Sunday, June 30, 2013

Month In Gaming: June Report

June was awesome! Lots of games played! Even more games planned!

Live Gaming: The Iron Coast (ACKS)

This month, the Iron Coast crew finally met up and made our first round of characters (first session) and then set out on their first adventure from the pirate fortress, Port Scourge. The initial troupe was +Andy Block+Mark Donkers & +Matt Woodard, but +Paul Linkowski joined us for session two. I had the guys build characters using the "roll 5, develop 3, keep 1" method suggested in the ACKS core book and some really interesting things emerged. First, Matt decided that all his guys were going to be vikings and thus, they became Iskurlanders. Matt gladly "bites the cleric bullet" but, rather than be the guy who hangs in the back until healing is needed (which doesn't really work in BX/ACKS), his Iskurlandik cleric had an 18 Strength, a big axe and was the group's heaviest hitter. Mark's characters included a dwarven machinist and a warlock, but he went with an elven spellsword and, building upon my interpretation of elves in the world of Ore as being Atlantean/Melnibonean sorcerer/scientist/soldiers from another dimension and decided that his spellsword was a would-be conqueror looking to carve out a kingdom of elves on the Iron Coast. Andy, being new to gaming, made up a lot of stuff as he went along (which he did really well) and ended up playing an elven courtier who believes in the cause that Mark's spellsword is championing. Paul rounded out the team with the group's only thief, an artist who is happier to draw his companions' daring-do than to participate in it.

For the first adventure, I rolled out a classic and am sending them up against the Licheway from White Dwarf #10. Although they reached the purported location of the dungeon around noon on the first day of their expedition, they decided to camp for a night so they would have a full day to investigate. I suspect this might have been slightly metagame-y, what with "spells per day" being spells per, well you know, day, but I was happy to oblige them with hourly wandering monster checks. All went well until the very last hour of the very last watch, when the brutish viking cleric saw some sort of huge lizardy something coming over a hill to the east. This was one of those fights where the only thing that saved them was the fact that I rolled a maximum possible encounter distance, because it ended up being a basilisk. Yup. They pin cushioned the charging basilisk with arrow after arrow so that, when the time came and the viking cleric was ready to charge, he got one last hit in before the beast went down and only he had to make a saving throw and only once. Threat down, they had some breakfast and went down into the dungeon. They didn't get very far before the cleric took a hit from a giant lamprey (he had suffered exactly 1 hp of damage from the basilisk - I rolled minimum damage of all friggin' things - and 2 hp from the lamprey out his maximum 6) and decided it was time to go home with the few treasures they'd found so far. Now, rearmed with reinforcements (as +Jeff Cambers & +Scott Cambers join the crew tomorrow) from Port Scourge (and probably some new hirelings, along with Andy's newly-levelled Siccalian 1st-level fighter henchman, Eusebios), the crew will be returning to the Licheway through the secret sea cave entrance at the next low tide. This will be happening about the time this blog post goes live.

I Don't Like The One Ring

Too gay to play
I just plain don't enjoy game systems based on Tolkein stuff. While I have to re-read Tolkein periodically like any good geek, I just don't like the legacy that Tolkein's work has left on fantasy. I hate elf fanboys. I dislike hobbits. I'm not at all interested in playing in this setting. But, I let myself get talked into it because, if nothing else, it's a new system I've never played before. The down side of that fact is that TOR rewards folks who know what they're doing, which definitely wasn't me at first. Even by the time I knew what I was doing, I didn't dig how my own player agency could easily be undermined by other players, but I'm sure a lot of that had to do with the folks I was playing with. I felt like the game was rewarding egos and egoistic playing and that's something I just don't enjoy so, go figure, I didn't like a game based on a setting I don't like. Yup, not playing that again.

More FS Ur-Hadad

So, the FLAILSNAILS of Ur-Hadad group (which has expanded) has now foiled the Bloody Successors' plot to acquire the fronds of the blue chrysanthemum (the telepaphrodesiac from the first FSUH session), killed one of the terrorists who had taught the assassin's they'd foiled earlier, acquired a series rugs that contained a terrible secret and had that secret decoded by Master Guang-Yuan Jo. Turns out that the rugs, when compared against each other, gave every attack the Successors were planning, culminating in something huge. Trying to prevent an assassination, the crew interrupted the season-opening performance of a famed Hadadi opera company, murdering two actors (in a confetti-strewn scene that will go down in my personal gaming history) and completely failing to stop the assassination of the Grand Vizier's brother by none other than the Shoveler himself! After a brief scuffle, the Shoveler got away, as did the party's actor-murderers, but four Successors were brought to justice (arrested and not killed!), so the bounty hunting business is going well. The party has been following leads that have led them to a dockside cult (which almost led to violence, but it was narrowly avoided) and to prepare for the next attack, which would be against The Grand Circus, a famous chariot race in the Lucrewarren. The players did a great job of uncovering the Successor's plot and now are primed to put the kibosh on the whole thing. We'll find out on Monday how successful the team is. Oh, and this scene came very close to happening:


On The Horizon

Next month, I'll have my first experience in DMing at a Con. As I reported a few weeks back (I think), I'll be running sections of DCC at MichiCon, one on Friday, 7/12 and a second on Saturday, 7/13. I'm hoping these events fill up, but I'm the only person running DCC events and, as far as I can tell, the only person running OSR-style events at all. So... yeah. I'm hoping for awesome and banking on okay. Even if the experience sucks, I'm heading to the Detroit Tigers game the next day with the folks from the Tap Room (and several of my Iron Coast players), so I'll have a blast at least one day of the weekend.

In July, I should also be getting In the Shadow of the Black Giant underway, which you already have heard me talk about a lot lately, so I won't say anymore. Stay tuned to the blog and let me know if you're interested.

Finally, I'm realizing a lot lately that I'm a lot happier DMing than playing. I don't like being at the mercy of my fellow players and a sympathetic DM. I think I'm just happier when I'm the guy driving, mostly because it seems that too often, other players and I just aren't on the same page. This really ate me up recently, chewed me up and spit me out, and has made me reevaluate my personal gaming priorities.

All said, I'm looking forward to an awesome July.

In The Shadow of the Black Giant: Stuff I Forgot In the Character Primer

As usual, when I wrote my Character Primer for In the Shadow of the Black Giant, I seem to have left out some important bits of information. While I was working through that stuff, I realized that there was a thing or two that I felt I needed to expand upon. When I was writing the original Bonds section, I felt like I was missing something, like there should have been an easier way to go about writing the NPC Bonds, something I think I've found an answer to and am including here. 

Alignment


I'm pretty sure this means that geese are Lawful
I'm not a fan of the nine-fold alignment, nor even the five-fold alignment of Holmes/BLUEHOLME, and I'm afraid I'm going to have to let that distaste influence Alignment in ItSotBG. Part of the problem is that I feel that once you introduce Good and Evil into the game as universal constant concepts, players are robbed of many interesting choices since playing a Good character instantly becomes the implied baseline. There's a "best" alignment and it's Good. Shades of gray out, moral absolutism in and choices are suddenly less interesting. Instead, I prefer the threefold Law/Neutrality/Chaos axis, which I think is particularly poignant in ItSotBG because the philosophers that I feel best exemplify the ethical theories exemplified by Law and Chaos were German.

Law 

Law is the ethical stance that the good of the group outweighs the individual. A lawful character will put themselves in harm's way before his allies. The lawful focus on the benefit to society marks the lawful philosophy as remarkably similar to the Categorical Imperative ethical stance taken by Immanuel Kant.

Neutrality

Through choice or indecision, neutral characters place no ethos above another, instead adhering to a path of pragmatism. This neutral philosophy blends a breed of enlightened self-interest with John Stuart Mill's Utilitarian ethical stance. 

Chaos

Where Law sees strength in unity, Chaos sees strength in the will to seize power, using whatever means necessary to achieve it. Rarely will chaotic characters put themselves in harm's way for another unless there is great reward for doing so. The "will to power" philosophy of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche's Nihilism (although he didn't call it that) is a perfect fit for Chaos. 

Language

How the hell did I leave out language? Really, language is one of the things that draws me in to this setting, so I'm shocked that I managed to leave it out. In my defense, I was getting really tired and needed some sleep. So here we go.

Common is right out. There is no "common tongue." Instead, a series of regional tongues, different colloquial breeds of the German language (Deutsch), pepper the landscape, each with its own peculiarities, unique vocabularies, and/or consonant or vowel shifts. Finding the commonalities between the different Deutsch languages and building upon them, a "high German" (Hochdeutsch) has sprung up and is in wide use in the official administration of Imperial bureaucracy and in the courts of nobility. Merchants make wide use of Hochdeutsch, and nearly every subject of the Empire can understand it and speaking it is more a matter of removing colloquialisms rather than learning a discrete new language. Thus, all characters originating within the German states of the Holy Roman Empire learn to speak both their regional dialect (in the valley setting for ItSotBG, this dialect is Austro-Bavarian Deutsch) as well as Hochdeutsch. 

Other common languages to think about include:
  • The Black Speech, language of the beasts and beast men of Chaos. Some common folk believe the Black Speech to be the devil's own tongue and that merely knowing a few words of it are enough to damn a man's soul to eternal torment.
  • Latin, in all its various forms. Understanding classical Latin is enough to be able to puzzle through most permutations of the language.
  • French, divided as it is into different regional colloquialisms. 
  • Dutch, and the other low countries languages (no offense guys, but we're going to throw Flemmish and Freis in here, too).
  • Western Slavonic, a family of languages spoken in the kingdoms of Bohemia and Poland.
  • Eastern Slavonic, a family that includes Russian and some others.
  • Alvlantesk, the language of elves and other inhabitants of the Dreaming Lands.
  • Gurgir, a family of languages spoken by dwarves, gnomes, kobolds and other subterranean beings. 
  • Hungarian, because I feel like I shouldn't leave them out. 
  • Swedish, because those guys were about to become really important.
  • Danish, because Denmark is like Germany's hat. And I felt like I needed to include it. 
  • Ottoman Turk, spoken throughout the Ottoman Empire which threatens to spread over Europe like a tsunami. 
  • Italian, although regional differences here are very pronounced.
  • Spanish, and associated dialects, some of which may even be considered separate languages, but we're going to throw all together here. 
  • Yep, I left English off. You can speak English if you really want to, but it's probably not going to come up in the game. This isn't the Tudors. 
Knowing the base language for a family of languages is enough to understand the derivative dialects and colloquialisms. For those keeping score at home, yes, I've really simplified the myriad languages spoken in Europe in the 17th Century drastically here. 

Religion

So, I knew I was going to have to talk about this at some point. Here's the deal: in keeping to the time period and location that I've selected for ItSotBG, there's an awful lot of religious strife. In fact, it's about to percolate into the Thirty Years' War (although your characters definitely don't know that). The major religious conflict is between Catholicism and the various Protestant faiths that pop up on a nearly daily basis. While most protestants within the Empire are Lutherans, there are no shortage of Hussites, Calvinists or other Protestants. Within the duchy of Bavaria, however, the vast majority are Catholic, with exceptionally small pockets of Protestant activity which are often persecuted by the Catholic majority as heretics. Jews are present in major population centers such as Munich, and Islamic Ottoman Turks can occasionally be found in the duchy, if only passing through. It ain't necessarily pretty, but it's the status quo. Player characters are most likely to be Catholic, but non-Catholic PCs are viable and may have a strong role to play in events unfolding in the near future. 

Dark cults of the lords of Chaos are widely considered to be responsible for many of the ills that befall society, including the religious schisms between Protestants and Catholics that are sweeping through Europe. Both sides see their other as corrupt and potentially guilty of not merely heresy, but systemic occultism and devotion to demons and nameless, forgotten deities. Some suggest that this partisan muckraking reveals the influence of dark powers at work playing each side against each other; most write off such conspiracy theories as pure paranoia. But then, ever since the Black Giant started spewing smoke, the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics have gotten bloodier, with war looming heavily on the horizon, so perhaps there is something to be said for the paranoiac ramblings.  

Thursday, June 27, 2013

In The Shadow of the Black Giant: Character Primer

Today, we return to a Campaign I'd Like To Run, In The Shadow of the Black Giant. Using the BLUEHOLME rules with some minor modifications for the setting, the campaign takes place in a sleepy valley in the south of the German state of Bayern (Bavaria) in the later part of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation era (in the early 17th Century, just a few short years before the outbreak of the 30 Years' War). If you need a refresher since it's been awhile, check out the first post on ItSotBG, since today's post it going to focus on building characters for use in the valley that sits In The Shadow of the Black Giant. 

Ability Scores

Ability scores are the same as normal in BLUEHOLME, but rolled slightly differently. Instead of the "3d6 6 times straight" method of ability score generation, characters will use a "3d6 12 times sliding" scale. To generate a character, a player rolls 3d6 12 times and records the results in the order that he rolled them. Then, he picks a consecutive set of 6 generated numbers to serve as his ability scores, filling the slots of each ability in sequence (the order of the ability scores being Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity & Charisma). Here's an example:

Too small to make out? Click me!

The first set was prioritized as a Fighter (Fighter #1) and has a good Strength (13) and a high Constitution (15) as well as Intelligence (14). His Dexterity is good (12) which is important for Initiative in BLUEHOLME. Wisdom is average (9) and Charisma is slightly lacking (8). This set of scores could be a good straight-up fighter or an elven-type multiclass fighter/magic-user. The second set of scores, prioritized for a Magic-User, takes advantage of the highest score on the board (the 15) by prioritizing the MU's prime requisite around it (Intelligence). Wisdom remains relatively high (12), but everything else pays the price for the high Intelligence (Str 9, Con 8, Dex 8, Cha 7). The third set is a thief with a high Dexerity (15, again), a good Intelligence (13), Wisdom (14) and Charisma (12), with Constitution (9) and Strength (11) being around average. A cleric fills out PC #4, with a high Wisdom (15), Strength (14) and Constitution (12) and significantly lower Intelligence (9), Dexterity (8) and Charisma (8). Just for fun, I statted out one more fighter-type (Fighter #2) with a high Strength (15) and decent Intelligence (12), but a whole lot of dump stats (Wis 8, Con 8, Dex 7, Cha 7).

The idea here is less to give the player the advantage of higher stats and more to give greater variation so they can (by and large) build the character that they want to by making (potentially) difficult choices and opting into poor scores to get the good ones that you want. Ability scores may be adjusted as per the rules found on page 6 of the BLUEHOLME Prentice Rules.

Races

"der Erlkonig" - ~perfect-tea @ DeviantArt
The races found in the BLUEHOLME Prentice Rules are the races available in ItSotBG, and the rules found there are the ones that apply to them (level limits and all). It is worthwhile to note, however, that the standard fantasy races don't fit terribly well into the ItSotBG campaign and that the campaign is terribly humanocentric.

Elves seldom concern themselves with the affairs of men, whom they regard with disinterest (at best) or as victims of their myriad whims (at worst). All elves are subjects of the Elf King (der Erlkoenig), whose penchant for stealing the souls of children does little to ingratiate his species to the race of men. Although men often find elves bewitchingly beautiful and fascinating, the wise know the dangers of trafficking with otherworldly creatures and encourage all their kin to keep elves and their ilk at arm's length. Elves and the fae races cannot be trusted, but must be appeased, lest they wither crops, foul cattle or kill children in their cribs.

Dwarves labor deep within the mountains that surround the valley, coaxing ores and gems from the earth the way humans coax crops from their fields. Craftsmen without peer, dwarves occasionally trade with men, but their eternal warfare with the gnomes and kobolds of the Alps prevents much desired trade. Nonetheless, dwarves take immense risks to bring their goods and treasures to mankind's lands where they can obtain many of the luxuries that they can't (or don't) make for themselves such as wheat beers, hard liquors (Dunkelweizens and Brandies are especially prized), smoked sausages and preserved meats (ham and bacon in particular). Human merchants looking to trade in foodstuffs for dwarven treasures make occasional pilgrimages into the Alps; they are unmolested by the dwarves' foes until their carts are laden with dwarven goods, gems and metals, when they become targets of gnomish or koboldic aggression.

Halfling farmers labor alongside human ones in the valley, and even have one small community all to themselves near the valley's western edge. While their numbers may be plentiful in the valley, their natural and cultural identity makes them very unlikely adventurers. Wandering and exploration are widely frowned upon in halfling society and those who take up an adventuring life usually do so after apostasy or exile from halfling communities or out of a bloody-minded rejection of traditional halfling values. Once a halfling has rejected his cultural background and become an adventurer, it is nearly impossible for him to regain his place in halfling society, meaning that few ever choose a life of adventure among the Tall Folk.

Classes

Cleric

As mentioned in the BLUEHOLME Prentice Rules, clerics must be of Lawful or Chaotic alignment. However, clerics of Chaotic alignment tend to be in league with the dark powers of Chaos and thus aren't terribly conducive to being player characters. There is one typo to be found in the Prentice Rules that must be noted, however: when attempting to turn undead, the 2d6 roll must be equal to or greater than (not less than) the number shown on the table on page 8.

Fighting Man

Fighters act as described in the Prentice Rules, with one small addition: fighters with a Strength score of 15 or better may add +1 to his melee attack and damage rolls. A fighter who gains an attack bonus to missile weapons may add an equal bonus to missile weapon damage.

Magic-User

Some additional spells may be available to player character magic-users, but most of those will not be available at the start of play, but will be available to the PCs through adventuring. These non-standard spells will not count against the PCs' "Maximum Spells Per Level." While the magic books studied by magic-users are too large to be carried on adventures, it is important to remember that magic-users can (and probably should) make judicious use of scrolls not merely to cast a wide variety of spells on demand, but also to replenish their supply of memorized spells (a use of a scroll that does not consume the scroll).

Thief

Thieves act as described in the Prentice Rules, with the addition that a thief (and only a thief) with a Dexterity of 15 or better may subtract one from his armor class (thus improving it).

Equipment

Firearms

All classes are proficient in the use of firearms, the great equalizer of the In the Shadows of the Black Giant campaign. When shooting a firearm at an opponent, the ignores up to four points of the target's armor class reduction from armor. Thus, a target in chain mail (normally AC 5) has the same armor class as an unarmored person (AC 9), whereas both of those targets have a higher (worse) AC than a dextrous thief in leather armor (AC 8) or a fighter in full plate (also AC 8, 7 with a shield).

  • Pistol, Range 30/60/120, Cost 500 Marks
  • Musket, Range 50/100/150, Cost 750 Marks
A pouch of 10 lead shot may be purchased for 1 Mark, while a flask of black powder enough for 20 shots will cost 5 Marks. Taking a full round to aim a firearm will confer upon the shooter a +2 bonus to hit and allow twice the normal number of damage dice to be rolled. Other rules will be forthcoming.

Currency

The standard unit of currency (filling the role of the gold piece) in the valley is the Mark, a die-cast coin usually cast in silver but occasionally featuring small amounts of gold. Smaller than the Mark is the Pfennig, a stamped coin usually made from copper or bronze; 100 Pfennig (Pf) is worth one Mark (Mk). Other coins in between the Mark and Pfennig frequently are minted, but these can be largely disregarded for simplicity's sake. Larger than the Mark, however, is the golden Thaler, a die-cast coin that usually bears the likeness of Dukes, Duchesses, Elector-Princes and Emperors. Each Thaler (Th) is equal to 20 Marks. 

Bonds

My absolute favorite feature of the game Dungeon World is the Bonds system which helps give mechanical benefit to the bonds between the characters as well as with their world. Each PC will have a number of available Bonds equal to the number players in the campaign. A player may decide to describe all of the Bonds available to his PC at character creation or choose to describe them over time. At character creation, the player must choose one Bond between his character and another PC and a second Bond between his character and a non-player character. The mandatory Bond between the PC and another PC must be chosen from a list of Bonds available to his class (as discussed in Dungeon World; I'm not about to reprint that data here because DW is totally worth the $10 for the pdf), whereas the Bond between the PC and the NPC must be one of those mentioned below. 

NPC Bonds

  • I'm trying hard to woo ______.
  • ______ was a childhood rival; we've never gotten over that.
  • ______ is an old family friend.
  • The curse that my family labors under was put upon us by ______.
  • I'm sure that ______ is a witch.
  • ______ is my godfather/godmother. 
  • ______ saved my life once and I owe him/her for it.
  • ______'s family is my family's sworn enemies, but he/she is my best friend.
  • ______ is my chief rival for the affections of my beloved.
I'm not going to make the "it's gotta be from this list" thing a hard requirement for the NPC Bond, and I'll gladly take suggestions. 

Using Bonds

As long as you have an open Bond with another PC or an NPC, you will gain a +1 bonus per level to all dice rolls made for actions that target the object of your Bond. Thus, a 2nd level cleric who casts Cure Light Wounds on a character with whom he has a Bond will heal 1d6+3 hit points of damage (1d6+1 from the spell, +2 from the Bond). If in the course of adventuring, both players involved in the Bond (or the player and the Judge involved in the case of NPCs) agree that the Bond no longer applies, the Bond is considered to be "resolved;" the PC who possessed the Bond gains experience points equal to 100 x his level as well as freeing up that Bond to be used for another connection. 

Final Word

Due to a few people expressing interest, the In The Shadow of the Black Giant campaign will be launching soon. This isn't "soon (tm) soon," it's "soon as in somewhere in the next month soon." Turns out that despite running 3+ games (2 online, 1 live) and playing in at least one other, I'm able to fit a little more gaming in my schedule. So, Shadow of the Black Giant will be coming to a G+ hangout near you! If you're interested in this game but aren't one of the folks I game with on a routine basis, drop me a line on G+ to get in on the Black Giant action!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

First Impressions of T5: The Day That Traveller Made Me Cry

Yesterday, my copy of Traveller5 showed up. 

I was elated.

I had been itching for T5 for awhile now, my brain threatening to rattle off some new sci fi space setting at any given moment. It was a pressure cooker in there about to explode. The only thing that could have let off on the pressure was either actually running some sort of hard sci-fi yet vaguely sword & planet something or Traveller5 showing up. Thankfully for my already-over-extended gaming schedule, T5 showed up first. 


On the left you have the colossal 656-page textbook that is T5. A huge and unwieldy thing, I assume the designers behind it had designed it primarily to act as a weapon should the bearer get attacked by rampaging athletes or rabid biblethumpers or something. (For reference, my Mongoose "pocket" edition is on the right, which is way too large for any pockets I own.) Here's a closer look.


Again, MGT Pocket included for reference, but I've also added Hulks & Horrors for comparison. Please note the comparative sizes of each spine. In descending order, we have (a) nice & slim, (b) slim enough to still have a robust system and (c) BACK-BREAKINGLY HUGETARDED. 

I know that many gamers out there may look at the size of T5 - particularly when compared to the price tag - and say "well, of course it's huge! That's how +Marc Miller shows us value! It's the kitchen sink approach to game design!" 

In rebuttal, I'd like to quote one of the great engineers of the 20th century, Mikhail Kalashnikov: "That which is the most useful is always the least complex and that which is the most complex is always the least useful."

That quote kept coming back to me as I scoured through T5's pages. Too much, too poorly explained, too few examples and too confusing. It's at the point where I started to get completely exasperated and came within moments of tears of rage and frustration that the following occurred to me.


Look at that sexy Hulks & Horrors digest-sized game book right there. That sure is a sexy-looking book. It's like some sort of 80's-style cross between Traveller and those 80's sci fi movies that used dramatically-angled titles. Ooh, it looks like it belongs in one of the arcades of my youth, it does. And what's that you say? It's built upon a foundation of familiar rules that make sense and add flavor while still staying true to a vaguely-sword & planet sort of sci fi? Sure, it ain't hard sci fi, but can you really have everything you want?

If anything, Marc Miller's new T5 has taught me that trying to get everything you want in a single book makes that book unusable. T5 is a doorstop. That's about it.

If he'd actually wanted T5 to be successful, Miller should have looked at how to expand his player base, even if expanding it back into the folks who used to play Traveller back in the day. You don't expand your player base by making the rules more labyrinthine. To quote +Chuck Thorin from an unrelated thread on G+ yesterday (we were talking about Arduin): "Reading a rule book shouldn't be like a hex crawl." As +Edgar Johnson can attest, I really freak out when rules aren't intuitive and I have to have someone explain them to me. I was so angry and crestfallen when I realized yesterday that, as written, there's no way I can ever play T5 that I've spent all night bitching about it to the folks who'll bother to listen. (Sorry, +Edgar Johnson+Ray Case+Jason Hobbs & +Gabriel Perez Gallardi.) Miller missed the fact that the bulk of his present-day potential market is the growing OSR scene, many of the participants in which have fond memories of a simple, straightforward Traveller that got crunchy in all the right places but stayed flexible enough to handle whatever the Referee could come up with.

So, how should Miler have designed T5? How could it have appealed to the largest possible audience? LBBs. I think every gamer out there who has ever played Traveller in any capacity and was aware of their existence has a special affection for the LBBs and with good reason. Now, I'm not suggesting that T5 LBBs be written in the same way that T1 LBBs were written, but by god man, understand your customer base. Understand that remarkably few people are telepathic enough to understand what the fuck you're trying to accomplish with arcane and esoteric bits of writing like the Character Creation chapter (character creation has always been a sticky subject in Traveller but come on T5, this shit makes no goddamn sense or anything like it). 

I'm starting to get worked up again, I need to calm down.

So, in the end, Marc Miller has provided us with an unusable version of Traveller to go on the shelf next to the other unusable or uninteresting versions like TNE. Looks like, if I ever want to play Traveller, I'm going to have to go with MGT; while their rules might be occasionally poorly-written and require massive amounts of revision, at least the rules are simple enough that such revisions are possible. Until T5 gets LBBs that make sense out of the game, I'll play Hulks & Horrors. Or Stars Without Number. Or Thousand Suns. Or whatever, as long as its playable. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Campaigns I'd Like To Run: Exiles In Eden

I woke up this morning having had a really interesting spot of dream logic where my mind was trying to suss out how I'd like to run a RuneQuest game, despite knowing remarkably little about the Glorantha setting. RuneQuest is, like Traveller, one of those games that I didn't play back in the day (sure, I played Call of Cthulhu, based on the same BRP system, but everything about it is completely different) but that I've gotten into in my old age. I'll admit that my exposure to RQ rules didn't come from any actual RQ materials, but the recent Legend release by Mongoose (I'm not sure how all this happened, but I'm assuming that Mongoose lost the RQII license) which you can still get on OBS for the low, low price of $1; that's when I released that RQ is CoC is BRP is all the same and how much it was an extension and extrapolation of earlier D&D rules and how much the Warhammer FRP rules were a reaction to and extension of the RQ rules. Growing up, I had skipped the middle man and gone straight from D&D to WHFRP, but now, I've been paying attention to a vital middle ground between the two that I find personally very inspiring and, unfortunately, one that has been largely ignored by modern gamers. Including me.

And so, when I was in my fitful waking up this morning, I was sorting out just how I'd want to run RQII. I recently bought a copy of the RQII rules and RQ Vikings from +Jack Shear who was selling off some treasures over on G+. Mind you, Mr. Shear was also pretty important in the development in my interest in RQ, especially with his glowing reviews a few months back of the King of Dragon Pass video game (get it on GOG.com for cheap!) and how engaging the game and the Glorantha setting both are. That's when it kicked in inside my noggin somewhere that one of my favorite local gamers (who I've never gamed with), the incomparable John "Johnny Wheatstraw" "Schultzy" Schultz can never talking about RQ and Glorantha. Hell, thought I, if it's cool enough for Schultzy, it's got to be good enough for me, right? The answer turns out to be an emphatic "hell yes."

Now, I'm one of those guys who doesn't like to have too much canon floating around, mucking up the stories I want to tell and making things all "that's like this over here" and "that's like that over there." I really prefer to be the guy saying what's where with the help from my amazing players. So, if I ever want to start playing RQ, I'd need to do so in a way that preserves the feeling of Glorantha (because it's a kickass setting) but that requires little to no knowledge of Glorantha itself. Oh, and it also should feel as much like King of Dragon Pass as possible. That's why my brain was chewing on this morning when it half-dreamed, half-reasoned through the following.

Exiles In Eden

Your clan has been vanquished, driven from your lands as you took what few animals and possessions left to you and crossed the perilous mountains. Many of your clansmen died during your exodus and many more have been left worse for the wear, stricken with illness and injury, the number of clansfolk of any significant ability is remarkably few. Emerging from a mountain pass hungry, sick and weakened from weeks of travel, your clan discovers a primeval, untouched wilderness with no sign of your clan's foes or indeed any other human tribes at all. Here, perhaps, amid unfelled trees, untilled trees and unhunted beasts, your clan may find a new home. But first, there's work to do.

The players will take on the roles of both the community leaders of the clan as well as the small band of remaining huscarls (dedicated fighting and adventuring men and women of the clan). As the clan establishes its new home in the Eden-like wilderness, the players must decide as a group many things. Where shall their settlement be built? Who shall lead? How shall we focus our efforts as we develop our new home? In addition, the players must make some decisions about the mythic history of their clan and what brought them to this wilderness. Who was the foe that drove them from their homes? What were they known for in the homeland? Who is their primary deity (or divine hero)? In effect, how does their old life shape the new life they plan on making for themselves here? 

Even he might be out there in the wilderness
I've spent a lot of time lately thinking and talking about ACKS, so the thought of integrating domain management into the early stages of an RPG campaign hasn't been far from my conscious processes. Here, I'd get a chance to play around with some concepts that I'd love to steal from disparate sources like ACKS and Red Tide/An Echo Resounding and mesh them with the stuff from RQII that I really enjoy alongside the parts of Glorantha and King Of Dragon Pass that I found particularly compelling. Are there other human clans out in the wilderness? Ducks? Broo? Dragonmen? Well, probably there are at least Broo, but who knows what else is out there? Certainly not the unsuspecting players who would have to decide how best to set about rebuilding their civilization and prioritize defense, exploration, exploitation and even preservation of this new Eden. As the players make these choices, the mythology of their clan will evolve to reflect their deeds and priorities. These heroes of their clan will endeavor to define a new epoch in the clan's history and will write new myths that keep time with the pulse of their people. 

When

So, there are folks who, after I write something like this, come to me and ask "When, Adam? When are you running this?" Frankly, I don't know. I don't know if I ever will. Maybe my copy of RQII will come in the mail tomorrow and I get inspired and I decide to run it next Monday. Maybe I'll sit on the idea and don't do anything with it for a year. Maybe, having written about it, I've gotten it out of my system and I'll never touch it again. In short, don't hold your breath, but if I do decide to do this one, I'll try to talk about it here beforehand to give interested parties some notice. (There are still people after me to run In The Shadow of the Black Giant, which is in the same boat as this idea.) 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Vacation Haul

At least once every summer, my wife and I take the middle of a week off and drive from our hiome in downtown Ypsilanti, MI, out to my folks' home-in-which-they've-retired (yout don't say "retirement home" in their presence) in South Haven, Michigan. For those (few) of you familiar with the geography of the great state of Michigan, you can begin your seethes of jealousy. For those (substantially more) of you who only know that "Michigan is the one that looks like a hand, right?", South Haven sits on the Michigan side of Lake Michigan, which is the biggest of the Great Lakes and yes, it is (as we Michiganders like to say) America's High Five.

One of the neat things about small towns, and I'd suspect that it's true wherever you are too and that it's not unique to Michigan, are the preponderances of used book stores and antiques shops that spring up, almost as if, knowing well and good that grandson Jimmy will be moving off to the Big City one day and won't be around to mind the farm, these places spring up to sell off forgotten estates to each other one piece of junk at a time. Or, in my case, one book at a time. Normally, I make out pretty well on these vacations. My wife and mother look at the sorts of things that intrigue them and I pour over every book I can get my hands on, in search of the good stuff. Well, this year, I hit gold.


That's 12 issues of Savage Sword of Conan (mostly non-consecutive, but with a few runs in there) from the early-mid 80's (1983-5), Warlords of Mars, Thuvia of Mars, At The Earth's Core (all of those by ER Burroughs, a name not used nearly enough on this blog), Kyrik: Warrior Warlock (by the incomparable Gardner F. Fox; you might know Mr. Fox for his other work for DC Comics like GREEN FUCKING LANTERN!) and The 1972 Annual World's Best SF. Holy poop is this stuff good.

I'm sure you get the Conan stuff. It's damn good. Lots of Ernie Chung, lots of Jusko covers. That's what gets you in the door, I get it. It's the novels you're here to see, though, right? Here's a closer look:


The ERB stuff first: I've read most of the Mars stuff, and was stunned to discover these early but good-condition Of Mars paperbacks. There's no dates attached that I can discern, but the layouts and covers make me want to say 60's. For the uninitiated, The Warlord of Mars and Thuvia of Mars are volumes three and four of the Of Mars series, following hot on the heels of Gods of Mars, volume two (where my current re-read of the series is stalled out, somehow, despite it being one of my favorite volumes). At The Earth's Core was a personal coup for me, particularly because I've never actually seen it in print and the size of the volume suggests a very early printing (I'd say late 40's, early 50's if the other similar paperbacks I have are any indication, which they might not be; the art and layout also seem to be from that era, look at that logo!). Being the first book in Burroughs's Pellucidar series - a series I've never actually read - this is the ERB acquisition I was most excited about.

I might be alone in my love of Gardner F. Fox and what I see as his substantial contributions to the sword & sorcery genre. I don't know. Maybe I'm not. I just don't see a lot of folks bandying his name about talking about how dope his stories are. The novel that got me turned on to Fox was his Kothar and the Wizard Slayer, featuring his cursed barbarian wanderer, Kothar. Kyrik: Warlock Warrior, go figure, features his character Kyrik. Guess what he is? A warrior? A warlock? Naw, son, he's a Warlock Warrior! Well sign me up, Mr. Fox, I'm here for the ride. Seriously though, Fox is an Appendix N author. He's in there. He's not an Appendix N author that I see get a lot of praise though, so here goes: I really like Gardner F. Fox. He does swords & sorcery well and I think you should pay closer attention to him. Yes, sometimes his stuff comes out like Conan and Elric had a baby inside of a wizard bong, but that's shit I'd pay to see.

The last addition to my vacation haul was one of those things that, if I hadn't been primed and ready for it, I might have skipped. After all, who likes anthologies? Turns out I do, but I keep forgetting that fact. The cover here is in shitty shape, but I'm not going to let that slow me down. Cover space here goes to no less than: Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, Poul Anderson and Harlan Ellison. The Table of Contents also turns up Alan Dean Foster. Right now, thanks to Man of Steel, I'm really going through a hard "sword & planet meets hard sci fi" period right now, where I really want to run Traveller (I think this happens every summer, for some reason) but I really want to do it more like DUNE and Of Mars. I realize that none of that has anything to do with these Silver Age sci fi greats, other than the Traveller part. Meh, maybe I'd do straight Traveller, who knows?

And so, there was my vacation haul. It's going to be a while for me to get through them all, but I have no fear that I'll manage. I've already started At the Earth's Core, but I think that a few shorts from 1972 are in order before I delve headfirst into Kyrik.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

More Iron Coast

In yesterday's post, I left a few things without being fleshed out. This wasn't because I haven't given them enough thought yet, but rather because I wanted to hit the major players of the Iron Coast so I could actually finish the post. If I had delved into every bit of minutia, I'd still be writing that post! Anyway, here's what yesterday's post was missing about the Iron Coast:


More Places

The Orphan Baronies

During the last wave of colonization on the Iron Coast, many nations of Men sent forth representatives to claim some small portion of the land for their parent nation. While the rich soil and fertile fields of the Coast would have gladly supported all comers, Man's propensity to make war upon his brother caused most of these petty baronial colonies to fail or, at most, barely eke out an existence. Plagued by war with each other, nearby Iskurland and Orroztalan (and even the County of Tengh on occasion), the Orphan Baronies exemplify the constant warfare of the Iron Coast perhaps better than any other place. Oddly enough, the common folk of the Orphan Baronies (who are sadly referred to as "Orphans" by the citizens of other nations who rarely can be bothered to tell the difference between any of the myriad paltry baronies of the Coast) often look to Port Scourge for leadership and, even more surprisingly, protection. Port Scourge only accidentally rises to that challenge.

Av-Arat

The largest city of the Iron Coast, Av-Arat occupies a mountainous island just off the Coast. The center of colonization and trading efforts on the Coast, nearly every ship that comes to or leaves the Coast passes through Av-Arat, particularly those on their way to Ur-Hadad or even farther-flung places. Technically a satellite of Ur-Hadad, Av-Arat broke off official fealty to the First City when the Regency of the Grand Viziers began around eighty years ago; now, Av-Arat not only claims independence, but also rulership over what it calls the "Iron Principality," which encompasses every nation of the Iron Coast. Lacking the ability to enforce such a claim, however, Av-Arat's claim to Princehood is ignored by all or, at best, recognized only in the field of mercantile activity. "Surely the Arati are princes," quipped one Iskurlandik huscarl, "princes of purse strings and peddlers."

Fallen Temosh

It is no secret today that, before the Dominion of Man spread to the Iron Coast, Men already thrived here. Evidence of this thriving can be found in the ruins of Temosh, a vast city of stone that lies in ruin about two days' ride from Port Scourge. No one lives today to tell the tale of why Temosh fell, but popular theories suggest that wars with other Men, the settlements around Lake Ohoteotl draining Temosh's population or a terrible encounter with some unnatural disaster such as a demon or dragon. It is widely believed that many treasures still linger in vaults deep beneath Temosh, but the ruins themselves are filled with beast men, poisonous plants and other, stranger terrors. The southern Kaasataha peoples between the Orphan Baronies and the Bay of Sirens regard Fallen Temosh as a lost homeland and some tribes make seasonal assaults on her, attempting to reclaim the treasure and prestige they lost when fleeing her. 

Urlansk & Ubarad

Ubarad and Urlansk were originally Siccalian outposts settled in an attempt to create a path from the Coast to the resource-rich mountains of the interior. The first of the two to be settled was Ubarad, on the eastern border of a vast swampland, and Urlansk was unwisely settled on one of the few patches of solid land in that selfsame marsh. Today, the swamp keeps Urlansk largely isolated; though occasional mercantile ventures there prove wildly lucrative, the native beasts and beast men of the swamp make the travel exceptionally dangerous. Ubarad is a much safer place, though the citizens of the town feel ill at ease, suggesting that some sinister influence has come over their sister town, an influence indicated by growing trends of degeneracy found in their neighbors. 

Temples

Several temple-fortresses dot the landscape of the Iron Coast as well. Not two days' ride from Ubarad, the temple-fortress of Jhulvahrod keeps the tenets of the god Vahri, he who is both creator and destroyer, life and death. Deep in the same mountains that Jhulvahrod sits at the foot of, the Blood Pit of Gorus Na'al, where barbarous men and wild beast men come to venerate the Master of Violence. Finally, the priesthoods of two gods, Odosk the Father of Contemplation and Marhisan the Righteous Sister, have constructed an island abbey just to the southwest of Siccalia, where gentle monks of Odosk raise their flocks and the bladedancers of Marhisan defend them. Both priesthoods actively send missionaries throughout the Coast (particularly to the Orphan Baronies) to defend the defenseless and heal the wounds of war. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

What's Up With The Iron Coast, Anyway?

It dawned on me the other day as I was going through some of this blog's subpages that some of the info here is completely outdated, which is odd, because this blog isn't yet one year old. On the "Games" page, for example, I still have my 4e game listed, but not the current "FLAILSNAILS of Ur-Hadad" game or my new Iron Coast ACKS game (my current live game). I've been writing a lot about "FSUH," but not much at all about the Iron Coast, despite the fact that I spend most of my writing time writing IC-related material. And so, without further ado, here's just what's up with the Iron Coast.

Adam made a hexmap? Hell yes I did!


What is the Iron Coast?



Far away from the glory of Ur-Hadad, the First City, the Dominion of Man struggles to bring civilization and Law to the eastern shore of the Dawning Sea. No great empire of men unites the various peoples seeking to conquer this far shore, and a precarious balance between civilization's outposts here currently threatens to tilt into full-blown war as each competes against the others for dominance over the vast resources and ancient treasures of this forgotten place. Outside of Man's settlements, beast men, degenerate sub-humans, monstrous beasts and other threats claw greedily at civilization's borders. Here, man and monster alike wage war for the right to claim the throne of this land and declare himself Iron Prince.  

About the Setting

The Iron Coast is a swords & sorcery setting like that found in Robert E. Howard's Hyboria, Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborea and Zothique and Fritz Leiber's Nehwon. Unlike most fantasy worlds, which share many elements with medieval society, the Iron Coast (and sword & sorcery in general) share more with the Classical and Biblical Ages than the Middle Ages. The values and ethics of the era are not those of Medieval Europe, but rather are those of a Heroic Age; here fame, glory and wealth are virtues more widely praised than kindness or charity. Adventurers of the Iron Coast write their own legends in the blood of their enemies and treasure looted from long-forgotten crypts and temples, rather than at the behest of kings or other feudal masters. Further, one cannot assume that the constants of Medieval European civilization apply to the Iron Coast, for she is awash in disparate peoples with customs and cultures vastly different from each other and the fantasy most gamers are familiar with.

Visitor's Guide

Port Scourge

What started as a pirate haven has, much to the surprise of legitimate authorities across the Iron Coast, become one of its largest cities. In its fierce independence from the existing nations of the Iron Coast, Port Scourge acts as a de facto capitol for the Orphan Baronies which surround it, no one of which has the strength to exert dominion over the others. Though Port Scourge offers the Orphans little support, her pirates readily beleaguer their enemies, so a symbiosis between them exists. Pirates from all nations and of all races (even some surprising numbers of beastmen) can be found on Port Scourge's streets, alleys and wharves.

Siccalia

The furthest province of a Byzantine-like empire, the Legature of Siccalia seeks to rapidly expand its borders deeper and deeper into the interior of the Iron Coast. The northernmost nation on the Iron Coast, Siccalia dominates the trade with interior settlements and the outside world. Siccalian merchant ships are a common sight at the docks of Ur-Hadad and common targets of the pirates out of Port Scourge.

Iskurland

The Jarldom of Iskurland occupies the stretch of Coast between the Orphan Baronies in the south and the Howling Wood (to the north, just south of Siccalia), a territory wrenched from the hands of those who would come to occupy the County of Tengh by the swords of a viking people from Idrusk, nearly a world away. Today, the Iskurlandik people spend as much time raiding and "viking" each other as their nearby pray, the Orphans and Siccalians. The Iskurlanders exist in an uneasy peace with the pirates of Port Scourge, a peace regularly violated whenever one side thinks they can gain an advantage over the other - an advantage that usually very quickly lost. 

Tengh

Coming from nearly as far off as the Idruskan people of Iskurland, the Otengwa people were pushed back from the coast by those vikings into the hills and mountains that form the border of Orroztalan. Unfortunately for the Otengwe, their history is written based on these two conflicts. Suffering from countless losses and the hands of the Iskurlanders and Orroztalani, the Otengwa make up for their much-diminished numbers by using a brand of voodoun necromancy that was taboo in their homeland, employing zombie field hands and soldiers taken from the ranks of their own dead and the dead of their enemies.

Orroztalan

When the Dominion of Man first arrived on the Iron Coast, it was surprised to discover that Man was already there. Tribes of men roamed the Coast freely, as well as its interior, forming nations and villages of their own. When most of the natives died soon after the Dominion's arrival, it was thought that the native resistance was over. Then, the Orroztalani were discovered. Brutal warriors without mercy and possessed of a single-minded determination to serve the will of their Priest-King, the Orroztalani could spread across the Iron Coast, but something seems to keep them bound to the banks of Lake Ohoteotl. 

Malowolcza

Called "Little Wolcz" in the native language of the Wolcz, the Wolczik horsemen have nestled themselves between two tracts of swampland in one of the most fertile lands on the Coast, just to the east of Orroztalan. Here, they raise the finest horses known on the Coast, as well as produce a number of other highly sought after commodities. Rather than risk passing through or near Orroztalan, however, the Malowolczik brave the wild southern forests making for the Bay of Sirens. The Orroztalani occasionally skirmish with the Malowolczik, but the cavalrymen's superior skill and mounts have turned the tide every time. 


Monday, June 17, 2013

Monster (Book) Monday: S&W Monster Book

Last week, I managed not to post at all, after a week of frenzied writing. For me, it was slightly disappointing, but this morning I realized that I didn't write anything primarily because I spent so much of the last week actually reading stuff. You see, last week, I got a shipment from OneBookShelf and another one from Lulu. Some of the purchases were things I'd been meaning to get for a long time (I finally have a copy of Labyrinth Lord) a few "hey, that looks like a bargain" purchases and at least one spite purchase (see here for more details, yeah, I finally bought Squid Sorcerer). One of the bargain purchases was the appropriately-but-unimaginatively-named Monster Book for Swords & Wizardry, the subject of today's ramblings.

If you haven't noticed yet, I very much dig Swords & Wizardry. Both the original line of stripped-down, super-simple supplements and books, and the slightly more amped-up products of today like Grimmsgate & Monstrosities. An early S&W product that had flown more or less under my radar was the compendium with the no-frills name of Monster Book. Guess what it's about. While it's apparently been replaced by things like the S&W version of Tome of Horrors and the new Monstrosities book, you can still pick up Monster Book for a song on Lulu ($12.75 in paperback as of this writing, $25 in hardcover), and, to be frank, it's more than worth the low price. Obviously a product of the early days of Swords & Wizardry (it was initially published in 2009, so it's got a few years' mileage in), Monster Book (MB) sets about the task of converting old school monsters from 0e through 2e D&D for use in S&W as well as presenting S&W Judges with new and inventive monster options, many of which come from player-contributors of this early era (I'm guessing mostly from the Mythmere Games forums if the byline names are any indication).

Details

I bought this thing in paperback for $12.75, but you can also pick it up in hardcover which, I now realize, I wish I had. It's not that the paperback is shoddy, it's just that I expect to get a lot of use out of this particular volume, and I'm a little worried about how it will hold up over the years of expected use. MB comes in at 140 pages and, if the math on the back cover is to believed, sports 463 unique monster entries (I'm not about to count them all, so I'll trust +Matt Finch and crew here). Most monsters get a substantial paragraph of info on use, tactics, behavior, powers, etc., with a very few who just get a name and a stat line, but these are things like dinosaurs that you should (a) already understand or (b) be able to look up really easily elsewhere. I dig the compact size of the book (not too thick) since I can pick it up with S&W Complete (plus a module or two) and take up very little space, just when I was starting to question the logic of standard letter-sized books (rather than digest-sized) for convenience, I get MB and get reminded that letter size can be convenient, too.

Aesthetics

First, I'd like to think of MB as an 0e-style book, just like the LBBs and supplements. In that case, MB is exceptionally well-designed with little wasted space, a straightforward approach to presentation and sparse but remarkable illustrations (with a frequency not unlike that found in 0e stuff, so, par for the course). The cover is one of Pete Mullen's awesomely moody, "this is what it's like to dungeon crawl"-style paintings. Man, I love that guy's stuff. Honestly, the well-written descriptions of most creatures were so solid that I found myself not needing a ton of illustrations, which was neat. Yeah, not every monster nor every page has an illo, but thankfully, we don't need it.

Comparing MB to my awesomeness rubric, the Fiend Folio, yields a different but interesting result. A lot of the art has the same Brit Old School vibe that the FF does (especially Dave Bezio's stunning illos; I have never thought of a hezrou as a cool demon until I saw Bezio's hezrou), but it's much more sparse than the FF and doesn't use any of the incidental and transitional-style art pieces like the FF does. It's fine for the 0e style, but not very FF.

The design aesthetic, however, is spot on. Finch & Co. seriously hit the mark by presenting a range of classic and new monsters to fill nearly any situation in a dungeon, even the whacked-out ones. The streamlined design of each monster is simple but not simplistic, preserving the usefulness of each entry. Nothing too complicated to use here (no endless strings of spell-like abilities you'll forget about), and at the same time nothing so simple it leaves the reader scratching his head.

Foliosity

I touched on the FF art aesthetic above, so let's talk for a minute about the monsters themselves. Yes, there are a bunch of traditional-style, utility monsters here; that's all well and good as long as the "mileage monsters" don't get in the way of the strange, fun, "set piece monsters." Here, we've got a solid blend of utility and fun, with goblins alongside far, far stranger things. Here, we have no fewer than two species of temporally transcendent beings (!!!), a garden full of monstrous plants (!!!), a crypt full of unique and interesting undead (!!!) and the hits just keep coming. I do not expect that, for my S&W Ur-Hadad games, I will ever need a monster book beyond Monster Book. But is it Folioic? Well, at times. The weird stuff is good and weird, filling specific niches or providing impetus for entire campaign arcs, and there's plenty here, it's just not as high of a percentage of the total content to be a "knocked out of the park" Folioic success. But really, that's not what Finch & Co. were going for here, so it's understandable and not merely forgivable, but I'm glad that the non-Folio approach was taken here, since it's not just the FF for S&W, it's also the MM & MM2.

What I'm Stealing

Is it stealing if you use stats for stuff in the game that the stats were designed for? Hard to say. There are some really good ideas here, though, and stuff that definitely will be showing up in Ur-Hadad games. So many creatures, so little time...

Final Word

I've mentioned a few times that I wish I'd sprung for the hardcover; again, it's not because the softcover is in any way deficient. It's because, quite frankly, I intend to get a ton of use out of the book. Sure, I'll pick up Monstrosities at some point (probably the next SWAp Day or when Frog God puts it on a crazy sale again), but Monster Book feels like all the monster book I'll need until then. Anything that's not in here I'd probably be making up anyway. Good job, Mr +Matt Finch, you done well.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Kickassistan Con Schedule

It seems like right now, everyone in the OSR is down in Texas for some reason. Somehow, those bastardly Texans have convinced the OSR to relocate there for a weekend, but I didn't fall for the trap. I've been to Texas, and I know how terrible a place it is. Nothing like the cold, loving embrace of Mother Michigan. While everyone's down roasting their balls off in America's diseased crotch, I thought I'd talk about the RPG conventions that I'm actually planning on hitting this year. 

MichiCon, July 12-13th

MichiCon has been going on for a long time. Last year was its 40th anniversary, so this con has some history. Which fails to explain to me why I've never heard about it. Of course, I'm not from the eastern half of the state (at least not originally; I'm a West Michigan guy at heart, despite the 12 years I've lived in Washtenaw County), so I think I can be forgiven. MichiCon is not a large con (right now, it has four rooms assigned to RPGs with only two tables per room), and it seems to be dominated by Pathfinder, but nobody's perfect, right? 

The other day, +R.J. Thompson posted on his blog, Gamers & Grognards, that he'll be hosting an event at MichiCon this year, just like he does every year. It was the first I'd ever heard of the con, so I did some digging and signed on myself.  As of this moment, I'm running DCC on Friday night (6:30p onward), July 12th and Saturday night (again, 6:30p onward), July 13th. Friday night's game will be Goodman Games's the Tower Out of Time and Saturday will be my own To Catch A Fallen Star, re-written for the non-Metal Gods (but still damn METAL!) crowd. 

If you're a Michigan/Ohio/Ontario area GM and are looking to run a session during this con, hurry up! There aren't many spots left, but we could use some more OSR-style games in the D&D room and you've got to get your events in by June 12th for the schedule to get finalized so registration can begin. If you read this blog and are actually planning on going to MichiCon, look me up and we'll grab a beer. Or drain a flask. Or something else awesome. 

GenCon Indy, August 15-18

What's better than getting to go to GenCon? Having your geek wife suggest that "well, we'd better go this year, damnit!" So, now, we're rounding up troops from here in Ypsi, including +Mark Donkers+Jamie Bradish and quite possibly +Matt Woodard along with some folks from other places such as Virginia's famed beardomancer, +Wayne Snyder, to make sure that her first GenCon and my first GenCon in more than a decade will be an experience to remember. Add to the mix folks who were going to be there anyway like +Harley Stroh and you've got a recipe for geek disaster. 

I had originally planned to run at least one event at GenCon, but when I realized that this was going to be more of a crazy-ass, whacked-out gamer-splosion shebang, I changed that plan. Here's the skinny folks, during GenCon, I will run sessions of DCC, they will be Ur-Hadadlish, and to get in on all the action, all you'll need to do is find me (or tune in to the blog here because I'll probably talk about it here, too). 

Intermission: Pulaski Days, October 4-5th

You probably don't know why
I'm important, do you?
If you're not from Grand Rapids, Michigan, chances are you'd be surprised to know that there's an amazing Polish festival there the first weekend in October. All over Grand Rapids, these neighborhood associations (public halls) open up to the public all over town with Polish food, drinking and lots of Polka music & dancing. My wife and I went last year (her first time) and had a blast. That weekend is also my birthday weekend, so it's more awesome added on top. Along the way, we'll probably hit Argos Comics & Used Books in East GR to dive through their stacks for rare and strange pulpy goodness. Seriously, though, this shit is crazy fun and I can't recommend it enough. If you do any non-gaming stuff this year, it should be GR's Pulaski Days. Polka, pierogi (not "peerogies," you can go to the frozen food section for those) and pivo (beer). 

U-Con, November 22-24

So here's a no-brainer: this convention is now down the road from where I live. Literally. Unlike MichiCon, I'd heard of this con before, and even considered running DCC there last year, but me paying attention to stuff didn't make that work. I'm trying to make that up this year by bringing the DCC experience and making sure that my home town (well, current home town) of Ypsilanti gets its DCC strangeness on. Event registration for this November's con just went up this week, so I have no idea how things are filling out, but unless I miss my mark, there will be too many Pathfinder games and not enough OSR games. So, if you're here in SEMI (South Eastern MIchigan), come run something, damnit! Well, at least come. Play some DCC. It will be awesome. It will be more than awesome, it will be Kickass. 

For U-Con, I'll be running The Tower Out of Time again, as well as a by-then-updated-once-more To Catch a Fallen Star

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Invisible Cities and Ur-Hadad

 I had a hard time coming up with a "F" entry into my #AtoZRPG experiment, and I've had an even harder time coming up with an "I"-word. I resorted to consulting the indexes of the game books I use when DMing the various versions of the world of Ore. Initiative? Nah. Intelligence? No way. I abandoned that logic and went back to my particular well and looked to some of the "source material" that I cite as my biggest influences. There are two primary works which inform my vision of Ur-Hadad: one is Italo Calvino's short novel (of a sort) Invisible Cities and William S. Burroughs's concept of the Interzone. At first I wanted to talk about the Interzone, but I decided that, blessed with a choice between two different "I"-concepts, I'd pick the one that I directly reference more often and go with Signore Calvino's work instead.

This is going to be difficult. First, I'm trying to explain a book that is terribly difficult to explain, then explain how I use that book to inform how I write stuff for the various Ur-Hadad campaigns floating around (which, right now, number at 3). I rely on Italo Calvino's 1972 (in Italian, 1974 in English) novel Invisible Cities more than any other single resource when I'm planning material for gaming in Ur-Hadad, even more than rule books. Here's why.

The Novel

It's hard for me to call Invisible Cities a novel. It's more of a series of interconnected vignettes, descriptions really, strung together with common themes and a common structure, cemented with a small amount of meta-story that wraps everything up in one package. But that's not a discrete category of literature, so we'll call IC a novel for brevity's sake.

The basic set up of the novel is that Marco Polo is in the employ of Kublai Khan, Mongol emperor of all China, as an ambassador. At least at the beginning at the novel (it's not clear if, later in the novel, this ever gets cleared up), Polo and the Khan do not speak the same language, and so Polo -- whose job it is to go to every city in the empire and bring back to the Khan a report of what that city is like -- is "reduced" to using metaphors and phenomenological descriptions not of what the city is like, but of what it's like to be in that city.

Thus, the descriptions of the city have less to do with "this is here, that is there" and more to do with sensory impressions and memories that Polo associates with the particular sensations that the city impresses upon him. Here's an example:

"When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city. Finally he comes to Isidora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third, where cockfights degenerate into bloody brawls among the bettors. He was thinking of all these things when he desired a city. Isidora, therefore, is the city of his dreams: with one difference. The dreamed-of city contained him as a young man; he arrives at Isidora in his old age. In the square there is the wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories."

The novel progresses forward with vignettes like this, interspersed with small bits of interaction between the Khan and Polo, but this stuff is the reaI'l meat of the book. By hitting on the evocative sensory details and connotative psychological details of each city, we, as readers begin to understand what it's like to be in each city. In the years since its publication, IC has proven to be a source of inspiration for architects, city planners and anyone with an interest in what the experience of being in a city is like. Some have suggested that IC offers an alternate theory of how cities are formed and how they go about their functions, but I prefer to think that, rather, IC details different ways for us as a species to interact with each other based on common experiences that we don't often think of as common; that the structure and content of cities and the way in which they are held together become a shorthand for the experiences that we have with them.

But, as Gore Vidal said of Invisible Cities, "[o]f all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant."

As A Resource

I'm pretty confident that everything you'll read in IC is like something you've seen in a city before or can imagine seeing in a city. In large part, I expect that things that Calvino has added to his various cities are things that should be found somewhere in Ur-Hadad and that every vignette in the novel could be found in a traveler's guide to the First City. And so, when I'm writing an adventure within Ur-Hadad, one of the first things that I do is flip through IC to a random vignette, using what I find there to inform the setting of the adventure. For example, for A Night In the Lucrewarren, I flipped to the vignette Trading Cities 1 and used that bit (complete with its description of a Memory Market) to lay the groundwork for the adventure's setting. I used the recently-written Lucrewarren of the Lotus Gate as the setting for the adventure since that was the part of Ur-Hadad which most captured the feeling of Calvino's vignette. Sort of like +Zak Smith's Vornheim, IC is not so much a travel guide to Ur-Hadad (nor being used as one), but more as a source of inspiration for the places in which adventures in the First City might happen.

The Big Reveal

So, depending on how much you want to know about IC or Ur-Hadad, you might not want to read this bit. If you want to maintain the immersion of a player in the world of Ore, you might want to avoid learning the One Thing that I use as my guiding principle for Ur-Hadad. If you plan on reading IC, you might want to do that and then come back here and finish this post because >>SPOILER ALERT!<<.

Okay, are we clear? I'm moving on. If you're still here, I'll assume that you're in for the big prize.

Near (not even at) the end of Invisible Cities, and bear with me because I can't find the exact page where this happens so I'll be paraphrasing, Kubla Khan asks Polo why Polo has never described his native Venice. Polo contends that he has, that every city he has described -- and every city he will ever describe -- actually is Venice, at least in part, in essence or in some fragmentary, fractured sense.

The same could be said for Ur-Hadad. Every city I'll ever write or appropriate from someone else's writing is really just Ur-Hadad if only a small portion of it, and Ur-Hadad contains a small amount of every city I'll ever write (or appropriate). The First City is also the last city, the only city.

That is the big reveal of Ur-Hadad.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Everything I Need To Know About Ur-Hadad FLAILSNAILS Games I Learned From Marvel Team-Up

Yeah, I know that's one hell of a long blog title, but it's spot on the money.

Back in the day (1970's... how's that for additional parallelism with D&D-based gaming?), Marvel introduced Marvel Team-Up as a vehicle for their most popular character at the time, Spider-Man, to introduce new characters to the comics audience, or perhaps characters whose titles weren't doing too terribly well and even, occasionally, stars of other media (issue #74, as recently plastered all ove G+, included the Not Ready For Prime Time Players, the guys starring in the first season of Saturday Night Live). The first volume of the MTU series ran from 1972 to 1985 (when it became Web of Spider-Man, one of my favs as a kid), was revived in volume two from 1997-1998 and again for volume three in 2005 through, I believe, 2007 (I can't find a firm date on the end of the series). This last volume was written Robert Kirkman -- the writer behind The Walking Dead and Invincible (sorry comics fans, I know there are non-fans here on the blog, so I've gotta do a little Day One, Lesson One stuff here, too) -- as one of his first forays into Marvel Comics. It's this version of Marvel Team-Up that I think really does a lot to inform how I want to run FLAILSNAILS games in Ur-Hadad.

The basic formula of Kirkman's MTU works like this: hero meets problem, hero meets another hero (or heroes) also tracking down that problem, the heroes engage the problem in a manner that requires both heroes to (go figure) team up, and either (a) defeat the problem or (b) beat it back enough that the next group of heroes have to deal with it. At the end of each comic (except the longer, multi-book arcs), the plot is more or less wrapped up, but is embedded with leads to the next issue's story and conflict. All in all, Kirkman's model follows a great path to involve as many different sorts of characters in diverse situations, facing down villains that those heroes normally would never end up facing down on their own, just like 1st level FLAILSNAILS characters joining a group of 5th-6th level characters in their quest to kill a dragon.

It seems to me that a similar formula would work well for a more narrative-based FLAILSNAILS game (like that I'm more likely to run in the city of Ur-Hadad; sure there might be site-based stuff, too, but the primary motivator is the narrative). Adventurer A (or group of adventurers A) is introduced to a problem and begins to investigate. As they do, they meet up with Adventurer B (or group B), and possibly have some sort initial tussle (this shouldn't happen every time, but enough that it's a thing) before teaming up to face down their common foe. At the end of the session, a detail or series of details are introduced as a direct precursor of or breadcrumb trail that leads to the next bit of adventure. The goal of that bit of logic is less to give a clue as to what I'll be doing next as it is to provide the players with a hook so that they, as players, are more interested in showing up next time. For example, at the end of the first FAILSNAILS In Ur-Hadad scenario, A Night In the Lucrewarren, it was revealed that the thugs who killed off the vermen bore sigils of the terrorist/revolutionary group called the Bloody Successors. This detail led the players to ask a bunch of questions about the Bloody Successors and even to contemplate risking the reward offered to them by the merchant from whom illegal gods were stolen (the price of the reward was their silence) and report the the terrorists to the Captain of the Lotus Gate. So now, the players, knowing full well that the Bloody Successors are out there doing something nefarious, but needing evidence as to what it is, have a reason to show up to the next session, A Night In The Spiral Market. Any characters who show up to this session who weren't there for A Night In the Lucrewarren will be group A, introduced to the plot from the get-go, hooking up with group B (the guys from last time), since group A will need more concrete reasons to partake in the adventure.

All in all, the structure provided by Mr. Kirkman allows for a quick and easy integration of disparate characters and groups of characters into a simple conflict and story form. Yeah, it ain't great writin', it ain't terribly innovative, but it is a great tool for moving into the story as quickly as possible and planting the seeds for the next story, hopefully just enough to get the players interested enough in what's going on to come back to see what's going to happen next.

Monday, June 3, 2013

FLAILSNAILS of Ur-Hadad: Ore & Wizardry

Recently, I started my project to run FLAILSNAILS Swords & Wizardry games in Ur-Hadad and, in doing so, uncovered the fact that I had no house rules in place to discuss character creation and other fiddly bits of running an Ur-Hadad-ly game. I have yet to sort out exactly how I'd rather see thieves function (and I'm a little afraid to make up something game-breaking), but in the mean time, I've thought more than a little bit about WIIIIIIIZARDS! 

Every mage, wizard, sorcerer and warlock on Ore has one thing in common: with a combination of skill, talent and sheer will, they deliberately violate the laws of the universe to wrench new realities from the boundless tapestry of potentiality. These reality-terrorists face down soul-searing terrors as they progress down whatever path they pursue (usually that of irrevocable damnation), following their particular idiom of magical practice (or malpractice). While often powered by supernatural patrons, there is no substitution for dedicated study or an indomitable will.

Stardust casts Fletcher's awkward disintegration
Magic user characters in Ur-Hadad must make a choice between one of two (for now) major magical traditions: wizardry or sorcery. Wizards function the same as magic users in standard S&W Core/Complete, needing to use spell books to prepare daily allotment of spells. There are no restriction on the number of spells that wizards can add to their repertoires in this manner (other than the "Learn Spells" effect of Intelligence), and they may learn new magics from found spell books, scrolls or magical research; the only limitation being that the wizard must transcribe the spell (at least once) either into a permanent spell book or onto a scroll. This transcription process requires rare inks, parchments and mind-focusing incenses of a value equal to 20 bits per spell level. Wizards usually maintain multiple spell books throughout their careers, often copying and re-copying their assembled spell knowledge into different larger or smaller tomes, heavy, immobile texts or short-hand, limited travel books. A new standard spell book has 100 pages and costs 100 bits (5 crowns), with each spell taking up a number of pages equal to its level. Smaller-format travel spell books may be purchased for 75 bits, having 50 pages, but weighing one-fourth as much as a normal spell book. A permanent, reference-style book suitable only for a well-equipped library costs 200 bits and has at least 250 pages and often even more. Wizards can craft magic scrolls for 100 bits per spell level as well, a process which takes 1 week per spell level to perfect his workmanship (Holmes rules).

Magic users who follow the sorcerer's tradition do not consult moldering tomes for their arcane knowledge, but instead have a fixed repertoire of arcane knowledge. Per spell level, a sorcerer knows a number of spells equal to the number of spells per day he can cast of that level, plus one (plus two if his Intelligence is 15 or higher). Thus, a 1st-level sorcerer knows 2 1st-level spells (3 if his Intelligence is 15 or better), while a 3rd-level sorcerer may know up to 4 (or 5 if Int 15+) 1st-level spells and 2 (or 3) 2nd-level spells. Unlike the wizard, the sorcerer does not prepare his spells beforehand, instead choosing to cast one of his known spells each time he casts a spell. When a sorcerer is eligible to learn a spell of a level he hadn't previously been able to cast (such as gaining the ability to cast 2nd-level spells at 3rd level), he may gain the appropriate number of new spells either at random or at the DM's discretion. When he becomes eligible to gain new spells of a level he can already cast, he must engage in magical research (to invent a new spell or discover an existing one) or find some outside source of magical knowledge (such as a scroll or tutor). Just like wizards, sorcerers can create Holmes-style scrolls.

Magic user characters created for the Ur-Hadad FLAILSNAILS game will be able to choose one of these options, but it is anticipated that most in-coming magic users from outside the world of Ore will follow the wizard model. I'd like to offer a third magic use model, one that reflects the DCC rule set more closely, but that's not the sort of thing I can pull out of my butt (unlike these rules, which are "magic user + Holmes scrolls = wizard, ACKS mage + Holmes scrolls = sorcerer). If you're interested in getting in on the FS/UH action, drop me a line so I can see about getting you on the short list. Oh, and one last parting thought about wizards: