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Monday, 10 December 2018

Wild West Campaign, Side Note: The Virtue of Long-Term Campaigns

So the other day I was just looking at my very first  Wild West Campaign play report, and came across this description of the characters:

"Anyways, we ended up with a Cuban, two Kentuckians, a pair of guys from Illinois, and a Mormon. The Mormon, incidentally, is a gambler by profession, but he doesn't drink alcohol or coffee and doesn't stay up late nights. Probably the most awesome wild-west character imaginable.  We actually have a lot of archetypes filled: there's the one guy who is stupidly awesome at gun-fighting (or will be as soon as he gets a little bit of experience), the oddly straight-laced gambler, the Cuban guy who is a total outsider with crazy notions, the punk kid from a broken home who ran away to become a bounty hunter, the guy looking to make his fortune opening a butcher's shop, and the mostly-normal guy who is slightly better educated than the rest of them and will probably end up being their leader."

So that was 6 years ago, in game time, which must be close to 3 years of real time.

In that time:

-The Cuban left town (his player had to quit) quite early in the campaign.
-The Mormon Gambler was absolutely awesome, but he ended up marrying a sweetheart (who converted to Mormonism) and staying behind in Dodge City to run a hotel when the other PCs took off.
-The mostly-normal guy ended up dying; and his replacement ended up being Other Miller, who was also a relatively normal guy, but apparently better at not getting himself killed. He's a lawman in Tombstone now.
-The guy looking to make a fortune opening a butcher's shop was Crazy Miller, who certainly made a fortune (at this point in the game he's ridiculously rich), but it took him 6 years to open his butcher shop. He finally did, just now, as one of the half-dozen businesses he owns in Tombstone.
-The guy who was stupidly good at gunfighting, Jeff Young, still is. He's become a well-known shootist and is currently a Lawman in Tombstone. Along with Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo, he's considered one of the three best shots in the west.
-The punk kid was Kid Taylor. He ended up going from a near-cowboy to marrying a judge's daughter and becoming a lawman and a doctor. He's still a bit of a punk though.

It's one of the virtues of playing long campaigns. It's fascinating to see how far they've come. Backstory is nothing. Development of deep characters through long term play is all.


Currently Smoking: Neerup Egg + Image Virginia

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Lords of Olympus Campaign Update: Zombie Strip Club!

Here is the next Lords of Olympus campaign update from one of my players: 

In the Sad Forest
Helena continued on her epic quest and found a black leprechaun, apparently struck by the deep depression prolonged time in the woods causes.

After fighting a few haunted trees and convincing the black leprechaun, she found the clue that followed, leading her to the Dead Ocean. With Toilette and a ship that helped them, they found a buoy that had another small offer with the following clue “10000 feet in the Graveyard of the Mouth” and a note, seemingly from Prometheus, asking to not free up the creature in this buoy. She continued her quest, now thinking someone is just making her waste her god damn time.

On Mount Parnassus.
Arrit left Parnassus, controlled by Corey, who tried to bring her up to Hera, yet Prometheus appeared ready to stop her with his Dr Who-like Gadgets. Prometheus used his Daemon form, sprouting chaos tentacles similar to those of Doctor Octopus, and a fight soon begun. But Corey was too tired to defeat him, being encumbered by Arrit, and had to let go of her hand, cutting her mental link with her. They discussed, and Corey left the choice to come with her or Prometheus to Arrit. She decided to go with Prometheus. Powerless to stop her target, Corey decided to return to Hera and report her failure, who was disappointed but understood that Prometheus would have been too great of an enemy. She decided to teach Corey a bit about Olympian culture, her allies and enemies, before receiving a message to come towards the palace of Olympus for a talk with Zeus.

In the Underworld
Frank and Guillermo were hanging around in the underworld looking for footwear, and since shoes weren’t really the new fashion for legless spirits, they decided to go to a zombie strip club.

They talked for a while , and Guillermo contacted with Prometheus, asking how they were doing about Arrit. Meanwhile, Ralph decided to free Uncle Roman and contacted with Prometheus as well, telling him to help them both run away from the Underworld. This was because Hecate seemed to know about Ralph's past, but refused to tell him in any way. He created a scrying portal and tried to take them both out, just as Hermes arrived to pick up Paneb (who was going to find his mother with Frank in their world) and Guillermo (Who was going to Olympus in hope to contact the fates and know the identity of his Primordial Father). Sadly for Ralph, Dou-mu, the Goddess of Death and girlfriend to Paneb, saw him leave with Roman and alerted both Hecate and Hades.
Guillermo parted with Hermes, and Paneb decided to detour first, going to Hades, and asking his father for an artifact to protect himself against mind reading from Hecate. While he thought that his son was a bit paranoid, he offered a brooch that would give him immunity to mind reading. His second stop was going to the River Lethe, whose waters are capable of erasing anyone’s memories.

On Olympus
Aetos returned with his new servants, the Minotaur Minos, and his son Flavius, to his palace, giving them strict instructions to ensure their safety in Olympus. He spent some time with Hephaestus socializing and practiced magic. Knowing that turning in his favor with Zeus to make Flavius immortal too soon would be a bit controversial with the other Gods, as he is relatively new to Olympus, he decided to wait as he got the gossip about Arrit coming in to Olympus.
Fito arrived to Olympus with Triton and Brontes, while he was waiting for Arrits arrival, he went to a bar and met Thor. They talked for a while and Fito learned that Thor didn’t like Aetos, mainly because he was dating Aphrodite and Aetos had offended her by almost ignoring her in all of their interactions. They had a few (hundred) drinks and spent the night.
Arrit arrived to Olympus with Apollo after having gone to slay a giant snake, a giant eagle, and a giant giant (Apollo figured one of these would be enough but she did all three), and a great discussion ensued in the palace of Olympus. Brontes, Fito, Triton, Athena, Aetos, Apollo, Corey, Hera and Zeus were there. While Zeus argued that it was illegal to try to kill Arrit, Hera said that she needed to find out who had stolen the Apple of the Hesperides, and said that this was an affront to Olympus itself. As it was now almost  certain that it was Prometheus, and that he crossed the boundaries of Olympus, which he was not meant to cross, Zeus declared that Prometheus would no longer be protected by the law of the Gods, and anyone would be allowed to hunt or kill him without reprisal. Apollo was spared, since he didn’t work for Prometheus, but rather tried helping Arrit. Ares, on his side, was merely captured by Apollo and trapped in a small world. As for Arrit, she was named officially as one of Zeus’s children.

Why Paneb hasn’t collided with anything today? Does Guillermo’s dragon like Yerba Mate?

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Classic Rant: "Real Magick" in RPGs: Chaos Magick

After Aleister Crowley, probably the most significant shift in 20th century western magick was the development of what can be called "chaos magick", starting in the late 70s. I've talked a little about this before; they were/are kind of magickal-hipsters who try to incorporate post-modern ideas into magick, show general disdain for scripted ritual, and like to mix "science" with their magick (or more aptly, butcher popular scientific or mathematical theories about everything from quantum mechanics to game theory to try to fit in with or justify their magical world view).

At their worst, these are guys who go around trying to invoke Superman by a free-form ritual of running around in a cape, rather than, say, invoking Horus with a modified version of a 2000 year old invocation. Many of them tend to believe that all magick is purely a subjective, almost "artistic" thing, where you can make up just anything and if you believe in it strongly enough it will work. That's "magick as placebo", basically.

But there is one thing that has to be said for them. Of all the groups of magicians, they're the ones most likely to actually try to perform some kind of magick. Way more, in fact, than the average Thelemite or old school ceremonial magician, most of whom prefer to spend a lot of time reading about and talking about magick rather than actually trying any. Unfortunately, the chaos magicians only really have one form of magick that's popular with them that they regularly use, which is "Sigil magick", and they usually do that poorly. They have a great ratio of practice to bullshit but their practice is a half-assed performance of a one-trick pony.

You see, the reason why they actually do their one-trick magick act so much is because it's very easy to do; it doesn't require any great effort to use sigil magick. And a chaos magician might explain it like this: you pick some kind of intention, you summarize that intention as a phrase (ie. "I will get the job"). Then from that phrase you reduce it to core letters, some chaos magicians just take out repeated letters, others take out vowels and repeated letters. For simplicity's sake let's remove both; in our example you're thus left with "w l g t h j b". With those remaining letters, you then try to draw them all together in a kind of jumble, all connected to form one single drawing, and then you can optionally abstract that drawing until the original letters aren't even recognizable anymore.

Then you have to "charge" the sigil somehow; there are several popular methods of doing this, from the very vanilla version of just staring at the sigil intensely while repeating your intention, to the more risque version of masturbating onto the sigil while thinking about your intention. There are other ways too, of varying degrees of weirdness.

After your sigil is "charged", you put it away, and stop thinking about it. This is known to be an important step, because you now want to let go of the attachments that keep you worried about the issue and would block your Will's ability to get stuff done, energetically. 

And that's it. In theory, your desired change should come to pass.

The reason Sigil magick became so popular was threefold:
First, because it takes very little actual work, no memorization, no ancient languages, no kabbalistic correspondences, nothing strenuous.

Second, because some people report a very high success rate with it. For those people for whom it works, it works very well. Note that it does not in fact work very well for everyone, or consistently, but when you're looking for cheap low-labour-intensity magick, you go for whatever has even a halfway-decent success rate.

Third, because it was basically invented by Austin Osman Spare, a counterculture artist who lived in the early half of the 20th century, that many chaos magicians latched onto as promoting some kind of easygoing alternative to all the pomp-and-circumstance (and hard work!) of Aleister Crowley's system of magick. Long after Spare was dead, he was credited (because of sigil magick) with being the "grandfather of chaos magick".

(Osman Spare: Male Cat Lady)

Now, sigil magick does have its downsides. The chief among them is that in fact it is not nearly as easy as the above explanation implies. You see, most chaos magicians didn't actually read Spare or read about his history; if they had they'd have known that he was in fact a student of Aleister Crowley's, that he was largely concerned with the same issues of personal transformation and transcendence, and that for him sigil magick was a relatively minor part of a much larger body of work that had to be taken on holistically. In Spare's "Book of Pleasure" (a sanity-loss-inducing ramble of a book that presents a very wordy and jumbled explanation of Spare's philosophy) Spare makes it clear that the REAL goal of his magick is the achieving of what he called "Kia", the state of non-duality, and the vast majority of his writing is not about the sigil magick but about how to undertake a discipline of practice to achieve that state.

And the reason why sigil magick doesn't actually work as well as advertised is largely because most people do it in a very half-assed way (drawing a sigil, metaphorically or literally wanking over it, and then dropping the whole thing); when in fact the efficacy of sigil magick depends on whether or not a magician is engaging in a dedicated daily regimen of practice and spiritual exercises to focus his concentration, and to achieve trance states. Its not surprising that those chaos magicians that reported amazing success with sigil magick were also those who were very serious in their pursuit of magick; they usually failed, however, to report the connection between being disciplined and doing sigils successfully; they tended to say "its easy" either as a selling point to get people into it or because they honestly didn't make the connection that maybe their sigils were working so well because they were doing a bunch of other shit at the same time; a routine of exercises in concentration and trance-work that they took for granted, but that 99% of the people reading them did not and would not do, because it feels too much like work.

In game terms, a chaos magician is most likely to be a young hipster of some kind, into all kinds of fashionable theories (lots of chaos magicians are very into psychedelics, counter-culture, cutting edge science or pseudo-science, singularity predictions, AI, virtual reality, UFOs and conspiracy theories, etc. etc.). Many of them tend to be artistically, dramatically, or musically inclined, and see that as part of their magick.

The average chaos magician tends to rankle at anything smacking of formal ritual, magical orders, hierarchy, authority, tradition, or at the idea of objective rather than subjective archetypes. Many of them to the point that (as per my "superman" example above) they try to incorporate pop culture into their magick (usually with less-than-stellar results). Many of them will have very... let's say "broad" definitions of magick, and of "success" in their magick. They're the kind of guys that will try to convince you that just thinking really hard is magick, or that playing Xbox for 12 hours straight while high is a transcendent experience. The problem about half of them have with magick is that they don't really believe in it; the other half's problem is that they DO actually believe in it and suffer from serious doubts about their own lack of seriousness. In both cases, chaos magicians have a tendency to completely freak out when they get actual REAL results, because they just don't expect that sort of shit to go down. A Chaos Magician NPC will be able to tell you all about what's hip and new and what's out of style, and may be able to show the PCs some tricks (mainly how to use sigils) but if they end up facing some kind of spiritual entity that the chaos magician realizes is not just explainable as a conversation with himself, or have an experience of an altered state of reality or travel to a dimension that is clearly not just a flight of fantasy, he'll probably go through a serious spiritual meltdown.

They're not all bad, of course; I'm describing the typical suspect above; and there are many more serious people involved in it: The main proponents of the movement, people like Peter J. Caroll or Jan Fries are very studious and regularly push the frontiers of their own experiences and perspectives, and are often highly critical of their own scene and the lack of seriousness some people show. Others, like Alan Chapman, have recently begun to come to a kind of revelation which might be the start of yet another new movement in magick: they've decided that post-modernism and pop-culture in magick is a dead end, and have instead tried to take some of the lessons they learned from the best of chaos magick, but go back to the more orthodox models and apply their practices to Thelemic or other ceremonial magick structures. Chapman described how the initial appeal of going from standard magick to chaos magick amounted to the question "why ponce about in robes when I could be a stoned wanker"? That was pretty much the sentiment of a large number of chaos magicians; but he continues from there to say, "a few years later, however, and the novelty was wearing off".

In particular, more and more chaos magicians have recently got the feeling that there might be something more to explore in magick than just making sigils to get stuff in the material world, and have begun to think about how there might be something to this whole "experiencing other levels of reality" or even "self-transformation/transcendence" stuff after all.


(Originally posted January 6, 2012)

Friday, 7 December 2018

New Dark Albion Review!

Hey everyone, today I've got to game in like, minutes, but let me present you with an awesome review of Dark Albion, originally posted here on theRPGsite reviews section by Headless:

Without further ado:

This is a review of Dark Albion: The Rose War, written by RPGPundit published by Dom Publishing. 

Dark Albion is a campaign setting, its tag line is "Grim fantasy England in the 15th century." It covers about 30 years of English history from 1453 to 1485. Those of you with a familiarity with English history will remember that is when the English were fighting the War of the Roses. Those of you with a passing familiarity with Game of Thrones by George Martin, will quickly realise that he was painting over the same conflict with a slightly different fantasy veneer. It's a rich period and both authors make them come alive. I'm only reviewing Dark Albion today but there may be some comparisons.

I'll start by describing the book, then its content, impressions/opinion, comments quibbles complaints. What I love what I think it's missing. Then comments on who this book is for and if I would use it. 

It's a soft cover 277 page book, color covers and generous black and white illustrations inside. It has a helpful table of contents and an index in the front, two things I always look for especially in a reference manual like this one. Then about 13 pages of introduction and overview which I found very helpful and well written both as a historical primer and to set the tone for running a game in Dark Albion. 

Pundit does an excellent job telling us what kind of a game he wrote this setting for. He tells us Dark Albion is meant to be system agnostic within the OSR (old school renaissance). OSR is a bit of a slippery term at least to me. He provides a definition, but it's mechanistic and legalistic. He says the OSR are games and systems based on earlier systems using an open gaming licence. That might help you figure out which games belong in the OSR but it doesn't help you understand the feel of it, or what kind of a game you can run with Dark Albion. I'll try to provide a bit of a description, this is my description it helps me understand how to use this book, your mileage may vary. The OSR is a reaction against two game trends. The first is the focus on story, which I am going to say has a strong example in White Wolf games. This system gives the DM (or storyteller) broad permission to fudge the system, the rolls, the rules and muck around in the back ground to get his (or her) players where he wants them to be. He has a plan and it's his job to make it happen. 

The second is and overly rule based game focused approach, which I am going to say has a strong example in D&D 3.5 and pathfinder (also D&D 4th edition I think but I didn't play that one). This approach focuses on the rules, the abilities, the powers and the cool tricks the player characters have. When that kind of a game goes badly it grinds to a halt as the players and DM dive into the rule books. 

In reaction to these twin diverging influences the OSR is an attempt to recapture the magic of older games. It focuses on simpler games, simpler rules, and freedom for the players. Magic is rare but real. Most of all I would say the game happens at the table. It's not in the DM's head just waiting for the players to say their lines, it's not in the rule books, there is little need to look things up, and often you don't even need to check your character sheet, there is nothing there that is going to help you solve your problem. 

With that understood Dark Albion is a setting for a simple, rules light, magic light, low level game. He further gives us some very specific instructions for running a game in this period. Instructions which will feel very restrictive to the fantasy genera. I will say they all have to do with essential fact that civilization is the difference between life and death. The restrictions are, social standing is ridged, determined at birth (immutable) and it is the most important characteristic about any person. The higher classes expect and demand deference from the lower classes, societies will not tolerate rudeness or disobedience, even wearing the colors or fabrics above your station is a punishable offence. Typical Player Character rudeness will get the whole party executed or exiled which amounts to the same thing (remember civilization is the difference between life and death). 

Second, Non-human even non-civilized is dangerous and threating. There will be no half-elfs in the party, not dwarves or Halflings, certainly no good half orcs. The monsters are monstrous and dangerous, pure and simple. 

Third is religion. Religion is the back bone of civilization, it's monotheistic, it's lawful and it's not really subject to alternative interpretations. If you aren't worshiping the Unconquered Sun, (or the Crescent Moon, same guy) you are worshiping a demon who will damn you and use you to destroy as much of what you love as possible before he leads you to your death. 

These 3 restriction will be quite an adjustment for most modern players. Our society is characterised by social freedom, tolerance and understanding for outsiders. We are tolerant of other religions, largely because it is impotent and completely irrelevant. That was not the case for medieval society and it will not be the case for players in Dark Albion. 

Honestly that is the core of Dark Albion, if you understand those 3 restrictions you are ready to play, the rest is details, specifics, aids and setting references. 

But the specifics are quite good so let's take a look. After the overview and introduction is about 60 pages of geography notes. Starting very detailed in London which has several entries for specific Inns and buildings and becoming less details as it gets further away. Iceland is described as an Icy wasteland which may have a volcano that is a gate way to hell. If the players stay in England the DM will have plenty of easy and useful references about what can be found, if they go further afield the DM will have progressively more work to do. The entries are well written and interesting many of which contain adventure seeds in just a couple lines. For example the Isle of Wright is inhabited by undead and Morrigaine the Witch Queen (from the story of King Arthur) lives on the Orkney Isles. The Isle of Mann is obviously the inspiration for House Greyjoy in Game of Thrones. Many of the entries in England have excellent hex maps.

After the geography reference section is a quick section on law and order. Quite helpful if your players are going to flout laws and conventions and get themselves in trouble with various authorities. Since they are player characters there's really no if. You will need this section. 

After that is a 30 year point form history of the war of the Roses with a thin layer of fantasy and horror painted over it. This section will be essential if you intend to play through the Rose war. Each year has events to help you keep track of the shifting alliances of the war, as well as events from the wider world, intrigues, rumours and some fantasy events, like attacks by werewolves or the dead rising. 

Then 10 or 12 pages on creating a character in Dark Albion. Because this is a setting and not a system it focuses on social class and the roll various character classes play in Albion society instead of the abilities of various character classes. For example he tells us how careful wizards need to be to avoid being accused of daemon worship, chaos magic or witch craft instead of telling us how many spells or spell like abilities they get. This section also includes a couple of random tables, Names, random events from the characters history, and a random table for social class. As always you are free to roll or choose from any table, I would strongly urge choosing on the social class table. If social class is as important as Pundit insists it is, then it's not something I would want to leave to chance. First because you won't be able to play the kind of game you and your players want without the right roll. Even if one or two of your players get the right roll that will leave the rest of the party feeling like the Decker in shadow run, either watching the rest of the party or with the party watching them while they do their stuff. But also because randomly assigning one player to eat another's shit for a long term game just don't sound like fun to me. That's if you are very lucky and the dice assign the subservient role to the player that can handle it, if the dice assign roles the other way your game is going to flame out and you are going to be left with fewer friends. 

There is a helpful section of equipment and costs, which includes things like wages for a Knight, as well as things like beer and boats. Maybe I'm playing in the wrong games but I've never bought a sail boat even though every equipment list seems to include it. 

There is a section for a mini game involving managing the power and prestige of Noble houses. It's not very well detailed. If you want to focus on that aspect of the game I would advise finding some more substantial rules, but if you just need a bit of help to add some substance to your handwavium I think this section will be fine. Not something that will be used often, but might just tide you over if you need it.

Then the 3rd large reference section this one on notable people. Most just have a couple lines, birth death, allies, and class levels if any. More important figures have longer entries. This is a section you would want to spend serious time with if you were intending to run the war. There are probably over 100 people on these pages. If I was to run it I would mark up my book with notes on personality, voice and when they have met the party. 

There is a section on magic daemons and alchemy. Which could prove quite useful if the game goes in that direction.

Finally traveling, encounters complications and some sample adventures. Good stuff here as far as it goes. I could run the map bases adventures right out of the box. The social political intrigue adventures are nothing more than seeds. More could have been done here and I think more should have been. If you are going into the goblin warrens you don't need this book. While there is plenty of opportunity for intrigue Pundit hasn't done any of the work for us. He gives us a seed, "the local lord enters marriage negations for one of his children." Ok now flesh it out for us a bit, there are over 100 characters, and plenty of maps. Make some attachments; which lord, who is opposed, who is for? Are there dark forces arrayed for or against this union? A bandit lover? Sketch it in a bit for us. Setting scenes and making flow charts might be against the spirt of the OSR (maybe not sure) but there is a real missed opportunity here to get us started on realizing the potential of the setting. 

Finally there are some appendixes on adapting this setting to specific systems. They look helpful and functional. Other than that I won't say anything because I don't know the systems very well.

I've finally reached my thoughts quibbles and complaints. First off this is an excellent reference book. The three sections, People, Geography and History will be great for playing in the rose war. They are so good that I will make the same complaint I did in my review of Lords of Olympus. Pundit is a historian and he researches and writes with academic rigor. I want his foot notes. Like many people my knowledge of history comes from whatever I read or watch and I read more fiction than non-fiction. I am now fairly certain the rose war ended in 1485 and that Richard had a force of 10 000 men and some bombards, I'm less sure about Henry's Dragon. This can only be a quibble, Pundit set out to write a campaign setting and he succeeded. He is clear and readable, I think with just a couple comments a bibliography and some footnotes it would be an excellent primer on the actual history of the Rose war as well. 

Second quibble. Dominique Crouzet has done a great job with lay out and picked some really amazing public domain drawings. The book is full of them, they are large, appropriate and really well done. Honestly some of the best art I have seen in a book in a while. Every page has a line drawing, a map or an icon of some kind. But there are no notes on them. Not the artist, not the date, and not a comment. I would like to know what they are and where they come from. At the very least I would like to know if they are modern or a medieval interpretation of the setting. 

My only real complaint is I feel like I need something to attach the fantasy elements to the real history. Maybe a beastiary. The game is pregnant with fantasy adventure, but Pundit hasn't been a very good midwife and leaves the DM to birth his (or her) fantasy largely unassisted. For instance, who are the Cymri? He tells us they are the half elven decedents of the ancient elven kings. But tell us more about them, do they map on to anyone in real history? Give us some elves. He has a section on randomly generating demons, well stat one up for us. I don't need him to stat up werewolves for me, but a setting appropriate curse or cause of their affliction would help. This maybe an unfair complaint. He set out to put only a thin layer of fantasy over the rose war, and he has done that. I don't want campaign, I want a starter. A simple mission attached to the characters and time line he laid out for us. There will always be a distance between the setting and the table. It's the DM's job to absorb the material and make it come alive on his own. To bridge background to play. I just think Pundit could have gotten us a bit closer. 

This is a well written, well researched and very useable book. It's pleasant to read and as I said is full of really cool pictures. It's very specific and has limited use outside of low fantasy historical settings. Give it a read but you don't need to keep it in your collection unless you are going to be running a historical medieval game. There is enough here that I would use it for any historical game, not just ones in England or in the 15th century.

Buy Dark Albion here

Thursday, 6 December 2018

RPGPundit Reviews: Dungeons & Delvers Black Book

This is a review of the RPG "Dungeons & Delvers: Black Book", published by Awful Good Games, written by David Guyll and Melissa Fisher. It is, allegedly, an OSR 'homage' the "easy to master" black box of the original D&D game.  That is to say, not the BECMI Master Rules, but rather the later 1991 D&D introductory box set.

This is, as always, a review of the print edition, which is in the form of a smaller softcover (of similar size to the LotFP products), about 140 pages in length. The cover is full color, featuring a trio of adventurers about to face off with a dragon. The interior art is also color, featuring illustrations of adventurers, equipment, and monsters.  Production values are quite good by the standards of a small press product.

The back cover of the book reads a bit like an infomercial, the sort of thing that you used to see in 1990s "heartbreaker" RPGs. It's a very long diatribe about the various differences between this game and standard D&D. It has creatures that are more similar to its mythological counterparts, people get to choose things when they level up, fighters scale damage, armor does damage reduction, clerics and wizards have different magic than the standard, there are "simple and effective crafting rules", magic is not required for adventuring, and treasures are handled differently ("not every monster has a hoard").

On the one hand, I guess this gives you a good perspective on what's different. But let's face it, most people shopping for this game won't be looking in a brick & mortar store, they'll be buying it online. And there's just something a little amateurish about it. It's a bit like they don't realize that most of the things listed have been done by one OSR game or another, in some cases years ago. My own Lion & Dragon has mythological based creatures, choices of how you advance at every level, fighters scaling damage, and non-Vancian magic systems (as well as different, more medieval-authentic treasures).  I didn't put that on the back cover of my game, though.

But all that said, you shouldn't really judge a book by its cover, not even its back cover. And if the game lives up to all the back-cover hype, and does it the right way, it might be quite good. So, let's find out!

The foreword to the book has the designer telling us that he had found himself disillusioned with 5th edition, and that for a while he'd played Dungeon World, but it wasn't quite satisfying his gaming needs, so he started working on his own project. Initially, Dungeons & Delvers was going to be a 4e D&D spin-off (eww), but he was unsatisfied with the complexity of that game, and with the amount of time it took to run a fight, and the excessively complex options. So then he went back to the version of D&D that he first played: the 1991 introductory black box set. He used that as the base, and began building on his house rules from there.

Now, his story doesn't mention the OSR, which leads me to think his 'heartbreaker' style of back-cover description may well be (as I suspected) a product of a lack of experience with many OSR products. It's also kind of troubling to note that the two main inspirations of his recent play are the abominable 4e and Dungeon World, as the former isn't even real D&D, and the latter isn't even a real RPG. Let's hope he freed himself from their influence and we don't see problematic elements of either in the product.

After a couple of pages of the basics of how to play, we get to character creation. Ability scores are rolled on 3d6, with rolls assigned at will. Alternately, you can go with a predetermined array. Races are chosen, and the four included in the book are Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Kobold (an interesting variation from including halflings). Each race comes with a list of potential names, racial features, and a description of typical adventurers of that class.
Each race gains a +1 to one or more ability scores (humans get a +1 to one score of their choice). Elves and dwarves have base weapon proficiencies. Dwarves have poison resistance and a +1 to dungeoneering checks, as well as taking less time to craft. Elves can either increase their perception and stealth or gain a wizard talent and some base mana. Humans can choose one skill or raise an existing skill by +1, and get a bonus talent (or can get special talents making them have part elven or part fiendish blood). Kobolds (who are not typical D&D kobolds but closer to mythological little-fairy-folk) get a bonus to stealth and a few set bonuses depending on whether they're 'hearth', 'mine' or 'ship' kobolds. The kobolds are the most interesting thing about this game thus far.

Characters have wound points and vitality points. Wounds are based on your constitution ability score bonus, modified at character creation by the class you chose. You gain more wound points as you level. Vitality points are based on level, and they're usually lost before wounds. So this is basically a variation on the system from the D20 Star Wars RPG. Characters also gain weapon and armor proficiencies by class; if you use a weapon without proficiency you have penalties to hit, and armor you're not proficient in cause penalties to movement, attacks, spells, reflex saves and armor class. Characters also begin with a handful of skills based on class.

Clerics handle their magic through "Favor", which is based on one's Wisdom score. They start with specific powers and select a couple more, and then gain more as they go up in level.
Fighters gain extra damage bonuses, special combat talents, and at higher levels multiple attacks.
Rogues get sneak attack, skill bonuses, and special talents.
Wizards have magic, which they cast using mana points (they can also use up vitality and wound points if they don't have mana points left). Wizards choose talents that indicate a school of magic they are studying, and then each school is a prerequisite to accessing certain skills. This is also in some ways reminiscent of force powers in Star Wars D20.
Each class also starts with default equipment, which are in the forms of "packs" (ie. Wizard pack, explorer pack, etc).

Each class covers levels 1-5. This is, if I recall correctly, the level range in the original 1991 black-box D&D set. So I guess, unless there's an expansion coming (and a sidebar text in the book suggests that there will be), that this is a game for low-level play.

The game is level based, and XP is handled quite simply (which I like). It takes 50xp per level to level up. So to get to level 2 requires 50xp, level 3 requires 100xp, level 4 takes 150xp, etc.
You get XP for the standard monster-fighting, as well as overcoming hazards and traps. You also get XP any time you survive getting down to 0 wound points. At the GM's discretion, PCs can also gain XP by completing quests or making important discoveries in game.

The game uses a skill system, and there are 18 default skills. They're tied to ability scores, plus skill bonuses (up to +5). They're rolled on a D20. There are more detailed rules for crafting skills, which include alchemical substances, and making armor and weapons.

The equipment section starts with the option of players starting with a certain amount of cash rather than pre-determined equipment. Aside from that it, it provides a pretty standard (not exhaustive, but adequate) list of weapons, armor, general gear, mounts (which include some unusual ones like "dire wolf" or "giant spider"), alchemical items, and potions.
The weapons have certain special qualities. Some of them grant bonuses to initiative, or to piercing damage reduction from armor. Weapons are divided into "simple" and "martial", in the 3e style.
Armor provides both bonuses to AC, as is traditional, and damage reduction qualities (ranging from AC10+Dex bonus and DR1 for leather; to AC15 and DR5 for plate mail). Shields don't provide DR, but add bonus to AC and to reflex saves.

The basic mechanic of the game is pretty much the standard from the D20 system, the D20+mod vs DC method, which has of course been used in various OSR games, including DCC and my own Arrows of Indra and Lion & Dragon. It also includes the less-frequently-used (in the OSR at least) "take 10/20" mechanic and the "passive scores" concept. Mechanics are also provided for travel, climbing, doors, and digging.

In Combat, Initiative is rolled on a D20+DEX, and combat actions are similar to those of 3e/D20, or rather a simplified version without the unfortunate excesses of the 3e system.  It's pretty standard to OSR play. Critical 20s do maximum damage. Damage is applied first to vitality, and later to wounds; though some special forms of damage (like poison) get applied directly to wounds.
The big difference in the combat system is the fact that Armor soaks damage. There's also some weapons with the "armor piercing" quality which means they ignore a certain amount of damage reduction.

In another case of borrowing from new-school D&D, there's short and long rests in this game. A short rest is 30 minutes long, and allows the recovery of 1 vitality per character level, plus 1 mana point per wizard level for wizards. A long rest is 6-8 hours, and the character recovers a number of short rests equal to the number of half-hour increments they slept, plus at the end of the long rest they recover their CON+level in wounds. Resting in wilderness areas make recover a little worse, while staying in high quality accommodations or using a healer's kit improves them.

I have to say, I was not a big fan of the "rests" in 5e. However, in this game, with the division between vitality and wounds, it makes a bit more sense. Some OSR gamers might still feel that recovery is too fast in this system; I guess that would be mostly a matter of taste.

Characters that fall to 0 wounds are unconscious and potentially dying. They can be stabilized by someone with medicine, but failing the medicine check cause more wound damage. A character who reaches negative wounds equal to their wounds will die. If they survive there's a random table for a chance of permanent injuries.

At this point we're at page 91, and we get into the gamemastering section. There's a couple of pages of pretty generic GM advice, none of which seems super useful to me for anyone who isn't buying this as their first RPG (and, as I've often pointed out with other products like this in the past, it seems extremely unlikely to me that the vast majority of purchasers would be buying this as their first game).

There is some good advice on the section on "Charisma skills", which help to avoid some of the excesses of what games which use these tend to have, where a character maxed out on social skills just uses them as a kind of superpower. The designer makes it very clear that there are many circumstances where no amount or roll of a charisma skill will allow the PCs to just get what they want. For example, a low level adventurer won't be able to intimidate a Dragon into letting them take their treasure hoard, no matter how good their Intimidate skill or intimidate roll might be. Good advice!

I'm also glad to see that the designer also includes the old-school Reaction Table. Something that was badly noted for its absence in the later editions of D&D. The section on "building encounters" is also very well written with the right philosophy in mind: it plainly states that the goal here is NOT to get the GM to build "balanced encounters" but rather to give the GM an idea of what is likely to happen with the types of encounters PCs might face; but it's made clear that in the game there should be encounters that are beyond 'balance', because in a realistic world you're not always going to face foes that are your equals.

There's also some guidelines to design, including a table to randomly roll some scenarios; which is fine but it's only 8 entries long. There's also a 12 entry setting to describe the location of a dungeon (ie. "a building in a town", "a ruined castle", "wizard's tower", "corpse of massive creature", etc).

The rest of the guidance material about how to handle the party and how to lay out the dungeon is all just average in quality. Nothing awful, but nothing special.

Next is the Monster section, and it has 24 pages of monster stat-blocks, including treasure suggestions for monster type. The stats are fine, the monsters don't include anything radically new or surprising. It's mainly standard types of creatures you'll find in D&D. It was perhaps the most disappointing section of the rules. First, because for all the promise of being mythologically-based, there's actually little here that I find as being a significant mythological variation from D&D-standard. There are a couple of details, like how a ghoul is closer to a demon than an undead and can put on the face of the last person it killed, but for the most part it is a lot less medieval-legend focused and much more conservative in staying close to D&D-standard than the monsters in my own Lion & Dragon (and note that some people felt I was still way too conservative in staying close to D&D-standard myself).
Also, monsters are listed with vitality and wound points, rather than what dice they'd roll for vitality and wounds. Of course, on the one hand this makes sense as PCs themselves don't roll for vitality or wounds, they get a fixed amount at every level (only modified by CON). But I just found it jarring, like a pesky flaw that shows that the reality is virtual, when your party knows that every time it faces an ogre (barring GM intervention) it will take precisely 54 points of damage, no more and no less, to take it down.

You also get a 3-page guide for converting monsters from other OSR products to this system. Most of it is pretty straightforward.

There's also a couple of pages with a guide to traps, including a few examples.

The last section is the treasure tables. This is a small section, about 6 pages long. It has a couple of random tables for generating gems and jewelry, and 17 magic items (some of these are relatively novel and creative, so the chapter has that going for it).

So what to conclude about "Dungeons & Delvers Black Book"? On the whole, it's a good little OSR ruleset. It could be particularly appealing to gamers who like rulesets that incorporate the better elements from 3e (and a touch of 5e) play. It would also appeal to gamers whose favorite D&D play involves low-level action.
On the other hand, gamers who are OSR purists, or who want something that gets to higher levels of play won't really be satisfied by this book (though in the latter group, the eventual expansion of this game, if it comes to pass, would likely resolve the problem).

The game has nothing particularly wrong with it at all; other than the very nitpicky point that the author could have made more mythological focused monsters with a slightly bolder effort to come out more different than standard D&D. But fortunately, it shows no signs of the dangerous influences that were mentioned in the forward. On the other hand, other than the incorporation of some of the new-school mechanics, it also doesn't take any daring or innovative risks.  It's not something you'll get if you want to buy a really innovative game on the creative edge of the OSR. However, if you were a fan of the old Basic Set (or for that matter, the black-box basic set of the early 1990s that this game was inspired by), this could be right up your alley.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Canadian + McLintock's Syrian Latakia

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

20 Dubious Magic Items of the Last Sun

Are you looking for a bunch of weird, sometimes gonzo, magical objects that are less straightforward than a +1 sword or a potion of invisibility?  Want your players to have such questions as "wtf is this crap?!" or "How do we make this work for us"?

If so today I present you with RPGPundit Presents #57: 20 Dubious Magic Items of the Last Sun! It is a collection of 20 items that are directly from the sessions of the Last Sun setting, all of which are kind of weird.

Check out such items as:
-Rumplesnuffer Whistledrinker Taintlord's Acid Squirtgun!
-the Rock Sack!
-the Amulet of Hot Dolphin Love!
-the Pythian Elf Mecha!
-the Curious Sword!
-the Crystal of the Tyrant!
-the Staff of the Deep Ones!
-the Asshole Ring
-the Bucket O' Tentacles!

and more!

If you want to surprise, amuse, confound and challenge your players with some magic items different from the norm, this is the product for you. Every item comes with a full explanation of its properties and most also have some notes on their origins.

You can pick up RPGPundit Presents #57: 20 Dubious Magic Items of the Last Sun from DTRPG, or buy it from the Precis Intermedia Webstore.  In any case it's just $2.49!

And while you're at it, be sure to pick up the rest of the great supplements in the RPGPundit Presents series:

RPGPundit Presents #1: DungeonChef!

RPGPundit Presents #2: The Goetia  (usable for Lion & Dragon!)

RPGPundit Presents #3: High-Tech Weapons

RPGPundit Presents #5: The Child-Eaters (an adventure scenario for Lion & Dragon!)

RPGPundit Presents #17: The Hunters (an adventure for Lion & Dragon!)

RPGPundit Presents #21: Hecate's Tomb (an adventure for Lion & Dragon!)

RPGPundit Presents #54: Medieval College Adventures (compatible with Lion & Dragon)

Stay tuned for more next week!


Currently smoking: Brigham Anniversary + Image Latakia