Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Review: Taghri's Prize

This novel (link is an Amazon Affiliate link) is of the genre of not-so-young-man-does-good stories that were fairly common in days of yore. Writers like H. Beam Piper and David Drake used to give us lots of these. They deviate from the young-man-does-good stories of authors like Alan Dean Foster in that our protagonist has at least a decade of adult life under his belt. He's done his time in the trenches (often literally) and is ready to wed his worldly experience with youthful energy to carve out his place in the world. He'll use restless initiative and wits to shock the world and his enemies, along with a strong sense of justice and an almost present-day morality to earn the loyalty of his followers and comrades. There's almost always a young woman who's only just entered adulthood but who also exhibits maturity beyond her years to win, usually by climbing the social ladder (if the society has nobility, he'll be a commoner or close to it at the beginning of the story, but fairly elevated up the noble chain by the end). A large component of his success will be based on this character seeing what others cannot, often by finding new and innovative ways to use whatever tech is cutting-edge for their culture. Piper's Lord Kalvin of Otherwhen is probably the pinnacle of this genre, though you can absolutely see how it grew from books like The Count of Monte Cristo and A Princess of Mars.

This book posits a world like ours, but where the monotheisms that came to dominate the world never developed. Taghri's world is one of many gods, and even the gods of a single pantheon can be jealous of one another. It's a world where the gods also take a hand in things, though slowly, and often through agents. It's also a world of gunpowder and, but for the lack of faiths like Islam and Christianity, looks like our own in the 16th century.

Taghri is an experienced campaigner, a veteran of the Sultan's wars who tries his hand at being a merchant. He's hardly gotten started when he finds himself fighting for his life again, this time against pirates. He slays the pirate captain and claims his ship. Among the treasures stowed on board is a princess and a knife that tingles with magical power. These treasures bring him to the attention of both this world's secular and divine powers, and he uses this opportunity to work his way to greatness.

This is a decent book of its type, but not a great one. The writing is engaging and descriptive, Taghri is sufficiently sympathetic (the dude never misses an opportunity to save a cat), and the action is written with gusto.  A sea battle about midway through the novel is especially fun.  However, you rarely feel much tension; suspense for our hero or his friends is frequently undercut when they quickly show that their hard work and cleverness has made them far and away better prepared for any encounter than their foes. The world-building also feels fairly meh. We get just enough local color for this to feel like a modern retelling of a story from the 1,001 Nights, but little else. Our hero doesn't help matters by never failing to exhibit modern sensibilities towards issues like slavery. While he doesn't give any impassioned speeches about the evils of slavery, he never fails to free any slave he comes across, nor does he show any interest in enslaving his enemies. And, while the setting strongly implies that Taghri's friends and allies own slaves, we never, ever see even one. This and a few other choices by the author leads to the setting feeling a bit like a Hollywood back-lot more than a real place.

That all said, this is a fine book of its type, and if you're spoiling for a book along these lines, you'll probably enjoy Taghri's Prize.

Gamers will appreciate Taghri's gung-ho cleverness, and the relationships between the gods and their worshipers feels very much like what you'd expect in a D&D world. The magic item in-and-of-itself isn't terribly exciting, but DMs will be intrigued by the way the plot is woven around it, and by how it launches our hero into a world of political intrigues and results in moments where the gods literally steer our hero in the right direction.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Wherefore Gorgeous Hardcovers?

Noisms asks, “How did the publishing model for RPG books, particularly OSR ones, become so skewed towards high-production values and hence high costs?”

For the larger industry, the answer lies in the fact that most professional RPG shops are really more book-publisher than game-maker. The glossy, full-color, door-stopping coffee table tome looks more like quality than the thin booklets or magazine-like specimens that dead-tree RPGs have alternatively looked like. You can get away with charging $50 for these coffee-table monsters; you couldn’t do that with thinner, “cheaper” books, forget PDFs. And, while the coffee-table tomes are more expensive to produce, they’re not that much more expensive to produce. On top of that, the industry is so comfortable with this sort of thing, both as publishers and consumers, that nobody questions the choice and everyone feels they know what they’re getting into. So if you want fancy downtown Seattle office space and medical insurance and full-time staff, this is your tentpole product. It may not be the only way to go, but it’s where the “smart” (meaning “cautious and not-rocking-the-boat”) money is going to go.

But what about the OSR? Well, therein lies a tale. Actually, many tales, which can still be read on the old blogs, including Noisms'.

Return with me now to those heady days of yesteryear. WotC had saved D&D from the sinking ship that was TSR but something just wasn’t right. The 15 minute workday, the assumptions of a combat-focused design erected on a foundation that really didn’t support it, the terribly demanding math of encounter design that resulted in a single fight taking up a whole evening of playtime. There was a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Something wasn’t right. It was probably ’03 or so when I first heard someone say they’d rather be playing B/X if they could. (And Ferrus Minx, if you’re out there, you were a man ahead of your time!)

But then 2008 happened, and with every sneak peek at what D&D 4e would be, someone new experienced a visceral recoil from what they were seeing. The to-the-foundations transformations of not just the rules, but the setting info, of how parties were built and what adventures were about was bad enough, and it was coupled with an insulting ad campaign that literally drove people to seek other options. It had been fun back then. It wasn’t fun now. What had changed? Could we recapture the magic?

Yes, as it turned out, we could. And, when you read those old blogs, there’s a sense of shock and wonder when the old games were dusted off and played, followed quite often by a sense of betrayal and anger. It wasn’t something TSR or WotC had purposefully set out to do. They’d simply tried to improve the game, but they’d done so based on a set of assumptions very much not shared by fans of those older games.

The OSR knew that the old games were better (for certain definitions of better, sure, but as far as the OSR was concerned, those were the definitions that mattered). And the OSR wouldn’t just bring those games back, they would do it better than the Industry was doing! The rules would be better, the adventures would be better, and yes, the production values would be better.

James Edward Raggi IV was one of those making the most noise on this front. He was vociferous in denying all the “conventional wisdom” of the time. And he was right to do so; there was a lot of BS floating around that everyone “knew” was true about the hobby. (And keep in mind, among these was that RPGs were a dying hobby that could never recover; eventually, it would all be cheap little pamphlets printed from home, or deluxe luxury products like Ptolus, following the same pattern as the slow decline of the model railroad hobby).

James was determined to outdo the big companies, especially WotC. And, to him, this meant tossing aside what was expected. His books would be works of art. When his printing of McKinney’s Carcosa came out, it was shocking! Here was a beautifully bound book. The embossed cover felt decadent in your hands. The endpapers were not blank, but had hex maps on them. The high-quality binding meant it stayed open to the page you turned it to, and it didn’t crack and loose pages (like a certain PHB and MM of mine have done, not naming names, *cough*5e*cough*). It wasn’t full-color, and yet it still felt luxurious compared to the industry standard at the time (or even today, to be honest). It was a book that was meant to be used at the table and look gorgeous on a shelf. This was a book that was special, and you could tell that just by looking at it.

And Raggi wasn’t alone in this. We were told you could only hope to break even with six-digit print runs; OSR publishers printed high-quality books in the handful-of-thousands. We were told that print magazines were passé so Fight On! and others were created. We were told that boxed sets were too expensive and had lead to the death of TSR, so we got the Swords & Wizardry White Box, two boxed sets from Raggi, and, finally, when WotC got into the act, their boxed set looked like this!

The books of the OSR were experiments in usability, shrines for what we considered to be important in our hobby, and shots across the bow of a staid industry wallowing towards obsolescence. Probably the ultimate expression of this was Raggi’s hard-cover Free RPG Day offerings, each chock full of new, never-before-seen material, when everyone else was sending meager quick-start rules or thin pamphlet adventures.

I think there’s still a lot to be done with the book. I think Kiel’s Blood in the Chocolate is an amazing start, but I think we can push the functionality of the hardcover even further. I also think that electronic formats have been neglected by the OSR, and there’s lots of room for amazing things in that arena.

As for Noisms, he appears to see the high prices for these books as a gauntlet to be taken up. I very much look forward to seeing what he does as a shot across the bow of the rest of the OSR.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Why BX is the Best!

Got a copy of Moldvay's Basic D&D? Turn to page B16 and check out the Charm Person spell:

Any commands given will usually be obeyed, except that orders against its nature (alignment and habits) may be resisted, and an order to kill itself will be refused.

Emphasis added for what I hope are obvious reasons. This, I tell the young'ens, is how we differentiated between two fighters back in the day. If your character was a mercenary who'd gut his own grannie for a shaved copper, or a paragon of virtue who never raised a hand against the defenseless and the weak, mattered mechanically, and was specifically called out in the rules.

(Compare this to the rules in Gygax's AD&D Players Handbook, which do not reference habits or personality at all in resisting Charm Person or Mammal.)

Monday, August 05, 2019

The Agony of the Feets

I can’t remember my feet ever hurting this much. Not sure if it’s a testament to my waxing wimpiness or that this truly was the last rodeo for my sneakers. Poor things had a blow-out.

I saw lots of amazing and cool people this week. If you encountered me on Saturday or later, and I seemed terse or distracted, it wasn’t you; by Saturday the fire-hose of social interaction and ALL TEH AMAZEBALLS GEEKY THINGS!!! had me feeling more than a little punch-drunk. Next year, if you’re going to be at GenCon and want to hang, let me know and we’ll do a better job of arranging things.

Honestly, getting to sit down and debate theory with the likes of Zzarchov Kowolski and Jacob Hurst, discuss the ins-and-outs of the industry with folks who have less sexy but vital jobs that keep the wheels rolling, and just laugh and “OMG have you seen this?!?” with fellow geeks is one of the very coolest things about GenCon. But the coolest is almost certainly the Exhibition Hall. Even though I think a third of the things I saw were “kickstarting in the next four months,” (or maybe even because of it), the things to see and touch and play, and the excitement of everyone around you (shining through the “haven’t slept in two days” exhaustion in some cases), is amazingly inspirational.

The LotFP GenCon exclusives didn’t quite sell out, so there are some copies over at Noble Knight Games. I’m pretty sure the inclusion of She Bleeds, etc. is an oops and they only have the first four available. No idea what the quantities are, so if you want ‘em, best to snatch ‘em up now!

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Murdered by Pirates is Good

This year started off with so much promise for the blog but, obviously, I fell off the wagon in May. So what has the Troll been up to?

Quite a lot. I'm involved in three regular campaigns. One is weekly, the other two switch off weeks, so that's two evenings of gaming every week (plus regular meet-ups for board games and the like). What's crazy for me is that, due to quirks of fate, all three games are 5e D&D. What's really crazy? I'm a player in one.

The big news is that I'm getting an adventure officially, professionally published for the first time. I've written one of the GenCon exclusive adventures Raggi will be selling at the Lamentations of the Flame Princess booth this year. Being a fan of the Orientalist painters, I wanted to do something involving the Barbary Pirates, who were busting out of the Mediterranean and onto the world stage in a big way during the default time period of LotFP adventures.

I worked with Tabby L. Rose on this one. She's DMing the 5e game I'm actually a player in. Her experience with RPGs is very different from mine. She got started later (because she couldn't find anyone who'd let a girl join their games until after high school) and played very different games from me. Where I've been accused of treating most RPG rules as variations to add to Moldvay/Cook, Tabby had an extremely varied RPG diet, ranging from first edition Rune Quest and FASERIP Marvel to Talislanta and Shadowrun. The longest running campaign she GMed was a Firefly game that started using Margaret Weis Productions rules but later migrated to Fudge. This makes her fun to collaborate with because her expectations and assumptions are often very different from mine.

And this was very important on Menagerie of Exiles because, hoo boy, was this a reminder of how odd my games are. When my players' PCs board a pirate ship, whether as guests or crew or cargo, they want to know all about what's happening: who are the pirates and where did they come from and what are they doing right now (at 3 PM on a Tuesday afternoon) and when can we get the quartermaster alone without anyone else overhearing our conversation? They're going to want to seduce the First Mate, and if they see an opening, they're going to prep a mutiny plan, even if they don't necessarily pull the trigger.

Most of my notes for something like this would be almost-kinda bullet-points jotted into my moleskin or possibly just scribbled on post-its tucked in as bookmarks into the rulebooks. Now I had to make it intelligible for other folks all while keeping it within the word-and-art limits of a GenCon exclusive booklet.

We were absolutely overly ambitious. What you’ll get is a ship and crew with the broad outlines detailed and a bit more focus on particular individuals. There’s a dark secret on the ship that threatens to split the crew apart, a secret that the enslaved prisoners in the hold are part of. And that’s probably skirting too close to spoiler territory, so I’ll stop there.

If you’re running a LotFP campaign, you’ll get a creepy little adventure on the high seas that you can use to move the campaign to more exotic locales. In the decades before the start of the English Civil War, the Barbary Pirates were raiding as far afield as Ireland and Iceland (and, in both cases, absconding with the entire populations of small villages). So you could have these pirates pop up just about anywhere and transport the PCs to just about anywhere. If you’ve been looking for a way to move the campaign to North Africa for Rafael Chandler’s World of the Lost, here you go!

If your game is not set in a real-world analogue of the 16th through 19th centuries, you still get pirates with a dark secret. They can transport your PCs across an ocean and give your table something to do with that journey, rather than just handwave it as “time passes.”

If you’re going to be at GenCon this year, be sure to stop by Raggi’s booth (#3010) and check it out. For myself, I can’t wait to get my hands on Barbarians of Orange Boiling Seas. Zzarchov always does neat stuff. And I have a sneaking suspicion I know what James’ mystery book is. If I’m right, yeah, it’ll twist more than a few noses out of joint.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

From One Generation to the Next

So people are talking about the generations of D&Ders. And, as usual, I don’t really identify with what the author is writing about.

Part of that is my near total lack of running into any friction for my gaming. Nobody teased me about it. I was encouraged to bring my gaming books into school. My 8th grade English teacher used the NPC generation tables in the 1e DMG as part of a creative writing exercise.

But more than that, I don’t think the level of acceptance of D&D in the culture at large had a huge effect on how we played the game. Rather, I think it was the assumptions we brought to the table.

If you look at Grognardia’s Ages of D&D, you notice that the Golden Age doesn’t even look like D&D as most people know it. Players didn’t invest with their characters the way they’re encouraged to do so now. You rolled 3d6 in order to generate your character, meaning you had no idea what you were going to play until after you’d rolled your stats. You probably had a handful of characters ready to go at any time, and might play your cleric or your wizard depending on factors like which was too busy training up to their next level (something that didn’t happen automatically) or what the group was likely to need tonight. Taking your character on vacation with you and playing in a game across town or across the country was a completely natural thing to do.

But above all of that, D&D was a game about exploration. Monsters were not opportunities for EXP but resource sinks; every fight limited how much longer you could spend in the wilderness or dungeon. Barely any effort was made to balance encounters. Carefully mapping the dungeon unlocked opportunities for finding unguarded or lightly-guarded treasure which was the key to gaining those first few very precious levels.

Unfortunately, early D&D did a poor job of explaining itself. The assumption was that most would learn the game from someone who could trace their learning of the game back to Gygax’s group. Even the Basic boxes fumbled here; the clues were there but not everybody connected the dots. “Why should my characters become better killers from gathering treasure?” was a commonly heard refrain.

2e muddied these waters. The advancement mechanic moved to class-specific criteria: wizards and clerics earned EXP for casting spells, thieves earned EXP for acquiring treasure, fighters earned EXP for slaying things. Even more transformative was the stuff coming out of DUNGEON magazine. Gone were the funhouse dungeons like Castle Greyhawk or thematic ruins that were all about place. The adventures crafted by the Hickmans like Ravenloft and the Dragonlace series, already described as classics, were seen as the model. Everything had to be about story. The assumption that the PCs would be accompanied by a small army of henchmen, something obvious to the first generation of DMs, now seemed weird. You never saw Strider or Raistlin or Elric hanging out in a tavern, interviewing mercenaries to see who would go into the dungeon with them. Charisma transformed from being one of the most important stats in the game to being everyone’s dump-stat.

By the time TSR hit financial troubles, few still played the way that first generation did. The game was about story now, which meant actually killing characters became a hassle. Steps were taken to insulate characters from death, like going unconscious at 0 hit points instead of just dying, giving PCs max hit points at first level, and making resurrection spells more common.

When 3e came out, you could easily see that perceptions of the game had transformed drastically. Now D&D was seen as a game about combat. You earned most of your EXP from killing things, which meant wandering monsters stopped being a threat and started to be a boon to characters who needed just a few dozen more EXPs to level up. The game became more about mechanics; we got all sorts of new ways to differentiate our characters with numbers, like feats and skills. (And, suddenly, nobody’s character could tie knots or swim anymore.) The DM was given tools to balance encounters so that fights were more likely to be “close calls” or, at least of “reasonable” challenge. And to aid in this, each monster got massive, page-long stat blocks, allowing the DM to craft their own monsters using the same rules the PCs used to make their characters. The chains of feats and class abilities made character creation a mini-game, on par with deck-building in games like Magic: the Gathering.

With 4e, D&D had completed its transformation into a game centered around combat. Only, it turned out, that wasn’t really what the fans wanted. And with 5e, the focus was moved back to stories.

Unfortunately, the chassis of the game is still built around the exploration model of the original game. So it does story in a rather clunky way, requiring all sorts of bizarre tweaks (like ubiquitous resurrection magic) to smooth out the rough patches.

Ok, but how does this history help us make sense of D&D’s multiple generation gaps? Well, each generation comes to the table with its own expectations and assumptions. The oldest Grognards play a game about exploration and personal challenge. They want to use their own brains to overcome the challenges and fully expect to use their real-world knowledge of things like physics as well as the rules of the game to triumph. They approach combat as a war and expect to need to use every clever idea they can muster to just survive. Character death is just part of the game to them. They don’t invest in their characters as much, and might not even name them until they’ve reached 3rd level.

After them come the Voyagers. They wallowed in the crazy imaginative worlds of TSR from the ‘90s like Planescape and Dark Sun. They want simple rules that will keep things consistent but don’t get in the way of telling their stories. They love having entire sessions go by without touching the dice and really want to delve into the orc warlord’s backstory. Hacking the rules of the game to better fit the strange settings they love creating is very common. Meta-knowledge is something to avoid. Fights can be tense and dramatic, but not really why they came, and most discovered, sooner or later, that they were best served by the Basic/Expert rather than the Advanced rules. If the DM’s world is described as “Game of Thrones in Oz” or the player has an original character race with a detailed description of how its biology evolved, you’re probably dealing with voyagers.

3e engendered a new generation that reveled in rules mastery. They expected intricately balanced encounters that utilized the rules in new and challenging ways, but they viewed combat in the game as a sport, to be played within a certain set of bounds. The solutions to every challenge was on the character sheet; 10’ poles and using spilled wine to find hidden passages were replaced by skill checks and character abilities. DMs obsessed over encounter design, always seeking to create unique circumstances that conformed with the rules of the game, but did so in new and surprising ways. For some groups, story became simply a path that strung together one gorgeous set-piece battle or skill challenge after another. Crunch reigned supreme and everything else was just fluff. If you hear grumbles about how D&D doesn’t allow enough mechanical differentiation between characters (or, how you really ought to be playing Pathfinder), you’ve got some Rules Masters in your group.

We have a new generation of players coming to D&D today thanks to streaming games. They thrill to the roll of a natural 20, but they seem to be just as much about story as the second generation, perhaps even more so. They’re not as excited about exploring strange and alien worlds; rather they seem to prefer the tried-and-true high fantasy that’s considered D&D’s default. They also don’t appear to be as interested in kit-bashing the rules as the story-focused gamers of old, beyond crafting new backgrounds, races, and classes. They want to play the “real” game with as few tweaks as possible. And they apparently love the idea of not really earning EXP at all, but rather going up levels when their characters meet milestones in the journey of their personal and group stories. If you’re group uses “Milestone leveling” instead of awarding EXP, or the DM bends over backwards to avoid character death, and most especially if they only started playing in the last three years, you’re probably playing with Epic Stream players.

If you want to talk about generation gaps, discussing expectations and desires seems a far more useful taxonomy than simply Old vs. New, or even TSR-era vs. WotC players. And keep in mind, few groups or even players are purely one or the other. While I started in the “Golden Age” with the Grognards, I was self-taught and started the game with many of the Voyager’s assumptions. And, on top of that, most of my groups are dominated by players who are new to the game, so there’s a lot of Epic Stream influence in my games as well. How much mileage you’ll get out of this discussion will depend largely on your exposure (or lack thereof) to people with alternative expectations. When you find someone at your table making odd assumptions, it’s time to start asking questions. From my (terribly not scientific) experience, you’ll likely find the source of those assumptions comes from when and how they started playing the game.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Retail Déjà Vu

This is going to look familiar to those of you over 30. You may remember when D&D was sold in Sears stores. I actually never got any of my stuff from Sears, but I did buy the Sear's exclusive poster from Larry Elmore last year at GenCon.

If you needed any further proof that D&D is experiencing a Renaissance, I think this Target exclusive boxed set is another hefty data-point to consider. This, on top of the Stranger Things box, means there are now three different "beginner" boxed sets to get you into D&D. I'm wondering if we're going to see a Critical Role boxed set soon?

I'm also curious if the rules are different from the Basic pdf. The ad copy implies that they've been re-written from the other boxed sets to now "on-boards players by teaching them how to make characters". And that implies that it doesn't use pre-gens. If you've got more info on this box, I'd love to hear about it.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Oh, the '80s!

I just cut this from an article I wrote for dlair/net about the Tales From the Loop RPG. It was extraneous there, but I liked it so much, I'm dropping it here:


Being a child in the ‘80s was something of a surreal experience. This was due, I think, to so many things no being what they were supposed to be.

Europe experienced a long run of peace thanks to the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction. Nuclear power went from the salvation of civilization to a curse. We stopped talking about the impending new ice age and started talking about the greenhouse effect. Future Shock transformed into VCRs, digital watches and Teddy Ruxpin. “Wholesome” Afterschool Specials taught us to question the authority of our teachers while children’s entertainment turned gory with Gremlins and Watership Down. Rated R movies like Robocop had action figures in the toy aisle. Iron Maiden became the most amazing false-flag educational program in the history of ever. (Seriously, check out the lyrics to their song Alexander the Great and tell me that’s not AP test prep disguised as popular entertainment.)

People on TV said D&D was satanic.

So the nostalgia of GenXers tends to be laced with weirdness. Whether it’s the bittersweet psychodrama of emotional issues we didn’t have names for in Ready Player One or the nostalgia and paranoia mix strained through Stephen King that is Stranger Things, ‘80s nostalgia tends to be, well, surreal and fantastical. And before there was Stranger Things, there was the art of Stålenhag.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Dice of Generations

Back when G+ was still a thing, this is the sort of stuff I'd post on it. I really don't have much to say about this piece, but it's sweet and useful and interesting:

The Dice of Generations

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

What the Arkenstone Can Do For You

The PCs are finally geared up (or angry enough) to take on the dragon! It's gonna be a big event in your campaign (because: DRAGON!!!) and you want the treasure hoard to be worthy of it. How do you make it something truly special without making it stupidly huge? How can you make quality compensate for the fact that you're not actually giving your players literal hillocks and ravines of coinage?



 Here are some suggestions for things that have served me well over the years:

History


The dragon hoard par excellence is probably still Smaug’s, and it’s heaped with the story of the dwarvish kingdoms and their alliances and rivalries with their neighbors. Describing the treasure is one of the few times you have the undivided attention of everyone at the table, so it’s a great time to sprinkle (not dump) some exposition on your players. Coins bearing the face and name of the second Warlock-emperor of the Melechan dynasty (worth ten times their mere weight value to collectors), arrows crafted by elven fletchers to slay the Arch-lich Kazshet, or the gilded toe-bone of the poet-scholar St. Gweniach will draw a lot more attention to the history of your setting than any dry dissertation by long-bearded scholars or sleepy ents. Focus on bits of history that are or will be important to your campaign’s current events, and especially the active interests of your players and their PCs.


Danger


Smaug’s hoard contains the Arkenstone, a wondrous gemstone that bears more than a passing resemblance to the doom-fraught Sillmarils. Perhaps the Temple of the Risen Sun doesn’t think a reliquary of St. Gweniach belongs in the hands of murderhobos. Perhaps Kazshet’s agents infiltrated the circle of elven fletchers to add a curse to the enchanted arrows. Perhaps, as with the Arkenstone, there are cultural or personal or political ramifications to the ownership of some of that treasure. One of the things that makes The Hobbit stand out from generic fantasy fare is that there are exciting and fascinating consequences to the slaying of Smaug. So it can be with the dragons in your campaign.


Something Personal


This is a great time to make callbacks to the backgrounds of the PCs or events that happened earlier in the campaign. The paladin’s great-grandfather’s sword doesn’t need to be in the hoard, but there might be a sword that’s marked with the rune of a company of knights he once rode with, or the champion’s prize from a tourney the great-grandfather competed in. There might be a treatise on abjuration magic written by the wizard who was a mentor to the wizard PC’s teacher. There might be some piece of jewelry or other objet d’art that a villain vanquished by the PCs early in their careers sent as tribute or bribe to the dragon. Callbacks like this are a great way to make the players feel like their characters fit into the setting.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

D&D Movie Musings

Yep, they’re making another one. And Paramount could use a successful franchise now that Star Trek is (at least in movie theaters) wallowing in face-plant.

According to The Hashtag Show, things have been off to a bumpy start. They still don’t have a director, though they do appear to have a script they’re happy with. Michael Gilio’s other screenwriting credits pretty much begin and end with Kwik Stop, a quirky little indie film that garnered rave reviews and some awards, apparently. Gilio was called in to “rewrite” a script by David Leslie Johnson whose credits include multiple episodes of The Walking Dead, Wrath of the Titans, and Aquaman.

That implies to me that the script is fairly safe B-list fare (though I haven’t seen Aquaman yet and may be selling it short). This doesn’t exactly change that equation:

Once things get rolling, Paramount hopes to land an actor from the following list of talent: Will Smith, Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, Matthew McConaughey, Jamie Foxx, Joel Edgerton, Dave Bautista, Jeremy Renner and Johnny Depp.

Seriously?!? No, I don’t think it’s serious; I think they’re trying to raise buzz for the project because about the only thing those actors have in common is that they’re male. Imagine a role you’ve ever seen one of these actors in and try swapping them out. Either the lead is a complete cypher (which doesn’t speak well of the script) or they’re not serious about this list.

If they’re still aiming for a ’21 release, that probably nixes Brolin and Bautista (who will be filming Dune), and, as much as I’d love to see him in this, Vin Diesel (who has a whole slew of projects listed on his IMDB page, including F&F9 and xXx4). Pratt is probably on this list because he’s hot in nerd media right now. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around McConaughey (as much as I loved him in Sahara) or Depp in the lead for this movie. Put a gun to my head and I’d guess that, if this is an actual list of actors they’re looking at, it’ll most likely be Edgerton or Renner, and I’ll bet you Edgerton’s cheaper, so…

(Smith and Foxx would be interesting choices, but if this is a B-list movie, they’d almost certainly be the only non-white character with a name. The script clearly isn’t written to explain who this character is as an outsider in the local dominant culture or we’d see fewer gringos on this list. So yeah, wouldn’t hold my breath for either of those, though they would be interesting choices.)

So, what does that tell us? Well, none of these guys are exactly young; we won’t see some young man in a coming-of-age story here. Most likely, that means our lead is a grizzled human warrior. His primary weapon will be a sword. We’ll probably get a five-man band that includes a comic-relief axe-wielding dwarf as “the Big Guy,” a brash and blond Viking-esque dude with a massive sword who’s an old friend of our hero from way back as “the Lancer,” and a spell-slinger who won’t cast any spells you recognize out of the PHB who will supply exposition as needed in the role as the “Smart Guy” (salt-and-pepper or grey-haired if it is a guy, or a bland, dark-haired ice queen if female).

If the writers know much about D&D and wrote an actual D&D movie, the “Heart” will be a cleric (and the “Lancer” will be an effete warlock who always seems to be on the verge of betraying the party, and you’ll probably replace the dwarf with a half-orc or, if the budget can support it, a dragonborn). That said, it’s probably more reasonable to expect a sword-wielding princess who constantly reminds us that she’s as tough as any man and is also in constant need of rescuing (think Kate Beckinsale in Van Helsing).

Of course, this is the Marvel Age, where LotR and The Hobbit each got green-lighted for their own three-movie deals and comic book movies are both good and summer tent-pole events. So it’s possible I’m completely wrong (possibly even likely), and we’ll end up with something decent. If so, I’ll happily eat crow on this. But, right now, I’m thinking Critical Role’s half-hour cartoon is a much safer bet for a fun D&D movie.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

War and Remembrance

On this day, 11 years ago, the 2008 Fantasy RPG Wars began. And we won.

By “we” of course I mean everyone who plays RPGs. Paizo shocked WotC into going back to basic principles and discovering that their fans don’t want 80 lbs of rules, nor is a new giant stack of character classes, etc. every few months or even every year a good way to support an RPG.

And now D&D has shocked Paizo into improving their games further, seeking to be the more mechanically complex game, but streamlining it to make it accessible to new players. At the Paizo booth at the GAMA Trade Show, one of the Paizo folks said, “We want Pathfinder to be the game you graduate to.” That sounds like a good place for them to be.

I used to think that WotC would eventually sell the license to D&D in order to keep the IP alive and save themselves the expense of making the game. I no longer feel that way. D&D is healthier than ever, and this rising tide appears to be lifting most, if not all, the boats.

Make the most of it, folks.

Art by Wayne Reynolds.  The genesis of Pathfinders goblins can be read here.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Let the Good Times Roll

Just got back from the GAMA Trade show, and the big news this year is… that there’s really no big news. Certainly nothing on par with the bombshells dropped by WotC and others on the state of the RPG industry last year. WotC told us that ’17 was the best year for D&D in its entire history and that ’18 was even better, but beyond that didn’t give us anything new in terms of details. We’ll be seeing more alternative covers. They appear to be sticking with the take-it-slow publishing strategy.

What about the influence of the OSR? Well, in addition to The Forbidden Lands (more on that very soon, but maybe not until next week), everybody’s gotta have a boxed set. Most of these are intro starter sets, but even these are getting beefier and beefier; the one coming for Cubicle 7’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying (itself very much a call-back to the original version of the Warhammer RPG) sports more than 100 pages of rules and campaign material, suitable for running as an entire campaign or using as a segue into their (very OSR) The Enemy Within “director’s cut.”

R. Talsorian is back. They’ve got The Witcher tabletop RPG and are working with CD Projekt Red on their new Cyberpunk 2077 (based on Mike Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk 2020) as well as the “Cyberpunk Red” tabletop RPG which Pondsmith is crafting to bridge the timeline between the two.

Production values continue to inch upwards. Cubicle 7’s new boxed sets promise lots of neat handouts. We’re seeing the design decisions of the OSR/DIY bunch leaking into the mainstream, things like maps on the endpapers. They haven’t quite embraced the focus on ease-of-use-at-the-table, but they’re sliding that direction.

And we’re seeing a lot more openness in mechanics. I think that’s coming from a strong interest in making the games textured but simple. By “textured” I mean delivering more than just a core mechanic, an equipment list, a spell list, and a bestiary. Mechanics that serve to deliver an experience or tactical flexibility at the table. Things like rolling for depletion of consumables in The Forbidden Lands or Pathfinder 2.0’s new action economy and how it interacts with the spells. (For those not keeping up with it, you get three actions every round. Many spells now come in three flavors: a one-action version, a two-actions version, and a three-actions version. So you get to decide when you cast a healing spell if you want to heal yourself with the single-action version, someone you can touch with the two-action version, or send out a wave of healing energy to everyone in 10’ with the three-action version.)

We’re seeing a lot more variability on ICv2’s list of top five best-selling RPGs. (The Autumn 2018 list replaces Pathfinder with Lot5R. Yes, I’m serious.) They say that RPGs are selling well. Renegade Games, a relative newcomer to the RPG scene, sold through their original printing of Overlight, a very high-concept RPG.

So no big news, just lots and lots of good news. Our hobby appears to be doing quite well. There appears to be lots of room for big and flashy projects like Invisible Sun and little experimental things like Mothership. The Golden Age is rolling along apace. Make the most of it!

Monday, February 25, 2019

Rolling Dice is NOT Playing the Game

I'm going through a review of a sci-fi RPG and the reviewer alluded to something I see a LOT in Space Opera RPGs. (I'm not going to mention the name of the game here because first, the way the reviewer mentioned this implies but does not state outright that this game is guilty of this sin; and second, I don't know this reviewer so I'm not sure how much I can trust there statements yet.)

The problem is starship combat. Designers want everyone to have something to do during the starship fight, so they try fall back on Star Trek bridge stations and try to come up with something everyone can do every round. What usually results is something extremely uneven.

If you're using minis and some sort of hex grid or the like, usually the most avid wargamers will pick the ship's course and speed. Then everyone rolls dice to see if their character's station succeeded that round.

If there's no grid and you're playing theater-of-the-mind, the course of action is usually pretty obvious: flee, chase, whatever. The group might decide together at the beginning of the encounter what they want to do, and they might revisit that choice as the situation changes, but generally that's the last important decision made. After that, everyone rolls dice to see if their station performs a function that contributes to the goal.

Here's the problem: ROLLING DICE IS NOT PLAYING THE GAME!!!

I suppose rolling a die to see if you can squeeze extra speed out of the engines or get a better targeting lock or put a torpedo up someone's tailpipe is better than nothing, but lets not fool ourselves into thinking that this is fun. If the player isn't making an interesting choice, they're not engaged with the game. If the choice of group goal dictates their action for every round until the goal is achieved or changed, all the player does is roll the dice and note the (usually marginal) adjustment this causes to the situation. You don't even get much of a gambling thrill since the stakes are watered down by being spread across four to six stations.

I realize that the starship duel presents a serious challenge to RPG designers. You want this to be an epic moment, you want everyone involved and sitting on the edge of their seats. But you've got to actively engage the players if you want that to be the case. You have to stop falling back on Star Trek as your model. If the gunner's only interesting choice is between "shoot" and "don't shoot," what the hell kind of choice is that? Make it interesting, or it's dictated by circumstances. Give your GMs help crafting interesting starship duels that require players to do something more interesting than just roll dice, that allow the players to be clever, that invite them to use their skills and tools in creative ways.

And don't give me another cockamamy attempt to make the communication station important and "exciting" in combat.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

And the (Spam) Hits Keep on Hittin'

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Monday, February 18, 2019

Are You Tired of Being Human and Good Posture?

Pruning spam from the comments is damn near a daily thing. It's not unusual to wake and find some ad for Australian limos or alternative utility companies speckled through my posts.

On occasion, however, I get a real doozy. This one combines poor English skills with an insane, whack-a-doodle premise to rise above the rest:


Are you tired of being human, having talented brain turning to a vampire in a good posture in ten minutes, Do you want to have power and influence over others, To be charming and desirable, To have wealth, health, without delaying in a good human posture and becoming an immortal? If yes, these your chance. It's a world of vampire where life get easier,We have made so many persons vampires and have turned them rich, You will assured long life and prosperity, You shall be made to be very sensitive to mental alertness, Stronger and also very fast, You will not be restricted to walking at night only even at the very middle of broad day light you will be made to walk, This is an opportunity to have the human vampire virus to perform in a good posture.

I will admit, I am intrigued by the idea of posture as integral to being a vampire.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Daniel Horne Looking to Return to Fantasy Art

And he's started a gofundme towards that end:

Although I feel that my skills as a classically trained and apprenticed Brandywine School artist are sharper than they have ever been, I've found that there is little engagement among art directors to work with me and thus the ability to inspire fantasy enthusiasts has become nearly impossible. It is my hope that with the support of the fans of fantasy art that I've built up over the past four decades, I can have the opportunity to paint a piece, or even pieces, of art that might reopen doors to various publishing houses. But as I live paycheck to paycheck, like most artists, having the time and piece of mind to take on an inspirational cover isn't something I'm allowed.

This isn't a Patreon or anything like that, nor is it kickstarter with a specific product at the far end; it does appear, however, to be an excellent opportunity to say "Thank you!" to a great of the you-are-there school of fantasy art and hopefully get him back in that game.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Patrick Reviews the Memoirs of Usama Ibn-Munqidh

In days just recently gone by, I would have posted this to G+. Not quite sure what to do with this now, so it goes here.

This sounds like an utterly fascinating read:

The cultural situation is equally incoherent. It is a time of cosmopolitan prejudice and cultural-exchange murder-fests. If you picked out one half of these stories you could have a nice low-rent twitter link about how the period of the Crusades was a time of "wonderful diversity and cultural growth", which is true, so far as it goes. If you picked out the other half you could have a nice alt-right article about how Muslims and Christians are destined to endlessly muerderise each other. But all of these things are happening at once, all the time.

To me the randomness is baffling, strange and frightening. It feels very realistic and it makes it seem to me as if the world is a stupid place...

This is simply a great book for anyone who wants to spend an few days with a crazy Islamic grandad. I would strongly recommend it.

The past is a foreign country, and the Middle Ages is, quite frankly, an alien world at times, even if you're reading about the western parts of it our culture descended from. A deep, day-in-the-life sort of read like this can only boggle the modern mind, but it's a fascinating boggling all the same.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Encouraging Exploration

I somehow managed to poison myself with food. I feel like crap but you win because now I've got nothing better to do than make posts on my blog. Yay!

This question came from Facebook:
DMs: how do you inspire exploration in your games?

Again, a question that wouldn't even occur to me since D&D has always been about exploration when I played. This is the principle reason why 4e fell flat with me. But if you only started playing after 2000 (or, heck, possibly even after DUNGEON magazine started to become a bunch of stories the PCs were lead through by the hand, somewhere in the mid '90s) this might not be an obvious thing for you. So here are my suggestions for making exploration a central pillar of the game:


  1. Mysteries: I give the PCs incomplete information, teases, or just straight up have an NPC tell them, "This is the way it is, and it doesn't make sense." Mysteries are an invitation to look for clues, and if they're compelling enough, become more important than levelling up.
  2. Meaningful Options: it's not enough to just "Jaquay the dungeon". When you give players a choice, whether it's left or right, vanilla or chocolate, Zhent or Harper, make it immediately meaningful. By that I mean, in the passage to the left, you can feel a hint of a fresh breeze while the passage t the right has marks in the slime and dust of the floor that show something heavy was dragged that way recently. That gives you a mystery *and* a meaningful choice right there together.
  3. Context: I'm very, very generous when giving information. Even when the players botch the knowledge skill rolls, I tell them something useful. To make decisions, players need information to base their decisions on, to gnaw on and argue about. There are almost always NPCs available that they can ask questions of.
  4. Rewards: by the numbers, they might not be able to slay the rakshasa grand vizier, but if they know his weakness for smoked salmon, they might be able to bribe or distract him long enough to accomplish their goals. Getting an audience with the king is impossible, until you know his daughter has a collection of knives by one particular school of dwarven smiths. There's no way they can get to the Golden Mask of Zom by going across the volcano's open mouth, but if they explore some they'll find a way around, or a wounded aracokra who might fetch it for them once healed.
  5. EXP: yeah, you can do this too. The earliest versions of D&D did this, for instance. It will mean contemplating what the PCs are going to do with the massive treasures they acquire (especially if you go with 1 gp = 1 EXP system but keep the EXP numbers as they are in the books). Traditional solutions include building and staffing strongholds, and carousing tables.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Recognizing the Best of the Best

Hanging out on Quora has been an interesting experience. I generally assume that most of you readers here are experienced RPGers with more than a few campaigns under your belt. I’m not entirely sure why I assume that; many of my players these days are brand new to D&D, and that doesn’t appear to be an unusual thing. Over on Quora, I see a lot of topics asked about that it would never occur to me to write about. Like a recent one asking, “What does a mature tabletop players character look like?”

Of course, the answer is: the character looks like exactly what the campaign needs.

Playing an old-school game where life is cheap, survival is difficult, and death likely? The mature tabletop player’s character fits on a 3x5 index card, and there’s probably two or three in reserve.

Playing a storygame where the bulk of the action is supposed to be about the interactions of the PCs, including conflict, reconciliation, and relationship growth? The mature player’s PC is going to be built with ties to all the other PCs, or with a personality trait specifically chosen to create drama with at least one of the other PCs (and probably crafted with the help of those PCs’ players for ultimate buy-in and effectiveness).

Playing a game of 4th edition D&D where most of the action takes place on a battlemat? The mature player’s character has a specific role it’s designed to fill to help the PC team achieve victory. Most often, they’re going to be playing a support role that requires them to be in the thick of things, creating synergies that make the actions of the other PCs more effective.

If you’re playing a “standard” game of 5th edition D&D and you’re wondering who the mature, AAA player at the table is, here are some hints:


  1. They worked with the DM to create a character that is deeply tied to the setting from day one. They’ve got a background that invokes the setting; that is, they’re not just a scholar, they’re a scholar from Candlekeep, or they were a soldier during the Northern Troll Wars. There are specific names in their background that can be invoked during play to provide contacts for the PCs or hooks for the DM.
  2. They worked with the other players to create a character that will play off and with the other characters in fun ways. If you’re playing a dwarf who’s biased against orcs, they’re playing the half-orc paladin. If your character has the street urchin background, they’re playing the character who helped yours escape from the guard way back when, or possibly even got your character off the streets. If you’re playing the noble paladin who’s always first into the fray, they’re playing the scoundrel rogue with a heart of gold who is always talking like a self-interested jerk but just can’t bring themselves to abandon your character in a fight.
  3. They’re not afraid of their DM. They have a sweetheart in town, a younger sibling who’s always getting into trouble, and a pile of similar hooks the DM can use to create drama for their character.
  4. The DM isn’t afraid of them. The DM is happy to make the character a relative of some reigning noble, the (apparent) focus of a prophecy, or the grandchild of the ancient hero of legend. The DM considers letting them play that weird homebrew race or proposed subclass from Unearthed Arcana.
  5. They’re looking for ways to push the other characters into the limelight, or share the spotlight when it’s on them.


We’re all there to have and share fun. The mature player keeps that in mind and tries to be a force multiplier for that fun, so that everyone at the table has a great time. What makes RPGs so awesome is that they’re shared make-believe; getting the most from the shared part means actively engaging as many folks at the table as possible. And that’s what the best of the best do. I’ve been very blessed to play with many folks who deserve to be called the best of the best.

Monday, January 21, 2019

How I Include Magic Items in My Campaigns

This grew out of a Quora question on how "generous" DMs should be about handing out magic items. The answer, of course, depends on the sort of campaign you want. But I strongly err on the side of caution (or "tight-fisted stinginess" according to some of my players).

While I’m notorious for not giving away magical items, but the truth is, I give out lots of magic items. It’s just that most are one-use get-out-of-jail-maybe-not-so free things. Like a shield fashioned of rowan wood that can nullify a single spell of third level or lower, but shatters when it does so. That works well for me, but not for thee. So keeping in mind the needs of your own campaign and what brings the fun for you and yours, here are some suggestions about how to give out magic items:

What do you want the PCs to be able to do?

You might love werewolves and want to get lycanthropes into the campaign as quickly as possible. Or maybe you’ve got some great ideas for undersea adventures and don’t want the PCs too hampered with not being able to breath down there. Or maybe you think dragons are the bee’s knees but don’t want the PCs to flee in terror due to their fearsome aura. Maybe you want a jet-setting campaign that has the PCs chasing clues from one end of the world to another (cue the red-like map from Raiders of the Lost Ark). Or you want them to encounter lots of unique and alien cultures but don’t want their interactions bogged down by language barriers.

Magic items that remove hurdles that impede everyone getting to the fun are the first things you should think about giving out. Just make sure you’re not squashing someone’s character concept (a lie-detector when one of the players wants to play an Inquisitive), or short-circuiting what is the fun for you (like removing logistics as a concern when you really want a big, long-distance hex crawl).

Like unto this are…

What can’t the PCs do that might be important?

5e assumes the average group to be four players and a DM. Even with the game spreading around abilities like healing, that can mean that something gets left out. If the PCs are woefully lacking in stealth, or tanking, or healing, or intelligence-gathering, give them some magic to fill that gap.

Once you’ve got these bases covered, you may want to…

Take it slow.

It’s easier to give additional magical goodies than it is to take them away. So be stingy at first. If you’re not sure if you should give them a particular ability, make the item have limited uses (like a wand or potion).

Also, keep in mind that 5e is built around bounded accuracy. You can blow that up if you give away lots of things that improve AC. Avoid giving away magic items that raise ACs at all, and try to keep ACs below 24 if at all possible.

But if you’re going to do all that, you’ll probably also want to…

Make it cool!

If you give out fewer items, that means you can spend more time on the items you do give out. Give them names and histories. Who else used this item in the past, and what did they do with it? Are there those who particularly hate the item due to how it was used in the past, or who might feel it rightfully belongs to them? Will people recognize the item and admire the PCs for having it?
Does this item have cosmetic effects (cool lights or veiled in a bloody mist) that make it stand out? Are there side effects to calling upon its most potent powers? Does the item need special care or recharging?

Taking the time for even cosmetic changes can make the magic in your campaign unique. This is one of those areas where a little extra work will go a long way, especially as players realize that their treasured magic weapon isn't from a generic list in the DMG, but something special, made just for their campaign. You also have the players' undivided attention when you talk about treasure, so here's your best opportunity to include exposition you want remembered.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

How to Describe Your Setting

So yeah, I'm on a bit of a Conan kick. The game made it worse, it didn't start it. I've been re-reading the Howard stuff and Conan really feels like REH at the top of his game.

In fiction writing, especially for short stories, much is made of the vital importance of the opening sentence. It has to ground the reader in the story, explain what sort of story it is, and, most importantly of all, hook the reader into reading the whole thing.

The very first sentence of the very first Conan story published is this:

Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.

How's that for an intro to a D&D campaign?

Ok, I cheated; that's two sentences. If you used them, you'd absolutely need to start the campaign in Aquilonia (as Howard sets his story there). The second sentence is the jewel riding atop the ring of the first. Your players will expect Aquilonia to figure importantly in the campaign early on with a set-up like that.

It tells the players that history will be important to this story; they'll expect at some point to come across the relics or even the ruins of "Atlantis and the gleaming cities." Likewise, they'll expect to plunder at least one spider-haunted tower of Zamora and a "shadow-guarded" tomb of Stygia.

The player who wants a paladin or knight already has an idea that Zingara might be a good homeland for their character. Likewise, the halflings and druids most likely come for Koth or Shem. For your own campaign setting, you'd probably want to touch on individual places that cater to specific fantasy archetypes, if not the character classes and races you'll be using.

You'll be sorely tempted to expand on things. The goal is a phrase for each kingdom, and the whole under 300 words. Howard only uses 104 here. Short, pithy, punchy, and hooky.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Conan: Exiles for cRPG of the Decade

So yeah, to my utter surprise, I’m finding Conan: Exiles to be the best computer RPG I’ve played since Ultima V. Granted, I should point out that I’ve not yet tried Divinity: Original Sin II, Planescape: Torment, or any of the Witcher games. The problem is, I’m not very likely to, either.

Oh, I may give them a shake, but I suspect I’ll have a similar experience to Dragon Age; the fights will get monotonous, the quests will shatter my suspension of disbelief, and the interactions will feel wooden and limited.

Not that interactions with NPCs are much to write home about in C:E; most just shout a battle cry and charge. But your interactions with the environment more than make up for the lack.

C:E isn’t officially an RPG; technically, it’s billed as a “survival game.” This is a new flavor of computer game where you’re dumped in a wilderness and must use the environment around you to survive. Being a Conan game, this means you start the game buck-naked and crucified. You’re rescued by the eponymous Cimmarian himself, and you start the game ripping apart bushes for plant material you’ll knot and weave into makeshift clothing before binding rocks to sticks to make tools and weapons.

The thing that makes C:E for me is the little details; kill a crocodile or a rabbit or a subhuman “imp” and it doesn’t drop a chest full of gold. Instead, you’ll get hide and bones and meat that you can turn into armour or arrows or a meal. Human foes might carry better stuff (though, alas, they rarely carry the weapons they’re wielding against you), but not always. And yes, you can totally butcher humans for meat as well.

Which is another thing I appreciate about this game. There’s no good-evil slider that moves because you picked the impolite conversation option. You can totally eat human flesh, or build an altar to Set and sacrifice human hearts to it, or club humans over the head and break their wills on the “wheel of pain” to turn them into your slaves. Or not, if you want to be all goody-two-shoes about it. You can instead build an altar to Mitra and craft healing ambrosia (though the manner in which that’s done doesn’t exactly promote being all peaceful and not-killy; Mitra is not a god for pacifists). Or go completely off the deep end and worship Yog to acquire greater strength from eating human flesh.

(Hard mode is, of course, worshipping Crom who gives you nothing but the opportunity to grow strong through adversity. He’s the honeybadger of C:E deities.)

There are stats you can improve, as you’d expect in a cRPG, but they’re not the usual D&D-esque basic physical and mental attributes. Instead they’re vague amalgamations of skill and attributes; the Strength stat encompasses both your muscles and your skill with melee weapons, while Survival is both your hardiness and your bushcraft.

But what really counts is your gear. You’ll start the game naked and alone in the desert, and “advance” largely by crafting better gear, building a hovel that you’ll likely expand into a castle staffed with numerous slaves, and wearing weapons and armour forged with secrets of the ancient races that ruled the world in previous epochs. And this feels incredibly organic to me. Here we have a game that’s not all about the magical ding that grants you more hit points. Instead, you get more powerful by expanding your influence and acquiring followers and crafting infrastructure like castles and forges and altars to the gods. You don't slaughter monsters and acquire insane (and largely useless) amounts of gold coins, but quarry stone and chop trees for lumber and build a smithy capable of forging supernatural elements into axes and breastplates.

Conan: Exiles is a game about exploring wilderness and ruins, uncovering lost ancient secrets, building a base (or multiple bases) of operations. There are fights, but they feel more organic as mostly it’s wilderness critters who are as happy to hunt other critters as they are you. And they’re not the end-all be-all of the game.

And finally, it feels like a Conan story. You’ll climb up a tree to escape a hungry crocodile. You’ll be stalking a rabbit or gathering wood when you’ll stumble across an enchanted monolith or ghostly apparition. You’ll fret over the state of your waterskin when you’re not gorging yourself on roasted meat. And when you do fight, you’ll hurl yourself amidst your foes, laying about you on all sides with your club or axe or sword, scattering blood and limbs all about. It’s a game that’s full of what feel like organic surprises, events that both fit with the game, the setting, and the source material. It feels like being inside a Conan story, and that’s about as high praise as I think I can give a game.