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Epic Spell Wars: Become a Wizard Contest

Cryptozoic - Thu, 01/23/2020 - 17:00

Enter our Epic Spell Wars: Become a Wizard Contest by letting your imagination run wild as you create a name and description of yourself as a Battle Wizard. One Contest Winner will be chosen by Epic Spell Wars creator Cory Jones to appear in an upcoming ESW game. Enter by March 18!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Ruined Tower of Zenopus 5E on DMs Guild

Zenopus Archives - Thu, 01/23/2020 - 14:00

Screenshot of the cover of The Ruined Tower of Zenopus on DMsGuild
I'm pleased to announce that the previously threatened 5E D&D conversion of Holmes' Sample Dungeon is finally available on the DMs Guild as a 18-page pdf for $1.99:

The Ruined Tower of Zenopus (DMs Guild link)

For use with the conversion a free pdf of the original dungeon, which includes the dungeon map, can be found on the Wizards website. (The Holmes Basic rulebook is still not available on DMs Guild).

In the time since I first announced it, I had my friend Scott review & edit it (particularly for 5E compatibility), I added a sample Portown area map, expanded two areas with additional content, added a list for "Further Reading" and basically tweaked it endlessly. 

Introduction, page 2
The Setting, page 3 (Includes a sample map of Portown & Environs)
About the Dungeon, page 4 (Includes a table of Wandering Monsters)
Areas of the Dungeon, pages 5-11 (Includes two expanded areas)
Appendix A: Further Reading, page 11
Appendix B: Dungeon Factions, page 12
Appendix C: Portown Rumors, pages 13-15
Appendix D: Use with Ghosts of Saltmarsh, page 16-17
Appendix E: Pre-generated 1st level characters, page 18 (four 1st level characters)

Includes the following new monsters, NPCs, and Magic Items for 5E: Cleaning Cube, Veteran Smuggler, Thaumaturgist, Monstrous Sand Crab, Lemunda, Monstrous Rat, Brazen Head of Zenopus, Verminslayer Longsword, Lesser Wand of Petrification, Scroll of Stone to Flesh

Original Dungeon: J. Eric Holmes
Conversion & Additional Content: Zach Howard
Content Review/Editing: Scott McKinley
Format: Derived from "Adventure Template for Open Office/LibreOffice” by Dale Robbins
Cover Art: "Italian Coast Scene with Ruined Tower" by Thomas Cole, 1838. Open Access Image from the National Gallery of Art at
Portown & Environs Map: Zach Howard

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Talislanta: The Purity of Aaman

Sorcerer's Skull - Thu, 01/23/2020 - 12:00
Art by P.D. Breeding-Black
In The Chronicles of Talislanta (1987), our narrator the wizard Tamerlin starts his journey across the continent with Aaman in the Westernlands. The introduction of Aaman was actually in the Talislanta Handbook published a month before. This, in summary, is what we are told about the Aamanians, and what holds true across every edition:
  • Aaman is a remnant of the Phaedran Empire and a theocracy, ruled by conservative Orthodoxist faith, worshiping Aa the Omniscient (Or Omnipotent. Or Omnificent.)
  • Aamanians are high conformist and dressing simply and conservatively, and removing all their facial and body hair. 
  • All Aamanians desire to attain mana, "so that they may rise in status and piety." 
The Aamanians' skin color is the subject of some disagreement across publications. Character archetype descriptions in the 1st-3rd editions hold that they have "topaz skin and green eyes." The text of The Chronicles, however, describes them as having "skin the color of cinnabar," as does the Talislanta Worldbook of the 2nd edition. The 4th edition is the first to be internally consistent is this regard and goes with "cinnabar." With the 5th we are back to some discrepancy, with Hotan's History saying "cinnabar" and the Player's Guide saying "copper-colored."
Art from the French edition of Talislanta
But that's a minor issue. What's more interesting is mana. The 1st edition Handbook tells us mana is accumulated by good works: "pilgrimages to officially sanctioned holy sites, donations to the church, service to the Hierophant, and so on." By gaining sufficient "mana points" one can advance in status. The Chronicles expands on this by telling us mana is "spiritual purity," and defines the hierarchy with the Hierophant with unlimited mana at the top, and the district-ruling (and mana awarding or deducting) Monitors beneath him having at least 1000 mana points. Slaves and infidels have 0 mana points, naturally, and between the extremes are ten ranks of Aspirants.  Advancement in status by this measure is a "preoccupation" of Aamanians because position in the worldly Orthodox "caste system" corresponds to position in the after life in some unspecified way.
Material wealth enters into this as we are told the easiest way to obtain mana points is to enter into the priesthood and study to become an archimage--but tuition is high. In addition to the other means mentioned in the Handbook, buying statues, medallions, and relics is also a possibility.
The 2nd edition (in the Worldbook) tells us that "aalms" are the unit of mana (presumably the mana points mentioned). Reading all the texts, I am confused as to whether mana is a state or a thing to be accumulated. I suppose like the word sin, it might be employed both ways, though the analogy isn't perfect because counted sins are discrete entities, not a continuum that needs units to measure it, like say force or electric current.
The Cyclopedia Talislanta vol. 4 (1989) is now considered "noncanonical" for reasons various and not entirely clear, but it does have some interesting, detailed information on Aaman. It emphasizes the importance of wealth in determining status, presumably indirectly by the purchase power it allows to buy aalms. (Confusingly, it calls mana "the mystical unit of a person's worth.") It notes a requirement to buy a different symbol of Aa at each level of the Hierarchy. 
The Cyclopedia is the first to address gender roles and places women as second class citizens in the hierarchy, making them always one status level below their husband or father. 
Art by Jason SholtisThe oppressive theocracy is a genre staple, though Aaman never seems to dip into the "decadent or hypocritical theocracy." Instead, it seems to go in the direction of more secular totalitarian societies in science fiction. The aalms economy and rank system is interesting, too. It seems to have parallels to Scientology as well as the obvious ones to the indulgences of the Middle Ages.

I would leave out the sexism of the Cyclopedia; Aaman should be equal opportunity in its oppression. I would play up the extreme conformity and societal control, borrowing from Vance's The Pnume, and the speaking in aphorisms and quotations of liturgy mentioned in the text, almost to a degree that resembles the Ascians of Wolfe's The Book of New Sun. While material wealth would afford some advantages in maintaining one's position Aamanian society, I figure high mana is the key to getting wealth in the first place by leading to the award of lucrative positions, titles, and contracts, and some high mana individuals might wield considerable power without a lot of wealth.

Finally, despite what is possibly implied in The Chronicles, I lean toward the idea that Orthodoxy is aniconistic with regard to its deity--other than the eye. There is no commentary literature regarding the holy Omnival. The word means what the Hierophant says it means. Doctrine does change with time, but devout Orthodoxists will not admit a revision has ever occurred, indeed they may be strongly conditioned not to see it, even it it is pointed out to them.

Review & Commentary On AX3: Capital of the Borderlands By Alexander Macris & Newton Grant For The Adventurer, Conqueror,King Rpg System & Your OSR Game Systems

Swords & Stitchery - Thu, 01/23/2020 - 00:39
"The Borderlands has been contested throughout recorded history and its landscape is littered with ancient fortresses, blood-soaked battlefields, and dread ruins, all crumbling relics of the empires that once ruled there. Now the dangers facing the Borderlands are greater than ever. Monsters are slipping across the porous border to terrorize and plunder. Travel has grown perilous, and the borderNeedles
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Castle Xyntillan review

Ten Foot Pole - Wed, 01/22/2020 - 12:11
By Gabor Lux E.M.D.T. S&W Levels 1-6

The immense, rambling complex of Castle Xyntillan has stood in its mountain valley for many years. Built over several generations, it has now been deserted by its former owners, and left to time and the elements. However, that is not the end of the story, for Xyntillan’s fabulous treasures and Machiavellian deathtraps continue to fascinate the fortune-seekers of a dozen lands – and never mind the ghost stories!

Non. Fucking. Stop. Buy more. 

Buy more now. Buy more, and be happy.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree – – Legendary was the Xanadu where Kubla Khan decreed his stately pleasure dome. Today, almost as legendary is Florida’s Xyntillan, world’s largest private pleasure ground. Here, on the mountain valley, a private mountain was commissioned and successfully built. One hundred thousand trees, twenty thousand tons of marble are the ingredients of Xyntillan’s mountain. Contents of Xyntillan’s palace: paintings, pictures, statues, the very stones of many another palace. A collection of everything. So big it can never be catalogued or appraised. Enough for ten museums – the loot of the world. Xyntillan’s livestock: the fowl of the air, the fish of the sea, the beast of the field and jungle. Two of each, the biggest private zoo since Noah. Like the Pharaohs, Xyntillans’s landlords leaves many stones to mark his grave. Since the pyramids, Xyntillan is the costliest monument a man has built to himself…

This 132 page hardback adventure, an homage to Tegal, I don’t know know, fuck it, 350 rooms? In a castle, mansion, just like Tegal. Full of family members, paintings on the walls, a map reminiscent of Tegal … it shows what good writing and design actually ARE. Magnificent in its achievements, Charles Dexter Lux has created something very rare and wonderful. 

Sometimes publishers will respin a classic. They will rewrite Borderlands, or create new levels or caves or areas for it. They will update a classic adventure for fifth edition, or third, or whatever. I always look forward to these. And they all suck, disappointing me to no end. Inevitably the update is to add A LOT more words to existing entries and pad them out with trivia, what the butler ate for supper two weeks ago and the exhaustive contents of the kitchen cabinets. Maybe three paragraphs of tactics for some encounter. 

Xyntillan is not that. Xyntillan is the real deal. 

A respin of the Tegal Manor concept, it takes a sprawling manor home filled with the crazy Tegal/Amber family members that occupy it, as well as their paintings. Tegal fell in to the minimal keying side of the genre, just a step beyond “only a monster listing.” Xyntillan takes inspiration from Tegal and then expands the text to EXACTLY THE RIGHT AMOUNT. Both have a certain OD&D charm to the encounters, with Tegal being so because of the minimalism and Xyntillan having it because Melan understands adventure design and his soul evidently not (yet?) having been crushed by modern life. 

The encounters are reminiscent of Tegal, but not one for one respins. Tegal has a room where a screaming woman runs across a room every four turns. That’s the extent of the entry. Xyntillan has a room where a screaming mortally wounded woman in white runs across the room (33% chance), stumbling before she reaches the NW corner. And this is after a two sentence description of the potting room. And before a few sentences describing what happens when you dig in the NW corner. Evocative of, but expanded to the correct degree.

Expanded to the correct degree? Indeed. We’re looking for an encounter description that inspires the DM, the implants a seed idea in their head that will grow and allow the DM to fully visualize the room and riff on it as they describe and run it for their players. Writing that inspires the DM to greatness. And, writing that does it in a split second. And I mean a second. The DM glances down at the page, takes a second to read the entry, look up and runs the room. A second. Maybe two. The DM’s job is not reading the adventure at the table, it’s interacting with the players. The DM glances at and scans a room entry and then runs it. While the players are fumbling about with that to do, etc, the DM is glancing/scanning a bit more, in another couple of seconds. Not minutes. Not 30 seconds. A few, less than five or so. (I should time this one day …) So the job of the text is to give the DM the mental picture that inspires them to run a magnificent encounter and to do it in mere seconds. Evocative and terse, is generally the technique. 

And Gabor Lux does it magnificently. The text is the correct length. You get the overview of the room. Then you get indents and bullets to highlight important aspects of the room that the players may follow up on. The rooms have titles to orient the DM. Monster stats are brief and at the end of the room for easy reference during play, almost Ready Ref sheet style. (Although, perhaps not quite as stark as the Ref sheets, thankfully.) It’s cross-referenced, so if there’s a quest, or an object of a quest, for example, it tells you where to find more information. Bolding is used appropriately to highlight important features and call the DM’s attention to them, sometimes with further follow up text again, indented, bulleted.) The text manages around eight or so entries to the page, with wide margins, with the generous formatting contributing immensely to usability by the DM at the table. 

Encounters are wonderful. Skeleton guardsmen sing and tall tall tales in their barracks. The kitchen knives fly at the party … once. Statues mock the party, or give them a level boost. An unseen hand stays a killing blow, if the party restores a statue. A body buried under a gazebo on a small hill in the center of a pond. A horseshoe in the stables that, if found, gives you a good luck effect. These are things you fucking expect to happen, which make them wonderful. A horseshoe giving luck? Of course it does! That’s what SHOULD happen when you find a horseshoe. Of course the skeleton guardsmen sing and boast. Of course there are phantom steeds in the stables. Duh? WTF? Aren’t we playing D&D? Of course the iron stove in the kitchen closes, biting you in half, if you look inside. It makes PERFECT sense. Tropes are good for a reason and when done right they really shine, acting as cultural clues to the metagaming player. Which is exactly what the fuck they should be doing in order to stay alive in this place. 

Oh, what else? The wanderers are easy to find, in the back of the book. The little town presented as a home base has EXACTLY enough detail to fulfill its purpose. It’s a home base to make forays from. It details a couple of bars, etc to recruit henchmen and stay at to recover. A cleric to heal. Some secret police. Wait, what?! Yes, a couple of subplots in the town. But no more! It concentrates on the details and flavour that are useful IN PLAY. And only the important stuff that inspires, not boring old lists of prices, etc., or Yet Another Description Of a Jovial Barman. The maps are great, Conley does a great job of making something reminiscent of Tegal but much more useful, with little side notes on the maps about webs in the hallways, lighting, sound, refuse on the floors, etc. A perfect tool to assist in both usability and creating an evocative environment. Treasure is magnificent. Ocacular brains in jars, unique magic swords. A whole host of things both mundane and magic to keep the party busy and for them to leverage. Notes on how the family in the castle react to intruders. It’s all great. And presented in pretty much the perfect amount of detail. And monsters? How about “The Blind Beast of Xyntillian.” That’s fucking right! No generic-o “animated statue” crap in this adventure! I got a name baby! New rules./clarifications are present for morale, hiring, fleeing the dungeon … things very pertinent to actual play. It’s perfect.

There’s an occasional miss. Every once in awhile there’s a bit of information that you wish were present. The most notable, for me, is the roof/window/vista-view situation. Only a sucker goes in through the door. A couple of words on the exterior entrance situation, and overview if you would, would have been nice. And, also, a little description of Xyntillian when seen from approach. This is clearly a tie in to the roof/window/door commentary, giving the party notable landmarks to seek out (a dome, etc) and/or holes to poke their heads in to. “Where are the doors?” the party asks. One can intuit a great deal from the maps, especially major border landmarks like doors and side towers, but the dome, interior towers and courtyards are less clear without intense study … the kind I don’t like to do during play. 

But, magnificent! Ye Olde Kente once said that Thracia was the only adventure you ever needed. He was, I think, correct, at least in general. This however IS the only adventure you ever need. You could run a party through this for YEARS, with more than enough information present to riff on. A perfect OD&D product, with whimsy and wonder without going off in to Funhouse territory. I got this last night, stayed up all night reading and re-reading, write this the next morning, and will be adding it to my “No Prep” Dungeonland game tonight. 

This is good. 

This is available at his storefront: for $40 for a Print+PDF copy. $40 is a FUCKING STEAL! G1, at 8 pages, would be $20 in todays cash. $40 for this this is a BARGAIN! But it also costs $22 to ship to the US so, even at $62 it’s a bargain. (Mother fuck! Seriously? $22 to ship it? I don’t doubt this is the actual cost; my own experiences with international shipping have been price gougy also. You can ship a boatload, literally, of stuff from Asia to the US for nothing but the worldwide national post office conspiracy bends you the fuck over and makes you take it!) 

There’s a sample layout on MEGA, if you want a preview:!dwIkXYiJ!4lZA2ar0h5RhKM7n7Z9U0ACJqPkJStmF0wnCB7U8HYQ

But why not go ahead and just buy it? Because you hate quality? Seriously? You’re on the fence about one of the five best adventures ever written? Why, because it’s $60, shipped? I’ve had lunch for one that is more than $60. It’s not worth a lunch to you? Really?

Gabor Lux also has some philosophical statements about adventuring and how they apply to Xyntillan on his blog. They are useful to understand the concepts behind Xyntillan.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Wednesday Comics: Hill House

Sorcerer's Skull - Wed, 01/22/2020 - 12:00
Hill House is a horror imprint of DC Comics curated by horror writer, Joe Hill. He writes a number of comics himself, as well as presumably selecting the other creators. I have read at least the first issues of three of the four current titles and while it's difficult to draw definitively conclusions in this age of decompression each is off to a promising start.

The Dollhouse Family
Six year-old Alice is left a Victorian dollhouse by a great-aunt or something, and soon finds she can visit the house's inhabitants. and can even escape the domestic violence of her home to live their all the time. There's a price, I'm sure. This one is written by Mike Carey and his art by Peter Gross.

Low, Low Woods
Described as "coming of age body horror" it tells the story of two outsider teenage women in a dying mining town with a cold seam fire beneath it. There's also a mysterious plague that causes people to lose their memory and the girls already have one night they can't remember in a movie theater. Then there are the skinless bodies (undead maybe?) they show up sometimes in the woods. Unlike The Dollhouse Family, it's harder to see where this one is going. It's written by Shirley Jackson Award winner Carmen Maria Machado and features art by Dani, fresh from Coffin Bound.

Daphne Byrne
In Victoria era New York, Daphne Byrne has recently lost her father and her grief-stricken mother is an easy mark for spiritualist hucksters. In dreams, Daphne is contacted by her presence who claims to be her brother and promises help for her situation. It's writer by television writer and playright Laura Marks, and features artwork by the great Kelley Jones.

"Until the Last Ship Sets Sail Into the West"

Zenopus Archives - Tue, 01/21/2020 - 16:29

Christopher Tolkien reads from the end of the Lord of the Rings
I was saddened to learn that J.R.R. Tolkien's son Christoper Tolkien passed away on January 16th at the age of 95. Christopher's older brothers, John and Michael, predeceased him; his younger sister Priscilla survives him, as well as his children and grandchildren. Of his siblings, Christopher was by far the most involved in father's writing, having edited around twenty volumes of his father's unpublished manuscripts. He was the best positioned to do so, having become an academic at Oxford like this father.

Christopher was heavily involved in Middle-Earth throughout his life, from hearing the Bilbo stories that became The Hobbit as a child to drawing the beautiful maps for the Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien passed away in 1973, and the first posthumous product was The Silmarillion (with the help of Guy Gavriel Kay) in 15 September 1977, just a few months after both Holmes Basic D&D and the Tolkien-derivative The Sword of Shannara, and the same fall that the animated Hobbit was released. This was all part of the late '70s cultural stew that lead up to the early '80s fantasy/sword & sorcery fad, which included D&D's first round of wide-spread popularity (we are in the second round now).

Christopher was around 55 when the Silmarillion came out and it kicked off a publishing era that did not end until the Fall of Gondolin in August 2018, when he was nearly 94! In a way this work was a continuation of his participation in the Inklings, the literary club at Oxford that would listen to and critique each other's writings. Christopher participated in this with his father, and I read somewhere in the past few days that Christopher was the last surviving Inkling. Thus, his passing truly marks the end of an age - the last ship setting sail into the West.

I have a shelf or two full of his books myself, including the entire HOME series (History of Middle-Earth). As I've noted previously, my blog series on the Holmes Manuscript owes something to his style of text analysis.

The other night I started re-watching the Tolkien biopic - I saw it in the theatre when it was released - and it is just as enjoyable on second viewing. I need to dig out and listen to my J.R.R. Tolkien Audio Collection that includes Christopher reading selections from the Silmarillion. Above I've posted a link to a clip of Christopher reading from the ending of The Lord of the Rings.

Namárië, Christopher.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

XP Versus Milestone Advancement—At Least We Can All Agree That Awarding XP Just for Combat Is Terrible

DM David - Tue, 01/21/2020 - 11:55

When Dungeons & Dragons arrived in 1974, players rated experience points (XP) as one of the game’s most irresistible features. Now, all of D&D’s official adventures ignore the experience point system, and the official Adventurers League campaign has dropped XP. See XP started as one of D&D’s breakthrough ideas. Now the designers don’t see the point.

In the place of experience, the official adventures and the league substitute what folks commonly call milestone advancement—leveling after story-driven accomplishments. The Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.261) calls this method story-based advancement.

“I have no quarrel with you sir, but I need the XP.”

Dungeon masters typically favor milestone advancement because it spares them the chore of planning and calculating XP awards. Instead, milestones give DMs lazy and total control over when characters advance.

While DMs dislike accounting for XP, adventure writers hate fitting XP in their designs. Organized play campaigns typically required designers to write their adventures around combat encounters that net a specific number of XP. Some authors met their XP quotas by adding bandit encounters until ambushed by thugs became a cliché of awkward design. Adventure paths pose an even bigger challenge. “Designers have to jam in the ‘correct’ number of combat encounters to make sure the PCs level up at the right pace,” writes D&D head Mike Mearls. “Adventure design thus becomes a process of matching up the right flow of XP to the correct tempo of the plot.” Designers who wanted fewer fights could add XP awards for accomplishing story goals, but these awards lead to the same outcome as just telling players to level up. Just telling players to take a level skips the math and planning.

Experience points come weighed with another negative: Everyone agrees that the XP system commonly used for D&D’s last 30 years is terrible. Those three decades began when D&D’s second edition stopped awarding experience for winning gold, leaving the notion that characters only gained XP for killing monsters. That has never been strictly true, but players, organized play, and designers most often treated XP-for-slaying as the rule.

D&D builds around three core activities: roleplaying interactions, exploration, and combat. Awarding XP just for monster slaying rewards just one of those pillars. This twisted incentive shapes play. For example, players in the third-edition Living Greyhawk campaign understood that their experience came from killing monsters, so many players felt resigned to solving every problem with violence. You might be able to succeed through stealth or diplomacy, but only battle guaranteed XP. “I once had a player tell me they were 40 XP short, so they wanted to go kill a few bears,” writes SwampRob. We’ve all known that player.

Erin Adams writes, “As a story-focused player, I’m not a huge fan of XP because it seems to skew the focus towards combat. I enjoy letting the DM decide when it’s time to level up because it often feels like a reward. Leveling after a tough social combat feels just as satisfying as leveling after a boss fight.”

When the Adventurers League stopped counting XP, the administrators cited a desire to support the roleplaying and exploration pillars.

DMs and adventure designers tend to dislike XP because milestones offer an easier route to the same bottom line. But computer games prove how compelling XP feel to players. With every battlefield victory, gamers see their score rise, leading to higher levels and greater power. This feedback of rewards keeps gamers hooked. We all love stacking wins and watching our scores rise.

Fifth-edition D&D includes an excellent XP system that allows players to gain points for overcoming challenges and achieving their goals. Characters can gain levels without grinding through combat. But the system still requires some bookkeeping. Do XP feel compelling enough to tabletop players to merit the math? Many players say yes.

Players like how winning XP gives a sense of progress. Nicholas Qualls writes “I enjoy the wrap up at the end of the game to see how well we did, and actually seeing a quantifiable measurement of progress.” Players enjoy anticipating the next level.

Scott “The Angry GM” Rehm describes the positive feedback loop that experience points create. “Growing in power feels good. Making progress with your character feels good. Making progress in the game feels good. Winning feels good. And connecting the extrinsic rewards with the intrinsic good feelings makes everything feel even better.” Some players like to beat monsters, some like to achieve progress in the game, some like to gain power, and some like watching their score zoom higher. Most of us enjoy a mix. Experience points connects all those good feelings into a loop where one joy leads to another. “Everyone gets something out of it. And therefore everyone can celebrate together even if their motives are different.”

XP Gives players a measure of control, which encourages players to take risks that make the game more fun and exciting. Peter James Mann writes, “I find that XP makes everyone at the table gamble for higher rewards, and that end game tally can really be a nail-biter. Unfortunately, milestone advancement has felt a little anticlimactic over time.”

Tom Henderson writes, “It makes me feel like I am actively involved with leveling my character as opposed to having a GM decide when I get to advance.”

XP makes an especially good fit for more open campaigns where characters wander without an overriding narrative shaped by a hardcover or a DM’s plan.

In more story-driven campaigns, where hooks and clues lead players through an adventure, and where the DM adds achievement XP awards, the players’ control over their advancement looks more like an illusion. Nate Finch writes, “The GM always just chooses when you level up. It’s just less work if you don’t have to bean count.”

The players who preferred milestones all touted the freedom from bookkeeping. Instead of feeling distracted by the game of seeking XP, they felt focused on story and character.

Milestone advancement works best when players know what achievement will earn their next level. Adam N. Dobson writes, “My group unanimously prefer milestones. The goals are made clear and they pursue them without feeling that they have to kill everything. Milestones are more inventive, immersed, and versatile.”

“If a DM uses [milestones],” Graham Ward writes, “I like to have some information on what those are. Even the illusion of an objective measure makes a difference for me. I hate when DMs decide on the fly.”

Next: Doing experience points right and the XP award Gary Gygax should have used instead of giving XP for gold.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

It's like Jazz, isn't it? (an attempt of a post about the different types of DMs out there ...)

The Disoriented Ranger - Mon, 01/20/2020 - 20:50
Happy New Year, friends and neighbors. I hope you had a good one and wish all readers a great year 2020. I'll keep it casual here on the blog and post every once in a while. For now. However, there's hope that I'll get some more time in the very near future and I also might start tackling new designs this year, as Lost Songs is in the final stages of development and Ø is about to get published soon, so the next fresh thing would be exploring The Grind a bit more (D&D steampunk heists with cards!). So excited to finally tackle that one ... Anyway, let's talk about DM styles.

DMing is like playing an instrument ...

... but with words (you can quote me on that one). All right, that doesn't sound like a big revelation, I guess. However, it's in pushing the concept to see what it means in all its consequences and dimensions where the fun is. I came across this very specific issue a couple of times, although from another perspective: that of a producer of content (as a writer and designer, if you will).

Basically I was getting the impression that reviewers in general try to enforce a standard that doesn't necessarily match (or cover) all the different styles of DM
our little hobby must produce by the sheer endless variations of the basic premise that comes from learning to DM.

Now, I have talked about this from very different perspectives over time. I did that (most of the time) based on my own preferences, of course, for the simple reason that I don't know any better. It's also what has to inform my designs, so what I end up realizing ideally should match what I prefer to run. Turns out, the result is not mainstream.

Bad design choices be like ... [sources]
Which I quite like, to be honest, but I have to defend my design decisions occasionally and it's quite the tricky thing to do, as I'm still exploring my position. Well, I'm not shy in voicing my opinion, but I'm prone to make a strong case even if I have no idea what I'm talking about (result of decades of DMing, I guess).

If I'm lucky, I will argue my way to something conclusive and true over the course of such a discussion. Most of the time I have to sit down afterwards and chew on the problem a bit before I can get anywhere with it (sometimes I get to explore it here on the blog, obviously).

One topic like that was my decision to have some empty rooms in a temple dungeon in that module I wrote. Most reviewers will make a strong case that in a "product" ALL rooms should be described, because why else use a module, for instance, if not to have all the "work" been done for you? I wasn't convincing in defending my position there. Only after I read a post about empty rooms over at Delta's D&D Hotspot and wrote a comment in a Mewe Group about it, I realized not only where I come from, but also got a fair grip (I think) on how that relates to other approaches.

Here's what I wrote:
My take would be that really "empty" rooms are best to give that impression that a ruin or dungeon is mostly abandoned and it helps to emphasize that those small areas where monsters lurk are little islands with reasons to be where they are (the goblins only need 3 room, the giant spiders came through a natural crack to the underdark and set up shop because of traffic and so on). Empty Rooms are also a chance to give players some breathing room or room to maneuver or to set the atmosphere for the surroundings (noise, furniture and stuff like that). In that, empty rooms are necessary parts of the "symphony" that is manifesting when exploring a particular dungeon (or dungeon level). The idea that every room needs to have something is not only very boardgamey, it also seems to be connected to that customer's point of view of "completeness" or the demand thereof, which I believe to be problematic ... DMing is, imo, a creative endeavor and the DM should be able to join the melody with his own (like jazz) instead of just making his attempt on the melody given (I can see value in both approaches, though).Getting that far into it, I thought it warrants a post, and here we are. But how many types can we get out of this analogy? Let's see.

Type 1: The Jazz DM

[source]I know I'm not the only one ticking like this. We take inspiration where we can and make them motives for our improvisations. In a sense, those motives can be described as "oracles" (as I talk about here). This style would also heavily lean on sandbox play. DM like this prefer some complexity and depth with the systems they use, but also need a high level of abstraction available (material to riff off of, so to say).

The Jazz DM sees playing the game as a team effort. All contribute to the story (rules, players, setting and DM), everyone brings their own melody, their own ideas and concepts. In that sense, rules could be analogues to instruments, which makes the DM tools the leading instrument, offering specific opportunities for the other instruments to join in. Here's the Wikipedia attempt of a definition for Jazz (as far as it relates to gaming):
A broader definition that encompasses different eras of jazz has been proposed by Travis Jackson: "it is music that includes qualities such as swing, improvising, group interaction, developing an 'individual voice', and being open to different musical possibilities". [source]I think this illustrates how we are not talking about what music is played, but about the approach to play music.

That said, it can have serious drawbacks. For one, DMs like that will have a hard time (or no interest in) DMing most published modules or adventures since they'll find it too restricting (railroady, even) without any meaningful room for improvisation (even if it's just true for the DM-side of the game*). Another thing is that players need to be up to the task (which means they'd have to bring a somewhat similar mindset). Players that go through the motions and hesitate to add their own melody will end up having less fun.

A third disadvantage I can see would be a lack of dedication for a campaign. Other "instruments" may be too tempting and the urge to experiment can result in a lack of consistency (which I try to compensate by writing and designing stuff ... to mixed success, I might add).

Ideally, a Jazz DM will offer a lively game where like-minded players are able to explore and create over the course of small campaigns.

Type 2: The Conductor DM

For me the next logical comparison. Conductors take great and complex works of art and negotiate them with an ensemble towards a performance. Your typical AD&D DM, I'd say. They orchestrate the perfect manifestation of the "instruments" of their choice and prefer rule systems that offer depth, crunch, teamplay and long campaigns (AD&D/HackMaster, CoC, Pendragon, games like that).

They tend to take themselves out of the game as much as possible. If their style emerges, it is through the conducting of the campaign as the players reach their goals from level to level by playing their characters. They'll be (or aspire to be) very savvy in the rules and trivia of the game and their joy is in seeing it all unfold as proposed by the rules.

I'd say DMs like that are good with pre-defined campaign settings (Greyhawk, Ravenloft, the works ... AD&D again, too), but excel when combining it with some campaign spanning module of sorts (Against the Giants, to give one example ... Call of Cthulhu offers some great campaigns like that as well). They'll come preppared either way. With Conductor DMs  you can play campaigns over decades.

Conductor having a moment ... [source]The drawback of a DM style like that would be inflexibility in some aspect or another. Depending on the DM this could be rules or canon. They will also have very concrete ideas how the game is played, which means that it'll need players that are able to play along with that. 

Ideally, Conductor DMs orchestrate epic campaign arcs for players to experience and be a part of over long times.

Type 3: The Band Leader DM

This DM is less about the rules as he is about "personality". It's your typical storyteller DM, if you will (World of Darkness is the base line here, but there sure are more games like that ... 7th Sea, maybe, or Over the Edge and Prince Valiant).

The group dynamic is more towards an assortment of band members that might even have different agendas. Teamplay isn't a necessity as it is more about exploring a selection of themes and concepts. The Band Leader DM offers the stage for the other members to express themselves and shine.

Something like this? [source]DMs like that will tend more towards improvisational theater than indirect narration or even meta play. Plots will be more dramatic and emotional than, say, epic. However, just as meticulously prepared, with the focus more on story, history, background and personal impact.

As far as drawbacks go, I'd say Band Leader DMs can run the risk of having short-lived campaigns (usually purpose build, as in, exploring some theme or another). Another drawback can be the emotional toll of playing that way and conflicts that can result out of it, depending on how mature the member of a group are.

Ideally, Band Leader DMs offer an emotional experience for players that like to express themselves in a more direct, or say, theatrical way. Everyone gets a chance to be part of a big performance.

Type 4: The DJ DM

This might be the GUMSHOE DMs. And maybe most of the indie games in general? Definitely Dungeon World and consorts. And the whole Light rules Movement, I think. It is not as much about offering to reconstruct an experience as it is about imitating one. It follows the idea that you don't play to have a step by step recreation of whatever characters are capable of but instead an abstraction of that to a degree that the process can be evoked instead of produced.

It's a difficult distinction, but nonetheless one worth having. Hear me out here. I've been thinking about this for a while now, because people tend to ignore the difference to, say, all the other games: it's the analogue of dancing to music instead of making music (which is why the DM is a DJ here, duh).

It's games where the player gets the clue and gets to shine while exposing the murder instead of grinding the evidence and hoping for some lucky rolls. It's the games where you don't have to make a calculated risk in a fight to kill the monster, but instead fight to celebrate the action happening. It's about dancing to celebrate the tune the DJ DM is throwing. You know what I mean?

Utz utz utz ... [source] The drawbacks I see in DMing games like this is in the limitations it forces on narratives. You don't play to get there, you play to talk about it, if that makes any sense. It's imitation, so, there'll be no depths to most games, because they quote instead of experiencing ...

Anyway. Ideally, a DJ DM will offer a Best Of players will air guitar to for a couple of evenings. And you can have that like having a night in the club every other weekend. There's nothing wrong with that (but it is a difference).

Type 5: The Composer DM

This is the DM as author. I'm not sure this is a real category or a cautionary tale, but lets go through the motions here. This is the DM that wants to tell a story and goes through the motions of engineering it. Some say, it's the guy that should rather write a book ... However. Role playing games are a new medium and who's to say that an approach like this is wrong? If we can have interactive movies, we sure as hell can have auteur-driven campaigns.

So here's my thinking: a DM like that would be driven to tell a grand story and the players are merely audience. It'd need players going along, but those players exist, I'm sure of it. This isn't even about quality, I'd say, as long as the illusion of quality is agreed upon, everyone is having a good game (I'm thinking about a vibe like Gentlemen Broncos for some reason ...).

What I'm saying is: it can work. DMs like that are about controll and will most likely claim authorship of the rules as well (playing something obscure, if not entirely DIY). However, players into emerging themselves into that private canon, will most likely reap the benefits of indulging the Composer DM.

Make it artsy, baby ... [source]Well, the drawbacks are obvious, I think. If the composer isn't any good, players will ride that wave of hope to be close to an undiscovered genius until they crash on some neurotic cliff incident of sorts. You'll have DM player characters and calls towards the narrative anmd all those bad habits.

Ideally, the Composer DM will do a great job to please an audience that accepts that the DM is in controll. I believe it's rare, but if you can make it work, it might actually be exceptional.

Can be, but needn't be ...

Well, that's 5 styles right there. I'd go as far as saying, it covers a lot and that the analogy goes a long way. Is it definite? No, it's most likely that people will read it and find themselves a bit here and there. It's a spectrum, maybe. Is it complete? I couldn't say. Maybe not? I sure as hell have gone as far as I dare to push it. But I could very well have missed something crucial (you tell me).

That said, I see myself in most of the above to one degree or another. I think I'm the Jazz DM right now, but I would love to be the Conductor (for some proper AD&D/HackMaster campaign, man), I've tried and failed to be the DJ (but will take that approach for some limited D&D one-shot convention gig), I was the Band Leader for a while (oWoD, for real) and the Composer .. well, who doesn't like groupies :)

Another possibly interesting take-away would be that the standards we are mainly talking about right now don't pander to all the possible styles to DM a game. They mainly pander to two (I'd say). Just food for thought.

So where do you guys see yourselves? Anything I missed? Any more benefits or drawbacks to the styles I describe (I'm somewhat biased, for sure).

What's your style?! Huh! [source]* Uuuh ... now there's a topic I haven't seen anyone talk about: railroading gamemasters. My immediate take would be that it can be just as bad (for the same reasons) as railroading players (wrote a defense about railroading once that'd apply here too, if you are interested). I'd also say it happens far more often than player railroads ...

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Solar Sanctuary of the Cannibal Corpse

Ten Foot Pole - Mon, 01/20/2020 - 12:11
By R.J. Thompson Appendix N Entertainment OSE Levels 1-3

The plague year has been harsh. Countless victims have fallen to this terrible disease. Many commoners with no knowledge of healing have been called to assist the healers as plague doctors, checking on victims and clearing the dead bodies. Yet in this dark time, darker rumors have emerged. In the north country, it is said that those who die of the plague are rising from the grave! Worse, these undead have a taste for human flesh, and seem to spread the disease to those who survive their attacks. Many believe that this new evil marks the place where the plague originated. Do you dare to solve this mystery by entering the Solar Sanctuary of the Cannibal Corpse?

This 44 page adventures features a 23 room dungeon described in twelve pages. It features a Vampire for your Level 1’s to destroy, because nothing means anything anymore. And you get to Save or Die all the time. And it’s full of padding. And is mostly a hack. And is mostly devoid of flavour. And there has to be something better than this as we search for meaning in a world devoid of it. 

Ok, here we go: Village. Bubonic plague. Zombie infestation. Ruined temple nearby. Vampire in it that created the plague. You got the makings of something mighty fine in there! Alas, tis not to be. There’s no real pretext here, you’re in the village, determining that it’s the center of the plague that’s festering in the kingdom. Plus, it seems to have mutated here, creating zombies from the plague victims when they die. It seems, though, to still be a fully functioning village. Any hint of  flavour or local color from it being a plague village or the victim of cannibal zombie attacks is not present at all. It’s just a village. For some reason you to go the ruined temple two hours from town. I’ve looked things over several times and I can’t seem to figure out why the party would learn about or go there. A couple of people know about it, but it’s not clear that they think the plagues comes from there. There’s a rumor or two on the table, but again, not really connected. Just something like “there’s a ruined temple nearby,” In game terms this is probably ok. Like, sledgehammer to the head ok. I mean, everyone knows that’s where to go, but, still, it’s nice to have a pretext for suspension of disbelief. I mean, we could just roll a d6, on a 1-5 you win the adventure and on a 6 you roll again. No, don’t like that? Then perhaps just a few more threads to follow up on in the adventure, please? 

The journey to the temple takes two hours, which of course means two pages for a wandering monster table. For serious? For a 2 hour walk? I get it, they are a staple of adventures, but this seems more like a “just a have an encounter” opportunity. Anyway.

Did I mention the village entries? They are at least 80% worthless trivia. Entry 1, the Stable, tells us a stable boy runs it and then spends multiple paragraphs telling us about the former stable operator and how he is now found in the temple and working for the vampire.  The entries are full of this trivia, hiding the real information that they know about the vampire, the temple, etc. There is the opportunity, though, to acquire a chicken lazer rifle. I kid not. An oracular rooster that shoots sunlight from it’s eyeballs once a day, former rooster of the temple of Helios. It’s dumb as all fuck and I love it! 

Let’s talk plague! Getting bitten by a zombie requires a save or die or you get the plague. Walking through a miasma cloud requires the same. Getting the bubonic plague means you die in 12d6 hours and rise as a zombie. This seems a bit rough to me. Deadly, for sure, and perhaps in a high level adventure I’d be ok with it. But sweet Vecna, you have to give the suckers an even break or they don’t come back to play anymore! 

Ok, so, vampire in the ruined temple. 7HD, full on no joke vampire. Don’t worry, there’s a magic sword called Lightbringer, that’s also in there! It can create Light three times a day. It also has the Undead Bane ability that is described as “acts as a normal sword against all living foes.” Well, yes, that’s what all swords do, right? And Light doesn’t impact vampires … it’s Sunlight … or am I wrong in OSE? Whatever, fuck it, there’s no time for that anyway, you have to roll a d6 every turn to see where the vampire mvoes to in the dungeon. EVERY. TURN. I have a hard time remembering to roll wandering monsters, and I have a turn tracker to help me …

The writing is ineffective and padded out. “4. Stable Boy’s Quarters: !is simple room contains a small foot locker, a rope bed and a chamber pot. Anything of value is long since gone.”

No, not good enough? How about: “7. Commander’s Quarters: These were the quarters of Commander Auron, who now resides in area 22. !e room contains a bed, a desk, a footlocker and a #replace on the northern wall. There is nothing useful to be found in the room, save a …” All of that text to tell us nothing at all. Joy. 

Monsters are, of course, listed in the appendix. Yeah! And they have both too little and too much formatting. Bolding abounds, making it quite difficult to look up the different monster entries. Plus, they run over several pages, with little effort to do a proper layout. Guy Fullerton has a series of excellent articles on adventure layout from his blog that are worth reading on this subject. 

It does have mobs of floating heads that attack you, so, that’s pretty cool. And the core concept? Great as well. It’s just the wrong level, has no detail to speak of to bring the place to life, has too much padding text and too much trivia embedded in it.

Save yourself. Take up knitting. Or write down the numbers of passing trains. There will be more joy.

This is $6 at DriveThru. There’s no preview because, why would there be?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Getting Out of Rivertown

Sorcerer's Skull - Mon, 01/20/2020 - 12:00
Our Land of Azurth 5e game continued last night with the "Masters of Mayhem" in the midst of a robbery. Using a Blades in the Dark-esque opportunity to retcon planned events (at the price of a greater chance of a complication), the players attempt to establish that they bribed the vault guards to look the other way prior to the robbery. They are successful with the pertinent rolls and the retcon is established. The approaching guards are ready to be knocked out with a sleep spell, if necessary.

But the angry invisible stalker has not been bought off. It attacks the party again, and Bellmorae (disguised as the vault manager Wotko) is unable to get it to stand down. The party eventually kills it with magic and stolen energy weapons.
The party decides to get out while the gettings good, but their only choice is to leave their Armoire of Holding behind with the hope of regaining it later. On the way through the lobby, "Wotko" (the disguised Bell) is accousted by a customer demanding her attention. She manages to talk her way out of it and they leave the vault with Gladhand's gold.
The party becomes concerned that when the real Wotko and his associate awaken, they may well draw attention to the Armoire, leading to the heist being discovered. They figure they have to get out of town. But they also want to get the Armoire back. They make the mistake of letting Gladhand know this before negotiating for a higher fee, and he offers to both help them get out of town and retrieve the Armoire in lieu of further payment. 
Ultimately, though, they decide not to take his offer of getting them jobs and cover identities with a caravan heading across the Dragonspine Mountains to the Country of Sang. Instead, they plan to make their own way to the Sapphire City along the Wizard's Road, and from there to Virid to meet Queen Desira.

Commentary & Review of the Axioms Compendium 1-8 For The Adventurer,Conqueror, King Rpg

Swords & Stitchery - Sun, 01/19/2020 - 22:16
"Created with the support of hundreds of generous patrons, AXIOMS is a quarterly magazine devoted to the Adventurer Conqueror King System. This exclusive compendium compiles the  first eight issues of AXIOMS into an easy-to-use reference. "Yeah I've been wanting to get in on the AXIOM's zine action for awhile. So I put in a request with Alexander Macris for a copy. And Axioms Compendium 1-8 Needles
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Talislanta: The Continent and Magic

Sorcerer's Skull - Sun, 01/19/2020 - 15:00
This is a follow-up to this post, and the beginning of my examination of the setting throughout its publication history. First up, the big picture.

Talislanta the setting is named for the continent which is its central focus. Though other, semi-legendary lands are mentioned in passing, The Chronicles of Talislanta (1987) makes a pitch for dropping the continent into any fantasy setting:
As to the land of Talislanta: those scholars who do not dismiss the topic out of hand disagree as to the origins of this otherwise forgotten realm. Some claim that Talislanta existed long ago, perhaps during the legendary First Age of Atlantis. Others, lending even broader scope to their imaginations, cite Tamerlin’s chronicles as proof of the existence of parallel worlds or alternate realities. Proponents of the hollow earth theory, avid readers of Charles Fort, and others of similar bent may formulate even more intriguing explanations for the Talislantan texts.This vagueness regarding the wider world doesn't last. In 1988's Sorcerer's Guide, Talislanta's world is placed on the plane of Primus within the wider Omniverse, not utterly unlike D&D's planar setup, but much less complicated. With the 2nd edition and The Talislanta Worldbook (1990), Talislanta's planet gets a name: Archaeus. Archaeus has seven continents in total:

The origin of magic in the Talislantan milieu is revealed for the first time. A tribe of "Sub-Men" (Talislanta's name for the primitive humanoid inhabitants of much of the continent) discover the wreckage of a ship of some kind and find a crystal orb that contains "the secrets of a lost and forgotten art—magic." Learning magic, these Sub-Men develop into the race known as the Archaeans (simply called "Men" in the 1st edition).

The 3rd edition largely follows the Worldbook's details, but demotes Archaeus from the center of its system to being a planet orbiting binary stars. This star system is just one of many within the material plane. The Sub-Men tribe uplifted by magic from a wrecked "strange vessel," now become known as Archaens.

Archaeus' solar system is de-emphasized in the last two editions, but the origin of the Archaens is now firmly established. In the 4th edition, Sub-Men is a derogatory term for the "Wild Folk" and the crashed ship is called out as "alien" and called an "ark." The 5th edition, affirms the ship was alien and states that it is believed to be of extra-dimensional origin. There are parts of it still in existence, recognizable by the rainbow color they emanate. The Sub-Men are again Sub-Men.

Why does the stuff about the Archaens matter? Talislanta was established from the beginning as a post-apocalyptic setting with frequent references to a Great Disaster. The Archaens were not only the ancestors of the "human" races of Talislanta, but the source of most of its magic, and also (perhaps) the cause of the destruction of their own civilization.

The idea of magic, or at least the advanced practice of magic, being alien in origin is a nice little detail to me, and one I don't think Talislanta has ever explored to its fullest. There is a lot that could be done with that in a campaign.

The vacillation between extraplanetary aliens and extradimensional ones, seems to coincide with some ambivalence about whether Archaeus is a planet in a science fiction conception or a "world" in a fantasy conception. I like a view of "outer space" more metaphysical than strictly physical, like in Medieval cosmology or pulp fiction like Howard's "Tower of the Elephant" or Lovecraft's Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, for Talislanta. I favor a more fantastic Archaeus, as well. One where you could sail across an ocean and into another world, perhaps.

Those preferences are in general. For the Sword & Planet thing I'm planning, I'm go with a much more realistic world around a realistic star.

Matters of Elves In OSR Games or Why Elves Are Tasty With Ketchup

Swords & Stitchery - Sat, 01/18/2020 - 19:17
Last night I was rereading  the Adventurer,Conqueror,King rpg & delving into its hidden recesses. The Elves of many Old School & OSR games all feel strange - a dying & yet hidden race of peoples who have adapted to many environments throughout the planes & various elemental conditions.Yet in ACK's they are primed for use to build empires & rule kingdoms. Something doesn't seem to Needles
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) The Color of Chaos

Ten Foot Pole - Sat, 01/18/2020 - 12:17
By Spencer Crittenden Self-Published 5e Level 2

What power lies behind the mischievous colored constructs marauding the Prang Manor? Find out in this colorful and unique single session adventure module that can be run on its own or added to an ongoing campaign! 

This 28 page adventure takes place in a thirteen room manor home. Two-dimensional crayon monsters are attacking people, traced back to the manor. Decent organization and descriptions are high points, while the tone is going to be the hardest thing to overcome. 

So, right off the bat we have this statement in the adventure from the designer: “… Is meant to bring some light fun without completely upturning the fantasy and suspended disbelief of D&D.” And that is the core issue of the adventure. The adventure revolves around a 2 year old kid who has found some magic crayons. Thus we get scribble monsters in crayon, two-dimensional, and other challenges like drawn gold coins, colored in doorways, crayon-drawn watermelon bombs and the like. Your ability to enjoy this adventure is going to directly relate to your ability to handle those elements and handle something on the silly side on your D&D game. This is too much for me, but maybe you’re different. I will note, however, that the adventure description on DM’s Guild could be more up front on these points. As in: it does not mention them in any way, shape or form. Expectations are everything and if you go in expecting a “normal” adventure only to find this silly one, well, you’re not likely to be a happy consumer. This, ultimately, was the problem with the Great Betrayer: WG7. 

Beyond two-dimensional crayon-monsters drawn by a two year old, there is also the “magical world” tone. The kids parents are stuffy pants arts lovers who ignore and pamper him and have a set of Nystuls Magical Crayons in the attic. (Hmmm, found, perhaps, in the still yet to be delivered Infinite Dungeon … not written by Mike?) There is a Wand of Scrubbing hanging in the kitchen that refreshes three charges a day and is kind of like a magic eraser. Sovereign Glue. EVerything oriented around this kind of setting where magic is common and you use +! Toothpicks at dinner that are then thrown away down your Sphere of Annihilation garbage disposal. Again, another niche setting to contend with. 

Many things I normally take issue with in an adventure are NOT present. Information NPC’s can relate to the party is given in bullet point format, making it easy to find and relate. Monsters have an emphasis on their descriptions, and the descriptions that matter to the party, instead of backstories that will not come up during play. Encounters are well constructed with several elements. One room has statues in it and short rules for shoving them over … and monsters behind them to shove them over on the characters. The manor home gets a short little overview, something for the DM to relate to the party to give them a glimpse of the manor “as a whole” to get them oriented to it and where they should begin investigations. This is a kind of “I’m standing on a hill looking down on a manor, what do I see?” sort of thing that more adventures could do more with. Rooms have hints in descriptions, with one standing out as having black cracks in the walls … which of course have some kind of trap in them. 

There’s also a decent progression in room descriptions, from a general overview for the DM to bolded sections that expand on the information given. THis is a good organization technique, putting what the DM needs first in the first section of txt and making it easy to find follow-up information.

Treasure is pretty good, from the magic crayons (The entire box of which may be overpowered for level two’s) to a magic stirring ladle to a masterwork greatsword with an adamantium hilt like an orchid. There’s an emphasis on the non-standard, on descriptions of effects (like the ladle) instead of mechanics, and in making mundane items, to be looted, in to something that the party may actually keep instead of just selling. Not the best implementation but definitely better than most adventures. 

Interactivity tends to combat and a couple of puzzle/riddles. That could be better, although the encounters are decent and layered. The first is with a candyman who is trying to run away with a gnome merchant. He has some buddies. He can throw a watermelon bomb. Appearing out of the bomb is a tiny man holding a knife and flintlock pistol. When’s the last time an adventure encounter had that many layers? 

There’s also some other issues, beyond tone. Some of the background imagery in the PDF is yellow, which makes the text hard to read. There’s also a time or two where things are missing from the general room overviews. A monster here and in one place the parlor furnishings and and an old chest that comes from out of nowhere. So, a lack of consistency, but these seem like infrequent mistakes, more akin to typos than a fundamental lack of understanding in how to write an adventure. Some of the read-alouds get long and the DM text DOES get long in places. Manageable, though, because so much of it can be ignored, and, as I said, the progression from general to specific and bolding helps organize it.

There’s a reason for this. Spencer, the designer, has a following. I know him from the animated HarmonQuest Tv series, but I take it there was a progenitor series as well, maybe podcasts or youtubes or something? You can think of these as Actual Plays, in the vein of the others like Critical Role, etc. Thus he is bringing to the market a whole slew of people who genuinely have NOT played before and ARE noobs. I’m a bit more tolerant in this situation of text aimed at a new DM, much more so than an esoteric OSR title that will not be seen beyond a few diehards. Still, there are better ways to accomplish the goal of orienting completely new players/DM’s while retaining a format that is easy for them to run. No one needs to be told, on something like eight separate occasions, that the kids parents are wealthy dilettante aristo’s. 

Spencer has one title to his name: this one. Either he is the greatest natural adventure writer ever born or there is an uncredited editor attached. And even if that’s so it’s much better than I would expect even WITH an editor attached. The tonal issue and the longish text put this on the edge of No Regerts. But … if you were looking for a light-hearted one-shot? Absolutely, I’d run this. 

This is $6 at DMsGuild. The preview is six pages. It shows you the bullet point NPC data overviews, the intro read-aloud that I think is a bit long, the longish DM’s text, and the first encounter with the candyman and the watermelon bomb, etc, a couple of room entries, including the statue encounter, and some art that is evocative of the monsters encountered. As such it’s a GREAT preview in that it shows you EXACTLY what to expect from your purchase. More designers/publishers could follow Spencer’s lead.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

"To Save X2: "Castle Amber (Chateau d' Amberville)" by Tom Moldvay - Epic Campaign Plot

Swords & Stitchery - Fri, 01/17/2020 - 17:06
"Trapped in the mysterious Castle Amber, you find yourselves cut off form the world you know. The castle is fraught with peril. Members of the strange Amber family, some insane, some merely deadly, lurk around every corner. Somewhere in the castle is the key to your escape, but can you survive long enough to find it?"X2 Castle Amber remains one of my all time favorite modules of Needles
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Matters of State & Dragon - Dragonic NPC - Rex Harenae Crawler In Toxix - The Blue Dragon of The Grand Canyon

Swords & Stitchery - Thu, 01/16/2020 - 19:09
So last night I was thumbing through my Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual & thinking about dragons & power vaccums. Dragons are huge engines of change for whatever area they settle in.Out comes my Monster Manual & I settle onto the Blue Dragon. I love blue dragons! Here's a quick break down on them from the Forgotten Realms website (this site came up a while back & itsNeedles
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Bob’s Blog #1: Meet Bob

Cryptozoic - Thu, 01/16/2020 - 17:59

Hi there. My name is Bob. Do I look familiar? Well, I should! If you’re a Cryptozoic fan, I’ve been hanging out in the logo for 10 years now.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

CHARITY FUNDRAISER: Harley Quinn Collectibles Signed by Paul Dini

Cryptozoic - Thu, 01/16/2020 - 17:58

We are excited to be able to put together a Charity Fundraiser featuring auctions of rare Harley Quinn collectibles signed by Paul Dini, co-creator of the character. Proceeds will be donated to World Central Kitchen, which has been helping Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria in 2017, making sure residents get hot meals as part of their #ChefsForPuertoRico movement. 

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