The new and improved defender of RPGs!

Sunday 30 November 2014

Update on Raiders of R'lyeh

You might recall that last year I had been a consultant on a KS project entitled "Raiders of R'lyeh". 

This is an Edwardian-Era (1910, as the image says) Mythos-themed RPG, with a focus on pulp-style adventuring.

Now, the KS funded, and has since been quite late in fulfillment, to the point some people have asked me about it.  Even though I've written material for this KS, and did consulting, my actual "job" with Raiders ended months and months ago (at least, for the time being).  But of course having been associated with it, it's still important people know what's up with it.

Quentin Bauer, the designer of Raiders, has been semi-regularly updating his backers, but he asked me (when I queried him about it) to share this info for those who might not have been backers but were still looking forward to this game:

"Everyone (including you) has long ago submitted all material to me — so the project is waiting on me.

The final draft (with considerable rewrites) totaled over 600 pages. I initially made a best guess estimate of the length, but it ended up three times longer than initially anticipated.

This is a small operation (with all content now in the hands of one person doing layout and final editing), so it’s taking some time. This is my full time job right now (and has been for some time now) until the book gets out.

Updates will continue, so backers can be assured of work completed, and progress being made.

Regarding answering the exact date question, I’m choosing updates over moving a goal post continually, as I know missing deadlines (and expectations) increases frustrations. When I do post an exact date, it will be accurate, as I won’t be doing it until I know for sure nothing else will delay it on my end.

I’m grateful to backers who have shown considerable patience with the lateness. I certainly understand any frustration with the kickstarter taking longer than the originally estimated window, and I do not want to take their patience for granted. I’m doing everything I can to expedite this — within reason."

So there you go; even though it's clear Bauer bit off a bit more than he could chew, the project continues in the works, with clear determination to be completed.  I'm hoping that sometime early in 2015 we'll be seeing Raiders of R'lyeh for sale to the general public.


Currently Smoking:  Mastro de Paja Rhodesian + Image perique

Saturday 29 November 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Arrows of Indra (by the RPGPundit)

Right, the time has come again for the RPGPundit to review one of his own games.  But don’t think of this as some kind of advertisement; yes, obviously I have a bias, but so does everyone else. And mine you know up front.  If you prefer, think of this more as a guide to the contents along with some “Designer notes” rather than a more conventional review. I mean, its not like I have to wait until the end here to tell you that I like this product!

Anyways, Arrows of Indra is a complete RPG, in the OSR style (that is, with OGL rules based on everyone’s favorite original RPG). Its published by Bedrock Games, written by the RPGPundit.  Its available in PDF or print; the print edition is a softcover, full colour cover with B&W illustrations inside, clocking in at about 180 pages (plus character sheet).

The cover is really amazing (and I can say that while making it clear I had nothing to do with it!), with a matte finish and a beautiful illustration showing a group of Indian heroes holding off an Asura demon at the entrance to an abandoned temple in the middle of the jungle. One detail which might be notable about the cover is that it is, as far as I know, the first RPG cover to feature a transgendered person on it (the siddhi or magic-user of the group).

The interior art (again, none of which was my doing) has been somewhat controversial in the sense that some people like it and others really didn’t.  It has a style that is meant to evoke old-school art, that is to say, a slightly primitive style; though I think some of the pieces are really quite impressive within that style.  Still, not for everyone.  I should note that there are also a number of pieces of art from other sources (mostly public domain art), and some really awesome artistic borders on every page.

Finally, no one at all has had any unkind words to say about the truly awesome hexmaps made by master cartographer Rob Conley; there are four pages worth of these that put together detail the entire area of the Bharata Kingdoms and its surroundings. 

Now, a brief word on what its all about: Arrows of Indra is an attempt to make an Old-school RPG that is based on the world of Epic Indian myth.  When designing it, I tried to follow certain rules:
1) over and above all else, I wanted the game to be playable, out of the book, and to be easy and fun to play. I didn’t want players to have to study college-level linguistics or anthropology to have to play, nor did I want what I call “culturewank” to end up drowning out actual playability.  For example, I tried wherever possible to use ordinary words in English when such words existed and conveyed what I was trying to communicate; rather than requiring that players relearn common terms in Sanskrit.  I used Sanskrit for things like place names, some monsters that didn’t have a readily-available western equivalent, and certain powers or concepts that strongly benefited from using a Sanskrit name without needlessly hampering the reader.

2) At the same time, I wanted the game to be recognizable as an OSR game; while this game is far less similar to any edition of D&D than, say, ACKS or LotFP, it is still very clearly mechanically founded on the OGL.  Wherever possible I tried to make the game accessible to those who are accustomed to D&D play, while at the same time without just reducing the setting to a shallow facade.

3) On that note, I wanted the setting to cleave as closely as possible to the authentic historical and mythological sources of “Epic India” (that is, the pseudo-historical India of the Indian Epics: the Vedas, the Ramayana, and particularly the Mahabharata in which the AoI setting takes place), within the context of rules 1 and 2 above.

What this meant in practice was making a number of choices: there were times where I made changes to the mechanics of the game in order to better fit the setting (for example, the skill system, the non-vancian casting, the classes, etc); whenever I did so, I tried to make such a change be one that kept to the old-school feel, while better representing the setting.  At the same time, there were many times I had an option between a number of choices regarding the setting (for example, how to present a specific monster); in those cases, I tried to always make the selection out of a list of several authentic possibilities that would keep the game as playable as possible and as close to the familiar as possible.
So Arrows of Indra is not just “AD&D with a dash of Indian backdrop”; and at the same time its not “cultural-academic game which bares almost no resemblance to anything familiar” (avoiding the latter wasn’t hard, by the way, since ultimately, a lot of European mythology has its deepest roots somewhere in India, and there’s a ton of parallels).  Everything in the game is there for a reason and has a source in Indian mythology; but this isn’t a “too weird to live” game where you have a rich setting but no idea what to actually do with it and no easy way to get into it without a huge investment of study and familiarization.  Its easy-access.

Some people have claimed the game has sacrificed elements of authenticity in order to fit the D&D mold.  That’s probably true; I can certainly imagine that someone else could someday make a more authentic game than AoI (whether or not it would be more playable).  But the point of fact is, no one has.   And you can’t even compare AoI to other non-European D&D-settings; Arrows of Indra stays MUCH closer to the authentic sources for India than L5R does to Asian ones, for example (and don’t even get me started on “oriental adventures”)! I haven’t yet read “Spears of the Dawn”, and I’m sure its awesome but I’d be willing to bet that, at best, it could only match AoI for authenticity.
The end goal, in any case (and which I feel from the playtests and AP reports since the game came out) was to make a game that is definitely Epic Indian adventuring, that is notably different to being in Greyhawk or the Wilderlands, but that at the same time feels very familiarly like D&D: its a game where the players will immediately know what their group is meant to be doing (basically what D&D PCs should always be doing: heroic adventuring!) and in very much the same ways as traditionally, but in a very different world that brings a fresh perspective to it all.

So, let’s take a gander at what’s inside the book, shall we?
Characters are created by rolling for ability scores as per usual; though in addition to the standard elements of scores, race and class, you are also expected to roll or choose a caste and select or be assigned a clan, two vital parts of the setting. These are thoroughly explained in a practical way that explains their role in the world from the perspective of what it would mean to the PC.   Its one of the ways that AoI might vary from other old-school games, in that things like culture and customs can (if the GM wishes) be a significant part of the very definition of the PC, and family and clan become a major part of playing in the setting (again, to the degree the GM wishes it). So you also get some quick rules for generating a PC’s immediate family.

For convenience, there’s also a list of 100 male and 100 female names for PCs from a random table, along with a loose definition of the name’s meaning.  This was something I added on relatively late in the writing, as a result of playtesting and quickly figuring out that a lot of players haven’t got the slightest idea what a name should be like; I’ll admit that I made the table mostly by just recollection and that most of the names would probably not be historically accurate to the period.  Someone creative out there taking their time could probably make a much better, historically-accurate name table.

The player-character races include regular civilized humans of the Bharata kingdoms, barbarian humans (the Bhil), Gandharva (immortal beautiful servants and messengers of the gods), Yaksha (also immortal gold-skinned dwarves who guard treasures of the gods; they are both erudite scholars and passionate romantics), Rakshasa (the descendents of humans interbred with Asura demons; distrusted and tainted), and Vanara (the monkey-men of the south).  Its been pointed out that I’ve made the various non-human races (all of which come out of Indian myths of the time) into very close parallels of the core old-school D&D races, and that’s technically true; but again, this was done by making a choice from a number of options. For example, a “Yaksha” could be (depending on which mythological source you look at) a big scary monster, a beautiful tall human, an ethereal spirit with no body at all, or a golden-skinned dwarf who likes to fight, read poetry and guard treasures.  I chose from these options the one that was closest to something a D&D player would find familiar.

Some people have also pointed out that I made use of a real-life minority group, the Bhil, in my game, and that I was somehow “reinforcing” the caste structure by including it.  These are stupid arguments; I’m utterly opposed to the caste structure in real life, I say so in the introduction to the game itself. But what I am doing is making use of sources.  The Bhil are not intended to be “non-humans” by the way they were included, they’re intended to be non-vedic; which they were. And the way people wrote about them back then was no different than how they wrote about, say, the Gandharvas; both were detailed as alternately being not-really-human and/or just-another-tribe.  This is a reflection of the mentality of the times, not anything I believe or endorse myself. 

In any case, moving on to stuff more worth talking about now…
Classes in the game are also set up to roughly reflect the standard class selection of an OSR game, but each have subtle or less-than-subtle differences from their bog-standard equivalents.  Priests are not unlike what one would expect in an OSR game, but caste requirements make them far less common, and they have several social restrictions they’re bound to (priests weren’t generally adventurers in Epic India, and I almost considered limiting the class to NPCs; but in the end, as described above, opted for the choice that would be most familiar to OSR gamers).  There are also modifications for playing barbarian priest-shamans, or priests that are not of the gods but of Asura-cults.

Fighters as a class are mainly different due to class skills, so more about that later.  But there are also subclasses of fighter in the Virakshatriya (holy warrior) which is the term I used to describe those particular Holy-aligned warriors that get mystical powers due to their devotion to a particular god.  They’re a little bit cleric, a little bit paladin; and a lot kick-ass.  But of course, have serious RP obligations in terms of taboos and rules to follow.  Scouts are wilderness men; not unlike rangers but with no magical element to them, but expert trackers, survivalists, good at sneaking, and skilled at fighting barbarians and those giant monsters that the Bharata Kingdoms’ wilderness areas seem full of.
Siddhis are the wizard-class; the main difference between them and your standard old-school Magic User is in that the magic system has been completely redone (this, along with the new skill system, are the two biggest changes in Arrows of Indra, from a mechanical point of view).

Thieves are perhaps the most familiar class in terms of similarity to D&D; and the subclass of Thugee is similar to the Assassin; but mainly I included it almost out of an expectation among players; its not really historically relevant to the period at all (so people can feel free to ignore it if they desire).
Finally, the Yogi is a physical adept (as compared to the siddhi who is a mental adept). They have some of the strictest mechanical and social/RP requirements of the game (they are renunciates who are forbidden from material possessions, among other things), but also have a serious amount of powers.  The Yogi is another one of those that might be better off used as an NPC class only in some campaigns.

Another detail that adds to the richness of the setting in AoI is how alignment is handled. Its very important to the context of the setting, and is divided into “Holy”, Neutral, and “Unholy”, rather than the standard good/evil or law/chaos divides.  The alignment system is based on how well one fulfills one’s obligations to the gods; and it basically measures not how “good” a person you are (or how you feel about order versus anarchy) but is a measure of how well the gods look upon you.  In subsequent parts of the game, when it comes to things like spells, magic items, monster reactions, and divine intervention, alignment ends up having a direct mechanical impact on play.  Because of what alignment represents in AoI (compared to in other games), it is also more malleable and somewhat easier to change (even accidentally!).

I’ll mention that some people have commented on thinking it very odd that I didn’t include details about things like Karma or non-dualism (“Advaita”) in the game; this was absolutely intentional and for the reason that at the time of the setting, these concepts were far less developed than in the Hindu religion today. The spirituality of the setting is a Vedic spirituality, based on the old Brahmanical religion and not the modern Hindu religion.  Its actually more historically accurate NOT to have these things in there.  Some people also claimed I left out union-with-godhead or reincarnation; in fact I didn’t: the former is something Siddhis and Yogis can achieve, the latter is something that explicitly happens to everyone in the game and there are even some forms of magic that allow a Siddhi to mess with it.  They’re just not really crucial to the game because of course, what happens after your PC dies won’t usually have a direct bearing on you as a player; your PC is still dead, after all.

The Skill system in Arrows of Indra is new, and neither a point-buy 3e-style system nor a choose-from-proficiency-list type of system either.  Instead, what you get are both background skills (reflecting a character’s family or clan training) and then class skills. Both are set up to be rolled from random tables, though some GMs may prefer to have players choose the skills.

Background skills are all basically career-type skills (divided into tables by caste type), and are resolved by beating a DC on a D20 check, plus attribute and bonus.  Every time a background skill is taken at character creation it grants a +2 to checks, with subsequent selections granting another +1. Pretty straightforward.

Class skills, on the other hand, are a mix of career-type skills and special abilities (things like weapon proficiencies and spells, mostly). They are divided into basic and advanced tables; with the “advanced” skills being harder to get at (you need to fill up slots on the basic table in order to get a chance to roll on the advanced table).

Skills for priests include things like languages, theology, demonology and magical rituals (called “arcana”).
Fighters get weapon proficiencies (which grant stacking bonuses to hit and damage each time they are taken), horsemanship, charioteering, and (at advanced levels) things like special maneuvers, exotic weapon mastery, and Command (leadership).
Siddhis get basic spells from the class skills; in the form of Mantras (vibrated chants) or Mudras (physical postures or hand gestures that manipulate energy).  They can also learn astrology and demonology.
Thieves (who get all the standard “move silent”/”backstab”/”Climb” stuff as basic class abilities to start with) get a wide variety of special talents for their Class skills: languages and literacy, knowledge of poisons, manipulation (bonuses to reaction checks), urban survival, training in thief-favored weapons, appraisal of goods, disguise, and object identification/lore.

The one other element of character building that we have left to cover are what I’ve termed Enlightenment Powers.  These are available to Wizards and Priests from level two onward, and round out the magic system.

Magic in Arrows of Indra are based on two different parts: first, Priests have priest arcana (rituals), while siddhis have magical mantras and mudras.  These are the basic spells of each type.  Then, both priests and siddhis get potential access to Enlightenment powers, which are generally more powerful types of magic that manifest spontaneously without the need of ritual or verbal or somatic components.  First level characters don’t get any Enlightenment powers, but from level 2 onward, every time a Priest or Siddhi goes up in level, they have a chance of learning one or more enlightenment powers.  There are three ranks of such powers (and 20 powers listed in each rank), and at each level there’s a percentage chance (for ranks 1 and 2 from 2nd level onward, rank 3 from 5th level onward) of gaining a new power.  These percentage abilities are modified by the classes’ prime requisite, and the Intelligence ability score determines a maximum number of powers that can be gained in each rank.

Of these powers, mantras, mudras, and arcana, some of them will appear similar to D&D spells for either magic-users or clerics; others will be quite different as they are based on miraculous powers mentioned in some Indian source.  So for the experienced old-school gamer playing a spellcasting class in AoI, the magic available will sometimes seem familiar and other times excitingly exotic. The way the mechanics work out, a spellcasting character can theoretically gain between 0-2 enlightenment powers each level until 5th after which they could gain between 0-3 enlightenment powers; they will also likely gain one “class skill” power each level. In all cases any power or spell can be used only once a day, but it is possible to “gain” a power or spell more than once in some cases, allowing for multiple uses.  All of this means that in some ways the magician in AoI will be a bit less predictable in his development than in D&D, but is likely to get certain powers that would be the equivalent of high-level magic relatively earlier.

Next up the game features a short but relatively complete equipment section, including details on currency, encumbrance, and in-setting systems of loan and credit (usually handled through clan houses). There’s guidelines too for reselling items. Weapons and armor are all based on real Indian weapons and armor (generally of the period), and include a few more unusual objects like the famous Chakram. Whatever one might say of the interior art, p.57 features a spectacular page with authentic drawings of all of standard weapons as they actually would look, and to scale. Certain weapons like Chakram or Strangling Cords have special qualities that are noted in their descriptions.  There are price lists for animals, clothing, food, herbalism, housing and transport, siege weapons, and miscellaneous equipment (including some familiar standard adventuring gear like rope or a 10 foot pole, and some much more unusual items like mala beads or a conch shell). There are also price lists for slaves and for hirelings.

The GM section begins on p.64, and starts off with slightly more detailed rules than you’d normally find in an OSR product for Reaction Rolls (which are used for social interaction as well as for animal encounters) and morale rules. There are rules for travel and guidelines for giving out XP. The combat section is relatively familiar to OSR-fans: the game uses ascending AC, initiative is rolled individually (1d6+dex+miscellaneous modifiers for things like weapon speed or spellcasting penalties).  As the tone of AoI is a bit more heroic than normal and also meant to be based on Epic Indian myth, there are a few differences: there’s a “critical hit” rule for rolling natural 20s (natural-20s always hit, plus a hit that surpasses opponent’s AC enables you to immediately make a second attack), and there are special rules for firing multiple arrows meant to make archers more effective than typical in OSR games (this is also backed up by the class skill system, where fighters who choose to focus on archery can end up getting very significant bonuses). There’s rules for fighting from a chariot or on an elephant-platform as well, both important features of Indian combat.

Because healing magic is somewhat more rare in AoI than in other games, there are some changes to healing where PCs heal just a little faster with rest than they would in many other OSR games (though nowhere near proportions seen in later D&D editions); but there’s also rules for the Medical skill and herbalism that go a long way to aiding and accelerating healing without having to involve magic.
Then there’s all the standard goodness for things like charging, cover, wrestling, poisons, falling damage, etc.

The next 36 pages cover the setting, with a detailed gazetteer of the Bharata Lands, a guide to the Patala Underworld, a system for generating cave complexes in the same, and random wilderness and city encounter tables.

The Bharata kingdoms are basically a fantasy-version of ancient India as detailed in the Mahabharata period; I had briefly considered making up some more abstract world with an Indian “flavor” but I decided that nothing I could come up with myself would be able to beat the richness, detail and creativity of the actual “Epic India” of the myths. The Bharata Kingdoms, as of the “present” of the setting, already have thousands and thousands of years of history. They are a series of city-states, small kingdoms, decadent principalities, plus one looming somewhat-evil empire currently engaging in threatening expansion. The western, central, southern and eastern areas each have their own distinct quality and style, but all the lands are united by a common overall culture and heritage (though marked by interesting regional variations). The setting section includes guidelines to what life is like in the Bharata Kingdoms, cultural traditions, holidays, the weather, what growing up in the Bharata kingdoms would have been like for the PCs, gender roles (including details on the somewhat different concepts they had on the gender spectrum), and the “Heroic culture” of the current era (a culture that all but encourages people like the PCs to go out and be great adventurers).

There’s detailed descriptions of all the major kingdoms and important city-states, as well as of the wilderlands that surround the Bharata lands: the imposing and magical mountains to the north, the desert of Thar, the various hills and jungles, swamplands and coastal regions; as well as ruins of ancient cities and temples lost to time, kingdoms of Demons, Nagas, cities of the gods, and barbarian tribelands.
All these details include material on local rulers and personalities, as well as current problems and events (and potential adventuring hooks).

The Patala Underworld is the massive underground cave-network of the setting. How massive? It covers the entire planet, and it goes six vast levels deep. Again, this is based on real Indian myth (though of course, in some of the source texts, the Patala underworld was meant to be taken as symbolic or metaphorical, but for adventuring purposes, once again, I chose the literal view). Each level of the Underworld contains multiple regions with their own characteristics, inhabitants, rulers and dangers, and each level overall has a very different quality than the rest. Not only does the book provide descriptions of the Patala Underworld as a whole, it also provides a set of random tables the GM can use to generate small or large sections of the Underworld (with variations to account for underworld-level) for adventuring purposes.  Of course, random monster charts are included for each separate level.

There are also random encounters tables for overland travel, along roads or in the different types and regions of wilderness (including separate tables for the different major jungles or mountain ranges of the setting). This section also contains a table of City Encounters, a description of things to do in cities, rules for fighting in the dueling contests of the Kalari arenas, a random table for potential patron missions, and rules for designing and staying in caravanserais.

The monster section is 25 pages long; and details full stats for 84 different creatures. Every single one of these creatures are specifically taken from Indian sources (with the exception of a couple of giant animals, though giant animals in general are very much in keeping with Indian myth; and the “monstrosity”, a randomly-generated exotic-type monster meant to cover all the really weird types of creatures that appear in myths as one-shots).  I should mention that these statblocks are easily and readily compatible with most OSR games.

There are also 19 pages of treasure tables and magic items.  Once again, treasure and items reflect Indian myth and history.  So for example, while there are certainly magic swords (and maces, lances, daggers, and all kinds of other melee weapons), magic bows are the most significant kind of magic weapon (so in this game, its bows that have alignments and major and secondary powers).  While there are some familiar types of magic items like rings or staffs, you will also find magic sutras (holy scriptures), conch shells, mala beads, and herbs; as well as wondrous items like the Yaksha Treasure Chest, the Sea-Emerald of Varuna, the Peacock Crown, the Kara of the Unspeakable Oath, or of course Vimanas (the magical “flying chariots”, some as large as a house). In place of artifacts, there are Celestial Weapons, those weapons of legend that come directly from the gods (or some of the most powerful asura-demons) and have devastating power. These won’t be found in a random treasure horde, they’re only available as major campaign elements, usually to be granted directly from the gods themselves.

The section on the Gods and religion is kept relatively quite small; I could certainly have added a lot more on the subject, but again, I didn’t want it to be an anthropological or religious treatise; its an RPG, and so what’s there is what’s essential to run a credible game.  There’s brief descriptions of the major gods, divided into groups (the old Vedic gods, the Vaishnavite family and the Shaivite family, as well as river goddesses); there are guidelines to major religious rituals, and there’s rules on direct Divine Intervention and divine quests; both of which can become increasingly common events for PCs from about 9th level onward.

So at the end of the book, we have a couple of unusual appendices. The first, 6 pages long but jam-packed, is called “higher level play”; but I realize now that this was probably a bad choice of wording, because it implies that the material here is “stuff not usable till your PCs are high level”.  In fact, most of it is usable right from the get-go and it is actually more about “high-level play” in the sense of stuff that supports more involved and deeper long-term campaigns. It covers things like long-term costs of living, land ownership and profit from terrains, housing, work as mercenaries, temple priesthoods, running philosophical schools, thief gangs, making money from your background skills, big merchant business, taxation, interacting with royalty (including random tables for “royal attention” for when the PCs get too famous), marriage, children and inheritances, and the standard code of laws and punishments in the Bharata Kingdoms (directly taken from the real-world historical Laws of Manu). Once more, everything in here is directly lifted from different sources on ancient Indian history.

The other appendix is called “In the future”, and it provides a timeline, for those GMs who want such a thing, of future chronological events from the starting period of the campaign until several decades into the future; detailing events as they would transpire in the world if you are following the chronology of the Mahabharata.  Of course, nothing obliges a GM to do so.

So, who will like Arrows of Indra, who can use it?
If you like OSR games and wanted to play one in a non-European setting, well obviously then this game is for you (especially if “Indian setting” was on your list of interests).
If you don’t hate OSR games and really love the idea of gaming in an Indian setting, then this is very likely for you.
If you are an OSR gamer, and you’re not really interested in playing in an Indian setting per se, but would really like to borrow interesting mechanics, random tables, setting elements, or dozens of new monsters and magic items readily usable in any OSR-game’s setting, then this would be for you.
Finally, if you’re not interested in running an OSR game at all, but would like to have extensive setting material for an Epic India setting, then you’ll probably be able to make very good use of Arrows of Indra as well.

Anyways, I hope this “review” has been informative as to what’s actually in AoI, and why.

If you want to purchase Arrows of Indra, you can do so from here in print, or here in pdf.


Currently Smoking: Raleigh jopo + Gawith’s Navy Flake

(originally posted August 3, 2013)

Friday 28 November 2014

Star Wars VII: We've Got Nothing (except dumb CGI tricks)

First, if you haven't seen it yet, check out the Episode VII trailer here.

Now, your first instinct in watching that is to feel the excitement of your inner 8-year old bouncing in anticipation.  Great. But remember: you were probably excited about the Phantom Menace before it actually came out too.

Is it possible that maybe, we might have to admit that at the cinematic level, it's futile to do Star Wars?  Because what I saw above certainly seemed futile.

What we get is Tatooine, AGAIN.  Or some world EXACTLY like it.  Out of a galaxy with billions and billions of inhabited worlds, why is it every single major event in the last 75 years of galactic history in some way involved Tatooine?

We get stormtroopers, and Tie Fighters, and they're shooting at the Millennium Falcon. So that means that either time travel is involved in this story, or, most likely, the Rebellion has been going on for the last 30 years, in spite of the death of the Emperor and fall of the Death Star, TWICE.

We get, in short, absolutely nothing new except for a ridiculous droid made more stupid thanks to CGI (seriously, wasn't the reason we GOT RID of Lucas that his brain had rotted to the point that he thought CGI was more important than having an actual story?), and a stupidly impractical lightsaber. THAT is apparently, from this preview, all that has changed in 30 years.

Now, of course, this is a less than 90 second trailer out of what will be a 90 minute plus movie.   But what they chose to put on the trailer in no way filled me with any confidence whatsoever.  And what we can infer from the trailer, unless it was somehow compiled to be a massive deception, is that instead of actually allowing the timeline to move forward here, we have an "everything is stuck" scenario where the producers decided to bank their money on Nostalgia rather than adding anything new to the corpus.  Its so nostalgic that the rebellion isn't allowed to have ever ended, that the same fucking worlds will be the only ones that matter, and that any actual changes to the environment will only be half-assed attempts to make the already familiar somehow "cooler".

The only thing this trailer is saying to me, once I get past the infantile 8 year old somewhere deep in my psyche is "We've Got Nothing".  No ideas. No risk. Nothing new that's actually worth talking about to anyone other than idiotic nerds who are easily impressed by things other than actual story.

Now I'm not saying they should have reinvented the wheel here, but if what we see is a situation where the war between Empire and Rebellion has been going on for 30+ years since the last movie, then either the entire galaxy had better be fucking post-apocalyptic (and I'm betting it won't be) or the producers have just confessed to us through the medium of trailer that they have completely sacrificed any attempt at coherent world-building, setting, and almost certainly story in order to satisfy what are no doubt both corporate and customer fears of anything that isn't nostalgically the same in every way that matters.

So right now, I'm putting 80-20 odds on the new movies being, from a literary/cinematic perspective, total shit.

And of course, it'll make 100 Trillion dollars because the fucking nerds will still eat it all up. The new movie could be 120 hours of Jar Jar Binks Shitting on Han Solo's Face, and the Fucking Nerds would still pay to see it as long as it featured a very slightly different kind of lightsaber.


Currently Smoking: Stanwell Deluxe + Gawith's Balkan Flake

Thursday 27 November 2014

DCC Campaign Update: They Are The Egg Men (Goo Goo Ga-Joob)

When last we'd left our intrepid heroes they had been discovered by the mighty (though mortally wounded) Tiamat, Lord/Lady of Dragons; and by about 30 mutant fanatics, a number of Dragonmen, a troglodyte chieftain and his honor guard and Shaman, and the sorceress of Tiamat. Combat was about to happen.  As it turns out:

-it did ensue. By the end of it, half the PC party, half of the Cosplay Catgirls From Another Universe, 11 out of 12 crusading Dwarves, and Tiamat and most of her army were all dead.

-as it turns out, a breath weapon from a 95%-dead Superdragon is still enough to immolate a sizable chunk of your party.

-as it turns out, Dragonmen hatched by a dying Dragon-Daemon are kind of derpy.

-as it turns out, the troglodyte waving his greatsword around with panache before facing the heroic PC in single combat was NOT the setup for an Indiana Jones down-in-one-shot gag. Instead, it was the PC who went down like a bitch.

-as it turns out, you don't get to be troglodyte chief through good looks or charm.

-as it turns out, Cosplay Catgirls can hold their own in a fight, once they do their super-kawaii transformation sequence and pull out their "Harajuku Gogo Protectora Balls".

-as it turns out, firing a missile launcher at a well-supported cave roof will do nothing to save your cause.

-as it turns out, casting a massive cloudkill will.

-as it turns out, Tiamat really did have a massive shitload of treasure. So massive the party had to have Bill the Elf ask Sezrekan to teleport it out for them.

-as it turns out, Sez was so elated from the death of his rival that he really didn't mind, and sent it out to somewhere called Ice Dome Zero, which is supposed to be abandoned.  The party immediately decided that it should be their new home base.

-as it turns out, there were tons of magic items too.

-as it turns out, the party's other elf, Rick/Rickandra, got the bulk of those items. He also unfortunately got the bulk of the cursed items; including the Plate Mail of Suckitude (which sucks), and the Asshole Ring (which makes you act like an asshole; it also makes you TOTALLY reflect any magic specifically cast at you; which Rick thought was awesome, but only because he hasn't yet figured out the implications of what that will mean for him).

-as it turns out, Rick/rickandra was the second player to get a one-percent-chance of a significantly useful combat spell having a gender changing side effect.

-as it turns out, no one believes him any longer when he says he joined the Azure Order as a scam.  Not after joining the Azure Order (of non-cisgendered wizards), then taking the Lord of All Flesh as his patron, carrying around a bra of gender change, and getting a spell that changes his gender. As the Lord of All Flesh himself said, "that's not accident, that's a pattern of denial".

-as it turns out, the Lord of All Flesh is WAY too happy to get offered the corpse of a dead Dragon-deity. And has a fairly discomforting idea of a 'reward' for service.

-as it turns out, the party still had to go destroy the Egg Beyond before it destroyed the known universe.

-as it turns out, after treking halfway through a massive cave complex, they found out the egg was on an island in a deadly-transuniversal-vine infested lake, and had to treck back to portage some canoes from the mutant cultist village they'd devastated earlier.

-as it turns out, the "Egg Beyond" is the size of a five story building.

-as it turns out, after getting some help in translation from Fun Guy the Fungi (not his real name, but the party calls him that, on account of his being a friendly giant fungus monster), the party finds out that the Cosplay Catgirls From Another Universe (who had come into this universe with the egg) know a secret entrance.

-as it turns out, the first-floor lobby of the Egg Beyond is full of Egg-Men guardians. Goo Goo Ga Joob.

-as it turns out, being able to cast a spell giving you 50 animated armor defenders is only of limited utility when the Egg Men can seemingly multiply indefinitely.

-as it turns out, while a Massive Cloudkill is super-useful against a Daemon Dragon-Lord and its horde of cultists, it's totally useless against Egg Men.

-as it turns out, the doors to the Egg Beyond's internal Sphincter Turbolifts are extremely resistant to dwarven axes.  Not so resistant, however, to monofilament whips.

-as it turns out, the treasure of an Egg from the outer void beyond the universe will be a gem of a color that no one ever saw before.

-as it turns out, the Sphincter Turbolift led the party to where the Egg was imprisoning Marduk, the Crystaline Dragon who may be Tiamat's heir. And Marduk is pissed off. Fortunately, Marduk thinks it was the Egg who killed Tiamat, not the PCs. For now.

-As it turns out, the heart of the Egg Beyond is an Egg Within an Egg. Goo Goo Ga Joob.

-As it turns out, with Marduk's help and figuring out its weak spot, the PCs were able to defeat it.

-As it turns out, defeating the Egg Beyond generates a miniature black hole that will suck everything there out into the Void beyond.

-as it turns out, the PCs manage to Planewalk away, to their new home in Ice Dome Zero, just in time.

As for Marduk, he astrally shifted away just in time too.  And boy is he going to be pissed when the troglodyte chief (who survived the massacre at Tiamat's cave) tells him that the PCs were the ones who killed his mom/dad.  And that Sezrekan sent them, and then killed his brother and any other potential heirs to Tiamat's power. That sounds like the start of an epic Dragon Revenge story.  But that'll be a story for another time; like at the worst possible moment for the PCs.

Next time: Terror at Ice Dome Zero!


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

Wednesday 26 November 2014

This is What a Uruguayan RPG Con(s) Looks Like

Because some of you asked, here's a small selection of images.  Keep in mind this was an RPG-only event, not comics, sci-fi, card games, board games or any other geek stuff.  Even so, it got close to 150 participants. As always, click to enlarge, blah blah blah...

(this was right at the start of the con, when no one had arrived yet. Uruguayans are famously late to things.  This is the front room, there was also a back room)

(the Vampire gamers were doing some cosplaying)

(one thing I'll note is that I think the average weight of a Uruguayan gamer is well below that of what you see at American conventions)

(the guy n the lab coat was GMing Paranoia.  And apparently, he has a reputation for being amazing at it.  His table filled up almost immediately; before mine, I might add)

Unfortunately, most of the other photos taken of this particular event were close-ups of individual gamers, so it really didn't give a good impression of the overall event's look (just what Uruguayan gamers look like, I guess).

So here's a few pics from the previous INJU con, a few months back (when it was still winter; note the change in clothing):

I'm fairly sure the turnout was about the same for both Cons. Both were held at the Instituto Nacional de Juventud (INJU), and organized by

(here, two of my Lords of Olympus players had moved away from the table to conspire together, as well they should.  I ran LoO at the last con, and Dark Albion in this one using the Appendix P old-school house rules)

(I have no idea what this was about.  Note that many of the Uruguayan gamers are quite young, and I'd guess that apart from skewing thinner, they also skew younger and more female than at the average North American gaming con.  I think the turnout at either con was maybe 25% female?  At the last con, my LoO game was 66% women, and at this game 20% women- I guess that's a difference between LoO and Old-school D&D)

Anyways, this should give you an idea of just how large, vibrant, and active the RPG scene is down here.


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

Tuesday 25 November 2014

“Real” Magick in RPGs: Aleister Crowley

December 1st is the anniversary of Aleister Crowley’s “Greater Feast for Death”.  That is to say, almost 67 years ago, he croaked.

Certainly, one could have all kinds of material related to Crowley that would spice up any historical/occult campaign set anytime from the 1890s to the 1940s. But what about in a modern campaign? What makes the guy important?

I can’t possibly dedicate a single blog entry to telling you everything about the man and his magick: there are tons of biographies of the guy out there, and feel free to read one if you’re really interested.  What matters now is only the “cheat sheet”, of how you can use him in your campaign without knowing every detail.

For starters, Crowley was very important not only to modern magick, but to modern society.  As one of his biographer’s put it: “new ageism, witchcraft, hippies, paganism, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll: it’s all his fault”.  

It really was. Crowley was doing all that shit 40 years before it was cool, in many cases 40 years before it technically existed.  And magically, his influence was paramount.  He took a bunch of medieval systems and victorian pseudo-masonry and gave it a purpose for our new Aeon, the new astrological age.

And while we’re at it, he ended the world.
Magically speaking, the apocalypse happened in April 1904. The procession of the astrological ages took place at that moment, when Crowley received the Book of the Law from the god Horus, after a vision received inside the great pyramid in Cairo.  Essentially, this was the change from the “age of pisces” to that “age of aquarius” the new agers talk so much and know so little about.  Its already happened, and it marked a moment when humanity grew up in its capacity for understanding of its relationship to the universe.  As a result of this vision, Crowley predicted a number of things that few in 1904 would have expected to come to pass: devastating wars, atrocities, and incredible human destruction; but these were just the birth pangs for an age of societal evolution where equality of all human beings, sexual and gender liberation, a new interest in the discovery of the self, experimentation with drugs as a means for transcendence, new pseudo-scientific/psychological ways of understanding magical symbolism, a breaking free from old restrictions and limits of both morality and human potential, all would come to pass.  He predicted, in other words, a world that looks very much like our own.

The essence of his teaching is a word I’ve used in this series before: Thelema.  It means “will”, and is represented by the law of this Aeon: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will”.

This is a new magical paradigm that gives a greater purpose to magical work; not that it is completely new, but that it was something that had been long lost or hidden in the background of mumbo-jumbo, of people summoning angels or demons or working with elemental forces or ritual without really grasping a bigger philosophical purpose behind it all.  That purpose is to discover your True Will. 

“Will” in this case means not whatever the fuck you want (to the chagrin of the many satanists and heavy metal geeks that love Crowley on that mistaken basis) but rather it means that you have a higher self, a higher purpose, that magick is supposed to help you get in contact with. Discover your true will, and then unite to it (in Love, meaning union), and then to the universe itself. This is the purpose of magick, not unlike many other mystical systems, not unlike Tantra or Buddhism, Sufism or Taoism; its to “know thyself” and then become “one with everything”, or nothing.

The Book of the Law itself is a short but fairly complex spiritual text, that most magicians will have read at some point, and certainly every thelemic magician; it might make very little sense to a non-magician who reads it, but you may want to give it a try. Its not hard to find online, and its in the public domain as far as I know (at least, its on a ton of websites).

There is one other mystical operation of Crowley’s that’s very worthy of mention, though probably even more incomprehensible to the non-magician; its the kind of thing that if you were running CoC, would cause you to lose 1d10 SAN just by reading it (the Book of the Law would probably cause you to lose 1d4, while we’re at it): This is “The Vision and the Voice”.  I mention it here because it is the record of Crowley’s personal enlightenment, 5 years after writing the book of the law; where in the  middle of the North African desert he entered into a series of “pathworkings”, or astral journeys, to the 30 Enochian Aethyrs, gnostic dimensions beyond our own.  There he encountered a series of powerfully transformative initiatory visions, that changed his understanding of magick and himself.  The system for using the “Enochian Aethyrs” was not invented by Crowley, it was given by angelic beings to Dr. John Dee, the famous Elizabethan magician, in the 1580s; and while the Golden Dawn used some elements of enochian magick, as far as anyone knows no one had actually used the “enochian calls” to travel to the Aethyrs until Crowley did it (not even Dee, although he received the system of magick, there’s no evidence he ever used it).  Of course, since then, quite a few other magicians have done so.  It's almost as though the Enochian Aethyrs weren't meant to be accessed until the new aeon.

“The Vision and the Voice” is the kind of book that many would-be occultists will own, very few will have read, fewer still tried to seriously understand; and some (though not necessarily the same as those who understood) may try to imitate.  Without proper preparation, trying to pathwork to the higher Enochian Aethyrs is a recipe for going batshit nuts. It would do to the psyche what going to the outer planes would do to the health of 3rd level AD&D characters… almost certainly nothing good.
It's a good example of the kind of spiritual visions and trips that a very experienced magician is capable of doing, however.

Aside from these, Crowley wrote a ton of books on the themes of magick, yoga, and taoism (and designed a rocking tarot deck).  Remember, in your game, none of these should be very difficult to find!
Resist the temptation to make “books of true occult power” difficult to obtain, they’re NOT. They’re all over Amazon, Ebay, and the internet in general.  What’s difficult is having any sense of context to study them properly, and the lack of laziness to actually do the work they suggest and do these right.   Crowley’s “Magick in Theory and Practice” alone is, in one very large book, more than enough to get someone all they need to know to start successfully performing magick, yet most people won’t bother to thoroughly read it, even those who own it or claim to be magicians.

In a modern setting, Crowley should be portrayed as misunderstood by the general occult scene, with the know-nothings being generally scared shitless of him, aside from a minority of fawning admirers who like the idea of him because he’s “wicked” without actually knowing anything about him at all (he’s the Occult equivalent of Che Guevara in that sense: far more people will go around wearing his image on a T-shirt than actually know what he did or why).  Among serious practitioners, there’s a group of hardcore “old aeon” magicians who despise him, a larger group of modern magicians (self-described as Thelemites or not) who base their magick on what he did, and a third group that express admiration for him but don’t necessarily follow his precepts.  But in each sense, every modern magician is affected by him, even those who have never read him; including some who may not have a clue who he is.  His teachings have affected all books of magick that came after him whether he gets credit for it or not, as well as movements like Wicca that try very hard sometimes to pretend that he had nothing to do with them, even though the whole basis for what they do started with him.

Crowley also spawned 2 magical orders: the A.’.A.’. and the O.T.O. (the latter, though not founded by him, was completely redefined by him).  I’ve talked about these before, and remember: they’re mostly useless in terms of serious magick, though they may have serious magicians in them. They’re usually used by their membership as ego-trips or social clubs.

Other fun things you can do with Crowley:
-From time to time, some magician (usually a total newb) will go around claiming they’re Crowley’s reincarnation. This is usually coupled with the person trying to talk or act like Crowley (though usually not matched with some of Crowley’s non-magical achievement, like being a world-record mountain climber or chess champion), and is met with derision.

-Crowley taught a secret form of sex magic as part of his OTO framework, this is not really secret anymore, its available online, but more than a few unscrupulous people have started sex cults based on it.

-Boleskine, the Loch Ness mansion where Crowley attempted (and failed) his first effort at doing the complex magical operation known as the Abra-melin rite, has long been said to be haunted, and the locals have many stories of people who have gone mad, or killed themselves or others, as a result of the house’s nefarious influence (the Abra-melin operation culminates in summoning up demons, after having obtained a full connection to your Holy Guardian Angel (your higher self or true will), and some have speculated that having failed to complete the operation, the demons got loose with nothing to control them).  The mansion was for many years owned by Thelemite and Led Zeppelin frontman Jimmy Page, and has since been turned into a bed & breakfast. Some have even tried to connect Boleskine/Crowley to the Loch Ness Monster, pointing out that modern sightings of the monster only started after Crowley's time there.

-Crowley had a commune in the 1920s in Cefalu, Italy, named “The Abbey of Thelema”.  The house where the commune was based has been abandoned for decades, is half-ruined, and has been put up for sale.  It is frequently squatted in by crowley-fans and occultists, and still has the fading images of the wall-paintings that Crowley and his students drew there, some of them quite unusual.

-The Book of the Law was received in connection to an ancient egyptian funeral Stele called “The Stele of Revealing”.  The Book of the Law contained the instructions that the Stele should be stolen or otherwise obtained (it was at that time on display at the boulak museum in Cairo) and taken to Boleskine, and that if this was done it would have stunning and transformative effects on the world.  Crowley himself never got around to doing this; the Stele is now in the Cairo museum, where it was reported unharmed by the recent civil unrest in that country. 

-The Book of the Law instructed Crowley to “find the value of the English alphabet”, that is, to figure out a numerical system of gematria (as in, the Kabbalah), by which one could directly determine the number-value of English words without having to translate into Hebrew first.  Crowley never ended up accomplishing this (he didn’t seem to bother to try very much, being quite happy with Hebrew Gematria) and after him many would-be “english kabbalists” have broken their minds trying to make a system that makes sense and works magically as well as the Hebrew gematria system.  Some have claimed success, but none has been universally adopted and recognized as a success.

-The Book of the Law also contains a code, a series of letters and numbers that Crowley was instructed were not for him to understand, but that someone would come after him to decipher it, and its meaning would be clear to all and near-universally accepted as correct.  Up till now, that hasn’t happened, though many many would-be-Crowleys have tried.

-it recently came to light that Crowley was an agent of British Intelligence. He is credited, among other things, with having given Winston Churchill the recommendation of using the “V for victory” sign as often as possible, as a magical countermeasure to the Nazis’ own use of magical symbols (the swastika, the nazi salute, etc).

-every once in a while, items show up on sale on E-bay which claim to have once belonged to Crowley.  Most of these are unquestionably fake.

-Crowley was the first white man to have provably used the I Ching for divination on a regular basis. To do so he had designed his own special set of divining sticks.  After his death these came into the possession of one of his magical heirs, Grady McMurtry (who re-founded the biggest claimant to the modern OTO).  McMurtry in turn lost the pouch with these sticks one night at a party on a California beach when he was either drunk or stoned out of his mind.  They have never been found.

-Crowley has no tomb; he was cremated, and his ashes eventually brought to America by one of his students, Karl Germer.  Germer’s wife eventually dumped the ashes under a tree in the garden of their New Jersey suburban home.

Anyways, all of these and many many other details about the guy’s life should give ample fodder for modern-occult adventure.


Currently Smoking: Masonic Meerschaum + Image Perique

(originally reposted July 26, 2013; on the old blog)

Monday 24 November 2014

Uncracked Monday: The Best Revenge is Living Well... AND Revenge!

Really, I would say, why stop at just "living well"?  Yes, it's certainly a very important way to overcome and render null the actions of those who have wronged you, I'm not downplaying that important part.

But there's also something to be said for actual Revenge.  That combination of Revenge and Passion has fueled many of the great works of statecraft, art, science, engineering, music, and yes, the RPG Hobby.  So many amazing things have only come to exist because of Spite.

In the modern world's obsession with the Baby-Boomer meme of "niceness", we have forgotten just how significant something like revenge can be in terms of genius.

Clearly, Peter Capaldi hasn't.  He was refused the chance to be president of the Doctor Who Fan Club in the 1970s, when he was a teenager, and the BBC PR people apparently mocked him.   So he decided to avenge them all, and become Doctor Who.  And a truly great, grumpy, and spiteful doctor he is!


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

Sunday 23 November 2014

At the INJU Con, I Suddenly Became the Godfather

There was a giant dulce de leche cake to celebrate 2d4orcos' first year of successes as a forum, there were some 16 or 17 gaming tables, all full, a very heavily-attended (and impressively cosplayed) Vampire larp, and lots of other fun stuff.

I ran The Tomb Under Castle Murdoch, the adventure co-written by myself and Dominique Crouzet for the upcoming "Dark Albion: The Rose War" OSR setting book.  It was very well received, and it ran very well (albeit with a near total-party kill).  The players all liked the "Appendix P" houserules, but since only one out of the 6 players was an experienced D&D gamer (and only two out of six were actually experienced RPG gamers at all) that doesn't necessarily say much from an objective perspective.  What it does say is that thanks to events like these at the INJU (The "INstituto de Juventud Uruguaya", or institute for Uruguayan youth), the already-large RPG community in Montevideo is growing.

Another thing that's changed and that always knocks me a little for a loop is my level of local fame.  For the longest time, I wasn't really anyone special here.  Despite the blog, despite having theRPGsite, none of that meant much and those Uruguayan gamers who knew me just knew me in person from the local scene.  This did not changed when "Forward... to Adventure!" came out, or its sourcebook FtA!GN!, or Gnomemurdered

But then Lords of Olympus came out.

See, I'd already brought Amber to Uruguay when I first arrived and it caught on like wildfire.  There is something about the game (and its inter-family intrigues) that seems to really work with Uruguayans in particular, or maybe Latin culture in general.   And I knew when Lords of Olympus came out that some people here had gotten it.

But when I went to my first con after LoO came out, which as it turned out was nearly a year after LoO came out, I didn't expect much to be different.  Instead, everyone was batshit nuts.  I had teenagers I never met coming up to me and thanking me profusely for the game, I had everyone talking about it.

Suddenly, people here actually gave a fuck.

This time, it was the first time I'd been to a Con since 5e had really started to be played in Montevideo.  And again, it was another level.  To the community here I'd always been known by my 'real name'.  But all of a sudden, in pretty much everything and except to those who already knew me intimately, I was now "El Pundit".   I got praise and congratulation from all quarters, showing that Uruguayans very clearly do like the new edition (certainly better than the last one); and behaviour to the point that you would think I'd written, hand-illustrated, sewn and shipped the 5e PHB myself!  And on more than one occasion last night I had to explain just what my role was in 5e.

It was nuts.  I am suddenly a gaming celebrity here, after 10 years of very much not having been one in spite of celebrity elsewhere.  I would guess being the spiritual godfather of 2d4orcos, having advised and encouraged its creator (who modeled his website's success on the same practices that made theRPGsite a success) was also a help in that.

Anyways, like any good egomaniac, I had a hell of a fun time.

Congrats to 2d4orcos for the excellent con (a skill they are fast mastering) and for this image:


Currently Smoking: Moretti Rhodesian + Gawith's Squadron Leader

Saturday 22 November 2014

Off to the Local Con

No time to blog today, I'm off to DM a Dark Albion adventure (the first ever outside my usual gaming circle), at the local RPG con.

Based on my previous recent experiences, I figure it should be fun!


Currently Smoking: Gigi Bent Billiard + Image Perique

Friday 21 November 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game

This is a review of the RPG "Mindjammer", written by Sarah Newton, published by Modiphius.  This is a review of the print edition, which is a stunning book (in terms of production values, and sheer size, coming in at almost 500 pages).  It has a full color cover with some starships, interior-cover starmaps, and mostly black-and-white interior illustrations (except when you get to some sample planets, where the planetary images/maps are in striking color).  The book comes with a built-in ribbon-bookmark, something that I think every hardcover RPG above a certain size needs to have, so it gets extra style points just for that.

(note: this image is slightly different from the cover image of the book I'm reviewing, it might be cropped)

Now, a few years ago I reviewed the original Mindjammer book, which at that time was a sourcebook for Cubicle 7's Starblazer Adventures.  It was a bit of a curious mix: Starblazer was an RPG inspired by a 1980s British comic magazine that told space-opera 80s sci-fi tales.  Mindjammer was a transhuman setting that was quite serious by comparison, and certainly not 'space opera'.  The book itself was excellent, though it didn't feel totally complete, and something of an odd match to its rule-book.  Even so, in some ways the gaps found in the book allowed you to fill in the blanks with your own ideas; in my own Starblazer campaign, I made extensive use of Mindjammer to introduce some modern sci-fi elements to the otherwise 80s brit-scifi aesthetic. 

The new Mindjammer is its own RPG now; but largely uses the same FATE-based system as Starblazer did, so there's continuity there.  However, it's hugely expanded: the original Mindjammer book was only just under 200 pages long; the new Mindjammer just about 500 pages. And the difference is definitely not from 300 pages of game mechanics!

But is it better than the old one? Is it a good RPG? Of course, those are two different questions.  Let's consider each.

To address the latter question first, I'd say yes, it's certainly a good sci-fi RPG.  The FATE system is tried and true, and lends itself to this sort of setting.  That said, the FATE system can be tweaked into many different things, everything from very rules-light (ICONS) to extremely rules-heavy (Starblazer).  Mindjammer chose to continue with the same structure as Starblazer had; and I don't know if that wasn't a mistake. I know some people like the very complex versions of FATE a lot, but I think that in 2014 this feels a bit 2010, and it could have been wiser to go with a more slimmed-down model. I'm certainly no longer super-enthused about choosing from tons of pre-written "stunts" (not that I ever was, but my tolerance used to be higher), rather than having a simple guideline-mechanism for creating one's own. I don't know that a ton of explanations of mechanics is a better choice than a system that leaves far more room to GM rulings. I do know that I totally prefer the latter to the former.

I'm going to assume that the FATE system is mostly familiar to readers at this point, what with it being one of the major 'generic' game systems in use today.  If you don't know it yet, spend a moment to google it, then get back. 
In this particular iteration of the system, the default assumes that you're using the special (and at this point somewhat out-of-favor) FATE dice (d6s with a '+', '-' or blank space on them).  However, optional guidelines are provided for using the now more common d6-d6 variant.  As with most versions of FATE, characters have aspects (that are used to invoke FATE points), and skills (that add bonuses to one's roll).  There are also stunts, which are special abilities (mostly tied to skills) that allow you to perform special actions; in this version of the system the stunts are spelled out explicitly (to give one example, the 'starship pilot' stunt lets you use your pilot skill in place of a ship's maneuvering skill while piloting). There are also 'extras', which are elements that a character has besides skills and stunts; things like genetic modifications, technological enhancements, major possessions (like starships), or membership in organizations.  There's also "halo", which are abilities/extras related to the "mindscape" (the virtual reality or communication system practically ubiquitous to the Commonality, the great human spacefaring civilization of the setting).  Damage is handled by Stress, of which there are physical and mental varieties; characters who take damage of certain kinds mark them on the appropriate stress track, and stress can be removed by taking "consequences", which represent injuries or other inconveniences that prove disadvantageous but allow one to keep going without being 'taken out'. 
As usual with the FATE system, aspects can be invoked with fate points in a variety of ways (re-rolls, bonuses, etc.), but aspects can also be Compelled (usually but not always by the GM) to oblige certain situations on the player character, unless the player spends a FATE point to avoid it.  Compels give the player another FATE point, so there's a built in motivation to accept compels in certain circumstances.

So this is really FATE with all the fixings.  And again, that might be fine for many people.  For myself, I ran Starblazer (which was pretty much this system), and it was a fairly long and successful campaign.  But then I ran ICONS, and felt it was a much better way of presenting the FATE system.  I don't know if that would have been the way to go with Mindjammer, but at least something in between may have been better, a system where things like stunts and extras were a bit less defined and more room left to GM interpretation.  That said, I have to credit Mindjammer for providing a lot of sidebar-alternatives to the standard rules, lots of options, and room to maneuver.

So what about the setting?  Mindjammer is theoretically a "transhuman Sci-Fi game", though more accurately it could be termed a 'nearly transhuman' setting.  The concept of the setting is that it is in the distant, distant future.  Humanity had gone out to the stars, early space civilization had receded (though never entirely vanished), until a period of renewal began, and the core began to expand outward again in the "second age of space" with the "Commonality".  This is the great galactic civilization, still expanding outward and absorbing the old colonies; some of them very willingly, some of them reluctantly, and just a few with intense struggle.  The Commonality's success has been due to the combination of more advanced interspace travel (the second-generation "Jump Drives"), and the aforementioned Mindscape.  Commonality technology is incredibly advanced; it allows for a near-unlimited potential lifespan, instantaneous access to information, genetic modification, and many other such perks.   

Now, there are some details to the setting that are worth noting: first, the Commonality is not presented as either entirely good or bad.  They are very sure of themselves, and of their mission; you could say they're neo-imperialist, wanting to spread what they consider their superior culture (both in the technological and social sense, as those two are almost indivisible) to the entire galaxy. But they're quite willing to do this regardless of the opinions of those distant colonies of ancient earth they encounter.  In some cases, they will use coercion and trickery to wind up getting a world to join them, in some cases more aggressive tactics.  At the same time, the Commonality is also extremely controlling of its own people in many ways; they are constantly on the lookout for elements of culture and ideas that could be damaging to their own stability, and repress these.  In some cases this means certain worlds that have cultures just too "dangerous" to be integrated and too difficult to subvert are instead isolated and contained. The Commonality is neither the utterly benevolent utopian society that the players will be happy to defend, nor the evil Empire that the players will resent and want to take down.

I do think there were some opportunities missed in making the setting a bit less than a true Transhuman setting.  Its transhuman in the sense of things like the Mindscape, easy genetic manipulation, Artificial Intelligences, etc; but it isn't Transhuman in the sense of the Commonality being a self-governing post-singularity entity.  Even though something like the Mindscape could easily be rationalized at allowing that, what we find is instead the Commonality is controlled by a tiny group of mysterious shadowy overseers that decide everything crucial for everyone. Seems a bit of a waste to me.  I get that this is one potential fear of a trans-human world where no one dies of natural causes (that is, the very old ending up keeping all the power), but you'd think in 15000 years there would have been a solution to that.

There are only a few other details where we see some odd mis-steps on Newton's part.  For example, with the setting at least 15000 years in the future from our time, it would make sense that place names on old earth would have radically changed (particularly with implications of ancient cataclysms wiping out our own civilization); so in the section on Old Earth we read about Shine (in what was China), Yoosa (as in "U.S.A"), etc. So fine, I can buy that.  We're told that the Commonality speaks a language known as Galingua (an "amalgam of Anglic, Hispanian and Shinean").

But then we also find out that in spite of being all trans-human, the Commonality still has Corporations, with names like Darradine Industries, Hydrodyne Technologies, Neverine Pharmaceuticals or Pleskov & Son Armaments. We could be fair and say that these are translations from Galingua (and it should also be noted that the Corporations were (re)invented recently in the Commonality's new expansion period to deal with the reality of economics that were no longer necessary on Earth).
O.K., a bit of a stretch but fine; but THEN, we also find out that there are ships with names like "Botany Bay-class Explorer", or "Adam Smith-Class merchant" or "Icarus-Class Scout".  What?!  So 15000+ years into the future, they don't know how to say "U.S.A" or "China" (and we're told that by the "time of the first Commonality, Yoosa was largely a wilderness inhabited by scattered tribes"), and yet people are naming starships after Adam Smith, Keynes, Friedman, or the Botany Bay?
It's a small detail, I know, but a pet peeve of mine.

Alright, now let's get past the Grumpy Historian's complaints, and look at what's good about Mindjammer. The rules are extremely detailed.  Character creation gives a huge range of possibilities; just looking at 'race' (if you could call it that) as an example, you can play humans (from a plethora of possible types of cultures), Xenomorphs ('uplifted' animals), synthetics (artificial life forms), and also outright aliens (yes, these also exist, they just don't occupy a very central place in the setting). As to that last option, humans in the setting are fairly unique as to just how predominant and how spread-out they are, there is no alien rival to the Commonality (there's not any real rival at all, and the closest contenders to that title are old human colonies that have become moderately powerful in their own right and want nothing to do with the Commonality due to radically different culture).  Since moderate-weirdness is already found among the variety of possibilities within the human spectrum, and standard weirdness within the human-created non-humans like xenomorphs or synthetics, the true aliens are all highly-weird in nature. 
There's also a large range of suggestions for possible occupations.  The FATE system not being class-based, these occupations are instead essentially 'sample builds', with suggested aspects, skills, stunts, and enhancements to fit each role.

The guidelines for how to run the game are remarkably thorough; all skills are explained in (almost excruciating) detail. Skill listings also provide several stunt choices for each skill. A wide range and variety of "extras" are provided for characters, everything from special abilities (obtained either through technological modifications or due to alien background), cybernetic enhancements, ultra-high tech, vehicles and space vessels (both of which are very thoroughly detailed with rules for their creation and use, and lots of sample starship templates, with the aforementioned anachronistic names), and membership in organizations (organizations and how to run them on a kind of meta-scale are also provided).

There are very detailed guidelines for the GM for running the game, ranging the gamut from how to handle things like rockfalls, to how to accurately portray the super-advanced sci-fi of the setting, to all kinds of little side notes all over the place on details about the setting background (details like how there's synthetic intelligence in one form or another in just about every piece of Commonality tech, but there's no such thing as "computers" per se, because that ubiquity of inter-communicating technology makes the actual computer a pointless relic).  There's more than sufficient rules and guidelines about the Mindscape as to not make running that aspect of the setting too difficult; and unlike the less-transhuman "cyberpunk" type games, the near-ubiquity of the mindscape means that you won't need to have some kind of break-time for the 'hacker' to fool around in the 'net' while everyone else just twiddles their thumbs.  Further along, you get the more standard pragmatic guidelines for how to structure an adventure or a campaign; as well as guidance as to the big themes of Mindjammer:  stuff like optimism, transhumanism, cultural conflict, how to range your play from gritty to epic, philosophical to light-hearted, etc. (and types of campaigns, whether to focus on exploration, conspiracies/mysteries, trade on the frontiers, conflict, and such).

There's a tremendous amount of top-level detail on the Commonality, its workings, and its culture. Speaking of culture, there's a guide to the latter; as in, how to create and regulate cultures.  That includes standard sci-fi RPG stuff like Tech Levels and government types, but it also includes a lot more. Stuff like cultural 'stunts', and how to regulate cultural actions and inter-cultural conflicts; in a setting where one of the main events is the Commonality trying to absorb the cultures of all the old earth colonies, that's an important detail of the game. As always, samples are provided.
There's also a more standard type of "world construction" in the Traveller sense, with rules to create star systems, planets, and the inhabitants of said planets. Obviously, this is done in a FATE kind of way, but there's some strong resemblance to old Trav world-creation there as well. Lots of sample planet types are provided. You also get guidelines for weird space hazards, stuff ranging from debris fields to cosmic radiation to Time Dilation effects.

There are similar rules for creating alien life, again with appropriate examples. 

As well as a broad overview of the galaxy, and of the Commonality as a whole, there's a specific entire chapter dedicated to one subsector of the setting: The Darradine Rim. Here you have an area of space that contains 4000 stellar bodies, of which 20 are detailed as being significant to the Commonality.  These are detailed with full-page (and full color) statblocks and maps; but as you can see there's also plenty of room left to add all kinds of other stuff in the area of the GM's own invention.

So what to conclude about Mindjammer?  If you like FATE based games, and very modern-style sci-fi with a transhuman element, this is a winner for you for sure.  If you're not familiar with FATE, how much you will like this particular version of it may depend on just how much rules-heaviness you enjoy; this game is on the heavier end of the spectrum for FATE.  It's still much easier than something like Shadowrun, mind you.  If you appreciate great production values, the game has you covered to.  I suppose you would want to give it a miss only if you are really not into FATE, or into the specific style of sci-fi Mindjammer represents.

Oh, and if you owned and liked the original Mindjammer book, you'll find this one to be a much-expanded and worthy successor.


Currently Smoking: Castello 4k Collection Canadian + Image Latakia

Thursday 20 November 2014

The Pig-ignorance, or Goblin-ignorance, of My Critics

Seriously, I can get hating someone.  That’s a given.  But see, when I hate someone I try my damnedest to hate them for what they have done or written.  I want to go out of my way to point out what they’ve done, and to justify why they suck in that way.  On the other hand, it seems like with the people who hate me, they want to go out of their way to lie.  I guess its easier for me than for them, I should be understanding; after all, I don’t have to lie! Most of what people I hate do sucks, while most of what I do doesn’t suck, and that’s where my opponents run into a problem. That problem has certainly given them some trouble, and given me ample opportunity to show them just how little they know, when it comes to Arrows of Indra.

So its no surprise that when someone went onto RPGnet asking for setting material for India he was quickly flooded by people telling him my game was worthless and he should by no means even give it a look (of course they don’t want him to even look at it! If he looked at it he’d know they were lying!).  They omitted to mention to the OP that, if it was setting he wanted, Arrows of Indra is a 184 page book with 108 pages (a nice Indian number!) of SETTING material (that’s counting the monster section, which is full of indian-themed monsters, and takes up 24 of those 108 pages).  No, instead they went with the lie that they’ve been circulating, practicing and honing in “something awful”: that my game is nothing but D&D with a thin veneer of indian-facade painted over it.  I guess they finally decided that was a better tactic to go with than trying to claim it was racist or what-have-you.

Is this the work of SA Goons? Well, the people slandering my game linked directly to a thread on SA with a series of posts trying to deconstruct my game in the most negative light possible, so yeah.  Its interesting to note that the “review” they do of it stops well before the setting section.

That clued me into something: these guys are facing a major problem with Arrows of Indra. Most of them aren’t very familiar at all with the setting. They’re WAY less familiar than I am.  The guy doing the hatchet-job in the SA thread very wisely stopped before getting to the setting section because he realized he didn’t have the knowledge to actually be capable of criticizing what I wrote about the Mahabharata-inspired setting (which should tell you something right there about the quality of the setting).  Unfortunately for them, they haven’t always been able to stop other anti-pundit idiots from similarly shutting up.  Its been quite frequent that we see people making some statement of outrage at some alleged atrocity I’ve written into the book, when in fact the truth is that what they think is error, omission or ignorance on my part is an utterly intentional choice based on actual Indian myth and history (and their crowing about it only highlites how dangerous it is for them to know only a little about the subject).

Take Goblins, for instance.  One of the things that I was accused of on the thread as “proof” that Arrows of Indra is nothing but a bad D&D-clone that barely pays lip service and gives no respect to Indian mythology is the fact that I have Goblins listed in the monster section!
Here’s the quote from an ignorant ass named “technoextreme”:
“He actually goes on later to explain that its effectively AD&D without any consideration of any Indian mythology to the point where goblins make an appearance.”

Guess what, motherfucker? I put Goblins in there out of consideration to Indian Mythology, because Goblins are a creature of Indian Mythology (just like every other creature in my monster section, excepting a few of the specific giant animals, though the concept of giant animals themselves is very well-founded in Indian myth; and excepting the “monstrosity” which was put into to allow for the ridiculous diversity of “unique” monsters also found in Indian myth).

So since you’re not only ignorant of Indian Mythology but also ignorant enough to want to school others on it, let me educate you: In the Puranas (and somewhere in the Srimad Bhagavatam, if I recall), there is reference to Vitala, second level of the Patala Underworld, where Shiva reigns in one of his forms.  One of Shiva’s titles/names is Pramathadhipa, which means “he who is served by Goblins”.  The legends of Shiva make mention that his court was mostly not of men but of all manner of wild creatures: satyr-like Ganas, ghosts, demons, Apsaras, Gandharvas, Yakshas, and also the Goblins.  These had a kingdom in Vitala, where they mined for gold (in some versions of the story, the gold in Vitala stemmed from the river Hataki, which was actually a river created by the fluids that would pour from between the legs of Shiva’s fierce Underworld Goddess-consort, Bhavani.
Of course, anyone who actually read Arrows of Indra would know all the above, because it's in the setting material. All except that last part; I didn’t want things to get too “Tantric”.

The Goblins are called Bhuta-Ganas in Sanskrit.  Now, like most mythological creatures in Indian folklore the definition of that creature is kind of malleable; that’s what happens when you have a 5000 year old tradition that spans several religions. As you can see from the name, the Bhuta is really a type of Gana, originally.  Later on, a creature called the Bhuta comes to be interpreted as a kind vampire (a blood-drinking creature) or ghost with a backwards-facing head. But in the period of the Puranas, it was clearly a sort of goblin.

Incidentally, while they’re called “Goblins” their stats do not match the typical goblin of the D&D monster manual.

Now, Arrows of Indra certainly does make a lot of concessions to the OSR framework in which it exists.  Anytime I had a choice between various ways of presenting something from Indian Myth, I always intentionally chose the way that was closest to what would fit in the framework of traditional D&D.  I did this intentionally, because I wanted AoI to be as accurate as possible but as playable as possible in the framework of an OSR game.  No one is pretending this isn’t the case.
But its ridiculous to pretend that (especially in the huge amounts of setting-material) it isn’t also the most accurate and extensive attempt at making an Indian Mythology RPG to date; which is what these assholes are doing in their zeal to try to slander the game, or rather its author.


Currently Smoking: Gigi Bent Billiard + Dunhill 965

(originally posted July 23, 2013; on the old blog)

Wednesday 19 November 2014

If You Want the RPG Hobby to Become More LGBT-Inclusive, You Need to Accept That Most LGBTs Are and Will Be Playing D&D

So we hear a lot these days, some from people who are really just desperately interested in having everyone see how activist they are, and some from those who actually give a fuck, about the question of LGBT-inclusivity in RPGs.  Many people have been arguing in favor of LGBT-representation in game settings, and that's fine (within the boundaries of what's credible for a setting, obviously).  But some have also pointed out that just having a few mentions of LGBT characters in a game setting is not really any great thing, and is not necessarily something that will make the hobby more welcoming to LGBT people as gamers.

Correct!  The question is, what's the solution then? Some have talked about RPG mechanics, and how these should be changed somehow, or new RPGs/storygames made that address these.  In one particularly productive G+ conversation I was involved in, one writer suggested the following as mechanical elements that they thought would appeal to LGBT players:

 "character non-monogamy, subversive models of character agency, mechanics that interrogate themselves, fluid codification of characters, games without characters."

Now, here's the thing: none of those things appear in D&D, nor will they ever.  And not because D&D is homophobic, but because they're just irrelevant to it. Those types of mechanics are as relevant to D&D in both system and style as they would be to baseball.

Other people in that same conversation (or maybe the same person, I forget) were also talking about the importance of panels at cons.

Now, here's the thing: the types of mechanics described above are all well and good to appear in new games (most likely small-press indie games). Fine. Panels at cons, fine.  But both of these amount to preaching to the choir, to people already operating inside the hobby. And note that by "choir" in this case, I do NOT mean LGBT-people, but rather that very tiny subset of the same that are really really interested in LGBT issues in Gaming, and actively participate in things like panels at cons, and play quirky story games.
Most RPG players don't even GO to cons.  Most RPG players don't play storygames.  And among that classification of "RPG Players", I include most LGBT players.

I will say it right here: I would be willing to bet my finest pipe that, in exactly the same way that the vast majority of RPG players only play D&D, the vast majority of LGBT people who play RPGs only play D&D.  And there's no reason to suspect that the vast majority of LGBT people who become tabletop RPG players in the future won't also follow that same trend.

Does this mean that there are no problems with inclusion? No, of course there are problems. What this means is, as long as the ownership of the discussion of what to do to bring more LGBT-people into the hobby and make the hobby a more welcoming and inclusive place belongs to people who like to talk about college-level identity politics theory in panels at cons and play storygames, as long as that particular (dare I say privileged?) group claims ownership over this issue, a huge disservice is likely being done to the majority of LGBT-gamers.

Why? Because as far as I can see, D&D (and its clones) will continue by far to be the largest RPG in the hobby, and the one that will keep successfully bringing in the most new people to the hobby.

So I think if the goal is to create inclusion, you're left with two choices:

a) Go to war with the entire hobby and try to destroy D&D, which is a fools' errand, though certainly some fools are trying.


b) talk more productively about those ways that can provide inclusivity within the structure and model that is unlikely to change, nor should it need to change.

"Queering" D&D is like "queering" basketball, or bridge.  It either can't be done, or can only be done by making something so radically different from what is presently called 'basketball' or 'bridge' that it would no longer be recognizable as such.

So I would argue that D&D is the elephant in the room of the whole discussion as it currently stands. Are you doing all this to make yourself feel better and to be smug, and create a little pseudo-intellectual ghetto for yourselves while abandoning to the wolves any LGBT gamers who have no interest in spending their time talking about Queer Theory; or are you doing it because you actually want the very core hobby to be more inclusive and to be a place that is more open, welcoming and gives more centrality to LGBT people?  If the latter, you need to recognize the reality that D&D is the hobby (in terms of what your goals would be), and that therefore its pointless to talk about 'steps' that don't take D&D into account.  There's not much reason to talk about changing things at the rules level (because you couldn't do that with D&D, aside from fluff rules).  Instead, what you do need to talk about are the many many other levels in which you can focus yours efforts with D&D to achieve your goals.

No one's saying it's a bad idea to make a game that specifically appeals to the interests or identity of a minority (though I think that can often create either tokenism, or ghettoization, both of which have problems of their own); but the point is that D&D IS the RPG hobby for most gamers!  You won't create an overall environment that's positive if you don't address how you can work with D&D.  And furthermore, I think that D&D is the RPG hobby for most LGBT gamers!    Sure, there are some that will really be hyper-aware of the 'bigger hobby', but it's likely that, just like 90% of all gamers don't play anything other than D&D, 90% of all LGBT gamers don't play anything other than D&D too.  So you're doing those people a disservice by ignoring D&D.

I think that 5e D&D has done (and is on course to doing) great stuff with representation.   I think that the places where D&D can work better for LGBT involve just about everything that surrounds the system (plus maybe a few secondary elements of system itself), and how they present settings/adventures; but I think its much more important to stop thinking about this in terms of the elements of the game, and start thinking more in terms of the elements of marketing, public relations, organized play, etc.  Conventions are important, sure, but they aren't the "ground floor" of the hobby.  Instead, you want to be promoting LGBT involvement in play through FLGSes, school clubs, community groups, etc, plus online play (if WotC can ever figure out how to do that last one right).
The interesting thing is that this are ALSO precisely the areas that WoTC needs to be focusing on if they want to make the hobby grow in general; and they could do this at the same time as they make an effort to making D&D (and thus the biggest part of the hobby) more LGBT-friendly.

Hell, for years now gaming companies have from time to time engaged in or participated in programs to send RPG books to overseas military (which has, by the way, resulted in a disproportionate amount of U.S. RPG players being active or veteran military).  Why not do the same to gay-straight alliance clubs in schools, or other kinds of youth groups?

That's the kind of thinking you need to be working on if the goal is really to reach out and welcome LGBT gamers; working from the assumption (no doubt distasteful to some, but a reality) that the vast majority of LGBT gamers are and will be just like all the other gamers and want to play D&D, so the answer to inclusiveness is getting more LGBT people (especially LGBT youth) trying out D&D.

As for the Gay-Straight Alliance Clubs outreach thing, remember, folks: you heard it from the RPGPundit first.


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