Friday, November 16, 2018

U-Con 2018: Post-Convention Recap

This past weekend was my local convention, U-Con, and I thought that I'd offer some post-con analysis.

First off, here was the schedule of games I ran:
Friday, 900-1300: [redacted] - Terror in D.C.
Friday, 1400-1800: NGR - A Thousand Dead Babies
Saturday, 900-1300: NGR - Gnomes of Levnec
Saturday, 1400-1800: Mothership - Dead Planet

I also played in a Scooby-Doo LotFP game on Friday night, wherein we had to uncover the secrets of Velma's family during her sister's wedding preparations. That was an immensely enjoyable game, even if the ending had to be a bit rushed due to time. I did meet a cool group of people who are local to the area, so if they're reading this, they should get in touch so we can maybe try to get some local gaming going.

Anyway, more on the games I ran:

Terror in D.C. [redacted]:
[redacted] is Z's upcoming modern-day horror game. The rules are currently available to backers in a barely readable Word document (which is where the awesome Shawn Cheng comes in.) Using this, I devised a simple scenario involving a member of the House of Representatives. Perhaps the highlight of this session was the party hiding out in a Starbucks while staking out the Dunkin' Donuts across the street.

I absolutely love the mechanics, which are dirt-simple. Instead of everyone using their own dice, having the community tarot cards with their pictorial implications led to a greater degree of player buy-in, I feel. My main self-criticism is that I didn't call for many Calm checks (read: sanity rolls), especially when things got especially stressful for the characters.

What I loved about this game was that I made nearly everything about it up on the fly. I had a starting scene and an underlying horror, and the rest developed at the table. Not only does this mean that I'm more confident in improvising entire game sessions, but also that it is possible to improvise a majority of an investigative scenario. This is immensely satisfying.

A Thousand Dead Babies (Neoclassical Geek Revival):
The ultimate in introductory adventures for NGR (see previous blog post), as well as Zzarchov's adventure design style. I was fresh off a playtest of this adventure from earlier in the week, thanks to a group of friends in Lansing who run games every other Monday. I live just far enough away from Lansing that getting up there to see them is rarity, but fortunately they let me run the adventure through once.

This second incarnation of the game absolutely followed none of the path that the first game did. But it was just as awesome. They went the full murderhobo route, and it was a blast nonetheless.

The game introduces the NGR system fairly well. I had already put together a 4-panel GM screen, although I would probably also put together a one-page player handout to explain the basics and refer back to periodically during the session. Despite the system's elegance, there's a lot of things to teach yourself over and over again until it all "clicks." I may work on this project before running future games of NGR for newbies.

The Gnomes of Levnec (Neoclassical Geek Revival):
This is a game I ran last year, although I was using LotFP rules then. This time, I had a bit more experience under my belt, and I was able to take advantage of the NGR system, which lends itself pretty well to this scenario. Last year, there was basically a PCs-vs-the-Mob situation, and I felt like things were going to get out of hand quickly. I did one of the worst things imaginable and basically asked the players not to go off the rails with it. If the same scenario had arisen this time around, I would have been better equipped because of NGR's clear support of social conflict situations.

Like the A Thousand Dead Babies game, this second time through the adventure resulted in almost no overlap between what the two groups of players did. Both were violent, although this one did not end in a TPK. Instead, it was the party that inflicted mass violence on many NPCs

One thing I should note about both of these Zzarchov games is that each group expressed worry that they weren't following the narrative path of the adventure correctly. I then gleefully relayed the fact that the scenario in question was a miniature sandbox full of gunpowder.

Lastly, I only found out after the fact that I had run a game for an occasional online contact, Paul Gorman. Hi, Paul!

Dead Planet (Mothership):
OK, so oddly enough, this one was originally scheduled for 8PM-Midnight. That wasn't gonna happen for a guy who normally wakes up at 5:30AM on weekdays. So, I got this slot moved to 2PM-6PM. But that probably threw some people off, and I didn't get the requested minimum of players. Rather than just dissolve it, though, I was fortunately able to add my players to Bardaree's table in the ConTessa room thanks to her generosity. Likewise, I joined some of my former players from the Gnomes game at Stacy Dellorfano's table to playtest their city crawl project...

The Incompetent Watchmaker (LotFP):
This was my final game and I'm glad that Stacy let me sit in at their table. I will keep the appraisal very brief, but I can tell you that this is shaping up to be a fantastic supplement. Stacy added a number of real-world references from the city of Bern, Switzerland, which gave a good sense of grounding in reality. Meanwhile, the final encounters actually creeped/grossed me out in a way that no one else in RPGs has managed to do. I also really liked the tick-box customization of pregenerated characters (e.g., choose three starting weapons from this list, and so forth.) One of the smoother LotFP games I've played in.

Other Stuff
While I had a blast at the con while I wasn't at the gaming table, I will say that one of the highlights was getting to re-meet Chris Spivey (author of Harlem Unbound) at the bar. (We had met briefly at the ENnies earlier this year). This time we had a bit of a conversation about our U-Con experiences and we got to discuss a few aspects of running and writing RPG material. 10/10 would chat with again.

And now I'm back to my regular gaming routine once again, with my usual dose of post-convention gaming enthusiasm. I think my goals for the near future will be to continue familiarization with all the various aspects of the NGR system, and eventually writing an actual adventure for it. I may start by writing system-specific content on this blog, so keep your eyes peeled.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Neoclassical Geek Revival (NGR): A Review

Today, I would like to review the game system Neoclassical Geek Revival (henceforth NGR) by Zzarchov Kowolski. Now, I don't consider myself a reviewer like Bryce at tenfootpole, and in fact I've only posted one RPG review prior to this one. But I feel compelled to review the game system here, for one primary reason. You see, NGR is the only game I'm playing in now. I'm a player in one of Zzarchov's weekly games, and we use his system.

Zzarchov is primarily known in RPG circles as the author of high-value, innovative adventures. His work for Lamentations of the Flame Princess includes Thulian Echoes, which features a twist in that the players play both a historical party of adventurers as well as a party trying to retrace their steps. Also Scenic Dunnsmouth, an investigative town adventure with a playing-card-based setup mechanism which makes it highly replayable. Dunnsmouth in particular is a perpetual fan favorite that I keep hearing mentioned in discussions of present-day innovation in the old-school gaming space.

Zzarchov also has his own independent adventures available for purchase, two of which I'm running at an upcoming local convention: A Thousand Dead Babies and The Gnomes of Levnec. His independent adventures feature not only interesting public domain artwork on the cover, but also two sets of stat blocks: one for generic OSR games assuming some version of original D&D, and one for NGR. Although I purchased these adventures intending to adapt them to LotFP, the NGR stat blocks referred to mechanics that sounded both intriguing and practical. For example, "counts as consecrated temple on holy ground." As a result of sheer curiosity, I bought the rulebook and read through it briefly before diving in to Zzarchov's weekly game. I've been playing regularly for a few months, so the review will be from this perspective - someone who's tried learning the game solo and then seen the system in practice.

We'll start with the negatives, because you're going to have to deal with them up front. This game can be difficult to wrap your head around, especially if you're the only one coming to it in your gaming group and/or you have a strong familiarity with various versions of D&D. According to Zzarchov, the whole NGR project started out of a series of house rules to TSR-era AD&D 1E/2E. However, there have been so many modifications that the basic structure of the game mechanics feels entirely different—as a matter of fact, the game was once known by the title "Piecemeal." If the game can be classified in any way as "OSR," then it is in flavor and sensibility alone, and not in terms of game mechanics. I will argue later that a lot of these modifications are actually for the better and consistent with my ideal gaming experience when it comes to fantasy-genre roleplaying. But it's a difficult adjustment, particularly if you're like me and don't learn most effectively just by reading the rulebook. If I could offer an analogy, the coming of D&D was the invention of the wheel or maybe a wheelbarrow, but NGR is a complete mountain bike. You get a much more sophisticated machine that has a lot more esoteric parts, but once you learn how to use it you can do amazing and fun things with it.

In short, a lot of the mechanics end up being simple once you know them, but require a lot of explanation to fully illustrate.

Secondly, even after you get through the novelty of the mechanics and everything begins to "click," I find that it is definitely on the "crunchy" side of the spectrum as opposed to "rules light." ("Crunchy" alluding to number-crunching.) This is not a game for those who have burned their 5th Edition D&D books in favor of forever playing games like The Black Hack and Into The Odd. As an example, often times I feels like NGR may be prone to "modifier creep." This is what I'm calling the phenomenon of having to keep track of an increasing number of different situational modifiers (e.g., I'm facing a blunt attack [+2 to my defense roll] and I'm blessed by my priest's god [+1] but my opponent has the high ground [-2] etc., etc.). I don't believe it approaches anything close to Pathfinder, however, which the worst offender in all the games I played; I needed a laptop with HeroLab installed in order to play it effectively and keep track of all the different status effects. 

Some caveats: (1) Certain rules are marked as "basic" while others are more "fiddly." If you're new to the game—or simply don't want to incorporate them—you can ignore the fiddly rules (such as armor "tags") to make the game more streamlined. (2) I should mention that by calling the system "crunchy" I simply am referring to the amount of time spent resolving mechanics rather than what those mechanics relate to. That is, you shouldn't assume that you'll be wasting a lot of time on tedious combat if that's not what you want to focus on. Indeed, many of our NGR game sessions involve little or no combat because the game actively promotes this play style—more on this below.

The presence of "crunch" and the depth of the rules leads me to the first positive of the review, which is also stated early in the book: "The Known Rule." This is two explicit statements in one: (a) if a rule isn't known, just make a ruling rather than look it up. (b) if you must look up a rule during play, you get -1 awesomeness if you're a player, or all players get +1 awesomeness if it's the GM looking up the rule. (Yes, awesomeness is a game mechanic, which I'll cover below.) In the same spirit of this, certain rules are marked as "basic" while others are more "fiddly." If you're new to the game, you can ignore the fiddly rules (such as armor "tags") to make the game more streamlined.

Furthermore, a lot of the modifier creep can be mitigated ahead of time with a well-organized character sheet. I can bundle common modifiers together and simply make note of the totals a lot easier than I ever could in Pathfinder.

Speaking of dealing damage, that works entirely differently in NGR than in D&D. In NGR, physical damage is only one type of accrued "point," along with stress, disease, poison, fear, suspicion (think of giving yourself away while sneaking), and even influence (trying to win an argument). Yes, NGR has mechanics for social conflict, and they work seamlessly with the rest of the system. Anyway, your barrier to taking all of these potential "damage" points is known as your Luck points. It's helpful to think of them as HP, although again, it covers all bases and not just physical damage. Whether you avoid a sword stab or just manage to avoid detection while having a torch lit, it's all Luck.

This leads to another great plus about NGR as a system. In general, by spreading the focus across both combat and various other non-combat aspects, NGR tends toward hi-jinx and shenanigans. For example, if you enter into a social conflict (i.e., argument) and burn your Luck points, you will not be so lucky if a fight breaks out later, or if you get thrown in jail and have to sneak your way out. Furthermore, that "awesomeness" I mentioned? You cash those points in at the end of sessions in the hopes of getting fate points. Fate points will let you re-roll bad dice or get some luck back in a pinch. Correspondingly, you gain awesomeness a number of different ways. One method is to purposefully make poor decisions—for example, getting drunk instead of taking your assigned watch at night. Another suggested method is to have "80's hair." You can really get more awesomeness and fate points by being elected the MVP of that night's session by the other players.

Furthermore, the XP system is a key (somewhat hidden) aspect to incentivizing certain play styles. There are distinct differences in the characteristics of a D&D game that gives experience points (i.e., character progression) for treasure when compared to a later edition that rewards monster-slaying. Every facet of NGR awards XP in a slightly different way, and I feel it's done in a way that de-emphasizes combat while still promoting risk-taking. A great example is the fact that you get increasing XP values for each new room in a dungeon you explore. As you deplete your resources, that next room could be worth 450 XP now, or zero XP once you come back to the dungeon a second time. That's because that room will then be your first new room, whereas it's the tenth new room this time around. That sort of press-your-luck enticement is embedded in NGR (and Zzarchov's GM style, for the record.) It puts a heavy risk-versus-reward ball in the players' court at all times, and it's when they are faced with real, meaningful choices that players get invested in the game.

Multiclassing is also easy in NGR. Imagine a pie chart broken into three pieces, and this is your character class. You can have all three "pie pieces" in warrior, or you could choose two parts warrior, one part wizard, and so forth. I'll spare you the details (which could get crunchy and count toward that first negative of esoteric confusion), but obviously the former example would be a more effective warrior than the latter, but the latter could at least cast a few spells if needed.

Lastly, the review would not be complete without a mention of Zzarchov's writing style. He's a witty guy—he enjoys more than his fair share of puns—and he's held back none of his sense of humor when writing the NGR rules. This is one of the few books that I've found legitimately enjoyable to read as it does not read like a dry technical manual. It's still easy to consult as a rulebook (even though there's no index and the PDF isn't bookmarked) but you could also easily read it from cover to cover.

I'll wrap up with my one final negative that we might encounter moving forward: name recognition. Unless you're familiar with Zzarchov or backed the recent Kickstarter, you probably don't even know about NGR. It's even less likely that your gaming group will know about it, so it may be difficult to drum up support for using it as a game system. But if you do, I know from experience that it has the potential to be a fantastically fun game.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Best D&D Book Ever Written

I like [redacted] (edit, 2/15 - This statement has been retracted.) Specifically, I like what I imagine his regular D&D game is like in actual play. No, not the fact that he plays with porn stars. It's that his games have a flavor that is very contrary to the assumed vanilla tropes of D&D that we all know and love to yawn at. Imagine everything you can think of in relation to The Forgotten Realms, and then throw it out. The remainder is Z's game (at least in my mind.) From what I've seen from the "I Hit it With My Axe" videos, various blog posts, and his published material, I've noticed a strong affinity for highly imaginative/fantastic concepts: Regular implementation of fairy tale logic and bizarre legal systems. Sentient roses. Vampires in Wonderland. Snakes whose skin you can read like books. If your only exposure to Dungeons & Dragons has come in the Wizards of the Coast era, the game Z runs can really challenge your views on what even counts as D&D.

What do you know about Dungeons & Dragons? About where it came from and, specifically, what inspired it? Not the rules, but the fictional content of the game? If you follow the "OSR" movement or are simply an AD&D player since the first edition of the game, you might have a pretty good idea... The original Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) featured a slew of appendices from the verbose Gary Gygax, but one in particular—Appendix N—has consistently received the most attention.

Basically, said appendix is a list of fiction literature that inspired the game's content originally. (To quote Gygax, "From such sources, as well as any other imaginative writing or screenplay, you will be able to pluck kernels from which will grow the fruits of exciting campaigns") It's a useful list to reference when you're trying to convince someone that D&D is not purely some hardcore Tolkien-deification, as is common perception. There are a ton of authors presented there, and some of the biggest fictional characters from that list include Conan (created by Robert E. Howard), Elric (by Michael Moorcock), and Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser (by Fritz Leiber). A whole bunch of "sword and sorcery" novels populate the list, as well as some science fiction authors such as Leigh Brackett and Andre Norton.

I would argue that none of them capture the spirit of what D&D can and should be better than The Dying Earth by Jack Vance.

This is the copy I have
Now, you may be somewhat familiar with Vance if you've even played D&D at all. The paradigm of memorizing a set number of spells which will be forgotten upon their casting? That is a concept taken directly from this book. Furthermore, one can easily see the parallels between naming conventions: "Felojun's Second Hypnotic Spell" (Vance) versus "Mordenkainen's Faithful Hound" (Gygax), for example. The ties are so strong that this"fire and forget" spell system is known as "Vancian" in discussions on various magic systems for RPGs.

Perhaps you are even aware of one of the greatest villains of D&D lore, Vecna. A legendary lich, his disembodied eye and hand are legendary artifacts of the D&D world. In case you haven't worked it out yet, his name was simply a rearranged form of "Vance."

The point is, this author had some serious influence on the foundation of D&D. And yet, I see so little of this book manifest in modern-day D&D games. Unlike the mighty Conan, the tormented Elric, or the plucky Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, I dare say Vance's work has been cast aside out of the consciousness of most modern gamers.

Originally published in 1950, The Dying Earth is a series of loosely connected short stories depicting a fantasy world that is in fact Earth in its final years. The sun is read and bloated; magic is prevalent, as is ancient technology. There are six short stories, each named after its primary character. Perhaps the most directly related to D&D is "Mazirian the Magician," which firmly establishes the Vancian magic convention as the title character prepares a short list of spells, all that his brain can contain.

But if all you get that is game-worthy from The Dying Earth is the mechanics of magic, then you are not easily inspired. Take, for example, Chun the Unavoidable, a being who lives in ruins and snatches the eyes of anyone who steals from him, and then wears the eyes on a cloak. Or Ampridatvir, the city full of two sects of people who can't see each other because they're wearing two different colors of clothing. The universe which houses all these stories employs a fanciful sense of logic, which flies in the face of the ho-hum vanilla settings that you're used to in mainstream D&D.

The prose is a workout, to be sure, with quite poetic and fanciful language. It's not a style that suits those who don't like to take a hot, soaking bath in the nuance of the English language. Furthermore, the rest of the Dying Earth series focuses on Cugel, a largely unlikable antihero whose character made me put down the second book (Eyes of the Overworld) after just a few chapters. But I would highly recommend reading through the first book as an inspirational collection of shorter picaresques.

If you're interested in Jack Vance, Patrick Stuart did a thorough review of the Lyonesse trilogy (spoiler warning) here. I haven't read it yet, but it's on my shelf so I have no excuse. I can recommend the novella The Dragon Masters, although it's science fiction rather than fantasy.

Once you have read The Dying Earth, I would strongly recommend The Pastel City by M. John Harrison, the introduction to the Viriconium saga.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Re : OSR Guide For The Perplexed Questionnaire

This blog is in response to [redacted]:

OSR Guide For The Perplexed Questionnaire

1. One article or blog entry that exemplifies the best of the Old School Renaissance for me:

2. My favorite piece of OSR wisdom/advice/snark:
Just make shit up. You'll be surprised at how good it can be. Focus on the game, not the mechanics.

3. Best OSR module/supplement:
Two possible answers:
(a) Zzarchov Kowolski's Gnomes of Levnec - a fantastically fun investigative adventure with folk horror, ancient evil, and of course gnomes.
(b) Jennell Jacquays' Caverns of Thracia, but just keep the maps and throw your own shit in there. Best game I ever ran featured a troll dressed as Macho Man Randy Savage.

4. My favorite house rule (by someone else):
Neoclassical Geek Revival is basically nothing but a collection of Zzarchov Kowolski's house rules. I also liked Adam Muskiewicz's technique of incorporating Jason Lutes' Perilous Wilds into D&D wilderness encounters

5. How I found out about the OSR:
It must have been after hearing about Swords & Wizardry Day, back when I heard about it on a podcast. Shortly afterwards, I found Dungeon Crawl Classics at my local convention and bought a copy of the book.

6. My favorite OSR online resource/toy:
Logan Knight's generators at Last Gasp Grimoire and of course Dyson's maps

7. Best place to talk to other OSR gamers:
For the next few months, still Google+. I hope that I have made enough impressions there so that people may actually interact with me on this blog. I think it would be a good idea for all of us to comment on each other's stuff more.

8. Other places I might be found hanging out talking games:
Most of my gaming now occurs on Discord. As I said above I imagine without Google+ we may regress to online blogs such as this one. What would really be cool is if we all started playing more games together instead of talking about games. Sort of like a FLAILSNAILS revival.

9. My awesome, pithy OSR take nobody appreciates enough:
The OSR is only what you make it, and never what you think it is.

10. My favorite non-OSR RPG:
Call of Cthulhu, if that qualifies. It is in its seventh edition, although it remains largely unchanged from its original form in 1981. If we assume Call of Cthulhu qualifies as OSR instead, then I will probably say Legend of the Five Rings. I have not had a chance to play the new 5th Edition from Fantasy Flight Games, but I've had some enjoyable games using 4th Edition. However, I think that my enjoyment of the game was largely dependent on the feudal Japan aesthetic, as opposed to the mechanics. I could probably run an OSR game in the Rokugan setting with less of a headache than if I were to try to run a game in a canonical L5R system.

11. Why I like OSR stuff:
There are no rules lawyers. If we run into an edge case, I can simply make a ruling without having to look up the said rule. Even if someone else at the table knows the rule, I can overrule it using logic if I need to.

12. Two other cool OSR things you should know about that I haven’t named yet:
1) Chance Phillips.
2) Into The Odd

13. If I could read but one other RPG blog but my own it would be:
I've already shown Z's blog, so how about Jeff's Gameblog

14. A game thing I made that I like quite a lot is:
My dice-pool skill mechanics for Lamentations of the Flame Princess

15. I'm currently running/playing:
I am taking a break from running games as I try to prepare for U-Con in November. I'm playing in an iron age Neoclassical Geek Revival game as run by the system creator, Zzarchov Kowolski.

16. I don't care whether you use ascending or descending AC because:
Whether you hit or not really isn't of much importance. Also, we need to hurry up and get through combat. Best practice dictates that if you have entered combat, you've probably lost anyway so keep that in mind.

17. The OSRest picture I could post on short notice:

This is my own artwork which I figured I would use rather than try and steal someone else's stuff.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Mothership: A Review

There has been a post going around Google+ this week that has discovered one of the main things the OSR needs is more reviewers. I doubt I will ever become a regular reviewer because honestly, I don't have the time to read that much RPG material. God help me if I ever became an ENnies judge.

(Dear ENnies selection committee, call me maybe and let's do lunch)

With that in mind, I decided to review something for the first time. It's a good excuse for me not only to stay active with the blog, but also to stay on top of things within the OSR community. So that's why I decided to buy and review Sean McCoy's Mothership, a Science Fiction Horror RPG.

Don't let the disco logo fool you.

So I will start this review with a very important declaration: Broadly speaking, I hate science fiction. I have certain exceptions, however. For example, I greatly enjoy Dune (at least the original novel) and Star Wars, although I see them more as science fantasy and adventure, respectively. The only other sci-fi I genuinely and regularly enjoy falls into the subgenre that overlaps with horror. The original Alien (1979) film is superb, and one of my guilty pleasures is the 90's cult classic, Event Horizon (1997). Both are set in space and deal with horror themes.

Note that I could also include the films The Thing (1982) and The Fly (1986) but those are slightly less relevant. The point is, couple space sci-fi with a horror of the unknown and I'm way more likely to be emotionally invested when compared to an episode of Star Trek.

Enter Mothership. I purchased this at my local game store for $15 although it's also available as a pay-what-you-want PDF (link). My version came printed on very nice paper with a cardstock cover along with four collectible monster cards, with stats and descriptions for each monster pictured. More on this below.

First off, I love a lot of the presentation here. The typeface is a clean Helvetica (or similar), with good use of bold emphasis. After many sections is a note telling you where more relevant content can be found (e.g., "For more on combat, see p. XX"). With a lack of an index, this is quite helpful if something is left unanswered by the end of the paragraph. However, I've noticed that the PDF has no document links if you try to click on these. Hopefully that's something that will get worked into a future revision.

But probably the best bit of design is the character sheet. Holy shit, do I love the character sheet for this game. It literally walks you through the entire process of creating a character by effectively making it a flow chart. You can see it on so you know what I'm talking about. The concept is brilliant - just follow the arrows and you will cover all of your character creation basics. This minimizes time spent looking through rules. I have played some RPGs where entire sessions were wasted on character creation. For a game that isn't simply a variation of D&D, Mothership is efficient even by OSR standards.

The artwork is also quite good, although the style seems a touch inconsistent at times. I do have to give Sean a big kudos as he also did all the artwork, according to the credits.

As for the system, the game only uses d10's and the d10's which increase in multiples of ten. The latter is denoted by an underline, i.e., d10. This sometimes comes in handy for the massive amounts of damage some weapons can do, for example. The four stats are determined via a roll of 6d10. (expected value = 33.) This gives you a stat you often must roll under. So statistically speaking, you should succeed at things 1/3 of the time. Compared to Traveller's target number of 8+ on 2d6 (41.7%), Mothership seems to lean more difficult. However, there's also a skill system. Each skill you have can raise your stat check depending on what level skill it is.

In a mere 40 pages, there's also a stress/sanity/panic mechanic, rules for mercenaries, a bunch of space guns, and rules for building spaceships.

Let's talk about spaceships. In my experience, they're hard to incorporate into RPGs. There are either not enough options, or as is more often the case, they take forever and a day to design. Instead of the usual hassle, Mothership kind of treats spaceships as big characters, which is a smart move. The ship even has its own worksheet similar to the character sheet. A ship can be statted out fairly quickly, even if you don't immediately know its layout. However, the game provides you rules for drawing your ship's plans using the results of the worksheet. Undoubtedly a fun activity to do between sessions.

But there's one major thing that's missing from this game, in my opinion: what to actually do with all this stuff. I mean, I can appreciate the timeless tactic of simply coming up with things on the fly, but we're left with no ideas on what sorts of things to try with these rules, especially given the fact that it's a horror game. (You don't want to accidentally make things a cakewalk for your players.) There are plenty of examples demonstrating individual mechanics in action, but no sense of the game itself in action. I'm sure that once I came up with a good adventure idea, I could probably run this, but I have to admit it's a bit difficult to get my brain gears turning with the rules as they are. The mosnter cards that came with the print version definitely help, although you don't get these with the PDF.

To put it a different way, I'd hate to set out to run a Mothership campaign only to have it end up feeling like a Traveller campaign.

I'm curious to see the future of this game, especially since it's branded as an Alpha release. I expect that the developers will be refining and further developing the game in the future.

The good stuff:
- Layout and readability.
- Available as a pay-what-you-want PDF.
- Uses only d10's (I love d10's )
- most mechanics seem simple yet intuitive

The bad stuff:
- Typos and errors in the print version
- Not much guidance for the GM (or "Warden")

4/5 stars because that's what everyone does for everything.

More information to come if I actually playtest something using the game.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Tooth Faeries

Those who eat the fruits provided by the great bounty of the forest generally do not suffer any maladies for doing so. On some occasions, certain found specimens of berry and mushroom may prove to be poisonous, but generations of trial and error have determined which is which. All that is required is the knowledge of certain tell-tale signs, often handed down through oral tradition or the written word and illustration. Know what to look for, and you’ll be well-equipped to harvest edible flora as you pass through the forest.

Generally, the forest is happy to provide such sustenance because those who require it are considered honored guests. It is not unlike those who visit a stately manor being attended to by servants bearing bits of cheese, cured meats, and other hors-d'oeuvres. However, certain areas of the Twelve Great Forests are off-limits: divine cradles of pure, unmolested nature from the primordial days of the Earth. They are not the domain of mankind and you will find no welcome there. Indeed, what I will call the Primeval Gardens are barely known by any living humans at all.

But the average traveler need not worry, for the Great Forests have in place ancient enchantments as old as the Earth itself. No one can accidentally stumble upon a Primeval Garden without pure luck dictating that they miss it entirely. Much like one magnet repelling another of similar polarity, the human explorer is driven away from those hallowed sites and is never the wiser for it.

Occasionally, however, wizards just have to come along and fuck things up.

A wizard is nothing if not a surveyor of loopholes in the contract that humanity has with reality. Even learning of the protective wards guarding the Primeval Gardens is a remarkable feat in itself. Yet, through any of an infinite number of incomprehensible magical means, it is sometimes possible to break through the enchantment and actually set foot on that sacred ground.

However, although the enchantments can occasionally be broken temporarily, absolutely no magic that any living being can channel will obscure the actions partaken by the offending wizard—or their companions—from the Great Forest's Watcher. Awakened by any disturbance in the primeval enchantment, the omniscient Watcher records all deeds—and especially misdeeds—performed until the offender is once again outside the sphere of the enchantment's domain. However, as the Watcher is omniscient but not omnipotent, She will inform any offenses immediately to the appropriate Enforcers.

Enforcers comprise a wide variety of magical entities who are eternally bound in service to the Great Forest itself. Earth elementals, ancient demigods, and even certain legendary animals can be Enforcers, depending on what offense has occurred and if any Earthly magic has been removed or corrupted. The primary goal of an Enforcer is to restore balance to the Primordial Garden by any means necessary. I don't have to tell you that, depending on the nature of the disruption, the act of restoring balance can be... unpleasant.

However, there is a curious case that arises when an intruder actually eats something from the Primordial Garden. Once any fruit, herb, or other food is consumed orally, its magical essence does not transfer to the consumer, or live in their gut somehow. Instead, without fail, it is transferred to the teeth upon chewing. There it will lie forever dormant, unusable even by a wizard. The only means of reclaiming the Garden's essence that was lost is to extract the teeth. And seeing as how no one would risk a direct assault on a wildly unpredictable human wizard—or one of their friends—by removing a set of teeth by force, the Enforcers in such cases are Tooth Faeries.

Tooth Faeries are well acquainted with the neurological workings of human nervous systems, such that ensuring they stay asleep for a complex, painful surgical procedure is no challenge. In fact, they are such skilled Enforcers that they can harvest a full set of teeth and install a nearly identical replacement set in just under two hours. When the subject wakes in the morning, the most they will ever know is that they taste a hint of blood and perhaps a bit of an aching jaw. These symptoms usually pass within an hour. In truth, Tooth Faeries are some of the most effective Enforcers ever to serve the Watchers and the Great Forests when establishing balance to the Primordial Gardens.

The problem is that, because they're Fey, they're usually tricksters and perverts.

What follows is a catalogue of the multitude of effects known to befall some victims of Tooth Faerie trickery. I fear the list may be incomplete, but the list below should nevertheless be accurate.

1) The victims may hear sounds previously recorded from the past 24 hours. It is unknown whether the Faeries or someone else in the Primeval Garden is listening via the teeth and playing the sound back, or whether one of the teeth is actually some sort of enchanted stone. However, it is able to transmit the sound via bone conduction through the jaw. No one other than the victim will be able to hear the sound, although the victim will be utterly convinced it is real.

2) The teeth are able to transmit electrical impulses through their roots nerve endings directly to the victim's erogenous zones. Minor muscle spasms can ensue. The Tooth Faeries almost certainly are monitoring the victim in some manor, because every report of this effect has occurred during a socially stressful and public scenario.

3) The teeth can trigger the release enzymes in the digestive tract to disrupt the normal passage of food. Projectile vomiting or diarrhea can occur in extreme cases, although one of the most common reports of this effect is potent flatulence.

4) Assuming they can write, occasionally the victim may find that they are unable to control the content of their writing, transcribing certain nonsense phrases, such as "milk shake" or "chicken man," in an otherwise totally sensible passage. This effect is particularly disruptive to wizards, who must destroy spells in order to transcribe them into a permanent grimoire.

5) With some sort of monstrous shock to the nervous system, the victim loses all control of their muscles and falls prone for a period of up to two minutes. This is seemingly rare, but particularly dangerous. For example, death can befall anyone crossing a shallow stream or riding their horse at a galloping speed. It could be the case that victims simply don't live in order to report it.

6) For some victims, saliva production temporarily magnifies at least ten fold. This is such a massive increase that the victim must slobber excessively or else choke to death. An additional concern for these victims is drinking enough to prevent lost fluids.

7) Some victims report that their sense of taste is randomized. Savory foods are instead sweet, sweet foods are sour, and so on.

8) As 7, but instead the sense of smell.

9) A limited symptom, but victims reported that they were unable to keep their teeth from chattering loudly once they found themselves in a situation which demanded silence, such as passing a sleeping baby or dog.

10) Occasionally the teeth will simply fall out after a time. It is unknown whether this is intentional trickery or just shoddy work on the part of the Tooth Faeries.

Sadly, while most victims have eventually reported that the above maladies eventually cease, it is unknown what eventually gets the Tooth Faeries to stop. Based on the patterns I have studied thus far, it is quite possible that they give up once another person finds and eats something from the Primeval Garden. Or maybe they just get bored, choosing a different mischief in which to partake. It is my intention to investigate this matter further; perhaps I can find a wizard and some unwitting test subjects.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Priest and the Narcoworms

Slouched against a withered tree is a degenerate priest, clad in the earth-stained clothes of one ill-acquainted with finery. He venerates the Octopus Goddess, although if pressed for details he will know far less about Her than a holy scholar should. He is also a drug addict. Rich, black soil fills his small sack, with a small colony of narcoworms feeding on a sweet-smelling fungus.

Narcoworms are long, slender worms that writhe at a glacial tempo. They appear purple at first glance, although there is a rainbow oil sheen to them upon closer inspection. If you happen to grind a living one into a fine paste which you then desiccate in a crucible, the resulting ashen powder is hallucinogenic if ingested or snorted through the nostrils. No one knows who originally worked out this procedure.

In faraway cities, there are worm dens where only the most degenerate and wealthy fuel orgies of hallucinatory stupor. Plush couches and pillows allow you to recline at the height of comfort while you observe your mortal body writhing in sweet agony. Outside the cities, few have even heard of the narcoworms' secret, and the procedure for preparing the worms has only been spread via ciphered notes disguised as children's drawings.

Like common earthworms, the narcoworms are simultaneous hermaphrodites. Their reproduction, which occurs about once every six weeks, is assisted by an excreted jelly which carries egg and sperm until their union. The presence of a mixture of this jelly and sea salt during the aforementioned preparatory procedure also maximizes its narcotic effects, although this secret knowledge is guarded carefully amongst the small, secret cabal of Worm-Givers.

Our friend the priest has learned, by a stroke of luck, to grind up those worms which are in the mating process when he can, along with a pinch of salt. He is a bit too slow-witted to realize how much of a profit can be made with this knowledge. He is slower still to realize that there are other Worm-Givers out there who would slit his throat for not providing them their due share of the profits from what must surely be a stolen secret.

When the PCs meet the priest, he will offer "enlightenment" to them, in the name of the right splendid Octopus Goddess. Anyone who partakes gains a +1 to their Wisdom for the day, but suffers one of the following effects:

Narcoworm Effects Table (d6)
1. Migraines, which last for one week. Each day, succeed a Saving Throw or else suffer a -1d4 penalty against all rolls for the day.
2. Hallucinate 1d4-1 additional NPCs/monsters per encounter. Roll with each new encounter. Lasts for the rest of the day.
3. All love everywhere is here eternal now living together through you and me. Lasts for the rest of the day or until cured.
4. Environmental confusion. Determine a climate type and weather at random. The character hallucinates that they are present in such an environment and takes appropriate action (such as changing outfit or seeking shelter). Lasts for the rest of the day.
5. Kleptomania or pyromania (DM's choice), 2d10 turns.
6. Every verbal communication that the character hears is perceived as a lie, meant to trick the character into peril. 3d10 turns.

If the narcoworm was mating and prepared with sea salt, roll twice on the chart and gain +1 Wisdom permanently.

Consuming the narcoworm powder repeatedly will build a cumulative chance (suggested 1% per dose) for the character to develop psionic powers. If a person with psionic abilities eats live narcoworms, they will gestate in the stomach and release invasive embryos into the bloodstream. These will eventually attack the blood-brain barrier and mutate the host into an Illithid, or whatever non-trademarked name you give a Mind Flayer. This, coincidentally, will please the Octopus Goddess.

The Narcoworm Priest:

- Sack of narcoworms (3d12) in soil
- Cudgel
- Wooden holy symbol
- Worm preparation kit: crucible, mortar, pestle, tongs, and an alcohol lamp
- Poorly-written pornography
- 3 sp
What he wants:
- To gain followers to his religion.
- To bond with people over hallucinations.
- To learn more about these worms.
What he doesn’t want:
- To be exposed as a charlatan.
- To kill anyone.
- To incur the wrath of the Octopus Goddess.

[Note: the above blog post is an expansion of an idea first discussed in a previous entry]

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Skills revisited: Dice pools and the LotFP playtest rules

So obviously the first thing I should do once I say that I want to play some more 5E is to start analyzing the rules for Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Just a few days ago, I grabbed a copy of LotFP's Free RPG Day supplement for the year, Eldritch Cock.  It has a whole bunch of spells in it, but also what I think is the first unrestricted release of the LotFP playtest rules, a set of backwards-compatible rules changes for the game.

One of the coolest things, in my opinion, is the update of Saving Throws. They are now based on a d6 dice pool. Number of successes determines the result (2+ = full save, 1 = partial save, 0=fail). The only variable is, are you saving against a magical effect or not? I am a bit biased since I love dice pools inherently, but I think that this is a great improvement, at least on paper. Saving throws have always been a high hurdle to clear for lower-level characters. I want to see exactly how this plays out at the table.

Meanwhile, of all the great things in LotFP, the skill checks were the one thing that I never really liked. you have an n-in-6 chance, a single d6 roll. So (a) you want to roll low, and (b) you could end up with a 6-in-6 chance to do something if you buy enough of a single skill as a Specialist.

I mused on a potential upgrade to that here.

The playtest document (at least the one I scanned a while back; I don't know if James updated the rules in Eldritch Cock since I don't have it on me right now), essentially boils down to the following paraphrased rules:

- One random skill starts with a +3 bonus, and another begins with +2. If this is the same skill, it adds together to only be +4. (Target number for everything is 6 on a roll of d6, by the way. So in this case, failure only occurs on a 1.)

- For each bonus skill point (affected by INT), determine the skill randomly. negative modifiers start wiping out the starting bonuses from the last step.

- Specialists get 4 +1 bonuses to distribute at will at level 1, and add +2 per level.

- Roll 2d6 with 2x6's/2x1's being successes/failures if your total bonuses for a particular skill are less than 0/greater than +5. (Don't worry if I wrote it out confusingly because I kind of ignore this moving forward in my thought experiment.)

I wanted to see if I could keep the dice pool idea going from my original idea, and then see if I can adapt the playtest rule to follow the same model. We're already set to use a dice pool for saves, so why not skills?

(Forgive me because I'm now kind of writing this as I go...)

So first off, realize that the default skills follow a linear progression. 1 skill point is the same value (a 1-in-6 increase in probability) for all time. Your chance of success is 16.7%, 33.3%, 50%, etc. So in these playtest rules, every character has a 66.7% of success at a single skill, and a 50% chance on a second skill. Or they get the same result twice and get a single skill at 83.3%. Everything else stays at 16.7%.

So imagine we're using dice pools instead. The default of +0 Dice to a skill still gives you a base success chance of 16.7%, so that's good. In order to get closest to a 66.7% and a 50% chance for two separate skills, we'd need to add +5 dice and +3 dice, respectively, to each skill to yield success chances of 66.5% and 51.8%, the probabilities of success of dice pool sizes of 6 and 4. Let's accept that as our baseline, pre-tweaking value of dice for everyone.

Then comes Specialists. They get four +1 bonuses that they can arrange to taste. It's not easy to convert this to a dice pool, since they could add all +4 to a single skill, making a 1-in-6 chance a 5-in-6 chance. In dice pool terms, that's adding 9 dice to get your chances of success up to 83.8%...

(Before we move on, here's the incremental success percentage increase with each new die added to your pool: 2nd die = +13.9%; 3rd = +11.6%; 4th = +9.6%; 5th = +8.0%; 6th = +6.7%; 7th = +5.6%; 8th = +4.7%; 9th = +3.9%; 10th = +3.2%. If we average all these, we get about 7.5% per die.)

So back to Specialists. It looks like, to keep the +4 starting bonus consistent, we should convert it to +8 or +9 dice in my suggested dice pool system. They would clearly have the most benefit if you spread them all out over eight or nine different skills, with each one getting, therefore, a 31% chance of success. In this extreme, they're almost twice as effective as the +4 dice of the playtest rules. The playtest dice are more effective per skill (33.3%>31%), but you can only apply that bonus to four skills at most.

I... actually kind of like that approach. I think that the jack-of-all-trades seems more consistent with my idea of what a Specialist class brings to the table, which is the guy you hire to do the tricky stuff. I'm going to assume players will game the system, most likely spreading their bonus dice far and wide. However, if they want to tailor their character to fit a particular archetype, they can shift that pool around quite a bit. (Translator, Sailor, Acrobat, etc. are all merely different skill distributions.)

One last thing that I really like: in keeping the mechanics of skill rolls consistent with that of saving throws, not only are we unifying mechanics a bit, but we can also introduce variable results for skill rolls. 2+ successes means the skill is executed perfectly, whereas one success means there is a complication that develops. The downside to this, of course, is that most skills used by non-specialists are going to forever remain at 1 die, leading to automatic complications. I don't know how I feel about that yet.

What remains to be seen after this first thought experiment: (1) Do I want to tweak the amount of bonus dice for non-Specialist classes? It depends on whether the Specialist seems too crucial compared to the Fighter and Magic-User. (2) What about that INT bonus? Keep it consistent? Again, more playtesting required. (3) Maybe I'll give fighters bonus dice for Leadership, another new skill.

Blog update after about half a year

A lot of things have happened since my last blog entry. I will try to summarize them here:

- For various reasons, I moved away from D&D-centric fantasy roleplaying games. I got pretty heavily invested in Call of Cthulhu. While I think there is a lot of crossover, I didn't feel the desire to post anything here since it's not really a house-rule game the way the DIY RPG scene is.

- Owing to perhaps some combination of the winter season, a loss of free time, and financial problems (which are entirely my own doing), I stopped following RPGs nearly altogether.

- I started collecting comic books and collected editions, which was a refreshing new hobby, although it worsened said financial stress.

- both comics and RPGs contributed to my new drawing pastime.

I won't go into my drawing in depth, but know that I am available to illustrate for RPG material. I am also cheap.

You can find me here:
instagram (most active)
fineartamerica (prints for sale)
patreon (currently least active since I have no patrons. I plan to revisit this at some point in the near future.)

I would also like to resume creating content for RPG material, which means I need to run actual games. I think I want to try running 5E once again since it was such a huge draw on Free RPG Day. On that day, I ran a DCC game for which a single player signed up.

Also, if you have a strong opinion as to whether I should include Call of Cthulhu content on my blog, please let me know in the comments.

As a parting shot, here's my first commission. It's available as a print but I'd be happy if you just looked at it because I am quite proud of it.

Art Prints