Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Strange Stars

Strange Stars
Trey of Sorcerer's Skull has put out another book, though not the long awaited follow-up to his pulp/fantasy 1920's Americana setting book Weird Adventures.  While Trey's most recent book is system agnostic, even more so than Weird Adventures, it is a sci-fi setting book, much larger in scope then Weird Adventures that offers a combination of pulp Buck Roger's style Space Opera and more contemporary post human sci-fi - something a bit like Glenn Cook's "Dragon Never Sleeps" or the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks. There appear to be plans to release some likely free rules for Strange Stars using both FATE (written by John Till of FateSf) and Stars Without Numbers, which is my personal favorite OSR sci-fi ruleset (it's a B/X mod, and very excellent).

Alternate, unused Strange Stars covers
As a product Strange Stars maintains a very high quality, with a great deal of excellent art (so much that it sometimes overwhelms the writing), good design and a very polished appearance uncommon in small press or solo publications. The content within provides a sweeping view of a game universe that is a standard enough science fiction setting, with some interesting tweaks and changes.  Nothing as bold as Weird Adventures, but then the fictional ground of galaxy sprawling space opera is a lot more well-trodden then that of 20's fantasy pulp (which I think is limited to the Silver John stories by Wade-Wellman).  With this Constraint does a good job and is a fun read, though I wish it was a little less overarching and a little more narrowly focused on adventuring within the Strange Stars.  At the heart Strange Stars is a gazetteer, though not in a detail oriented manner that lists trade goods and populations.  The book lays out outlines for cultures scattered about in a mostly post-human space, provides a sense of history where the possibilities for adventure includes both ancient wreck hunting and space mafia schemes. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Luceat Lux Vestra - Making Light Management More Interesting in Old School Games.

In the dark gulfs beneath the earth, the ancient places where thick darkness wells up a hungry oil of ebon malice the greatest weapon of the brave explorer is not sword or axe, but light.  Each guttering torch and cheap tin lantern is a tiny fragment from the world above, a piece of the sun. Without light the soft creatures of the overworld have no hope; the sharpest blade cannot cut the horror it doesn't see, and the stealthiest pilferer cannot find the bright gold and jewels concealed in the gloom without a telltale glimmer.

Looking through the old 1974-79 edition of Dungeons and Dragons (Original D&D or The Little Brown Books) one finds an interesting passage about dungeon exploration on Underworld Adventures, page 9 about lighting and surprise. A pair of short paragraphs are the only mention of how light works as a rules mechanic in the Little Brown Books, though torches, lanterns and oil flasks are mentioned as items for purchase (though without a given encumbrance weight).

"In the underworld some light source or infravision spell must be used. Torches, lanterns and magic swords will illuminate the way, but they also allow monsters to "see" the users so that monsters will never be surprised unless coming through a door. Also, torches can be blown out by a strong gust of wind. Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character." Underworld Adventures, Page 9, Gygax & Arneson (1979).

William Blake, 1794 - A standby for creepy game imagery
A second short paragraph reiterates the surprise rules a bit down the page.  These rules are interesting in that they assert a necessity of light sources for dungeon exploration, assume infravision is a spell (and so a limited resource) and radically change the way encounters run in the underworld, because the party cannot surprise its enemies unless they are opening a door, and monsters still have the 1/3 chance of surprising the party.  When getting the drop on explorers monsters will almost always attack under these rules so light sources balance out the relatively generous reaction roll table.

Yet these rules don't discuss visibility range, light source exhaustion or anything else beyond how light effects the denizens of the depths. However the rules in Underworld Adventures do remind the reader that light works as a two way interaction, the underworld can see well illuminated players long before the players can see the creatures of the depths.

I am not really that beholden to old school D&D, and there's plenty of good ideas about how to run tabletop games that have come along in the past forty years and expand on the sparse and clumsy beginnings.  One game that I don't especially love (though I've only played it once) was Torchbearer, my complaints were with the implicitly vanilla fantasy world that seemed baked into some of the rules, and the Storygame tendency to reduce player creativity and problem solving to simplistic min-maxing mechanics through a bonus stacking system.  Yet, Torchbearer has some neat rules about supply and resource exhaustion, with abstract turns that rapidly eat up light resources and clear status effects as a result of being lost in the darkness. 

Building off these ideas, some members of the online old school game community (principally Brendan over at Necropraxis) have come up with an expanded Random Encounter die that I like to call an Exploration Die, and that includes not only the chance to encounter wandering monsters or environmental hazards, but acts as a random check for resource exhaustion (light, hunger and long-term spell effects).  This has the advantage of removing time tracking as a burden on the GM, and I find it both useful and fun in a less heroic fantasy setting.
A strict encumbrance system based of significant items slots (number of items carried is equal to character strength) helps make the choice of what equipment to big into the dungeon meaningful, as taking one item usually requires leaving another behind.  This means that the decision to bring enough torches or lanterns is a meaningful one, and that there is a possibility of exhausting a party's light supply even in a short session.  Additionally, equipment will need to be abandoned to make room for treasures. These rules also have the advantage of being harder to misuse then a weight based system, and are much much simpler to track.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Forty Fallen Empire Magic Items


Alpine Unicorn
Here’s a list of 40 magical items for my Fallen Empire Setting, specifically the Talpidy Lands along its Northern Border with the Pine Hells.  The first 20 items are from the North and use the shadow or more natural magic of the Pine Hellsman while the last twenty are from the Empire and its fading, rotten tradition of high magic and marvelous arcane manufacture.

I've also included a picture of an Alpine Unicorn, a horrible ghost eating predator of the Pine Shears that enjoys venting its considerable malice on human travelers.  

Sunday, January 4, 2015

New Fallen Empire Project

I started up a new project the other day, a regional series of small adventures set on the Northern Border of my Fallen Empire setting.  House Talpidy is one of the few clans of Imperial nobility with drive and ambition, or at least some sense of stewardship for the residents of their land, which sits on the border with what were once the Northern Provinces, but are now known as the Pine Hells or the Ice Kingdoms.  Under an ambitious and active heir the Talpidys are hiring an army of mercenaries and fortune hunters from both sides of the border to deal with threats in their lands and reclaim their patrimony, potnetially including:

1) The Sword Barrow (See Below)
2) White Catherdral (A monumental series of salt mines infested with feral arcane machines)

3) Tilpady Husk (A near collapsed Imperial factory hive, still haunted by its degenerate workforce
4) The City of Alpanie (Ruined mountaintop city, long ago sacked by Northerners)

Below is the teaser and intro for the Sword Barrow with a map and some art.


The Sword Barrow

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Review - Wonder and Wickedness

The Cover Includes this Cut Beastie
So Brendan of Necropraxis has released a product into the OSR o’verese, and this makes me very happy.  I can’t say this is a completely non-biased review, as I have great fondness for Brendan as a creator of game content, have played in many of his games and plunder his ideas with Mongol like ferocity and persistence.  All that said I am not always a fan of every rule change Brendan proposes and his relentless drive to pare everything down to its minimal mechanical elements (I suspect the man may dream in game mechanics) doesn’t always gladden my drunken baroque heart, so I feel I can pass judgment on Wonder & Wickedness as it is deserved in this review.  I paid full price for the product (as I tend to do), so it’s not as if my ethics have been suborned by the offer of free game product (could they be?  I really doubt it).

Wonder & Wickedness is effectively a modular "bolt on" spell system for your older style fantasy roleplaying game, composed of unleveled spell lists and an efficient minimalist approach to gaming magic that emphasizes the fictional idea of magic as inherent creepiness, chaos and corruption while trying to use the most elegant and simple rules possible.  It’s some spell lists, a magic system, magic items and an ethos.  Wonder & Wickedness would likely work best for a game based around OD&D power levels and mechanics, but is not exclusive to any system.  The book is also worth reading for other fantasy games, because mechanically it’s simple and evocative, meaning those who prefer more mechanically complex systems may have to adapt it, but they won’t find anything that is tied to another system and will find plenty of good ideas about running magic as a scary, powerful art with a distinct undertone of mystical foulness.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

HMS Apollyon Player's Manual - Alchemist Subclass

The practice of Alchemy is at once one of both the most practical and the most mystical of the schools of magic.  A rigorous academic study Alchemy seeks to transform and modify the objects and elements of the everyday world (as opposed to controlling, binding and allying with their essences – the goal of elementalism)  for the benefit of the Alchemist’s individual body and soul as well as the creation of the “Magnum Opus”, a great work, most often an artifact of great power: The philosopher’s stone, offering eternal life, the universal solvent, capable of dissolving the bonds of magic and reality or Azoth, a universal medicine capable of raising the dead and curing any ailment.

Beside their contributions to the great work, Alchemists practice a form of magic less dependent on syphoning power directly from ley-lines or their own will and capable of using less power to gain similar effects by magically altering everyday objects.  Where an elementalist would bind a fragment of fire to an enemy causing him to burst into flame, and an thaumaturge lash out with a hard won tendril of pure unreality as a weapon, an alchemist will fling a specially enchanted dagger or sling bullet that seeks out and strikes the target (perhaps triggering some sort of chemical combustion reaction on impact).  As a result of the importance of mundane items in their work, Alchemists have many useful skills related to machinery, poisons and technology.  The Alchemist’s practicality is often lampooned by other magic PR actioners, and the caricature of an Alchemist, crushed under the burdens of his tinker’s tools, engineer’s kit, chemist’s glasses and disorganized research notes is a stock one amongst the schools of academic magic, mocking those with lesser talent for wielding raw power  but perhaps greater adaptability and genius.  It is a rare group of scavengers that doesn’t prize an Alchemist’s presence as his magic is no less effective for being tied to mundane objects and his broad knowledge of the sciences is often proves more helpful at avoiding danger then the puissance of a more focused sorcerer.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Haunted Dungeon - a series of tables

One of Goya's creepier etchings
Sarin the Mambo immediately knew something was wrong as the familiar hatch swung open. The pair of Shrine Fanatics, their unarmored bodies covered in devotional tattoos of ancient mechanical schematics, their meaning lost, but their protective power to lure the very spirits of the vessel still puissant could sense it was well as they cranked away at the hatch’s manual override wheel, and their loud chanting of the 537th sutra to the Prime Engine shrank to a whisper. Beyond the hatch, the formerly domesticated companionway way leading to a slaughterhouse and several large, elementally powered meat freezers was wreathed in fog, fog and utter wrongness.  Sarin’s various fetishes of the Winding Gear, her patron, felt as if they were vibrating atop her armor and her frail elderly hand gripped tightened the cord that held the heavy mace to her gauntlet.

Sarin didn’t even need to borrow the eyes of the Winding Gear spirit that “rode” her and filled her with its power to see that there was foul magic beyond the hatch.  It was as if death, hate and sorrow were pushing out from the peeling wall papers of the companionway beyond, and weeping from around every bent rivet in the companionway walls beneath, and dripping like curdled oil from the ceiling.  The fog was the worst of it, light from the lanterns held by the Mambo’s companions would not penetrate more than a few feet into the shifting miasma whose swirls and eddies gave an impression of intentional, malicious movement.

The slaughterhouse had gone bad, and those who had died within had not merely risen as common revenants or individual spirits, but instead corrupted the whole of the region, the fear and horrors of their deaths leaking into the walls and fixtures of the slaughterhouse to turn the entire area into an expression of hate, fear and a deep abiding sense of betrayal that sought with inchoate fury to punish the living for its multitude of deaths.    

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Starting Minor Magical Items For Darkly Haunted Noble Characters


A List of unique starting magical items for noble characters in my (admittedly underdeveloped) Fallen Empire setting.  Alternatively I suppose these are the minor items one finds in the crumbled ruins of decadent high-magic mansion, where thousands of years of ease and glory have given way to rot and rodents.

Your house has fallen, not once, not even twice, but like a tottering drunk, tumbling endlessly, colliding with fixed obstacles, cowering from imagined enemies and unprepared to face tomorrow.  Why do you alone see it? Your elders, the family head, the old retainers, the children, and even your peers are blind, wrapped up in false glories and an imagined past. While they sit in dark worm eaten parlors, clutching the greasy and threadbare arms of their patched tapestried thrones and waiting for the Empire’s return to fortune, you have calmly laid out the need for change.  Over meals of what were once decorative carp but are now your rubbery repast carved up on golden plates, you have shouted and raved for action.  In the mossy dripping blackness of the overgrown topiary garden you’ve intrigued and schemed.   

Your efforts have come to naught, your warnings, your rumor mongering, your pleas and prayers cannot move the fixed inertia of a Millennium's propriety and tradition.  Now there is only flight, clutching poorly prepared supplies and rushing for the unknown world beyond the mansions and spires.

Note the illustration are from a 1940's edition of Wuthering Heights (If the swarthy gentleman digging up a grave marked Catherine didn't clue you in.)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Red and Pleasant Land Review

So I’ve been wondering for the past while, where exactly Zak Smith of Playing D&D with Pornstars has been putting his creative energies? His blog hasn’t had the same density and depth that it did in the past.  I mean mine hasn’t either, but that’s because I am getting lazy and burnt out, but that didn’t stop me from being hopeful that Mr. Smith was still producing content like a machine.  I was right to be hopeful, because today Smith’s long awaited Red and Pleasant Land - a setting book for The Land of Unreason was released by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and it was worth the wait.

I purchased the PDF, which isn’t especially cheap, but worth it given the size and quality of the product.  I am sure that the actual book will be even nicer, as LOTFP appears to have lavished a great deal of care on this product in addition to its normally phenomenal production values.  The PDF is nicely indexed and in vibrant full color at a high resolution with the art remaining pretty clear up to 200% size, so it’s about what should be expected from a high quality PDF.
Not sure if this is the best piece in Red and Pleasant Land, but it's my Favorite

Sunday, November 30, 2014

More Specialist Skills


Below is a list of skills that I intend to use for my HMS Apollyon games, it includes variants (Legerdemain, Stealth, Acrobatics, Tinker and Search) of the standard ones found (often limited to thieves) in most D&D/D20 systems.  Specifically Ive modeled these on the LOTFP system of X in 6 chance of success. I personally like this far better than the percentile system simply as it feels simpler and can shift more readily with level gain, especially in a system where high level play isnt common, or level is capped at 10th (As it is in my own Apollyon Game, and as it seems to be by the nature of LOTFP play).  These skills do a couple things that I like.  First they offer variability to the thief class, and other classes as well a ranger need not be a separate class, but perhaps just a fighter or specialist with a focus on Animal Handling and Survivial.  Second they allow me to provide alternatives to certain first level spells while keeping those spells useful.  Last they provide some mechanical tests for certain types of odd activities or provide an element of random failure/success for other popular adventurer activities (such as collecting monster poison).

There is a debate to be had regarding the use of skills, including all the classic Thieves Skills because its often opined that rolling dice to solve a problem rather than allowing the players to use their creativity to figure out the puzzle involved diminishes one of the best aspects of tabletop gaming.  However, I think these skill are mostly limited to areas where some mechanical component is necessary.  There should be some mechanical component to certain activities that cant be part of player skill, but are obvious elements of character knowledge. Specifically things that specialists (or other subclasses) know that cannot be readily known by players and which have a mechanical import.  The most clear example of this sort of skill is something like Arcana or Tinker as no game Ive been in has available locks to pick or secret languages to focus hermeneutic knowledge on.  Moreover, focusing on these tasks for too long detracts from the play of other players who arent figuring out the lock puzzle or deciphering the secret inscription.  On the other end is something like the Search which really should be easy to model with player knowledge (I pull on the candle holder, I dig through the refuse pile etc.) but demands a great deal of knowledge by the GM regarding things like secret door mechanisms and what sort of dungeon dressing is scattered about (both to conceal valuables and to provide pointless things to search).  

A GM cant always have these things, but a good module should make efforts at description with this in mind.  Rather than saying secret door in North wall something like twisting a torch holder (one of several) on the North wall clockwise will cause a latch to snap open and reveal the secret door on the North Wall.  Yet this isnt always possible, and sometimes describing the wide variety of cruff on the floor of a goblin lair that the party can dig through is not a good use of game time.  In these cases a skill is helpful.  Skills also have an advantage of being clear about time and risk, with each skill roll taking one turn (10 minutes roughly but who knows in a game using an overloaded encounter die - as opposed to the Gygaxian strict timekeeping), a roll on a random encounter/exploration die and a clear risk reward calculation for the players.  

It is for this reason, the encounter roll, that unless there are compelling circumstances I dont bother with catastrophic failures for character failure with skills.  Its usually just wasted time, though in some circumstances (trying to stealth past alert guards, trying to run up a wall Kung Fu movie style in combat, trying to disarm a ticking bomb or doing emergency surgery on a dying comrade) there are obvious consequences.

The ultimate point is that I like these skills and find they add aspects to the game, specifically a deeper, faction based exploration game, especially in that they both encourage players to use their skills a character with a survival skill will try to identify local flora, because they can and allow the creation of a wider variety of character types.  Specialists need not simply be magsmen, sneak thieves or an assassin, but can be tinkers, scholars, charlatans and doctors.  While the descriptions below are written with my own Apollyon Setting in mind I think they can be generally applicable to most exploration based settings.