Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The DungeonPunk Counter-Manifesto

I know, I know, everything needs to be punk these days. But if you google "Dungeonpunk" and look at the pictures, it's more of a fashion statement, really. "You have to look like this or that to be punk!" always was a stupid statement to begin with. And even those stating something down the line of "Punk was the result of a music movement in the mid 70's..." are wrong. It was a state of mind expressed in a music movement in the mid 70's. That's a huge difference. The Mighty Google also provided this post over at tv tropes for further reading about Punk Punk. They are a bit post modern ironic about the whole thing.

So mainstream blurred the line and made punk socially presentable. There is a joke hidden in there somewhere, I'm sure of it.

To be clear about this, I'm not a punk, but I think words and definitions are important to establish some grounds for having a meaningful and conclusive dialogue. And I didn't feel especially ranty about the subject today, but then I saw this:
I found it here.
I'm sorry, but this is as much "punk" as kittens playing with a sock. I won't comment it any more. I'm sure they meant no harm. What I will do, though, is proposing an alternative. Something more in the spirit of what anything "punk" could really mean. A Counter-Manifesto.

A World of DungeonPunk

Live is cheap in the world of DungeonPunk. Corrupting humanity was easy enough, now the Monsters are in charge. Not that they changed that much, but they take what they want. And so should you, punk. The world lies in ruins and is yours to take. A club is cheap enough, take one and go for the dungeons. Killing is easy enough, you see that every day on the streets of the slums you call your home. Take your friends. Who else is going to cover your back? If the authorities are coming for you, let them feel your anger. If you're lucky, they'll fear you someday in the future. If you live that long. Now go and loot. Gold can buy you a new arm, a magical sword even or a shiny new armor, but finally it will buy you freedom. And always remember: a Cleric will stitch you together every time, but a Mage will make you better.

The DungeonPunk Counter-Manifesto
  1. If it's in a Dungeon and needs your help, it's a trap.
  2. Use the environment. That's what it's there for.
  3. Them fearing you is half the battle. You'd better look the part, punk.
  4. The Rules are your friend, as is the weapon of your choice. Never forget that.
  5. The Dungeon Master isn't your friend. And shouldn't be.
  6. If you can't beat it alone, cooperate with the pack. Nothing's changing? Flee.
  7. It's not called an adventure, it's called a sandbox. The sandbox is not your friend.
  8. Everything comes with a price. If the price is right, do it.
  9. Trust the thief to do his job. It will also mean he's stealing from you. If you are the thief, deny that.
  10. Trust the fighter to do his job. If you're the fighter: do your job!
  11. Be nice to the magic-user, he might get powerful (if he lives). If you're the magic-user, write down their names now, misdirect fire balls later.
  12. Believe! If you're the cleric: make them.
  13. Remember: demi-humans might not have a soul.
  14. Your life being cheap doesn't mean they shouldn't pay.
  15. And it's all right, if you can get away with it. 
  16. You owe no one.
  17. Use your brain.
If you have any more of those, please post them in the comments. I will make a pretty sheet with all the entries in the near future...

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Tales of Karek Thel 1 (Teaser)

Today I tried myself on a bit gimp-magic (plus scribus in the end) with the hope to produce something worthwhile or useful for the Karek Thel setting I'm working on. Here's what I came up with:

This could be a cover, right? ("art" is all by me and the gimp...)
I was quite happy with the result and started to ask myself how I'd use this cover (I know, it's an odd way to approach this). So I've decided to collect some of my ideas and house rules in a series of adventure/setting oriented Karek Thel modules. Don't know how long it will take me, but I'll try and get two of them out there this year (one to get going and one for Christmas).

Kobolds & Wasps will be the first one. It'll describe one of the kobold tribes living on Karek Thel and their territory. The cover is just a teaser, not a final version (I might experiment somewhat with the fonts and the content, but the background is pretty much finished...). More as soon as this idea gets further developed. The final product will be a free OSR product, Campaign Agnostic and under the cc.


Friday, July 26, 2013

Top 10 Troll Questions (from the Random Wizard)

Where have all the OSR bandwagons gone? Anyway, here is one by Random Wizard (as pointed out by Brendan over at Necropraxis). 10 questions about the game:

(1). Race (Elf, Dwarf, Halfling) as a class? Yes or no?

Race as class. If someone (including me) wants a bit more variation, we use this as a guideline. As a result we have more than the standard classes to choose from.

(2). Do demi-humans have souls?

Yes. And why shouldn't they? I want them ghosts and undead.

(3). Ascending or descending armor class?

Descending, RAW in the Rules Cyclopedia. I never understood the problem with it and really don't see the need to change it.

(4). Demi-human level limits?

Yes. I try to give players a reasoning for that. In general, I believe it's more important to understand a rule first and only change it if I see the need for a house rule. Level limits are not among those rules and even human classes might have them (we have a Noble as class, as soon as he reaches name level, he goes back to his family to rule and maybe marry someone).

(5). Should thief be a class?

Yes, but house ruled in this case. A specialist has definitely a place in our game. It's more of an all-rounder with an option for specialization and the ability to cast spells (progressing like a 1/4 M U, starting at level 4 with his first spells...). The players like it.

(6). Do characters get non-weapon skills?

Yes, as per the optional rules in the RC. There was a need to tweak some of the skills and the system, though. A bit like the 3rd Edition does, but using a [modified ability score + d20 vs. difficulty] instead and additional skills are only every 5 levels.

(7). Are magic-users more powerful than fighters (and, if yes, what level do they take the lead)?

I don't think so. Fighters might have an edge in the beginning (and even that is debatable), but later on they should be able to kill each other without much effort, given the right circumstances. The idea of Weapon Mastery actually supports this, because a fighter will be able to deal that much more damage on higher levels. But even without that I believe them to be rather equal.

(8). Do you use alignment languages?

No. Read a lot of interesting approaches to it, but it still doesn't click.

(9). XP for gold, or XP for objectives (thieves disarming traps, etc...)?

Yes. The players have to spend the gold to get xp for it (be it carousing or a career) and objectives are more or less handled like HackMaster suggested it (there is a Most Valuable Player, xp for mission goals and for good ideas, etc.).

(10). Which is the best edition; ODD, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, Rules Cyclopedia, 1E ADD, 2E ADD, 3E ADD, 4E ADD, Next ?

I couldn't say which one is the best, we all know it's a matter of taste. I stick to the Rules Cyclopedia, because it's the last incarnation of the original D&D and very complete at that. HackMaster is what I know about 2E ADD. I do like it, but it's too compartmentalized for my tastes. Did some 3E, but we didn't get along. All variations are ripe for looting, though. 

Bonus Question: Unified XP level tables or individual XP level tables for each class?

Individual tables. As I see it, individual tables give an indication of how difficult a class is to play, but not necessarily how fast they advance. Especially if you go with xp for objectives and "player skill", they are no longer evenly distributed and a skilled player will, even with a difficult class, advance fast.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Kazek Zel before the Fall (Part III b)

Last month I started developing the history of an island setting I'm working on. Got a bit distracted (disoriented?) along the way, mainly because I believed other things will be needed to give this some more depth. But it is time to get back to Kazek Zel and see what the humans did to the place. All this is meant for inspiration and I'll keep it somewhat vague for now, filling in the blanks with later posts.

Short Summary

Magic is strong on Kazek Zel -Island of the floating Trees. The Fey always lived here, channeling some of that magic, and huge Earth Elementals, covered in moss (some of them even big enough to have trees growing on them), roam the island. Another old entity on Kazek Zel is the Mushroom Wizard. He's, naturally, a weird fella. Nobody knows what he's up to.

A great Green Dragon, menace to the shore in the west, had his lair here once, but he got killed by the Mushroom Wizard (because mushrooms and lizards are at war...), leaving his treasure (and magic items) to his Kobold minions. They took what they could use and, with time, formed four large tribes that called Kazek Zel their home (one riding giant insects, one fey-blooded tribe, some pirates and those worshiping the Mushroom Wizard as their god).

The first humans settling on the island where the Uzked Barbarians. A fierce tribe with a sinister death cult. They call the area around the biggest lake on Kazek Zel their territory. An island of floating trees is their graveyard and holy site.

At some point more "civilized" humans took an interest in this hostile environment. Some heroes earned land here (a present from their emperor) and tried to tame the wilderness. All failed sooner or later, leaving the ruins of their castles behind. But the empire found another use for this indomitable land. Nobles were allowed to bury their dead here and, as a result, a lot of effort and gold was put into maintaining and protecting a small harbor, spreading well protected tombs all over Kazek Zel in the process.

[Further reading: Orientation, Part I, Part II, Part III a]

Escalation
I always wanted flying islands in my setting... (source)

The aftermath of The Big War gave the economy of Tristenheifn, as the harbor was called, a significant boost. Suddenly there was a huge demand for working crews venturing deep into the island, building tombs. It was also the time when the empire deemed it necessary to make a rather bold attempt to tame the magic on the island. Mighty imperial Wizards were gathered at the shores of Kazek Zel to perform a huge ritual and drain the land of it's magic. It took them months of research, but finally they succeeded. Sort of. All the huge Earth Elementals vanished from the island and the fey were weakened in the process. But something went wrong and they weren't able to focus the magic as they wanted too. Instead, 17 floating islands, from small to huge in size, appeared over Kazek Zel.

It was around that time when the Mushroom Wizard mysteriously disappeared, leaving only riddles behind.

War

It didn't take the citizens of Tristenheifn long to see the value in such real estate. Soon the rich and powerful started building palaces on those floating rocks above the now thriving city. Permanent portals delivered water (resulting in waterfalls) and Dwarven craftsmanship build most of the rest. It was an golden era.

(source)
For the fey, on the other hand, this meant war. An Elven army, the Eydonnian Lon (elven for "Blood Crows", a very fascist military group), took residence in the magic forests deep in the island and planned their bloody revenge. The first to suffer from this were the Uzked, guilty by association. They got nearly annihilated, but not without a fight. What survived of the tribe, had fled behind the safe stonewall of Tristenheifn, leaving most of their secret lore and their holy site behind. They live in the slums ever since, only dreaming of their former glory.

By the time the Eydonnian Lon attacked the city, the imperial soldiers and the mercenaries hired by rich folks were an even match for the Crows. The war went on for years until the elves one day, for at the time unknown reasons, just retreaded back into the forests. It was the beginning of the end...

The Apocalypse and all that

So there is a lot of ruins, some weird magic, floating islands, a sprawling city, angry Elves, strange Kobolds and a dragon's hoard somewhere on Kazek Zel. But still, my initial premise needs an apocalypse to isolate the island, Undead should be more of a problem and the city needs to be a lot bigger, with some strange customs to regulate the population. A time table could be useful an maps, of course, too. Some of the ideas I wrote about in the last few weeks will have a place here. For now it's far to warm to write more, so all this will be in future posts.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Rules Cyclopedia Oddities 1 (Damage to Magic Items)

Every now and then I take a random look into the Rules Cyclopedia. Sometimes I find one of those small rules that are part of the game and even good ideas, but not really in harmony with the rest. Here is one of them:

Damage to Magic Items (RC, p. 145)
"Any item may be damaged by rough treatment. Armor and weapons, however, are made to withstand a great amount of punishment. The DM should decide whether an item might be damaged, based on the item and the type of attack and then would make an item damage roll. 
Some breath weapons (acid, fire, cold) should require such checks. If the user makes his saving throw against the breath weapon, magical bonuses can be applied to the item's roll. 
Long falls (100' or more) should require checks. Pools of acid, rockslides, and other cases of extreme damage should require checks for items carried. A scroll normally need not be checked except against fire damage; you may also include water damage, if desired. 
To check for damage to items, roll 1d4 or 1d6 (using 1d6 if the chance of damage is high). If the result is greater than the item's Strength (number of "plusses"), the item is damaged
Items without plusses may be given ratings for this purpose. Consider:
  • any potion or scroll as a + 1 item;
  • any wand or staff as a + 2
  • and all permanent items (such as rods, rings and miscellaneous items) as +3.
This roll may be modified; for example, if a character is hit by a rockslide, Dexterity adjustments could be applied to the rolls. If a character tries to break something, Strength adjustments could be applied. No adjustment should be greater than +2. However, adjustments to the chance of survival can be any number of subtractions from the roll. A potion bottle dropped from a tabletop might require a check for breakage, but with a - 2 adjustment (thus, only a roll of 4 indicates breakage). 
If an item is damaged, it may either be partially damaged or completely destroyed. For items with magical bonuses, one or more points may be lost due to damage (DM's choice). Potions and scrolls should be completely destroyed by any severe damage."
Seems rather simple, but...

... to be honest, it sounds more like something ruled on the spot during play. It leaves a reader with more questions than answers. How are items affected, if damaged (not a sword or a shield, but the other permanent items)? Is it possible to repair that damage? Is it likely (Wizards being busy all the time and all that)? What would it cost?

It doesn't stop there, but instead has huge implications for the game. It makes magic items very fragile, just because it is convenient in the game. Suddenly erosion is a problem. What does time to a magic item? Say, a thousand years?Under the wrong circumstances, scrolls should be dust. Other items might be at least damaged (again with the question what that means) and most likely useless (if not outright dangerous...).

There is more. Reading the description of the eighths level spell Permanence, it's stated, that those items are easier to destroy than other enchanted magic items (and far easier produced, but that's for another post...). Really? A d8, maybe? Anyway, searching in the books section about enchanting magic items, there's nothing to be found about how to repair or destroy them.

Other than for the immediate effects in the game, this is a rather useless rule. And even then, further questions arise. What if the players, those sneaky basterds, nuked a high level NPC with some Fireballs and maybe a Lightning Bolt or two for good measure? Are all those items the NPC holds now (possibly) destroyed? A DM needs to check for everything, every time? Seems a bit fiddly, as soon as huge amounts of magic and damage are flying around.

Now I feel the urge to tackle the problem for my game and see what others did with it. As far as this rule goes? I just wouldn't use it. Item creation in the Rule Cyclopedia is a huge train wreck of unconnected rules and this is part of the problem.

Salvaging

I like the basic idea. 1d4 or 1d6 over the bonus of an item damages it. Ability modifiers and saves may apply, according to the situation. Very simple and fast, but not for magic items. I'd use it for mundane items, with the level of expertise (skill level of the craftsman, 1d10 (1-4 cheap 5-7 normal 8-9 expensive 10 exquisite)  for random determination of  the items level) as the threshold. Very fragile objects might even get a d8 or a d10.


See also the other parts of this series!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

One Hundred Posts and some Petty Gods Art!

With this one I have 100 posts under my belt and it's time to thank all of you! The OSR is a very pleasant neighborhood for a blogger. Writing and exchanging ideas with the lot of you has been a very nice experience. So a big "Thanks!" to all my followers, those of  you who come by regularly to check what I am up to, those taking the time to write a comment and all those nice bloggers tolerating me on their blogroll!

You're all awesome!

At first I wanted to bore you with a behind the scenes look and blogger stats. I got something better instead. For me it's kind of a big deal that someone took the time to draw a picture of my humble attempt to contribute to a great project. So, not because this is my 100th post, but because Greg of Gorgonmilk fame is such a nice guy, I'm allowed to present some art by Rom Brown for the forthcoming Petty Gods!

Feloren* - Astrayed Patron of the Lost, The Idol of Misdirection

Art by Rom Brown. I love it! That beard especially. Very well done!

I'm all kinds of happy with this one. Greg did an excellent job so far making the Petty Gods one of the biggest things happening in the OSR right now. Without a Kickstarter or some such, just by pure force of will, he managed to bundle the OSR hive mind and he's still putting a lot of hard work into this community project to make it happen. Very inspiring and seriously good stuff. I'm really looking forward to see the final result!


*A description of Feloren may be found here.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Spending Gold BIG TIME (The Career)

After writing this post about gold in a D&D game (mostly because of the comments...), reading this post about expeditions over at The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms and, maybe, because I also read this post about fast and slow megadungeon levels at Semper Initiativus Unum, I realized what I needed in my game to avoid an inflation of gold and treasure.

Doesn't matter how much gold they have...

I believe every class needs a goal to reach for name level, like adventurers need some sort of goal in an adventure. So from now on a player has to decide, either during character creation or before he starts burning gold for xp, what kind of career he has in mind for the character (The Settlement, The Expedition, The Business, The War, The Office). So here is the twist: upon deciding that, the gold exchanged for xp might be used for carousing (limited, partying hard has limits) or into the Career (that is making contacts, bribing official, investing for equipment, etc.; limited, doing so costs time). 

Five Careers (there could be more)

The Settlement - Or castle or thieving guild (those could arguably be more The Office...) or wizards tower, etc.. Just like the domain game in D&D intended it to happen at Name Level.

The Expedition - Aiming for a funded expedition into uncharted territory.

The Business - Financing some sort of major enterprise (a fleet of trading ships, whatever). Halflings especially go for this career (as per this reasoning).

The War - Working on getting a private army (or being leader of an official one) to wage a war!

The Office - Planning to become some sort of official, like a politician, a sheriff or the leader of a congregation.

Triggering Careers

There are two ways to trigger the effects of a career (expedition gets funded, land for the castle, etc.). Either it happens at Name Level or as soon as at least half of the xp needed to gain name level are invested in the career (which should be close enough anyway...).

Inheritance is possible, but only two thirds of the investments might be saved for a new character. The rest gets lost in the process. What is inherited, however, does not count for the new character's level, only for the career (which could lead to a very inexperienced character in a leading position... and I think that's a good thing, from a DM's point of view).

Changing a career is only is possible after the current career is either fulfilled (you could be an explorer and then a politician, go to war after that and, later, be a politician again) or if the money invested considered as lost (a character would have to start investing anew). Same goes for inherited investments. The next career will also need at least half the xp needed (in gold) to reach Name Level, before it gets triggered (yes, even for careers after name level is reached...). Bigger investments should trigger bigger careers (need to think more about that aspect*).

If an investment triggers the first career, reaching Name Level won't trigger a second career for "free". Reaching Name Level will only have an effect, if investment into it hasn't triggered it yet.

Just a rough sketch...

It still needs some more thought about some of the specifics, but I think a system like that could put at least some focus on the mid level game. And just with a little bookkeeping, at that. Plus, a career isn't coming cheap. If the characters have no money at all, the career starts at Name Level, if they have to much of it, they might as well burn it for that, too.

Playing a game like Rules Cyclopedia, with a scope of 36 levels (!), I believe it's important to give the players some strong indications how the game will change with the characters getting stronger. Traditionally, Name Level is one of those points in the game (it's a well known fact that it actually changes at levels 5 or 6, but anyway...). Careers give players not only indications, they let them choose what the mid level game (and later) is about. It gives perspective, a goal the characters are aiming for ("I want that island!" "I want to explore the wilderness in the north!" "I want to rule a city one day!" "...!"). For a DM it has all kinds of advantages (no need to regulate treasure, knows where a campaign (in general) might be headed, which should help DMing the game in terms of flavor, treasure, etc.).

I also believe, that a game like D&D should be able to be a war game, a domain game, about economics or power struggles on bigger scale than Player vs. Environment, at least later in the game.

What do you think?


*My thinking, to give an example: In a Domain Game (The Settlement Career), invested money is xp for the settlement, leading to growth (as indicated in my Settlement as Class post over here). It's a bigger picture every day, but sometimes dots get connected, too ;)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Review: Better Than Any Man (pdf)

Writing a review is a difficult beast and I didn't give it an earnest try yet. For one, if I dislike what I see, I wouldn't be inclined to make much noise about it. Mostly because it is about someone else's work and effort and if it (which is very much likely in the internet) found some praise elsewhere then information is around other than me being nasty about it. So I leave it at that. Another point would be that I (for a number of different reasons) don't buy that much rpg products. Anyway, without further ado, a review.

You can pay whatever you want for a pdf version of Better Than Any Man (by Lamentations of the Flame Princess) over here (yes, you have to be at least 18 to purchase it). This review will contain minor spoilers, but nothing the players wouldn't find out in the beginning of the first session.

First Impressions

I really wanted to have this for the Free RPG Day in June 2013, but none of the shops in the immediate area knew anything about it (or the OSR, for that matter), so I got nothing. With the pdf version available, I was happy to take a look at my first LotFP product. Here are my first impressions:

  • It's huge. The page count is now 180 pages, full text or in double columns. When opening the pdf, it is pointed out that Adobe should be used to read it, because of the features used in the pdf. I'd suggest to follow that advise, because...
  • It's highly functional. Beautiful to see what a pdf can do. And I don't only mean the hyperlinks (although those are doing exactly what they should), but the little gimmicks, like the ability to use all the Random Tables in the book just by clicking at them. Very nice.
  • The layout is spacious and, again, very functional. If possible, you have all the information you might need right where it belongs (the crucial parts of the big maps with the descriptions and all that). Hyperlinks and easy navigation do the rest. Not visually fancy, but who cares.
  • The interior art is not intruding, so to say. It's either where it's needed or it's easy enough skipped.
I was impressed. A way more professional presentation than I expected, to be honest. Hard to believe it was free to begin with. Really a nice surprise and it made me curious about the rest.

Now I had to read it

I wasn't surprised by the tone, or the author's voice, if you will. If you've read one of Raggi's posts in the past, you know what to expect. It's not as dominant as this might suggest, but it is definitely there. At first I thought this could get annoying, but he makes it work for several reasons. One is the setting.

The Setting

It plays during the Thirty Years War in Germany. The Swedes are marching for W├╝rzburg. Upon hearing rumors about witchcraft in Karlstadt, they split forces, aiming to solve the problem for good. It's a story-heavy sandbox and the players are in the middle of it. There is not much time for soldiers of fortune to capitalize from the situation before the Swedes level the area.

That's a very strong adventure location, even without the additional horror elements. And it really gets enough room in the book. So much so, that the horror elements have a hard time to come abreast with it. It doesn't want to be historically accurate, but what it does, it does right. The region awaiting a war is as you'd expect it, the Random Encounters emphasize it and even the names are believable (and that means for my German ears, I liked that little touch).

The adventure never tries to give too much information about the region, but Raggi manages it to give a lot of hints and small bits of flavor to breathe life into the setting and keep the players busy. The structure helped a great deal achieving that.

The Structure

Another surprise. I never read those things from cover to cover. I did with this one. For me, the flow of a text is as important as it's functionality (at least with rpg books). Mostly that means the difficult balancing act between taking the reader by the hand and leaving enough room for the reader's creativity to roam in the writer's fictional realm. Functionality is for in-game use, but the inner structure of a text should help a reader getting full understanding of what the author intended to do, while also giving him the room to develop his own ideas about the content. The better an author is in achieving this, the more his ideas will find a place in a readers interpretation of the material. In that regard, structure becomes crucial.

He begins by giving a general overview of the situation and what will happen, if no one intervenes. This is, by necessity, a historical approach. The Swedes are coming, the region is at war. Raggi's next step is not to go further into the setting, but giving a focused description of the main players in the setting: the 7 witches that gained control over Karlstadt. This is a good idea. As a reader (and DM), you get the situation, the opposition, a glimpse of the possibilities and the outcome, if nothing else happens.

Next up are Random Encounters, with bits of story and weird mixed in for good measure. Some are one-shots, some may reoccur. From a DM's point of view, that's perfect. If the first part got you thinking about what could happen to players if they are in this setting, it's exactly what you'd want to read about right now.

Going more into the region is the next logical step. Again, bits of story and weird to get a feeling for the setting and it's settlements, with Karlstadt getting the most attention at the end and enough room left for a spinning mind to add own ideas. The further you get in reading, the more detailed get the descriptions of the localities. At that point the reader already knows how the specific adventure locations are connected (more or less).

The question that intuitively follows, is, what they are exactly about. This is also where the weird gets more and more prominent, closing with an ancient evil totally disconnected from the historical context. I believe this is how it should be done, if a strong historical background is used. Start with the horrors of the mundane, give history enough time to take a seat and descent into the weird for those looking closer. Nicely done. The rest is for the game and the players to handle.

The Difficulty

It says in the blurb that it's designed for characters with the levels 1-4. My first thought: hell of an introduction for starting players. I remember at least one Save or DIE and several encounters that will result in a characters death and/or deformation. Most of them cruel and brutal (but inventive, maybe even entertaining, so that's something, right?). The settings main premise and the possible solutions are also very difficult to achieve (by inexperienced players). It needs a lot of skill.

There is, on the other hand, so much to discover, experience and achieve, that it's hard to believe there wouldn't be fun in trying. Seeing it like that, I think Better Than Any Man could lead to a number of very rewarding and entertaining game sessions.

Taste

I won't say much about the countless controversies of several LotFP products. I'm not that squeamish about sex and gore in general and for me it's more about how this stuff is presented. If you're writing something for a mature audience, it comes with some responsibilities. Labeling products right is one of those and it is done for this product. If you're old enough to get it, you should be old enough to read it.

Taste is a different matter altogether. Given the reputation of James Edward Raggi IV and his product line, I thought this could get ugly. Judging from what I've been given to read, I really don't get what all the noise is about. He is very careful and sensible about his content. Sure, there is cruelty, madness, cannibalism, body horror, blood and some coitus, but there's also always a way out. For the reader, he emphasizes at what point it gets ugly, be it the pictures or something that is happening. For a DM there are, as far as I remember, always at least some notions how to ignore it in the game (if possible). In the end it's for the DM to decide how far he'll (or can) go with the suggestions given and this is how it should be. So instead of force-feeding his audience with unwelcome imagery (the Thirty Years War alone would provide more than enough opportunities to do so), he is very mature about the whole thing. I can appreciate that.

Compatibility

It is highly compatible with D&D (except maybe 4th Edition) and Clones. Story and background are strong in this one, so with a little tweaking, you could use a great deal of it in any system suited for the historical background.

A few words about Spells, Magic Items and some such. I saw nothing I wouldn't use in one way or another in my regular game to give it a dark twist. The little rules about what insects could do to characters, gunpowder in a D&D game, all the Random Tables and even the small bit of story driven mischief that could happen to characters, are, as well, easily portable, if you're not using the LotFP set of rules. A lot of good ideas and I like his take on how the system could be used.

Bottom Line

Better Than Any Man (pdf) is a disarmingly well made and professional product. Very well structured and highly functional as a pdf, with a strong little sandbox, a lot of good ideas and a, in my opinion, proper and mature presentation of the horror themes it uses. It's all a DM could wish for and then some more for good measure.

Considering that you can pay for it whatever you want is just the icing on the cake. I've seen others demanding more for far less. It wasn't my intention to write such a glaring review, but I have to say, Raggi has won me over with this. I really enjoyed reading it and look forward to purchasing and reading other adventures by Lamentations of the Flame Princess. If the gods are willing, I might even DM it some time.

Even if I had minor quibbles with it (a few minor typos, a map I didn't like that much, whatever), the price tag alone would leave more than enough room for excuses than is needed here. So this is an unreserved recommendation.

 Of course this review only expresses my opinion, but I hope it was somewhat helpful.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hannibal (On the Essence of Evil)

A few words about Hannibal the tv show. I just adore it. Unbelievable that they managed to air a whole season of it, with another one following in 2014. For me, it redefines psychological horror. It's so rich in dark subtext, that even with nothing happening on the screen, the viewer gets a feeling of suspense and dread. Complex and intelligent, a rare treat.

Here is a quote from Bryan Fuller (found on wikipedia):
"'What would David Lynch do with a Hannibal Lecter character? What sort of strange, unexpected places would he take this world?' I'm a great admirer of his [Lynchs] work and his aesthetic and his meticulous sound design. Those were all components that I felt very strongly needed to be part of our Hannibal Lecter story. Between Lynch and Kubrick, there's a lot of inspiration."
David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick.. he's not just paying lip service here, I honestly believe they pulled it off (not necessarily at eye level, but close enough). Writing, sound and visuals are as good as money can buy and the actors are stellar. Way above what should be possible in a tv show (and maybe comparable with Game of Thrones in this regard).

Hopkins doesn't do it for me, really.

Mads Mikkelsen is a brilliant cast as Dr. Hannibal Lecter. I read somewhere that his thick accent makes him unbelievable and that's so far from the truth, it almost hurts. It benefits the role a great deal. As a viewer you're bound to know who Hannibal Lecter is. You know he is a cannibal and as evil and dangerous as they get. And Mads Mikkelsen is exactly that - for the viewer. But not for the cast. They take him serious and ask him for advice. They even act after it! It's that discrepancy that makes it work for me.

You have to wonder... (source)
The show is, to give an example, a lot about the fine art of cooking and there are quite a few scenes with the characters sitting at a table and Lecter serving something that looks delicious, explaining in detail what they are about to eat. And then they enjoy it, talking about other stuff. The viewer has to think "They're not eating chicken, fer crying out loud!". It get's me every time. It's almost like a running gag, but scary at that. One time at such an occasion Lecter states, rather nonchalant,  "I like to have friends over for dinner." and I couldn't help but thinking - yeah, right, nicely cooked with a good glass of vine.

The Essence of Evil

The script does a lot to help making him one of the most effective villains I've seen in a long time. It adds to Mikkelsen's calm and reserved presence. How he interacts with his surroundings and shapes events, with a few notches here and some misdirections there, is just delightful to behold. And evil. Nothing redeems this character, all his actions and motives are irrevocably distorted. Only the viewer is to understand that for a very long time and Lecter keeps being in control so long, it's unnerving. But in a good way (as far as tension goes).

With all the serial killers portrayed in the show, he is the most evil one. By a long shot. Which seems very difficult at times, because those are examples for some very creative writing and good acting (Spoiler! One was breeding mushrooms on his comatose but living victims... End of Spoilers!). But even they are for him just means to an end. If you ever asked yourself what the term evil could entail, Hannibal Lecter, as staged in this show, is the paradigm for it.
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What to use in The Game?

It might be pretty difficult to implement a character like Hannibal Lecter into a D&D game, but not impossible. One idea could be to use a city crawl with a heavy social context in a vanilla setting (civilized, the day to day horrors of a D&D setting merely rumors). Hannibal would be, to take a fantasy analogy, an alchemist of sorts and a pillar of the community. Wealthy and with status, but well liked by the people for his "good" advice. Not so much a spider in a web, but the core of an onion, so to say. Not a Big Player, but a great manipulator.

Famous for his great dinners and responsible for the declining minds of at least one wizard doing terrible experiments, one or two cannibals and a few nobles with horrible hobbies (to give but a few random thoughts). The social structure around him is his playing field, his manipulations nearly undetectable (the suicide of the brewery's owner drove his wife into madness, which in turn put enough pressure on the son to become a cruel drunkard, because he had the potential, but he had to be the new boss in the brewery and this led to a series of violent behavior from his unhappy workers, the weakest of those pushed hard enough to hurt their families, until one of them bashed his new bosses head in... always just a notch, coming clean all the time).

(As a side note: in the Settlement as Class idea I proposed two posts ago, he would deplete WIS. Catching him would refresh the ability score with time, making the town a better place to live in.)

It could also be a lich, totally content with perverting the unsuspecting humans living in villages and castles nearby. It's like Fuller said: what influence would such a character have on the world he lives in...

Have any of you ever had a serial killer as part of the D&D game?
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That's it, my love letter to the show. If you haven't had a chance to see this by now or were reluctant about giving it a try, I hope my unfiltered praise helped getting it on your radar. DMs of Lamentations of the Flame Princess or fans of David Lynchs work (or psychological horror in general) should have a lot of fun with it.

It's nothing for children, though. Very mature content, not for the faint of heart.

Fanboy: Out

Monday, July 8, 2013

Some thoughts on gold in D&D

The thing is, there is too much gold in D&D. When we started to use the Rules Cyclopedia for our game again, it soon became obvious that one group of adventurers is able to flood a towns economy up to a point were gold becomes rendered useless. There was just to much of it! How one is to solve that strongly depends on the setting you're playing in, I think. Here are some ideas about it.

Letting them kill a dragon could do this to a DM. It's just not fair.

Here is what happened and how I tried to deal with it

At first, we didn't give it much thought. I used the Random Treasure Tables provided by the Rules Cyclopedia. If it's in The Rules, they must have had a plan about stuff like that. Maybe it was partly my fault. Mortality is high in my games, but I had a few house rules in effect, that made it a bit less possible, so the characters survived most important encounters and had a chance to loot. It's how we saw the game: kill all the monsters and take their stuff. Like God Gygax had intended it to be.

First attempt: Make looting harder

Soon the characters had all the equipment they could need (and some more...) and too much gold to buy anything but a town. Admittedly, it was already to late. To make things worse, a Bag of Holding was part of the random loot once. So there is that. At first they got picky and later they just didn't care. I tried to counter react by making looting harder (with random encounters at least), letting them search for the lair (with the potential of another encounter) and all that. As I wrote above: not enough and too late. But I kept doing that in later games, because doing that from the start is still a good idea.

Carousing for the win!

I don't know if Jeff Rients was the first to have this idea, but his Carousing Mishap Table was the one that stuck with me. Let the characters party for xp and blow lots of gold in the process (in my opinion far superior to gold = xp). After I had the house rule in effect, where the damage a group dealt and received was the main source of xp, it was a very welcome addition. But the next problem followed in it's wake. It didn't take much time for the characters to flood the towns economy with gold. I mean, tens of thousands of gold pieces! The town didn't need that much money and  to make things worse, it grew suspicious of the characters having that much gold in the first place. Politicians wanted their share of it, decadence became a problem, envy and greed, too.

Again there was a need to change the game a bit. And not because that wouldn't have worked to solve the problem with the huge piles of gold, but it shifted the game from having a lucrative adventure location to harvest with an opportunity to blow money in the next town, to looking for the next big town (and they were scarce) and adventure from there (making the dungeon they were at the time a loose thread in the process).

A town in quarantine

The next shift in the campaign was locating the characters in a town under imperial quarantine. Gold was more or less useless here, the people had other problems (starvation and death, to name but two). The group had to improvise and trade to get what they need. Lifting the quarantine was paramount, the town was the adventure location (and a sandbox, at that). For a short time it was a good solution. The adventure was the main focus and equipment was important again. As a nice side effect, social interaction became important, too. It was a nice change of pace.

They would have been able to either lift the quarantine or destroy the town in the process. So sooner or later, I'd have had the same problems as before. This was just before I started to think about building an effective world engine and DMing the game as a sandbox. So again play shifted and only a few months ago we rebooted the campaign. New beginnings and all that. With a chance to do things right from the start, some concepts regarding gold in the game needed to be challenged.

Looting solutions

It's not a new problem and the OSR produced a lot of ideas about this. I know that. Chief among them is the idea to change the gold standard to silver. Well, chief among them is change. And that is not a bad thing, in doses. But what makes a good house rule? What not only changes the game to solve a problem, but changes the game for the better? What changes if they have 300.00 silver pieces instead of gold? Is it useful to make equipment more expensive or render it even more useless by giving it for free?

It is a matter of taste, of course. So here is what I'm about. We still use the Rules Cyclopedia. Level limit for humans is, as most of you are fully aware, 36 (with an option to go for immortality). It's the prime assumption and a big one, too. Even if the characters never reach that high, it is still part of the game and shapes the world. The game is also about civilizations fighting for survival* and that alone should be hard on a worlds economy. Of course there is a lot to loot in the ruins and that's just because of the scale and the the fact that it's in the aftermath of a huge cataclysm.

Morrowind and gold limits

But it also means, gold doesn't have the value it used to have in the days of yore. One way to solve this without recalculating the whole system would be to give shops limits, like Morrowind does. The ratio to do this could be something like, a level 1 merchant (using the system for indications) would have a gold limit of 500 gp, with at least a weak 1d3 weeks, if it's remote) time needed to get a new delivery of stuff (level 2 would be 1.000 gp, level 3 2.000, etc.). The settlement level I wrote about in my last post could give indications of number and level of merchants in any given town. NPC Reaction Tables would show if the merchant is ripping the players of or if he's giving them fair prices.

Regarding Magic items, I'd say those are special interest articles. A merchant (or the players) would need to find an interested party (for a fee, of course) and I as a DM should go the extra mile to see what people of note (politicians/criminals, high level magic users, etc.) would see an opportunity in characters getting too rich too fast.

I won't change equipment prices yet, but I did change the prices of armor (my reasoning may be found here). I believe it helped giving the armor characters wear a bit more attention. Being more expensive is just one aspect of making it more relevant in the game, I have to admit, but an important one.

Conclusions

There is a lot more to this. Bribes could be a more important part of the game. Big treasures always come with appendages or reprisals (Noircana and my last couple of posts go in that direction). If the characters have too much gold and don't know what to do with it, there's always someone in need of an army. They have a lot of magic items? Lot's of main players in the setting might want a piece of that action, not all of them willing to pay. The economic structure of a setting, at least in a sandbox, is always important and needs to be considered. And in the end it's vital that the changes to regulate that for a system are in-game changes, if possible without altering the main focus of going on adventure.


That's a lot of text again and I'm (a bit) sorry about that. But if some of you really took the time to read all that, I'd be interested in your opinions and experiences with gold in the game. What do you think is the best solution for this inflation? How did you solve it in your games?


*In striving civilizations adventurers would have a hard time going around, looting ruins. Every kingdom with the resources would have it's own crews of professionals doing that. I'd compare it with "hunting in the king's forest". Which leads to a whole new set of questions about how to structure a game. More bureaucracy, crime and taxes, so to say.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Settlement (New Class)

So what I wrote about end of last month is going somewhere. First of we need to establish a somewhat plausible frame for the growth of a settlement. The idea is to play a settlement (even the settlements of a whole region,  if you have the players for that) like a D&D character or, for a DM, to have some descent cornerstones to see how a settlement grows and reacts to it's environment within the D&D rules. It's aiming for a Domain-Game Subsystem and I'm using the Rules Cyclopedia to do the heavy lifting here.

Basics

Ability Scores: The idea is that the Ability Scores mirror the leadership of a city. As soon as a character, for instance, reaches Name Level and founds a settlement, his Ability scores build the foundation of that settlement. This also means that a change in leadership changes a settlement and that's by design, so to say. Weak settlements, in the early stages, could just die and leave ruins, but there is always room for change. It could be a plot point for a group of adventurers to change the leadership of a settlement for the better (with the new stats showing the difference in growth or defenses, etc.) or it could show how people leave town because of bad leadership (low CON, like, for instance, the king is sick and people get worried). Another big point could be that, with creating a settlement, the leadership is created with it (which could be useful for a DM). The effects of the Ability Scores are close to what one would expect from the game:

Strength - As usual, bonuses are used for damage and attacks. Fighting will be part of another post, but the post linked above gives some indications where this might lead*.

Dexterity - A bonus gives indications ho well a settlement is protected. Again, using AC gives on the one hand a concrete tool to see what influence player characters could have protecting a town (if they help building the defenses) and, on the other hand, is an easy to understand reference for a DM.

Constitution - Bonuses mean more hit points and that means more people.

Intelligence - I'll go with skills and the progression from the Rules Cyclopedia for this one. Should indicate the main trading goods and political influence. But there is room for some ideas from the Noircana brainstorm, like those spells by Porky. But more on that (and magic in general) in another post.

Wisdom - Indicates the settlements attitude towards the environment and strangers, maybe. Spirituality, maybe, too? It's a difficult one, but not necessarily important. so for now it would give a bonus to saves...

Charisma - An easy one. The number of possible retainers is the number of settlements depending on the main settlement. Always one status below the one of the main settlement, but never a Metropolis or higher. For a level 1 settlement it is the number of farms in it's territory (see below for some ideas about the size of the territory). In addition, if a settlement has, say, 5 "retainers" and the are cities, those cities would have stats and also (smaller) retainers, etc.. So with building a Metropolis, a DM would get a whole region structured, too (down to farms, actually).

Hit Points: Starting with d6, this is upgraded to the next higher die (d8, d10, d12, d20, d100) every time the status of a settlement changes.** One hp means 1 d6 citizens.

Saves and Combat: The Class of a settlement's leadership indicates the list to save on, the Level of the settlement gives the number. For combat goes the same. Fights as Class, but with the settlements Level.

Territory: This is just for double checking. I wrote about it here. HD and environment indicate the size of the territory needed. Using the numbers I proposed in the post linked above (giving the status of a settlement as size indicator), a Level 30 Megalopolis (times 5 for size) would be (according to The Measurement of Things), with 11.025.000.000 square meters (or 11.025 square kilometers), just a little bit smaller than Sitka (the second entry in the list), the second biggest city in the US of A. Sounds about right (it wouldn't be the settlements size, but the territory it needs to cover to support it's citizens)?

The Settlement (New Class)

Level         XP     Status     # of d6 Citizens with 1 to 9 HD (or level)***
                                  1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9 ...
  1            0     Settlement   1
  2        2.000                  2
  3        4.000     Hamlet       2   1
  4        8.000                  2   2
  5       16.000                  2   2   1
  6       30.000     Village      2   2   2
  7       60.000                  3   2   2   1
  8      120.000                  3   3   2   2
  9      240.000     City         3   3   3   2   1
 10      360.000                  3   3   3   3   2
 11      480.000                  4   3   3   3   2   1
 12      600.000                  4   4   4   3   2   1
 13      720.000                  4   4   4   3   2   2
 14      840.000                  4   4   4   4   3   2
 15      960.000                  5   4   4   4   3   2   1
 16    1.080.000                  5   5   5   4   3   2   2
 17    1.200.000                  6   5   5   4   4   3   2
 18    1.320.000                  6   5   5   4   4   3   2   1
 19    1.440.000                  6   5   5   5   4   3   2   2
 20    1.560.000     Metropolis   6   5   5   5   4   4   3   2
 21    1.680.000                  6   5   5   5   4   4   3   2   1 ...
 22    1.800.000                  6   6   5   5   5   4   3   2   2 ...
 23    1.920.000                  6   6   6   6   5   4   3   3   2 ...
 24    2.040.000                  7   7   6   6   5   5   4   3   2 ...
 25    2.160.000                  7   7   6   6   5   5   4   4   3 ...
 26    2.280.000                  7   7   7   6   6   5   5   4   3 ...
 27    2.400.000                  7   7   7   6   6   5   5   5   4 ...
 28    2.520.000                  8   8   7   6   6   6   6   5   4 ...
 29    2.640.000                  8   8   7   7   7   6   6   5   5 ...
 30    2.760.000     Megalopolis  8   8   8   7   7   7   6   6   5 ...
 31    2.880.000                  8   8   8   7   7   7   7   6   6 ...
 32    3.000.000                  9   8   8   8   8   7   7   7   6 ...
 33    3.120.000                  9   9   9   8   8   8   7   7   7 ...
 34    3.240.000                  9   9   9   9   8   8   8   8   7 ...
 35    3.360.000                 10   9   9   9   9   9   8   8   8 ...
 36    3.480.000                 10   10  9   9   9   9   9   9   9 ...

This is the Class, next up is Combat and Harvesting...

I believe the numbers came out right enough and there is already the possibility to make this work as a domain game. All it needs is to see the environment as the enemy and the ways to gather xp and this might be good to go.

As it is, one might already conclude how to measure a tribe of Goblins against this and how they could fight. Again, some ideas about that would be in the post linked to at the beginning. More on that in one of my next posts.


*To give but a short glimpse: HD gives the damage and, a bit like Weapon Mastery, a settlement gets another damage die every 3 Levels (so a Megalopolis could deal 10 d100 damage to its environment or enemies).
**So a Level 36 Settlement (a Megalopolis) would have 10 d100 citizens with 1 HD, 10 d100 citizens with 2 HD, etc. (all multiplied with d6 afterwards).
***This means people of note, living in the settlement. Everyone else has 1 HD-2. It doesn't mean those in charge. An adventurer founding a settlement won't be around every time (going on adventures and all that), same goes for a noble (or the noble doesn't care, either way, same difference).