Monday, July 26, 2021

Ludic Dreams - A Small Collection of Flowers and Entanglements & A Tangled Web

This is a review of A Small Collection of Flowers and Entanglements by Luke Earl, and A Tangled Web by Benjamin McCown and Christian Stryffler. Both of the zines kickstarted on Zinequest 3. Both present novel systems for tracking NPCs, their relationships, and evolving schemes. I have read but not used the zines in play. 

My interest in these zines arose from a felt need for two things. The first is what I call "technologies of memory", i.e. systems of note taking for both adventure prep and record keeping over the long haul. How does one "write up" NPCs and their relationships in a way that is geared to adventure? The second is an interest in systems that model advancing schemes of NPCs and factions, but in a way that is sensitive to player action (and inaction). I find that without a mechanic to model a world of evolving threats and opportunities that react to player action, my default is just to prep the next adventure location. I lose the sense of a dynamic world that is in motion and responding in active ways to what the players do. 

So I’m in the market for these kinds of tools. Let’s see what’s on offer.


A Small Collection of Flowers and Entanglements




A Small Collection of Flowers and Entanglements is a 24 page PDF presenting two different systems, “Flowers” and “Entanglements”. “Flowers” is a system for randomizing evolving situations that are sensitive to player intervention. “Entanglements” are ways of representing networks of NPCs via their relationships and knowledge. The actual techniques are presented over 9 short pages. The PDF also presents attractive printable worksheets that allow you the DM to easily employ these techniques. The PDF is available on DTRPG here and itch.io here for $2.34 and £2 respectively. 

Before I get into the techniques, let me get a couple of criticisms out of the way. The PDF has some typos and is written in a cheeky style I found a tad distracting. It could use some better or more fully fleshed out examples to illustrate the techniques. It also presents the techniques over 9 brief pages, and is mostly taken up with printable worksheets. However, the techniques are interesting and the worksheets are beautiful.

Flowers


Flowers is a variant of the hexflower technique developed by Goblin’s Henchmen. To tell you about the variant, I need to explain the original. The best introduction to this fascinating, supple, and highly customizable tool is The Hexflower Cookbook available here. Goblin’s Henchmen’s hexflower leverages the bell curve of 2d6 rolls to represent evolving situations where, although subject to chance, there is a direction events are most likely to go, and where what happens next depends on what’s going on now. You can use it to model almost any evolving situation including the weather, terrain traversed in overland travel, a trial by jury, or morale in combat.





The technique involves assembling hexes representing evolving conditions. For example, in the illustration above, the hexes each represent the day’s weather for purposes of overland travel. You begin at the center. From there each day you roll 2d6 to see where you move to next, consulting the hex key to the right to see which of six directions you move. Since 6-7 and 8-9 are the most likely results, probability will tend to move you down (mainly) and to the left (a little), although anything might happen. If you move off the map, you renter the hexflower at the opposite side of the same row, coming into the hex through the edge opposite the one you went off on. 

Goblin’s Henchmen presents a couple techniques for making the procedure sensitive to player interventions. One technique involves giving the players action points they can use to turn the direction moved by one hex face per point spent. So, gaining a political ally in a revolution hexflower might give the revolutionary players 1 AP allowing the party to alter a roll by up to 1 face, from 8,9 say, to 10,11. Another technique, where the outcome towards which probability directs us (at the bottom) is something the players are trying to avoid, invovles flipping the key around when the players get a win, putting 6-7 at the top instead of the bottom of the hex key like this so that the probability trend is in the "good" direction, i.e. upward.

“Flowers” by Earl is a variant hexflower that uses a 1d6 hex key, with a single number from 1 to 6 assigned to each hexface like so: 




Suppose we use it to model the villain's schemes. At the very bottom is the villain’s scheme accomplished, surrounded by hexes that represent progress towards that goal. For example, perhaps the goal is “total domination of the city-state”. One result near to the bottom might be “villain infiltrates the government”. At the top is the ruination of the villain’s plan, surrounded by hexes representing setbacks, for example, “a key ally deserts the villain”.

The system uses the 5E advantage/disadvantage mechanic to model player intervention. If the players accomplish something that sets back the interest of the villain, then they roll with advantage, giving them a 75% of rolling a 4, 5, or 6 and moving in one of the good upwards directions. If the players ignore the scheme or suffer a defeat, then they roll 2d6 with disadvantage, giving a 75% of rolling 1, 2, or 3 and moving in downwards. Although Earl doesn’t do this, one could also imagine a further variant that includes a neutral condition for rolling without either advantage or disadvantage when neither side has the upper hand.

In sum, this is a neat mechanic for modeling evolving situations that are very sensitive to player action (and inaction). By eschewing alternate keys or meta-game action points it is cleaner than Goblin's Henchmen's original, although it loses some probabilistic nuances. And you can still get some of the same inertial energy produced in the original by the probability tilt of the bell curve by setting player inaction at rolling with “disadvantage”. Inaction flows towards defeat; if they snooze they (probably) lose.

Entanglements


Entanglements by contrast uses a tanglegraph to represent the relationship between a small number of NPCs, accompanied by a sheet with notes on what each NPC knows. It’s presented as a tool that is usable especially with small mysteries that have a fair number of tightly interrelated NPCs, where what each knows is crucial. The tanglegraphs are attractive visual representations of the relationships of NPCs. Indeed, as drawn by Earl they have the aesthetic of dynamic representation of the atom, suggesting relations between particles in motion bound together by forces. But there is also something occult, perhaps kabbalistic, about their trailing parabolas connecting circular nodes. 




Where there are four or fewer NPCs, each NPC has an arrow going to each other NPC. Thus the relation between any two NPCs is modeled by two arrows one coming from each of the NPCs to the other. Each arrow is labelled with one or two words representing how the source NPC relates to the NPC at the end of the arrow. For NPCs of five or greater number Earl uses only a single arrow for each representation. The arrow might say, for example, “estranged brothers”, or “blackmail”, or whatever. This makes the visual representation easier to take in, and also accommodates the fact that it’s hard for players to keep track of so much information—so it pushes the DM to think a little more holistically about the relationship. The tanglegraphs are accompanied by a key that names the NPCs at each node and provides space to write what the NPC knows.

In sum, this PDF, although little, packs a punch. If you’re in the market for this kind of tool, the aesthetically pleasing worksheets are worth looking at.


A Tangled Web





A Tangled Web, written and illustrated by Benjamin McCown and Christian Stryffler, with editing by Brooke McCown, presents a system for relating NPCs to one another to support small scale mystery scenarios. You can purchase it here on itch for $4. After a brief introduction, it gives six example scenarios, each presented over a pair of two-page spreads. The first spread presents a graphic map of the relationship of six NPCs and a key giving brief background on each NPC. The second presents a series of random tables providing scenario alternatives by modifying (say) the motive or details of the schemes of two or three of the NPCs mentioned. The six scenarios are followed up by a series of random tables to flesh out scenes with these characters and some sheets to take notes.





The relationship maps, like the one above, are essentially tanglegraphs. But instead of Earl’s occult atomic energy, these illustrated maps are presented in a folksy way. They cater to people who prefer visual representations, with a dual key, using a different icon for each NPC, as well as for each type of relationship. By breaking free from the rigid format of Earl’s numinous templates, they allow for more flexible and simpler representations. For example, rather than choosing whether to use a single arrow or two one-way arrows to represent a relationship, McCown and Stryffler use both. If the relationship is mutual they put an arrow at each end. If the relationship is one way (i.e. unrequited love) they put the arrow at just one end. So, you could have two npcs with no relationship at all, two with one-way relations, or two with one mutual relation, or even a mutual relation and a one-way relation. 

Personally, I find the dual key, although charming, a little unwieldy, since it requires multiple simultaneous decoding to read what is an otherwise quite simple relationship map. If I were making these for my home game, I would use names rather than icons to depict the NPCs.

The NPC key provides the name of the NPC, a 1-3 sentence capsule description, and one or two similarly terse pieces of information. Instead of focusing solely on knowledge as Earl does, these pieces of information are labelled Secrets, Flavor, Flaws, or Desires. This information is geared towards the very human mysteries that each of the six scenarios presents, where a combination of secrets, foibles, and desires create an unfolding mystery. Flavor presents welcomes notes on how to characterize or play a memorable NPC. The structure here is good and potentially relevant to different genres of play. You've got the relationship map, with a small key of different kinds of relations. You have a brief description of each NPC. Pick half a dozen tags that correspond to the features most relevant to the style of play for your game. Organize your notes that way.

The randomized tables that follow the relationship map allow one to roll to flesh out central elements of the small-scale mystery by providing further detail on motivations, schemes, or unfolding crises of two or three NPCs. I like the idea of further customizable options in a product presenting a series of small scenarios, but I have mixed feelings about the use of random tables to present them. I’m a fan of rolling on tables to represent unfolding events that are sensitive to chance (and player action as in Earl’s Flowers). I’m also a fan of rolling on tables in the moment to produce unexpected results during play, as with random encounters. During prep I’m a fan of rolling on tables for inspiration that get the imaginative juices flowing, as in Matt Finch’s glorious Tome of Adventure Design. But I’m less a fan of rolling to produce swappable customized elements of an otherwise fixed scenario during prep. Why would one do that? It doesn’t produce unexpected results in the moment, or get the creative juices flowing. So, what role does randomization play here? Would anything be lost if we presented them as a menu of options from which the DM may pick what seems most interesting? Of course, one can always treat a table as a menu of options if one likes, so the complaint is small. 

The mystery scenarios presented range from quirky and low-key to sinister and high stakes. They are systemless, but written with the dressings of fantasy play, i.e. vaguely medieval village mysteries with demi-human characters, suggesting use for games like D&D. At one end of the spectrum, scenarios like “Critter Bones” and “Blackmailing the Blacksmith” read like fantasy versions of an episode of Northern Exposure. Take the first of these. A pair of town busybodies suspect a loner dwarf of being up to no good. As it turns out, he is struggling to learn necromancy, but he likely has harmless motives (e.g. reviving his pet or starting a zombie circus). Meanwhile, two waifs (a child urchin and a pickpocket) are about to get themselves in trouble with low-stakes criminal activity! Personally, I have trouble imagining spinning fun sessions out of this kind of scenario at least using a ruleset like early editions of D&D. They read like scenarios for Dogs in the Vineyard, but with D&D tropes substituting for the fire and brimstone.

At the other end of the spectrum are scenarios that seem like quite strong material for adventure. For example, in “Fish Tales” a bossy fishmonger has found an artifact in the gullet of a fish that will bring doom to the village (and perhaps the whole region) if the players don’t crack the mystery and intervene. My favorite scenario is “The Little Druid” in which a young druid is being taught shapeshifting by a talking wolf, while the pack (unbeknownst to the druid) attacks villagers. Meanwhile and unrelatedly, an assassin who can barely control their magical powers has slain the wrong victim with tragic consequences. There’s a lot going on in this scenario, and it has an air of fairy-tale like mystery to it that I can imagine shining at the table for old school D&D, especially for 1st or 2nd level characters.

The random tables included after the six scenarios at the end of the zine are extremely terse. I puzzled over how they were to be used in play. For example, there are three separate tables to roll on that each give a one-word description of the voice of an NPC with results like, "Indian accent", "exasperated", "haughty". Another table of weather has "clear full moon" and "sunny" as possible entries. What is the weather situation, such that it's an open question whether it is daytime or nighttime? The zine also ends with what I assume, perhaps, to be a die drop random event table. It includes things like, "A dog shows up out of nowhere. What could it want?" and also "The next roll in your game is a critical failure." I struggled to see what productive function this table might play.

Setting aside this brief foray into random tables at its end, and focusing on its original contributions, what A Tangled Web shows us is that it is one thing to have a way to represent and store information, for example, a tanglegraph of the relationships of networks of NPCs. This is an abstract tool, like Goblin's Henchmen's hexflowers that can be put to any number of purposes. What is at least as important is seeing how this tool can be put to a definite use--in this case, prepping small-scale mystery scenarios. Once one has seen six deployments of the tool for this purpose, one is well-equipped to carry on with one's own mysteries. I recommended a tangled web on these grounds, especially if small-scale mysteries with a big heart is your jam. 

Where to Go Next


In my mind, the question is where to go next with devices of representation like this. In particular, how could one tailor them to questions of larger scale and greater complexity than homespun small town mysteries built from broken hearts, land speculation, and brassy fishmongers? What forms of representation would be required for adventures focusing on political intrigues among rival factions in an urban environment? How can we depict the jostling fractious politics of wizards in shifting consortiums, with relations to the strange entities of the Overworld or fey courts? Part of the key, surely, will be settle on a set of tags to organize their notable features different than either of these zines introduce for organizing the information about NPCs relevant for small-scale mysteries. For example, for the wizards we might ask what domain their occult researches are in. For general factions, we might represent what resources they possess. And so on. 

I think it would also be interesting to experiment with nested tanglegraphs, with say each major faction in a locale (a city, say) getting its own tanglegraph, and separate tanglegraph representing the relationship of factions to one another. It would be fun to somehow figure out how to keep a big whiteboard that had the nested tanglegraphs available electronically in a single representation. This would even allow you to draw lines connecting elements of one tanglegraph to elements of another, where one player in a faction had a secret alliance with a player in another faction, although this would quickly come to look like those giant boards in movies that disgraced police detectives erect in their bedrooms to track some hopelessly complicated case they were never able to crack.






Thursday, July 22, 2021

Cryptic Signals - Hideous Daylight, Gili's Guide, Infinite Caves, Margresh Blackblood

Hideous Daylight - Brad Kerr - OSE - 34 Pages.

A 34 page low-level adventure through a demon infested garden cursed with permanent daylight. The cover art (Matt Stikker) is amazing and sells the adventure. Inside the layout is crisp, interior art passable, and the maps match the whimsical tone of the adventure, though the pixelated style of both maps and interior art clash with the cover. The adventure itself contains great interactivity, excellent simple puzzles, several monsters that require thought to overcome, decently written NPCs, and an excellent basic premise.

Arthurian and fairy-tale theming is marred by many inconsistent encounters with otherworldly “visitors” that are far stranger than the rest of the setting with its shadow demons, nobles, and blood thirsty cursed animals suggests. Designed as a small hex map with single keys for each hex and three small mapped locations, Hideous Daylight is a sizable adventure, though the hex map itself seems unnecessary. Distance and visibility in a 2.5 x 2.5 mile hexagonal garden surrounded by a wall doesn’t warrant a hex map, and the map's presence hints at a sort of unconsidered formalism. A point crawl between keyed encounters, or even a standard keyed map with a larger scale, would have worked well, disrupted the artificial feeling spacing of the hexes, and allowed the inclusion of some natural obstacles or other elements that could have made navigation of the garden more compelling.

Despite these stumbles, Kerr has generally solid design, using a paragraph and bullet point style with shorter keys. The adventure itself manages to have a distinct story to unravel, without forcing a specific conclusion or a linear narrative, something many adventures fail to do. Likewise the inclusion of a page detailing how events will unfold after the most likely actions of the players is useful, making Hideous Daylight easier to place in the context of a campaign. In tone, including inconsistent digressions, and map concerns, it reminds me of B3 - Palace of the Silver Princess.  B3, despite some issues, is one of my favorite of the old TSR B series: whimsy, a story to uncover, and variety make for a compelling adventure. Hideous Daylight is a compelling adventure that would fit well in a more fairy tale influenced setting, though some changes to even out its rougher patches and create a more coherent whole might be warranted. (Gus)


Monday, July 19, 2021

(P)Late Mail -- Kriegsmesser

When I received Kriegsmesser in the mail I finally googled "kriegsmesser", and found out it meant "war knife". Which makes sense; Gregor Vuga's ZineQuest 2021 project is a tribute to "roleplaying games named after medieval weapons".

I love Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay's piss-renaissance Old World setting. I tend to pick up WFRP-a-likes sight unseen:

Warlock (quality); Small But Vicious Dog (yesss); Zweihander (which I have come to hate) ...

Anyway: I backed Kriegsmesser without really knowing anything about it. So Kriegsmesser surprised me. 

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Kriegsmesser grew out of a Troika! cutting. Its 36 backgrounds are compatible with that system: each come with a couple of lines of description; a list of skills and possessions; an a visual cameo cropped from actual 16th-Century woodcut art.


Cohesive and competently flavourful. My favourite is the Labourer, who always starts with "an empty pine box":

" You've spent your life breaking your back, working hard for other people's profit. You have nothing to show for it but a spectre of the future. "

(The obligatory ratcatcher-analogue , called the Vermin Snatcher, is here  -- check that box!)

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Kriegsmesser also comes with its own ruleset.  Hits all the notes it needs to, with lots of orientation and advice for how to run a game -- but ultimately super-simple, mechanically:

Roll d6s equal to the value in a relevant skill, look at the highest result. 6 means you get what you want; 5 or 4 means you get what you want, at a cost.

It's not quite a dice pool, since only the highest result matters. No opposed tests.

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Kriegsmesser intends to have this base mechanic handle fights, too. The combat rules - with armour, toughness and weapon values -- are nested in an optional section.

For a WFRP-a-like, this feels like a purposeful departure.

Many of WFRP's most celebrated adventures are celebrated for bits that their underlying ruleset does little to support: the investigative structure of "Shadows Over Bogenhafen"; the complicated timetable of "Rough Night At Three Feathers".

Image source


Ludwig von Wittgenstein never needed a statblock to be memorable.

Not to say that lethal, hyper-detailed fights isn't super Warhammer-y. (Kriegsmesser includes an injury table, broken down by body-part -- check that box!)

But here it feels like Gregor is saying: "I'm not Games Workshop and Roleplay isn't an ancillary of Warhammer Fantasy Battle; we can evoke grim-and-perilous-ness even if we fork away from heavy combat rules."

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It has become ritual for me to read my partner Sharon to sleep. 

Sometimes I read her RPG things. The other night, after I read her Kriegsmesser's introduction --

" The Empire wages an eternal war against Chaos. Its priests preach of Chaos as an intrusion, something unnatural ... These men see Chaos in anything that does not buttress their rule. They call it disorder, anarchy, corruption. They say that to rebel against their order is to rebel against god and nature. That the current arrangement is natural, rather than artificial.

" Meanwhile, the common people look to the Empire to deliver the justice that they were promised and they find none. They look to the Empire and do not see themselves reflected in it. They look around at what they were taught was right and good and see only misery.

Their world begins to unravel. Chaos comes to reside in every heart and mind sound enough to look at the world and conclude it is broken. "

-- Sharon remarked: "Nice one."

The RPG things I read her generally leave Sharon lukewarm. She has enjoyed a couple -- but, yeah: for many of these books, text isn't their strong point.

Kriegsmesser is the only time I can recall Sharon praising the writing of an RPG book without my prompting.

Nice one.

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That introduction surprised me. It underlines Kriegsmesser's biggest departure from its WFRP-a-like pedigree: how it characterises Chaos.

Corruption, a mainstay of most grim-dark-y games, is made an optional rule, like combat. Explaining this, Gregor writes:

" Kriegsmesser partially subverts or deconstructs the traditional conceit of Warhammer where the characters are threatened by the forces of Chaos. In this game it is the player characters who are the agents of 'Chaos': they are likely to become the 'rats' under the streets, and the wild 'beast-men' in the woods bringing civilisation down. It's the Empire and its nobles and priests that are corrupt ... "

Describing the Empire, Gregor writes:

" The Empire encompasses the world yet is terrified of the without. It enforces itself with steel and fire yet considers itself benevolent. It consumes the labour of others with bottomless hunger yet calls its subalterns lazy, or wasteful, or greedy. "

Holy shit this is the first time I've seen the word "subaltern" in an RPG thing, I think?

I love this.

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Rant incoming:

With every passing decade Warhammer abridges its Moorcockian roots more and more; nowadays it is "Order = Good" and "Chaos = Evulz", pretty much.

Gone are the days when chaos berserkers are implied to grant safe passage to the helpless (because Khorne is as much a god of martial honour as he is a god of bloodletting);
Or that the succor of Papa Nurgle is a genuine comfort to the downtrodden;
Or that Tzeentch could unironically embody the principle of hope, of change for the better.

As Chaos is distilled into unequivocal villainy, Order goons get painted as Good Guys by default --

Giving rise to Warhammer's contemporary problem, wherein fans are no longer able to recognise satire.

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Image source

When I was introduced to 40K, it seemed pretty clear that the Imperium was a Brazil-esque absurdist-fascist bureaucratic state: planets are exterminatus-ed due to clerical error; the way it stamps out rebellions is the reason why rebellions begin in the first place.

Tragi-comic grimdarkness. That was the point.

Nowadays that tone has shifted -- and you're more likely than not going to encounter a 40K fan who argues that the Imperium's evils are a justified necessity, to prevent worse wrongs.

We went from:

"Space Nazis because insane dumbass fuckery, also chainswords vroom vroom so badass!"

To:

"Space Nazis because it makes sense actually, and also chainswords make sense because [insert convoluted rationalisation here]."

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Image source

Even Fantasy Flight's Black Crusade line, which ostensibly offers a look at 40K from the perspective of Chaos, never truly commits to its conceit.

With prep you could play a heroic band of mutant freedom fighters, resisting the tyranny of the Evil Imperium --

But I don't remember Black Crusade giving that kind of campaign any actual support. Its supplements service the relatively more conventional "You can play villains!" angle; the Screaming Vortex is a squarely Daemons-vs-Daemons setting.

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Image source

This tonal drift culminates, in my mind, with Age of Sigmar, Games Workshop's heroic-fantasy replacement of the old WFRP / WHFB setting.

Here's the framing narrative for AoS's recently-launched Third Edition. Let's see whether I've got things right:

A highly professionalised, technologically-superior tip-of-the-spear fighting force (the Stormcast Eternals);
Backed by an imperialist military-industrial complex (Azyrheim);
"Liberating" rich new territories (Ghur) for exploitation by a civilised settler culture (Settlers of Sig-- I mean, Free Cities);
Justified because the locals are irredeemable heathens (Chaos and Kruleboyz).

I mean, that's a sweet-ass Warhammer setting. It's contemporary, laser-guided lampoon. Except it is played totally straight.

Image source

In AoS, a literal crusade is justified as the moral good.

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I think Kriegsmesser surprised me because its framing of Chaos -- as a promise, as the light of hope shining through cracks of a broken world --

It feels so fucking right.

Yes: its a subaltern deconstruction of the conventional moral universe of Warhammer -- but it is a take that is also already implied / all but supported in the various depictions of the setting: from WFRP to the modified title crawl of Black Crusade.

I'm annoyed I didn't think of it, myself. Damn you, Gregor!

And I'm annoyed that more Warhammer fans aren't thinking it, also. 

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lmagine if Kriegsmesser's perspective stood on equal standing as the GW orthodoxy. Imagine if, instead of simplifying stuff into "Order = Good" and "Chaos = Evulz", GW did a Gregor Vuga.

You'd have a Rashomon-ed Warhammer, where villainy depends on perspective:

You are fearful villagers, huddled around your priest, muttering prayers against the wild braying coming from the trees beyond your gates.

You are Aqshyian tribeswomen, defying the thunder warrior towering over you, the foreigner demanding you bow to his foreign god.

You are a Tzeentchian revolutionary cell, desperately trying to disrupt a Inquisitor's transmissions so your home planet isn't destroyed by fascist orbital fire.

Image source

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Get Kriegsmesser HERE.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2021

A Pinch of Salt: Lair of the Lamb

 

Lair of the Lamb

Reviwer: Dan D.
Author: Arnold K
System: GLOG
Free pdf
Run as Referee (using home rules)

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Up front I think I should note that Arnold is literally the reason I am part of this scene at all - Goblin Punch was my introduction to the OSR and it was Arnold's comments on my own blog that got me properly involved in the G+ scene back in the day.

Right then, that's out of the way.

Part 1: The Module

Lair of the Lamb is a free 51 page pdf containing a 46-room dungeon and the core rules for Arnold's revised Goblin Laws of Gaming. I will be focusing primarily on the first half of the dungeon itself - while I am fond of the GLOG and its infectious spread around the blogosphere I didn't use it while running the Lair, and I likewise did not use the expanded second floor with the ghouls.

Lair of the Lamb is a funnel and teaching dungeon - every player gets a handful of level 0 peasants who die in one hit. Everyone wakes up in a pitch black room with no possessions. There's a monster in here with you. Get out if you can. Dungeoncrawling is reduced to its core elements: light management, risk assessment, using the tools at one's disposal, creative solutions. Since tools are so rare, squeezing every possible use out of them is necessary. Since challenges are open ended, those unusual uses are rewarded.

(An example of an open-ended challenge: a sarcophagus with a false bottom. There's a room below filled with treasure, but it's a 10 foot drop. The edges of the sarcophagus are sharp enough to slice ropes.)

Room descriptions are minimalist - things of note in bold, NPCs in red, treasure in green, bullet points. Good, easily readable formatting. Each page has the relevant subsection of the map up in the corner. Precisely as much description as the room warrants (a supply closet, for example, is described only as "Broom, Gong, and Hammer"), but nonetheless is evocative in that short space - "A throne of sheep bones and unfired clay", "A golden sensory deprivation helmet", "A mural of a crab being groomed on a woman's lap", "[The Lamb] reeks of blood and ammonia", and so on. Single sentences, nothing fancy, more than enough to work with. I could add additional details as I saw fit or let them pass on by without issue.

The art is minimal - some public domain images, a drawing of the Lamb by Warren D, and some illustrations of classes by Evlyn Moreau. Precisely what is needed for this sort of thing.

The Lamb itself is the highlight, of course- an excellent setpiece monster, disgusting and unsettling and terrifyingly dangerous (if you're not super lucky with encounter rolls like we were). It's the primary, and potentially only, monster encounter in the entire dungeon - the only other ones are either sequestered on the second floor or won't appear until the Lamb is killed.

It's like a xenomorph - a big, flabby, piss-smelling, skull-headed abomination-unto-Nuggan xenomorph. And, of course, another prime teaching tool for OSR gameplay: Monsters are dangerous, monsters have traits that can be used to your advantage: (fear of fire, fear of injury, identifiable smell), combat can and often should be avoided, combat can be stacked in your favor.


Part 2: Running It

For the actual playthrough I ran the dungeon with five players (including fellow BoC member Ava) over two sessions, each ~2 hours long, which turned out to be enough to clear out the main floor of the Lair. Each player controlled two characters, with two additional peasants as backup for a group (for a bit of additional flavor I recommended that each pair of characters had some sort of pre-existing connection. Mostly sibling pairs)

Thanks to some merciful random encounter rolls and some clever work on the players' parts, they avoided a total slaughter. Drinking goat blood to slake the initial dehydration gave them an early edge, and one player consorting with the demon DAVOK gave them one very handy fireball during their first major encounter with the Lamb.

Several of the players had played in the Lair before, and that enhanced the experience, I think - it's so open ended that prior knowledge opens up new and creative avenues as according to the situation. I don't think people completely new to it would have dabbled in DAVOK's obviously bad news treasure chest - and they even went as far as to use the six second prophecy fruit to check for a trap!

High point was late in session 2, when a character was bitten by a poisonous snake. Instead of save vs death, I did the "gradual infection with spreading patch of gross color" trick, and the PC managed to survive by slicing her arm off in a trapped coffin before the poison had progressed past her elbow.

They managed to trap the Lamb under fallen masonry for long enough to clear out the last thing they wanted to investigate and escape - they didn't kill it, so they never encounter the Little Lambs or the priests, but by the end 10/12 of the party managed to survive and they had recovered both DAVOK and the necromancy tome.

Perhaps most praiseworthy is that Lair of the Lamb got me to actually keep track of time and light in a dungeon, and I actually found it fun - that has never happened, in all my years of playing. Not once, until now, and unlikely to happen again anytime soon, I think. But it happened, all the same.

I ended the second session with the survivors opening up the door to reveal a sky dominated by a gas giant and its moons, orbital infrastructure like a silver spiderweb across the sky. Because the great thing about starting off underground, is that you can put whatever you want on the surface.

All told, I think the Lair is the kind of dungeon we only get every couple years - one that's been intentionally designed to be the best dungeon it can be, rather than a collection of stone rooms and random table contents. Superficially, the former might look like the latter, but practically there is vast gulf between them. And even beyond that, it's free, it has rules in it, it can get people started with something to read the pdf on, some scrap paper, a few pencils and one set of dice. That's prime RPGs for me: free and wild and weird and raw.

Highest recommendation, without qualification. There will be something in here worth reading and learning from, no matter your circumstances.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Flying Dice — Mother's Malady

Lineart of a doorway carved into a mountainside. It resembles a fantasy dwarf's face, with helm and whiskers. A crumbling stair leads up to the entrance from some place below. The title text "Mother's Malady" is written vertically to one side.


Mother's Malady was the first thing that caught my attention scrolling through DTRPG's "Newest" category. As of writing this critique I have read it, but not played it.

The one-page format scratches an artistic itch for me. Limitation is always fertile ground for creativity, and specifically limiting the size of a work of art does much to make it approachable. I mean that both from the perspective of a reader and potential player as well as from that of the artist. One-page adventures are great for experimenting with an uncertain new idea, or an unfamiliar discipline. As with any artistic experiment it must then be asked: did the idea work out? How could the unfamiliar discipline be improved on next time?

Layout is perhaps a peculiar place to start, but unfortunately it stands out. It's one of those things no one notices except when it's done poorly. There's clearly thought and creativity behind the way the text and art were arranged. For example, the stairs cutting a line between two area descriptions looks great. The issue is an accumulation of little things that would have been simple to fix. The spot where the white background for the text wasn't spaced properly, so the map overlaps with a word. The rumor table that's completely disconnected from the paragraph which leads up to it. The excessive amount of white space that could have been put to better use. The single block of text, out of about 10, which is Justified, and has a line so dense with words they may as well not have any spaces between them at all. This stuff makes the adventure more frustrating to read than it ought to be, but adventures do not sink or swim on the quality of their layout.

The illustration of the dungeon entrance (visible in a squished form on the store page) is pure classic D&D of the best sort. The stairs rising up from the forest to tower above the treeline gets my imagination pumping. Their crumbling, gappy depiction also handily illustrates the dungeon's primary environmental hazard in a way that genuinely aids the text. The map is serviceably illustrated, but the arrangement of the spaces could have used a second pass. It irks me that the way the entrance is depicted on the map doesn't line up with the way its depicted in the art. Once inside the dungeon players are quickly funneled into a short series of linear encounters. The dungeon would have been improved significantly if the cliff-side opening meant to serve as an escape route were visible from the stairs that lead to the main entrance. Most players would avoid this difficult climb when there's a much easier path available, but clearly presenting it as an option would do a lot to make the dungeon feel less constrained. Plus if some party did opt for the cliff-side opening that would open the adventure up to the sorts of unexpected situations that make running D&D a fun pastime.

The "Deer peeplz," note which serves as the adventure hook legitimately charms me. Mother's Malady is generally pretty charming. If I were to sit down and run this I can guarantee we'd have a fun few hours of D&D. I'd enjoy describing that big looming staircase and performing as the kobolds. My players would enjoy the humor in the adventure's twist, then they'd probably try to get away with all of the treasure instead of the pittance the kobolds are willing to pay. Best of all, I wouldn't have needed to do any prep work for those fun few hours, and on that level the adventure does its job as well as any other adventure I've read. Hell, it does its job better than a lot of prestigious, award-winning adventures I've read. But there's also nothing here I might not have come up with myself if I decided to improvise a classic D&D adventure on the fly.

I think the whole of Mother's Malady is best summed up by a comparison of its two random tables. The first is a d10 table of room descriptions, used when the players are navigating through the first half of the dungeon. It reads like a general-purpose table rather than something written for a specific dungeon. The entries are terse to the point of being enigmatic, despite the fact that there's enough errant white space there that each entry could more than double in length without any issue. On the other hand there's this d6 table of Mother's treasures which are mostly evocative as heck. Boots with symbols of the elements on the soles set my referee's brain in motion in a way that "swarm of bats" does not. Which is to say, there's clearly potential and passion mixed up in this adventure, but a little more work would have done a lot of good.

Mother's Malady was authored and illustrated by Brett Sullivan, with additional work from James Hanna and Isaac Warren. It is available as a PDF from itch.io or DriveThruRPG for $1.00. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Dungeon Dioramas - In the Light of a Ghost Star & Earth Expedition One

 
In the Light of a Ghost Star is an ultralight ruleset that includes a mini campaign setting, sample hexcrawl, and sample dungeon. It's written and illustrated by Nate Treme of the Highland Paranormal Society.

I bought Ghost Star because I was drawn in by the cover art, and by its compelling opening description. I recently had a chance to play the sample hexcrawl, Earth Expedition One, and to give the entire ruleset a close reading. I played with Joshua LH BurnettLeighton Conner, and Peter Kisner, who served as the referee.
 
 
The Setting

The opening description, the one that drew me in, paints an evocative image of a dead Earth beneath a dark sky, tells of the last bastions of human civilization on Mars, and outlines both the structure of the campaign and the role of the player characters.
 
"Earth was abandoned ages ago during the red giant expansion. Now, dimly lit by the ghost light of a dead white dwarf, it lies layered with eons of forgotten civilizations. From the warmth of Martian reactor cities, scavengers hire illegal transportation to earth to delve into its depths, looking for ancient treasures. There they must deal with ghosts, machines, and the strange life that has evolved on humankind's abandoned home planet."

The economy of words is impressive. The imagery is strong, and I can easily imagine the world's being described. But the setting I imagine when I read this paragraph, and the setting described in the rest of Ghost Star are not the same place. I see an Earth like the ocean floor - filled with rusted wrecks, weird plants, alien life - inspired by William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land and Chris Beckett's Dark Eden

Nate writes something different. We get a world of war apes, humanoid cockroaches, space slugs, and robots straight out of Looney Tunes, Futurama, and The Jetsons. For me, the dissonance between expectation and reality was almost jarring, but I don't know if others would experience the same gap.

As we'll see when we look at the sample adventure, the campaign is exactly as described. From the start, you know who you are, what you're doing, and why.

Aside from the introduction, Nate's setting emerges from lists of treasures and artifacts, the hexmap from the sample adventure, a handful of named NPCs, especially from the encounter tables. This is a world where an astro-lich assembles a library inside a perpetually levitating flying saucer, where war apes worship a giant slug amidst the ruins of an ancient city, where you are as like to discover Twinkies and crayons as you are functioning pre-Martian artifacts like a hologram generator or gravity reverser.

The elements fit together to create a rather gonzo mini-setting, one that's more Gamma World than I expected, but none the worse for it. The limited number of setting elements probably limit the replayability of the game unless you are prepared to either accept a great deal of repetition, or write your own setting for each subsequent expedition.
 
 
The Rules

Just as with the setting, the actual rules of the game are described in many places throughout Ghost Star. As an ultralight game, there are very few rules, and relatively little guidance on how and when to use them. I suspect there's an unspoken assumption that everyone involved will be playing D&D with modifications. There is only one paragraph devoted to "gameplay", and it isn't actually enough to play the game.

"The referee describes situations then the players get a turn to move up to 30 feet and perform an action. If an action’s success is uncertain then the player rolls the appropriate stat die. A 4 or higher succeeds. At referee’s discretion, special circumstances such as tactics or disadvantages give +1 or -1 to the roll."

There are three stats - Fighter, Explorer, and Scientist - and players initially assign d4, d6, and d8 dice among them. The phrase "if an action's success is uncertain" is doing a lot of work here. People who are basically playing D&D will likely have ideas about when to roll, although players from different traditions might make different assumptions, and Ghost Star offers little advice about how Nate would recommend resolving those disagreements.

From the equipment list, we learn that using weapons to attack requires a successful Fighter roll, and using the Cell Patcher device requires a successful Scientist roll. From that, I infer that using Ancient Alien Tech found on Earth also requires a Scientist roll, although that's an assumption on my part, since the text doesn't address the issue.

The "example of play" is an important source of rules advice here. This kind of text is notoriously difficult to write well, but in Ghost Star, it provides invaluable insight into how the designer thinks the game should be played. In the example, nearly every action the players attempt calls for a roll of the dice. My one critique of this text is that of the six rolls, only one fails, and the lone failure comes one of the two characters attacking the same monster, who is defeated by the single success. We get no idea, from this example, how Nate thinks the referee should handle failed dice rolls.

It's an important question, because the players are going to be rolling a lot of failures. With success coming from a 4 or higher on a d4, d6, or d8, each character has only a 25%, 50%, or 63% chance of success on any given task. 25% is miserable - even worse than the 33% so many old school designers insist on making the default in their rules, and that so many old school players complain about. A penalty of -1 to the roll, from hunger or disease for example, lowers the players' chances to 0%, 33%, and 50%. And as I said, in the example of play, nearly every action the players attempt calls for a roll.

In my playthrough, we were predictably, comically awful at all of our skills and failed at most things we tried. The characters are also quite fragile with only 3 hp. If you want to portray characters who are at all competent, I recommend raising the starting stats to d6, d8, and d10. Ghost Star's advancement system allows characters who survive the expedition and recover at least 5 valuable artifacts each to gain 1 additional hit point and increase a single stat by one dice-type, but I don't think there is enough game here to support campaigns of more than a handful of expeditions without doing a lot more writing for yourself.

I have also been spoiled by I2TO's automatic combat damage setting a standard for rules light gaming. Your preference may vary, but I would recommend using the Fighter dice to determine damage, rather than deciding whether an attack is successful. This would take a bit more modification, because you'd need to figure out some reason to wield weapons, and you might want to revisit those hit point totals.

All that said, I actually quite like the merging of stats and skills in Ghost Star. Each common task has a single stat associated with it, and each implies a broad enough array of expertise to make it easy to decide how to apply them to novel situations. They're like a combination the good advice on stats I read recently from Holothuroid and The Viking Hat GM.


Aside from the use of skill rolls, Ghost Star also has rules for inventory and travel. Characters start with 10 inventory slots, and can gain another each time they return to Mars with 5 artifacts. Presumably, items from the equipment list take up 1 slot each, although this isn't mentioned. Ancient Alien Tech is more cumbersome, and each one takes up 2 slots. 

Rations are a little odd - each ration feeds you for 2 days, meaning you really only need three rations per expedition. In my playthrough, this created a memory issue. I would recommend a modification here, either making each ration feed you for 1 day, or else using something like The Scones Alone's "expedition resources" so that each ration provides a single meal for the entire party.

"The transport ship lands in the dunes in the center hex. The pilot tells the scavengers she’ll pick them up at the same spot one week from now. Their job is to explore the area and find as many valuable artifacts as they can before it’s time to leave. Five hexes have named locations which are described below. When the scavengers enter a hex without a named location, roll on the encounter table (pg. 6) to see what they find. It takes a day to travel across a hex."

The rules for travel appear at the start of the key for the sample adventure. One key rules update between the 1.0 and 1.1 edition of the game was reducing movement from 2 hexes per day to 1 hex per day. The Retired Adventurer and Necropraxis have good explanations for why you might prefer single-hex travel, especially in a rules light game. I think Nate was wise to make that simplification.


The Adventure

Earth Expedition One covers a small region of 19 hexes with four obvious landmarks and a hidden dungeon that we never found in my playthrough. Peter added some of his own house-rules, but I believe we had substantially the expected player experience. 

We began by meeting the astral-lich and volunteering to find books for his library, a task we never accomplished. We scouted the city of the war apes and narrowly avoided being slain by them. We had several random encounters en route to the pylon and the lake. We were unable to make it back to the landing zone in time, but had fortunately found an artifact that allowed us to contact our pilot to set up a new pick-up site. We had enough treasure to pay our fare, but not to "level up" at the end.

With so few keyed hexes the experience of this adventure is largely governed by the random encounter table. I like that Nate put effort into facilitating the social element of the game. Each keyed hex offers a named NPC to talk to, someone who wants something or has something to offer you. The faction occupying each random location has a goal they're pursuing. Robot bandits would rather trade insults than get into gun-fights. Not everyone is friendly, but everyone has an agenda you can interact with. It's a nice touch that adds a surprising layer of complexity to an otherwise simple game.

The random encounter table is focused enough to create a specific setting, but reusing it would start to accumulate a lot of repetitions. I do have a concern about the robots on the encounter table. Both "rumors" and "ghostly apparitions" appear as sub-tables nested within the main encounter table. First you learn that there's a rumor, then you roll again to learn what it is. But each robot is on the top level of the encounter table. The robots are all well-thought out, humorous, and highly specific. They would be perfect for keyed encounters, or for a sub-table, but I think they're not quite right for the top layer of a random encounter table.

To see how random tables would function over the course of an entire region, I created my own 19 hex mini-setting using the hex stocking rules from Ghost Star. Since I'm generating this for review purposes, I used the exact results of each table, rather than creatively modifying anything as I might if I were prepping a session as a referee. If you were to run this adventure, you might want to replace some of the duplicates the birthday paradox gives us. This region seems to me to be the site of a robot carnival, perhaps set up to celebrate a rare sighting of the Legendary Space Whale.

Earth Expedition Two - click here to view


Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Spectral Interrogatories - Stonehell Dungeon I: Down Night Haunted Halls

NTEDILUVIAN
CHAMBERS OF STONE


Stonehell Dungeon I: Down Night Haunted Halls is one of the first Old School Renaissance Megadungeons, published in 2009 when the idea of playing Dungeons & Dragons in a classic style was shiny, exciting and novel. Written and published by Michael Curtis on Lulu, it is in every way a glimpse into another time, and that is not a bad thing. It might seem odd to inaugurate a new reviews project with a 12 year old adventure that’s been turned over, scrutinized, well loved, and copied, but Stonehell is a special adventure, a standard of what is frequently called the “OSR”, and still widely lauded ... so let’s tear it apart ... of course not. While I am not stinting from criticism, Stonehell is an excellent adventure and well worth study, emulation and play. It’s biggest flaws are the, likely unavoidable, result of its status as a megadungeon, its nostalgic intent, and age. At 134 pages, I won’t be able to do a page by page examination of Stonehell, but I have read the whole thing, and I think I’ve even played a game or two set in its halls back in the halcyon days of G+. As a megadungeon I expect certain features: minimalist keying, a strong appeal to D&D’s vernacular fantasy, large amounts of empty space, faction intrigue, unexplained mysteries that can tie into a referee created setting, and scale that requires repeated visits throughout a campaign. Some of these are not things I normally like in an adventure, but they are useful, likely necessary, in a project the size of Stonehell, and even more they’re to be expected in a clearly nostalgic work from 2009.


This is about the best art you'll get.

Stonehell is a particular kind of adventure, one that seeks to emulate not just the mechanics of early Dungeons & Dragons, but its implied and explicit setting. Stonehell is an effort to meet a popular design goal in the early days of the OSR, but still something that can succeed or fail on its own terms. Stonehell succeeds, because it avoids most of the pitfalls of nostalgia. It is referential while maintaining a distinct voice and willing to break with its sources to improve its own quality. Within self-imposed limits Stonehell is one of the best, its faction structure is robust, its existence and themes justified by its fiction, and its locations as innovative as can be for a willfully traditional and predictable setting. Still, for a reader that wants to move beyond the often stifling tropes of Gygaxian vernacular fantasy Stonehell is not a great adventure choice, its numerous humanoid tribes are still essentially evil monsters (though only the human berserkers seem truly monstrous), but they are presented in the classic manner as potential allies of convenience who have goals, rivals and plans. Descriptions are terse and Stonehell’s halls take hundreds of keyed locations to depart from the standard maze of gray stone corridors that define stereotypical dungeon adventure. Stonehell’s overall quality, long held status as one of the first and best OSR megadungeons, and layout innovations mean that even if one rejects playing Stonehell because of its aesthetic and thematic choices, it's still incredibly valuable to anyone seeking to design a megadungeon.

Ludic Dreams - A Small Collection of Flowers and Entanglements & A Tangled Web

This is a review of A Small Collection of Flowers and Entanglements by Luke Earl, and A Tangled Web by Benjamin McCown and Christian Stryffl...