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Adventure Design: Robber’s Bridge (Part V)

Torchbearer RPG - Thu, 01/17/2019 - 14:00
Robber’s Bridge Concept Map (v3) by D. Koch

Hello friends!

If you’re new to this series, we’re collaboratively developing a short Torchbearer adventure.

If you need to catch up:

Last week we took a look at a concept map from Mordite Press developer D. Koch. Above Koch has provided an updated map adjusted for many of the things we discussed. You’ll note that the break in the bridge has been enlarged and the Middle Tower now has a portcullis on either side with murder holes that could be used against attackers trying to pass through. There’s also a stairway on the southern side of the Middle Tower that grants access to the upper levels of the tower.

There are still a few issues that I need your help to address, but first I want to circle back to some of the questions raised in Part III. The suggestions are below. What do you think about them? Which ones do you like or not like? Do they suggest any additional ideas to you?

How have the inhabitants altered the location to serve their needs?

A shrine to the Lords of Valor and Terror. The Bjorning cleric and wizard have affixed an idol of their Lords to the fireplace mantel of the top-most room in the tower. They have built up this elaborate ceremonial chamber. It would be where the buckle1See Part III for more on the buckle. is kept hidden (separate from the other loot). The irony would be this idol is very valuable and could serve to turn the tables or provide an additional bargaining chip for cut-throat hobo parties.

What traps or terrain features make navigating the adventure location difficult?

Here are the ideas you suggested:

  1. Boiling oil tripwire trap above the stairs and main entrance.
  2. A magical rune ward on the treasure vault.
  3. A covered-up Pit trap. Thin stone, like shale, cover up a pit that falls into the river or into the lower levels.
  4. Not a “trap” per se, but I had an idea for a possible twist for when the adventurers try and access the secret passage. The idea of the captive nykr immediately made me wonder what’s moved into the river since the nykr has gone missing: After years of the nykr’s absence, those souls that it lured to watery graves with its enchanting melodies have grown restless and long for the nykr’s song to soothe them back to slumber. They are cursed to not be able to leave their river tomb, but will grab at anyone they find within the water, moaning horrifying atonal dirges to try and get their victim to restart the song.
Additional Thoughts
  1. What if the nykr is not trapped? What if, through its shapeshifting powers, it is actually running the show with the Bjornings. The nykr enchanted and entranced the raiders with its music and they are doing its bidding.
  2. Or another idea, and perhaps better yet, maybe the raiders know about it but have not contacted it yet. They are digging it out and trying to get to it (this could explain why they are distracted when the party enters). The have heard its haunting music and want a favor for freeing it. The Bjorning raider cleric believes that if they can offer a sacrifice to it, they can learn its power and its songs — which might give them more motivation to stick around the tower.
Why is the tollgate in ruins?

Now on to some questions from last week’s post. Here’s what you suggested:

  1. Can we connect it to the Bjornings and the nykr somehow? There could be clues that the tower fell recently (the raiders are still clearing away the debris, townsfolk along the road talking about the tower falling). All of this could have happened within the last few months, but it had something to do with the Bjornings and the Nykr. Perhaps there was a group of Bjornings that came out here first, but they mysteriously disappeared. This second group of raiders is continuing the mission against the Gott and also trying to discover what happened to the other group (thinking them killed by the Gotts). This would play off the theme of “power.”
  2. On the other hand, I do like the idea of the Black Wyrm. I can imagine it swooping down and pushing on the tower with its hind legs. This would connect the theme of history repeating itself (the conquerors become the conquered).
What is the state of the tollgate now?

The Bjornings have cleared away enough of the debris to salvage the lower gatehouse of the southern hightower. They have a makeshift roof of tied-together blankets that keeps the snow off of the supplies inside the room. They use it for extra storage and non-essential items.

How do the Bjorning raiders cross to the north bank?

The Bjornings have created a crude rope bridge to cross the gap caused by the ruined bridge that serves as a secondary defense mechanism of sorts. A detail known to the Bjornings, the bridge can hold no more than two men at a time, or little more than one man with a full pack. To help with the burden of more successful raids, the bandits have installed a net on a secondary rope line above the bridge, which can be pulled to either side of the bridge with pulleys hooked to the wooden pillars the rope is bolted to. The line is able to hold significantly more weight than the bridge itself.

The bridge is firmly staked on the northern side of the gap, but on the opposite end is only knotted to a wooden beam at two points to allow for quick collapse in case of emergencies. Easily missed is a smaller, thinner cord attached to the last board on the southern side of the bridge that serves as a means to pull the bridge back up after it has been disconnected rather than having to rebuild the bridge from scratch. This has lead to many a Bjorning to return from a raid on the northern bank only to find themselves offering trinkets or an extra turn fetching firewood to a watchman who has disconnected the bridge on the other side.

The Secret Bit

One thing we haven’t figured out yet is the hidden entrance in the Middle Tower that leads to the lower part of the tower and the underwater passage to the nykr’s prison (area 9). Where is it? What does it look like? How is it hidden? How does it work?

Provide feedback

So what do you think? What works for you? What doesn’t? Give me your suggestions and critiques. New ideas are welcome too! In the next Robber’s Bridge installment we’re going to nail these details down and start thinking about what the various players want.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On Early Tropes, Eggs and Raising Young Monsters

Hack & Slash - Thu, 01/17/2019 - 13:00
From the very beginning of Dungeons and Dragons, Pokemon was a thing. Not only was Charm Person and Monster often used to fill out ranks for henchmen, many beasts were found and raised. You can see early thoughts on this from Gygax, on Page 50 of the Dungeon Masters Guide.

"Griffons are often nasty and bad-tempered. If captured when very young and trained, however, they can become fiercely loyal mounts. Their loyalty is non-transferable once fixed, so they must be disciplined and trained solely by the intended rider. The griffon must be trained and exercised by its owner on a fairly regular basis while it is a fledgling (up to age six months) in order to accustom it to his or her presence and the bridle, blanket, saddle, etc. When the griffon is half-grown a period of intensive training must begin, which will last at least four months. The daily routine must never be broken for more than two days, or the griffon's wild nature will assert itself and all progress will be lost. After two months of this intensive training, it will be possible to begin to fly the griffon. This will be a period of training for mount and owner alike, as the rider must learn how to deal with a new dimension, And he will probably have no teacher but himself. Imagine the confusing tumult of giant wings, the rush of air, the sudden changes in altitude, and you will realize why an inexperienced rider absolutely cannot handle a flying mount.
Griffons, like all large flying creatures, eat enormous amounts of food, especially after prolonged aviation. Moreover, they are carnivores, and thus very expensive to feed. Care and keeping of a griffon will be a constant strain on the largest treasure hoard. Costs will probably run in the area of 300-600 g.p. per month. It will require special quarters, at least three grooms and keepers, and occasionally an entire horse for dinner (diet will differ, but similar arrangements must be made for all flying mounts).
Hippogriffs are not so difficult to train os griffons, but neither are they as dependable in a pinch. A  training process basically similar to that previously described will be necessary, though occasionally an animal trainer con substitute for the master for short periods if he or she is tied up elsewhere. Once broken, hippogriffs may possibly serve more than one master. They are omnivores, and thus somewhat less expensive to
feed thon griffons.
Pegasi are greatly valued for their speed, which makes them virtually the fastest things in the air. Their training is o long process similar in many respects to thot of griffons." -Gary Gygax, Dungeon Masters Guide
Obviously this was an issue that came up repeatedly, and Gygax developed the following procedures to train animals.

One of the formative experiences of Dungeons and Dragons are the challenges with taking a monster, enemy or opponent, and turning them to your ends. As with most challenges to get creatures to change their inner nature, it is astoundingly difficult, and requires a bond on top of the serious commitment maintained above. The animal must be socialized till adolescence, and then intensively trained for months.

The general consensus about Animal Friendship and the limits of animal training are subjective and should be worked out between the Dungeon Master and the player, keeping in mind the animals intelligence and alignment. And it will come up, with unicorns, flying creatures as above, or even minanimals from the Monster Manual II.
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Abhumans [ICONS]

Sorcerer's Skull - Thu, 01/17/2019 - 12:00
Art by Agus CalcagnoABHUMANS
First Appearance: FANTASTIC TALES #56

The Abhumans are a hidden human subspecies created around two hundred thousand years ago as a result of exposure to an accidental dumping of Otherworldly toxic waste. An archaic human tribe was genetically altered by the wastes, developing superhuman abilities and extended lifespans.  Certain traits common among them—such as severe allergies to iron and silver and sunlight sensitivity—led them to a more nocturnal and subterranean lifestyle, further separating them from the rest of humanity. Brief encounters with these hidden folk gave rise to legends of fairies, trolls, dwarfs and the like among primitive humans.

By the end of the European Middle Ages, a group of Abhumans decided to withdraw as far as possible from human civilization. They trekked into the Arctic where they discovered an abandoned city that appeared to be made of ice. This was the former domain of another offshoot of humanity, the Hyperboreans, whose civilization had fallen into decadence, then died out. The Abhumans took refuge in the abandoned city and made it their own.

In 1950, the Abhumans discovered young Arno Kaltmann (see Frozen Führer) in the Arctic after his escape from the custody of the United States government. Kaltmann had been genetically modified through use of Hyperborean technology and was adapted to extreme cold. Curious, the Abhumans took him back to their city and nursed him back to health.

When Kaltmann’s link to the Hyperboreans was discovered, a group of disaffected Abhumans (who believed they were heirs to the Hyperboreans and destined to plunge the world into a new Ice Age) came to view him as a messiah-like figure. Aided by power-hungry members of the Abhuman elite, the cultists staged a coup and installed Kaltmann as their ruler, though in fact, he was mostly a figurehead.

The previous monarchs, King Oberon and Queen Titania were forced to flee with their close allies the trickster Hobgoblin, the dwarf engineer Brokk, and the lumbering gnome, Kobold. Later, with the help of the Kingdom of Sub-Atlan the exiles were able to establish an underground community beneath the British Isles with other Abhuman refugees. Though Kaltmann, as the Frozen Führer, has been defeated and imprisoned at various times, his adherents still maintain power over the Hyperborean Abhumans.

KING OBERONAbilities:Prowess: 3Coordination: 4Strength: 4Intellect: 6Awareness: 7Willpower: 7
Stamina: 11Determination: 1Specialties: Leadership, Occult Expert, Magic Expert
Qualities:Abhuman Leader in ExileMore Scholar than Warrior
Powers:Magic (Extras: Blast, Force Field, Illusions, Phasing): 7
Telepathy: 6
Nullification (Magic Only): 7

On Brothers of Battle

Hack & Slash - Wed, 01/16/2019 - 13:00
It's so good, it's like a snow globe made of murder hobos and horrific violence. It's an abstract tactical puzzle, where if you are smart, tactics will beat numbers and arms.

After a short tutorial battle, you are set loose upon a randomly generated world and can do what you want. Ally with a noble house, rob caravans, explore the unknown.

Your troops gain levels, and you improve them selectively. After the first hours of play you start to realize you can build them for specific roles—dagger assassin stabbing men to death in their heavy armor, nimble duelists moving first and darting between targets taking out back rank archers, bowmen raining down arrows, arbalisters knocking people off hills, heavy tanks taunting and drawing attention. From the palette of abilities they give you, you can make countless roles.

Let's talk about Battle Brothers!

The BasicsYou manage a mercenary company. You must have gold and food for daily wages. You can visit different cities, recruit and train new men, slay brigands, orcs, the dead in the wilds, and horrors even worse.

Here I have taken the high groundCombat is turn based on a hex map with height levels, obstacles and terrain. The graphics are of your men and monsters as game pieces—they are busts that display all necessary information visibility, the condition of your helmet, armor, weapon, and man.

You must manage your funds, via victories and trade, to bring in enough income to cover medical supplies, ammunition, tools to repair armor and weapons, food and wages.

Over time your brothers grow increasing both 3 of their 8 stats and picking a new 'perk' which changes certain aspects of how they interact on the field. One might allow you to step away from an engagement, another might increase damage after you get a kill, a third by increase one of your stats by a %. Each different brother develops like a plant, where you guide their organic growth.

Death comes quickly, along with permanent injuries, failure, and loss. But each choice, from where you move your piece on the battlefield, to what rolls you select when your brother levels, has ramifications that change the course of your game.

I don't know the devs. No one is paying me. But when you find yourself staring into the facets of a diamond for untold hours (301 hours as of this post. Well, I guess it's told now.), you kind of want to share. Why is it so engaging?

The FacetsBecause the differences are significant, and create different kinds of emergent play. When the world
is generated, cities have attached sites that determine their character, the spawns and arrangement of towns is always different, along with the distribution of lairs and dens of evil. The way the game works changes dramatically from these differing starting states. There are really strong parallels to sandboxes in Dungeons & Dragons here.

I was very far into the game before I realized that each of those buildings adjacent to the city, changed not only the characteristics of that city, but how it interacts with the rest of the map. Those goat farms mean affordable goat cheese for your men. These building and even cities can be destroyed and rebuilt over the course of the campaign.  Because this town has both an ore smelter and blast furnace, it produces high quality armor and weapons in the stores. But the regiments it produces are also extremely well armored and it has vision to the sea, meaning that it's hard for lairs to fester.

Which, they do you know. Nits make lice. A goblin city will produce goblin patrols. As it grows, it will eventually send out a patrol that sets up a camp. Go in and clear out all the greenskins and it will take them a long time to repopulate. So each map is strongly different based on its random starting arrangement. Sometimes there's a forest town in the frontier assaulted constantly by enemies. Get dogs and birds from cities with kennels, and use them to hunt down nightmares and archers.

It's often unclear how things affect other things, and I'm still discovering new nuances. Each nobel house has a personality, and I'm not certain, but it seems to affect which quests you get from it. Is this true? Only a lot more testing and play will tell. But everytime I reroll I find or see something new.

The MenYour first games end in brutal destruction, without even understanding why. But as you play you begin to understand, these aren't individual men, they are part of a squad that works together.

Each man has a head and body. Those who don't wear a cover are corpses, yeah? Each is covered in armor. Better armor is not always 'better', some men go heavy armor and some go light, depending on their role. You take wounds in combat (which always heal, depending on severity in 1-6 days) based on the % of your hit points taken, meaning tougher brothers take fewer wounds. If killed, there's even a chance they survive with a permanent wound. And while some are. . .untenable, some people consider a boost (it's harder for witches to charm or giests to scare a brain damaged brother).

Each man has eight statistics, and they increase by a random roll at every level. So you want to increase what he needs when the roll is high, and skip low rolls, but it's important to know what role they have so you can assign the stats correctly. The statistics are Hit points, Fatigue, Resolve, Initative, Melee Attack, Ranged Attack, Melee Defense, and Ranged Defense.

When you hire a brother they may have traits, like iron lungs, or athletic, which positively or negative affect their stats. The following brother is Huge (+10% damage -5 Ranged Defense, -5 Melee Defense) and Paranoid (-40% initiative,  +5 Ranged Defense, +5 Melee Defense) meaning he does +10% damage in exchange for going later in the round. So I gave him a cleaver, and made it reduce the damage he needs to do to wound, and gave him duelist so that more damage penetrates armor. So he cripples and bleeds anyone he strikes. This causes morale checks, which reduce the combat ability of your opponents.

If you're reading this, you probably like the same things I like, and this sounds awesome, right? It is. You can name and go to the barber to change the look of your brothers. It's like controlling a team of bonsai trees that you have very carefully cultivated to mercilessly slaughter any who stand against you!

The difficulty curve is very clear, with several different stages. When you start out, you aren't prepared for this. You generally end up destroying equipment you must salvage from your opponents. Striking someone in the head will leave their fancy armor untouched, or you can surround or dagger opponents to death.

Every 100 in game days, a crisis occurs, either greenskins invade, the undead, rise, or there is a war among the noble houses. There are certain thresholds where the base difficulty increases. You have a range of danger options on the contracts you can take, as well as creatures in the wild getting more dangerous as you venture away from civilization.

The recent expansion turned it from a good game into a great one. There are a selection of new enemies, creating different and dangerous tactical challenges both apart and with other groups. The enemy variety is very high and differs significantly between campaigns. It's like a good movie. Every part of the journey is fun.

In the End
It's written by two brothers, not a big game studio. The soundtrack is amazing. There's a growing community of people who stream and play this game, that has significant overlap with interests in Dungeons and Dragons sandbox play. The actual game design is rock solid. It's amazing how neatly the different parts of the game interact with each other. You only have 9 action points a turn, but depending on the weapon, traits, and skills, you can turn that into two or three attacks each round. Once you see how the pieces fit together, you spend a lot of time thinking about how to turn that to your advantage, often only coming to the correct conclusion after a lot of testing or tries.

It's good and I needed to tell people about it. Don't complain to me about missed sleep.
Battle Brothers is $30 on Steam.
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Wednesday Comics: Martian Manhunter #2

Sorcerer's Skull - Wed, 01/16/2019 - 12:00
The first thing you might notice  about Martian Manhunter #2 (in a 12 issue maxi-series, a name I have not heard in a long time) is the word balloons on the cover. This bit of retro contrasts with the art itself that is slightly cartoon and tinged with some photoshoppy sort of effects. I don't know how this relates to the books contents other than it suggests you ought to expect something different.
The first issue intrigued me with its imagining of Mars as a place familiar enough, but very alien. Though it synthesized elements of J'onn Jonzz Silver Age origin, the 1988 DeMatteis/Badger "most everything you know is a lie" limited series, and the Ostrander/Mandrake ongoing from 1998, it add new stuff to it, and looked it the old continuity from a new angle. It also revealed that J'onn J'onzz on Mars was a dirty cop.

I am happy to report the first issue was not a fluke. The second continues to be just as interesting with its parallel stories on a murder investigation on Earth and J'onzz's life on a doomed Mars. As life continues mostly as normal for the "manhunter" and is family, tension has begun to creep in. The deadly Curse of H'ronmeer is spreading. Rossmo's art really adds to the alien sequences, but is adequate in the more True Detective Earth-bound portion of the story. The coloring style seems to shift a bit between the two sections as well.
It gets bonus points for providing an explanation for J'onzz's bettlebrow: a brief Martian Neanderthal-mania.

Outlander Trading Cards Season 3: Sketch Card Previews

Cryptozoic - Wed, 01/16/2019 - 02:00

Cryptozoic Entertainment is excited to reveal that our upcoming Outlander Trading Cards Season 3 will include 1-of-1, original Sketch Cards! In anticipation of the set's official release on February 15, we are thrilled to present our amazing collection of Sketch Card previews! For those new to the trading card hobby, you may be asking, "What are Sketch Cards?" Sketch Cards are original artwork, hand-drawn by artists onto standard-size trading cards (2.5” x 3.5”), which are then randomly inserted into various trading card packs.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Great Molasses Flood in Call of Cthulhu

19th Level - Wed, 01/16/2019 - 01:37

Today, January 15, 2019, marks the 100th anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood in Boston. On that day, around noon, a massive tidal wave of molasses flooded the North End neighborhood. Supports for elevated trains were damaged, buildings toppled. Twenty one people died and around 150 were injured. I've written of this before in my review of Stephen Puleo's Dark Tide, the best (and one of the only) source of information for this disaster.

I find Boston of the 1910s to be a fascinating period in history and have been running a Call of Cthulhu campaign set in 1914 - it's about to reach 1915. They might eventually merge with a previous campaign, one that began in France at the end of World War One - but whose second adventure was about the Molasses Flood.

What makes the era so fascinating? It was a time of extreme tension. Immigrants were pouring into cities and traditional power bases were being disrupted as the immigrants found their voices. It was also a time of extreme hardship, with brutal work conditions and few worker protections. When examining old Boston Globe archives from that period I found an advertisement for Grape Nuts Cereal - and it suggested eating them would keep you healthy, helping you avoid missing work and losing your job due to illness.

In this period were a number of new movements - in the United States these included communism and anarchism - often linked together though they had very different desires. Anarchists were quite terrifying to Americans of the day - and understandably so. There was reason for the caricature of the bomb-throwing anarchist. Many heads of state were killed by anarchists, including US President McKinley. Anarchists blew up a Boston Police Station. They made use of mail bombs.

When a great tank of molasses spilled 2.3 million gallons of molasses onto the city streets, the initial assumption was it was done by anarchists. This isn't surprising. Anarchists had threatened the tank as it was used in the production of industrial alcohol, essential for the munitions of the Great War. It was built in a hurry to take advantage of the economic opportunity provided by the war - with poor quality. It often leaked onto the streets.

One of the things I dislike in my own Call of Cthulhu games is having the Mythos responsible for events in human history. It's something that can work if used sparingly but it is very easy to overdo - and can get very tasteless. For example, I would consider it offensive to say "the Holocaust was all for a magic spell that Hitler was casting that required the deaths of millions". However, if one's group were comfortable with the subject matter (and I'm not certain I would be), I could see having an individual Nazi sorcerer taking advantage of the horrid circumstances.

For the Great Molasses Flood, it was such a major event that it would seem a great opportunity for inclusion in a historic game. When I ran an adventure during the Flood, I had it kill a cultist of Tsathoggua in his basement shrine- which unleashed a Formless Spawn no longer under his control. This Spawn was able to easily conceal itself in the molasses that covered everything in the area for days after.

Should our current game reach this point, I'd probably not repeat the same adventure - unless something happens to force a divergence, I consider them taking place in the same universe, so I'd say that was happening in the background. However, there are a number of other possibilities that come to mind. I've taken advantage of the criminal connections that anarchists of the era had and have had cultists often integrate with such groups - some as true believers, some just taking advantage of them.

It is quite likely that some cultists will be displaced by the Flood. The North End was a crowded immigrant neighborhood. One might have been killed by the Flood, leaving his trove of artifacts unprotected - causing a cultist war, if one supposes multiple sorcerous factions in the city. One can easily imagine the early investigation centering around known anarchists, possibly causing a cultist to accelerate his or her plans. One might be arrested, causing followers to attempt a break-out.

Also consider the possibility of using the Flood as a great opportunity to bring investigators together. People struggled to survive and help with rescue efforts. They might even wind up rescuing a cultist...

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

5150 Bugs Outbreak - Call in the Militia!

Two Hour Wargames - Wed, 01/16/2019 - 00:19
Part 3

“You have a choice of course,” the Gaea Prime Diplomat said semi-insincerely. “If you want our aid, give us the rights to build an orbital Space Station, solely under our control, overNew Hope.”

“That violates the Halverson Accord,” the City Mayor said. “Perhaps there’s an alternative?”
“Yes, yes there is,” the Diplomat replied. “You can all die from the Bugs; your choice.”

The City Mayor shook his head. and replied "We'll mobilize the Planetary Militia first. They'll handle it."
"Do what you want, just know it's your neck the people of New Hope will want when you fail."

Two days later, the City Mayor's body was found on the streets of  the Downtown Area, dead from a "self-inflicted wound". Next day, the first elements of Gaea Prime Star Marines landed in NHC.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

On Gygax Design IV

Hack & Slash - Tue, 01/15/2019 - 13:00
My thesis here is that something was misunderstood. The question I'm left with is how did that happen?

Let's take a look.

Cave IntroductionThe first page of the caves proper contains the flavor text we discussed in the last post. It's lurid, and therefore interesting.

If you're going to ask someone to listen to something, it better get a reaction.

Immediately Gygax takes one column line to outline all his overview notes for the adventure: 600 words. He describes how to read the cave contour map on the outside, describes the woods, underground, and interiors.
He then covers prisoner ransom ("Set the sums low — 10 to 100 gold pieces or a magic item. . . "), the specifics of the tribal relationships, how monsters should react and handle player actions, and what happens in empty areas.

It is a training module, but these sections only contain nine sentences containing specific  'newbie' or training advice. The rest of the information is all useful, reduces the need for repetitive text, and is easily found in the front of the appropriate section. This is the really interesting thing. Here's a room description
1. Guard Room: 6 kobold guards (AC 7, HD 1/2, hp 3 each, #AT 1, D 1-4, Save NM, ML 6). They will throw their spears the first round if they have initiative. Each carries d6 silver pieces. One will run to warn areas 4. and 6.. The guards will be altered by loud noises or lights.Is there a single unnecessary word in that description to craft an emergent encounter for the players?

What is an Adventure?All the rooms are like this.
"Number. Description: # creatures (one line stat block), Rules and tactical information, treasure."

Is there any boxed text? No. Each room only tells you what you need to know what's in it, and more importantly how they act. The text is there to create emergent play. Here are quotes.
"This huge kobold is so powerful that he fights with a battle axe. . . and a large gem on a great golden chain around his neck."
"Six goblin guards are alterly watching both passages for intruders of any sort"
"If there is a cry of "BREE-YARK" similar to "hey rube!" (ed: noted in the rumor section as goblin for "We Surrender"), 2 of these guards will rush to the secret door, toss a sack with 250 gold coins to the ogre and ask him to help him"

This is over and over again in the room encounters. Set-ups from earlier pay off. Encounters are dramatic scenes. We know from his own play descriptions that he used random encounters and avoiding keying many areas in Greyhawk for these reasons. Each one uses as few descriptive words as possible to give the Dungeon Master a hook to hang his hat (the encounter) on.
There's no ancient history text, no unknowable background information.

Mostly. I lied a little bit. Everyone had to get the wrong idea from somewhere, right? Even when there is some unknown history, it is referenced and due to non-player character actions is discoverable by players. e.g.
13. Forgotten Room. Only the two orc leaders (from this area and from B.) Know of this place. They secretly meet here on occasion to plan co-operative ventures or discuss tribal problems, for although separate tribes are not exactly friendly, both leaders are aware of the fact that there is strength in numbers. . . . Looking at this alone, it certainly looks like the usual dump of information to the Dungeon Master that is completely inaccessible to the players. Except, note the following sentences:
From 12. Orc Leader's Room: . . . If hard pressed, the leader will wiggle behind the tapestries on the south wall and attempt to work the catch on the secret door to the south and go to the rival tribe for help. . . 
From Dungeon Master notes: If the leader is slain, the survivors will seek safety in area B/C, taking everything of value (and even of no value with them)

So you know, it's part of a dynamic encounter.

Encounter DesignI've talked before about how room environments should consist of clearly interactable objects in Red Herring Agency. That article uses the example of play from the Dungeon Master's Guide, and it's pretty clear the same design aesthetic is in use here. In the forgotten room, it describes "A small table and two chairs", "a wooden chest", "Two shields hanging on the wall", and "Two pouches behind an old bucket." The chairs are normal, as are the shields. The chest is unlocked and contains some weapons. The pouches have treasure, but cover 2 centipedes.

It's explicit, direct. Here are the interactable objects. Each one has a different effect and clues are available in the environment.

There is a specific structure to the different pillars of play. This is what the exploration pillar means. It means there are specific presentable things—clickable objects— within play. It's these objects, their integration into the environment, their creativity, and the tactical infinity options they offer that is the gameplay of exploration.

Walls the players can knock over, doors that open into space, a ring that shrinks objects, a chained megatherium. Give the players simple things that allow interaction. Create a world where non-player characters take action in response to the players. The complexity and gameplay is emergent.

Every single piece of information is either immediately accessible to the players, or is necessary for the Dungeon Master to run the encounter.

Each room is an encounter designed, and it should be like a good scene in a movie. Interesting, helping create tension and set the pace. It shouldn't be simple, boring, dull, and buried in a thousand words of useless text. It requires both active actors and things to act upon, and it must be designed and not just generated. This doesn't require verbiage, it requires thought. You want my examples of this in use, check out Megadungeon (or any of the modules I have coming out soon!)

From RPG CartographyI'm not saying it's perfect. It's certainly raw—for example many rooms have information on how people act if they hear someone nearby. This could be on the map, along with other modern improvements due to better tools. Which way the doors open, what the light levels are. . .

When the goblins rush the players and yell BREE-YARK, if the players got the rumor that it means "We surrender", shenanigans ensue. This isn't the only setup. More than one character is lost when the chaotic evil priest that offers to come with them from the keep casts 'inflict wounds' on characters instead of cure wounds.

The prisoners have a variety of races and genders, as well as each providing some non-standard reward, trick, or trap. You may notice a theme. There are also slaves that can be freed and armed. Each of these things creates a specific experience for the players. He isn't just writing descriptions of rooms! He's creating a scene flowchart just like the one in the start of Deep Carbon Observatory, but using the dungeon as his flowchart paths.

I did find a sentence of flavor text, "The owl bear. . . sleeps in the most southerly part of its den, digesting a meal of gnoll it just caught at dawn." That's some information that's not accessible to the players. It's on page 19.

There's also quite a lot of humor within the module. Signs posted on doors say things like "You are
invited for dinner!" and "Safety, security and repose for all humanoids that enter — WELCOME! (Come in and report to the first guard on the left for a hot meal and bed assignment.)" The thing is, it's not just a joke for the reader. The players will also find this joke amusing, and although it's funny, like all Dungeons & Dragons, it's deadly serious. I ran Hackmaster for years, and a gummi bear golem seems really funny, until it crits your fighter in the head for 38 points and kills him in a shower of sticky blood.

All of the rooms contain setpieces—interesting reactions and organic events, but this is one of the best.
"[Bugbears] lounge on stools near a smoking brazier which has skewers of meat toasting over the coals. Each will ignore his great mace when intruders enter, reaching instead for the food. Through they do not speak common, they will grab and eat a chunk, then offer the skewers to the adventurers — and suddenly use them as swords to strike first blow (at +2 bonus to hit due to surprise!) unless the victims are very alert. . . I mean, that exclamation point though.

If you aren't creating scenes and experiences through activities for players (and not excess verbiage) please start, and point people to this series to get them to change.

You don't have to write a bunch of words about how encounters react to every last thing, you just have to write something interesting well, and from that the Dungeon Master will be able to know how it reacts.

Enter the Present.This is INFURIATING.

Why? I just downloaded the most recent Dungeons & Dragons pay what you want adventure to find a room description to compare. Each room description is literally a full page. In lieu of typing the whole page, I'm just going to quote some random sentences from this full page of text for a single room. A whole page. It's not even an A5 page! It's a full letter page.

"The bed is perfectly normal and has a warm, soft blanket stretched over it."
"The party is in the right place, but this isn't the chamber in which the wardrobe is kept."
"Unbeknownst to the players, a hidden passage lies beyond the bookcase"
The box text says "the chamber. . . is not quite what you imagined"

I will summarize the entire room description, as I think Gygax would have laid it out.
3. Wizard Bedroom. Locked Chest (Disable Device DC 15, Strength DC 20) contains pouch 32 gold, 13 silver pieces, 21 copper. Secret door behind bookcase filled with bird books. Note in book about secret door. Corridor beyond trapped, must flap like bird or say "[REDACTED]" 50 XP for door, 50 XP for ladder.You do not need 1,200 words! I am a Dungeon Master looking for useful tools!

The early examples were great and maintain their popularity and utility decades later, look at the sales of the poorly-reviewed Keep on the Borderlands 5e reprint. They had to hold a second pre-order since pre-orders exceeded their first print run.

This endless glut of poor adventure writing is someone emptying their uninteresting brain noise right in the middle of what I need as a person that runs a lot of Dungeons & Dragons. Is there a market for people who want to read an adventure and have no use for it during play?

Yeah. there is, and it's pretty big. That's the problem.

People keep trying to characterize "What the old school renaissance" is. This has never been a mystery.

It's just people trying to find something they can use in play!

People were playing Dungeons and Dragons until people who did not play, and instead just read and admired ran it into the ground and nearly caused it to cease to exist. You can clearly publish a game with no firm rules and just allow everyone to do what they want, but they aren't very successful are they?

I would think everything in this post is obvious, but due to my inability to use 90% of everything ever published it apparently is not. If you feel the same way, link it the next time someone doesn't know how to write a module. Or, if you're feeling generous, you can join our hierarchy over here, and support more posts like this on Patreon, where you can get special access to my discord

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Solar Trek: The Orion Syndicate

Sorcerer's Skull - Mon, 01/14/2019 - 12:00
This is an expansion of this post.

The Orion Syndicate is transnational criminal organization involved cybercrime, money laundering, piracy, drug and weapons trafficking, and the slave trade. It originated in the Orion Colonies of the Belt (a loose association of libertarian ultra-capitalists of unclear origins), but the current center of its operations, to the extent such a diffuse organization has one, is believed to be in the Jovian Trojans.

The Syndicate are perhaps most infamous for their traffic in artificial humanoids. Their "Greens" (named for their green skin-tones) came to the attention of Federation authorities in 2250. Greens are promoted as having heightened sexual appetites and intoxicating pheromones. What is not mentioned by the Syndicate is that the conditions of their accelerated growth and training often lead to violent responses and animalistic behavior.

Despite the remoteness of their base of operation, operatives and associates of the Syndicate are involved in smuggling, hijacking, and hostage taking in the high traffic regions of Earth orbit. Syndicate associated hackers are all concentrated in this region.

While the Orion Colonies are officially neutral, the Syndicate's haven is likely protected by the Klingon Empire who may employ in them cyber-espionage against the Federation.

5150 Bugs Outbreak - Part 3

Two Hour Wargames - Sun, 01/13/2019 - 21:08
Bugs AAR Part Two

The Bugs are out and about and that means that from now on, Civilians could be Bug Brained! These battered persons have a wild and crazed look. They are crazy and are unpredictable,
but will always behave aggressively. This could be a fierce charge into melee or  a stunning mental blast.

Part 4

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What Ho!

Sorcerer's Skull - Sun, 01/13/2019 - 15:00

You've waited for it, and now it has finally arrived in soft cover. The fourth publication set in the richly drawn, a little bit Slavic, a little bit Vancian, all old school D&D, Hill Cantons settings: What Ho, Frog Demons! Even if you have the pdf, you'll no doubt want this handsome volume on your shelf.

What Ho has two shorter adventure sites, an overview of Marlinko Canton where this and the other publications have take place, and supporting tools like random village and frog demon generators. It's written by Chris Kutalik (owner-operator of the Hill Cantons campaign) and features art by fan-favorite Luka "Witchburner" Rejec.

Reserve your copy today!

The Future that was promised

Bat in the Attic - Fri, 01/11/2019 - 18:27
Look like we are going to get part of the future that science fiction said we would get. It not a rendering but an actual test article that will do VTOL tests in SpaceX's Texas launch facility.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Solar Trek: An Alternate Star Trek Setting

Sorcerer's Skull - Fri, 01/11/2019 - 13:29

Bold proposal: Take the "stars" out of Star Trek. Make it a hard(ish) sci-fi alternate history setting taking place within our solar system. Yes, this would lose some of the mission statement of the voice over intro, but it would actually put it in line with Roddenberry's pitch noting similarities to Wagon Train and Horatio Hornblower (spoiler: neither series featured journeys to other worlds.). In modern high concept terms we could think of it as The Expanse meets Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

So, there would have been genetic supermen in the 90s, leading to advances in spaceflight technology unencumbered by democratic concerns. The supermen dictators would have sent out space probes, maybe even began colonies. (One of these expeditions would start the terraforming of Mars. Their colony of genetically modified individuals would centuries later provide the famous half-Martian first officer, Spock.) As the post-Eugenics War chaos ushered in World War III, some would flee the Earth to set up settlements elsewhere.

In the 23rd Century, some of these farflung colonies and societies are only now being re-contacted. Some have grown strange in isolation. Other have grown into military powers in their own right, like the bellicose totalitarian state lurking around Jupiter's moons, the Klingons, or the mysterious Romulans of the cold depths of beyond Uranus.

The solar system could be updated to modern science, or it might conform to the state of knowledge in the late 60s when Star Trek debuted. I suppose one could push in back even to the 50s science of Asimov's Lucky Starr series, if you just needed Venus with an ocean. Science fiction's knack in the era for coming up with creative ways life could be almost everywhere might prove instructive.

On the Top Ten Sandbox Locations.

Hack & Slash - Fri, 01/11/2019 - 13:00
You're in a D&D sandbox, you look around and find:

10. A giant rock carved like a skull. Cultists are rumored to lair there, and at night, sometimes the eyes glow as if it is possessed (or more likely that torchlight is reflected). Perhaps there are many levels of this dark place below.
9. A wizard's tower where strange lights and sounds emanate from realms beyond. Not many people would risk their souls in a wizards tower.
8. Rumors of great treasure and a hidden artifact are said to lie under caverns in the nearby hills. None who have survived the search have been successful.
7. A chateau is the home of a quite dysfunctional royal family with such wealth and power!
6. An old house, upon a hill. It's said to be haunted, those are just childrens tales. Yet people have gone missing and there are sometimes mysterious comings and goings.
5. A castle, ran by a reclusive old man. Rumors swirl about demons and blood magic being performed, but who can tell these days?
4. The ancient and hidden tomb of a malign creature. Those who have found it and returned, speak of death and horrible traps and mysteries.
3. In the nearby foothills are large buildings, several of them, of primitive make. Sometimes, if you watch, you can see a large shadow of some creature. Trolls or giants perhaps, surely. You've heard of the raids nearby.
2. A ruined moathouse, falling apart. Be careful of the large toads and collapsed roofs.
1. A small keep, with good folk, an amusing village idiot, and a respectable brick wall. It's also possible their ale is both well-brewed and affordable. They also are rather fond of folks, who happen to be of a certain sort of miscreant or wanderer. There's surely a cleric around, but I wouldn't trust him.

This list, along with any of these three hexes from ChicagoWiz, and you got yourself a game, ready to run.

If you think I'm a good writer, reward me yeah? You get rewarded yourself! You don't only get the feeling of doing something nice, you get some neat stuff, like discord roles and high def art.

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Rick and Morty Trading Cards Season 2 - Sketch Card Previews, Part 6

Cryptozoic - Thu, 01/10/2019 - 21:56

Please enjoy the sixth preview of Sketch Cards from our artists. Rick and Morty Trading Cards Season 2 are coming soon! Links to contact the artists can be found below the images of their work.

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Adventure Design: Robber’s Bridge (Part IV)

Torchbearer RPG - Thu, 01/10/2019 - 14:00
Robber’s Bridge Concept Map by D. Koch

Check out this amazing concept map from Mordite Press developer D. Koch! This is really starting to come together!

If you’re new to this series, we’re collaboratively developing a short Torchbearer adventure.

If you need to catch up:

In our last installment, we nailed down some details about our adventure location, what treasures might draw the PCs to the location, why that treasure hasn’t been plundered yet and who currently inhabits the adventure location. Check Part III for the details.

I also asked you to supply your thoughts on how the current inhabitants have altered the location and what traps or terrain features could give the PCs trouble. There were only a few responses, but they were great. We’re going to go over them next week. If you have additional ideas, there’s still time, so don’t hesitate to share your thoughts below.

The Scale of the Map

Before we get to that, though, I want to consider the map for a bit. Looking at the image of the bridge itself, a few things leap out to me.

First, I think I want the break in the bridge between the Gate House and the Middle Tower to be a bit larger — enough to make it clear that the break makes the bridge useless. It may be that we just need to give the reader a sense of scale. If that’s the case, we don’t need to change the image at all, we just need to add a scale to the key. What do you think?

Second, I’m thinking about the ruined Toll Gate in the south. D. Koch elected to make that tower ruins so we could focus on just one tower and keep the adventure area smaller. I’m 100 percent on board with the intent, but there are some kinks, setting history-wise, that we need to work out.

A Little Middarmark History

Just to get you oriented: Vanskrdal (now known as the Gottmark following the Gott conquest) is to the north2See Vanskrdal, Middarmark, page 23. It owes allegiance to Otkell, warchief of the Gotts3See Otkell, Warchief of the Gott Host, Middarmark, page 30. The Bjorning jarldom of Vargstrond4See Vargstrond, Middarmark, page 23 is to the south of the bridge. It is ruled by Jarl Una the Cat5See Una the Cat, Jarl of Vargstrond, Middarmark, page 23, who owes allegiance to the Bjorning High Queen Astrid6See Astrid Yngesdottir, High Queen of the Middarmark, Middarmark, page 13.

Otkell and the Bjornings are technically at war, but for the past 20 years or so it has been a quiet affair — mostly skirmishes and raids, not the clash of armies. This, by the way, is why the Bjorning raiders have occupied the tower at our adventure location. They’re harassing the Gotts and causing trouble.

Also, we should figure out how the Bjorning raiders are crossing to the northern side to conduct their raids. Do they have a boat or raft nearby? Have they created some sort of structure that allows them to cross the gap, but which could be easily destroyed? What do you think? How do the raiders navigate this problem?

Why Is the Southern Tollgate in Ruins?

Back to the southern Tollgate. So here’s the thing: The bridge was broken by dwarven mercenaries 20 years ago during the initial Gott invasion. They did it to prevent the Gott cavalry from flooding across the bridge into Vargstrond and continuing the invasion. It was one of the major factors in halting immediate hostilities.

It makes sense to me that the Gatehouse at the northern end of the bridge was ruined in the assault. However! The fighting wouldn’t have reached the Tollgate at the southern end of the bridge. That means the Tollgate couldn’t have been destroyed in that war.

That doesn’t mean the Tollgate can’t be in ruins! We’ve already established that the Bjornings don’t have the engineering knowledge required to repair a structure like this. So, the question becomes: What happened in the past that led to the destruction of the Tollgate? Why didn’t it affect the Middle Tower?

We can use this to establish something new in the setting that the players can discover while adventuring here. Maybe it was destroyed by Ofnir the Black Wyrm7See Ofnir’s Lair, Middarmark, page 32; one of the depredations that led Bjornar the Grim to confront the dragon8See The Death of Bjornar the Grim, Middarmark, page 7? Maybe another monster entirely? Or maybe it was the result of some conflict between the Sakki and the Grælings? Or between the Sakki and the Skyrnir? A natural disaster? What do you think it was and what cool thing might the players discover or learn here? What evidence and effects of the event would someone see? It could lead to another adventure entirely.

Also, did the Bjornings erect some sort of wooden structure there in its place? Is it still there? Has it rotted away? What does that mean for reaching the Middle Tower from the southern end of the bridge?

The Secret Bit

Finally, somewhere in the Middle Tower we need some sort of secret or hidden entrance that grants access to the lower part of the tower and the underwater passage to the Nykr’s prison. What does that look like? How is it hidden? How does it work?

Do you have any other thoughts on the map? Any changes or additions you would make? For instance, I think at the bridge level the tower needs a passageway with a portcullis on either side and a ceiling covered in murder holes. I think that also means we need a stairway on the outside of the southern side of the Middle Tower that provides access from the bridge to the first floor of the tower. Comment below!

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On The Thursday Trick: Underground Hazards

Hack & Slash - Thu, 01/10/2019 - 13:00
Underground Hazards (Category: Restraints/Hazards)

Trigger: Mechanical: Proximity
Mechanical: Light Detection
Mechanical: Interaction

Effects: Multiple Targets

Save: VariesDuration:Varies

Resets: AutomaticBypass: None (Avoid)
Description: The Sub-world is not like the world above!

Dungeons aren't supermarkets and there are dangers that exist only beneath the world. What features can be used to create interesting organic underground spaces?

Accidents and falling. This is interesting, because this hazard must be applied and telegraphed before used. Environments underground are not always smooth and level. This is naturally taken into account in every version of Dungeons and Dragons by the movement rate. It is bad form to punish your players beyond that for the underground and cramped movement space.

But that doesn't mean you can't use uneven ground. You just have to clearly communicate to the players where it is and under what conditions it applies. You can say "This ground is uneven enough that if you wanted to cross it at full speed, you have to make a dexterity check." You can inform the players of unstable ledges that could cause them to fall if they walk along them unless a check is succeeded. It's not that the basic level of these checks should be difficult, but that emergent events in the hazardous environment creates tension, tactical puzzles, and entertainment.

Note how I'm just assuming you would never present any sort of space without a vertical element, right? We're in the future of Star Trek II, where three-dimensional thinking rules.

Another thing that must be considered underground is light. Without a light source, movement becomes more hazardous. Stating that any movement out of bright light requires a balance or dexterity check can create an environment that feels hostile, held back by the characters light. This is extremely compelling, because it psychologically mirrors the activities during the game. They are exploring the literal unknown dark, and straying from their light is dangerous.

Again, not in every environment, and not by surprise. Variety is the spice of life.

Rockfall. Man, rocks fall from space under the open sky. You can sure bet they fall underground. Have a talk with your miners and dwarves about the stability of the underground areas. Some might be very stable. Some might cause rockfall due to the use of some sonic or thunder damage. Some might be so unstable simply passing through the room is dangerous. This should be another factor in underground environments that reward characters for playing dwarves or taking the appropriate skills.

Dehydration and Exhaustion. When Dungeons and Dragons was a more focused game about exploring dungeons, there were explicit rules to handle these.
RESTING: After moving for 5 turns, the party must rest for 1 turn. One turn in 6 (one each hour of the adventure) must be spent resting. If the characters do not rest, they have a penalty of -1 on all "to hit" and damage rolls until they do rest. Pretty straightforward. Adventures are heady stuff.

Flooding. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single cave, in possession of adventures and near a large body of water, must be in want of a flood. They know it's coming before it happens. Water dripping from the ceiling, deep roaring noises, slick walls covered in algae. Often the best way for flooding to work, is to have it be a triggable factor in the environment. You're underground. The cave is multi level. Popping the pimple of the water will change that environment, depending on the situation, to the monsters advantage or yours.

Becoming lost is too large a topic to cover here. Disease is also a serious hazard, but is its own topic.

Detection/Disarming: Falling and balance hazards just must be full stop presented to the players. They literally function as hazardous zones. By their nature and how humans deal with movement, we can easily tell the stability of an area and our capacity to cross it. (As you would well know if you ever walked through the woods and crossed a stream). The thing is, even if we don't know how dangerous it is, we can almost always tell that it is some degree of dangerous. Of course you can make an argument that there might be some hidden danger, but we are playing a game and designing an encounter. Putting in a "F&%k you, you're prone/take x damage" isn't fun, or particularly game like. It's not a choice, it's a tax.

Rockfall. Anyone with the appropriate skill or background should absolutely be able to tell what's going on mechanically here. If they ask. When presenting rooms with rockfall, make sure you note what's on the floor. Dust, small stones, loose rocks, a boulder, spiderweb divots and cracks in the ground. If it is a rock fall area, then rocks fall. Before entering any area where it's stable unless shatters or fireballs start going off, dwarves and characters should have a  handwaved check to determine if that is the case. It's more interesting for the game if the know the consequences of using loud, damaging, area of effect spells.

Flooding. Players are going to shrug their shoulders and move ahead when you give them clues that the cavern will flood. They will say, "Well, I've got to go on the adventure!" They will often feel that they have no control over when you will flood the cave. So it's important to present it clearly to the player so they understand the dynamic. Is it a dangerous area with the risk of instant death, not only from crushing damage, but needing a way to breath water? Will it wash the characters away? Will it destroy the temple? If you're using as part of a load-bearing boss, then it really doesn't matter, right? To make it interesting in the game, the players have to understand the threat, and you should be able to communicate it to them, so they can make meaningful decisions.

This post might be more useful than the entire Dungeoneers Survival Guide. If you liked it, and you'd like to see more monthly posts, please consider joining our hierarchy on Patreon for special Discord roles!

The Tricks and Traps series examines original and classic traps discussing how to present the traps while maintaining the agency of the players. A complete list of sources and inspiration may be found here. The Tricks and Traps Index page contains a complete listing of all the tricks and traps on this site, or you may browse by tags.
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Weird Revisited: The Pulp Core of Trek

Sorcerer's Skull - Thu, 01/10/2019 - 12:00
I was once again talking about how I might run a slightly alternate ST:TOS game with fellow fan, Jason Sholtis, the other day, which reminded me of this post from 2012...

While I've enjoyed all the Trek series (well, maybe not Voyager) to one degree or another, my favorite has always been the original. It's very much of it's era which gives it a cool design sense and adapts a lot of Golden Age and pulp science fiction elements. The "core canon" for my game would be the original series.

(As an aside, I'd say that a lot of later accretions on the Trek universe have served to downplay the old school science fiction feel. Genetic supermen and a interplanetary sleeper ship coming from the 1990s does not suggest the 20th century history of space travel in Trek played out like it did in our history, but rather more like the imaginings of Werner von Braun and Willy Ley.)

I mean, what would Trek be without Rigel II cabaret dancers?

I wouldn't leave it there, though. The now-noncanonical animated series adds the Kzinti (among other stuff) to the mix. Got to have these guys:

James Blish's novelizations of the original episodes give them a subtle sci-fi lit spin: I think Trek is better with a mysterious Vegan (VAY-gan, alright?) Tyranny in it's past than without it. Always early fan documents add a lot of stuff. The Starfleet Officer's Manual and Star Trek Maps are definitely in--as are parts of the totally out there on its on but well illustrated Spaceflight Chronology.

Wednesday Comics: Comixology Unlimited

Sorcerer's Skull - Wed, 01/09/2019 - 12:00

DC Comics has joined Marvel (and a number of indies) on Comixology Unlimited. There are currently 52 (huh?) DC titles available along with the other stuff for $5.99/month. It's not a lot, and it's mostly newer stuff, but hopefully that's just where they are starting. It might be the excuse I needed to finally go with Comixology Unlimited, but we'll see.

In other news, after a bit of holiday, I'm getting ready to return to the adventures of Storm. You might want to refresh yourself on the last story, "The Living Planet" to get ready.


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