Friday 5 June 2020

Forbidden Lands - Session Report

I have the tremendous luck to be playing in a Forbidden Lands campaign in the new Bitter Reach campaign setting. Forbidden Lands is the fantasy RPG put out by Free League using their Year Zero Engine rules. I played a one-shot in the main adventuring area called the Raven Lands before moving on to play in a long term campaign in the newly released Bitter Reach, a frozen wasteland north of the Raven Lands.

At first I wasn't too keen on playing a setting covered by a glacier. I live in Northern Ontario, and I did more than my fair share of winter camping so I don't find the idea of trekking across windswept snows to be romantic. I mostly think of long marches in snow shoes carrying too much gear and getting frostbite. Everyone else was excited so I decided to give it a whirl, even after they all made fun of me for having driven a dogsled team once. It would appear I am a Canadian stereotype. 

It turns out that the game also has no romance for hiking through the cold. The weather is a unpredictable foe, and travel is dangerous! It became another challenge of exploration that I found myself enjoying. 

This post is a session report, rather than a review, so I'll get to that. This report is from this week's game. Looking back, it blows my mind how much happens in a two hour session! The group I am playing with is a tonne of fun! The report itself is written from the point of view of my character. Ellodi is a student of winter elf lore who, until recently, lived on the coast of the Bitter Reach and made a living appraising winter elf artifacts to finance her magical studies. This report comes in media res, several sessions in.

Yeah, it's a lot like that.

First foray onto the glacier, Day 11

We drove our dogs hard across the glacier top, travelling straight southwest from the tower, and leaving Kastor's Edge far behind us. Avalanches, storms and snowblindness slowed our progress and we were forced to make camp before turning south.

The weather broke the next day and we made excellent time to the place we believed was the source of the strange lights in the sky.

The glacier parted before us to form a valley between the glistening cliffs of broken ice, and expose the ruins of an ancient winter elf city.

We proceeded with caution since tracks and campfires indicated we were somewhat late to the party as treasure hunters had beat us to this important find. After scouting out the closer buildings, we decided to explore the unoccupied remains of a sorcerer's tower as a place of interest and potential camp.

The contents of the tower had suffered great damage from the crushing weight of the ice and the recent melt. Only one scroll was recovered after careful work. We were able to find a few artifacts and some excellent examples of the furniture from the period. The tower doors were in excellent condition and with a little work were repaired and secured to protect us from the potential mischief of the treasure hunters who are no doubt raiding this precious archaeological site as I write this report.

Karina volunteered to remain in the tower and prepare our camp (mostly because her player didn't make this session) while we made haste to explore the other buildings we had spotted from the upper level of the tower.

We approached an important looking structure that was largely intact due to its extra thick walls. I was hoping for a library of some sort but once inside we found a structure that looked like a vault and in front of it a person that welcomed us.

This person was impossibly beautiful and charismatic. They quickly charmed the party. Lucy, the minstrel, was particularly smitten. Djhara also made advances of a romantic nature toward the person but I am uncertain if they understood since the mating rituals of the wolfkin are something of an acquired taste.

The creature claimed to be only interested in one of the many artifacts their research indicated was in the vault. They were happy to allow us to recover all the other artifacts as long as they received the medallion.

Opening the lock turned out to be child's play when comparing the stellar components to the sketch Selatula had made of the ancient star patterns in the tower we had previously explored. (The lock was actually pretty difficult and would have been impossible without that star chart. Even then, Ellodi strained to do it, and had to push a lore roll to get the job done)

Once inside the vault we found many scrolls that appeared to be documents indicating ownership. These would certainly be helpful in constructing a translation key for the winter elf language. There was also two medallions similar to the description the creature gave us. Upon closer inspection we noticed that the two medallions had the star patterns of two different areas of the ancient night sky.
We also noticed the creature could not touch the medallion. They deflected all questions about their refusal to touch either medallion. Our suspicions were aroused, but it was being cooperative and I had already marked the star-field on our sketch so it seemed harmless to let it take the artifact as agreed and potentially dangerous to go back on our agreement.

As Lucy deposited the medallion into a pouch for the charming creature I asked a question about the night sky on their medallion. The creature's charm fell before a rage that transformed it into a monstrous entity with tentacles and yellow eyes that rivaled our torches with their preternatural glow.

The demon grabbed Lucy's wrist and I felt the magic flow into her, before seeing it paralyze her mid scream. At the same time the creature roared its defiance and wrath, breaking Djhara's spirit with the horrors it held and we watched in abject terror as the great warrior, Djhara Bloodspit, folded up into a ball on the floor.

Sela reached for the second medallion, hoping to wrap it around the demon's neck. I was quicker and spoke the words to weave a spell drawing on the primal power of the fires burning in our torches to make the creature's fine clothing to burst into purifying flame. Not knowing if it might be immune to such an attack I marshaled my energy carefully, using only a portion of it. That power, increased by my frailer heritage, made the demon the centre of a pillar of terrible flame.

To the surprise of all of us, fire was the weakness of the creature and it succumbed instantly to the attack, turning to a pile of ash in a heap of burned clothing. Sela's outstretched hand dropped back to her side as her mouth fell open at the devastation of the scene. I too was taken by surprise and exclaimed, "That's not supposed to happen!"

We recovered the demon's medallion and gathered the rest of the artifacts before returning back to the tower to care for the afflictions wreaked on us by the foul creature. Lucy recovered, and in turn was able to use the power of her music to bring Djhara out of her waking nightmare.

Would that the evening had passed uneventfully, but Sela's sharp ears picked up a call for help out on the glacier. Djhara, Sela and myself went out to a crevice in the ice to effect a rescue of a wayward traveller who is even now curled up by our fire in my spare furs. She says she only wants to return to civilization after losing the rest of her party, but my companions are suspicious after the episode with the demon. Time will tell, I suppose.


It's such a stroke of luck the campaign area fits neatly in a rectangle like this!

Wednesday 29 April 2020

Old RPG Words That Make No Sense

Progress in RPG design and play is held back by the words we use that don't make any sense.

Hit Points.

So many RPGs have some version of "hit points" whether it's called hits, hit points, health, vitality, or whatever, it is expressed as a representation of how much damage a character can take. Video games have copied this idea for years, and you see your little digital bonhomme getting wailed on while a bar or a number  of hit points gets smaller. Why not? It's there in the name, right? Hit points, those are points you use up getting hit, right?

Someone is hoping the undead giant is almost out of hit points

Except it's not right. Not really. Hit points have almost always been an abstraction expressing something else entirely. I've talked about the problem of damage before, but in terms of Dungeons & Dragons and many games using hit points, there is no damage until the hit points are gone. Hit points represent the ability of a character to postpone the inevitable through skill, experience, luck, or script immunity. They represent an ability for a hero to keep fighting when everyone else would be done. They are more a measure of endurance than damage capacity.

This idea is further confused by the old-school rates of healing where characters only got one hit point back per day of resting. Something ridiculous when characters can easily get to a place where they have 20 or 30 hit points. If they are healing, then they must have been hurt, right? Except that is not how it works. A character is just as effective at one hit point as they are at full hit points. Because they are not hurt unless they are at zero! In the old days if your character went below zero they were dead! Not just wounded, but killed. Luck finally caught up with them and took her due. It wasn't long before rules developed for going into negatives where a risk was involved, but not immediate death.

Fast forward to the last few years. Two different innovations double down on the idea of hit points as an abstract that expresses endurance. The first is the death and dismemberment tables that came out of the Old School Renaissance (OSR) Blogs. The idea was if your character went below zero hit points they had been wounded and could be badly hurt or even dead. Rolling on the tables got you a result that your character had to live with. Maybe they lost a limb, or an eye, and it had ongoing mechanical effect on the character. After a while they could look pretty rough. Eventually a character could even be forced into retirement by accumulating too many, "old war wounds." I'm a big fan of the death and dismemberment tables. Partially because they reinforce the concept of how things work, but also because they add a real element of risk to fighting to your last. Players with characters who can be brought around in a moment to fighting condition with no consequence are not going to have any good reason to surrender, if there is no consequence to negative hit points. The idea that the table might give them a reason to play as if getting wounded is something to be afraid of encourages more realistic role playing.

Oops! You interrupted her short rest.
What's the worst that could happen?

The other innovation is the idea of short and long rests. I think the first game I saw this idea in was Barbarians of Lemuria, where a few hit points could be recovered by taking a breather and a quick drink and full recovery required night's rest. This same approach made it into a few different small press games, and the latest edition (the so-called 5th edition) of D&D. By explicitly recovering hit points through short and long rests the D&D, and any other RPG, rules are making hit points endurance. There is nothing wrong with this approach. I like it. It's cinematic and makes for high-speed pulp-fiction action! That's all great! It allows players to accomplish more by giving them more significant choices about how they use the two resources they have, time and hit points.

The problem is the thing is still called, "hit points," and we generate them by rolling, "hit dice," when these two things are expressions of endurance. It doesn't really matter where the name hit point came from. It may be a hold-over from the war games the designers of the early versions of D&D were playing and using to inform their first RPGs. Maybe someone thought it sounded cool. The fact is, it doesn't fit and is actually misleading. All the grognards and legacy players are already composing their comments about how wrong I am and how the word doesn't matter because obviously we all know what it means.

Except we don't. Many players think the fast recovery of hit points through rest is unrealistic because you can't walk of a sword thrust to the abdomen. If we expressed it as endurance and described combat with point loss as close calls, bangs, jams, bruises, and numbness in the limbs it would be easier to get more people all in on the concept. The other problem is new players. RPGs have exploded, in no small part to the efforts of Wizards of the Coast to make D&D accessible and easy to grasp. Words like hit points get in the way of that because they suggest the character is getting hit when they lose hit points. Why set them up to fail? Why not call it what it is? Because of tradition? Meh, there are more new players now than ever before. Because someone can tell them? People are learning to play from the books and watching actual play on you tube. Terms matter in both of these cases because that is how the new players will interpret what is happening in the game. I'm not the first to come to this conclusion. The Neo-Classical Geek Revival (NGR) fantasy RPG has used the term "Luck" for these points for years.

Someone is rolling on the death and dismemberment table!

The waters are muddied further by the idea of weapon damage. When D&D was first created, almost everything on two legs had single digit hit points. Humans were all assumed to be zero level with, at most, three hit points. That means that first hit was probably taking them down. A dagger could do it, but a two-handed sword had a better chance of ending a generic cultist or town guard in one shot. Fighting fantastic monsters the assumption was they were magical or huge beasts that could actually be hit more than once with little effect. Calling it hit points under those circumstances could have made sense to the people running and playing those first games. It might even still make sense to call the ability of a dragon to keep fighting hit points now. I'll concede that point. Still, for the sake of having a consistent expression it is better to have magical creatures with endurance than characters with hit points for the reasons I outlined above.

So if a weapon doesn't do damage to a character, what does it do? The way I run it at my table is attacks remove hit points. no one takes damage until they go down. Monsters snarl in pain at flesh wounds, enemy shields buckle under the assault, or they are beaten back as they lose their hit points. I've run it like that for a couple of years now. For example, "Your shield arm is still vibrating from the blow and you lose (rattle-rattle) four hit points." It seems cleaner to move this to something like, "Sparks fly as the bugbear's axe crashes against your sword and you stumble back a step. You lose (rattle-rattle) 7 endurance."

It's visceral, it keeps everyone in the fiction, and it shows the player what they still have in the tank to finish the fight. Then they choose how far to take it. Can they push through and find a place to hole up for long enough to get their wind back? Has the alarm gone up and they are facing a running fight until they can win or get out? Endurance is no less exciting, or dangerous with the addition of a death and dismemberment table. It's also still all close enough that converting old modules and third party adventures on the fly should be no problem for a referee/game master.

I run a hugely modified version of the original Black Hack rules. I call the threat to endurance, "attack dice," and it seems to work well. The attack die represents the combat ability of a given character or monster when they attack. It's logical, accurate, and it works well in play. I like to run for new people and experienced players alike. Everyone seems to like it so far.

Belkar Bitterleaf, of the Order of the Stick

These old words, hit points, have the baggage of old assumptions based on their wargaming routes and new assumptions based on what the words mean. For ease of adoption of current gamers, the words are used. They are a short hand that no one will question. Because no one questions the short hard, the baggage follows us to new games that arguably, would be better off without them. There are a host of D&D clones and D&D-ish games out there thanks to the Open Gaming License. These new and different games all put some kind of a spin on the tabletop RPG experience. The publishers of D&D might fear losing their current base by changing too much, but small press publishers have more freedom to break new ground. That's why most of the best innovations in game mechanics, campaign settings and game art come from the small press publishers.

If we take advantage of this freedom, and we dump hit points, hit dice, and damage, what is next? What other words make no sense? Levels, maybe? There are character class levels, spell levels, dungeon levels... How many different things do we need to describe with the same word?

Character level seems sacrosanct. The concept of leveling up is ingrained in western culture thanks to video games borrowing their framework from D&D.  If characters get levels, then everything else needs to find a better word.

Dungeons could be described in terms of floors: Floor one, two, etc. That makes sense and translates well enough to real experience. I don't go to an office on the fifth level of the building, I go to the fifth floor. This seems easy enough to change and will not make it more confusing, at least.

When we talk about spells, we are talking about power. Each level a magic wielding character ascends gives them access to more spell casting power. If spells were described in terms of power, it would make more sense for a level five wizard to finally gain access to power three spells like fireball! Power one, power two... or is it first power spells, second power spells, etc? Regardless, power is a suitable replacement.

As designers and runners of games, many of us do our best to trim the fat of game mechanics so our games run fast and smooth. We should be doing the same with the terminology. If we don't we are leaving a barrier in place for no reason other than that's the way it has always been done without asking if it's the best way to do it.

I'll be trying these out in in my home game and any D&D type games I run online this summer. I'll see how it works out. If you try it, let me know how it works for you. Does it change anything?

I have the Warrior Princess Prestige Class so these arrows used up temporary hit points.
I'm still at full HP!

Thursday 16 August 2018

Review: Troika

I received a PDF of the "Troika! RPG" in one of the charity bundles I supported. Sadly, I don't even know which one. I didn't pay much attention to it at the time but the kickstarter has a bunch of people talking about the game in glowing terms again so I decided to see what the fuss was all about. Overall I was impressed and wished I'd looked at it sooner!

Daniel Sell and Jeremy Duncan created Troika and publish it under the Melsonian Arts Council.

It gives you a lot to work with in only 50 pages, but feels incomplete. It may not be an issue going forward because the new edition is projected to be nearly twice the page count and will come with a series of supporting chapbooks. Still, it's worth mentioning because I'm not sure if the brevity is a feature or a bug.

I like that the setting is baked into the rules. All of the character classes, called backgrounds here, are full of implicit setting information. The skills, the spells, and the handful of monsters, give you a strong sense of the setting. The way this is executed is great! These brief references to the world(s?) of Troika are an evocative way to root the different game elements to the setting without clogging up the game with pages of text. The problem is there is no other reference to the setting in the book. It's only implied, never described. For veteran gamers this setup is not a problem. The game master will simply run the version of the setting that blew up in their mind as they read the rules. Every group would be playing in their own unique version of Troika. I like this idea, but the game is billed as a good beginner role playing game. While the rules are easy, I think people new to RPGs would be a bit confused about what they should be doing and what is supposed to be going on in Troika.

The setting, as far as I can tell, is amazing and full of wonder. It takes place in a series crystalline spheres that hang in a "humpbacked sky" and serve as the stars for each other. It's possible to move between them on golden barges powered by mirrored sails. It also appears to be possible to fall out of one and land in another. Goblins seem to be able to connect underground labyrinths from one sphere to another. In these ways people and cultures from the different spheres mix with each other and adventurers have the option to get into all kinds of new brands of trouble. If things get stale in a long campaign the party need only move to another sphere to get a fresh start or new experience!

Troika is science fantasy, with a mix of swords, energy weapons, and magic. Personally I love the science fantasy, sword and planetesque style RPG setting. If you want a more pure fantasy game, the science fiction elements of Troika could be scrubbed out without much trouble. Certainly a lot easier than the old Star Wars RPG.

The rules are based on an RPG that grew out of series of solo adventure books. Both were called "Fighting Fantasy" and were apparently quite popular in the UK in the 1980s. Living in Canada, I never saw either and I don't remember any ads for them.

The system uses regular six-sided dice for everything but manages them to get a wide variety of results. The core of the system is 2d6 + base skill + advanced skill vs opponent or 2d6 to roll target number or under of the total skill (base skill + advanced skill). So if your character is using a hammer to fight an enemy you roll 2d6 add your skill and any skill you have in hammers and hope you get more than the GM does with 2d6 plus the enemy's skill. If your character is climbing a cliff, you need to roll 2d6 and get the total of your base skill and climb skill or less to succeed. Advanced skills are attached to specific things like climbing, etiquette, specific spells, and swords. I found it easy to grasp and good for all kinds of situations. The roll high sometimes, roll low others I find a bit irritating but it's hardly the first game I've played that switches back and forth.

A sample page from the character generation section with two backgrounds.

The book opens on character generation which is fast, random, and wild. I like character generation at the front of an RPG rule book, since it is the portion used the most. The system allows you to produce a character in a few minutes. There are no classes, but there are 36 backgrounds rolled for using d66 (11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, ... 65, 66). Because there is no class and level advancement these backgrounds are starting places for each player's character. The character improves the skills they use and learn new ones they spend time and effort on. With so many different starting places and no clear path forward, playing each character should be a unique experience.

The game only has three stats: skill, stamina and luck. Usually a game with so few stats ends up with little to differentiate the different characters from each other. In this case, Troika avoids that fate by having a long list of specific "advanced skills" that create the detail and flavour of each player character. It might be more accurate to say this game has one stat and two resources. The base skill is the raw talent the character can apply to any action and augment with a relevant skill if they have it. The stamina is the character's total effort that they use to take lumps and keep going or fuel their spells. It's recovered pretty quickly for an old school game. It is fairly close to 5e D&D's hit points in that respect. The character's luck is another resource they can spend to tip the balance in certain situations or as a saving throw. It's by no means certain, it is luck after all, but it can run out.

One thing I noticed with the advanced skills is there are none for social situations outside of etiquette. I'm guessing this comes from the creators relying on player skill and roleplay for situations that would call for a deception or insight roll in another system. Although the rules specifically invite the invention of more advanced skills, so it;s easy to adjust it to your play style.

The cover image from the game's first print run.

The backgrounds are summed up in a few paragraphs including starting equipment, skills, any special rules that apply and a brief description. The variety of backgrounds include some of the usual suspects with a handful of warriors, priests, and wizards each with a flavourful spin of its own. They also have odd things like a lost king from another sphere who no one has heard of. It turns our a king without a kingdom is just a random person in a crown with a high etiquette skill. The dwarves in Troika are not born, they are made by other dwarves. Each dwarf is an artistic achievement, except the poorly made dwarf character. To other creatures they look like an ordinary dwarf, but other dwarves either ignore them or have a discussion about their flaws and draw on them to emphasize the points made. There is definitely something for everyone in the list. A party randomly rolled of such options would be a motley crew and makes me think of the groups of characters found in Terry Prachett's Discworld.

The encumbrance system is streamlined and easy to use, but has a clever innovation for finding equipment in a hurry. Your character has 12 slots of carrying capacity before they become encumbered. Some items take multiple slots and others, like arrows, can be packed into one. Any time your character tries to grab an item you have stowed like a potion, or a crossbow bolt, you need to roll its position or higher on the list with 2d6. Otherwise they must stop and rummage through their belongings to find it. This set up means players need to "pack carefully" to keep the important stuff, like weapons and ammunition, within easy reach. It's a fun quirk and adds a sense of urgency and suspense to changing weapons or getting a rarely needed item.

The other big innovation is the initiative system. Players each put two tokens in a bag for their character while the game master puts in the appropriate number for the enemies' initiative and the end of round token. Tokens are pulled one at a time to determine the order in which each character or creature in the conflict acts. The bag is refilled and a new round starts when the end of round token is pulled, so it is possible some wont act in a given round while others act multiple times. This makes combat a completely chaotic mess where opportunities are taken as they come and sometimes you get caught flat footed! I love the idea of this system even though I'd need to dig out my poker chips or find something else to make it work.

For me, the section that could use the most expanding is the enemies section. The monsters are fantastic! The dragons are wonderful beings of light and thought, the manticores are brilliant bookworms living in splendor. Each monster entry only takes a few paragraphs and includes a d6 table of creature moods when they are met to keep the encounters unpredictable.

My favourite monster is the parchment witch. This is a long dead sorcerer that covers their bones and rotting sinew with leather, parchment, paper or vellum to hide their true nature. Their thin disguises are vulnerable to water and fire which can make things awkward. They can also wear someone's skin for about a week before it starts to rot and becomes useless. This one is so messed up and it doubles as one of the background options! The parchment witch is only part of the picture though. Some of the monsters are rooted in comedy, like the road knight that appears to be a reference to the black knight of Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail.

The magic system has a simple skill roll and stamina cost to keep spell casters in check. It also has an "Oops!" table for when the player rolls box cars. This system means magic is a bit unpredictable and dangerous without making the casters a constant danger to themselves and everyone around them. The spells themselves have enough variety and are flexible enough to be used in a wide variety of circumstances. This section is probably the most complete in the book.

The equipment section is brief, but doesn't appear to need anything more than it has. One thing I like is how the damage for different weapons is on a d6 table. Rolling a 1 on the d6 does dramatically different damage when the character is using a polearm than it does when they are using a knife. The weapons are defined by their damage spread and how they punch through armour. The armour is a simple damage reduction.

The art is consistent and good. It fits the contradictory elements of comedy, grittiness, and the strange captured by the text.

From a GM's point of view, this game is easy to run on the fly with heavy improv but doesn't need to be run that way for it to work. The stat blocks for monsters are skill/stamina/initiative so everything is there at a glance. The damage tables are in the back of the book so they are easily referenced. I will definitely run this game the first chance I get!

I like that it's not another in a long line of similar games with a twist. Like the d20 retro clones, the Fate games and the powered by the apocalypse games that are becoming legion. By using lesser known system as a jumping off point their game is all twist! Troika is different in a way I respond to. It reaches for the wonder found in the best science fantasy art and I think it's a good tool for a group to get there.

Like my review of The Black Hack, this one is a bit late. I think the reason is the same though. Both games have terrible names that don't inspire me. I thought Troika had something to do with eastern European legends, which I'm not overly interested in. The fact that it hits my sweet spot for crazy science fantasy with a magnificent mixture of awe, darkness and silly, is not referenced in the name. I asked Daniel Sell about the name and he said it was combination of it being the name of the tri-city that was the main population centre of the setting (something not in the book), a reference to the three stats, and something that sounded funny. I can't argue with that logic.

If you are looking for a tight, rules-light science fantasy game with a wide open setting, check out the kickstarter for the Numinous edition of Troika they are running now. It's already funded and the stretch goals will add to the supplementary setting and adventure material that this new version will have to expand what is at its core a solid game. So solid that I think we may see some Troika clones next year.

Have a crazy character sheet I found online.

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


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!