The new and improved defender of RPGs!

Saturday 30 November 2013

Arkham Occult Societies: Done (and Update V)

The writing part, at least, is done.   Overall, I'm quite pleased with this project for the Raiders of R'lyeh RPG, which I'll note is almost entirely system-neutral, so you could theoretically use it for any RPG set in Arkham (or ported to some other creepy town).

As a little update on the book, I'll mention that the book doesn't ONLY talk about Occult Societies, clubs, orders, fraternities, lodges, circles, etc.  It also details a number of individuals, both within those groups, and also lone operators.

The "solitaries" are, if one is to mirror the realities of occult society in general, the strangest of characters.  They're the truly weird, crazy, dangerous, or fraudulent; to the point that they just can't fit in with a group.

Among those I've detailed in the Arkham Societies group are:
-A fortune teller with a sordid past who was never more than a fake... until now.

-A man out of time, who's lost his memory of arriving in Arkham, or of what happened on the ship he was on, the ship that vanished without a trace in the greatest maritime mystery of the modern era.

-A fake-spiritualist con man who is pathologically convinced that the supernatural is all a lie.

-An heir to a decadent dynasty who has taken to enact gruesome occult murders for the sake of dark powers... but in Arkham, something even stranger might be afoot in this case.

Anyways, I might do another preview or two before it publishes; and from what I understand we'll be seeing this book along with the Raiders main books sometime in the first quarter of next year!


Currently Smoking: Raleigh Volcano + Brebbia no. 8 mixture

Friday 29 November 2013

Pope Francis: Miraculous Spin Doctor

You might remember that I posted (on the old blog) an analysis of Pope Francis during his election; that, first of all, his entire personal history made it very, very clear that he was not a "progressive" as some people in North America and Europe hoped (and the church seemed happy to let them believe), as he was in fact the politically-active champion of the right-wing in Argentina.  Second, it was very clear that why he had been chosen was specifically BECAUSE of his training in political warfare in one of the most brutal environments for that of any world democracy: Argentina.  His skill would allow him to manipulate and paint a picture of the church that would play to the media; he'd know how to push all the right buttons for reporters, who would in turn push all the right buttons on readers and viewers, which would in turn convince people that real change had come to the church.

At that time, though, I never could have imagined just how good he would be at it.  I never imagined, for example, that we'd be seeing Bill Maher and Dan Savage praising the Pope, as they did on the most recent episode of Real Time (and, in an amazing example of a mental disconnect, even while they were viciously condemning several US bishops)!

You have to give Francis credit: if he's fooled Savage or Bill Maher, then he's one step short of getting praise from Richard Dawkins or Marilyn Manson.

But "fooled" would, I still think, be the operative term here.  Because you see, unlike most people who've been retweeting or resharing or +1ing or whatever the dripping-with-admiration news articles about how his first encyclical (read: Papal Rant) talks about how capitalism is a problem or we have to take care of the poor, I've actually studied the encyclical pope Francis wrote.

Evangelii Gaudium ("Joy of the Gospels") is a rambling kind of rant, even as far as papal encyclicals go, and doesn't have much of the intellectual rigor you saw in his predecessor Pope Rat.  But of course the latter was writing deep academic texts about philosophical/theological concepts, while Francis is writing propaganda with sound-bites.  This fucker is also huge.  I'm quite sure that, at 51000 words, most reporters (much less most bloggers, and much much less most re-tweeters) haven't read even significant parts of it, but instead trusted in what the Vatican press releases were reporting. 

Now, Francis being a spin-doctor, he knows what to share with the media and what to keep in the back, hidden from view.  So he didn't run out and boldly proclaim that, for example, Evangelii Gaudium states absolutely and unapologetically that the church will never change its position on abortion. I quote: "It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.".

He also states, but will not be sharing with the media, that the church will absolutely never and cannot ever have Women Priests. Period.  And yet, we hear idiots on Facebook and G+, or for that matter on MSNBC, speculating that with a "liberal pope" like Francis it will only be a "matter of time".

He won't even be sharing with the media the part where he condemns how the separation of church and state is "privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual's conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques"; in his previous encyclical he'd stated (and somehow it never came out in the major media) that Atheists were basically selfish people who were lying to themselves... though to be fair, most of that encyclical's first draft was probably written by Pope Rat and Francis was just signing off on it.

Instead, what we will hear is that Francis said that trickle-down economics are unjust to the poor, and that we have to care for the poor (though again skipping the part where he says the REASON to care for the poor is as a central part of Evangelization, of spreading Catholicism, which is the central theme of the encyclical; its not that the poor should be cared for in and of themselves, but as a tool within the framework of Christian religion and its spread).  They'll interpret this as meaning that Francis is an OWS-style progressive-liberal, even though he isn't, not even on economic matters.  Remember, he viciously OPPOSED the Kirchner government in Argentina (which is a shitty, corrupt government, to be sure, but he opposed it in part because of its Chavista-style socialism).  Francis is no more a "socialist" than the last two popes; he's not a liberation-theologist, he's the guy who was turning over liberation theologists to the military juntas! Or, at the very least, condemning them publically while playing buddy-buddy with the dictatorship.

His vision is of a benign kind of capitalism that has heavy state control over social issues and cares for the poor in the sense of fulfilling their most basic needs, while discouraging consumerism in general in favor of encouraging people to dedicate their money and time to spiritual pursuits (in the Catholic Church, of course).  In other words, his ideal is still closer to Franco's Spain than to a hippie commune.

Now, I'm not saying that there aren't statements in the encyclical that are kind of nice.  Even the WAY he says the above points are much "nicer" and "friendlier" than when those points were made in earlier encyclicals by Pope Rat or JPII.   And he does talk about how the church needs to be reformed financially, and he talks about how the church also needs to be reformed in the sense of "getting dirty out on the streets", and doing work for the poor. Ok, great.  But at the same time, what people are not getting is that Francis has made it abundantly clear that on matters of Church Theology and Ideology he is an absolute conservative who is not willing to bend on anything at all. There is no current ideological/theological position that the church holds that Francis plans to change.

His real work is a kind of shell-game.  Because, I should note, the church has always given charity to the poor and talked about social justice. Always.  So what he's doing is CHANGING NOTHING, except that he changes the ATTENTION, away from kiddy-fucking priest coverup-scandals and kicking out liberal nuns and helping to cause millions of AIDS death in africa through rabid anti-condom policies, and toward "social justice", and does this by putting on a slightly friendlier face than his predecessors. He's saying to the church hierarchy "dudes, we still believe everything we did yesterday, but let's just shut up about it in front of the reporters and talk about the defend-the-poor stuff so they all get hardons for us and think we're great now".

Who knows, though? Maybe it will have an effect in spite of it being a blatant play.  Maybe even if the church doesn't change a millimeter (which, I repeat, it hasn't!), the fact that its no longer talking about how we mustn't give condoms to impoverished African prostitutes, and is instead talking about how we should feed the same; that in itself might be some kind of victory.  If nothing else, given that I suspect the average Catholic teenager in the US or Europe depends about as much on major media for their religion-news as everyone else, Francis might just accidentally bring up a generation of catholics who actually believe in the stuff that he's spinning, and stop caring about the things that he's stopped talking about, and usher in a revolution in 30 or 40 years.

Of course, if that comes to pass, its not because Francis is a hero, it'll just have been an error of strategy on  his part.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Canadian + Image Latakia

Thursday 28 November 2013

RPGPundit Reviews: Machinations of the Space Princess

RPGPundit Reviews: Machinations of the Space Princess

This is a review of the RPG "Machinations of the Space Princess", published by Postmortem Studios, written by James Desborough, with illustrations throughout by Satine Phoenix. I mention the last one because I certainly think the particular style of the art is significant enough to make an impact, a psychological one at least, on the mentality the reader will approach the game with: the book itself (I'm reviewing the print edition) is a smallish-sized softcover some 232 pages long, with a glossy full-colour cover and black-and-white interiors; and the artwork borders between the cartoony and the sophisticated, with images that scream out "gonzo space opera".

I've been reviewing a number of sci-fi games with old-school leanings lately: there was Hulks & Horrors, Traveller (the Mongoose edition) and now this one.  You'd think it might get repetitive, but in fact each game has a slightly different and unique tone (I'll add all are also slightly different from Stars Without Number, as well).  Traveller (and SWN as well) is fairly serious, hard sci-fi.  H&H is still serious though not exactly hard, with a "dungeon crawling in space, with some weird stuff" motif. 

Machinations of the Space Princess is by far the most gonzo of the games in question.  The description the author provides for it is "Sexy, sleazy swords and sci-fi".
Of course, that's somewhat to be expected, given that the game is a sci-fi game derived from the "weird fantasy" game "Lamentations of the Flame Princess"; and written by the (fairly infamous) James "Grim" Desborough, a figure embroiled in (and, in my opinion frequently chasing) seemingly endless controversy that fuels outrage for his career and very person among the pseudo-activists of the hobby for what they perceive as his often offensive content.

The real question in reviewing the game, then, is just how well it stands up as a game, rather than an exercise in salacious offensiveness or posturing.  "Lamentations of the Flame Princess", for example, does quite a bit of posturing of its own (its creator James Raggi being somewhat of a like mind to Desborough in that sense), looking to intentionally shock with its content and art alike; but at the same time its one of the most kick-ass versions of D&D I've ever had the pleasure to read and play.

Does Machinations measure up?

Well, let's get started: to begin with, Machinations does involve a kind of assumed-setting, a little more detailed than LotFP does, but without really becoming a full-blown detailed setting a la Greyhawk or even Traveller's "Imperium". You won't find a vast chunk of detail on the specifics of the setting. Instead, most of the setting-implications are built-into the rules (for example, there's a vast variety of alien life, so you have a character creation system where you can mix and match all kinds of alien qualities), along with a few tid-bits of highly optional setting flavor (for example, on the bottom of each page there's a one-line phrase that details some kind of setting flavor, ie. "the Ghantian Church is bankrupting itself hiring assassins to take out pornographers", or "the book of Dai, a martial arts handbook, is a total scam traded by con artists").

The premise is that most of known space was governed for a thousand years by the Urlanth Matriarchy; this empire has now fallen into disarray when the previous Empress was assassinated unexpectedly and her 99 daughters took to fighting amongst themselves for the succession.  At the same time, various other groups who had chafed under the Matriarchy's rule have broken into rebellion, including various guilds/corporations and part of the (male) military that have embraced a radical "male liberation" ideology. Remember what I said about Desborough courting controversy?  This sort of background concept would probably be tolerable had anyone else written it up (though the pseudo-activists would complain about it regardless, unless of course it was one of their pet authors who was writing it, then it would be "brave"), but when its James Desborough who is doing the writing, he's basically once again painting a big target on his forehead.
Mind you, none of the above is extremely significant in terms of actual play; the setting is sufficiently "implicit" that a GM could choose to just totally ignore it, there's nothing in the game that forces you to bring sexual politics into a campaign if you don't want to, and most of us probably don't.

System-wise, being based off of LotFP, it plays (as LotFP) does, quite similar to Basic/Expert D&D. There are some variations from LotFP, however.  Saving Throws, for example, are a roll-under mechanic based on 1/2 their governing attribute.  Attributes can be rolled by a variety of methods.  There's complex race and skill choices to be made; more about these below.

Speaking of attributes, as well as the six standards, Desborough has added Unearth Arcana's "Comeliness" attribute, which we thought we'd never see again!  But there it is.
Now, one would think in what is described as a "Vast" galaxy filled with multitudinous aliens, physical attractiveness wouldn't be very important at all, and certainly wouldn't be something "objective"; one would assume that the prettiest human would be just as ugly as any of the rest to an 8-armed Insectoid creature of Deneb IV.  But no! Apparently in Desborough's world, how hot you are follows objective boundaries across species.  I mean, I know why he says he did it (because its supposed to be "sexy sci-fi") and I know why he really did it (because he's obsessed with getting attention to himself and courting controversy as the perviest RPG designer on earth... and let me say, after reading Courtesans, much less Maid or Carcossa, he's got his work cut out for him, because Machinations is all pretty mild stuff really compared to things in those, or in a whole lot of the Forge games you never hear the Pseudo-activists complain about).  But seriously, did Desborough really have to include comeliness? I think it (and all the other allegedly "titillating" parts of this game) add nothing to what would otherwise be a solid production.

One interesting but problematic detail about character creation is the "race traits": to simulate a setting that is supposed to have an immense plethora of alien species, a long list of different physical, cultural, and miscellaneous qualities have been provided.  A PC can choose up to three of these without penalty, beyond those choices he starts to lose points to his various ability scores. Traits include a wide variety of things, from qualities like venemous, to cultural qualities like "spiritual", to exotic stuff like "methane-based". My main problem with this is that its not done by some kind of random system; instead, the expectation is that players will look through the VERY long list of stuff, and go along picking stuff up; I suspect this would lead to a stupid amount of min-maxing and a very lengthy character creation process.
To be fair, in the appendix at the end a few sample races are provided, as well as tables for random trait generation.  I do think, however, that these should have been the default, and selection the option.  That would have been more in keeping with old-school play.

There are four basic classes in the game: Expert, Killer, Psion and Scholar.  These are all pretty self-evident in terms of what they do, though there will be more info about psychic powers later.

The Skills system will only add to the complexities of character creation (one of the best features of LotFP is how fast character creation works; clearly that is not something that gets repeated here, between racial traits and skill choices). Skills are divided into different categories (like "everyman", "general", "Scholastic" etc) and each has its own list of potential skills. Classes get a set number of skill points with which to buy stuff. Skills aren't just knowledge-type skills, but also stuff like "sneak attack", or combat skills that often mimic 3e-style feats.  There's also "psi skills" which are not the main powers of a psionicist but additional stuff they can get (like psychic defense to reduce damage from psychic attacks, or training that reduces an opponent's saves against your own psychic attacks).

In all, while there's an impressive amount of material for fooling around with character creation, I'm very unimpressed by how it fails to keep the old-school aesthetic of structured fast character creation in favor of a "choose whatever you like"-type of process which is time consuming and leads to attempts at character optimization.  I think Desborough's lack of experience or natural affinity with the OSR is shining through here: this is not his natural environment.

Experience, leveling, hit points, etc. all seem to work in pretty much the standard way; with the notable exception that the rules as written state that any money earned that isn't spent by the end of the adventure is lost in "carousing".  This definitely isn't Traveller; it isn't even standard-play D&D; characters in Machinations can never end up being wealthy, though with these rules they'll always be as well-equipped as possible.  I don't particularly care for these rules, because of course it ends up taking options away from the PCs; you can't have a player character that wants to become rich (at least, not successfully).

Armor works as damage reduction rather than AC bonus by default; and there are rules to optimize or specialize armor.
Weapons, at their most basic level, are kept very simple, but once again like armor they are provided with all kinds of options for specialization.

Starships are handled with statblocks, and operate on a level of "scale" (where for example, the damage one can do to a starship is divided, or multiplied, by the "scale" of the starship relative to the weapon).  There are some very basic examples, but once again you have a big list of potential customizations.

There's also all kinds of miscellaneous equipment, retainers and services, and also cybernetics.  The latter can be better than their flesh-and-blood equivalents, but also bring with them risks of ability score loss or mental problems.

Next we get to basic task resolution; skills are rolled on a simple D6 (in the same style as specialist skills in LotFP); and there are rules for things like disease, poison, radiation, recreational drugs, falling, wilderness survival, the vacuum of space, sneaking, healing, etc.
Later on, there are also rules for wealth levels and basic lifestyle maintenance.

The combat system is pretty standard and aside from aforementioned details isn't too different from LotFP's.  There is a cool "permanent injury" table for those who have survived being brought down to negative hp.

The starship combat section is only a couple of pages long, and it suggests that in Machinations, everyone who is on board ought to get to participate in some fashion and that "these things aren't just empty gestures", but here there is no particular quantification of how PC actions should be meaningful (aside from pilots or gunners, of course, which is pretty straightforward). There's a vague implication that things any other character does can add a point to a ship's statistic for a round, or repair a point of damage, but given that some of the suggestions include "offer moral encouragement", that brings us right into abstract-mechanic territory, which I'd consider a big OSR-no-no.

Psionics work in a way similar to spells; with psionic powers having different levels (from level 1 to level 9 in power).  A psionic PC can choose a certain number of powers, and has a certain number of points he spends to use each power. The powers are often direct equivalents to certain D&D spells. The list is not incredibly large, but certainly large enough to accommodate a basic campaign.

There's about six pages of very straightforward sort-of-simplistic "advice for players" (though I have to admit, the idea of advice for players is in and of itself refreshing, since normally we only get a "GM advice section"); then about 14 pages of advice for GMs too, properly speaking.  It includes advice like how to express a "big" universe, how to bring the "sexy" (nothing explicit, though also not very useful, but it tells me a few things about what Desborough believes to be the definition of "sexy"; including "cool guns", "biker jackets", "musky scents", "simple and understandable motivations... the desire for food, sex, money and power being the top four", and everything from what we do with "computers, advertising, cities, crime, drugs and sex... and dial it up to eleven").  He also explains how to bring on the "sleazy": "sleaze is a certain aesthetic, that of the bar and strip club, that of biker clubs and bawdy houses, of adult book stores".  I don't know about you, but I don't particularly want my RPG campaign to take on the ambiance of an 'adult book store'.

The GM is also given some very basic instructions on how to put together an adventure, and what to avoid (like railroading).  The section then moves seamlessly into a more practical (and mechanical) set of subjects, like templates for designing traps, creating monsters, generating "goons" (of different degrees, from "cannon fodder" to "hard bastards").
After that, it shifts back again into the less concrete and equally less useful, talking about how to put a group together and where to play; do people really need this kind of advice?! I skipped all this bullshit altogether when I designed any of my games, because I simply assume that 99% of the people who will buy my small-press game are ALREADY GAMERS.  I don't really need someone to tell me "gaming shops often have play spaces that you can use to meet up at".  Really? Does anyone seriously think that's really going to be a necessary piece of advice to 99.9999% of anyone who will ever give a second glance to a small-press hobby-driven RPG?!

Ok, let's move on: we get to the section of how to make worlds. First, there's a random table of 100 plot hooks related to a world.  That tells me at least that this section has its priorities straight: generate what could be interesting to the PCs about this world, and THEN design the mechanics of it. The rules for planet creation are pretty simple, mercifully based on random tables (unlike almost any of the other rules for design of anything so far), and sort-of take inspiration from Traveller but are clearly far more gonzo. You roll a D20 for "type of world", for example, with lists like "desert world", "ice world", "tomb world", "city world", etc. And governments are generated the same way.  None of Traveller's careful mathematics here, but I think it probably works for Machinations.  There's also rules for planetary allegiance (ie. are they part of the Empire, or allied to one of the rebel factions), religion and religiosity, population and cosmopolitanism, and a d100 table for "interesting features".

Next up, there's a sample adventure: "The Siege of the Proxima Bar". Its intended to be introductory, its about 10 pages long, and there's nothing particularly special about it; there isn't even anything particularly salacious about it; with the exception of the presence of a pair of "stripperbots", and a bunch of rampaging naked clones (male clones, if that makes any difference), neither of which are played up for any kind of "naughtiness"... at least, I'm really hoping that this isn't what Desborough thinks of when he thinks "sexy".  If so, he certainly shouldn't take up a career in romance writing (shit, or even porn writing).

In the last real section of the book, you get a listing of some sample goons and sample creatures, only about 6 pages worth, but hey, its something.

The appendix or "reference" at the back is quite detailed: it contains the aforementioned sample races and trait generation tables (as well as random tables to determine appearance), sample detailed weapons and armor, sample ships and vehicles, optional carousing tables to determine everything you did with all that lost money (the tables are quite detailed), a list and summary of all the species traits, and finally the character sheet.

So to conclude: first of all, in spite of the author, and the claims the author makes, this game is neither particularly sexy nor exceedingly sleazy.  As usual with James Desborough, what we do get is a touch of sophomoric (I'd dare to say adolescent) titillation and cheap controversy that is radically overblown both by the author himself and his howling critics. 

But in that case, how does it hold up as a game? Particularly, in comparison to other old-school sci-fi games?  For starters, the production values are better than Hulks & Horrors, though not quite as good as Stars Without Number or Mongoose Traveller (though depending on one's artistic tastes, some people might enjoy Satine Phoenix's drawings more than what they'd find in those other games).

In terms of mechanics, I think that Machinations is certainly more complete than H&H, but its also less streamlined; furthermore, its less elegant than Trav or SWN.  If you use random tables for racial traits, you avoid one major pitfall of the system in terms of the length and potential for abuse inherent in character creation, but even then you still have skills to contend with.  These complexities of a burdened character creation system run counter to one of the central points of appeal of old-school play: the quick generation of characters.

All in all, if you like any of the games I mentioned above, or likewise if you're a Lamentations of the Flame Princess fan, you'll be likely to find stuff you'll like about Machinations too.  Its got some flaws, but there's certainly a good amount of redeemable material about it too. On the whole, I'm lukewarm here.


Currently Smoking: Winslow Crown Cutty + C&D's Crowley's Best

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Famous Pipe Smokers

Today, someone who was famous for smoking a pipe, and also for writing some of the defining novels of what could be considered the "Noir" style of pulp-detective stories:

Raymond Chandler, pipe smoker and major influence on a lot of things cool in the geek world today.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario Rhodesian + C&D's Pirate Kake

Tuesday 26 November 2013

RPGPundit Reviews: Secrets of the Ancients

RPGPundit Reviews: The Third Imperium Campaign I: Secrets of the Ancients

This is a review of the print version of The Third Imperium; Campaign I: Secrets of the Ancients, a campaign-size adventure sourcebook for Traveller.  Its published by Mongoose, and I would assume is set up for their set of Traveller rules, though it would likely be easy enough to translate into any of the other systems for that game. 

The book is a hardcover, that looks quite nice and would look to me to be of solid construction.  Its 200 pages long, with a full-colour cover; interior illustrations are black and white, and relatively few and far between.  The bulk of interior illustrations are deckplans, maps, floorplans and the like, practical stuff.  But that’s very much in keeping with the Traveller style.
Now, one detail I should mention about the cover.  I didn’t see it myself, but this was pointed out to me by a couple of my players.  The cover image is of a couple of aliens on a clifftop looking over a strange landscape:

Now, some of my players mentioned that it does have a more than passing resemblance to a certain illustration from Dark Sun:

Anyways, its clearly not just a rip-off or something, but it is close enough that this can’t just be coincidence, I think.

Now, as to the content itself: Secrets of the Ancients is a fairly epic campaign played out in ten separate adventure parts. The plot of the adventure, as you might guess, revolves around the enigmatic race influential in the background setting of the traveller universe, known as the Ancients.  A super-advanced species that, by the present time of the campaign setting, were thought to all be dead or gone.  As the PCs in this adventure will find out, that is not the case.

I do feel that I have to note personally that I find the very idea of running a pre-published adventure for Traveller, much less an “epic campaign” like this one, to be the complete antithesis of everything I associate with the traveller game.  Every single campaign I’ve ever run for Traveller was a total sandbox, with rogue trading, planetary exploration, and while there were “events” going on in the background of the setting (that the player characters usually tried their best to utterly avoid, rather than investigate), there was never any kind of “adventure path” I would lay out to them. It seems to be rather alien to me (pardon the pun, if it is a pun), to run Traveller like this.

On the other hand, this is not some kind of wacky idea on Mongoose’s part that they just pulled out of their posteriors; Secrets of the Ancients is in fact a (significantly expanded) remake of a Classic Traveller adventure of the same name!  So I have to be ready to accept the fact that there may very well have been all kinds of people playing Traveller who absolutely did want to have pre-made and directed adventures of this sort, and though it seems totally contrary to everything I know about running or playing Traveller, it may not be so to others.  The question would then be: if you want to have a premade adventure series for your Traveller campaign (or want to try it, anyways, if like me you usually don’t run things that way), is Secrets of the Ancients any good?

As always when I review adventures, I want to walk a fine line between not giving the material its due coverage, and spilling all the beans and spoiling the potential of the adventure to surprise; that’s particularly true in this case where the adventure depends on certain big secrets and revelations that will be way more fun if any potential players don’t know they’re coming.   So I’m going to try to be vague about specific “plot” details and instead cover the panoramic view of what you get in this book.
Let’s start with the setup: the adventure presumes that the PCs already know each other, and on top of this that they have access to a ship of some kind.  The first is no problem, the second already bumps, however softly, into the whole notion of “Traveller as Sandbox”.  If run as part of an ongoing campaign, the usability of the adventure as-written will depend on the party having a ship.  If run as a new campaign, you’ll have to fudge over the character creation process if it turns out none of the PCs start with a ship, which in at least some versions of Traveller is not uncommon. This sort of situation ends up becoming a recurring problem in this book.

In another example, the campaign depends on at least one of the PCs having a personal connection to a very important NPC for the plot; so again this has to be shoehorned in there in an ongoing game.  The NPC in question is kindly old Uncle Vlen Backett, and the adventure starts out with the party finding out that he’s died and said PC is his heir; when going to resolve his affairs the PCs learn he apparently had a number of important secrets and may in fact have been murdered; this kicks off an investigation that leads to the PCs getting caught up with the business of an important crime lord, getting into trouble with the law, and discovering that Uncle Vlen had been intertwined with certain archeological studies of Ancients sites.  In turn, the PCs are supposed to go investigate this connection to the Ancients, and they end up getting caught up a fantastic discovery that also puts the into the middle of a huge conflict relating to the Ancients. 

Now, again, I have some issues with this situation.  I know that in the type of Traveller games I run, my PCs would not be “getting caught up” deeper and deeper into the whole situation, they’d be trying to get the hell out of the situation with all engines blazing!  And the way the book keeps resolving this is what in my opinion seems rather heavy-handed.  The adventure is not particularly open-ended in terms of what can happen when or what the PCs can do.  There are several cases throughout the campaign where the PCs absolutely “MUST” be in a certain place or do a certain thing or end up going somewhere, or the whole campaign falls apart.  The book’s efforts to accomodate this tends to be by presenting “options” like “The final part of the adventure takes place on a secret orbital base; they could have stowed away on the cargo launch, tracked the movements of the cargo launch, or have been incapacitated by knockout gas and brought there for interrogation”; or “this adventure assumes the characters are in a scoutship and are fleeing the imperial authorities; if this is not the case the referee will have to modify the adventure”. In one part, the only option to continue the adventure when the PCs are being chased by the authorities is for the PCs to willingly fly their starship into the gravity well of a gas giant; any other option taken by the party will basically stop the whole plotline of the campaign. The one good note in all this is that the last few parts of the book seem to be slightly more open-ended, just a bit; maybe that’s because they’re the ones that go beyond the constraints of the original Classic Traveller adventure.

There are plenty of other situations like this throughout the book, where either no consideration or very flimsy considerations are made as to free will on the PCs’ part, and the adventure descends into a blatant railroad.  A clever GM can probably modify this situation (in fact a lot of times the text just says “if the players haven’t done X, then adapt the adventure accordingly”, offering no actual advice as to how to really do that), and I think ultimately the best way to run this campaign without actually railroading would have to be to either very heavily modify it, or be ready to accept that it could end at any time if the PCs don’t do those precise things the adventure authors expect the party to do in given situations.

So this, so far, is what you could say are the bad points of the product.  What about the good points?
Well, for starters, the adventure itself is tremendously interesting. It moves somewhat beyond the standard gritty-hard sci-fi of your average Traveller adventures, into something more epic, while at the same time without totally abandoning the feel of the setting. The type of adventure is more in the style of some of the best of Doctor Who rather than say, Star Wars or Star Trek.  Its pretty cerebral sci-fi, in other words.  And if you know how much I like Doctor Who, you’d know how flattering my comparison is in this case.

Aside from that, if you look beyond the adventure as a whole and into its component parts, what you get are a ton of scenarios, that run the gamut from the standard bread and butter of Traveller games, to truly crazy and out there stuff.  You have your investigative game scenarios, your firefights, spacefights, trouble with the law, trouble with the crime world, chases on land and in space, galactic archeology, robots, cyborgs, aliens, cultists, techno-zombies, and the freaking Ancients!

You hang out on worlds, in scuzzy neighbourhoods, on space stations, in alien jungles, in the aforementioned gas giant, in ancient ultra-tech starships, in a royal palace, and even in a miniature universe.

And all of this is very well supported with random tables for all kinds of things from rumours to “random brownouts” on a malfunctioning starship, floor plans, lists of NPCs (many of whom have well-defined and interesting personalities and motivations), descriptions of locales, deck plans and stats of ships, random encounter tables, subsector outlines and maps, rules on ancient gadgets and ultratech (that don’t always work), and “library data” on worlds, groups and people.

You even get to (sort of) time travel through thousands of years of galactic history which you actually PLAY OUT with slightly-freeform mechanics at one point.  This campaign is nothing if not ambitious.
So there is certainly a lot of great stuff in Secrets of the Ancients.

What you get, in the end, is thus a mixed bag: the plot is great, the set-pieces are great, the overall execution is, in my opinion, somewhat flawed.  Its rigid, railroady, too dependent on the PC party acting a certain way and presenting little or no alternative courses of events, meaning that if you want to play out the whole thing without major changes you either have to get incredibly lucky, or force events (and sometimes, force the directions of the PCs themselves).

This campaign is, in other words, a “serious fixer-upper” with quite a few redeeming qualities.  Whether or not its worth the effort of fixing it up would depend on how much you want your Traveller game to feature a very different, very large-scope kind of epic saga that is definitely not operating on the same scale as the “trading merchandise in the local subsector for a quick profit” kind of campaign.


Currently Smoking: Winslow Crown Canadian + Rattray’s Accountants’ Mixture

(originally posted July 12th 2012; on the old blog)

Monday 25 November 2013

Cracked Monday

Today, for discussion, I present to you 4 awful things we're now considering Nerd behaviour.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Volcano + H&H's Beverwyck

Sunday 24 November 2013

Doctor Who Day +1

Well, I must say, it was astounding.

What a fantastic episode; though as usual with Moffat, it makes less sense the more you stop to think about it.  Weren't they in Trenzalore?! What was going on there? Why are they suddenly back to normal (or are they)? Why was Clara a school teacher?

These are all things that may or may  not ever be explained in Moffat-world.

Moffat would be a kickass GM. He uses the same method I do; put in a bunch of dazzling details, mysteries and questions; later, when you think something up, explain a few of them. Players will forget all the other details you never ever explain and fixate on how awesome you are for having explained what you did, "proving" you "had it all planned all along".

Anyways, I had fun. The end was great.

Also, for those of you who are not yet done getting your doctor who fix (and if you didn't watch "Adventure in Space and Time", you really, really should; it was a beautiful movie), here's one more thing: giving due time to those in-between doctors who didn't get their own chance to shine in either special, Peter Davison writes and directs a half-hour special called "The Five(ish) Doctors".


Currently Smoking: Raleigh 'Jopo' + Gawith's Squadron Leader

Saturday 23 November 2013

The Day of the Doctor

The debt the world owes these people:



And many others; there are no words.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Canadian + Image Latakia

Friday 22 November 2013

Dr-Day -1

So tomorrow, Doctor Who is upon us, and I'm vaguely annoyed.

The plan for us originally was that we were going to watch it at a friend's house, wherein said friend had entirely renovated his living room with a fucking mother of a Home Theater system; kickass sound, awesome image, great cooking (between said friend and The Wench, who are both great chefs), and a perfect environment to attentively watch the once-in-50-years event.

But then, as it turns out, Doctor Who was offered in the movie theater here in Montevideo.  It wasn't going to be originally; Uruguay was not on that list of something like 180 countries where it was going to be shown in cinemas, not because the BBC didn't want it but because no movie company here thought there'd be any demand.  Then a bunch of drooling fans petitioned one of the movie companies to bring it, and when they realized they could charge double what they usually do for a ticket, and have a guaranteed full house of slavering nerds, they realized the errors of their ways and booked two showings (the second after the first filled up almost immediately).

Great, right? Only, my suspicion is that this experience will be far worse than our original plan.
We are going from relaxation in our own home theater to standing in lines, surrounded by screaming nerds and assorted idiots and weirdos, sitting in a terrible seat in the second row (where no doubt neck spasms will follow from having to crane our heads), wearing idiotic inevitably-smudged 3d glasses for what will no doubt be a muddy picture and a sound we will have to strain to hear over all the ongoing nerd-commentary that will surround us.

And yet, like Cassandra, I am the only one in our little group who can see this. Everyone else is overjoyed by this gift horse they're paying 250 pesos for (rather than the zero pesos it would have cost), even the Wench is all four it (she actually bought the whole group's tickets). 

Anyways, now my first actual opportunity to see the 50th anniversary special is going to be through blurry crappy dirty 3d-glasses (what a fucking idiotic pox that technology has been on the film industry).  I hope I'm wrong, in which case I'll be quite pleased; but I suspect it will be the rest of my group that will be wrong, much to their disappointment, about the choice they made for us.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario Poker + H&H's Beverwyck

Thursday 21 November 2013

Arkham Occult Societies Sourcebook Update IV: The Catonian Club

This is another short teaser preview for my upcoming "Arkham Occult Societies" Sourcebook, for the Raiders of R'lyeh RPG.

Miskatonic University, like most universities in the United States, has a significant number of clubs, fraternities and associations. Most of these are relatively meaningless: groups for hobbies, social causes, fraternities for adolescent fun, or places to network for future career contacts. 

Miskatonic, being one of the great old New England schools and a favored place for the Old Money of Massachusetts to send their scions, additionally has a few “secret clubs”, societies that are more than just normal fraternities, and whose membership is kept tightly under wraps. The foremost of these, the most mysterious, with a membership that includes some of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the state and beyond, is the Catonian Club.

It is so secret no one knows when it was founded (though sometime after the Madison presidency), who is in it, or almost anything about what they do.  All that is known is from rumours: that they meet in an incredible underground chamber beneath the Administration building, that the number "5" is especially important to them (this because the gravemarkers of suspected Catonians have a stylized number 5 carved on them), and that anyone who tries to discover or betray their secrets disappears.

What are the secrets of the Catonians?  What are they really up to? Just how much influence do they really have in society, and what is their end-goal? And what is the meaning of the "5"?  
You'll have to get the Arkham Occult Societies sourcebook to find out!


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Oversize + H&H's Beverwyck

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Swine Pseudo-Activism

Swine Pseudo-Activism

So first we had Swine Pseudo-artistry, the white-wolf crowd going around trying to subvert gaming (and ultimately destroy all the parts of gaming they didn’t like) by claiming that RPGs have to be “works of art”, sophisticated sensitive and brilliant.

When that tactic failed, eventually they moved on to the Swine Pseudo-intellectualism: seeking to subvert gaming by claiming that RPGs had to be academic exercises, based on “Theories”, that rejected all the “incoherent” games that were merely about having fun, and that demanded that gaming be re-invented to suit the agendas of the self-styled intellectual elite at the Forge.

That has now fallen to pieces for the Swine as well.  And I’ve been predicting that its only a matter of time before some creative Swine figure out some new angle that they think will win them that long-desired control, subversion, and destruction of all that’s good about the gaming hobby.  I think that we may be seeing some of the Swine currently trying one of these angles out, in the form of Swine Pseudo-activism.

The Swine Pseudo-artists tried to mainly focus their assaults on the aesthetics of the game, on the setting, on things like product (with metaplot, etc), and the “fashion” of the game.  When that failed, the Swine Pseudo-intellectuals put their primary focus on assaulting the foundational systems of the game, not just game mechanics but also the baseline mechanical assumptions of what defines an RPG, trying to change those definitions to suit their agenda.  They were repulsed. 

Now, they are going to try to subvert gaming by attacking neither setting nor system nor underlying definitions, but by attacking the social structures of the hobby; by accusing the hobby of perpetuating crimes against “social justice”, in other words the dominant morality as defined by a group of self-styled paragons of sensitivity in certain highly restricted bubbles of quasi-intellectual feminist-marxist liberalism; ironically, they’re taking something straight out of the Pat Pulling playbook by claiming that RPGs are immoral, these people who claim to love gaming.  Strange way to show it.

The case bubble they’re working with is well-chosen by these Swine, starting out with one of the dubious undercurrents of the hobby and bringing up a subject no right-minded person could possibly find any question with: rape.  There’s no debate on any side anywhere (except maybe among absolute lunatics) that rape is a terrible thing, so it’ll make a handy little word (as it has for second-wave feminists for decades now) to stretch, redefine and misuse as a bludgeon to try to push through an agenda.  No one wants to be painted as being “for” rape.  And the target these people have set their eyes on, or rather the patsy they’re using as bait for bigger fish, is James Desborough, writer of a number of RPG products (in my opinion of questionable worth) like Nymphology, the Slayer’s Guide to Female Gamers; as well as some non-rpg products like “Hentacle”, the hentai tentacle-rape card game.
I want to clarify at this point that I’ve never bought any of those, or any of the other books in that kind of genre (the Book of Erotic Fantasy, etc).  I’ve always found them pretty puerile and ridiculous; and I’d certainly agree that this kind of subject matter is of interest mainly to a sophomoric and infantile kind of mind.  When I reviewed the “Courtesans” RPG I said as much. 

But that’s neither here nor there; the Swine don’t give a fuck about this guy or his books except as something that gives them the chance to draw attention to a bigger cause or movement, where they can be allowed to use “outrage” over “offensive attitudes” to dictate terms to the entire hobby and control the content of games, even get to censor who is hired to work in the hobby.

They didn’t want Desborough, they wanted Mongoose, and Steve Jackson Games, publishers who had sometime in the distant past hired him to write for them. They are now campaigning to essentially destroy Mongoose, to shut it down as a company, in order to make it the cautionary example to cause the rest of the gaming industry to “fear the mob”. Their agenda? To get to force gaming companies to come to them to let THEM decide what can or cannot see print.

You think I’m exaggerating? Note how the recent threads with the accusations about how Mongoose supports “rape culture” (which also resulted in a mass culling of anyone who wouldn’t immediately accept that premise on were matched with a thread that proposed that gaming companies should be forced to introduce a “ratings system” on their games. Note also how over on the “Something Awful” forums, who have very clearly instigated the whole movement through agents starting and fomenting the simulated “outrage” on (and taking advantage of, or rather downright manipulating, both the modclique’s natural predilections for banning opposition as well as the tendency of its Tangency hivemind to get horny at the sight of anything that gives them a chance to get their Politically Correct Groovy Cards punched, its like a perfect storm), they had a thread that essentially outlines their long-term agenda for control.  This thread has since been hidden away but it was called “Feminist Gaming Issues”, and it went WAY beyond the initial argument made against Desborough, that portrayals of rape were not ok, into points like:

-art must be changed in RPG books to stop portraying “male fantasy” (ie. images of scantily-clad women).
There’s certainly arguments that can be made about irrational or sexist portrayals of women in RPG art, but they’re advocating a forced control over what should be permitted to be published.

-That, and I quote: “your bog-standard D&D session is a facet of rape culture” where “a bunch of men (and perhaps one or two sexualized women) descend into dark depths to penetrate the underprivileged, poor denizens there with their phallic objects, and use their mysterious, privilege-generated powers to oppress and kill anyone who isn’t like them.”
They didn’t make their opening salvo with this, obviously, because pretty much any regular gamer would find this argument beyond absurd.  They’d find it ludicrous, and send these assholes packing.  But that’s why they’re starting from something that’s tricky to argue against, and moving toward this kind of bullshit, with which they hope to end up smothering the hobby with once they’ve gained enough influence to not be stopped.

They go on in that thread to talk about the problem of “violence” and how all violence (including any and all combat in RPGs) is a product of “rape culture”, and also secret racism as mentioned above.  Their solution? Again, I quote: “make games that are about pure collaborative storytelling, or just [i]existing[i] in a strange way”.  

Funny, how by what surely must be sheer coincidence, their proposed end result is exactly the same kind of games that the last batch of Swine wanted!

They go as far as to argue that people who play regular RPGs probably need therapy after each session to help them “understand” how the violence they’re “perpetuating” in the game is “completely unacceptable”, and that the playing of these sorts of RPGs “glorifies criminal behavior” until they stop participating in these RPGs.  They presented a way of trying to hide said therapy as part of the gaming session.

They will expand from “rape is bad”, which is an obvious no-brainer that they’ll nevertheless attempt to twist into things that have fuck all to do with that initial statement, into overall assaults on RPGs in general using things like “social justice” and “minority issues”, simultaneously viciously attacking RPGs while making a total MOCKERY of those real issues, in the same way the pseudo-artist Swines made a mockery of art, and the pseudo-intellectual Swine made a  mockery of intellectual pursuits.

They’ll be quite willing to drag the credibility of very real, real world issues like rape, sexism, racism, and homophobia through the absolute muck in order to engage in their pogroms against the hobby that has twice-before rejected their attempts to take it over.

So what do we do?

There are some who think that negotiating with them will make them stop.  It won’t, that will only be what encourages them.  Others have argued that they have to be reasoned with, argued with in good faith for the “good of the hobby”.

But that’s just it, you can’t argue in good faith with a group that has NO good faith.  This is the typical naive error that the Gramscian socialist-types love to see people fall for. If the Swine are not arguing in good faith, but rather want to use the debate as a platform by which to hammer through their agenda for change (whose fairy-tale wishlist includes, as mentioned above, veto power over who gets hired, what gets published, what kind of art an RPG book is allowed to have, a near-total removal of combat from RPGs, control over all art, and mandated officially sanctioned control and quotas over portrayal of women and minorities (including fictional minorities) in all RPG products) then rational debate gets you NOWHERE. On the contrary, it becomes their weapon, to get what they want.

You can see it perfectly in the history of the Forge and their tactics, and remember these are some of the same Swine, just trying a different tactic now (as I said, before it was pseudo-intellectualism, now its pseudo-activism); they ran all over everyone who tried to engage in “rational debate” with them because they understood how to CONTROL LANGUAGE, by allowing THEM to define what a roleplaying game was, by allowing them to decide that the debate would be couched within GNS theory, by letting them manipulate all the preconditions of the debate, they were pissing their pants with glee at all the idiots who thought that trying to reason with them would work. Since, again, their motive was not “Come, let us reason together”, it was to destroy the hobby as we know it and replace it with something completely different that they could be in charge of.

The way I beat the Forge was by playing their own game, better than they did. And that’s how you’ll beat these guys. You don’t reason with them, you beat them by taking all their extremist techniques and turning it back on them; by controlling the language and refusing to give up that ground to the other side, refusing to let them claim the moral high ground while they simultaneously try to redefine the meaning of things like “rape” or “racism” into non-existence just to serve their own nefarious motives, and by making sure you reveal any and all said underlying motives the other side holds. By undermining their facade of both respectability and their (false) moral high ground at every opportunity.

That’s how they’ll be stopped.


Currently Smoking: Stanwell Deluxe + Image Latakia

(Originally posted June 26, 2012; on the old blog)

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Beat this for "Weird Thought of the Day": Mormons are all Sex-magicians

Yes, I'm being serious.

I was reading up some articles on the subject of the mormon responses to gay marriage etc. when suddenly it dawned me: Mormons are practicing a kind of ('heretical', by most other denominations' standards) Christian Sex-magic.  Its the reason why, while at the same time that they might not be as directly judgmental or angry as certain other Christian sects at the thought of widespread social acceptance of gay marriage or the reality of transgenderism, they will have a much harder time ever being able to accept those things.  They can't, it doesn't fit in their system.

You see.. shit, where do I even begin to explain what I'm talking about? Ok, first of all, let's start very simple: Almost all modern christian denominations consider "family" a really important value (this in spite of Jesus having famously told his followers to abandon and even 'hate' theirs).  But Catholics, or Baptists, or whatever generally consider 'family' important for a number of exoteric reasons: social cohesion, they think that its the best way of bringing up children, the transmission of values, etc.

On the other hand, for Mormons, family is one of the absolutely CENTRAL elements of their spiritual practice.  You know that part in most christian weddings where the couple take their vows and say "till death do us part"?  Death is the parting-moment because for most Christians marriage is a worldly phenomenon; some denominations (Catholics, for example) even famously consider that its a better spiritual state to be utterly chaste and unmarried.
But Mormons? They don't have that "death do us part" bit.  No, you see, they get "sealed" in marriage, for all eternity.

Ok, that's sweet and kind of creepy, you say; fine, mormons get married for all eternity, but where does the sex magic come in?

The answer is in the esoteric elements of Mormon religion: the reason why mormons consider marriage, and specifically man-woman marriage so important, is because of those wackier beliefs they have where they don't look much like regular christians at all. You see, for Mormons, you don't just go to heaven when you die, you go off to become rulers of another planet, much like the mormon version of God rules from the planet Kolob.  You (a man, of course) go to your new world with your wife (originally wives) and children to rule as a patriarch and new father-god.

Sex is so important in mormon mystical theology that Mormon doctrine claims that Jesus had married and had children; some say this was so that Joseph Smith could claim to be a physical descendent of Christ, but this is really just a by-product; the real reason is that it is through "sealing", through creating an earthly family that mirrors that of "heavenly father", and doing so successfully, one will be judged worthy to be elevated to the status of a god.

This is classic Sex-magic practices right there.  Its only a few steps divorced from the sort of stuff you'd find Crowley writing about, or what you'd see in some Eastern Tantric or Taoist Alchemical stuff.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Mormons are sex-maniacs or something like that (I'm sure that like all the rest of us, some are, and some aren't).  The "sex magic" they're doing is clearly of a very prudish orthodox sort (particularly after they got rid of "plural marriage"), filled with family values and cheesy music and goofy-looking dresses that don't show any skin; its not a Bacchanalia.

But the essential formula is a magical formula: to get to become a god you must:
a) be baptised in the faith
b) obtain priesthood status (which, by the way, gives you all kinds of magic powers, like the authority to lead prayers or to lay on hands in blessing)
c) discover the inner mysteries of the temple (with its aprons, veils, and secret-handshakes all borrowed from Masonic ritual)
d) be "sealed" in a divine wedding that binds you to a female soul for all eternity (originally it could be more than one female soul).
e) produce offspring and raise them successfully
all while keeping to the other general doctrines of the Mormon faith.

If you do these things, then you undergo an apotheosis, becoming a God, and going with your wives and unmarried children to form a divine family, where you in turn will create worlds and populate them with spirits that may also one day have a chance to become gods of their own.

So anyways, this is the reason why even if Mormons could choose to act nice about it, they just can't ever accept gays and lesbians, much less the transgendered, as part of the "plan".  Its why people like Orson Scott Card (mormon) or Glenn Beck (mormon) lose their shit at how GLBT will "destroy civilization": note, not just 'is sinful' or 'depraved' or something like that, but "destroy civilization"; because it RUINS THE MAGICK FORMULA, and thus brings down the collapse of sacred culture as surely as the White Jewish-Christian Pre-Columbian North American "Nephites" were brought down into wickedness (and eventually destroyed by the evil Black-skinned Pre-Columbian North American "Lamanites") as it is written in the Book of Mormon.

The sex magick formula Mormons use is very strict: Man (Priesthood Holder prereq) + Woman (Sealed to him in the Temple) + offspring (the product of their sexual alchemy & producing a full and proper mirror of the celestial family of Heavenly Father) = Kolob/Godhood!

It can't be man + man, or woman + woman, or Man + Woman-who-was-born-male, or any other combination because then the babies don't happen; no babies means no planet (because you only need to be God of your own planet if you're going to produce celestial-children who will in turn continue the process).

So there we go.  I should add before I close, though, that you shouldn't get all self-righteous about those wacky mormons.  Most religions have a ritual magick undertone to them, when you scratch the surface deeply enough; certainly all Christianity does.  Its because religion is really just one big cargo-cult for magick, when it comes down to it.  Of course the difference is that, like a cargo cult, their abandoned relics of once-useful technology doesn't actually work anymore. 


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario Rhodesian + C&D's Pirate Kake

Monday 18 November 2013

Cracked Monday: Hollywood's increasing slide into utter artistic and intellectual bankruptcy

Seriously, these are all things "in the works".    Let's hope they never come to fruition.  Its insane; it shows you how hopeless hollywood big business is at so many things: original ideas, understanding the internet, doing something useful with The Rock...

Anyways, fuck it. I'm off to Lodge.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario Egg + Brebbia no.8

Sunday 17 November 2013

DCC Update: Another Great Session

In our DCC game tonight we had 7 players, ranging in age from 10 to 50, and everyone had quite a great time.  The elves of the Rose Pleasure Dome were tricked out of their home by a Succubus Princess and a Hypno-naga who had mind-controlled the Circle of Really Old Wizards.

The two halfling zealots (one a nudist berserker wizard) of Azi-Dahaka managed to kill off the Hypno-Naga; their reflective aviator-glasses made them immune to the naga's gaze but not its poison bite, and the berserker-wizard died a hilarious death at its hands just after killing it off too, and then releasing a post-mortem colour spray.

The rest of the group, along with the now-freed Circle of Really Old Wizards, took on the Succubus Princess.  They managed to defeat her, but after that the Circle decided that they really wanted to keep living in the Pleasure Dome instead of their tower; they bribed the PCs with magic items, and then teleported them away to another continent altogether.  As of the end of the session, the PCs found themselves in a whole new environment: in the astounding canyon-city of Arkhome, city of Spires.

Its been great fun, this campaign just doesn't let up, and it was nice to (almost) be up to full complement of players.  Especially players who can surprise you at every turn with the insanity of their ideas.


Currently Smoking: Mastro de Paja Bent Billard + Rattray's Marlin Flake

Saturday 16 November 2013

"Real Occultism" in RPGs: Some Fun Facts about the I Ching

In case you don't know, I Ching is both a book, a metaphysical model of the universe, and a system of divination, originating in China.  It has fascinated western esotericists from the time the first Jesuit missionaries heard about it in the 17th century (and became convinced the existence of the I Ching "proved" that China was an antediluvian culture, as the I Ching was so sublime that in their minds it had to be the product of the secret wisdom God revealed to Adam).  It really took off in the 1960s, however; though as with many other things, Aleister Crowley got there first.

Here are some fun details:

-The I Ching is in fact the oldest known occult teaching in continual common usage in human history; for at least the past 5000 years. The Tarot, by contrast, is only about 400 years old.

-The I Ching book itself (more correctly pronounced "yijing", and sometimes called the "zhou yi"; which is actually the name for the core book without the Confucian Expansion Pack) is the world's oldest book still in common use.  The earliest surviving copy we have dates to 200bce, but scholars generally agree that the book exists since 1100bce, though many think the first written copies could have been even older in more protypical forms.

-The system of the I Ching is based on a complex Taoist metaphysic, a conception the universe that begins with the idea of absolute unity (Tao) separating itself into duality (Yang, represented by a solid line; and Yin, represented by a line with a gap in it), then into combinations of those two in different proportions (expressed by different combinations of three lines, each either "yin" or "yang") to make up 8 elements (four celestial forces and four terrestrial forces). In turn, these eight elements mingle in pairs to form 64 possible "hexagrams" (so called because they're the combination of two 3-line figures).

-The system of the I Ching contains within it complex mathematical concepts: the I Ching system is the oldest known example of a binary code (4500 years before Liebnitz, who, by the way, was a student and admirer of the I Ching).  Its 64 different hexagrams can be combined into different logical progressions that contain surprisingly sophisticated mathematical ideas: besides the binary, it was only recently discovered that one of the formats of the 64-hexagram sequence in fact expresses a projection of a "six-dimensional hypersphere".  I'll be honest when I tell you that I don't myself entirely grasp that concept, I only know that some I Ching math-nerds are shitting themselves about how amazing that is.  Another I Ching mathematician has noted that the sorting of the combinations forms something called  "boolean lattice", which is also apparently pants-shittingly impressive.

-the progression of the I Ching, whatever else mathematicians might say about it, was explicitly stated to be meant to represent the development of TIME. So it is not just an esoteric "scale model of the universe" but a scale model of Space AND Time. "I Ching" literally means "The book of Changes", because the I Ching examines how weak forces and strong forces advance or decay over time in structured patterns.

Historical notes:
-The original hexagams were said to have been discovered on the back of a turtle shell by the (mythological) Chinese emperor Fu Xi (who would have ruled sometime around 3100bce), who was also said to have invented writing, fishing and marriage.  It was generally thought that it was another (this time non-mythological) monarch, King Wen of Zhou, who first provided the detailed explanation of the hexagrams that became the core text of the I Ching (thus, the "Zhou yi").  According to some version of the account, he is said to have devised the book while imprisoned (by a rival king).

-The rest of the I Ching, the "Commentaries" are attributed to Confucius, though some scholars question (as scholars endlessly do, to get paid) whether it wasn't just someone from the Confucian school who wrote them and not Confucius himself. In either case, there's no question that Confucius was a great admirer of the I Ching and set it up as to become one of the "Five Classics" of Chinese knowledge; Confucius was said to have once declared as an old man "If I could live just a few more years, I would dedicated 60 of them to the study of the I Ching".

-Aside from the Jesuit latin texts, the first translation of the I Ching to a european language was into English by James Legge in 1882. However, it should be noted this translation was very poor by modern standards, and crucially it provided no instructions on how to actually USE the I Ching as a divinatory text. That would have to wait until Richard Wilhelm's German edition, in 1923, but this would not be translated into English until 1950.

-None of that stopped Aleister Crowley, however, who has the distinction of being the first known white man to actually use the I Ching for divination! And he did so on a very regular basis from when he first discovered the I Ching while riding a donkey straight across China in 1905, until his death some 42 years later.  His magical diaries indicate that he vastly preferred using and confiding in it over the tarot, which he found less specific;  for long periods he would be consulting the I Ching almost daily, sometimes multiple times a day.  Crowley wrote his own poetic version of the I Ching (drawn from Legge's version), but it was never printed in his own lifetime; he was also unable to find someone to teach him the right way to engage in I Ching divination, and ended up creating his own unorthodox system for performing the divination, probably based on an imitation of what he saw performed in his travels in China.  On the other hand, he was one of the first westerners to approach the philosophical concepts of the I Ching as something valid and not poppycock, and he figured out the correspondences of the 8 trigrams to their elemental equivalents in western magick and thus their place on the qabalistic tree of life (as part of his, and many other magicians, endless quest to try to have a "grand unified field" of all magical symbolism).

-The I Ching became truly big in the west only in the 1960s, when a new edition of the Wilhelm translation came out in english (english translation done by Cary Baynes) with an introduction by Carl Jung.  The Hippies discovered the book and it exploded in popularity, with potentially hundreds of thousands of teenagers using the I Ching really poorly.  You also saw a kicking off of a number of new versions of the I Ching, some really excellent (like John Blofeld's), and others utter new-age crap that were radical reinventions of the book to fit new age philosophy.  By the 80s you had a series of spin-off material like I Ching-themed Tarot Cards, other kinds of oracle decks, and of course, shitty chinese coins being sold for ridiculous prices at new age bookstores.  As China opened up to the west, you also started to get some new and very serious translations that I think could now approach being called "definitive" (though often very academic and not very poetic), and the release of I Ching related books and texts from China that introduced new concepts to the west, like how I Ching relates to Chinese Astrology.

-Carl Jung loved the I Ching, utilizing it for a great deal of his own life; and he considered it one of the finest tools for the study of the self.  Among other celebrity fans of the I Ching were William S Burroughs, Herman Hesse, Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsburg, Ken Wilber, Paulo Coelho, Philip K. Dick, Jorge Luis Borges, John Cage, Bob Dylan, and no doubt many more.

-The famous new-age writer and psychedelic drug advocate Terrence McKenna claimed that the I Ching was a device to measure "novelty", in a series of mostly-incomprehensible explanations that had nothing to do with the traditional I Ching  (shorthand: he was high). He claimed that as a measuring-system for "novelty" it indicated that all novelty would run out on December 21, 2012, leading to the eschaton, the end of normal time and space as we know it.
Unfortunately, McKenna didn't live long enough to see his bullshit proved wrong, as he died in 2000.  However, thousands of the stoner-branch of new-agers continue to worship this appealing, romantic and charismatic utter moron, giving one explanation or another as to why "timewave zero" didn't end up happening, just hasn't happened yet, or sometimes 'has happened but no one noticed, man'!

-The most common method of using the I Ching is by tossing three coins, using the heads-or-tails positions of the toss to determine either a solid Yang line, a broken Yin line, or a Yang or Yin line that's "Changing" (that is, in the process of becoming its opposite).  Doing this six times produces a hexagram, then flipping the changing lines to their opposite provide the "future" hexagram.  The relevant parts of the I Ching which are then read are the main description of both hexagram plus the special description of those specific changing lines.
However, it should be noted that the "coin" method is not the real traditional method of using the I Ching and it does not generate the probabilities that are inherent in the original methods; with the coins the probabilities are weighted equally for yin and yang, but in the older conception there are varying probabilities for each of the four possible results, since change does not just happen with equal likelihood.
The traditional method is done using fifty thin sticks or yarrow stalks; but this is a long and complicated method most people today would not care to engage in.  Of course, really serious purists will demand to do it, and to do it with the correct ritual fashion (just like at the other end of the spectrum, the total non-purists will go and buy themselves a pack of "I Ching Cards" and just use that instead because fuck complex mathematics and 5-millenium old secrets, I just want to play fortune telling!)

Some hardcore magicians, on the other hand, choose a more pragmatic approach, seeking to use a method that imitates the probabilities of the yarrow system without having to actually use the complex yarrow-counting process. As such, methods have been devised using 4 sticks (my favorite and preferred method) or 4 coins, two coins, or even 16 beads or tokens of different colors. 

Characters in RPGs who use the I Ching could run the gamut from psychedelic stoner hippies, vapid wooly-brained new-agers, 'beautiful-mind'-style fucked up mathematics PhDs who've fallen down the rabbit hole, obsessive orientalists one bad night away from dressing up in a Mandarin outfit, or of course hardcore ceremonial magicians. Go nuts.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario Rhodesian + C&D's Pirate Kake

Friday 15 November 2013

Lords of Olympus: Khaos-Creatures

So let's take a look at Advanced Primordial Magic today.

In Lords of Olympus, a character who has mastered the power of the Primordials can infuse objects and creatures with the power of Khaos, primordial goddess of creation.  Such a creature or object is doubled in resistance to damage, and can be further modified by the magician to be able to damage by mere touch (how much damage? enough that just a touch will instantly kill a normal mortal!),  change shape, or make them faster, including their Ability Classes across the board, in short, creature super-creatures or super-objects.

What is the limit of this power? What is there to stop an Advanced Primordial Magic-user from making a thousand of these guys? Or a million?
Well, nothing.

Other than time, there's pretty much nothing preventing this from happening.  Even the process of Khaos infusion isn't exceedingly tiring to someone of Olympian-class fortitude.  As long as you have willing (or unwilling-but-helpless) subjects to do this to, or the means of production and available objects, you can do it to your heart's content.

There are some down-sides of course: Khaos-infused creatures and objects will tend to break down (decay) twice as fast, but this might not be any great concern to your average Olympian God (mortals live such short lives anyways!). 
And of course, the big one is that the Khaos-infusion itself is quickly dissolved if the person or object is brought into one of the Divine Roads. So a Khaos-infused army won't be much for you to go conquer Olympus with.  But think about it: if you can have a thousand (or a hundred-thousand, or a million) khaos-infused soldiers in your service in your own realm, that will make a pretty big deterrent to attack! As a defensive army they still rock.

We do get into one other little problem, however: infusing someone with Khaos-force in no way puts them under your control or makes them bound to you.  You can have your army but they're not going to be a mindless slave army (unless you had an army of mindless slaves to begin with!). Instead, you're going to have a thousand, hundred-thousand, or million dudes that have highly enhanced powers and will only owe you what they owe you; you better be damn sure that you've picked people who will remain fanatically loyal to you, because if not that army could just as easily end up being turned against you by some scheming relative.

Especially if said relative lets slip to all your soldiers that their wonderful master has cut their lifespan in half...


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Oversize + H&H Beverwyck

Thursday 14 November 2013

Doctor Who: Doc-Day -10 and Counting

I've tried to hold off feeling too excited, but we're now almost here: we are officially on the last ten days before the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who!

On the whole, its been a somewhat subdued and disappointing year for what it ought to have been.  The BBC apparently chose to celebrate the Golden Jubilee Year of Doctor Who by not showing any new episodes for most of it.

We can only hope that what comes on Saturday next will make up for it.

Its not only the BBC who has fucked up, of course.  I'm waiting to see just how Cubicle 7 manages to release the remaining 8 of the 11 "Doctor Who Sourcebooks" they were planning to release this year in 9 days.  Or if you wish to be more generous, the next month and a half before the year is up.

Really, did ANYONE believe Cubicle-"we'd be late to our funeral"-7 when they boldly claimed at the start of the year that they'd be releasing one doctor who sourcebook per month?  Please.  I wouldn't have laughed harder if it had been Palladium claiming it at this point.

So its nice to know that some things can be counted upon; can be thought of as traditions, even institutions:  The BBC will fuck up its celebrations, Cubicle 7 couldn't deliver a pizza on time... and the Doctor will keep being awesome, in spite of his handlers in screen and print, hopefully for another 50 years.


Currently Smoking: Italian Redbark + Gawith's Squadron Leader

Wednesday 13 November 2013

RPGPundit Reviews: Adventurer Conqueror King System

RPGPundit Reviews: Adventurer Conqueror King System

This is a review of the old-school RPG, “Adventurer Conqueror King System”, hereby (mercifully) abbreviated as ACKS.  I’m reviewing the print version of the game, which is a hardcover, with 270 pages.  The cover has a very impressive full-colour image that features a couple of people about to ambush a wizard in some kind of temple; the central focus being on a scantily-clad babe with swords that for some reason consistently reminds me of chainmail-bikini Princess Leia.  The interior features a great deal of black and white images, most of them of very high quality. I do have to note that in my book the binding (which appears to have been glued onto the spine) is already starting to come loose at the back, though this might be a unique problem for all I know, and not a typical flaw.

Anyways, the first thing to cover about ACKS is that its an old-school RPG; at this point, one of dozens and dozens of old-school RPGs inspired by D&D.  And one has to ask at this point, when doing a review for another Old-school RPG, just what this one has that will differentiate it and make it worthwhile compared to any of the significant number of other old-school D&D options?  I mean, you have various old editions of D&D itself, then you have the pure clones (games like S&W or Labyrinth Lord or OSRIC) that just directly copy one or another edition of D&D, then you have a number of games at this point that are clearly based on old-school D&D without being a direct copy of any single version (games like the excellent Lamentations of the Flame Princess); plus a few other odd choices, like Rob Conley’s Majestic Wilderlands, which is not a full game but a supplement intended to fundamentally modify the basic rules of any given D&D game. There’s even the DCC game, which came out while I was writing this review.

So what need is there for another? Or more specifically, what does ACKS do better than the other ones out there?
The claim, as we’ve heard it on the message boards, is that ACKS is meant to provide a greater deal of support for running a dominion-level game; for handling domain-management, running a manor or a county or a kingdom.  The book’s back cover itself says that ACKS “provides the framework for epic fantasy campaigns with a sweeping scope”, and perhaps more arrogantly that “ACKS is the ultimate RPG for sandbox campaigns”.

Let’s see if this holds up on review.

The book opens with a pretty confusing foreword, which tries to mix something I really hate, in-game fiction, with snippets of information about the game itself; as in, the in-game fiction gets interrupted every few paragraphs with a paragraph explaining how this part of the story is connected to some concept of the game. I found this foreword pretty pointless, myself, but I won’t hold it against the rest of the book. Nor will I hold it against them that in the next chapter (“introduction”) they go into the standard “what is roleplaying” spiel where they show you what a d20 is, or explain what experience points or hit points are, or what a dice roll is, as if they’re playing pretend that a significant chunk of their readership hasn’t actually been playing D&D for over 20 years now.

From about page 16 onwards, the filler now done filling, we get into the brass tacks of the actual game. The basic system is, of course, a clone of D&D, but with a number of important changes.  I’ll be pointing these changes out as I go along, but not the similarities, since I (unlike ACKS’ authors) am under no illusions about the fact that pretty much everyone reading this knows what D&D is already.
The game features the four standard core classes (fighter, mage, cleric and thief), but also has some “campaign classes” (which they say are meant to be just examples of any number of other sub-classes you could use or invent), which are the assassin, bard, bladedancer, and explorer.  It also has demihuman classes; the “Dwarven vaultguard”, the “dwarven craftpriest”, the “elven spellsword” and the “elven nightblade”.  No halflings.

Some important details about the various classes: Fighters gain a bonus to henchmen’s reactions at 5th level, and can build a castle at 9th level. Mages gain a number of bonus spells at each spell level they can cast equal to their Intelligence modifier; 5th level mages can make potions and scrolls, and 9th level mages can make other magic items, and can also build a sanctum and a dungeon. 7th, 8th and 9th level spells are apparently cast as rituals, and a mage starts being able to use these at 11th level. Clerics start casting spells at level 2, and can make magic items and cast rituals (6th and 7th level cleric spells) at the same levels as a mage can; at 9th level they make a “Fortified Church”. Thieves have standard thief skills, read languages at level 4, can make a “hideout” at 9th, and can read scrolls at 10th. Assassins are relatively similar to 1e assassins; bards are kind of similar to 2e bards, except that they can only “dabble in the arcane”; they can have a chance of using magic items usually restricted to mages but don’t actually have any spells of their own.  Bladedancers are apparently “human women who have dedicated themselves to the service of a goddess of war”, that seem to be a strange mix of stuff that comes out of the implied setting that ACKS is based on. Explorers are wilderness scouts, like non-magical rangers.  Dwarven Vaultguards are basically Dwarf Fighters, craftpriests are basically Dwarf Priests, Spellswords basically Elf Fighter/mages, and nightblades are these acrobatic elf thief/mages.

A couple of important notes: the game has a level limit of 14, apparently that’s the highest level of the game, so you’re basically doing Basic/Expert D&D here, in that sense.  Demihumans have lower level limits (as low as level 10).

Alignment is Law/Neutral/Chaos, and (much to my liking) the definition of Law and chaos are that Law means you want to uphold civilization while Chaos means you want to destroy civilization.
The equipment section is mostly fairly standard, except that in following with the whole thematic of ACKS it has a very extensive set of rules and procedures for hiring Henchmen. Also, markets are divided by “market class” (with 6 different levels of market class), where items of a certain price are have limited quantities or may not be available at all in certain types of markets.

The game has an extensive Proficiency system, which is listed as being “optional” somewhere, but importantly not in the actual section on proficiencies. The class descriptions provide a single set of pre-baked proficiency choices per class, but assuming you don’t want to use that one, there’s no random option available; you’d need to look through the long list of proficiencies (divided into “general” and “class” proficiencies) and pick a certain number of each type. Not the type of skill system I care for, generally speaking.  Proficiencies generally grant bonuses to doing things, but there are all kinds of other special proficiencies (for example, “elven bloodline” which when taken means the character lives three times longer than the usual for his race, doesn’t age, and is immune to paralysis).  I have to say I’m not very enchanted by the proficiencies on a purely personal level (too much garnish of characters for the type of old-school I like, and the temptation for players to read through the roughly 100 proficiencies while making a character, slowing the character-creation process to a crawl while trying to cherry-pick which bonuses or special powers would be the most mechanically advantageous for them, does not appeal to me in the slightest.  I can only hope that the Proficiencies are as “optional” as is claimed.

Magic is mostly as standard for D&D, though the spell list is fairly slim (only 12 spells per level for mages, and 10 for clerics or “bladedancers”).

There are extensive rules for wilderness travel (land and sea), encounters, reactions, and combat, mostly following the standard D&D format. One change I should note here is that combat uses neither ascending nor descending AC, and neither to-hit bonuses or THAC0; instead, for reasons I myself can’t fathom, they came up with a new method, whereby each class has an “attack throw value”.  To hit you roll a D20 and add any bonuses from attributes or magic or other modifiers, and compare it to your “attack throw value” (based on level) plus the AC value of the creature or person you’re attacking. If the roll is equal or greater than the modified “attack throw value”, you hit.  So for example, if you’re level 1 you might have an “attack throw value” of “10+”; let’s say you have a +1 attribute bonus, and you’re trying to hit someone with AC 4 (because they’re wearing chain mail).  You’d need to get a 14 or more (rather, a 13 or more on the die, because of your +1 bonus), because the “attack roll value” would be 10+4.

I really don’t get why they did this.  It adds nothing to the game, it doesn’t make things simpler; on the contrary the lack of familiarity makes it harder to wrap one’s head around it.  We’ve had descending AC for ages, and ascending AC for at least 12 years now, we’re used to either of those. But this? Why??

I’ll note that the combat rules have it that a 20 always hits, and a 1 always misses. They also have a “cleaving” rule: if you take down an opponent, you can get an immediate free attack against another adjacent opponent. Fighter-type characters and monsters can do this a number of times equal to their level; other classes a number of times equal to half their level.  Saving throws use the standard types from old-school D&D, and thankfully do not have a weird new method of adjudicating this.
There is a Mortal Wounds Table, which is meant I think to be something similar to the type of tables we all love from WFRP or Rolemaster.  The table itself is pretty awesome, though it has a tricky set of modifiers that have to be taken into account and the actual mechanic feels somewhat awkward to me, adding a layer of complexity to the relative simplicity of injury in normal D&D.  There’s also an equally cool-but-awkward table for “tampering with mortality”, that is rolled when you use some kind of magic to cheat death.

From here, we get to the part where ACKS is supposed to really shine: the next large section of the book deals with campaigns, dominions, high level play, all that jazz. Up to this point, all you got from ACKS was a slightly quirky D&D clone with some really weird to-hit mechanics.  But now, we get detailed information on spell research, libraries, magic item creations, ritual spells and other high-powered magical weirdness, and of course, the highlight of the game: stronghold and dominion mechanics.

The latter rules are really, really thorough.  I think its safe to say that I have never seen a set of rules and guidelines for stronghold and dominion management in any other D&D game (or even any other game remotely similar to D&D) that were this complete.  The mechanics in the BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia books pale in comparison.  Even Pendragon, which probably has the most detailed rules on manors that I’d seen systematized until now, doesn’t really match up. You get complete rules for just what kind of stronghold each class can make, how many followers it will attract, what every little bit of it will cost, how many peasant families you can attract and support, and what kind of revenue you can collect.  On top of that you get rules for how to expand your domain, what kind of various expenses are involved on a regular basis, rules and tables for being a vassal of a lord or king, morale rules for your dominion to see if the peasants are revolting, rules for building and running villages, towns and cities, and building and managing markets.  There are variant guidelines for non-human strongholds and settlements, rules for running thief operations, hideouts and guilds, rules for crime and punishment, and really awesome rules for high-level wizards to build their own dungeons (the justification being that dungeons are used by wizards as environments to “cultivate” the various rare material components they need for high-level magical research; but this isn’t just lip-service, its actually backed up by the magical research rules themselves).

There are also rules for mercantile ventures, which are equally thorough; though in this case there are past mechanics that do approximate its level of completeness; I’m thinking of the traveller rules, as well as the blatantly-ripped-off-from-traveller rules that you found in the D&D Mystara supplements for Darokin and Minrothrad. Here you get all kinds of details and tables on potential types of merchandise and their value.

Of course, while it would be enough motivation to do all this stuff just because its cool, the game provides additional motivation in the form of having rules for XP awards for domain management, mercantile trade, magical research, and underworld hijinks.

In all, the entire chapter covering all these rules adds up to about 30 pages; so it would seem like not a huge chunk of the total page-count; and yet that’s far more than what most games of its kind would dedicate to the subject, and these rules are extremely dense in terms of the amount of mechanics and information they pack into those pages.  Does it live up to the hype? Certainly; some might say perhaps to excess.  If I were to be nitpicky, I would say that it could go into TOO much detail for my liking; having myself somewhat lost the sense of excitement for figuring out the “total calculation of peasant tax revenues versus castle expenditures per hex” and that sort of thing. But in this case, that’s meant to be the whole point, isn’t it?  The reason you’d choose ACKS over Labyrinth Lord or LotFP is because you WANT to make a big deal out of that stuff.  So if I look at it objectively and benevolently, I would say that the mechanics for domain management are incredibly detailed without committing the critical mistake you sometimes see in this sort of thing of devoting great attention to minutiae that doesn’t actually matter; everything they touch on in the rules actually does matter, it isn’t just busywork for busywork’s sake.

The rest of the game goes back to being relatively D&D-standard after that; you get some 50 pages of monster listings, quite well done, and some very detailed treasure listings (but not beyond what you’d find in a number of other books, including a number of actual D&D editions).  There is one area that does somewhat stand out, and that is the chapter called “Secrets” which gives GM-instructions on how to map and develop the setting.  Obviously, all those detailed domain rules would not really stand up to muster if the world-setting itself didn’t also have attention to detail of the kind that would prop the domain rules up, and so here you get Realm-level rules for things like population density, revenue (by social class type), frequency and structure of settlements, determination of prominent trade routes, and modifications of all these sort of things by demi-human type.  The table that I think best exemplifies all this kind of thinking is found in this chapter; the “Environmental adjustments to demands” table, which lists a huge number of trade goods (fish, salt, coffee, metals, pigments, wood, spices, books, gems, etc etc… though to their eternal shame they fail to include Tobacco), and a huge list of potential modifiers to the market demand for these items based on the type of region, elevation, terrain, and climate. That’s quite the attention to detail there.

There are also detailed rules for constructing cities, including stuff like the market level, the level-range of the city’s ruler, how many of each PC class you’ll find in the city, what kind of criminal guilds you’ll get, etc.  There are dungeon-creation rules too, which again tend to completely side-step the standard totally-random determination methods in favor of methods that work with the aforementioned assumptions about demographics and the material justification for the dungeon’s existence.

The gamebook finishes off with some reference tables for combat (including a reprinting of the “Mortal Wounds” and “Tampering with Mortality” tables), and then some very nice character sheets, plus sheets for keeping track of henchmen & followers, specialists & mercenaries, your domain mechanics, and spells & magic research.

What can I say in conclusion about ACKS?  Its definitely not just a clone; and yet at the same time its not actually as innovative in either inspiration or mechanic as other non-clone games.  Its got less atmosphere than LotFP, and its less daring with the actual rules than DCC or Majestic Wilderlands.  Its as though really, ACKS moved away from the strict-clone game in a different direction: instead of doing something radical with the game as a whole, they decided to focus on one thing in particular: domains and realms for high-level play, and focused all their real innovation on that one particular thing, to make their game stand out by being the absolute best version of D&D for that specific area.
And I think in that sense, they definitely succeeded.  If what you want is a game where you can reach high-level play (well, relatively high-level, remember here we’re talking about levels 9-14, because that’s as high as the game goes) and have as much or more interesting stuff to do than you did at levels 1-3; and where you want that stuff to involve being able to systematize, tweak, and keep careful track of small, medium and large-scale domain-management, this will no doubt be the very best OSR game for you. On the other hand, if that’s not really what you’re looking for, there won’t be anything particularly bad about ACKS but there won’t be anything particularly special about it either (and with details like their weird to-hit system and their ponderous proficiency system, I’d certainly say that there are better old school games out there in terms of basic mechanics).  I think that if you’re somewhere in between, the situation gets trickier; because it seems to me that what you can’t actually do is pick and choose just how much detail you want to get into.  This game is made for going ALL-IN with the domain mechanics. You could perhaps pick off some little tidbits to use as inspiration for any other D&D game here, that’s true; but what you can’t do is play ACKS using only half the domain mechanics; it seems to me that the whole book-keeping system would fall apart if you tried.

So if there’s one criticism that you could make of the way they handled the one thing ACKS is really excellent at, its that the rules don’t easily allow for various degrees of commitment.  A guy like me, who might want some simple but sensible rules to manage the basic details of a stronghold but doesn’t want to go with the full blown book-keeping package won’t really get his needs met.  Its hardcore or bust.

That said, if you want to be hardcore about your stronghold management, and are looking for rules that give you that level of sophisticated detail without getting bogged down or lost in irrelevancies, ACKS will be your best friend ever.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario Egg + Germain’s Special Latakia Flake

(Originally posted June 22, 2012; on the old blog)