Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Some Advice For Getting Started On G+ For The Gaming Community

Occasionally, it is pointed out to me that not every gamer worth talking to uses Google+. This is a damn shame. Most of the excuses I hear from non-G+ gamers include language about "switching" from Facebook or that G+ is some sort of "ghost town." I don't consider myself to have "switched" to G+; I still check Facebook every day or two, but since the conversation on G+ is much more interesting than the cat video that someone else's Grandma "liked" or the twelve-thousandth ad for the same idiotic time sink of a video game with a different name, G+ is where I go for most of my conversation about things that actually interest me. Some people use forums (somehow), I use G+, as does quite a lot of the gaming community, particularly the folks worth talking to (if you want gaming hipsters, you can ad Twitter, too, but pretty much all of the good conversation revolves around @TimCallahan). The "ghost town" rhetoric is also clearly, patently false and can only the result of people not knowing how circles work or that they should add people to them. In reality, this bias boils down to "I don't know how to use it," which is also the third most common complaint I hear/read about G+. And so, we have the #1 complaint ("I don't want to switch") being irrelevant and the #2 & #3 complaint being the same thing.

As you might have guessed from this post's title, today we're going to talk about how to get over the "I don't know how to use it" hurdle, especially with an eye on the gaming community. I know not all of you asked for this (and really, if you don't need/want it, you can tune out right now, I promise I won't be offended).

#1 -  Turn Off Your +1 Shares

G+ automatically defaults to a setting that no one wants you to use: it automatically defaults to sharing when you "+1" something (the G+ equivalent of "liking" on FB) with everyone who has you in a circle. Any circle. This is bad for two reasons:

  • First, it lets the world know that you "+1ed" a lame-ass cute cat video. Such shame cannot be undone.
  • Second, since that plus is shared with all of your circles, folks who may have you in one circle might see things you've plussed that are completely unrelated to that circle. 
To understand why the second point there is a problem, consider that I might have more than one interest (shocking, I know, but it's true) and that my "+1 shares" are on. If I plus a post about something you find offensive (like pretty much anything political) or inflammatory (again, Politics) or just not good. You don't want to see that thing. You didn't ask for it to show up in your stream, and yet it does. Turning off "+1 shares" makes sure you're not that asshole who does that to everybody. For more info on how to turn off these shares, check out this post on G+:


#2 - No, Seriously, Fill Out Your Profile

I don't really care where you went to school. "School of hard knocks" is only funny the first ten times you see it, though; then it gets irritating. The real reason for personalizing your profile is to tell the world (and potential other gamers) a bit about yourself. Want to find gamers local to you? It might make sense to fill in your location and maybe some games you're interested in. Actually, if you want to get involved in the online gaming community, freaking talk about it; gaming isn't something to be ashamed of and hidden away on some "uber-pryv8" account somewhere. If you're that embarrassed that you're a gamer, you probably shouldn't involve yourself in the community. But that's me, being an asshole.

As a moderator of several G+ communities, most of which are private, I can tell you that when I get people asking to join, the first thing that I do is look at their G+ profile. If they talk about gaming on it, make posts about it or even just self-identify as a gamer, they're in. If they don't talk about gaming at all, I don't feel confident that they can add anything to the community, so I don't add them. And this, I feel, is setting the bar low. So please, help a brother out and fill in your profile with the appropriate game facts.

#3 - Five Communities To Join

Just now, when you thought I was going to give you a handy-dandy list of links that just say "go here, do this," I'm going to pull the rug out from under that thought and make you do work. Anything worth doing is worth doing right, and that's always going to require some work. Also, I don't know what you're into, so rather than me just giving you five specific communities to join, here are five types of communities to join.

  1. The community for your favorite game. It's out there, wouldn't you like to be talking about it? Well, I couldn't find a "Bunnies & Burrows" community, but what can I say? Most everything else is out there.
  2. The community for a game that you want to try. Communities are a great way to let you "try before you buy" or even just peak under the hood and see what folks who are into the game are talking about without you having to drop a dime on the game itself.
  3. The community for a game or type of game you want to learn more about. New to the OSR but want to know more? Join the OSR community. Want to learn about cheap "hacks" for table top gaming? Join the Gaming On The Cheap community. Hell, don't limit this to games. Music. Literature. Whatever. Get specific (there's a Weird Tales community). Go general. Whatever. Just keep exploring. Just like you would in real life.
  4. The community for your closest gaming convention. For me, that's U Con. For you, it may be GaryCon or Gamehole or Con On The Cob or whatever the hell is near you. It pays to know when games are happening near you and this way you can "meet" some gamers who might be close as well. 
  5. The community for a method of gaming online. Roll20 is one of my favorites, but I'm also in a more general Hangout Gamers one. There are communities for other methods, too, such as Fantasy Grounds and PbP groups, too. 

#4 - Make Your Circles Work For You

Let's face it: the default G+ circles suck. They're pointless. You're not going to use them. Instead, set up a series of circles that makes sense out of folks in the way you want to make sense out of them. I, for instance, have circles that group people by my connection to them. Remember that circles are your primary way for filtering info to and from individuals, so it makes sense to spend some time tweaking them. I have a really messy way that somehow works for me, but I know some folks have hit upon really easy methods for organizing them (in particular, I recommend the method that +Sean P Kelley mentioned on his +Gaming & BS podcast, but it's almost too much work for me to take on right now). 

#5 - 5 Gamers to Circle

When I suggested to join 5 communities, I gave you some homework to do. This time, I'm going to do it for you and just tell you who to follow. I'm going to steer clear of controversial choices because they're easy to suggest, but they're just as easy for you to find on your own, so why should I do it? You'll eventually come into contact with folks who have BIG FUCKING OPINIONS about gaming and rather than point those folks out to you, I'd rather just let the waves of "the boat a-rockin'" do it for you. 

That having been said, here are five gamers to follow because the things they post are worth paying attention to: 
  1. +trey causey 
  2. +Stacy Dellorfano 
  3. +Casey Garske 
  4. +kreg mosier 
  5. +Victor Garrison 
At first, I wanted to explain each of my choices. As I started to do so, I realized that I should let these folks speak for themselves. Check them out. Just having them in your circles will make those circles better places, or at least more interesting. And definitely weirder. There are lots more folks I could add to this list and many folks I nearly did. Start here. Find the folks with the best comments on these folks' posts. Roll with that. 

Well, that's it for me for right now except I can't go without paying my Joesky tax. 

Joesky Tax: The Banishing Blade

One of the greatest treasures of the ultimate dynasty of the Sandlander nobility to rule over Temosh, the Banishing Blade was crafted by the Temoshi soul-smiths and presented to the dynasty's greatest champions. A long-hafted sword of thick iron, the Banishing Blade is especially effective against spirits, demons and other beings of foreign planes as well as any mortals possessed by them. The Banishing Blade is a lawful weapon with an Intelligence of 8 which communicates with its bearer via empathy, particularly imparting a strong distaste for the beings it was built to combat: the aforementioned spirits, demons and planar creatures, most notably of a Chaotic nature. Against these creatures and any mortals possessed by them, the Banishing Blade functions as a +3 sword; against all others, it is a +1 sword. Any creatures of foreign planes slain and returned to their home plane by the Banishing Blade are prevented from returning to the world for a year and a day. The bearer of the Blade may detect evil at will, but will only detect the planar creatures to which it is bane. Additionally, once per week, the bearer of the Blade my drive a possessing spirit out of its mortal host and protects the bearer from possession as the provision of the Protection from evil spell. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

More Thoughts On The Noah Tax & the Owl-Witch of Hargvald

In the week since I proposed the Noah Tax, a lot of folks have stepped up saying they like the idea (and thankfully no one has stepped up with a "that's stupid," even +Jason Hobbs). Having had a week to think about the tax, I'd like to propose a few more thoughts about it:
  • The Noah Tax isn't about the product, it's about the reader's experience with it. In essence, I don't want you to tell me "why I should buy" the thing -- you're not selling it to me -- but rather, tell me what your favorite part of it is. That's the essence of the Noah Tax: what do you the reader like the most about it. 
  • The Noah Tax is completely voluntary. Right after I wrote the first Noah Tax post, I of course kept seeing posts where folks were just posting a picture of some stuff they'd just bought or were going to buy or just got in the mail. My gut instinct was to post "#Noahtax?" as a reply, but then realized they (a) probably don't know what I'm talking about and (b) an answer compelled by the question wouldn't be as natural as one volunteered by the post's author in the first place. 
  • Nothing is exempt from the Noah tax. There are no products out there that are just "obvious buys" or that a reader's opinion of them would be a foregone conclusion. Remember that the Noah tax isn't a sales pitch, but a call to discuss your experience with the text as a reader, and since everyone will interact with every text differently, nothing can ever be exempted from the Noah tax. No one author, game system or publisher is ever good enough that we don't want to hear about the experiences of folks with their games. 
Pretty much everything I want to say about the Noah tax right now stems from one of these three things. Earlier, I had a few guidelines I wanted to throw in as well, but I think all of them can be reduced to one of these things. Well, other than this: "don't be a dick about it." Remember that nothing is obvious, especially on the internet and doubly so for your thoughts about and experiences with a thing. The Noah tax is sharing those experiences with the community; to turn "ooh, shiny" into "hey, this thing is cool and here's why." "Why" will always win out over "what." 

 My last dig on this subject is that hashtagging #Noahtax isn't mere hipsterism, it helps G+ categorize posts. You can search for #Noahtax on G+ or even just click on the hashtag when you see it in a post to see all of the posts with that tag, letting you look through all of the posts that have been tagged with it, which is pretty useful. G+ generates hashtags for you if you don't create them yourself, so why not just take command of them? It beats G+ turning your use of the word "impotent" into the #erectiledysfunction hashtag like happened to the RPG Pundit last week.

Joesky Tax: The Owl-Witch Of Hargvald

In the Jagirate of Hargvald, one of the small Orphaned Baronies on the Iron Coast, village-folk used to speak in hushed tones of a spirit of the wild places of the barony, a specter who haunted the wooded spaces and slept in disused barns. Part bogey man, part patron of the commoners, the feathered vision known as the Owl-Witch was said to keep vermin away from the homes and fields of those who appeased her and to steal the children of those who rose her ire. Rulers would come and go in Hargvald, but the Owl-Witch stayed, a figure both benign and baleful. The people of the villages would quietly offer gifts to the Owl-Witch and honor her in their Solstice Festival, for surely the longest night is the right time such platitudes to a nocturnal spirit.

The Owl-Witch may be encountered anywhere in the Jagirate, and is as likely to be found in field or forest as in the court of the Jagir (where she is honored as Ambassador to the Wizard-King of Owls and a concubine of the noble house of Hargvald-Navir). She will likely have the secret knowledge the player characters are after, but she will not let it go cheaply, nor will she suggest a price. Rather, she lets PCs name their own price, suggesting that neither gold nor silver is as valuable to her as it is to them. She goads the PCs into ever-steeper and stranger bargains, testing the darkness within their souls. Ultimately, she will agree to price that is in some way a sacrifice on the part of the PC in question; a damaging secret, a promise to betray a friend, a gift given by a loved one.

The Owl-Witch is largely non-aggressive, but can be threatening and occasionally confrontational, as she may have designs that set her at odds with the PCs (1-in-6 chance). If attacked, she will defend herself, seeking to cause as much mischief in combat before escaping, particularly through the Bestow curse spell (and whatever magics are at her disposal).

The Owl-Witch of Hargvald

Alignment Neutral
Movement 120', fly 300' (see below)
Armor Class 5
Hit Dice 6
Attacks 1
Damage 1d6 talon or by spell
Save W6
Morale +2
Treasure Type None (see below)
XP 570

The Owl-Witch is a 6th-level Sylvan Witch and thus can cast spells as one (3/3/2/2), including Obscuring mist (2nd), Bestow curse (3rd) & Summon animals (4th) which she uses to great effect. She possesses the art of beast friendship (as the proficiency), can change shape once per day (as the warlock ability, typically into the form of an owl, for which the flight speed and talon damage is listed above; in this form she may cast spells as normal, though not in any other changed shape) and may pass without trace. She is seldom surprised (+1 on surprise rolls) and has very swift reflexes (+2 initiative). The Owl-Witch rarely carries anything of value, but may have a staff or wand at the DM's discretion. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Arrasoom, World of the Dying Light, Part 3

"Metal? You wish a metal sword? Bah! Perhaps if you get lucky the winds will fail for a skyship and it will fall on top you; cut one from its corpse then. Ha! Look in my eyes, outlander, and know the truth: you will never have metal that you have not prized from the dead hand of a Struggler who earned it. Come, take my sword. See what it is to face an Arrasoomian warrior who earned his metal. No? I thought not."
- Arrasoomian warlord Varagha Vakh to the Saerlidhian explorer-merchant Miccolo Paschalo, stranded on the World of the Dying Sun


In ages past, before the coming of the Dying Sun, when the world of Arrasoom had yet to go fallow, metals were common. Wresting them from the earth's tight grasp was a common challenge and recycling of metal wastes was an equally worthwhile endeavor. When the world was laid waste by the darkening of the sun and thirsts of the shalhalas, metal became harder and harder to mine and more and more metals that would be recycled sank beneath the dunes. Today, much metal still exists, and is one of the three primary precious commodities of the world (alongside water and soma), but little trade in it exists. The lack of trade is less because of supply, and vastly more because of the Arrasoomian philosophy of the Struggle (or "Jihad"): metal is to be earned, a reward for one's personal struggle, rather than crassly traded away.

Thus, one may buy many weapons in the markets of Arrasoom, but one may never buy a metal sword. Armor of all types are widely available, but never will one find suits of metal plate. Obsidian, chitin, bone, flint, ceramic, plastics; one may find materials made of these in every market in each of the City-States, but should one desire goods made of metal, they must Struggle to take them, to earn them through force of arms, personality or sorcery.


In the age before the Ancestress invented the science we today call "defiling magic," Arrasoom was chief among the Axial Worlds in its application of the sorcery known as "Science." Great machines of all sort of description were wrought by the Arrasoomians. Flying machines plied the worlds' air spaces, communication machines sent words, pictures and even thoughts from one side of the world to another and thinking machines were employed to keep track of the vast stores of accumulated knowledge and assist the Arrasoomians throughout their lives. All of that changed the day the Dying Sun rose.

Many of the old machines still exist, but few have the skill necessary to build more. Most of Arrasoom's Scientific knowledge has been lost or is jealously guarded by the few who hold it. Some City States encourage the study of Science, providing patronage for would-be Scientists like that for artists or religions; other City States are not so enlightened, and instead reserve the application of Science to military applications and the caste of Templar who exact the God Kings' wills. Everywhere, though, the most common technological devices to be found are skyships (maintained by every City State and more than a few independents) and weapons (like the ubiquitous revolver kept by all blooded warriors of the World of the Dying Sun).


The sorcerous arts dawned on Arrasoom shortly before the Dying Sun did and are at least partially responsible for the state of the world today. Before the Ancestress created the practice of defiling, superstitious magical practices had given way to an organized, scientific study of the mind and parapsychological phenomena that begat multiple traditions of psychic practice. Somewhere along the line, the old magical/religious practice of offering sacrifices was revived as psionicists realized they could fuel their powers with the biological and psychic energies of other beings. The Ancestress attempted to divert the disconcerting development of wholesale sacrifice and the ascent of a dark age of "blood magic" by finding new ways to power psychic powers through channeling the power of sunlight, including that trapped within plants. It is one of the universe's great ironies that these new "luxomantic" powers earned Her bright and idealistic pupils, eager to save the world from what they saw as "soulless" Science and a burgeoning inhumane trend of ever-escalating, depraved sacrificial magic.

Beneath the light of the Dying Sun, the Ancestress's "luxomancy," now called defiling by all but its practitioners, is still in use. Officially off-limits to all but the God Kings themselves and their servants, pockets of hard-hearted luxomantic sorcerers spring up with surprising regularity in every City State and among every people, but they are frequently persecuted and hunted due to the damage their arts do to agricultural efforts and any attempts to stabilize the world's ecology, futile as they may be. A similar disdain is held for any other spellcasters, particularly those of the defilers' competing tradition of "blood sorcery" or "vivamancy." These heretics tap into the latent energies inside living beings to work their magics, though many have infested the soma and shalhalas trade, using the drug to turn themselves into a strange breed of narcomancer.

Perhaps most surprising is the continued existence of the old psionic traditions from the days before the Dying Sun. Soma imparts not merely an unnaturally long life (ostensibly eternal when conditions permit), but it further enhances mental faculties, thus combining heightened psychic acuity with a drastically increased amount of time to hone them. Every City State hosts at least a few psionic traditions, and it is common for the people of the City States to retire to these monasteries for years at a time and most Arrasoomians can cite some allegiance to one or more traditions.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Noah Tax

Many folks out there in the DIY gaming & OSR blogosphere are familiar with the concept of the Joesky Tax. It's the idea that if you post a lengthy diatribe about a conceptual topic in gaming where you're trying to make a particular argument, you need to include some gamable content before your post is over. If you write a screed but don't include anything gamable, your argument loses. Well, it's really more of a "loses face" sort of thing, but it's also a way for folks to willingly "make up" for readers indulging the blog author for expressing whatever it was. Not nearly enough people pay the Joesky Tax when they really ought to, and those are people whose blogs I read less and less. Or just delete from the Feedly entirely.

Well, I'd like to propose something similar: The Noah Tax. Here's where it comes from.

Exhibit One

Pretty much directly after I made a G+ post about how I think people should support a particular writer and buy a thing he had done, +Noah Stevens posts this and makes me feel like an ass (that's me saying "And now I feel like a douche..."). Turns out, that's not what he was trying to do. This is the season where lots of geeks buy lots of cool stuff that they get really excited about and share with G+ how excited they are about their geek consumerism and OMG YOU MUST BUY NOW! And then, when they get the stuff in the mail, they take pictures and brag about how they got some thing in the mail and it's mine now and I own it ha ha ha look at me world!

Noah's point wasn't that he didn't want to know when there was cool stuff that deserved to be purchased, but it was that he didn't want to be hit over the head with it and the fact that it existed being treated like the sole reason it should be purchased.

I'm pretty sure I've been guilty of this sort of junk before, too. I clearly was in the case that made me feel like a douche.

Exhibit Two

I don't know why this got all darkened in the process of me screen-shotting it, but it did and we'll have to live with that. Now, here's what I did wrong with this post: (a) I asked other folks to buy this thing, (b) I bragged about just getting it in the mail and (c) I asked other folks to buy it without saying why they should as if just knowing that it exists should be enough for folks to want to own it. Bad form, Adam from last night, bad form.

And yet, from the bad form springs a great idea.

Exhibit Three

This exchange exemplifies to me what we really should be talking about when we talk about new products. In asking "What's your favorite bit you read so far?" Noah's really asking me, "Hey, exactly why do you think I should buy this thing?" A valid and remarkably insightful consumer-side question. You should know why you might be interested in buying a thing, any thing. My answer to his question took some thought and made me quantify what I actually liked, thereby thinking about the thing critically.

The Noah Tax

And so, I put this to you, dear readers and probable members of the broader gaming and G+ communities. I propose a Noah Tax, not unlike the Joesky Tax. Whenever you post about a thing that you've purchased or are going to purchase and you think the rest of us would be interested in purchasing it, too, let us know why. Tell us what you liked about it so that we can see if it's the sort of thing that we might like, too. I'm not calling for full-scale reviews, but rather short bits that tell us more about your experience with a thing than anything else, since that's what really matters. I think if we all do this, we'll all be much better-informed consumers of RPG products and that can't do anything but help the industry as far as I can see.

Joesky Tax For The Post About The Noah Tax: New Spell

So, in broaching the topic of a "Noah Tax," I make myself eligible to pay the Joesky Tax. Well, I'll own up. Unlike many of my countrymen, I'm not allergic to paying taxes. Here's a new spell for your wizards, sorcerers, magic-users, warlocks and whatnots.

Haon's Unavoidable Inquisition
Level 3
Target: One creature
Duration: Special

If the target of this spell fails a saving throw vs. Spells, he must answer the next question asked him by the caster truthfully. The target must answer as fully as he is able (typically, the only limitation is language); i.e., he cannot lie by omission or partial truth. Similarly, the target is compelled to answer (he may not stay silent). The caster may ask one additional question at 8th level, another at 11th and one more at 14th.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Arrasoom, World of the Dying Light, Part 2

"And She said to them: 'Have you not suffered enough? Be you not weary of this world and what it has wrought upon you? Come then, unto My kingdom and unto Me. Sit with Me at the root of the Tree of Life and find peace. Know you that your Ancestress waits for you at the root, eager for you to return home.' 

"And the weary went with Her by the thousands, and where their feet struck earth, so great was their number that a road was left in their wake, that their children and their children's children would have a path to Her. She led them to the root of the Tree of Life, and there at its roots did She offer them succor and respite, nurturing them until the last days of the Dying Light."

- Attributed to Prophet-King Haszat-Xemosz in "the Gospel of Xemosz," in the tradition of The Pale Book

The Struggle

The life of an Arrasoomian is hard. The central social tenet of Arrasoomian culture is the Struggle (or, to some, the Jihad), a holy endeavor to first ensure one's own survival. Personal assured survival, according to the holy texts of the God Kings (most notably Prophet-King Haszat-Xemosz), extends beyond the immediate sphere and includes one's future assured survival, making the accumulation of wealth, status and personal power part of the Struggle. Though each of the God Kings might have his own interpretation of what constitutes valid pursuit of the Struggle, all mark the Struggle as a holy endeavor, a divine task that purifies and tempers the soul in its pursuit. Sectarian disputes between different interpretations of the Struggle are common, and theological purification often forms the backbone of the wars between the various City States.

The Ancestress

The Struggle is not kind to the people below the Dying Light. To those who grow weary of the constant scrabbling for what few scraps that fall from the God Kings' tables, there is promise of release, however. Religious tradition states that the Ancestress will take in all pilgrims who come to live with her at the root of the World Tree. These weary few, however, are considered to have given up on the Struggle and while their choice is honored and respected, they are treated forever more as dead. It is an honorable death, this pilgrimage without return, but death nonetheless. The path that pilgrims take to the Tree of Life is a series of roads (really, the beds of extinct rivers), all of which flow south out of the lands of the City States. What is known of the Tree of Life comes from accounts of the God Kings themselves, for it was from the Tree that the Ancestress sent them forth, to bring Her children (the shalhalas) to the people of Arrasoom and, in doing so, to conquer death with life. Over the millennia, none have returned from the Tree (at least, none to speak of), and so the official assumption is that these pilgrims live out the eons, wreathed in Her grace, until the Dying Light fades at last.

As to what happens after the Dying Light fades, the God Kings are strangely silent.

The Shalhalas

The literal offspring of the Ancestress (at least initially; they reproduce amongst themselves now), the shalhalas worms are grub-like creatures that burrow as easily through sand as fish swim in water. The shalhalas range widely in size, from barely a foot for a full-grown adult to hundreds and hundreds of feet for venerable ancients. The chief determinants in this variation seem to be age and consumption of water: the more water consumed, the larger a shalhalas will grow. Oddly, it does not seem as if the largest shalhalas need to maintain a high rate of water consumption, but may survive on a minimal water supply that it may scrounge (such as the moisture found in living things). A shalhalas, given the opportunity, will gorge itself on every drop of water it can find, a fact which has led to the arid conditions on Arrasoom today.

The tissues of the shalhalas secrete a mucus-like substance called soma, which has the property of retarding the aging process and, in some cases (though the circumstances are uncertain) even reverse the ravages of time. This soma inundates the meat of the worm, and so any who eat of it gain the same effect, however, time has proven that the wisest way to harvest soma from the shalhalas is to cultivate small worms which may be "bled" of the stuff, if only because this process requires less water and produces far less waste (having the further benefit to the powers-that-be of keeping the required number of shalhalas worms minimal, ensuring their control of the beasts). A debased version of the anagathic soma may be produced by blending the stuff with certain animal fats and seed-powders then drying the mixture in the sun. The resultant raszk is a weakened form of the drug that produces poor effects but may be stored for a long time and is the only form of soma that most Arrasoomians can afford on a regular basis. It is certainly the most common form of the drug that makes its way off the planet.

Soma does not merely have anagathic properties, however. Some users report that it awakens within them powers of perception, intuition and thought beyond normal mortal ken. While the grade of soma consumed does seem to have some effect on the likelihood of such psionic enhancements, even the lowliest raszk users have been known to develop such abilities. In addition, all soma or raszk use produces some degree of euphoria, again proportional to its purity; some raszk users, however, have taken to blending the drug with other intoxicants to increase its potency in this one regard.

It is vital to the social order of Arrasoom that the shalhalas supply remain consistent and without challenge. Transport of the worms off-world is not merely illegal, but blasphemous and culturally abhorrent. The Shalhalas are a gift from the Ancestress, who gave of her womb that Arrasoom might live. To the common people, they mean life. To the aristocracy they mean wealth. And to the God Kings, they mean control.

Arrasoom, World of the Dying Light, Part 1

In that world, all was dying. Trees were long absent from the wild places, nor did grass grow in fields. A whole world, grown mostly fallow, under a dying sun that no longer bathed the world in the light of life, but rather in the pall of death. This desiccated husk of a world still had life to it, though, as a dying tree supports those who would hungrily feed on its meat, until there is nothing left. Soon, on Arrasoom, there would be nothing left, and nothing left in the world for these predators to consume but each other.
- Segh Varharkas, Scribe Adjutant to the 13th Heavenly Fleet

Arrasoom is the tomb of its own past. In days of yore, she was the pinnacle of culture, refinement, science and technology throughout the Axial Worlds. Great societies rose and fell, as is the cycle on all worlds, but one particular discovery doomed Arrasoom to become the largely lifeless rock she is today. Long had the Arrasoomian scientists and sorcerers experimented with light, and through light created and powered many of her greatest wonders. When they reached the limit of their ability to capture and channel their sun's light directly, a now-nameless scientist-sorcerer devised a method of leaching off the solar energies stored in plants, fueling his magics and devices to a degree previously unmatched, and creating the path to power known today as defiling. The Ancestress (the title by which this scientist-sorcerer is known in modern times) soon had disciples flock to her banner, for she looked to solve the problems facing Arrasoom, those last few problems that civilizations confront before their fall: mortality, disharmony and war. The Ancestress devised a solution to these final three injustices of life, but it would require immense power and so, she turned back to the sun. If she could take power directly from the sun, rather than waiting for it to reach Arrasoom, or wrenching it from world's plants or even returning to the heathen days of yore and claiming it from the blood of sacrifices, she might have enough power to work her final miracle.

And so, she worked.

The Ancestress's ritual, she knew, would forever answer the problem of death, and in conquering death, she would conquer disharmony and in conquering disharmony, she would render war irrelevant. Convinced of the overwhelming utility of her endeavor, the Ancestress and her disciples toiled to change their world. A series of smaller rites culminated in one grand ritual, where the Ancestress stood astride the greatest ziggurat atop the strongest ley lines and reached out to the sun to feed. And feed she did. She took the power that she needed for her ritual but, having tasted the raw, limitless power available to her, could not stop. She drank and drank from its font, at first thinking it unending, but what started as a torrent soon became a drizzle; knowing that, should she take any more, the sun would die, the Ancestress stopped (though some sources say that she was stopped by some of her disciples; it is made clear by her later actions that her near-destruction of the moon was not a revelatory experience), leaving Arrasoom's sun sickly and wan, it's pale green light barely able to support life. Plants had trouble growing, and thus the rate that the Defilers (as the Ancestress's disciples became known) consumed the light trapped in plants soon outstripped the rate at which plants grew. Arrasoom's forests became fields, her fields became deserts.

What, then, of the Ancestress's magics? For what had she sacrificed Arrasoom's sun and life itself? Through her magics, she birthed forth a thing, a promise and an answer, that for which she is known as the Ancestress. The culmination of her sorceries was to birth forth from her own body a new form of life, the shalhalas worm. Had the Ancestress's plans come to fruition as she had hoped, perhaps the shalhalas worms would have fulfilled their intended roles; instead, born unto the World of the Dying Light, the shalhalas only exacerbated the Arrasoomians' problems. The shalhalas worms produce a natural anagathic, a drug which halts (and in some cases reverses) the aging process but at a dear price: they consume vast quantities of water, far more than they actually need for survival. Soon, the planet's once-abundant water supply dwindled to the point where it became rare and again unto the modern day,

Within a generation, the Arrasoomians turned to warring against each other for what few resources were left to them. Water, shalhalas, metals, technological remnants of past, all of these made fine casi belli. The first disciples of the Ancestress went out to the city states, flush with power of the Dying Light imparted to them by the being they thought of more and more as their "mother," and brought these places under their collective thumbs. Each of these disciples ruled his own fiefdom as a god king, accountable to none but the Ancestress. Soon, even that august sorceress faded into myth, and became a figure of an afterlife denied most Arrasoomians, and the subject of mass pilgrimages of those who seek an end to their lives. Eventually, the disciples of the Ancestress, now calling themselves God Kings proper, fall into disharmony with each other, and the wars that they had gone forth to stop resumed again.

Today, Arrasoom is a perilous place. Wild tribes haunt the spaces between the city state kingdoms of the God Kings. Within the cities, the worship of the Gods Kings pervades every aspect of life, from the "gift of water" ration that the God Kings provide to their subjects to the preparations for war against the other city states, and a caste of templars ensures their Gods' wills be done. Common folk and luminaries alike have little effort to spare for hope or morality - life under the Dying Light affords few luxuries and forgives fewer slights, so who can waste time on such frivolities?

A world waning year after year, little is left of Arrasoom. Despite her imminent demise, Arrasoom remains one of the most important Axial Worlds; shalhalas anagathics form the core of the interplanetary trade and worlds such as Saerhilidh (see Divine Right in a few days) gladly trade oceans of water for the precious drugs.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Reclaiming 2e Settings: An Overview

In September, I wrote a series of posts about rediscovering the campaigns of the late TSR 2e-era. I tried to only talk about settings that I had experience with (and thus left out a few like Al-Qadim which many friends of mine seem to regard well), and spent about as much time talking about what I thought were missed opportunities in each setting as I did describing them. These little critiques begged a particular question: "If you're so smart, Adam, and have these tiny little problems with each of these settings, what would you have done with them?" I promised I'd give an answer back then, so it's about time I get down to it, isn't it? Here's how I plan on reclaiming those same settings.

Is De-Advancing Retreating? I'm Not Convinced

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: I do not like 2e. It's probably my least favorite of the editions. Yep. You read that right. I like 4e better. We won't go into my reasons right now, but let's just let it stand right there: I wouldn't run these "reclaimed" settings in the edition they were written for because that edition really just doesn't do it for me. I'd prefer a rule system with more consistency and simplicity, which for me means one of three things: OD&D (probably in the vein of Delving Deeper), BX-style D&D (or Labyrinth Lord) or Dungeon Crawl Classics (thanks to +Donn Stroud on that front; it may seem like a foregone conclusion for me, but it wasn't until he made the case to me). All in all, I think that BX would win in that particular arm-wrestling contest, if only because of the variety it offers. Want less crunch? Run BX straight. Want more? Use ACKS for its proficiency and domain management systems. Need more spells or weird classes? The blogosphere, FLAILSNAILS community and an awful lot of publishers have you covered. And monsters? Are you kidding me? It seems like we've found the correct rabbit hole to jump down. But hey, it's not like it would be hard to convert things to OD&D or DCC, and what's more DIY than converting things into BX then converting them to something else?

It's Midnight, Good And Evil

One problem that I kept coming up against in my rediscovery of the TSR settings is the lack of moral complexity and depth that comes along with the assignment of a universal "good" and "evil" typified in AD&D's ninefold alignment system. To my mind, the existence of an objective "good" or "evil" cheapens any implementation of morality in a game. Further, there's a definite value judgment that goes along with good and evil where we tend to equate "good" with "best" and "evil" with "worst." The "good" behaviors are the ones that PCs are expected to undertake, and players who want their PCs to act in what the game defines as "evil" are often viewed as problematic. Even worse is the "evil campaign" where everybody tries to outdo each other with ever-greater cartoonish villainy. Boring.

Contrast this buffoonery and pidgeon-hole-ry with the more robust breadth of philosophy that exists within a threefold alignment system. Here, alignment truly means "that with which the character is aligned" and not just "stuff toward which the character is predisposed." If we're not aligning characters with good or evil, then Law's recourse to behaviors is as robust as that of Chaos. Makes much more sense to me.

An Overview

One of the great missed opportunities of the 2e era, I believe, is the lack of integration between settings. I say "missed opportunity" because 2e gave us two different settings that could be used to connect the various settings. Spelljammer was cancelled before it had the chance to connect, say, Athas with Cerillia, but had previously connected the vanilla 1e settings, Dragonlance, Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms. Planescape, on the other hand, deliberately avoided pushing the "multiverse model" too hard, but rather kept it as a background feature that could be used or ignored as the DM saw fit; the DM had plenty of planes to mess around with without even getting into "alternate realities" posited by different campaign settings, but you could totally do it if you wanted.

Thus, in reclaiming the 2e settings, I'm taking the opportunity that I feel TSR squandered and uniting all of the settings. Here are my "work-in-progress" names for the 2e-era settings that I'm planning on reclaiming:

  • Arrasoom, World of the Dying Sun
  • Divine Right, Blood of Gods, Blood of Kings
  • [Jakandor], the Last Continent (name still very much up in the air)
  • Planet Terror, World of Hungry Mists
  • Voidscape, Storms of Change on the Frontiers of Reality

Note that I don't include Mystara/the Known World/Red Steel/the Hollow World here. Largely, that's because I think that it/they/whatever you call so many linked settings needs very few changes to integrate in this new whole. Mystara, for me, is as close as a vanilla D&D setting can get to ideal, so I'm touching it as little as possible.

Monday, December 1, 2014

How Does This Thing Work? Device Complexity In Delving Deeper.

Like many folks, I've spent the past week with the new Metamorphosis Alpha 1e oversized hardcover, and my thoughts can be summed up with two words: "fuck" and "yeah." While I'm too young to have been exposed to MA 1e the first time around, the game definitely hits a sweet spots with me, but I don't expect that to surprise anyone. The thing that reading MA reminded me, though, was that it had been a part of my plan all along to have weird science artifacts and incomprehensible space tech littered throughout my Quasquetherion/Hyperbarbaria campaign. 

Coming up with strange tech and illogical devices isn't my problem. That's kind of my gig. Rather, what I want is a system for sorting out the tech artifacts that's consistent with Delving Deeper (Hyperbarbaria's game system) and my general ideas of simplified game probability that I occasionally warble about here on the blog. In short, a d6-based system that keeps things simple and straightforward.

Device Complexity

For this system, we'll assign each device a Complexity class. Complexity class A is the most complex, then class B, then class C. This system could conceivably be extrapolated out to more or less complex devices, but for my purposes, Complexity classes A, B & C will do what I need them to. Further, there are two types of experimentation: spontaneous (finding a device, trusting to luck and giving it a go on the fly) and cautious (taking at least one turn to experiment with the device). 

  • Complexity A - Most complex. Lots of buttons, dials, knobs and few labels or in an unknown language. 
    • Cautious Experimentation: 1-in-6 chance (6 on 1-6).
    • Spontaneous Experimentaion: Roll 1-6 on the table below.
      • 6 - Possible success. Re-roll the die; on a 4 or better (4+), the character successfully uses the device. Otherwise, there is no effect.
      • 4-5: No effect
      • 1-3: Misfire. 
  • Complexity B - Moderately difficult to suss out the device's function. Some dials, knobs and switches; if there are any labels, they may be diagrams and have few confusing symbols. 
    • Cautious Experimentation: 2-in-6 chance (5+ on 1-6)
    • Spontaneous Experimentation: Roll 1-6 on the table below.
      • 6 - Success
      • 3-5: No effect.
      • 1-2: Misfire.
  • Complexity C - Relatively simple device to make sense of. It will still have some buttons or switches or the like, but the function of the machine is fairly obvious or made evident by diagrams on or near the device. 
    • Cautious Experimentation: 3-in-6 chance (4+ on 1-6). 
    • Spontaneous Experimentation: Roll 1-6 on the table below.
      • 5-6: Success
      • 2-4: No effect.
      • 1: Misfire. 


The Judge/Referee/DM should adjudicate any misfire result rationally. Bombs blow up, robots go berserk, lasers zap people's faces off. Stuff like that. If you've got a few thoughts about how absolutely screwy it could go, an impromptu table could be drawn up really quickly along these lines (roll 1-6):
  • 1: Worst result.
  • 2-5: Not-so-bad but not-that-great result.
  • 6: Best result


If the PCs have any reason that they may be more likely to succeed at a Complexity check, the DM may allow the player to roll additional dice. In such a case, take the higher die roll. For example, a magic user who spends much of his time researching such devices may be at an advantage and get to roll two dice. Similarly, the DM may award additional dice for a high Intelligence or Wisdom score. The DM should be careful not to award too many dice in this manner, however, and trivialize the die roll. 

Time Taken & Attempts

Spontaneous experimentation may be attempted during a normal combat round. Cautious experimentation takes at least 1 turn for Complexity C devices, 1 hour for Complexity B devices and 8 hours for Complexity A devices. One attempt may be made per device every hour for Complexity C devices, every day for Complexity B devices and every week for Complexity A devices. Taking additional time beyond what is required (and perhaps even doing research on the device) may allow additional dice as mentioned in "Bonuses," above. 


A character must accrue at least one success per function of the device. Thus, devices with multiple effects require users to accrue successes with each function. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Someone Else's Podcast: "What Is The OSR, Anyway?"

At U Con this year, I was on the "What Is The OSR, Anyway?" panel discussion. The Save Or Die podcast released the audio of the panel, so I thought I should link to it here. Here's their blurb on the thing:

This year, U-Con in Ypsilanti, MI added an OSR Track to their convention, and one-third of the DMigos was there to cover the action and record the “What is the OSR, Anyway?” panel discussion. While this is often a contentious topic online, host Ryan Thompson and panelists Tim Snider (Goblinoid Games), Adam Muszkiewicz (Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad), Doug Kovacs (Goodman Games), and Jim Wampler (yeah, that guy) were able to discuss the matter with humor and almost no use of the Star Trek original series battle music. Enjoy!

All in all, the panel was a good time. Like I said the other day, it felt like the deck was slightly stacked against a narrow definition of the OSR, but it's about damn time that side of the argument got its chance to speak, don't you think? 

So, give it a listen and judge for yourself.

[Edit: In case you're wondering, the annoying laugh is usually me.] 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Kick This: Barrel Rider Games' Class Compendium for Labyrinth Lord

Dear Old School Friends,

I know we've talked before about how I really don't like to pimp crowdfunding efforts. I know you've been burned before, just like I have. I know we like to talk about them from time to time, and I do like to write about them when they've successfully completed and fume about them privately (or to whatever audience I can get in a bar at a con) when they go wrong. But I don't really pimp things for folks. 

So please, don't take this as pimping. Instead, see this for what it is: me taking the opportunity to call to your attention to a project you might not have noticed yet. Over on IndieGoGo.com, +James Spahn of Barrel Rider Games has posted a crowdfunding campaign for his Class Compendium for Labyrinth Lord. I tend not to back lots of stuff on IGG and back more on Kickstarter, especially since KS is working harder than before to make sure its projects get fulfilled, but James is no stranger to producing content -- a casual glance at BRG's OBS page can tell you that. My best guess is that James used IGG because it allows him to raise a small amount, all he really wants/needs to get his project done and get a new laptop. 

In fact, here's James himself to pitch this thing for me.

When you look at what he's trying to do here, it's both ambitious and totally doable. Barrel Rider has been hard at work for the past 3 years, cranking out character classes for Labyrinth Lord (there's been other stuff for other systems, too, but we're going to focus on the classes). Now, he's putting together 50 classes for Labyrinth Lord in one book. One book. One book that, in this IGG campaign, you can get for $5, and he keeps adding more content to it. 

I'll stow the platitudes. It's $5 in pdf. You can probably afford that. $10 if you want the other stuff BRG has put out recently, too. Get it here.



Your pal Adam

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Inevitable Post U Con 2014 Post

First, I'd like to point out that +R.J. Thompson stole my post title here. I'd shake my fists in fury if I actually had any. Besides, this guy put in a lot of work on U Con, so he gets a pass.

This past weekend, November 14th through 16th, the U Con gaming convention came to my town for the third year in a row. Last year was my first with the con and I had such a good time, I knew I'd be back this year. But why should I blather about this when you can read all about it? Let's get back to this year!

Thursday, November 13th

All good conventions start the night before. U Con was no exception to this rule. +Kathryn Muszkiewicz and I had agreed to host (special guest of the con) +Doug Kovacs months before. We weren't sure when he was coming, though, so when he told us he was coming on Friday, we breathed a sigh of relief and then proceeded to totally slack on doing all the shit that one does around the house when getting ready for guests. So, I had to finish all that (including some remarkably stinky last-minute plumbing) on Thursday. Needless to say that by the end of all that crap, I needed a drink.

Ryan was on top of stuff, though, and wanted to run a game for the folks who had gotten into town early (or who lived there) which was supposed to mean me, +Shane Harsch+Tim Snider & +Jim Wampler. Apparently, Jim & Tim were wiped out from their treks up from Ohio, so that didn't happen. Instead, I convinced Ryan to join me at fabulous downtown Ypsilanti's own Tap Room (where Katie was working) for a few beers. A few very large beers. A few very large Hideout Brewery Hazelnut Stouts. Man, did my ass get kicked. Shane joined us for a round or so, then took off to get rest. That should have been a clue to me to leave well enough alone. Nope. In retrospect, Ryan drank a reasonable amount. Me? I had to overdo it and then throw a whiskey on top of it. Good thing I live on the same block as the Tap.

Friday, November 14th

Thanks to the night before, I started this day pretty damn hung over. I never finished my pregens for my sessions for the weekend, so I was still working on them (and hung over) at noon on Friday. I had agreed to help +Roy Snyder run the Goodman Games booth when the hall opened at 2, so at 1p, I drove the whole 5 minutes from my house to the con site. On my way in to the con, I tripped on some uneven pavement, but kept on trucking (I would later realized that I had ripped the knee of my jeans wide open and had skinned my knee pretty fiercely). Jim Wampler & I helped put the last few things in place and then staffed the booth while Roy went off to run an event.

Roy came back from his event kind of early; it turned out that only two guys had shown up for it (one being the very excellent Mr. +Brett Slocum who had stopped by the Goodman booth), so he went off script and taught them the rules a bit and I think ran them through a short somethingorother before calling it good. Which was a good thing, because it let me slack at the booth and finish up those pregens.

At 6p, I was on a panel discussion along with Doug, Tim, Jim & Ryan about what exactly the OSR is. Here's the thing about the guys assembled: the deck was totally stacked against a "strictly D&D" construction of what the OSR is. Which is good. I tend to think that folks who like to believe that "if it ain't D&D, it ain't Old School" are missing the point but, as with all point-missers, they'll miss the point of themselves missing the point. If there's no room in a particular version of the OSR for Runequest or Traveller or Call of Cthulhu or any of that stuff, then that particular version isn't worth my attention. Jim recorded the panel discussion, thankfully, and it will soon appear on the Save Or Die podcast.

After that, as in RIGHT AFTER THAT, at 7p I ran DCC and the players (who included +Mark Donkers+Andrew Moss+Chris Hooker  & man do I feel stupid now not being able to remember everyone who was there) were used as guinea pigs for an adventure I'm currently play testing. I realized after my "I can't tell you what it's called" stupidity on Spellburn that if I can't say what the name of a thing is, then I shouldn't call it by that name in con programs and the like. As a result, the thing I ran on Friday night currently has the "nom de guerre" of "A Tree Falls in the Forest" (by the time it gets published, it will certainly have a new title). These gents did a commendable job, and allowed me to explore some of the nuances that my session of this adventure at GenCon had spurred me to create. Thanks gents, you were a blast to work with.

When the session wrapped up, Katie, Doug and I went back to our apartment, where we spent the rest of the night boring Katie by talking about Philosophy and drinking Miller High Life. It's cheap, y'all, don't judge.

Saturday, November 15th

This was the day of the con that we were most successful in getting up early. 10am. We tried to get Jim to come have breakfast with us at the Wolverine grill (across the street from my house) because he's a man who appreciates a good breakfast and the Wolverine always has interesting, imaginative food. Jim didn't show. That's okay.

We got to the con later than we had intended, despite our early start, giving me all of 1/2 hour to get to my game and get set up. I ran my DCC adventure (also in playtesting) "Slaves of the Silicon God." This is the one that I got all stupid about the name of on Spellburn. It's currently one of my two "con adventures" after I ran it at Gateway Games & More in Cincinnati, OH, on Free RPG Day. Again, I had great players (including some folks I've mentioned previously, but including +Pete Schwab & +Stefan Poag among others). This session turned out to be a bloodbath, possibly because they were slightly undermanned. I balanced this adventure around a large (6+) adventuring party and there were only 5 players. Many, many PCs met their end at the hand of man-apes. After (barely) surviving to get reinforcements, the players managed to take on most of the rest of the adventure, but I had to vastly rethink how to do some things and I'm not sure my ideas worked as well as I had thought. The good news is that I know how where I need to edit stuff, which is exactly why I run this shit at cons.

After the session, Stefan, Doug and I met up with Jim, Shane and Ryan (and maybe a few more folks) for dinner at the hotel bar. I proceeded to have one too many and talk about time travel. Bad idea.

Several folks were running sessions at 8pm and I tried to figure out whose game I should jump into. Ultimately, I jumped into Roy's game, which was great! The players were me, Tim Snider & Pete Schwab and we were playing in Roy's take on the Tower out of Time. If you have the opportunity, play in one of Roy's games. He does all the voices and it's a blast. The session went on way later than it was supposed to, though, and it was 1a before we got out of there.

When we were done there, Doug & I went to the Tap and had beers while we waited for Katie to get off work. Doug made friends with some Ypsi townies, including the one and only SOULTRAIN. Starved, we had a late night dinner at Abe's Coney Island, a place about which the less is said, the better. We were out far, far too late.

Sunday, November 16th

I don't think I was hung over on Sunday, just tired. So tired. We got to the con in the last few minutes of the dealer hall being open, which gave me just enough time to make some last minute purchases and say goodbye to Tim Snider & Jim Wampler. We spent more money than was smart, picking up Frog God's Monstrosities from d20pfsrd.com's own +John Reyst. It was good to see John, who I'd had the good fortune of DMing for last year. We also picked up some dice (because convention) and then stopped by Roy's booth and picked up the new Castles & Crusades black box. Now I just need their starter box.

I had to figure out which game to jump into because there were two big options for me. Ryan was running his annual Palace of the Vampire Queen shindig, which was my favorite event last year, and that was a strong contender. At the same time, +Andrew Moss was running Peril on the Purple Planet (which I have yet to read, so I had no spoilers), so I jumped into that. I'll be completely fair, Andrew got off to a great start, then things got rocky. After they got rocky, it felt like Andrew lost a lot of confidence and things dragged a bit. However, by the time we got to the end of the session, it felt like he got his legs beneath him again when he started throwing in all these awesome comic book elements. Spoiler for gaming with Andrew: he's a total comics fanatic and his games are informed by that aesthetic. The moment the game developed Kirby Dots and cosmic rays, it got awesome. Andrew, if you're reading this, LEARN TO HARNESS THIS POWER! This is where your DM voice is. Use it.

After the session, I met up with Katie & Doug in the hotel bar, where we played Nanobots with some folks and had a few beers. We went back to the house intent on calling it an early night because we all had to hit the road in the morning: Doug had to drive back to Chicago and we had to drive to Imlay City on the far side of Flint at 8a.

This did not happen.

Instead, we stayed up late listening to music, drinking beer then wine (I won the Tour de Franzia!) and having a damn good time of it.

Getting up the next morning was hell.

Final Word

U Con continues to be crazy fun for me. It was even better this year than last since so many of the folks I've met over the last year (Jim & Doug & Roy) came to my home town and because I got to meet so many other neat folks (Tim & Andrew & Pete & Stefan & Brett & +John Till & more) who I'm excited to game with in the future! If I were to do anything differently it would have been to sleep more and bring more coffee. Other than that, pretty solid success all around.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Unplanned Griffin Mountain: The Sacred Time

Remember from last time that I am brand spankin' new to Glorantha and only passingly familiar with RuneQuest. In all my RQ/Glorantha reading, I think that what has driven my interest is the gravity of the interplay between the stetting and the rules and back to the setting. And so, from moment one, I've wanted to make sure that the RQ6 game that I'm running feels like RuneQuest feels to me when I read it. Cults, seasons, magic. All of this should together to make the game play experience an worthy synthesis of how the game should play and how the campaign should feel. And so, I'm left standing in the position of wanting to be true to the traditional feel of RQ, but having no experience in running it and being blessed/cursed with players who have the same limit of experience. 

How do I do this, then?

When I read Griffin Mountain, I was really happy to discover that there is a chapter on running "coming of age" quests. Running a group of adolescents who are learning just as much as the players are always feels like a good way to introduce players to a new rule system for me and jibes with the whole "zero to hero" thing that I dig. The players knew they were making teenagers (or nearly-teenagers), so going into it, they knew their characters wouldn't be full-fledged badasses (are RQ starting characters ever full-fledged badasses?), but that they'd have plenty of room to grow. 

We rolled for stats, and everybody had the "Primitive" background, and then distributed their first 100 skill points into their background skills. That's where we left skills. Careers will develop, but we're not there yet (see below); these guys are kids, not seasoned vets. I did allow the players to put skill ranks into Folk Magic out of the gate, counting that as a sort of bonus skill for the neophytes. I let the gents pick their starting Folk Magic spells, and I think that only one of them ended up with more than one spell. 

In order to reinforce the nature of the game -- i.e., that the players are playing neolithic hunters going through their coming of age rite -- and the setting, I decided to base the game around the seasons of the Gloranthan calendar. Each season was to have a scenario attached to it, a particular challenge that the players have to address as part of their rites of passage. Further, there are a series of questions that the players have to answer -- sometimes as a group, sometimes individually -- that discuss events that happen during the season, what particular NPCs are like, how a particular event went down, etc., which will often have consequences for the successive seasons and the tribe. Of course. Because otherwise they'd be pointless. In effect, I'm trying to increase player buy in by having my players tell me what their world of pre-Bronze Age nomadic hunters is like. 

And so, the three players who showed up created a cadre of would-be hunters and full members of the tribe and each player helped create context for that cadre. Who is each member? How do they fit into the tribe? What about their families? But first, let's look at Sacred Time.

Sacred Time

The Sacred Time season is the two-week festival that marks the end of one year and the beginning of the next, when sacrifices are made to the gods and their rites are celebrated. The Storm season, Yura the Clam, the old high priestess of the Hearthmother, sacrificed herself to drive off a blizzard that had battered the tribe for days on end. With Yura's death, the tribe had no high priestess going into the Sacred Time, and so were unsure of how best to thank the Hearthmother for her servant's ultimate sacrifice that had saved the tribe. The tribe decided to sacrifice the remains of their food stores to the Hearthmother in thanks, so as the Sea season arrives, the tribe finds itself in dire need of replenishing those stores, making the hunters' tasks literally vitally important. The tribe sacrificed Yura's fetishes, raiment and tokens of office to Votanki, the hero god ancestor spirit, that he might provide the tribe with the wisdom necessary to choose a new high priestess that would satisfy his mother, the Hearthmother, and have the wisdom and skill to fill the void left by Yura the Calm. One last sacrifice was made: as it does every year, the tribe sacrificed a one of its number, a young virgin (named Quiet Fawn), by burning that she may join the Found Child in the Godsplane (I've been calling it "Godtime" to make it fit my tastes better). In return for this sacrifice, the Found Child, god of the hunt, allows a secret copse of yew trees, known only to members of the tribe's Found Child cult, to grow and flourish. At the end of the Earth season, the tribe's Found Child cultists take their pick of the limbs of these trees, and throughout the Dark and Storm seasons use them to make the tribe's famous bows. At the end of the Sacred Time, the tribe announced the candidates who would be undergoing the rites of passage this year: Sick Ape, Little Fox and Little Bull.

[Absolutely all of this is the result of questions I asked my players. "Who died last year?" "What was sacrificed to the Hearthmother and why?" Things like that. The result was, as you can see, a pretty neat web of stuff that gives lots of gamable opportunities. As the PCs took shape, as you'll see below, their place in the tribe made even more gamable moments.]

Sick Ape is the oldest of the candidates to join the ranks of the hunters and, at sixteen years old, this year is his last chance to pass the rites, lest he become a bondsman, a slave to the hunter class. He's already failed the rites several times, but the quick-thinking Ape knows more about the rites than his rite-brothers. Always smaller than the other boys of the tribe, Sick Ape was unhealthy and weak throughout his childhood, but has grown into a lithe and agile, if small and weak, young man. Sick Ape blames the tribe's chieftan, Yuarvag the Fang, for the loss of Yura the Calm; had Yuarvag foreseen the possibility of such bad weather, the tribe might have wintered in a safer place, one less affected by harsh weather. Slowly, surely, Sick Ape has made up his mind that, if he passes his rite this year, one day he will be chieftan. 

Little Fox+PJ Muszkiewicz 
It has been a year of harsh realities for Little Fox. Last year's Earth season saw the death of his parents at the jaws of a legendary beast known only as the "Dark Howler;" none has seen the beast for a generation, but its bleak call is known to all members of the tribe, a hideous clarion that gives pause to even the bravest hunters. In the intervening weeks, he has found himself part of his uncle's household --  a place where he is not exactly welcome. Should he fail his rites and become a thrall to his uncle's house, Little Fox doubts that Uncle Sergh will hesitate to sell him into slavery with passing merchants or at one of the citadels. Knowing his likely fate should he fail, Little Fox has joined this year's rite-brothers in an attempt to free himself from Uncle Sergh's house and seeks every advantage to do so. Currently, he compensates for his deficiency in the art of magic by learning as much lore about the spirits of the land and the Godtime that he can. 

Little Bull+Craig Brasco 
Each of this year's rite-brothers has much riding on his completion of the rites, and Little Bull is no exception. Though the youngest of the rite-brothers, Little Bull is nonetheless the largest. A burly youth of a mere twelve years, Little Bull has joined the rites in hopes that should he be accepted to the tribe as a hunter, his family's position within it will be secured. This past Fire season, his family was taken in by the tribe, one of the few surviving families of another tribe, now extinct. Little Bull's parents, however, are notorious for their skill with animals, and have taken up the mantles of the tribe's dog handlers. As dog handlers, they're not quite on par with the tribe's hunters, but higher than the tribe's thralls; Little Bull hopes that, if he becomes a hunter of the tribe, his family's place within it will be secured. Although the largest and strongest of the rite-brothers, he is by far the least experienced in this tribe's customs and power structure. Little Bull was horrified by the sacrificial death of Quiet Fawn during the Sacred Time rituals

[Almost all of this information comes from questions that I asked the players, often about the other players' characters. For example, I asked Phil "Why does the tribe not trust Little Bull's family?" and asked Craig "How did Little Fox's parents die?" At the same time, questions were asked about their own PCs' feelings on matters such as asking Gabriel "Who does Sick Ape blame for the sacrifice of all the food stores and why?" and Craig "What does Little Bull think of the virgin sacrifice?" Here's a neat fact: it was Craig whose idea the virgin sacrifice was in the first place.]

Seasonal Play

Here's the plan: each session will present the PCs with at least one season (more than one if time permits). Each season will have an associated scenario, a challenge for the rite-brothers to overcome, part of their rite. The idea for me is to give the players a glimpse into the normal life of their tribe and to help teach them the myths that will guide them as hunters and tribe members. After the scenario (or perhaps before, depending on what I need/want to know), I'll also have some questions similar to those that guided us through the Sacred Time to flesh out the tribe, their surroundings and the course of the year. At the end of each season, no matter how it ends, surviving PCs will gain 20 skill points to spend on Career skills (which means that, as of the end of Sea season, they'll have to pick a Career). 

My goal is for the player, after a year's worth of seasons, to have a solid grasp of who their characters are, understand their tribe and its myths, know more about the wider world around them (even if that's just Balazar) and have fully finished character creation. By the next Sacred Time, we'll know how many of the rite-brothers become hunters and how many fail and become thralls. Should be a neat journey. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

An Unplanned Campaign: RQ6, Griffin Mountain & Wednesday Night

This weekend, I read the old Chaosium RuneQuest book, Griffin Mountain for the first time (well, 2nd or 3rd if you count flipping through digital pages) and I was completely inspired. My RPG upbringing didn't touch on BRP-related stuff until the early 90's, and then it was entirely Call of Cthulhu. I knew of the early existence of the RQ system, if only through the conversion notes presented in my copies of All The World's Monsters, but no one I knew had ever played it nor did they have experience with anyone who had. What I knew came by way of ads in Dragon magazine and gaming catalogs (I'm pretty sure I used to always get TSR's Mail Order Hobby Shop catalogs back in the day), which didn't tell me much. However, I had different gaming fish to fry, so RQ went on the back burner, and for the most part (other than CoC), I've only ever read RQ stuff, never actually played any.

One of the big stumbling blocks to entry was that I never felt I knew enough about Glorantha to run RQ. It's not like back in the day they were publishing setting books about Glorantha (to one degree or another, all books were setting books) and those that have been published since are less written for folks getting into the setting than for the already initiated. I thought about kicking for that hugely expensive Glorantha setting KS a year or so ago, but that thing was too expensive. I think that one of the things that TSR did right throughout the 2e era was that they never stopped teaching people how to play and kept introducing players to their settings in one way or another. What I had wanted with Glorantha was an entry point; a point where someone with minimal Glorantha/RQ experience could tap in, start running and learn as they go.

Griffin Mountain is that product, and no one ever told me.

Well, old issues of White Dwarf may have told me. Like, the ones where Griffin Mountain is reviewed in the first place. That's probably where I got the idea to start there.

Long time readers of the Dispatches may remember that I talked about running a Runequest campaign I was calling "Exiles In Eden." The idea here was heavily influenced by the King of Dragon Pass video game, wherein several decisions you make at the beginning of the game about your tribe's history affect how the game plays. Similarly, "Exiles In Eden" was going to allow the players to define some things about the tribe's past to define their future. Basically, the players would answer a few questions about their tribe and those answers would shape the future of the tribe. Many of these ideas are things I've borrowed from Fate and The Quiet Year and I'd like to see them put into play.

Coming off my Griffin Mountain high over the weekend, yesterday +Jason Hobbs let us know that he's not going to be able to finish his tenure as DM for our rotating-DM Wednesday night game; he'll be able to play, just not to run. So, I offered up my "Traveller'd by the Apocalypse" thing as well as a possibility of doing RQ6 set in Griffin Mountain alongside +Gabriel Perez Gallardi's 5e Greyhawk. Surprisingly, the thing we've never talked about before, RQ6, won. Now, I've got some prep ahead of me before tomorrow night and, instead of doing that, I'm writing about it.

So, here's the plan. I'm going to use Griffin Mountain as the sandbox it's intended to be. The PCs will start out as hunters of one of the nomadic Balazaring tribes. In fact, they'll start out as kids going through their rites of passage to become hunters. There will be no tribal allegiances with any of the different citadel kings going into the campaign nor any looming conflicts with Lunars or chaos beasts. All of that will come about as a result of the PCs choices and what the PCs explore rather than any preplanned "story" that I choose to foist off upon them.

We'll see how it goes tomorrow.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Oh, The Places You'll Go: Two Nations of Ore

The Most Flavorful Gastrarchy of Shugab

The eastern province of Shugab is one of the great powerhouses of the network of spice traders based out of Ur-Hadad. The finest and rarest of spices do not originate in Shugab, but are instead bound for the province, to serve the caste of noblechefs who rule through recipes. Home of the most renowned chefs, sous-chefs, bakers, confectioners, and so on throughout the Dominion of Man, Shugab had long held a strong culinary tradition when a series of gastronomical bribes led the 14th Prefect-Duke of Shugab to announce: "Let flavor reign, for she is mightier than any mortal ruler's whim." Thus, the province's decision making, rather than being a contest of wills between rival aristocrats, became a contest of recipes and culinary acumen between rival chefs, each pushing their political agenda with unique dishes that they believe will win the "argument." The 15th Prefect-Duke took the honorific "the Gourmand," and the appellation has stuck; now, in fact, the title "Prefect-Duke" is no longer used, and instead the ruler of Shugab is known as "the Gourmand of Shugab." Over the years, the Gourmands have become more and more decadent and debased; the current Gourmand of Shugab, Scurfang bar Squom, is said to be even worse than his predecessor and has never turned down a culinary experience. Somehow, Gourmand Scurfang yet draws breath, despite the indulgent, often dangerous and frequently vile gamut his tastes run.

Shugab operates as one great hierarchical bureaucracy, at the peak of which sits the Gourmand, who, tradition demands, acts as the interpreter of the "divine will of flavor." Below him, an autocratic tier of master noblechefs and connoisseurs apply  similar methods of culinary argument to determine the "best course" for the country; the "best course" is, naturally, the best tasting. The real power in the country lies in three places: the Librarian's Assembly (who maintain centuries of recipe books), the Grocers & Butchers Alliance and the Spicers' Guild. A web of favors, threats, greased palms, blackmail, diplomacy and outright violence draws these three entities together in a tangled knot, a shadow bureaucracy that stretches from the farms and docks through the kitchens to the highest seats of power. Oddly, the noblechefs and aristocratic connoisseurs (much less the Gourmand) have yet to notice that they aren't in control of the province and that the real power rests with those slowly feeding the upper classes to death.

Common slang throughout Shugab is full of references to cooking, food preparation and flavors. In fact, many Hadadi scholars trace common phrases like "What's cooking?" (in the sense of "What's going on?") and the countless permutations along the line of "you can't make a [particular dish] without [doing something violent to a food-animal]" to Shugabi chefs, probably incorrectly. 

The Duchy Of Karel

The maritime nation of Karel lies roughly a week out from Ur-Hadad along the strong northeast current. Inland, Karel's great forests make possible the logging necessary to supply Karel's strong trade as some of Ore's greatest shipwrights. In ages past, large Karelik frigates and galleys were sought after by navies in every corner of the Dominion of Man. Today, though, these vessels have become so commonplace that the Karelik shipwrights nearly have put themselves out of a job. Nearly. The Karelik people are ever industrious and, perhaps, ever opportunistic. With the success of their large vessels, the Karelik shipwrights realized they had inadvertently created a demand for smaller, faster vessels of the sort that could outrun and outpace the higher-tonnage ships. Now, Kareliyya, port capital of the duchy, has become a sort of smuggler's haven, a fact which the Herzog of Karel, Zorgmund-Frantisko IV, seems reluctant to do much about. So long as Kareliyya doesn't become a haven for pirates like Port Scourge, it seems, the Herzog will permit most things.

The nobility of Karel maintain few palaces or manses, instead preferring lavish ships and barges at sea, often conjoined by rope bridges and gangplanks. The Herzog holds court in the great lighthouse at Kareliyya, issuing orders about the arrangement of the noble flotilla to his functionaries, who then communicate the Herzog's dictates via semaphore to those very ships. This tradition stems from Zorgmund-Frantisko II, the current Herzog's great-grandfather, who became so infuriated at the nobles at his court that he ordered them all to sea; as it turns out, no Herzog since has officially ordered them back to port. Instead, Herzogs have ordered the flotilla to "perform docking maneuvers" with the grand lighthouse-palace.

With the interior of the nation largely neglected by the nobility, it might be surprising that so many things run as efficiently as they do. The nation's vast interior forests are steadily farmed for lumber, with the resultant open land sold off to farmers or reseeded with trees. Stones from the hills in the south are still quarried and brought to Kareliyya and other settlements for homes and to the east of the country to form the Safewall, a structure that "protects" the farmers and lumberjacks of Karel from the diseases and vermin of Ostweg Swamp. The Kareliks have cooperated with their northern neighbors, the Satrapy of Kuth, to bridge the swamp, and Karelik soldiers patrol the bridge alongside Kuthite mamluks. Karel enjoys a unique relationship with the Satrapy of Kuth. The Satrap, a being believed by his subjects to be a sort of god-prince, tolerates cooperation with Karel only because the faith of which the Satrap is supposed to be a demi-god is so widespread within the duchy, including its nobility. It's been well over a century since the Satrapy tried to press this "claim" on the duchy, and the Herzog, the nobility and even the peasantry of Karel fiercely resist a Kuthite hegemony, their doggedly independent spirits being a core component of the Karelik national character. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Two Things I Don't Write: Hope & Humor

I get the feeling that this is going to be one of those polarizing sorts of posts. My first several versions of it, I feel, came off as very preachy, which was not anything I ever try to do. I took a few steps back and thought about what I was trying to accomplish with this post, realizing that I was more talking about what I do and why I do it rather than why I think anyone else should do stuff.

I'll go ahead and make the polarizing remark that I do not write either hope or humor, and I think my games are better for it.


Humor and rpgs go hand in hand. We play rpgs for fun and a strong part of that fun is hanging out with your pals, bullshitting and telling jokes. We wear our comedic allegiances (sometimes literally) on our sleeves, looking for any opportunity to work in a quip from Monty Python, Strong Bad or Metalocalypse and all is right with the world. Over the months and years of a campaign, arcane and convoluted in-jokes grow organically out of play and happenstance. That's how it is, and it's how it should be. I'm not suggesting taking humor out of the game, but rather that I don't bother writing it into the game. Writing jokes into the game, I feel, is unnecessary since the players are going to introduce more (and often better!) jokes merely in the process of play! Every time I try to deliberately inject a note of humor into my writing, I feel like I'm sliding down that slippery slope that made Castle Greyhawk (the module as published by TSR, not the beloved megadungeon) possible. Is that joke good enough? Will people get it? How many jokes can I sneak in before things get all "the Star Trek crew in a bar in a dungeon" stupid? I've written one joke into a session in the past six months, and it's one that I'm particularly fond of: I named a talking Sleestak Jeremy during a playtest of material for Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad #2. (If you get the joke and can explain it and aren't one of my players in that game, hit up the comments!) 
This is not humor

I'm sure that people will point to that previous sentence as proof against my statement that I don't write humor. They might think themselves justified in disbelief by a lot of the stuff that I write in the Metal Gods zine (particularly the Secrets of the Serpent Moon adventure tool kit and its aforementioned sleestaks) but they're wrong. The elements that others might point to in my writing as humorous, I instead point to as absurd. Sure, absurd things can be funny, but they're not really designed to just be funny. If anything, I tend to the absurd less to force a laugh and far, far more to force a sense of disconnection between the player's experience and his expectations of the game. For me, absurdity isn't a feather that I'm tickling you with, but a crowbar or a wrecking sledge. The dissonance makes people think, and that thinking, I feel, makes for better and more meaningful games. 

To be fair, I think that every good DM I know has a tool that works for them the same way absurdity works for me. I use plenty of other devices as well, but I don't use humor. It's not that I don't like humor or that I think that absurdism can't be funny (or wouldn't be funny), it's just that I typically don't use absurd elements in a game for the purpose of cracking a joke. Even in RPGs that are designed to be humorous, like Paranoia (new edition currently on Kickstarter!), I find that writing in jokes tends to be something akin to a comedy jackhammer what with how hard it tends to beat the players about the head. I'd far rather encourage levity to occur naturally through the course of play. 

I get a bit hung up on humor in my games and how I'm not using it effectively. Instead of beating my head against the same rock over and over, I've found that it's far better if I just don't do it and instead play to my strengths. Enter absurdity. 


This one isn't going to be nearly as obvious. I don't write hope. That's not to say that I only ever write unending gloom, irrevocable doom and inescapable ruin. It is to say, however, that I'd rather my players find their own solutions to gloom, doom and ruin. I think this concept is more ephemeral than the humor aversion and so takes a little more explanation, but is just as full of personal bias as the humor deal. 

What I call "writing hope" actually covers quite a bit, and it's sort of hard for me to tie it down to specifics. Hope is the good king with a beautiful daughter that your character might win the hand of. Hope is the kindly wizard with a plan to save the world from the ravening hordes of awfulbadfuckery. Hope is the friendly high cleric who is tolerant of your strange and heretical religion, the good-natured master of the thieves guild who's always been like a father to your thief (until he dies) and the jaunty pirate captain who tries to only ever take hostages. 

This is not hope
Every time I read TSR stuff from the 2e era (even non-2e stuff like the later BECMI adventures and pretty much every issue of Dungeon, sadly), I'm really bummed out by the levels of "hope" that heaped up in those joints. TSR may have had a mandate that "good must always win" on the books, but these adventures make it clear that not only must good win, but that it should and that there's no real reason to think it might not. "The good" is, to me, a clear parallel to "hope" and I've found that it's inclusion in a game pretty much robs the players of agency: if they seek to pursue "the good/hope," here's what they've got to do, who they've got to listen to, the quest they need to undertake and so on. Having competing visions of "the good/hope" is one way around the problem, but, for me, a half-hearted one that feels tacked on and wishy-washy. 

What it took me far too long (and far too many railroads and near-railroads) to discover is that, at least in the games I run, if players are the originators of the solutions to the great dooms and ruins that loom the campaign's future, they are more invested in it. If the "hope" of a campaign is a secret that the players quested to uncover or a king that they put on the throne (possibly one of the PCs), a high priest that they convinced to be tolerant of heretics and so on, then the players have a lot more ownership of those different sorts of hope and therefore a much higher level of buy in to the campaign that begins and ends with the players. 

The "don't write hope" discovery was an immense one for me, personally, and, honestly, one I'm still exploring. I don't have to write the answers to the world's great woes, just the woes themselves. When the players seek to combat a terrible blight, well, let's see how they want to do it. Let them make their own hope. They'll appreciate it more.