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Thursday 31 July 2014

When People Try to Own Minorities

I'm really too crazy-busy to write this; I've just gotten a new consulting gig (with a company that will be revealed in due time), and have also been busy exchanging some emails with WoTC (the subject of which may be discussed later). PLUS I've been writing up a storm for Albion (there's going to be some character-background stuff there that will kick ass).

But today I wanted to write about a point that has been a subject of conflicts on G+, as the Outrage Brigade keep pushing their false accusations of sexism, transphobia, racism, etc.

One fellow went as far as to say if I'm getting what I want that somehow means that people of colour, LGBT people, and other minority groups don't get what they want.

The error in your logic is the assumption that what I want is somehow opposed to what people of colour, LGBT, etc. might want, and that fighting me in particular is somehow a way to get what they want.

I guess maybe people of colour didn't want me to make an RPG that highlights a non- caucausian culture and all its awesomeness?
Perhaps LGBT people didn't want me to be the first person ever to put a transgendered character on the cover of an RPG, and to use "inclusivity language" for gender in that same RPG, several years BEFORE WoTC ever got around to it?

A gang of shit-heads fighting me because they don't like what I think about RPGs and using 'social justice' as an excuse is not the same as me being opposed to actual social change.  That's because the Psuedo-activists go around trying to own minorities like they were tools to use for their own ends, which I find disgusting.  They don't so much care about individuals who are in any minority group (evidence being how brutally misogynistic they can get against certain women, to the extent of calling them "fucksacks" - pause for a moment to realize how atrociously sexist that really is - and of course "hookers", if they don't do what the Pseudo-activists tell them to do); they just want to possess the rhetorical influence they can throw around by implying that if you're for the rights of minorities than you MUST agree with their agenda, and if you're opposed to whatever they want to do, you must also be opposed to minorities.

So let's clear this up: Pseudo-activist Swine, I'm YOUR enemy, not their's. I'm their ALLY.


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

Wednesday 30 July 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: The God That Crawls

This is a review of the LotFP adventure, "The God That Crawls", written by James Raggi, published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  It's 46 pages long, softcover, with a full-colour cover (featuring an illustration of some peasants marching up to an ominous church), and black and white interiors.

It contains a foldout map at the back of the book that features a full-colour map of the dungeon on one side, and a spectacular piece of art on the other, depicting an adventuring party (that includes the iconic "Flame Princess" character) in an encounter with the crawling god of the title.

This adventure is listed as being for characters of 1st-2nd level. As always, with modules I'm more than a little reluctant to reveal any of the big secrets of the adventure so as to avoid spoilers.  What I can say is this: this adventure as a product has some very worthwhile parts. On the other hand, it also suffers from what has of late been described as the "nega-dungeon" complex, or what I would call "Raggi-cynicism".

It seems like a lifetime ago, what with it being before the release of the 5e book and the glorious shitstorm that unleashed, and all the OSR-people coming together in solidarity against the Outrage Brigade that followed, but it was really less than a month ago that I found myself in a serious argument with a significant chunk of the OSR, and some of its "hippest" superstars, for what I saw as a fundamental lack of faith in the actual values of old-school gaming.  This adventure is pretty emblematic of that: in the Introduction, Raggi as blatantly says that The God That Crawls is a railroad meant to screw over adventurers that act like D&D adventurers should.

The adventure itself consists of a very interesting backstory (but note: one that, as written, is based on being set on Earth, in England, and with a Christian religious background; it would require some significant modifications, and would no doubt lose a bit of its style, if it were set anywhere else), and a dungeon with essentially a single monster (there's technically more than one monster, but really only one that mainly matters).  The twist is that this is a monster which is almost certainly impossible for a 1st or 2nd level party to defeat. There are also a variety of perils and traps, some of which are standard, but a significant number of which are essentially based on penalizing player characters for acting the way adventurers would typically act in a dungeon.

There's a very high chance of a total party kill if the adventure is run as suggested by the author.

Now, that said, is it all bad?  No.

There are certainly redeeming qualities to The God That Crawls, even if you're not particularly interested in doing an adventurer-screwing session.  For starters, the adventure itself is certainly interesting; the backstory to it is fairly fascinating.  It's only unfortunate that most groups wouldn't live long enough to figure out any of what's going on. 

As a dungeon, it's very interesting, this in spite of the relative lack of monsters; it's the details of the dungeon itself that make it interesting.  The notion of a dungeon where the big difficulty is figuring out how to get out is also interesting. The main peril in the dungeon is absolutely overwhelming to a 1st or 2nd level group, but a group of a few more average levels than that would probably be in a fairly sweet spot, where the big bad would still be dangerous enough to represent an ongoing risk, but not a situation of certain death.

But in fact, probably the most impressive thing in the book is it's collection of objects, almost all of them what you could technically call "cursed", though not in the standard D&D form.  Many of them are, rather, objects that have some kind of utility (not immediately apparent), but also some kind of serious (sometimes eventually fatal) setback.  Almost all of them are really unique, unlike anything you'll be likely to have seen in a D&D game before.
Now, some of these are utterly impractical (the "Chariot", for example, an object that gets almost two full pages even though there's practically zero chance of ever getting it out of the dungeon to be able to use it), some could be devastating to your campaign, a couple are just stupid, but most of them are the truly fascinating sort of magical objects that are very dangerous and yet potentially very useful, and most importantly, objects that will be highly memorable in any campaign.

My conclusion? This adventure is good for three very specific things: first, if you really buy into Raggi's cynicism and want to run an adventure that punishes D&D players for playing D&D.
Second, if you want to modify it slightly and run it for a group of slightly higher than the recommended level.
Third, if you want to cannibalize it for ideas, particularly several of the interesting magical items in the book.


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

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Famous Pipe Smokers

Today I take a break from the RPG madness, in order to see off The Wench, who is going on a trip back home for a few months.  I'll be accompanying her to the airport.

So for the day, I leave you with another edition of 'famous pipe smokers'.  Today's pipe smoker was famous mainly for smoking a pipe, in spite of being some kind of orbital spy satellite.

(he looks so serene, floating there in space, with his newspaper and what appears to be a very nice Lovat pipe)

Yes, Edwin Hubble was a pipe smoker. Also, a galactic-scale Peeping Tom.


Currently Smoking: Ashton Old Church Rhodesian + C&D's Crowley's Best

Monday 28 July 2014

UnCracked Monday: The Truly Toxic People of This Hobby

Today, something that's pretty well a Must-Read in terms of the recent and ongoing conflict this month around the fact that the Outrage Brigade has tried to slur, slander, and generally lie their way into trying to convince Wizards of the Coast to denounce two people who helped in some small part to make the (very successful) 5th edition of D&D what it is: myself, and Zak S.

You've heard plenty from me if you're one of my readers, and Zak has had plenty to say as well, but this is a detailed story from Mandy Morbid, Zak's partner and of the "porn stars" of Zak S' "D&D with Porn Stars".  It's entitled "More Reasons People Found to Hate Me", and it points out how the Outrage Brigade, far from trying to destroy Zak's out of concern about 'misogyny', have really been in an offensive campaign against him for years now specifically BECAUSE his old-school campaign has an all-girl group, some of whom have disabilities, some of whom are of color, not all of whom are straight.  Yeah, Zak sure sounds like a discriminatory asshole, doesn't he?

(Image: Zak engaging in his exclusionary campaign of patriarchal oppression of women and minorities)

But why would they be opposed to this? Simple: it ruins their narrative. People like Mandy ruin their constructed story that they want to use to be able to get to be the gatekeepers, to get to be in control.  They don't actually care about women, or about race, or about ableism, or about homophobia, so much as THEY (and note; a very significant number of 'they' are white straight male nerds) care about getting to be the ones who decide what should or should not happen in the hobby, allegedly for the 'sake' of these minority groups.  Their power-grab depends on a scenario where the hobby as it exists has no good place for these demographics.  Where the luminaries of the hobby as it exists (that is, people who argue against their ideas about how gaming "should be" for everyone) are obviously prejudiced monsters who engage in terrible discrimination against others, and not just big meanies who call them out on their total bullshit.

See, I'm not trying to take the moral high ground. I know this is a fight for and about the hobby; and unlike the other side, I don't try to pretend it isn't. I don't pretend that I care about things I don't, I just tell the truth.  But the other side?  The other side is pathologically incapable of doing so, because they desperately want to pretend they're above it all even as they fling their feces and try to destroy the lives of their opponents.

And you know the result of that? The justification that they've invented for themselves, their projected image as "social justice warriors" lets them rationalize crossing lines I would NEVER cross. I would never say "go kill this guy". I'd never knowingly LIE and say "this guy threatened to rape people", get caught in said lie, and then say "Ok, he didn't but we should all keep pretending he did anyways!".  I wouldn't say "this guy is homophobic", and then when he says he isn't and expresses his absolute support for inclusive language in the new D&D rules delete his comment, ban him from the conversation, and try to keep up what is then a proven lie because I just don't like him.

I might be an asshole, sure. But the other guys, over in the "Outrage Brigade"? Those guys are the FUCKING MONSTERS. Because they think that they're inherently superior to everyone else,  think they know what's "best" for everyone, and since they think that truth is relative to your personal feels, it means they feel justified in doing ANYTHING at all if it means their side will win.

Including a ruthless campaign of insults and harassment against women who actually game in the hobby; the exact demographic they claim to care so much about.

So yeah, go read Mandy's story, it tells you all about how she came into the hobby, how "D&D With Pornstars" happened, how the exact same people attacking me and Zak now were the ones who called her "Brain Damaged" (that sure seems to be a favorite insult among the Swine, huh? I'm supposed to be 'toxic' for using the word 'swine', but they throw around "literally brain damaged" at specific individuals and D&D gamers as a whole, like it was candy!), the ones who called her and her friends "hookers" and said she should stop "making noise", people saying she should be forced to stop participating in the web series about women gaming she chose to be involved in because she clearly doesn't know what's in her own best interest (even claiming she has "stockholm syndrome") and is being 'harmful to women', who have tried to silence her because she's inconvenient to their attacks on Zak, and generally want her to shut up and disappear because they 'care so much about women gamers'.

Go read it, and see just who the really truly Toxic element of this hobby really are.  A hint: they're not the people who helped make the brand spanking new edition of D&D awesome.


Currently Smoking: Moretti Rhodesian + Gawith's Squadron Leader

Sunday 27 July 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Advanced Fighting Fantasy

This is a review of “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Advanced Fighting Fantasy: The Roleplaying Game”.  Whew.

The version I’m reviewing is the new edition of said game, written by Graham Bottley, published by Arion Games in collaboration with Cubicle 7.

Many of us can remember with fondness from our youth those great Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, which were like Choose Your Own Adventure, but with balls. It had a combat system! It was just one step away from being an actual RPG.  That step was, of course, Dungeoneer: Advanced Fighting Fantasy, the RPG based on the FF gamebooks that came out sometime in the 80s to some considerable success.  For many people, Fighting Fantasy, even before D&D, was their “gateway drug”, it was the first thing even vaguely like roleplaying that they ever did. And for more than a few, AFF (or “Dungeoneer”) was their first actual RPG.  I still have, somewhere deep in the recesses of my library, my old Dungeoneer book, as well as Titan and Port Blacksand (two of the sourcebooks). 

Now, Arion Games (who had previously re-published the Maelstrom RPG and the new Maelstrom Companion) have re-published the Advanced Fighting Fantasy book, the “Out of The Pit” monster book, and the Titan fantasy setting book.  I’ll be reviewing those latter two books sometime very soon; from what I can see, those two have been kept exactly as they were back when first released (I’m not 100% sure about Out of The Pit, as I didn’t own it).  AFF, on the other hand, has been extensively remade by Graham Bottley to be more playable.  The old Dungeoneer was pretty fun, but it was, frankly, seriously limited as an RPG.  It was too easy to get too powerful. The rules were just a bit too simplistic.  The magic system was seriously messed up.

This new edition of AFF is Mr.Bottley’s attempt to resolve all that.  Does he succeed? Let’s take a look.

Starting with the outside, there’s one serious change, which is that the old Dungeoneer was an “oversize pocketbook”, the same kind of format as the old Fighting Fantasy books.  The new AFF is a full-sized RPG softcover. It has a redone cover but with the same awesome illustration that the cover of the old Dungeoneer featured, and the interior art is basically the same. The book clocks in at 175 pages.

The introduction gets right to the heart of what AFF is supposed to be about: Fighting. It presents the basic combat system mechanic before any other rule.  That’s perfect, because it makes clear the tone of the kind of games you’re going to want to play with this system, high adventure, high violence.  The combat system continues to be the tried and true one from the old FF books: you roll 2d6, add your Skill attribute (plus any bonus from special skills or other mods), your opponent does likewise, whoever rolled higher does damage.  Damage is rolled on a special table by weapon type.  If a character has armor, they roll on a special table to see how much damage was absorbed by the armor. Shields can further reduce damage.  If a character is unarmored he can used Dodge to try to reduce damage.

Next, still before anything like character creation, we get a sample adventure, “The Well”.  This is a totally new adventure, different from the ones that appeared in the old Dungeoneer book.  Those were quite good, this one is… well, its a fine totally random dungeon.  I mean for fuck’s sake, there’s a dwarven tavern right smack dab in the middle of the dungeon, surrounded on all sides by rooms filled with monster and traps!  Seriously, that must have been the worst business decision in the world.
Anyways, it too definitely sets the tone: dungeon crawl and gonzo.  But I wonder if it doesn’t go a bit too far? I recall that the original adventure in Dungeoneer was mostly hack n’ slash but with a plot of rescuing some kind of princess from an evil wizard, and I think that on the whole that had been the better adventure.

Character creation has been changed from the old game.  You used to have three stats: Skill, Stamina, and Luck.  Now you have a fourth stat, Magic, which mostly resolves the problems the old game used to have with spellcasters. It used to be that all attributes were rolled randomly; now the default game is a point-buy system where you divide points into the stats (and it does it kind of awkwardly).  I have heard Mr.Bottley say this was absolutely necessary for the sake of balance, and he may have a point, but on the other hand, I don’t think anyone is going to be playing Advanced Fighting Fantasy for the “balance”.  In any case, in the appendix at the back of the game an optional system of random character generation is provided, and its better-balanced than the old random system was.

In the game, Skill handles your ability at any and all skills as well as hitting in combat. Stamina is your hit points, and Luck is basically your saving throws, though you can also use luck to try to help you in combat. Luck points decrease every time you use Luck, and replenish between games.  Magic is the stat used for spellcasting, and its used in different ways in each of the three types of magic provided (more on that later).  You also choose a race during character creation, the three provided as default races are human, elf and dwarf.  Humans get a bonus to luck, elves to magic, and dwarves to stamina. Each race also gets differing special skills.

Special skills are what in any other RPG would just be called “skills”.  They are bonuses usually ranging from 1-4, and are added to one’s Skill attribute or Magic attribute when checks are made in that relevant area.  All skill checks are resolved with a 2d6 roll, where you have to get equal or less than the character’s Skill (or Magic) attribute, modified by their special skill scores if any.
There are 48 special skills in all, divided into various categories.  These include combat skills, which add bonuses to your Skill roll with specific weapons, and Magic skills which are required for the different kinds of magic available in the game.  Knowledge special skills are rolled with EITHER your Skill or your Magic score, whichever is higher, allowing for Wizards to be learned in various lores without having to have a kickass combat score at the same time. In all, the system is quite well designed.

The special skills are a (modified) mechanic from the old Dungeoneer, but the Talents, which comes next, were not from that book.  Each PC chooses a single talent, or special ability, for their character.  These include such things as ambidexterity, Armour Training (which improves the benefits of wearing armour), Dark Seeing, Knighted (which starts you out at a high social class and with extra equipment), Silver Tongue (bonus to the social skills), and Trapmaster (a bonus to dealing with traps), plus plenty more.

Frankly, to me this section in particular should have been random selection. NOTHING will slow down character creation more than having to read players a list of 32 feats, explain what they are, and wait while they try to figure out which ONE of those will actually be the most useful for them.  This step alone is likely to double character creation time, and that’s a big mistake in a game where one of the great virtues is simplicity and ease of play.

Finally, you get a social status (which you can choose, or optionally is randomly rolled), and you get magic points if you’re a spellcaster as well as choosing your initial spells. You start out the game with some pre-determined items rather than just having gold and then getting to buy what you want.  The gamebook then provides you a set of archetypal PCs as examples and for instant play.

While the game system itself is quite simple, the game book provides a good deal of information about how to resolve a variety of issues in play.  Rules are provided for movement, riding, climbing, falling, jumping, swimming (and drowning), dodging, encumbrance,  social reactions, bribery, conning, disguise, trade, doors and locks, lighting conditions, fires, poison, disease, traps, awareness/perception, hiding, sleight of hand, and handling knowledge skills.

The combat system is expanded upon from the basic mechanic provided at the start of the book.  Rules are provided for criticals and fumbles, multiple combat and attacks, missile combat, mounted combat, weapon descriptions, armour descriptions, surprise, unarmed combat, and special combat options; as well as injury, death, and healing.

So really, you get the best of both worlds with AFF; its a damned simple system, but most of the important situations that can arise in a typical adventure game are dealt with and options provided as to how to resolve them.

There are three magic systems in AFF; really four, if you count “minor magic” (which are like cantrips, and that anyone can have if they buy the skill in it, even characters who are otherwise non-spellcasters). The three major systems of magic are Wizardry, Sorcery, and Priestly power.  Wizardry is like the basic spellcasting system brought over from the old Dungeoneer game; only now you use Magic and Magic points to resolve it rather than Skill and Stamina (this fixes the major problems of the old system).

Sorcery is the system from the old “Sorcery!” gamebooks (which were set in the fighting fantasy world of Titan, but on a different continent from the main setting of Allansia); and in this current book it takes the form of spells that are rolled with magic but cost Stamina rather than Spell points to use. Sorcery spells also often require material components to cast.  While a Wizard starts with a limited number of spells, and must buy more with experience, the Sorcerer begins knowing all the Sorcery spells.
Wizards and Sorcerers are both only limited by their pool of either Magic Points or Stamina for casting spells; but they must make a successful magic check to cast a spell.  If they fail, the points are spent but the spell doesn’t go off.  If they get double-sixes, they’ve had a magical fumble and must roll on the “oops” table, which has a variety of problematic effects (mostly non-lethal).

As for Priestly magic, in the old Dungeoneer there were no priest spells, but a list of priest spells were presented in the Port Blacksand sourcebook, that worked exactly the same as wizardry did, if I recall correctly.  In the new AFF, priestly magic works very differently; you choose a deity, and each deity has a special unique power, plus three priest spells that this deity allows its priests to cast.  Priests don’t have to actually make any magic check at all to use their powers, their Magic score just becomes the measure of the level of power their spell has.  Priests can only use each power once a day, but can spend a point of luck to cast a second spell in the same day.

One interesting detail about priestly powers is that only ONCE in their lifetime, a Priest can call on “Salvation”, direct divine intervention to rescue themselves, and optionally their comrades from mortal peril.  I thought that was a nice touch.

The book then gives a bit (about 6 pages worth) of setting material for the world of Titan, the famous setting of the FF books, focusing on the continent of Allansia, where most of those adventures took place.  This is obviously very bare-bones setting info, meant to provide an extremely vague alternative to buying the Titan setting book.  You get also a standard price list, with items priced according to their costs in cities, towns or villages.

After that we get a couple of pages of “Director” (GM) advice, and then a listing of some of the monsters of FF, in a big table with no thrills, again, this is a substitute to buying Out of the Pit.  I notice that it gives some conversion notes for monsters from Out of The Pit, which seems to confirm that the latter book was reprinted straight without bothering to adapt it to the new system (for things like equivalent monster armor, monster weapon, and special abilities).  This is interesting, was there some good reason why it wasn’t done, or was it just author laziness?  I guess the answer to that can wait until I review Out of the Pit in a short while. Some brief guidelines are provided in how to design other monsters, as well as NPC non-monster enemies.

Some guidance is provided in designing your adventures, for things like adventure location; plots, and there’s an innovative though slightly gimmicky dungeon-design system provided.  It starts by dropping a number of dice on a sheet of paper, noting where they fall and linking those spots (the rooms) with corridors, to create a dungeon. A set of simple random tables lets you fill in the dungeon, and a small sample dungeon (“agbar’s retreat”) is provided.

You also get treasure tables, which (like many details of this game) are closer in spirit to WFRP than D&D, you get (at most) hundreds rather than thousands or tens-of-thousands of GP, and magic items are quite rare; so that those items provided (and there’s a decent list of magic items provided) tend toward what in D&D would be thought of as the lower end of the power spectrum.  Of course, the way the system works, getting a magic sword that adds +1 to your damage or to your Skill is a pretty freaking huge help.

The last pages of the gamebook provide optional rules, including the aforementioned random character creation rules (which I for one certainly like more than point-buy), some guidelines to creating new character races, a few optional magic rules (including how to run “fallen priests” who have ended up on the outs with their deity), and an alternate method of skill resolution.   A blank character sheet is provided, and then a reprinting of virtually all the important tables of the game right at the back for easy reference. You even get a couple of blank pages specifically noted for jotting down “house rules”.

So the big question is how useful is this game as an actual RPG, and not just nostalgia?  I played the crap out of dungeoneer when I was in my teens, and quite enjoyed it, but I know that I would not find it a really viable game to run today.  Advanced Fighting Fantasy manages to fix up enough of the game that it suddenly becomes far more viable to consider running.  Its style is very reminiscent of Warhammer, that thoroughly British sort of fantasy, and I do think that it would be kind of like WFRP’s answer to Basic D&D; a faster lighter game compared to WFRP that I could play when I wanted the same kind of feel but didn’t want to bother with the complexities of the former game.  I have no plans right now to run AFF, but I can certainly see the possibility of it happening, particularly if I should ever need a game that is good for beginners, or that I want to be able start up quickly.
On the whole, I think that anyone who ever liked a fighting fantasy book will not be disappointed by this game.

The worst thing: The designer went too far in seeking to “balance” the system; Point buy sucks, and the list of Talents is a disaster waiting to happen.  Fortunately, there’s a random option for character creation, although unfortunately, that does not include a random table for talents (I mean seriously, would it have been so hard to include a table and then say “GMs have the option to require players to roll, or allow them to choose a talent”?).

The best thing: Pretty much everything.  This book takes a classic and beloved game and remakes it into something totally playable and usable for relatively easy adventuring.

Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti half-volcano + Gawith’s Perfection

(originally reposted May 5, 2013)

Saturday 26 July 2014

Why Do Commercial RPGs Succeed?

A few days back I posted an old blog entry asking "why do commercial RPGs fail"?  And a lot of people found it quite interesting, but a few of them have been cajoling me into sharing my thoughts as to the opposite end of the spectrum; that is, why do commercial RPGs succeed? What's the special formula for success?

So here's what I'd say on the subject:

1. Promotion: you might have written the greatest RPG in the history of the Universe; but if no one knows it exists, you're screwed.  If we're talking about large-scale commercial endeavors, then the focus here is on things like advertising, but also Public Relations; a large gaming company will inevitably have detractors, so it will also need defenders and promoters.

If we're talking about a small-print RPG, unless you're the RPGPundit or something, detractors are probably  not an issue you have to deal with; your main issue is going to be having people know you even exist. So besides focusing on writing a good game, you need to focus on creating good "buzz".  You need to start talking about the game and getting people to talk about it long before it even sees print.  This means posts on forums, on blogs, on G+, kickstarter campaigns (which are as much about getting attention as securing funds, a point some people don't quite gather sometimes), and generally creating an environment where there are people wanting to own the game before they even can.
This is, in fact, #1 by a HUGE margin.  It's more important than your rules, your art, or anything else. There are less worthy games that have sold far better than truly great games purely on the basis of having been able to drum up more effective promotion. So if 'commercial success' is your standard, this is the single biggest issue.   It's one reason to hire a Consultant like, oh say, me! Someone who won't just tell you what you're doing wrong in the rules, but who can also just by associating himself with the game create a buzz for it.

And, on that note, I'll point out that there's really no such thing as 'bad buzz'.  That's why people send me books to review that they KNOW, without a shadow of a doubt, I will despise. Because me utterly trashing their product will make them more famous and sell them more books. 

2. Presentation: Not every successful RPG needs to be a full-colour hardcover, though that doesn't hurt.  The thing is, just about every really successful game does something to create some kind of image for itself.  With an old-school RPG, this might mean having a look that is intentionally retro, for example.  Nor do you need to go insane with the art budget (that might even be detrimental, if it pushes the cost of your book beyond a certain tier), but it's important that it have some kind of appealing aesthetic, even if you're working mainly with public domain illustrations or the like.  Having some cool maps can't hurt either.

But really, there's one obvious element to presentation that I think matters more than any other: the cover.  It's what people will see first, be it in the local gaming store, or on RPGnow/amazon/whatever. Having the right cover might make the difference between people passing right by/scrolling right through, or stopping to look.  If you're going to to out of your way with one part, the cover is it.

3. The Right Balance of 'New' and 'Approachable': while just what's in your game matters less for commercial success than promotion, it can make a big difference for long-term viability.  You want to have a game that has a reason for existing; if your game has nothing at all that's new in it, there will be little reason for anyone to get it.  That's why the 53rd exact-Clone of OD&D is not going to really sell well even with the OSR anymore; but if you do something like Dungeon Crawl Classics, it will. You also can't be "too weird to live", at the same time. Something radically different (or just very radical) will end up costing you customers; it may get a tiny core of fanatics, if you're really lucky, but that will only matter if you can find ways to keep milking that core.

A safer bet is to produce something that is definitely approachable, that people will immediately know what to do with it, but that provides something different from what is already around.  Arrows of Indra, for example, has been a success by combining old-school D&D familiarity with the more 'exotic' element of Indian Mythology.

4. A "Killer App", Without Re-Inventing the Wheel: it is a mistake to recreate the whole notion of RPG rules just for it's own sake. Likewise, cheap gimmicks ("task resolution is done by using a dreidl instead of dice!") may generate a little buzz but is just as likely to turn people off.  What you want is to generally have a system that is quite familiar to people, even if it's not an OSR or D20 system game; even if you are making a new set of rules, have the familiar 'formula' of how to make those rules work: attributes, skills, abilities, etc.

But it can certainly work for you if, within either your rules or your setting, you have some kind of clever new application, a mechanic that sets your game apart from other OSR games, or other point-buy-games-vaguely-similar-to-WoD, or whatever. 

Look at D&D 5e, for example.  One of the things that is being praised about it is how much more approachable it is to D&D players than 4e was; it "feels" more like D&D. It uses "the best of all the older editions", etc.  But the areas where there has been innovation are getting huge buzz too, especially the "Advantage/Disadvantage" rules. These are the "killer App" that differentiates 5e from other editions and makes it stand out in its own right.  Now, had they tried to reinvent the wheel at every turn, you wouldn't be seeing the same kind of praise, and the truly awesome innovative bits would have been lost in a quagmire of needless and mediocre innovative bits.

It's tricky to know just how far to go with this, or just where the line is between "innovative mechanic" and "cheap gimmick"; that sort of thing is, unfortunately, largely a question of game design craft, not something that can be easily delineated into some kind of formula.  Another reason to get yourself a good game Consultant!  Did I mention I'm available at reasonable rates?

5. And Finally, Not Fucking Up: There's a reason I wrote a blog entry about why RPGs commercially fail, before ever getting around to why they succeed.  A large part of success amounts to Promotion + Not Fucking Up. In fact, while I put this in last spot, it should really be number two, right after Promotion.  It matters more than the other points. If your game is full of shitty writing, huge sections of irrelevant game fiction or weird jargon, a crappy system (for any of the reasons systems can be crappy; but mainly extreme-complexity... note that I'm not saying you can't do a rules-heavy game, but there's a huge difference between a rules-heavy game written in a way that is easy to quickly get into, and one that requires that you read through 400 pages of text and figure out complicated formulae before you could even make a character), or extremely limited appeal (due to extreme pseudo-artistic pretentiousness, or an over-specific theme or subject that hardly anyone would want to actually play), then hardly anything will save it.


Currently Smoking: Mastro De Paja Rhodesian + Image Perique

Friday 25 July 2014

Exciting G+ Groups!

While I'm busy trying to write for my Albion project AND trying to catch up on the small mountain of reviews I have to write, I thought I'd share with y'all the two G+ groups I've made.

So, if you're interested in Lords of Olympus, be it that you've already got the game and want to talk about it, or are curious about the game and want to ask about it, be sure to check out the Lords of Olympus G+ Community!

And if you're interested in Arrows of Indra, for a like purpose,  be sure to likewise check out the Arrows of Indra G+ Community!

And after that shameless plug, I leave you for today to get writing.


Currently Smoking: Dunhill Shell Diplomat + C&D's Crowley's Best

Thursday 24 July 2014

Dark Albion: Contents Preview

I've been quite busy these past few days trying to work on the Dark Albion project (the publication of my expanded OSR game setting in collaboration with Dominique Crouzet, author and publisher of the very popular Fantastic Heroes & Witchery RPG), and I have to say it's starting to form into something quite appealing.  I think this will end up making a really awesome OSR setting-book.

So I figured I'd share with you all some of the details of what Albion will feature.  Here's a rough outline of the table of contents as Dominique Crouzet and I are currently planning it:

Introduction - 14 pages
(will include an explanation of the basic ambiance of the game, its themes, and a guide to some of the background of the setting, including a brief chronology of historical events leading up to the Rose War)

The Gazetteer - 45 pages
(this is the guide to the locations in Albion, most of which was already published for free on this blog and compiled on theRPGsite's Dark Albion megathread)

Lands of the Continent - 10 pages
(a brief guide to the various countries of the Continent)

Character Creation - in progress
(guidelines for how to modify your preferred rules for creating characters specific to Albion.  Will include tables and rules for Social Class, home location, races and classes, starting money, equipment and economics)

Magic and Miracles - in progress
(guidelines for modifying your spellcaster classes to fit the Albion setting; including new spells)

Magic Items - in progress
(guidelines on how to handle magical items in the Albion setting, and some new or specific items)

Poisons, Herbalism and Alchemy - 3 pages
(rules and lists of poisons, herbal cures, and alchemical substances common in Albion)

Creatures - in progress
(some of the particular creatures of Albion)

Roads, Travels, and Encounters - 20 pages
(written by Dominique Crouzet, with additions and editing by the RPGPundit, this chapter presents guidelines and encounter tables for travel on the King's roads, in the wilderness, and in the cities and towns of Albion)

Chaos Cults - 10- 15 pages
(A collaboration between Crouzet and the Pundit, this give guidelines, rules and tables for handling Chaos Cults and characters who turn to the service of Chaos)

Adventure Locations - in progress
(A series of templates of typical locations and their adventuring potential, written by the Pundit and featuring some spectacular maps by Dominique Crouzet; these will include:
-Typical Barrow Mound
-Typical Goblin Warren
-Typical ancient tomb
-Typical Arcadian catacombs
-Typical Military Encampment
-At the Court
-At a Fair/Tourney)

Chronology of Potential Future Events  - 20 pages
(a detailed chronology of events that may take place in the course of the Rose War in Albion, as well as events on the Continent)

Important Characters of the Present and Future - 9 pages
(a list of the significant NPCs of the various noble houses of Lancaster and York)
Significant NPCs on the Continent - in progress
(important characters found on the Continent, including the Pontifex, the High Commander of the Clerical Order, Philip of Burgundy, Sir Pierre de Braap (general of the Frogmen forces), King Casimir Jagiello, King Mattias Corvinus, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, and the Princes Vlad Tepes and Radu Bey)

GM Secrets - in progress
(a detailing of some of the important secret events or secrets of important NPCs in the setting)

The Clerical Order - in progress
(more information on how the Clerics work in the setting, including their hierarchy and structure)

The Order of the Knights of the Star - 2 pages
(special information on the most important secular order of knights in Albion)

Appendix I: Conversion Notes for Fantastic Heroes & Witchery

Appendix II: Inspirational Reading, Viewing, and Gameplay

Appendix III: Locations of the Pieces of the Holy Lance of Mithras

Appendix IV: Dangers of the Orkney Isles

Appendix V: Quick Reference Lists
List of Anglish Kings
List of Clerical Commanders in Albion
List of Chancellors of the Magisterium, Oxford
List of Chancellors of the Magisterium, Cambridge
List of Clerical High Commanders
List of Pontifexes

So there we are.  The list above is still subject to change, but as you can see the end result is going to be a couple of hundred pages of awesomeness.  

Expect it sometime in 2015.


Currently Smoking: Castello 4k Collection Canadian + Image Latakia

Wednesday 23 July 2014

DCC Campaign Archive Update

In this weekend's adventure, continuing the quest to burn down the Bungalow of the Beach Giant Chiefs, the PCs spent the night:

-Trying to answer the question "where do Beach Giants poop"?

-Playing the waiting game, when they found the answer to the above, for several hours of staking out the local shit-hole in order to ambush Beach Giants one or two at a time.

-Coming to terms with the fact that, while they always knew being a Cleric was a "dirty job", it was never quite so literal as when the group's Iron Cleric decided to hide IN the oversized latrine-hole to get maximum benefit from a surprise attack, when Beach Giants are.. shall we say, at their most vulnerable.

-Feeling a bit of an "are we the baddies?" moment about having to destroy the Beach Giants' home just to fulfill the whim of a crazy old adventurer

-Feeling quite a bit less bad when they figure out that the cause of frequent latrine-visits among the Beach Giants is due to eating poorly-cooked human.

-Eventually figuring out the latrine-goers are starting to be missed, and choosing instead to find out just how much Beach Giants value their surfboards.

-Trying to beat a hasty retreat when the entire population of the Bungalow of the Beach Giant Chiefs comes at them with a vengeance for burning down their surf-shack.

-Uncovering the interesting fact of the Beach Giants' diplomatic ties to the Stoner Giants and the Cloudy Giants. Also, apparently, to the Bears.

-Confirming that the Stoner Giants are in fact made out of stone, but that's not why they're called "Stoner" Giants.

-Further discovering that the cloud that surrounds a Cloudy Giant is not water vapour, but more of a 'purple haze'.

-Learning that if you get your patron Tiamat to summon you a local dragon, and that dragon turns out to be a Puff-magic Dragon, it's not going to be of much use to you in the mission.

-Deciding that if you want to tear the roof off a giant bungalow and set it ablaze from within, it may be best to just roll up your Draconically-transformed sleeves and do it yourself.

-Getting stuck after the mission is completed, partly due to having to rescue two of your team-mates (one the victim of underestimating the maximum possible range of a giant's boulder; the other staying up after a direct hit from a portable ballista, only to be dropped by yet another rock), but mainly because they found out that most of the Giant's treasure can be found in the cave complex under the burnt ruins of the bungalow.

-Discovering, after Charming the Orc messenger sent to discuss hostage negotiations, that the Orcs are completely sick of the Beach Giants, and there may be an entire rebel tribe of Orcs down there too.

And that was it for this session; stay tuned for the next part in a couple of weeks.


Currently Smoking: Stanwell De Luxe + Image Latakia

Tuesday 22 July 2014

“Real” Magic in RPGs, Redux

So I’m trying this again, as the last time I attempted to write on the subject I met with the wrath of The Wench for being “too mean”.  This time, the focus will be less on savage mockery of silly people and more on the “magick” itself and what it should look like if you’re trying to run a modern campaign where the occult rules are meant to effectively emulate real life.

Again, the first thing to note is that 99.9% of people in the “occult scene” are posers, from the point of view of practicing magic.  That is to say, they don’t really do magic at all; they may talk about it or read about it, pretend they have great powers or like to collect crystals, but they’ve never had an actual experience of magic.   Note that this includes, aside from the most absolute basic practices, 99% of “ceremonial magicians” who, for the purposes of this series, we’ll be focusing on (not that there aren’t other kinds of modern occultism that could have real “magical power” in your games, certainly tantrism and those rare shamanic practitioners that are actually doing it right, for just two examples, but we have to focus on something, at least to start).  The people interested in hardcore magic, most of them, have read a couple of Crowley books, own a tarot deck or two, and may have tried some of the basic exercises (like the “lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram”), performed them badly, and then quit when nothing happened right away.  Instead, they want to talk a lot about spirits and angels and demons and the Kabbalah and satan and how the man is putting them down, and how many books they own (whether or not they’ve read them), and how “dark” or “hardcore” they really are. You know, wankery.
A few of these guys even start their own magical orders.

But there is a smaller group of people who actually do the practices.  Before I get into those, we should address how those people get to do it; are they secret initiates of a great magical order? Did they find lost tomes hidden away in some library?

No, fuckers! They just got what’s readily available everywhere, and actually did it.
That brings us to the first rule of modern “authentic thaumaturgy”:

RULE 1: it's not hard to find occult secrets, it's hard to understand them.

Remember that. Do not make it hard for someone to find real magic; it was all laid out 100 years ago, and even before the advent of the internet pretty much everything you needed to do “real” magic was readily available for purchase.  And today, on the internet, where you can quickly and easily download pretty much every medieval grimoire, everything the Golden Dawn ever wrote, and absolutely everything Aleister Crowley ever did, including his personal diaries and ALL of the “secret rituals of the O.T.O.”, there is really no information that is kept away from you. 

In a lot of “occult RPGs”, that’s one of the first things that strikes me as being utterly unrealistic; the authors make it that real occult knowledge is really difficult to obtain.  It isn’t, at all.
 What’s difficult is the ability to comprehend that knowledge; because you have study a lot of fundamentals, and you HAVE TO actually practice.  So you have to read and read for years and years, and even if you do that you won’t have an ounce of magical power unless you’ve also been exercising and exercising for years and years. 

Go find a copy of Aleister Crowley’s “The Book of Thoth”, that’s his book on the Tarot.  Try to read it.  Assuming no (significant) prior knowledge of the occult, you’ll understand maybe 10% of it.  The rest will seem like gobbledygook. 
So faced with that, most people either just quit in disgust assuming it is all gobbledygook, or they just pretend that they understood more of it than they did, beginning their long careers as occult frauds.
And the Book of Thoth really contains huge and powerful magical secrets. Within that book alone are secrets that contain significant magical gravitas.  But to understand what its saying, after that first reading, you’d need to spend about six months working with the Tarot cards, reading the basics of astrology, reading the basics of kabbalah, reading the basics of alchemy.  And then reading the Book of Thoth again. And after all that, you’ll understand maybe 20% of it, but what new insight you got spurs you on to do new kinds of work, that gives you new kinds of insights, which leads you to new areas of study, which leads you to new areas of work, which leads you to new insights…etc etc.

So there’s a huge cycle of learning involved.  You could end up reading the just the Book of Thoth over and over again once every 6 months for 15 years, and IF you’ve actually been studying and practicing magick, then EACH time you read it, the book seems to be totally different than the last; like its been re-written. Because magick has been busy re-writing you. 
After the first two or three re-readings, where you figure out that’s what’s happening, that’s where things start to get fucked up.

So yeah, if you want the availability of magical power to reflect real life, make it super-easy to get the information, but very difficult to be able to actually turn it into something useful. The difficulty to obtain the book is low, the study time it takes to master it is high; and brings risks of your giving up, lying to yourself that you get it, becoming obsessed, or starting to have weird reality-questioning shit happen.

Finally (for today) a note on “magical orders”: if they don’t contain the secrets, what the fuck are they good for?
The biting answer? Mostly nothing. For the most part, again, 90% of “magical orders”, “lodges”, “secret temples”, “working groups”, “covens”, “rosicrucians”, etc. are just places full of Occult Wankers where they can get together and show off their wankery to each other.  The one conceivable benefit is that you might find one or two other frustrated newbies who want to get something real out of it, and just haven’t figured out yet that this is not the place to get it. 

If you want your “magical order” to seem authentic, it needs to be full of seriously marginal people, who can’t hold good day jobs, claiming to be wizards of grand power.  It needs to have endless internal power struggles over who gets to be the “master of the circle” and in bigger societies who gets to be the “outer head of the order ad vitam”.  There’s HUGE levels of megalomania involved here, and desperate power-mongering over nothing.  Unlike freemasonry, which these “serious” occult wankers tend to mock, most magical orders are not democratic; that’s because, in theory, the person who is most magically advanced should be the one in charge.  But in practice, this works out to being an excuse for power-trips, because none of the guys involved are really all that advanced enough to warrant the pitfalls that come with having only one guy in charge forever.  

In any case, most “orders” of this sort don’t teach magic at all, and those that do tend to do it poorly.
Seriously, I’ve found Freemasonry, which can only barely be called a “magical order”, to be a much more valuable tool to occult practice than any of these OTOs or Golden Dawns or Rosicrucian Orders or Temples of Set, or any of the other supposedly “hardcore” groups that make so much fun of freemasonry for “not getting it”.  Not only do Freemasons tend to get it better than most pretentious occultists do, but they have actual stability, which is really one of the hardest things to keep and most important things to have, if you’re going to study the occult.  Masons are people who can hold down regular jobs and have families and social lives, and work in lodges that in many cases have been around and meeting regularly for 150 years or more; neither of those are true for most members of the “serious” orders; where the people involved have allowed their obsession with the occult to destabilize their regular lives (or, in some cases, have failed to be able to use the occult to bring stability into their already fucked-up lives), and where powermongers and megalomaniacs and the lack of a large network of infrastructure means that the order itself is chronically unstable.

If you think I’m exaggerating about this, go and read about the history of the original Golden Dawn. Or read about Agape Lodge in California.  Or take a look at the current problems and struggles of the various “OTO” groups of the past couple of decades.

There can be that 10% of orders that are of some good. Usually, these are very small groups, where the emphasis is on individual teachers and individual students working together. There will be little importance placed on fancy titles and ranks, and a lot placed on daily work; and the group will tend to be private but not exclusive (the opposite of the shit groups, which tend to be very public (trying to show off to everyone), but elitist (trying to make out that they have special powerful secrets no one else has, and that not just anyone can join)).

Even in the case of these good groups, except in those rare cases where they’re being led by someone who’s really attained some serious illumination, the most they are useful for is to have members keeping tabs on each other, keeping each other honest. They will focus on sincerity and experimentation, and on trying to have good discipline in the work. So mostly, you’d join a magical order for the same reason you’d join a Pilates class rather than just do Pilates by yourself out at home: in the hopes that it’ll help you to keep up the hard part of the work and give you some structure, plus the occasional tip.  Only in this case, half the time, you end up having your class-mates either want to have sex with you or rob you blind, half of the members can’t hold a job because they can’t ever actually talk about anything other than Pilates, and the three guys who took some other class once before are beating the shit out of each other over who gets to be “Supreme Master of the Pilates Class For All Eternity”. 
Welcome to the wonderful world of the occult.


Currently Smoking: Masonic Meerschaum + Image Perique

(originally reposted May 3, 2013; on the old blog)

Monday 21 July 2014

UNCracked Monday: Personality Types, Brain Functions, Paradigms and Politics

So for today, first of all, there's a fun little test you can do, based on a fairly old code for personality types from Jungian Psychology, the Myers-Briggs Types:

Now, the typical list of the MBTI types are like what you see in the middle boxes above; e.g., "you are innovative, independent, strategic, etc. etc.".  In other words, about as useful as the standard newspaper horoscope.

But someone decided to come up with a really awesome concept: how the MBTI explains exactly what kind of really awful person you are:

For the record, the RPGPundit is a "Smug Rabblerouser" (by default, see below!).

But this is only half of the  Monday fun; because this whole thing got me to thinking about how actually so much of everything from U.S. Politics to Internet Hobby Wars can be chalked up to the radically different fundamental world views of these different types.  There are things which are just basic reality to an INTJ-type that make no sense at all to a INFP type, or vice-versa.  There may be some actual biological element to these differences, which researchers think explains some of the basic differences between Conservatives and 'Liberals' in U.S. politics.

The link above is from "Mother Jones" so no surprise that it takes a slightly pro-left tact; but what the research itself shows is fascinating: self-described Republicans (conservatives) use the Amygdala, which is the part of the brain that assesses external threats/risks, when making decisions.  Democrats (liberals) use the Insula, the part that monitors one's internal feelings.
What this actually explains is both Conservatives' paranoia, and Liberals' tendency to envision fantastical utopias that have little grounding in reality.  Conservatives base their choices on what is actually going on in front of them, attempting to perceive the risks/rewards involved; liberals, on the other hand, base their choices on their 'feels'.

The good news in all this is that you can change your paradigm. If you get what's going on you can make the choice to treat your 'type' as more of a default than a binding trap that limits how you experience the world.   Magicians and mystics have been doing this since forever; shit, that's where Jung got all his #1 hits from.


Currently Smoking: Dunhill Classic Series Rhodesian + C&D's Crowley's Best

Sunday 20 July 2014

Golden Age Campaign Update

Yesterday, the campaign entered the start of 1945, the last year of the war.  1944 was relatively quieter for the Mystery Men, but it seems likely that as the Third Reich enters its last gasp, things will heat up again.

For this adventure, however, the villains weren't axis, but rather a group of androids from the distant future.  A temporal accident had dumped them in the past, and they were stuck following their program, killing human beings while they waited for a way to return to their own time. 
I should mention that the androids in question looked like this:

And yes, this guy was around too, to help stop them:

It was great fun getting to play Brainiac 5 again, particularly in an adventure where he was extremely vulnerable: lost in time, no force-field belt or flight ring, and trying to stop dangerous killer androids created by one of his descendents. 


Currently Smoking: Mastro de Paja Rhodesian + Image Perique

Saturday 19 July 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Corporia

This is a review of the Corporia RPG, written by Mark Plemmons, published by Brabblemark Press after a successful Kickstarter project.  This is a review of the print edition, which is presented as a hardcover, with color cover and color interiors (featuring a number of photographs, rather than art).  It's 205 pages long. I should note for the interest of disclosure that I am credited in this book as a "Contributing Editor", largely for some review and consulting advice I gave Mark in the early stages of his project.

Mark Plemmons is an Origins and ENnie award-winning game designer, known particularly for his work on the truly excellent western RPG, Aces & Eights; as well as Hackmaster and Kingdoms of Kalamar. I would think Corporia would be quite worthy of some award of it's own; perhaps "Best RPG of 1998"...

Now, I'm not trying to be insulting when I say that; Corporia is a fairly high-quality production. It's just that the overall style of it, the theme, even elements of the production of it strike me as kind of anachronistic.  Even elements of the mechanics: there's something "Feng Shui-esque" about it, with a dose of Shadowrun, and elements of other games from the late 90s/early 2000s.  It feels to me like had Corporia come out 15 years ago, it would have been a really big deal. Or, theoretically, maybe 15 years from now, if there's a "new school renaissance" or some other kind of nostalgia movement for 90s RPGs, Corporia would have fit right in. Evil megacoporations, office-workers-turned-fantasy-heros, rockstars + hackers + corporate security + wizards + company men as character archetypes; all of it feels like themes that were bigger a decade or two ago than they are now.

I mentioned this to Mark when he was writing the game; his response was that he thinks the world we live in today is more 'cyberpunk' than it was back then, and the themes of corporate-nihilism versus anti-capitalist rebellion are if anything more relevant to the post-"Occupy-Wall-Street"/99% world we live in today.  Maybe so, but I wonder if that's not part of why this sort of thing hasn't come up much lately in RPGs; it's all gotten a bit too real to be good escapism.

So the basic premise of Corporia is this: it's the "near future" and corporations rule the world. Personal freedom has gone out the window while people are placated with distracting new technologies.  In the shadows, the barriers of reality have weakened and horrors from "the dimensions of Chaos" have been loosed onto the world, corrupting people, bringing forth monsters, and even infesting technology.  But at the same time, the Knights of the Round Table have also been reborn, only in modern bodies and in many cases with their memories fragmented.  The PCs are of course the heroes in this situation, working for the "Knightwatch", a special operations team created by the reborn Sir Lancelot (in the form of a Megacorp CEO), working to fight back against both corrupt corporations and supernatural evil.  Oh yeah, and Merlin is an AI now called M.E.R.L.I.N., and the setting of the game is a generic North-American-Megacity called "the City" (well, it worked for Transmetropolitan).

The basic system mechanic for Corporia involves adding attribute + skill value, then rolling 2d6 and keeping only the higher roll to add to the total. There are opposed rolls, unskilled rolls are possible too; if one of your die rolls is a 6, you get to re-roll that die and keep adding it, and getting boxcars allows you to re-roll and add both dice.  In comparison, fumbles are fairly insignificant, you simply don't get to add your die roll at all (which means that the difference between the lowest possible regular roll, a 2, and a fumble is only 2 points).  There are degrees of success (anytime you beat your difficulty number by an increment of 5).
Combat works along similar lines, with opposed checks. There are hit locations, which are random by default but anyone can try to aim to hit a specific location (which they do successfully if they get at least one increment of success).  There are also some mild and slightly wishy-washy social conflict rules (which treat the PCs differently than NPCs, while not leaving them completely immune to potential social manipulation).  The combat mechanics are very tight, the core of them being only about 5 pages long.

The rules for character creation (called "Human Resources"... get it?) are provided only after the basic mechanics and combat rules. Sample character archetypes can be chosen for quick character creation; archetypes include "Badge" (private corporate security), Hacker, Headhunter (an assassin), "Journo" (journalist), Knight-Errant (a reincarnated Camelot Knight), Lister (a rockstar or celebrity), Radical (an anti-corporate rebel; the sample quote here is hilarious, and sums up both what's great and what the basic problem is with trying to do an RPG with this theme in this day and age: "I have a trust fund, a stock portfolio, and a doctorate in modern art.  And I know a dozen ways to kick your ass"), Runner (a parkour-style urban messenger/smuggler), Sorcerer (a techno-wizard), Suit (a corporate manager), Thinker (a scholar), Witcher (an old-school magician who eschews tech), and "Zero" (a lower class worker).

Assuming you don't want to choose a completely pre-built archetype, the only alternative is to create a character from scratch using a point-buy method.  Long time readers already know my feelings about point-buy character creation (I'm against it!), and it would have been good if there could have been some kind of half-way mark between creating a character with a complex point-buy process on the one hand or choosing a totally pre-made archetype on the other.

Character stats are purchased by selecting a set of priorities, which then allot points to spend on "core values" (attributes), skills, general assets (advantages) and supernatural assets (magic powers).  Not bought with points but rather selected, are the Personality traits, which are descriptive qualities that help to define the character (e.g., things like "Aggressive", "energetic", "adapts to change", "craves attention", etc; one trait selection must also be a "private trait", a kind of secret or negative quality, things like like "orphan", "Wary of ...", "multiple personalities", or "blackmailed").  Traits are used to obtain "flux points" (points for special bonuses).  Although in theory a player could select these in any way, they are listed in the game according to "astrological traits", which could optionally be selected through a D12 roll.

There aren't that many attributes as to be unwieldy, nor are there the plethora of skills one often finds in point-buy systems; but the character creation mechanic still suffers from a standard problem of point-buy: you can make a guy who is very talented, but not very skilled or powerful, or a guy who's very skilled but not very talented or powerful, or a guy who's moderately talented and powerful but not skilled, etc.; but you can't have someone with great talents and great advantages and great skills, or someone who sucks at everything. Some people like to think of this as an advantage, though.

General Assets include a wide variety of things, from feat-like bonuses like "fortitude", to funding levels, social influence, networks, safehouses, fame, etc.
Supernatural assets include spellcasting, virtual-reality hacking, or quasi-psionic powers.

The section on magical disciplines is, amusingly, presented in the form of a corporate report. Magicians, be they of the modern 'sorcerer' variety or the hippie nature-worshiping 'witcher' style, can cast a number of spells per day equal to their Magic score, and then beyond that can continue to try casting with a cumulative penalty to their checks. Failure to successfully cast a spell at that point causes a mental feedback that will leave them unable to spellcast for a couple of turns. Spells can be modified (in things like range, duration, targets, etc.) by adding to the difficulty number of the casting. The list of skills is said to be by way of example; GMs (and players, in theory) can create their own (that said, the list is fairly detailed).

The equipment chapter is very thorough, and similarly couched in the form of advertisements and reports; it includes all the cyberpunk standards: weapons, armor, performance-enhancing drugs of various sorts, and magical objects; and of course, cyberwear.

The chapter on the default campaign location, "the City" is largely done in the form of a tourist guide; there is thus information on transportation, hotels, rents, medical care, security, and a map of various neighbourhoods with details of the particular qualities of each.  There's the trendy liberal neighbourhood, the shopping hub, the Chinatown, the downtown core, the business hub, the Hispanic area, the hipster university area, the lower-class neighbourhood, etc. etc.  Each area gets a one page writeup, which details the size, corporations headquartered there, notable locales and other items of interest, and local government. The material is pretty straightforward and most of it is not very surprising at all (except for the one neighbourhood suffering from a kind of zombie outbreak).

The setting wouldn't be complete without some evil Megacorps, and 18 of them are detailed in the subsequent chapter.  These are detailed very "straight", without any really significant blatant adventuring hooks; instead we get the entertainment conglomerate, the financial services conglomerate, the medical/pharmaceutical corp, etc. The closest we get to anything really noteworthy is how one entertainment company is producing adult-themed "companion robots", and the mining conglomerate has opened a division dedicated to mining for alchemical compounds. But since this chapter is theoretically set up to be player-friendly, it makes some sense that perhaps the dark secrets of the corps would not be mentioned here.

The GM chapter establishes that the "Big bad" of the setting are the extradimensional entities of Chaos, who are using the "flux" of the magical rebirth to try to invade and settle the Earth.  Ruthless corporations are accelerating the problem with their ruthless experiments with magic; Morgan Le Fay is plotting to try to bring the Chaos Entities through in exchange for immortality and power, and the "Church of Transcendence" are unwitting pawns of Le Fay, convinced that the Chaos forces coming through the Flux are actually "Gaea", who will bring down the corporate world and bring forth a green hippie utopia (note that the book makes it explicitly clear that this is NOT the case).  I thought the latter was a nice touch, to counteract the simplicity of what could otherwise end up being a pretty one-sided view of "capitalism bad, hippie lovefest good".
There's also a lot of guidelines on how to structure and adventure (with a step-by-step formula using the acronym "G.R.A.I.L."), and rules for creating NPCs and "Cryptids" (mutations from the flux). You also get special combat rules and guidelines for handling Mooks, surveillance, healing, "wildflux" (places where chaotic energy is more intense); and guidelines for how to use the Megacorps in your campaign.  In this latter section, you get some of the dirt on the corporations that was not in the earlier (for player's) section.  Even so, here most of these "corporate challenges" are more about general malfeasance than any dark supernatural secrets.  There's also very broad random tables for generating your own Corporate NPC encounter, and also (more complete) random tables for generating your own City area. There's also a half-dozen adventures, outlined in the "GRAIL" format, only described in very general terms (each adventure outline is only one or two pages long); these adventures range from an introductory "first adventure" that involves finding a killer, to the apocalyptic campaign-ending final battle with Morgan Le Fay.

The Knightwatch, the central organization that is assumed to be the group the PC party belongs to or works for, is only explained on p.184 of the book; which is a bit of a tactical error on the author's part, I think.  In short, Sir Lancelot has reincarnated as the wheelchair-bound CEO of a megacorp, which he now uses to try to fight the forces of Chaos and with the hope of eventually overthrowing the entire current world system and replacing it with a benevolent monarchy under a reborn King Arthur (who is apparently also known as Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-RPG).  There's also a MERLIN, but it's a supercomputer AI, which organizes and co-ordinates the Knightwatch.  The corporate secretary of Lancelot's is Nimue, former lady of the lake; she's the one who issues the mission orders. And the chief operations officer is the reborn Percival. There's also a rival version of Knightwatch led by a reborn Mordred, who also opposes the forces of Chaos but for his own purposes of eventual world domination.  NPC stats are provided for all of these, as well as for Morgan Le Fay, security forces, gang members, and cultists.

There's also statblocks for a few sample "Cryptids", which are accompanied with pictures, made all the creepier for being photoshopped photographs rather than drawings or digital art. Among others, there's chimera (human-animal mutations), dopplegangers, horde (zombies), artificial intelligences, morlocks, vampires, some weird thing with an eye in its mouth, succubi, and invisible men.
Finally, there is a two-page list of magic items, most drawn directly from Arthurian myth.

So what can we conclude about Corporia? Certainly, if you're into Cyberpunk + Fantasy, then this is well worth checking out. Rules-wise, it's way less insane than Shadowrun. Setting-wise, making the "fantasy" element specifically Arthurian Fantasy gives it a new spin.

But still, even though the quality is really there, something about the whole production just strikes me as out-of-place. It's like if you had some band you really loved back in the late 90s, hit songs, etc.; then they come out with a new album.  Sometimes, when that happens, the band tries to totally reinvent themselves, for good or ill; a few do it brilliantly, most crash and burn.  At other times, they're a decade older but still producing the same style of music; only the rest of the world has moved on, and songs that would have rocked your world and topped the chart ten years ago now just seem sort of quaint.

Still, if in another ten years or so there's some kind of "New School Renaissance", people will be all over this game. And for now, if the setting is your kind of deal, you should totally check it out. Especially since, as of the time of this writing, the Corporia PDF is "Pay what you like"


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario Egg + Gawith's Navy Flake

Friday 18 July 2014

In Praise of the Reaction Table

So, I had been talking a while back on theRPGsite about my issues with social mechanics (of course, I’ve been talking about that here for years).

I can now say that what with running two different D&D campaigns at the same time, for the first time in years, I’ve found a social mechanic system that’s been working really well for me.

It's called the Reaction Table, bitches.

Now, this is not nostalgia.  Let me clarify something, which at the same time points out why I think that nostalgia is such utter bullshit as a motivation for “old school” gaming:  the Nostalgia view would be saying “reaction table! Fuck yeah!! Just like we always used to do it before!!” etc etc. ad nauseum.

But it is in fact nothing like how we did it before.  I played D&D in the period that the old schoolers call the “old school”; and I can assure you that in that time, the reaction table was never used for anything other than the very rare animal encounter. It was one of those mechanics that tended to be ignored; generally, a monster was there to attack. Sometimes, to run away. Some encounters were with a friendly party and you already knew they were going to be friendly.  It was very fucking rare that you’d have to roll dice to judge if someone was going to fight you or be your new BFF.

And nowhere did any of us ever think to use the reaction table as a real social mechanic system, for things like convincing people or bluffing or intimidating.

So this is not nostalgia, its a totally new use (for me) of something I never used in the “good old days”. But it works really well. It leaves almost all the leeway to the players, to roleplay out their social interactions, and it leaves all the control in the GM’s hand; he rolls the table when he wants, and interprets it as he likes. There’s no need for the player to invest character points or any such thing into social skills; nor is the GM then obliged to humour a player or put up with arguments about his effectiveness on account of him having 20 points of diplomacy even though the player can’t charm his way out of a wet paper bag.

No, its simplicity is its beauty; its the GM rolling when he wants, adding the Charisma modifier and any other bonuses or penalties he sees fit, and getting from that a result of either approval, rejection or some variant of “must keep trying”.

Who’d have thought that a social mechanic I’d love was staring me in the face for the last 25 years, and it’d take me till now to notice?


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Oversize + Image Latakia

(Originally reposted May 3rd, 2013; on the old blog)

Thursday 17 July 2014

Golden Age Campaign Update

Having skipped the previous session, this week the group met for the last adventure of 1944.  The adventure took place in Gotham city, and the PCs got to meet with Wildcat, with Green Lantern (at the end), and with a police officer by the name of Jim Gordon.  The main event was that they were called up by a rather desperate Johnny Thunder, distressed at having been beaten up by a girl, and needing the PCs' help in rounding up this dangerous but beautiful villainess. As it turns out, she was actually a hero in disguise, having pretended to be a crook to infiltrate the higher levels of Gotham's Crime Syndicate.  Her name?

Black Canary.

This adventure mimicked the real first appearance of the Golden Age Black Canary. She started out as a guest in Johnny Thunder's regular comic series and the two became partners (they seem like something of an odd match today, but back then I guess it somehow made some weird sort of sense).  As it happened, however, Black Canary turned out to be far more popular than poor Johnny ever was, and eventually he just vanished and she became the full time lead on his former series.  The rest is comic book history.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti half-volcano + Gawith's Squadron Leader

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Now YOU Can Outrage The Outrage-Brigade! Support the Pundit!

Let me tell you, there are few things as fun as tasting the bitter impotent tears of people who wish you ill, especially if they are additionally people who totally deserve to be thwarted.  And I've been having a lot of fun lately.

The "Outrage Brigade" went all out to attack me (and Zak S.) when we were in fact credited as D&D Consultants on 5e (seriously, did they just think we'd been lying about it all this time?), and engaged in a campaign of libel, lies, half-truths, rumours, and all kinds of insults in some kind of misguided attempt to boycott us.

It doubled my blog entries, increased traffic on my forum, and led to increased sales of anything associated to me.  The Anti-Pundit Swine literally made me money.

That led to even more outrage!  There's nothing they hate more than seeing me succeed, than seeing me do well and be liked by people in the hobby at both the industry and popular level. They hate that I'm right, and that I'm good, and that because of these things I get what I set out to do.

So I already showed RPG publishers and designers how they can get in on the action, and many of those who listed me as consultant or sent me games to review have taken advantage of that. The Pundit Bump is bigger than ever now, as the mere mention of my name spikes clicks.   And again, if you're a designer or publisher and want in on the action, I am currently available for hire for Consultant jobs.

But then I also thought about all those fans who do not write or publish RPGs; surely they want in on the action too?  Fortunately, I remembered that in fact there is a way that YOU TOO can outrage the outrage-brigade!  Over to the right hand side of the blog is a Paypal Button; if you want to do your part to help the Outrage Brigade feel thwarted, or you just want to let me know that you support me in the face of these stupid and fortunately-inept attempts to boycott me, the serious and disgusting lies being told about me, and the disturbing death threats, or if you just want to send me a little gratuity because you like how old-school the style of 5e is, then please click that button and send me a donation to encourage me to keep up the good work!

Remember, every little bit you help will produce more valuable pretentious-asshole-tears of frustration, and that's a precious resource this hobby needs!

Seriously, thanks to all my readership and supporters, old and new.


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

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Arrows of Indra: Introducing Your Group to the Bharata Kingdoms Setting

Recently, a gamer who had just purchased Arrows of Indra asked me this question:

"I've been looking at trying an Arrows one-shot with my group to try the game out, but I'm a little unsure how to best introduce people to the concepts. I'm not that familiar with the underlying myth, and nor are my players, and I don't want to run into the Tekumel it's-all-just-too-much-to-take-in issue. "

So I thought I'd address this here on the blog.

This is what I would suggest: do pretty much the same you would do in any new fantasy setting.

What I normally do is start out in a little village (in my campaign, they started in the Matsya kingdom; close enough to the main area to be accessible to the action, but just a bit out in the boonies, and not immediately affected by the war with the Maghadan Empire).

The village was a few hundred people, there was a small temple, the basic tradesmen, etc. I had a couple of players be from right around there, and a couple from other kingdoms (and I gave them a bit of information about what those kingdoms were like).

Start with a local adventure; mine was about a woman from the village who comes begging to the PCs to rescuer her boy, who has been kidnapped by bandits (who live somewhere in a small forest less than a full day's walk away from the village). I put in the twist that actually the boy had run away, entranced by the idea of bandit life and not having to do chores. Along the way, the PCs ran into some dangerous animals and some monkeys (that the Vanara PC was able to manipulate into helping against the bandits).

In the second adventure, I had the PCs go to a bigger city, and get hired by a noble to chase down his teenage son and bring him back by force to the city; the son had run off to join Krishna's army. In the process the PCs ran into some undead lurking around, and the Vanara pickpocketed a valuable magic item from a dangerous Sidhi (which would lead to assassins hunting the party for some time to come). The PCs at that point decided it'd be cool to go join Krishna themselves, and participated in the liberation of Krishna's home city-state from Krishna's evil uncle and the uncle's army of mercenaries and rakshasas.

Anyways, the point is you start small, and then build up from there.

And here's one more tip, for you, as a GM: forget that it's India. Think of it as any other fantasy world; you've never been to Middle Earth, or Faerun either. Most of the standard conventions of any Sword & Sorcery world would apply in the Bharata Kingdoms too: city states, crumbling Kingdoms, an evil empire looming on the horizon, monsters and bandits on the outlands, a group of princes looking to raze a forest of monsters to carve out a new capital, etc.

The PCs in AoI do exactly what PCs do in any S&S campaign. They go off looking for adventures, treasure, magic items, fame, and eventually to reach positions of power and their own authority. Don't get hung up on the notion that the setting is "foreign". Introduce any foreign parts only bit by bit, as needed. The one big difference might be some of the religious elements, but if you're playing in a Conan type setting, or in Mystara, or wherever, you'd still need to learn about the religious differences too, wouldn't you? There's also things like caste rules, but these are pretty straightforward for the most part. And the clans, but mostly what Clans are for is to give you a built in network of contacts, information, and obligations to any PC.

Don't get hung up on it being exotic, it's not. The ancient origins of our own western culture lies in India too, to a significant extent: many of our ancestor's later myths were connected to theirs, many of the values are the same. Its not any MORE "alien" playing a game set in ancient India than in Cimmeria, and maybe even less alien than one set in ancient egypt. There are angels (devas) and demons (asuras), there's magic weapons, armors, scrolls (sutras), and rings. There's monsters that are a bit different, but a Pisacha is not any weirder than an Otyugh; probably less weird, in fact. And in AoI, the rules should be pretty familiar to any D&D player from the get go, for the most part.

I think that's a common mistake: people hear "India" and think that the emphasis needs to be on how different it is; but actually, you'll see things will work far better if you put the emphasis on how similar it is, and make those differences that there are stand out as flavor elements, no differently than you would in any other new fantasy setting.

"Oh look, there are flying winged cats in this fantasy city" is no different than "oh look, a tribe of talking monkey-men!"; nor is "in this island people worship a god of water and sailing by ritually drowning someone" or "In this island people worship the mountain in the middle of the island with a gift-giving festival".

In fact, if you don't know your mahabharata, you probably couldn't tell which of the last two lines was from Epic India, and which was from some fantasy novel.

If you have any questions, about either setting or system, I'll be glad to help out here.


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

Monday 14 July 2014

A Death-Threat Over RPGs? Mike Mearls Stalked? Remind Me Who's 'Toxic' Again?

So yesterday I was out of touch on account of a local blackout. I wasn't able to write my blog entry, unfortunately, but that didn't stop me from going to a local bar to check out the World Cup Final.  I have to say, it's rare to see me cheering for Germany in just about any context, but there we are: Politics, religion, and football make strange bedfellows; and if Argentina had won, they would have been absolutely insufferable for the next four years at least.

So lo and behold, I get back to the internet today, the lights restored, to find that the link I was planning to post as my "cracked monday" installment is completely overshadowed by the fact that I just got a Death Threat on account of my having been employed as a 5e consultant.

Just to clear things up: this guy, who I don't really know myself (but apparently has a history, more of that below), has posted a deaththreat after quoting, "retumbling", whatever (I have no idea what you call a tumblr share) from another tumblr site ("wouldyouagreethat"), which has for days now (since 5e came out) been posting out-of-context quotes of mine, Zak S., Gareth Skarka, Jonathan Wick, and James Desboroughs to try to inaccurately represent all of us as part of a pseudo-activist slander/outrage campaign. 
Is there really any question at this point about this being a hate site? About the outrage brigade being a hate-based movement, who are very much showing their true colors? 

But here's the thing, as much as I usually like things being about me, and as much as in this particular case I'd probably feel more relieved if it was just about me, it's not. This is about 5e.  Most of the people continuing to try to push the "outrage", and who have, in the face of a total lack of any true and meaningful accusations to present that would actually be worthy of any real condemnation (instead of "we just don't like them and think they're mean") been consistently 'upping their game' over the last few days (though I don't really know how they can 'up their game' past endorsing death threats at this point...) are also people who coincidentally have been on record as being opposed to 5e for some time. Some are frustrated game designers who are upset they didn't get to help influence the future of D&D and I did (or Zak did, or Mike Mearls did), some are 4e fanatics, many are Storygamers. 
And if it hadn't been about me, if Zak and I had not been employed by Wizards of the Coast, you can still bet that most of these people would have found something else to invent "outrage" about, to get angry about and attack the product.

Case in point? Mr. Death-threat up there.  I was told by Mike Mearls that long before this guy called for me to be shot, he had been harassing Mike and stalking him on twitter to the point that he had to block him, and is considering involving the police.

So there you go, these are the people who are pretending to take the moral high ground. They're the ones trying to pretend that it's people like me who are 'toxic', and that they are acting out of love, and not livid impotent rage. 


Currently Smoking: Stanwell Compact + Image Latakia

Saturday 12 July 2014

Immersion and Deep Character Investment’s Downside

I’m not actually going to be using a Sanity-Points-style character mechanic to handle fear issues in my upcoming LotFP "Albion" campaign, because I don’t want the game delving quite that far from the heroic mold; just barely, but not quite there. But its certainly not because of any of the advice James Raggi provides in his LotFP Referee’s Handbook. 

There, Raggi suggests that something like fear-reactions are best roleplayed by characters.  I strongly disagree.  And the reason I disagree is, I suspect, the selfsame one he’d try to cite in favour of his argument: immersion.

He would say that when you have something like Sanity Points, and you take away control of a character’s actions from the player to represent something like fear, this “breaks immersion”, and to a certain extent, he’s right.  It can be jarring, disruptive, for a player who’s sure his character would want to stand and fight to be told “no, you failed your sanity check, so you run in terror”. 

But the thing is, this is also a part of the trick of immersion: because you associate with your character, you, like your character, might imagine yourself more able to handle Things Man Was Not Meant To Know far better than you think you can.  Raggi seems to think a good roleplayer will be able to just man up and have his character piss his pants in fear when the moment is called for; that has never been my experience.  Players don’t want to intentionally play a position of weakness, and running away is usually a position of weakness.  There are two reasons why they might choose for their character to act in a way that unduly ignores the sheer terror of a horrific situation: the first is if they are thinking like players, of course, and don’t want to “lose”.  But the second is in fact if they are IN immersion, and the character himself imagines that he would not act in a cowardly way.  We all know people, and have perhaps faced situations ourselves, where we imagine that we would act in a far better, braver, nobler, calmer or cooler way than we actually do when the situation we speculated ends up in front of us.

These players are immersing to the character but not to the emulation of the world.  So for the sake of the emulation of that world, the GM has to sometimes enforce the world-emulation on them, and that’s where things like Sanity Checks come in.  I’m not advocating using Sanity checks in every kind of game; as I mentioned, I won’t be using them for Albion.  There, save for perhaps some fear-inducing creatures that may pop up, I’m not going for an emulation of a world of supernatural TERROR, just dark fantasy.  But if you are (and its pretty clear Raggi was, as part of his whole “weird fantasy” schtick), then you NEED a sanity mechanic specifically to emulate that feeling of sheer terror, and the players can get to immerse in the sensation of not being in control of yourself anymore.  That too is an emulative experience.

After all, SAN points are as old school as ThAC0.


Currently Smoking: Masonic Meerschaum + Image Perique

(reposted May 1, 2013, from the old blog)