Tuesday, 30 December 2014

We Can Only Go Down From Here: The Next Logical Step For LotFP!

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is making all kinds of waves with the new releases. I'm still waiting on mine to show up and it's making me a little crazy! I've been thinking about what I have coming and the rest of the catalogue and my wheels are spinning! I've skimmed the PDFs of my imminent arrivals and found an interesting pattern that builds on what James Raggi has done and the things he has in development.

The pattern I am talking about is a slow build toward a Hollow Earth setting. The assumed setting of the Early Modern Era was rife with legends of a world inside our own. A quick internet search will show that there are people who still believe there is another world inside ours and a secret history to go along with it. It's a weird location with almost limitless potential. Because any characters exploring the Hollow Earth would be from the historical world of the Early Modern Era there is still a "normal" experience for players to balance against the weird. The proximity to the real world also allows for some opportunities for extremely ordinary things from our world to be found in the hollow earth. All these things allow for a completely new world full of strange new things to explore while still keeping to the basic tenets of Weird Fantasy Roleplay.

The most famous Hollow Earth fiction is probably Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar series. One of things that captured my imagination about Pellucidar from a gaming perspective is how the constant daylight affects the perception of time. Here in Canada it is possible to live far enough north to experience "the midnight sun" during the summer. I don't live that far north (thankfully!) but I have friends who have and other friends who currently work up there a few weeks at a time. It can mess with a person's circadian rhythms. It has even been known to drive people mad. It's not a far jump from there to Burroughs' ideas of time having no meaning in Pellucidar.

Burroughs took it a step father though. In his stories the perception of time is a necessary part of its working. Because the characters could not perceive time passing they could not be affected by it in the same way as a person living on the outer surface would be. This means PCs taking a "night's rest" need to set a watch or they might sleep for the equivalent of a hundred years. It also means they consume resources such as food and water at irregular rates. Going inside a space where time is important in terms of how long a torch lasts might be shocking after they get used to unfettered time in a wilderness crawl. The short and long rest mechanic from 5e D&D could fit well into the fluid time of Pellucidar. Let's hope WotC gets on with their update to the OGL so it can be ported in.

The mutability of time makes things a bit difficult for a GM who is tracking the actions of other factions operating concurrently to the PCs. Things like distance and resources will have to determine what can happen in the background while the PCs act but with time the way it is pretty much anything can happen. The beauty of LotFP is there is already a blueprint for dealing with these kinds of issues in The Monolith From Beyond Space and Time.  Time in that adventure moves at different rates for different characters. Distances are relative and it takes quite a lot for the players to wrap their heads around what is happening. So much of the groundwork for Pellucidar's strange time is done for LotFP.

Another thing I love about Pellucidar is that the inner earth is protected from the trauma experienced by the outer world. That means there are still dinosaurs! Besides the fantastic that could exist hidden from our view in the hollow earth there are all the creatures from every era of earth's history down there. All the creatures of legend that seem to appear and disappear like Sasquatch/yeti, the slender man and the moth-man could all be residents of the hollow earth that somehow made their way to the surface as well. Again, the possibilites are endless. The hollow earth with its disconnected time and entrances through the ground could explain the legends of faerie mounds where people entered the land of the fey only to return to a time hundreds of years after the one they left.

When it comes to dinosaurs though, LotFP has it covered! The infamous adventure setting Carcosa has dinosaurs but it's the still-under-development World of the Lost that I think is being written by Rafael Chandler that leads me to believe a hollow earth full of dinosaur shenanigans is on the way. It's clearly inspired by Conan Doyle's Lost World and is a mere step away from Pellucidar.

Getting back to Carcosa, the depravity of the snakemen of that product matches up well with some of the terrible creatures of Pellucidar. The low placement of humanity on the Carcosan food chain also fits in well with the character of most hollow earth stories and is just as ripe to be upset by enterprising PCs as it was in the original stories set in Pellucidar. The Judges Guild style hexcrawl format used in Carcosa also would serve well to cover a section of the hollow earth in detail.

A Red and Pleasant Land by Zak S. deserves mention in this progression toward a hollow earth setting as well. Its Land of Unreason is a world apart with its own rules and is difficult to access. It's not much of a reach for players to adventure in the hollow earth after their characters survive (or don't survive) A Red and Pleasant Land.

Besides all this conjecture and guessing on my part there is the Thulian Echoes adventure! In that one by Zzarchov Kowolski there is an explicit stairway to the hollow world. The adventure gives no clues as to what the hollow earth itself is like but the journey is described as a long one and there are random encounters that include the corpse of a Triceratops! In Thulian Echoes there are creatures down in the earth's crust inspired from other works such as the Vril from Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Vril, the Power of the Coming Race (originally published as The Coming Race in 1871). There are also devolved versions of the elder creatures from H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.

Excerpt from Thulian Echoes page 16 - image by Kelvin Green

I like the inclusion of the creatures from At the Mountains of Madness. It could mean that the cyclopean city set in Antarctica was an outpost of a grand subterranean civilization that still exists in the hollow earth. With time as mutable as it is, little time could have passed for that civilization and they might be still wondering what happened to their city they only recently lost contact with.

Image by Kelvin Green

The disconnect with the progression of time between the out and inner surfaces of the world means characters could encounter lost legionnaires from Rome, people of Egypt or any era of history. A GM could even mess with players by having their characters encounter explorers from an era a hundred or more years after their own to show how they've lost time on the inner surface.

The time thing gives me an idea for an interesting location. A mad old wizard's tower where the incredibly ancient man wears the ravages of time on his wrinkled skin as he tends to water clocks and endlessly winds the clockwork of the tower itself in an effort to bring time to the hollow earth. It could create strange time effects near the tower and give rise to a host of magic spells based on controlling time in the tower's library.

I like the idea of a hollow earth or Land of the Inner Sun campaign setting. In fact, if James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess doesn't get the ball rolling on this thing in some official way I might have to go ahead and do this one myself.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

First Impression of the 5e Monster Manual, or Merry Christmas to Me!

This morning I found the Fifth Edition Monster Manual for Dungeons and Dragons nestled beside my stocking. My wife and I don't exchange gifts, we fill stockings for each other. It is rare that everything fits in there and today was no exception.

I hadn't planned to buy the Monster Manual. With so many years of gaming, creating monsters of my own and other material on my shelves I figured I didn't need it. My wife knew all this and decided to buy me the one RPG book I would not buy on my own.

Such a good call!

My first impression of the book is a positive one. The art is enjoyable and the layout is familiar and easy for me to use. I especially like the collection of NPCs at the back. It's nice to have some opponents all statted out and ready to go at a moment's notice. Players have a way of taking the game outside of the prepared zone so it's a handy resource.

Thanks to my daughters waking us up at 7 am to open presents there's something of a gap between our morning and the first visit for brunch at my in-laws. In that time I've had a chance to leaf through it and put my thoughts down here. 

Seeing the images, reading descriptions and statistics for all the classic monsters and some new ones as well is more fun than I expected! Each entry I land on gets my wheels turning. Thinking about how I could build an adventure around the new take on the Medusa, where the yuan-ti fit on the my world's map, how I need to change the monsters' history or habits so they fit the story of the Last World, and what WotC's ideas can add to my own.

I'll definitely write up a proper review in the new year after I read through the thing in detail and try it out at the table. Until then, have a Happy Holiday and I hope you received some RPG goodness too!

Monday, 15 December 2014

Confessions of a Killer GM

Between Fear the Boot Podcast talking about killer GMs, Kiel Chenier presiding over what may be the end of the famous goblin PC, Man Rider, in a Google Plus Hangout game this past Friday, and the deep darkness that is the Canadian Winter, my thoughts and ruminations swirl around the solemn GM task of adjudicating PC death.

[Image and text by Jez Gordon, see more of his awesome work here!]

I hate it when my characters die. I usually play with a discovery mode, having the character's background develop through interactions and roleplay over the course of the different situations and adventures. I find this allows the characters to be integrated fully into the GM's world and allows for unique characters to reveal themselves and keep me from playing the same thing over and over. Sometimes a GM will ask for a back-story so s/he can make adventures and sub-plots that work with what the players are interested in. In such a case I can easily crank out a back-story with all the juicy hooks and dark secrets a GM can handle in one email. In both of these cases though, by the time the character is fleshed out, whether it's a couple of levels of play or a couple of hours of mad typing, I'm pretty invested in the characters. I know the people I play with feel much the same way. And yet...

I am a killer GM.

If the dice fall badly for a player and the stakes of the roll were life or death, that's it. No hesitation. No waffling. The character is dead. Time for the player to generate a new one and get back into the game. I expect no less from any GM I play with.

I'm going to step outside of tabletop for a moment for an example that explains how these two things work together. In the late 1990s I played paintball. For those that don't know, paintball is basically a complex version of tag with guns. I played at the competitive amateur level (IPPL) and our team was sponsored to the point where we were almost breaking even. Not bad at the time.

When our team first entered the high level of play we were coached by the veterans that if we wanted to win, we were going to have to learn to wipe. Wiping is cheating. You get hit and then wipe the paint off before the referee sees it and calls you out. I tried this in practice once. It was awful! I never played as bad as I did in that practice game where I wiped three or four hits. I also never wiped again. I needed the possibility of failure to get the edge I need to play my best and for it to be fun. I needed the rush that came with the risk.

The philosophy that I take from the paintball field to the table top is simple: If you can't lose, you can't win.

When I'm playing an RPG and I take a risk with a character, it is awesome because it can go bad. The higher the stakes, the higher the tension. The more that turns on a single die roll the mores eyes around the table that are glued to it as it stops. This tension is where a lot of the fun comes from in an adventure!

When I GM, I want my players to do awesome stuff with their characters and I want the players to have those awesome moments that make them feel like they won. As a GM it's my responsibility to present challenges and stakes that allow them to shine and have the moments they will talk about well after the game is over. It can't be easy and when they do fail I need to describe consequences that support the tension and maintains the excitement. I need to allow a character or two to die for the others to be the "big damn heroes" that everyone wants to play.

That said, life or death stakes can be a bit overused. I've had a player lose two characters in a single session to bad saving throws. That sucked for everyone. While there needs to be consequences death is not the only one. Sometimes it is much worse for a PC to survive. The same player who lost multiple characters in one session retired another PC as unplayable after it had suffered so many magical mutations he felt it was unplayable. Capture, the loss of cool items that characters have accumulated, disfigurement or even the loss of a limb can all be interesting results that lead to new adventures as the players try to fix the new problem. Things like that work because they change the character's situation long term and enforce the idea that failure has a consequence. Everyone understands they are playing without the net.

Total Party Kills (TPKs) are a terrible thing. They are rare, campaign-ending anomalies; the threat of which hang over a game and fuel some of the best and most creative play ever. TPKs usually happen when players miscalculate or think they are playing a game rigged in their favour. Occasionally the dice just go against you and bad luck brings you down. The majority of the time good play, calculated risks, or the good sense to run for it will keep the characters going despite the odds. 

It is this rare event, the TPK, that prompted this post. Last Friday Kiel Chenier's players experienced a TPK-O with all the player characters in his group knocked out and captured or trapped. These bad guys have a history of interrogating prisoners so all is not lost yet. Again, interesting results have developed from the consequences and this Friday, the worst denizens from the far corners of the internet will assemble in Generica to mount a rescue, because Man Rider is not going down to some crappy driders and bugbears! This turn of events is one of the cool things about hangout games. Help is never really that far away.

The short version of what I am saying here is, don't pull punches as a GM. The failures make the successes that much sweeter by their contrast and failure can always lead to something wonderful if you just give it a chance.

Friday, 5 December 2014

The Alice Character Class for 5e D&D or Dude, Where's My Turtle?

Zak S's A Red and Pleasant Land, published by the always innovative Lamentations of the Flame Princess, is flying off the shelves. In less than two days, as I start to write this post, there are 625 hard copies ordered. Since we all have the PDF we might as well get started on the time-honoured tradition of ripping it up and changing things.

Earlier this morning on G+, A. Miles Davis made a request for a 5e D&D version of the Alice Class. Zak offered an "invisible intangible imaginary turtle" to the first person to come up with a 5e class, so the race is on! If I make it, I have every intention of painting my turtle's shell with intangible, imaginary glitter to solve the whole problem of finding it.

[The Alice from A Red and Pleasant Land by Zak S.]

The Alice

The Alice class is based on the archetypical "fool" commonly found in stories of all kinds.  That character that seems to wander through a story through luck, cunning and stubbornness. The chosen of the gods, fate, or worse that trouble just seems to find. The one that seems to see things more clearly than the other characters and sometimes penetrates the fourth wall. 

[excerpt from A Red and Pleasant Land, page 30]

The class as it is written in the book is full of randomness and possibility. No two Alices would be alike. While this random advancement works well with the flavour of the class and the LotFP system that the book was published to be most compatible with, I'm going to embrace the structures that exist in 5e and go with a more structured class that splits after 3rd level into two separate Narratives

Class Features:

Hit Points are pretty much the same as the Alice as written: hit points as magic user or in this case the Wizard class.

Hit Points: 1d6 per Alice level
Hit Points at 1st Level: 6 + constitution modifier
Hit Points at Higher Levels: 1d6 (or 4) + constitution modifier per Alice level after 1st

The Alice class is supposed to fight as a Thief/Rogue/Specialist so most of the proficiency choices can be taken from the equivalent to those. Alice's tend to be taken from a life of leisure and the tool proficiencies reflect that.

Armour: Light Armour
Weapons: Simple weapons, hand crossbows, shortswords, rapiers and pistols (if firearms are available in your campaign)
Tools: Choose one Gaming Set or Musical Instrument

The Alice Saving throws are based on their force of personality and luck.

Saving Throws: Charisma, Dexterity

A classic education and the decadence of the Alice's early life, full of drawing room intrigue and listening at keyholes, also influences their skill choices.

Skills: Choose three from Acrobatics, Animal Handling, Athletics, Deception, History, Insight, Intimidation, Investigation, Nature, Perception, Performance, Persuasion, Sleight of Hand and Stealth

The Alice is woefully unprepared for adventure at 1st level, usually falling into it and inexplicably finding a handful of useful items at the beginning of their first adventure.

The Alice starts with the following equipment in addition to the equipment provided by the character's background.
  • (a) a rapier or (b) a hand crossbow and 20 bolts or (c) a pistol and bandolier with 24 pre-measured shots (if available in your campaign)
  • (a) 2 daggers or (b) 6 darts
  • (a) a Diplomat's Pack or (b) an Entertainer's Pack
Instead of the wild and fun random table for advancement the 5e Alice progresses with more structure.

Beginning at first level all Alices can become Exasperated in times of great stress. By thinking or uttering a statement of exasperation such as, "Oh I can't conceive how I ever fell into this deplorable circumstance," or "We are indeed doomed and now birds will gnaw our eyes," the Alice calls the attention of the powers that put them on the road to adventure in the first place. Times of great stress are of more interest to the gods, fates or dark powers so that is the time when this ability will work. 

The Alice may express Exasperation once per hour of real playing time. When the Alice uses the Exasperation ability the DM rolls on the Exasperation Table:

[Exasperation Table from A Red and Pleasant Land]

Alice liked pies, although sometimes people did not want her to have them:
Starting at 1st level the character adds her/his proficiency bonus to find foodstuffs of any kind. This bonus stacks with any others if the character is already using a skill such as Investigation or Perception to find the foodstuffs.

It was very shiny and stuck out like a soup spoon:
As early as 2nd level the Alice can begin to take advantage of her/his unpredictable nature. On a successful melee attack the Alice can make a Sleight of Hand roll to grab an item other than the opponent's weapon from him or her. This will only work once per combat and combatant on any opponents with greater than zombie intelligence.

"It really was curious," she thought- "How many times could this kind of thing happen?"
At 3rd level the Alice gains the ability to cheat death or escape some other calamity a total of one time. The Alice must play dead for one round to build the suspense before jumping up fully ready and unscathed.

She was not such a mouse as she used to be:
At 4th level and then again at 8th, 10th, 12th, 16th and 19th level the Alice gains an ability score improvement. In each instance the character can improve one ability score by 2 points or two scores by one point each. No ability can be improved above 20.

They began to throw stones, and Alice began to avoid them:
At 5th level the Alice's script immunity improves and s/he gains an Unarmoured Defence ability. The character adds both Dexterity and Charisma bonuses to Armour Class when not wearing armour.

The blue one certainly did make Alice taller, of that Alice was certain:
As of 6th level, the Alice adds proficiency bonus on all rolls to identify drugs and plants with drug-like properties.

They kept talking as Alice was a rhododendron in a pot:
At 7th level the Alice gains advantage on all Stealth rolls.

She really could be very charming when she needed to be:
At 9th level the Alice gains advantage to Deception checks.

She knew from school what the word meant, but did not know if it was rude or not:
At 11th level the Alice learns to speak, read and write a new language of the player's choice.

It was so lovely, and - according to the book- it was right there:
Gained at 13th level, this one can be taken directly from the table. The only exception is if the Alice can't get it by the fourth session s/he can choose to continue or give up and replace this ability with another use of "It really was curious," she thought- "How many times could this kind of thing happen?"

Alice is always learning. By the time s/he hits 14th level she's become an expert in one of her proficiencies and applies double the normal proficiency bonus to all rolls with that skill.

She began to feel somewhat neglected:
By 15th level the Alice is becoming quite unpredictable. If the Alice is attacked in a round where s/he only dodges and the attacker misses, the attacker will fumble and miss its next turn. If the attacker has multiple attacks it loses a number of attacks equal to the Alice's proficiency bonus. This only works once on any creature who has seen it and has intelligence greater than that of a zombie.

Alice had seen so many unusual things lately, it had become usual:
At 17th level the Alice becomes unshakable. S/he is immune to insanity or confusion in any form. Even sudden appearance of an inscrutable elder god from beyond the cosmos is not particularly noteworthy. The Alice can still fear. Fear is likely part of how s/he managed to get to 17th level in the first place.

She had not known her mother's cousin very well, but decided it was a bad thing that she had died:
Sometime early in the Alice's 18th level s/he is willed a parcel of land with a house, manor or small castle on it. The location, current state of the property and how the occupants regard the Alice showing up with a deed is up to the DM.

"It really was curious," she thought- "How many times could this kind of thing happen?"
At 20th level the Alice has pleased whatever forces placed the character on the path to adventure and once again s/he gains the ability to cheat death or escape some other calamity a total of one time. The Alice must play dead for one round to build the suspense before jumping up fully ready and unscathed.

Narrative Paths

At third level the Alice embraces a particular Narrative on the character's path to greater adventure. These three Narratives are the Plucky, Clever and From Good Stock Alices.


The Plucky Alice has embraced the rough and tumble nature of her/his existence and become adept a fisticuffs and other shenanigans. At 3rd level the Plucky Alice gains proficiency in Medium Armour and Longsword. 

Oh I do so apologize:
Beginning at 3rd level, the Alice can take advantage of distraction and trip any person or creature that is otherwise engaged with a successful Dexterity Check. It only works once per combat unless the opponents are mindless creatures like zombies or can't see the trick the first time. At 5th level the trip does 1d4 damage. This damage increases by a die type to 1d6 at 8th level, 1d8 at 10th level, 1d10 at 12th level, 1d12 at 16th level, and 1d20 at 19th level.

It seemed nearly everything was dangerous if handled improperly:
By 5th level the Alice has become skilled with improvised weapons. All weapons do one die type better than normal (eg 1d4 becomes 1d6). Improvised effects automatically succeed, such as a bag of marbles automatically tripping or caltrops automatically damaging medium humanoids with no save.

She noticed the Red Knight always feinted to his left - she was a very perceptive girl:
At 9th level the Alice can spend time observing a combatant to gain a +1d4 to hit and/or +1d4 on an ability check to trip or grapple for each round of observation when s/he finally does attack. This ability can only be used once per combat.

Alice then did something quite astonishing...
The Alice is unpredictable. As of 13th level s/he adds her/his Charisma bonus to hit and damage to the first attack in a combat with an improvised weapon against any intelligent opponent ("who knew Alice could do that with a gingerbread man?"). This trick only works once per combat and only once on any particular opponent.

She did seem to offend people (and animals) wherever she went:
Expereicne with terrible people (and creatures) has made the Alice adept at duelling. At 17th level the Alice can stack the character's Charisma bonus with her/his Dexterity bonus when attacking with a finesse or duelling weapon such as a foil, rapier or pistol.


The Clever Alice get's through adventures by knowing secrets and applying knowledge to her situation. 

She closed her eyes and said the words just as she'd been taught:
At third level s/he learns to cast Wizard Spells the same as an Arcane Trickster Rogue from page 98 of the 5e PHB.

Alice quite liked drawing and had an impressive box of crayons at home:
At 5th level the Alice gains proficiency with the Forgery Kit and can add the character's proficiency bonus to forgeries.

All that hiding in the dumbwaiter finally paid off:
The Alice knows secrets. As of 9th level, once per session the Alice can recall or pull a piece of paper with important and relevant lore on it out of a pocket. It can be one of two types of secret. Either a piece of useful information about a legendary treasure or magic item or and embarrassing fact about a notable NPC.

She thought it might be a saltcellar, or at least that seemed like a good word:
At 13th level: "The Alice can appraise treasure to a non-trivial degree: the value of non-magical things can be estimated flawlessly and if a piece of treasure is not what it seems on any level the Alice will get an inkling. As in, if the Alice goes "Is this not what it seems?" and the Referee will go "Yeah, you've seen a lot of jade urns in your day and this is not what it seems somehow- you're not sure how." If a treasure has some unusual of hidden feature of a mechanical or physical nature, the Alice will sense that it is there on a successful intelligence roll. The Alice won't know it is, but the Alice'll sense that it is there." 

Investigation or Perception proficiency will apply to the Intelligence roll at the DM's discretion.

From Good Stock

The Alices From Good Stock rely on good breeding (or the appearance thereof) to bully their way through their adventures. At 3rd level this Alice chooses two proficiencies from Animal Handling, Deception, History, Insight, Intimidation, Performance and Persuasion.

Her sister had mentioned they were dreadful people:
Beginning at 3rd level the Alice stacks Charisma and Intelligence bonuses to History checks to recognize the faction and function of of any aristocrat in any land.

She knew to curtsey in situations like this, and so she did:
Despite travelling with common company, by the time s/he reaches third level, the Alice's polished manners always show. Members of the upper classes instinctively recognize the Alice as one of their own (even if she isn't). The Alice gains advantage to all Charisma-based rolls when dealing with such people.

She tried to remember what she knew about stoats:
Beginning at 5th level animals like the Alice. The character has advantage on all Charisma-based rolls when interacting with normal animals and speaking-but-otherwise-normal animals.

By 9th level the Alice From Good Stock has gained expertise in another one of her/his proficiencies and can roll double the proficiency bonus.

She thought it might be a saltcellar, or at least that seemed like a good word:
At 13th level: "The Alice can appraise treasure to a non-trivial degree: the value of non-magical things can be estimated flawlessly and if a piece of treasure is not what it seems on any level the Alice will get an inkling. As in, if the Alice goes "Is this not what it seems?" and the Referee will go "Yeah, you've seen a lot of jade urns in your day and this is not what it seems somehow- you're not sure how." If a treasure has some unusual of hidden feature of a mechanical or physical nature, the Alice will sense that it is there on a successful intelligence roll. The Alice won't know it is, but the Alice'll sense that it is there." 

Investigation or Perception proficiency will apply to the Intelligence roll at the DM's discretion.

They all listened attentively as Alice told her tale:
At 17th level the Alice receives a +2 bonus to her/his Charisma score. This bonus cannot bring the score above 20. Any excess can be applied to Intelligence or Wisdom.