Friday, April 16, 2021

A light PbtA S&S hack: the playbooks

 In a recent post, I reported briefly on a very enjoyable PbtA session filled with all manner of player hijinks, loosely inspired by the Dark Sun setting. It involved, as I stated there, essentially the World of Dungeons rules-light system, "beefed up with some really evocative playbook moves plundered from various Apocalypse World hacks to add some gritty swords-and-sorcery color." As I noted in my previous post, there are already some PbtA hacks that do this, but none of them hit quite the tone I was looking for: simple and straightforward to run, yet with evocative, interesting, and dangerous characters, and without leaning toward the sleazier stuff that a lot of S&S fiction/gaming evokes. 

Anyway, that one session turned into a three-session mini-campaign with my adult gaming group that was uproariously fun and (not counting the time to put the initial playbooks together) also really low-prep to run as a GM. The players ended up breaking out of prison after being wrongly suspected of a kidnapping, usurping control of a cult, using the cult members as extra muscle, and forging an alliance with a group of sentient ape-man warriors guarding an urban shrine with a relic hammer capable of preventing a Sorcerer-King's return from the grave. Complicating matters were the cultists dominating the city council who sought to expedite said tyrant's return, the shadow-walking inhumans with mind-controlled people puppets, and a mummy very unwilling to have its gilded skull destroyed (such destruction, using the relic hammer, was also necessary to prevent the Sorcerer-King's return). There was a huge and bloody rumble in a pepper-pigment-processing bazaar, and a dramatic finale at the ape-man shrine. Oh, and one of the PCs even shape-shifted into a pterodactyl. Yep. Finally, after many shenanigans and much laughter, a PC made the ultimate sacrifice to stop the villains, saving the day (but losing his life) in the final dice-roll of the campaign. Great stuff. 

Anyway - an anonymous commenter asked for more info on the way I set up the playbooks. I figured I'd dump everything here and let those who like the sound of this take a closer look. Please note that while I synthesized these parts myself, the individual parts are all taken from or at least inspired by different existing PbtA resources by other creatives; there are bits and/or traces herein from Apocalypse World, Apocalypse World: Burned Over, Apocalypse World: Fallen Empires, Dungeon World, World of Dungeons, Advanced World of Dungeons, some online Conan PbtA resources (Hyborian Age, and also Road of Kings, I believe), and World of Pilgrims, and I had been thinking a lot about One Shot World and Homebrew World, too. 

Voici. Pardon the lame working title. Here is World of Swords & Subtlety. [CLICK ON THE PICTURE FOR .PDF]

Saturday, April 10, 2021

SHAVE: (yet another oddly-named) Knave hack [this time, streamlined AND reinforced for smaller but competent parties]

 I suppose that "another hack of Knave" may not be what the world needs most right now, but it was what I needed to satisfy some specific design considerations for a new mini-campaign. My kids asked me to run a sandbox for them. I'm already a busy man and already running a separate game for the grown-ups, so I resolved to rely on existing material as much as possible for our little sandbox - which meant that compatiblity with published D&D(ish) material was important. And that, of course, means Knave - Ben Milton's now-famed rules-light engine for gaming with just about any OSR resource in print. 

That being said, I didn't want to run Knave without some tweaks. As follows, here were some design issues I had in mind:

+ I really like Into the Odd's faster and usually whiff-less combat, though there are aspects of it that I think I'd like to tweak, too. Could I modify combat in Knave to make it a bit faster, while keeping things I like?

+ As this little sandbox is just for two kids, I'm looking at running quite a small party of PCs. How could I optimize survivability and competence for two characters, while perhaps adding even fewer bells and whistles than Scarlet Heroes' rules for solo/duo parties?

+ Knave is notably classless, relying on inventory, but one common response when hacking the game is to add 'knacks' or light class-ability systems. How could I boost character diversity a bit with a minimum of added fuss?

+ Finally, I like monsters with special abilities. I like how Into the Odd bakes them into the critical damage after HP = 0, but I dislike how this means many special abilities never get 'shown off' before a monster dies, and in fact there is a bit of a predictable pacing to combat (first, you most likely only lose HP, then you are in serious trouble). How could I highlight unique monster characteristics without adding a ton of fuss (and, preferably, retain ItO's "don't blame me, blame the dice" feature for GMs?). 

Well, here's a quick look at what I whipped up. It's basically Knave as-is, with a few key modifications, using ideas inspired by Whitehack, Into the Odd, Scarlet Heroes, and Low Fantasy Gaming

So. All rules remain RAW unless specified:

1) During character generation, pick 2 Tags reflecting a background, skill, or notable feature that might improve your PC's performance. Write the tag next to one of your Ability Defense scores; when you attempt a Saving Throw using that score, you can roll with advantage (roll 2d20 and take the better roll) if your Tag is relevant (for example, one of our new PCs is a cat-person, and has "Dexterity: Cat-Person" and "Wisdom: Cat-Burglar"; the other PC has "Dexterity: City Guard" and "Constitution: Plague Survivor"). This is basically yoinked from Whitehack

2) During character generation, decide whether your character is a RAZOR or a SCYTHE (thus giving my rules edgy flair and an excuse for that terrible name, Shave). 

    - RAZORS gain an extra 2 Ability score Tags, bringing them to a total of 4 tags. As rare as Saving Throws may be, they'll typically roll them with +Advantage. 
    - SCYTHES have the 'cleave'/'plow through enemies'/whatever ability: when you drop a foe in combat to 0 hp, you may immediately make another attack at another target adjacent to you (melee) or in range (missile).  

This all assumes, of course, that everybody in the game can be kind of a fighter, kind of a rogue, kind of an arcane caster, etc. You just make one tweak for a little signature specialty up front. 

[EDIT - forgot to mention - I started characters at level 2; my intent is that everybody gains 1 more new Tag when they level up to level 5]

3) During combat, players roll to hit as normal. When a PC hits, they don't roll damage; they automatically inflict the MAXIMUM damage for their weapon. If a character ends up with a weapon or effect that inflicts multiple dice of damage, max out one of the dice (PC's choice) and roll the other(s). [This roll to hit, but not to damage approach is meant to make the gradient of enemy armor classes feel more meaningful than it often does in Into the Odd, and allows the frustration of not always hitting, but it also simplifies combat by removing half of a PC's rolls - while making these lone characters quite powerful when they hit. Consider that a SCYTHE character with a d8 sword fighting a crowd of goblins can mow through the whole crowd adjacent in one round - so long as he keeps rolling hits...I like this balance of competence that still depends somewhat on luck.]

4) The monsters use the normal combat rules - they roll to hit AND for damage. I also had hirelings roll for damage, too. It's just the PCs who get to be awesome.

5) Added to that, however, I imported Low Fantasy Gaming's approach to monster critical hits. Every monster type has a special attack feature that triggers on natural roll of 19 or 20. This 19+ feature might just be 'max damage for its weapon' or it might be something like "Save or Die" or "lose a limb" or all kinds of exotic stuff in-between. This brings the special attack effects that I love in Into the Odd, but it spreads their potential and threat all throughout the combat, from the very first round - while remaining rare enough (10%) that you'll probably be ok. 


Great! We just tried these rules out today and had a good time. The rules got out of the way but allowed dangerous, tense combats (most of our rules engagement was with Knave's famed inventory management system, which turned out to matter a lot ... at session's end, they even had to negotiate inventory slots to bring a deceased hireling's body home to his vilage). 

I'm running a setting that is vaguely inspired by late Carolingian society near the Mediterranean. My little sandbox includes several villages from Raging Swan Press, a number of the individual lairs in Forgotten Caverns of Archaia re-purposed across my landscape, the Barrowmaze, Saltmarsh, and a number of factions to wheel and deal with in good time. The characters have just ship-wrecked on the shore of the West Kingdom while fleeing plague and banishment in the Eastern Realm. After being nursed back to strenght in a coastal fishing village, they're ready to stretch their legs and gather some loot in their new home. 


Today, we started out with the Advanced Adventures module "Redtooth Ridge." [Affiliate link] We got about half-way through the module before the players beat it back to the village with inventory slots filled with treasure and a dead hireling's body. They are being paid to recover an item stolen from a dryad. With two hirelings in tow recruited in the fishing village, they headed up the Redtooth Ridge and encountered a snacking ogre. Rather than fighting, the PCs successfully struck up a conversation with the beast. Not a bad idea, since they were able to reach a diplomatic solution - he'll let them wander about his plateau's ruined mansions if 1) they kill lots of the mites and pesties he loves to snack on, and leave the 'snacks' for him, and 2) they take out the goblin 'allies' he's getting tired of humoring. None too soon, as the goblins ended up ambushing the party and the ogre; one PC got pretty low in HP before they drove off the goblins. 

Taking their temporary leave of the ogre (thank goodness; his funny voice was hurting my throat!) the PCs began their exploration of the plateau's main ruined mansion. They found a bunch of classy antique furniture and dragged some outside to haul back home later. Unfortunately, this extended effort provoked a random encounter - two wolves that wandered in to interrupt the process! However, the PCs ran inside and barricaded themselves in the ruin - then decided to throw an old mouldering goblin corpse they found outside. The wolves took this 'gift' and ran off into the woods with it. 

Next was the looting of an old libary chock full of giant rats. One of the hirelings was swarmed and bitten to death before a PC used an Auditory Illusion spell to scare the rats off with a deafening dragon's roar! Then, an almost-fight with zombies before the PCs retreated back upstairs, a sip from a magical fountain (which turned out to be a bad idea, as the dice weren't with the player - he lost 1 permanent HP) and finally a fight with two ghouls in a ruined chapel. Now loaded with loot up to their max inventory, the party decided to head back to the fishing village with their 'winnings.' 

They then chartered a cart to take them to a larger village, hired 4 more men-at-arms in the village's taverns, and are headed back to complete the job on Redtooth Ridge. The story continues!

Success for my trial run of Knave, and success for my small design tweaks too. I guess it wasn't too close a SHAVE!

Saturday, March 13, 2021

"I order him to hand over control of his cult" -- A brief session AAR/recap: Dark Sun-inspired World of Dungeon + AW utter shenanigans

I just ran a really enjoyable session tonight of what was, basically, World of Dungeons (a Dungeon World-light) beefed up with some really evocative playbook moves plundered from various Apocalypse World hacks to add some gritty S&S color (there are existing hack options for this, but none hit exactly the note I wanted). I should do/maybe will do a proper session recap, but the note below (which I posted to the World of Dungeons sub-Discord forum) kind of sums up the main highlights, at least for now.

I ended up using the old Dark Sun setting as a very loose inspiration point and we did a lot of setting construction through Q&A right at the start. System was basically World of Dungeons with some special ability choices replaced by really evocative playbook moves from across the AW-DW sphere. You know it's going to be a wild ride when one of the earliest things that happens in play in a session is that one character uses psychic manipulation to make a murderous cult leader hand over control of his cult ["the Order of the Emerald Mother"] the PC. They agreed to meet at the cult sanctuary in the cliffside tombs that evening to present the 'good news' to the cult. Unfortunately for the players, however, a string of cascading rolls led to a dramatic close-of-session as two characters were hauled away by the city guard for questioning (a PC breaking up an abduction ended up getting fingered for the crime himself!). And the city government is known to be under the control of the cruel order of assassins that the players are probably up against in the campaign front. Will the PCs be 'disappeared' by the town guard, or will they gain their freedom, successfully take over that cult (!??!), and complete their mission to prevent the resurrection of an evil sorcerer-king? I don't know...we'll have to keep playing to find out.

Oh, and one player character is a half-troll Brute who can shapeshift into a pterodactyl. Because reasons.


I may recap the session in more detail in coming days. Very fun times had tonight -- rumbling with a cult, psychic powers, a 'friendly' bout with an old troll rival in the Caravaneers' Arena for Rhetoric and Stick-Fighting, and an attemped rescue of an old ally (who was being carried off in a carpet) - that went terribly wrong...

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Dressing Your Monsters: Raging Swan Press Monstrous Lairs I & II [REVIEW]

So you were all prepped for the party's confrontation with Uzbug, the Dread Kobold Warlord of Doom, but once the session started, the players abruptly decided to go raid a nearby pirate stronghold instead. Or perhaps you're running a sandbox with lots of random encounters, and the dice just announced that the players are about to stumble onto a hidden Duergar outpost (right after this 5-minute snack break). Or maybe you're planning next week's attack on the goblin caves, but you'd really prefer not to lean on the same setting details you leaned on for the previous five goblin caves.

Enter Raging Swan's GM's Miscellany: Monstrous Lairs, Vol. I and Monstrous Lairs, Vol. II.

(Disclosure: I was given free copies of the products discussed here in exchange for a fair review, and the DTRPG links in this post are affiliate links, which support this site at no added cost to you).


These resources contain system-neutral 'dungeon dressing' random tables, but themed specifically for different kinds of monsters or other opponents, providing details particularly suitable for their lairs. They don't include maps, stats, etc.; these tables are for the color, the flavor, the details that can bring a bare map you just grabbed (probably off Dyson) to life! I've reviewed some of Raging Swan's dungeon dressing material before, and thought very highly of it. These monster lair tables are also quite useful tools. I have a few minor critiques, but overall, I think these are well worth the money - particularly if you are likely to use the same kind of creatures multiple times in a campaign, or if you are likely to generate content on a tight timetable.

Worth mentioning up front: these volumes compile lair description tables that are also available individually - but the compilation volumes make a lot of economic sense, if you're likely to use these much. For example, you could buy Monstrous Lair #2, "Troll's Cave", for only $1.45 USD in .pdf - but Vol. I contains 22 different lairs, and Vol. II contains 24 different lairs, but each sells for $7.45 USD in .pdf (these have reasonably priced Print-on-Demand options, too).


Contents, in a bit more detail:

Vol. I:

  • Monstrous Lair #1: Owlbear Den
  • Monstrous Lair #2: Troll Cave
  • Monstrous Lair #3: Ogre’s Cave
  • Monstrous Lair #4: Goblin Raiding Camp
  • Monstrous Lair #5: Harpy’s Nest
  • Monstrous Lair #6: Minotaur’s Den
  • Monstrous Lair #7: Giant Spider’s Web
  • Monstrous Lair #8: Ghoul Nest
  • Monstrous Lair #9: Wights’ Barrow
  • Monstrous Lair #10: Mummy’s Crypt
  • Monstrous Lair #11: Dark Creeper Village
  • Monstrous Lair #12: Medusa Lair
  • Monstrous Lair #13: Aboleth’s Sunken Cavern
  • Monstrous Lair #14: Lizardfolk Village
  • Monstrous Lair #15: Bandit Camp
  • Monstrous Lair#16: Thieves’ Hideout
  • Monstrous Lair#17: Witch’s Hovel
  • Monstrous Lair #18: Bugbears’ Lair
  • Monstrous Lair#19: Gnolls’ Camp
  • Monstrous Lair #20: Kobold Warren
  • Monstrous Lair #21: Pirates’ Cove
  • Monstrous Lair #22: Sahuagin’s Sunken Cave

Vol. II:

  • Monstrous Lair #23: Troglodytes’ Warren
  • Monstrous Lair #24: Roper’s Cave
  • Monstrous Lair 25: Scrags’ Sunken Cave
  • Monstrous Lair #26: Sphinx’s Cave
  • Monstrous Lair #27: Cultists’ Hidden Fane
  • Monstrous Lair #28: Smugglers’ Hidden Den
  • Monstrous Lair #29: Vampire’s Crypt
  • Monstrous Lair #30: Assassins’ Hideout
  • Monstrous Lair #31: Wyvern’s Nest
  • Monstrous Lair #32: Sea Hag’s Grotto
  • Monstrous Lair #33: Dryad’s Glade
  • Monstrous Lair #34: Green Hag’s Swamp
  • Monstrous Lair #35: Ghost-Haunted House
  • Monstrous Lair #36: Fire Giants’ Hall
  • Monstrous Lair #37: Hill Giants’ Steading
  • Monstrous Lair #38: Frost Giants’ Glacial Rift
  • Monstrous Lair #39: Otyugh’s Sewer
  • Monstrous Lair #40: Drow Outpost
  • Monstrous Lair #41: Duergar Outpost
  • Monstrous Lair #42: Derro Outpost
  • Monstrous Lair #43: Wolves' Den
  • Monstrous Lair #44: Chimera's Den
  • Monstrous Lair #45: Hydra's Den
  • Monstrous Lair #46: Basilisk's Den

Ok, but what's in each lair? Each two-page spread lair follows a standard template:

  • The Approaches (the lair's entrance, or in some cases, spoor near the lair that hint at creature's presence and nature).
  • What's Going On? (because, let's face it, it's always cooler if the monsters are doing something other than waiting for adventurers to wander by...).
  • Major Lair Features
  • Minor Lair Features
  • Monster's Appearance
  • Treasures
  • Trinkets (or, in Vol II, 'Trash')


When I started looking over these tables, these were the questions I brought front and center:

  • What is this best used for?
  • How flexibly will it support my own imagination?
  • How reusable is it? How soon will I 'use it up'?
  • Does it generate better (i.e., more evocative, colorful, cool) content than I would on my own?
  • Or, at least, does it generate good content faster than I would on my own?

To assess how this compares to just making up my own lair descriptions, I decided to test the material under fire. I grabbed a timer, semi-randomly selected a monster type (Giant Spider!), and then immediately gave myself 5 minutes, timed, to come up with a lair description. Here's what I came up with.

GIANT SPIDERS’ NEST in 5 minutes…go.

Ok, so obviously webs. New webs, also old webs, also birds or old prey hanging in webs. You can find cool treasure in the desiccated remains in the webs. Maybe there is not-dead-yet prey stuck in the webs too. You can rescue them and get - rewards; thanks; information, quests and story hooks….maybe someone you needed to find is in that web. Maybe the person in the web has gone mad with fear and fights you.

Hmm. The spiders themselves…any dead spiders sitting about too? Maybe one giant creature or monster that the spiders sucked dry. Like a dead owl bear wrapped up in webs.

Sticky walls…walls rubbed smooth by spider bulk in the tunnels? Perhaps the spiders have laid cunning traps and ruses to draw prey in and then entrap them. Huh - big leaves or branches cover a pit trap with fresh, sticky webbing slung across the bottom? The spiders are waiting for you down in the pit trap?  
(1:47 left…) This is where my creativity has paused…

An idol. A spider-god idol - the spiders worship something horrible, right? Ok, there’s a jeweled obsidian idol that hums faintly if you touch it and is very evil. Maybe it came from BEYOND. Maybe an emissary of a ‘lesser’ species’ serving the spiders is present. Spiders have factions? Maybe one side of the lair has spiders on team A and vice versa…can you play them off each other?


Then I reset the timer, flipped to the correct page in Monstrous Lairs Vol. I, grabbed a d10, and repeated the challenge. Here's what I generated:

Approaching: a thick spider web blocks entry to the nest. 
Inside, the giant spider is covered in fist-sized young.
A mass of thick webs all attach to a single monstrous thread that fades into the shadows of a deep alcove piercing the ceiling.
I’m not happy just with that; I’ll roll up a second major feature too.
Several large objects are hidden from view under a blanket of dusty spider webs.
Minor feature: hundreds of tiny white spiders crawl over the desiccated body of something that may have been once a person. 
The giant spider itself has a heavy carapace covered with thick black hair; matted clumps of hair look like long spines.
Treasure present: several silver arrows in perfect condition pin a huge spider to the wall.
Also, a frayed spider silk rope lies next to an unfortunate web farmer.

Done - with 1:26 left on the clock.
To be honest, I felt this was an acceptable but slightly underwhelming lair, and not necessarily a clear knock-out win over what I had come up. So I grabbed the dice again, reset the timer again, and made another spider lair using the random tables - and this is where I started to see some of the beauty of this product. Because each lair only takes a few minutes to crank out, but each lair can be quite different from the next. And although the first one didn't scream 'evocative creepy spider lair!' at me, I was much more goosebumped by the second one I generated:

Approaching: Rats, squeaking loudly, scatter at the party’s approach if they aren’t quiet - this might alert the spider within.
However, THIS spider is not here yet, but returns moments after the PCs start investigating its home.
Notable feature 1: Dangling from webs, hundreds of skulls and bones hang from the nest’s ceiling.
Notable feature 2: A large spider’s egg, crawling with hundreds of white fist-sized spiders, hangs from the ceiling.
A broad swath of dried blood covers a section of web near one wall.
The spider itself has a riot of green, brown, and red swirls all over its thick carapace.
Treasure: Intricate leather armor with red piping that mimics a spider’s web.
Also a shattered bottle lies just beyond the grasping hands of a fallen victim. It’s labeled ‘anti-venom.”

DONE - 2:07 left - ok, let’s keep going with creative connections…
What’s with the weird armor that looks like a web?
Did it belong to….Drow, or some very spider-friendly ally? Is there/was there a spider-serving cult? Or an assassin’s group that brought fresh victims to trade for spider venom? Huh.
Stopping now with 1 minute left.
Notice how the "monster's appearance" table means you can have a bunch of different, memorable foes of the same species? This doesn't have to be just "oh, that one time we fought another giant spider." It's "that one spider - you know, the one with the weird colored swirls on its body" - unlike the previous spider, with the big stubby hairs all over it. And the lair details in here get quite evocative - I mean, one 'minor lair feature' entry says "the ribcage of a victim provides safe haven for a large egg sac." I want you to just pause and dwell on that image; some poor soul's former bone-house filled up by a pale, swollen egg sac...that is a deeply horrifying detail. That is starting to make me think of this giant spider as something obscene and awful and inexorable, and yet (of course) intent on protecting its own...this has the makings of a very colorful encounter.

Now, to be fair, not every encounter generated here hits me so much in the feels. For one thing, some monsters are perhaps a bit less environmentally evocative. I wasn't terribly impressed with the Owlbear lair generator, for example:

Outside - a pile of corpses sits outside the nest, as if the creature were unusually fastidious.
Inside, it’s digging a pit, already two feet deep.
A rope bridge connects two ledges above the nest.
Meat has been stripped from the bones of a seven-foot-long fish.
This particular owl bear is missing all its feathers, giving it bald patches on its head and upper body.
Treasure: a carved, jade figurine depicting a bear sits by an intricate ivory carving of an owl.
Also, a leather girdle, stretched nearly to its breaking point, is among the nest’s detritus.

That lair doesn't really speak to me with as much coherence, but I have to admit, I'm not sure I could quickly design something that says 'cool Owlbear lair' any better or faster. And it still makes this Owlbear a bit more memorable, and gives some interesting tactical landmarks for an encounter. So even in the not-so-grands, you still get some cool individualization of each specific creature's abode.

Although each entry gives you ten different 'monster appearances' to work with, the potential shelf-life of these tables probably extends past ten lairs, in many cases, because you can mix and match entries into different combinations (another hairy spider with other lair features, for example). On the other hand, I find that I keep wanting to add a couple of lair features to the same lair, to really make a lair pop, so that would work in the opposite direction for reusability. Anyway, I don't really plan to make more than ten owlbear lairs in the coming year. :-)  


These things are really useful, but they aren't perfect. Fortunately, the things I'd like to critique are fairly small. There are a few odd production-value issues in Vol. I (Vol. II seems better). In Vol. I, the .pdf bookmarking in the product I downloaded was uneven, with a number of hyperlinks pointing to wrong pages near the intended page. That doesn't take too long to get around, but it is annoying. The front matter pages for Vol. I even state "Welcome to this Raging Swan Press System Neutral Edition Village Backdrop" - a reference to a different product from Raging Swan (Vol. II's front matter says "these tables can be used before or during the game to help breathe life into a roper's cave" - but at least Vol. II actually includes the Roper's Cave lair tables!).

Happily, these quibbles detract a bit from the shine, but not too much from the usefulness, of these random table collections.


If you only ever get one Raging Swan Press product, I suggest you spring for their Dungeon Dressing guide instead - but these Monstrous Lairs offer a really nice supplement (in fact, combining both the extensive but more generic Dungeon Dressing tables with monster-specific tables for certain areas would likely be a very powerful combination for quick dungeon design).

I'll finish my recommendations by thinking about different types of users:

If you're likely to make one goblin cave (for example), and time pressure isn't an issue, you probably don't need this product, unless you are not terribly confident in your own creative ideas and want to supplement them.

If you're likely to make multiple goblin caves (for example), these products can help you individualize repeat lair types so that you don't feel like you're always rehashing the same old thing. In fact, here's a fun challenge: know that cool Ten-Monster Setting challenge that's floated around before? You could pick half a dozen monsters from one of these compilations for small campaign setting, and still have very unique-feeling monster encounters across your campaign, thanks to these tables.

If you're likely to make a bunch of crazy encounters on short notice as you generate sandbox content right in front of your players, then I'd definitely recommend this resource, because it just makes it so fast to come up with the colorful stuff mentioned earlier.

Probably the best thing I can say to sum up my feedback is that I'm GMing tonight, and I used this resource to get ready for tonight's session. There's an underground river that my players are planning to navigate as they search for a hidden ancient lore-archive...and there's an aboleth in their way...but, thanks to Monstrous Lairs, it's not just 'an aboleth' - it's the aboleth with a multitude of scars covering its purple skin, and with one of many eyes covered with a milky white film of blindness, surrounded by old bones now brittle as chalk-powder, and by murals depicting tentacles bursting from waves...etc. 

Overall, then, these tables are RECOMMENDED.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Artsy Fartsy (temple vault sketch)

 I felt like sketching this morning, and drew some kind of ... underground temple vault? 

At an earlier stage in the drawing, I asked a family member what they thought. The response: "Is this an interior or exterior scene?" 

Sigh. Keep practicing, I guess. :-)

The initial sketch started in the odd corner of a paper sheet, so the weird line at top left is a join between two sheets. 

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Forth Into the Fray: On Flavors of D&D and a Strange Hybrid 4e D&D / Into the Odd Hack

Is anything in life more fickle than a GM's heart? My last post brought up the Free Kriegsspiel Revolution and my growing appreciation for truly freeform gaming. Well, this post may seem a bit contrarian to that one, I suppose; but they're not meant in opposition, but as different sides of a diverse set of interests. Here's the lowdown: I'm tinkering with a hack for Into the Odd that adds a very, very light template of character specializations borrowed from 4e D&D (!). Yeah, I'm guessing you didn't expect to see that combo anytime soon. Please allow me to explain. 


I recently became aware of and read a now years-old discussion (from 2012) by "Armchair Gamer" of the historical flavors of D&D. It's quite an interesting and thought-provoking read, and it sparked some follow-up discussions in various places; if you've never seen this, I'd really recommend reading and chewing on it for a few minutes. The point I want to highlight here is how it helped me with a sudden "Aha!" moment. The current OSR world, to the extent that I see its contours accurately, mostly advocates and focuses on two flavors of play-and-setting: what that linked essay would call "Knaves-and-Kobolds" (gritty escapades of desperate, cynical lowlifes delving for their desperately, cynically needed coppers) and also "Galactic Dragons and Godwars" (which, by my read, sums up what OSR aficionados often mean when they advertise a 'gonzo' setting or adventure). After these two, there's also a fair bit of what that post called "Dungeoncrawling & Demons," labelling this as "the default flavor" of 2e D&D. 

Personally, I've never really appreciated the gonzo thing all that much. I can get behind the Knaves and Kobolds thing now and then, to be sure - but if I'm honest ... my heart's not really in it, at least not long-term. This essay helped me realize that what I'd usually rather be doing covers some other ground that isn't always as popular, but has been, and can be seen as just a different orientation for play. 

I'm thinking specifically about two styles/flavors mentioned: "Paladins & Princesses," to some extent, and then a flavor that Armchair Gamer first called "Warlords & Warlocks" but later revised, re-naming it "Misfits and Mayhem," with the comment that "P&P tends to have somewhat more 'respectable' heroes and a more defensive * conservative streak. M&M characters tend to be a little more chaotic and not as integrated into society." Elsewhere, the consensus emerged that "M&M" was sort of the not-so-shiny, slightly more ambiguous, distant cousin of "P&P." 

Every so often on an OSR forum, somebody will lament the lack of "some good vanilla fantasy products" in OSR-land. I increasingly suspect that what this often represents is "we'd like to see some flavors other than "Knaves and Kobolds" or "gonzo". At any rate, mulling over this 9-year-old conversation has helped me think about what I'm really trying to aim at in my own games - which has encouraged me to really push hard at what I want and not necessarily go with the flow. 



I've spilled much digital ink on this blog about the wonders of Into the Odd. Mmm-mmm, good! It really is such a great little system, in so many ways. That being said, when I've run it for campaign-length play before, I've realized that there are some bits of it I'd like to tweak. No problem. But it's also a game that really is framed to support both gonzo and rough-and tumble "Knaves and Kobolds"-style play. It's not a great framework as written for heroic fantasy. So here I find myself mulling over how I'd like to see a bit more heroic fantasy, and the the idea hits me...

Could you take some ideas from 4th edition D&D - the big, combat-showcasing edition - and use them to spice up Into the Odd as a more heroic fantasy game? 

Well, um, except I'd never actually played 4e, so, um...

Headed for a trainwreck, no doubt. But I started digging and scratching and researching and have learned a lot in the last week about 4e! And now have a much clearer understanding of why some people hate it so much, and why some people really, really love it. To be honest, I'm not 100% sure yet what I think of it all; it does sound like a very interesting skirmish wargame system coupled with an almost freeform out-of-combat rpg system. 

Meanwhile, the basic idea I've been noodling with hasn't died. In fact, it's already led to a short and positive playtest with two players online. The stuff below is just an appetizer, of course, but I do think I'm likely to finish this hack. My group is almost ready to resume our Iron Age Alternate-Mystara Isle of Dread campaign, and we might be using some version of these rules when we do so. Hmmm. 

Some design goal notes to myself:

emphasize heroic play/heroic, capable characters - rules well-suited for Paladins & Princesses or Misfits & Mayhem-style campaigns. 

emphasize teamwork and synergy in combat 

infuse simple, clear tactical dynamics into ItO’s chassis. Add elements of resource management and key power roles in combat. 

Give each character a specific niche, but don’t limit other characters - any character can attempt any humanly possible action. Anyone can sneak and backstab; anyone can use any martial weapons or wear any armor. Characters’ ‘niches’ are defined by things they’re extra good at, not because they are the only person who can try something. 

A better way to put this is that if a character could already try something in regular Into the Odd, then they can still try it in Forth, Into the Fray! But now they each have extra empowerment as well.

Limit power and options bloat so as to keep gameplay flowing, and to prevent ‘character sheet syndrome.’ Players still should be encouraged to think creatively about manipulating the battlefield - or even running away or avoiding combat altogether. 

Regularly throw bigger and scarier fights toward the player characters! Have less focus on small wandering-monster encounters; adventures are likelier to incorporate well-organized bands of enemies working together, and fewer but more powerful concentrations of enemies. Opponents should include monsters with very high hit points, and more frequent use of many minions or Detachments of enemies. 

Combine these rules with my Into the Odd mass combat/detachment hack. 

Earlier tonight, I posted some tidbits about my design on the Into the Odd/Bastionland Discord forum. Pasting here too. 

As I mentioned last night, I'm tinkering with what will probably be a silly experiment, but it's showing some interesting results. I'm looking at some very simple ways to port basic ideas from 4th Ed. D&D into a hack of Into the Odd. The reasons: to retain the elegance, flexibility, and overall simplicity of ItO as a base, while supporting play with more of a 'heroic action heroes' flavor than base ItO really promotes; to promote player specialization in a way that promotes teamwork and synergy but does NOT limit PCs (in other words, any PC can still do anything they could have done in vanilla ItO; nobody is losing capabilities, just gaining some simple specializations). There is a fair bit of my normal ItO hack that goes along with this, but I thought I would share a quick peek behind the curtain and under the hood, below:

I had a playtest last night that went quite well, I think. I have tweaked things further, a bit. The basic idea is that you generate an ItO character as usual. You then also choose a CLASS (not too dissimilar from Into the Dungeon, Revived's approach) and also choose a COMBAT ROLE - so your PC's final 'identity/niche' is a hybrid of those two elements (you might be, for example, a Fighter/Defender, or an Archer/Striker).

Into the Odd already has built in quite subtly an action-allowance time economy - we have Short Rests that restore HP and Long Rests of about a week that restore Stat loss. 4e D&D had an At Will/Per Encounter/Per Day economy that sort of maps onto this. My version incorporates this, a bit, but is a much stingier action economy than the 4e version.

Finally, below are just a couple of snapshot glimpses of some sample classes and roles and how they might go together.

3 sample classes:

Fighter: if your melee attack base damage die rolls equal to or under your current level, re-set the damage rolled to the die’s max value (for example: a Level 2 Fighter inflicts 6 damage if they roll a 1 or 2 on a d6). This applies to your base attack die, but not to other dice rolled with it (for example, due to Enhanced damage). 

Archer: if your missile attack base damage die rolls equal to or under your current level, re-set the damage rolled to the die’s max value (for example: a Level 2 Archer inflicts 6 damage if they roll a 1 or 2 on a d6). This applies to your base missile attack die, but not to other dice rolled with it (for example, due to Enhanced damage). 

Burglar: when you make a DEX or WIL Save/Challenge directly related to the particular skillset of a Burglar (for example: climbing, picking locks or pockets, disarming traps, etc.) then treat your relevant Stat as 18 while making that roll.

And two sample roles:


Ready Inventory Slots: 5 

At will: 

1. you can Mark one adjacent foe (at a time), at will, as an action combined with a melee attack against them (you do not have to Mark a target in order to attack it). If your Marked target attempts to move away from you or to make an attack that does not target/affect you, you may first interrupt to make a free melee attack against them. If a Marked target successfully moves away from you, if you lose consciousness or otherwise stop engaging a Marked target, or if you mark a different adjacent target, the earlier target is un-Marked. 

2. Also: regardless of actual damage suffered, treat your STR as if it were 18 whenever you make a STR save to stay conscious after receiving critical damage (you still die if you reach 0 STR, of course, but you can take a massive amount of damage before collapsing!). Note that this ability does not apply for critical damage that provokes DEX or WIL Saves. 

Per Encounter/Short Rest: Regain 2d6 HP and 1d6 STR.

Per Long Rest: as you perform an Interrupt melee attack against a Marked target, don’t roll for damage; instead, inflict Critical Damage equal to your current STR.


Ready Inventory Slots: 4 

At will: when your damage is Enhanced, deal +2d6 damage, not +1d6. 

Per Encounter/Short Rest: you may take one extra action this round (for example, you might move three times, move twice and attack or move-attack-move, move once and attack twice, etc.). 

Per Long Rest: add your current DEX or STR to damage you inflict on one attack this round.

Thanks for reading. I have no doubt that some reading this will simply conclude that I clearly don't understand the point of Into the Odd, or of 4e, but I'm having fun with this little experiment for the time being. Happy gaming!

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

A Miscellany: Engaging the FKR, more on DOMAIN Play, and a rather different GREYHAWK

First: my sincere thanks to all who've purchased my newest, recent publication on DTRPG, Hunters & Highwaymen, which I discussed here. I hope it's earning its place on your hard drives and at your tables! In other news, I feel like I have many gaming-related things to comment on these days, and perhaps a miscellaneous post broaching several of them is in order. To wit: 


Well, I've gone and done it. I've become a fan of games run in a Free Kriegsspiel-inspired manner. 

If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, hang tight for a sec. If you do know but you're sure this isn't for you, then you're right where I was a few months ago (yes, that certainly sounds like a recent convert to a cult). 🙈 When 19th-century military staff officers in Prussia wanted to make professional military wargaming more effective and straightforward, they ('they' being the dapperly-named General Julius von Verdy du Vernois) chucked out most of the rules-bloat ("crunch") in exchange for trust in a veteran referee's judgment-calls. This produced a much faster, more intuitive, and more conversational approach to officers' training. It worked so well that it caught on eventually with military staff in other nations, so that the Free Kriegsspiel approach became part of the wargaming conversation in the English-speaking world in the 20th century...including, eventually, the recreational wargaming world. From there, it was an important part of the DNA of games that led to Weseley's Braunstein, Arneson's Blackmoor, and Gygax's Dungeons & Dragons (Which is a thing. Perhaps you've heard of it). Since the 1970s, however, RPGs have fluctuated back and forth (just as professional military wargaming had done earlier) between 'crunchy' and 'freeform' poles.

Fast forward to 2021. There are still some old grognards and first-generation roleplayers who never stopped playing the Free Kriegsspiel way, and there are a bunch of yunger'uns like me who are just now realizing its great potential (FKR means "Free Kriegsspiel Revolution" - it's a comeback, see?). HERE is one gateway for more information. There's a very robust Discord community hashing through this stuff, too. I'm not going to type out a complete who-what-how thing here, but if this sparks interest, I'm happy to engage the topic in more detail on this blog. 

I've quite caught the bug, going really freeform: no hit points, even. I ran a one-shot over zoom last weekend with characters that looked like this:

You're a paladin. You have good fighting skills, full armor, a sword and shield - and you can choose either the ability to try healing wounds through prayer, or to try turning the undead. Oh, and you have any 3 standard adventuring supplies. 

Bingo. That's a full character sheet. Again, this was for a quick one-shot, so you can absolutely develop characters quite a bit more (and I have done recently), but this gets the job done. In combat with a dozen two-foot-tall clay shabti-warriors and a much larger rope-golem inside a tomb, one character (a battle-rager) took a nasty slash across the bicep, another (a humanoid living star) got stabbed in the leg, an enchanter managed to sing to the elements in the tomb's rock-wall persuasively enough that the rock bulged out and entrapped the golem, the critters were defeated, and the paladin juuuust managed to see her allies healed. None of this, again, involved hit points, or a complicated magic system, or such a thing as 'armor class'. It did involve dice rolls, and a real system, but it was a tremendously bare-bones system that had to rely mostly on my own judgment as GM about which situations were more or less favorable to players. 

And it was great. I've been running all my games this way for the past month or so, and am quite enjoying the liberation of the experience. I'm honestly not certain that I would have been much good at this when I was a less-experienced GM. The no-HP thing is my own extreme, however; many FKR GMs still use hit points. To each their own. 

My point? This is a thing. It sounds...bizarre, flakey, gimmicky, and primitively underdeveloped, at first. But it's actually quite potent and liberating. 


Last year, I wrote a series of posts (for example: this one) about streamlined, simpler ways to run Domain-level play - that aspect of gaming in which PCs can command military units, build strongholds, fight wars, and make even more ado about themselves than usual. I messed around with some ideas - some not too shabby ideas, I think - about hacking Into the Odd, Dungeon World/Apocalypse World, etc. 

Over at the Knight at the Opera blog, writer DwizKhalifa recently has run their own series of posts about domain play. I commend them to you. One such post offers an interesting introduction to the world of, believe it or not, Model United Nations and crisis simulation as a game-able paradigm for thinking about domain activities in RPGs. I will be honest: wouldn't have expected that to be a clear fit...but's REALLY a great model for handling domain play! And - well slap me silly - I have to say that it is, to all intents and purposes, a slightly-different expression of the same principles behind (the Mouat style of) Matrix games and also Free Kriegsspiel!

Time loop. Didn't you just finish reading the Free Kriegsspiel section of this post? No, not really, because it turns out that the freeform approach is applicable to darn near every aspect of gaming. This is not actually innovative; I shouldn't be surprised. Gamers were using exactly these kinds of low-crunch, high-judgment techniques at the dawn of our hobby. Last May, reader u/steveg pointed out to me in a comment that some of the rules-light domain techniques I was experimenting with evoked practices used in the Empire of the Petal Throne games, or in the narrative wargaming of Tony Bath's classic Hyboria campaign (which didn't mean much to me last May, but after reading up on, it: WOW). 

So, what's my point here? It's that, uh, yeah, it turns out that really, really freeform management systems for running the domain game have been around since the dawn of RPGs - and, instead of offering a clunky, inelegant, and abstract substitute for a really detailed simulation, they can lead to wonderfully deep and tactical/strategic engagements. My favorite example so far: from Tony Bath's old Hyboria campaign - one player was concerned about a potential rival's construction of a naval fleet, but didn't want to openly provoke hostilities. So he asked Bath whether he could arrange an 'accident' - merchant ships sinking [scuttling!] right at the mouth of the rival's harbor, blocking their port for the near future! Bath agreed, came up with a range of likely results, and then rolled the dice...



I recently diverted some of my ill-gotten gains (thank you, again, dear Hunters & Highwaymen purchasers!) to make a purchase of my own from DriveThru - I picked up .pdf copies of two old TSR setting box sets. One was the original 1e 'gray box' Forgotten Realms set (affiliate link). I had it as a youngster - this is, I will admit, largely just a nostalgia move, but it's quite fun to look through it again (take away the bloated canonical narratives and the endless official Elminster fanboyism, and the original Realms were a pretty cool place to imagine). I also wanted to grab the old Greyhawk boxed set - the one with the charging knights on the box cover - which I also had and pored over in my teenage years. But...I just wasn't sure it was what I was after.

And then I discovered something quite interesting: Greyhawk: From the Ashes. (affiliate link)

This is also a box set (albeit in .pdf). This also features a really sweet 'Darlene' map of the Greyhawk setting. But it's set later, after the 'Greyhawk wars' that did a lot to change the setting. I think I was only ever vaguely aware of this thing; inquiring online, one can encounter a ton of griping about the changes made to the setting (for example, the Scarlet Brotherhood has gone overt and massively expanded their power; some of the 'good guy' kingdoms have fallen or are in serious trouble). 

I don't really have much personal investment in a specific point in Greyhawk history, but I do want a reallly fun and really useful product in return for purchase. And - wow, I've gotta say, this thing looks awesome! It's Greyhawk, as I used to know it, only everything has been turned topsy-turvy because of the recent war. It's a grimmer version of the setting, but also a more dynamic setting that looks more open for GM ideas and players who want to make a dent of their own. To be honest, I've only just started dipping into the files that came with the purchase, but I can already say that it is absolutely loaded to the gills with cool ideas for adventure, including a setting sourcebook that could actually launch a bunch of play sessions and not just offer complicated background fluff. My initial hot take is that whereas endless narrative progress eventually made the Forgotten Realms less suited for unique adventurers with their own agency, this product looks even better than what I remember of the Greyhawk set for the 'classic' era. 

Anyway. Who knew? It hurts my NG-CG-aligned heart to see that iconic castle in flames on the cover, but the stuff between the covers is really good. 

That's all for now. Thanks for reading, and happy gaming!