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Finally, A New Post

Howling Tower - Wed, 08/13/2014 - 05:51
I'm horrified to see that I haven't howled from the tower since January 27. I believe that I have a decent excuse, though. I've been sequestered while writing the premier 5th Edition D&D adventures -- Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat, collectively titled Tyranny of Dragons -- along with Wolfgang Baur and Alexander Winter. Until recently, we weren't allowed to talk about what we were doing. Even if we had been, every word I wrote for the last many months went into those adventures. Writing for other purposes, like blogging, could only endanger the deadlines, so everything else got shelved.

But now the adventures are written and I can move on to other things. I still don't have much time for personal writing -- more on that to come -- but at last I can talk about Tyranny of Dragons.

And I have, over at, in some of the Tiamat Tuesday postings. My entries are "Maintaining Focus," "Tiers of Tiamat," "Closing In On the Cult," and "So You're Running Tyranny of Dragons." Wolfgang, Marc Radle, and Guido Kuip also chime in with essays about the Cult of the Dragon and about the illustrations and maps in the adventures. If you're looking for direction on what to expect from Tyranny of Dragons, Tiamat Tuesday is the best place to start.

In other news, I'm headed to GenCon again this year, for the first time in . . . wow, it must be over 10 years. I attended a few of the early Indianapolis GenCons, but I stopped going after the year when I spent nearly the entire show sealed away in a side room playing Terrible Swift Sword with a group of fellow TSR alumni. We had a great time, but we realized that we didn't need to travel to Indianapolis, stay in dreary hotels, and struggle against constant crowds to play TSS for four days. We could have just as easily spent a long weekend at someone's house in Wisconsin or Washington, where we'd have been more comfortable and saved a bunch of money. I never went back after that year.

But here it is 2014, there's a fantastic new edition of D&D, and I have the honor of coauthoring the premier adventure for it. I'll be spending much of my time in the Kobold Press booth, discussing Tyranny of Dragons (and 5E) with anyone who's interested and signing copies for anyone who wants theirs besmudged with my scribble. If you're in the neighborhood, stop by and chat.

I'll also be sitting on a seminar panel: either "When the Kobolds Met Tiamat" at noon on Friday, or "Storytelling in the Realms" at 4 p.m. on Friday. I suspect it will be the first of those, or maybe it will be both, but I won't know for sure until I get to the convention. I'll also be interviewed on the official Gencon podcast at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday. Listen live if you want to hear all the scatology that will be bleeped out in the download version.

Finally, with Tyranny of Dragons put to bed, I'm now devoting my 12-hour days to Necromancer Games's 5E Kickstarter. But that's a topic for after Gencon. I hope to see plenty of you in Indianapolis.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Happy 40th Birthday, Dungeons & Dragons

Howling Tower - Mon, 01/27/2014 - 18:53
Today, or a day very close to today, is figured to be D&D's birthday. It represents the day in 1974 when the first Dungeons & Dragons sets were offered for sale.

I've been neck-deep in D&D for 36 of those 40 years, and for 33 of them I've earned my living from it. That makes this a pretty momentous occasion for me. An occasion that should be marked by a heartfelt, nostalgic, forward-looking essay about all the wonderful things D&D has brought to my life.

At the moment, however, I'm writing the first set of adventures that will be published for D&D Next -- Tyranny of Dragons, look for it this summer -- and I'm behind on my deadline (I'm always behind on one deadline or another, it seems). So instead of taking time away from a paying gig to write my own essay, I direct you to a marvelous piece written by Mike Selinker on Schrodinger's Blog.

I did have time to join in Kobold Press's celebration of D&D's birthday, along with great friends from the RPG industry such as Zeb Cook, Wolf Baur, Ed Greenwood, Bruce Cordell, Jeff Grubb, Stan!, the inestimable Mike Selinker (where does he find the time?), and many others.

Happy birthday, Dungeons, and you too, Dragons! It's hard to imagine the path my life might have taken without you.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

White Zombies and Sherlock Holmes

Howling Tower - Thu, 10/31/2013 - 18:11
While we're on the subject of Pacesetter (we are, sort of), one of the TSR ex-pats who helped found the company was Stephen D. Sullivan. Sully had been at TSR for about a year when I was hired. He was dividing his time between editing, illustration, and cartography (at that time, maps were drawn by the illustrators; those jobs hadn't been split into separate departments yet). We shared an office above the Dungeon Hobby Shop for over a year and were neighbors in the same apartment building for many more, so Steve is one of my oldest and dearest friends. At Pacesetter, he did game design, editing, and illustration for Chill, TimeMaster, Star Ace, Wabbit Wampage, and everything else Pacesetter produced.

These days, Steve is one of the workhorses of genre fiction. Most writers can only fantasize about having a body of work like what he’s produced. Steve’s latest is a book adaptation of the seminal horror film White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi. I re-watched this movie about a year ago, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, since I remembered my disappointment with White Zombie as a kid. It moved too slowly for a 12 year old who wanted to see hordes of zombies devouring human flesh. White Zombie isn't that story. It foreshadows by about 10 years the work that Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur would do at RKO in the 1940s with movies such as Cat People and The Leopard Man. If you're a fan of moody B&W horror, Lugosi, or zombies, and you'd like to know where all this zombie mania came from, then watch the movie and read Steve Sullivan's adaptation and recreated script.

And since I’m making book recommendations today, here’s another: Watson is Not an Idiot by Eddy Webb. The book is a collection of essays, one on each of the canonical Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. In them, Webb examines the stories for continuity (something Doyle was notoriously bad about), historical context, running themes, characterization, the “real” Holmes and Watson vs. the myth, and whatever else about a story catches his fancy. If you’ve read Ken Hite’s Tour de Lovecraft, this is a similar approach, but the essays are more extensive. (I found many of Hite’s essays too brief: more tantalizing than satisfying. That’s not a problem here.) Watson is Not an Idiot is a terrific companion to the Holmes mystyeries. Even though I’ve read all the Holmes stories multiple times, this collection of essays has made me start them all over again.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Chill, Meet CryptWorld

Howling Tower - Tue, 10/29/2013 - 06:36
On Friday the 13th (of September), Cryptworld was released by Goblinoid Games. Readers probably know Goblinoid from Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, Starships & Spacemen, and other excellent retrogames. Cryptworld: Chilling Adventures Into the Unexplained is a retroclone of Pacesetter's 1984 horror RPG Chill: Adventures Into the Unknown. Cryptworld isn't exactly the same game as Chill, but it's a darned good imitation--maybe even an improvement, depending on your taste.

CryptWorld uses the (for lack of a better term) "Pacesetter engine." This Universal Table system appeared in three Pacesetter games back in the '80s: Chill, TimeMaster, and Star Ace. Goblinoid has dusted off the universal table for its reprint of TimeMaster and two original games, Rotworld (zombie survival horror) and Majus (magic/noir). If you've played any of those new titles or any of the old Pacesetter games, you know 80% of what's needed to play any of the others.

CryptWorld is not identical to Chill. Most of the differences are minor. CW is slightly more generous with skill points (+1). The skill lists are different, but the changes are minor and mostly for the sake of modernization (CW adds computers, electronics, a variety of vehicle and riding skills, and stealth, for example, all of which were missing from Chill). It loses hypnotism and various arts.

These switches aren't huge or hugely important, but they highlight an interesting difference in focus. Chill was inspired by Hammer horror films of the 1950s and '60s, where Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee frequently portrayed characters like hypnotists and artists in Gothic Victorian settings. CryptWorld's focus is on the horror revival of the 1980s, where computers, electronics, and teenagers in cars were common. Neither list is perfect, but there's no reason why you couldn't combine the two into one master list. CW does keep the odd Long-distance Running skill, which I've never seen used in a game, ever.

Magic (Chill calls it the Art, CW calls it paranormal talent) is also different between the two games, with some overlap. Chill had nine powers in three groups: telepathic sending, restoration, and protection. They were subtle; about the most dramatic was Feat of Strength, which boosted someone's strength. CryptWorld has 13 powers, and the new ones are more dramatic, letting characters set things on fire and speak with the dead, for example. The big change is that in CW, using a paranormal talent always costs Willpower points. In Chill, WP was spent only if you wanted to raise your chance for success with the power.

In Chill, certain creatures always triggered a fear check, and the severity was noted in the monster's stats. CW makes fear checks optional and doesn't specify the severity at all; that's left up to the CM. This is the only change in CW that I disagree with. Leaving fear checks entirely in the CM's hands is a bit too arbitrary. It's true that fear checks in Chill were problematic; they could result in unlucky (or lucky, depending on how things turned out) characters running away from crucial scenes in a very anticlimactic way. I have to believe that the fear rules could have been fixed to achieve a better effect and not simply abandoned to the CM's whim.

CW keeps all 14 steps of Chill's complex turn sequence.
  1. CM declares NPC actions.
  2. Players declare PC actions.
  3. Roll for initiative.
  4. Side A (with initiative) uses paranormal talents.
  5. Side A throws or fires missiles.
  6. Side A moves.
  7. Side B throws or fires missiles in defense.
  8. Side A melees.
  9. Side B uses paranormal talents.
  10. Side B throws or fires missiles.
  11. Side B moves.
  12. Side A throws or fires missiles in defense.
  13. Side B melees.
  14. Stamina loss and recovery are recorded.
In practice, it goes quicker than it sounds, because many steps are skipped in many turns. 
A significant change between the two games is the way injuries are tracked.

Chill uses two different systems for tracking damage: Stamina (hit points) and wounds. Every attack chips away your Stamina points, but attacks can also cause wounds. Chill divided wounds into scratches, light, medium, heavy, and critical. Characters can take one critical wound and two of each of the other types. A character drops unconscious when all his Stamina is gone. If he has a critical wound when Stamina hits 0, he dies. Lighter wounds serve only to become critical wounds as they accumulate, or a character can take a critical wound in one shot from a severe hit.

CryptWorld drops the wound categories and instead gives characters 11 to 15 wound boxes, depending on Stamina. Different grades of hits cause different numbers of wounds. A character dies if all his wound boxes are crossed off. When a character is down to 3 or fewer wound boxes, he must make Willpower checks to continue fighting through the pain.

Both systems are quirky. I prefer the original because grades of wounds add some fun color to the combats. It's also the original and I'm an unapologetic purist. BUT, the new system is cleaner and it works perfectly well. 
CW adds extensive rules for armor (along with hit locations if you want them) and vehicles, in case you get into a Road Warrior situation. Chill didn't touch on either situation.
Chill spelled out the supernatural powers of monsters and villains in a 14-page section on the Evil Way that was a sort of villain's spell list. Monster descriptions then noted which Evil Way powers the creatures could use.

CW eliminates the menu of evil powers and instead takes an exception-based approach. Each monster entry describes the monster's unique special powers, which operate like paranormal talents. The CM is further advised that if he wants his own monsters and villains to have supernatural powers, he should give them some. Sample powers are suggested, but they're only suggestions. This is a more flexible approach than the way Chill handled it, and it avoids the awkwardness that developed in Chill when add-on monster books included new Evil Way powers, resulting in the CM sometimes needing to look in multiple books for all the details on a single creature. CryptWorld's monster list is extensive and includes many creatures pulled from Chill supplements. 
Finally, CW adds more options for organizations the characters can belong to than just Chill's original S.A.V.E. Nothing was wrong with S.A.V.E., but options are nice.

All in all, CryptWorld is a sweet package--a complete, stand-alone horror RPG and a well-executed tribute to both the roleplaying games and the horror movies of the 1980s. Do yourself a favor and pick one of these up for Halloween.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Science Fictiony Traps

Howling Tower - Mon, 09/16/2013 - 07:00
I like traps. Maybe that's a symptom of my antisocial streak. It's one of the few knocks I'd level against Barrowmaze, which we're currently playing with the D&D Next playtest rules -- terrific as it is, there aren't quite enough traps to suit me, so I plan to add a few more as the characters push deeper into the catacombs. Nothing makes a thief feel underappreciated quite like never getting to spot and disarm a trap.

As a followup to the posts I did some time back on 36 Trap Triggers and 36 Trap Effects, here are 18 triggers and 36 effects for traps in science-fictiony complexes and post-apocalyptic ruins.


1-2: Pressure Plates and Movement Detectors
  1. Mechanical pressure plate
  2. Gravity-wave pressure plate (works via proximity)
  3. Mechanical Tripwire
  4. Light beam (light-based tripwire)
  5. Motion sensor (scans an area instead of a line)
  6. Lattice of light beams (impossible to step over)
3-4: Actions and Errors
  1. Open a door
  2. Close a door
  3. Sound detector
  4. Light detector
  5. Use the wrong security card or no security card
  6. Enter the wrong security code or no security card
5-6: Targeted Detectors
  1. Energy weapon detector (weapon must have power)
  2. Pure strain human detector
  3. Mutated human detector
  4. Mutant detector
  5. Robot detector
  6. Animal / mutated animal detector


Most rays can also be floor pads, wall panels, or gases. Effects can be combined; e.g., a victim could be dropped into a pit and then hit by needles / darts from the pit walls. Effects can be stationary or in motion. Effects that are in fact harmless or even beneficial, such as ID scans and disinfectant light baths, can easily look like traps and cause significant alarm among intruders.

1. Simple Mechanical Effects
  1. Needles / darts from walls, floor, or ceiling
  2. Poison needles / darts from walls, floor, ceiling
  3. Pit
  4. Crusher (horizontal or vertical, or combined with pit)
  5. Possibly benevolent crusher (actually a ramp or lift platform)
  6. Net that pins to floor or lifts to ceiling
2. Gas, Acid, Flames
  1. Poison gas
  2. Knockout gas
  3. Bio-safety gas (meant to scour microbes from sealed suits; dangerous to unprotected organisms)
  4. Acid spray
  5. Fireball / flamethrower
  6. Blast of heat / heat ray
3. Wall-Mounted Weapons
  1. Rubber bullets
  2. Laser beam
  3. Blaster bolts
  4. Scythinging vibroblades
  5. Explosion (standard grenade)
  6. Explosion (disintegration / torq grenade)
4. Electro-Traps
  1. Electrical arc or electrified floor
  2. Microwaves
  3. X-rays
  4. Radiation
  5. Electromagnet
  6. Blinding light
5. More Fiendish Electro-Traps
  1. Thrashing robot tentacles (can smash, grapple, or electrocute)
  2. Mutagenic beam
  3. Gravity wave
  4. Dehydrator ray
  5. Sonic beam
  6. Teleporter to holding cell or dangerous area
6. What's Left Over
  1. Monomolecular wire
  2. Creature set loose
  3. Robot set loose
  4. Door behind closes and locks
  5. Door behind closes and locks, then area heats like an oven
  6. Passage ahead sealed, side door opens to jail cell, interrogation room, etc.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Playing At the World

Howling Tower - Thu, 09/12/2013 - 16:47
About a year ago, I bought the ebook version of Jon Peterson's Playing At the World. The very next day, I got an email from Allan Grohe asking if I'd like a copy to review.

Just reading the book took a couple of months, and my review has been sitting on my hard drive, about half-finished, ever since. Playing At the World is such an amazing piece of work that I was stymied over how to review it appropriately other than to simply state, "you must read Playing At the World."

But now my good friend Jeff Grubb has saved me from myself by writing his own review, which says everything I wanted to say, if only I could have gotten my jumble of thoughts organized. So bounce over to Grubb Street and read Jeff's review while I lean back with arms crossed, nodding my head in agreement with everything there.

Then read Playing At the World. It's the deepest, most thorough, most revealing book about the evolution of D&D that you'll ever read, and probably that will ever be written.

There. That wasn't so hard.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea

Howling Tower - Fri, 08/30/2013 - 22:29
  • Astonishingly sturdy box containing:
    • 252-page Player's Manual
    • 235-page Referee's Manual
    • 22 x 28-inch black & white map of Hyperborea
    • 6 character sheets
    • set of 6 uninked polyhedral dice
  • written by Jeffrey Talanian, illustrated by Ian Baggley
  • published 2012 by North Wind Adventures
  • $10 PDF, $50 print, or $20 for just the Player's Manual
Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (there are no good abbreviations for this title, but we'll go with AS&SH because that's what the publisher uses) is a game that I wound up not liking as much as I expected to. It's a fine set of rules and a fine setting that make an odd package.

The Rules
The rules can be summed up very easily. What you have in the AS&SH rules is a spruced up version of AD&D. The departures are many, small, and mostly improvements. A few examples:
  • The "Open Doors" and "Bend Bars/Lift Gates" columns from AD&D's Strength table are renamed "Test of" and "Extraordinary Feat of" and extended to the Dexterity and Constitution tables, too.
  • Clerics have a percentage change to learn spells similar to magicians.
  • Turning undead is done with a d12, and Charisma affects the odds.
  • Thief skills advance on a fixed schedule as in AD&D but are rolled on a d12. Having a score of 16+ in the attribute associated with each skill gets you a +1 on the roll.
  • AC descends but starts at 9 instead of 10. An interesting twist is that medium armor also blocks 1 point of damage from attacks and heavy armor blocks 2 points.
  • XP tables cover levels 1-12. Characters can build strongholds and attract followers at level 9.
  • The combat rules give a knowing nod to Chainmail in their handling of weapon classes and first strike capability.
  • Combat rounds are 10 seconds, not 1 minute.
  • The section on Advanced Combat includes fun options such as disarming, parrying, and shield tricks.
  • There is just one saving throw and it's the same for everyone, but each class gets bonuses in specific circumstances and there are further modifiers for high ability scores. 
  • Characters are unconscious at 0 hps but can be awakened; stable at -1 to -3; dying at -4 to -9 (losing 1 hp/round); and dead at -10.
  • XP are awarded for monsters and treasure as usual but also at a discretionary rate for roleplaying, being clever, attaining goals, showing up for the game, and other "soft" achievements, similar to 2nd Edition. 
  • Task resolution is handled with the "Test of" and "Extraordinary Feat of" columns where the physical attributes are concerned. In other cases, there's a generic table assigning d6 values to simple, moderate, challenging, difficult, and very difficult tasks. 

The game has four classes (fighter, magician, cleric, thief) and 18 subclasses. My opinion here is that subclasses were a bad idea in AD&D and they haven't gotten any better over the years. As soon as you print "Many barbarians are exceptional horsemen ... From the saddle of a tamed mount he can fight with melee weapons and discharge missiles," you needlessly bar other classes from fighting from horseback. When you print that an assassin can "fashion a facade that simulates a particular social class, possibly making one appear a few inches taller or shorter, and/or several pounds heavier or thinner," you beg the question of whether no one else is capable of putting on a beggar's rags, stuffing in some padding, and walking with a stoop. The subclasses in AS&SH are quite well done, as such things go, but they're still emblematic of aping purely for the sake of aping. I'd rather see the subclasses dumped and their special abilities treated as talents that characters of the four main classes can learn as they choose. If you like subclasses, then you'll probably be pleased with the way they're handled in AS&SH.

The combat sequence is detailed, with interwoven phases that make combat tactically richer. The cost is a big loss in speed. This much granularity is a good learning tool for people accustomed to individual initiative but new to side initiative. Once GMs and players get the hang of Igo-Hugo sequencing, this level of detail becomes a distraction more than a help. I suspect most groups will shelve it after a few sessions.

In short, if you played 1st or 2nd edition AD&D, almost everything in AS&SH will be familiar. So familiar that if you don't read these books carefully, you'll fall into old habits and play AS&SH "wrong." But then, everyone played AD&D "wrong," too, and it didn't matter, so it's nothing to stress over.

The bestiary is exactly what you expect except for the addition of monsters from Lovecraft: mi-go, shoggoths, the Great Race, deep ones, and many others put in appearances. There are no sanity checks or insanity rules. Whatever nightmares these creatures inspire is entirely in the players' minds.

The magic treasure lists include laser swords, laser crossbows, paralyzing pistols, radium pistols (radiation shotguns, actually, not the radium weapons of Barsoom), and radiation grenades. You'll also find the Glaive from the movie Krull. One hopes its inclusion is ironic, though I've heard that film has a fan or two tucked away somewhere, awaiting the fall of civilization.

The Setting
Hyperborea is why AS&SH exists, I suspect. It's a solid setting for two reasons.

The first is that it's a closed world. Everything ends at the edge of the map. The ocean pours off into the Black Gulf, where the Boreal wind howls. The disc of the world isn't exactly flat; it's described as slightly convex, presumably to keep the ocean from just sliding off altogether.

The whole map is only about 3,000 miles across, and most of that is ocean. The central landmass is a mere 1,000 by 1,500 miles--about half the size of the contiguous United States--and much of that is wasteland, glaciated mountains, and windswept tundra uninhabitable by all but the hardiest nomads. If you're more accustomed to worlds drawn on the scale of the Forgotten Realms, Hyperborea might seem tiny. Even so, it's more than big enough for any adventure you want. When you factor in the islands in the surrounding sea, both charted and uncharted, you have no excuse for ever running out of adventure sites.

Is Hyperborea a fragment of old Earth blown into its own isolated realm? A pocket dimension created by some force or deity? The GM is allowed to provide his own answer for that question or leave it hanging, as suits his whim.

Fragment or self-contained world, it sits at its own north pole. North is inward toward the center of the map; south is toward the outer edge all around. This also means west is clockwise and east is counterclockwise, though I didn't see that spelled out anywhere. The sun never rises more than 20 degrees or so above the horizon, and during summer, it never fully sets. During winter, it doesn't rise at all.

The seasons, however, are measured in years, not months, on a 13-year cycle. Summer stretches on for over a year of unending daylight; winter brings over a year of unbroken night. When during that cycle you choose to begin your campaign is a very important decision. The rulebook doesn't discuss this at all, but AS&SH would be an excellent candidate for a campaign where months or years are allowed to pass between adventures. Players tend to mistrust inactivity, even when it passes in the blink of an eye. If your players can overcome their suspicion that you're going to pull a fast one on them, beginning each new adventure with "it's been 10 months since you last went adventuring" would be a great way to conduct a Hyperborean campaign. The world would change palpably over the course of the campaign, with distinctly different types of adventures being appropriate to the changing seasons. If your group meets often enough to get through an adventure a month, I'd consider enacting a standard rule that one year of Hyperborean time passes every time you flip to a new month on the calendar in the kitchen.

The second reason Hyperborea is fun is simply because it's riddled with interesting places. If you're a fan of swords & sorcery fiction from the heroic age of pulp, then most of these locales will have a good mix of familiarity and strangeness. Hyperborea abounds with mystery, danger, and exoticness. Its history is nicely drawn, and what's even better is that the history presents a solid rationale for why the world has so many ancient, empty, ruined cities and subterranean dungeons.

Putting It All Together
Unfortunately, here's where AS&SH stumbles.

On the one hand, we have a wonderfully drawn world where enigmas abound and that pays heavy lip service to the gritty, pulpy, swords & sorcery tales of Howard, Smith, Leiber, Moorcock, et al. On the other hand, we have a well-done retroclone of AD&D with many of that game's rough edges polished smooth.

So what's the problem?

The problem is that AD&D is a poor vehicle for portraying adventures in that world. AD&D is all about collecting: the heaviest armor, the baddest weapon, the deadliest spells, the flashiest magic items. Conan or the Gray Mouser were never defined by their +2 frost brand sword, boots of striding and springing, gauntlets of ogre power, and rope of climbing. No sorcerer of Howard's or Leiber's ever cast a spell like ice storm or haste.

When magic spells function like rocket launchers and tasers, wizards turn into soldiers. When the power of magic items outstrips the power of the character wielding those items, the character becomes an adjunct to his gear, a carrier. Both of those styles are characteristic of AD&D (and, by extension, AS&SH), but they're contrary to the pulpy flavor that Hyperborea wants to place front and center.

Now, as far as I'm aware, the phrase "low-magic campaign" doesn't appear anywhere in the rules. Having only the printed version of the game and not the PDF, I can't run a search to be 100% sure. But it does state and restate that the aim of Hyperborea is to capture the spirit of those early fantasy stories from the pages of Weird Tales, and those stories didn't develop anything like a typical AD&D adventure.

Could AD&D / AS&SH replicate Weird Tales? Of course they could, but not without either the DM or the publisher of the setting placing severe limits on what's allowed.

Rules have profound impact on the underlying assumptions of a game world. In the stories of Howard and Leiber, human freedom, courage, and indomitability are ultimately more powerful than the potent but decadent force of civilization and its corrupting familiar, magic. Contrast that to AD&D, where a high-level magic-user is unlikely to be bested unless he's confronted by an almost equal use of magic and where a warrior's or thief's inventory is likely to contain as many magical items as a wizard's, if not more.

AS&SH's extensive chapters on AD&D-inspired spells and magic items contain no discussion of limiting magic for the sake of preserving the old-shool weird fantasy feel this game wants to be about. The original DMG at least contained warnings to the DM about what would happen if too much magic was set loose in the game. That warning wasn't just Gary spouting about his preferred style of play; it was motivated by the sacks of letters TSR received from DMs begging for advice after rampant magic torpedoed their campaigns--magic that was, in most cases, generated straight off the game's treasure and magic item tables. Since AS&SH's random treasure table is nearly identical to AD&D's, history leads us to expect it to generate the same Monte Haulish problems.

Other games tackle this problem head-on. Crypts & Things admonishes the DM to keep magic items to a minimum, and all the sample items described in the book have serious drawbacks as well as advantages for their users. The power of C&T wizards is limited by penalties for casting destructive magic. Barbarians of Lemuria is not a retroclone by any stretch, but it achieves a strong pulp feel through carefully chosen rules that steer play along gritty, low-magic, pulpy paths. The only nod to limiting magic in AS&SH is that potions and scrolls alone can be manufactured by PCs. Everything else is a relic of a bygone era. In other words, you find it as treasure, which is exactly how countless AD&D campaigns soared into the magical stratosphere and suffocated there.

Grafting AD&D's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to spells and magic items onto Hypberborea is a disservice to the pulp-style setting. Of course, a DM can go through the AS&SH spells and magic item lists and cross off all the effects and items he wants his players never to get their hands on. I'd be fine with that approach if AS&SH was a generic fantasy game, but it's not.

As it stands, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is the Odd Couple of FRPGs: two individually excellent products cohabiting the same box yet living in separate universes. If you're looking for a solid, approachable retroclone of AD&D, AS&SH is a strong choice. If you're looking for a weird fantasy setting inspired by the stories and ambiance of Howard, Leiber, Moorcock, and Smith, you won't find one much better than Hyperborea. But these two sharing an apartment? The linguini will hit the wall.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

More from Crypts & Things

Howling Tower - Tue, 07/23/2013 - 07:00
To wrap up my look at Crypts & Things, I want to post two quotes from the book. These two quotes probably do a better job, in a few words, of summarizing the ambience of C&T than all my meanderings from the previous post.

The first pull is from the section on magic items:
Magic items in Crypts and Things are rare and special items. They are artefacts of ancient wars and demonic summonings, and as a result their purpose is always malign. At most only one is found in a particular Crypt or adventure and they are the stuff of legend and renown. A figurative double-edged sword, magic treasures always endow at least one curse for each blessing they bestow. Often their long-term use is hazardous to the mental and physical well being of the character that possesses them. Only 20 magic items are described in the book, and all of them bear out that dire prophecy.

The second quote is from Appendix A, "The Features of Crypt* & Things."
The gods have deserted mankind in the dim past and the only magicians left are of the self-serving, amoral or simply just plain bad variety. There is an absence of powerful Wizard Guilds/Schools who police magicians in the field and instil upon their students a code of good ethical behaviour toward their fellow man. Instead you are left with the choice of serving an apprenticeship with evil and manipulative Sorcerers or joining a cult to grab crumbs of magical power thrown down from the table by the Sorcerer/Ranking Priest. Students who rise in power under this system are likely to end up disposed of in some gruesome but useful manner so they never challenge their master’s power. Exactly right.

* I'd just like to point out that that's D101's typo, not mine. I know the name of the game is Crypts & Things.

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Crypts & Things

Howling Tower - Mon, 07/22/2013 - 15:50
  • 150-pages
  • By Newt Newport, with Akrasia
  • published 2011 by D101 Games
  • $40.44 in hardcover, $23.59 in softcover, $12 PDF.

Crypts & Thingsbills itself as a Swords & Wizardryvariant. It would be truer to call it a S&W alternative, since you don't need the S&W rules to play Crypts & Things. It's a complete game by itself; the Crypts & Things rulebook contains all the S&W rules needed to play.
Where S&W is a straight-up adaptation of OD&D that stays true to the original game's non-setting, C&T packages those rules with a very particular approach to campaigning. What you get in C&T is an S&W-esque game in the world of Zarth, a setting heavily flavored with great dollops of the Hyborian Age, Melnibone, Nehwon, Zothique, and Xiccarph
Right there I've listed the works of four of my five favorite authors, so it should come as no surprise that I like C&T.

D101 does many things right straight out of the gate. The first thing is including on page 4 a sidebar titled "How is Crypts & Things Different from Swords & Wizardry Core?" Players who already know S&W don't need to pore through the whole C&T book looking for departures from the standard rules. Since that's the sort of thing you'd like to know in a review, here's the list:
  • Optional fighting styles are available to the fighter.
  • The barbarian class is added, based on the version published in White Dwarf magazine in 1977.
  • The thief has more martial ability than in straight S&W.
  • The magic-user and cleric are gone, replaced by the magician, who can cast both magic-user and cleric spells but faces moral choices and mechanical risks when choosing between white, gray, and black magic. Magicians can't turn undead.
  • Ability bonuses range up to +3 instead of +1.
  • All PCs are human; there are no elves, dwarves, or halflings (or vadhagh), at least not as PCs.
  • Simple skill rules and sanity rules are added. Both work off of saving throws. A character's starting sanity points equal his Wisdom score. Lost sanity can be recovered, but if it ever drops to 0, further losses reduce Wisdom permanently.
  • The game is more generous than S&W with starting hit points, and with a bit of luck, a character can keep fighting when all his hps are gone. Further damage comes off Constitution, and the character must make a saving throw to remain conscious every time he takes Con damage this way.

Don't let that list bullet point trick you into thinking that C&T is in any way less punishing than S&W. Despite letting 1st-level characters start with maximum hit points for their class and letting everyone recover 100% of their hit points with a good night's sleep, C&T is about as punishing as standard S&W in this regard. How can that be? Because in standard D&D, healing potions restore hit points; in Crypts & Things, healing spells and potions only restore Constitution points. While you're down Con points, you have a -2 penalty on all your attacks and saving throws. In a standard OD&D/S&W game, if you're at -1 hit points--assuming you're not dead at that point--you can receive a cure light wounds spell, regain 4 hit points, and be almost as good as new. In C&T, "-1 hit point" means you're at 0 hps and -1 Con. Yes, you can keep fighting (at -2 to attack), provided you make your saving throw every time you take damage (at -2 on the save). Drinking a healing potion while at -1 Con gets you back to full Con but restores no hit points, so the next time you get hit, you're right back in the same boat. The standard S&W character who gets back on his feet with 4 hps might get lucky the next time something hits him and take only 1-3 points of damage. In C&T, there's no buffer; healing gets you to 0 hit points, and any hit is going to drop you back into Con damage territory. This is a different approach to the problem of giving low-level heroes a chance to survive, but it does not make low-level characters significantly more robust than just saying they die at, say, -5 hps. You need to get lucky on saving throws to keep battling on heroically after all your hit points have bled out onto the cold stone floor, especially at low to mid levels. When your hit points are gone, you're probably going to face-plant into the dust like any other dumb sack of spuds.
One nice touch in all this is that characters can regain hit points (not Con points) by taking a slug of "strong drink" (Nemedian ale, Stygian absinthe, or whatever else passes for stiff liquor in your campaign). No magic is required; you regain 1d4 hps, once per day.
The four character classes are different enough from the S&W standards that they deserve close reading. The barbarian is unique, and the others aren't just your older brother's fighter, thief, and magic-user in savage face paint. 
The fighter is the most familiar of the four. He gets the best attack bonuses, the most hit points, the juiciest armor and weapon choices, and six different attack styles to learn. For this, he pays more XP than either the barbarian or thief to advance, and he has less attractive saving throws than all of the other three. Because saving throws triple up as skill rolls and as stay-on-your-feet rolls when damage is chipping away your Con points, those weak saves are a big deal. I'd probably give fighters a +2 bonus on saves to remain conscious at 0 hit points. Otherwise, thieves, barbarians, and even magicians have better odds of continuing the fight under desperate conditions than the characters who are nominally the toughest fighters in the game. 
The fighter's attack styles allow players to zero in on how their character goes about the job of killing things and to get some bonuses for being a specialist. In d20 terms, they're feats. To some OSR fans, feats symbolize everything that's wrong with post-d20 D&D, so their inclusion in an old-school book like C&T is slightly surprising. Unless you're a reactionary, they're not a bad thing. Despite a few new-school touches, the feeling of C&T as a whole is overwhelmingly old-school.
Thieves, too, are largely familiar. Instead of listing their skills on a table with ascending probabilities by level, their skills are resolved as saving throws with a class bonus. True to Swords & Wizardry, there is no standard rule describing when a character can add a high stat bonus to a saving throw; that's up to the DM. Because S&W uses only one saving throw, however, a thief has roughly identical odds for success no matter what skill he's using. It doesn't matter whether you're climbing a wall, picking a pocket, or hiding in shadows, your chance to succeed is your level-based saving throw, plus 3 because you're a thief, plus whatever other modifiers the DM assigns. It's simple and direct, but the high chance for failure means few will be foolish enough to try scaling the 100-foot-tall Tower of the Spider Mogul. 

Barbarians are similar to thieves. They have identical attack bonuses, XP requirements, and hit dice, though the barbarian's emphasis on Constitution means they'll probably have more hit points than the average thief. Both get the same bonus to climb walls, perception, and stealth. Barbarians have better armor and weapon choices and get a +1 bonus on armor class instead of the thief's +2; the thief's emphasis on Dexterity means he's likely to come out ahead on AC. Barbarians are immune to fear effects (they go berserk when more civilized folk run away), resist poison and disease (+3 on saving throws), can sense danger and follow tracks, and get a big bonus on first-round attacks and damage when they win initiative. 

The magician class is, as far as I know, unique to Crypts & Things. Superficially, magicians look a lot like OD&D/S&W magic-users. The workings of magic, however, are entirely different in C&T. Spells are divided into white (beneficial), gray (manipulative), and black (destructive and "contrary to nature") schools. White magic is cast normally. Casting a gray spell costs the wizard hit points equal to twice the spell's level, the same as if he'd been struck with an arrow. Merely to memorize a black magic spell, the magician must either sacrifice a sentient creature or lose Constitution points equal to twice the spell's level. When a black magic spell is cast, he must make a saving throw or lose Sanity points equal to the spell's level. This begs a puzzling question that isn't overtly answered in the rulebook: When a magician loses Con for memorizing a black magic spell, must he make a saving throw to avoid falling unconscious for eight hours? Does he suffer the -2 penalty on attack rolls and saving throws for having reduced Con? The rules don't say otherwise, so I assume the answer to both is yes, but this being a Swords & Wizardry variant, every DM is free to draw his or her own conclusion. I foresee black-magic users spending weeks prepping for an adventure: memorize fireball, then lay up six days recuperating from the effort before memorizing snake charm and spending another six days in bed (attended by a bevy of undead slaves and serpentman healers, no doubt).

Note that none of these changes make magicians easier to play than standard magic-users; in fact, they all work against magicians. The most powerful spells injure the caster one way or another. Two things are offered to mitigate that blow. First, magicians are allowed to wear leather armor. That's a nice, if small, concession. Second, magicians with Intelligence 15 or higher "earn" an extra 1st-level spell. The word "earn" is unfortunate in this context. It's not clear whether it means smart characters start with an extra 1st-level spell in their spellbooks, or they can cast one extra 1st-level spell per day. Option 1 is OK but doesn't help much in the real adventuring world, since 1st- and 2nd-level characters tend to stick to just one or two spell choices anyway. The latter is a major boost that would go a long way toward compensating magicians for the other handicaps.

Such worldbuilding-by-rules enforces a different style of D&D onto a Crypts & Things campaign. I support that approach. Even "generic" D&D forces assumptions onto the setting. C&T's assumptions seem fairly carefully chosen to steer play into a hard-edged, weird swords & sorcery style. If you dig that sort of thing, then this is a solid approach.

Combat is exactly what you expect. There are no surprises in this chapter for players of Swords & Wizardry or OD&D, except for the hit points + Constitution rules mentioned earlier. Other than being divided into white, gray, and black magic and stopping at level 6, the spell list is similar to that in the S&W Core. A few new, Zarth-only spells have been added, such as call the kindly ones and cauldron of blood, but most will be familiar. Raise dead and reincarnation, however, are conspicuously absent. If your character dies at any level of play and no powerful, otherworldly entity owes you a favor, it's time to grab 3d6 and a fresh character sheet.

The monsters are plentiful, and while many of them are things we've seen in every other retroclone, enough of them are unique and tailored to C&T's weird, pulpy setting to hold your interest.

The Continent of Terror is the only part of Zarth that’s mapped and described. The descriptions are brief—just enough to stir a few adventure ideas. That’s by design, as the author states that he wants to provide only an outline and let the DM craft his own version of the world. The Continent of Terror has more in common with Leiber's Newhon than Howard's Hyborian Age in that there are no countries to speak of, just regions, cities, and mysterious locales.

A central idea behind Zarth is that it’s just one of many worlds. All the other worlds are inhabited or overrun by demons or Others, a catch-all term for any monstrous entity. Zarth is isolated and somewhat protected by the Shroud, “a dark and unfathomable magical netherworld that separates our Reality from the Other Worlds.” Unfortunately, foolish ancient sorcerers opened a gateway to these other worlds and left it open. The so-called Locust Star “blazes in unholy glory in the sky above Mount Terror.” Demons come through the Locust Star to plague Zarth—and thus, adventures are born.

Magicians are forced to risk contact with the Shroud when they cast certain types of spells. It probably goes without saying, but dipping your toe into the Shroud is generally dangerous to both body and soul; you attract the attention of Others while you're there. This is a nice touch.

Far and away C&T’s biggest failing--the only one I'm even going to mention--is that the book is lousy with typos.* It pushes the boundary of what’s tolerable even for an amateur publication. I was so exasperated by the errors on my first reading of the PDF that I almost chucked the whole thing as a shambles. Given my long background in editing, maybe I'm more sensitive to editorial flaws than most. If you’re like me, you’ll gnaw on your fingers while reading C&T. But different people place different value on quality editing. Maybe it won't bother you at all. Fortunately, I didn't spot many errors that caused any real confusion; the tables and the substance of the rules were always clear despite the typos.

If you can swallow the rampant typos, Crypts & Things offers a unique twist on OD&D/S&W play. The setting-specific classes and magic rules make Crypts & Things a different experience from the Swords & Wizardry core, and it's one that I'd jump at the chance to play.

* It's been brought to my attention, since posting this review, that Crypts & Things is a British production, and many of what I consider misspellings are actually correct British spellings. On looking through the book, I see that explains many--but far from all--of the spelling issues. In light of that, I'm stepping back from "lousy with typos" to merely "laced with typos."

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Another Shipment from

Howling Tower - Tue, 07/16/2013 - 07:00
A new round of books from arrived on my doorstep last week. Ordering those Swords & Wizardry books a month ago was so much fun that when Lulu sent me a great coupon, I was hooked and reeled in. I don’t know why ordering a book from Lulu is more exciting than ordering one from, say, Amazon, but it is. I suspect it’s because these books weren’t just pulled off a shelf in a warehouse, they were printed just for me. They are mine in a way that other books can’t be.

Like the S&W titles, I’ve had PDFs of these titles for a long time. The fact that I ordered physical books is proof that I have more than a professional curiosity about these games: they’ve already impressed me and I’d like to actually run them around a table sometime.

I’m enough of a realist to know that, even with the books living on my shelf, the odds of an actual game happening are less than 50/50. If I get to run even two of these for friends or at conventions, I’ll be pleased. (Maybe next year’s NTRPGCon should be an all-Print On Demand show for me.)

Over the next few weeks, I intend to write actual reviews of these games. Only two of them are D&D/S&W/L&L/LotFP variants, which makes them more interesting (to me, anyway) than titles about which little more can be said than “it’s yet another version of OD&D.” Not that I have anything against those, but they’ve been piling up rapidly over the last few years and I’m nearing my saturation point.

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Brood Pit of the Frog God

Howling Tower - Sun, 07/07/2013 - 07:00
I've been itching to do more Adventure Notebooks for a while, and what better way to mark its return than with a small tribute to the outstanding Swords & Wizardry adventure I played at PaizoCon last weekend, run by Frog God Games' Bill Webb. Regardless of whether you're a fan of S&W or even of the OSR, you should grab the PDF of the S&W Monster Book from or wherever else it's available. If you play S&W, Labyrinth Lord, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, or any of the seemingly endless other OD&D/BX-derived old-school variants, then you absolutely want this book. If you play with rules that don't trace their lineage to OD&D, you'll find that while the Monster Book contains a lot of exactly what you expect, it also includes enough oddball entities and familiar creatures twisted into the unfamiliar to make the PDF well worth its $5 pricetag. This Adventure Notebook pretty much leaped full-grown into my head the moment I read the entry for the froglum, and the froglum isn't the only monster that's had that effect.

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My Father's Day Present to Me: Swords & Wizardry

Howling Tower - Mon, 06/24/2013 - 07:00
While I was at North Texas RPG Con a few weeks ago, I got the chance to play in one of Bill Webb's Swords & Wizardry adventures. The six-hour session was terrific fun. I've read the S&W White Box and Core Rules PDFs numerous times, but this was the first time I actually played them at a table. It wasn't exactly a new experience, since I've played my share and a bit more of OD&D, but it was so much fun and so easy to play (compared to our efforts a few years ago to play OD&D itself from the three Little Brown Books) that I decided to reward Frog God and Mythmere by spending some actual money on Swords & Wizardry.

Almost all of my RPG purchasing these days is PDFs, since I actually like reading them on my tablet. (That's how I write and run most adventures, now too: directly from my tablet using Evernote.) I hit, found suitable versions of the Core Rules and Monster Book, and grabbed Ruins & Ronin at the same time just because it's so cool (I came this close to running a session of R&R at NTRPGCon this year). While I was there, I grabbed the full six-issue run of Knockspell PDFs, too, based almost entirely on their tables of contents that indicated one issue contained guidelines for constructing an adventure using Scrabble tiles. I love that sort of thing ... .

The books arrived from Lulu quicker than I expected. The covers are a bit dark, but that's a print-on-demand thing. (Tip to publishers: if you do POD through Lulu or just about any other service, it's a good idea to not go with severely dark covers, because they'll darken up more in the printing process and look muddier than you'd like. The S&W White Box image is much lighter to begin with, so it probably turns out crisper.) Otherwise, the physical quality is very good, as I've come to expect from Lulu.

What's more, I've been enjoying Knockspell immensely. I've only finished issue #2, and already I consider the $5/issue that I dropped on the PDFs to be money well spent. "Isles on an Emerald Sea #2" is terrific. The Isle of Barzon has more old-school flavor than most of the "this here is old-school" settings I've seen. It could have been lifted directly out of one of Lin Carter's Thongor the Barbarian novels or one of Howard's lesser known, non-Conan tales. I'd have paid $5 for that one article. The rest of the issue is gravy.

Despite the fact that I seldom buy physical books anymore, my OSR bookshelf is getting crowded. Swords & Wizardry joins Labyrinth Lord, Adventurer Conqueror King System, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, and Mutant Future, along with an assortment of adventures (Barrowmaze I and II, Stonehell Dungeon) and supplements (Realms of Crawling Chaos, the LL Advanced Edition Companion, The Majestic Wilderlands). Most of these I got for free -- one of the perks of working in the industry. That by no means cheapens them in my estimation. If anything, I value books and games I was sent for review, or as an entrant in the Three Castles Award, or simply as a thank-you, higher than the things I buy for myself.

In the '70s, we mixed OD&D, Holmes, AD&D, and variants from The Dragon, Judge's Guild, Balboa, ourselves, and God-only-knows who else, and somehow made it all work. When it comes to old-school roleplaying, I default to D&D B/X, mainly because it's my favorite edition and I still have the books in good shape. But when you get right down to it, I really don't care whether I'm playing D&D B/X, OD&D, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Basic Fantasy RPG, Searchers of the Unknown, Castles & Crusades, ACKs, DCC, or something else. In the final analysis, they're all basically the same; they're all basically D&D, and that's what I come to the table for.
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