Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Review: UVG - the Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City

With all the awesome things released this year it blows my mind that one I will use first is both free and, according to its author, incomplete.

Luka Rejec released an introductory version of the "Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City" last week. It's a 78 page point crawl with only one location fleshed out. According to Luka's Patreon, the complete version will be released in August of this year. While I'm looking forward to it, this teaser version has plenty to offer.

The cover by Luka Rejec


At long last, WONDER!

I downloaded UVG for the artwork. Luka's work has a way of expressing a great deal of detail and movement with a few simple lines. It reminds of the work of Jean Giraud, A.K.A. Moebius, while showing me something new and original. His work carries a sense of wonder and the fantastic while not settling in any particular genre. I am a fan.

"The Rusty Arc" by Luka Rejec

The Ultraviolet Grasslands leans into this same aesthetic. Luka is is upfront about the influence of the Dying Earth and psychedelic heavy metal on the setting/adventure. The sense of an ancient world, full of sorcery and super-science haunted by the, "long ago," is carried through the adventure's descriptions of the rotting technological remains, strange locations and local inhabitants. 

The new creatures and cultures introduced by the book add to the strangeness with a light touch. Each group, from humans to para-humans, has a brief description and then a table of rumours you can build your campaign's version of them from. Randomly generating the true and false features of these para-humans helps preserve that sense of uncertainty in the unknown and doubles down on the exploration theme of a fantasy RPG. It reminds me a bit of how Traveller's 76 Patrons was set up with a single premise or set of characters with multiple details on a table under each. It allows for the whole thing to be used more than once and be surprising for both the referee and the players.

UVG captures the wonder that the small press RPG community seems to be reaching for recently. It is exactly what I've been looking for. Judging by the sudden addition of Patreons since last week's release, I'm not alone.

"Tower and Hill" by Luka Rejec


Innovation!

It seems like almost every notable small press RPG release from the DIY D&D and OSR communities has some sort of game-changing innovation. UVG certainly delivers in this area. Luka created some new rules for travel which simplify encumbrance and travel while still making them work in a new way. His ambition was to convey both the vast size of the adventure area and the danger of travel through his weird savanna. I'll know for sure once I incorporate it into my regular game, but from reading it, I'd say he succeeds. Besides that success, he also creates a rules-light system for speculative trade that reminds me of Classic Traveller. The simplicity of Luka's system gives the players real choices about how much cargo to carry versus supplies, how large to make their caravan, and even what form of transport and retainers to use. All of these choices have an impact on the speed of travel, potential for encounters and even the likelihood of starving to death. Things like caravan speed and visibility also change the chances of starving and having an encounter.

Hacking up Treasure for UVG - Luka Rejec

I like the switch from days as a unit of time for travel to weeks. It helps to create the sense of isolation in the wilderness when there is only one encounter rolled per week. The party is on its own so they better have what they need. 

Because space and weight are issues that can kill a party, treasure can't always be hauled away with ease. Because of this feature, there are rules for hacking up the treasure for the best bits. This form of looting does terrible damage to these finds, turning the party into vandals, but it allows them to make choices about how they want to deal with large pieces of treasure.

While the UVG is a sandbox filled with all kinds of creatures and points of interest, the distance is the biggest enemy that needs to be faced. I enjoy this feeling of the vast openness as an opponent and can do a lot with it. It certainly marks this adventure as something special and reminds me a bit of how the darkness is handled in Veins of the Earth.

I like how once there is trouble, or something to explore, we return to shorter time units, from days for starvation, down to seconds for combat. It's a way of narrowing the focus and placing the players into the context of the current size of the environment they are interacting with. I'm looking forward to saying things like: "Four days into the second week you see movement on the horizon..."

Luka Rejec's Caravan Record Sheet for UVG makes tracking the new important bits easier!


How does it work?

Luka describes it as a rules-light, RPG point crawl and it is that, but it is clearly set up with some version of 5th edition D&D in mind. The saves reference the six classic statistics. Also the rolls for success use a roll high verses a ladder of target numbers. 

I tend to run a heavily modified hack of the Black Hack so the stat-based saves fit in fine, but the progressive target numbers are a bit harder to work with if you aren't using a skill system. The easiest thing seems to be dividing the stat by three and adding it to the d20 roll, but the most accurate might be to compare how much the check against a stat is made or missed by to the target number ladder. Someone using LotFP might want to multiply skill pips by two and add that amount to the d20 roll.

Despite the few 5e-isms built into the system most things are designed for cross compatibility. Encumbrance and movement rates are simplified when translated into a weekly turn system. All prices are in "cash" so it doesn't matter if you are using a gold piece, silver piece, or tic-tac as the main currency. All the creature and transport descriptions are expressed in terms of hit dice so they will work with any of the D&D editions or clones with minimal work. The weird weapons and items work with minimal conversion as well. 

Another Point of Interest in UVG - Luka Rejec

Basically the innovations are rules light and completely compatible with any system, while the details like weird weapons and armour are mostly expressed in terms of the 5e D&D rules with ascending AC for the armours and weapon terms such as, "finesse," and, "versatile." Any DM/referee using a stripped down "O5R" style rules will not need to convert anything. For the rest, it can be converted or ignored as usual.

The point crawl itself has a series of destinations arranged on the map with the different routes between them marked in how many weeks it usually takes to travel them. There are also spots for placing or generating, "points of interest," near the destinations or off the routes that the party might want to spend some time investigating. These points of interest are investigated in days instead of weeks. There is one sample, but no random generator for the points of interest. You'll need to create those on your own. I expect the full version will have more.

In this introductory version of the UVG, only the first destination, the Violet City is fleshed out. The rest are given a paragraph of description that is enough for anyone looking for inspiration, but leaves a lot of work for the referee to detail. The other locations are available to Luka's Patreon contributors up to #22, The Cage Run, but more are being added all the time. I like it as is. The paragraphs give me enough to work with that I can add details on the fly or make a few tables to generate some points of interest. I might even cannibalize LotFP's Carcosa for some points of interest and other terrors left over from the, "long ago." 

Point of interest from the "Long Ago" - Luka Rejec


UVG! What is it good for?

The sandbox can be used whole hog as described in the adventure and there are plenty of hooks to entice a wide variety of players to enter the Ultraviolet Grasslands. That's my plan.

The rules for hacking up parts of treasure for encumbrance reasons are going to be part of my campaign from the next session onward! 

UVG's rules for overland travel through what is essentially a desert are great! I'll be rolling those into my normal game for long distance travel. The simplicity and presentation of important choices to the players are the perfect tool for me. I may make some modifications for water-based travel so I can keep everything consistent. A new obstacles table is the first thing to create, but the UVG one is a great model!

The rules for trade and even market research could be used in a seafaring campaign or other trade-based adventure. If you spent a long time creating a vast world full of vibrant detail, or you spent a lot of money on supplements of the same, the trade and travel system might be a way to get the party moving around the map so you can use more of it. 

The Para-humans of the different factions in the UVG can easily be lifted and dropped into any fantasy world. There's no reason why the Cat Lords or Porcelain Princes can't be secretly be in charge of Vornhiem, Calimport, Lankhmar, or any home brewed city. 

The art is fantastic and could inspire a kick-ass campaign on its own! Knowing that the art would be awesome is a big part of why I took the time to check this intro UVG out! Without it, I might have waited for the finished product.

Final Thoughts

For a teaser product, the intro version of the Ultraviolet Grasslands is surprisingly complete and usable. The table of contents makes it easy to find specific information. The layout is clean. There are caravan tracking sheets that are well designed to be compatible with the system for the sandbox setting. The point crawl map is made to be printed, written on and used at the table. It is designed to be a tool and I can see it working well for me. The tables for obstacles and bad happenstances are nice details as well. The example of the Violet City is a fine template for fleshing out the other destinations. For a free product, I could not ask for more. It's more than a lot of referees will ever need to run a long campaign. 

It's barely referenced, but elves appear to be an affliction in Luka's campaign that infects the half-elves and turns them into tree-hugging monsters. I have my own horrific version of elves, but I'd love to know more about these ones!

I'd love a little more information about the purple mist. I may have missed it, but other than its change to the sunrise I'm not sure what it does. 

Did I mention the art? The art is great! I printed it out as an A5 booklet in black & white and it all looks great! The muted colours in the PDF set a wonderful tone and help create the feel of the sandbox setting for the adventure.

Even though I'll be incorporating the intro version of UVG into my campaign as a location as soon as I can, I'll definitely pick up the full version once it's available. Hopefully there will be a print version of some kind. Luka's ideas are different enough from mine to add a lot to my game, but still close enough I can use his work with almost no changes. I can just drop the Ultraviolet Grasslands onto the western edge of the map and start giving my players hints and hooks.

There are plenty of NPCs in UVG!


How to get UVG and more from Luka!

If I've peaked your curiousity, there are a few places to go for more: 

You can find the intro version for the PDF on Drive Thru RPG here. I printed it out as a half-letter sized booklet on a laser printer and it works great at that size. I'm torn on my expectations for the size of the final product. I am hoping the final product is A5 for the ease of use at the table, but I also want it to be A4 so the art is bigger!

There's more information on Luka Rejec's Patreon. You can get access to more detailed descriptions of the destinations by contributing as little as a dollar to the patreon. I expect I'll be sign up myself, now that the review is done.

If you are interested in seeing more of Luka's work, his website for his art and writing is here. He has a "rough portfolio" of art here. His art is also featured on his twitter here, and on his Instagram here.



Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Ecology of My Goblins or, How to Make Goblins Fun!

An article about how boring goblins are from Kotaku is making the rounds right now and it is clear that the author is missing the opportunity presented by goblins as a monster in an RPG.

They define goblins as stupid automations "produced in a factory" for the sole purpose of a fighting encounter as though they were a video game creature identical to the ones behind them and never leaving their spawn area.

Taunting Goblins by Thorston Erdt AKA Shockowaffel
Goblins have never been brave or even terribly capable fighters, but they have always been sneaky fighters. The author says they aren't "tricksy" or use traps, but even in the old modules goblins would use traps, raise alarms and run for help so they could overrun the party.

The biggest breakdown is in their suggestions on how to make goblins more interesting. One suggestion was an ambush failure because of a lover's quarrel in the goblin ranks. They suggest revealing cultural elements during encounters to make the goblins more sympathetic to the players. This direction is a missed opportunity to introduce the other and make goblins alien to the players.

I'm all for creating villains the party can relate to, but instead of humanizing monsters, why not use humans? Humans can be on the fringes of civilization even more easily than goblins. It makes sense for them to have stockpiles of currency as treasure and they start as relatable so you don't need to build a bridge to them with contrived situations. You can have lawless bandits that are causing trouble for the townsfolk. You can have a resistance group fighting the lawful, yet tyrannical local lord. You can have a chaotic cannibal cult terrorizing the area. You can have camp of refugees from a disaster in another kingdom that has taken to raiding local farms to survive. In all cases the party is dealing with humans who are evil from the point of view of the local population. They can employ whatever solution they want and easily justify it. If they go with combat they still have the problem of what to do with the children. Are the cannibal kids redeemable by society or is it more merciful to kill them? Does the party need to worry about survivors developing into recurring villains? If those are the things you want to deal with in your game, don't go half-way. Use humans.

As for goblins, I use them as scavengers and upcyclers that are close to civilization so they can raid and steal what they need to make things better for their nests. They repurpose all kinds of stuff into ramshackle contraptions that are dangerous and sometimes comical. This use they have for the player characters' society explains why goblins are often the first creature encountered by adventurers as they begin to push into the frontiers.

Goblins by Llaaii
I organize goblins into nests rather than tribes. The hive-like organization explains why so few of them have any ambition for individual achievement (in that they don't take class levels despite being close enough to society to get the resources they need to do so). The rulebooks (in whatever edition) usually have the goblins ruled by a chief with higher hit dice. I give them a queen, whose hit dice come from her immense size. She rules the nest populated almost entirely by her children. The rest include her honour guard consisting of her sisters and her mates. Her bloated form towers above them all as she is at least as tall as a hobgoblin and massive enough to lay the huge eggs.

Goblins in my world are hatched fully grown. They have a certain amount of genetic knowledge passed to them that allows new goblins to start contributing to the nest without wasting resources on developing them. I describe goblin rookeries as something out of one of H. R. Giger's nightmares.

Alien Landscape by H. R. Giger
This lack of childhood and hive organization make goblins different from humans. They are alien in outlook and motivation. They caper with delight as they take pleasure in the sadistic sport of an ambush. They are selfish and cowardly while still putting little value on individual lives. 

They make great opportunists, working with other pack and swarming creatures like wolves, rats and stirges. I love the look on my players' faces when they realize the goblins ambushing them with nets and bows also released stirges to attack.

Goblins need to be sneaky gits to cause the party major grief, but players can also underestimate them because of that. My favourite goblin trap was a shabby wooden construction in the outer entrance to the nest. The party could hear the rats squeaking and scratching in the wooden walls and ceiling but thought nothing of it. Their low opinion of the goblins also caused them to ignore the unstable construction. That made it a surprise when stepping in the wrong place caused the ceiling to fall in and drop a swarm of rats on top of them. The noise brought the guards who raise the alarm and took pot shots at the party while they scrambled and fought their way out of the wreckage. They decided to retreat and come back with a plan.

If you are wondering about hobgoblins, I run them as larger, more martial versions of their smaller cousins and their queens are the size of an ogre! They are organized as warrior cooperatives that value the damage they can do as a group to expand the holdings of the nest. Combat is not a forgone conclusion though. I had a party played by kids find a back door into a hobgoblin nest, kill the queen and then bluff some other hobgoblins into believing they had bought some of the prisoners so they could get directions to where they were held. (B2 Keep on the Borderlands is the gift that keeps on giving!) 

Goblins, like everything else in D&D, are an opportunity to spin your game into something your group will love to play in. Monsters are a place to build your world into something fantastic and different. The darkness surrounding the light of civilization can define the world as much as points of light found in the towns and cities. A great example of that brand of storytelling in the 5e D&D Monster Manual is the aboleth. Although the best example of world building through monsters I know of is the system neutral monster book Fire on the Velvet Horizon. All monsters allow you to double down on the strange and wondrous elements of your fantasy world. Don't skip the goblins because of their low hit die!

What it comes down to is there are as many ways to use goblins as their are DMs. There is no wrong way. If you are happy with goblins as a twisted mockery of humanity that needs to be cut down like the vermin they are in the search for gold and XP, great! If you want them to have a complex society with speech patterns that confuse and confound your players during negotiations and interrogations, great! If you want to give my spin on the goblin a whirl, great! Goblin encounters are what you make of them as a group. Enjoy it!



Sunday, 7 January 2018

Running 5e D&D for Newbs!

I ran a game last night for a group of people new to tabletop RPGs because one of their kids got 5e for Christmas and they asked me to show them how it's done. One of the dads was also dying to play Since his older brother enjoyed it so much when they were kids.

Character generation was SLOW with so many new people and only two Players Handbooks. My girls are experienced old-school gamers but had never played 5e so even they needed to be walked through it. I was glad my eldest had decided to roll hers up ahead of time so she could help the boys with their characters.



The game itself went well! I had a few plot hooks laid out on the rumour table for after the party got into town. They spread some gold around the tavern and talked to the locals until they got an idea of what was nearby and decided to tackle an old-school dungeon crawl a couple of days from the town.

Not all of the parents were playing. At one point one asks: "So you're grave robbers now?"

The table answers: "No, were saving this stuff from the goblins!"


My daughters adjusted well to the new system. They used their heads well and got everyone thinking outside of the box and how to work as a team.

Darkvision came into play in an interesting way. They knew the goblins had it and were afraid of alerting them with their light so they had the stealthy gnome rogue scout ahead so they could avoid stumbling into ambushes.

They played it smart pretty much the whole time. They were cautious and avoided traps. They played their fights out with sound tactics and busted out spells and spell like abilities at good times. They also found the secret door with player skill rather than rolling dice.

They talked about how much fun they had had after the game and the little guy who got D&D for Christmas talked his parents' ears off the whole way home and then some.

For me it was a tonne of fun helping some more people into the hobby and satisfying to have my tomb/dungeon cleared out in a single session. These intro games are a blast and always surprising!