Friday, May 31, 2013

Obscure RPG Appreciation Day: Three Obscure Favs

After the unmitigated success of Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day, I was really excited when Catacomb Librarian announced that he was sponsoring the first ever Obscure RPG Appreciation Day and knew I needed to participate. 

While I don't share Catacomb Librarian's often-vitriolic distaste for big name game systems, I do share his love of obscure gaming systems. I missed the proliferation of smaller RPGs of the late 70's and early 80's and by the time I became aware of smaller games, I was more or less done with fantasy RPGs for the time being. As a result, the obscure RPGs that I found myself drawn to were often of a horror bent or, even more often, humor games. Thankfully, other than my missing spiral bound copy of Whispering Vault, I still have most of these. Also thankfully, my gorgeous wife seems to not mind that I have tons of bookshelf space dedicated to game system after game system. So, in honor of the first Obscure RPG Appreciation Day, I took a trip to that one particular shelf that holds some of my stranger, lesser-known RPGs and picked out a few favorites.

HOL

While at first glance, the casual reader might chalk Black Dog & Dirt Merchant Games's seminal HOL (Human Occupied Landfill) up as merely another weird humor RPG, the game is so much more. Set in a grimdark universe not unlike (and probably in parody of) WH40K, on the planet that is effectively that universe's armpit and tacitly its landfill (seriously, this is the place where all of the universe's garbage -- both human and otherwise -- gets sent), this game is less "humor RPG" and more "gonzo ridiculous sci fi adventure holy-fuck-splosion." The basic game committed what I consider the cardinal sin of RPGs: not including a character creation section. Instead, we had to wait for the game's first (and, to my knowledge, only) supplement "Buttery Wholesomeness" for character creation, and then it's more or less a riff off of old school Traveller (man, that extra "l" likes to throw off spell check, doesn't it?) involving rolling on random tables with often disastrous and hilarious results. HOL was hugely influential on me, personally, as an object lesson in the fact that the only shit that matters in any game is the shit that you decide matters. While its graphics are a bit dated (most of the shit like this went out of style with the nu metal bands of the late 90's, early 2000's), the layout (all done by hand with pen or brush and ink) is wonderfully inspired and full of fantastic visual gags. I've always loved this game and never got a chance to run it, despite how personally influential it was.

Oh, and the bonus LARP rules inserted into Buttery Wholesomeness are worth twice the price of admission.

( (c) 1994 Dirt Merchant Games)

Shattered Dreams

In the 90's, it was really difficult to produce a horror RPG without coming within spitting distance of White Wolf products. Hell, it still is. Just ask Dark Phoenix Publishing. I kid, I kid. But seriously, it was tough back then (it's just a little bit easier now). I'm not exactly sure where or when I learned about Shattered Dreams, but I dug the concept. The players are psychics of a sort, capable of entering the dreams of others, who work to combat the horrific supernatural beings that infest and twist the dreaming of their victims. While the art was not fantastic (I totally recognized some of the art being just line drawings of poses from a Victoria's Secret catalog from back then), the game offered some neat stuff. First, it used d12s. I friggin' love the d12. I actually think that's what might have sold me on it. In using that d12, it also played a bit with the logic of dice, allowing the player to pick which numbers on the die meant success rather than just a traditional range of numbers. Ultimately, that distinction is completely meaningless and far less useful than it sounds, but it was a fun thought to entertain. Thing two is that Shattered Dreams (yes, this Shattered Dreams) was the game that introduced me to the concept of player narrative agency. In being able to manipulate the fabric of the dream around them, player Dreamwalkers were the first player characters that I can think of who could control their circumstances. While I'm not a "story games or nothing!" type of gamer (I'm really like a "games or games!" type of gamer), I dig some story game mechanics.

All of that having been said, the game had some real shitty bits. Every character had to build up a pool of two separate sets of skills: one for the real world and one for the world of dreams. This is actually kind of jarring to the reader of today, that old school-y skill proliferation and need to cover all situations is out of step with the role playing emphasis and narrative control mechanism. The setting is a little wonky, and I'm not sure I'd be able to use the game as-written again (I did run this briefly for a spate of about a month back in '94 when the game still had that new car smell), but I think it could be stripped down to run in FAE. That'd actually be kind of cool. Maybe I should look into that...

( (c) 1994 Apex Publications, Inc.)

It Came From The Late, Late, Late Show

And now on to one of the gems of my RPG collection: It Came From The Late, Late, Late Show. I bought my copy from one of the authors (not sure which one) at GenCon '93 (I have a surprising amount of stories of that particular GenCon, my first) and I think I've run it exactly once since, a fact that I'm sorely disappointed in. Here's the thing: ICFTLLLS is an old school-style game (the rules seem reminiscent of RQ2 to me) that pushes attributes and skills but has a surprisingly new school approach. Rather than just play characters in a bad movie, the players instead play the actors who are playing the characters in a bad movie. Thus, even if your character "dies," he can always be in the next movie (or even in the sequel to the original movie if the budget is low enough).

Mechanically, the game isn't innovative, the layout of the game is worse than dated, and the art is best when it directly apes recognizable horror movie tropes, but ICFTLLLS is a game that influenced a number of game concepts that I'm currently toying with (stuff that I can't exactly go into right now) and is goddamn fun! Much like HOL, what should be a humor game really just becomes a gonzo horror game without consequences or conscience. While the B (or worse) horror, sci-fi and action movies that ICFTLLLS imitates often have a happy ending, ICFTLLLS games needn't. Thankfully.

( (c) 1989, 1990, 1993 Stellar Games, Inc.)

So, folks, there you have it. Hats off to the Catacomb Librarian for getting this appreciation day out there in the blogosphere and letting me rant about some of my favorite obscure RPGs. To keep the appreciation rolling, I'm going to offer to run one of these three fine RPGs via a G+ Hangout some time in the next month. The first four people to comment in favor of the same game discussed here will decide which game it will be! Details will be posted here once the (metaphorical) votes are in!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Herbgerblins of Er-Haderd

No, I still haven't finished up that elf post. I have a schedule to keep, people, and I can't always get to everything. For today's #AtoZRPG, we're on to a hard letter, "H," and so you're getting a rare treat: a look inside the mind of the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad players and an in-joke that we found hilarious. While we were killing some mushroom people in the Undercity of Ur-Hadad while Edgar, someone (I honestly can't remember who) called them "goblins," but must have yawned when he did so, because it came out as "gerblins," in a voice that sounded part-way between the Swedish Chef and Lumpy Space Princess. Since there are no such things as "goblins" or "hobgoblins" for that matter, the "herbgerblin" of Ur-Hadad was born. We laughed for far too long about the herbgerblin (you can probably get most of the Metal Gods players to lose their shit if you say "herbgerblin" to him), and decided that the herbgerblin actually needed to be a thing. So, here you go. 

In a world such as Ore, it is easy to forget that no matter how fantastic the things that actually exist are, the imaginations of those who live on her bear even stranger fruit. In a world rife with vermen and Beastmen of all stripes, in a world where the Sargovax of Pluur consumes everything in its path (even cities), where godlike sorcerers call down horrific plagues and nameless maledictions, things as simple as the archetypal "monster under the bed" may get lost in the shuffle, but a clever observer should never doubt that the mind that conjures forth such a monster is capable of creating far more fantastic things than ever will actually exist on the face of Ore. For each presumably-imagined creature that Man discovers to actually be a living, breathing being, at least ten more chimerical "herbgerblins" (the catchall term for such imaginary creatures) are invented. In fact, most sages regard all creatures recounted by travelers -- until sufficient evidence of their existence is provided -- as herbgerblins.

Though the exact etymology of the term "herbgerblins" is not accurately recorded, one of the most popular explanation suggests that a traveler from some other sphere, upon witnessing the diverse peoples and monsters of Ore, was surprised that there were no "herbgerblins" to be found here. The question that followed, of course, was for an explanation of just what a "herbgerblin" was; the answer was so disappointing that the visitor was more or less laughed off the face of Ore. Ever since, the term "herbgerblin" has been applied to the products of overactive imaginations, often as a term of derision.

Among common folk, superstition often blames the unexplained on herbgerblins until a more reasonable explanation can be found. Small thefts, goat mutilations and unexplained circles and patterns found in crops almost always get blamed on fictional herbgerblins first, until investigators prove that vermen, goat-sucking abominations or space aliens are behind the nefarious activity. Some villains and monsters exploit this blame-throwing, giving their black deeds a veneer of herbgerblin-like incredulity just to throw commoners off the scent. Often, despite the best evidence to the contrary, such common folk continue to foster a belief in these monsters of myth and folklore; nefarious hucksters and swindlers will always be on hand to take advantage of such irrational and persistent beliefs.

What's Up With Those Herbgerblins?

What are these herbgerblins, anyway? Roll d11. (1-2) - (Scooby-Doo plot #1) It was Old Man Jerkins all along! The herbgerblins are really just the old codger hermit with a grudge against the townsfolk. Bonus xp for the rubber mask. (3-4) - The so-called herbgerblins are really just small creatures of moderate intelligence who have passed through the bleed from the Dreaming Dimension that is the homeland of the elves. Exactly what these fairy-like beings are or want is not immediately obvious. (5-6) - (Scooby-Doo plot #2) The mine's not haunted after all! To keep nosy village folk away from his secret mine, the crotchety miner has trained his helpful mining monkeys to carry out herbgerblin-like pranks and hi-jinks to exploit the ancient legend of the mine hiding a nest of mythological creatures. Bonus xp for finding the ownership papers that state that the mine is owned by the townsfolk, collectively. (7-8) - The herbgerblins may be the spawn of the Old Ones, the result of sorcerous experiments or merely the raw stuff of creation gone mad. A never-before-seen abomination wreaks a unique brand of havoc on the villagers and their livestock. (9-10) - (Scooby-Doo plot #3) It's all smoke and mirrors! The handsome, credible-seeming heir is using some sort of mechanical and theatrical contrivance to drive off the other heirs after his desired birthright. Bonus xp for finding the projector and smoke machine. (11) - Who says that there's nothing under the bed? Some child's fears have taken physical form and become a literal creature of nightmare. Things Get Better: The herbgerblins' agenda doesn't include doing harm to people or animals. Instead, if forced into combat, they'll try to escape or do subdual-style damage. Things Get Worse: The herbgerblins are not content with merely causing mayhem or chaos, but actively seek out ways in which they can inflict maximum death and destruction. Not only will they fight to kill, but they will always attack the weakest enemy possible in hopes of killing as much as possible.



Monday, May 20, 2013

Monster (Book) Monday: Malevolent and Benign

So, it's Monday again and it's time for me to pull out yet another monster book from my imaginary bookshelf. Today, I'll be riffing off of a book whose title means it should be right up my alley: Malevolant and Benign by Expeditious Retreat Press. For those of you keeping score at home, it should be obvious that the title of this thing is a direct shout out to the Fiend Folio, so award these guys bonus points for that, but remember that they'll have to deliver on some serious Foliosity here due to it. You don't set the bar that high for yourself unless you can deliver, right? Don't call out the FF if you're not ready to present on same level, am I right?

Details

Malevolent and Benign is available from Lulu in a 128-page hardcover edition for $40 or through the usual suspects as a pdf for $10. I picked this up in pdf, so my thoughts will be based on that. The pdf is nice-looking and polished, I just wish it used links on the table of contents or in the monster lists at the back. That would have been really nice (one of the things I really loved about the Carcosa pdf was that every single reference was indexed with links). The bookmarks make up for it though, being very thorough, providing you know what you're looking for. One of the odd things about this book is that there are no "braglines" talking about how many monsters there are in the book, no chapter on what the stats mean (you know, because you've never seen an rpg book before and don't know what the conventions in use since '74 mean), none of that. A short intro and then it's straight into monstrosities. Nice. And following the monsters, some magic items you might want to know a thing or two about because they're discussed in the monsters' entries before it's time for the ever-popular "here's what sort of terrain or dungeon level you should throw these monsters into" lists (that probably came off as sarcastic, but I love those sorts of lists. I may not use them -- I'll put what I want where I want, damnit! -- but still, they're nice.). Each of the monsters here ostensibly comes from one of XRP's Advanced Adventures line, which makes this book extra-cool to me, because with how fast XRP cranks those things out, there's no way I'm owning all of them, much less just to collect all their monsters.

Aesthetics

The first thing that jumps out at me as regards the aesthetics of this thing is the use of the Futura font (or something damn close to it) just like Grampa Gary used to use. XRP uses the same font in their Advanced Adventures line (from which all this book's monsters are culled), so it makes sense and seems even more fitting here than in that line of adventures.

All in all, the book looks really nice. The illustrations are quality and fit with the overall 1e aesthetic of the book and are in a solid quantity (just enough, not too few). The layout is attractive for the most part and doesn't give the appearance of wasting space for the sake of wasting space (*cough* Tome of Horrors *cough cough*).

Foliosity

The unifying theme of this book is that there is no unifying theme, just like ol' Uncle Don had when he took a bunch of Fiend Factory monsters, lightly edited them and threw them in with crap that Gygax had pooped out a year or two earlier (fucking drow! We're still paying for that one, Gary!). So, we're on good ground from moment one. The monsters tend toward the weird side, too, which is where things need to be. Just to remind, I think that the essence of Foliosity -- of being reminiscent of or similar to the Fiend Folio -- is the presence of strange "set piece" monsters that you're likely to use once or twice ever that often fill a specific niche or have some sort of trick that sets them apart and limits their versatility but maximizes their fun value.

Malevolent and Benign measures up pretty well on the "weird, tricky and useful" scale, without too many culprits coming in as being "versatile," thankfully. Here, you'll find weird birds, ultra-specific troll variants, creepy plant monsters (seriously, what's creepier than plants trying to each you or doppelgang you or drain your blood) and other stuff that definitely belongs in my (increasingly strange) dungeons.

What I'm Stealing

Any of it. All of it. This shit is good.

I take an especial shine to the plant monsters in here like the vampire moss because ewwwwww. Also, you might have noticed how much I dig ape monsters, so I'll take those, too. Yeah, throw the whole thing in there, there's enough in here for me to mine (but still need new stuffs!) for quite awhile.

Final Word

I think I might have talked myself into getting the $40 hardcover, but my wife will kill me. Well done, XRP, well done indeed.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Make It Happen

What are you doing right now, folks? 
Wouldn't you rather be gaming?

Make it happen.

So, there's this guy, +Jason Hobbs. More than anyone I've ever met, Jason wants to game all the damn time. It's pretty awesome. He wants to run games, he wants me to run games, he wants everyone to run games. And that's pretty damn awesome. And inspiring. 

Lately, my "gaming to thinking-about-gaming" quotient is way to far on the "thinking-about-gaming" side. That's not a cool thing. I skipped out on my EotE game two weeks in a row not because I had something else going on but because (week one) I forgot to set up the game and (week two) I was dead tired after having worked crazy early. Bad excuses and what's even worse, they're fucking excuses. I should never make excuses to not game, that's just ridiculous. 

My Saturday night S&W game is pretty erratic these days thanks to schedules being all wonky. I'm not really sure what's happening to my Wednesday night ACKS game (it might end up being bi-weekly, cutting my ACKS sessions in half). Added to an every-other-Monday vacancy in my schedule (when I don't fuck it up with excuses and make more vacancies) and you've got 1-3 nights per week where I'd normally be gaming, but I'm not, which didn't used to bum me out. 

And then Jason Hobbs happened and the wanting everyone to always be running games and playing games and having a great time happened. 

Here's the thing: Yes, I'd rather be gaming.

So yeah, I've got to make it happen. 

Oh, sure, there are real constraints on my time, which is why we call it "free time." Even my free time isn't all free, particularly because I use a decent proportion of it to prepare for using that same free time to play games. 

And every GM/DM/Judge/Referee ever has suffered from burnout. System burnout. Story burnout. Setting burnout. Any of it. Sometimes we need to take breaks, and that's cool.

So, why am I not gaming right fucking now? 

Because I didn't make it happen.

I could have scheduled a FLAILSNAILS game for tonight. I could have run a DCC funnel adventure (seriously, To Catch A Fallen Star was a blast to run and I'd love to run it again). I could have done that FLAILSNAILS Starships & Spacemen game I joked around about months ago. I could have tried to run my colonial gothic hexploration White Box hack (which is nowhere near ready, so don't ask). You know, I've never actually played in a BX game and could have done that tonight. I never tested my crazy ass theories about how you could take a "10k Dreams Interpreted"-style book, a Williams S Burroughs novel (randomly chosen) and any other book that dawns on me to grab and mash it all up with a rules set I like on the fly to see what happens, but I could have done that tonight, if I'd bothered. 

The point is, I didn't bother. I didn't make it happen, and now I'm babbling about not making something happen when I could have. 

So, Mr. Hobbs, you've inspired me. Let's make this shit happen. Every night that I'm supposed to be gaming (or am eligible for game-like experiences) for the next two weeks (at least), I am going to be running or playing something. That means Monday, Wednesday, Thursday & Saturday nights. I'll see you there, friends. Bring your spacesuits, wizard bongs and blood-drenched battle axes, for it shall be glorious!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Campaigns I'd Like To Run: In The Shadow of the Black Giant

When I say this month's RPG Blog Carnival topic, I knew I'd have something to write. I needed to spend some time with the thought before writing anything, though, so I took my time milling over just what I thought needed to be said about some of the different campaign ideas I've kicked around here that I haven't said already. The result is this, In The Shadow of the Black Giant. Originally, I called it (jokingly) BLAUHEIM, since it draws heavily from what I (apparently correctly) supposed to be the implied setting of Blueholme. Blend in a little LotFP flavor (since so much of Mr. Raggi's product seems to link to the time period I'd like to represent) and just a touch of Call of Cthulhu (really just more Mythos-inspired ideas and stuff like Dreams in the Witch House than any of the huge CoC Mythos players) and let simmer over a low flame. 

On a crisp September morning, fog fills the distant Alpine valley, still cushioning and silencing the world like a damp and cool but comforting blanket. The forest and field yet dream lazily in the mist, nestling up to either bank of the narrow river that flows down from its source high in the mountains. As the thin veil of fog fades over the water, over tops of the trees and from the fields where sheep and cattle already graze, the great golden flow of autumn's full might cascades over you, the early morning blue heavens stretching out without end past the valley, past the mountains, marred only by that one thing, that one blot, that colossal, dark mountain known only as the Black Giant.*

For an age, the people of the valley -- your people -- have lived in the shadow of the Black Giant, safe from the constant warring and conflict of the Elector States. Burdened only by the woes of crops and cattle, the superstitious yet pious folk of the valley kept close to the old ways, practicing those few mild rites to appease the restless dead and folk of the wild places, be they real or imaginary. With no roads leading beyond the valley, only the river (a tributary of a tributary) links the valley with the Elector States beyond, slowing trade, technology and news to an erratic snail's pace, insulating the valley from the political, social and scientific upheaval of the world beyond.

But then the Black Giant began to smolder.

Since he had slept for ages, none suspected that the Black Giant would wake or that the volcano was anything but extinct. But when the first cloud of ash fell on the valley, the small villages of Blauheim and Talsruhe, it was as a harbinger of Chaos. Within a year, elves had returned to the forests, dwarves (and the far fouler gnomes) had returned to the mountains and there were murmurs that the beastmen which haunt the dark places of the Elector States had been spotted about the edges of the valley. Stranger and more savage beasts than the valley has seen this past age poach cattle from pastures as farmers go missing from their homes in the night. Men whisper that some of their kind have even turned to witchcraft, so poisoned were their hearts by the slow advance of Chaos. Suddenly, the valley knew uncertainty, knew fear, and knew that it had a root in the heart of the Black Giant.

Rules

The game would be played using the BLUEHOLME retro-clone rule set. I was initially tempted to go with LotFP's Weird Fantasy rules (and may borrow an idea or two from them for the thief class), but I very much enjoy the pre-genre feeling of the Holmes rules and think that BLUEHOLME preserves the pre-genre OD&D feeling of Holmes. Some other bits (particularly spells and probably adventures) would get lifted from Weird Fantasy whole cloth, and still more might require some modification. Firearms, for example, while not present in Holmes (or BLUEHOLME) would be present here, using the existing Holmes "d6 for everything" damage schema, much like I've spoken about for my proposed White Box hack for the Colonial Gothic Hexcrawl campaign & rules set.

Heroes

The heroes of the campaign will tend to be folk of the valley itself, rather than outsiders or demihumans. They may be folk heroes, trying to preserve their people from the new horrors at their door or ne'erdowell opportunists looking to make a profit from tomb robbery and violence, and both may even be welcome within the same party. Player characters would tend toward the Lawful and Neutral alignments (I'd use a Law-Neutrality-Chaos alignment scheme as opposed to the five-point scheme of Holmes, mostly because I hate telling people what good means).

Adventures

The obvious dungeon-crawly stuff is here due to the Black Giant itself. Interpreting the Black Giant's waxing Chaotic influence as attracting greater and more powerful servants of Chaos (or merely those warped by and called to it), the campaign becomes scalable while retaining a consistent backdrop and never (really) needing to move beyond the valley's boundaries (well, into the mountains probably, but not much further than that). Aside from the traditional dungeoncrawls, the setting is ripe for urban adventures, wilderness adventures and even mysteries. Should the players be so inclined, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved in politics, religious life and even academic life in the valley, furthering whatever aims and agendas the players invent. Fill in some folk tale logic, sprinkle on some human ambition, and adventures abound in the valley.

Opponents

The obvious "big bad" of the campaign is the mountain itself: sooner or later, its influence is going to need to be stopped (whatever that entails). Until then, it will continue to attract beastmen of various stripes, the undead and more monstrous foes as makes sense. Further, there are plenty of opportunities for opponents beyond the normal array of "irredeemable evils." Elves, particularly as interpreted by Goethe in his der Erlkonig, and the fae realm should never be enduring allies of the PCs, but rather as occasional foes, their whims guided by the seasons, aesthetics and variables unknowable to Man (for reference, see just about everything else I've ever written about elves). Dwarves may seek the aid of men against the gnomes of the mountains, impish elemental beings of living rock, who covet the gems and valuable metals the dwarves work hard to wrest from the ground. Trolls, degenerate cousins to gnomes, trouble the dwarves, but their insatiable hunger also runs them afoul of every other group in the valley. Add to this mix whatever sort of awfulness mortals might manage to summon up through magic or misadventure and you've got plenty to keep your players busy.

Final Word

I'd have a good time running this campaign because it hits on several of my literary and artistic influences pretty heavily (I can feel an "Appendix N" post for this setting coming on) and would allow me to explore some themes -- literary, artistic and historical -- that I really enjoy in comfortable and familiar game space. Since I'd be aiming for the Reformation era here, the political aspect of the game could get nice and complex if the players wanted (for reference, think about the plot of the Tudors; yes, all of it), while still retaining a mythic and folkloric quality. I think it would fit an episodic style of play particularly well, especially supporting "monster of the week"-style stories like many of the one-hour dramas on TV; the X-Files model might work exceptionally well in the Shadow of the Black Giant. This setting satisfies the desire for a simple, straightforward setting that allows for (but doesn't require) lighthearted play alongside super-serious grimness without all the filthy namby-pambiness of the more Anglocentric settings like Middle Earth or the Forgotten Realms.

*This introduction is very loosely based on the poem "Septembermorgen" ("September Morning") by Eduard Moerike. I don't think a really solid translation exists, so good luck trying to find one. The name of the Black Giant comes from the pub I used to hang out at in Aschaffenburg, Germany: der Schwarzer Riese. I always thought that was a cool name, and now I get to use it for something cool. 

Oh, and http://ageofravens.blogspot.com/2013/05/campaigns-id-like-to-run-rpg-blog.html?showComment=1368772199547#c3838561868205036027

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Gates of Ur-Hadad

While I keep rehashing exactly what it is that I'd like to include in the next "Elves of Ur-Hadad" post,  I was slightly afraid that I was going to get lost and not move forward with other new Ur-Hadad-related material. But then, +Wayne Snyder & I were talking more about the city itself and just how you'd get in. Here's the result.

While the Squat and Pilgrimtown are the most famous of Ur-Hadad's several gate towns, along with the East and West Gates that they surround, these two are not the only gates into the First City. Indeed, there are two northern gates (three if you include a portcullis-protected river gate) and the wonderfully defensible "southern gate" (actually the harbor the city nestles around) and whispers abound of the "gate invisible," the series of portals by which wizards, sorcerers and other arcanists come and go from the city. Each known gate has at least one Captain who is responsible for maintaining the order and integrity of the gate (the Sea Gate has two Gate Captains, each of whom helms colossal warships), along with the military compliment to accomplish his mandate. These Captains and forces are maintained by Hadadi noble houses, following a long-standing tradition of nobility sponsoring specific gates; today, the Grand Vizier (much like the last century or two of Paschas before the current period of regency) honors these families by granting a "license of sponsorship," whereby the honored family is granted the responsibility for maintaining a particular gate. These Gate Captains are also responsible -- directly or indirectly -- for the gate towns that spring up around the entrances as well as the conduct within the city of those who have passed through their gate; it is perhaps for this reason more than any other that the Gate Captains do not issue as many entry visas as demand calls for.

The Gilded Gate

The northwestern most gate of Ur-Hadad, the Gilded Gate is one of the two best-defended gates in the city. Here, the walls are engraved with bas reliefs that trace the lineage and familial histories of each of the great noble houses of Ur-Hadad, and even many of the minor ones, such that, to pass through the gate, one must demonstrate one's own connection to those recorded there. A noble must, for instance, stand before the great wall of the First City, before the Gate Captain's due representatives, and recite his own heritage, at least until two generations of engraved history have been recounted; then, and only then, may the noble and his entourage enter the city.

The Lotus Gate

More traffic comes and goes by the Lotus Gate than by any other of the "normal" gates of the city. It is here that Captain Lokusz Barat (under mandate of the Guljilul clan of nobles) issues entry licenses to merchants from lands far and wide to trade within the city. Each license bears, on the front side, the likeness of the Captain, gesturing magnanimously toward the riches of the First City; on the reverse stands the image of a white lotus (the preferred funerary flower in Ur-Hadad) along with a scene that would be of a funeral, were the part of the deceased not clearly being played by a living victim. The implication is clear and rarely does Captain Barat have to make good on his threats, for not only is a transgressor's life forfeit, but also his wares, possessions and estate. Thus, clan Guljilul's forces and allies within the city are among the most vehement pursuers of unlicensed and visaless merchants inside of the city itself. Captain Barat is also responsible for the River Gate, a smaller gate adjacent to the Lotus Gate (and bound by the same rules and dictates), that has occasionally been ruled under a separate mandate from the Lotus Gate, but today is ruled by the same one.

The gate town that surrounds the Lotus Gate, often called the Lucrewarren by critics (and never in official correspondences), is nearly as profitable as Ur-Hadad itself, as it often serves as a wholesale and dealer's market where Hadadi merchants seek the lowest prices possible from foreign merchants and acting as middle men between the sea trade and the river and land trades. Large merchant compounds made with high clay walls dot the Lucrewarren, bristling with pike and crossbow-armed mercenaries who assure the freedom of commerce throughout the gate town.

The Sea Gate

A euphemism for the large harbor around which the First City has been built, the Sea Gate is patrolled by the forces of two competing Gate Captains: Nol Velgulassi and Ise Koluemon. Velgulassi was appointed by the traditionalists of the Partonato merchant house and is in charge of regulating the issuance and execution of "writs of trade," selling foreign and Hadadi merchants alike access to the port. Koluemon, on the other hand, was appointed by House Ulgobaz, to pursue smugglers and other lawbreakers in the harbor. Regarded by many as a loose cannon, as dangerous to the city as helpful, Koluemon's arrest and seizure of smugglers and their assets is controversial and, certain detractors suggest, selective. While smugglers attached to many other merchant houses have been detained and had the contents of their ships seized, why have no Ulgobaz smugglers been similarly detained? The sufficiently enlightened wouldn't expect anything else and regard Koluemon as little better than a corrupt privateer in the pocket of the crooked noble house in the First City.

The Gate Invisible

The existence of the "Gate Invisible" is known to the majority of the mundane population of Ur-Hadad due to its most unusual feature: throughout the city, a series of faces animate to announce the comings and goings of the various wizards and wonder workers who frequent the city. "Vargazungolius, Sorcerer Penultimate and Master of Transmogrification, has left the First city," they may say, or "Shining Ur-Hadad welcomes Amor Ba'Gish, Grand Arachnomancer of Atraz A'Zul." Since none other than the greatest of magicians are ever announced in such a matter, not even the Grand Vizier himself, it is assumed by most inhabitants of the First City that these wizards use some unknown entrance to the city, a "gate invisible."

The reality is much different from what the common man or noble presumes.

Teleportation magics, while rare on the face of Ore, do exist. When Man first discovered such magics, he also learned that teleporting in and out of the First City wasn't a simple process. Instead of simply disappearing in one place and reappearing in another, in between the would-be traveler makes a brief stop over in a stone room of unknown location, large and ornate with a high, vaulted ceiling. Before moving on, the traveler must first discuss his travel plans with an immense and invulnerable demon from some forgotten lower dimension as well as present him with a small gift, a token that earns the traveler his blessing to move on. This shapeshifting demon craves gifts that conform to an ancient pattern of cycles and epicycles of aesthetics, known to Man due only to the work of the Elder Elf archivist Ascingolus (every wizard worth his salt maintains a copy of the text and obtaining one is considered a rite of passage for would-be archmages). One passage might require the first rose bud of Spring, whereas another may require the tears of a mother after her son's death and still another might require a common block of cheese or a simple chicken's egg. History records this demon's name as variations on "the Preserver," and it is believed by these wizards that, were the Preserver not present to mediate hyperspatial travel to and from the City, an ineffable fate will befall the city and, possibly, the entirety of the Ore.

Who's Using the Gate Invisible?

A wizard just entered the city; who was it? Roll d11. (1 - 2) - Vargazungolius, Sorcerer Penultimate and Master of Transmogrification. (3 - 4) - Amor Ba'Gish, Grand Arachnomancer of Atraz A'Zul. (5 - 6) - Emerikol the Chaotic. (7 - 8) - Lokerimon the Lawful. (9 - 10) - Aila Brahe, Sorceress-Queen of the Celestial Spheres and Doom That Came to Singhex. (11) - Uskoll the Uncaring, He Who Sees Through the Void. Things Get Better: The wizard seeks out the PCs and offers them a small boon in accordance with some greater design that they cannot possibly understand (wizard stuff). Things Get Worse: The wizard has a score to settle with the PCs and comes looking for them. This score may be due to something that they've actually done already, have yet to do, have done in some alternate time line or whatever. The important thing is that there's a pissed off wizard and he's coming for you.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Faith In Ur-Hadad

Time for more A-to-Z RPG goodness here in Kickassistan! My wife swore I should have written about "Fish in Ur-Hadad," but that seemed less interesting to me than Faith. After all, what's more human than faith? I'm sure if I asked my wife that question, she'd still say "Fish." Anyway, here you are.

The people of Ur-Hadad are a notoriously jaded and skeptical people, particularly when it comes to the concept of faith. Everyone else's faith but their own, that is. If the Hadadi did not take faith seriously -- and the duties that Man owes the gods in fulfillment of his compact with them -- then the Avenue of One Thousand Gods would become a looter's paradise, yet they disdain the faith and beliefs of those non-Hadadi who clamor to enter the First City on pilgrimages to make sacrifices at the temple of their preferred celestial being. The faith of the Hadadi, the Hadadi claim, is an educated, refined one, the faith of one thousand years spent at the center of the world's religious life, and therefore far more "correct" than that of masses outside of the First City's gates. This arrogance and superiority manifests itself in the crowds huddling at the city's western gate, where the gate village known as Pilgrimtown (to those who live there) or Grimdown (to those who don't) survives by huddling close to the city's wall.

Pilgrimtown

In much the same way that the Squat (known to some as Mustertown) builds itself around Ur-Hadad's East Gate, so too does Pilgrimtown grow like a cancer outward from her West Gate. On the books, Pilgrimtown is officially called "West Gatetown," the locals are comprised of the faithful from nearly every religion known to Man, perhaps even more than can be found on the Avenue of One Thousand Gods, all gathered together in hopes that some of them might gain entry to the First City and be able to complete whatever pilgrimage brought them here in the first place .

With so many often conflicting religions in one place, conflict is inevitable. Here, the blood-stained devotees of Gorus Na'al, cast out of the city proper generations ago and widely guilty of countless blasphemies against every god but Gorus Na'al, rub shoulders (and blood-drenched feathered raiment) with the fleece-laden worshipers of Odosk, the Father of Contemplation. Violence is an unfortunate side effect of the pressure-cooker that is Pilgrimtown, but one that has diminished in recent years, owing to the waxing influence of a group of pilgrims devoted to a concept they call "That Which Is Given Away;" the "Givers," as they are colloquially known since no other name makes sense, maintain an extensive network of trading of goods and services throughout Pilgrimtown. Givers hire other pilgrims for the jobs that fit their talents or buy goods that those pilgrims are known for; for example, they purchase lambswool from the Odoskites while they have been known to hire Na'alites to "keep the peace." Exchange, the Givers preach, enriches all it touches. So far, the nobles and officials of Ur-Hadad have turned to blind eye to the Givers' manipulation of the Pilgrimtown market, glad that violence has diminished, but possessed of rising fears as to the consequences should the Givers' rampant exploitation of the faithful go unchecked.

These days, Pilgrimtown is a haven for true believers, zealots, proselytizers, con men, converts and mendicants of all stripe. One vast ghetto of the faithful, the Hadadi authorities often give up chase rather than track a cultist into the depths of shanty town. As such, the shadow market of Ur-Hadad maintains close ties with the enclave, where the zealous may trade in a principle or two for the better-than-adequate funding provided by the criminals and gangs of the First City. As such, the dregs of mankind have helped swell the assembled ranks of Pilgrimtown, earning it the further sobriquet "Grimdown," while many criminals use "going to temple" as a euphemism for "cooling" in Pilgrimtown.

Why So Zealous?

What's up with that zealot? Roll d11. (1 - 2) - He and his troupe are holy mercenaries who will fight for no nation, but rather for coin, since their faith in the Celestial Owl precludes their loyalty to (and trust in) any mortal authority. They are suspicious of others but looking for new contracts. (3 - 4) - Few people buy from this Na'alite poultry butcher, with his teeth filed to points and arms bloody up to his elbows. He aggressively courts new customers but will readily take umbrage at any slight. (5 - 6) - This particular zealot is a "Giver" and, as such, actively solicits the PCs for information about their specific talents. If he doesn't have anything he can use them for, he instead tries to sell them cheaply-made but very expensive trinkets of "vast and portentous religious significance."  (7 - 8) - Clad in the lambswool fleece that is the mark of his faith (despite the heat), this Odoskite evangelist offers the party wizard (or the character with the highest average of Intelligence and Personality/Wisdom) to join him in his consciousness-expanding meditative rites. These involve sitting in his pasture and minding his sheep and goats Sucker! (9 - 10) - Crashing out of the nearest tavern, a small gang of Metal Gods worshipers clutch whiskey bottles and large mugs of ale, as eager to crash into each other repeatedly while yelling holy songs as they are to start a fight. (11) - He is an assassin who follows the dictates Mother Gilshikasi, the Queen of all that Crawls and Matron of Insects. He kills with large poisonous bugs that he wields like weapons. Things Get Better: The zealot has received a vision or prophecy wherein the PCs complete some holy task for the zealot's favored flavor of divinity. Suddenly, they've got a new friend in Pilgrimtown. Things Get Worse: The zealot's beliefs and goals make them an enemy of the PCs. He strikes when the time is right!

Acknowledgements: Huge props go out to +Wayne Snyder for the idea of Pilgrimtown and to +Edgar Johnson for this fantastic post he wrote about religion in Ur-Hadad!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Monster (Book) Monday - Critters Creatures & Denizens (for DCC)

I put off writing this post for a few days. I meant to write it on Saturday, and then last night, but I couldn't bring myself to do it either day. It wasn't merely procrastination, it was an unwillingness bred of my desire not to discourage anyone in the field of games from creating anything ever. About eight minutes ago, I realized that I really had to bite the bullet and write this, though, because some stuff needs to be said.

Right around the time that the DCC RPG hit the shelves, there was a whole lot of hype around a number of different product lines, some of which were available at launch, some became available later and some we're still waiting for (I'm looking at you, Tales from the Fallen Empire!). During that initial rush of hype around the game, I'm pretty sure that I first became aware of Cognition Pressworks' Critters Creatures & Denizens (hereafter CCD -- which is not the same as that religion class those of us Catholic kids who got to go to public school had to go to on Wednesday night) on the Goodman Games forums (although what I was doing on a forum, I have no idea. Looking for character sheets maybe?), where it was discussed as a book full of the sorts of monsters and such that Judges never want to bother to stat out themselves because they're too boring (wolves, giant snakes and the like). Not a bad premise. And art by Scott Ackerman? Awesome, I'm in!

Details

CCD is currently available via Lulu.com for $14.99 in perfect bound softcover or $9.99 in pdf. For a mere $5 more, I went for the softcover. Coming in at 235 pages, this is pretty great value in print, with over 120 unique entries and 400 variations on those entries (so, say, there's an entry for badger and then 3 different versions of badgers). There are some decent optional rules for hexcrawling and, for some reason, rules for hexgrid combat (wtf? what's that doing in my DCC?) and a whole chapter on Mutations, which uses a d30, so it's okay in my book (not perfect; that's reserved for Realms of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness and always shall be). The worst guide to monster creation I've ever read rounds out the book, but more on that below.

Aesthetics

Problem #1: Gibbons
are apes, not monkeys
Problem #2: STAAAAAAAT block
Here, I'm going to stray from the usual "how do the art and layout get across the idea of the book" type of aesthetics discussion and instead talk about design aesthetic, since that's a big part of what attracts me to DCC. For CCD, however, I find the design aesthetic absolutely repellent. Each monster has an incredibly long and tedious stat blocks that get into ridiculously tiny and useless minutiae such as how to determine each stat for the monster, lift/drag/carry amounts (listed as individual lines!), reach (3.x much?) and other pointless stuff. I mean seriously, does this author not understand what DCC is? That is isn't just 3.xe with strangeness and some old-schooly-ness added? Looking through these pages, it feels very much like the author takes an approach toward DCC that is not one that I feel is implied by the text, the community or the gaming tradition that it descends from.

Look at that stat block over there on the right. See how long it is? See how many tiny details it tries to encompass? See how much useless info is in there? Why do we need separate attack lines for each different method of attack? Why do I need to know how much damage a monkey's kick does, isn't he going to bite instead? Why do I need exact numbers and figures for all of this crap and not just make it up on the fly?

In short, I don't need any of that crap. If I need to know a particular thing, I just decide what it is. I don't need a ton of metrics that I'm just going to ignore.

The reason for all of this pointless bloat becomes obvious when you look at the final chapter of the book, Making Critters. This chapter does not describe how to build monsters in DCC. Instead, it discusses how to convert monsters, not from any classic source of awesome monsters, but rather from 3.xe era and Pathfinder books, which I think, more than any other detail explains why the author applies a design aesthetic that doesn't seem to come close to what I'd say reflects that of DCC.

Foliosity

Absolutely zero. This thing should scream Fiend Folio to me. It's a DCC monster book. It has Scott Ackerman's strange and quirky art (which, to me, feels like an old school Brit Fantasy zine). This should have the Foliosity cranked up higher than it is here. One of the stated goals of this product was the generic nature and that it was to contain monsters that are supposed to be boring to write. Yes, there are some unique monsters here, but the only things that feel particularly Folioic are the undead presented, which are, quite wisely, presented as a set of tools to create unique and interesting undead.

What I'm Stealing

To be frank, probably not much. I don't see much point in including monsters that aren't interesting enough for me to have created on my own. If I'm using someone else's monsters, it's because they got me interested or excited enough to want to include them in my adventures. Here, there's not much interesting stuff to be found, and what is there you need to dig through a mountain of stat block to find. I guess if I decided to run a DCC hexcrawl, I could use this book for random encounters, but I don't see much use beyond that.

Final Word

I wish I still had my $14.99. I'd have bought Prison of the Squid Sorcerer in print instead. Then again, for me, it's probably worth the price for a book of Ackerman art, so maybe if I think about it as that with some game stats thrown in, I'll be happier. For now, though, I don't see myself using this for the intended purpose, not for a long time at least.

Friday, May 3, 2013

New Year, New Games - April Report

Sorry this post is a few days overdue, but time flies when you're (a) gaming four to five nights per week and (b) prepping for a new campaign, but more of that later!

Games I've Been Running & Playing

Much of my gaming has been the same from March to April. The Metal Gods campaign is still rockin' and April saw the four sessions that made up my most recent adventure, To Catch A Fallen Star. I'm back in my role as player as +Edgar Johnson Judges our way through the Pod Caverns of the Sinister Shroom to the Anomalous Subsurface Environment. Last night, we came close to getting the tar kicked out of us, but Brother Aram, my lawful cleric and wielder of the Frosthammer, hit level 2, so things might start moving a little smoother for us (my halfling haberdasher, Banvha, is exactly one experience point away from level 2, damnit!).

My Wednesday night ACKS game keeps chugging along, as does the Saturday night Swords & Wizardry game. There are highlights in both and in both games, I'm playing the party cleric. For some reason, folks don't seem to like to play clerics, but I dig it, so I'm glad to fill that role. +Jason Hobbs asked me the other day: "How many clerics are you playing right now, anyway?" The truth is, I'm playing four. 1 in ACKS, 1 in S&W, 2 in DCC. By the way, Jason, if you're reading, Zullgunn needs to start attracting congregants to his Hospitemple as soon as I can get him some down time between adventures.

My every-other-Monday night Edge of the Empire game is rocking, too. the crew of the Krayt Fang are seriously considering becoming the crew of another vessel as they're afraid that a rust-red YT-1300 registered to a bounty hunter known to work for their Hutt nemesis is more than a little conspicuous. For now, though, they're driving landspeeder trucks across the face of Ryloth, trying to save Oskara's sister from thugs, uncovering a plot by their Hutt nemesis to take over Ryll spice mining on the planet. The game has been accomplishing a very episodic feel, like a tv show, which has been a ton of fun for me.

Diaspora -- Or, Now I Know Why FATE Core Exists

Patience and huge attention
span required, but not included.
So, a few weeks ago, +Matt Woodard, +Kubo Mshila & I all got together with the idea of starting up a game of Diaspora. If you don't know, it's a game roughly based on the old school hard sci fi logic of Traveller, set to the modern game engine of FATE. Now, I like FATE, I got in on the FATE Core Kickstarter, so I was expecting to really enjoy this session. We spent about three and a half hours building the star cluster and creating our characters and were left with no time to play. That's when I realized a truism about myself: I want to start playing right away. I want to make a character and do stuff with him or her in the first night. Diaspora, however, requires such an in-depth examination of your character's history and interaction with the other PCs that it becomes impossible to do that. Plus, you design the star cluster that the game takes place in as a group so that adds time. I mean, I like the character that I came up with, but often the choices I was making didn't feel terribly meaningful and it felt like I was being forced to focus more on where the character came from than who he is and what he does, which is pretty damn boring.

And so, I now understand why FATE Core exists. With half as many Aspects (five instead of ten) and no "deep examination" of how the character's childhood fucks up who he is today, character creation is much quicker. I feel like I could make a character in an hour max, which means we could have gotten to gaming on that first session. Better still is the FATE Accelerated Edition (FAE), which strips down characters even further, most notably in the skill department, replacing skills with Approaches (how you do things rather than what are you doing) which I think is a neat way to go about it.

Anyway, I doubt we'll ever get around to playing Diaspora, but kudos to +Matt Woodard for trying to make it work and spending so much mental effort trying to keep us on task and on message.

What's Next?

Right now, it looks as if my Sunday gaming group has fallen apart. I tried to get them together one last time, but it feels like it's just over. To take its place, however, I'm putting together a new local group, half of grognards, half of newbs, to play a game of ACKS set in the world of Ur-Hadad (which, thanks to the Metal Gods players, +phil spitzer in particular, we now know is called Ore in the same way our planet is called Earth). The sub-setting I'm calling the Iron Coast, a Swords & Sorcery battleground where a prophecy and exploitable resources have small nations at each other's throats as the forces of Chaos marshal in the wilderness, ready to claim the Iron Coast for their own. The goal of becoming the Prince of the Iron Coast will linger as the overarching campaign motivator, possibly growing beyond the Iron Coast when the PCs surpass the Conqueror stage and make their way to becoming Kings.

Also, I'm actually working on that "hey, here's a crappily-written and quickly thrown together White Box hack" that I came up with for SWAp Day. Basically, I'm looking at rewriting the White Box stuff to match the ideas I had there, but also I'm half-assed working on a "hexcrawl engine" that I'll be using for the exploration part of that game (as well as a few other games I have in mind). I've started doing research that might or might not be useful, we'll see. Anyway, yeah, the Colonial Gothic hexcrawl hack might become a real thing soon and not just a wobbly half-idea.

Plus, secret Ur-Hadad related project. Shhhhhhh!