We'll see.

I'm excited about where our Traveller campaign will take us. There's certainly nothing in this rules-light game holding us back at this point! I can't seem to shake a feeling of foreboding for some reason though.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Just like the cool kids: the other 14 questions for #RPGaDay!

In my last post I slammed all 31 days worth of topics down in one go. Now that I'm done I regret it a little since quite a few of the topics deserved their own space and might have generated some discussion. As it is, no one is going to comment on the omnibus post because they'll forget the thing they care about by the time they finish.

The cool kids have an extra 14 topics that I just couldn't get to the other night. I didn't realise how negative most of the questions are. This will be a bit of a departure from the typical, positive stance I take on things. Strap in...

32. Worst game you ever played?

Most games have something salvageable about them. Some thing in it works for me or it will do what it says on the tin so even if it turns out to not be my thing I can at least respect it for being a success.

Not so with Savage Worlds. My worst game experience came when playing a new savage worlds setting. I liked the setting and was excited to finally play "fast, furious and fun" savage worlds! The setting was pretty good but savage worlds was neither fast, nor furious, nor fun. 

I had read savage worlds but never really got a feel for how the damage worked so I thought a run through with someone experienced with the system would make it all fall into place. After four hours of play and a few long, painful and boring combats I'm no more certain of the rules than before. I think we broadcast that game but I'm not going to link to it because I don't want to even look at it again.

Savage Worlds is fiddly. There are a bunch of fiddly rolls to make that lead to more fiddly rolls that end with something happening sometime later. I suppose next to something like Pathfinder it might seem like a fast system, but compared to the actual rules-light systems I'm used to savage world crawls. I love pulp-fiction action. I did not find it here. Which is sad because Savage Worlds has some of the best setting books in the industry. Necessary Evil is a game with a great premise and a solid set of adventures. Sundered Skies is an innovative fantasy world that could have gone a bit farther and dumped the dwarves and elves but at least does a good job shaking up the common fantasy assumptions. The set of adventures again, are good and the origin story for the setting is fantastic! With all the great material, it's too bad the system just doesn't measure up to the promise of: "fast, furious and fun."

33. Interesting rule embedded in an otherwise baleful game?

Machinations of the Space Princess is a game from postmortum studios in desperate need of more playtesting and another edit. It was kickstarted so the art is top-notch but the game itself feels clunky and unwieldy. That said, the character generation includes a method for creating a wide variety of alien races. A player can just mix and match different alien features to create nearly any character. From floating gas bags to a dead guy, it's all on the table. I mention the ability to play a dead PC because it is the first time I've seen explicit rules allowing someone to make a character resembling the dead assassin from the sci-fi television program Lex.

You are supposed to stop at three features but can continue to take more. Taking more features pushes your character farther away from the human experience and makes relating to other characters difficult so the PC with more than three alien features takes a penalty on charisma. This penalty is a good way to open up the crazy with a reasonable consequence. 

This set-up for generating aliens almost redeems the game. Fortunately it's under the Open Gaming License to we may see a streamlined and better explained version of this innovative rule in a new sci-fi OSR game sometime soon.

34. Game you never played but knew it sucked just looking at it?

I can't think of a single example of a game I knew sucked just by looking at it. I've been turned off by a game's art, but I didn't know it sucked. The bad art stopped me from caring enough to find out if it sucked or not.

35. Game you most wish didn't suck?

I wish Machinations of the Flame Princess didn't suck. Besides the unique alien character generation I mentioned above there's a lot this game has to offer. There's simply too much in it to fix, it's easier to bolt the good bits into another system.

Reading through it and playing I always get the feeling that it wasn't quite finished. That and the author didn't understand some of the abstractions used in the mechanics of old school games. The best example is how he doesn't understand Armour Class so he "fixed" it with extra, fiddly mechanics that included rolling more dice in every round of combat and it dragged on! The saving throw system was also a terrible mess.

The main reason I wish this game didn't suck is the art. Satine Phoenix did an amazing job capturing the sexy, sleezy sci-fi vibe of the source material. Her work also does a lot to reinforce the implied setting. That's a good thing because the implied setting is another reason I like this game and wish it was good. It's a shame the game doesn't deliver on the promise made by the art. It would have been amazing!

I'd like to see more of Satine's work in RPGs.

36. Game about which you have the most mixed feelings?

I suppose, MotSP above fits the bill for that one too. As bad as the game is we had a tonne of fun playing. Our GM Chris had this serious, dark setting planned for us but made the mistake of mentioning the possibility of us playing centaurs. It was easy to make centaurs under the MotSP rules.

Centaurs in space turned into My Little Pony in space and our campaign became Friendship is Blasters as we gleefully named our characters things like Rainbow Smash and Pinky Die.

So we fixed the terrible rules and had fun with the idea of the game rather than the game as written. I guess that's the source of my frustration. I contributed to this game as a kickstarter and did my best to spread the word about it because the idea of the game is great. The possibilities available in this style of sci-fi are great fun. The execution of the final product failed to express that idea and there is so much work involved in bringing it up to where it should be to begin with. This game is only fun if I hack it and there is so much that needs to be hacked!

I don't know if it's better to get some vellum and paste in my own text around the great art or just leave it on the shelf. Maybe I resent the need.

37. Old game most in need of an upgrade?

Rifts needs to be brought into the 21st century. It is fun and charming in its own way but games have improved a great deal since Rifts rolled off the presses in 1990. The subtext of power and ignorance is even more relevant now than it was back then. The story behind the setting works but the mechanics could do with some smoothing out. The rules could support the different kinds of play offered by the setting, but don't.

I know there is a Savage Worlds version of Rifts in the works. Savage Worlds would not be an improvement. I'd rather play the old rules. I can say this without a doubt because my group played a short Rifts campaign about a year-and-a-half ago. A new, scratch-built system that is designed for the completely unbalanced nature of Rifts so the Rogue Scholar PC can play in the same party as the Dragon PC and everyone has a good time is what this game needs.

If not Rifts, then Toon. Toon would be great as a Fate Accelerated game.

38. Game you can run with the least prep?

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is my go to game for a lot of reasons. In this case, character generation can be done in minutes and I have a stack of adventures on my shelf I can use at a moment's notice. If I want to freestyle a session I know the system is not going to get in my way by tripping me up.

39. Game with awful art and who you wish you could hire to fix that?

The art for FATE Core is boring. The majority of it features people standing around, doing nothing. Even the cover is boring, with three figures waiting for something interesting to happen. The execution of the magical cop figure is boring and terrible. His face and leading arm are at an awkward angle and appear to be the wrong size for the rest of him. What an awful distraction for a cover.

I would hire Jez Gordon to defibrillate the visual presentation of this game. He can draw dynamic figures in all genres and can give a character in a static pose a sense of menace and danger.

Seriously, hire Jez Gordon to bring your games to life. He is awesome!

40. Best houserule you've seen in action and now you use in your own games?

I suppose my favourite thing is using a random table for searching a body. I think it was on Zak's blog before he put it into his LotFP city supplement, Vornheim. That's my favourite because it can turn a random encounter into an adventure hook. My next campaign I plan on making up a series of "search the body" type tables to keep things interesting.

41. Game you've most changed your thoughts/feelings about?

I was excited about Fate Core when it came out. It seemed like a great toolkit for playing in different intellectual properties on the fly. It also felt like a game-building kit so you could sit down with a group and make up a game but keep everyone inside a basic framework. It looked like a great refinement of Fudge that would streamline the whole system into something fast and easy.

In practice it was a fiddly and awkward process. We played it for several sessions but only had one really good one. That one worked because a relationship between an NPC and a PC was exploited to move the plot forward. I think it can work well in a particular kind of game but is not the universal system it promised to be.

42. Game you'd use to run just about any setting if necessary?

I think I'd probably use Lamentations of the Flame Princess as my base game of choice if I had to stick with one. It's a rules-light system that adapts well to added rules. The skill system and Specialist class makes it adaptable to many genres.

The classes were modified for LotFP to give each mastery of its own domain while having the same ability in the overlapping areas. For instance, all characters can use any weapon and wear any armour. That makes it easy to adapt them to multiple genres without unbalancing them. A given class can be altered or removed as the setting demands and it all still works.

I might steal the healing rules from 5e D&D though. I like how 5e works with the abstraction of hit points better than LotFP.

43. Game that haunts you and you aren't certain why?

Old World of Darkness Storyteller system games. I found my set of books for it a few months back in a cupboard at my parents' house and I have no idea what to do with them now. They call to me, even though I have no desire to play them. I want to look at them. Read them. I don't know why. The 1990s were a strange time.

44. Game that would probably be the most fun to play a bee in?

Rifts! I could play an inter-dimensional Mega Damage bee! A true D-Bee! Or I could play a dragon that thinks it's a bee and stays polymorphed as such all the time. A fire-breathing honey bee with a Mega Damage sting! Yeah! RIFTS!

45. Best Star Wars Game?

I already talked about this one in the last post. WEG D6 Star Wars. I prefer the first edition but I would happily play the second edition too.

46. Game that's good in theory but your kind of on the fence about really?

The Strange by Monte Cook Games. It sounds amazing and original but once you are playing in it so much feels like it's been done before. I think Numenera gets much of its oomph from the setting. The Strange feels a mix of Amber Diceless and Mage the Ascension with Numenera-like mechanics. A lot of the terms from Numenera are needlessly renamed, which I found mildly annoying as well.

I enjoyed playing the Strange even though it was something of a let down. At this point I may have played so many games I've developed an RPG system cynicism. You should probably try it for yourself.

That is the whole shooting match of questions, just in time for the end of the month!

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Bandwagon Blogging: #RPGaDay2015 in one go

I'm jumping on the bandwagon for the #RPGaDay2015 31 questions all in one day with another 14 added on top to make it all interesting. Here are my 45 RPG answers...

1. Forthcoming game you're most looking forward to? (Don't end sentences with a preposition kids - it's not cool!)

Break!! by Reynaldo MadriƱan and Grey Wizard is something I'm looking forward to seeing in print. The concepts for action and the way they are adapting the anime genre to an RPG looks brilliant. The layout and design samples I've seen makes me think this one might be a game changer. If you want to know more check out their development blog.

2. Kickstarted game most pleased you backed?

For game I'd have to say the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Rules and Magic Book. The layout and design is fantastic! The rules are streamlined with some fine-tuned innovations that only add to adaptability of this version of the world's most popular roleplaying game. I've received piles of extras along with my beautiful rule books and I'm pretty damn happy with it all.

3. Favourite new game of the last 12 months?

The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons is my favourite new game this past year. Wizards of the Coast hauled in the ENnies this year for a good reason. The new D&D is one of the best versions of the game to date. It takes advantage of 40 years of game design progress with a return to the spirit of play that launched it all. 

4. Most surprising game?

I can't really say. I don't know if any of them surprise me. That's not something I look for in a game. Maybe Numenera? It surprised me that Monte Cooke came up with a number of ideas that were damn close to the system I'm creating. When he was talking about the design choices for his game I was freaking out a little, but luckily when it came out it wasn't as close as I was afraid it might be. I also moved forward in different directions so it didn't really matter in the long run. By the time I'm finished playtesting the two games may have so little in common people will look at this post and wonder what the hell I was talking about. 

5. Most recent RPG purchase?

Chris Helton of the Dorkland Blog encouraged me to pick up Dyson Logos' Magical Theorems & Dark Pacts. Chris is planning on running Labyrinth Lord when our group gets back to fantasy D&D style play and he wants to use Dyson's book for the magic in our game. Since magic users are my favourite class to play I decided to pick up the PDF. I haven't had a chance to dig into it yet, but after a quick scan I'm happy with the purchase. It changes the flavour of magic in an old school game without major changes to the expectations of how things work. I'll give it a thorough read and possibly a review once we are closer to starting our game.

6. Most recent RPG played?

That's classic Traveller. I picked up the bundle of holding for the Little Black Books back when our Tuesday night group decided to give the old game a try. The PDFs print out well in booklet form on an office printer and aside from some terrible layout and a total lack of art it's a sweet little game. There's a tonne of flexibility there to play several styles of sci-fi adventures. I'm looking forward to seeing where Chris takes it. I know if I ran it I'd set it in the declining years of a vast empire with a crumbling communications network and an erosion of technological know-how. 

7. Favourite free RPG?

My favourite free RPG is Swords and Wizardry. It's a clean version of the classic D&D game and comes in three sets so you can play pure 0D&D or take it forward a few years. I don't know why I love S&W while LL leaves me cold. It might be little things like the single saving throw or bigger choices like the classic Jeff Dee art on the cover of the Complete version. I'm not surprised by the number of games that use S&W as their core rules. It's easy to make changes and bolt more rules on top of the basic core game that they published for free. You can even download a text file of the rules so you can slide your house-rules in where they belong with ease!

I'm looking forward to seeing what the new edition with updated art and layout has to offer!

8. Favourite appearance of an RPG in the media?

D&D is rarely portrayed well in the media because the writers usually haven't played and often those that have played try to distance themselves from the material by making fun of it. The first time I saw D&D in the media was in the beginning of the movie E.T. When Zak S and his group from "I Hit It With My Axe" fame appeared in Maxim Magazine I found out who the self-appointed gate-keepers of the online RPG community were. That was unpleasant, but useful in a way. The article itself was silly but at least gave a positive snapshot of the hobby. 

My favourite appearance of D&D in the media is a recent piece on about why D&D is still fun in the era of video games. It's also by Zak. I suppose his fame in other pursuits makes him a media darling and a natural for such crossover attention. His article is an honest appreciation for the game that I love, for many of the same reasons I love it.

9. Favourite media you wish were and RPG?

I'd love to see Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar in RPG form. I've blogged about the hollow earth as a setting before. What makes it a great choice for an RPG in its own right is the vastness of the world. With seven books of material there is plenty of flavour to begin with more uncharted territory to discover in play. 

(Frank Frazetta's cover for Savage Pellucidar)

What attracts me to Pellucidar is not that gonzo creatures or savage beauty of it. The constant "daytime" of the world has strange effects on time that would be interesting in play and would present a different kind of game than we usually see, especially for D&D players used to measuring out resources, actions and effects in time segments.

10. Favourite RPG publisher?

My favourite publisher is James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess. LotFP pushes the bar higher and higher in terms of adventure content and production values. Janes has put together a wild rogues gallery of writers and artists and he doesn't compromise on the vision of either. LotFP is where you will find the most innovative content in the OSR in hard copies that show the pride in the content. It's no exaggeration to say the Grindhouse boxed set brought me back into the hobby. It was exactly the thing I wanted to play at the time and finding it let me know I was not the only one. James continues to challenge the assumptions of the hobby and make new things that I can't help but buy. The majority of my RPG budget goes to purchasing hard copies of the LotFP adventures and setting books because I trust that they will be worth it. The four ENnies from this year's awards for the 2015 flagship release, A Red and Pleasant Land, should help spread the world about this small press bastion of creativity.

11. Favourite RPG writer?

There is a plethora of fantastic content coming out for RPGs right now. There's so much I can't keep up with it all. Picking one person as a favourite when there are all these awesome choices is ridiculous. I don't want to leave it blank though, so I'll go with Zzarchov Kowalski on this one.

Zzarchov, of Unofficial Games, has written as a freelancer and self-published some of the most innovative content in the OSR. His adventures invariably have a fresh take on the source material. I'm particularly happy with my purchase of his Lovecraft adventure generator with weird time effects, an insidious cult and a collection of mundane yet nasty bastards, called Scenic Dunnsmouth. It is compatible with most of the OSR rulesets. In fact, I plan on using it in a science fiction game.

12. Favourite RPG illustration?

Despite all the amazing art coming out for RPGs these days and the wondrous variety, I don't have any trouble choosing my favourite RPG illustration. I am certain. It's "Throne-Crypt of the Blessed Afflictor" from Death Frost Doom by Jez Gordon.

("Throne-Crypt of the Blessed Afflictor" from Death Frost Doom by Jez Gordon)

Your players' characters' enter the room and you show them this image. They know they are in trouble. They know in an instant that it is time for the A-game or they are all rolling up new characters. He did all the interior art for the updated release of Death Frost Doom and he was the perfect choice. His style of heavy blacks embraced the infamous dungeon crawl and draped it in a new height of macabre tension.

It is impossible to overstate the talent of Jez Gordon. I love this piece because it is an example of quintessential Jez art. His ability to convey mood and texture with full-contrast black and white is amazing! His grasp of the interplay between light and shadow on any surface is nothing short of Mozart-level genius. Jez can reveal character while maintaining an iconic quality in a portrait that encourages player immersion. These two things are in conflict and should not be possible.

The fact that he is a top-notch graphic designer means if you don't love him you should hate him with all the jealousy your shrivelled little heart can hold. I want to work with Jez. I just need to write something good enough to deserve it.

(Random Jez Gordon image from Scenic Dunnsmouth for anyone who still needs convincing)

13. Favourite RPG Podcast?

I used to listen to a lot of these while I post-produced photos. Now that I've retired from the photography biz I've cut down my podcasts in a big way. My favourite is one of the few that made the cut. Fear the Boot has a long history, their own Con and an active forum because they put out a great quality cast. The interplay between the hosts is natural, the insights are solid and the sound quality is excellent. I don't always agree, but I'm nearly always entertained.

14. Favourite RPG accessory?

Google+ Hangouts are (is?) my favourite RPG accessory. Without it I would be lucky to play once per month. With it I can play as often as twice a week when my schedule allows for it. The ease at which I can attend a game after my kids go to bed is a game changer for me in the hobby.

15. Longest campaign played?

I think the Swords & Wizardry campaign that started our Tuesday night hangout game was the longest campaign I have ever played. I think we played if for approximately two years before our gamer ADD got the better of us and we started rolling through other systems and campaigns. We started playing it as a broadcast hangout around the six month mark and, aside from when we playtested A Red & Pleasant Land, broadcast our actual play nearly to the end of the campaign. It featured the creation of the "Lawful Brothel" to combat Chaos on every front, the transformation of a love seat into a holy relic and other shenanigans.

I think it lasted as long as it did because Chris likes to GM. Before that I don't think anyone I played with (including myself) managed to go more than a year before getting tired of running the game and passing the reigns to someone else.

16. Longest game session ever played?

Back in university we played though a long weekend once or twice running on enthusiasm, take-out and caffeine. All-nighters and two-day games were common on the long weekends as well since the laws in Ontario back then meant everything was closed on all Sundays and the Mondays of the long weekend. If the weather was bad we buckled down for some gaming goodness.

17. Favourite fantasy RPG?

Dungeons and Dragons is still my favourite fantasy RPG. There are different editions, versions and clones of it but it's all D&D* to me. I love it. It was my gateway into the hobby and I always return to it knowing it will be a good time.

(*In the spirit of full disclosure I have to say my exception to this statement is 4th edition D&D which never felt like D&D. I know it's a great game that many people enjoy. It should be called something else.)

18. Favourite Sci-fi RPG?

I loved Star Frontiers as a kid and later played the hell out of GURPS Space, but my favourite in the SF genre is the West End Games D6 Star Wars. The way the system supports the crazy, cinematic action is brilliant and fun to play. Star Wars is more science fantasy than science fiction but it's close enough for jazz.

We just started playing a Classic Traveller campaign on Tuesday nights but I don't have enough of a feel for the system to make any kind of definitive statement about it. I'm sure I'll let you know in a month or two. It has potential to be the favourite.

19. Favourite supers RPG?

I've played all kinds of these, but my favourite remains the old Marvel FASERIP game from the 80s. I prefer the advanced game and loved the improvements from the Ultimate Powers Book but I'm happy to play any way someone will run it. There's pile of material out there for it and the PDFs of the actual game books are available for free at Classic Marvel Forever!

The old game captures comic book action and four-colour morality in a great way. I wish I had bought a physical copy of this thing when I had the chance. A bunch of my friends had it though, so I basically had access to it any time I wanted when we were playing.

20. Favourite horror RPG?

Lamentations of the Flame Princess borrows enough from the horror genre that I'm going to use it as my favourite horror RPG. It also qualifies as a version of D&D so it's hitting my list a few times.

I've played Call of Cthulhu, I simply prefer LotFP.

21. Favourite RPG setting?

The setting for the Talislanta RPG is my favourite. I love the rich, imaginative world full of intrigue and danger with a wide variety of people and creatures to interact with. I enjoy the homages to Vance and Bakshi and the straight up nose-thumbing at tolkienesque vanilla fantasy. I love the weird cities, the crumbling, faded and/or conquered empires. The vast rainbow of fantasy races and cultures creates so many possibilities! I love that even though there is a large library of free PDF materials adding wonderful detail to this world (like sentient snails who will talk your ear off) it is still a vast sandbox with huge continent for any group of players to explore and create with their own adventures for years. I love its long and sordid history spanning the creation, rise and fall of the different peoples of Talislanta. I love the airships and floating cities. I love the wild magic that permeates the world to the point that it is everywhere but is still merely a limited shadow of the ancient art that basically made Talislanta what it is.

22. Perfect gaming environment?

I have played RPGs in some odd places. A friend of mine worked as a janitor in his church so we would play there at one of the large tables and then give him a hand moving chairs around on a Sunday evening. The pentecostal church was not a bad place to play spooky Ravenloft games. We only ran into the pastor once. He was fine with it. He was probably thankful Mike was not out dancing, drinking and doing drugs like everyone else.

I like gaming in boardrooms. We had access to them for games back in university and college and now that I'm a real adult boardrooms are even easier to come by. The typical boardroom table is always a good size for even a large group to sit around and still have room for everyone's books, dice and other crap. It will usually accommodate a vinyl battle map too. The chairs are always comfortable. There are usually multiple bathrooms available. There is usually an LCD projector for sharing maps and images and in a pinch a white board is a great tool to clarify a complex situation.

The best feature of a boardroom is I don't have to clean up my house ahead of the game. I have two daughters. My house is a disaster.

23. Perfect game for me?

Nowadays I like a fast, rules-light game. I want to get to the stuff where we interact with the world and find new stuff.

I like rolling dice because the uncertainty creates an awesome tension. I need risk to make the successes meaningful. I don't like rolling dice more than once to resolve one action. This whole thing with the roll to hit, roll for damage, defender rolls dodge/soak/saving throw... Blargh! It should be player describes the awesome they want, rolls dice, GM describes outcome based on roll and on to the next thing!

The perfect game is flexible! With room for anything to happen! difficulty is on a reasonable curve that makes adjudication of any hair-brained scheme fair, fast and consistent.

I want depth of possibility with pulpy action and quiet intrigue in the same game. I want a game that can make combat, gritty, dangerous, brutal and short but still accommodate battle with creatures of an entirely different scale such as a dragon or giant.

I want a game with an open, fluid magic system. One that allows players to take advantage of their imaginations but still has reasonable limits on what it can do to protect the setting/campaign from world-breaking shenanigans.

I want all these things and more in one game. Since I haven't found it, I'm writing it. I'm hoping to have a playtest document for the basic system in the next few weeks so I can start ironing out the kinks, one piece at a time this fall.

24. Favourite house rule?

Back when we played 2e D&D we did initiative on a D10. Every round was split into ten segments and the casting time for spells was also measured in segments. We played it that when a caster rolled initiative they would start casting on the segment on the die and casting would last however many segments the casting time of the spell listed and go off on that last segment. The house rule part was you had to damage a caster during the actual casting segments to interrupt a spell before it activated. If a caster rolled a 6 on the initiative die and cast a 3-segment casting spell, the spell would go off on segment 9. The same spell could only be interrupted on segment 6, 7 or 8.

The rule made it harder to wreck spells in casting unless you held action waiting for them or simply became lucky. It also made low-level and short-casting-time spells like magic missile more useful since they were so hard to interrupt. We ruled the power words impossible to interrupt which only made them that much more scary. Spell casting foes demanded a whole new level of strategy for how to best use the initiative. It also meant the PCs could be careful how they used their own spells to make certain they were effective. It was pretty awesome.

25. Favourite revolutionary game mechanic?

It's a toss up between the Boon mechanic of Barbarians of Lemuria and the Advantage mechanic of D&D 5e. I can't decide because they are effectively the same thing but enter the game in slightly different ways. With BoL you get a bonus D6 when doing something your character is particularly suited to and can suffer the opposite when doing something within a special weakness. The 5e system of rolling two D20s and picking the highest with advantage and the lowest with disadvantage has essentially the same effect. The 5e is typically a situational bonus that a character can take by jumping on a table for the high ground or something but can also be a class feature or result of a feat like the BoL Boons. I suppose a BoL GM could assign situational Boons if s/he wanted to as well.

What I like about these two mechanics is the effect shifts the curve of probability to either a positive or negative outcome. It's not a set value so it adds an extra element that can make for some heroic success or epic failure. That's fun! It's also simple to adjudicate so there's no arguing over how much bonus a certain cation gives you. The advantage is the advantage and that is all. Roll and move on!

I know I said earlier that I don't like rolling extra dice for a single action but this method works for me because the dice are rolled together, adding no real extra time to the process.

26. Favourite inspiration for your game?

I take inspiration from so many places. Old pulp stories I've read and re-read, novels, movies (good and bad, often the best stuff comes from the bad ones), TV shows, comics, crazy stories that come from shooting the shit with people, real-life news-type events, history, religion, myth, RPG adventures/settings/books, and art.

My favourite RPG inspiration is art. The fantastic scenes of a good artist always inspire me. I enter their weird worlds with my mind and explore out-of-view locales, adding to what they've shown me and travelling deeper into it. With great art as a starting point I could end up anywhere. So as far as inspiration goes art works as the first step on a journey I didn't know I wanted to take until it showed me the door.

There's no style that holds me either. I mentioned Jez Gordon in no uncertain terms above but I also like everything from the dreamlike, exotic paintings of Frank Frazetta, to the stylized realities of Larry Elmore and Kieth Parkinson, to the hyper-reality of Jason Rainville.

(Cover image: "The Magnificent Joop Van Ooms" by Jason Rainville)

27. Favourite idea for merging two games into one?

I've done a lot of this sort of thing over the years. Taking the best bits from multiple systems and hooking them together to get a better overall experience. Often it's worked, especially if it's using space combat from one game and RP from another. Other times it hasn't.

Games are crafted better now than they used to be though. I haven't seen a need for this kind of thing in any major way. Mixing and matching elements of different OSR games doesn't count because they are too close together mechanically to be called a mashup and the base rules are crying out for more stuff to be bolted on anyway.

I'll just answer this one with my favourite merging of rules with a setting that doesn't fit it to make something new. I've mentioned LotFP in the Old West before, but my favourite of these is Dogs in the Vineyard used to play a Doctor Who campaign.

28. Favourite game I no longer play?

With everything I have to choose from in games I no longer play my favourite is not terribly exciting. It might have something to do with the internet finding me all kinds of people to play nearly any game. I've even played RIFTs in the last year!

Second Edition D&D is my favourite RPG I no longer play. I can't see myself playing it again either.

Part of what made it great is how I knew it so well I could adjudicate player actions on the fly using comparable rules as framework to keep everything consistent and fair. The kit system supplied PC variety without bogging down character generation. There were so many spells! I love spells! People complain it was a scrubbed up version of D&D but it wasn't hard to put the demons and devils back in. We still had the fiend folio after all. Assassins were a kit. The complete humanoids book brought back the half-orc PC and doubled down with more evil races for player characters. It was certainly the best supported system of D&D with so much supplemental material produced the game became a beautiful mosaic of possible play and the Planescape setting became the bridge to bring them all together.

I also ran a strongly house-ruled version of 2e D&D so it could take months to figure out how to play it the fun way again. That makes starting over an unattractive prospect.

The last reason I no longer play is I gave all my 2e books away before moving out of my home city 20 years ago. I don't like playing from a PDF and I do not have the means to replace what was hundreds of dollars of books then and may amount to thousands on eBay now (with shipping and scarcity factored in).

I wish I still had those books. Not to play, but as a souvenir of the years of good fun I had with some wonderful people. And to mine for ideas.

29. Favourite RPG website or blog?

Three years ago James Maliszewski was chased off the internet for a kickstarter gone wrong. In the end he bowed out as gracefully as he could under the circumstances and everyone eventually got the thing that matched their contribution so I'm not interested in reopening that drama. The real cost of the Dwimmermount debacle was my favourite RPG blog: Grognardia. James wrote a compelling and entertaining blog about games with detail and careful thought at a rate that boggles my mind. They are some great blogs out there now with tonnes of excellent, game-able content, but I still miss the way Grognardia connected what was happening in gaming at the moment to the history that spawned it all. It offered a kind of context that I found useful as I re-entered the hobby and, above all, it made me feel welcome.

Others who have caused far more lasting harm than James have received a pass from the online hobby community. It would be nice if he could get the same forgiveness.

30. Favourite RPG playing celebrity?

I like how Vin Diesel gets excited when he talks about D&D. His contagious enthusiasm and A-list celebrity status makes him a great ambassador for the hobby. Wil Wheton on the other hand is actively trying to make RPGs more accessible to more people through the leverage of his nerd-culture celebrity. With his well-produced actual plays I have to give the top spot to Wil Wheton.

31. Favourite non-RPG thing to come out of RPGs?

This hobby has brought me into contact with some of the most talented, creative, brilliant and compassionate people I have had the pleasure to call my friends. I don't know if it is the mix of traits needed to project yourself into an imaginary person's experience that makes the friends I've made through the hobby so amazing or I am simply lucky beyond words. I don't care.

The lasting friendships I've made thanks to these silly games is the single greatest thing to come out of them and a value that has made and continues to make my life better.

I know I promised the full 45, but I think I'll post the original 31 for now and follow up with the rest of the questions in a second post.