Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fate CoreCelerated: Approaches First, Skills Later

The Evil Hat guys like +Fred Hicks have been very clear that there's no firm line to be drawn between Fate Core & Fate Accelerated, but rather that both rule sets are really the same system tuned to accomplish slightly different things. As I've talked about before, I really dig the FAE rules, but can definitely see that there are areas where gamers like myself might want a slightly more robust system. That having been said, FAE is a great place to get started with Fate, and it's not even that awkward to think of using Fate Core to expand on the characters and stories begun with FAE. What's more, there are some things covered by Fate Core that are just plain left out of FAE (like character advancement and game creation), meaning that you more or less have to refer to Fate Core go get that stuff worked out, which is fine (especially since the pdf is PWYW). I mash up nearly every game I play anyway, so blending Core & Accelerated together is perfectly logical to me and gave me a crazy idea: why not blend Skills & Approaches?

A Manufactured Problem With Advancement

Someone suggested to me that perhaps the reason that FAE doesn't include advancement rules is that it is not the characters that are intended to advance, but the fiction of the game itself. Sure. Why not. That's perfectly viable, especially for story games (and not unlike a mechanism I'm working on for another game, but more about that some time later). I'm one of those guys, though, who wants my characters to actually get better at stuff as well as experience the long term effects of my actions in the world. Maybe it's because I cut my teeth on "class & level," or maybe because I expect to earn experience points, who knows. I want my character to grow. End concept.

So I started looking at applying the Fate Core advancement mechanic to FAE and got really confused. Maintaining the "pyramid," there's no real way (as far as I can tell) to get any Approach above +4, and even then, getting to +4 requires advancing a +0 to +1, a +1 to +2 and two +2s to +3s or some such. That's an awful lot of advancement and a lot of it doesn't make much sense. What I'm hoping for is a slightly more flexible system that makes advances a little more meaningful. After all, +Jason Hobbs's Verdantist Pierre will likely never advance his Forceful approach, which is fine. He shouldn't be forced to just to improve.

Options I Considered

Whenever I dig into a problem, I, like any good fake scientist, try to brainstorm as many options as I can that seem to fit the bill, then test them for how well they fit what I'm hoping to accomplish. The first idea actually came from +Ray Case, entirely accidentally (true to form for Ray), who rattled off the virtues called out in the Boy Scout oath as his Approaches. This struck me as totally kickass and a foundation for a really neat game. These virtues (or even others) could be added to the game as additional Approaches, but they seemed more like they were aimed at creating really solid Aspects.

The second idea I tossed around what that at some point, the game would "graduate" from using Approaches and translate itself to a Skill-based system. I'm not really sure what the "graduation point" would be, and the added complication of interpreting that threshold on top of running a narrative-heavy game just doesn't sit well. Neither does trying to parse out how +Donn Stroud's ex-sniper Etienne's Careful approach should translate into ranks in different skills.

The third option I came up with (the same one I usually come up with) was do something else. In this case, I wanted something a little more formal than the Ray-inspired "add the approaches that you want to add when you want to add them" and more free-form than the full shift into Fate Core RAW.

Approaches First, Skills Later

Here's the ruling that I've come up with is that, at character creation, all characters start out assigning skill ranks to Approaches, but whenever PCs may advance an Approach a rank, the player may instead gain a rank in a Skill, taken from the list of regular Skills in Fate Core. Since there will be situations that are covered both by the new Skill and the Approach, you could add both ranks together in those situations (thus, Etienne could Carefully Shoot to attack, representing his sniperiness). In some ways, Skills become specializations since they only apply in specific circumstances. Given the choice to advance a Skill or an Approach, the question becomes whether to advance something general and widely applicable or something narrow and focused.

The immediate objection that I could come up with to this scheme was that it might inflate the skill bonus to an untenable amount, but when you remember that advances after character creation come only at Significant Milestones, I think the "game breakiness" of the concept falls off. Furthermore, the campaign's skill cap could come into play here, limiting the opportunities for Skill advances to be taken. When the first Skill rank is taken, it could be said to increase the skill cap of the campaign (since it could be added to a max-ranked Approach), and so I don't think it'd be out of the realm of possibility to limit taking a first rank of a Skill after a Major Milestone. Whatever the case, adding a Skill effectively increases the skill cap, so that change needs to be accounted for.

So, this will be the method that the Harshlands campaign takes toward skill ranks, Approaches and Skills. Now we just have to see it in play to see if it works!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Another Kickass Milestone: 200th Post and Announcements!

This is the 200th post here on Dispatches From Kickassistan. For some blogs (and bloggers), that's not very much, but considering that, on average, my post tend to run on the longer side, it means something to me. This weekend was a pretty busy one, with last minute prep for a game that didn't happen on Sunday, my Saturday night Swords & Wizardry game and work on the top secret Kickassistan project (see below, Announcement #2), so I wasn't left with much time for blogging. In fact, as I sat down to write this, I almost missed the milestone significance of Post #200 and to go straight into talking about some other gaming nonsense (don't worry, that gaming nonsense will still get written about) when it hit me and here I am, and here you are, now writing and reading about how I've somehow managed to post 200 times on this blog in the past year two-and-a-half months. And so, here's some announcements:

Announcement #1: The Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad Turns One!

The Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign is now officially one year old! Or rather, it will be on Thursday, when we're having a birthday party for it. So far, only one PC has hit 3rd level ( +Bear Wojtek's stark raving mad Vane Barbute), but he then lost that status in a level draining fight with an undead pimp known only as the Bone Lord. So, lots and lots of 1st & 2nd level characters in this bunch. So, right now, let me send out birthday wishes to all the involved parties: +Edgar Johnson+Gabriel Perez Gallardi+Wayne Snyder+phil spitzer+James MacGeorge+Jason Hobbs & +Bear Wojtek, happy goddamn birthday, jerks! Here's to the past year of massacring PCs and apemen/snakemen/lizardmen/bonemen/toothmen alike and to many more!

Announcement #2: The Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad Zine!

This is an idea that has been percolating around Kickassistan Central Command for awhile, but the Kickassistan Tourism Authority has decided to release a periodic visitor's guide to Ur-Hadad and her environs in fanzine format. This is the secret project that +Edgar Johnson+Wayne Snyder & I have been working on for some time, but work has progressed to the point where it's getting close to completion and we should have our first issue out somewhere in the next few weeks (I'm not stupid enough to predict a date, but I'm stupid enough to say "in the next few weeks"). This will be both a print and pdf product, and you'll be able to order them here through the blog as well as through "the popular electronic retailers." 

It feels good to get that out, I've been holding that one in for a long time. The Metal Gods players have known about it for awhile (many of them have been instrumental in writing it) and +Harley Stroh & +Doug Kovacs have been really supportive (Doug has been calling it "the Adam Muszkazine"). Once we get all the articles edited, it's off to layout (me) and then off to Goodman Games to make sure it passes Joe Goodman's test of adequate awesome. All of this is why I'm not willing to talk about a "due date" for the project, mostly because I don't know what to expect in many of these regards. 

Yesterday, +Wayne Snyder shot out some of the first pics for the zine yesterday, and I've got to say, this stuff is really exciting. Followers of Dispatches will be familiar with Wayne's work from the header image here as well as a few other posts over the past year, and the wider community may know him for the work he's done on +Jack Shear's Devilmount project. We're not looking for submissions to the zine yet, but may be for future issues. Stay tuned to the blog (and the zine!) for opportunities for the interested. 

Well, folks, that's it. 200 posts down, one year of the Metal Gods and the cat's out of the bag on the Metal Gods zine. I hope you're as excited as I am. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

DCC Donnerstag: More Luck Burn Options

Months back, I talked about the problems that a surplus of Luck can create in your DCC game, particularly where thieves and halflings - who get to "regenerate" burned Luck - are concerned. Effectively, it seems like every thief and halfling eventually will end up with an 18 Luck, it's just a matter of time to determine how long it will take to get them there. This problem cropped up in the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign a lot earlier than I thought it would and, as a result, has been something that's weighed heavily on my mind. Last time I wrote about this issue, I came up with some ways for a permanent expenditure of Luck to have a lasting effect in game, a way for both the Judge and the player to "bleed off" some excess Luck and to get some bang for his buck doing so. Here's what I came up with last time:

  • Stave Off Death: Your character is dead and you know it. You've gone below 0 hp, failed your saving throw, had your head crushed by the pile of boulders while you were already impaled on the punji stakes at the bottom of the pit trap. You're fucking dead. But for the low, low cost of a single point of permanent Luck burn, your character can take a single action next round, after which you collapse into unconsciousness. You may only do this for a number of rounds equal to your character's level (thus, this may not be done at 0 level). 
  • Yeah, I Have It Right Here: Forget to buy something back in town but now it's terribly important to moving forward through the dungeon? Did you think you bought something or had it left over from the last adventure but can't seem to find it on your character sheet? Do you only now realize the benefit of the hand held mirror inside a dungeon? If you act now, that missing piece of gear can be yours! For every Luck point you permanently expend, you can retcon your character sheet to include one item it didn't have before with a value of up to 10 gp per level, but you must still pay full cost for that item. (The item[s] purchased may not be magical or have any magical properties; no potions, scrolls or other doodads of ultimate power.)
  • Don't Sweat the Details: Yes, the Judge is almost always right. Yes, we understand Rule Zero. Yes, we get that the Judge establishes the continuity that keeps the campaign going. But... Sometimes you really need a detail of story to be slightly yet significantly different than the way the Judge is ruling it. Sometimes you need the shadowy villain to be left-handed (so it's possible that he actually was the evil duke all along!) or the town cleric to be a secretly Chaotic cultist to Ahriman (so that Smolken has a sacrificing buddy). Run your revision of reality by the Judge (and possibly the other players if you're feeling sociable) and if he (they) like the idea, you can permanently burn a Luck point to make it happen. (This use allows the PCs some narrative control of the story, but should never be viewed as license to run roughshod over the Judge. As the arbiter of what does and does not work in the campaign, repeated attempts to rewrite the Judge's reality can result in serious Bad Universe Days* for your PCs.)

Since that last post, I've been kicking around some more ideas and have come up with a few winners. Here are more ways that you can permanently burn some Luck to get a permanent result.

  • Re-Roll Hit Dice: Ever have that character who just can't catch a break when levelling up and always rolls a "1" on his hit dice? Well, by permanently burning a point of Luck, you may re-roll your character's hit dice once, rolling the full number of hit dice earned for his current level. [I'm pretty sure that this use of Luck came from someone commenting in the G+ DCC community, and I think it might have been +Harley Stroh, but I'm not sure and can't find the original idea.]
  • Pimp Your Luck Die: This idea originally comes from +Daniel Bishop in the comments to my first post on the matter, where he suggests we "allow a Thief... to permanently burn Luck to automatically gain a maximum Luck Die result[.]" What a great idea! Instead of temp-burning that point of Luck to add 1d4 to whatever you just rolled, you can perma-burn it to add 4. Now that's a significant advantage that I can see some thieves buying in to!
  • Saved By Fate: In yet another suggestion coming from a trusted friend and colleague, Dr. +Edgar Johnson suggests allowing a PC the chance to lose a point of Luck instead of a point of Stamina if and when they are dropped to 0 hit points in combat. I really dig the idea, particularly for thieves and halflings, but I wouldn't limit it to just them.
I wish I had more right now, but that's where I'm at with this stuff. Rather than forget it all, I figured I should post it here to let it steep in the wilds of the internet and maybe see what fuel you, dear reader, can throw on this fire.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Kickstarter Post Where I Shill For Something I'm Excited About

I will not be talking about any miniatures in this post, don't worry.

Instead, I'll be talking about the current Kickstarter for an English translation of the Spanish retroclone Aventuras en La Marca del Este ("Adventures in the East Mark"). I'm not really sure how I became aware of the existence of Aventuras, but it was probably when I was searching far and wide for OSR-style systems, trying to parse out what features distinguish one from another. I was initially impressed by the art and cartography of the system, as well as the nostalgia factor of a red box (followed by a blue box... how classic!) being the initial release (I'm sure that some of you would have more nostalgia if the box were magenta, but this is my nostalgia, damnit! Get off my lawn!). Hmm. I'm intrigued Holocubierta Ediciones (is that "Holocube Editions?" Holocubes rock, plain and simple.), it's too damn bad I don't speak (or read) very much Spanish. Or rather, it was. Now, those Holocube guys have partnered with Extra-Dimensional Publishing to bring La Marca del Este to the English language and American market and I'll finally get to find out what's up with it.

Because it's on Kickstarter right now and $30 will get you a starter box. That's a damn value. You can see the list of all the stuff in the box over at the Kickstarter page, so I'll only draw your attention to the one detail that just continues to rock my world when I see it: you get a pencil. I love it when they include a pencil in a boxed set. Almost as much as a white crayon (one day, I'll write a post about how much the crayon in my Mentzer Red Box confused me).

Over on G+ today, I saw some skeptics wonder what sets ALME (because "Aventuras en La Marca del Este" is long to type) apart from the other BX retroclones (which is what it claims to be) other than pretty art. I thought this question was pretty vapid and that asking it without looking into the matter was quite lazy. Fuck you, you can read the Kickstarter page, too. Or read some of the few English-language reviews out there (there are some, I've read some of them, and they all seem to be pretty positive, not that I can find now). Here's the skinny: ALME was the house retroclone created by a blogger for his home game, his blog got popular enough that some sort of Holocube came from space (or maybe the future) and decided to publish it with killer art.

But the question remains, other than pretty art, why ALME?

(The following Wild, Groundless Suppositions are only vaguely researched and are more closely tied to my own impressions of the presentation of the work than any real information. Any information in them should be taken as the hair-brained wild guesses that they are, however convincing my argument is. Seriously, folks, don't take this too seriously.)

Wild, Groundless Supposition #1: Neat Character Classes

One of the things that we see get a lot of play on OSR blogs and in various BX retroclones are collections of unique character classes beyond the "core four" or "core four & demis" you see in BX. ACKS, for example, makes a big deal of its class design engine, and the very excellent Theorems & Thaumaturgy gives us a bunch of unique and interesting permutations on ye olde magic user. It seems like every OSR blog out there, at one time or another, comes up with a custom class for its home campaign at one time or another. It looks like ALME has done the same. Over on the Kickstarter page, they link to a write up of Explorer class from the book. The class is a well done, simple and elegant fighter variant similar to a ranger, but without a ton of pointless skills or other junk. Further, when the Green Box is described in "The Future Product Line," the fact that it includes "even more character choices" is mentioned (which I read to mean "choices to be made about your character" rather than "characters to choose from"). So, I'd expect more cool classes from ALME.

Wild, Groundless Supposition #2: The Known World, Arise!

Look at that map. That's a sexy map. You probably can't tell from it, but the East Mark, far from being on the east of this map, is actually in the center of it. The map vaguely looks like the Known World (Mystara) setting, and preserves a few of its conventions (see that continent called "Zivarid?" That's a continent-sized Isle of Dread, I'm pretty sure.) and preserves the Known World flavor of "a whole bunch of real-world cultures at their peak smashed in together." For example, directly south of the East Mark is an Egypt-like place. I'm sure there are vikings in there somewhere, I just know it, and that yellow splotch off to the east of the East Mark looks an awful lot like a Ylraum-y desert that I'm sure is filled with fantasy Bedouin and oases. So yes, the map is not a direct copy, nor even a facsimile, but it feels like a love letter to the Known World, and what else could you expect out of a system that gave itself a Red Box?

There. I just made some stuff up about what I think that ALME has to offer. Maybe someone who knows what they're talking about will jump into the conversation. Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes, the art really is that awesome. Go check it out. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Taking FATE For A Test Drive

For all the blather here on Dispatches about old school gaming (and there is a fair amount of that), I tend not to talk about how much I enjoy a lot of new school gaming. I've made mention of Dungeon World more than a few times, I really enjoy Monsters & Magic and I've even been known to play D&D 4e enthusiastically (nope, no edition warrior here). Like tons of folks out there, I kicked on the FATE Core Kickstarter awhile back and have been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to use the thing. I really enjoy the concept that naturalistic descriptions of things can turn into game elements just by the folks playing the game agreeing what it means, making the authority on the game itself not some remote writer of rules but rather the group at the table. I especially enjoy the FATE Accelerated Edition because it simplifies many of the rules from Core by chucking Skills in favor of Approaches. This change is subtle but meaningful and pervasive: instead of discussing the sorts of things that you get a bonus to doing, you instead describe the sorts of situations under which you get the bonus. Thus, shooting someone wouldn't use a Shoot skill in FAE, but could use Careful (if you were prepared to take a shot, say from a covering position), Quick (if you were responding to a surprise threat or trying to take lots of shots) or Sneaky (for that super-sniping ambush you have planned).

Last night, +Jason Hobbs+Ray Case & I started off with a simple idea: we wanted to give FATE a shot and were likely to use the FAE rules to create a post apocalyptic world similar to a cross between Thundarr the Barbarian and Deadwood. Ha! How cool does that sound? I told the guys to come up with a short list of 2-3 things they definitely want to see included (which Hobbs completely ignored and instead started coming up with all these details for a character that we ended up hacking to pieces). In our preliminary discussions, we talked about the idea that the development and perhaps even defense of the community was key (which is sort of present in both Thundarr and Deadwood), the level of technology, some of the many tropes of the post-apocalyptic and Wild West genres and just before we started up the hangout, brought it all crashing down as we reached a fundamental disagreement over what this, that or the other meant, with the promise that "we'll work out what we're all talking about in a moment when we're actually talking not just typing."

When we fired up the hangout, and spent the requisite amount of time screwing around before getting down to business, we realized that what we were actually interested in playing was less "Thundarr in Deadwood" and became more "Lewis & Clark after the apocalypse." This concept worked out great, and we changed our initial ideas to be more American colonial than Wild West, with the players hailing from a charter colony in a largely unexplored territory, one on the cusp of collapse, with the players needed to push them toward prosperity (Current Issue: "The Colony demands results!"). Behind that, back home in the "old world," a decadent imperial government (that we likened to pre-Revolutionary France) hungers for the goods and treasures that could be brought back from distant lands and could easily decide that the colony is being mis-managed and send its own imperial governor to take over the colony (Impending Issue: "The Empire looms"). Amid this atmosphere of urgency, we tacked on some details about the local geography: a "forbidden zone" houses technology from a bygone era that the colonists believe presage certain doom, a poisonous fungus forest not unlike the Toxic Jungle from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds wherein great botanical secrets may lie, the wilderness houses echoes of our own modern society and the fundamental fact that the tools with which to survive, thrive and prosper are, in fact, out there somewhere.

In talking about the characters that Jason & Ray wanted to play in this environment, we ended up having to talk quite a bit about the nature of humanity. Jason knew he definitely wanted there to be anthropomorphic animals (that was one of his 2-3 things), so we had accepted a degree of transhumanism there, but how far would it go? In the end, we decided on something we're calling "Iterative Evolution," where evolution can take sudden and drastic leaps in a particular direction, not requiring an established trend in lineage toward that direction and allowing "speciation" based on acquired traits. In short, DNA "learns" and can pick up lessons very swiftly. Thus, Ray's character, rather than being the "uplifted mutant catman" we were afraid he wanted to play (goddamn cat people!), became a human who had evolved into becoming an ambush-style alpha predator, which led to some fantastic discussion about just what that would entail. Tivit, Ray's predator, serves as a ranger and guide for the colony's many expeditions into the interior, making his home in the Forbidden Zone (Aspect: "It's not forbidden to me!"). Jason had the firmest grasp on what he wanted to play before we got together, which of course meant that it was harder to write for him than for Ray. Jason's character, Pierre, was a student of he famed Professor Eldier, learning a brand of super-botany (right now, we're calling it "bio-gadgeteering," but that's far from a final name, more of a descriptor), but when the Professor died, the professional guild of super-botanists tried to cover it up and bury not just Eldier's disappearance, but also Pierre! Now Pierre works for the Colony as an unlicensed, unguilded "bio-gadgeteer" and naturalist while trying to find the secrets of Eldier's disappearance.

I love the amount of game hooks we were able to work into a short (well, about 3 hours, so not that short) bullshit session. The fact that all three of us were designing the setting together meant that there was going to be stuff to interest each of us and that we each want to game with. The setting ended up less Deadwood and more Lewis & Clark, and the Thundarr-ness of it seems to have aged a bit to include vast, decadent empires, but I feel that we hit more closely to the game we want to play than if we had just thrown tropes up on the wall and ticked off the ones we wanted to opt into. The setting and the characters still need some polish, but we're definitely on the right track here. Now I just need a map...

Passing On The Torch

I've mentioned before that a lot of my gaming is with folks who (a) have never gamed before, (b) haven't gamed in years, (c) never gamed much or (d) have never played an old school game and that many of my attitudes about beginners's gaming draw on that fact. Well, I'm been given yet another opportunity to teach some kids (well, they're kids to me) about old school gaming, since I've got a new crop of young coworkers who are into all the modern gaming stuff like 4e and Magic: the Gathering. My involvement with the kids started with a young lady whose boyfriend had been trying to get her into D&D, but was making the mistake of starting with 4e; 1/2 hr into character creation, she decided that she was done. When I suggested that they try a version with a lower degree of initial investment as a barrier to entry, I was kind of signing myself up to help out. And so, there's a group of young folks eager to learn the old ways and me, I'm left with trying to figure out how I want to make that happen.

The System

At first, I was tempted to go with the good ol' standbys: Labyrinth Lord or B/X (I know, I know, they're one and the same). I thought about trying out OSRIC but the fiddly nature of 1e-style gaming just didn't jive with my goal of introducing new gamers to old schooliness (which is sort of ironic since 1e gaming is really the soul of OSR gaming; for me, if I ever run a 1e game, it'll be more of a kitchen sink-style "1e for 1e's sake" game, probably for players who never played 1e). DCC seemed like a solid option, and the funnel seemed like a great place to start, but I'm slightly worried about the concept of running multiple PCs and I don't want folks to get discouraged by the "disposable" nature of DCC 0s. This leaves me with Swords & Wizardry, and I was leaning toward Whitebox, or some other sort of LBB clone, when I made my decision: We'll be playing Delving Deeper.

My primary reasons for choosing Delving Deeper work like this:

  • Only two types of dice: the d20 & the d6. All rolls made by players are on these two dice; the Judge gets other dice, so they won't be completely alien to the players, just not necessary. 
  • While Delving Deeper has the "core four" classes, it's designed with the "original three" in mind. I really enjoy the Delving Deeper thief because (a) he can be written out if the group decides that he's not an interesting addition to the game and (b) the skill rolls for him to use his thiefly abilities are very simple, straightforward and do not require percentile dice, plus the idea that what separates a 1st level thief and a 9th level thief is not their thiefly abilities but rather their fighting ability really appeals to me. 
  • I want a rule set that is free so that if the players decide they want to get into the game even further, they can do it with a minimum financial investment. Similarly, I want to be able to print up several "players' books" for use at the table and the LBB style lends itself well to doing that. I might go so far as to print a booklet for each player, but I guess that depends on how many players there will be. 
  • Delving Deeper keeps the "Whitebox-isms" that I like that Holmes Basic throws out, like d6 hit dice for everyone. At the same time, it makes sure that every character class has an edge and that fighters aren't just "everyone else who isn't a cleric, wizard or thief;" they actually have some advantages so someone might just want to play one over another class for reasons other than "party balance." Forget party balance. We don't need that here. 

The Adventure

I thought I'd trot out an old favorite and use B2: Keep On The Borderlands, particularly since it teaches so many adventuring lessons so well. But then, Mr. +Ben Djarum wrote the most amazing series of posts on B1: In Search of the Unknown and completely changed my mind. I've never actually played B1 and always thought that the introductory nature of it for DMs was a little flat. Ben got me interested, however, and I started looking more closely at the module. The great thing about B1 is that it introduces a lot of concepts of dungeon exploration not only to the DM but also the players, especially old school concepts. There are lots of things to play with, decisions to make, pools to drink from, chances to take, tunnels to get lost in, levers to pull, and all that stuff that's the sort of thing we're talking about when we say "player agency." You are free to choose between life and death, danger and safety, glory or not. We've got to get to these kids early on before they fall into the pit of railroaded plots and DM-as-narrator crap, and B1 is a great way to do it!

Since the session will be aimed at new players (not merely new-to-OSR players) and might only be one session ever, I'm not stressing out over the idea that running a specific module and starting at the beginning of it rather than allowing the players to chart their PCs' own course through a sandbox just might be railroading. Instead, I'm viewing it more like the dungeon itself is the sandbox, which is what the original intent of the module seems to be. Now, because there are some tropes that I just can't stand in old Genre D&D, like orcs and goblins and kobolds (oh my!) being your chief enemies on level, I'll be switching stuff up more than a little bit. I love Mr. Djarum's wandering monsters for B1 and will probably be using something very close. Stocking the rooms will be less about rolling up specific encounters but more of rolling up types of encounters and then figuring out which monsters I want to use to fit that bill, however fun it is to leave it all to chance. I'll definitely be reinterpreting some monsters to suit my needs as well (forget troglodytes, it's time for sleestaks!).

Final Word

If you've been following along with Dispatches for awhile, you're probably aware that there's no way that I'll be able to just say "We're playing Delving Deeper" and leave it at that without any house rules or anything. That is not how the Adam do. And yes, I'll have to tinker with B1 quite a bit to make it reflect my personal gaming aesthetic (while not letting it get too weird for newbies). I'll definitely need to rewrite the background info for B1, as well as the players' info (I love what Ben did with his interpretation and, while mine won't ever be the same as his, he definitely inspired where mine is going to go). There are a bunch of details to hash out, but nothing that can't be managed quickly. I sort of feel like it's my job to provide these kids not just with an "ultimate dungeon funhouse playground sandbox" but also one that hips them to my personal brand of gaming aesthetic, which is kind of like telling me "your job is be as awesome as you can be and make sure that other people get it." For some people, that'd be pressure, for me, it's the right kind of challenge. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Monster (Book) Monday: All The Worlds' Monsters, Volume II

When I was growing up geek, there were a lot of things I didn't understand about the gaming materials I held dear. I didn't know that many of the monsters from All The Worlds' Monsters were game stats for beasts from novels by various authors of varying degrees of fame. I'm pretty sure that, back then, even if I had known that, the only name I would have recognized was Lin Carter (nope, I didn't read Vance until years later), and then from Carter's (dreadful) work in Cthulhu Mythos fiction (thankfully, my readings of Conan have never strayed from REH). You can imagine the confusion a young (12 or 13 or so) Adam might have experienced as to why a "Heavy Trooper" was included in Volume I or Volume II's "Strange Little Man," not understanding the source material. Further, my sense of gaming history was nothing like complete (I actually always assumed that D&D had always been like BECMI Basic until AD&D came along; boy was I wrong!), and so I wondered why there would be so many monsters that appeared here in such a different format from that which they appeared elsewhere, when I could even draw comparisons. I mean really, why were there Phraints when there were already Thri-Kreen? (Please don't drop a comment on that, I totally know now that there were no Thri-Kreen back when Dave Hargrave came up with the Phraints, I just didn't know that when I was 12.) Anywhere, here's the poop on ATWM2.


Remember how last time I talked about All The Worlds' Monsters, Vol. I, I mentioned that it was supposed to be a collection of all the best monsters published for D&D in various fanzines and other publications? Steve Perrin also wanted to publish at least one monster from every DM out there at the time which, admittedly, was such an impossible task that I doubt Mr. Perrin ever actually meant to accomplish it. So, when Steve got a bunch of monster submissions from DMs, he justi published that as ATWM1. ATWM2 fulfills Perrin's original vision and reprints many monsters that were printed elsewhere previously, particularly in the pages of the Dungeoneer, Alarums & Excursions and in Dave Hargrave's Arduin Grimoire. I think it's particularly great that the Arduin Grimoire stuff is reprinted here, and I think it gives the modern reader a sense (if only a conceptual one) of the wide-open nature of "back-in-the-day" OD&D, where everything was fair game and concepts like "product identity" had yet to grip the hobby. It feels something like discovering that there was a "West West" of the gaming hobby, that I had missed it, that no one was really talking about it and I had the clues to its existence in my hands. What do the "A&E," "Dun" and "AG" followed by a number in the parenthesis after the authors' names mean? Who knew? (Well, it turns out I could have known all this shit all along if I'd only been paying attention and reading things like forewards to the text and such, but, 13 remember?)


I've got to say, the more time I spend with the ATWM series, the more love the way they're laid out. The landscape view works out fantastically well these days, particularly since the pages fit so well on a computer screen or on my Kindle. Coming in at 112 interior pages containing 243 monsters, ATWM2 is no slouch. The book includes a reprinting of the Perrin Conventions (which only takes up one page and is completely necessary to make sense of some of the rules), advice from Ken St. Andre on how to convert the monsters to Tunnels & Trolls (I'll admit I've not read that part, largely because I still don't get T&T and am okay with that), and several indices (one for this volume, one for both volumes thus far and one for the monsters by dungeon level... god I love dungeon level). If this volume were published in today's gaming climate, you'd expect there to be another index that lists the monsters by source for stuff from A&E, Dungeoneer or Arduin, but that just wasn't how they did things back then, so we won't find it here. 


Yup, this is an ATWM book, and like its predecessor, it features sparse art, but the art that's present is very evocative line art. Most of the art here is better than in Volume I (the Christ Lofthus and Sherry Kramer illos are the best!), with some notable exceptions (the "Dartwing" looks like a schoolkid's rendition of a scene from a Woody Woodpecker cartoon). The "pages typed on a word processor" look is back for round two, and it acquits itself very well. I love the blocky, naive, "bright-eyed and full of promise" childlike optimism of the typeset. 

For all the greatness of the physical aesthetics, there's one sticking point with the design aesthetics that really gets to me. Nearly every monster in the volume is immune to something or another, and it's usually things like charm-magics. A few times, the immunities are prohibitive, as if the writer expects the players to defeat the monster in one specific manner and that's it. To me, that's exceptionally poor (or lazy) design that robs the players of creativity, a "gotcha!" sort of design that just doesn't jive well with my sense of how the game should be played. When using any of these monsters, I'd have to scrub those details right off. 


We now enter a strange space where ATWM2 stands remarkably apart from ATWM1. Since many of the monsters published here appeared elsewhere before, the design of many of these monsters, as I see it, the design decisions that go into the making of the monsters found in early White Dwarf's Fiend Factory column, the precursor to the Fiend Folio. Thus, many of the monsters here are monsters designed for a purpose, to fit a specific niche within a dungeon, to be a setpiece monster rather than just a random encounter. There are only a very few multipurpose "orc-type" monsters here (like the "Erb"), thankfully, so our separation of wheat from chaff is more about looking at what bits of a particular monsters aren't awesome (and then tuning them to be awesome) rather than picking out the pointless from the fun. Some monsters are present merely to be the punchline for a joke (such as the "Wandering Minstrel Eye" and the "Wandering Monster Eye"), and those can still be workable, as long as the joke is set up correctly. In short, with ATWM2, we see the beginnings of the design aesthetic that culminates in the greatest monster book known to man, the Fiend Folio, and the monsters herein just need a little nudge to get over the hump to be perfectly usable and Folioic fiends. 

Final Word/What I'm Stealing

This one is going on the shelf of "places to look for interesting setpiece monsters to fit specific niches." That statement, to me, tends to mean "dungeon inspiration." Who wants another dungeon full of orcs and goblins with no real character or life of their own? I'd rather have an interesting space built in a thoughtful manner that includes challenges and tricks that require some thought to get through and that the players will remember for years. So yeah, that's what I'm stealing: whatever I can steal that will make my game more fun. Which is a total cheat of an answer. I could say that for every book. But really, this one will require enough work to any monster in particular that I can't even predict what I might like to steal. In the end, though, I think that this book will play a bigger role in, say, the OD&D game I plan to run for some younger gamers soon rather than something like my DCC games. Then again... DCC might be just the environment for some of the stranger stuff in the ATWM series...

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Mortality & Mortal Wounds in ACKS

Since Autarch's Adventurer Conqueror King System focuses so clearly on the "end game" of what happens to the player characters at "name level" and beyond, I think it was very wise of the designers to include a system within the rules that makes combat slightly less fatal but just as meaningful as if it had been a normal fatality system. ACKS accomplishes this concept by introducing a table of Mortal Wounds which could, in fact, be fatal, should the PC in question have enough cards stacked against him and/or roll poorly enough. This post isn't designed to explain the intricacies of the Mortal Wounds system, but rather to provide some guidelines for using it, some of which come straight from the ACKS core book and some of which are houserules in play in my Iron Coast campaign (I'll try to signify which is which; HR means "houserule" while RAW means "rules as written"), as well as brief explanations for those guidelines.

  • At Zero Hp, You're Out of the Fight for the Rest of the Encounter (HR)
    • Even if you receive healing that, in other games and with simple math, would take you above zero hit points, you're out of the encounter unless you're healed again.
    • Thus, if Lippu gets his by a verman and reduced to -3 hp, and Artur casts a cure light wounds on him that heals 5 points of damage, Lippu can't just get back in and start fighting again; he's out of the fight and can't help his compatriots. Once Lippu's player has rolled on the Mortal Wounds chart, Artur may slap another cure light wounds to heal Lippu up further, and even bring him around to help fight, but only a second application is sufficient to bring him back to consciousness.
  • Bleed-Out Does Not Occur (RAW)
    • Unlike other systems, characters at or below zero hit points do not lose hit points every round to "bleeding out." A character that drops to zero hit points and receives absolutely no healing or aid may still walk away from the fight; he will roll on the Mortal Wounds table 24 hours after dropping to 0 hp (or below) with a -10 penalty for time elapsed (along with other penalties). 
    • Note to players: make sure your opponents are dead before leaving the battlefield. This is the sort of rules loophole that Judges love to exploit.
  • Roll For Mortal Wounds When Aid Occurs, Not After (RAW)
    • It has been very tempting for me to put off the Mortal Wounds roll until after combat, but it is an essential piece of figuring out just what's wrong with the PC and what further actions his allies may need to take. Once any player character assists any other PC that has dropped, Mortal Wounds are rolled, even if the group plans on providing further assistance. 
  • Healing Spells Provide a Bonus to Mortal Wounds Rolls, Not Actual Healing (RAW Clarification)
    • Under normal circumstances, a cure light wounds spell would provide a PC with 1d6+1 hit points he'd previously lost. When rolling on the Mortal Wounds table, the spell provides no hit points but rather a +1 bonus on the roll ("+1 per level of healing magic used in treatment"); in this regard, the Healing proficiency is much more useful than even a CLW (+2). 
    • If Artur casts cure light wounds on Lippu after Lippu went down to -3 hp, rather than healing back 5 hp, that CLW instead provides Lippu with a +1 bonus to his Mortal Wounds roll, +2 from Artur's Healing proficiency, +2 for happening within one round of the damage that dropped him and -2 from the fact that he's between 1/4 and 1/2 of his total hp below zero for a total of +3 to his Mortal Wounds roll. Roll well, Lippu!
  • Liquid Courage & Mortal Wounds (HR)
    • Since the Iron Coast game uses a Liquid Courage rule (once per session, your PC may take a swig of liquor, the resulting jolt of liquid courage restoring 1d6 hp), it was only a matter of time before someone tried to use that to stabilize a downed compatriot. Just like magical healing, any attempt to invoke Liquid Courage automatically stabilizes the PC in question but does not provide him with any additional hit points. Instead, he gains a +1 bonus to his Mortal Wounds roll. The use of the Liquid Courage rule counts as belonging to the player whose character benefits from the bonus (thus, Artur couldn't use up his use of Liquid Courage to give Lippu a bonus). 
    • This is a new rule for the Iron Coast game and was written to bring the Liquid Courage rules more into line with the rest of the Mortal Wounds rules. 
  • Best Practices
    • Use of healing magic to stabilize a PC is a tradeoff. On one hand, you could be providing the healed PC with a large bonus to his Mortal Wounds roll if the magic is high enough; on the other hand, he will gain no hit points back from the magic, so it could be better to find another way to offset any penalties to the Mortal Wounds roll. Think before you cast. (This could also be a great reason to carry around healing potions, which could either stabilize with a bonus or provide healing.)
    • Down doesn't mean dead. Injured doesn't mean worthless. Unless all of the shit seriously hits every single fan, you might be able to come back from just about anything so be prepared to retreat if too many people are in too bad of shape. You may be able to prevent a TPK even if everyone is missing eyes, knees, fingers, whatever. 
Some of these rules and clarifications (and even this entire post) exist because handling Mortal Wounds is one of the trickiest parts of ACKS. In the Iron Coast, I'll freely admit that we've made some mistakes, but I think it's all stuff we can walk away from with a better understanding of how the rules are supposed to work (and, I'm sure, work really well when they're implemented correctly). All of the rules mentioned here are considered in effect as of this writing, so Iron Coast players had better read up. Thanks go out to +Matt Woodard (Artur) and +Andy Block (Lippu) for the use of their characters for this post. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

DCC Donnerstag: The Signal In The Void

Welcome to yet another post that I've started multiple times but haven't been able to make much headway on. Let's hope this time goes better. Today, we'll be looking at a magical treasure possessed by +Wayne Snyder's seminal Metal Gods thief, Denny Smed, which was the result of Denny assassinating a necromancer before he could become a credible threat and then Wayne asking: "What cool stuff does he have on him?" This was it. 

Izsizshelub, The Signal In The Void

Denny Smed barely understands the treasure that he holds. The small, cylindrical whistle that he took from the dead necromancer's body is made of no substance he's ever encountered before, not wood, not metal (nor even the impossible black metal the Divine Order of the Purple Tentacle have encountered from time to time), but something else. Something violet and resinous, as if it were leaked as an ichor into its current shape by some beast-demon in the aether-swept reach of the cosmos. Perhaps, Denny, perhaps that is the truth of it, for this thing, this strange instrument, looks as if it has no home here, even on a world as strange as Ore.

It's a whistle, of course, and whistles are meant to be blown. When Denny blows the whistle, he knows that he is investing a small portion of his cosmic essence in the thin and tremulous note that issues forth. He does not know whither this damned note wafts, to what dark corner of the universe it wends its way, but he does know that it does not come back alone. Something rides the tone back to Denny, some lonely daemon-spirit, summoned to this world by that haunting note. That something looks for a home but, being an inscrutable something from realms beyond Man's understanding, can find purchase solely in the bodies of the deceased, animating them with a semblance of life, bound to serve the whims of the whistler.

Denny does not know yet whether the whistle will exact any price worse than a sliver of his soul, nor is he terribly worried if it should. He has seen his wizardly companions face the corruption of their bodies and souls and yet they still command vast powers beyond his understanding; price be damned, for Izsizshelub, the Signal in the Void, has made Denny more than a mere thief.

Game Effects

When blown in the proximity of a suitable host to the animating daemon-spirit, the user loses one or two points of Luck (see below) and 1d3! rounds later, the corpse rises as undead. Quite old corpses will rise as mere skeletons (requiring the loss of 1 point of Luck) whereas fresher corpses will rise as zombies (requiring the loss of 2 points of Luck), under the complete control of the user. The Luck points spent in this manner may not be recovered by halfings and thieves through rest and can only be regained through an award from the Judge. These skeletons and zombie have normal statistics for monsters of their type (as per the DCC core book), but often have what might best be described as "personality quirks" which they inherit from their animating spirits. The Judge should have as much fun with these quirks as he can reasonably have.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Month In Gaming: September

Well folks, one more month of great gaming under the belt and another one is under way. Here's what September looked like from where I sit.

Jewels of the Carnifex

The Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad crew plowed through +Harley Stroh's Jewels of the Carnifex module in September. I think that this is only the second published module that the group has ever been through (the first being Brave Halfling's The Vile Worm. The crew lived in fear of this module and were certain that all of them would die. They went for overkill whenever possible, just to make sure that whatever they were facing, they had it under control. This overkill factor led to some really interesting situations like The-Hairy-Wizard-Formerly-Known-As-Ian (or "Formerly Ian" as we call him for short), after experiencing numerous counts of corruption, Spellburning down nearly all of his eligible Ability Scores. The group narrowly avoided death several times, fell victim to some of the more nefarious tricks in the dungeon (Denny Smed, +Wayne Snyder's veteran thief, is now 18 years older due to one trap, which prompted the question from Wayne "How old am I anyway?") and found themselves facing off against a horde of disturbing mutants led by an apparent demigod. I don't want to ruin the module for anyone, since it's definitely fun and brutal. Note to Judges: as you're reading this one through, bring your players along with you for the journey. Picture what they're going to want to do in each room and how they're probably going to fuck with things. If you want to get all the SPOILERS you can check out +Edgar Johnson's very excellent blog for the session recaps (HERE, HERE and HERE).

I really enjoyed running one of Harley's modules again (I ran Sailors on the Starless Sea for the Game of Taps crew last year and had a blast with it). He's a guy who just really understands the nuts and bolts of what makes an adventure fun and he provides the Judge with all sorts of exciting ways to engage his players, reward "good dungeon behavior" and still provide great thrills along the way amid the sea of paranoid caution. I love it all, Mr. Stroh, keep 'em coming.

The Iron Coast's Lichway Excursion

This past Sunday night, the Iron Coast ACKS group finished off its trip into the Lichway by finally finding the lost treasures of the Sandlanders. There are some things that I felt I did very right and some things that I felt I did very wrong, but I feel that it'll all wash out in the end. At the end of the Lichway, no fewer than three henchmen were dead, one henchman was suffering from debilitating disease, two PCs and one henchman were suffering from Mummy Rot (I took some liberties with the original stocking of the dungeon to make it more terrifying), three PCs had had to roll on the "back from death's door" table (the Mortal Wounds table) and the group was completely bereft of resources. Every spell had been cast, every potion drunk, every Liquid Courage roll used up, but every treasure had been located (I think), every secret door had been opened, every avenue for profit explored. At one point, I believe +Paul Linkowski said "I think we've found all the treasure. If we find anything else, it'll probably be trying to kill us."

In the "stuff I did wrong" column, I'll admit to going softer on the crew than I should have. In particular, when the guys were facing a duo of mummies (again, creative license), I still let the guys suffering from Mummy Rot gain half the healing from the Liquid Courage rule, despite the fact that Mummy Rot prevents all healing. I shouldn't have soft-balled that one. +Mark Donkers thinks that I gave the party too much treasure (and thus XP), but I'm not so sure I messed that up. Based on my experiences as an ACKS player, I think the treasure is right about where I'd want it. For me, the fun of ACKS is the domain game part of it, where the players have to sink vast amounts of money into furthering their goals. Paul's thief Oosh, for example, is starting up an "orphanage" in Port Scourge that will "definitely not" be a front for Caixalla's new witch coven nor Oosh's future thieves guild. Further, protecting the moneys that the group has earned (and even carting it home and selling off treasures) can be a valid source of adventure. As the first adventure winds down and the party looks to sort out exactly what happens next, they have many valuable items to get rid of, henchmen to hire, expeditions to plan (and provision), and it feels like the bulk of the next session will be in town bookkeeping and troublemaking (you just know that +Andy Block's character Lippu will have to face off with his Pirate Captain nemesis, it's only natural). Where are the players stashing all their loot? Who's going to look after it for them? Who's looking out for their interests and who's looking to take them for everything they're worth? This is the stuff that the team will have to confront next session.

Lots and Lots of Miniatures

The first new minis I've painted
in at least a decade
I've gotten back into painting minis, in large part thanks to the fact that there's a hobby shop right down the street from me. It's a nice, small, Mom & Pop sort of joint that caters more toward the modelling hobby, but has some options for wargame-y type minis (including some Citadel stuff and even a Citadel clearance shelf), which is far too convenient. I used to play 40k a lot back in the day (well, maybe not a lot, but enough that I considered myself up on the hobby in the late 90's) and I still have my soft cover copy of 1e 40k (I never got into WH Fantasy because money), though my Space Marines and Orks are MIA, so it's been fun getting my painting chops back on fantasy minis, especially since I can use them at the gaming table. My first efforts were a Gor Herd unit which, of course, get used as beastmen of the Herd in the Iron Coast. I'm messing with some Skaven, but I think that next up will be some Dark Elves (because the Nightmare/Elder Elves of Ore are a pretty badass enemy for PCs). I've been experimenting with non-Citadel paints because, again, money, something I never would have done in the olden days. Well, maybe the oldest of my olden days, but not my last "40k active" days.

I know that by now, you're probably sick of hearing about the new Reaper Bones II Kickstarter that went up today, but yeah, my newly-reborn love of minis-painting prompted me to kick for that. It was pretty amazing how fast they went from around 200k when I kicked to the 659k as of this writing (which will probably be more by the time I'm done writing). But, since those won't show up for about another year, I can't really count them in as minis on my horizon to paint. As it stands, I have, as I mentioned, some GW Dark Elf corsairs that are up next, but I'm not sure what's coming after that. I'm thinking that, with all the Iskurlandik action going on in the Iron Coast game, I'll need to pick up some vikings (I'm thinking about the Wargames Factory Viking Huscarls in case you were wondering), which makes a ton of sense to me (plus, they're cheap and should be fun to paint).

Ypsilanti Games Night

In an effort to get more folks at the gaming table, more folks sharing their kickass hobbies with other folks and more folks playing with other folks they don't often get a chance to play with, my lovely wife and I are working on sorting out a monthly gaming night at the Tap Room in beautiful downtown Ypsilanti. This is a great chance for me to run more DCC for the public (and maybe even earn that belt buckle) as well as to give some other GMs and other games some exposure. Right now, the wife and I still have to finalize plans with the Tap's boss lady so it's all up in the air. I am recruiting some other GMs to run things at other tables while I kill off some funnelbait, so let me know if you're interested. It would be a pretty unstructured "bring what you want to play" sort of thing other than that, though, which can work out nicely. Frankly, U-Con's "Games Library Day" has two things against it in my book: (1) it's during the day on Sunday (which is either for working or sleeping for me, depending on the week) and (2) it's focused far too much on board and card games with no room for rpgs or wargames, which are what I'd be far more interested in. Boardgames are fine, but not something I choose to spend much time on unless it rewards investment (like HeroQuest does), and there's no point in planning for them. If you have them and want to play them, bring them, other than that, I'm done with the subject.

Oddly enough, just last night, someone asked me completely unsolicited whether I'd be running any tabletop gaming this fall at the bar because he's interested in getting in on it. The time appears to be right!

Pulaski Days

I've mentioned it before, but this weekend marks not only the 36th anniversary of my birth, but also the Pulaski Days Polish heritage festival in Grand Rapids, MI. Polka, piwo and pierogi. If you didn't understand that last sentence, then you probably don't belong there. The weekend also marks my annual trip to Argos Bookstore in East Town, a place that's always chocked-full of treasures. We'll be moving from hall to hall, getting a plate of food and a beer, washing it down with another beer, dancing off said beer and then moving on to the next hall all day on Friday and Saturday, cooling off with a trip to the John Ball Park Zoo (which has $5 admission in the off season, so it's a bargain) on Sunday. It'll be a blast, even if my brother DID back out at the last minute!

Oh, and when I come back from Pulaski Days, it'll finally be time for +Edgar Johnson+Wayne Snyder & I to unveil our secret project. Get excited!