Sunday, January 18, 2015

Drop the Loot!

I woke up at about one in the morning the other, er, morning with this thing in my head. I tried to dismiss it and go back to sleep but it occupied my thoughts for another two hours, damned thing. Assuming that it is some sort of Lovecraftian mental virus I've put it on paper so it can infect your minds too.

Click here for a 400dpi version for printing and here for a pdf.

(And here's a reformatted version that you may find easier to use, courtesy of +Dyson Logos.)

I have no idea if it works or if it's any good; I may test it on Friday in what will probably be my group's last Lost Mine of Phandelver Trolltooth Pass session. If you use it, let me know how it goes.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

More Craggy

We're almost to the end of our Lost Mine of Phandelver Trolltooth Pass campaign now, with perhaps two or three sessions to go. A few weeks ago the party stormed Cragmaw Castle but I wasn't happy with the map given in the adventure; it's pretty but it doesn't make much sense and doesn't seem much like a castle, so I drew a new one.

The main changes are that room 11 is gone -- it didn't do anything interesting -- and I've stacked a couple of rooms on top of others -- 9 is above 8 and 14 is above 12 -- so that the castle has actual towers now. Oh, and the castle is now built on rock spires -- crags, if you will -- above a pool of lava, because castles nestled atop lava pits are cool. Or, er, hot.

As such the almost-fatal rock trap at 2 is now an almost-fatal lava pit trap, and it did indeed claim the life of one of the player-characters as he ran across the false floor in a barbarian rage, only to plop into the bubbling hot stuff.

I've hinted at the edges of the crater but not defined them, because I ran out of space; I'd say that they are about three or four squares away from the tower walls, far enough away that jumping is impossible but close enough that clever plans could find a way across.

Feel free to use as you see fit, or indeed not. I have a couple of other maps from the campaign to upload so look out for them in the next couple of weeks.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Bow Ties Are Cool

It's the Seventh Doctor dressed as the Eleventh!

(Alas, it is a promotional shot from a BBC Three series called Crims, but close enough.)

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Pettier Gods

A year and a bit ago I contributed to the James Maliszewski-then-Greg Gorgonmilk project Petty Gods, a collection of minor deities for use in role-playing games. There's a new edition on the way so I've drawn a new picture for it:

I don't know when the new edition is out but I'll mention it here when it is.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #1

Huzzah! We have arrived at long last at the end of the list of my top ten role-playing games. As is traditional with this sort of thing, let's run down the list before we get to my favourite rpg.

Unless you're reading this via a feed or Google Plus, in which case the preview image probably gave it away. Oh well.

#10 - Dragonlance: Fifth Age
#9 - Fighting Fantasy
#8 - Shadowrun
#7 - Cold City
#6 - Lamentations of the Flame Princess
#5 - 13th Age
#4 - Savage Worlds
#3 - Pendragon
#2 - Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

At number one, of course, is Call of Cthulhu, which is only appropriate given that it's the best role-playing game ever according to both rpggeek and the arcane magazine poll that inspired this series of posts in the first place. I am being facetious, but only a little, because it is my favourite rpg ever and has been since I first played it.

My group at school knew of another group a couple of years above us, in the nigh-mythical Sixth Form. We didn't mix with them -- they had cars and didn't even wear uniforms! -- but somehow we got in touch with Dave, and he had such sights to show us! He introduced us to RuneQuest and Cyberpunk 2020 and Star Wars -- the latter only played once because of a misunderstanding in which Dave thought we hated it for some reason -- and Call of Cthulhu.

My memories of that first session are vivid. Dave lived in what seemed like an ancient cottage in what seemed like the middle of nowhere and it was the perfect setting to introduce a bunch of impressionable teenagers to horror gaming. We played "The Haunting" because everyone starts with that -- unless they start with the upcoming seventh edition, but that's an exasperated sigh for another day --and it was wonderful. Characters were thrown out of windows while my character tried to deflect attention by claiming that it was a comedy film in production, someone got possessed and shot someone else in the back, and in the end the haunted house was burned to the ground, as I suspect happens in the majority of attempts at the adventure.

It was great fun but it was also scary, in part because we were playing it in the dark in the middle of the countryside and in part because it was the first time we'd played a horror game. There were no monsters to hit and no special powers to use to our advantage so we felt more vulnerable than we had in any other game up until then, and we had no idea what we were facing, and to use an appropriate quote, the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

That first game had quite the effect. We pestered Dave to run more adventures and the discarded sheets of dead or insane characters piled up. I bought three thick Lovecraft collections, and grappled with his baroque prose, a trial which didn't do much for me but impressed my English teacher. We all rushed out and bought copies of the rulebook and Tim ran some games, then Paul ran a couple -- including another creepy adventure played out in the boondocks -- and Stephen ran a few, and then I ran Horror on the Orient Express for a year for two different groups. We played the heck R'lyeh out of this game and some of my happiest gaming memories -- and all of the scary ones -- happened while playing. My current group likes D&D a lot so we've played a great deal of that in the years I've been part of it but that aside, I've played Call of Cthulhu more than any other rpg and I will never get bored of it.

Do I need to describe the system? It's been around since Raiders of the Lost Ark came out -- how appropriate -- and hasn't changed much so I'm sure everyone knows about it by now, but if not, guess what? It's quite simple! It's more or less RuneQuest with most of the fiddly bits taken out and is based on percentile skills, so is intuitive enough to be easy for even newcomers to grasp; I've introduced a few people to role-playing using the game, as everyone understands what Persuade 65% means, and the resistance table aside everything is on the character sheet and there are no hidden player mechanics.

Player-characters are normal folk rather than the specialists or heroes of most other rpgs, and are as such somewhat fragile, becoming incapacitated through injury and -- more often -- insanity; the latter mechanic is often derided as "mental hit points" and while it may not present a nuanced and realistic view of mental health it does the job for a game about librarians and archaeologists fighting ancient evil gods, is consistent with the source material, and once again it's presented in a simple and transparent manner that anyone can understand.

Of course, since the game has been around since Raiders of the Lost Ark came out and hasn't changed much it is a bit clunky in places, but just like a vintage car -- another motoring metaphor? -- a bit of affectionate tinkering gets it up and running and it's so light a system that there isn't much work required. I'm sure that my years of play mean that even I have managed to memorise at least some of the rules but I find I can run the game with a character sheet as a reference and that's a good sign, as it means the system gets out of the way and I can concentrate on the mystery and the horror, like that time that I got the players screaming in disbelief as an axe-wielding maniac started swinging at their characters.

I love this game to bits. It works for long campaigns -- I don't think it's as much of a character killer as some suggest, although I have heard stories of some proper meat grinders -- and it's an amazing fit for a one-shot scenario for a dark winter's night. It's a game in which the players feel actual relief when they finish an adventure, and the only game in which I've experienced actual fear. I have played it almost every year for almost two decades and I hope that I continue to play it for years to come until the stars are right.

Next: nothing! We're finished! I'm sorry it took so long but I hope it was a worthwhile and interesting series.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #2

If you've been reading this series since the start you may have been wondering when this game would be coming up; after all I've already expressed my love for Fighting Fantasy and mentioned my dalliances with Games Workshop, so there was a certain inevitability about the appearance in the top ten of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

WFRP is a bit of an orphan. Games Workshop had a great deal of early success selling role-playing games but almost all were reprints -- albeit handsome ones -- of existing products. I'm sure someone will pop up in the comments and tell me about something I've forgotten -- I know both Inquisitor and Warhammer Quest have rpg elements, and more on the latter in the new year -- but as I recall the only home grown rpgs GW produced were Judge Dredd and WFRP; both got a couple of years in the sun but the latter was released just as the company was moving over to miniature-based war games and not even the Warhammer name was enough to save it from cancellation. WFRP retained a healthy and enthusiastic fanbase and popped up again at the now-defunct Hogshead, then a second edition was again published by Games Workshop before again being axed. Fantasy Flight Games released a third edition with a different ruleset but also produced a big pile of Warhammer 40,000 rpgs that used the same system as the second edition. At the time of writing the game is once again in limbo. It's all a confusing mess and it's a wonder that I managed to play the thing at all.

I had been reading White Dwarf since 1991 so I knew about WFRP from the occasional article -- even then they were becoming more sporadic -- but I didn't get to play it for the first time until around 1997. I remember being intimidate by the size of the rulebook -- larger than anything else I'd seen at the time -- and the dense and teeny tiny text. My friend Chris took the challenge of running the game and we made it through some of The Enemy Within before we stopped, I think through a combination of the group splitting -- university beckoned -- and the rest of the campaign being out of print at the time. Still, it was good fun and it set the tone for how I see the game to this day.

WFRP is often characterised as either horror-fantasy or -- more often -- as grim and dark and po-faced but I don't think either is true. Yes characters can be fragile, and yes it is possible to die of an infected stab wound, and yes it seems as if everything in the world is out to kill the player-characters, but a bit of murder and demon daemon summoning in the first chapter of the game's iconic campaign -- er, SPOILER -- has given the wrong impression of what is to my eye a comedy game.

Almost every name in the game is a pun or joke based on poor German translation; the dwarves have mohawks; the orcs are the Hulk as played by Ray Winstone; almost all of the player-characters are going to be working class oiks and if any of them are nobles they are probably idiots or drunks or both; any scheme, for good or ill, is bound to fail due to someone's incompetence; and in a fight no one can hit anything but if they do the damage will probably multiply so when they try to knock out the watchman in Bogenhafen they instead end up splattering him across the sewer wall. Oops.

What it is, you see, is Blackadder does D&D. How anyone can think it's supposed to be a serious game I don't know.

My favourite version of the game in terms of mechanics is the second edition; in polishing some of the rough edges of the first edition some of the game's unique personality is also lost but I do think it is the better game and as I tend to run it based on my own jumbled conception of the setting circa 1988 it all balances out. As should not be a huge shock to anyone at this point I like the simplicity of the system; it's based on percentile rolls against the characters' attributes, with skills and abilities modifying the rolls rather than having values of their own. There is a bit of wonky design in that one has to remember what Strike Mighty Blow -- for example -- does in terms of actual numbers but whenever I run the game I cheat and use simplified non-player-character statistics with all that stuff built in so it's not an issue from my end, and the idea at least is an elegant one.

The magic system is great fun; wizards have to roll dice to generate the energy they need to cast spells but as it is WFRP there is always a chance of something going wrong, from all milk in the locality curdling to a daemon crawling out of the caster's ears and laying waste to everything in sight. Spellcasters feel as dangerous to play as the superstitious folk of the setting believe them to be and with that danger comes a thrill, although it is perhaps best suited to the more reckless player. I was lucky enough to have just such a player when I ran the updated-but-not-really-related Enemy Within and his character ended up with a flaming skull head, umpteen fingers on each hand, and a long, skeletal trunk. As you do.

In stark contrast to most of the games on the top ten so far I do play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay quite often; it's one of those games that everyone -- both in my group and the larger world -- seems to like so it's a surprise and shame that no one seems to be able to keep it in print. I hope to be playing it again in 2015, following the player-characters of The Enemy Within II as they enter the world of Imperial politics, because what could go wrong for a noble with a burning skull face?

Next: loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. Or something.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #3

I my last post I wrote about the folly of the generic role-playing game; in contrast the next entry in my top ten has a laser-like focus that brings with it a heap of restrictions and despite that Pendragon remains a superb game. Expansions and later editions would change some details but in the core game everyone plays a knight, everyone plays a man, and everyone plays a goodie; this should feel restrictive but it doesn't, in part because different backgrounds allow for even four English knights of about the same age to feel varied, and in part because that's the game, that's the genre, and if you've sat down to play at all then you've probably already made that first leap. Unless your gamemaster is a duplicitous sort. If so, sorry.

The game uses the familiar Chaosium system -- albeit using a d20 instead of a d100 for some reason I've never understood. -- and as a result the rules are simple and intuitive. Aside from the use of the wrong dice there are a couple of other major differences between Pendragon and its parent system, the first of which is its heavy use of personality mechanics.

Everyone is assumed to uphold the laws of chivalry to some extent so D&D style alignment is more or less irrelevant; you can be Sir Evil of Sodshire but you'll still act with honour, at least most of the time. Instead the game uses a system of virtues and passions, the former a set of twinned characteristics like Pious and Worldly and the latter stronger motivators like Loyalty, Love, or Hate. The virtues give an idea of what a knight's personality is like and a knight can claim bonuses if certain virtues have a high value; the downside is that with more extreme values comes a more extreme personality, which could cause trouble for the knight. Passions are the knight's core beliefs and they can be used to bolster a roll -- a character could use his Loyalty to Arthur give him a bonus on his Sword skill, for example --but in doing so he runs the risk of going mad if the roll goes wrong. It's a simple system and allows for a fair bit of player choice while also emulating the bonkers romanticism of the source material; if you want a game about blokes in plate armour falling in love with the wrong women and chopping up Saxons while in the grip of a mindless fury, then this is for you!

The other big difference between Pendragon and not only its Chaosiumish cousins but the wider world of rpgs is that down time between adventures is given as much importance as the adventures themselves. I had played plenty of games in which characters did stuff between adventures, whether it was researching old and musty spellbooks or investing in shady nightclubs, but Pendragon was the first rpg I ever played that used distinct phases of the sort common in board or war games. Such ideas are much more common now with games like Mouse Guard and The One Ring out there but when I first encountered the idea that role-playing games about adventuring knights could be about more than the adventures it seemed revolutionary.

Yes Pendragon's knights go on adventures but they only do so in the summer; the rest of the year they're attending feasts and tournaments, or running their estates, or wooing ladies, or raising children, or -- as always seemed to happen to us -- cross-breeding horses with their fey counterparts to create super hybrid steeds that could gallop at absurd speeds but only at night. We were teenagers.

Player-knights retire and die -- while adventuring, while hunting, or even in their sleep -- and Pendragon allows for play to continue through the characters' family trees; if a knight hasn't fathered a son -- or daughter in disguise -- then they're bound to have at least a brother or cousin to carry on the family name. In Pendragon a player doesn't run a single character but a whole family and the challenges the dynasty faces can be just as exciting as riding off to fight some Saxon raiders or investigate a magical tower. Again, the idea of playing an entire family line was something that I'd never encountered before -- unless one counts Paranoia -- and it was an exciting innovation.

I first encountered Pendragon in the mid 1990's and I have played it only a few times over the years decades but it was so much fun and so different to anything else I've played before or since that I have nothing but fondness for it. I would probably play it more often if the blasted thing stayed in print for more than five minutes every five years but even so my personal character sheet has a "Love (Pendragon)" score of at least 16 on it.

(The pictured first edition box was donated by friend of the blog Zain -- thanks Zain! -- but is alas incomplete so I am still looking questing for a playable copy.)

Next: grim and perilous adventure!

Friday, December 26, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #4

I'm not sure there's such a thing as a true generic role-playing game, although they gave it a jolly good try back in the 1990's. Any system brings with it certain assumptions of play that mean that it will be good at some things and not so good at others; just look at the d20 version of Call of Cthulhu with its tenth-level librarians. Even Fate -- a game that's suggested within five nanoseconds of someone posting a "What system should I use for this idea?" thread on -- has certain assumptions about storytelling styles built in that make it not the best match for, say, a tactical military type game.

The same is true of Savage Worlds, which is promoted as a system appropriate for all genres of role-playing but was derived from the first edition of Deadlands -- a supernatural western rpg -- and has always had a pulpy, action-based feel to it; it wouldn't be a good fit for court intrigue and political machinations, unless you're running a game about the Italian parliament:

That said, the relative failure of concept inherent in the game does not diminish my affection for it one bit. It is for the most part a light and simple ruleset and -- as I'm sure you're well aware and more than a little bored of being told by now -- I much prefer uncomplicated systems in my games. It's simple enough that it manages to squeeze a complete multi-genre rpg into fewer than two hundred pages -- as you'd expect, additional setting books expand on the rules, but all the basics are included -- and a game is always off to a good start with me if the whole thing fits into one volume; I'll have none of this artificial separation into player and gamemaster books, thank you. The current edition of the game comes in what they call an "Explorer's Edition" but the rest of the world calls "A5", the game book format of kings, and at just under seven quid one doesn't have to be a king to afford it.

With a few exceptions -- almost all of which are elsewhere in this top ten -- whenever I think of a new idea for a game, running it in Savage Worlds is my first thought. I've got notes here for Hellboy-style monster-hunting game, a post-apocalyptic hexcrawl full of radioactive mutants, World War II soldiers zipping around Europe in a tank searching for Nazi gold, and a modern gonzo pulpish thing inspired by lucha libre, Tarantino and Rodriguez, and the Wii game No More Heroes.

There are even some cases where a setting already has a system attached but I would supplant it cuckoo style with Savage Worlds; I've found that it's a great match for Eberron, despite my fondness for West End Games' d6 rules I've long pondered a Savage Star Wars game, and assuming one could bolt on a decent martial arts system -- an odd omission from the sizeable body of material published for the game -- I reckon that Savage Worlds would do a better job of Feng Shui than Feng Shui did.

Is a vast stack of unfinished campaign ideas a sign of a good role-playing game? I don't know, but the fact that Savage Worlds inspires me to such an extent must be a good sign. Anyway, it's a wonderful little game and it's one of the few entries in the list about which I have nothing negative to say; the only reason why it's not higher in the list is because my top three games are untouchable in their greatness.

Next: we're knights of the Round Table.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #5

As should be more than apparent by now I'm not a Dungeons and Dragons man. I didn't start with it and I didn't play much of it until recent years so the game doesn't have the same hold over me that it does other of my blogging peers; even so it is the original fantasy role-playing game and there is such a thing as the D&D style of play and that's something that even I have wanted to try now and then.

The problem is that I never found a version of D&D that I liked. I played a couple of fun sessions of AD&D2 and-

Hang on, this is all a bit familiar.

If Lamentations of the Flame Princess is my favourite "basic" D&D variant then 13th Age is where I go for my "advanced" jollies, although that's not the most accurate label as most of the complexity is on the players' side, and the rest of the game is quite simple. Indeed, that's what first attracted me to the game; I was looking for a compromise between the lighter D&D variants that I prefer and the more complex approaches that are popular with others in my group.

Having now run a campaign -- or rather half of one; I hope to revisit it in 2015 -- I can say that 13th Age is a successful compromise, although I know a couple of my players are not as convinced as I am. I haven't experienced it as a player yet -- Stuart has hinted at running a few sessions -- but as a gamemaster it is almost perfect.

Half of the ruleset is a light and uncomplicated variant of the d20 system with the stacks of modifiers and situational mechanics stripped back to a minimum, almost to the level of Basic D&D. Monsters are even simpler in terms of numbers, having only five or six statistics rather than a full statistic block; 13th Age uses the space saved to give each monster a unique and interesting special ability that is easy to remember and -- in most cases -- fun for the gamemaster. I keep banging on about the 13th Age kobolds but they're an excellent example of the system's approach; I have never had as much fun running monsters in a fantasy game as I have in 13th Age.

The other half of the game consists of airy fairy storytelling mechanics of the sort one would expect to see in Fate rather than the offspring of D&D. Every character gets One Unique Thing, a non-mechanical feature that places them in the setting as someone special; in 13th Age everyone is a Special Snowflake and I should hate that but in play it involves the players in creating the setting, involves the player-characters in the setting, and helps to generates story. Each character also has a number of relationship dice representing their connection to powerful non-player-characters in the setting; these have various effects, from generating story details on the fly -- who sent the assassins? -- to giving the GM hints about what could happen in the next session. I will be honest and say that this is one part of the game that I found difficult to grasp and exploit to its full potential but I think that's a problem of explanation rather than concept; the rulebook needs more examples of how the relationship dice are supposed to work at the table.

All this results in a game that is recognisable as a version of D&D but with a lot of back-and-forth at the table, not in the sense of rules arguments -- hello Pathfinder! -- but more in terms of a series of "what if this happens?" or "how about my character does this?"; this is what makes role-playing games unique and what they should always be about but I think a stricter ruleset can obfuscate things and one can forget to have fun. D&D4 was designed to be robust and fair but 13th Age tells you to buy the biggest d6 you can and slap it down in the middle of the table to use as the Escalation Die and add tension to battles. I know which approach I prefer.

Next: rampant Savagery!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #6

As should be more than apparent by now I'm not a Dungeons and Dragons man. I didn't start with it and I didn't play much of it until recent years so the game doesn't have the same hold over me that it does other of my blogging peers; even so it is the original fantasy role-playing game and there is such a thing as the D&D style of play and that's something that even I have wanted to try now and then.

The problem is that I never found a version of D&D that I liked. I played a couple of fun sessions of AD&D2 and Red Box non-AD&D -- although by that time it came in a big black box -- but neither suited me, and in recent years I've played D&D4 and Pathfinder and have had even less success getting on with them. There was always something -- overcomplicated rules, counter-intuitive mechanics, optimisation metagames, THAC0 -- that got in the way and overwhelmed any desire I had to play D&D. Back when D&D was the only, er, game in town players made do or converted it to their  liking but I've lived and played through an era of great choice so the easier option was to give up and play something else.

I was fortunate that my interest in role-playing games was rekindled just as the old-school renaissance began and retroclones started to appear; I may not have the same nostalgic interest in D&D that the pioneers of those two related movements have but they produced and continue to produce a great deal of varied content that is not beholden to a single publisher's interests or vision. There are more versions of D&D around and in print than ever before and as such there's one for everyone.

Well, sort of.

I don't know if I've found my perfect version of D&D but thanks to the proliferation of clones and remixes there are two close contenders, one of which is Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

I have to confess a little bit of bias in that LotFP has paid my bills on occasion but part of the reason I've produced content for the game is because I like it a lot. It's a variant of [INSERT COLOUR HERE] Box D&D so it has the mechanical simplicity that I have grown to prefer over time, but because it was designed within the past few years it has also eliminated or modified many of the rules and assumptions of D&D that I find weird and archaic. I won't go into too much detail on the rules because you can read them for yourself for free but it is enough to say that they are almost perfect for what I want for an old-school approach to dungeoneering.

The other big draw is the setting implied by the rules. Where D&D has sort of hovered around a romanticised Middle Ages LotFP instead rolls the clock forward to something like the early modern period -- it could have been called Pirates and Puritans -- and is far from romanticised, presenting a game where magic is dangerous and untrustworthy, where elves are burned by holy water, wizards can end the world with a fluffed summoning spell, and mirror image is not the illusion one may expect but instead pulls alternate versions of the spellcaster from other realities for the sole purpose of dying in combat. It is a dark, strange, and nasty reflection of something almost twee in its familiarity and I love it for that.

There is one downside to that implied setting, and to the game as a whole, and it is that the experience system is more or less unchanged from that of Basic D&D -- go into holes in the ground, kill orcs, and take their stuff -- but the game itself seems to want to be Solomon Kane and I'm not sure the two approaches are compatible. It cannot be an insurmountable problem because enough people play LotFP as intended without any trouble but I always struggle with what I perceive to be a clash in tone. The author James Raggi has mentioned in the past that if he were to do another edition he would change the experience system so perhaps it's not just me, although such a change would distance the game even further from its forbears, and if the whole idea is to play a version of D&D that I like then that's a problem and I may as well just play RuneQuest.

Except I like LotFP more than I like RuneQuest. All that griping and philosophical hand wringing aside, I can put up with one small mechanical niggle if I don't think about it or if I compromise by using an abstract levelling system like that of Dragonlance: Fifth Age; it is not enough of a flaw that it tarnishes what is for me a sharp, efficient, and evocative interpretation of Dungeons and Dragons.

Next: to be this good takes Ages.