Friday, December 16, 2016

Product Review: Blood in the Chocolate

For: Lamentations of the Flame Princess
By: Kiel Chenier
Cost: 19.25 Euro  print+pdf
$7.99 pdf

Sometimes the stars align just right.  In this case it was that my daughters discovered Willy Wanka and the Chocolate Factory and in that wonderful way kids do have been wanting to watch it again and again, just about this time LotFP released Blood in the Chocolate.  As I’m a glutton for punishment the local market has been having a sale on Milka bars- so my life has been awash in chocolate as of late.
First and foremost Blood in the Chocolate is “inspired by” the work of Roald Dahl (or perhaps more accurately the film my kids have been watching).  The quotes are because it IS NOT a D&D adventure that apes the story you know.   It is far far darker. 
The Chocolate factory deals very little with the production of chocolate.  We see the river where it is mixed, and plenty of experimental rooms of whimsy, and find that despite being a chocolate factory Wonka is in fact very diverse in the realm of candy and confection production. 
Blood in the chocolate on the other hand pays a slightly more realistic approach to chocolate production.  Other confections are ignored, however much of the factory is just that- a factory.  Although a pre-industrial age setting, it brings all the fun of “The Jungle” to the table top.   Grinding gears and molten chocolate are a subtle danger at nearly every turn (well, subtle until your scarf is pulling you closer to the gears, or 3rd degree burns on your hand and face from trying to drink the stuff like the kid in the movie did…)
The best part of the whole thing is that as weird and twisted as the adventure can be, it is all done with subtlety.  There isn’t any obvious encounter- no monster to fight when you kick down the door.  You do have a villain and a mob of fanatical followers though, so things can go south very quickly.  Of course they can also go south if you are nice too.  If for some reason the players completely ignore the adventure it can still have it subtly affect the game as others are affected by the rare side effect of the chocolate.
Unlike Wonka where punishments were doled out to children who needed to learn a lesson, here you almost root for Slugworth to win.  The punishments are doled out indiscriminately (i.e. the players, but hey, the probably broke and entered, and are at least contemplating theft if not murder). And the factory owner of this place, is not spritely or clever, she is mean, vain, and evil.  So then again, perhaps everyone gets what is coming to them after all. 
They layout of the book makes it easy to read, the art is fantastic; complete with a walkthrough of a possible outcome in the .pdf version. 
And yet… it feels like there is a little something missing. 
With the sheer number of mini-minions in the factory, it would have been nice to have some non-combat encounters included with the little guys.  As is they occupy the entire factory and they just seem a bit dry, sure goblins don’t get exposition in adventures either, but these guys are at least pretty benign and possibly helpful as long as the factory owner isn’t directing her wrath at you (then be warned, you could easily end up the victim of blueberry gang bang rape). 
This can easily be solved by a bit of planning on the storytellers part (and really how often do goblins get exposition?)
This adventure is a definite module to pick up though, the familiarity that probably every player has with Willy Wanka makes the changes off putting enough to instill a good sense of creepiness (even without the ferryboat ride) for your players and still be entertaining. 

Like Most LotFP adventures the setting is pretty harsh, and even a party that gets through with no casualties will more than likely come away with several scars (mental and physical).  

1/26/17 update

I came across this and it pretty much captures everything I imagine this module to be:

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Evolution of the Orc: Monster progression throughout the monster manuals.

Fire on the Velvet Horizon (FVH) is a monster manual of really unique monsters.  The introduction though is what inspired me to write this piece.  FVH coins the term the M’th person as the perspective monster manuals are written in.  An odd god tense that dictates absolute fact, and at the same time doesn’t always know what is going on with the monster in question as well.  Instead of diving deeper into the strange and unique monsters presented within its own covers (I’m sure I’ll get to this later) it made me think of the common monsters we see again and again in adventures.
Dungeons and Dragons and roleplaying games in general have evolved over time.  While mostly this has focused on rule changes to either add depth or increase ease of play, one thing that has remained constant is the conflict with monsters.  The Orc and the dragon are perhaps the most quintessential monsters within the fantasy genre.   I’m going to focus on the orc because they are a far more common enemy that can be encountered even at low levels as a significant threat, and yet still appear at higher levels (albeit more in the role as cannon fodder for the big bad) while the Dragon tends to be reserved as a more limited encounter.
What follows are the entries on orcs from various monster manuals.  As you will see each section starts off with a few details so you can easily find the entry if you desire to compare to my analysis, but I also include the first sentence from the entry verbatim, as this is obviously the most important this the M’th voice has to tell us about the humble orc.

AD&D 1st Edition. p. 76 # appearing 30-300
First sentence of MM: Orc tribes are fiercely competitive, and when they meet it is 75% likely that they will fight each other unless a strong leader (such as a wizard, evil priest, evil lord) with sufficient force behind him is on hand to control the orcs.
Orcs primary traits are being bullies that adhere to leadership of the fittest, and will at best intimidate/bully other races into doing their bidding, and at worse enslave them.  They will take slaves for work, food, and entertainment (tourture, etc.) .  This subtle information gives light to how horrible orcs are.  They will eat other sentient races, torture for fun, and as they are described later as being willing to breed with anything, it can be expected that entertainment means sex as well. 
They are capable of being self sustaining being described as being accomplished tunnelers and miners.  Preferring to live in subterranean areas (and having a light sensitivity) their non-combat abilities are further made plain by their above ground lairs consist of wooden huts complete with a palisade, watchtowers, and crew served weapons to defend themselves.  Their greatest limitation seems to be their over aggressiveness leads to infighting with each other as much as them being a threat to anyone else. The only ally they are listed as having are Ogres who may appear in a large enough settlement.  The entry on Ogres describes that Ogres will work for Orcs as mercenaries.  The Ogre probably benefits from the orcs (slightly) higher intelligence.
Appearance wise they are distinctly not human being described as disgusting.  After that a few details of with brown, brownish green skin with pink ears and snouts.  The image of the orc has a porcine face with misaligned tusks.  
Half-Orcs are listed as a sub-entry because Orcs will breed with anything except elves.  Which they have enmity towards and will kill on site rather than even enslave. 

AD&D 2nd  Edition. p. 281 # appearing 30-300
First sentence:  Orcs are a species of aggressive mammalian carnivores that band together in tribes and survive by hunting and raiding. 
Second edition seems to downplay the internal strife of the orcs (though they will still war with other tribes) and directing it more outwards towards other races.  Their hatred towards elves is to “Historic enmity between elves and dwarves” willing to kill both on sight.  Orcs increase in complexity in this edition, believing that in order to survive they must expand their territory, and value territory above all else.  Although a maximum encounter is still listed as 300, they are able to construct much larger lairs, their numbers expanding to cities ranging from 2000-20000 Orcs.  Orcs are still described as viewing slavery as part of the natural order, the first edition emphasis on slavery is downplayed and they are only mentioned as being part of a baggage carriers.  Their cannibal nature is downplayed as well, stating that they prefer other types of meat to demi-human. Religion for orcs is first introduced as with the addition of shamans or witch doctors in a sufficiently large population.  They have multiple deities with the chief deity being (usually) a one eyed orc.  Absent from this edition is the presence of ogres in orc societies, though the ogre entry still lists them as being mercenaries in the employ of orc tribes. A new addition is the sub-species of Orogs, a smarter tougher orc.  Half orcs are present as a sub-entry though breeding with an elf is listed as an impossibility rather than something that just doesn’t occur out of racial hatred.
Over all second edition humanizes orcs a bit treating their threat more as an imperialistic evil force rather than agents of hatred and chaos.  
Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Edition.  P.203 # appearing 2-100
First sentence: Orcs are aggressive humanoids that raid, pillage, and battle other creatures.
Orcs get a physical upgrade as their weakness to light is removed.  Orcs get softened up again on a cultural level though, their hatred of elves beginning generations ago, and only “often” kill them on sight.  They have a stronger ties with other orcs as while being willing to work for non-orcs they will rebel unless being commanded by orcs.  The role of female orcs is first described in this edition.  Of course it is not a great role as they are “prized possessions at best and chattel at worst”.  Slaves have been removed from Orc society, rather that all worldly goods belonging to others is rightfully orcs. The one eyed orc god, get a name in this edition: Gruumsh.  The diety from the forgotten realms game setting being made the standard for all orcs now.  Ogres are still absent from orc society, and have no mention of orcs within their own entry in the monster Manuel.  Orogs are gone, being replaced with orcs with levels & class abilities like a player character instead.  Half orcs still make an appearance as a sub entry but they just kind of appear in either orc or human society.  This edition seems to shy away from the grittier aspects of orc life rape, cannibalism and slavery.  Though still imperialistic Orcs seem to be watered down and could easily be replaced with any religiously motivated barbarian tribe.   
Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. P. 203 # appearing 4-7
First sentence:  Orcs worship Gruumsch, the one-eyed god of slaughter, and are savage, bloodthirsty marauders. 
Orc de-evlove in 4th edition.  Gone is a lot of the more complex motivations of previous editions, the details of society and ecology.  They can no longer build or manage their own culture, instead being scavengers that occupy the abandoned/conquered settlements of others.  Instead they are religiously motivated locusts, that require other societies to raid from to survive, though cannibalism is back.  Orcs are the consummate fodder in 4th edition.  They rush into close combat with little to no thought of self preservation.  They will fight alongside ogres but no other detail is given on the nature of this relationship.  Orcs are more eclectic, with example encounters including dire boars, dire wolves, and dinosaurs (!)    Orcs are subdivided into specific roles when encountered.  Orc Drudge, Orc Warrior, Orc Raider, Orc Bezerker, Orc Eye of Gruumsch (cleric), Orc Bloodrager, Orc Chieftain.  A bunch of different stats for mostly the same tactic of “rush forward and hit it”.  This complex subdivision of orc power levels handled in previous editions by a simple: for every X orcs encountered is an orc of Y hit dice.     
Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition p. 244 # appearing N/A
First sentence:  Orcs are savage raiders and pillagers with stooped postures, low foreheads, and piggish faces with prominent lower canines that resemble tusks.
We see a combination of several previous editions here, with several of the ideas expanded upon and blended, though most closely aligning with their 3rd edition predecessor.  Fifth Edition give the greatest detail on Orcsish religion, and uses this as a springboard for their constant war and aggression to other religions with conflict between deities as the reason for particular Orcish hatred for Elves.   It also expands from naming only Gruumsh to including a fertility goddess, Luthic as well.  Their society is semi-nomadic occupying other species structures and only improving them for temporary defense and then moving on when targets to raid are no longer within striking distance.  Orcs are more inclusive of other races in their groups accepting ogres, trolls, half-orcs, orogs; the last two being sub-races of orc.  There is still very much the feel of orcs being a religiously fueled fanatic, though in this edition it comes across more as this is a cultural explanation/justification for their place in the world.  There is a distinct gap in the information in this edition though with their focus on raiding other civilizations, killing everything, and picking the area clean of material wealth, there is no room for slavery or the cross-race rape associated with previous editions.  As a result it can be assumed that most of this prolific breeding occurs within the orc community or with other goblinoid/evil races (half orc/ half ogres are specifically mentioned).  The status of females in the society also get an upgrade as orc culture is only “generally” patriarchal.  With the focus on breeding and birth by divine commandment it may result in orcish females having a more revered status than the chattel of 3rd edition. 

Spin offs. 
Between 3rd and 4th editions we saw two direct decendedts or Dungeons and Dragons in the form of Pathfinder and Hackmaster.  The evolution of Orcs from these games can be seen as an alternate evolution from Dungeons and Dragons 4th and 5th editions.
Pathfinder. P. 222 # encountered 1
First sentence: Along with their brute strength and comparatively low intellect, the primary difference between orcs and the civilize humanoids is their attitude. 
Again Orcs seem to culturally devolve from 2nd edition to Pathfinder.  Orcs are not component at managing a self sustaining civilization, though this is due to a lack of patience.  Good enough being the Orcs watchword apparently, they are more attracted to the immediate gains of entertainment (eg drinking and fighting) and it is just easier to take things from others. Slaves are mentioned though, there is little evidence of their employment other than being the forced partner in producing half-orcs.  As orcs seem to be aware of their own mental limitations, and understand that this interacial breeding is a solution.  Religion is not mentioned at all.   

Hackmaster 4th edition (if you aren’t familiar with Hackmaster there is no 1-3 editions) p.32-41.  # encountered 30-300 with war parties of 6-15.
First sentence:  Orcs are man-sized bipeds with the faces and tusks of boars.
Hackmaster spreads orcs out over 11 different entries (which have sub-entries), with additional entries for the half-orc and orkin (half-half-orcs).  The main emphasis on orc culture is the chaotic nature and internal strife that promotes in-fighting as much as fighting with anyone else.  Orcs have a focus on ritual and ceremony to organize their lives.  Slaves still play a major role in orc society functioning as they do not have the ability or patience to have the complex society as described in D&D 2nd Ed.

Hackmater 5th edition p.  234 # encountered 1-360+
First sentence:  The most numerous and prolific of the evil humanoid races, orcs are also the most violent and savage.

Orcs are lazy, dumb, and cowardly.  Here many of the established orc reasoning for orcs actions are changed, with the intent of having orcs be as vile as possible.  Orcs take no pleasure in plunder, but rather the violence itself.  Tactics exist, and although not complex, it really portrays the orcs as of low intelligence, rather than suicidal.  Though they have some mining capability, they vastly prefer the use of slaves for any labor they need.  The are preferentially cannibalistic, favoring easting demi-humans to any other meat.  Rape culture defines Orcs here.  50% of orc population is female though very few of those are actually “orcs” rather they are captured females kept as breeding stock.  Life expectancy for these captuered women is woefully short and likely extends to only if they are with child. Religion exists within orc culture, but its prevalence is directly related to the personal power of the shaman of the tribe.  Ogres appear in orc lairs to serve as guards in exchange for food.  Five orc sub races are detailed plus half-orcs.  In my personal opinion the effort the authors go to, to make the orcs repugnant works really well as in this incarnation they seem to be functional on a level that I couldn’t just replace with a human barbarian tribe.  

Friday, December 2, 2016


I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point it seems that all Dwarves got Scottish accents.  Perhaps it is Michael Meyers fault, between "So, I Married and Axe Murderer" and "Shrek" the idea of grumpy and bitter Scot-speak got matched with the grumpy axe-wielders.

It isn't just the Dwarves though.  Other Demi-human races have been homogenized and I see the same tropes popping up for them as well.  Gnomes all became steampunk, elves all became nice, non-violent nature lovers, Orcs (or Half-Orcs) became the noble savages.

I'm sure this all has to due with marketing at some level.  The more approachable/appealing you can make something the more likely it is to get used.  The problem I have with this is that as a result, all of the demi-human races become just variations of human.  Over all it causes a feeling that there is less difference between the demi-human races then there are between actual cultures in real life.  This ends up on the playing table as well, where quite often the extent of a what makes a race different is the stat bonuses, and the bit of art included in the book.

There should be a more fundamental differences in the way that the different races think.  Their cultural motives and what really separates them apart from each other.  After all, why is there a Dwarven, or Elven kingdom if everyone gets along so well?  Wouldn't simple economics have created a fusion of the races into co-habitated areas?  At the very least a "Dwarven Quarter" or the "Gnomish Ghetto" within larger multi-racial cities at some point? 

I've been toying around with this genericification of demi-humans, and my simple (and most likely temporary) answer has been to play in worlds with no demi-humans as PC races.  I don't think any player wants to get saddled with a laundry list of "can and can not" do for their character to make them more alien.  rather if they are eliminated then there becomes a bit of mystery about the cultures and even after they have been encountered, new and strange ideals can turn expectations on their heads.

I'm not advocating a complete rewite of each demi-human race, but perhaps just cranking up some of their original source material up to 11 to emphasize the differences.

For the "big four" some of my initial thoughts on where I would like to take them in my campaign world.

Elves- A midsummers night dream.  The elves really don't care about the humans.  They are tied up in their own world and pay not much more concern than the lord and ladies do to the village players who so poorly perform a play for them.   

Dwarves- Norse mythology.  The greed of Fafnir, and the cursed treasure, as well as them being clever builders and artisans.  Presenting the race as a society where avarice is a virtue.  This would easily spiral outward to the worst parts of indentured servitude and slavery.    

Gnomes- I go off the beaten track with this one a bit.  goblins and gnomes are actually the same race.  From the fairy lore books I've read, both goblins and gnomes are earth spirits of a sort.  They are both considered misshapen or ugly, so I decided to combine them.  The difference is one of environment.  If there is adequate resources then they are inventive, clever little things that are your friendly gnome.  If resources are lacking though, then they are spiteful hateful things that try to claw out their survival and will do so through theft and murder.  I figure their physical appearance will slowly change with their disposition.

Hobbits-   I'm a bit stumped on this to make them really different.  For the moment though:  How would a being behave in a world populated by giants?  For that is surely the world of a hobbit. While we don't eat them, we must do something equally repulsive, dangerous, or dreadful to keep the hobbits away from us.  Perhaps they will speak with vegetables and animals, be really tied to the earth and only eat the things that give them permission to do so.  Since they can talk to the plants and animals in human fields they know of the panic, and dread that our food goes through prior to being eaten.  

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Plot Points

Campaign planning. 

As a game master I have a story to tell, be that through running published modules or my own hair-brained story.  The thing is though, much like video games have taught us through character developing side quests, the players' characters have their own story to tell. 

I've run sandbox adventures where I just react to what the players do, or throw out hooks to see if they decide to follow.  A very organic way of playing that just meandered about, but never really developed to any epic over-arching storyline.

I've run modules that are supposed to take characters on epic quests, but by their nature kind of railroad the players to take the next hook, or give up the evening for deviating from the proscribed material.

One thing I've come across recently though is the Plot Point campaign by Pinnacle game for their Deadlands: Reloaded series.  I think it strikes a nice balance between the tow because it breaks up an over-arching story campaign into sections that can either be completed back to back or with other material thrown in between.  There is a nice feel to the part of the campaign being wrapped up with either a fairly obvious hook that the players can activate if whenever they wish to continue, or has a new set up to string the next adventure in pretty much anytime. This allows for characters to pursue their own interests and agendas while still getting around to saving the world in a timely manner.

They system works kind of like this the main campaign adventure is the plot point,  with each side mission being a short one session adventure in between.

1 Plot point mission
1-2 side missions
1 plot point
2-3 side missions
1 plot point
1-2 side missions
1 plot point
1 plot point
2-3 side missions
1 plot point finale

Side missions can consist of addressing background events in the world not directly related to "the quest"

They can focus on an individual character's background, goals or development, and you rotate though which character gets the spotlight each time.

The plot point pattern can be used as  pattern for string of single adventures:

Even without a detailed campaign, just a matter of having a re-occurring villain make an appearance, without every conflict being about them.

Weird adventures can be inserted into a game to keep the creepy feel without having it become mundane, because they have non-weird happening in between

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Product Review: Deep Carbon Observatory

Product Review: Deep Carbon Observatory

From: False Machine Publishing
Cost: 10.00 pdf 13.30 softcover B&W

Deep Carbon Observatory is very rich on atmosphere.  So much so that "the dungeon" of the adventure only sets up a slight portion of the adventure.  Combat definitely takes a back seat in this adventure, but this isn't to say that it is non-existent or that there is very little threat to the PCs.  In fact there is quite a lot of threat to the PCs.

The book is laid out rather organically. As GM you are introduced to things in much the same way and pace as the players are.  As a result it is a rather "fun" read that had me asking questions and wanting to keep reading to find the answers until the very end where a handy timeline of events serves to tie things together as a sort of "big reveal"  The downside of this is that it is not a quick and easy pick up and run adventure.  Even getting to see "the big picture" as a GM, nothing is outright told to you, you have to figure out a lot of the connections of things on your own.  This is definitely an adventure where as GM you are going to have to be taking notes before, during, and after the adventure. After? I hear you ask.  Yes, the adventure has some definite world affecting consequences.  On the bright side, most of these effects really only occur if the players choose to not be actively engaged in the adventure.  There are several really clever ideas here, but the big take away is that the adventure does not exist in a vacuum frozen in time awaiting the adventurers to awaken it.  The adventure is very organic and could very well resolve itself without any player involvement.

Art is some nice pencil work that conveys a lot of character, the maps have no scale which I feel is a failing.  The authors stress that it is very important to know how many days of food the players have, but provide very little guidance on how long it should take to traverse the various terrain.

From here on out spoilers.  You've been warned.

The adventure is broken into five parts.

The first bit throws the adventurers into the action, and keeps them occupied meeting several colorful characters.  This is a fun different way of introducing the area, and providing one of three hooks to continue on to the rest of the adventure.  Although not overtly stated, probably the most important part of this is to introduce the fact that the area is flooded, and everyone is in bad shape.

The next parts involve the travel up river, then the dam, and the drained lake. All these environments are probably very alien to the players.  The flood has radically changed the "normal" of the path up river.  Things from the lake now traverse the area.  Everything is flooded necessitating travel by boat or a very wet walk for a very long time.  The dam takes the normal dungeon crawl idea and throws it on its side because almost everything has been upturned by the water- traps are already sprung and locked doors are opened.  The drained lake again presents an alien atmosphere of an ecology turned on its head.

and then into the observatory.

I would hope that the PCs would take note of the fact that someone built a dam to keep this place inaccessible under water. Of course that won't keep them out.

Here is a great opportunity to explore the remains of the observatory and the dark elves that once occupied it.

Finally the adventure ends with a timeline of what happened in the past and what will happen if the PCs don't get involved.  So really you could throw this adventure hook at them and have them completely ignore it and then have it come back to bite them in the rear years later in your campaign.
The timeline tracks the progress of another adventuring party interested in the observatory as well as a witch that is an encounter earlier.  With the unfolding of these two parties without PC involvement is really becomes evident that the tracking of time is important in this adventure.  The ration tracking is just as important as there isn't an easy way to re-stock these items and a party may end up quitting the adventure or starving to death if not prepared.

Not every answer is given in the adventure, some  just don't get answered.  What caused the dam to brake, and where did the dark elves go is kind of beyond the scope of the adventure, but may be something to address in your own running of the game.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Killing a god

What did Deities and Demigods teach everyone?

We learned that it didn't matter who or what you were-  If you had stats you could be killed.  I heard more than one anecdotal story of high level players hunting down gods for sport just because someone thought it would be cool to take Mjolnir from Thor's cold dead fingers. 

So can you incorporate deities into games and not have them become a target?  Sure. Step one though is don't give them stats. Keep them on a completely different level of the game than the players.

This doesn't mean that the players couldn't or shouldn't get to interact with these supreme beings of creation and destruction.

Some ideas on different ways to approach having a god in the game.

Treat gods like environmental effects.  Much like when adventuring near a volcano, there will be different effects whether the players are at the base, on the rim, or within the lip of the volcano.  Is the volcano active or dormant, it is erupting?   Similarly, the god will have different effects depending on the proximity the characters have to it, as well as the mood of the god.  While the players may be able to directly affect the attitude of the god (of course this depends on the god...), if the god is angry, the best the player's can really hope for it to get out of the way.

Have demi-gods act as the gods proxies.  Here is an opponent the characters can kill, but in the end even if he is the "big bad" of the adventure, he is only a fraction of the power of the deity that spawned him.  On a similar tact, the players can encounter someone cursed by a god, that can act as a major foil.  Greek mythology is great for examples along this line.

There is no god.  That's right one answer might be that everything the characters believe is a lie perpetuated to make people feel better about existing in a cold bleak uncaring universe.  All those cleric spells are really just the other side of the coin as arcane magic.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Product Review: Death Race Fury Road

From Kort'thalis Publishing
Cost: Free

Death Race Fury Road is a simple race simulator for a race in a chaos filled world where getting there is half the fun.  This is pretty good because the chance of winning the race is slim to none.

The layout of Fury Road leaves a little to be desired as it starts referencing parts of the book that you haven't read yet.  That being said it is really short, so it doesn't take much time to scan and figure out.

The important thing to remember about Fury Road is it isn't about winning.  IF your racer doesn't die, then you have a 15% chance of placing and "winning the race".  You can only get worse odds from there.  While there are lots of ways for racers to die, and even to do each other in, this isn't much incentive if you stick strictly to the rules presented in it.  The booklet must assume that there are dozens of racers, as your ending roll gives you a fixed finishing place (i.e. rolling a 5 on a d20 means you finish 5th place), so no matter how many racers die, there are always 20 left, because you can come in 20th place (sucks to be you!).  A simple tweak that fixes this is to have the rolls for placing be relative with the racer closest to 1 placing first and the racer closest to 20 placing last.

What the book does well is give the feel of a no rules, high octane, murder race with ADHD In which  there is so much chaos involved, it might be more of an incentive for a racer to just say forget the race and come in last because they would rather hook up with that willing stranger they met on the side of the road.

I see some value in Fury Road, not for PCs but as a backdrop event that PCs can bet on.  They can roll for their racers and see the outcome of chaos.  It might present some interesting story hooks if players want to run down the racer who threw the race because of (fill in blank, but probably has to do with sex).

All told a decent piece of inspirational work, and you can't beat the price of free.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Filthy Lucre

Monsters Traps and Treasure, the three cornerstones of fantasy adventures.  Today I'm going to discuss the third: Treasure.

Treasure comes in all sorts of forms.  From simple coin to marvelous magical items. Traps and monsters present a difficulty to adventurers, so why not their treasure as well?  Some ideas for treasures to liven things ups a bit.

Wizards.  Magic users both good and evil are probably packing their A game on them.  Their home be it a hut or a tower probably has their half completed, discarded, and otherwise incomprehensible pursuit of knowledge and/or power.  So this is really a great time to go crazy with those random treasure charts.  From bizarre ingredients that probably don't interest anybody (except the magic user in the party!) to obscure items that made perfect sense to the old conjurer, but you'll never know because your rouge was just a bit too good at that sneak attack. 

Old coins: Piles of coins in forgotten tombs.  For simplicities sake, most games use a base 10 coin system with copper silver and gold.  When they find old treasure though, have it be in some ridiculous coinage that no one accepts any longer.  For simplicities sake you can say that X many coins = 1 gp of value.  While some parties will avoid taking piles of copper because it just isn't worth the weight value.  They will probably take unknown coins until they get back to town and find them having low value.  (of course you can just as easily flip this and have them be rare and valuable to some collector)  Either way though the coins just can't be "spent" without having to be sold, or melted down for their base metal value.

Sure it has a value, but you can always charge them for someone having to melt it down or exchange it etc.  This can also be a great (read:evil) way to manage some player wealth if they hall out a ton of coins to find them having almost no value.  You can also do this for foreign coins and so forth, you can easily justify skimming 10% off the value of any coins found as an usurer's fee. 

Foreign coins: Similar to the old coins, you can find coins from a foreign land that cannot be immediately spent.  The party will have to choose to hold onto the coins in the event they travel to that area, or will have to pay an usurer to convert the coinage to what they can spend locally. (10% is a good fee.)

Crystal, Porcelain and other fragile items.  You're party has found an exquisitely carved crystal statue easily worth a kings ransom half way though the dungeon.  Now they have to protect this super fragile object while they continue on- or have to turn around and return to town to ensure they can exit with their prize.  Of course this is a great thing to include after their entry route has been closed off or collapsed, so forward is the only way.

The baseball card.  In the movie Goonies the kids find the body of Chester Copperpot, while looking for the pirate treasure. In his wallet is a Lou Gehrig baseball card worth a small fortune in and of itself.  The don't realize the value and move on.  Include some item of great value placed innocuously in a dungeon, and the party should ignore it.  After they get to the next town etc. show them similar (or the same) item as being of immense value. 

Magical items:  Magical items can serve a wonderful duel purpose.  It can be treasure, but it can also be a trap.  After all, magical items are made by wizards whose purpose and rational are known only to them, and not everything need be as it seems.  A sword laying about may be the obvious +1.  While I'm sure no one would complain about it, what about a wizard who was experimenting on pacifism.  The sword still grants +1 to whomever uses it, but after a week of possession, the sword the user must make a save to initiate combat, give a -1 modifier to the save for every additional week.
The magical item might be part of a collection of items.  The magical item restores health, later the players can find the chambers that suck the life out of prisoners that fuel the magical item they have been using.   Let your imagination run wild.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Learning Chinese and sanity loss

Many moons ago I had the wonderful opportunity to take a crash course in Cantonese. Three months of full days of language training taking me from not knowing a single word, to... well... running out of time to learn more Chinese before I went to Hong Kong.  You see in those three months, my classmates and I did learn some Chinese.  Towards the end of the class I realized that we were in fact speaking a strange secret language unknown to the rest of the world.  No one else around us in the language training center could understand us (they weren't learning Cantonese!) but I was pretty sure that no one in Hong Kong would understand us either.  Our small group had become separated from everyone else because of the knowledge we held.

So what does this have to do with gaming?

In Call of Cthulhu and many other weird/horror games there is some sort of sanity mechanic.  How well can you hold it together when you have encountered the fantastic cosmic horror that doesn't care about you or your cat, Mittens.

Most of the time this loss of sanity is articulated with some mechanic to make the character "go crazy" and true to the writings of Lovecraft it should.  His protagonists are often on the verge of committing suicide, being unable to continue on with their newfound knowledge, with others committed to asylums for their discoveries.

Sanity loss needn't be relegated to developing restrictive dementias added to a character sheet.  Sanity loss can instead be a measure of how well the character can fit into society.  The act of simply knowing (the truth) can be enough to have them locked away in a nut house.   

After witnessing cultists, with the assistance of their otherworldly assistants, attempting to summon some eldritch evil, the investigators go to the local police to get help.

If the tell everything they have seen, at best they may be considered a nuisance, at worst they may be locked away as a danger to themselves and others because the claims in and of themselves are outlandish and ridiculous. 

A character who has read forbidden tomes and gained magical abilities would be mocked at best or condemned by a church at worst. 

So encountering weird and horrific things can be their own curse, but sanity mechanics can still come into play.

Sanity loss can measure how well the character can keep their mouth shut.  It is human nature to want to talk.  (Most of Lovecraft's writings are couched as some sort of confessional) The more sanity loss a character suffers, the more they feel a need to talk about what they have seen.  The therapy rules fit in nicely with this as the character is venting their experience and thus regain sanity points

Sanity loss as a partial breakdown.  You don't have to throw out the weird quirks and dementias completely.  You can provide legitimate information regarding the horrors the character has encountered.  If the character is told that the things can travel through shadows, the character will naturally be apprehensive around them, and may take actions to eliminate them whenever possible.  There is a rational reason for the character to perform the act, but to everyone else the actions are the fruit of an unstable mind.  Of course you can just as easily provide inaccurate information and let the character react to false information.

Sanity loss as a complete breakdown.  Of course the persons mind can just snap not being able to handle what they have seen.  Heart attacks from fear, or loss of hope, or ability to function  these can all occur as well. But much like character death, as a GM, I find these far more interesting to use as a threat rather than an actual event.

Sanity loss as a measurement of separation from the group is the same as learning Chinese slowly  separated my group from those around us until we reverted to the norm of speaking English.

Oh, and one of the high points for me was when I realized that the word "mogwai" from the movie Gremlins was the Cantonese word for demon and not just a made up name for the type of critter gizmo was. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Rules heavy or rules light?

I started playing Dungeons and Dragons back in 2nd Edition, but it isn't my favorite rule system (I mean really, does anyone love Thac0?).  3rd Edition (3.5 or Pathfinder if you prefer) was the high point for me, in the dungeons and dragons franchise, even though it has its own problems.  4th edition just didn't interest me at all and although I've heard good things about 5th ed I just haven't gotten around to playing it at all.

While I like a lot of different systems for a lot of different reasons, my two preferred systems for fantasy games are Hackmaster 5th Edition, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP).

Hackmaster 5th Edition.  Still in its relative infancy, the core books are all out, it was born from the previous edition that spoofed a lot of the classic TSR rules and modules (and is actually a pretty good set all on its own), and their original western game Aces and Eights.  What you get is a rule set that captures a lot of the feel of the original dungeons and dragons, but with lots of detail.  The game repeatedly makes the point that it is a game of tough choices.  You do have to choose between armor to protect yourself or the freedom of movement to not get hit.  While it is fairly rules and dice heavy, there are a lot of tools to keep things moving and everyone engaged during combat.  It provides a fine level of granularity to the game.  The gamemaster book has great advice on how to set up adventures and make them engaging and award players not just for combat but for clever thinking and story advancement.  The only downside of the game I would say is that I am too old.  I don't just feel like whipping up a new monster or converting stuff over to the rules from other systems. 

On the other end of the spectrum is LotFP.  It is an OSR clone that takes a very rules light approach to the game.  When I first introduced it to players some balked at it because the fighter class was the only class that advanced in combat abilities.  I saw this as a feature though, as in many other systems the magic user classes soon eclipse the non-magic classes in versatility and power.  In this way the fighter remains the king of combat.  The balance come in little things like there are no monsters with armor better than plate mail, so even a non-combat class has a chance to affect physical combat at any level.  Pretty much any adjustment I need to make on the fly during the game can be made with a +/- 1 or 2 to a roll and move on.  The adventures published by LotFP is where the game really shines.  Most of the adventures are system neutral and so can be easily ported to any game (I might even take the effort to port them to Hackmaster!) because they aren't filled with combat for combat's sake.  If a monster is present, there is generally only one and it is an important part of the story rather than just an encounter.  Like Call of Cthulhu though, the adventures are harsh and unforgiving. 
The downside is that I have had players quit because of these adventures.

There are plenty of other systems that I like for specific games too.  Usually because the rules provide incentive to, or not to do certain types of behavior in the game, or help establish the feel the game is going for.

I like Deadlands classic for this reason, it uses a poker decks and chips to assist in the game mechanics, which provide a unique system that helps with the whole wild west theme.  It is far more complex then the streamlined savage worlds rules, but I think it also provides a lot more depth.  One of my favorite bits is the use of "wind" and "wounds" which is much like non lethal vs. lethal damage, but also handles the wider range of terror, needing to catch your breath etc. compared to a broken leg or a shot up gut.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The four horsemen of the apocalypse

Plague, Famine, War, and Death

There are lots of mechanics in systems for dealing with these.  Saves vs. diseases, rules for starvation, mass combat rules, and of course how to deal with escrow when your character buys the farm.  These are all great, but can also be somewhat tedious as I’ve always liked these to be motivators for characters in stories rather than something players directly interface with because it seems kind of anti-climactic to have a character die of dysentery, the pox, a random bit of shrapnel.  So I humbly submit some ways to incorporate these horrors into a setting without squashing the players, or reducing these tragedy's to some dice rolls.

Plague.  Disease comes in a wide variety of vectors, fatality rates, and horrible symptoms.  My rule of thumb is give a 1 in 10 chance each time a player returns to an area/building where there is an NPC they would normally interact with (inn-keeper, shop-keeper, or named NPC), the NPC is unavailable due to the plague (sick, dead, or dealing with family in those states).  Mind you the black plague is given the variable of killing 30-60% of Europe.  Have the occasional NPC cough or express a minor symptom (feel free to fake some rolls here if you want to keep the players on edge).  Express the smell of sickness is in the air. 

     Quarantine:  An NPC expresses the plague symptoms in the building the characters are in and the building is quarantined until everyone with the symptoms dies. 
     Random encounters all have their initial reaction reduced one level due to fear that the PCs might be carrying the plague. 
     A character receives a message that a far off family member has contracted the plague

Symptom examples:
Light: Headache, light sensitivity, cough, congestion, light headedness, gas, indigestion
Moderate: Nausea, Constipation,  boils, oozing sores, breathing issues, fainting
Severe: Vomiting, Dysentery, bleeding sores, cough up blood, coma,

Famine.  The law of supply and demand.  Food is available, otherwise everyone would just die in a week.  The problem is there are too many people for the food available.  Food should be expensive.  Double or triple the price.  Paint the scene by expressing the lack of what is normally in the background.  Animals are scarce, dogs aren’t heard barking and cats aren’t meowing when characters approach.  When they see other people eat you can describe how portions are merger, or lacing in variety (only potatoes, or mushrooms).   When the players eat though, describe about how good the food tastes, and that they lick their plates and fingers clean savoring every morsel.  The meals may be bland but when the character is only eating once a day, they don’t have the luxury of complaining about meals without spices or only contain stringy meat.  Have people be less lively.  They aren’t eating and are tired so service is slow, people as to be excused for staying sitting.  Up the encumbrance penalty by a level for the players in their weakened state.  Save the starvation rules for when players are stuck away from civilization and rations have run out.  If the players have animals, have the townspeople stare at them hungrily. 

     Players witness a public execution for food theft or hoarding
     The constant crying of an infant because a woman who cannot feed her baby.  She isn’t eating enough to produce milk.
     A family stops feeding or exiles an elderly member because they would die soon anyway
Meat is temporarily available, but no one will talk about where it came from 

War.  Until modern times more people died from the first two during wartime than actual battle, and for good reason.  If disease caught hold of an army, you had a large group of people, with poor sanitation so it would spread rapidly.  These mobile armies needed a large amount of supplies to maintain and logistics were at best dodgy, so they were often supplemented by scavenging the surrounding area (a good reason to be fighting in someone else’s territory) so non-combatants would feel the effects of war, through rationing, pillaging by hostile and friendly forces, the drafting of fighting age men, and the disease that could be brought along with them.  All of this added to the disaster that would come if your town if it had any strategic importance and became a battleground itself.  Like famine increase prices, only affect all items on a random basis due to the fortunes of war. 1d4 1) +25% 2) +50% 3) +100% 4) +200%

     A recruiter is drumming up new enlistees (or draftees) for the war effort, the players look like healthy, strapping folks who are loyal to their king…
     A small group of Soldiers have been left behind in the town due to their wounds and left in care of the townsfolk
     While traveling through a recent battleground with carrion bird flying overhead, or feasting on the remains of the dead, discarded equipment by the fleeing forces.  A lady from the nearby town is stepping through the corpses and then kneels weeping over the body of her husband
Death.  All of the above can lead to a lot of dead bodies very quickly for a variety of reasons.  These can then in turn spur a vicious cycle of the others.  Enough dead farmers can lead to insufficient hand to bring in the crops that rot in the field and which leads to famine.  Improperly cared for bodies can lead to contamination that spreads disease.  Enough dead from any cause may lead to blaming leaders and a revolt and bloody battle to gain the necessary resources or change the status quo.   People will develop coping methods to deal with the death all around them.  Children play morbid games, and people develop a gallows humor.  In a metropolis high fashion grieving clothing is all the rage. 

     The town is rotting.  There aren’t enough living left to care for the dead.  A miasma of putrescence has settles on the town that spoils food and curdles milk pre-maturely.
     The treasure form an encounter is made up of precious metal fillings from teeth and wedding bands stolen from a mass grave
     A doom prophet warns that the end time has come
     A man is collecting the dead into a cart (this could be someone collecting specimens for medical research, or a necromancer, or something else).
     A snake oil salesman is selling a trinket that will ward off/ cure the cause of the death.

These events can be the fallout form the actions of a major villain, but also can be incorporated into the backdrop of an adventure.  The plague, famine or war is not a problem for the characters to solve.  It is not a "big bad" to defeat.  These events can be useful to reduce an excess of player resources, but hopefully these will serve to help the players feel that they are part of a bigger world with events going on that they are not directly involved in.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The meat grinder

There is an imaginary line I draw between the first two editions of Dungeons and Dragons published by TSR and everything that came after produced by Wizards.  While there are many differences to be sure, the demarcation for me is the lethality of the games.   1st level was a very precarious position for any class in the TSR editions.  Games were lethal and a making it past first level was kind of a big deal.  The wizard editions went to grate pains to make it easy to have party level encounters, so nothing too difficult was ever encountered.  While generally I think this is a good thing, it does eliminate a certain caution amongst the players.  They don't every expect to interact with anything that could cause instant death, nor is there a concern that the dungeon may take more time and resources then they have. 

The last campaign I ran started off with the quintessential introductory adventure: The Keep on the Borderlands.  We pulled out the AD&D 2nd ed rules (which were a lot more clunky than I remember, but that is a story for another time) and had a run through it.  Most of the players were more well versed with 3rd edition rules, and so there was some definite growing pains.

The leader of the group kept on pushing the party farther and farther into what was in fact a very large dungeon without ever thinking to go back to town to rest or resupply.  Little things manifested as play continued as well.  At one point they asked where something they had previously encountered was and I asked them who had been mapping out the dungeon, they had just expected that their characters were doing it automatically (with their hands full of swords and shields etc.) and none of the players were making any notes.  So they were lost.  A lot of what I grew up with as a player was either forgotten by, or never experienced by this group.  So we had some talks about expectations part way though and things continued.  Then the character deaths started.  Some of it can surely be blamed on the luck of the dice.  One player in particular, ended up losing a character every session. Ultimately I decided that no amount of pre-briefing can change what a player expects an adventure to be.  There was a definite learning curve between the two editions.  This got me thinking, is there a way to introduce people into a harsh and deadly adventure without turning the players off?
Does this mean I should do away with the adventures that are by their very nature "hard" especially for 1st level characters?  No.  Though perhaps I should change my approach.

Two very clever ideas (neither one that I came up with) may provide an answer.

The first is the funnel method of dungeon exploration.  Instead of each player having a character and a handful of NPC / henchmen accompanying the party (because really, who wants to play a henchman anyway, after their PC dies) Every player makes two or three characters and the entire mob of adventurers enter the dungeon.  In this way the party has a fair number of combat ability, supplies, and redundancy of skill sets where loosing a character isn't a big deal either for the party or the player.  Lessons can be fatal and the game still moves forward and by the end of the adventure, perhaps only a few of the characters have made it through the dungeon, but those that survive and passed through that first crucible are the party that continues on through the campaign.  Natural selection of dungeoneering if you will.

The second is running the adventure through two different parties method.  This came from the Thulian Echos adventure by Zzarkchov Kowolski.  In the adventure the party finds a journal detailing the exploration of a dungeon.  The players then take the roles of the adventurers described in the journal and play though what the journal describes of the dungeon.  After getting a glimse of the dungeon and what it contains, the party then follows the journals instructions to delve through the very same dungeon having the advantage of knowing the lessons the previous party learned so painfully.  Of course the adventure itself has some wonderful twists and turns, but the concept I think is sound for anyone who wants to really set the tone of not pulling any punches, but having the players experience the feel of the game while keeping their characters relatively safe until the initial learning curve is past.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Spoilers ahead

Deadlands Classic is one of my favorite games.  It was around 1999 that I picked up the rulebook at a used bookstore in Berkley.  The freedom of the wild west mixed with zombies and other monsters just makes for something that catches my imagination. I was hooked and had to get just about everything I could for the setting regardless of how much playtime I could get.

I was impressed with the Doomtown card game that was already going out of favor by the time I found it.  With each of the games core concepts divided up into different fractions you vied for control of a single boom town.  One of these factions were "the bad guys" -The Whateley family.  They didn't beat around the bush with a subtle connection.  They Whateley family, much like their Dunwitch Horror counterparts mixed with things not of this world and were suitably creepy.

So here it is 2016 and I get a Deadlands comic "The Cackler" It is a suitablely creepy bad guy who as the comic goes on is revealed to be the progenitor of the Whateley clan.  Ok this guy is something to be reckoned with.  As the comic continues is reveals that The Clacker is in fact Mordrid the son of Morgan LaFey.  It turns out Shane Lacy Hensley (the creator of Deadlands) had planned this bit all along and had just waited about 20 years into the games existence to reveal it! Talk about playing the long game...

A "new" edition of Deadlands has been out for several years now. While I don't have anything against the Savage Worlds rule system, it is watered down compared to the Deadlands: Classic rules which I prefer.  I do like though that instead of just re-hashing everything from the previous edition, they continue to move the story of the game world forward with their Plot Point books, which satisfyingly let you encounter (and even defeat) the big bads set up in the classic campaign books.

In this way Deadlands reminds me of another lost gem of roleplaying: Torg.  In both of these the players are faced with a bleak world with enemies much larger and powerful then they are, and quite possibly ever will be, and yet they can affect the world for good, and bit by bit rally the human spirit to push back the creeping intrusion of reality.  It is a step away from the every popular grim-dark settings that let you valiantly fight against the inevitable dying of the light into the slightly silver lined realm of shall we say, grim-twilight, where the light may yet still be returned to the world.

Best of all they are running a kickstarter for a re-release of the classic version (something I totally don't need, yet need all the same) as well as a new plot point campaign for one of my favorite villians/settings in Deadlands: Dr. Hellstromme and the City of Gloom.

Why my favorite.  Well, firstly I like Dr. Hellstromme's style.  He knows what is really going on, and in a very Faustian way is willing to sell out the entire world to get his wife back (awwww).  That and Hellstromme represents one of the great sleeper hits of Deadlands, the weird science.  Deadlands was well into steampunk before it was even a thing (I dare say it is one of the un-credited founders of the genre).

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Adventures and World Building

I'm looking to add two things over the next couple of months.  Some adventures and a campaign world. 

The first adventure is up.  You can check it out by navigating to the "Adventures" tab at the top of the page, or directly to it here.  It is still in draft form, needs a name and some drawn maps.  But I would love to hear what you think, or how it worked out for your adventuring party. 

I'll post up others as they work into my brain.

The second goal is to post a campaign world.  I've always liked world building in principle and I've made several small settings for one off games.  So I've decided to compile some of my ideas and grow a campaign world here and see where it goes.  Part of the motivator for this is a game I played many years ago.  We were playing Tunnels and Trolls and the GM had an adventure planned based around an archipelago.  As we played I quickly found that the world was not pristine and just sitting there waiting for me to loot.  Instead several places were in the process of recovering from events caused by previous players.  I've decided to try to capture that feel and am going to set up a "living" campaign world.  So once I establish it, it will be permanently changed and evolved by the players that participate in each adventure or campaign.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

What makes a monster?

Traps, monsters and treasure.  The big three of fantasy roleplaying.

Today I’m going to talk about Monsters. In full disclosure this was heavily inspired by another blog I’d read some time ago, and if I can ever find the article I’ll edit this and give credit where credit is due.

The quintessential monster of fantasy lore is the Dragon.  You don’t even have to look beyond the title of the world’s most famous roleplaying game, Dungeons and Dragons, to find them.  Why is this, perhaps because they are the combination of all the things primal man most feared in a predator. 
Combine the tearing claws of a Jaguar, the needle teeth of a wolf, the armored hide of a lizard, the ability to fly and strike from above like a raptor, a gigantic size that would make man’s tools seem feeble, and above all an inherent ability to produce on of the most amazing things to primitive man- fire.  The dragon is not only the sum of everything we fear, but greater than each of its individual parts. 
It is the culmination of the fear of a mighty predator.  This is different than fear of death in battle by another human being.  Because unlike being killed in combat by man where death is the end, in combat vs. a dragon death is just the end of your life.  This is followed by being eaten, chewed up, digested, and eventually being no more than a pile of dung.  

You might ask, so what?  You’re still dead at the end.  Physiologically it does two things.  One is that it is a reminder that we are not on the top of the food chain in a fantasy setting.  The second is that there isn’t much reasoning with a predator.  Sure there might be some dialog as a precursor, be it a dragon, vampire or other intelligent foe, but this is more akin to a cat playing with a mouse from their point of view.
This is the primary motive I like to have for my monsters.  With the starting point of humans=food I go from there.  I am more concerned about this than I am about is the monster “evil” 

Then there is alien intelligence.  Again this motive may be thought of as evil, but the point isn’t about food. However generally the outcome is the same or worse as they creature is making decisions completely out of line with the world it is existing in. A creature whose very nature cannot be comprehended by the human mind and drives others to madness is a threat to the PCs and the surrounding area, even if its very nature is that of a docile herbivore.  A creature with a hive mind that expects the humans it encounters to be part of a hive mind as well. These can be just as much a threat and a horror to the characters as one that means them to be food, but for completely different reasons.  The players don’t have to ever find out the “logic” behind the actions, and sometimes this is for the best as it keep mystery for both the characters and the players.  (As often I have found once a player identifies a pattern of behavior or reasoning for a monster it is far less frightening or interesting).

So what about evil monsters then?  Surely some actions of monsters from the predator motive above are considered evil, and there is some cross over in the choices they make- but these are more an offshoot of thinking of the PCs and other denizens of the world as food at some level.  I tend to relegate evil to the peer group of the players.  In most games this means other humans/demi-humans but may extend out if we are playing vampires/werewolves or things traditionally thought of as ‘monsters’ (thank you World of Darkness).  At any rate, evil is a conscious choice by individuals to exploit others for personal gain. 

The thing I have never cared for is the civilizing of monsters. The most common version of this I have found is the “noble orc” stereotype.  Making them an extreme warrior culture or so forth that is general just “misunderstood”.   If I want to have that in my games I can just make another human culture.  We do pretty good at misunderstanding each other already, or finding reasons to hate and fight each other even when we do understand each othe

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Green Faced Devil

Traps.  Monsters and Treasure.  These are the three things that are the signature occupants of fantasy dungeons.  Today I want to focus on traps. 

Long ago I heard the story of a brilliant party destroying trap.  It was the a wall decoration of a carved devil face with its mouth open, the inside was pure blackness.  The blackness was caused by a small sphere of annihilation being set inside the mouth, so anything that went into the hole just ceased to be- no saving throw, no damage, just gone.  There was no reason a party needed to interact with the object.  It didn’t block their way- but curiosity being what it was the story went that someone stuck their 10 foot pole into the hole.  10 foot pole was gone. The rogue stuck his head in to see what happened to the pole and lost his head.  They then tried to attack “the thing that attacked the now headless party member” i.e. hole and lost a weapon.  I would have thought that this would have made them learn the lesson, but the party proceeded to reach in after the weapon and loose limbs etc. This continued until the party was completely maimed or killed. Years later I would find out that this story was from a trap in the Tomb of Horrors module, so I ran out and bought it almost immediately. 

Traps fall into two varieties.  Those that are there are those that are hidden like the hidden pit trap in the floor or poison dart in a treasure chest.  And those that are obvious like the green faced devil from the Tomb of Horrors and can be readily observed by the players who can choose to avoid the object or investigate at their own peril.

While both have their place how I approach them when it comes to game mechanics is different.  One of the primary roles of a rogue in the party is to detect and disarm traps.  I use these for the more common, hidden trap.  So to speed up game play and make life (a little) easier for the rogues.  As long as the party is moving at adventuring speed, taking their time to observe their surroundings, I give them an automatic roll for checking for traps when they enter a room.  I leave it up to the player if they want to make this roll every time or if I should just make it for them as I give out room descriptions etc.  This way the rogue’s player doesn’t have to tediously ask with every door and room if there are traps.  I’ll afford the rogue a 2nd check for traps roll if they are specifically inspecting the item in question, again I don’t make them ask for checking traps, we just assume they are as long as they aren’t madly grabbing things and stuffing them into bags. I just tell them to roll and let me know if they beat the minimum threshold we establish.  This way they can take care of all the dice rolling while the other party members are giving their actions and it keeps things moving smoothly. 

The second type of trap is there to be solved as a puzzle or only activates by direct interaction.  These are not nearly as common and I don’t tell them that these exist even if they succeed in their roll.  The trade off is that it is always part of the room description. So they know it is there- just not what it does.  Think of the dart shooting walls from Indiana Jones.  It was obvious something was up in the room between the holes in the walls and the pressure plated floor.  So that would be a description of the room for the entire party.  Solving the problem isn’t just a disarm traps roll, it is creative thinking to walk carefully across the floor, have the wizard levitate across, or take another path through the dungeon.

While these types of traps are my favorite they take a lot more work to set up.  One of the reasons I like them is that they can be figured out by the non-rogues in the party as well.  

Thursday, September 8, 2016

How playing Call of Cthulhu ruined gaming for me and why I love it.

How playing Call of Cthulhu ruined gaming for me and why I love it.

Like most folks, Dungeons and Dragons was the first roleplaying game I played. It was full of wonder and adventure and even though it was just my friend Ben and I it was amazing and enchanting beyond anything I had experienced.  Pretty soon I was hooked, and was making up my own monsters even though I didn’t grasp all the rules because it was exciting and could literally be anything!
Then my parents banned me from playing after they heard some bad press about Dungeons and Dragons.  My dad warned me about how guys in the Air Force would play the game all day long while on lock down during an alert.  I know this was an attempt to warn me away from something, but it had the opposite effect of just confirming that this game was THAT good.  But despite all that, I was a generally obedient kid, and so I told my friend I wasn’t allowed to play anymore and roleplaying died out for about a year.  Then I got introduced to the Star Wars Roleplaying game by West End, and I was hooked anew.  But this was good jedi and spaceships and not evil wizards and rogues so my parents were fine with it. That was my go to game for years.  Eventually D&D worked its way back in, and I encountered many other games, like Vampire: the masquerade and Shadowrun. 

But then one day a friend invited me over to play Call of Cthulhu. 

I was pretty excited to try this game out since about a year before I’d picked up my first Lovecraft short stories and quickly fell in love with the world that was created.  We investigated a haunted house, lost some sanity with the dead rising around us and the great thing that was being summoned in the basement and in the end closed the gate and lived to tell the tale another day, primarily due to some lucky rolls involving Latin. 
This caught my attention in a way that hadn’t been since my first dungeon crawl many years before.  These monsters weren’t a collection of stats to be beaten.  In fact at best we could stop them, but never really defeat them.  Orcs and Goblins and even dragons had just become stat blocks and often were just battles of attrition, you couldn’t do that with a thing that couldn’t die.

The next time I ran a Star Wars game it was with a new group (several from the Call of Cthulhu game) so I used an adventure I had run before and the group of rebels trying to defeat the mechanizations of the evil Empire.  I found though that when they encountered the giant sewer rats I wanted to take the game down a darker path.  I actually had to stop the game for a moment and poll the players –high adventure heroics, or dark and gritty.  They chose the high heroics and so I played out the adventure as I had before and everyone had a good time, but I really wanted it to be something else.

Since then I’ve found that most of the games that attract me have that dark overtone.  Be it Warhammer Fantasy Role-play or Lamentations of the Flame Princess there is an attraction I have found to these heavy metal inspired games.  If I wasn’t paying one of those games, I was generally finding ways to shift the tone of some other game or system so it was more grim and dark and perilous.

I think the reason why is the monsters.  As a young role-player every monster encounter was something new and exciting. As both a player and a character I never knew how things were going to react.  As time went on many of the foes became cookie cutter and even though there was threat presented to the character, it was just a matter of scale.  Every monster was SUPPOSED to be defeated, so I came to expect to always meet opponents of an appropriate difficulty.

Call of Cthulhu changed all that.   Now the answer isn’t that I always have to have a grim-dark setting.  But rather to present new and different threats to players.  Things that make them scratch their heads and wonder.  There is probably even room for re-tredding old monsters and just presenting them in different ways.  It has given me a push where in any genre or setting, I want to present new and interesting things to the players to push not the bounds of their characters abilities, but to elicit the best of the creativity and ingenuity of the players.

There was no greater motivator to start writing than finding that my blog had a view and I hadn't written anything yet.

I guess this is where I lay out the plan of what I intend this blog to be.  This would be great if I had a real plan instead of just a general idea and the thought "hey, I'll start a blog!"

It seems more often then not, I end up as a gamemaster of whatever group I play with.  Perhaps this is a list for power, but more likely it is the fact that I want to play and it seems to be the way to get a game to happen.

I have a couple of projects in mind.  I want to do some world building and this is a place for me to put up my ideas as they come and hopefully condense them into a rational product.

It is a place where I can work on my writing.  Because if writing more does not make me better, at least it will make me prolific.

So most of this will likely focus on weird horror roleplay, some call of cthulhu which is my current obsession but a little cyberpunk and streampunk will probably show up as well as I dip into the other gaming genres on my shelf.