Tuesday, June 26, 2018

What Hath Raggi Wrought?

So there was some chatter on G+ recently about what it would take for another Lamentations of the Flame Princess to happen. And by LotFP was meant the publisher, not the game; there are a handful of neat second-generation OSR games out there now that are on par with LotFP as regards rules. That said…

Raggi’s main claim to fame is that he never gives us something we’ve seen a dozen times before. There is no LotFP goblins-in-a-hole-in-the-ground adventure. Instead, we get things like Death Frost Doom (horror movie that can result in a zombie plague), Blood in the Chocolate (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with all the body-horror and implied cannibalism no longer implied and turned up to 11), and Broodmother Sky Fortress (a combination of gaming manifesto and an adventure designed to blow up beloved segments of your campaign). Even when he does something we’ve seen before, he does it differently. The best example of this may be Scenic Dunnsmouth, which doesn’t just give us a cursed village with a dark secret, but a generator allowing us to produce an endless series of cursed villages.

This is one of the reasons Raggi runs towards controversy. “Fantasy fuckin’ Vietnam” was a pejorative way to describe the Old School style of play. So of course James gave us not one but two different variations on that theme and, in the process, not only gave us the amazing Qelong from Ken Hite but also completely defused the phrase as a verbal bomb. If something is controversial or otherwise scary for publishers to associate with, well, that’s low-hanging fruit for Raggi. He knows he won’t have any competition in that space, so he goes for it.

(This is one of the things I adore about Raggi. You simply can’t attack the man. Any rhetorical ordinance you lob his way will get repurposed as grist for his publishing mill. That which does not kill him literally makes his publishing house stronger.)

But it’s not just topics and themes where Raggi pushes envelopes. Damn near every aspect of his business is involved in giving us stuff we’d never seen before. The LotFP game doesn’t just take incumbrance and make it useable at the table, he weaves it into the rules. Everyone knew that boxed sets killed TSR and that nobody would publish boxed sets again, so Raggi of course published his core rules in a boxed set (twice). He publishes books that aren’t monster coffee-table books but handy little reference books designed to be used in the heat of play, with sturdy bindings and covers, satin bookmarks, and endpapers full of important bits you’ll want to find quickly during play. He read along as Kiel Chenier excoriated the poor information design of WotC’s books and then challenged the man to put his money where his mouth was. He listened as Zak ranted about dice drop tables and making every inch of surface on a book a valuable source of at-the-table utility and published Vornheim with a dust jacket that’s more than protection for covers with drop-tables on them. He’s worked with people everyone knew he couldn’t work with, published stuff everyone knew you couldn’t publish, pays what everyone knows you can’t afford to pay the creatives, and thrived doing it.

And then there’s the art. This is probably the most obvious difference: the bare-breasted snake thing on the cover of the original LotFP boxes, the gross-out horror of the interiors. But again, what Raggi’s giving us is stuff we’re not getting from anywhere else. In any other publisher’s work, the duel between a man and a woman (especially a woman who’s one of his game’s iconic characters) would naturally result in the female winning the fight, delicately skewering her foe with a modicum of blood (if any at all). Not so LotFP: Alice gets stabbed in the face, right through her eye. The eponymous Flame Princess gets her leg eaten away by some sort of horrid slime beast and goes through most illustrations hobbling about on a peg leg. The medusa isn’t just a coy coquette, she’s in the midst of a ménage à trois when she petrifies her lovers.

Now flip through the closest RPG book to hand that’s not LotFP and you’ll see art you’ve likely seen a million times elsewhere: the grip-and-grin hero just staring ahead without background, the line-up of heroes striding towards the viewer, someone fighting a skeleton, someone healing a comrade, someone hiding up in a tree, someone riding a dragon. The quality will vary, depending on the publisher, but it’s the same stuff you’ve seen over and over again since the Easley/Elmore/Parkinson days of D&D. Hell, even they were not nearly so cliché as the stuff you’re most likely to get today.

What does Raggi give us? In the first boxed set of core rules, the illustration for the cleric shows our hero using his divine magic to burn elves. The halfling in the race-as-class description for them is hidden amidst the death and slaughter of a post-battle scene, Waldo-like. Where the art isn’t setting the heavy metal/Hammer Horror tone, it’s demonstrating how the rules for LotFP are different from the games you’ve played before. Sometimes it’s doing both.

Raggi’s the guy who gave Zak carte blanche to write and illustrate Vornheim when everyone would have said Zak’s style was completely wrong for RPGs (and most especially Old School rpgs). He’s also the guy who told Kiel that his style wasn’t yet up to snuff and teamed him up with Jason Bradley Thompson for the art. Raggi has a vision and he’s not afraid to pursue it.

And none of this is secret. James is loud and proud about what he does and how he does it. So what’s it going to take for their to be another publisher like LotFP out there? Simply this: someone with James’ chutzpah, honesty, vision, and the skills to see those through into finished products. When that person appears, I suspect James will be their loudest cheerleader.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Elite: Not So Dangerous

The Thargoids are here! For definitions of “here” that are limited to certain locations in the game Elite: Dangerous, anyway. And ObisidanAnt, premier journalist of the game, asks, “Does anybody care?”

The short answer is that some do, but most don’t, and I’m pretty sure this is on purpose. One of the sacred cows of these sorts of games is, “Don’t impact the fun of the players.” For the most part, this gets translated into, “Whenever you add some new content to a game, make sure people can ignore it if they want to.”

This makes sense. After all, if you’ve got tens of thousands of players having fun, you don’t want some new, untried, and experimental content harshing their buzz. But it also traps the game in its current state. Nothing momentous can happen because truly momentous things can’t be ignored.

ObsidianAnt observes that, while everyone thinks the Thargoids wrecking space stations and leaving them on fire is cool, not everyone is gung-ho about hauling the massive list of materials needed to repair them. And why should they be? Let’s be honest: a burning station is far cooler to fly past than another perfectly normal and functioning station. Sure, you can’t really get all the normal services at a wrecked station, and they can even be hazardous to dock in, but that’s not a huge deal when there are almost certainly other stations and even planetary bases elsewhere in the system to dock at. And these invariably have not been affected by the Thargoid attack. Because if the Thargoids could disrupt an entire system, then players would have a harder time ignoring them.

This should bring to mind Jeff Rients’ Broodmother Skyfortress. That game is all about blowing things up: favorite taverns, political alignments, even the very mechanics of the game the players have come to rely on. When the Broodmother shows up, you can’t ignore her and her brood. It’s do-or-die time and no matter what you do, your campaign will never be the same.

And it is AWESOME!

Granted, it’s far safer to take these sorts of risks around your table. Your players are probably not paying you to play and you’re not relying on them to keep the lights on. And if some change really does the dead-fish belly-flop at your table, you can always retcon it out of existence. Frontier Developments don’t have that kind of flexibility or security. But if Elite: Dangerous has a problem it is this: nothing really matters. You can wrack up your various scores (ships in your stable, credits in your account, prestige titles, etc.) but there’s little you can do with that stuff that’s meaningful to the game as a whole. For good or ill, it’s difficult to have any sort of visible impact on the world of the game. Which means your fun is unlikely to be interrupted, but it also means once the fun is over, there’s really nothing left to hold your interest.

For something like the Thargoids to matter, they have to have some impact. And for them to truly have an impact, something needs to be at risk. And risk is far easier to pull off around your kitchen table than it is on a triple-A computer game.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Whither Weather?

Over on the GeePlus, Steven Menteer asks: How do you make weather meaningful both in terms of story and game mechanics?

He’s asking this in the 5e group, but I’m going to answer mostly generically here. Story-wise:

  1. Weather Reflects the Story: dark, heavy clouds hang oppressively over the lands of the tyrannical evil baron. Mischievous autumn winds catch up the motley leaves in a wild and playful dance through the streets of the halfling village. For miles around the dragon’s lair, the land is barren, the wells dry, the creeks choked with dust, and even the warmth of the sun is sucked away by a persistent haze, until only a dull, bloody glow permeates the veil of dust.
  2. Weather as Antagonist: this can be implied, as in the stories of Jack London, or some degree of literal, as in Caradhras in The Fellowship of the Ring or the darkness in Veins of the Earth. Nature is trying to defeat you somehow and the weather is one of its tools to do so. Passes will be snowed in, damp wood refuses to light or only allows weak, smoky fires, deep fog hides the movements of enemy troops, ice breaks underfoot, rocks or even entire trees fall on you, snow and mud reveals your tracks and slows your pace, pollen clogs your nostrils and stings your eyes, gales howl or winds refuse to blow and becalm your ship… The possibilities are endless here.
  3. Weather as a Weapon: like above only possibly more limited. Lots of “epic” critters have Regional Effects they can invoke along these lines, such as the kraken’s control weather ability and the chilly fog or swirling blizzards that surround a white dragon’s lair. Druids and other spell-slingers can also mold the weather with their spells aggressively.
  4. Weather that Marks the Passage of Time: spring rains, muggy summer nights, crisp autumn evenings and icy winter mornings help set the scene and let your players know that they’re exploring a living, breathing world. And you don’t need to stick with the standard weather patterns either. You can have exaggerated weather patterns (“Winter is coming.”) or more extreme weather patterns (dry vs. rainy season of the Serengeti, tornado season in the Great Plains, the monsoons of India and Arizona, etc.) and the cultural events that surround them.

As for rules, 5e makes this pretty easy. Even if you don’t use the exhaustion rules on page 291 of the PHB, it’s easy to include the effects of weather as advantage or disadvantage on a roll. Heavy rain or howling winds or smothering fog impede your perception checks. Rain or snow can obscure footprints. Strong winds can push arrows and javelins off target or diminish their effective range. Being forced to sleep in the open while bands of cold rain sweep over the moors could prevent the PCs from enjoying the benefits of a long rest. If you’re feeling really nasty, persistent rain could soak the PCs belongings, ruining maps or mildewing spell scrolls (a survival check could dictate how well the PCs protected their belongings from the insidious damp).

That all said, I probably wouldn’t invoke rules on weather unless it served your game. This sort of thing is a no-brainer in survival-focused Old School play, but if you’re all about the super-heroic epic conflict, I’d probably not even bother with the weather except as set-dressing unless it was actively being involved in things by some power interested in what the PCs were doing or attempting to thwart. Weather-as-nuisance is a thing that happens in real life and totally fits when the PCs are trying to scrape a living from a harsh and uncaring world. Weather-as-nuisance is just annoying when the PCs are all about thwarting the Arch-lich’s plans to replace the High Queen with a transformed red dragon right in the middle of her coronation ceremony.

Art by Pierre Auguste Cot.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Useful Strange

Over on the Monsters and Manuals blog’s 10 year anniversary post (congrats!), reader Mufn said of McGrogan’s blog:

Your blog is at the heart of what i call the 'Useful Strange' corner of the OSR blogoscene, im glad that you keep chugging away at things.

When asked what other blogs fit that category, the mysterious Mufn replied:
You have the usual suspects of Coin and Scrolls, False Machine, Goblin Punch, Zak, Against the Wicked City, though there are many MANY others as I'm sure you know haha

(Links added for your convenience.)

The central point being that there's an onus on developing strange/weird/new ideas that are mechanically simple enough to slot in almost anywhere with a minimum of fuss.

I’d put Elf Maids & Octopi on that list, as well as Wizard Thief Fighter, Swords & Stitchery, and A Monster Manual Sewn From Pants. Cavegirl's Game Stuff absolutely belongs on this list. I’d love to put Hill Cantons on that list, but it’s been almost a year since the last update (but do go through the older posts for lots of fun weird goodness). Jeff's Gameblog probably belongs on this list, though compared to some of these others he might come across as a bit tame. ;)

Useful Strange is a wonderfully evocative description of a flavor of blogs we are blessed with. Hear’s hoping we see many more and for a long time.

And, of course: which ones did I miss?

EDIT: I oopsed and spelled Mufn's name as "Mfun." Fixed, and added a link to Mufn's blog.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Go and STAHP!

So, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is, as I’m sure you’ve heard, like that Volo’s book but different. Where Volo’s was more “Who are the People in Your Neighborhood,” Mordenkainen’s is a 30,000-foot view of the default multi-dimensional politics of D&D. The first section is the Blood War.

Now, straight up, the Blood War is one of my least favorite bits from Planescape. It’s just not that terribly compelling to me. It’s an endless, eternal war with no real prospect for major movement, forget climax. The way it’s described in Mordenkainen's makes it clear that, should either side actually achieve any serious victory, it could very well cascade into a rolling series of conquests that result in the end of everything, everywhere.

This is perfect if your game is all about the PCs trying to prop up the status quo by running around putting out little fires. To me, it feels way too much like Joss Whedon stomping on your face with the “Reprise” episode of Angel forever. Anyone who scratches at it even a little will see the nihilism-filling under the candy shell. It’s the antithesis of everything in Rients’ Broodmother Sky Fortress. If your idea of a good time is unleashing the PCs on your poor, unsuspecting worlds and watching them actually change things and knock stuff over or build their own stuff, the Blood War could serve as the outer bounds of that sandbox, but it threatens to become a wet blanket to smother the whole thing.

Even worse, it takes WotC something like 2,000 words to basically say that the demons and devils are engaged in near-constant warfare on the banks of the river Styx, primarily where it flows into the first layer of the Hells. The war is trapped in a deadlock where vast hordes of ravening demons smash against the highly organized and disciplined defenses of the devils. Both sides scour the multiverse for a way to break the impasse, thus creating all manner of opportunities for PCs to thwart cults, treasure-hunters, etc.

That up there is less than 100 words and gives you just about everything in the 2,000 words from the book. Paying writers by the word is a sickness that needs to be stamped out.

Now, we do get some fun stuff on demonic and devilish cults, the big personalities of the Hells (which is new for 5e) and the Abyss (which is largely lifted from the Out of the Abyss adventure) as well as fun random tables for creating cults and the like. Lots of useful stuff here for DMs, especially if you’re running a sort of PC-Inquisitors-vs.-Cults-of-Evil campaign. There are ways to customize cambions based on who their otherworldly parent was. We also get some tiefling sub-races based on the heavy-hitters from the Hells. Alas, there’s nothing in there about Abyssal tieflings. Boo!

The section on elves is probably the most useful for players. It’s nearly 30 pages long and gives us what may be the most Tolkien-esque version of D&D elves to date. It’s laced through with that melancholy sense of doom, this time cast as family drama, with the elves eternally longing for the acknowledgement and acceptance of a father who never really wanted them and can’t set aside his jealousy long enough to forgive them for wanting something he had no interest in giving them or helping them acquire. (Seriously, everyone comes out of this looking like self-centered jerks.) We get a nice big elven pantheon, and then we get new elven subraces, including sea elves, shadar-kai, and yet another version of the eladrin (this one kinda being four sub-races in one, as your eladrin character can shift between four seasonal versions depending on their general mood that day).

This is followed by shorter sections on the dwarves (including the duergar subrace), the giths (including playable versions of both gith-kind and an excuse for gith of both kinds to cooperate temporarily), and finally a section on halflings and gnomes (including rules for the sverfneblin sub-race).

This stuff could be nifty-keen if:

  1. Your DM reads this stuff and agrees that it describes how it works in your campaign, and…
  2. Your players read this stuff and incorporate it into how they play their characters.

The shortest of these sections is 12 pages long. There was a time when I would have read these entries with the obsessive eye for detail of a medieval scholastic. But that was junior high, and I was weird. For most of us, we might incorporate some of the sub-races listed here, as well as some of the fun random tables. Otherwise, there’s a lot of stuff that you might read once and then promptly forget.

In spite of all that, if you’re a DM, you want this book. Why? Because it has some of the best monsters ever officially produced for the game. The very first monster, the allip, is what happens to a scholar who learns cursed knowledge. The only way to escape the curse is to basically infect another scholar with a manic episode in which they scribble out all manner of nonsense that also includes the secret that cursed you. Flip the page (past the Astral Dreadnaught) and you find the balhannoth, a teleporting tentacle monster that uses illusions of your deepest desire to lure you into its traps. There’s the boneclaw, the result of a botched attempt to transform into a lich and which bonds with someone with “an unusually hate-filled heart.” They might not even realize they now have a talon-fingered undead slave eager to fulfill their most blood-curdling revenge fantasies, resulting in all manner of Carrie-esque hijinks. The cadaver collector is an automaton that spears corpses on itself and then raises the spirits of those corpses as specters in combat, which alas is mildly overshadowed by the more versatile corpse flower which kills you before adding you to the flower-like arrangement of corpses in its tangles, which it later uses to power its magical abilities.

And that’s just the first handful of pages from the bestiary. It doesn’t include the various sorts of deathlock, warlocks who have gravely offended their patrons and paid the price, or the alkilith, demonic fungus that grows in broken windows and open doorways, transforming them into portals to the Abyss. We also get the duergar hammer and screamer, mining machines with punished duergar strapped inside, which feed on the pain of their tortured occupants. There are the very Harryhausen eidolons, guardian spirits that animate sacred statues. There are the elder elemental kaiju, and the trapped-in-armor elemental mamluk myrmidons. We get horror-movie-esque baddies like the giant nightwalker and the body-snatching oblex. We get wargamey ogre variants: battering-ram, bolt-launcher, and howdah. We get some interesting variations on old favorites. The retriever is now a drowish automaton that scours the Demonweb for demons to enslave. Grue are now a version of the star spawn, cthulhuish monsters analogous to demons or fey. The grey render is the very embodiment of Kiel’s “Good Boys.”

Alas, the failings of the first part of the book do intrude in the bestiary. This shows up most strongly in the devil and demon entries, most of which read like units for a wargame. Still, there’s a ton of fun stuff for DMs in the monster section. If you’re a player, you can probably give this book a pass, especially if your DM uses bespoke settings and will allow you to use the Unearthed Arcana versions of the sub-races in this book.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Back to B2

Lady-love wanted to play some D&D this weekend, something quick and dirty without much prep. So she rolled up a gnome wizard botanist/inventor and I dusted off good ol' B2: Keep on the Borderlands.

I don’t remember the last time I ran this module. It was absolutely back in the 20th century. Shock and surprise: it holds up really, really well. I considered giving it an early Iron Age feel but didn’t pull the trigger on that; might still, but might not, also.

The opportunities for RP are excellent. Our PC fell in with a certain visiting priest and his two acolytes; if you know the adventure you know the fellow I’m talking about. Plot-balls are already rolling nicely.

The adventure badly needs a set of player maps. Of course the first thing PCs with access to the sleep spell are going to do is capture some goblins and interrogate them. It could also benefit from some NPCs or NPC generators. But maybe not; I’ve got access to so many of the things they’re hardly necessary.

The bare-bones structure also creates minor issues. The Caves of Chaos are insanely close to the Keep; even with my saying the CoC crew plans to take over the Keep and move in, the distance is frightfully small. There are some questions about the diets of the monsters, where they came from, how the location calls out to them, but if you’re a halfway decent DM that’s just opportunities for world-building. Ditto with the lack of names and interior details.

All-in-all, I’m really happy with how it runs even after all these years. We’re using 5e and not having a hard time at all with the conversion. Once again I’m tempted to run an old-school game with Moldvay/Cook built on old published adventures. Maybe if we find a group after the upcoming move.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Down-time Ding!

I recently dropped GP-for-EXP in one of my 5e games. It works great until about level 5. At that point, on a 1-for-1 basis, it starts getting silly. 6th level requires 14,000 EXP. I was saying PCs get 1 EXP for each gold piece they spent, and they could spend it on anything they wished. Unfortunately, 14,000 gp is insane. That’s individual, not total, so if four players pooled that kind of cash (56,000 gp) they could buy two warships, five longships, 50 spyglasses, 140 warhorses, 280 elephants, 1,000 camels, or 746 hand crossbows. Which would be great if the PCs were trying to start the world’s biggest circus or bankroll a small war. But keep in mind that this is only going from 5th to 6th level. Each character going from 9th to 10th level would need to spend 64,000 EXP, so its more than each of the things listed above before they’d pool their money.

Now, it’s entirely possible to organize a game to work with these sorts of numbers. According to the DMG, 5th through 10th level play is described as “Heroes of the Realm” tier play, so you could totally have the PCs involved in political shenanigans that would warrant those sorts of expenses: outfitting mercenary forces to supplement their liege lord’s border defenses against a rampaging orc horde, for instance, or an expeditionary force to a distant and exotic locale. From 11th to 16th level (“Masters of the Realm”) the PCs could be funding their own colonies on the edge of the wilderness old-school style and paying the upkeep on their own personal armies. And that’s a fun way to play, and fit our expectations of the game back in ‘80s. So yes, I think 1 EXP earned for each gold piece spent can work. But it does require the campaign to scale up sharply as the PCs level up.

Unfortunately, the campaign in question was a far more intimate thing, dealing with the politicking of neighborhoods and guilds. Granted, this was in a massive city, and reading about the history of the Roman Republic (Amazon Associates link) has given me some ideas on how the gold could have been spent to further that sort of play. In fact, studying this more closely I’m now kinda jonesing to run a game with that sort of structure. But that’s not how things were set up for this particular campaign, or how we’ve been playing the game. So it’s gone off the rails and I now reward levels on a completely subjective basis.

So yeah: new ideas for a new campaign. What’s new, right? 😉 But alternatively, I’ve also been tinkering with an alternative leveling-up system that would keep things on the small and intimate side. This system would allow the PCs to level up whenever they wanted (and could afford) to take the time. It would work like this:

Whenever the players wanted to level up their PCs, the PCs would have to spend at least one week preparing for and then actively studying/praying/communing with totems/etc. They would need to spend their normal costs-of-living amounts (bottom of page 157 in the PHB) plus 20 gp per level they wished to attain (so 100 gp to go from 4th to 5th level) per week. At the end of that week the player would roll a d20. If they rolled 20 or higher, the character leveled up.
If this isn’t the first time they’d spent a week trying to gain this level, they get to add +1 to the roll. For each two contiguous weeks they spend, they add another +1 (so spending four weeks in a row to gain a level gets you +2 on the roll). They might also get additional bonuses for having a mentor who is at least the level they wish to attain, special materials or the like.

Players can attempt to level-up their characters anytime they have the cash and time to do so. However, they must be in a relatively safe and civilized place, somewhere where they are not actively adventuring or traveling. Small, short events don't interrupt this training (getting mugged, attending a ball, rescuing kittens from trees), but being forced to travel more than six miles in a single day or spend most of a day in life-or-death situations (that isn't the training) will ruin it. Also, each week must be seven contiguous days of studying; it can't be broken up. Once the have leveled up, they can’t do so again for at least twelve weeks.

This sort of scheme absolutely demands down-time. If you run the sort of campaign where it’s a cliffhanger every week and players hop from crises-to-crises, this ain’t the leveling-up system for you. However, if you love slice-of-life sort of play, where you can actually delve into what else is happening during that down time (politics at the cleric’s temple, rivalries with warlock’s patron’s other warlocks, etc.) you can have a lot of fun with this sort of thing. If you want to slow things down and enjoy the scenery more, this is probably a good fit for your campaign.

The big caveat here, however, is with the random rolling it’s entirely possible you’ll end up with characters spread across levels, with high-rollers two or three or more levels advanced from the unlucky. You can absolutely weight things for those who’ve rolled poorly by offering them resources to help out. It might also make sense to extend the length of time that has to pass between a successful leveling-up and the next attempt in order to slow down the lucky. Or you can dictate that a character automatically succeeds if another PC is at least two levels higher than them.