Friday, July 16, 2021
I have also completed work on another project that I can talk about, so here are some bits from that Yay!.
These are from Oakfell Vale, a role-playing adventure that you can buy here. I was brought in to complete some fill-in art as the original artist was unavailable, and I tried to keep some sort of visual continuity.
Tuesday, July 13, 2021
No one knows where these strange machines originated, not even the machines themselves. Sages and scholars point to the significant differences between the Children and other automata on the Deadly Sands and say that they can't be from the same source, but what other explanation is there?
Each Child Automaton has a black or dark grey mechanical body that can only pass for human at a distance or if concealed. Their heads look human and are only revealed as artificial when touched, as their skin has the texture of strange, pliable metal.
If your game uses forgeborn, warforged, robots, tick-tock men, or whatever, then use those to represent Child Automata, except you will probably want to reduce their size and movement speed; look at gnomes or halflings for pointers on how that works in your ruleset of choice.
If your game doesn't have artificial people as a character option, then use the following guidelines:
They are immune to disease and poison, and do not breathe, drink, or eat, although can mimic all three.
They heal like normal creatures, as internal systems knit together broken components, a process that baffles scholars. Healing magic works by overcharging these internal systems. Probably. Who knows?
Child Automata do need to sleep each day, just like their flesh-and-blood companions. All Child Automata have the same dream, one of a lush meadow full of tall grass and wild flowers, with bumblebees buzzing and butterflies flitting about. No living person has ever seen such things, so the source of these dreams is of considerable interest to these scholars I keep mentioning. How individual Automata react to these images is up to the player, and if you're running one of those trendy collaborative storytelling type games, maybe the origin of the dreams is also up to the player. Whatever works for you.
Some Child Automata display a sort of compulsive behaviour that may be the result of fragments of deep programming. A player of such an Automaton can roll on the following table.
GO$UB #1987 (d12):
- OBSERVE RECORD REPORT (to whom?)
- COLLECT X AND ANALYSE
- DESTROY X
- I WANT TO BE A REAL BOY/GIRL/WHATEVER
- PRESERVE LIFE
- LOCATE OTHER
- PROTECT X
- UPGRADE BASE UNIT
- LOCATE ORIGIN POINT
- CREATE ANOTHER
- WHAT IS FUN?
- BATHE IN THE BLOOD OF THE FLESHY THINGS
Saturday, July 10, 2021
Friday, June 25, 2021
(Just like our own! Lols.)
Perdition is a Dungeons & Dragons variant with an Old School feel but some modern touches, and in terms of complexity it feels somewhere between a B/X clone and a lighter version of D&D3. The book itself is a complete game with the setting elements conveyed through rules mechanics; there is no gazetteer of the world here, and only a few major personalities -- all devil lords, of course -- are detailed.
The book is written by Courtney Campbell and Arnold K, with art from Heather Gwinn, Marcin S, Matthew Adams, Michael Raston, Russ Nicholson, and that most prolific of artists, Public D. Omain.
The Good (or maybe The Bad in this case, because Bad is Good)
The setting comes through on every page and in almost every line. It's an implied setting, oh yes, but "implied" doesn't seem strong enough a word. Infused, maybe. Soaked, even. You couldn't use this ruleset to play anywhere else but Perdition -- or a similar devil-infested place -- but then you have countless D&D variants for that.
The classes are evocative. some familiar, some new, some familiar but with new twists, but all flavoured -- soaked even -- with Perdition, er, badness. Each of the 12 (!) classes has a fun ability or mechanic and some feel almost like little games within the game. They are similar to 13th Age in that respect, although they are less elaborate and extensive than some of the classes in that game. Even so, each is like a little toy box and they all look like great fun to play. Yes, even the fighter.
As a D&D cousin, Perdition uses experience points, although here they are transformed into prestige. At a basic level, it works much like it does in most OSR variants; go into dungeon, drag out coins, convert into points and levels. But levels have a special importance in a lawful, hierarchical society like Perdition, and that's reflected in the mechanics, as more powerful characters attract more attention from the devils that run things.
Nor is money the only currency, because devils also trade in souls -- which do have a monetary value if you are desperate enough! -- and infernal contracts are common, to the extent that there's a lovely set of mechanics for handling how such agreements work, turning the negotiations into a neat little sub-game in which even the winner can come away with a bad deal.
(This twisty-turny but logical economy of money, souls, and contractual obligations can drive the game and provide the impetus for characters to adventure together. Why are we going on adventures when the devils have already won? Well, because Geoff owes Maluthraxus 2000gp from his last level-up, and Alice has been promised immortality if the black orcs are forced from Thunder Mountain.)
(Forms. There needs to be forms. Devilish requisition? That's Form 666B, sir.)
I adore how devils are used in the book. They are evil, yes, but they are reasonable and while you can kill them like your average D&D murderhobo would, there are better -- and more entertaining -- ways to deal with them, and those ways baked into the mechanics and the setting. It's so good. If you're running a game in which devils play a major part, then it's worth getting the book just to steal the contracts and the Conclave.
The Bad (or Good, see above)
Nothing! Honestly, Perdition is full of good ideas, and a handful of average ones, but there's nothing I would call bad in here. Aside from the devils. Ha. There is one extended case where some of those ideas clash and trip over each other, but that's for the next section...
I am not at all fond of the multiple resolution systems. You have attribute tests, which use 2d6 -- or sometimes 2d4 or 2d8, depending on the character -- against target numbers between 5 and 12, depending on difficulty. You also have skills, which are tested against a target of 6, and use a die between 1d6 and 1d12 depending on the skill level of the character. On top of that you have the standard B/X reaction roll, which is a Charisma test, but is a special case that always uses 2d6, and the game also uses a Swords & Wizardry-style saving throw. On top of that there are "struggles" which are opposed tests that involve rolling and totalling hit dice, with the highest total winning. As well as physical hit dice for physical struggles, there are mental/social hit dice for, um, mental and social struggles.
(There's also the good old attack roll and a new social/psychic attack roll, the latter of which works in the same way as the former but uses a different statistic. Some may consider those resolution systems, which they are, but not in the sense I mean here; I don't think it's fair to complain about attack rolls and other task rolls being different in a D&D variant.)
(The classic example is percentile thief skills in D&D. One compelling argument for them is that switching to a completely different set of dice is a sort of direct, haptic feedback that reinforces the feel that these are a set of abilities unique to the thief.)
The issue I have with the multiple systems in Perdition is that I cannot espy the valid purpose; it feels like a bit of a janky kitbash and I imagine it would be chaotic and confusing at the table. Maybe not, but I can't see any good reason why a unified mechanic -- or at least some streamlining -- wouldn't have been worthwhile, a bit of filing down of the spiky bits.
I've written quite a lot about the task resolution, which suggests that it's a big problem, but in truth it's a minor issue and it's really the only Ugly part of the game. There is so much to enjoy here.
Perdition has lots of great ideas, heaps of fun mechanics that make you want to get to the table and play right away, and a lovely, light, and elegant evocation of setting through rules. It's very good indeed and I am kicking myself for leaving this unread on my shelf for five years. Sorry, Courtney, sorry Arnold!
My copy of Perdition is a hardback printed by Lulu.com back in 2016. It doesn't look like it is available any more but you can get a pdf from DriveThruRPG.
Wednesday, June 23, 2021
We've been playing since June 2020 -- with a couple of gaps -- but I haven't been posting summaries here because, well, the authors ask that no details of the plot are revealed in reviews or other discussion. I intend to respect that, although it will make this review a bit tricky in places. Bear with me.
I'm going to reverse the usual Good, Bad, and Ugly order here because -- spoilers, dear reader -- this campaign has major problems, and I want to end on a positive note. As much as I can, anyway.
The book is massively overwritten. This is obvious from the first page and was part of the reason why I didn't push to get it to the table earlier, as I feared it would be a lot of work to get it to a playable state. I was not wrong. The book has around 400 pages but there are probably about 100 pages of actual content; the rest is faff, nonsense, guff, and vast swathes of pointless repetition. Also, there's quite a lot of repeated information, and furthermore much of the page count is taken up with repeating what you've just read a few pages earlier.
There's also an issue with the tone of the writing, which I admit may be a matter of taste, in that it comes across as smug, arrogant, and hypocritical at times. For example, there are a couple of places were the very concept of dungeon-delving is ridiculed, but then we get at least three actual, honest-to-Gygax dungeons. Maps are considered tools of the imagination-challenged, except when they are not. It's a bit sad and almost embarrassing to read.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the campaign as a whole is that, aside from a couple of places, there's not much in the way of player choice. The overall structure is somewhat similar to the classic Masks of Nyarlathotep -- which I suspect is deliberate -- in that once things get going, the players can tackle the main campaign locations in any order, but that's where the flexibility ends. Each location is a little railroad, literally in one case, which doesn't even have the decency to be a knowing joke.
(A quickish aside: my understanding is that the entire point of the Gumshoe -- I'm not capitalising it until you tell me why -- philosophy is that the players cannot fail to find essential clues, and so the investigation never stalls. To my mind, this means you can design adventures with a rich and -- if you want -- complex structure, knowing the players will not be blocked from accessing that structure because of a failed skill roll. The authors of Eternal Lies, on the other hand, seem to have taken it to mean that they can force players to experience a sequence of set pieces; it's the sort of structure that we all knew was bad in 1990 so it's a bit baffling to see in 2013, even more so in a game line that I thought was supposed to encourage the opposite. Thus endeth the asideth.)
(I wasn't going to do that to my players, so in my game, the players arrived at the location and did what they came to do, then decided there was no reason to pursue the NPC, and left.)
This isn't something Gumshoe can fix, because the NPC's name and location are clues the players find whatever happens, but you still need a reason for them to meet the NPC, other than "some thugs knock you out", and the GM shouldn't be doing the work that a £40 book should be doing.
What's worse is that the climax only happens as a result of player action. This is supposed to be a final ironic twist, but because there's no way for the players to realise this, it can come across as arbitrary and random. For the GM, who can see the workings behind the curtain, there is a further disappointing revelation: if the players do nothing, nothing bad happens. The bad guys carry on, but they don't "win", indeed the way they are written -- which is one of the good parts of the campaign; see below -- means that they cannot triumph.
Without going into spoilers, for I have made a promise, this is how the campaign works:
In 1924, a cult attempts to do a Very Specific Thing. It is interrupted and although there are survivors, none of them know what the Very Specific Thing was, or even that the cult was trying to make it happen. This crucial bit of data is lost in 1924.
In 1934 -- or maybe 1937, because the campaign isn't sure when it is set (sigh) -- the players go around tracking down splinters of the original cult and dealing with them.
The players do the Very Specific Thing (oops) and must save the world.
That ????? is a huge narrative and structural gap -- again, a surprise in a campaign which has up to that point forced players along a strict linear path -- and the authors seem to just assume that it will not be an issue. In my game the players decided that yes, they would go and do the Very Specific Thing but they didn't really have any good reason to do so, which strikes me as a problem, and the "twist" that they really shouldn't have done so after all is an even bigger problem, but now I am repeating myself.
(How very appropriate.)
The campaign as a whole is a mess of rigid railroading and massive gaps, which is a worst-of-both-worlds chimera I didn't think was possible.
There are a couple of terrible non-player-characters in the campaign, but they are not essential and are easily cut. The majority of the NPCs are at least interesting, and the main cast are quite well written, in particular the major antagonists. I am reluctant to call them villains, because while they stand in opposition to the players and represent the traditional Cthulhu cultists, they are far from traditional in their characterisation. Each of the major opposition NPCs is written as complex, with their own goals and motivations, and although the characters are technically on the same side, they have more differences than commonalities.
(The obvious approach is to use these differences to turn the antagonists against each other, but the geographical scope of the campaign does make this difficult and, alas, there is zero support for such an approach in the book. That the potential is there is at least half-good.)
The chief antagonists are layered and interesting enough that they could even be useful to the players under the right circumstances. On the other hand, they are cultists, so even if they are being helpful, the players may not trust them, which of course is fun and interesting. The treatment of these characters is nicely done and by far the strongest aspect of the campaign.
I must also admit that some of the set pieces are effective and fun, so while I can't condone the authors strongarming the players into experiencing them, I can at least understand why they are so keen to show them off. It is ironic and more than a little disappointing that perhaps the chapter with the worst writing is also the one with some of the most fun encounters, and my favourite section of the entire campaign is something of a side trek, optional and not strictly relevant to the main adventure.
I also like the general idea of the big climax, even if it is almost impossible to get there as written.
For the most part I enjoyed running Eternal Lies and I think my players had fun, but my gosh the thing is a janky mess almost from page one, and running it is a lot of work. I don't even mean preparation work of the sort any large campaign needs, but rather a lot of fixing of broken parts and filling in gaps, and even ground-up rewrites in some places. I don't think it's too unreasonable to expect a better, more polished, and more complete product for £40.
I would recommend the campaign only to the GM that enjoys going to such effort, or perhaps as a source of ideas, as there are some good sections that could potentially be pulled out and used in other contexts. Otherwise, there are better, and easier, campaigns to run. You may have heard that Eternal Lies is a classic, on the same level as the venerable Masks of Nyarlathotep, but do not listen to such... lies.
(And how cool is it that Chaosium and Pelgrane allowed those conversion notes to exist?)
Also useful was the Alexandrian Remix; Justin Alexander holds the campaign in much higher regard than I do, and I didn't use much of his actual remix material in my version, but reading it was helpful and it confirmed some of my own misgivings about the source and gave me the confidence to make my own changes. Justin's chapter summaries are far more readable than the ones in the book, so I recommend reading them if you're going to try running the campaign.
Monday, June 21, 2021
*(As any pedant will tell you, they are not true spiders. Ettercaps get quite exasperated if you mention them as they are a bit of a PR disaster for spider-kind.)
Suicidal Tendencies (roll 1d6 once per round/turn per FLYING IDIOT DEATH SPIDER):
- Wibbles into the middle of combat and takes a hit meant for something else.
- Flumps into a lantern or torch, extinguishing it, then flies about in a panic, setting fire to 1d4 random items before burning up.
- Bumps into a random character's face, causing penalties (-2, disadvantage, whatever) to all rolls until it flies off to do something else.
- Blunders into the nearest trap, setting it off.
- Plunges face first into the nearest liquid, drowning itself, and potentially ruining lunch if the nearest liquid was your soup.
- Flip-flops around, bumping into things and causing a surprising amount of noise, alerting any nearby creatures.
FLYING IDIOT DEATH SPIDERS in Troika! and similar games of fantasy fighting:
FLYING IDIOT DEATH SPIDERS in LotFP and other old-school games of dungeon-based adventuring:
FLYING IDIOT DEATH SPIDER, Armour None (12), Move 120', 1 Hit Dice, 1hp, annoying flapping (no damage), Morale 12 (fearless because of stupidity)
Fly my pretties!
Saturday, June 19, 2021
Thursday, June 10, 2021
It enhances the effects of any single-use magic item in the form of a feather; a feather token, Phoenix Down, chimera wing, and so on. If such an item is placed in the band of the hat, then it is not consumed when used. A used feather item crumbles, disappears, fades, poofs, or otherwise expires only if removed from the hat.
The feather item, if not already large, grows to an impressive size, and everyone the wearer encounters will comment on it. Use your game's standard reaction mechanics to determine if the remarks are positive or not. If the reaction is negative, it's just jealousy, obviously.
Monday, May 31, 2021
Wednesday, May 19, 2021
Monday, May 17, 2021
Sunday, May 09, 2021
Biff! Pow! Etc!
This shouldn't work, because nothing really happens. It should feel like padding, like "oh crap we've got an issue to put out and we're really late and let's just have a meaningless punch-up", because that does happen sometimes -- spoiler alert -- but Dann and Roy Thomas pull it off.
I think it works for two reasons. First, there are flashbacks throughout that break up the fight and provide context for why it is happening; I wouldn't go as far as saying it's clever, but it is at least more interesting than a strict linear narrative would have been. There's also some nice bits with the rest of the Avengers also having their own low-level disagreements that reflect the main fight, although the motif is perhaps laid on a bit thick and makes the team look somewhat dysfunctional.
The second reason it works, and probably the main one, is that the Thomases put in the effort to characterise Hawkeye and US Agent so their dispute not only makes sense, but has a sense of weight to it. It's not your standard superhero misunderstanding, but a conflict that develops out of the two of them being dickheads. Moreover, they are both dickheads in their own distinct ways, which come across well in the writing.
Less effective is Scarlet Witch at the end saying that "it would take every ounce of power we could muster" to stop US Agent if he "ever turned bad", which seems like a bit of an exaggeration given the Avengers have beaten Korvac and Thanos, but okay Wanda, whatever.
The success of the comic rather depends on how much you care about Hawkeye and US Agent. I admire the Thomases' restraint in not positioning either of the pair as being right, but making them both utter douche canoes makes it a bit difficult to engage, even if the argument is well-written. It's an interesting issue that shouldn't work but somehow does. Three Cables.
During the testing it is discovered that Cap may have a weakness to extreme cold, which is something I don't remember seeing anywhere else and doesn't appear on any character profile I can find so I suspect it was dropped at some point. Probably the moment this issue was printed.
As Captain America is a tactical genius, he decides the best way to test this new theory is to go to "the north magnetic pole" to find his missing pal, D-Man. There he fights -- and is defeated by -- a giant snow snake (!), bumps into his old friend Jack Frost -- basically Iceman with hair -- who is dragged underwater by the giant snow snake, and then Thor turns up to deal with the situation but is unable to find the giant snow snake or Jack Frost, so the two Avengers shrug and leave. Is Jack Frost okay? They don't care. Should we have a look around for D-Man, since that's why we're here? Nah, we've fought a giant snow snake, that's enough for one day. Again Steve, wow.
I'm trying to be somewhat charitable with these reviews, because 1991 was a different time, and comics were different, and the pressures of a monthly schedule mean that not every issue can be a perfect work of art, but this is tosh. It feels like filler; most of the issue is a fight with a mindless monster, and you could tell the story with any character. The only specific ties to Cap are Jack Frost and D-Man, one of whom contributes nothing and the other is forgotten. On the plus side, the art is solid with some good storytelling, but the Arctic setting means that there's a lot of empty, white space, which again suggests a rush.
Two Cables, and that's being generous.
(Spoiler: the Warriors don't even know the answer!)
I understand this is a superhero topos dating back to the early days of the genre, but it's also a stupid one and I would have hoped that by 1991 it had gone out of fashion. Unlike Avengers West Coast, there's little attempt to add context or texture to the fight; the characters punch each other until everyone's on the ground then Emma does her passive-aggressive and haughty thing, and that's your lot. Maybe it reads better if you've been following the series, but as a standalone issue it feels either inconsequential and uninspired, or a weird throwback to an earlier era.
I've never been a huge fan of Mark Bagley's art style, which I know puts me in a minority. There's something about the way he draws faces that puts me off, a sort of weird horizontal stretch that gives everyone a sort of batrachian look, but I can't deny that he's a good storyteller and he makes the big, pointless fight at least visually interesting.
I'm not going to say this is a bad comic, but it is dull and devoid of ambition and like the Captain America issue doesn't even resolve it's own setup. Perhaps I'm expecting too much of 1991. Two Cables.
Friday, May 07, 2021
Perhaps you could turn on the subtitles, so you don't have to hear my awful, droning voice.
Thursday, May 06, 2021
I can't be certain, but I think I remember Sir Ian saying that this was the first dungeon he ever designed for the game. I haven't been able to find a better quality image, and I'm too intimidated by Sir Ian's awesomeness to ask him for one.
(Not that I have any influence over such a giant! I don't mean to suggest that he and I are pals or anything.)
Wednesday, May 05, 2021
Monday, May 03, 2021
Tuesday, April 27, 2021
(There are a couple of others too, for anyone counting.)
Every now and then I do a quick search to see if it's come up in anyone's game play reports, and today I discovered this:
This is from 2020 and is quite an interesting coincidence. I'm going to assume that popular comedian Jon Richardson is a secret gamer -- it wouldn't surprise me at all -- and has played or read one of my adventures at some point.
Monday, April 26, 2021
I did wonder why the digital version of this issue was so cheap.
It turns out that all we're getting here is the Weapon X bit, and not the other three stories, so it's nine pages of a larger story, and moreover it's the prologue, so it's more about setting up the feel and mood and less about character and plot. With all that in mind, I don't think I can give it a fair review.
On the plus side, it does mean that I can move on quickly and at least attempt to catch up with the entire Marvel 1991 project. Ha ha.
What I can say that it looks amazing. These pages don't tell you much about what's going on -- which to be fair is true of the entire nine pages we do get -- but my gosh, just look at them.
(Click to just look at larger versions.)
My introduction to the work of Barry Windsor-Smith was his Machine Man miniseries as reprinted in the Marvel UK Transformers comic in 1985, and I fell in love with the art even if I didn't quite understand the writing. There's nothing quite like it, even today. Sometimes it's clean and simple, and feels a bit like a European artist like Moebius, but then there explosions of noodly detail and an emphasis on mood over plot progression that come across almost like Japanese manga.
You can see elements of all of that in the Weapon X story, and for that reason if nothing else, I will probably pick up the rest of the story at some point, just not in this format.
Zero Cables for you, Marvel Comics Presents #72, but that's only because you've been released into the world in a crippled and incomplete state, you poor thing.