Monday, June 30, 2014

Yesterday, Ann Arbor Made Me Cry

I am one of my few peers lucky enough to be married to a lady who loves gaming. Not always RPGs, though she does dig RPGs (she just can't muster the "campaign commitment" she'd need to play in a regular one), but also minis, card games (though never Magic or any CCGs) and board games. So, when I suggested that we spend our Sunday going around to all the game shops in the area that we rarely hit up or have never been to, +Kathryn Muszkiewicz's resounding "Hell yes!" wasn't exactly a surprise. And so, after a disastrous breakfast as the diner across the street (which is another story in and of itself), we headed off to hit up some of the local gaming holes.

That sounds terrible. I was aiming for something like "watering holes" but for gaming. For future reference, do not refer to these places as gaming holes.

Our first port of call was Warriors 3 in Wayne. My pal +R.J. Thompson of Gamers & Grognards fame seems to have some connection with the place and I had never been there so, despite their snarky email about why they don't participate in Free RPG Day, I thought we'd head out to see what was up, what with the place only being about 15 mins from my house (just in a direction I never go: towards Detroit). When we got there, I was completely and totally underwhelmed. They had two four-foot sections of mixed Warhammer stuff, on 8-foot island of board games and a bookshelf of RPGs that could easily have been condensed down to one shelf, all of it Mathfinder and 4e stuff, making absolutely none of it useful to me. Even their dice display was sparse. Seriously, they only had a few sets of Chessex polys and d6s. What they did have was a huge amount of Magic cards that made the local place I avoid (Ypsi's Fun 4 All) look conservative (I tend to think of them as being over-the-top with that sort of crap) and an absolutely huge (and pretty damn awesome) second room filled with tables for gaming. Whenever I see a place like this where the only way to go would be up, I tend to think of how great it could be, but then I think of the snarky "RPGs don't make money" email that they sent me about FRPGDay and how I know this place won't be. Game over, Warriors 3.

Verdict: Avoid this place. Not worth the effort. Ryan might be able to turn me around on this place, but it will take quite a bit of convincing.

As we left W3, disappointed and grumbly, a short thunderstorm rolled in and we decided that, despite the torrential rain, we were going to hit up Get Your Game On in Ann Arbor. It was a surprisingly busy day in the Ace-Deuce, what with it being an "off season" Sunday and all, which was okay for people watching, but less awesome for the amount of congestion that was happening up in the place. GYGO has its own retro-vibe, but that has nothing to do with tabletop gaming, but rather the tons of classic console games that go back to the NES (nothing older, though; this place is targeted at the sorts of brats who think the Nintendo was the first gaming console). These guys had more of selection than W3, centered around 4 segments of shelving. Warhammer (both Fantasy & 40k) took up one segment, then Privateer Press's wargames, which was pretty neat. I dig wargames, just not modern ones. At least I know a place I can get supplies. A third segment was devoted to board & card games, and here the lovely Mrs. Muszkiewicz picked up an expansion for Red Dragon Inn (the barbarian character; +Doug Kovacs you've created a monster!) and another game that looks pretty awesome, but the name escapes me now. One last segment had som e RPGs, but it was weird. Yes, it had 4e and Mathfinder, but also the new FFG Star Wars games (both of them) and some other random stuff. Some White Wolf stuff (Katie was drawn to Exalted, which terrifies me), the WoW d20 books and, this was the big surprise, some Palladium. It was good to see Palladium on the shelf in a Michigan game store, but all in all the bookshelf that was the RPG department (it was one wall of one segment of the store, the rest of which was filed with minis terrain and CCG junk) was pretty underwhelming unless you're into the whole superglossy splatbook-o-rama that is the currently dominant publishing theory in mainstream RPGs. But then, if you were into that sort of thing, you probably wouldn't be reading this blog, would you? On our way out, I asked the guy taking our money if GYGO had participated in Free RPG Day last Saturday, to which he was confused. "What's that?"

Verdict: Okay if you're looking for WH stuff, but I'd rather just order that from the Model Cave here in Ypsi. They've got a good boardgame selection, but that's all I'd ever go here for again. Oh, and their staff is pretty well lobotomized.

We took some time just wandering around Ann Arbor at this point, which sucked because it was crazy hot. Katie decided she wanted bubble tea, so we walked a few blocks to the good bubble tea place and on our way back decided that we'd hit up the Vault of Midnight. Really, it was a foregone conclusion. When you're in the Ace-Deuce, it only makes sense to go to Michigan's largest comic store, especially when you've been a friends with the owners for nearing two decades. Vault does no wargames, but does have an absolutely huge board game selection in the basement along with a smaller assortment of "you can take these games anywhere" sorts of games like Timeline and Zombie Dice upstairs. They also have the largest selection of RPGs in Ann Arbor (probably even including the place that we avoided) which does focus on 4e and includes some Mathfinder, and yes, dips into the (apparently quite popular) FFG Star Wars rpgs, but also includes stuff like Fate, Torchbearer, Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, Dungeon World and other smaller, indie games. However, there was no DCC on tap here (or anywhere in A2), nor any Labyrinth Lord, nor OSRIC nor any of the games that drive the OSR. Bummer. Vault has a room for gaming (which I've never played in, but we could see into), so maybe I could get something going here. I didn't ask about ordering stuff, but at least the staff at Vault try to help and see if there's anything they can do to make your trip worthwhile, unlike the other two places I'd visited that day.

Verdict: Better selection than the other two places, but still not focused on old school gaming (they did have the LotFP Grindhouse Edition last time I was in, but it had sold out). I feel like they'd be the most receptive, especially if I can demonstrate that no one else in town is supporting it.

When I set out to visit W3, I didn't know that I was opening a can of worms. I wasn't yet on a mission. I thought "we'll just go here and see what they have, I'm sure they'll have something I'm interested in." Particularly after visiting +Todd Bunn's very excellent Gateway Games & More in Cinci last weekend, I had this feeling that everybody should carry something I was interested in. Instead, I went off on a journey of disappointment from one store to another. In the end, the closest to Appendix N-style adventure gaming I got was picking up an ERB hardcover and a Leiber paperback at Dawntreader Books. A part of me wants to host games at these places, to show them what they're missing, to generate love and interest for old school games. To let the kids know that they don't have to be a slave to the mainstream game trends. That they have a choice and to show them what some of their options are. That there's great stuff out there worth getting excited about. That they don't have to suckle at the unimaginative games-teat of Wizards & Paizo.

But then I wonder if it's worth it.

Time will tell, I suppose.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Zine Update: Incoming Art and Benefit Announcement

It's been awhile since I updated you all on the status of Metal Gods #2, so I'd like to take a moment to rectify that situation. Here's where the issue sits: we're in the final stages of editing and layout (which I kind of do at the same time; I'll edit one thing while layout out something else because that's how my brain works) and waiting on some art from Wayne. Wayne finished the cover last weekend and I can tell you that this one blows the last one out of the water. Yeah, I love that scene of the rooftops of Ur-Hadad, too, but the cover for #2 really knocks my socks off. Expect awesome things from Wayne this next issue. Also, we've added a few other writers to our stable, so you find not merely articles from Edgar and myself, but also a bit from +Donn Stroud and +Jason Hobbs

And now to the real meat of this post: folks who've read our first issue know that that issue was in support of a charity, StandUp For Kids, which fights teenage homelessness. We were looking for a charity to rep for in the second issue, but nothing was coming to mind (since the theme is "Secrets of the Serpent Moon," and there's not a lot of space-related charities, we were having a hard time), so I was just planning on doing StandUp For Kids again when Wayne had a great idea.

"Hey, that Purple Sorcerer annual fundraiser is coming up, why not tie it to that?"

Well played, Wayne, well played.

And so, after a discussion with Mr. +Jon Marr of Purple Sorcerer fame, the Metal Gods team has decided that issue two will be in support of the online DCC tools and the Crawler's Companion that Mr. Marr is the genius behind. Now, because #2 isn't ready, we can't directly participate in the standard fundraiser. Instead, this will be a sort of second round for the fundraiser, a sort of second chance to throw a few bucks the Purple Sorcerer's way. Here's how it works:

When you order a print zine through Gumroad, you'll have the opportunity to pay any amount above the standard price. All donations made in this manner go straight to the Purple Sorcerer. When you buy a pdf copy of the zine through RPGNow/OneBookShelf, it'll be in a pay what you want capacity and we'll split the net earnings with Purple Sorcerer. At this time, I'm not sure how to allow for donations along with PayPal payments, but I'll be looking into that as well. 

So there you have it: the next issue has freaking great art (which I'll tempt you with as soon as is realistic) and will support a great series of tools that every DCC group uses anyway. That having been said, don't let it stop you from participating in the first round of Purple Sorcerer's fundraiser! Manly +Michael Curtis and "Strohodor" +Harley Stroh are each getting behind the effort and have reached deep into their own private treasure troves to provide incentives for donors! Keep the Purple Sorcerer tools available and free!


Monday, June 23, 2014

The Inevitable Post Free RPG Day Post

When Free RPG Day started circling around in my brain as a thing I should get involved in this year, I started checking with some of the local game stores to see if they participate. No one in my immediate vicinity (that I'm aware of) thinks that Free RPG Day is a good enough deal to get involved in. In fact, more than a few proprietors voiced their opinion that "all it does is bring in people who want something for free, not paying customers." Do you do anything special for the day? Run games in store? "No, why should we do that?" Do you advertise for Free RPG Day, put up flyers or anything? Maybe offer a coupon or loyalty program? "Oh god no, that's crazy, we're already out money on Free RPG Day, why would we make it worse?" Do you do any promotion of the event at all that would bring paying customers into your store? If your answer is "no" here, proprietor, maybe you need to seek a new line of work.

Free RPG Day is, in my estimation, the one day of the year where every game store gets to participate in a sort of nation wide convention. People will always show up for free stuff. The point is to get them to stay, play some games. The longer they stay in your store, the more likely they are to spend money or to come back and spend money later. It's an opportunity for the enterprising game store owner to not just create customers, but to create fanatics. Any old schlub can clerk a sale, ring up a pack of Magic cards or sell the latest Mathfinder splat book. A good game store owner is a real entrepreneur who can turn a casual customer (or even a freebie-seeker) into a repeat customer and a hobbyist into a dedicated gamer. +Todd Bunn is one such game store owner. 

Todd was the first retailer to shelve the Metal Gods zine and he gets routine mentions on the Spellburn! podcast due to his devotion to DCC and all things old school. I met Todd at GaryCon this year and, somewhere along the line, he invited me down to Cinci to run DCC at his shop. When I discovered how lame all the retailers near me were, I asked him if he could save me a table. 

+Kathryn Muszkiewicz & I had originally planned on heading down Friday night so we could be there on Friday morning when the shop opened up, but that would have put us getting into Cinci at about midnight or so. Instead, we got up early and made the four hour drive first thing in the morning. We got to the store just in time to miss getting into +Rick Hull's session of the DCC Free RPG day module, but that was cool. I hate to take a seat from a new player; I'd far rather that more people get to learn and love DCC than if I get in one more game. Rick seemed to have a full table, which is always good to see. 

Katie & I already knew that we were probably going to drop a dime or two at Gateway; it's one of those things, if a game store gives enough of a shit about its customers to participate in Free RPG Day, its customers should give enough of a shit back that they take the time to actually purchase something there on the day. We looked at this as our pre-GenCon game splurge and came away with a few things we'd wanted for awhile. We picked up a copy of Red Dragon Inn 3 (in an interesting move, it's actually a full game, not an expansion; I also happen to know a guy who did some of the art for this one), the LotFP Rules & Magic hardcover (which I for some reason hadn't owned yet), Michael Curtis's the Croaking Fane, and Black Blade's Monsters of Myth (it dawns on me that I haven't done a Monster (Book) Monday on that one yet, but this baby's all Katie's, anyway). Todd had a little surprise for me in a copy of the re-release of SJG's pocket-sized OGRE game, which he got his mitts on only because of a regular who had been to Origins a few weeks before. So I felt like I won the bonus round!

I ended up with a very full table, including Todd, Katie, Rick, +James Smith+Jim Wampler and plenty others who I don't have in my circles (but Tim, Niki, Bobby, Beau & Marcos, you know who you are!). The scenario I ran is something that I initially wrote for the Metal Gods crew but that I'm tightening up into something that could be released some day, so I took the opportunity to playtest stuff. And so, 10 adventurers set off on a quest to eradicate a tribe of ape men that had taken up residence in a long-forgotten jungle temple. Along the way, two got to use my hallucinogen rules ("What Happens When I Eat This Space Tentacle?"), one reached a higher state of consciousness and the party devised two ingenious ways of bluffing their way past the ape man guards at the temple steps (two!). Inside the temple, we experienced some Donkey Kong-ery, the party elf did the one thing that an elf shouldn't do in the world of Ore, Todd realized that his wizard was really born to be a warrior and the ideas -- both good and bad -- flowed from the group like water. In the end, both despite my best efforts and quite to my surprise, no one died. While I might not have left a fatal mark upon the party, they definitely left their mark upon the world of Ore. In fact, thanks to Todd's wizardry, it's now winter on Ore... and will be for the next two game years. 

On Sunday, we had breakfast with Jim and then went back to Gateway by way of Jungle Jim's (a huge supermarket that's basically every specialty & ethnic grocery I've ever been to in a vaguely amusement park-style atmosphere; we just picked up some lychees because motherfuckin' lychees!) where the esteemed Mr. Wampler interviewed me briefly for an upcoming episode of Spellburn (how do I merit an interview?) and we joined in on Todd's weekly Labyrinth Lord game. And here's where I lose all OSR cred: I've never played LL before. In fact, I can't remember the last time I played BX or even BECMI. It was Katie's first time with LL/BX style gaming, as well, and it even ended in a TPK (well, probably), so she had the full OSR experience! 

All in all, this was an awesome weekend of gaming for us. Todd does an amazing job of throwing one hell of a "convention in a day" for Free RPG Day; his formula is one that every store across the country should crib from. People of Cincinnati, you have an absolute treasure here! Celebrate this place! Leaving was really tough for us; kind of like those family holidays where it takes you an hour just to say goodbye to a few people. These guys really did make us fee l not just welcome, but like family. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

DCC Donnerstag: More Thoughts About Spellcasters & Patrons

Once again, it's DCC Donnerstag and so, I'm going back to the well that treated so ... well... last week: Patrons & Spellcasters. Props to +Gabriel Perez Gallardi for letting me borrow his character, The Formerly Hairy Wizard Formerly Known As Ian, for an example below.

Spellburn and Patron Bond

Here's the deal: Patron bond is one of the best times to do a little Spellburn. Players new to DCC wizards & elves tend to underestimate how important and powerful Spellburn is; it mitigates at least some of the randomness involved in the spell check, not so much smoothing out the probability curve as setting the bar higher, making spell casting a little less "random-ass crap shoot" and little more "dear god, not another spell... they take so much out of me!" Which is badass. No sorcerer worth his salt should discount the idea of Spellburning while casting Patron bond, remembering that the better results allow more and greater access to a particular supernatural patron. Giving of one's own life essence to fuel the casting of Patron bond makes so much sense (thematically) that it's damn smart that the rules reward it with better results! For more flair, try to make your Spellburn worthy of your would-be patron's notice by attuning it to his/her/its particular idiom. For Azi Dahaka, for example, you might Spellburn 5 points or Stamina and swallow sand or drain a cup of adder's venom. This is an awesome opportunity to inject massive amounts of roleplaying flair into your games!

On a related note, I'd like to mention that, as per the DCC rule book, a sorcerer must Spellburn in order to cast Invoke patron. How much he Spellburns is up in the air, but again, I'd recommend to go big or go home, and use the casting of this spell as an opportunity to really flavor-up the game.

Patron Bond Score Over Time

It is possible to improve your bond to a supernatural patron over time, by improving your standing and worth in the eyes of your patron(s). A Judge may wish to handle increasing a bond score as akin to awarding Luck; points may be added to this score (or these scores) for further the patron's goals, helping his servants, offering him the correct sacrifices, etc. Please note that some sorcerers may attempt to increase their Patron bond score by re-casting the spell. Since each casting of Patron bond is, in effect, a re-negotiation of terms with the supernatural patron, I do not recommend allowing successive castings to overwrite a previous score. Instead, consider the following method: each successive casting of Patron bond alters the bond score by an amount equal to the difference between the new roll and the prior score, divided by the number of times the spell has been cast. Thus, if the Formerly Hairy Wizard Formerly Known As Ian (or, "Formerly Ian" to his friends) had a bond score of 14 with, say, Bobugbubilz, and decides to cast Patron bond again, this time rolling an 18, he may add 2 to his bond score ( (18-14)/2 = 2). By the same token, if Formerly Ian were to roll a 10, his bond score would go down by 2 to 12! That's the price you pay for a bad negotiation.

No One Needs Invoke Patron!

If you're casting Invoke patron, it means that you have a supernatural patron. Which means that you've already cast (or already had cast upon you) the spell Patron bond. Your bond to your patron tells you how often you can cast Invoke patron, and therefore it is unnecessary to use a spell "slot" for it. As of this moment, no sorcerer in my games can learn Invoke patron, but rather gain access to it due to the strength of their bond to their supernatural patron(s).

So, there you have it. If any readers have any questions or ideas about patrons and patrons bonds, drop me a comment; I'll try to work an answer into an upcoming post. By the same token, if you have any ideas for future DCC Donnerstag posts, I'll take those, too. This post (and its antecedent) have brought up enough questions in my brain-space that, barring any sudden revelations, I think that next week's post will be a return of my Master Class on Spellburn.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Speaking My Language

I try to make the most of language in my games. Even the Metal Gods campaign (which can get more than a little over-the-top) has had its moments where knowing a particular language (seems to always be the Serpent Man language) matters quite a bit. Lately, it seems like my Iron Coast (ACKS) and Hyperbarbaria (Delving Deeper) games have the highest frequency of language mattering to the players and their characters, so
I thought it wise to share the rulings that I've been using for these games.

The Common Tongue

All characters speak their native language plus common. Common, as I see it, is not (nor was it ever supposed to be) the language shared by all humans everywhere. Rather, it is a general sort of mish mash, a patois of major human language groups, developed for purpose of trade and settle small differences. As such, it is often difficult to get across complex ideas or highly representational thought without recourse to another language; common just doesn't have words for these things that share enough commonality amongst its constituent language groups, and so there are just some things that you can't explain in common. This makes it important for PCs from different places to learn each others' languages (and it gives folks a reason to bother learning, say, dwarven [duersku] or elven [alvlantesk], despite the fact that dwarves and elves can typically speak common).

Initial Languages

Other than their native tongues and common, characters may choose a number of languages equal to whatever their particular rule set suggests is appropriate. ACKS gives players 1 additional language per point of Intelligence bonus (as does DCC, twice as many if you're a wizard). Delving Deeper has a nice chart that tells you how many languages you may know, but it is inclusive of the native tongue and common (thus, you get one additional language at 11, two at 12, and so on according to table 1.3). These languages are typically chosen from a list of "highly relevant" languages, but may be rolled for if the situation (or DM dictate) warrants. I try to have a list of the high relevant languages on hand when characters are being created, but will readily admit that I don't tend to keep it around for long afterward. (Blog post inspiration!) Demihumans get no special "racial languages" beyond their native language; instead, they learn to communicate very simple ideas. Think about the snippets of language you learn when going to a foreign country: enough to attain needs, be polite and (often) be rude.

Unassigned Languages

When creating a character, a player does not need to assign all of his available "language slots." In fact, for my Hyperbarbaria game, I didn't let anyone choose any additional languages, but for my Iron Coast campaign, several players choose to keep language slots open. Instead, these "open slots" may be spent later on to learn a language to which the character has been exposed (immersion learning) or to chooses to study (the ol' fashioned way). The exact system for how to do this is kind of up in the air, but here are some options:

Carousing?

I love carousing rules. The opportunity to waste hard-earn gold for material gain is a great thing. By this time, I feel like it's common use of the term to suggest that, for the murderhobo of a character your PC is, "carousing" might apply just as readily to feasting and getting drunk with the locals as to finding a tutor to teach your character a lost bit of lore, to spending vast amounts of money in an attempt to woo a particular would-be paramour. Learning a language is another perfectly logical way to spend that money and time. The DM should set a goal for how much money will need to be spent in this manner and the player is in charge of figuring out where that money goes. Language tutors. Phrase books. Rounds of drinks for native speakers of the language. Stuff like that.

To set an arbitrary amount, how about 50 gp times the number of languages currently known, possibly multiplied by the PC's level, depending on how onerous you want it to be. That works for me.

Total Immersion

Sometimes, the PC will not have recourse to tutors or other resources to help him blow his gold on learning a language. If, say, your ranger were captured by vermen and, somehow, did not yet speak the Black Speech, he might learn their particular dialect by observing and mimicking what he observes. At the end of whatever time the DM sets, the player may make a 2d6 roll for his PC, adding 1 for each score in Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma of 15 or above, subtracting 1 for each of those scores of 7 or less. If the PC has a partner or tutor to help him practice the language, he gains an additional +1 bonus, but if he has been unable to practice at all (and is just learning from listening), he takes -1 penalty. If the roll is 6 or less, the PC fails and may try again after the same interval has passed. After the third failure, the PC may not try again. If the roll is 7-9, the PC succeeds, but either his comprehension or speech is imperfect (perhaps he has a strong accent or the like). A 10 or better is a complete success.

Again, lets set some arbitrary time frames. One month times the number of languages already spoken, possibly plus the PC's level in months, again, depending on how tough you want it to be.

New Languages, No Unassigned Slots

While some rule sets include the ability to pick up new languages later on (ACKS has a proficiency for this), I'll also let players pick up languages as the game is played, usually in the same methods that I allow unassigned slots to be spent. The capability of expanding one's linguistic repertoire, however, is more costly than an unassigned slot. It should cost two to four times as much for an unassigned slot to carouse your way to a new language, and total immersion should take two to four times as long.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

DCC Donnerstag: Wizards, Elves and the Supernatural Patrons Who Love Them

Heading into this post, I know I want to keep this short. I'd like to get back into writing DCC Donnerstag articles more regularly (like, probably on Donnerstag), and so I've decided that, when no huge topic presents itself, I'll try to tackle some of the smaller, stickier ones. Today, I'm turning my attention toward, as the title says, wizards, elves and the supernatural patrons who love them/are loved by them. 

Scarcity of Patron Bond

Yes, every elf knows the spell Patron bond, but not every wizard does. The elves' knowledge of this spell signifies how familiar they are, as a race, with selling themselves out for supernatural power. Human wizards, on the other hand, possess no natural aptitude in this regard and must actually learn the Patron bond spell to create the bond, have someone with an existing bond to the desired patron cast the spell for them or find some other extraordinary way to enter into the bond contract with the patron. I think it should be fairly safe to assume that the great wizards of the world likely serve one or more patrons (see below) and probably know Patron bond; it wouldn't be unseemly for them to require apprentices to enter into a supernatural bond with a preferred patron, would it? Perfoming Patron bonds for others is a great way for adepts to improve their relationship with an existing patron, and so while the spell may be somewhat scarce, opportunities to have it cast on one's behalf should be present, even if the bargain may not be exactly what you're looking for.

Multiple Patrons

Sorcerers are not clerics, are not clerics devoted slavishly to one being. No, sorcerers do not place themselves below their patrons like clerics make themselves subservient to gods; instead, they are willing to create a "Dutch book" of contracts and compacts with otherworldly powers in order to assure themselves the greatest possible personal magical might. Yes, a wizard or elf may favor one particular patron, but rarely does he make deals with one supernatural to the exclusion of all others. It is, of course, incumbent upon the sorcerer to make good on the terms of each of his supernatural pacts, which can be made much more difficult when the terms of these pacts come into conflict with one another; when currying favor with warring patrons, the sorcerer may find himself as the middle against which both sides are played. 

Next time, we'll look into some of the mechanics of the patron bond and how we DCC Judges have a lot of flexibility to use them to our advantage. 





Monday, June 9, 2014

Monster (Book) Monday: Bizarre Monsters Volume 1 by Casey Sorrow

This post could just as easily have been a "Tale Of Crowdsourcing Triumph," but I just did one of those and it's been a long time since the last Monster (Book) Monday. While the name of this one is the nice and short Bizarre Monsters Volume 1, the cover claims it to be "A Rusty Dagger Supplement - Bestiary of Fantastic Creatures - Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures." With a "subtitle" like that, it would be a natural thing to assume that Mr. Sorrow's Bizarre Monsters was a straight up OD&D joint, but the stats in this thing seem more 1e than 0e, but that's not such a bad thing now is it? Here's the poop:

Bizarre Monsters V1 is the brainchild of Casey Sorrow, an illustrator and fellow Michigander, took this puppy to Kickstarter to produce an LBB-sized little volume of strange monsters. I'm sure that it'll look great in your OD&D box or with your rpg zines, because really, this thing is more or less a zine. Most non-rpg zines focus heavily on the art, and Mr. Sorrow has done that quite well here; every monster is drawn in loving detail, sometimes with multiple illustrations. Casey has imagined a scant 15 creatures here, but what they lack in number, they make up for in raw strangeness and attention to detail. 

Details

Bizarre Monsters is printed in what I've learned to call half letter size - most folks (including me at one point) erroneously call it "digest size" (digest size is actually 6"x9" not the 5.5"x8.5" of half letter) - with 36 interior pages printed on heavyweight off white paper. The cover is a thick, glossy card stock with a leather-like pattern on the outside. Every two-page spread features at least one illustration, most of which are monotone, but some use a gray halftone to provide depths (not sure what you call that). 

Aesthetics

I'll readily admit that I supported this project sight unseen because it was (a) local(ish) and (b) a zine (we RPG zine guys need to stick together). Sure, the art looked pretty awesome, too. What I didn't know back then was that Casey Sorrow has his head screwed on just right. Each monster here was designed to fill a niche, which is how I like 'em. Rather than just the "lets come up with a bunch of monsters that could fit in anywhere in the world," Mr. Sorrow designed monsters to fit specific roles. Like the Pohke (or "Exploding Cows"). You are not going to replace all of the general cattle in your world with Exploding Cows. You're going to use Exploding Cows so that your players have an Exploding Cow experience, and then you're going to move on, maybe keeping Exploding Cows in a particular part of the wilderness so that your players know that "here be Exploding Cows." That, to me, is the whole point in using Exploding Cows in the first place. Because it's awesome.

Each of the 15 monsters in this book has been designed with a niche in mind, or at least a game experience. Well done.

All of the monsters are statted out in what looks to be a sort of 1e variant (I'd have to ask Mr. Sorrow himself, but I'd guess he had 1e/OSRIC in mind here), missing some key info (like XP value) that varies from edition to edition. The Hit Dice listing for each monster seems little wonky (lots of things like "6d8+8," which makes no sense to me) and there is no common rubric given for sorting out AC (which, to me, says "fuck it, do whatever" which is probably what I was going to do anyway), so that might seem a little odd. Everything else you need is right there and ready to go though, from the strange behaviors of these Bizarre Monsters to special attacks to how to integrate each into an ongoing campaign.

Foliosity

Few monster books tickle the same "Fiend Factory" pre-Fiend Folio giddiness in me that things like the Stair Stalker do. This one does. Not only is it Fiend Folio-good, it's Fiend Factory good. That, to me, is what joy looks like. 

Final Word/What I'm Stealing

Absolutely everything in this book is worth stealing. I'm actually right now working each monster into different Wilderness Encounter tables for my Iron Coast game to make sure my players understand that the world is a wild and strange place full of things like Gas Imps, Exploding Cows and Gem Maggots. The good news for you is that you can get this thing from the Bullcock Press store in print for only $8.99 or pdf for $4.99 (less if bought together) as well as in pdf on RPGNow/OneBookShelf

Friday, June 6, 2014

Following Up With The East Mark

Lest I be accused of being unnecessarily negative (which tends not to happen online, just in real life), I'd like to take a moment to address a couple of Adventures in the East Mark facts that have come to light since my last post about it last week. Apparently, the manuscript which I thought was set in stone was much less so, and some things have changed. Namely, nearly all of my gripes with the original pdf have been fixed. 

Here's a break down:
  • "They Misspelled My Name" - No, they didn't. Apparently I did on my backer survey. That's the problem with typing too quickly, I guess. This has been rectified. 
  • "Goofy Name Syndrome" - Turns out that "Poptar Grove" is not the place that Poptarts come from, but rather should be "Poplar Grove." As in a place named for a grove of Poplar trees. Huh. I feel much better about that. Oddly, it makes me feel much better about the whole naming thing in general. "Poptar" must have been the fault in the armor.
  • "No Black & White Version" - Fixed! Now I can have my nice full-rez version I use when I want to drool, my optimized version for normal laptop use and the BnW version for use on my Kindle Fire. Yep, I have a ghetto tablet and am proud of it.
Other stuff isn't going to get fixed. They aren't about to just cut goblins & kobolds out, nor should they. My disappointment at the inclusion of adding the traditional humanoids is really a disappointment in the game in itself, not just the English translation, so there's nothing XD can do about that. 

Also, the maps aren't about to change in this version, but after I suggested that XD hire +Dyson Logos or Matt Jackson, +David Brown came out and said that "...we hope to make our own mark on the line in the future!" That's a pretty bold and badass statement. Translation is one thing. I'm glad that XD has the balls not only to translate, but to interpret the East Mark for its new markets on this side of the Atlantic. 

Well done, XD folks. You guys are running a game company in a manner you can be proud of and I'm really geeked for the Blue Box KS. Keep the hits coming. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Third Rails of the OSR: Alignment

Every once in awhile, I find myself drawn to a topic that's largely considered taboo among the OSR community for one reason or another. Maybe it dredges up bad memories. Maybe there are irreconcilable  differences between different schools of thought. Maybe everyone's sure that their interpretation is the right one and yours is crap. In fact, these "third rails" of the gaming community (not even just the OSR) are becoming so widespread that the list of things we agree not to talk about is ending up way too long. Not being one to stand on ceremony, or to continue to do things because "that's the way it's always been done," I'm opening a can of worms by talking about alignment. 

Right, so let's talk about alignment.

It's not unsurprising that few things bring about as much disagreement in the gaming community - much less the OSR community - as alignment. Looking back at OD&D, we can see why. On page 9 of Volume 1, it pretty much just says "pick an alignment" without any explanation of what that means. And thus, forty years of bickering and argument over just what each alignment means and whether Father Joe the Pious would engage in the wholesale slaughter of orc babies along with the rest of the party.

I think it's somewhat inevitable that every gaming blogger eventually tackles the subject at some point or another. I've actually done it once before, but not conclusively. I can't say that I'll rectify that issue today, but I will take a stab at it. First some ground rules.

I: Alignment As Alignment

I think of alignment as quite literally that which the character has aligned himself. The essential dichotomy between Law and Chaos is not universal and membership in one camp or another is not guaranteed. In order to be considered "Lawful," an individual must side with Law against Chaos and vice versa. One must align oneself with either of these forces or neither (Neutrality), and thus alignment is precisely "that with which a character has aligned himself."

II. Alignment Is Justification, Not Behavior

Think of every time someone calls an act "a Chaotic act" or "a Lawful behavior." Nope. Law and Chaos are reasons to do a thing, the justification behind the deed, not the deed itself. An agent of Chaos and an agent of Law may do the exact same thing but for completely different reasons and still be acting "within their alignment." Yes, this works in favor of spurious logic, but I don't expect PCs to be champions of virtue.

III. Alignment Is Ethics, Not Morality

I will come out and say right now that I do not understand alignment systems that include "good" or "evil" as components. If anything, I believe that they cheapen and limit player choice to narrow categories of worthy and acceptable behavior. Without "good" and "evil," player choices take on more weight and consequence as they become unburdened from these artificial (and uninteresting) distinctions. After all, not even Hitler would have described himself as evil, right? Instead, alignment should be composed of a general ethical stance, one largely determined by the character's choice in alignment, one that provides justification not only for a character's behaviors, but also for aligning oneself with one or another pole of the Eternal Conflict.

So, basically, what I want in an alignment system is one that defines itself as an ethical stance (not a moral one) that justifies character behavior (but doesn't seek to define it) and that represents an actual alignment of the character's identity with either Law or Chaos or even neither (but never both). In short, I eschew the "ninefold alignment" and "five point alignment" models in favor of the original, classic alignment model of Law, Chaos & Neutrality.

Chaos

The ethical basis for Chaos is a deep seated nihilism and self interest, the core of which is a belief in the Will to Power. That is, any action is justified in that it results in the actor taking it to attain more power. If he attains more power thus, his action is justified. If he fails and either attains no further power or loses power, he is punished for not having a strong enough will and resolve to accomplish the task. Thus, Chaos is really Chaotic because ever adherent of Chaos is constantly acting in a manner that brings himself (rather than any other) the greatest possible power and happiness. It is ethically incumbent upon each individual, the ethics of Chaos suggests, to act always in his own best interest and that one's own best interest is the ultimate motivator and justifying force. Thus, a true Chaotic being may justify betrayal or kindness whenever each best suits his own best interest.

Lords of Chaos

Commonly referred to as "demons" or "devils" or other epithets, the Lords of Chaos are beings for whom few mortal distinctions and names actually apply. These Lords have learned to shape space and time to suit their whim, rejecting any limitations placed upon them by other beings or even the laws of reality. Chaos Lords often begin their existence either as mortals, or emerge from mortality as the manifestation of a collective desire or a rebellious expression of repressed urges, and through extreme or gratuitous exercise of will become much more. Lords of Chaos are often willing to share their power with those they seek to subvert, pervert and convert to their cause, empowering sorcerers and wizards who, they hope, will ultimately become willing agents of chaos.

Chaos Is Not

Unjustified randomness. A euphemism for "entropy." Cute. Analogous to the scientific concept of "chaos" presented in emergence theory. Insanity, especially of the "krazy is kewl" variety.

Law

The ethical basis for Law is the basic imperative that an action taken benefits someone other than the actor. It may benefit the actor as well, but as long as he is acting toward the benefit of another, he is acting in support of Law. Ultimately, Law views, enough people acting toward the benefit of enough others leads toward the betterment of society and civilization. If the ethical question for a Chaotic is "do I benefit from doing this?", the question for a Lawful is "Who else benefits if I do this?" Often, the person benefiting will be a liege lord, a religious entity or some other sort of authority. Thus, the justification of Law stems not from the authority to which a Lawful is connected, but rather from his connection to that authority. Similarly, some Lawfuls seek to make their actions benefit as many as they can; in the end, it matters not whether the action benefits one or one thousand, so long as it is done in the name of another.

Lords of Law

The most common title taken by Lords of Law is "god," "goddess" or "deity." These worthies have risen to power by supporting each other and by the support of others. A universal order, a reality-spanning society created by a network of beneficial interactions, is their ultimate goal. Bear in mind, however, that gods do not always consult those who supposedly benefit from their actions as to exactly how they'd like to be benefited, nor do they actively encourage others to view betterment as the fulfillment of wishes and dreams. The Lords of Law do not seek to debate what is best for society, they seek only to act towards its perfect balance. It is important to note that a primary point of disagreement between the Lords of Law is whether this universal order they seek is a goal to be attained or a process to be enacted; some gods see the world as innately imperfect and in need of constant improvement, but utterly incapable of ever being truly perfected. These older, wiser gods often serve as council to the younger, more headstrong gods who seek to purge disorder and Chaos from the world.

Law Is Not

Stupid. "Good." The right side, the good guys. Wussy. Overly concerned with people's feelings. Nice.

Neutrality

Every other ethical philosophy that rides between the extremes of "whatever's best for me" and "as long as someone else is better off as a result" is fully the territory of the Neutral alignment. While Neutrality often gets written off with the term "balance," few terms adequately express the depth and breadth of the middle ground between Law and Chaos. Few Neutrals actively concern themselves with the balance of power between Law and Chaos, but rather they seek to balance the desire to look out for oneself with the love of friends, family, faith and nation; the true pursuit of balance is within, not without. Of the three alignments, Neutrality is the most widespread, despite the lure of the more extreme ethoi, if only because your average person cares little for things beyond his immediate purview. Who has time to worry about the cruel rise to power or doing good on another's behalf when you're more concerned with your own (and your family's) immediately survival? Neutrality is less an organized ethos, but rather a mode of being, a balance that is struck within oneself as often out of necessity as out of devotion.

Lords of Neutrality

As different as the philosophies that make up the Neutral middle ground between Law and Chaos are, even more different from one to another are the so-called Lords of Neutrality. Whether they are called Old Ones, Nature Spirits, Elementals or Ancestor Spirits, this disparate body represents a wide array of beings that often have conflicted and conflicting motivations. Rarely do the Lords of Neutrality interfere directly in temporal affairs, even through mortal agents, for mortal concerns are typically beyond them or beneath their notice.

Neutrality Is Not

"Wishy washy." Boring. Gray. Just for Oe thieves and druids. Overly concerned with "doing chaotic things" to balance out "doing lawful things."

Monday, June 2, 2014

Gods of Kickassistan: The Stag-Headed God

The Stag-Headed God


The Forest-Walker, the Horned King, the Dying God, He Who Is Devoured, Lord of all Prey

Neutral Alignment

"All praise to Him who breeds the prey for our hunters, the plunder for our raiders, the Stag-Headed God who dies that we, His children, may live off His flesh! Praise to the gloried dead who found the death in the jaws of beasts and in the belly of beasts did they find their reward! Praise be to Horned King, the Dying God who rules all tribes of beasts and men but we, His children, to make them prey for us, and we honor His sacrifice by doing His will and taking from our prey." - Milk-Eye Vargun, hunter-shaman of the Skalls

"It is convenient, is it not, that the Skalls give themselves such a deity? A father-deity who wishes his children well and provides for them by ruling over the men and beasts of the world -- except for the Skalls themselves, mind you -- so that they may be made into worthy prey for the Skalls' collective rapine. We I to design a theology to justify my own avarice and violence, I could do no better." Master Guang-Yuan Jo, personal physician to the last Pascha of Ur-Hadad

It is true that the Skalls only venerate gods of death, for they view death being the only aspect of life that is beyond man's control. Men can farm and raise cattle, thus gods of crops and flocks are unnecessary. It is the actions of men and women that create children, build homes and cook food, and thus gods of hearth, home and childbirth are redundant. Even war is something that man makes for himself. The one thing man has no control over is what happens to him after death, for once he is dead, he has lost all of his own power and thus it is that the Skalls only have death gods.

Each death god is tied to a manner of burial. The God of Blackened Skies is the god associated with cremation and the feeding of the dead to carrion birds. The God Under the Mountain is the god of the buried dead. Though there once was a god of the drowned dead, he betrayed the pantheon long ago and is considered anathema. But most strange among the gods of the Skalls is the Stag-Headed God, the god of those who have been devoured. It is honorable for a man to kill a stag, reason the Skalls, as it is honorable for a stag to die to feed the man, and so it is for a man to die to feed a beast. Such is the funeral rite of the Stag-Headed God.

Beyond burial practices, the Stag-Headed God plays an important part in the theology of the Skalls. The Dying God, they believe, is ruler of all things that live in the world -- except, of course, for the Skalls. The Skalls believe that no king may rule them, nor any god reign over them, but for other men and, indeed, for all the beasts of the earth (but not the water, it may be noted), the Stag-Headed God is king. The Skalls believe that the Dying God is to the men and beasts of the world as a shepherd, tending a flock, a flock that is being raised for a singular purpose: to be the prey of the Skalls. The beasts of Ore will be hunted by the Skalls, their meat to sate them, their skins to clothe them. The people of Ore will be raided by the Skalls, their treasures plundered, their lives forfeit. The Dying Gods' stewardship of his flocks is for one reason: to make the prey worthy game for the Skalls which, in turn, must make the Skalls worthy hunters.

Skallic legend speaks of Krothi, a Skallic heroic figure who, on his way back from a war had been betrayed by his brother, the black-hearted villain Sthum. Left for dead on the banks of a vast lake, Krothi's body was washed down a river and into a deep forest. When Krothi woke, he found himself still injured and now starving in an unfamiliar land; since the gods of the Skalls do not reward inaction, Krothi dragged himself along on a broken leg, clutching the wound at his side. When he had found the herbs and mosses he needed to staunch the bleeding and had made a splint for his broken leg, Krothi encountered a vast stag with six antlers, four eyes and eight legs. The stag made as to charge Krothi, to gore him with his impossible rack of horn, but Krothi ducked, grasping an antler and yanking clean from the stag's head. As the stag barreled past him, Krothi dug the sharp broken end of the antler into the stag's side, wounding it deeply. The stag was routed, but Krothi was hungry, and so followed the trail of blood to the place where the stag lay dying. Krothi let slip his hand from the wound that Sthum had given him and snapped the stag's neck. Having no tools with which to make fire, no patience for such civilities, Krothi ate his fill of the dying stag's flesh, for he had earned it.

The legends differ as to what happened next, but the point the story is the same: by refusing to die and being worthy of the beast that the Stag-Headed God set before him, Krothi was able to survive. In some stories, the Stag-Headed God is the stag fought by Krothi, and when he kills Him, Krothi becomes the new Stag-Headed God, for the Dying God must always die. In other stories, the stag is kin to the Horned King, who grants Krothi his blessing for defeating his champion. In still others, the Stag-Headed god was indeed the stag Krothi fought, but the Dying God returns to him as a ghost as he sleeps, and bears him home to his tribe, where he has earned the right to face his brother-betrayer, Sthum.

Of all the Skallic gods, the Stag-Headed God is the one least-likely to be worshiped by non-Skalls, at least in the form that Skalls recognize. Skallic shamans, however, point to the number of horned divinities in other pantheons as proof of the pervasiveness of worship of the Horned King among the "lesser races of men." Among the Skalls, the priests of the Stag-Headed God are more akin to the shamans and druids of other religions. To most folk of Ore, the Stag-Headed God is less than a rumor, less than a myth; to any who survive an onslaught of Skalls, the name bears dread and doom, for Skallic warriors routinely make thanks to him during raid and rapine. Ecstatic praise and thanks that the Stag-Headed Gods has seen their deeds and deemed them worthy of such slaughter.