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Earth & Alien Sky - Carcosa & Elf Lair Games Veterans of the Supernatural Wars Rpg By Jason Vey & Tomothy Brannan Session Report & Monster Workshop

Swords & Stitchery - Mon, 08/30/2021 - 19:51
"We Are the Night Shift...We alone stand against the vampires, werewolves, and Things that Go Bump in the Night.We know the things that prowl the shadows, the monsters that feed on the innocent.We have seen Something Weird.We control Something WeirdWe create Something Weird.We study Something Weird.We are the things that Weird Things fear.We are the Weird.We are the Night Shift, and we are all Needles
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Temple of 1000 Swords

Ten Foot Pole - Mon, 08/30/2021 - 11:19
By Brad Kerr Swordlords Publishing OSE Level 3

An ancient temple to the forgotten god of swords lies hidden behind a waterfall. Great piles of swords choke its halls and spill out into nearby streams and waterways. What strangeness still treads and what swords will you draw in the Temple of 1000 Swords?

This 25 page adventure describes a slightly absurdist eighteen room dungeon with … a sword theme. I mean, SERIOUSLY sword-themed. Interesting encounters and good formatting compliment a utilitarian writing style 

Oh, and it has carnivorous duck-people in it. I did mention slightly absurdist, right? And the giant duck-person egg? And rooms FILLED with rusting swords, streams clogged with them, a gelatinous cube choked full of them. I mean, this thing takes swords to 11, even providing a d100 table of interesting swords you can find and some guidelines on how to keep things interesting should the party decide to “mine” the dungeon for swords. 

Complimenting this is a slightly devil-may-care attitude of the NPC’s in places. The jovial god of swords, a mermaid queen ready for marrying, and not particularly attached to the magic sword she’s carrying. Oh, didn’t I mention the merfolk? Blood enemies of the duck people? And their genocidal war between each other that takes place in the halls? Like I said, slightly absurdist … but never really going over the edge, IMO, and everything following logically (well, D&D logic …) from the initial setup. And I do love me some slightly absurdit D&D.

And there’s always the allure of the sword. Of the MAGIC sword. Nothing like “you see a faintly glowing sword” to get the parties attention and push them in to the encounter they just KNOW is going to be a problem. Why fuck with that giant tower of swords in danger of collapsing, with weirdo sand people forming and dissolving underneath it? Because there’s a glowing sword up in it. Mermaid chick got a glowing sword? Let’s see what she has to say … Sounds like my kind of guy! This is an excellent example of luring the PLAYERS in. There’s always some kind of power fantasy behind every player … even if I have to extend that to “fulfilling my bullshit character arc that no one cares about except me.” And, appeals to THAT are going to be the most successful appeals you can make as a DM/designer. Motivating the PLAYERS to Push The Big Red Button turns the encounter, or adventure, in a gleeful exploration of the roleplaying world, instead of the It’s What My Character Would Do drudgery.

There’s a stream of water that you have to travel up … choked by swords! Also, there’s a pit under it, full of pointy swords. Also, All the swords make the pit malfunction 3-in-6. You gotta admire the dedication to the sword theme here. Oh, look, a dude stuck to thew all, through the heart, with a glowing sword. And still alive. Of course he’s a vampire. Of COURSE he promises not to kill you if you release him. And, in a surprise twist, he doesn’t! Of course, he WILL cause future problems throughout the land, that the party will just KNOW they started. I fucking love it! That’s how you do an encounter! This is an excellent example, as well, of making the characters actions have consequences and further enhancing the game world by it. It’s not exactly a punishment, or a reward … or, maybe, it’s both at the same time. Good adventures that kind of follow on possibilities and this one delivers. 

The writing here is more utilitarian than I would prefer to see, both in the overview text and in the DM text. “Vaulted ceilings, doric pillars, the echoing sounds of water. A massive statue of an armored god looms from the northern wall. A sword- choked stream flows from the east. A dark hallway leads west.” Certainly, this isn’t minimally keyed, and it’s not boring writing either. But, if I had a complaint with this adventure, it’s that those descriptions could use a little more polish to bring them to life more in the DM’s head. Not so much more words but polishing up what’s there. Or, the DMs text which reads “A pile of fine swords is placed before the statue as an offering. Two of them glow faintly in the dark (blades 2 and 9 of the nine). An enormous gem (1000 GP) is embedded in the statue’s forehead; it’s a treacherous climb to reach it (Strength check).” Again, certainly not overwritten, and only slightly underwritten, I’d suggest. Not enough to impact the play of the adventure, but, more effort in this area would really turning this thing from a fine journeyman adventure in a masterful shooting star of one. 

I could go on and on about this thing. An excellent curse/geas provided by the God Of Swords (who can do a wish for you …), the fetal duckling horror that emerges from the giant duck egg. (Of course that’s what happens! OF COURSE! And that’s the sign of a good encounter, when everyone says “OF COURSE!”) VTT maps provided, a very god intro summary of what’s going on. This thing is is ready to go.

This is $6 at DriveThru. The preview is seventeen pages, showing more than a few of the encounters. This is a good preview, showing the intro, as well as the encounters. I’d check out the first page of encounters to get an idea if you’d like this.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Weird Revisited: Comics' First Barbarian

Sorcerer's Skull - Mon, 08/30/2021 - 11:00
I've revisited Crom several times over the years. Jason Sholtis and I talked about doing a revival oneshot at one time...
Before Claw, Wulf, and Ironjaw--even before Conan--there was a barbarian Sword & Sorcery hero in comics. Though there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of this particularly mighty-thewed sword-slinger, he’s got a famous name: Crom the Barbarian!

Crom was the creation of Gardner Fox and first appeared in Out of this World #1 (1950) from Avon. Fox tells us that Crom’s adventures come to us courtesy of “long-lost parchments recovered in an underwater upheaval, translated by a lingual expert,” but I suspect he made it all up.  He also took a lot of inspiration from Howard's Conan yarns.
Anyway, Crom’s a yellow-haired Aesir living in an age forgotten by history, and he’s got a problem. His sister Lalla have been kidnapped by ape-men called Cymri (which may or may not tell us how Fox felt about the Welsh). Crom makes short work of the ape-men, but he and Lalla wind up adrift.

They end up on an island. Good news: It’s full of lovely women. Bad news:

The wizard is named Dwelf, and he’s got a job for Crom. Dwelf wants him to bring back water from the fountain of youth which was built by “people from the stars" and will one day be lost “under what men will call the Sahara desert.” Dwelf threatens Lalla if Crom doesn’t get the stuff for him--and then hypnotizes him to make double sure.

Crom sails to fabled Ophir. He sneaks into the city and while he’s casing the tower that houses the fountain, he meets a girl who doesn’t really get the concept of sword & sorcery tavern-dancing:

Crom takes the girl (Gwenna) dancing and formulates a plan to get into the tower by first being thrown in jail. It works, but once at the tower, he’s got to fight panthers and some guards. He dispatches them all with his sword “Skull-cracker.”

When he gets to the fountain he finds he guarded by a giant snake! He kills it, too, but is almost done in by the queen of Ophir, herself, Tanit. He takes her hostage so he can get out of the city:

By the time they’ve escaped though, Tanit has warmed to Crom and is asking him to come back and be her king! She and Crom deliver the water to Dwelf, who suffers the ironic fate of being turned into an infant.
Not really into childcare, apparently, Crom leaves the wizardling and decides he and Tanit should head back to that kingdom she’s promised him--with his sister Lalla, too, of course. They don’t make it back without adventure, but that ends this particular issue.

Crom goes on to have two more improbable adventures in the pages of Strange Worlds.

S3 'Expediation to The Barrier Peaks' by Gary Gygax With The Castles & Crusades Rpg Aligned With The Star Ship Warden Rpg book

Swords & Stitchery - Mon, 08/30/2021 - 02:19
 So let's pick up where we last left off on this campaign built we've been talking about the Amazing Adventures version of Starship Warden. Ernie Gygax threw his hat into the ring with the following comment; "Ernest Gary Gygax Jr.The opportunities offered with moving characters to either or both the Empire of the Petal Throne or the Starship Warden. Both have been done with early Greyhawk Needles
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

August Roundup, Original Chainmail Reprint and Harn Kingdom Hardbacks

Bat in the Attic - Sun, 08/29/2021 - 19:03

The other day I spotted the 3rd edition of Chainmail on print on demand at DriveThruRPG. This is a set of medieval miniature wargame rules written by Gygax and Perrin. It fantasy appendix was an important resource used by Dave Arneson, Gary Gygax, and other in the early 70s before the release of Dungeons and Dragons. 

It price was pretty reasonable at $8.24 so I bought a copy. This is what I got compared to the original. I found the overall quality very good and the image scans to be quite acceptable. Overall the PoD version is a good thing to have if you want to give the wargame or the fantasy appendix as part of a regular campaign.

The interior with a illustration.

print on demand
Harn Kingdom HardbacksI also got in my Kingdom of Kaldor Hardback from the Columbia Games Kickstarter. In effort to expand the audience for Harn, Columbia Games has decided to release a series of hardback books each highlighting a kingdom of Harn. These books each contain key articles relating to the kingdom. Typically the Kingdom article itself, and it most important city.

For the Kingdom of Kaldor hardback it contains a 60 page article on  the Kingdom of Kaldor, and a 70 page article on the City of Tashal. Both articles are the latest versions which includes details on the personalities of Kaldor as well as geography and history. Kaldor in particular has a looming succession crisis when it king dies. 

The city of Tashal has a long history starting when it was the Elven city of Meyvinel, continuing through when it was Kelapyn-Anuz the eastern outpost of Lothrim the Foulspawner to the present where it is now the royal city of Tashal, the seat of the Kings of Kaldor. Like all recent Harn city it contains many detailed floor plans of various building.

While pricey compared to other RPG companies offering, the strength of the Harn product line is it general utility. It focus on medieval fantasy means that is serves as a good foundation of ready to use content for many fantasy campaigns.
I like the loose leaf format to keep thing organized for reference. But I got the books through the Kickstater because they are easier to use when reading. Plus now that got the Kaldor hardback it looks to be durable as well. 
The Kingdom of MelderynSoon after I got the Kaldor hardback, Columbia has started a kickstarter for the Kingdom of Melderyn. While Kaldor is very much a Game of Thrones ground type setting, Melderyn has a long tradition of supporting and incorporating arcanist and mages within it's society. It also controls the main port of entry into Harn and its capital city of Cherafir sees merchants and travelers from throughout the known world outside of Harn.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Beneath the Crooked Hills

Sorcerer's Skull - Sun, 08/29/2021 - 14:30

A week ago, we had another session of our Land of Azurth 5e campaign. The party had become much more interested in the trinkets and where they might come from. The townsfolk really didn't know, but mentioned a mage who had been looking into the mystery. Unfortunately, she had disappeared.

The party searched her old residence and found some cryptic notes they couldn't make much of. There was also some sort of design or pattern imprinted on a rectangle of an unknown, transparent material. They did discover she had gone into the Hills and never came back.

Knowing there's nothing for it but to explore their selves, they look around until they stumble upon some fissures with foot prints around it. It's a tight squeeze, but they are sure that's where the strange sleepwalkers came from. The party goes in, but it takes a bit of time because Dagmar gets stuck. With they seem a weird glass wall and hear ethereal music. In the next room, they fight a nest of oversized snakes from a pile of debris, before figuring out how to open a door into an octagonal room. There, each wall is adorned with a symbol, and there's a wooden ball in the middle of the room. 

With some investigation, they find a hidden panel that seems to provide some sort of control over what the room does. They eventually decide to put the ball under a symbol matching what the "control panel" shows, and a another, secret door opens.

OSR Commentary on Frazetta & Bakshi's 'Fire & Ice' film from 1983 As Inspiration For Your Old School Campaigns

Swords & Stitchery - Sun, 08/29/2021 - 05:26
" At the end of the ice age, an evil queen and her son are set on conquering the world using magic and warriors. The lone survivor of a crushed village fights back as does the king of Fire Keep."Few movies are as Sword & Sorcery especially Astonishing Swordmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea inspiration as Ralph Bakshi's 1983 animation  'Fire & Ice'.We litterally wore the VHS tape of 'Fire & Ice' out Needles
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

OSR Keys & Gates - The Castles & Crusades Rpg Aligned With The Star Ship Warden Rpg book

Swords & Stitchery - Sat, 08/28/2021 - 21:06
 Back in Nineteen Eighty, the Wilderlands of High Fantasy was growing & changing with each & every expansion. Spies of Light Elf is another wilderness expansion for the Wilderlands from Judges Guild.  Spies of Lightelf: Wilderness Book Two By Bryan Hinnen- Wilderlands project, histories, 25 maps, tables, three villages  Fantastic wilderness detail. Spies of Lightelf: Wilderness Book Two fills in Needles
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Review & OSR Commentary On Infinite Stars (Issue 2 - Nov 2011) Omer Golan-Joel, Richard Hazlewood, & Brian Pichelman The Free Fanzine For Original Traveller & Stars Without Number rpg

Swords & Stitchery - Sat, 08/28/2021 - 16:46
 I'm a bit Kickstarted out at the moment & since the last review of   Infinite Stars (Issue 1 - Aug 2011) We decided to go ahead with a review of Infinite Stars (Issue 2 - Nov 2011)  by Omer Golan-Joel, Richard Hazlewood,  & Brian Pichelman . Because this fanzine is a solid resource for both old school Traveller & Stars without Number the articles can be used for other OSR games as well as we Needles
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dice Dragon (New Monster)

Zenopus Archives - Sat, 08/28/2021 - 16:31

TSR's Dragon Dice (1981). Art by Jim Roslof.
Detail of photo by Brian Stillman as found here

Dice Dragon
Move: 60 feet/turn, 240 feet/turn flying
Hit Dice: 1+1
Armor Class: 2
Treasure Type: QAlignment: neutral (75%)/chaotic good (25%)
Attacks: 1 bite
Damage: 1d6
These winged but legless micro-dragons, purple-and-blue with a yellow underbelly, are even smaller than their distant kin, the pseudo-dragons, but just as intelligent. Typically lairing in inaccessible crags or the tallest trees in the wilderness, dice dragons are occasionally found in association with thieves or gamblers, as they have an innate fondness for games of chance, particularly those involving dice, hence their common name. Indifferent to coins, they more eagerly wager for gems or precious stones, communicating via a raspy hiss and manipulating the dice with their tail, and storing their winnings in a small container, around which they coil while at rest.
Dice dragons defend themselves with their sharp bite or, thrice a day, a small puff of faerie fire, which does no damage but outlines one target in glowing light for 4d4 rounds (giving attackers a +2 to hit the target).
* * * * *
This new monster is inspired by the art on the packaging for the first set of polyhedra dice that I found after getting a Holmes Basic set with chits, TSR's Dragon Dice (1981), which was their first set of branded dice. My original set - which I still have some of - was pale blue as shown in the advertisement here in a 2012 retrospective on Grognardia. As can be seen there, the marketing promoted the plastic part of the packaging as a "reusable carrying case", hence the container portion of the write-up. 
This art is by Jim Roslof, who also did the cover the B2 Keep on the Borderlands; see here for a "bibliography" of his work on the Zenopus Archives site.
The "neutral/chaotic good" alignment is in accord with Holmes Basic, where some monsters - including all dragons - are written with a dual alignment, and some (like dwarves) are given percentages.
I chose to incorporate a "flame" breath weapon in line with the illustration, but used faerie fire to make it more interesting than just an ordinary flame, and because it seems fitting as it affects the roll of a die. It also helps differentiate it from other old school D&D mini-dragons:
  • The Pseudo-Dragon from the original Monster Manual, which appears as a miniature red dragon but can change color, and has a poison stinger instead of a breath weapon.
  • The Faerie Dragon from the Dragon #62 (and then the Monster Manual II), and breathes "euphoria gas".
  • The Pocket Dragon from the module M2 Maze of the Riddling Minotaur, which resembles a miniature green dragon and has a venomous bite.
All of the above have legs, but I also came across the amphiptere, which as used in heraldry is typically legless, but seems to have been written up in later systems as a miniature wyvern, for example there's a 5e version here.
I also kept in mind Pip the venomous "minidrag", who is winged and legless, from Alan Dean Foster's sci-fi Pip and Flinx series (1972 and on), which I started reading back in high school.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Off The Books

Ten Foot Pole - Sat, 08/28/2021 - 11:11
By Dana Floberg Self Published 5e Level 5

A magical mishap occurs when a handful of freshmen enchantment students cast a modified version of the awaken spell on a fantasy epic in the university library, and now characters are leaping off the page – literally! As heroes, villains, and damsels come to life, the librarians need someone to restore narrative order to the unruly tales. But as the lines between fiction and reality blur, some of the characters begin to suspect their stories are cages they’d rather not return to at all.

This 19 page adventure details a few encounters in a library with fiction characters from books. It has a certain funhouse design aesthetic. The core encounters have interesting fundamentals, but lack in their implementation, both mechanically and in terms of presentation.

Our exploration of The Storyteller Collective Workshop continues, I assume, since this adventure thanks those folks. As with previous entries, there are some decent foundational ideas marred by a lack of experience. But, again with this one, that’s what being a first time writer is all about. 

We are once again in the default 5e setting of magical RenFairre, with this time the issue being in a large library. It seems that characters are coming out of storybooks and appearing in the real world. Someone has to get in there and, literally, close the books. I think I remember a Dungeon adventure like this? And, certainly, a room or two in old FunHouse dungeons. This, also, has a bit of the funhouse vibe to it, with contrived situations from fiction being the reason for the season. If you’re gonna have a RenFairre world then you’re going to have libraries, and they are going to have issues. Not my thing, but certainly A LOT of other peoples thing. Our hooks are short: maybe you’re here to research something and need to solve the situation efore you can, or, a buddy caused the problem and begs you to help out so they won’t get expelled. The first is the standard “I placed the McGuffin here” that can be relied upon in any adventure while the second at least has a sheepish student begging for help, both better than being hired. 

Chick from a romance novel gets out and starts reading her own book, bringing the villain and hero in to the world … and some self-awareness on her part. You go from room to room (about seven in total) encountering some situation, resolve it, and move on, until you close the last book in the last room and deal with the fallout of nulling out, or not, someones existence by closing the book on them.  Along the way you pick up a side-kick or two and deal with the asshole good guy from the novel.

The strength here is in the room encounters and the hints of personality that come with them. A troll asking a riddle, a wishing well that knows the absolute truth about the universe that you can use as a lie detector, a toad needing to be kissed that can gets larger each time … and can be used to solve a puzzle, or a band of merry pirates and their White Whale they hunt. Good concepts, solid and recognizable and good pretty for the cultural memories that can bring more to an encounter from the players and DMs own backgrounds. And a little extra here and there, n the way of words, a sly recognition or the tropes. Our pirates “Like many fictional pirates, they don’t actually do a lot of murder or pillaging, but they are extremely cool.” So, conceptually some good ideas with some hints of personality that’s unusual in a 5e adventure. Someone’s soul hasn’t yet died from writing. 

Fear not, gentle designer, the ennui will come. Until then, let me help you with the self-doubt …

The biggest issue here is one of parties ability to impact the adventure. Yes, the old Quantum Ogre and his pal the {fuck, I’ve been driking and can’t remember the name. The party has the ability to make meaningful decisions and their actions are not irrelevant. What the fuck is that called again?] So, major issue.

We need to deal with the doors unlocking when you defeat a monster. This means one thing: YOU WILL FACE MY ENCOUNTER THE WAY I ENVISIONED AND FUCK YOU FOR TRYING TO AVOID IT. Perhaps a little overly harse, especially for a new designer, but the ability for the party to use their own wit and abilities to avoid/overcome something is a key point in roleplaying. This shows up in myriad different ways in the adventure, including monsters that spor you as soon as you enter the room, Ye Olde Door Unlocyky, a disguised baddie who has no sign of ill intent on you Detect Deceit roll, and, worst of all … the goody goody guy who has been brought back to life if you kill him too soon by Sir Not Appearing In This Movie. I know, I know, you want to set up a cool moment. You want him showing up in the final battle. But you don’t get to write cool moments, as a designer. Oh, you get to POTENTIALLY set them up. But this isn’t the designers story and it’s not the DMs story. It’s the fucking players story. We do not take away their [fuck! Whats the word?]  As a designer I appreciate some tips on what to do if that happens (WHEN, if I’m playing) but you can’t rob the players. 

There are a host of other issues also. The NPC’s descriptions oculd be better, and come off as a wall of text. They need some trimming and more bolding/underlining, etc, to make it easy to scan their personality traits during play. Likewise, I get that they should be turned up to 11 (as advised by the adventure) but that doesn’t really come through. A few hints in that area could be appreciated. Supporting the DM in their efforts. Wall of text, in fact, comes up several places, most notably in three “interlude” rooms, one of which the party will experience, that come come off as three giants hunks of text that is hard to sort through. I could bitch about the other two unused rooms as well .. might as well quantum that n a plot based adventure like this, otherwise its wasted content. If I COULD explore it, and don’t, then its not wanted. If Im explicitly forbidden to explore ? of it then its wasted. And then there’s the “place what you want’ treasure list. Sure, you get to select from the appendix, but, that’s a cop out. Decide it and put it in. That lets you have puzzles that leverage those items later.

And then there’s a couple of things that just DO. NOT. WORK. There’s a polymorphed cat in the beginning that gets too many words and feels like a pet NPC from a DM campaign, the extra adding nothing to the adventure and the DM being explicitly told “but all this backstory is irrelevant since the party wont be able to grok it out.” Outhgt oh! No good that! Mildly related is the “take a bunch of damage each round while trying to solve a riddle” room. But you get to save for half! Again, this feels contrived, and not in a fun-house manner. No matter what you do you take damage. And no, “the trolls gets to decide who is attacked by the flying books” is not a solution to that issue.

Exposition Dump Wolf is out of plac3 and whatever the designer was going for just doesn’t come through with it. (And, I should not, nor tdo the hero, villain, or self-aware woman. I get where you want to go with this but it just doesn’t come through at all. You need to support the DM more in this.) 

And then there’s the final mechanic: getting pulled in to the books. Not only can characters come out but the party can get sucked IN to a book. But, as implemented, this is weak sauce. It feel like the parties actions have no consequences. It’s just a save DC that gets harder and harder, and doesn’t really have consequence since they can be sucked out again and there’s not really anything in the adventure to support whats IN the books they sucked in to. 

And, peaking of supporting the DM, the final battle has some storybook characters showing up … “Whatever the DM likes.” NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You, the designer, get to decide that. You get to pull in some appropriate things and make them relevant and support the DM in their usage. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but thats the value add that you are adding as the designer.

So, some decent ideas in the puzzles and set up, but not really supported well either for the DM or in the formatting of the text. But, it also doesn’t want me to drink until I’m blackout drunk.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BLOG] Year Five: Old School Refocus

Beyond Fomalhaut - Fri, 08/27/2021 - 22:18

This blog started on 5 August 2016, making early August the time of the year to engage in stock-taking and irresponsible conjecture. …It is not early August right now? No! That’s LIES, and how dare you?

The State of the Blog

Over five years, Beyond Fomalhaut has turned from a fledgling blog (lots of posts, 55 and 42 total in its first two years!) to an accomplished and mature one (much fewer posts: 37 in year three, 33 in year four, and 29 in year five). It did not drop off of the face of the Earth, but it has obviously turned from an essayistic blog into a review blog (17 posts were reviews, and some of the others were various news items, previews, and updates). However, it remains a blog with an active publishing arm, which is fine as far as I am concerned. I have always preferred the practical, meat-and-potatoes side of gaming, and even considering the limitations of the ongoing Covid-19 nonsense, this year has delivered on that promise.

The 17 reviews posted on the blog represents a slight increase from last year. The average score on the five-point scale ended up as 3.1 (the total average over five years is 3.06, which means at least my scoring is consistent). Last year, I moved towards a “swingier” scoring approach, and I have stuck to this principle ever since. Fewer average ratings, and a few more high- or low-scoring supplements.

Here is the year’s breakdown, with the highlights:

  • 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence. This rating was not awarded this year. Wormskin, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, The Tome of Adventure Design, and Yoon-Suin maintain their lofty perch above the holloi-polloi.
  • 5 was awarded to three supplements, making it the “best” year for this rating since the blog has launched. One award went to Visitor's Guide to the Rainy City, a zine describing the last metropolis of a flooded world and its strange denizens: its flawless execution, wealth of adventure hooks, and creativity make it a natural winner. The Palace of Unquiet Repose, a merciless sword & sorcery adventure about a desert-swallowed tomb-city created by divine hubris, is noted for its mighty energies and a consistently approachable style. Last but not least, Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness is an extension of Keep on the Borderlands’ wilderness section – into a devastated land of colourful and deadly imagination. This is Geoffrey’s best work since Carcosa, and has none of the latter’s ghastly elements.
  • 4 went to four products: Hideous Daylight, a creative wilderness adventure set in a magically warped, off-colour hunting preserve; Fire in the Hole, a well-realised humanoid lair; She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water, a grotesque marshland/dungeon adventure with a lot of individual flavour; and Tetutuphor: Norkers and Xvarts, one of the few actually worthy Caves of Chaos homages. It is interesting to note that three of these ratings were awarded to rather modestly produced materials that did not attempt to bedazzle readers with glitzy artwork and acrobatic experiments in graphic design. They were plain, useful, and well made – the kind of honest, imaginative work we can always use more of.
  • 3 was awarded to four products as well. These were basically decent – from Hunters in Death (the kind of modular content you can just immediately add to a campaign – I did to mine) to the wild, unruly Crypt of the Lizard Wizard and its gonzo elements.
  • 2 went to three adventures, which were either flawed, or just did not offer much of interest. Of these, Bridgetown is the greatest waste: solid idea, but lacking execution.
  • 1 was awarded to three products. For your edification and amusement, these miscreants can be viewed at the pillory. I must single out our late contestant, The Pit, for its utter awfulness: if something can be done wrong, The Pit does it wrong; and this is all from a lavishly illustrated, slightly over-produced release!

There were multiple omissions and delays – including a few promises which have remained as such – and I will try to rectify some of them. It also happens that sometimes, you do not have much useful stuff to say. Sometimes, things are just good, and it is all in an obvious, straightforward way – to cite Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

As for the junk… yes, there could have been more ones and twos. However, I do not set out to deliberately seek out these clunkers, and even when I meet them, some are bad in a way that is more depressing or boring than interesting enough to dissect. It also happens that you mistakenly buy something that’s a complete and obvious dud, but so insubstantial as to make a review a venture in uselessness. Yes, most Mörk Borg releases are written by people who have no idea about functional game writing. Yes, Troika supplements are mostly the same, but with an artsy veneer that draws oohs and aahs from the people whose life mission is to serve as a practical demonstration of the Veblen effect. No, it is not useful to review these products, and usually, there is nothing substantial to review anyway (see illustration).

Three Dollars Americain. You Motherfucker.The State of the Fanzine

This year, EMDT’s release list grew by nine titles, although the numbers are slightly misleading, since they are component parts of a single, larger title (the two boxed sets account for five booklets). The remaining four include two Hungarian modules – The Forest of Gornate, a forest-based wilderness adventure with mini-dungeons that was inspired by (US) Steve Jackson’s seminal gamebook, Scorpion Swamp; and The Vaults of Volokarnos, a first-level introductory dungeon for Basic rules that eats through characters and henchmen like a busy little wood chipper. These two will see English release this year (Volokarnos will be in Echoes #09).

That leaves two more. Baklin, Jewel of the Seas is a city guide that got delayed and delayed, and ended up much larger than ever imagined. I knew I was trouble when I noticed I was nearly at my expected page count… before delving into the Undercity, which would end up adding roughly the same amount of material. So Baklin may count as two, perhaps even three supplements. It ended up big, and I think it ended up chock full of fun adventure hooks and play-relevant background material. The way I see it, Baklin is best used as an adventure hub: a place you can start out from and return to over the span of a campaign, and one that also holds its own in intrigue and action. You really do not have to use all of it all the time (obviously, not even we did), but anywhere you actually end up going in town, there will be something interesting waiting for you.

As for the zine zines, there was one of them, which is not much (even if it was a larger than average issue). This is a situation I would like to rectify in the future, and now that the larger game projects I was working on are completed, it will be time to return to smaller publications. The next Echoes issue will come out in late September or so, and I hope a third one can appear near the end of the year, or barring that, early 2022. On the other hand… yes, that’s two whole damn boxed sets in a single year! Boxed sets are a particular source of happiness; perhaps even more than Xyntillan (my first hardcover), they represent the kind of aspirations small-press RPG publishers have. In 2016, even the idea of releasing a fanzine seemed like a pipe dream, and a hardcover, let alone a boxed set, was clearly a fantasy. This year, it so happened that I first published a boxed set; then a hardcover in a boxed set with maps and extras combo. Damn right that makes me happy.

One of the boxes, written by two friends, is Casemates & Companies (Kazamaták és Kompániák, abbr. “KéK”), a Hungarian B/X-inspired system with a players’ and GM’s book, an intro adventure, ref sheets, character sheets, and dice. Hungary never had a proper B/X variant, and now we have one. This is a game that collects a handful of sensible house rules, rulings, and best practice that have emerged in community  discussion, and all that makes it a strong contender for my favourite B/X take. The feature that sells it (to me) is its heavy focus on the titular “Companies”: recruiting and managing henchmen is something that has fallen by the wayside in gaming, but which is a lot of fun at the table. Moreover, KéK’s henchmen help to recreate the enormous parties OD&D had assumed, and calibrated its rules and procedures around. Bring a bunch of guys into the dungeon, and see who comes out rich and kicking – that’s the way. 

The Helvéczia RPG, of course, is the other one. It took two years to go from the 2013 Hungarian boxed set to the first English draft, and six years from that point to the eventual release. While a lot of that was spent in procrastination due to burnout and other interests, the English release is a proper second edition that cleans up the game’s original inconsistencies and minor issues. I believe Helvéczia does something that other RPGs have not managed to pull off right – marrying European folklore and an old pulp tradition to more modern swashbuckling stories and the D&D game framework – and that the boxed set (pardon me, the hardcover in the boxed set, booyah!) looks good doing it. Helvécziawas meant to be played, and it will be supported with future adventures – some are simply waiting to be translated, while a second regional supplement exists in an early draft (this one may be in the Hungarian first). And of course, my good friend Istvan Boldog-Bernard (who co-authored KéK, and wrote In the Shadow of the City-God) has made a promise about the Catalonia supplement, and as Helvéczia proves, these diabolical pacts are to be honoured!

The hall of mirrors gets deeperThe State of My Other Projects

When I came back to the online old-school community in 2016 after a few wilderness years, my mind was set on publishing two large projects: Castle Xyntillan, and Helvéczia. I did not know when that would happen, and I sure did not think they would be published by my own enterprise (with a lot of help from my printer, illustrators, and for Xyntillan, Rob Conley as my cartographer). In the end, it happened, and it has been a great journey. Long, too! Now that it is over and done with, it is time to set sights on new vistas.

As recounted last year, we spent the first lockdown period of the Bat Plague with a campaign called The Four Dooms of Thisium; an accursed city damned by the very gods to fourfold destruction… unless… Well, the Thisium campaign is something that would work well as a low-level, very open-ended Basic/Expert adventure series (we capped things at level 6, but a first level party may advance to levels 7-9, and that includes a whole lot of character deaths), or it can be taken apart and used as a mini-sandbox for the popular “Fucking Around Around Thisium” kind of game. Normally, Thisium would be well on the way, but I unexpectedly got a second group to playtest the campaign, which is still ongoing (probably 2/3 or 3/4 finished; they are a very different bunch from my trigger-happy, hyperviolent first testing team). Delays will naturally result from this. Thisium will be a very different beast from Xyntillan – less interwoven, broad instead of deep, a bit more unruly – but I think it will be fun to play and run, as a whole or in pieces.

Two projects are a bit more distant. First, I am working on the second edition of Sword and Magic, my fantasy game (on which I wrote more in 2018). Sword and Magic helped kick off widespread interest in old-school gaming in Hungary in 2008, and a second edition has been long overdue. This is a huge undertaking that will be published as two hardcovers, and need some supplemental material for launch (many of them were published in various Echoes issues) – and will take away some focus from English endeavours. It is not getting a translation, since there are so many general old-school systems out there that another one would just be noise, even if I have a favourable opinion about the virtues of my own. It is, also, not an OSR game in the way the term is increasingly understood; that is, it is not rooted in the B/X tradition (its style and scope is firmly connected to first edition AD&D, and Judges Guild’s philosophy), and its rules are based on a radically rewritten, streamlined version of the d20 System. Sword and Magic is one of the strange chimeras of the early, pre-label old-school movement, not concerned with exact duplication, but connected to old game styles in the way of, say, Encounter Critical or AS&SH.

Cold Climate Encounter Charts, Take Two

What I would like to bring to the international audience, though, is Gamemaster’s Guidelines, a comprehensive guidebook to running old-school campaigns. This is not really a rulebook (although there will be a few guidelines for simple domain management, mining, mass combat, and similar concerns), but a kind of reference work that shall help the novice old-school GM get his bearings, and it may also make old hands think. There will also be a bunch of random charts, a comprehensive encounter system, treasure tables, and so on. It is my attempt at doing something similar to the AD&D DMG (although not the same thing, since the DMG already exists). Obviously, it is a ways away, and the Hungarian version comes first, but once it is done, it will not be too hard to translate it.

The third project is something that would have been impossible before Helvéczia. I have long struggled with the idea of publishing a Fomalhaut supplement – the whole idea of presenting the weirdo sword&sorcery / sword&planet setting in a practical format was a problem without a practical solution. (At one time, it could have been a Swords & Wizardry supplement, but when the opportunity arose, I had to choose between writing the supplement and getting my PhD. Perhaps foolishly, I opted for the PhD.) Fomalhaut, a Wilderlands homage, does not make sense without a bunch of hex maps; and that’s hex maps with player and GM versions – lots and lots and lots of map sheets. This is something the modern OSR simply does not do, but a good printer can handle. And I have a good printer. So Helvécziais a boxed set with nine map sheets… and I got the idea that Fomalhaut could be a boxed set with fifteen or nineteen (there are two map regions out of the nine total that are kinda-sorta blank slates), and a handful of zine type booklets, including a players’ primer, guidelines and stuff for the GM, then hex keys for maybe three regions (which is where all our adventuring was concentrated), and a starting module or two. Now, this is still vague, pie in the sky brainstorming, but it is something that could conceivably exist, and in the future, it just might. There are really no promises, and remember how long Xyntillan and Helvéczia took. But with small steps, one can cover a whole lot of distance.

Me and the OSR: A Love Story

The State of the Old School

In the last few years, the community calling itself the OSR has gone through a major upheaval. Something that was for a long time a nominally united thing has splintered into disparate groups with different aesthetics, design ethe, politics (hoo boy!), and communication platforms. It will not be put together again. People can pretend that the big tent is still there, but if you actually look, the canopy is gone, and the tentpole is missing too. Some of the zoo is still around (look ma! that lion is devouring a zebra!), but whatever show is on is more incidental than carefully planned.

But that is only one part of it. Some people have picked up their stuff and moved on, and may eventually come up with something good independent of old-school gaming. However, when we survey the remains of the great circus, we see more serious issues. During the big tent years, the OSR followed a “more the merrier” philosophy, and expanded into every conceivable niche. It became its own little gaming ecosystem where you could theoretically play “anything” and “any way” without leaving the tent. This did lead to a lot of really cool stuff, but it led to a loss of focus, too. A game style that can be anything ultimately does not mean anything. It has no point to make and no strong features to distinguish it and give it a peculiar charm, a creative edge.

Nothing embodies this deplorable state of affairs more than the loss of common knowledge that originally defined the pre-OSR old-school community. Old-school gaming at its core is a movement about rediscovering historical playstyles and putting them to practical use. It does not always create 1:1 replicas (for instance, relatively few people attempt to reconstruct OD&D psionics), and its purposes are selective. The prehistory of gaming provides several approaches to play, not all useful for our interests. A great many people had played TRV OD&D in ways which prefigure 1990s principles, or had long-running campaigns which had drifted in that direction. Yet 1990s roleplaying, even 1990s AD&D (D&D being virtually extinct in that period), is not what we are after. (For more on these traps, see T. Foster’s thread from twelve years ago. We should have listened more carefully!)

By the late 2000s – when Trent posted his warning, and the “OSR” acronym was making its first rounds – old-school traditions had been fairly thoroughly discovered, analysed, and codified. (While versatile, the ideas behind old-school gaming are not particularly deep. It is a game, not a theory vehicle.) People who had shared this corner of the hobby had also shared a common wisdom about how things ought to work, and could also create house rules or far-flung game worlds while using this common wisdom as a point of reference. It was a period of enlightenment, of philosopher kings duking it out on meticulously mowed lawns, and mighty forces of creation writ large on the pages of Fight On! and Knockspell. (Also, pig-headed flame wars about trivial nonsense.)

Times Well Spent: Listening to a Future President...

With the rapid expansion of the scene, however, a lot of this knowledge and precision of thought was lost, while being taken for granted. To many people, the “OSR” had supplied rules, tools, and a sort of ideology about gaming (through the various primers), but not the complexity and scope of the original tradition. Without this background, the advantages of the old-school approach become muddled or lost. Function disappears and empty form remains. A lot of the late or post-OSR content I see retains features like procedural generation, random encounters, and maybe even meme-level “strict time records”  because they are “supposed to” be there, but they do not actually serve any useful purpose. These vestigial remnants are echoes of a structured playstyle that made sense in its original context. It is as if the "OSR" came and went, and the people left behind it picked up the pieces and tried putting them together, but it is now something else. In the worst cases, supposed old-school adventures recreate the worst practices of game design that the original old-school movement was reacting against: railroading and illusionism, lengthy exposition leading nowhere, or things which obviously make no sense at an actual game table.

Instead, a lot of time is wasted on trivial distractions. Much of the “OSR” became absolutely obsessed by form (how we ought to present information, what a “good layout” looks like, etc.), but uses these supposedly hyper-efficient presentation styles and layout magic for trivial stuff like dungeons with five rooms, lightweight content that restates the obvious, and “experimental” games which are not rooted in play, do not serve play, and would actually damage the quality of play if they were used at someone’s table (mercifully, they aren’t). A good thing they look fancy, eh. Slightly better, but still off course, we see attempts at creating orthodoxies through the strict worship of specific rulesets, or rather some of their central features (e.g. the “gameplay loop” of Basic D&D, or the “strict time records” of AD&D). These attempts come from good intentions, but paradoxically, they tend to simplify and thus, diminish the games they champion. As more of a "culture of play" guy, sometimes I can't help but smile when people start LARPing as the hardest of the hardcore.

Where then is excellence and incline? Surely not in this sour grapes bitching! That’s right. What I suggest as a practical solution is a return to the original mission of old-school gaming: a rediscovery of gaming’s roots and original traditions, and the application of thereof to contemporary games. A re-reading and newfound appreciation of Scripture, and a new exploration of the complex traditions of play that had developed at the dawn of the hobby. We can even call it “Old School Refocus” or “Old School Reaction” (sorry, that’s my own biases speaking). Do not just read and work from newly made “OSR” materials: go back to the source, become immersed and inspired, and see it in its complexity, even some of its contradictions. To cite a concrete example, none of the core OSR games I know give you a vision of the larger campaign the way Gary’s Dungeon Masters Guide did, or the way Judges Guild’s materials show you through practical example. The TSR classics of the late 1970s and very early 1980s are still some of the finest adventures ever created (although they become a lot spottier down the line).

As I see it, the complex body of original texts still has the power to enlighten and inspire, and they are very easy to obtain these days. If you can’t afford the bonkers eBay prices, I can only recommend the various troves, which have done a lot for the benefit of gamers, and place even ultra-rare materials at your fingertips. Print them, use them, do not worry about “damaging an ultra-rare”. Read the Original Dungeons & Dragons booklets with open eyes to understand and appreciate how well the original game hangs together as a “game” game – and how much variety it can accommodate. Read the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide for Gary’s TRV vision of campaign-based play. Read Bob Bledsaw’s idiosyncratic campaign materials and marvel at their off-the-wall creativity and giant ambitions. Use the Ready Ref Sheets in actual play, run a campaign in a corner of Wilderlands of High Fantasy, introduce your players to Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor or Portals of Torsh. Read Caverns of Thracia (of course), but read The Dungeoneer’s Compendium and Dark Tower, too. Take a good look at tuff like Arduin (which I admit I appreciate more than actually like) and the Gamelords Thieves Guild materials. The list goes on. There are classics… and there are forgotten gems off the beaten path too. Seek them out or die trying. There is no other way. Fight on!

Times Well Spent: Try the Veal!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Chillin'. 5150 New Beginnings Video

Two Hour Wargames - Fri, 08/27/2021 - 20:02

5150 New Beginnings video - How Chillin' works. Kick off your Story!

 Chilln' Video

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Left to My Own Designs

3d6 Traps & Thieves - Fri, 08/27/2021 - 17:31

Not gonna deny - things have been rough.

Also not gonna bore anyone with pointless details.

Where I am now is the creation of new worlds and focusing on new projects. I've even recruited some volunteer assistants. Things are coming along slowly - but they are coming along.

For now, these efforts are toward manageable projects. Smaller settings and scale. Getting the main idea published and available - then expanding and detailing if there is interest.

There is just so much.

Avremier is on hold. It is such a massive setting.

Grayharrow is coming together very nicely, in my opinion. The setting is really starting to look and feel the way it has been in my own mind. My volunteer team seems excited about it. Play testing should be starting this month.

Pumpkindred should be ready in time for the Halloween season. Just a fun, spooky little game of jack-o-lantern-headed runts running around trying to accomplish missions for mythic patrons.

More to come - sooner, hopefully, rather than later.

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Secrets of Judges Guilds "City State of the Invincible Overlord" By Bill Owen and Bob Bledsaw - The Castles & Crusades Rpg Aligned With The Star Ship Warden Rpg book

Swords & Stitchery - Fri, 08/27/2021 - 16:36
 Its been ages since we've talked about Judge's Guilds "City State of the Invincible Overlord" By Bill Owen and Bob Bledsaw. There's some very interesting little tidbits worked into the background of the grand ol'e fantasy city state. I went over the some of the ins & outs of Judge's Guilds "City State of the Invincible Overlord" By Bill Owen and Bob Bledsaw here. Yesterday's OSR Nexus The Needles
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Into the Wilderness

Sorcerer's Skull - Fri, 08/27/2021 - 12:05

I have the rudiments of an idea for a setting. A wilderness not unlike Middle-earth's Wilderlands, but also not unlike America's early frontier between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River--and at a 1820s level of technology. A place of dark forests, mighty rivers, skin-changers, and dragons, but also rivermen in keelboats, ancient mounds, and perhaps the skeletons of ancient giants
Not really the American Frontier any more than Middle-earth is Europe (and no need to tell me Tolkien intended it to be Eurasia in the distant past, please). No colonialism as we know it, though likely some clash of cultures and plenty of room for man's inhumanity to man, of course. Probably no demi-humans as usually constituted but maybe something with more Biblical resonance. After all, the Garden of Eden could be in Missouri.

OSR Nexus The Infinite City - Actual Play Report - Ghouls In The City

Swords & Stitchery - Thu, 08/26/2021 - 20:06
 "Welcome to Nexus, the Infinite City. The city where all realities meet. A place where Ancient Babylon is just down the street, and the next off ramp leads to the lost cities of Mars. Rub shoulders with alien gangbangers. Party it up with the creatures of the night. Fight alongside Aztec cyberpunks and Roman centurions. Rumble with street mages. Lock down trade deals with avaricious dinosaurs. Needles
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Getting A More Lovecraftian Campaign Spin On Leigh Brackett's 'Shadow Over Mars'

Swords & Stitchery - Wed, 08/25/2021 - 19:50
" Rick Urquhart was going to conquer the turmoil-ridden planet of Mars. He was penniless and unknown, but there could be no doubt that he would rule the Red Planet-the ancient Martian mystic had made the prophecy, there was no way fate could cheat him of his prize.. "When we begin looking into the lovely work of the far future of  the Terran Exploitation Company within the bounds of Startling Needles
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

the Level Up: Advanced 5e kickstarter and me

Blog of Holding - Wed, 08/25/2021 - 19:44

I haven’t been posting much here, but I’ve been writing D&D every day – and wishing I could share it with you. Soon, you will be able to get ALL the “Paul Writes DND” content you could possibly want.

This is the Kickstarter for enworld publishing’s upcoming 5e reboot, Level Up: Advanced 5e – their biggest project to date. I’ve written and contributed to a ton of pieces of the core book! The treasure tables! The backgrounds! Spellcasting! Rebalanced spells! Rare spells! The rogue class! Stuff to spend money on once you’re high level! New and improved encounter guidelines! We’re really proud of how this project came out: it adds lots of neat things that 5e has been needing.

AND… that’s my name on the cover of the Monstrous Menagerie.

The MoMe’s going to be HUGE – more than 500 pages. A big team of designers worked on the Monstrous Menagerie, including Anthony Alipio, J F Zambrano, Jocelyn Gray, Josh Gentry, Mike Myler, Morrigan Robbins, Peter Coffey, Peter Martin, Russ Morrissey, Sarah Breyfogle, Sarah Madsen, Shane Stacks, Will Fischer, Will Gawned, and Yvonne Hsiao, along with 80 pages of dragon wrangling by Cassandra Macdonald and Andrew Engelbrite, and spectacular work by editor Will Fischer.

This is the monster book I’ve been wanting to write. I think it’s going to be the best monster book ever.

The MoMe has 95% of the monsters in the Monster Manual (minus some, like the mind flayer, which are WOTC IP) and then adds 250 more monsters, variants, and templates – enough for a second manual. I’ve carefully rebalanced every monster’s math, and I’ve created new, highly playtested encounter guidelines that provide challenges at high level. I’ve created dozens of “elite” monsters – improved legendaries that can, I believe, provide a solo challenge to high-level parties. (They said it couldn’t be done! I think it can! We’ll see when you get your hands on the book!)

And there’s so much adventure fuel in here. You can flip open the book to any entry and generate everything you need for a full encounter – including monster motivations, names, treasure, and future adventure hooks, all with a few dice rolls, without looking anything up.

Here’s an example entry, the mimic:

Sign up to be notified when the kickstarter launches!

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OSR Treasures of Reality, The Threshold, & More- Rpg Pundit's The Invisible College & Night Shift Veterans of the Supernatural Wars By Jason Vey & Timothy Brannan.

Swords & Stitchery - Wed, 08/25/2021 - 17:11
There is a single main definition of the object of all magical Ritual. It is the uniting of the Microcosm with the Macrocosm. The Supreme and Complete Ritual is therefore the Invocation of the Holy Guardian Angel; or, in the language of Mysticism, Union with God.Ch. 1 : The Principles of RitualAleister Crowley We are living through one of the last cycles of Chaos & scorn according certain Hindu Needles
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