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[REVIEW] The Mortuary Temple of Esma

Beyond Fomalhaut - Mon, 11/12/2018 - 13:24
The Mortuary Temple of Esma
The Mortuary Temple of Esma (2018)by Anthony HusoSelf-published5th to 7th level (or slightly higher)
This is a long overdue review of a module that deserves more attention. I had planned to review it as soon as I read it in the Spring – but misplaced my copy, which only turned up again at my weekend house as I was readying it for Winter. So here it is, a bit belatedly: a great AD&D module based on the author’s personal notes from the 1980s, given a new polish and some expansion and rewriting. It is both a good document of the way high-level AD&D was often played (I remember fairly similar, although less good dungeons from a very different time and place), and something that has excellent playing value today. It should be no surprise the module is good. I have known Anthony’s work since the early 2000s, when he created some of the best Thief fan missions of that time, with a signature design style featuring expansive, sinister cities, labyrinthine plots, high drama, purple prose, and brooding sluts. He had later worked as a level designer on various computer games including the Dishonored computer games – again, a standout series – and he has recently published a range of AD&D supplements, with the same imagination and attention to quality.
As acknowledged in the Foreword, The Mortuary Temple of Esma was inspired by the eerie and strange Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, the “White Album” of Gygaxian fantasy scenarios. Tharizdun is the most Lovecraftian AD&D module in a line which had always drawn generously from Lovecraft, but this time without being imitative: it conjures the same ideas of wrongness and blasphemy while constructing its own disturbing imagery. It is also a tough meatgrinder of a module, with deadly battles to test a hardened adventuring group; not to mention how much of the content is hidden in fair but progressively more obscure ways. Finally, it has art completely outside the established AD&D style, so much so that it feels like a weird third-party bootleg to a mainstream family game. I bring this up because, beyond the acknowledgement, Mortuary Temple is to Tharizdun what Tharizdun is to Lovecraft: a homage, but an original one which carries forward the general idea while following its own path. The design features I noted for Tharizdun all apply to the Mortuary Temple – in their own natural context.
What the module offers is a three-level dungeon underneath the mausoleum of an elf lord (for four total levels). It is somewhat a mixture between a monument to love similar to the Taj Mahal, a testing ground, and a place to bury unpleasant cosmic secrets. It has its own strong style, featuring a clash between lost beauty and unwholesome corruption – not only in the place’s trappings, but the content of the encounters. Accessing the mortuary temple’s secrets involves not just careful discovery, but making sacrifices and wagering one’s life and belongings. It certainly has strong choices and consequences – and the rewards are artifact-level magical treasures both iconic and powerful. This is a module for a large party of characters who have grown into their stature and earned their experience levels and magic items (it is not a low-magic scenario either – it is ideal for groups who know how to exploit two wands of Orcus and three hands of Vecna). Whatever the outcome, it will be a memorable adventure.
Module interiorsIt pays off that the author knows and respects the AD&D ruleswithout becoming their creative servant. The module leverages this knowledge to build a deadly gauntlet of encounters with powerful and resourceful enemies who know and exploit their environment (without being omniscient about it). The top level alone is a brutal battleground, which will test a party’s mettle before they can descend to the dungeons. The encounters mix the familiar with the new – well-known AD&D monsters with original creations (or old mainstays given a new spin). The following levels are more focused on puzzles and smaller mysteries, while the final one is once again a brutal tactical slaughterfest (note, the module practically requires a battle mat or a table setup to run fairly). The encounters are puzzling mini-scenarios on their own, from forgotten tombs to a nightmarish underwater realm and a place of emtombment forgotten by the outside world, and beyond the scope of what one would expect from a sacred elven resting place.
There are two aspects of the module I find less good (and the reason why it did not receive the rare five-star rating despite being close to it). First, while the individual encounters are almost always excellent, the core puzzles to progress deeper into the module feel mechanical, a bit like CRPG quests instead of D&D’s creative problem solving (although the module predates most actual CRPGs). I think these are the artifacts of 1980s play which did not age so well, even if they are, in fact, authentic (here, Tarizdun has stood the test of time much better). The second reason is that the two final levels are somehow less inspired than the materials preceding them. This is no accident, since the original group of players never actually reached them, and the magic of playtesting – the transformative force which puts the GM’s materials into their final context – is not present.
The adventure is presented in a fairly easy to follow format, although I suspect table use would require a fair amount of underlining and a bit of cross-referencing due to the material’s interrelatedness and complexity. The prose, when it comes to the brief but heavy descriptions, is sort of a familiar trademark: “Shod in plated steel, gallant valves of white stone hang picturesque, but unsecured. The wind whimpers and, across the walls, curtains of unchecked clematis flutter and sway. No longer square, the doors pivot on huge pins, making ravenous sounds where stone brushes stone.” (Compare this with the introduction to Calendra’s Cistern, a Thief mission from the year 2000 – some things are reassuringly constant.) It is not long, but it is as purple as it comes – and yes, there is ancient elven love poetry, an almost disturbing amount of it. On the other hand, the information in the location key is broken down sensibly, the various forms of highlighting and side boxes are helpful, and the whole thing is well put together. I usually don’t review production values, but like Tharizdun, Mortuary Temple features a non-standard art style featuring the author’s pencils and crayons, mostly greyscale with rare dashes of colour – fitting the mood of an original module. It is pleasing to look at, as are the maps – which are original, with digital enhancements.
The Mortuary Temple of Esma is among the best releases of this year, and even its slight weaknesses should not detract from its power of imagination and skilful execution. It is as good as deadly mid-to-high (but more emphasis on “high”) level AD&D gets.
This publication credits its playtesters (or at least it seems so from the Special Thanks section).
Rating: **** / *****
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The Castle that Fell from the Sky

Ten Foot Pole - Mon, 11/12/2018 - 12:19

Steve Robertson & Jimm Johnson
Self Published
Levels 3-5

Even in the far gulfs of space, the struggle of Law against Chaos, Good versus Evil is eternal. But wherever evil is not extinguished, it will revive to exact vengeance on those who would keep it at bay… …On the fringes of the realm, where civilization wanes and adventures begin, rumors are whispered of a castle that fell from the sky. Some say it has poisoned the land where it fell and nought but death can be within its walls. Some say creatures, foul and dangerous, have gathered at the dark fortress. But others, the treasure seekers and thieves who haunt the local taverns, scoff at such dire warnings and view them only as a thin ploy to keep adventurers from winning the vast treasure that surely waits within. To your ears have come these very rumors— and more: you have learned the location of the fallen sky-castle!

This fifty-two page adventure contains a multi-level funhouse dungeon with about forty rooms. A good mix of OD&D elements, it manages to mix a more light-hearted style in without it becoming silly. Classic elements abound. Both in style and in presentation to the DM, it reaches acceptable levels. Since my standards are stooopid high, this is a compliment.

Being OD&D-like there are lots of new creatures and treasures. The guards that have fish-heads can blow giant bubbles that, if they touch a magic user, deletes a rando spell from memory. Giant mosquitoes roam. A snake with a single cyclops eye. Note how familiar the creatures are. It’s a normal thing, just twisted a little bit. Freaky enough, or more, because you KNOW it’s not right, as a player. That fucking snake has one eye man … I ain’t going over there! Treasure tends to be similarly unique. We can extrapolate this in to “the OD&D style.” It’s not all over the top nuttiness, in creatures, treasure, or room encounters. There’s something familiar about them. It’s a basic thing, pushed and twisted just a little bit. Familiar enough to have some recognition but it’s that extra little twist that pushes you in to freak out/caution territory. It’s a great vibe and totally by bag baby.

Speaking of rom encounters, let’s look at one of them:
“TOAD IDOL: Against the east wall is an onyx toad idol with a sinister grin and a single ruby eye. The ruby is a deep blood red and has a strange gleam. It is cursed. If anyone removes the ruby, the stars of the sky appear on the ceiling and slowly descend upon the thief, covering him in a green-black shimmer. That character is now cursed, and all rolls will be considered a 1 until the ruby is returned.”

Pretty terse. Not the most evocative, but blood-red and gleams and green-black shiffers are a cut above the descriptions most adventures have. It’s a pretty basic setup: the cursed eye-treasure statue. It’s the onyx toad and stars appearing that really push this up in to great territory. And yet .. it’s so simple, isn’t it?
So far it’s a pretty standard adventure. Put the first room has a big red button with a sign that says “do not push the button.” And there’s a leprechaun-like creature called Barbar Jinx that can show up when you say his name three times aloud and uses “meesa” and “yousa.” There are other examples as well. This is really the tonal part that completes the definition of funhouse: a couple of pop culture things tossed in has always been a hallmark of the style. I kind of enjoy the fucking around nature and having a good time, but I recognize that as a tonal thing not everyone wants.

There is, of course, room for improvement. There are great summary sheets, but a little bit more of them, like having the wanderers doing something, would have been good. It also seems like there’s just a little bit more missing from a lot of encounters.

How much instruction/guidance to the DM are you looking for? The modern trend of “all DM’s are idiots and I must spell out everything” is something I abhor. On the other end of the spectrum is no advice to the DM at all. Just let the DM run it however they want.

Note the toad room from earlier. No treasure value for the gem, and no mention of a save for the curse. There’s another room that has a brazier in the center that “fills the room with fire” when the opposite door is opened, 1d6 per turn. Is there a save? Instant or slow enough that, say, you could get one turn to run out of the now opened door to save yourself if thats the first thing you tell the DM? It’s ALL up to the DM to interpret and run.

I get the style, and it’s fine; I’d much rather this style than the “explain everything” style. I get excited when I run the game, so little cue’s to help me not forget things does a wonder. Just putting “[sv]” would be enough. Or “(10,000gp)” or “instantly” vs “slowly” would help me out.

This is in digest format and in single column … one of the few ways that single column is acceptable to use.

It’s a good adventure and I’d have no issues with running for folks.

This is on Lulu for $6. Lulu previews require flash. I don’t do flash.

By the time you read this I’m fucking around in Central America for a month. Every review after this one, for the next month, means I was a good boy and wrote ahead. We shall see …

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Throwdown at the Toad Temple

Sorcerer's Skull - Mon, 11/12/2018 - 12:00

Our Land of Azurth 5e game continued, with our heroes still trying to figure out a way to free the Land of Under-Sea from the evil of the Temple of the Toad. After a night's rest to heal their wounds, they decide to infiltrate the temple during sunrise services. They are joined by the cat man Calico Jack. Smooth-talking there way past the guards ("as long as you sit in the back") the PCs saw the service, ending in the sacrifice of hapless froglings into the maw of the toad idol.

They noted the tapestries and friezes seem to denote some sort of apocalypse, that allow frog or toad people were spared, apparently under the protective hand of some sort of banjo-playing, messianic frog figure. They figure if push comes to shove, Waylon can inpersonate this "Frog Jesus."

While the cultist were distracted with their ritual, they pick the lock and enter one of the adjacent rooms. They find equipment they don't understand...

...including what appears to be a weapon, but when someone seems to be coming toward the door, they have to hurry into another room. Seeing signs of their entry evident, the cultist raise an alarm that is announced through the temple by a disembodied, feminine voice.

The party tries to make a break for it, but the doors are closed. They attack the guards and cult elite present in a pitch battle. The guards go down quickly, though there are a lot of them. The higher level cult members are armed with weapons that shoot searing beams of light. They nearly kill the Sorcerer, Kairon, with these weapons.

The high priest is particularly hard to kill, even with the party's concentrated attacks. He offers to parlay for their lives, but the party doesn't believe him. Erekose strides up and brings the fight to him. The High Priest emerges from cover to accept the challenge. He deals Erekose two devastating blows with his great sword, but now he's in the open and the party finishes him off.

Their victory is short lived, because more guards arrived. Shade releases the jade bear she acquired long ago, and Dagmar throws down her serpent staff, which becomes a giant python. The party and their animal allies kill the guards. For the moment, the temple nave is theirs...

Flatliners: Contemporary Fiction in a Nutshell

Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog - Mon, 11/12/2018 - 06:17

The 1990 film Flatliners has the interesting premise of sins brought to life by near death ruined by smug smarmy-pants loser writers. What are the ultimate sins? Playground bullying and serial womanizing by attractive/popular people that will go on to become successful in life. Chad finally gets his comeuppance!

To throw in one final fedora twirling insult to this steaming pile of angsty resentment, the atheist played by Kevin Bacon is the one that has the brilliantly Christian idea of seeking out those he had sinned against in order to make things right.

Socially stunted atheist gamma males just naturally know how to Christian better than anybody else. This is simultaneously proof of their superior intellects and also a refutation of Christian “superstition”. Genius!

Such people have no concept of the besetting sins women typically face. Therefore, the Julia Roberts character’s awful AWFUL sin is… discovering her war hero father’s secret shame when she was a child– as if women don’t sin, they are merely damaged by their proximity to men.

This isn’t really art or culture or storytelling in any real sense. It’s merely a mechanism for broadcasting the exact same narrative points that academia and journalism pound away at day in and day out. It corresponds to neither reality nor human nature and thus amounts to little more than just another insipid attack on both the imagination and the soul.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Introducing Cthulhu Boston: 1914

19th Level - Mon, 11/12/2018 - 03:38

After mulling over a few options for gaming this autumn and winter, I'm kicking off a game set in Boston of 1914. The First World War has been in the news a lot lately, with today being the centennial of the armistice. I came across a quote by Lt. Colonel William Murray which struck me - "No more horrors. No more mud and misery. Just everlasting peace."

I don't plan on setting the bulk of the game in Europe. It is set in Boston. Here in the United States we sat out much of the war, joining it in spring of 1917 and not being in Europe in earnest until near the end of the conflict.

I've been looking through old newspapers - our game will be starting on June 29, 1914 - the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. It is noteworthy that while this was certainly seen as a major event, there was no clue that the spark which would ignite the world into war had just gone off. You see that in the papers over the next few days, with the story fading until the saber-rattling began to get obvious.

I've been doing a lot of research on Boston of the 1920s for my regular Call of Cthulhu game. I was surprised how much the years prior to the 1920s caught me. It's not that the 1920s in Boston were boring - far from it. But the 1910s spoke to me - screamed at me really, with ideas for adventures. Physically, Boston was "under construction", with elevated trains and subways rapidly expanding. A story about a fish weir being discovered in 1913 as part of the construction of the Boylston Street Tunnel caught my eye - .Deep Ones perhaps?

Boston was also home to a lot of political unrest, with Boston being a hotbed of the anarchist movement.

As the timeline moves forward I've a number of ideas. My initial inclination was, should the game make it to 1917, have the characters spend some time in Europe. That's still on the table, but I've also been learning about the home front and there was a lot going on, with America rapidly mobilized - and not welcoming dissent at all, with the remnants of John Adams' Alien and Sedition Acts being re-weaponized. Not everyone was caught up in the draft, with many eligible Americans being viewed as essential on the home front. Could not investigators find themselves recruited into investigating why Innsmouth is ignoring the draft?

I've a number of inspirations for this era. First, I need to point out Dennis Lehane's novel, The Given Day, set in post-World War 1 Boston. It covers the Influenza Epidemic, the Molasses Flood, anarchist terrorism, and climaxes with the Boston Police Strike of 1919. From a non-fiction perspective, I've been slowly working my way through David Kennedy's Over Here: The First World War and American Society. It's a little dry at points, but it gives a nice overview of World War 1 America. I managed to snag the six-volume Our Times by Mark Sullivan, written in the 1930s and covering America from the 1890s to the the 1920s. It's a bit too long for me to commit to reading from start to finish but I'm finding it a nice reference with a contemporary perspective, giving insight as to what the people who lived through the era considered important. I've also been raiding the Images of America series - for example, Boston's Red Line: Bridging the Charles from Alewife to Briantree is loaded with inspiration. A picture of a house literally being moved to make room for the digging of a subway tunnel gave me an idea for an adventure. Way back in 1996 I watched the PBS/BBC production The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. It's never been made available for streaming or DVD, tough two years ago I stumbled across a DVD version of questionable legality.

As far as official materials for the RPG go, it's a fairly untapped era. Chaosium did do a single adventure, No Man's Land. Pelgrane Press has a number of Great War adventures for Trail of Cthulhu that could conceivably be adapted. And there are a lot of 1920s scenarios that could be moved a decade earlier without any ill effect. I do have a bit more free time than I did a few months ago, allowing me to flex my creative muscles a bit more than I have in quite some time.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Well-Met in Umberwell

Sorcerer's Skull - Sun, 11/11/2018 - 14:11
I reject the notion that there is one right way to do a setting book. Those making the argument in favor of a more terse or utilitarian style often point to the bloat found in setting books by the major publishers. While I won't deny there is often a verbiage problem with those books, I'd also suggest that they are an easy target for the people making these sorts of arguments, i.e. members of a community to some degree defined by its opposition or at least contrast to major publishers' ways. While I'm sure not everyone is a fan for a number of reasons, I've never seen anyone cite The Tekumel Sourcebook volumes or Glorantha books as examples of overwriting.

There are two thoughts I have about setting books that (I think) better get to the truth of the situation. The most obvious one first: People like or want different things. Some people want to be transported, others just want prompts or aids. The second thought is that settings should be written in such a way as to make the setting more interesting, realized, and playable. Any verbiage not to this end is excess, but also any brevity that undermines those elements counts as a deficit.

All that preamble to cite an example of something that does it right, the third of such supplements to hit the mark, as I see it, by Jack Shear: Umberwell: Blackened Be Thy Name. Umberwell is one of a handful of 19th Century-ish fantasy settings in terms of technology, though the vibe is a bit Elizabethan underworld, a bit Dickensian nightmare, and a whole lot New Weird. It is also, as are all of Jack's settings, eminently integrated in a D&D environment, embracing the whole Star Wars cantina array of races and classes. it does this all in 134 pages.

The city has a European feel. Its island arrangement recalls Venice, and its character recalls London (or versions of London like New Crobuzon). It might be a bit Weimar Berlin in its decadence. There are bits of New Crobuzon evident, certainly, a bit of Sharn perhaps, and I perhaps flatter myself that I see some glimmers of the City in a couple of places, but it is its own thing.

It succeeds where Eberron, to my mind, fails. Eberron's vague, 21st Century Americanness skims across the top but does not penetrate the weird and Medievalist elements. Eberron is to genuine pulp sensibility what a guy sporting a fedora in an Instagram pic is to Sam Spade. Umberwell feels authentic (for lack of a better word), but never in a way that sacrifices it's fundamental D&Dness.

It is not complete, in the sense that it does not try to give you the totality of a world, nor does it attempt to. If any given Forgotten Realms splat is like a history or geography book, and Weird Adventures a travel guide, Umberwell is like a travel essay or TV show. It is painted in impressionistic strokes and focuses its efforts on the things that directly confront its visitors (i.e. the players and DM), only filling in other details as needed to color and accentuate those.

And yes, I'm thanked in the book, so my review is assuredly unbiased, but if anything I've written sounds interesting to you, so should check it out, then tell me I'm wrong.

Like Gladiators? Me too! Coming later this month!

Two Hour Wargames - Sun, 11/11/2018 - 01:54

Two Gladiator Games , both using Cards and Dice. Totally compatible. 30+ different Gladiators with the two games. Ever wanted to fight a Gargoyle with a Retiarius?  You can now!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Ch. 5, Page 25

Castle Greyhawk - Sun, 11/11/2018 - 00:24
Naturally, shouts for a fire brigade had brought a swift response from the City Watch as well. The innkeeper was still fuming, despite the fact that his inn seemed like it was going to survive intact, and was quick to let the watchmen know.

"Over there, officers! Those are the culprits responsible! Be wary of them..." Felipe Namarhz called out to the approaching watchmen, but then was nearly knocked over from behind.

"Excuse me! Out of my way!" yelled a lady in fine gown, muscling her way out into the street from the inn. She was not dressed for walking unescorted, as the train of her dress was held by no servant and had clearly dragged though mud and offal from the curb and had torn on something. She stomped off through the street, her dress becoming more disheveled, until she approached a carriage. "Get me home!" she hollered at the driver with no trace of refinement.

Felipe turned his attention back to the watchmen. It was a paltry size for a watch patrol and Felipe feared it was not going to be sufficient to enforce justice on this hoodlum in strange armor, his orc flunky, and the dwarf-like man who accompanied them. That they had magic between them was unmistakable. Surely, they were plotting between them even now how they would best the watchmen and escape. Ah, but the sergeant of the watch was approaching him now...

(5e) The Deadly Den of the Wanton Wolf

Ten Foot Pole - Sat, 11/10/2018 - 12:12

By Talbot S. Raiche
Self Published
Level 3

The people of Yarlstone are afraid to go into the woods at night. It started with an increase in poaching, but soon merchants and guardsmen were found dragged from the trails and torn apart. A bounty has been placed on those responsible, but who is brave enough to investigate the howling that comes with the full moon?

This twelve page adventure features a small cave system of eighteen rooms with a werewolf in them. Terse and largely evocative room descriptions are a highlight, but slavish devotion to regimented formatting brings the product down, as does the lack of supporting material for creatures and setting.

5e and twelve pages would normally mean a shit product that describes three encounters, maybe … at least that’s what I’ve come to expect. When I saw this was single column I was looking forward to a total shit show, but I was pleasantly surprised. Instead of a shit show rip off product (ie: three encounters or less) it is instead someone with a vision who needs some help improving.

The rooms (in an old cabin) have descriptions like “Living Room: Dim. Creaky floors. Dusty tables and chairs, Cold Hearth. Old rugs.” or “Closet: Dark, Musty, Moths, Worn cloaks on wooden pegs.” That’s pretty good! It DOES create a great atmosphere that a DM can then fill in and riff upon. That’s what a DM needs, just enough to get an idea in to their head, then they can expand upon it as the players explore and ask questions. You grok the place, and because of that you have infinite power over it to convey the vibe to the players. It’s easy to scan at the table and does what it needs to do. I like the style, a lot. It’s not the ONLY way to achieve the evocative & terse thing I look for, but it is one of the simplest to understand and mimic for n00b writers, I think. The room names could have been overloaded some “Decrepit Living Room” or “Musty Closet”, for example, but hey, that’s nitpicking.

And …. I’m done being nice. The rest of this adventure barely exists. It is, essentially, minimally keyed. Rooms have “5 cultists + 3 wolves” or “2 black bears.” Treasure is boring old book stuff. There’s no real reason behind things. There’s some pretext about the werewolf being a bandit, and a wolf cult, all relayed through backstory, but the adventure keys proper are as close to minimal as you can get. Take Palace of the Vampire Queen and add those atmosphere descriptions and you’ve got this adventure. The creatures and environs come off as cold and mechanical. The creatures need to be doing something. The traps need a bit of life. There’s tis devotion to the rigor of formatting that’s weird. Rooms have a section stating “Doors: Slatted wood fencing – locked.” And then, each on a newline, “Pick: DC 14 Dexterity Check” “Force: DC14 Strength Check” and “Break: AC15, HP27.” Ok, get it. I get what you’re trying to do. But it comes off as rigid and mechanical and lifeless … and also takes up too much space. Imageine putting it all one one line, with bolding, underlines, italics, bullets, etc. Same impact to support the DM’s scanning and more fluid.

Further, imagine the doors, traps, treasure, and monsters were given the same treatment as the room atmosphere. Just one sentence of atmosphere each. There’s not village, or wilderness, but imagine that a village was listed, with the same one or two sentence atmosphere, along with, say, three NPC’s given the same treatment. And a little wilderness section of the same. As is, the hooks are essentially non-existent, just that there is this bandit cult leader and he lives in the woods and the nobles don’t like poachers. But give that the same atmosphere treatment? And those wandering monsters? Same thing. Instead of “1-2 black bears” how about instead “1-2 black bears, foraging, wounded, starving” or something like that? Then you’ve given the DM just a little more to work with.

Also, would it kill you to put in a one page summary of monster stats? You use the same thing over and over again … why not fill one page with their stats. Just a summary, so the non-pedants among us can run the monsters from it?

Finally, a note on formatting. Yeah, it’s part of the Notebook Dungeon series and you put it on a background that looks like a legal pad, single column. First, don’t use single column. It sucks for communicating information. I know it’s fucking easy, but its been well established that double column is better for information transfer. Easier to scan up and down than left to right. Yes, I promise, some google searches will turn up the lit. Second, the legal yellow and lines don’t improve the legibility of the adventure, they detract from it. It gets in your eyes way, especially the lines. Don’t do that. (Just like you should not have large sections of italics. Its hard to read.)

Nice idea for the rooms, but it went too far minimal.

This is $2 at DriveThru. Alas, there is no preview.

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5150 No Limits Scenario Books now on Sale -

Two Hour Wargames - Sat, 11/10/2018 - 00:28

You own a spaceship - The Cool Coolie!
You start in New Hope City where there's a fine line between an interplanetary Merchant Trader and a Smuggler. Your ship is costing you some credits when it's sitting empty and you need to find a few jobs. But that's the least of your problems as your 1st mate just told you ...
The cops are looking for you!
The Cool Coolie

Just another Bug Hunt; right?
Not exactly. It's a Bug Hunt with a twist. The aliens came to your world and killed everyone that was important to you. They wouldn't talk, they killed on sight. Now you're the last of your kind and you're ready for revenge...
Against the humans.
The Night Terror
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Don't look at this trap!

Hack & Slash - Fri, 11/09/2018 - 14:00
I was drawing a map on the table, extemporaneously from a source online. My players had predictably wandered off course. Not having thoroughly prepared, I absentmindedly drew a trap on the map in front of them.

I erased it. One of my players said, "What was that there?"
"A trap."
"Are we supposed to act like we don't know about it?"

Well, the answer to that question is no, and comes along with a story about how meta-gaming is like a tube of material ejected from a bull's ass.
Meta-gaming is dumbNow, follow me here. Outside of directing a play or fulfilling a sexual fetish, when is it appropriate to tell someone, you've got to do what I want the way I want it because I said?

I don't have time to talk about the boring stuff, like "Metagaming is when players use real-life knowledge about the state of the game to determine their character's actions." The real question is what are you doing in a room?

Are you there to play a game? Hang out with friends? Tell a Story? Generate a mood? It certainly varies. I don't feel like I'm there to tell a story. Doesn't mean I can't see how people are playing the way Matthew Mercer plays are having fun.

But in all those cases, you're talking about a group of competent adults together in a room that like each other. Would you like it if someone told you what to do and how to do it? I know I wouldn't. A decade ago, I might have assumed that no one would. I mean, maybe it's your thing!

Generally though, it's considered a dick move. So I'mma gonna go with that.

The people metagaming are ruining the game!!!!!!11EXCLEMATIONPOINT

Are they though? Are they?

I've never never agreed with the principal that anything in the game takes priority ever over verisimilitude. From experience: Watching a player who made a character sit out of a game for five hours because "this wouldn't be a good time for him to show up yet." I liked that guy. I thought it was shit to make him sit out and he didn't come back. If I were who I am today, I might have had the courage to speak up at the time instead of after.

Now this doesn't mean verisimilitude isn't important, just that it shouldn't ever take precedence over something that is breathing.

What, exactly, are you in this room for?

The most common example, of course, is players knowing the weaknesses of the creatures in the monster manual. There are lots of solutions that avoid the problem ("Create your own special monsters!") but my core stipulation is it's not a problem.

Who cares if they know the monster abilities? Or, to put it more clearly, is the feeling you get when they don't use lightning or slashing weapons on the black ooze worth having other players lose agency? Do you need to make other people feel bad for 'not playing correctly'? How do you even determine what correctly is?

We have a table consensus. It's not a game you play to win. When we are talking about the outcomes, we focus on what seems most reasonable for the shared reality, not what is of most benefit to our characters. This is always a voluntary discussion. To compel someone to act as if they did not know a thing they know seems absurd to me. It's a game. I've played in adventures I know from memory. I'm not going to play stupidly, but I won't lead play.

I'll tell you my six year old does it ("You're playing wrong!"), and I'm going to socialize her out of doing that too. Which is sort of my point. I'm just going to flat out state that placing the freedom of your friends, below your own desire to reduce cognitive dissonance, isn't a mature thing to do. That might be because that's kind of how I view everyone who ever told someone "there character wasn't allowed to do that."

Really, because what this issue raises isn't the problem. When the 'problem' of metagaming comes up, it's always because there's some sort of other disagreement, that is being addressed non-directly by one person trying to dictate the behavior of another. I don't think this is a good idea considering how most people talk about metagaming. It's just a passive-aggressive way to avoid conflict.

Looking at it, and all the classic examples, I can't see in any case about how it's bad.  Metagaming seems fine or stems from another problem. I certainly think this has its roots in narrative control from second edition, and I don't remember anyone who ever played those Dragonlance modules who thought they were good. Not only now in the internet age, but back in the hobby shop two cities over with my dad, talking with the cigar guy behind the steel and glass counter age. Everyone knew they were shit to play back then. I think my dad pitched it to his group as getting to play the heroes from the books, but I'm 100% certain that game died a very quick death.

There isn't any should, because their can't be. Don't think of a white elephant. DAMN IT. Now I want you to have not done that! Complaining about metagaming is crazy, weird, mildly unhealthy expression. Which, you know, if that's the cross you gotta bear, you be you, but damn man. Don't it get heavy?

Feel free to tell me why I'm wrong in the comments. It's a brave new world that looks like the old one, circa 2008.
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Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Saragossa Manuscript Redux

Sorcerer's Skull - Fri, 11/09/2018 - 12:00
Yesterday, Amazon delivered the blu-ray version of the 1965 Polish film The Saragossa Manuscript directed by Wojciech Has. The film has been praised by the likes of David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, and Neil Gaiman. Jerry Garcia supposedly helped supply funds to get a full cut of the film restored. I have yet to check out the blu-ray transfer, but the film I know from the DVD version. It has impressive black and white imagery, and an unusual use of music--sometimes its a usual (if quirky) sixties film score, but often it has touches of primitive electronica experimentalism reminscient of some sci-fi scores of the era.

I first went looking for the film in 2010 because of its source material, the novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Count Jan Potocki (1761-1815). The book bears some resemblance to works like the Arabian Nights or the Decameron. It's a fantasy (at least in part) describing the experiences and stories related to a young Walloon officer in the Sierra Morenas of Spain in 1739. It includes gypsies, cabbalists, Sapphic sister Moorish princesses, and hints at secret history. The stories are nested like Matryoshka dolls, with narrators of some stories showing up as characters in others. Neil Gaiman, a fan of the work, has called it "a labyrinth inside of a maze." It combines elements of the gothic and picaresque with eroticism and humor.

The book itself has an interesting history. It's so convoluted in fact that Potocki's authorship was at times doubted. The novel was written in French, and over an extended period in several stages. The first few "days" were published in 1805 in French. Later, the entire manuscript was translated and published in Polish, but then the original complete manuscript was lost, and had to be "back translated" into French for a complete French version. Wikipedia suggests that scholars now think their were two versions: an unfinished one from 1804, published in 1885, and a rewritten, tonal different complete 1810 version. Only the first of these versions has appeared in English, though both are available in French.

Potocki himself is an interesting and character. He was served as a military officer, and was also for a time of novice of the Knights of Malta. He traveled and wrote scholarly studies on linguistics and ethnography. In 1790, he was among the first to fly in a hot air balloon. He also committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Allegedly, this was done with a silver bullet he fashioned himself and had had blessed by a chaplain!

Anyway the novel is well worth your time as is Has's film.

Launch Date for the Pre-Painted 1/56th scale Tigers! Perfect for 28mm Combat

Two Hour Wargames - Thu, 11/08/2018 - 22:33
Launching November 16th!
Here's a picture of the actual finished prototype for an upcoming Kickstarter, not a pie in the sky mock up. First product is a Tiger with others to follow. These are pre-painted and assembled resin cast models, not 3D printed stuff. Launching in a week or two. Will keep you posted,
BTW - This guy is reputable as he already has a mini producing company  and now is branching into wargaming supplies!
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

OSR Commentary - The World of Greyhawk's Cracks of Evil Across The Planes In Your Old School Campaigns

Swords & Stitchery - Thu, 11/08/2018 - 17:36
I've had my back against the wall with work for some days now & I've been going over the classic  Greyhawk box set again. The Rain of Colorless Fire is one of the defining events in Greyhawk that completely & utterly wiped out the Suel Empire. Utterly & completely the peoples of  Suel are no longer a power upon the face of Greyhawk. Their war against  the Baklunish was the stuff of legend as Needles
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Way Down in the Hole

Torchbearer RPG - Thu, 11/08/2018 - 14:00
Castle Erobring by Kurt Komoda

As a Torchbearer GM, your job is to create opportunities for players to make choices.

The communities you’ve placed on your map have problems! Not only do they face the possibility of real-world horrors like natural disasters, war and plague, the lands surrounding them are filled with goblins, dragons and evil enchanters. The dungeons and hazardous locations on your map won’t just exist in isolation (for the most part), they’ll create direct and indirect threats to the settlements on your map, and the people in those places will notice!

Always consider how the dungeons and hazardous locations you put on your map might threaten one or more settlements on the map. Maybe some of them aren’t immediate threats: They’ll evolve over time from isolated incidents to threat, unless the players intervene. Others might lay dormant, and will only become threats if the PCs disturb something they shouldn’t. Some, of course, will present an immediate problem.

In Starting Fresh, I placed three dungeons on my map to start: Under the House of the Three Squires in the south, The Dread Crypt of Skogenby just a hop, skip and a jump to the west, and Thelon’s Rift in the north.

The Dread Crypt represents the immediate threat. It was dormant until some villagers disturbed the ancient barrow, and now an evil spirit is haunting the village and killing people. It doesn’t get more immediate than that. But there’s also room for evolution. The players may decide to pursue another adventure first. In that case, the threat presented by the Dread Crypt will grow: More undead will boil out of the crypt and invade Skogenby, destroying the village and flooding nearby communities like Asktoft with refugees from the slavering undead horde. The PCs could still turn the tide, but the danger will be greater.

Under the House of the Three Squires is the delayed threat. While the initial victims will have lost their lives if the players don’t tackle this adventure immediately, the monsters don’t immediately threaten the surrounding countryside. However, if left undisturbed, they will soon begin raiding merchants and travelers using the Post Road. Asktoft and even Holtburg will begin to feel the sting of the cut trade route over time.

Thelon’s Rift is my dormant site. Reputedly filled with fabulous treasure, it will stay in stasis until the PCs tackle it (or I get inspired to do something evil). I don’t want to spoil this adventure too much just yet, but the PCs can definitely unleash something horrible if they step wrong within the Rift.

In placing your own dungeons, try to include a mix of threats. If every dungeon and villain presents an immediate threat, you’ll make your players feel helpless. They’ll feel like their choices don’t matter because no matter what they do, everything else will get even more terrible. On the other hand, if every dungeon and villain is dormant, they’ll feel like their choices don’t have consequences: It won’t matter what they choose to prioritize because everything else will stay the same.

And make sure to spend some time considering how your threats might evolve over time. Not only will such evolution help your players feel that their characters exist in a living, breathing world in which their choices matter, it will also help ensure that time you spend prepping a dungeon isn’t wasted. You won’t have to worry about the PCs leveling past the adventures you’ve worked on. Instead, you’ll spend a little bit of time updating a given adventure to keep it compelling.

Have You Heard the One About…

As I mentioned at the outset, your job as a Torchbearer GM is to create opportunities for players to make choices. Once you’ve created your dungeons and thought about how they’ll threaten your setting, you need to put some information in the players’ hands so they can weigh their options and decide what to prioritize.

Rumors are one of the best tools at your disposal to do this. When the PCs arrive in a settlement, let them know what people are buzzing about. Maybe you roleplay a bit when they visit the tavern, and the barkeep or some drunken wag fills them in on the latest gossip. Maybe they hear tales from fellow travelers as they wait to pass through the town’s gate. Or you could just tell the players outright what people in town are talking about.

The first time my players went to town in my new game, they heard the following rumors:

  • Some folk in Skogenby, the next village over, uncovered a strange barrow while clearing a field recently. They think some evil spirit has come out of it, and they’ve asked for Lady Gry’s help, but she’s away. Supposedly there’s a lot of treasure in the tomb.
  • The Widow Auda owns the tavern you’re currently drinking in. Her sons, Odger and Samo, made a trip down to the House of the Three Squires last week to pick up some casks of sour beer, a trip they make about once a season. They should have been back days ago. It’s planting season, so no one wants to leave their fields, but some of the townsfolk have taken up a collection as a modest reward for anyone willing to make the trip to find out what’s happened to them.
  • A master enchanter named Thelon used to have a secret workshop in the mountains, somewhere near Holtburg. He used to come into Holtburg every once in a while to buy alchemical supplies for his work. No one has seen him in years. He’s probably dead. They say his workshop was packed to the rafters with all sorts of wonders.

I don’t make the players take any particular actions in town or pay a price to get these rumors. These are the things everyone is talking about. Note that this doesn’t invalidate town actions like gathering rumors or digging for leads. Instead, they give players a starting point. If they players decide they’re really interested in Thelon the Enchanter, they might ask around about him and his work.

Rumor Grows as It Goes

There’s an art to creating compelling rumors. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Don’t give everything away. A good rumor is a tease. You want to whet the players’ appetites, get them interested, but leave room for discovery and surprise. Remember that the players have tools like Digging for Leads at their disposal if they really want to get more information. You may want to have a few additional choice bits of information prepared in case they do try to hunt them down.
  • Use your NPCs. Unless their characters are all loners, tough and cool, your players spent a bit of time in character creation detailing their parents, friends, mentors and enemies. If you want to really get the players’ attention, weave those NPCs into your dungeons and rumors. Do this sparingly! If an enemy is behind every plot, or a friend gets lost in every dungeon, it will feel contrived. Include them at just the right level and your players will be hooked. You’ll have to experiment to find the right amount.
  • Reincorporate.  Leverage past events from your game and include them in the rumors. The more you tie new things into past events, the more your players will feel that the world and campaign have a life of their own. Did the PCs drive the Red Crest clan of kobolds out into the countryside while dealing with the House of the Three Squires? Maybe after an adventure or two pass, they hear a rumor about a steading that’s been overrun by kobolds that bear the mark of the Red Crest…
  • Seed expectations of treasure. Not all (or even most) Torchbearer PCs adventure for altruistic reasons. Your players might be the exception, of course, but I try not to rely on the desire for heroism to hook players with my rumors. The implication of cold hard cash or magic items usually does the trick. You know your players best. Think about what might get them going and make sure to hint at those things in your rumors.
  • Don’t feel bound by the truth. Your rumors don’t have to be true! They’re rumors and gossip after all. They may get some things wrong. The rumors may say a house is hauntedby spectres and ghosts, but the truth might be that a band of slavers is using the house as a base for their smuggling operation. In my view, every good adventure includes some sort of unexpected surprise. You can use a rumor to set up the eventual twist. As with using NPCs, don’t do this all the time! If rumors are always wrong, the players won’t buy them anymore. Mislead the players sparingly and everyone will enjoy the payoff.

Do you have any tips for creating rumors or stories about how you’ve used them in your games? If so, please share!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Cryptozoic Will Demo Latest Games at BGG.CON 2018

Cryptozoic - Thu, 11/08/2018 - 14:00

Cryptozoic Entertainment will demo recently released tabletop games at BGG.CON 2018, November 14-18 in the Hyatt Regency DFW at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.  Cryptozoic will be at Booth #104 demoing two tabletop games that were just released: Rick and Morty: The Rickshank Rickdemption Deck-Building Game and DC Deck-Building Game: Rivals — Green Lantern vs. Sinestro. In addition, Cryptozoic will demo Cult: Choose Your God Wisely before it is available at the end of this year, as well as recent releases Rick and Morty: The Pickle Rick Game and Pantone™: The Game.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

5150: No Limits - The Night Terror - Coming Soon!

Two Hour Wargames - Wed, 11/07/2018 - 18:36

The old wound keeps me from sleeping. It brings back bad memories. Memories of when the aliens came. Where they came from no one knew. Attempts to reason with them were fruitless, as they preferred to attack without provocation. They were so vicious and irrational and soon there were but few of us left alive. Only those that chose to hide survived.
 I swallowed my pride and hid like the rest. I said back then I did it for my family, my children. Our leaders said, “There is room for all of us to live on this world, even the aliens. Let us live together in peace.”
But they were wrong. I remember returning from the hunt. It had been a good one even though the aliens had killed most of the animals that we lived on. I remember returning to my home and seeing it destroyed. My children slaughtered and none about except Death. I wailed my grief for what felt like forever, wondering why fate had kept me alive while taking the others.
Then I realized it. I was to be the vengeance of my people. So I hunt the aliens in memory of my children, in memory of my people. I am the last of my kind. I come in the night bringing death. The aliens know me as…  The Night Terror - Coming soon!
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Wednesday Comics: Wytches

Sorcerer's Skull - Wed, 11/07/2018 - 12:00

Wytches (2014) is a limited series written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Jock. It's film rights have been optioned, so if you read it now, you'll feel like one of the in-crowd when and if the film comes out. Beyond that, I think it's worth your time for the comic itself.

The titular "Wytches" aren't your typical humans who have made a deal with the devil. Instead, there are inhuman creatures people make deals with. Their angular forms resembling trees in silhouette and allowing them to blend into the forests. Their abilities may be magical, or maybe not. They are presented as "sciences" not known to humans, allowing them to cure diseases for humans who give them what they want. What they want is sacrifices, people who are "pledged" to them.

Sailor, the teen daughter of the Rook family, newly arrived in Litchfield, New Hampshire, has been pledged.  By the time her father, Charlie, comes to believe her fears that something supernatural is stalking her, it may already be too late.

Wytches reminds me a bit of the fiction of Laird Barron with its hidden race in an American woodland and secret cults. Snyder's story felt a bit slim for 6 issues, but in no way incomplete. It is no doubt well paced for a film. Jock's art fits the story well, and wisely only gives us glimpses of the wytches or their horrors. Matt Hollingsworth's color aid in this obscuration by at times strategically hiding parts of the seen with blotches of color. It's a more effective technique than it may sound.

There may well be sequels in the works that further the conflict between wytch-hunting "Irons" and the wytch-cults, but this story stands on its own.

5150: No Limits - The Cool Coolie Coming oon!

Two Hour Wargames - Tue, 11/06/2018 - 21:31

Reaching the end of the flight line, Gus smiled.  There she sat, Gus’ prize possession the “Cool Coolie” – a small trader by galactic standards.  Yet, she was much larger than the gun boats he’d piloted during his twenty-year stint in the Corps.  She looked as though she had seen better days, but that was the way Gus preferred it.  A beat-up looking ship attracted less attention from authorities and pirates alike.
Gus was a transporter by profession but being based out of New Hope meant he also did a good amount of smuggling.  He was owner, pilot and captain.  A captain who was beginning to wonder the whereabouts of his crew. 
Gus climbed into the cockpit and nestled into the pilot’s seat just in time to see the sun crest the horizon amid brilliant hues of gold and orange. Sunrises on the arid New Hope landscape were always spectacular.  He noticed a blinking light on the comm panel.  He pushed the button, it was a message from Shortcake.

“Jeez, Gus, turn on your phone.  Our glorious crew got themselves arrested at a party last night.  They’re spilling their guts about our last run to save their bacon.  Better lay low; the cops are looking for you.”
The Cool Coolie - Coming later this week.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Game Preview: Rick and Morty: The Rickshank Rickdemption Deck-Building Game

Cryptozoic - Tue, 11/06/2018 - 19:54

Are you ready? No, you aren’t ready. You probably don’t know the difference between a Blemflark and a Gromflamite. That is, unless you are one of the millions upon millions of Rick and Morty fans out there! Check out the preview for our upcoming game, Rick and Morty: The Rickshank Rickdemption by lead game designer, Matt Hyra.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs


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