Sunday, December 29, 2013

Announcing Henchmen Week

I spent a long time last night working on a post for the old blog here about henchmen. Running several different old school-style games at the same time often means that I end up cobbling together several different rule systems into a whole that's only cohesive so long as I keep it all in sight at the same time, which means that whenever I switch systems, I tend to lose sight of some of the particulars of my loose alliance of vaguely compatible rules and occasionally end up contradicting myself or creating opportunities for the more nit-picky among players to try to find loopholes. So, I decided that I need a single Unified Henchmen Theory to straighten out the parts that need straightening out to help me keep my eye on every part of strange -- though often useful -- whole.

Last night, I tried to write that Unified Henchmen Theory, but I realized I had far too much to say for a single post. How can I confine all the tools I'd need to handle henchmen in each different system to a single post? Instead, I decided today (in my frustration over my inability to keep it down to one post) to a whole week of posts about henchmen, not that it's going to end up terribly complicated or anything, just that I've got a lot of ground to cover. And while we're at it, I'd love to hear your ideas as well.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Game Night Wish List

I've talked before about starting up a monthly game night at my favorite local watering hole, Ypsilanti's classic Tap Room. So far, the only detail that we've (we being my wife and a few friends, including a few of the Tap Room's staff who want to make sure it's their night off so they can attend) gotten straight is that it will occur on Wednesday nights and will be at most once a month. Exactly what games will be played by whom with whom and for how long are all up in the air. It should be obvious that I plan on running at least one something each month, but there are plenty of other folks who have volunteered to run or host something (including +Donn Stroud). Now, a lot of the stuff that people want to play is boardgames and probably some card games, which is cool and all, but those aren't the sort of games that I'm looking forward to. And so, here's my wish list of games that I'm hoping to play at these shebangs. Maybe I'll run some, maybe I'll get to play, but whatever.

Dungeon Crawl Classics

This one really shouldn't be much of a surprise to folks. It's been awhile since I've run DCC in public (GenCon anyone?), and I always have a blast with it. There's something about the confluence of DCC and booze that's like peanut butter & chocolate. Funnel adventures (especially with my Deck of Many Zeroes, which always features 52 unique 0-levels) are a great way to introduce folks to old schooliness. Also, most of the rules are pretty easy for folks to get a handle on at least in funnel games, which might be all we ever do. Or maybe just some short adventures like the two +Harley Stroh joints, Tower of the Black Pearl and Well of the Worm. Fun, short stuff like that to really show off the fun parts of gaming.

Arkham Horror/Elder Sign

I've never actually played these ones and am feeling like I'm missing out. I, of course, wouldn't be running it, but I'd love to play. So, pals of mine in SE Michigan, if you have a copy of either AH or ES and are willing to teach it to a group of drunken louts, let's hook it up.

Call of Cthulhu/Trail of Cthulhu

While we're on the subject of Lovecraft-inspired gaming, lets talk about the classics and a pretty good reinterpretation of that classic. Game night rpg sessions seem to be ideal for the death or dementia outcomes that are commonplace in CoC-style games. I haven't had the opportunity to play CoC... ever. Nope, not once. I ran the hell out of it back in the 90's, but never once was able to play. That having been said, I'll gladly do either.


Lately, the idea of the OSR being things other than D&D clones has been gaining more traction, which is good, because I think that's a pretty lame distinction. D&D wasn't the only awesome game back in the day, and old schooliness should encompass RQ, Gamma World, Traveller and all that sort of awesome stuff that I dig from back in the day. Yeah, I know that's selfish, to want to include all the cool old stuff I dig, but it turns out that other people dig the same stuff too, so the discovery that there's a whole mess of old school Warhammer aficionados out there playing the edition that got me excited about wargaming back in the 80's and love the same classic models and grotty art that made me fall in love with White Dwarf and the idea of sending tons of 25mm warriors off to their demise. The idea of gaming with the open platforms that are WH3e and 40k1e, with (or even without) classic lead just makes my wobbly parts go all tingly. So, I'd really enjoy finding a few other folks interested in low point-value skirmishes with a round robin structure for GMing and scenario design. If it ever happens. Who knows. It'd be badass if it did, though.

Car Wars

Remember Car Wars? Why isn't it still an awesome thing that geeks play all the time? Why don't I have any Hot Wheels cars with plastic guns from action figures glued onto them? Why do I have no idea how to actually play Car Wars? All I know about this game is that it should be ridicu-fun and I want learn everything I can from someone who already knows the score. While we're at it, I'd love to learn OGRE, too, and pretty much any of the microgames that Steve Jackson used to put out.

Well, that's all I can come up with right now. I'm sure that I'll come up with a longer laundry list of games I want to work into the mix. Here's hoping it actually becomes a thing.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ritual Magic In Delving Deeper

This last Sunday it was time yet again for my bi-weekly Delving Deeper game set in Quasquetherion, my own take on B1: In Search of the Unknown. Being an OD&D whitebox clone, Delving Deeper has the benefit of feeling like there's a lot of room to make changes to the rules, to customize things to fit exactly the game I want to run. This is the version of D&D that spawned a host of unique rules and rulings, whose growth was encouraged by articles in fanzines that broadly expanded the game, who spawned a wealth of fanmade supplements and launched a thousand houserules. This is the D&D that Delving Deeper emulates, that's why I chose it and that's why I'm glad to be teaching my "new to old school" players "how to old school" using it.

And so, let's talk magic.

When we were rolling up our characters for our first session of the Quasquetherion campaign, the Delving Deeper spells seemed like a solid starting block. Yeah, they leave a little to be desired, but they reflect the state of magic in D&D at the get go, so I didn't add anything to the mix, just took the spells as written. I couldn't find how many spells a 1st level magic user starts with in DD (and, as +Simon Bull pointed out awhile ago here in a comment, magic users' spellbooks start with every spell in the book), so I deci;ded that an MU should start with 2 spells, plus an additional one if his Intelligence his 13 or better. So, our group's two magic users started the campaign with three spells apiece (to be honest, I'm not sure what they are, either, so I may have to deal with the "can't I just copy his spells?" problem), and so each MU has a distinct repertoire, which gives him a peculiar niche and individual flair, which is something I'm definitely trying to reinforce. In order to help amp up the feeling of "everybody gets something unique," I'm also adding a neat thing to magic users: every magic user gets one first level "magic ritual."

Ritual Magic

I really enjoyed the concept of magic rituals as presented by D&D 4e. For the uninitiated, the idea is that some spells aren't the sort of spells you'd bother memorizing because they're not the sort of thing you'd use in the middle of an adventure, but rather that you'd cast in between adventures to accomplish a specific thing at that point. Did anyone ever seriously prepare the spell "find familiar?" No? I didn't think so. Magic rituals are how you classify the sorts of spells that you'd bother preparing and the sort that you'd choose to cast on your off days.

When you choose to prepare a spell, and then again when you choose to cast it, you're making a choice to use up some of your character's resources. By the same token, magic rituals should not be license for the magic user to do whatever he wants outside of the dungeon. But, outside of the dungeon, few resources make any difference other than the two things that players are trying to accumulate: treasure and experience points. Now, my 3e days are behind me, and I believe that burning xp for magical gain merely discourages players for doing so, which is no good. So, magic users in my Quasquetherion game (and later, clerics, should there ever be any) need to spend gold to acquire the herbs, chemicals, mystical bits & bobs, secret inks and parchments and, yes, even drugs they need to cast their magic rituals. Thus it is that magic rituals cost 100gp per spell level to cast.

Casting a ritual is also not an instantaneous sort of thing. One does not merely speak a magical phrase, wave one's arms about and work these wonders. Instead, the magic user must spend at least 4 hours per level of the ritual to cast it. These hours may be spread out over the course of a number of days equal to the ritual's level, but may not exceed more than 8 hours in a single day. By expending additional resources, the magic user may reduce the time to enact the ritual in a proportionate manner (doubling the expenditure halves the time, quadrupling the expenditure quarters the time, etc.).

First Level Ritual List

  • Find Familiar - summons and bonds a spirit being to the magic user, to serve as his assistant. Usually appears as an animal.
  • Identify - Determines one magic property of a held or carried magic item per level of the caster. 
  • Message* - The caster may speak a message of 25 words or fewer and designate a recipient of that message who is known to him. The message travels at a speed of 18 miles per hour, flying in as straight a path as it can manage.
  • Speak With Animals* - The caster may speak with animals in his locale for a short time (a number of rounds equal to 1 plus the caster's level). 
  • Comprehend Languages* - The caster understands any language he reads or hears for a number of hours equal to his level. 
  • Mending* - Repairs one small or broken item per level of the caster. Damaged items may have 10 hp restored per caster level instead. 
  • Arcane Steed - The caster summons a mount from the gulfs between the stars (or somewhere like that) that will carry him for a number of hours equal to his prime requisite. A fifth level caster may summon a flying steed. 
* A memorizable/preparable version of this spell probably exists as well. 


Any treatment of ritual magic would be remiss if it failed to mention the potential for life force to power the arcane arts. A magic user may injure a willing victim (including himself) for any number of dice of damage (remember, this is Delving Deeper, so all dice of damage are d6's). Every die of damage counts as 100 gp for the purposes of determining the resources expended to cast the spell (thus, 2d6 damage could completely power a 1st-level ritual without any expenditure of gp and make the ritual take half as long). Similarly, sacrificing unwilling victims (effectively "harvests" the hit dice of the victims, where every whole hit die "harvested" provides 100 gp of resources toward the casting and quickening of the spell. Any sacrifice must be performed as part of the ritual's casting (and so, the amount of the HD or damage dice involved in the ritual must be determined before it is enacted) and requires that the victim be conscious and healthy (not already near death; sacrificing beaten-up captives that you just defeated won't work). Sacrificing unwilling victims is, by its very nature, an inherently Chaotic act and will not be tolerated by Lawful or even Neutral characters. Further, repeated sacrifice of the unwilling will likely attract the attention of Chaos Lords and demons and may even result in some sort of magical corruption of body if not soul. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Monster Monday: The Villainous Vermounts of the Vermen!

Last night's heavily-improved Iron Coast session called for vermen (see previous Monster Monday posts) to be mounted. In the scenario I was running, goblins were supposed to ride giant wolves, but this is Ore and there ain't no damn goblins, and why the hell would a ratman ride a wolf? That just don't make sense. Nope, I reasoned, the vermen deserved a vermount just as creepy as themselves. Also, I'm terrified by opossums. 

Giant Opossum (Posskum)

% In Lair: 20%
Dungeon Enc: Pack (1d4); Den (1d6+2)
Wilderness Enc: Den (1d6+2); Warren (2d6+2 dens)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 150' (climb 120)
Armor Class: 3
Hit Dice: 3
Attacks: 1
Damage: bite 1d6
Save: F2
Morale: -1
Treasure Type: F (warren only)
XP: 50

Long ago, the vermen of the Iron Coast domesticated a strain of bestial mutants distantly related to the verman possumbrutes. These bestial mutants, called "posskum" in both the Black Speech and the common tongue, were first raised as beasts of burden, then guard beasts and were ultimately domesticated to become the favored mounts of certain tribes of vermen. Notably, the Orphan Baronies have been plagued for generations by the posskum cavalry of the Isaskrisit ("skull-headed") tribe.

Giant Opossums, as they are properly known, are excellent climbers and remarkably stealthy for their large size; in fact, they have a +1 bonus to surprise and a climb rate of 120. Due to their relatively loose but thick hide, vermen may ride posskum bareback with little chance of being unseated (+1 to saving throws to avoid being dismounted). Finally, since most posskum share the filthy conditions of their vermen masters, every 4th posskum is infected with disease, though often of a weak variety (+2 to saves against it).

Last night's Iron Coast game featuring the posskum was a strange form of catharsis for me. When the PCs first faced them, they were shocked and repulsed by their... fucking creepiness. They're goddamn opossums! The posskum really leveled the playing field against the assembled might of the PCs who otherwise would have completely outclassed the vermen they were fighting. The hits the posskum were getting in proved they were a threat, justifying (if only imaginarily) my own irrational fear of these disgusting marsupials. Plus, I got to be there when the players killed a ton of these things, often in remarkably dramatic and messy ways. Either way, I won. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Someone Out There Gets Me

Thanks to +Erik Tenkar, I found out today that +Charles Akins wrote not only the best damn list of OSR blogs ever assembled, but also a brief description of Kickassistan here that I found to be terribly complimentary. Charles writes:
Dispatches From Kickassistan A blog that tends to leave me thinking about how much fun it is to be playing Dungeons and Dragons style games without attempting to tell me that I'm a moron for going my own way. Great introduction to this blog by the way. Updates: About eleven times a month. 
I'm deeply, profoundly proud that this is the experience that Charles has had with Kickassistan. Folks who know me know that when I have negative feelings about a thing, bile and vitriol is all I can manage. Somewhere along the line, I knew that I didn't want Kickassistan to be yet another blog of rants and jeers and negative effluvium (other than those "Did I Seriously Just Watch...?" posts I used to do; I kind of miss those), because I don't enjoy reading those. I've been tempted several times to vent about this or that thing, issue or book, but I don't see a point in it. At the end of the day, you deserve to enjoy the things you enjoy and you definitely don't deserve someone shitting all over them.

And so, +Charles Akins, I'm very glad that Kickassistan has you thinking about how much fun it is to be playing D&D -- or whatever else it is you might choose to play -- and going is your own way is the only way for you to go. You've reminded me what Kickassistan is all about, and for that I thank you.

Tales of Crowdfunding Triumph

Anyone who has talked to me in person (or even on G+ hangouts) since August knows that there's a particular Kickstarter project that left me filled with rage.,  No, I won't talk about it here, though I am often sorely tempted to. Just alluding to the existence of this particular project and how upset I am about it has gotten me kind of pissed off all over again and has nearly derailed this entire post up in my brainspace. But I won't let that happen, folks, because I have some projects to praise. Yep, praise. Let's get started.

Runequest 6 Hardcover - IndieGoGo Campaign from Design Mechanism

Still fighting the same fight since '78
Some readers might remember that I talk about RuneQuest from time to time. I feel odd admitting this, but I've admitted it before, and so I'll tell you folks that (a) I've never played RQ (nope, not ever, not even once), nor (b) did I realize until last year that RQ was so pivotal an early RPG that it provided the basis of the BRP system that one of my favorite games of all time, Call of Cthulhu, runs on. Yeah, I just didn't touch it. So, when my interest in the history of RPGs branched off from D&D into games, I started checking out this RQ thing and I really liked what I saw pretty much across the board, whether the edition was published by Chaosium, Mongoose or Design Mechanism. So, when the RQ6 hardback came up on IndieGoGo at a kick level that cost pretty much the same as an RQ6 softcover but would net me not just the hardcover, but also a slipcover for it and a (legal and drm-free) pdf copy, I had to bite. Once the campaign was over, I watched the updates eagerly until about a month or two ago, when all the other crowd funding stuff and zine stuff pushed old RQ6 right out of my brain, so it was a fantastic surprise on Black Friday when my copy showed up (and, as someone who works in retail, that was a pretty sweet thing to come home to). All in all, this project came to fruition fairly swiftly and the end result is, frankly stunning. I feel like I lucked out on this one. Well done, Design Mechanism, well done.

Arcana Rising - Kickstarter from Bedroom Wall Press

I have a few friends (primarily +Jonathon Repholz) who talk about the golden age when they'd pick up every product that rolled out of the doors of TSR and would devour them. That form of customer loyalty is very rare in today's RPG market (except for all those rabid Pathfinder folks; have fun with the profits, Paizo!), but I've found a company that I'm willing to gamble on. I'll be the first person to admit that I'm not typically a fan of modern-day settings, and so, when I heard that Bedroom Wall Press were making one, I felt that, if BWP's Hulks & Horrors had taught me anything, it was that BWP were great at making flavorful, interesting settings and robust OSR rules to match. I also thought that, if worse came to worst and Arcana Rising sucked, I'd at least have supported a publisher whose other work I really like. Yes, as far as I'm concerned, H&H was good enough for me to spend another $20 on another product by the same company even if that other product ended up being crap. The good news is that Arcana Rising lived up to my expectations of a BWP product and presents a solid old school rule set in an interesting modern-era setting. Huh. Who knew. I'm still far more likely to play H&H, but AR is pretty damn tight.

Shadows of Esteren Book 2, Travels - Kickstarter from Agate RPG

A bit ago (was it a year?), I got really excited about Shadows of Esteren. This French-language RPG looked gorgeous and proposed to blend a few genres that I adore. While Agate hyped the game's Cthulhuoid horror aspects, what drew me in (other than the promise of antediluvian evil) was the merger of that horror with fantasy in a manner that seemed to suggest to me the films of Guillermo del Toro, particularly Pan's Labyrinth and Devil's Backbone (we don't need to talk about anything else, ever). I had meant to get in on the Book 1, Universe Kickstarter when it went live last year and so I was really surprised when this year Agate launched a KS for Book 2. These guys seem to be translating stuff at a crazy rate. In fact, mere weeks after the completion of the KS, Agate had copies of the book ready for KS backer pick up and for sale at GenCon. Whaaaa? Didn't you only just get your money? How did you do that so damn fast? It was about that time that I realized that the KS wasn't so much to fund Book 2 as it was to fund Book 3. Hmm. Anyway, the Shadows books are remarkably sexy affairs, with fantastic full-color art oan every page. I'm serious. I can't find a page that doesn't have any art on it (of course, I'm not looking terribly hard). Reading the books, though, I've found a few spots where they might have wanted to slow down the translation schedule because some of the word choices... were... not ideal. One of the core characteristics, for example, is called "Combativeness." That just doesn't roll off the tongue the way you might want one of the defining traits of every character to do. Similarly, there are some instances of wonky syn tax or awkward wordings that I've learned to associate with ... not necessarily bad translations, more like improper  translations. Remember in school when you were told to select the best answer from a list where most or all of the options were true? You didn't get that one right just by picking a true answer, you had to choose the one that was the best fit for the situation. That's how the translation of Shadows feels; yes, the words are correct translations, but they're not usually the best translations. If you need an example of what I'm talking about, watch any Anime series dubbed into English; they're always correct but not the best. So, yes, I dig the product line, and am really happy about how they fulfilled their obligations to me and their other Kickers, but I wish they had used a better editor.

I write this post shortly after getting the news of the grave having been dug on the Kickstarter for the 25th Anniversary edition of HeroQuest, a legal debacle. Apparently, the company running the KS will move over to a Europe-centric crowd funding site where US legal BS won't apply, so Moon Design and Hasbro's trademarks won't matter. I thought that, rather than fixate on something that was breaking my gamer heart, it was time to discuss some of the real triumphs in crowdfunding for the role playing game industry. There are still good folks out there, and crowd funding isn't dead or filled with scammers just yet.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

It Turns Out That I Just Don't Get Fate

For the past few weeks, +Jason Hobbs+Ray Case+Donn Stroud and I have been spending our Tuesday nights trying to figure out how to play Fate. I'm sure I've talked about this before. The setting that we had come up with was pretty damn cool, as were the characters. As far as we could tell, we'd all done everything right. We had aspects that read well, a very cool and relatively literary concept behind the setting and (we thought) a pretty keen grasp on what the setting meant. But then, two sessions in, it all fell apart and we've had to switch systems (but are thankfully still keeping the game alive!). Here's what happened.

Adam Has Never Played Fate

My first experience with playing Fate was running it for the first session of this particular campaign (called the "Fate of the Harshlands" because I was lazy). I think if I had played Fate before, I would have identified a few key issues that separate how I DM from how a good Fate DM does. There are some systems that I can readily identify as ones that I'd want to play before I ever tried to run, often because they don't make sense to me on the surface and I need to see how a good DM who's familiar with the system uses it. I'm still waiting for +Christopher Smith to teach me how to play Burning Wheel/Mouse Guard because my brain just doesn't work that way.

And so, somehow, I thought I'd had a handle on Fate, but I hadn't. I read the books, love the books, love so many things about the rules, but there were some things that just hadn't clicked and hadn't clicked so hard that I hadn't even realized that they hadn't clicked. They were the sort of things that I might have noticed had I played Fate before I tried running Fate. Who knows. I might not have. But I sure felt handicapped trying to run it because (a) Fate wants constant conflict, (b) Fate makes you have to think in soundbites and (c) consensus isn't always the best.

Fate Wants Constant Conflict

A year ago, I was playing in a d6 Star Wars game (I still love that system!) regularly, when something I'd never thought about that system occurred to me: the system works almost entirely on an oppositional basis, in that nearly everything a character does is opposed by someone else, largely eschewing objective difficulty in favor of relative difficulty. That was a mouthful. Here's the thing: in WEG's d6 system, there is room for objective difficulty, but it's been my experience (especially as someone who ran the hell out of the system back in the 90's), that no one really uses them, and instead just rolling some dice in opposition. This is really easy when there's someone acting in opposition to the character, but viable when there isn't, too. I think you get the gist.

Fate, as far as I can tell, works the same, which, these days, doesn't exactly sit right in my brain. In Fate, it seems like there should always be some for of opposition acting against the PCs, whether that opposition is NPCs or even the setting itself. This fact didn't sink in right away nor is it readily obvious and became apparent to me when I realized that we, as a play group, were using only a few of the doohickeys and doodads on our character sheets. Aspects were invoked, but infrequently. Fate points were rarely spent (though earned on occasion). Approaches weren't used as often as I'd have assumed. No one ever took any strain. It dawned on me that we would have gotten to play with more of the features of the system if, much like how I used to use d6 SW, most actions were set up as conflicts. Man, I was not prepared for that.

Thinking In Soundbites

It seems to me that one of the keys to being able to run Fate effectively is the ability to quickly and easily boil circumstances down to a very slim definition in order to turn those circumstances into an Aspect. On the surface, it seems like a good idea to be able and like it should be pretty easy. It could be, if it were obvious which parts of the given circumstance need defining, which usually, it's not. Well, not to me, not yet. Since I never know how many aspects I'll "need" to represent the given scenario, the amount of prep I'd need to do seems to me to defeat the purpose of Fate: that it can be used on the fly to represent in simple game terms via the selfsame aspects that I'm having so much trouble boiling things down to.

Consensus Isn't Always the Best

I know I'm betraying my Polish roots here (extra points if you understand that), but there are times when consensus just doesn't work in games. Sometimes, someone has to be in charge. Sometimes, a DM just has to stand up and say "it's not like that, it's like this," particularly if there's to be any sort of suspense or mystery in the game. Fate, as far as I can tell, seems to be driven by consensus and rely on it for integrity in order to make sure that the aspects in play function correctly. This part leaves me pretty confused because if there's going to be consensus on things and what they mean, then it seems pointless for there to be a central authority (the DM) on those selfsame meanings. Further, at least for the moment, it seems like a self-defeating effort to create consensus about anything that requires any sort of subterfuge or misdirection, making mysteries and suspense seem somewhat counterintuitive, if only from an ideological standpoint. I know that wouldn't matter to everyone, but it definitely matters to me.

How To Teach Myself Fate

I still really want to play in a Fate game sometime to see how someone else handles all of the stuff I can't seem to get a grip on. But, I'm sure that I can still teach myself how to run Fate without ever having played it, particularly since I know why my first attempt fell flat. First, I'd need to be working with a well-defined genre or IP, something like the Cthulhu Mythos or the Star Wars Universe. Second, it would have to have a finite scope so that there is an implicit (or explicit) goal and boundaries for the scenario. So, basically, a one-shot or con-style, single-slot session. The scenario should be set up as a series of conflicts rather than (as was my initial mistake) a situation to explore, so opposition is in and investigation isn't exactly out, but definitely won't be as central as it might have been in a normal Adam-style game.

So there you go. I might not get Fate, but I get what I don't get it and how I could teach myself to get it. For the current "Harshlands" campaign, I've given up on Fate, but I haven't given up on the system. Maybe I'll sort out a special occasion game when I have an idea that I think will translate well to Fate. In the meantime, though, the Harshlands will be rocking out LotFP's excellent Weird Fantasy rpg, which I'm viewing as a great opportunity to run an excellent rule system that I haven't gotten enough time to monkey around with yet, which is already working. So, until I figure out a thing that I think really needs to happen, gaming-wise, I'll wait it out until I've had the chance to play Fate.