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Wednesday 30 April 2014

So the Guy who Wrote "Isle of the Unknown" (and Carcosa) is Pissed Off at Me

Over on the ODD boards, a message board dedicated to original edition D&D (quite a decent board, but where a few hardline old-schoolers hang out, understandably), Geoffrey McKinney took umbrage with my recent review of "Isle of the Unknown", which I most certainly slagged.

In the now-closed thread, he claimed that I just didn't get Isle, ridiculously trying to gain brownie points with the ODD crowd by claiming I "must" be one of those terrible late-80s gamers.  In his opinion, I must be one of those 2e-style fans of story-heavy Dragonlance and post-greybox Forgotten Realms.  Likewise, I obviously don't understand "Gonzo".

The thing is, according to him, that Isle is really a "70s gonzo hexcrawl" in the style of Bob Bledsaw's Wilderlands of High Fantasy.  And I just didn't get that. You know, because I'm not truly 'old school' like he is.

So let's clear a few things up:

Dude, I fucking love Judges Guild's stuff.  City State is a masterpiece.

Putting it simply, Geoffrey McKinney: I'm very familiar with Bob Bledsaw. You, sir, are no Bob Bledsaw. And your arguments are patently absurd.

And the ludicrous idea that "Isle" was just too "gonzo" for me?  Motherfucker.  I wrote FtA!GN!, you ass.  And have you seen my play reports for my DCC campaign?  I fucking OWN gonzo.

But Isle isn't so much "gonzo" as it is "stupid".  There's a difference, though some people just can't seem to figure that out. There are no "hidden layers of sophistication" in Isle.  Its just a badly-written product.  The monsters are shit, not because they're too weird, but because they're just not good; they're too fucking pointless.  Its like a version of an OSR sandbox written by an imbecile, someone with some severe disorder, who caught the most shallow and superficial notions of what constitutes "sandbox" design, and utterly failed to even consider the most basic practices of good design.  Anyone who's ever bothered to read anything I've written (including the stunningly positive reviews I gave products like DCC, Vornheim, or ADD) knows that I'm a fucking fanatic for random tables.  But random rolls are where you START, not where you end, in creating something coherent.

Anyone who knows me knows that I can't stand dragonlance, and your attempts to garner sympathy here by painting me as a late-2e "not a real old schooler" is cheap bullshit. As for gonzo? I OWN Gonzo. Again, a cursory glance at my blog and at what I've published would confirm that.

As for your argument trying to compare your entries to the ones in Wilderlands, there's a crucial difference: Wilderlands' deals in archetypal creatures and environs. You're absolutely right that his one-liners are evocative, because we all ALREADY KNOW what Dire Wolves and owlbears are about. We can already figure out what the point of giant snakes are. And we are left to fill in with our own imagination the reason why a LE guy would be in charge of a town of LG elves (because alignment already means something).

All of these things do not require further elaboration.

Your garbage, on the other hand, was just an island full of one-time mutations that make no sense and have no point. Bledsaw's one-liners cover everything that's needed. Your three sentence entries are woefully inadequate, on the other hand, because there's no coherence to any of what you've done. Incoherent monsters in an incoherent environment that have no coherent verisimilitude.

I didn't dislike your product because it was "too old school", a cursory glance at any of my stirring reviews of a plethora of other old-school books (just go to theRPGsite and check out the Reviews section!) would prove that. I gave your book a bad review because it IS BAD. It is badly written. Its not drivel because I'm a mean old dragonlance fan who doesn't understand gonzo (a quick glance at my blog and the various DCC campaign updates would show what a crock of bull that is), your book is drivel BECAUSE IT IS DRIVEL.

You did a shit job, sir. Your book is garbage. And the thought that you imagine yourself standing on the shoulders of Gygax or Bledsaw when all you've done is fundamentally miss the point, and created a Potemkin Village of a Sandbox (just a shallow facade while missing absolutely everything that's important about making a sandbox work) just makes you laughable. Or pitiable. I'm not sure which.

Seriously, I never thought I'd look at something the author of motherfucking Carcosa wrote, and say to myself "fuck, he should have stuck to writing about pre-pubescent necrophiliac rape-magic".


Currently Smoking: Dunhill Amber Root Bulldog + C&D's Crowley's Best

Tuesday 29 April 2014

Lords of Olympus: Immortality

It was one of my considerations for the LoO game that Immortality can be a major plot point in certain campaigns; thus it is set up as a (relatively low-cost power) but one that comes with a lot of setting elements.

In LoO, you can theoretically begin as an Immortal, the boon of immortality having been given to you (usually) by one of the three rulers of the Multiverse: Zeus, Poseidon or Hades.  I would suggest that even those players who start with this power should consider who gave it to them (though the GM might be the one who specifies that in some campaigns) as that does define certain things about the character; it will usually depend on where one “starts out” in terms of background in the game; are they primarily of Olympus, Atlantis, or the Underworld?

But there are basically three ways a GM can choose to regulate the Immortality power:
1) he can choose to let all PCs start out as Immortal; either by granting it as a free or extra power without cost, or by requiring it be bought (essentially, all players get the power but have ten less points to spend on other things).   This is ideal for those games where the GM doesn’t really want Immortality to be a big part of the plot.

2) He can leave it up to the players; those who wish to need simply spend the 10 points to be immortal from the get-go, but others may prefer to start the game as mortals and have to obtain their immortality in play.  This will likely result in a mixed group: some players already starting out as Immortal, while others are children of gods but do not yet have the boon of eternal life.  It allows those players who would find the “quest for immortality” interesting to play it out, without everyone having to do so.

In this case, those players who are not yet Immortal will have to earn it; typically receiving it as a grant from one of the three aforementioned gods.  This might be quite easy for some players, depending on their background, parentage and connections (as well as their starting Luck scores); while for others it may be far more difficult, if their birthright doesn’t already start them out in a position of trust with any of the gods capable of granting immortality.  They may have to prove their way with tests of loyalty, heroic deeds, or crafty forging of alliances or deals.  In some cases, players may wish to try one of the alternate sources of Immortality; the most obvious of these is Hera, who has control of the garden of immortality-granting Apples; this would of course leave any character that obtained the boon this way indebted to Hera, as well as likely being notable as such to the other gods.

There’s another way to obtain Immortality; through the Primordials.  Not all of the Primordials should be able to grant Immortality, only the most powerful of them, and of course many of the Primordials will have no interest in doing so, a character would have to go to great lengths to gain immortality from many of these truly alien entities.  The other catch is that Immortality through a Primordial would almost certainly involve an alteration of state; a character gaining Immortality from a primordial would likely become an agent of the entity who granted him such a boon, and may become physically like them; they might be changed in truly strange ways, and lose some of their humanity.  They would also be far more under the power of the Primordial who gave them this gift than in other circumstances; with Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, or Hera, the “connection” would be largely formal or social, but with a Primordial like Khaos, Phanes, Tartarus, Erebus, Aethyr, Moros, Thanatos or Hypnos (the ones who I’d say would be capable of granting Immortality, in some way or another) they would not only literally be transformed into something more like these beings, they would probably be literally bound into some kind of obedience or connection to them (the particular nature of which would depend upon the Primordial in question), perhaps afterwards obliged to fulfill the often incomprehensible whims of these mighty entities.

3) Finally, a GM might choose to make Immortality initially inaccessible to any PC.  This would make for a campaign where obtaining Immortality would be a major theme of the game. All of the conditions and complications mentioned in point #2 would apply, only it would also be possible that the PCs would find themselves all in competition with each other to win this greatest of prizes.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Bent Egg + Rattray’s Accountant’s Mixture

(originally posted March 22, 2013; on the old blog)

Monday 28 April 2014

UnCracked Monday: Against Who??

There's a storm brewing over my review of Isle of the Unknown.  Apparently the author has taken umbrage. I'll have a few words to say about that tomorrow or the next day.

But for today, I bring you another controversially titled article:  "Against Neil Degrasse Tyson"!

Seriously, who, other than Rev. Billy-bob Cousinfucker of the Arkansas New Revival Pentecostal Baptist Reformed Church of JEEESUS could be against Professor Tyson, right?  I mean, Cosmos is fucking awesome!

In fact, I'll spoiler you that the title is at least a little bit disingenuous.  The real point being made there ties into something I wrote about a week or so ago: that the 'New Atheism' movement has become obsessed with their idol-fetish of "Science!" so much that they have lost any sense of Philosophy.  And this ends up making them look extremely stupid to anyone who does know a bit of the humanities.  Whenever they try to criticize religion, they inevitably end up looking like bumpkins.  Ironically, because they don't know their Augustine from their Origen, much less their Augustine from their Vimalkirti,  the New Atheist perspective ends up having far more in common with our good Rev. Cousinfucker than with either serious religious figures, or serious historical atheists like Marx, Freud, or (praise be upon him) Nietzsche.

Anyways, the article above is one of the most brilliant analyses I've seen on the subject; and it doesn't let the humanities off the hook either: it points out (and a very good point it is indeed) that probably part of the reason why Dawkins & Co. seem to have such disdain for the humanities, even to the point of intellectually impoverishing themselves and weakening the quality of their arguments on account of said disdain in a classic case of shooting off noses to spite faces, is because they realize that the modern humanities have completely betrayed the civilizational values on which their beloved Science rests, primarily the acknowledgement that there are things that ARE True, and things that are therefore false, and that everything is not equally true or just a matter of opinion. 

But if anything, this is why the Humanities desperately need hard rationalism, atheist or otherwise, to come and save them.  The tragedy here is that in trying to protect Science from an irrational world, the New Atheists are sacrificing the Humanities to the other side, and will ultimately doom themselves (and maybe all of us) for it.


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

Sunday 27 April 2014

Golden Age Campaign Update

Nothing much new to report in terms of characters this week.  We began a new year in the game: 1944.

The group ended up split for most of the adventure: half of the group went into the wilderness of Canada, in search of a secret Canadian base called Camp X, where a program called "Hydra" was underway.  They only realized later they had pretty well been manipulated into going, to stir up a hornet's nest, by King Faraday, with plausible deniability for himself, so that he could get some important intel on an allied power.  In the process, they fought with Canadian hero Captain Wonder, and ended up nearly blowing up a communications tower that was crucial to the war effort (like, "D-day would need to be delayed a year" crucial).

Luckily by revealing their identities (that they were not nazi spies) this was averted; but they still didn't feel keen on spending the rest of the war in a Canadian prison, so they ran for it and managed to escape back to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the other half of the group went to an even harsher wasteland than northern Canada: New Jersey.  They were there with the All-Star Squadron, forced to hunt down one of their own gone rogue.  The Black Terror, driven to vengeful madness after the death of his sidekick (Tim the Kid Terror) during a fight with some mobsters, had begun to massacre the NJ Mafia, piece by piece, working his way up to an planned killing of the Don's (adult, mobster) son.

Note that none of this would normally be a big deal, but the Mafia had just helped the feds to win Sicily from the Nazis, by using their connections with the Cosa Nostra back in the Old Country, and were patrolling the waterfronts, using their connections to keep a close eye for spies and saboteurs (say what you would about the mob, they were patriotically anti-nazi).

In any case, that part of the adventure ended without a big fight; the PCs managing to convince the Black Terror to hand himself over; his guilt over his sidekick's death had left him broken.

The mob (through Jewish mob boss Meyer Lansky) dealt with their own, assassinating the guys responsible for Tim's death; then the Black Terror escaped from jail when crooked Jersey cops tried to off him for the Don.  He promptly disappeared.  The players debate whether he'll appear again.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Tempesta + Argento Latakia

Saturday 26 April 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Isle of the Unknown

This is a review of the book "Isle of the Unknown", written by Geoffrey McKinney, published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
Visually (even kinetically, as a hardcover) this book is gorgeous, which makes it all the more tragic that it's godawful.  It is sold as a "setting designed to be placed in any fantasy campaign", though specifically created with Lamentations of the Flame Princess in mind. It is also advertised as a "hex-based adventure location".  In other words, it is designed for "sandbox"-style play, with every hex on the fairly large map getting one unique detail described (usually in the form of just a few sentences, and never a full page, as the book is only 125 pages long); this notion graduates the book from godawful to "disaster" since it is likely to totally ruin many novices impressions of sandbox play.  I will explain why.

But first, a bit more about the physical book itself. Its gorgeous; its a nice thick little hardcover, amazing colour cover-image (a true work of art, an image of a forest glen with a statue of a woman playing a harp, with strange glowing colours; quite subtle by LotFP standards, none of the usual gore or weirdness, just a vague eerieness).  The interior of the book is magnificent; the binding quality appears very nice, the pages are full-colour, have a matted texture that feels lovely to the hand, and there are amazing full-colour illustrations in almost every page.  The production values are amazing.  That makes it particularly tragic that as an adventure product the Isle of the Unknown is such a piece of shit.  What I wouldn't give to see the same level of quality in, say, Vornheim or The Majestic Wilderlands (not that either of those aren't very nice books, just that they don't match the lovely production values here).

So how to describe what's wrong with this book?  Well, if you're an old-school gamer you might remember your early efforts to make a setting area.  If you were like me you might have started with a hexmap (or graph paper, if you were really in a stretch), and then for each co-ordinate randomly determined the contents by using the "random monster by terrain" tables in the DMG, until you had a setting that made no fucking sense at all.

Isle of the Unknown is a lot like that.  But even in my most pathetic newbie crimes-against-nature I at least tried to create varied terrain, interesting kingdoms and populations, and some coherence, however minimal.

The one thing in which "Isle" marks some kind of "improvement" (and even that is very tentative) is that the creatures in the book are mostly original; except that they're not very good.  Every single creature is different, and usually a pastiche of various animals plus some weird quality. For example, a cat with metallic fur, immune to all mental attacks and ordinary weapons; it can see the invisible and has poisoned fangs.   Or a bipedal frog the size of a man, who can fly and is immune to surprise, and has a slime spit.  Or a bipedal skunk with bat-wings; where slaying it means the killer will later be pursued by its sire, who is a giant bat-winged skunk.

So there's no rhyme or reason to it at all; no tribes, no reason for the monsters to be there, nothing.  Its a menagerie of crap, and I'm sure its meant to be "weird fantasy" but I'd put it closer to "stupid fantasy".  The monsters serve no purpose, make no sense, in many cases what they do isn't even predictable (nor unpredictable in a good way; they just do things you wouldn't ever be able to expect for no reason at all). 

There are other notable, and equally stupid, features.  There are a number of hexes that contain magic statues of seemingly random characteristics, which have effects that also seem to have been chosen at random.  There are a number of hexes that have magic users, usually aggressive and with defenders, but there's not really any reason why they are there in most cases.  Likewise with a number of hexes that have clerics.  A tiny handful of towns are placed seemingly at random, and have no distinguishing characteristics.  The whole thing is unspeakably shoddy.

Think I'm exaggerating?  Let me give you an absolutely typical selection; I assure you this is par for the course, I chose them at random.  There are hundreds of hex descriptions and almost all are like this:

0806  This 200lb. white rabbit (ARMOR: as leather, HD 2, HP 8, Move 130', 1d6+1/claw) is immune to blunt weapons, and it attacks with its long claws on its front feet. 
(included in opposite page, a well-renditioned full colour picture of a rabbit with big front claws)

0407  A 6' tall roadrunner (ARMOR: as leather + shield, HD8, HP32, Move120', 1d6/beak, 1d4/tail) has glowing orange eyes which reduce its chance to surprise in the darkness to 1 in 6.  This monstrosity can travel upon walls and ceilings as swiftly as it can move on the ground.  It can project a 120' diameter circle of poison (16 points damage per round, save for half) up to 90' away.  The creature can also spit with a range of 20'.  Anyone hit by the spittle must make a saving throw or be stunned and unable to do anything for 1d8+1 rounds.

0609 Tulips of variegated colors bloom in profusion in a meadow roughly 300' in diameter.  When any human walks in the meadow, the stalks of the flowers bend toward the person, and a musical humming almost too soft to be heard emanates from the tulips.

0713 The delicate influence of the Enchantress of Petals, a 6th-level magic-user (ARMOR: none, HD 6, HP 10, Move 120'), keeps winter and autumn at bay in this secluded mountain vale.  Garbed in dresses made of flower petals, her fresh and tender beauty makes it impossible to attack her unless a saving throw is made at -3.  She can entice flowers of any sort to maturity in minutes, and she can make animated rose bushes with long thorns to both defend and attack (automatic 1d6 damage per round, no saving throw).
(note that at least here, unlike in some other selections of magic-users in the hexes, you get a title; though no name, motivation, alignment, purpose or point for the encounter)

0907  The people of this town (population 2600) often refer in awe to the Ice Wizard who is rumored to abide in the snowcapped mountains to the southwest (hex 0807).   Parents tell their misbehaving children "Be good, or the Ice Wizard will get you!"
(note that this entry is unusual because it is one of very few that refer to some other area; even so, we don't even get a name for the town, much less any other special features, or a map, or details on its contents!)

1101  This statue is of a long-haired woman with a long, billowing dress, all carved from pale blue crystal.  Those who gaze long at the statue will seem to hear a gentle susurrus, and will seem to see the statue's dress ripple.  If anyone attempts to harm the statue, a violent gust of wind will blow the person 30' away, doing 4d6 points of damage (save for half damage)

Anyways, you get the idea.

There's no organizations, no important NPCs (the mages, clerics, etc are all nameless).  There's no agendas or important events.  There are a tiny handful of cases where there's some connection made between one hex and another (the people of a town know about an ice wizard two hexes over, or a cleric in one hex wants to kill a monster in another hex).  There's no mention of lairs or treasures, no dungeon maps.  Even the hexmaps on the inside cover are of a featureless island with a hex-pattern overlaid, you can distinguish some area as brown and presumably mountainous, and the rest is green.  Its not a "fill in the blanks" kind of setting the way, say, Majestic Wilderlands (or any number of other settings) would be; the material here is too bizarre and frankly too useless to work well for that; it doesn't serve a purpose as inspiration for you to give it sense and structure. Instead, any attempt to create a coherent setting would be massively hampered, not helped, by the material in the book.

If I had to hazard a guess, if I didn't know better I would say "Isle of the Unknown" was written as insult propaganda; some anti-OSR fanatic from the Forge, writing a grotesque stereotype of how he imagines sandbox settings should work based on the dumbest prejudices of the most idiotic D&D games that were almost never run but exist more in the minds of those who hate that kind of game; and was then stunned to find that for some utterly inexplicable reason, James Raggi wanted to publish it.

I mean seriously, what the fuck has this McKinney guy have on Raggi?! What level of incriminating pictures does he possibly have that would compel Raggi to sell this drivel, and at such a high production value?

I mean LotFP has produced a few stinkers, a few dull books, and a few masterpieces, as well as one of the best OSR rule-sets in the business. But never anything like this before. There are meth-heads on street-corners with no gaming experience who could improv a better setting than this.

I give it two stars out of ten for the production value alone, but the content is unquestionably of negative worth. Its almost criminal that a book so pretty as a physical object could be so utterly fucking useless.


Currently Smoking: Moretti Rhodesian + Gawith's Squadron Leader 

Friday 25 April 2014

A third-party AP of Arrows of Indra

So for today, I thought I'd have something of a guest-blog, from a guy (a guy who I don't particularly know yet) named Brian Isikoff, over on the Arrows of Indra G+ community.   I mention I don't know him to express how awesome I feel about total strangers getting all excited about my game; even though now, with five RPG products out under my authorship, its happened several times, that feeling never seems to get old.

So here's what Brian had to say about his Arrows adventure:

"Ok, so my Arrows of Indra game at the flgs earlier today went quite well. Two of the players were no shows - plus the Fiasco game was trying to poach players - so I considered myself lucky to have 3 and it was game on at 11 am. We ran until 4:15 pm, with a brief lunch break and a pause or two.

I rolled up PCs this morning over coffee - I used the Dicenomicon to roll "full stats" and generated the basic 6. I embraced the Old School and went with more or less as rolled. I worked up 8 sets of stats - I fudged a 6 here and there.

The stats worked up into "half-baked" PCs with castes and classes. All 4th level. Players chose their class at the table, and received the information and a blank character sheet. Skills, HPs and such were rolled at the table.

The PCs turned out to be Rajunikant (played by David) - A Scout , Naveen (Andre) - A Siddhe[sic - think he means Siddhi], and Ajit (Adrian) - Virakshatriya. "Raj" and "Nav" turned out to both be members of the Sudra Nagal class. Raj especially had skills with mining, accounting, and slave trading. Nav was a great doctor and healer, but all six of his older siblings died by age 2 before him. Ajit was a first born son, now a Holy Warrior following the path of … Krishna. Somewhat controversial. The holy warrior had a rolled 18 in strength, with caste made it a whopping 19 (+4).

I'll interrupt here at the wonderfully sweet irony that the S19 PC was the one that died. Ahem.

The Siddhe had both his skills, as well as a Rank 1 Enlightenment Power (Levitation).

I had the PCs just recently completed leveling up to 4th level, completing any ascension rites, etc. Adrian had her Holy Warrior call for her garuda ("of course!").

The adventure & role-play began on the Island Republic of Dwaraka, during the annual lamp festival (which coincides with the start of the Wet Season, or shortly thereafter).

The group becomes a small expedition to the ruins of Janasthana. After encounters with dire centipedes, avoiding cannibals and dire apes, fighting two dire tigers, and finally a giant cobra, the group discovered some ancient ruins. The Holy Warrior declared that they had found the "first city" - so named as it was the first city that Rama destroy on his path to Janasthana.

The group the explored the ruins, and link to the Patala Underworld therein. Finally, they discovered nest of a giant spiders. Most they destroyed with fire, but one came up tunnel. The Holy Warrior fought it, and finally killed it … at the cost of his own life.

The two clan mates escaped with three Patala Gems to show for it, and quite a haul they considered it, despite the loss of two slave warriors and the Holy Warrior.

Continuing on with some additional commentary about the game. The opening scenes consisted of some light rationale for the PCs to be in Dwaraka. The Holy Warrior was essentially questing, and the two clan mates were looking for opportunities to expand their clans wealth. Given they were 4th level, I didn't both with tracking the gps and cps, at least at this stage.

The Scout checked out the market, while both the Siddhe and Holy Warrior participated in the Lantern Ceremony, and met after hanging their lanterns. As they spoke, they became aware of a strange feeling of being watched … the Siddhe used The Clarity Eye to then show them they scene of their observer (creating a very AoI flavored version of the old Expert Set cover). A Holy Warrior of Kali was observing them from higher up. They soon confronted the warrior, who wore black lacquered lamellar armor under his robes.

While that ended in the PCs backing off, the Holy Warrior later sought out his rival the next day, finding him at the Kalari Arena. Words were exchanged, and then it was an armor-less duel with heavy maces.It went back and forth  bit, and I thought the PC was going to lose (frankly), and pow her PC laid out the Kali-worshipper (but not dead).

The PCs used the maps (the larger one was especially helpful) to plan out the time / logistics from the city to the river delta, and then the time up river. They finished provisioning up.

I ran a "light" wilderness set, keeping an eye on the time as well as a handle on where we were in the adventure. It was essentially improv, with the random tables providing great utility. I moved the journey with narration, and spot encounters.

At least one of the tribes of barbarians had been identified as cannibals going in - and the entry and exit markers of skulls going into and leaving their territory provided for some tense moments. Then the party was in the great jungle.

At this point, the group had no idea how to find the lost city. The Holy Warrior decided to recite some ancient scriptures and tales of Rama and guide them via religious landmarks (essentially). She was the only one who had seen the "new" Battlestar Galactica (in addition to me) to appreciate the similarity to the scene on Kobold.

They went a week up river, then disembarked in a smaller group (3 PCs + 2 slaves) north, through the jungle. The cobra was the last encounter before / as they found the ruins.

Everyone had a great time, and said they'd consider playing again."

That's it for today.


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

Thursday 24 April 2014

Lords of Olympus: The Bad Guys

Continuing the break from AoI (which is still selling great! go buy it here), I thought I’d respond to some questions we’ve been having over on the Lords of Olympus forum, regarding just what bad guys people can use for the big epic universe-menacing variety of opponents in a LoO game: a foreign pantheon? Cthulhu? Something else?

If you want Epic Big Bad Guys; there are a lot of excellent candidates, some that I suggest in the book.  Yes, you can go with another pantheon, somehow leaked over from another multiverse where they, and not the Greek Gods, rule the roost.

As for the Cthulhu mythos, however, I’d strongly suggest against it. I think you should instead go for the guys that were partial inspiration for their existence: the Primordials.

Read the Primordial section and entries of the RPG very carefully: they’re not human. The Titans and Olympians are human (in terms of behaviours); some primordials take human bodies (most don’t bother to at all; some are just empty space, some are daytime or nighttime, some are an entire single universe, one of them is literally the Pit of Tartarus), but even when they look vaguely human, they’re not.

Even when they try to behave human, they don’t do it right: they’re just one big Thing, a single archetype and its all they can be. They act in utterly incomprehensible ways and generally seem insane by our standards.  And they are INCREDIBLY powerful, more than the younger gods by far. Zeus has to make careful deals with them.  And not being human, their motives aren’t human. They do things for what seem like no reason; they don’t make sense.

In the LoO world, Cthulhu & Co. should be at best just lesser servants/eidolons of KHAOS, the formless void.  Now, if all reality came out of Khaos.. what else could come out of Khaos?  Or what happens if Khaos wants to start swallowing the Multiverse back up?

The other primordials could likewise be of use: Tartarus gives birth to horrific monsters from his pit. Aethyr provides the force-field around Olympus’ airspace.

I’ve already written about Eris and her Family of Discord, who would be ideal Primordial Enemies for a campaign that wasn’t world-ending but would still be really tough for PCs to handle.

Moros, the Primordial of Doom and Fate, is so powerful that Zeus and Themis (two of the biggest badasses on Olympus) gave him their three daughters in exchange for some measure of influence over him. Dark cults all over the multiverse worship him, as do secret networks of assassins.

Hypnos (primordial of Sleep) and his clan rule over the Dream world. Hypnos’ twin brother is Thanatos (the Primordial of death), his wife is the insane olympian goddess of Drugs (and the daughter of Hera and Dionysius!); and his three main sons (out of many) are the gods of Dreams, Nightmares and Impossible Things.  From the Dream Realm, Hypnos or his gang can go anywhere and interact with anyone who sleeps. If they decided to go bad for some incomprehensible Primordial reason, they’d be a gigantic menace to absolutely everyone.

So yeah, if your preference for a LoO campaign is for Multiverse-menacing baddies, rather than the milder Olympus-threatening internecine warfare; give some serious consideration to the Primordials!
If you recently bought Arrows of Indra, and haven’t yet checked out Lords of Olympus (my other current RPG), take a look. You might like it.


Currently Smoking: Mastro de Paja bent apple + Dunhill 965

(Originally posted March 15, 2013; on the old blog)

Wednesday 23 April 2014

The Only Thing the RPGPundit has to say About the Latest GoT Episode

You know, I'd heard there was some controversy about the latest episode of Game of Thrones, but really you'd think that show would generate nothing but controversy.  In any case, this is my one and only statement related to last weekend's episode:

"Squirming my Way to Freedom" should be the name of Tyrion Lannister's Autobiography!


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

Tuesday 22 April 2014

DCC Campaign Update

In today's surreal adventure, the player characters were confronted by:

-Highly confused zero-level characters.

-A "curiosity shop" that actually had useful things.  Like curious wands that leave you wondering what they do.

-One of those useful things actually being a plexiglass screen that could be fitted into the modified back of a Pythian Battle Armor to accommodate extra mutant eyes.

-Angry old-family would-be kidnappers.

-"Crazy Leper Jim"

-A guy begging for 'magic items for the poor' might turn out to be a useful hireling with 7 years of interpretive-dance training.

-Rumors of mad wizards turning halflings into goats (with halfling-faces).

-Confirmation of said rumours.

-On the other hand, the crazy leper with 7 years of interpretive dance training might just be the mad wizard they were looking for, in disguise.

-Nicodemus actually being a working-class mad archmage named Nikos.

-Said Nikos being Bugfuck Crazy.

-A stirring condemnation of their own moral failings as adventurers.

-Chicken-headed elves.

-0-level versions of the Human Torch.


-Doctor Ironbutt.

-The smelliest hashish-dealer in the world.

-The sewers of Arkhome, yet again.

-Clinically-depressed Sewer Giants.

-The "hand-people" being literally people with hands for heads. And flamethrowers; just because.\

-The troubling possibility of a Hand-people/ Frog-cult alliance.

-The Sewer-Freak Tribe.

-The fact that you can have up to three patrons, and screw them all over, if you're both very lucky and very powerful; but even then, you'll probably end up batshit crazy as your best case scenario.

-The Twice-confirmed realization that walking through a Sequester-trap is not a good idea under any circumstances.

-The reality that using up personality points as a dump stat can have really serious consequences.

-The tragic death of Ted, scarring Bill forever.

-The mad wizard Nikos' big lesson being: that he's an asshole.

-Heroism and morality, as adventurers, not being all its cracked up to be.

-The Eco-Ogre Army is coming.


Currently Smoking: Stanwell deluxe + Image Latakia

Monday 21 April 2014

UnCracked Monday: The Problem With Captain America

For today, I present you an interesting article by a young writer, who makes a surprisingly principled (surprising because these days principles are rare in general) defense of Captain America being a "Good" guy, in response to arguments that it would be more "interesting" for him to be a troubled anti-hero (in the style of the version of his character from Ultimates).

She gets it right in all the generalities, and seems to figure out that there's something quite troubling to her about how many people cannot accept the idea of Captain America being "nice" and not "a jerk". The part she misses is the deeper social crisis it represents: the fact that we live in a world where, as she pointed out "goodness and morality are now (seen as signs of) perfection".  

The problem is its not just perfection. Having principles, having an ethical code, is in our relativist society immediately associated with trying to illegitimately usurp some kind of position of superiority.  In a society obsessed with "equality" (not just of opportunity or of fundamental nature, not a society that believes in the equality of giving everybody an equal chance, or raising everyone up to the same rights and duties, but an "equality of outcomes" that demands that no one can be allowed to do better than anyone else, no one can be allowed to learn more or outperform.. or even be more principled), to have a code and believe that something is right and wrong suggests that you are trying to somehow set yourself above others. So people who have bought into this dominant paradigm of our society refuse to accept that Captain America could be heroic and moral without also being either a prejudiced asshole (in spite of Cap always having been about believing in the fundamental worth and rights of every human being, it was, for example, the first mainstream comic in history to feature an openly gay character portrayed positively as one of Cap/Steve Roger's closest friends), or a fascist out to control/oppress others (even though individualism has always been a key component of Cap's morality), or some kind of disturbed individual.  Or they'll argue that he's "not realistic", even though Cap's unwavering morality has also always been presented as complex process for him that he struggles to apply and uphold in a world full of challenges to that moral code; Captain America would be the last person to call himself "perfect".

Sadly, the reason they find it so unrealistic, I suspect, is because for most of these critics its inconceivable to imagine people like this in real life. Standing that firmly for a code, for an idea, that you are willing to put down your life for it, is a concept that has driven our civilizational progress since at least the time of the Ancient Greeks, but has gone so out of fashion in Western Civilization that for many it may seem a myth.


Currently Smoking: Brigham Anniversary Pipe + Image Latakia

Sunday 20 April 2014

Richard Dawkins is the John Snow of Religious Studies

That is to say, he knows nothing.  It doesn't matter how smart he is in biology (and whether he is or not is not for me to say, not being an expert on that subject), he and most of the new-atheists are absolute ignoramuses at religious studies.

Case in point: for Easter, the Richard Dawkins Foundation pushed around this meme, pointing out the alleged origin of the word Easter:

I'll not that I'm not absolutely sure whether the Richard Dawkins Foundation ("Official") has anything to do with Dawkins directly, and I certainly doubt he wrote this caption himself; but this is an example of an endemic problem the man himself has engaged with: he doesn't actually know anything about religious studies yet is quite willing to spout off any old bullshit he hears. I've read him do it over and over again in articles, and in videos.  When he talks about science, he is (or at least, appears to my layman's eyes and ears to be) rigorous and demand rigorousness from his opponents; in fact, that's one his chief damning criticisms of them.  But when he's dealing with religion, history, and other humanities, anything goes.  As if history wasn't a discipline. As if the study of religion was something anyone could do; or rather, no one really needs to do.  Its all so stupid, right? So why should we have to fucking know anything to criticize it?

Now, here's the thing:  "Easter" is not called "Easter" in Latin, or any of the romance languages (as far as I know). It is called "Easter" in English, from the time of the Saxons; which seems very strange if it made a jump of thousands of years after the ancient goddess Ishtar stopped being worshiped in that form (and thousands of miles away from where she was ever worshiped), and at least hundreds of years after the Latin church started practicing the festival of Christ's supposed resurrection, which they called Pascha (where the Spanish "Pascuas" comes from; both coming from the Hebrew term Pesach).

There's no question that the christian Easter rites borrowed from pagan rites, but that still doesn't excuse repeating something that just isn't factually true (the supposed Ishtar-Easter connection). This just shows off how little certain critics actually know, and it ends up giving all criticism a bad reputation as fanatical and not fact-based.

There is indeed a potential connection: Eostre (Saxon) comes from Ostara (old Germanic) which may derive, from great distance, from Astarte which was another name for Ishtar.
All of these (and many other feminine deities, like Inanna or Babalon) are a type of love-goddess sometimes described by the archetype of "The Red Goddess".

And yet the fact that there is such a connection, but the Dawkins foundation gets their facts wrong anyways through bad scholarship and bad reasoning, is only more ironic and more disappointing.

New atheism is very stupid at these things. And the problem is that they are mimicking (as usual) the same errors that the religious set make in the opposite direction: that idea I expressed above: if its stupid, then why do I need to actually know anything to mock it?  "I can just engage in sloppy thinking and get away with it because it isn't something serious like Science/The Bible" (take your pick).
By engaging with that mentality toward the humanities, all of New Atheism is committing the exact same error that the anti-evolutionist and Creationist fanatics they so hate do to them.

The New Atheists would be outraged if some Creationist were to make some ridiculous claim about the hummingbird because he hasn't actually studied biology; but they feel completely free to say whatever they like about religious studies because they just assume you don't actually have to know anything about these things.
They don't know their Ishtar from their Eostre, their Dhammapada from their Mahabharata, their Augustine from their Duns Scotus.  Things that are complex they want to reduce to schoolboy taunts, but it leaves them looking like schoolboy-level thinkers.  To anyone who actually knows anything, they come across looking like idiots. 

Belief may be a simplistic matter of faith or doubt; but religious history, religious philosophy, and religious sociology are not. They are complex.  And when it comes to being capable of engaging in debate that doesn't seem infantile, the supposed luminaries of the new-atheist movement seem utterly unarmed.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Rhodesian + Image Latakia

Saturday 19 April 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Pyramid of the Dragon

This is a review of “Pyramid of the Dragon” an adventure module, ostensibly for Labyrinth Lord (but really usable for any D&D-variant), intended to be played by 4-6 characters of levels 5-7.  Its written by Peter Spahn, published by Small Niche Games.  This is a 28 page softcover (I am, as always, reviewing the print edition), with a colour cover featuring a nice illustration of two dragons fighting each other, and black and white interiors. Being relatively no-thrills, its only interior illustrations are regional and “dungeon” (actually pyramid) maps.

Now, as always with modules I want to be kind of careful of what I talk about: I don’t want to give away any “spoilers” that could mess up a group’s fun.  On the other hand, I want to be detailed enough that people will get what’s good or bad about the adventure.  In the case of Pyramid of the Dragon, I’d say this adventure is fairly good, containing both tried-and-true elements and some things that are a bit unusual.  I don’t think its quite as great as “blood moon rising” (the other Spahn module I reviewed) but its still well worth looking at.

In terms of placing, the adventure is very much generic enough that you could easily place it in any standard fantasy world; the adventure starts out “in media res” so its set up that it can work as though the start of the adventure appears as if it were a random encounter while on the road in an area called the “border hills” (replace with hills of your choice, obviously).

The picture on the cover is not just some kind of unrelated show-piece; rather, this adventure actually starts (and because that’s the start I think its safe from spoilers) with the PCs witnessing a fight between two dragons (a pretty impressive beginning, in my book).  There’s a slightly scripted part in this, though even there the author allows for options (for example, the PCs madly insisting on participating in the fight), but from this point the adventure evolves into a kind of semi-sandbox.  Great pains are taken to making the choices as open as possible; rather than just railroading the PCs from one place to another. The overall content of the adventure can be broadly divided into three parts: the fight with the dragon and its aftermath, a trip to find a ruined elemental temple occupied by degenerate frog-men (that alone already made me like this adventure that little bit extra!), and then a third part involving the hunt for an extremely powerful artifact.

Both the overland and “dungeon” parts of this adventure are fairly good; the content rewards careful rather than reckless play on the part of PCs. The temple, while far from the most exciting dungeon I’d ever witnessed is good for some solid adventuring.  Having run this adventure in a highly-modified fashion for my Albion game, I can say that its not impossible to complete the whole thing in a single session, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to have completed it in no more than three sessions unless the players are really dragging their feet or something weird is going on. The adventure includes stats for a few new magic items and monsters (and a couple of spells that are potentially new to Labyrinth Lord, apparently, even though they have actually been around for a long time elsewhere).

I can say that this adventure has a lot of the typical Spahn attention-to-detail, and would certainly provide a nice break from more standard dungeon-crawling fare for anyone running an old-school game. Quite a solid product, as far as adventures go.


Currently Smoking: Stanwell Pipe of the Year + Argento Latakia

(originally posted March 5, 2013; on the old blog)

Friday 18 April 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Achtung! Cthulhu Keeper's and Investigator's Guides (part 2)

(note that this is the second part of the review of these two books; the earlier part, focused on the Investigator's book as this one does with the Keeper's, was presented in yesterday's blog entry and can also be found at this location on theRPGsite's reviews subforum)

The "Achtung! Cthulhu" Keeper's Guide begins with lengthy "Secret Chronologies" (i.e., of weird stuff) of the war in general and of the history of Nazi Germany.  These are mostly though not exclusively real-world weird events.  This section also contains an essay by Kenneth Hite advising GMs that they should avoid depicting the Nazis as "inhuman" and certainly avoid a campaign which suggests that the Nazi's evil was secretly caused by Mythos forces that were "behind it all" (as this, in essence, lets the monstrosity of the Nazis off the hook; as suddenly it wouldn't be their fault, but the fault of supernatural inhuman forces).  That's good and probably necessary advice for a lot of people to hear.

A section on the military follows, which provides unit and rank structures for the German forces, and some rules and guidelines for the allied war machine, including rules for things like obtaining supplies and handling injuries, and guidelines for how things like prisoners of war were handled. Statblocks are given (for both systems) for standard opponents: German infantry, officers, panzergrenadier, combat engineers, snipers, parachute veterans, mountain troops, German commandos, waffen-SS, and the Einsatzgruppe death squads.  Stats are also provided for different classes of US, UK, and French (both standard army and Free French veteran) soldiers.
Then there's a chapter on Intelligence, with significant details on the various MI branches of British Intelligence, the departments in charge of making secret weapons, the SOE, the PWE (the propaganda branch), and the LCS.  There's also details on the American OSS, Naval Intelligence, and FBI; and the Canadian "Camp X" and Hydra.  There's also details on the intelligence operations of French Resistance forces.  On the other side, there's information on the various intelligence branches of the Germans: the Abwehr (which in fact, under its director Wilhelm Canaris - who was personally responsible for saving the lives of several of my family members - secretly worked with the allied intelligence forces against the Nazi state trying to undermine it), the SD, and the Gestapo.

We then get to the chapter on Secret and Occult societies. Here we get into a seriously large section (50 pages of the book) on a variety of groups that are a mix of historical occult fact infused with Mythos-based fantasy.  There's real groups, some invented groups, and a couple that may or may not have been real.  A few significant figures in real occultism are mentioned, such as the incredible British magician Dion Fortune, or the fairly despicable German "volkish" magician Jorg Lanz "von" (in quotes because his claim to aristocracy was patently false) Liebenfels.  Fortune was the head of a real-life secret order called the Fraternity of the Inner Light who worked magically in real history to try to oppose the Nazi regime (in the game, they are active in the dreamlands under the guidance of the Elder Gods).  Liebenfels was the head of the influential but ultimately suppressed (in favor of even more overtly nazi groups) "Ordo Novi Templi", who had a huge influence in the esoteric details of the Nazi regime. 

Curiously, there are some very big names that are missing.  The authors chose to almost completely ignore Fortune's mentor Aleister Crowley, the biggest name in Occultism in the world at that time; who, although already an old man (but he would outlive both the war and Fortune) was tapped by his friend and contact Ian Fleming (also not mentioned in the book) to provide some occult intelligence in the early stages of the war, and was the inventor of the "V for Victory" sign (the Investigator's guide does have a brief sidebar box on the V sign and its creator, but that's the only mention they make of Crowley in either book, as far as I could find).  And there's no mention at all (again, unless I missed it) of Jack Parsons, the young and dashing millionaire playboy inventor who was Crowley's protege in America, working with the American branch of Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis, and at the same time one of the head scientists of none other than the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he developed jet fuel and the rocket fuel that would eventually put man on the moon.  He was also involved (at exactly the same time) in sex-magic rites and desert invocations of great goddesses.  One would think that a guy who was a rock star of occultism in that period, and a very important scientist of the American war effort, would have been worth at least a mention. These omissions led me to wonder if whoever wrote this section for Achtung didn't have some kind of anti-Crowley bias going on.

In any case, there are several other historical, quasi-historical and pseudo-historical individuals and groups detailed in this lengthy chapters, ranging from the relatively serious, to the wacky, to groups like "Section M" and "Majestic" which are clearly set up to be organizations that justify the formation and patronage of a PC party.  These two are given a considerable amount of detail compared to some other groups, but wisely the most information and detail is given to the antagonist group the Nazi "Cult of the Black Sun" which are a magnificent mix of pure race-supremacist evil, theosophical bullshit about Atlantis and the Hyperborean age, the real-life Thule Society, and the Mythos.  The Black Sun was not a real occult group, but it is clearly based on a number of Nazi occult streams and movements, and from their inspirations (the 'black sun' symbol was a real symbol of the SS, and its ideas came from racialist-occult theories about the "Aryan Race", the "Vril-force" and ancient atlantis).

This is where we get to the most Mythos-laden area of the setting to date; and it makes clear that the Nazis, though not run by the Mythos, are clearly dabbling with it to a level far beyond the allies, who have nowhere near the equivalent magical resources.  Its true that historically, the Nazis were always far more interested in the Occult than the allied powers, but that didn't necessarily make them better at it.  Of course, in a Cthulhu game, magic usually equals "horrific things Man Was Not Meant to Know", so the setting is obliged to present the allies at the occult underdogs.  There's nothing really wrong with that from a game perspective, since it puts the PCs in the position of heroes facing very challenging odds.

The major (villainous) heads of the Black Sun are statted out for the keeper, as well as statblocks for the Black Sun foot soldiers and special forces. And of course, their twisted Cthuloid monstrosities.

There's also another group, the Nachtwolfe, who are the "Weird Mythos Science" group in place of the Black Sun's "Weird Mythos Sorcery" group.  They have access to dangerous remnants of inhuman "atlantean" technology.  Here at last we get some weird tech stuff that's almost the kind of "pulp" stuff I had in mind, except of course that most of it is tainted and dangerous.  Again, statblocks are provided for major players and common archetypes within the organization.

The next chapter slips back into normality, with rules on travel by air, train and ships, crossing borders during wartime, smuggling, and details on military vehicles of all sides (including tanks, trucks, planes, ships, and subs).  Stats are given for vehicles in both systems.

There's also stats for German weaponry (allied weaponry being presented in the Investigator's book).  We dip back into the esoteric with some special Mythos-powered weapons and equipment for the Black Sun and Nachtwolfe groups, and then after that there are rules and guidelines for creating your own custom weapons and vehicles.

The next chapter deals with CoC mechanics handling various combat situations, things like dogfights, fighting with tanks, artillery, mines, and bombings, naval conflicts, random encounters (table provided) during large-scale battles, rules guiding being in command of units, and sanity loss for the (non-mythos) horrors of war.  The following chapter is pretty much the same, only for Savage Worlds.

The section on Artefacts and Tomes is for both rule systems, and details some new full-blown mythos artifacts, again mostly stuff in Nazi hands.  There are descriptions of several Mythos tomes; some already well known to CoC players.  The latter are only given descriptions and Savage World rules, while the new tomes (or altered ones) are given stats for both systems.  Among the latter there are the grimoires "Cult of the Idisi", the "Hanseatic Codex", "Culte Des Femmes Guerrieres Du Nord", "Merseburg Incantations", "De Origine Et Situ Germanorum" (written by Tacitus), the "Codex Aesinas", and "The Complete Works of Tacitus".
This is followed up with rules for how to use Mythos Knowledge in Savage Worlds, modifying the existing SW magic rules to fit the mythos, and listing some of the best-known CoC spells to SW rules.  There are a few new spells as well, which have stats for both systems.

Then we have a list of the (more common) Gods of the Cthulhu Mythos, with some explanations. Savage Worlds rules follow for stats of the most common Mythos creatures (byakhee, Dark Young, Deep ones, Elder Things, Fire Vampires, Flying Polyps, Nightgaunts, Shoggoth, etc.).  Its quite a few pages of material that is neither new nor useful to CoC fans.  There are also some new monsters that get double-stats:  Bloodborn, Cold Ones, Cultists of the Old Ones, Die Draugar, Die Gefallenen (nazi zombies), Ldendorff's Golem, Manneskin, Augmented Mi-Go, and Servitors of Nyarlathotep.

The "allies and nemeses" section details information about a number of important major figures, including Eisenhower, J. Edgar Hoover, Patton, FDR, Churchill, Dr. Hugh Dalton, Sir Hugh Dowding, Lord Mountbatten, Daladier, De Gaulle, Max Moulin, Petain, Paul Reynaud, Wilhelm Canaris, Goring, Goebbels, Hess, Himmler, and Hitler. 
None of the above are given stats, but the chapter also contains descriptions and stats for typical NPCs of a variety of backgrounds: an air raid warden, a woman's auxiliary volunteer, a home guard volunteer, a local squire, police constable, postmistress, lifeboat volunteer, CID detective, black marketeer, war correspondent, French gendarme, partisan, refugee, resistance fighter, collaborator, Hitler youth, gestapo agent, ordnungspolizei, U.S. factor worker, gangster, G-man, and private eye. 
There's also some descriptions of sample locations: airfields, army base, boatyards, country house, farm, hospital, industrial town, research facility, university, and village.
This chapter is what I'd term "moderately useful"; I could see some of this material as being potentially usable, but at the same time a great deal of it probably didn't need to be either described or statted out.  The information about the really major figures in the war are reachable by a Google search (indeed, any of their Wikipedia entries would garner far more information); the sample NPC stats would only very occasionally serve any real purpose, and the location descriptions are largely self-explanatory.  There's a lot of pages (20 in total) taken up in this chapter for the actual value contained.

The final full chapter contains 10 adventure seeds, each relatively short (a few paragraphs) and not exactly complete but enough for a Keeper to build something decent out of.  They run the gamut of scenarios that make good use of the default setting and material.  I won't go into detail about them to avoid spoilers but they form the basis of a good start for a campaign (or several good starts, rather, as they represent a few different orientations for a campaign; it highlights effectively that the Achtung setting can be used in several different ways, depending on whether you're focusing on military, intelligence, the home front, or insurgency).

Finally, the book closes with a quick reference guide for where to find rules in either system (referencing pages in either CoC 6e, or SW, and the appropriate pages in the Acthung Cthulhu books).  There are also bullet-point summaries of some of the new rule or mechanic ideas. Then there's a long list of suggested reading, and an even longer list of Patron's names from the kickstarter.

So what can we conclude about both the Keeper's Guide and the "Achtung! Cthulhu" setting in general? 
The great part of these books are that they are visually stunning, quite detailed, and yet accessible to the reader and well laid out for actual use.  They provide all you need to at least start a fairly focused WWII-era campaign. 

You may not like this setting if you are hoping for a super-pulpy, or super-gonzo type of campaign.  This is Cthulhu in the classic sense, it is not a setting where the Mythos is at all played for laughs or taken lightly.  This is a game setting where the mythos is deadly serious, and where the PCs are not the kind of heroic pulp figures expected to walk away unscathed, or indeed to even walk away, from the supernatural horrors they might confront.  It is a darker game than the somewhat campy-sounding title or the notion itself might imply, particularly these days where it seems that the Mythos gets ever-more watered down into something campy.

Finally, I'll note that while a great deal of attention to historical and military detail is provided, the level of attention to detail for historical occultism, and its various opportunities, seems somewhat scatter-shot and incomplete, with at least a few glaring omissions (like Crowley and Parsons).

On the whole, however, a very impressive, and very beautiful project, well worth checking into.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Canadian + Image Latakia

Thursday 17 April 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Achtung! Cthulhu: Investigator and Keeper's Guides (part 1)

This is a review of the two main handbooks for the "Achtung! Cthulhu" game, which is not a stand-alone RPG, but rather a very complete and detailed setting for playing Cthulhu mythos adventures during World War II.  These books thus require a system to play in; and the books are set up to support play with either Call of Cthulhu 6th Edition, or Savage Worlds.  They are written by Chris Birch et al., and published by Modiphius Entertainment.

The first thing that struck me about these books was just how impressive the production quality is.  Both are hardcover (the investigator's guide being about 145 pages long, the keeper's guide about 290).  Both have astounding covers, full colour interior with very impressive art, excellent layout, excellent maps of wartime Europe on the inside covers (front and back of the Investigator's guide - my only caveat being they could have put something else on the back- while the keeper's guide has a "secret europe" map on the front, and an advertisement on the back); and both books feature an attached bookmark-ribbon.  I'm a sucker for those; including them almost always scores you an extra point in the ratings!

Then we get to the content itself.  As it turns out, I personally ended up finding the books less fantastically useful at first reading then I had hoped.  But I realized that perhaps I was not really the target audience for these books, for several reasons.

First, I was expecting the setting on the whole to be very Pulpy.  I expected "Achtung! Cthulhu" to be all about out-there near-gonzo pulp heroes fighting Nazi Deep Ones with lots of 40s-super-tech and arcane mysteries.  If that's what you are hoping for, you will not really find Achtung to be satisfying; that's not what it's designed to do.   On the other hand, if you are hoping for a very detailed complete setting guide for running Call of Cthulhu in the way CoC is normally run (i.e., investigators who are not pulpy super-guys, going around looking into dark and dangerous things in a historical setting with great attention to detail) that will be what you'll be getting here.  Heroes in "Achtung! Cthulhu" are somewhere in between the weakling hapless-academics of a typical 1920s Cthulhu campaign and the super-trained experts of a Delta Green campaign.  They are already tough people (but totally within the boundaries of a "realistic" level of personal training and power) because they are already in the middle of the worst war history has known to date.  But they won't be flying rocket-jetpacks or dressing in flashy costumes with domino masks.  The style is a lot less "Inglorious Bastards" or "Indiana Jones" and much more "Saving Private Ryan" or "Valkyrie".

Second, I found that a lot of the material wasn't directly Cthulhu-related, but related to the historical emulation of the Second World War.  My first reaction to this was "I already know all this stuff"!  However, again, I'm not a standard case, and the information on the WWII era (not just the war but everything else about the period) is actually magnificently detailed here.  I already know it all because
a) I'm an historian, and even though WWII isn't my area of expertise, I've certainly taken a look at it.
b) I have a personal stake in the period, what with my personal family history being intimately intertwined with it, my family having lost their standing and fortune, lost two sets of great-grandparents in German Concentration Camps, having been forced to flee a homeland occupied first by Nazi Germany and then by a long and brutal Soviet Russian regime, and with at least three generations of my family having been seriously fucked-up by the scars of living through the war in Europe.
c) I had only just recently engaged in a very thorough researching of this very historical period in preparation for my Golden Age ICONS campaign.

So unless you've got that same background, you're almost invariably going to find the "historical recreation" segment of these books far more useful than I did.  And the detail is truly great: the Investigator's guide has material on British meal programs during the war, notes on the evolution of male and female fashion in the UK, US, and Germany during the course of the war, details on rationing, music, film, press censorship, etc.  There are decent timelines from the '30s to the late '40s for the UK, France, and US.  You also have very detailed information on the structure and nature of the armed services and Intelligence services for the UK, US, Germany, and the French resistance (not so for the Polish resistance, who were larger and more significant than the French resistance, in spite of the latter being better-known by having a more positive post-war PR machine - but then, the book focuses pretty exclusively on the western front).  Character creation guidelines (for CoC or SW alike) are very much framed around trying to make a tight historical context of service in the war effort (albeit with a wide variety of options).

So in other words, the central appeal of the books as written is going to be for those particular kinds of CoC-fans, today possibly in the majority, who really get off on a careful and detailed "reconstruction" (in play) of the historical era.  I have been told that this had always been the dominant style of CoC-play in most of Europe, and in North America it increasingly became so as repeated products made ever-increasing attempts to show off just how historically detailed they could become.  There's definitely nothing wrong with this; although if what you're looking for is something a little less serious and a bit more drawn to the action-adventure side of things you may find some of the information to be unnecessary to your needs.

The Investigator's Guide is meant for the players, of course, and mainly focuses on introducing players to the time period (with all the aforementioned details), and creating characters.  Character creation covers both systems, and as CoC and Savage Worlds are two very different games, this means that if you don't plan to run both at some point or another, at least some portions of the book will be useless to you.

The CoC material for character creation is detailed and well-organized.  You have procedures for generating characters from the U.S., from the British Commonwealth, or displaced exiles from one of the occupied nations of Europe.  There are random tables provided if you want to randomly choose your Commonwealth or Exile origin.  Likewise, there are random tables to determine your occupation, with separate tables for Civilian, Covert Ops, or Military. There are also amusing tables for randomly determining your connection to the Mythos. Each occupation has a description, plus information on earnings and connections, as well as a list of specializations. 

To generate a military character, there are some slightly different procedures.  Players decide whether to have their character enlist or be drafted (in the latter case, the branch of service is determined randomly).  Characters must then make a roll against their CON attribute to see whether they passed the physical tests of basic training. In some cases, they may be rejected outright (in which case they must instead choose a civilian occupation), or they may be relegated to rear-echelon roles, or they may be accepted, potentially with a bonus to their CON from the training regime.  Characters that pass basic training receive bonuses to a list of skills related to their branch of service. If a character meets certain prerequisites he may be eligible to receive NCO or Officer rank, which provides additional bonuses. There are optional rules allowing for a character to rise up the ranks by making a series of checks against a promotion table (with the risk that he may begin the game having already been wounded (and taken attribute damage) in the line of duty).

Civilian characters can also opt to attempt to enlist or be drafted, and will also gain benefits from doing so, although they will begin the game at their initial rank rather than play through the pre-game process of potential promotions.
There are rules too for elite occupations (e.g., the Scots Guards, the Commandos, Red Devils, Phantom, and the famous Devil's Brigade; though for some reason the latter here is only referred to by its formal name, the First Special Service Force, even though all the others are referred to by their popular monikers).

The Investigators' book also has new skills and updated skills, which are detailed in their own chapter.

Chapter 7 is a 20-page chapter with rules for character creation, along similar lines, but for the Savage Worlds system. 

Finally, there's a 15 page chapter of new equipment, for both systems, with important stats and tables for WW-era weapons.

That's the Investigator's Guide.  Again, quite useful as a sourcebook on WWII in general, and specifically if you want to make a standard CoC campaign but set it in WWII. I'll note that there is almost NOTHING here (aside from the aforementioned tables in the CoC character creation process) that is specifically mythos-related, or even supernatural at all.  If you had this book alone, it would make a very decent WWII-era BRP or SW book for historical and non-mythos play.  To get into the mythos part of things, you really need the Keeper's Guide.

(Continued tomorrow with part 2: the Keeper's Guide)


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario + Rattray's Marlin Flake

Wednesday 16 April 2014

On the Death of Magnificently Horrible Little Assholes

Its been long enough that I feel like I'm not spoilering anything at this point.  Really, if you haven't seen it by now, the hell with you.  Joffrey's dead.

And how great it was... but I wonder if this might not also be a problem?

You see, here's the thing:  Joffrey was a little cunt. But he wasn't just any cunt, thanks in part to the writing, in part to the director, and in large part to the truly excellent actor who portrays him (Jack Gleeson), Joffrey became the greatest cunt of all time.

We have hated Joffrey for four years now.  And the show has, miraculously, managed to ratchet up that hate in almost every episode.  Whenever you thought you couldn't hate Joffrey more, suddenly they found a way to make it possible.  He had no redeeming qualities, but more importantly he was just the perfect villain, it was almost impossible to feel any sympathy for him.  The closest you could come is to wish he had never been born; that, by the standards of normal human relationship toward this character, would be "extremely merciful". 

Wishing him a swift and painful death? That would still be well in the "merciful" range.

Jack Gleeson is an amazing actor, and I think perhaps what may have turned out to be a surprise even to the producers/directors themselves was just how great he'd be at being such an utter shit.  By all report, in real life Gleeson is a very likeable person, gentle and kind. He's studying theology (he's extremely intelligent, having won a scholarship to Trinity College (Dublin), and spends his time reading Soren Kierkegaard and smoking a pipe:

How's that for a famous pipe smoker!?  And from the looks of it, I can tell you its almost certainly a Peterson, which is just the right Irish pipe for a nice young Irish scholar.

So truly, he is a fucking amazing actor, if he, such a nice guy, can channel out all that horrific awfulness and become such an absolutely despicable little twat you just want to strangle with your bare hands.

And we will never see his kind again. Its impossible.
I refuse to believe that Game of Thrones will ever be capable of having a villain of his calibre.

And there's the rub.  The problem is, we might have been able to stand it if Tyrion died, or Aria died, or just about any character.  Because as awesome as those characters are, you can envision other equally awesome characters arising.  But no one, ever, will be as utterly magnificently god-fucking-awful as Joffrey.

And of course, even without having read a single novel, I knew that sooner or later Joffrey had to die. I assume he's died when the novels said he did, but I didn't know this out of spoilers.  Nor of course because its what usually happens to 'bad guys' in fantasy.  Game of Thrones doesn't do usual; but it DOES do credible.  There was no credible way, at this point, within the emulation of the world, that Joffrey would end up "winning" the Game of Thrones.  He was just too utterly useless; in the end, his own family would have killed him if no one else did. He was too unstable, too incompetent.  The little shit was doomed; and that was part of the fun, in fact, we closed the last episode with a situation that wasn't so much a "whodunnit" as a "who the fuck would not have done it?".  Just about EVERYONE at the wedding, and most people who've ever heard of Joffrey on Westeros, would have wanted him dead.   He was hated by all.

So now, we've had our great release of seeing the little fucker die; too quickly, not agonizing enough, but then again no death could possibly have been agonizing enough for what Joffrey merited.   Who will replace him? Who could we possibly hate as much?
There's no one.  I think the 'bastard of bolton' is being set up to take his place, but its just no contest.  Bolton's bastard is a sadist and a psychopath but so what? We've seen his kind before.  Plus, the sensation we get from that character is that he's just a mentally ill monster.  He's not the perfect combination of clearly cognizant of what he's doing, responsible for his own actions, and yet just utterly slimy anyways that was Joffrey Baratheon/Lannister. 

My concern is that the show will never be quite the same.  What we saw this weekend might well have been the high-water mark.  I'm sure there's tons of awesomeness to come, and tons of incredible awfulness too, but it'll never quite be the same to tune in to Game of Thrones without knowing that by the end of the hour you'd have found a whole new thing to hate about the most odious character television has ever produced.


Currently Smoking: Davidoff 400-series Apple + C&D's Pirate Kake

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Lords of Olympus: Unlimiting Bad Luck

Back in the old day when I was playing Amber, I was always kind of wary about just how much “bad stuff” my players could be allowed to take.  My feeling was that it might be too easy to abuse this; you could end up with parties full of ‘bad stuff’ people, and it might be very hard to effectively judge the differences between, say -20 and -50 bad stuff.

Over time, however, I started loosening up on that.  I took some sage advice from Erick Wujcik: that its always more interesting to let the players hoist themselves on their own petards. And when you consider “stuff” as a “bell curve”, as (just like every other attribute) a COMPARATIVE value, where just how lucky or unlucky a score is depends somewhat on the other players and their scores, it suddenly started to feel a lot easier for me to be able to quickly judge what was really meritorious of misfortune.

With the “luck” ability in Lords of Olympus, these principles are kept in place.  Of course, bad luck is always bad, and good luck is always good. It doesn’t matter if everyone else has way more good luck than you, or way less bad luck than you, its still not going to move you to that other shore in terms of actual effect.  And likewise, anyone who has more than about +20 luck or worse than -20 luck will still be a very extreme case, even if everyone else in the group is in the same boat.

But aside from those guidelines, what matters after that is how they are in comparison to the overall spread of the group’s luck.

To quote the book:
Rather than placing hard limits on Luck, the gamemaster should inform a character with really bad luck that he can and will make life miserable for him. Likewise, to counter players hoarding Luck, the gamemaster should explain that it is less-influential than powers or abilities.

If you’ve done that, and thus covered your bases, you shouldn’t be afraid of throwing the bad-luck book at a player who has gotten him or herself into serious points-debt. They’re literally asking for it.
And of course, some of the best drama can come out of presenting misfortune in an interesting and clever way; its better to provide bad luck that increases the sense of challenge and difficulty for the player, rather than just screws the player over irreparably. 

A lot of the best roleplaying I’ve seen in diceless games has come out of players dealing with their character’s abysmal luck.  And this is especially appropriate in Lords of Olympus;  they don't call them “Greek Tragedies” for nothing, you know.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Canadian + Image Latakia

(originally posted February 22, 2013; on the old blog)

Monday 14 April 2014

Uncracked Monday: Privilege and "Narrative"

Today we present a couple of links, important in how they're interconnected.

First, if you have ever heard some fucking pseudoactivist douchebag talking about "privilege" online (no doubt while DEMANDING that someone else be silenced and not allowed to speak, usually to avoid having said douchebag's idiotic statements refuted by someone with a modicum of rational capability), you might have asked yourself "Wait, would I count as privileged?"
And if you did, you're an idiot, because that's a stupid fucking question. But now, you can get your question answered, as there is actually a convenient online test you can take to see just how privileged you are (or aren't).
That is not a joke, by the way; the implication is that it is a totally serious checklist-style test to determine where you rank in "privilege", no doubts for the purpose of expressing online victimhood, or bashing your chest in online forum threads with mea culpas about acknowledging your privilege so you can be purified in the holy fires of "political awareness" that thus allows you (in spite of your privilege) to make authoritative (politically correct) statements about the evils of western civilization, while condemning and silencing others for their ("unacknowledged") privilege.

I post this here because, as far as I can see, never has a pseudo-activist article done so much to inadvertently discredit its own cause as this.  Everyone is having great fun taking the test to find out how privileged they are!  It shows off just how much of a fucking stupid concept this whole thing really is.

You can't measure either human sensitivity or human accomplishment by a checklist of supposed disadvantages.  Much less human rights.  And I have never, ever seen the concept of "privileged" used for any purpose other than as a rhetorical tool by otherwise poorly-armed fashionable-college-leftists to try to silence any debate on one of their pet subjects before other people can interject with their pesky Truth.  And that's the fucking toxicity of the "privilege" idea: it suggests that before looking at certain arguments, and judging said arguments on their reasoning, on whether or not they are TRUE, we first must look at the person making the argument, and whether or not they fit a list of approved characteristics.  The highest of which is not actually to be in any way truly disadvantaged; in fact, the top-ranking person permitted to speak, whose voice (lip-service aside) clearly matters far more than that of, say, a black woman from a third-world country (who certainly does score high on the Privilege test), is the Liberal College Student/Graduate/Postgrad who, in spite of usually coming out of the most advantaged of backgrounds, has "checked" and "recognized" their privilege, and received the education they believe allows them to now qualified as the Intellectual Elite that have the right to determine for all the rest what is right or wrong, or who should get to speak or not speak, and whether or not we should actually pay attention to what is being said.  Because "truth" means NOTHING to these people (like good little postmodern relativists, they don't believe there is such a thing), what matters is "narrative".

Do you think I'm overstating my case?
Let us consider then, the recent incident with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who's initial presentation of an honorary degree at Brandeis University was rescinded.  It demonstrated that to pseudo-activists, "muslim" trumps "woman".  Not just woman, in that case, but Third-world Black Atheist Woman Victim of Genital Mutilation; she had every qualifier and she still lost the privilege game in the eyes of the First-world Upper Middle Class (mostly White) College Pseudo-activists because she did not fit their "narrative" about how a good third-world black woman ought to behave.  She was "insensitive" by "criticizing" Islam; note that they also don't give a fuck about Islam per se, but again it fits the larger "narrative": people who criticize Islam are usually evil patriarchal religious right-wingers who believe in western civilization and are thus Enemy #1.  To have a black female atheist criticizing Islam is, to them, in many ways worse than if a White Male Baptist were to have done so, because she risks harming the precious narrative, she risks confusing the whole story they've invented in their heads as a way to avoid having to deal with the actual tools that depend upon examining truth.
She's like a traitor.

Its clearly not just about "insensitivity".  Consider that a few years earlier Brandeis had given an honorary degree to a guy (Tony Kushner) who said some very offensive things about the state of Israel (to the point of suggesting it should not exist), and when challenged at the time, the college actually made this statement:

"(Brandeis) bestows honorary degrees as a means of acknowledging the outstanding accomplishments or contributions of individual men and women in any of a number of fields of human endeavor. Just as Brandeis does not inquire into the political opinions and beliefs of faculty or staff before appointing them, or students before offering admission, so too the University does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions."

Apparently consistency or lack of hypocrisy is not a trait Brandeis values.

So if you believe in wiping out Israel, then apparently you're OK, even if you're a white guy, as long as you're saying in the right "narrative" (i.e. as a self-loathing liberal douchebag, and not, say, some redneck with a confederate flag; again, its all about the 'story', not what's true or not, the same statement of fact can be embraced or rejected by the Pseudoactivists based on who's making the statement).  But if you are a black woman who was genitally mutilated as a child, had to escape your country in fear of your life, and then had a dear friend murdered by a religious fanatic because he made a film about your story (with a note literally stabbed into his chest saying you were next), you're "privileged".

And that's the thing, "privilege" is always used, contrary to the claims of its Swine proponents, as a contest: as a comparison game to see who we should be most politically correct about.   The dude who wants Israel wiped off the face of the earth is not "privileged" compared to those lucky lucky jews (they haven't had anything bad happen to them in a while, right?), but Ayan Hirsi Ali is "privileged" compared to anyone who's still a Muslim because some Cultural Studies Major somewhere has decided it is so, in order to consistently fit the reality-bubble of Pseudoactivist Douchebaggery.  The whole thing is a grading scale for an intentionally constructed view of the world that rejects fact in favor of a specific 'story', rather than any true or accurate marker of suffering.  And even if it was the latter, it'd still be pretty fucking stupid.
Currently Smoking: Mastro de Paja Bent Apple + Dunhill 965

Sunday 13 April 2014

Golden Age Campaign Update

The PCs closed out 1943, first with the Tehran conference, where FDR and Churchill finally met up with that fuckhead Stalin.  The Soviets, in my setting, were consistently frustrated by the fact that they had no superpowered individuals (while at the same time, of course, forbidding vigilantism).  The Americans had hordes of them, and western Europe had relatively less (with Germany having a few more than the rest in Europe, mainly due to super-science and very dark sorcery).   But the USSR had none at all.  So of course, the politburo came up with the first ever Soviet People's Hero:

Red Star!  He's really just one step from a propaganda tool; a soviet crack-shot soldier, who they decided was also politically loyal enough to be made into a ersatz (or would that be potempkin?) hero.

Starman, meanwhile, went on to get the PCs to investigate a case in the midwest of mysterious off-season tornadoes.  He was also secretly investigating some strange reports coming out of Smallville, Kansas. 

What most people don't realize about Starman is that he's a brilliant astrophysicist, and he believes that the reason why the U.S. has the most superheroes, Europe less, and Russia none, is that there was an incident in the mid-1930s that caused a bombardment of cosmic rays on earth, and these cosmic rays specifically fell, in their majority, on the northern half of the western hemisphere (its epicenter was Boston, which would explain why there's more east than west coast heroes, too).

Hmm.. that's odd, Starman's gravity rod uses cosmic rays for its power source doesn't it? The one he started building in the mid-30s?  And Starman's based in Boston, isn't he?  Well, must be a coincidence.  I'm sure he occasionally sounds horribly guilt-ridden for completely unrelated reasons.

Anyways, back to the tornadoes: Starman thought it might be some kind of superscience; the Inquisitor thought it was witchcraft!  It turned out to be her:

The Prairie Witch!  Who is actually not a witch, though she thinks she is.  Her powers, and her greenish skin, was gained due to exposure to radiation from a strange piece of meteor rock from around the Smallville area.   She was trying to frame the gypsy family that rejected her, and at the same time avenge herself on the various small midwestern towns that had spurned her and her family.

Anyways, that's it for today.  Next session it'll be 1944, and things will be intensifying as the war starts to reach fever pitch! Stay tuned.


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

Saturday 12 April 2014

Famous Pipe Smokers

Today's famous pipe smoker was famous for smoking a pipe, and also for having had it real bad.   He was born under a bad sign.  His woman left him.   If it wasn't for bad luck, he'd have had no luck at all!

Yes, it was famous pipe smoker Albert King, who was also pretty famous for singing the blues.  And he was pretty freaking great.



Currently Smoking: Castello 4k Collection Canadian + Image Latakia

Friday 11 April 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG

This is a review of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, published by Goodman Games. It was written by Joseph Goodman.  The version I’m reviewing is a hardcover print edition, about 480 pages long (counting the ads in the back), full colour cover, full colour inside front and rear covers, and everything else in (utterly glorious) black and white.

And when I say glorious, it is really glorious.  You might have seen some pictures online of what some of the art of this game looks like. It really doesn’t compare to holding the real thing in your hand. It is amazing.  Before anything else, before getting into any of what might be great or bad about the DCC game itself, I can say without a doubt that this is now the most beautiful RPG book I’ve ever seen.  Its fantastic.  There have been very beautiful books I’ve reviewed before that were great rpgs (like Aces & Eights’ hardcover, or Starblazer Adventures, both of which are really amazing), and beautiful books which were not that great as RPGs (like Alpha-Omega, that had stunning art, even though the game didn’t really do it for me); but DCC tops them all. Every single one.  And I can’t fathom what a better-looking RPG book would be, after this.

So that’s it: if you want 480 pages of incredible astounding fantasy art, just stop reading and buy this game right now.

If you’re wondering what DCC is like as a roleplaying game, then I guess you must read on.
To start with, DCC is an OSR game.  Its actually by Goodman Games, who were making old-school modules before it was cool (that is, at a time when no one else was doing them, even way back during the d20 craze), so these guys know their stuff.  However, it is most certainly not a D&D “clone”.  What you won’t find here is a carbon-copy of 1e or B/X, or any other edition of D&D; you won’t even find a game that is mostly like a certain edition with just a few key differences that make it stand out (like what you see in Lamentations of the Flame Princess).  Instead, DCC is on the one hand recognizably D&D, but on the other its nothing like any other version of D&D out there.

And if I may get all philosophical for a moment, this is a very interesting thing, because it has been welcomed with open arms by the OSR, and pretty much proves the lie to the claims that all the OSR wants is the same old 1974 (or ’78, or ’81) rules with no innovations.  DCC is an amazing example of just how much innovation the OSR actually engages in and welcomes.  Its not innovation that’s the problem, its how that innovation is done; and I think that the designers of D&D Next should be picking over this game with a fine-toothed comb to try to understand why they can change all the rules and end up being adored by the OSR while 4e changed all the rules and was despised by old-school gamers (and most everyone else).

So what, in this case, is the alleged point of all this innovation, besides giving Goodman a vehicle of their own so that they can produce adventures not bound to some other company’s RPG?  I could say that it would be enough of a mission statement to just want to make a kick-ass old-school RPG; or to make an RPG that fits the type of adventures Goodman likes to write.  But the book itself takes it one step further.  The alleged goal here is to create a version of D&D that gets much closer to the ideal of “Appendix N” (the famous “recommended reading” appendix of the 1e DMG) than D&D ever did.

Now the thing is, I’ve looked at the actual list of titles in Appendix N: its a huge sprawling mass of books that are largely just stuff Gary Gygax liked; a lot of them have very little in common with each other.  Saying “we’re going to make this the Appendix N RPG” is awesome marketing on their part to the OSR-crowd, but in practice what it amounts to is not so much about appendix N as it is about taking D&D, cutting down drastically on the Tolkien influence, and amping up the Moorcock, Lieber, and Howard to 11.  Mind you, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that at all; its what I mostly love, in fact.

So let’s look at what DCC actually does with the D&D rules.  For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to assume that most everyone reading this is already familiar with what old-school D&D normally looks like; if that’s not the case, go do a bit of research on the subject (come ask us at, if you like) and then get back here.

For starters, what’s not different: the game still has, in B/X style, four human classes and three non-human: Cleric, Thief, Warrior, Wizard, Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling. They still act (in the broader sense) the way those classes normally do in old-school play.  Combat is still recognizably D&D combat.  Magic, while working in some ways very different than in regular D&D (strictly speaking its not what most people would term “vancian casting”), is still very similar to D&D magic with many of the same spells. You still have magic items, monsters, treasure, and obviously dungeons.  The broad strokes are the same, the details are what changes, sometimes in big ways.

It should be noted that Goodman Games was doing “old school” adventures for D&D 3.x back in the days of the D20 craze; perhaps because of that, there are a few things they’ve imported over to the DCC rules that are clearly from 3e.  Mainly, the saving throws in DCC are Fortitude, Reflex and Will. AC ascends, and there are attack bonuses (but of course, a lot of OSR games have gone that way too). There’s also a single XP table, rather than one for each class (a decision shared by my own Arrows of Indra old-school RPG).  None of the really “bad” elements of 3e are there, however; you won’t find attacks of opportunity or complicated feats or prestige classes; there isn’t really a codified skill list system like you see in 3e, so hardcore old-schoolers need not worry.

Now, I guess before we proceed we must address one particularly big difference: the “dice chain” and the use of “weird dice”.  DCC doesn’t just use the standard D&D set; instead it also makes use of a number of the far less common gaming dice that until now served relatively little purpose in the hobby: the d5, d7, d14, d16, d24 and d30.

Now, I’m man enough to admit that when the DCC game was first announced, and we were told that it would use “all the dice”, I came down on this idea like a ton of bricks.  In fact, in one of my less insightful prophecies, I predicted the DCC game would flop because of this decision.  Obviously, I was very very wrong.  My crucial error was underestimating gamers’ love for dice, and that apparently these weirdo-dice were a tool waiting for a niche; obviously, the inclusion of these dice did nothing to hamper DCC’s success, and may even have contributed to it.  Even so, if you don’t own these dice, be aware you’d have to get a set to play DCC (the book does give you some alternative methods of rolling the results, but that’s a pretty poor substitute).

The “dice chain” is applied in a number of ways in the game, mainly in that as a character goes up in level, he may end up rolling certain abilities on a higher step of die on the “chain” than he previous did. In some resolutions, modifiers may end up reducing or increasing the type of die you roll instead of providing a fixed bonus.

The other biggest difference in the game, as far as I’m concerned, is the level system.  Unlike most D&D-clones that presume you start out at level 1 and can get up to a fairly high level (anything from “unlimited”, to 36, to 20, to 15 in some cases like ACKS), the DCC game presumes the PCs will start out at level 0 (yes, that’s zero), and can theoretically get as high as level 10 at the most.  Mind you, the power-spread works quite differently; a 10th level character is an incredibly powerful killing machine compared to a 10th level character in standard D&D (and if you’re playing DCC by the book, it would be a pretty amazing accomplishment to have a character live long enough to get that far).

Zero-level play goes through something called the “character funnel”, where each player makes several (anything from 3 to 5) 0-level characters.  These are quite weak, with a simple profession (farmer being the most common), a skill related to that profession, and an item likewise related, plus some very basic objects. So this is very much a zero-to-hero being taken to the extreme.  I don’t remember much of that in the Appendix N literature, but it certainly is fun.

Survivors of 0-level play get to pick a class only when they reach 1st level.  In the game, you can only be a demi-human if your 0-level profession indicated you were an elf, dwarf or halfling, and in those cases you then MUST take that racial class (you can’t be a “Dwarven Wizard”, for instance). I found that a little limiting, but easy enough to houserule.

On the whole, the character funnel seems like it would be an awesome way to create a character; but I can see some people and groups not liking it; it binds the characters to a total “zero to hero” mentality, moreso than regular D&D, and it means that you treat characters as playing pieces until such time as you finally settle on a 1st level character.  Again, its easy enough to skip 0-level and start a character off right at 1st, but to me that would feel like you’re missing something pretty fascinating, and key to what the game’s zeitgeist is about. Personally, I would very much like to run a funnel and see what happens.

I should mention too, before I go any further, another crucial difference from regular D&D: the ability scores.  They don’t use the same ones.  There’s Strength, Agility, Stamina, and Intelligence (with the middle two being a renamed Dex and Con), but then there’s Personality (mostly Charisma, but Will Saves are based on this, so it gets some of the qualities of D&D’s Wisdom), and finally Luck.  So, there’s no Wisdom attribute per se, or rather most of Wisdom and Charisma are combined into the single stat of Personality. 

Luck means random fortune, and you get to use Luck in several ways. First, you get your luck modifier to apply to crits and fumbles (more on those later), corruption (more on that later too), and a few other things, plus one randomly determined quality performed at character creation; so for some players Luck may affect their attack rolls, while for others it might just affect their known languages, and for some it might affect their spell checks (which will mean nothing if they don’t play a spellcaster).

Luck can additionally be “burned”, voluntarily and permanently losing points of Luck to give you a one-time bonus to a roll equal to what you gave up.  Thieves and Halflings actually regain luck spent this way; for everyone else, Luck is a non-renewable resource except for very rare adds given if they’ve performed truly impressive deeds.

Let’s look too at the differences in specific classes; there are a lot of them!  In fact, the DCC game is full of bells and whistles and subsystems, almost all of which are fascinating and cool to read, but some of which I wonder just how well they really work in practice; I think some might drag the game down, either in terms of time, or extreme unpredictability, or of having to look things up. I suspect DCC runs slower than D&D, though I can’t really say how much slower (on theRPGsite, I’ve been assured that its not very much slower, because many of these subsystems come up only rarely, but I can’t vouch for that firsthand).

Clerics and Wizards alike, to get to the big example, cast magic with a “magic check”.  They have to roll a die (usually D20 but sometimes the dice chain moves up or down on that) plus modifiers, and the result determines if a spell goes off or fails (the DC for basic success is usually 10+2/lv). If a wizard rolls too low, they lose the spell use for the day. If a Cleric rolls too low, he gains his god’s disapproval and must do a randomly-determined act of atonement.  If a Wizard rolls extremely low, he can gain Corruption, which will cause some kind of warhammer-esque mutation of his person (he can avoid this fate by burning a luck point).  Pretty much all of these things have to be rolled and then referenced on tables. On top of this all spellcasters will have their spells manifest in a certain way (requiring another roll and referencing another table), a Wizard might misfire (requiring another check in another table) or get “Patron Taint” (more on this later, but yes, it involves yet more rolls and more tables), a wizard might use “spellburn” (temporarily or permanently losing ability scores other than Luck to add to his spell check, which again requires another roll on another table), and each wizard’s spell has its own particular permanent manifestation called mercurial magic, which is rolled randomly only when first obtaining the spell but some effects require further rolls.  So that’s a whole lotta rolling and table-reading for such a central task in play. I can certainly see how for someone who’s had experience with the game, this all can be resolved extremely quickly, but I could also see a newbie getting profoundly befuddled by it all.

I’m not meaning to put down the notion of the game; hell, I love random tables, and I love the idea of magic being more unpredictable than its super-reliable nature in standard D&D; but I am just saying that DCC is clearly a more complicated game to run than regular D&D would be in just about any old-school edition.

Its enough to make some of my players, who are not precisely averse to old-school games, say that they would not want to play a spellcaster in DCC.  And for at least a couple of my players tell me they just wouldn’t want to play this game, period (one of whom was begging me to run an AD&D 1e campaign not long ago).

I suspect that part of what bugs them is that unpredictability; in the case of one player I know it to be so.  He was particularly pissed off by the notion of Deity Disapproval with Clerics, finding it stupid that his deity could randomly be angry at him; even a god of Law could, for no special reason, decide he needed punishment not for anything he did or for his motives but just because he got an unlucky roll on a die.  I could understand, for my part, how this meshes with the style of play that the DCC game encourages, and after all, that’s a bit like saying that a fighter doesn’t get to hit just because of an unlucky roll on a die; but I can also see how the way its worded, and the seeming arbitrariness of it all, would rub someone the wrong way. 

In a larger sense, I could see how those D&D fans who love to play Magic-Users and Clerics in regular D&D specifically because its a strategic game of resource-use with memorized spells that always work the same way would LOATHE playing Wizards or Clerics in DCC, where nothing about magic is predictable. Again, not a flaw of the game, but be forewarned!

To cover some other differences with the Cleric: clerical healing is now a mechanic separate from Cleric spells, and you cure different amounts based on level and on the alignment of your subject. Healing someone of opposite alignment has way less effect, and increases your likelihood of deity disapproval. Clerics don’t just Turn Undead; here they Turn Unholy, which is a long list of different creatures based on one’s alignment: a Lawful cleric turns undead (but also demons, chaotic dragons, and orcs). A Neutral Cleric turns regular animals (kind of strange that normal animals would be “unholy” to neutrality, but also undead, devils,  lycanthropes and slimes/oozes.  A Chaos cleric turns Angels, lawful dragons, and law-aligned humanoids (the example given is Goblins). Preferred weapons are also by alignment.

Thieves get the standard “thief skills” (backstab, which grants a critical hit; sneak, hide, pick pockets, climb, pick locks, find and disable traps (two different skills), Forge documents, disguise self, read languages, handle poison, and read scrolls.  Just what bonuses one gets in these skills depends upon whether one is a Lawful, Neutral or Chaotic thief (ie. a “boss”, an “assassin”, or a “swindler”).  Thieves get bigger bonuses for spending Luck, and they regenerate luck at a certain rate per day.
Warriors in DCC don’t get a fixed attack bonus, instead they get a “deed die”.  This die is rolled with each attack and added to their bonus to hit AND damage. The deed die can also be used to perform “mighty deeds”, special combat maneuvers of any kind (where the deed die determines if the maneuver succeeds or fails; the fighter still also rolls to hit and must hit for the deed to work). A Mighty Deed can be almost anything the Player can think of, but examples that are actually regulated in the book are things like blinding, disarming, pushback, tripping or throwing, precise shots, rallying, defensive maneuvers, or certain weapon specific deeds. Obviously, warriors also get the best attacks, damage, and hit points as well as the widest range of usable weapons and armor (“usable” in the sense of being trained; anyone can theoretically use any weapon but lack of training means you roll a lower die on the dice chain).

Wizards, in addition to the spell rules already mentioned above (note that wizards don’t memorize spells, they have a certain number of spells based on their level, and may lose the ability to cast specific ones for the day with a bad roll), can also obtain a Patron.  This is a demon lord or greater spirit of some kind with which the Wizard enters into a contract or special relationship.  Obtaining a patron grants one the ability to invoke the patron for powerful aid, as well as learn certain unique spells; on the other hand it opens one to being gradually transformed (via “Patron taint”) into becoming more attuned to the vision, nature or even appearance of their Patron.

Patrons are a big deal for wizards, though not obligatory; the system for patrons is complicated in the sense that it involves several spells (Patron Bond, Invoke Patron, plus the patron spells granted by the patron), specific invoke patron results, specific spellburn types required, and the detailing of specific patron spell tables with specific results and manifestations… and only 5 patrons are provided in a fully fleshed-out fashion.  What I’m saying is, this is a pretty important part of the game and is extremely complicated for the GM to come up with on his own.  In fact, coming up with new spells in general is very difficult for a GM, because its not like in regular D&D where you just have to think a name, duration, range, and effect (and then pick an appropriate level); here you have to write up a whole table, including manifestation (the form the spell manifests as, typically written in the form of a small random table), corruption (the specific kind of corruption that a critical failure on the spell can cause, again another small random table), and then a long list of varied effects depending on the spell check result (for example, the 1st level spell “Comprehend Languages” has different results depending on if you rolled a 1, a 2-11, a 12-13, 14-17, 18-19, 20-23, 24-27, 28-29, 30-31, or 32+, and that’s pretty typical for a 1st level spell).  This is the reason why spells take up one or more entire pages each, and why a whopping 174 pages (p.129-303) are dedicated to nothing but spell descriptions (oh, and that’s not counting another 15 or so pages for the Patron spells!). The very thing that makes magic awesome in DCC also makes it much harder to effectively reproduce, much less improvise.

Wizards can also gain familiars, and know extra languages.
As for demi-humans, Dwarves can do most of the warrior stuff, plus they’re especially good at fighting with shields, and have the standard infravision and underground lore. Elves are not as great at fighting though still pretty good; but they also use magic just like a wizard, only with an automatic bonus access to the Patron bond and invoke patron spells (the elves tend to focus on having demonic contracts, apparently) They also get the infravision and immunity to sleep and paralysis, and heightened senses, but they have an allergy to iron (meaning that if they want to use metallic weapons or armor it needs to be mithril). Halflings are stealthy, particularly good at fighting with two weapons, and mainly, they’re lucky: they get bigger bonuses for spending Luck and regain luck in a way similar to that of a Thief; most importantly, they are the only class that can spend their luck to give someone else a bonus.

All forms of skills and skill checks are done by rolling a die, adding relevant bonuses and beating a DC.  There’s no skill list a la 3.x D&D, instead skills just mean checks based on one’s profession, or special ability checks like a thief’s skills.  If you are trained in some way, you usually roll a D20 for a skill check; untrained, you roll a d10. The entire chapter on skills and skill checks is only 2 pages long.
The section on equipment is surprisingly basic, only 4 pages long, with a section on weapons, armor, a very short equipment list, and a short list of mounts. That’s it.  I’m kind of surprised, as I feel this was under-done, especially for the sort of game DCC is. The encumbrance rules amount to a paragraph telling the GM to just use common sense. I’ll note that armor determines the die used for fumbling, which is quite clever; a less armored character will suffer less from fumble results than a guy in full-plate, tying both armor and fumble checks to the concept of mobility.  Two-handed weapons reduce the initiative die of the wielder.  Armor also has armor check penalties, which apply to physical activities of various kinds as well spell casting (wizardly, not clerical).  We’re told mithril armor may reduce the armor check penalty for spells, but we aren’t told how, nor are any statistics for mithril armor provided.

On the other hand, the combat rules are very complete, providing all the rules one would expect. One important difference in the combat rules from regular D&D are the presence of Fumbles and Criticals.  A natural 1 fumbles, a natural 20 (usually) is a critical (some classes get a larger range of criticals, and if you use a lower die sometimes the highest result on that die is a critical, the dice chain complicates the thing slightly). Fumble results are rolled on a random table, the die type being determined by armor worn (an interesting way of presenting fumbles as mobility issues from heavier armor use), and results can vary from minor inconveniences to wounding yourself for full damage. There are different Critical tables depending on your class (and for warriors, depending on your level), as well as critical tables for monsters of different sorts (dragons, undead, giants, etc. each have their own crit tables). The die roll for a critical hit depends on level, and some of the effects (particularly on the Warrior and monster tables) can be quite gruesome, up to and including results of “instant death with no save”.

The combat rules also contain some very interesting but quite complex sub-system rules for handling spell duels between two wizards. These rules (where wizards can basically spell and counter-spell each other, sometimes to very unexpected results) appear very tricky at first glance but careful reading does make sense of them.

The latter part of the book contains a plethora of GM advice; including suggestions on how to fit the vision the author has of “Appendix N” gaming (for one example, he suggests a relatively small “explored” setting, but also suggests including planar adventuring right from early levels). Guidelines are provided for how Wizards can gain new spells: unlike in D&D, you can’t just add all the spells you can find, because the mechanics only allow Wizards a limited number of spells. New spells are rolled randomly at leveling; however, if you find a spell through whatever means, you can attempt to learn that one in particular (requiring a potential task or component, which are rolled randomly), you can also seek out specific spell knowledge (with a random table indicating where it might be found).

In this section you also get rules on familiars, on communicating with spirits, the aforementioned rules on patrons, and rules for clerics to request divine aid directly (like everything else in DCC, it comes with strings attached IC, and random tables OOC).
There’s also rules for random magical effects, leveling up, and how to manage luck (and on what rare occasions to give people Luck rewards).

Then we get to magic items.  This is a very mixed bag of a chapter.  Like some of the other OSR-products I’ve reviewed, DCC makes the claim that on account of there already being so many other lists of magic items out there, they don’t really have an obligation to make a complete one of their own.  My response is that, as in those other cases, this represents something of a missed opportunity: magic items are one of the best ways, in my opinion, to present the kind of implied setting you want to put forward.  In the case of DCC, at least, there’s a half-measure toward this: certain types of magic items are exquisitely detailed, while others end up being completely ignored.

Swords get by far the most impressive treatment, with a whole series of tables to generate them.  And its a perfect example of just how magic items can push forward the implied setting: all swords have alignments, intelligence, and many have special properties, powers and purposes.  There’s no totally generic +1 sword in DCC.

Scrolls get a shorter, slightly less awesome treatment, but they have to be addressed since the magic system is so different.  I’ll note that in the game, ANY character can theoretically attempt to read a scroll, though only wizards, elves, and higher-level thieves are likely to actually succeed in using one. Potions get detailed, though a relatively short list of them, through the “make potion” spell; but then everything else gets a big goose-egg.  You don’t even get magic armor, which one would think would be as important and have as much potential as weapons (plus the niggling little detail that elves can’t wear normal metal armor without an allergic reaction, and you’d think that the mechanical qualities of mithril and adamantine, both mentioned in the flavor text of the book, would have been touched on somewhere).

In the monster section we get some of the same declaration of how you shouldn’t ever use generic monsters, and how they don’t really need to have a huge list of monsters because of that, and how you should probably make your own; despite this, you do actually find a pretty adequately-sized and fascinating bestiary in this chapter, with pretty much all your standard “all-star” D&D monsters present.  And of course, loads of random monster tables: tables to generate full-blown random monsters, tables to randomize humanoids, undead, demons, dragons, special critical tables for monsters, and a selection of statblocks for creatures common to unusual (the latter including things like androids, elder brains, cave crickets, shroomen, time travelers, and more). There’s also a very useful section, often omitted in games, with a number of statblocks for different archetypal NPCs (soldiers, peasants, witches, nobles, etc… anything a PC might need to interact with or fight). On the whole, its much more satisfying than the magic items section.

Finally, there are a couple of sample adventures: one “character funnel” for 0-level characters, and another very very short adventure for mid-level characters. Of these, the first looks like a really excellent introduction to the game, the second looked to me just a little bit like phoning it in, in the sense that it was nothing special.

There are also appendices: on curses, languages, poisons, names and titles.  There’s also an appendix dedicated to the OSR, with lists of OSR-friendly blogs and forums, but I’ll note that neither theRPGsite nor my own blog are mentioned.  I guess that’s fair because both are about more than JUST the OSR; but I should point out that Goodman Games and I share the common trait of having been advocates for old-school play before the term “osr” even existed, and some of the guys on that blog list (the awesome JRients, for example) were reading and praising my writing before they ever started to do their own stuff. Anyways, I’ll forget their omission, but I hope that in future they’ll be kind to theRPGsite, which is probably the one large and general rpg-forum where old-school is really welcomed and encouraged with something more than grudging and reluctant toleration.

So what can I conclude about this game? It does seem as though, reading through, I’ve been kind of harsh; rather critical, of a number of points that are perhaps imperfect about the game’s design. This is not exactly a neat and tidy game, in spite of the fact that its also clear quite a bit of thought has been put into how they wanted to enact the various mechanical changes that were made from standard-D&D.
This game, I think, should not be good. Its not a tight clever set of rules-modifications from regular D&D, like “Lamentations of the Flame Princess”.  It is instead a big mess of changes, with several questionable parts: the weird dice, the incomplete items lists, the added complexity in every kind of task resolution, the very complicated rules on magic (including the extremely complicated patron rules and spell-duel rules).  There are all kinds of individual things about it that are just problematic.

But DCC has something about it that makes me want to run it SO BAD.  I want to play it. I want to design a campaign of it. I want to write sourcebook for it. Somehow, like those bands that were technically more crazy than good, like the Velvet Underground or the Sex Pistols, it just inspires. because it isn’t about technical perfection, its about something else. Maybe even, its about the crazy.
The DCC book, for more than just its 70s aesthetic, brings to mind that quote from my favorite author, Hunter S. Thompson: “There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production.”

The game is definitely a “high powered mutant” of D&D, and regardless of whether or not it succeeds in capturing the “Appendix N” style of play (if such a thing even exists) what it most certainly captures is OLD SCHOOL. And I know for a fact I’m going to play this game one day; and change a bunch of rules, and tweak others, and ignore some, and none of it will matter because this game will be glorious.
I can’t really give this game a 10. For technical reasons, and because very clearly, DCC will not be for everyone. I have a couple of players in my gaming group who have explicitly said to me “Let me know when you plan to run it, so that I can find something else to do those nights”.  But those who will like it will LOVE it. On theRPGsite rating system, I have to give it a 9… but if I was grading on heart alone (or art alone, for that matter), it would earn an 11.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Full-Bent Billiard + Altadis Old Professor

(Originally posted february 21, 2013; on the old blog)