Friday, September 25, 2015

300th post and the end of things as they are (with an unfinished map ...)

This is my 300th post ... Maybe it isn't that much for nearly four years of blogging, but I never thought I'd get as far as I did. I'm willing to debate quality, though :-) Anyway, this is not only my 300th post, it's also the last post I'm writing here, as we have our last boxes packed and are about to move to another city on Saturday. 450 kilometers away from where I live right now. It's a big thing for me and a new start in many ways. If it changes anything for my blogging, it'll be that I (still) aim to focus on finishing what I started (the politician in me wants me to write "what I started this year" ... the lazy bastard). So this is a little outlook of what's happening here at the Disoriented Ranger:
  • It's most likely that for the next few weeks the blog will go dark because that's how long it'll take to get Internet at the new place, so nothing will happen (yeah, sorry, that's me trying to be funny again ...).
  • Lost Songs of the Nibelungs will get some more love in the near future. Level advancement is done and tested, combat and core rules are streamlined, there's much to talk about.
  • BASTARD! should be done this year (I have a plan ...). The testing we could do for now makes me confident that it'll be a short and easy system, but I aim to produce results before writing more about it (what I can say right now is that combat works better than it should and players are hesitant to owe dice). Here is a sneak peek of a little adventure location I'm working on for the game (it's the ruins of a mansion, ground floor is in the middle):

  • The Goblintribe Simulator is the next thing after finishing BASTARD!, maybe even this year (and before Lost Songs).
  • I'll make a cleaner version of the Bare-Knuckle Fighter and Pub Brawl mini dice-games (they work and people actually playing them had, as rumors go, a good time).
  • Reading the Nibelunglied will go on soon.
  • More of the usual. I think I should post more often, maybe some reviews of books, tv shows and rpg material or something. There's so much good stuff out there ...
But now I have to get back to packing and organizing stuff before we hit the road tomorrow. I hope I'll be able to post something the next 2 to 3 weeks, but don't hold your breath. It'll give me time to prepare some of the things above behind the scenes.

So, thank you for reading and see you on the other side!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Narrative Distinction and the DM in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs Part 1 (without a chicken)

Here we are with the first part of a series of posts about using the power of suggestion in our games with Lost Songs of the Nibelungs as the main example (since it's something I have on my mind a lot for some reason or another). This series is a strange beast, as I try to pin it down for several weeks now, but instead of getting done with it I keep expanding and changing parts. So this is three times more of what I originally intended to post today. I hope it's worthwhile ...

If you're here for the first time or haven't read the introduction for some other reason, you may want to start here. To read on you might want to go here and the last installment can be found here.

Live is harsh in 550 AD

We're talking the darkest Dark Ages here. I've had my stab at this a few times by now (it's a huge topic), but I'll try and summarize what fascinates me so much about that era. The first thing is what we don't know, which is a lot. It had been the end of a great migration period. The Romans were already history, but still had a great presence in the lands they had occupied before. Their ruins were all over the place, but some of it must still have been in working order.

Latin was the lingua franca (would be for some time, actually) and a sign of education, but the main result of the great migration must have been a huge melting pot of different cultures with all kinds of dialects, religions and customs. This had been a really bloody mess before some started to unify it all and I try to imagine what it had been like for those first settlers or the generation thereafter. Life must have been pretty harsh. They had to build most of it from scratch, form new alliances with their new neighbors (or fight them) and discover their surroundings all over again ...

All of this is mostly undocumented and unknown (hence "The Dark Ages") and that's a great thing for a setting as almost everything is thinkable under such circumstances. You want cannibals? Just put them somewhere. There's a good chance something like this was around. You want a society of female warriors? Happened in Switzerland, so could have happened in other places, too. The options are almost limitless, even if you keep with what's possible in a "realistic" setting.

The second thing is the untamed and old wilderness vs. what was left of civilization. Because here's the thing: they hadn't been many to begin with, but after the great migration they'd been even less. To think about what Europe must have looked like at the time with it's ancient dark forests, with bears and elks, bison, wolves and wild horses.

Gloomy Forest by Larissa Koshkina [source]
Who knows what prehistoric horrors survived under such circumstances or how big and dangerous all those other predators could become? It must have been hard to face natural forces like this and as long as a DM keeps his focus on the harsh, untamed and unknown surroundings of the characters he really doesn't need the fantastic to keep it interesting.

Narrative Distinction is always Reduction first

As a DM you got a couple of clear themes here:
Estranged Germanic settlers of very diverse origins in an untamed and unknown wilderness, rebuilding civilization on the ruins of the Roman empire.
Stick to that and you'll produce a distinctive style at the table. And since it is about the narrative part of the game, this is all about using words to get there.

As I stated in the introduction, if you use a word often enough, people will start thinking about it at some point. The stronger the word, the faster it'll have an effect. "Strong" words are those that either produce some sort of thrill or those that make people uneasy (could be the same, could be very different from person to person ...). But strong words shouldn't (in Lost Songs anyway) carry the atmosphere. They may carry a story within that setting, but nothing more and always in conjunction with other, weaker words that help a DM evoking his setting at the table (incidentally that's another aspect of narrative distinction, so I'll come back to this in a later part of the post).

Let's give some examples to illustrate my line of thinking here. The sentence above is saying it all. Going from there gives a DM a huge list of words he could (and should) use over and over again for as long as the characters are interacting with the "real world" (in contrast to being in the Realms of Fairy or when confronting The Darkness That Is, but more on that later).

So the first part of that sentence is about "groups of people trying to get along" ...

You see what I did there? I described it wrong, because if you describe it that way, people will associate it with sitcoms from the Nineties or some such thing. It sets the wrong mood. This is, admittedly, very basic stuff, but I believe it's essential to get it right from the very beginning. For a DM there is normal banter and setting the mood. People should be aware of that difference.

Okay, I'll try again: So the first part of the sentence is about "the very beginning of medieval society, the founders of the royal bloodlines carved out of Roman ruins by those left behind with a sword and the words of old and young gods" ...

Well, I tried. But at least it shows the right direction. Key is to use as much as possible vocabulary associated with the period. Latin should be strong here. Say Magus instead of sorcerer or Gladius instead of short sword. Use the proper vocabulary whenever possible when you describe things. Make lists of words describing Roman buildings and describe their ruins as part of the scenery. Roman roads, for instance, especially those used by the military, had been solid stone or accompanied by walls (the Limes, for instance) and watch towers.

Sorry about the quality, I made that picture on a hiking tour along parts of the Limes. Still, I think it shows all you need to know about Roman watch towers and what a ruin might look like or how people could re-purpose them ...
You might even use the right declinations if you know your Latin, but I don't think it's that necessary (unless you have someone at the table who is able to do so, but then you should make it a thing to ask that person for the right declination before trying yourself, because it's a good way to keep the topic at the table).

Mix that with Germanic words or Old English and find out how different cultures had been described back then. What was known, what was unknown, how old did people get, what diseases had been common, stuff like that. Use those words and make those distinctions and the game will start to feel like it is set in those times, even if the players don't do it.

Narrative Distinction describes the known world

This one runs long again ... But I already see the finishing line. The known world exists in layers around the characters. The further out the layers, the more obscure the knowledge the characters may have about it. Obscure may indicate either The Darkness or The Weird and nothing of it needs to be true.

As a matter of fact, the characters are the first generation to properly explore their surroundings in Lost Songs. So they may know nothing or only lies and half truths about what's going on. That's the beauty of it and an opportunity. Because it supports that other notion in the sentence above: the unknown and untamed wilderness. That's where you look at when exploring your surroundings, you use landmarks.

That's why I decided to make a clans territory with a random generator. It's not so much important where that clan settles on the European map, it's important that those settlers had no clue where exactly they were and a random map has exactly that effect on the players. Another benefit would be that the DM, in generating that map, has a chance to get real familiar with it (which is very crucial in a sandbox approach like this).

Check out this post describing my first result and you'll see, it's all there: Lots of forests, mountains, lakes and streams (could be somewhere in the Alps). Other clans, friendly or not. A Roman community nearby. Some fairies and some evil at the fringes of the map. Just by exploring that, a group could be busy for several months. You'll also find that Nature is extremely diverse in the results: Swamps, plains, inactive vulcanos and underground rivers. High mountains, dark forests, lots of it unexplored and with natural borders ...

The Sierra Nevada, painted by Albert Bierstadt [source]
A DM, just by thinking about how settlers would use this territory and how the weather works there, will see where old roads might be, where settlements most likely develop (in this case at a lake, across a big Roman city), where trade is possible, where people don't like to travel and when they travel. The example linked above being a mountainous region would mean short summers and days, harsh winters, weather will cling here more often, lots of snow, often foggy, stuff like that. It's all there for a DM to use!

So if you use the weird ...

Use it as opinions and superstitions. Have realistic explanations for most of those superstitions: natural phenomena, rumors, wrong impressions of cultural rituals. Stuff like that. Imagine a world where people try to explain things without having the right vocabulary for most of the things they encounter and how often they need to invent things or rely on knowledge they already got ("Must have been the gods that made the river bleed!" or some such thing). And always ground it in natural phenomena: keep it alive, make it count and make it harsh.

The strange is never something that is, but something someone else has seen or heard about. Always second hand, always unreliable. Let it seep in slowly. Make them believe, destroy their believe. Sure, it has magic and the characters may use it. But they might as well put no real meaning to it, since they know the gods are real and their rituals are supposed to work, of course. That's why they do them in the first place. That'd be like someone telling you your mobile is a magic item. Ridiculous.

And when the characters finally encounter some real magic, well, it will have an impact. It will have meaning and it will be scary and impressive and full of uncertainty. All the things you'd want to achieve in such an encounter and just because you restricted and relativized the vocabulary you used until doing otherwise would have the full impact.

Same goes for The Darkness, just with an evil twist or two. But all that will be discussed in the parts 2 and 3 ...

Closing words

I know, this is demanding a lot from a DM in this case. Some good knowledge about Roman language, culture and relics mixed with some Old English vocabulary and knowledge about Germanic customs, equipment and weaponry of the time and some ideas how weather and the seasons affect a regions flora and fauna ... I know, it is a lot. But I also know from experience that knowing that stuff will make a DM use it, too. And when he uses it (even only bits and pieces of it), the setting will come to live for the players.

Another important aspect in this is the game itself. Not only should a set of rules provide enough vocabulary and sources for a DM to get a good head start, the artwork, character sheets and, yes, even the terminology of a game should support the mood implied for the setting. If play testing is any indication, I can tell you right now that Lost Songs will accommodate those things quite well ("grim" and "unforgiving" had been words that players used (in a good way, I might add) to describe the game ... it'll be gritty, alright).

Next up we'll talk about magic and the weird, with even more examples. But a final question to the readers remains: how many of you go to that kind of length when presenting their game? I know that games like HarnMaster or Pendragon, for instance, heavily rely on concepts like this, but even D&D might benefit from some of it (at least I have seen it done across the blog-o-sphere). So how do you handle it?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Narrative Distinctions and the DM (Introduction and a chicken)

Sorry for the Lack of posts. Had a massive virus infection on my computer and was lucky enough to save it (with the help of a very good friend), but lost lots of time (and all my bookmarks ...). Anyway, here's a little something I had cooked up some time ago about how I use themes in my games. It also expands a bit on the Basic Random Terrain Generator I wrote about here and expand on here and here (which will build a "realistic" region from scratch with a flow of the land, weather, flora, fauna and add layers of fairy, evil, politics and history at the fringes for good measure).

What am I talking about?

True story: Got hold of a "hot chick"-poster once ...

Looked a bit like this ... [completely random source]
Thought it was funny to hang it on a wall in my kitchen. Took me about two weeks to develop a lust for some fried chicken and one more week to realize that the poster was the source of said urge (I also had that chicken ...). Thus, my friends, is the power of advertising. And it's something we should learn to use more consciously at the table, I think.

So how does a DM use the developing narrative in a game and still evoke the right atmosphere? By distinction.

This is a relatively simple tool, but I believe it to be very useful for every DM. Most will do this to some degree instinctively or because they play it by the book, but done deliberately it's a great way to manipulate the atmosphere at the table. Just like if you say "chicken" often enough at the table, people will start thinking about chickens sooner or later ...

Narrative Distinctions in Lost Songs

As a Narrative Distinction (= the contrasts a DM is encouraged to use when navigating the characters through a setting) I'm thinking about a trinity of intertwined realities for Lost Songs:
beautiful and magical 
gritty and realistic 
dark and evil
In this spectrum adventurers will move, constantly from one aspect to another. Those aspects will mix and blend, too, but usually you underline one pair of aspects before the others. The weird is the beautiful until it becomes mundane or is tainted by evil, the mundane can become magical or evil and evil can be mundane or with a magical source ...

As you see, the beautiful and the weird are not exclusively together, the weird could be evil, too (and so on). But this is about influencing the game solely on the narrative level. The realm of fairy is the personification of magic and the otherworldly. Connecting this with beauty has been a big thing in narratives since the first fairy tales.

Fairy tale art by Alix Berenzy
And if the characters are in that realm, the mundane and the evil should be alien concepts for those living there. Not unseen, but the exception. When they are in areas tainted by The Darkness, beauty and the mundane should be the exception and so forth.

But let's take a closer look at those pairs ...

... another time. This became a huge chicken text again and I thought I'd split it and share the love over the next few days. So in Part 1 I'll talk about untamed wilderness and the grim reality of things and you can keep on reading herehere and then here.

As always comments and observations are very welcome. Is this something the DMs among you use at the table? Something that you could push a bit more or leave alone entirely? I'd be interested in hearing ideas about this!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Make a BASTARD! RPG concept, perspectives and ideas ... Part 3 (of 5)

Here we are again, talking about the BASTARD! DungeonPunk D&D-hack I'm writing right now. Today it's about character creation. In Part 4 I'll talk about character advancement, static dice versus the environment and I'll introduce my ideas for (what I call now) a DungeonHeist-Interface (which is, as of yet, the rawest part of the game). Part 5 will conclude this series with examples and DM Tools. Thought I'd manage all of this in 4 posts, but those things tend to grow ...

Also worth checking out: The DungeonPunk Initiative, Part 1 and Part 2 and an Intermission (presenting a character sheet)

And the skies were burning for weeks ... [source]
Me again with the etymology (but only a little bit ...)

Some of you might remember this. It's a thing, I believe. Every time I post something like this post, people start telling me that you just can't change the names of things.

Well, I did anyway and it had been lots of fun finding new names for the same old D&D terminology. I honestly like some of those alternatives more than the original. So I don't know about calling the DM "Skipper" from now on, but calling adventurers "grinders" (because they "grind" dungeons for loot) has some appeal (to me at least). Don't know about "Calling" instead of class (well, I really like it, but I recently saw this used in another game and I don't think it's appropriate ...), but I could settle with Dodge, like:

"Ey, what's your dodge, grinder?"

See? BASTARD! describes people lost in a vast and brutal industrialization, just like those of the 18th/19th century but with evil magic as the main force of change instead of technology ... The whole DungeonPunk idea is also about subculture and subcultures have their own vocabulary. So what I'm doing here is mirroring this in the RPG's terminology (just like in the example above). Still, it's an experiment. Let's see if it flies.

What's there (rules in a nut shell)

Here is the character sheet again for close reference:

Below is a filled example ...
There are four ability scores (upper left on the sheet): Brawn, Brain, Luck and Owed. Each got a number of dice assigned. Luck and Owed change over the course of a session, the other two mirror a character's resources for physical and mental activities. If a character is more physical, he'll have more Brawn, if he's more of the brainy sort, he'll go (obviously) for Brain.

Characters (or "Grinders" from now on) also have a Breed (their heritage or race) and a Dodge (their specialization or class). Breed may give a grinder some special abilities because of their heritage (elves are quite resistant to magic, dwarves are able to form stone, see below for details). Handle is the grinder's street name and status is his level name (all of this in the lower left corner).

There also are "Statics" (upper middle), which are (in short) additional dice Grinders have on specific tasks (like recon or detecting traps).

Statics determine the flow of the game, because they are not only used as dice if a task needs resolving, they also reduce the main difficulty of challenges ahead by 1 per static die. And if a difficulty is reduced to zero this way (3 would be the default), the group manages to overcome it without any problems, thus speeding up exploration and focusing the game on the juicy parts (when the group is really challenged). They are also flexible and connected to a grinder's dodge instead of specific skills. This way players are encouraged to plan ahead and set their statics according to the situation.

Another benefit would be that statics encourage teamwork and support low level groups. If 3 characters, for instance, assign one static each to "Finding Traps", the group will find all traps up to a difficulty of three with ease.

The saves (middle) are from Lost Songs, as I think they work really well in our test games. Withstand is a save vs. force, Reflex is a save vs. the unforeseen, Stomach is a save vs. poisons and disease, Sanity is a save to keep you sane, Stress will test if you keep your cool and Good Will is all about the impressions others get when they interact with you. The first three (Withstand/Reflex/Stomach) are tested rolling Brawn, the other three (Sanity/Stress/Good Will) are tested using Brain (in both cases pool dice + save vs. difficulty).

The core mechanic is pretty simple. You got a pool between zero and five d6 in brain and brawn each. If a task is at hand, characters bet a number of dice from the appropriate pool (brawn for physical tasks, brain for mental tasks) and roll them to collect successes. Every result of 4 or more is a success (3 or more if specialized, see below). Every 6 generates a new die immediately rolled for the task and either raises a character's Luck by 1 or reduces the owed dice by 1 (players choice) and every rolled 1 reduces the used pool by 1.

A player might use a Luck point for an automatic success or to save a lost die (i. e. compensating a rolled 1). A player is also allowed to "owe" a number of dice to the DM. Owed dice work just like Luck dice, but also raise the players Owed pool and the DM's Threat pool (the DM will be able to use those dice against the group later in the game). Owed dice must be resolved with Luck dice and the DM may use owed dice only once (they remain "owed" on the character sheet, though) and the player already used his. So owing dice will have immediate benefits, but will come back to haunt the players in the long run.

Statics and Body Modifications will have an impact on the number of dice available for certain tasks and characters can share dice among each other, which means they declare to support another character, name the number of dice they use for it, roll them and follow the same principles as described above (and yes, if they roll a 1 they loose a die for sharing ...).

Every session start with the players rolling ALL their pool dice and see if they owe dice from the beginning or get some Luck points instead (statistics say Luck is a bit in favor with this system). At the end of a session all remaining owed dice are subtracted from all remaining Luck dice. If the result is positive, the group gets a xp-bonus, if it's negative they get a xp-penalty.

Character Creation

Nothing fancy here. Level Zero Grinders have 3 dice points distributed among brain and brawn. There is two ways to do so and both are connected to breed: you either choose a human and distribute them yourself or you choose one of the other breeds and take their distribution. There are 8 Breeds (so you could just roll 1d8 to find out):
  1. Human (distribute 3d6 between Brawn and Brain, choose one Trait)
  2. Elve (1 Brawn, 2 Brain; Trait is Resist Magic)
  3. Dwarf (2 Brawn, 1 Brain; Trait Form Stone)
  4. Goblin (1 Brawn, 1 Brain; Trait Small and choose one more)
  5. Ratfolk (1 Brawn, 1 Brain, 1 free to distribute; Trait: Resilient)
  6. Fairy (0 Brawn, 3 Brain; Trait: Small and Flying)
  7. Halftroll (3 Brawn, 1 Brain; Trait: Giant)
  8. Clockwerck-Automat (3 Brawn, 0 Brain; Trait: Force)
There are more breeds possible, of course, but for now I'll keep it simple, so that's what you get. Here are some short descriptions of the breeds:


Humans are still all over the place. Some have arranged themselves with the new regime, but most are considered nothing more than a resource to exploit. The rebels criminals called "Grinders" are usually recruited among humans from slums all over the known world, as those guys 'n girls really got reason to kick back. They are the most flexible of the lot.


Those poor suckers were hit as hard as one could imagine. Untainted forests are a thing whispered about in the darkness and those too slow to flee from the realms of men, now lead a miserable existence in the slums, often enough fleeing into drug induced dreams or stealing what they can to get their fix again. But not all of them have given up. Some of them go for the grind and then for revenge! They know their way around magic (which is illegal, as you very well know) and are handy that way.


They fought to the last dwarf standing. Some say they are still fighting back from the dark redoubts they fled to deep in the earth. Others say that's just crazy talk from violent drunks (which most dwarves are by default). Either way, some dwarves still live in the cities and some of those are still sober enough to seek the grind and save what's left of the dwarven glory. they have the ability to form stone with their bare hands and that's certainly something.


They always got the shitty end of the stick (even those working for the Imperium) and some of them start to think it's time to grasp that stick a little harder and hit something with it. Those little bastards are quite flexible and useful, once you cut them some slack. And they are eager to grind what their little hands can carry.


Nobody liked those guys back in the day, but suddenly the slums are crowded and the rats have a head start. They are quite tough, which is always good on a grind, and really not that different from humans once you are able to get beyond the smell ...


It's good to be small if you want to survive. And that's what they did. Had it surprisingly easy to adapt to the city, too. Mainly because they're very talented in stealing anything they can get away with. Some of them are even ambitions enough to go for the grind and make it big time. They are also infamous for their mean attitude ...


Who'd have thought, demons hate trolls and love to see them in the dirt and as slaves. Some make a decent living in the slums, keeping a low profile (well, they try ...) and they are easy to crossbreed, so while the big oafs are getting fewer and fewer, some of their spawn is alive and all muscles. You need muscles on the grind, so that's a no-brainer. They also like bridges for no reason.


Sometimes your body is worth more then the rest of you and sometimes you can sell just that: your body. You won't get much for it (3d6 Imperiale Münzen), but to keep you as a cheap work force, you also get a new body. Sure, it's weak, noisy and all about hard labor, with what's left of your soul in a softly glowing crystal, but there's so much old technology out there to grind and it's all so easy to add to you that this might very well be the best thing that happened to you in, like, forever.


Traits reduce the difficulties of related tasks and saves by 1 or give other benefits in the game. Here is a selection of 17 traits (roll d12 to choose 1 random, 13 - 17 are exclusive to the breeds):
  1. No Trait: get 1 die more to put either into Brain or Brawn
  2. Skilled: get one more static die
  3. Tough: get + 1 to Health roll per level
  4. Powerful: get + 1 to Affinity roll per level
  5. Stubborn: re-roll a single result of 1 per task
  6. Lucky: a rolled 6 always generates another d6 (usually initial roll only)
  7. Talented: successfully casts with a result of 4, 5 and 6 (instead just 5 and 6)
  8. Versatile: may move one static die during heist at will (= need to roll for it)
  9. Strong Soul: Taint is only 1d3 per used slot
  10. Fortunate: Difficulty of all saves is reduced by 1
  11. Resilient: die difficulty for all rolls related to mental tasks ans saves are reduced by 1
  12. Force: die difficulty for all rolls related to brute force are reduced by 1
  13. Resist Magic: die difficulty for all rolls related to magic are reduced by 1
  14. Form Stone: may form stone with bare hands, difficulty for related tasks and saves is reduced by 1
  15. Flying: moves as fast as a human would, gets to high places
  16. Small: no big weapons, only level as slots for body modifications but -2 to AC, must always take highest result for Affinity, also general benefits and drawbacks of being small
  17. Giant: +2 AC, two handed weapons echo if the highest two results come up (so with a d6 he'd echo with a 5 and a 6), must always take highest result for Health, also general benefits and drawbacks of being giant
As with the breeds, there are more traits possible, but for now we'll keep it short ...


A character's "dodge" is his job on the grind. It's his responsibility and if he fails, all others will feel the impact. There are 5 dodges, each having 3 specials (roll d5 to determine):

1. The Grunt (Gr)

This is the guy you need to keep the party poopers busy. Guess what his main ability score is ... Anyway, his special talents are:
  • Kill - He knows how to move over the battle field and attacks, does, counters and shares free on a result of 4, 5 and 6 (instead of 5 and 6).
  • Bind - Grunts are able to bind (level +1) enemy hd in combat (additionally to those any other character is able to bind ...).
  • Stand - Gets his level to his AC when he's covering his fellow grinders' withdrawal or holds a passage to let them do their job.

2. The Trickster (Tr)

The thief and scout of the party.'Nuff said. Uh, specials:
  • Sabotage - Skilled in manipulating machinery of all kinds (traps, clockwercks and so on).
  • Sneak - Skilled in hiding and moving through the shadows.
  • Dirty Fighting - Deals 1d6 more damage when attacking from a hidden position or when the enemy is unaware

3. The Whisperer (Wh)

Those dabbling in the art of magic. Their specials:
  • Read Magic - Skilled in reading and interpreting magical programming.
  • Manipulate - Killed in manipulating magical constructs.
  • Cast - Affinity costs for casting spells are 3 per level (instead of 4).

4. The Crowscare (Cr)

Demons fear those holy man and are mostly referred to as "crows" on the streets, hence the name for those clerics and holy women. Their specials are:

  • Repel - The ability to invoke a god's power to scare away (or even kill) demons, undead and the like.
  • Activate - They are able to cleanse shrines by channeling Affinity into them. This produces a save haven under the protection of a crowscare's god.
  • Pray - The ability to call a god for assistance and get help via wonders (as long as an activated shrine is within (level + 1) x 100 meters)

5. The Tinker (Ti)

Those able to salvage, repair and rebuild the lost technology rotting in dungeons all over the known world (and the only real currency of the criminal underbelly of the demons Imperium).

  • Grind - Skilled in salvaging parts of old technology (always (successes + level) as number of parts per machine (until salvage limit is reached)).
  • Repair - Skilled in making machinery work again.
  • Make - Is able to build machines with spell-like effects/duration/range according to level (quite like The Whisperer, details follow).


Thought long and hard about it and came to the conclusion that it might be fun to randomize the saves, so each character may roll 3d6 and keep the highest two per save. Rolling a save will always be d20 + save value vs. 20 (default) or 25 (hard). If you want to owe a die for a save, go ahead, roll it, add it. Every time a character go up a level/status, he may raise one save by 1. The End.


Here is a completely random example. Meet Hakalai, some Halftroll Crowscare Scum (took about 5 minutes to roll up and I was pretty slow ...):

All the important pieces are there ...
Sure, there's still some empty spaces. It'll need some random equipment lists, spells and gods to choose from, but that's it at the core. Use the Petty Gods and a D&D cleric level 1 spell list (or whatever) and you're good to go. She's level 0, so maybe she doesn't own more than a piece of cloth and a club ...

Statics and other loose ends

Thought I'd be done in 4 posts. Stupid me. But I see the finishing line already. What's missing? Statics and the DungeonHeist Interface, which basically is a group sheet to use at the table during missions. It's where the heist is prepared on until it gets triggered and the mission is a "go". It also introduces "The Brain", "The Fence" and "The Haven", all important for a life in the underground. How all of this is supposed to work together in the game is part of the fourth post in this series.

Same goes for advancement. I'm going some new ways here and think about "group advancement", which basically means that the group as a whole makes progress and if they level up, a dodges level name (Status on the sheet) is what a character has to show for when he's changing teams for another heist. Just like in most heist movies characters do not amount to much outside their dodges and have unsatisfying jobs (if at all) ... Gold also has no meaning in this game (poor suckers selling their bodies ...) and instead it's salvaged goods and what you can get for them (I really want to write now "hence the fence", but I won't). Anyway, more on that in part 4.

All in all I'm quite happy how all of that comes together right now. All that is left now are tables, fluff and DM tools (which is a lot, I know). But if you've read all BASTARD! posts, you could print the character sheet, bridge spells and machinery with your favorite D&D variant and get going! That's what I'm going to do the next few weeks and I'm looking forward to it (will sure pester my poor readers with it, too).

As always, thank you for reading ALL THIS and please feel free to comment and share your thoughts about BASTARD!, as feedback is always welcome.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Final Fatal System Response - Lost Songs from the table 2 (still feat. Stonehell)

Two days in a row, eh? Sometimes I'm productive that way ... You can see right there what an optimistic person i am :-) Anyway, back to our last sessions of play testing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs with the Stonehell Dungeon Crawl! This series is called "fatal system response" for a reason: it's testing the game. We all agreed that the system is allowed to run amok to see where we end up and if it works as it should. There hadn't been much action in our first session, only atmosphere, encounter and reaction tables. But this is going to change as the group goes deeper into the dungeon (again, some minor level 1 spoilers ahead) ... I hope you brought some time, this is a long one (again).

This journey starts here.

Just not that deep, please

We are still in the first quarter of the first level of Stonehell. That encounter with the bandits I described in the first post actually happened at the very entrance. Kicking in doors is a noisy affair and those bandits tried to sneak up on the group as they were exploring some empty rooms nearby.

You'd have chosen that passage, too, right?
(Stonehell level 1, Ogreface passage) [source]
Here is an example how I handle these things: A Good Will save shows if the Gods are smiling unto the characters or not. Default difficulty is 20, making the save is good, not making it will have a negative result and reduce a character's Fate ability score (as it is a Fate save and every ability score has it's own save ...). So one player got a critical success, which means the bandits make themselves known. Result: the character gets some dust in his nose, sneezed and gets a "Bless you!" from a dark passage ...

You know the rest. So after the first empty set of rooms, the group decides to go north. I believe the passage with the best description will get the most traffic and this one even got a picture! First crossroads it's either left to a dragon (as some obscure sign in the middle of the crossroad says) straight ahead or turning right. Group decides to go right. First room: heaps of garbage and a hidden encounter (3 spitting cobras).

There's a good chance the encounter never happens, so there's a Good Will Save in order to find out if a character is unlucky. The ensuing fight is short and brutal for the snakes. As long as the players are careful and keep working together there's nothing on this level that is even remotely dangerous. They keep on keeping on ...

Lost Songs and the Dungeoncrawl (system update)

Stonehell kept being fun. Monster reaction rolls helped a lot to make this more about fighting than about killing. There had been, for instance, a curious kobold from a maintenance crew that stopped by to check out the group and one of the characters saw him (because of being at watch and actually paying attention ...). The reaction roll indicated friendly, so the kobold just waved a shy hello and went off again. I like stuff like that and the group kept building up on the initial encounter, accepting those kobolds as mostly harmless.

But the DM side of things is explained easy enough. How the game worked for the players and why the things that happened in the end had happened at all, needs some basic understanding of the mechanics I use in LSotN. What follows is a (very short!!) summary of the rules I use right now. So for the uninitiated (and those not remembering the specifics ...):

Core System

Think D&D, but: it's rare that characters fail at a task, but half of the time them making it means it came with a prize. The basic system of LSotN is quite easy. There are 6 ability scores (D&D, but: Muscle, Finesse, Grit, Wits, Nerve, Fate). Every ability score also has a save (Withstand, Reflexes, Stomach, Sanity, Stress, Good Will, values around 10, varies by level ...). There are now 2 types of tests, saves and ability checks (skill checks are basically ability checks with an additional bonus for the skill).

Saves are d20 + save value vs. 20 (standard) or 25 (hard). A success has the expected result. Failure will reduce the ability score for the difference needed to make the difficulty. The lower the ability scores are, the higher are penalties for everything else. I need to update the character sheets, for now it's resolved as "minus 1 for every ability score in the buffer, minus 2 for every a.s. in scarred and minus 4 for every a.s. in permanent, all cumulative". So a character with a particularly bad day with two ability scores in the buffer, one in scarred and one in permanent will have a minus 8 on all checks, saves and attacks.

Ability checks are d20 + ability score (+ skill, if available) vs. 20 (easy)/25 (normal)/30 (hard)/ 35 (really hard). Resolution is a bit different compared to the saves. For one, a player may decide that the character doesn't make it. If a check doesn't meet the difficulty, the DM asks the player if his character goes the extra mile to make it a success. If the player says no, the check is just failed. If he wants his character to succeed, he needs to spend Endurance to bridge the difference between result and difficulty (Endurance fronts Muscle, so if Endurance is "empty", Muscle is reduced instead).

As a final rule it is possible to reduce Fate instead of getting an ability score permanently damaged (so let's say you failed a Sanity check big time and your brain would get some permanent damage as a result, you might instead just reduce your Fate score by the amount of permanent damage the character would have received).


Other than being happy to be able to put the core system in no more than 4 short paragraphs, It's also quite interesting (to me, at least) how all that worked in a dungeon environment. In an ideal case all saves should be triggered at some point or another:

  • Withstand is useful every time a character is subjected to some sort of force, like holding a door shut, for instance. Doesn't happen that often, BUT since Muscle is tested on a regular basis due to Endurance, that's actually a good thing.
  • Reflex is really quite easy. Need to react fast because of something? Reflex is the way to go.
  • Stomach goes well with all sorts of poisoning and disease, so that got some use (see below).
  • Sanity was for the weird and magic stuff, so that's a no brainer (ba-da-tum).
  • Stress is important in every stressful situation characters might encounter. Sneaking past some guard, balancing around a trap (or diffusing it), some irritating noise that won't stop, dungeon environment are ripe with stuff like that and I learned to love stress tests (see below)!
  • Good Will finally helps you finding out how encounters react to a character or how lucky a character is in general. It, basically, tests the good will of the gods towards a character ...

This really worked quite well. It covers everything I think needs testing and grinds characters down slowly and simply by what they are experiencing and how they handle it. Stress really became a big thing for some characters, as it accumulated to at least two characters being nervous wracks at the end of one day (a good night's sleep would have cured most of it, though).

Checks also work fast and cover the complete range of actions a game needs. The simple tweak that it's not about "making it" but instead about "are you willing to pay to make it?" managed to speed up the game considerably. The characters want to kick in a door? Roll d20 plus muscle vs. difficulty for the door. If the result doesn't meet the difficulty, the player may decide to spend Endurance to make it and the door is open. Teamwork would reduce the difficulty one stage per character (but never lower than 20). Done. If the characters want a door open, it should be open. But there's lots of room for shenanigans (accidents do happen).

And as the characters progress through the dungeon and loose ability points, it gives lots of narrative room to raise the tension (like with stressed out characters, as described above, or by threatening their sanity and so on). Since all of it affects every character individually, it gets quite colorful. Characters get nervous, exhausted, sick, crazy, slow or loose the gods favor (you know those days where nothing seems to work? low fate score, I'd say ...). And if they are not careful, it's leave permanent marks or keeps keeps affected for several days. It's direct, it produces the right narrative, it's where I wanted this to end up. A DM gets quite the complex pattern to play with The rest is examples ...

Exploration turns Survival Horror

Lost Songs heavily relies on (human) resource management and team work. Players taking care of business will find the system supporting them. Every action, on the other hand, that'd be considered "bad behavior" at the table anyway (or just ill advised) will have a system response opposing the players*.

All right. Here's what happened. People had good rolls and bad rolls. On some characters stress started to show others had their Fate reduced and Endurance became rare all over the place. As one would expect after exploring as much as they did (about an 8th of the entire first level). So the characters needed some rest and soon decided for a small room with an intact door and a giant face on one wall.

A good night of sleep would mean at least 8 hours sleep per character (healing buffer damage), but real healing (scar level damage) would need 24 hours. So went for the eight hours as a start and assigned night guards. That night really wasn't quite. One encounter roll triggered after another. Mostly it just resulted in noises of creatures talking and passing the door. One time a group of kobolds encountered a group of orcs and a loud argument started. But the room the characters had been hiding in kept being unaffected, their door block untested.

Until I rolled those orcs again and they ended up testing the door and finding it closed. I gave it a reaction roll to see if they'd leave it or if they went for forcing it open and finding out what's behind it. The roll indicated aggression.

By that time the character keeping guard already started waking the others as quite as he could. Two of the waking characters already had low Nerves because of the stressful day they've had. Now they are shook out of their deserved sleep into a completely dark room and both still a bit groggy when the first orc shoulder meets the door with a loud BAM! Of course they need to make a stress save. One fails and squeals in terror as her nerves are very much shot by now ...

Without light and the doors closed the wizard got no target for his sleep spell (it has to have some limits, at least). Ramming the door didn't have the right result and the orcs are eager now to enter, so they start hacking the door down with an ax ...

My first thought ... [source]
Half the group didn't know Kubrick's Shining, btw. Didn't know what to say to that, either. But I showed them the relevant theme to get them into the right mood :-)

The fight was a bit hectic, but short and noisy. Also triggered the next random encounter: 3 giant centipedes! Those beasties are more or less harmless and easy enough to kill (unless you got bitten, of course). But they are no threat anyway, as they just go for some orc corpses and that's that. Until some of the players decide to disturb them for loot and those centipedes react really pissed (again: monster reaction roll).

Fatal System Response (finally ..)

It's the second time they encounter those and while the first time had just been squishing some bugs, they ended up with two poisoned characters this time. Staying back in the dungeon is not an option anymore, as the centipede's poison leaves a character useless for a couple of days. So out they go. Here's where they made their first big mistake: they didn't leave the canyon in front of the entrance to Stonehell, but went for the one ruin they'd explored on their way in.

There'd been half the roof, a strange statue and half the walls had been down or on their way there. The weather roll came up with heavy rain** and it was really not comfortable in that ruin. Failed stomach saves kept making it worse for the poisoned characters and a fire had been out of the question (although it would have made those stomach saves a lot easier ...).

The weather kept being shitty for three days (at least 10 bad rolls on my side) with a heavy thunderstorm being the high point of this bad weather front. There were less encounters than in the dungeon, but still way more than they'd have had in the swamps half a days travel away from the dungeon. They waited with making a fire until one of the characters had been at death's doors already. Only a natural twenty would have kept her alive for another 12 hours when the thunderstorm hit the canyon (she made that save ...).

The storm forced once more the players hand. Getting the sick characters somewhere dry and save enough for a fire would have been important days ago. Now it became a last desperate gamble ...

As I already hinted to in the first post, the group didn't take the time to explore the canyon but went straight in to the dungeon. Now they started exploring a nearby cave. One of the wizards, no less, climbed the mountain face to the cave entrance only visible when lightning lit up the sky. One of the warriors took one of the sick and waited for the okay to bring her up.

Yeah, him again ...
The wizard would have had several possible ways to explore that cave. He could have sent his pixie familiar, for instance. But no, he went there himself and it was a cave lions den. I gave it a 50 percent chance that the lion was at home (due to the weather) and of course the beast was there and pissed (monster reaction roll ...). The wizard decided to ... fight (yeah, I know). Mirror image saved him round one, but the second round was his end. The term "minced meat" doesn't quite give it justice.

The fighter below had seen him going into the cave, sword in hand, and decided to climb after him. She arrived just in time to see her friend be torn to bloody pieces, looked at me and said: "I'm outta here ..." Good call.

The cave became off limits, but the sick girls survived the night  and the new day started bright and shiny after the storm (it's amazing how all of that was the result of rolling the dice ...), so the second wizard of the group went towards the swamps to gather some herbs that might help the sick characters. The fighter went to gather some food, the one sick girl made her SECOND NATURAL 20 in a row to live another 12 hours (!) and I rolled for random encounters. Of course a 1 came up and (naturally) it was the mountain lion stretching his legs after the storm ...

I get extra random on occasions like those. It had been a random encounter in the canyon, so the wizard was out. Left the food gathering fighter or the sick girls, so I checked (as I'd do regularly with encounters) this drop die sheet I made some time ago:

Download of the pdf is under "Free Stuff" above ...

It was a low roll (2 or 3), but worse was that it resulted in the mountain "lion belligerently invading another territory for survival". So it had been the sick girls and they had no chance what so ever. It was a horror scene right out of The Ghost and the Darkness. The fighter returned and only found blood trails leading to the cave. With three out of 5 characters dead, the remaining two characters made a run for it and never looked back ...

Recap Part 2

There had been some really bad decisions in the end, but I loved how it all came together through random results. The bad weather, the encounter and reaction rolls, the bad saves, it all came together to make that last part feel like survival horror. There was always a chance to make thing better. They could have called that wizard from the beginning, they could have gone for those haunted trees (which would have disguised them effectively).

But the best option, in my opinion, would have been to go as far as possible out of that canyon, as this simple action alone would have reduced the encounter possibility from "1 in 6 every two turns" to "1 to 3 in 6 per day"). They didn't and 60% of the group died because of, well, all of that.

It's just one of those things that happen every so often. The players don't pay attention, make a few mistakes or bad rolls and characters start dropping dead a lot. That's not to criticize them or shed a wrong light on them. It's a great group and it's been the play test of a game they are not yet familiar with. They get a better handle on how ability scores work in the game and situations like this end completely different ...

I hope this little two post update of how Lost Songs rolls right now helped a bit showing where the game is and where it's heading. With us moving to Leipzig it'll take a bit longer, since we have to find a new group of willing gamers over there. It's also becoming a beast of a game that, while it has all the things I want/need in a game, grows every day in depths.

And one final note: this definitely was not our last visit to Stonehell. This megadungeon is brilliant and is highly recommended. Good show!

Now back to BASTARD! ...

* You see, dear reader, this post is finally talking about the titled "fatal system response" ... I'm sorry if this comes over like a Tarantino joke without the sophisticated skill usually attached to a joke like that.

** Just a d20. 1 means clear and good weather, 10 means cloudy, but no rain, 11 to 19 means light to heavy rain, 20 is a full blown thunderstorm. I constantly rolled over ten, with a twenty in the mix to make it worse.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Fatal System Response - Lost Songs from the Table 1 (feat. Stonehell)

Although I'm writing on BASTARD! right now (I know, I'm late, but there'll be another post up soon, it just got a bit more complicated), we were still testing the Lost Songs of the Nibelungs for as long as possible, which isn't long as I'm about to move to Leipzig this very month and the group won't come together on a regular basis anymore, which is a shame, but that's how it is ... Anyway, last time we got together Lost Songs had another fine run (in my opinion) and I thought I'd share some of it, since people might start to think it's abandoned (it's not). So here we are, visiting Stonehell for the second time now (mind some very minor spoilers ahead) ...

But let's start from the beginning!

The nature of a play test is that players can't take the rules for granted. This might be a problem for some, but for my group it had been a chance to participate in the development of the game. And that's great, as it means they are able to accept easier if the system rears it's ugly head and the DM is not starting to tame it but instead lets it run amok to see what happens.

So when the group gave me Stonehell: Down Night-Haunted Halls by +Michael Curtis as a birthday present, I took the chance and used Lost Songs for some dungeon crawling. With "deadliness" not being an issue, my only concerns had been that my group right now is something like a 50/50 split between women and men (sometimes more women) and I wasn't sure how the girls took the dungeon experience (I know, I'm cliched that way).

Anyway, their initial reaction had been to get the game going. We made new characters and the first surprise had been that the girls decided to be the groups muscle while the guys went for the laid back magic users. Easy introduction (I also wanted to get the game going): there's a goblin problem in the region and local authorities pay good gold to adventurers doing something about it. Source of the troubles seems to be the infamous Stonehell dungeon. Off you go, little adventurers, to some FATAL SYSTEM RESPONSE ...

Initial exploration

On their way there, the party encounters a strange raccoon wizard that offers them more good money for finding the notes of a wizard that had a secret room somewhere on the first level. He even offers them a way to summon him if they are in a tight spot (this will be important later on).

Well, the quests had been chosen to allow some light surface and first level exploration. I did my best making a good first impression as they entered Stonehell (which really is quite easy, as the texts and materials Mr. Curtis are very useful and evocative), but in general I rely on descriptions of the surroundings, random encounters and monster reactions (also all but the monster reaction table provided by Stonehell).

That's one mean looking cat. Remember that face! [source]
The players started with some cautious recon of the canyon leading to Stonehell and ... went more or less straight for the big fat dungeon entrance, ignoring all ruins and cave entrances on their way there (well, they checked out one ruin, which was basically a room with half a ceiling and a statue). The only things of importance they encountered so far had been a strange copes and a pack of herd animals at a pond that got attacked by a mountain lion (again, important).

They encounter a group of bandits on their first foray into level 1 (reaction roll says those guys are up to no good) and a sleep spell takes care of them easy enough. They decide to question them instead of killing them right away (sometimes I'm so proud of my group) and they are cautious about it, too. Binding and gagging the sleeping bandits.

Anyway, they take the gag out of the first bandits mouth and start asking questions, like, who the hell they are. Morale check tells me the guy is ready to bluff his way out and starts telling lies about them being a group of adventurers on a mission. The group is all like "Yeah, that makes sense ... Mhm ... Let's gag this one again and ask the next one if he supports that story!" (I'm still proud of them).

Next bandit didn't wake up during the first interrogation (I checked) and made his morale check, so he starts to tell them a tall story about them being here to protect some scientists that are deeper in the dungeon looking at ... stuff. Sounds true enough, but the group isn't buying any of it. So they gag this one and ask the next one, who actually supports the second story (as he woke up during the interrogation and made his morale check). Two out of three sounds great, but they go for the fourth to be sure.

The fourth actually goes for the third version: the truth (didn't make his morale check and actually believed the groups threats), but by then they really couldn't believe anyone anymore (because that's how I roll!). Took them some time and they left none the wiser. Not sure what to do about the bound and gagged bandits, they left them where they were for someone else to take care of.

Recap Part 1

Most of that also happened in the first session, so this is as good a break as they get. All had fun with the exploration and it wasn't really that dangerous (not much luck with the random encounter and monster reaction rolls, no major traps yet). Exploration really is the easy part of rpgs, so mostly I had a few checks and tasks, but the main action was the players discussing how to tackle a certain weird occurrence or where to go next. lost Songs pretty much worked as any other system would under such circumstances: unobtrusive. And that's totally fine.

Stonehell, on the other hand, had been the real star of the evening. I really couldn't do much wrong here. I'd read it beforehand, of course, but it's such a breeze to use at the table. Evocative, short texts with enough weird and interesting stuff to keep the players interested, day and night cycles, different factions ... And it's HUGE! Did I say how huge that thing is? As a DM I really was looking forward to the players encountering at least some of it. From what I've read and how it played for us at the table, it comes highly recommended.

It's what it say's: a classic-style megadungeon. And the players had lots of fun kicking in doors and taking names. Especially the girls, by the way ...

Dungeon crawling! [source]
Next time we'll go deeper into the dungeon. Nothing fatal yet. But we will get there, so keep on reading ...