Saturday, June 15, 2024

Grimdark vs. Eucatastrophe

Noisms has some interesting ideas in this post about his desire for some depth to his grimdark, and turns to Gene Wolfe and Tolkien for relief.  Now, it can be argued that he’s watering down, even spoiling his grimdark by twisting the universe to actually be caring and not indifferent.  And that’s true, but it sounds like Noisms finds the nihilism of grimdark to be hollow, all shadow puppets without depth or impact.  And I totally get that.  I don’t think his preference for a greater truth that bends the universe towards benevolence if only someone dares to reach for it is the only way to solve the issue, but it is an interesting one.

He follows that up with an elevator pitch that’s rather like something he’s done before with a dark science-fantasy twist.  And then he lays three conditions, or design pillars, on the idea: 

The task is to provide maximum campaign flexibility and maximum player agency combined with an institution-based mode of advancement.

Now, straight up, I’m not sure how I see these design pillars necessarily intersecting with this theme, and I’m not entirely certain they do.  They might only be challenges Noisms thinks are interesting to tackle in RPG design.  I certainly think they are.  

I think the core of making this work is building towards one or more eucatastrophes over the course of a campaign.  The challenge is that they can’t be random; just as Bilbo and Frodo sparing Gollum's life results in the destruction of the Ring, so do the eucatastrophes in the game need to grow from the actions of the PCs and the choices of the players.  The benevolent universe only puts its finger on the scales when courage and virtue invite it.  

There are a number of ways you could do this.  You could give the players points when they do something that invites eucatastrophe that they get to spend for rerolls or power-ups, but that feels cheap to me.  You could use Progress Clocks a la Blades in the Dark; as the PC knights exhibit virtue in the face of a hostile world, the Progress Clock fills.  Once full, Providence takes a hand, and by “miraculous happenstance” our heroes get their fat pulled out of the fire or stumble across a clue or tool necessary for their success.  

To truly make this work, I think the GM would need to keep the Progress Clock (or Clocks, as you could have one for each PC or tied to different threats or different virtues; I myself favor different clocks for different virtues) so the players would have no idea if the clocks are full or not at any time.  Heck, the GM might not know; perhaps the GM rolls each time the progress clock gets a tick to see if it’s full or not, with the odds rising for each tick but never quite reaching 100%.  

This way, the players know that acting in accordance with virtue is beneficial, but they never know quite how beneficial.  And since a full Clock doesn’t necessarily “go off” as soon as it's full, they can never know if the risk they take for virtue’s sake is actually benefiting them, or if it’s “wasted” on an already full Clock.  Which only feels right to me.

I think this is ringing for me in some part because I’m reading Pendragon 6e’s Player’s book right now.  I’d be tempted to use the virtues from the old Ultima computer RPGs, especially since those come into conflict with one another in beautiful ways, challenging not only one’s commitment to the virtues as a whole, but to individual virtues in relation to the others.

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

The Light Dawns

THIS!!!  Yes, a thousand times, this!


Back in the day, I referred to this as “neo-classicalgaming,” which is to say, the sorts of games that came out of various deep dives into older games to see what was actually going on under the hood, rather than what everyone assumed was happening.  (The ‘90s were a terrible time where dumb “conventional wisdom” ruled conversations about RPGs, but much of the thinking from those days still lingers, especially in professional spaces.)


Anyway, point is, if the core of gaming is making interesting decisions, rolling the dice isn’t playing the game; it’s putting the game on pause while a random element is introduced to force the players into potentially rethinking their approach and how they value their various resources.  So the more a game has rules about a thing, the less it’s potentially about that thing. 


This creates weird mechanics that kinda sidle-up to their topic.  On the one hand, if you want the players to be making decisions and talking around the table about a particular subject, you can’t gloss it over with a dice roll.  On the other hand, what rules you do have should encourage conversation about the topic.  Mothership wants you to spend time on being stealthy, so it has rules that make combat very dangerous, and creating spaces where you’re going to be chased by critters that want to engage you in combat.  So the game’s mechanics encourage stealthy activity and conversations because the alternatives (touching the dice) are much worse from a mechanical standpoint.


Granted, these games require a LOT of trust all around the table; lack of skill and lack of trust can ruin a game like this.  Luckily, it only requires a modicum of social skills to be able to put together a good group and engage in this sort of gaming.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Corkboards & Curiosities: a New Angle on DMing

Here's a new YouTube channel that's absolutely worth your time.  There's some clever ideas in this video I will absolutely be implementing in my campaigns soon (especially the "what are you thinking" one).

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Fun Dice Tricks with Map Crow

Map Crow is a YouTube vlog that’s hit-and-miss with me; when it’s hot, it’s pretty hot, but when it’s not, it’s pretty meh.  FOR ME, I’ll hasten to point out; there’s a lot of stuff being discussed out there this old troll has seen many different times over the years, nuggets of wisdom rediscovered by new generations.  Reminds me that sometimes the topic I think has been done to death is, in truth, a brand new revelation for somebody, especially with so many new folks entering the hobby.


Anyway, Map Crow’s latest is on fun random encounter tables, and he does some really neat stuff using 2d6.  The sum of 2d6 gives you what the encounter is, while the red d6 tells you what the disposition of the encounter, while the blue d6 gives you their distance from the party.  Check it out; he does some fun things with the interaction between the bell-curve and the flat curves, making a the extremely rare roll of snake-eyes really, really ouch.


His division of his map is similar to what I did when talking about Hex Mapping, but combining the table, the disposition, and the distance all in one roll is very clever.  I’ll still probably default to my own What-Are-the-Monsters-Up-To table (I’m too much in love with how you can roll differently for intelligent and bestial encounters on the same table), but game must recognize game!

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Mad Mashup: One Roll Combat?

Ok, not a single roll to cover the entire fight.  But a single roll by each player to adjudicate not only the success or failure of their attack, but also how much damage they did to their foe and how much, if any, harm their foe did to them.

This should grant us a number of benefits:

  • It’s faster!  And when playing online (something I do a lot of lately), this is important.

  • If you roll high, you hit hard; no more rolling a 19 and then rolling a 1 on damage.

  • Often, both you and your opponent do damage to each other, which makes fights shorter.  

  • Something will happen every time, and we won’t go round after round where you miss, and your foe misses, and you miss again, and your foe misses again…

  • No rolling for the monster attacks.  Roll poorly, and the monsters will maul you!  Roll great and you’ll send your foe reeling.  This is great because:

    • It means a lot less rolling, so things move along a lot faster.

    • We don’t have to worry about initiative and fights can flow more dynamically.

    • Large solo monsters don’t get whaled on by lots of PCs, while only being able to target a single one in reply.  This makes big scary monsters big and scary, instead of dying in the first round to a massive alpha-strike from the PCs.

  • Things this doesn’t mean:

    • It doesn’t mean that monsters won’t attack if you don’t attack; they’ll still try to chew off your face if they can.

    • It doesn’t mean surprise doesn’t happen; if you get the jump on the baddies, you’ll get a full round to have your way without them getting to reply.

    • It doesn’t mean shooting someone with an arrow allows them to hit you with their claws from across the battlefield; ranged attacks will work a bit differently.

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Ron Cobb: Implied Storytelling in Concept Art

Ron Cobb is a name to conjure with in the art world, and his work as the  concept artist for the ‘82 Conan the Barbarian movie is well known to me.  At least, I thought it was! 

I came across the official Ron Cobb website and was blown away by the work he did on this movie.  There’s this chonkiness full of soft curves, hints of brutalism in the bones of it all, but softened by earthy silhouettes.  An almost welcoming chthonian quality.  

But what’s even cooler, to my mind, is the implications of a lost age, a more advanced before-time that’s best seen in the castle of King Osric.

I love the mix of heavy timber and almost delicate stone.  It gives the piece a lot of visual interest, but more than that, there’s this implication that the folks who built the timber part couldn’t do the stone part.  And that’s emphasized by this illustration of Zamora’s Gate, not used in the movie.

Or maybe this is just the implication that Osric is an usurper, that he conquered Zamora and hasn’t done a great job of putting it back together again?  Or both?  In any case, lovely work, and effective storytelling that makes the world of the movie feel grounded in a past through implication rather than exposition.  

Monday, February 05, 2024

Stellar Atlas of the Zauberreich: Verðandi, First of the Norn Stars


Verðandi is a G-type star, and among the earliest stars claimed by Humanity, most likely during the Second Diaspora.  Settlement on Verðandi’s worlds date back at least to the collapse of the Confederation of the Golden Gate and the rise of the Republic of Mars as the de facto leading world of Humanity.  It’s believed that Verðandi was the first of the Norn Stars to be colonized.  

Unlike the other Norn Stars, Verðandi held no Precursor artifacts or ruins.  Legend says that the Confederation had rules against settling on worlds with Precursor ruins, and that Verðandi had started as an outpost to supply those guarding the worlds orbiting Urðr and Skuld.  However, as the promise of the Confederation proved hollow and the alliances founded in its name collapsed, Human refugees settled on all of the habitable Norn worlds.  

Some of the most famous and heavily populated worlds in the Zauberreich orbit Verðandi, including Odin, Frig, and Thor.  

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Stellar Atlas of the Zauberreich: Praxis, Capital System (and World) of the Zauberreich

The capital city of Praxis contains a dozen palaces for the Hexenkönigin (one for each of the Twelve Houses of the Galactic Wheel), the bureaucracy of the Zauberreich, and the most prestigious university of sorcery within the Golden Gate Sector of the Orion Arm.

Praxis is the last of the manufactured worlds; after the destruction of the Sol System in the Dust Wars, Humanity fully embraced sorcery in an impassioned example of the “fight fire with fire” philosophy.  To a degree, it worked; those worlds who refused to join the Zauberreich or embrace sorcery as a means of defense were devoured by the Dust or crushed in the ancillary wars, but the newly-forged Zauberreich survived.  

Even before the Dust Wars were completed, the talisman world of Praxis was wrought upon a lonely brown dwarf.  By sorcery was the brown dwarf tamed, and, to a degree, humanized, but not in the manner of the worlds of the Satya Yuga.

Floating in the upper atmosphere of Praxis is the Comb, a lattice of hexagons fashioned from adamantium incised with orichalcum runes and then covered in gold.  Each segment of the lattice is 12 miles long.  Upon this giant lattice is built the capital city, by turns called Praxis, the Comb, or the Palace of Palaces.  

Looking at only the buildable sections of the Comb, the actual lattice segments themselves, there is roughly 12 million square miles of liveable surface area on the Comb.  The Comb houses something like 2.5 trillion people, giving it a population density of roughly 200 thousand people per square mile.  To say Comb is densely packed is an understatement.  Over 90% of that population is Humans, with a wide range of aliens making up the rest.  Roughly two-thirds of the Comb’s inhabitants are slaves.

The Comb is lit and powered by the hellish radiation of the decaying brown dwarf.  The streets are literally paved with gold because gold is a necessary ingredient in the magic that channels this radiation for the use of the citizens and protects those same citizens from the dangers and heat of the radiation. Attempting to remove the gold, so legends say, removes the protection of the Comb from the one damaging it, meaning they will immediately burst into flame and vaporize.  By that same sorcery, the light rising up through the massive holes in the comb (each over 300 square miles in area), waxes and wanes in a 24 hour cycle that is the Human preference.  Likewise, gravity on the Comb is 0.97 g.  

Sorcery is a matter of daily life on Praxis.  The locals think nothing of it, nor do they question the thousands who get their hearts ripped out and their souls sacrificed to demons every Human year to keep their strange city-continent floating above the throbbing maelstroms of the brown dwarf.  Praxis is the most civilized city in the Golden Gate Sector completely lacking in temples to Astarte.  

Art by Stable Diffusion and JB Murphy (using GIMP).

Monday, January 29, 2024


I’ve been too busy to keep up with the RPG blog-o-sphere lately (more on that later), so I missed this excellent article at Goblin Punch on negotiations between PCs and monsters/NPCs.  It makes a nice compliment to these two articles I’ve written on the subject:

Honey Cakes For Cerberus

More Honey Cakes for Cerberus

I’ve also got this handy-dandy random table for monster motivations that’s definitely in the top ten for things I’ve posted on this blog that I use most often. 

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Mad Mashup: Bard

 And back to my series of classes for my mad mashup of various sources, but based on a B/X core.  


Some artists can literally tap into the music the Primal Ones used to sing Creation into being.  They can express this through song or stories or music or dance.  In any case, it grants True Bards powers beyond the abilities of mere entertainers.


  • Bards roll their hit points with a d6.  

  • They save as Thieves.

  • They can use any weapons but longbows and wear any armour except plate.  They may not use shields.

  • Bards can only cast spells if they are at most Heavily Encumbered.

  • A Bard must have Dexterity of at least 9 and a Charisma of at least 13.  If a Bard has Dexterity of at least 13 and a Charisma of 16, the Bard enjoys a 10% bonus to all earned EXP.


  • Every even level, they add a spell of any level from the Bard list to their repertoire.  To successfully cast a spell, the Bard’s player rolls a d20.  They add their Level to the roll and subtract the level of the spell.  If the result is 11+, the spell goes off without a hitch.  If they roll from 6 to 10, the spell goes off, but there’s a backlash.  If they roll 5 or less, the spell doesn’t go off AND they suffer a backlash.

  • Every 5th level (5, 10, 15, etc.) the Bard adds another known Language.

  • When trolling for rumours, a bard will gain one more than usual.  

  • Bards enjoy a +1 bonus when rolling the reaction to an offer of employment to potential Retainers.  

  • During fights, a Bard can perform instead of fight.  While they do this, all their allies get +1 to all attack rolls, saving throws, and morale checks.

  • Bards can use the wands, staves, and wands that Wizards can use.

  • All who watch a Bard perform for at least one Turn (10 minutes) cannot help but be affected by their skills.  When the performance ends, the audience must make a save vs. Spells or have their mood and emotions shifted according to the desires of the Bard.  For every Turn past the first, the saving throws are lowered by -1 to a max of -4.  (See the Apsara for potential synergies.)

A fun class for players who want to risk “bad” magical fumbles.  The combat performance option is also an easy choice for players who don’t enjoy being on the spot or suffer from analysis paralysis.

Art by NC Wyeth and from the manuscript Rudolf von Ems, History of the World, created around 1300.

Saturday, January 06, 2024

Mad Mashup: Apsara

And back to my series of character classes for my mad mashup D&D game based on B/X but including rules from all over.  This time, a bit of Hindu myth that really, really harshes on what lots of folks consider a core element of the Old School vibe.


Apsara are the handmaidens of the gods, divine nymphs who serve the powers of Order and Chaos equally.  Thus they must be Neutral in alignment.  They are also all female with skin in various shades of blue.  Each is an expert artist, and most favour dance, music, and the erotic arts.  


  • Apsara use d6 for their hit points.

  • They cannot wear any armour or shields.  

  • They can use any weapon.

  • They can cast cleric spells, but only while at most Lightly Encumbered.

  • They save and fight as Clerics.

  • An Apsara must have a DEX and Charisma of at least 13.  If both are 16+, the Apsara gets a 10% bonus on all EXP earned.


  • Apsara can understand all spoken languages, and be understood when they speak.  They are, however, limited as normal in written languages.

  • They are also immortal.  They do not age and they cannot die.  Only the most potent of foes or weapons can leave scars on the mind or psyche of an Apsara.  They can, however, be knocked unconscious, charmed, etc.  

  • All who watch an Apsara dance for at least one Turn (10 minutes) cannot help but be affected by her grace.  When the dance ends, the audience must make a save vs. Spells or have their mood and emotions shifted according to the desires of the Apsara.  For every Turn past the first, the saving throws are lowered by -1 to a max of -4.  If they are being aided by a Bard or another Apsara, that penalty can go as low as -6.  

  • Apsara can use all magical items designed for Clerics, as well as all magical musical instruments.

  • 3rd Level: the Apsara can cast Charm once per day.

  • 5th Level: Foes must successfully pass a save vs. Paralysis in order to target the Apsara with attacks or harmful magic.  This does not apply if the Apsara is inside a wider area-of-effect attack (like poison cloud or a fireball spell).  

  • 6th Level: the Apsara can manifest a second pair of arms, allowing them to take a second action in a Round.

  • 7th level: the Apsara can cast Confusion once per day.

  • 9th level: the Apsara can cast Charm Monster once per day.

  • 10th level: the Apsara can manifest a third pair of arms, allowing them to take up to three actions per Round.  

A fairly straight-forward support and social class.  Fun for people who really like to wield "soft power" and make others look cool.