Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Mere Anarchy is Loosed upon the Blog

Sorry about the radio silence this month. I've been depressed and scared and anxious due to...recent events in general, I guess you could say. Politics and personal obstacles have conspired to piss in my cheerios. I keep meaning to post something, but it seems like I just end up reading the news and getting worked up and screwing around all night instead. I'm going to try and knock this shit off in December: my next big project is a read-through of Carcosa in the style of my Holmes Basic posts. I was thinking about posting the short script I wrote a while back for the trailer to a theoretical Wolfenstein movie, but I was worried that it didn't have enough to do with RPGs to merit inclusion here. So now I'm writing this instead. Go fucking figure.

On a related note, does anyone have any recommendations for a good RPG about thwarting the Nazis? I've been in a no-holds-barred kind of mood, lately.

Just in case anything still matters, here's my fucking Joesky tax, I guess:
1d20 Odd Fortune Cookie Messages*
  1. "Hating on sluts is like hating on sunshine." (Zak S., March 5, 2012)**
  2. "Surely the Second Coming is at hand." (W. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming")
  3. "The future refused to change." (Chrono Trigger)
  4. "Your lovin' is much too hot to last." (Todd Rivers as Dr. Lucien Sanchez in Garth Marenghi's Darkplace)
  5. "Forget it, [name of reader]. It's [location of reader]." (Chinatown)
  6. "We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far." (H. P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu")
  7. "Existence has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long." (Alan Moore, Watchmen)
  8. "The thread of human hope is spun with the flax of sorrow." (Neon Genesis Evangelion Episode 24)
  9. "Collateral damage can be justified, if the gain outweighs the cost." (Spec Ops: The Line)
  10. "You will escape into the waves." (Marathon)
  11. "You rescued her from the gutter. Her life is yours, to use as you see fit." (Arthur Machen, "The Great God Pan")
  12. "You tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try." (The Simpsons Season 5 Episode 18)
  13. "Chaos reigns." (Antichrist)
  14. "You should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas." (T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock")
  15. "You need to lower your standards, because it is never getting any better than this." (Fall Out Boy featuring Courtney Love, "Rat a Tat")
  16. "Happy people can be so cruel." (Silent Hill 3)
  17. "Take away a man's light, his clothes, his food, his friends, his air, and you leave him with nothing but himself. And for most that is not pleasant company." (The Suffering)
  18. "Everything you touch seems destined to turn into something mean and farcical." (Henrik Ibsen, Hedda Gabler)
  19. "Find a pile of gold and sit on it." (John Gardner, Grendel)
  20. "You don't even exist. We're all just a figment of my cock's imagination." (David Wong, John Dies in the End)***
    *The following entries have been significantly altered in terms of wording, punctuation, etc. in order to fit the "Fortune Cookie" premise: #4, #5, #7, #10, #11, #12, #14, #15, and #18.
    **Just for the record, I agree with this one.
    *** This one is also accurate.

    Tuesday, November 8, 2016

    1d100 Political Scapegoats

    1. Puppies
    2. Kittens
    3. Puppies AND Kittens
    4. War Widows
    5. "I blame the lame-stream media. Also that other media."
    6. Video Games
    7. Audio-Video Games
    8. Audio-Video-Olfactio-Gustio-Tactio Games
    9. Whatever music the youth are listening to
    10. The youth in general
    11. Pacifists
    12. Oceanographers (The Pornographers of the Sea)
    13. Womenfolk
    14. The "Moors"
    15. Organized Religion (referee's discretion as to which one - bonus polling points for a persecuted minority denomination)
    16. Disorganized Religion
    17. The Elderly, except the ones who have managed to remain fuckable
    18. The Fuckable Elderly
    19. Sincerely Reformed Criminals
    20. The Best and Coolest Drugs
    21. Books (bonus polling points for books that are "controversial" for reasons no one can identify)
    22. The Unemployed
    23. Restaurant Serving Staff
    24. Left-Handed (i.e. Sinister) People
    25. The Sea Peoples (or THESE Peoples)
    26. Teachers, British Nanies, Cartoon Animals, and other people with a suspicious fondness for children
    27. The Cartoons and Action Figures Which Aren't as Cool as the Ones You Had as a Kid
    28. The Homeless, especially when they're just trying to get some fucking sleep
    29. That Sports Team No One Likes
    30. Voter Fraud
    31. The New Dance Craze
    32. Santa Claus
    33. People who have much better and more frequent sex than you Filthy Hedonists
    34. Loving Marriages
    35. Divorcees
    36. Supermodels
    37. Ultra-Deluxe Models
    38. Newfangled Gadgets
    39. Lazy People (who only work three measly jobs to get by)
    40. This Week's Horoscope
    41. An "Act of God" (presumably an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient one)
    42. A hoax perpetuated by almost the entire scientific community for nebulous reasons
    43. The fact that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, thus we haven't had very long to learn to do any better
    44. The Expansion of the Sun
    45. Legal Aliens Who Just Look Illegal
    46. What She's Wearing
    47. Sass, Backtalk, Attitude, Lip, Snark, and General Uppitiness
    48. Jokes (although "Jokes" are okay)
    49. Those who "can't take a joke"
    50. Politeness, Manners, Respect, Consideration, Tact, and other PC bullshit
    51. Unarmed People
    52. Actual Goats (I mean, have you seen their freakish eyes?)
    53. Those who dare ignore our most arcane and pointless traditions
    54. Huddled Masses
    55. POWs
    56. People who don't vote
    57. People who do vote, but are the wrong color
    58. People who are just especially punchable/hangable/flammable for whatever reason
    59. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
    60. Zoologists (The Pornographers of the Sea of the Land)
    61. Genetically-Modified Orgasms
    62. Something that must be true because I totally saw it in a movie once
    63. Sound and Fury
    64. Filthy Pinko Commies
    65. Commie Mutant Traitors
    66. Spring-Heeled Jack
    67. The Mad Gasser
    68. The Prophecy of Yore
    69. Purely accidental circumstances which lead to me innocently slipping and falling into vaginas/butts
    70. A widespread lack of moral fiber
    71. Those stupid reporters and their dumb, hard questions
    72. Kids who don't eat their Brussels sprouts
    73. Rural Folk
    74. City Folk
    75. Those Pesky Human Rights
    76. Haters
    77. Irresistible Temptation
    78. Thugs, Punks, and Ne'er-do-wells
    79. Bikers
    80. The Mentally Ill
    81. The Mentally Chill
    82. The Mentally Real
    83. Anyone dumb enough to pay taxes
    84. Satanic Cults that Supposedly Exist
    85. Bad Influences
    86. Subversives
    87. Radicals
    88. Moderates
    89. Fatties (i.e. The Non-Airbrushed)
    90. The Childless
    91. Artists, Intellectuals, Philosophers, and Other Smarty Pants
    92. Hollywood Movies
    93. Nasty Underground Movies
    94. People's private medical business
    95. People's privates
    96. A Terrible Curse
    97. The War on [insert thing that isn't in jeopardy here]
    98. Theoretical Mathematicians (The Pornographers of the Sea of the Land of the Abstract Logic)
    99. Murderhobos
    100. Fun

    Monday, October 31, 2016

    Sleepy Hollow (1999)

    So I just saw Tim Burton's loose adaptation of the classic Washington Irving story, which is to say the 1999 film Sleepy Hollow. Wow, that was WAY more over-the-top, more violent, and frankly, more Flame Princess-esque than your typical take on this story, so of course I loved it. "Heads will roll" indeed, movie poster tagline. (There will be spoilers from here on out.)

    Granted, there was room for improvement. Some of the dialogue felt wooden or contrived to me, in both content and delivery. The set-up to Ichabod's involvement was actually harder to swallow than all the gonzo shit that followed - "Hey, our police department is super-corrupt and sloppy, and we generally don't like you. We especially hate your lousy Scientific Methods. Thus I, Judge Christopher Lee, shall give you a choice between being thrown in a cell for contempt of court or going off to the site of several brutal murders with the express purpose of proving the worth of your fancy Science to us and becoming a hero in the process." Also, the Headless Horseman should have been on fire when he walked out of the burning wreckage of the exploded windmill, just because that would have looked really cool. Oh, and the main villain did that whole "reveal your enitre plan in a monologue to the people you think you're about to kill" thing, but that didn't bother me too much since it was in keeping with the tone of the piece.

    But yeah, overall, great movie, especially on Halloween. It had some stuff that felt right at home with the philosophy and aesthetic of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, too. (I've actually seen it recommended as inspiration for LotFP somewhere online before, but unfortunately I don't remember where.) I mean, there's a gnarly, twisted tree that bleeds and contains a portal to hell lined with severed heads and which also serves as the Headless Horseman's grave, for fuck's sake. (Was this movie an inspiration for the excellent OSR mini-module The Bloodsoaked Boudoir of Velkis the Vile?) And at the end, the Horseman, a.k.a. the ghost (or zombie or whatever) of a widely-feared high-level (well, high level for LotFP) fighter who was primarily in the mercenary game just to fucking kill for fun, and who filed his teeth into fucking points, bite-kisses the witch who used to control him and then pulls her through the aforementioned hell portal in a way that looks like a home video of a woman messily giving birth set on rewind. That's pretty fucking metal. Oh yeah, and he had gotten his skull back at this point, which had promptly regenerated his head-flesh in a manner reminiscent of both Uncle Frank from Hellraiser and Large Marge from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. EDIT: I totally forgot to mention it, but the Horseman also kills a small child. You don't see it on screen, but it's heavily implied.

    As for LotFP's gaming philosophy or style, everybody certainly seemed low-level. I'd guess Ichabod was a level 1 or 2 specialist, Katrina was a magic-user of the same level, and young Masbath was a level-0 henchman on the path to becoming a fighter. Aside from a few people who were probably level 1 fighters, the mortal form of the future Horseman (who could have probably been that badass at, what, level 6?), and the witch pulling his strings (no more than a level 3 magic-user, and possibly less), everybody else was probably a typical level 0 peasant. Thus, even a relatively low-powered supernatural force, compared to what you generally see in "main-stream" D&D, was a big deal and very dangerous. Combat is very lethal, except when the PCs are both very lucky and properly prepared. And the main characters succeeded not through brute force, but through clever thinking (including some classic moves like throwing your lantern and running away and using the enemies' magic powers against them). There's a lot of investigation and dealing with quirky NPCs, including a witch who summons a demonic spirit into herself just to give Ichabod a clue and help him save the town, because demon-summoning witch or not, she's just a really nice and helpful lady. Of course she gets killed for her trouble. Oh, and the Horseman's skull was a good magic item: use it carefully and it is very powerful, but fuck up and you're fucking finished.

    Actually, going off of that thing about the witch above, three out of four witches in this movie were basically good guys (although Katrina did do some questionable, murderhobo-like stuff such as burning evidence to protect someone who looked super-guilty, getting over the death of her NPC love interest in about a nanosecond, and doing suspicious magical shit with little or no effort to either hide what she was doing or explain it). This actually jives sort-of well with the sympathetic way witches are often portrayed in LotFP - I'm specifically thinking of the well-intentioned but probably misguided witches in Better Than Any Man and No Salvation for Witches, among others. Meanwhile, the intolerant bigot who kills Ichabod's mother because of her witchcraft is clearly portrayed as an absolute monster in the movie much like how many witch-hunters are disgusting, corrupted zealots in LotFP. Granted, morality in general is less black-and-white in LotFP than in the movie, with different witches and witch-burners being sympathetic to different degrees, but many of the same moral values and intended levels of sympathy seem to be shared between the game and this movie. This is really a whole other complicated topic, but I thought it was worth touching on here because the movie did give me a Flame Princess vibe in this regard, justifiably or not.

    Anyway, at the end, the two PCs and their henchman (hopefully with a shiny new level under each of their belts, even if XP-for-cash remains the gold standard in the game) stick together and presumably go off to have more adventures, with Ichabod probably having earned a better (or at least more complicated) reputation with the police. I kind of wish there was some kind of sequel, in which they go deal with another supernatural threat and team up with some new characters. Maybe tackle another classic module from that era like RLS-1886 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or MWS-1818 The Modern Prometheus. That could be a pretty sweet campaign.

    Thursday, October 27, 2016

    Avarton, or "Possession is 9/10 of the Law"

    This is very loosely based on a nightmare my wife had the other night. In the spirit of Halloween, I thought it might make for a nice, spooky RPG location. I had the default Lamentation of the Flame Princess setting of 1600s Europe in mind while writing this, but you could fit Avarton or some place like it into all kinds of games.

    Avarton is a large village (or small town, depending on who you ask) of about 500 people. The town is fairly prosperous for its size because of its large gristmill, which serves the surrounding communities, as well as its lead mine, which shows no signs of running out any time soon (unlike other mines in the area). The town is noted for having very beautiful foliage in the autumn, and for growing great big pumpkins and surprisingly tall corn and wheat.

    Most outsiders don't spend more than a few hours in the town at a time, and almost no one stays overnight unless they live there. If asked about it, most people probably will not have given this trend much thought, but some likely explanations may be offered. The simplest reason is that there are other communities nearby, so people who don't live too far away just go home to their own beds at night, while strangers to the area tend to choose much nicer accommodations elsewhere, rather than the single plain-looking inn (and largest tavern) in Avarton, the Grubby Goose.

    Some might point to another problem: People who spend more than a day in Avarton tend to experience strange tingling sensations and numbness, abdominal pain and nausea, muscle weakness and coordination problems, and some mild confusion. This illness goes away after about a week spent in town (or a few hours if one leaves town as soon as the problems start), as suddenly as it comes on, which is why the residents don't seem to suffer these symptoms - they all just "got over it." Still, this mysterious and temporary sickness is unpleasant and inconvenient, so outsiders who know about it just don't stay in Avarton long enough at a time for it to manifest.

    For every 24 hours they spend in Avarton, PCs must make a saving throw vs. poison or else come down with this sickness. Once contracted, the sickness lasts for 1d6 days in town or 1d4 hours outside of town. The sickness can only be caught by a PC once per stay in Avarton. If a PC leaves Avarton for more than 24 hours, they are at once again risk of getting the sickness. A sick PC suffers a -1 penalty to all attack rolls, saving throws, and skill/ability checks of any kind.

    (Oddly, none of the residents ever seem to experience any signs of lead poisoning, not even the miners. Unless you count the brief illness they all "got over" upon first moving to the town, that is, and even that doesn't seem to apply to people born in Avarton.)

    The final reason outsiders don't stick around is a bit harder to get people to admit. When the sun starts to go down in Avarton, many outsiders feel a strong sense of paranoia. The feeling is usually described as a certainty that the people around you want to take away something that belongs to you, or that you've accidentally taken something that belongs to them and they're plotting to take it back.

    At sundown, any PCs in Avarton must make a saving throw vs. magic. Success means they experience this paranoia, which may serve as a warning sign. Failure means they feel nothing unusual.

    The Curse
    Residents of Avarton suffer a collective magical delusion, or rather a pattern of delusions. Between sunset and sunrise, the people of Avarton tend to believe that various objects which do not belong to them are in fact their rightful property, and always have been. If you set something down on a table and move away from it, within moments someone will come up and blatantly try to take it, because they will genuinely think it belongs to them. If confronted or questioned about this, not only will the "thief" be confused and insulted by your objections, but any other villagers nearby will also back up their claims of ownership, making up stories of seeing the "thief" buy or make the object or receive it as a gift, seeing them carry it around or use it on multiple occasions, seeing it in their home, etc. They will genuinely believe these stories, not realizing that they are lying. The "thief" will absolutely refuse to give up their "rightful property," and if it comes down to it, every single other resident of the town will side with the "thief."

    And in all likelihood, this will happen over and over. If you set something down and walk away from it, it will be gone when you come back. Those horses you hitched up out front? Farmer Bill is taking them home right now. The trail of breadcrumbs you left behind you in the wheat maze? Little Sarah has been following behind, picking them back up and wondering why she left her collection of favorite breadcrumbs out here. Did you set your mug of ale aside to go take a whiz? I hope you didn't plan on drinking that.

    All it takes for one of your possessions to be potentially "up for grabs" is for it to not be in physical contact with either your body or an item you are wearing (like clothing, armor, or a backpack) for about 20 seconds or so. However, just because it's potentially "up for grabs" doesn't mean a villager will necessarily lay claim to it right away. If you let the item out of your line of sight, it will be stolen almost immediately if possible, but if you stay nearby the curse could take a while to present a "thief." In such cases, there is a 1 in 6 chance that any such item suddenly "belongs" to a villager every 10 minutes. Separate rolls should be made for multiple items.

    When a villager lays claim to something between sundown and sunup, they will not let the matter go. They will get the law involved if you push the matter, and if that doesn't get them what they want, they will gladly whip up an angry mob. And while new delusions of ownership cannot be formed during the day, old ones from the nighttime will persist permanently, so don't expect Farmer Bill to come to his senses about those horses just because the sun is shining. Even if they don't need the item, or wouldn't even ordinarily want it, they will refuse to give it up under any circumstances. Perhaps the people of Avarton would have been a bit more laid back about the whole thing a few years ago when the curse first started, but you can only see other people walking around with your stuff so many nights in a row before you start to get a bit defensive, you know?

    When a villager steals from another villager in this way, everyone will agree that the stolen item does indeed belong to the person who took it; even the person who was robbed will agree, though perhaps not right away. Villagers accidentally exchange items like this every night and usually think nothing of it (outside of the occasional, brief argument about why Person A had taken things from Person B), since their delusions essentially create new memories of ownership. If the PCs pay attention, they may notice this strange activity happening around them before they have a chance to fall victim to it themselves.

    Some Locations
    The Grubby Goose
    Tied up in the basement is a merchant who tried to peddle some wares after sundown and got extremely hostile when everyone just started taking his stuff without paying for it. He caused a scene, everyone involved overreacted, violence broke out, and just like that he ended up imprisoned and badly beaten. He had all kinds of deeds and other legal documents on his person, which now "belong" to the enraged townspeople. Said townspeople have been torturing him for the locations of "their" property and money (as granted by the documents they "own"), and for the merchant's signature wherever it is needed to make their ownership "official." The merchant is stubborn, so he may hold out a while before he finally either gives up everything or dies. His family would pay generously for his safe return. Not everyone in the village knows about the kidnapped merchant, but enough of them do.

    The Gristmill
    One of the mill workers has been possessed by a vengeful ghost. She has taken to putting small amounts of lead in the flour. This doesn't seem to affect the people of Avarton, but the citizens of nearby communities are slowly starting to feel the effects of this contamination. The mill worker has also set up a strange shrine in a hidden room beneath the mill. On top of an ancient stone altar stands an upside down cross woven from corn husks. A lead knife and a bowl of wheat husks, both caked with dried blood, also rest on the altar. A summoning circle has been made from flour and surrounded by five pedestals topped with bowls of grain and pumpkin seeds. Trapped within the circle is what looks like a living lead statue of a gargoyle-like creature with a jack o' lantern for a head. This creature introduces himself as Stingy Jack, a representative of the First National Bank of Mamona. "Would you please be so kind as to fetch me my ledger? I dropped it somewhere in the mines, clumsy me! I'll make it worth your while."

    The Pavilion
    Every major holiday, the people of Avarton hold a feast at the big stone pavilion on the edge of town. The parties here can sometimes last from noon to midnight. One small stone above the pavilion's fireplace is carved with an upside-down pentagram. If asked, none of the villagers seem to know why it's there. If the stone is removed, a hidden compartment is revealed. It contains a key marked with the same pentagram and a map indicating a certain tomb in the town's graveyard, with the words "The wages of greed is life," scrawled beside it.

    The Corn Maze
    Every fall, the people of Avarton celebrate All Hallow's Eve with an odd tradition. They cut a maze in one of their largest corn fields and hide jack o' lanterns (made from truly huge pumpkins) in all the dead ends. These jack o' lanterns contain not only candles, but also coins and other treasures, "given" as playful offerings to the ghosts and ghouls of the season. Of course, this treasure always ends up taken by somebody eventually, but not until after the holiday is over - unless some outsiders decide to take it first. Taking shortcuts through the maze is ill advised: not only is the ground pitted with holes just the right size for twisting your ankle, but the "walls" of the maze tend to be filled with booby traps left by the villagers. It's part of the tradition. Besides, the maze is there for the spirits and monsters, so you have no business trespassing. Also, there's always the possibility that the maze is genuinely haunted. Hey, did that scarecrow just look at me funny?

    The Lead Mine
    The deepest level of the mine connects to an ancient temple, sealed and buried for ages. The miners breached several walls of this chthonic complex years ago, but have not disturbed it since, except to make the yearly offerings necessary to ensure the mine does not run out of fresh lead to sell. The structure bears features of Babylonian architecture, along with styles of construction and artistic flourishes which are harder to identify as being carved by human hands or invented by mortal minds.

    (Alternatively, you could put the Temple of Greed here or something.)

    I imagine Avarton would need to be fleshed out a bit more to make it ready to run - you'd need NPCs, maps, encounters, etc. If I ever run or revisit this, I'll have to let you folks know. In the meantime, I hope this can serve as inspiration for somebody. Happy Halloween!

    Thursday, October 20, 2016

    A Simpler Start for My Online LotFP Game

    So I've thought about my tentative house rules for the online campaign that I hope to start soon, and I think I might be forcing my players to jump off of the deep end if I subject them to all of that right away. Most of them are probably unfamiliar with both the specific set of rules and the old-school/OSR style, so adding a whole bunch of weird, experimental rule changes on top of that might overcomplicate things or give a false impression of what the typical experience of the game is like (assuming there is such a thing). If I were new to the game, I could easily see myself playing for the first time in a campaign with all kinds of oddball rule changes and then playing what I thought was the same game elsewhere and practically having to learn everything over again. "What? Different character classes get different saving throws? And what's up with all these different categories?" Maybe that wouldn't be as hard as it sounds in my head, but I bet that it would be more beneficial to start off simply and then introduce the more unorthodox ideas later, maybe even in a different campaign. There will hopefully be time for playtesting after everyone has gotten comfortable.

    I do want to use some house rules right from the beginning, but not so many of them or ones that are quite so different from what the players could read in the free rulebook. So for now, here are the few house rules I definitely want to start with. To quote the post I linked to above, "I should also note that most of these are lifted from the LotFP Playtest Document, either as-is or in modified form. I may not explicitly mention this in all cases, so please keep in mind that credit for a lot of this material should go to James Raggi."

    Ability Score Checks - When a PC attempts to accomplish certain risky actions that are not covered by a Skill, the DM may ask for an Ability Score Check (Strength Check, Charisma Check, etc.) in order to determine success or failure. The player rolls 3d6. If the result is equal to or less than their character's relevant ability score, they succeed. If the result is higher, they fail.

    Character Classes - There are two options regarding the available character classes that I am considering. Before the campaign beings, I would like my players to make a group decision about which one to use. I would be glad to answer questions about these choices, of course.
    1. Available character classes are the Fighter, Specialist, Magic-User, Cleric, Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling. Class abilities operate by the book, or RAW (Rules as Written) at the beginning of the campaign, but we can negotiate tweaks to these rules over time if desired. Also, new classes can be "unlocked" or discovered through play, and thus added to the roster of character creation options in the future. Members of the Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling classes should note that their characters may face severe discrimination and hostility in human communities, and that NPC members of these classes will probably be extremely rare. I may or may not implement my house rules from this post regarding the Elf.
    2. Available character classes are the Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric, and Alice (or Fool). In addition to their usual class abilities, all characters gain skill points as per the Specialist, which is no longer a separate class. No class starts with free specialist tools. The Alice class will probably use the HP, Saving Throw, and XP chart of the Specialist, and the Level Up table for the Alice will be altered to remove the entries that improve the character's Saving Throws or increase skill points. I reserve the right to alter the table in other ways before the campaign begins. Also, new classes can be "unlocked" or discovered through play, and thus added to the roster of character creation options in the future. However, I will alter these new classes to fit the house rules above if I feel it is helpful or necessary.
    P.S. I still want to try out my crazy "everybody's a Fighter" thing I mentioned previously, but since I don't think it's very old-school compared to the options above (among other reasons), I have decided not to do so with this group just yet.

    Critical Hits - If a natural 20 is rolled to hit, the attack automatically hits and does maximum damage (e.g. 8 if the attack would normally do 1d8 damage).

    Experience Points - No more than one level of experience can be gained per session. If a character gains enough experience points to gain more than one level in a single session, the character only gains one level for the time being. In order to reach the next level, the character must gain at least 1 additional experience point in a future session. This continues until the character does not have enough experience points for the next level. "Excess" experience points are not lost.

    Increasing HP - Upon leveling up, roll a number of Hit Dice equal to your new level (up to level 9, after which each additional level gives you less, as per Rules & Magic). If you roll an amount higher than your previous maximum, that becomes your new maximum HP. If you roll an amount equal to or lower than your previous maximum, your new maximum is your previous maximum plus 1.

    Read Magic - This spell is no longer necessary.

    Replacement Characters - When your character dies, you have two options.
    1. Create a new character. This character starts with an amount of XP (and appropriate level) determined by the house rule outlined in this post.
    2. Use one of your last character's NPC retainers as your new character.
    The Rule of One (Paraphrased from the Playtest Document) - If the DM just really wants an excuse to screw with the players, they can roll a d6. On a 1, the DM has permission to add a problem or complication to the current situation.
    The Rule of Reasonableness (Paraphrased from the Playtest Document) - If the chance of failure wouldn't be interesting, or if it seems reasonable that something should just work, let the PCs automatically succeed at what they're doing.
    Skill List - Available skills include the following:
    • Architecture (I might change this to Engineering, as per Papers & Pencils)
    • Bushcraft
    • Climb (I might change this to Atheletics, as per Papers & Pencils.)
    • Languages
    • Luck
    • Medicine (I might call this First Aid)
    • Seamanship
    • Sleight of Hand
    • Sneak Attack
    • Stealth
    • Tinker
    • Others that may be added over time
    The skills "Open Doors" and "Search" have been removed, as per my notes HERE.

     Strength - No longer affects Open Doors because this skill has been removed.

    Shadowgate (NES Version) and D&D

    My internet was out at home yesterday, and I wanted to do something spooky in keeping with this wonderful season, so I popped Shadowgate in my NES and played through it again for the first time in a while. The game was clearly influenced by D&D (and/or games or fiction related to D&D), so I had a few thoughts about old-school tabletop RPGs while playing it. Needless to say, there are going to be spoilers, but this game is about as old as I am, so I doubt anyone is going to care.

    As with D&D, Shadowgate is cool because it draws from a variety of sources to create its fantasy setting. D&D had the famous Appendix N, plus it often drew monsters and magic items and such from fairy tales and folk tales, from mythology and religion, from urban legends, from history, and even from jokes and puns. Shadowgate has a greedy troll guarding a bridge, a riddle-loving sphinx, a cyclops who gets dispatched almost exactly like Goliath (complete with a cry of "Death to the Philistine!"), a shark swimming around an underground pool like something out of Jaws or a cartoon, a wishing well that responds favorably to money, green slime straight out of D&D, a dragon and some dragon-like creatures, a werewolf, a hellhound, and much more packed into this relatively short and simple game.

    In some ways, Shadowgate does some things that would be inappropriate in D&D. Puzzles generally (perhaps always) have only one solution, and other than the fact that some puzzles can be solved and some areas can be explored in different orders, the game is very linear, so a tabletop version of Shadowgate would be a total railroad if it were run just like the video game. Also, things in Shadowgate are either lethal or non-lethal; there are no saving throws or hit points to give the player some slack for making bad choices or having bad luck, although the game does give the player infinite lives and the ability to save their progress, so I guess it's a wash.

    On the other hand, Shadowgate gets a lot of things really right about old-school, D&D-style dungeon crawling as far as I'm concerned. Running out of torchlight is a constant concern. Life is cheap and death is often hilarious. There are secret passages and chambers all over the place. Burning things is often the key to winning. The challenges come from a good mix of NPCs, traps, and puzzles. The environment has a lot of stuff to examine and interact with, and not all of it is necessary for victory. There's at least one magic item that feels a bit more unique and strange than just another magic sword or scroll - I'm specifically thinking of the super-cold magic orb, which gets more than one use, unlike most items in the game other than torches, and the use of which requires some clever thinking on the part of any player who lacks a walkthrough. The titular castle is enough of a gonzo funhouse dungeon to offer lots of surprises and amusement, but also pretty coherent overall since it totally seems like the kind of place an evil and powerful warlock would design. And of course, you can't trust the woman chained up in the tower begging for help. That's a classic trick in fantasy games. Playing Shadowgate feels to me like a satisfying old-school dungeon crawl distilled into a quick, rules-light, solo game with great music.

    Sometimes I think that when RPGs started being adapted to video games, both directly and indirectly, the various things that make RPGs good got split up between different genres. Point and click adventures like Shadowgate (and their older cousins, text adventures/interactive fiction), especially really good and complex ones with multiple puzzle solutions, nonlinear progression, and choices (especially dialogue choices) which can heavily alter the course of the story, often handle the creative side of the RPG experience really well. Meanwhile, video game RPGs tend to do interesting things with "crunch" like creating intricate combat systems, offering a variety of interesting choices in character creation and advancement, making in-game economies that matter to the player (because they need to get better equipment or more supplies or what have you), making the player balance exploration with resource management, and getting the player addicted to collecting loot and XP. But looking at older video games, and perhaps newer ones to a lesser extent, adventure games don't generally offer the "crunch" of RPGs, and RPGs generally don't offer the puzzles or dialogue of adventure games. This is obviously not true across the board; for example, the Quest for Glory series combines the adventure and RPG genres, while many RPG series like Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, and Mass Effect have won over fans with branching stories, interesting dialogue systems, quests with multiple solutions, and open-world gameplay. Sometimes this genre separation in video games is not a bad thing, either, but I think it holds true much of the time as an overall trend. One cool thing about D&D and many other tabletop RPGs is that they're like playing a point and click adventure and a video game RPG at the same time, in one fairly seamless experience and with a plethora of options and possibilities more or less unavailable in video games due to the limits of pre-programmed game systems vs. human imagination and ingenuity. This, along with the social and cultural aspects of tabletop RPGs, helps explain why I love such games, despite (or maybe just in addition to) my love of video games. Tabletop RPGs continue to be amazing fun in a world of electronic entertainment, and their versatile, free-form nature accounts for much of that.

    UPDATE: If you want to learn more about video game RPGs, I recommend checking out The CRPG Addict. Ditto with adventure video games and The Adventure Gamer.

    Wednesday, October 19, 2016

    Babbling in Common

    So I stumbled across this post over at Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, and it made some things click into place for me.

    Your typical old-school D&D setting is basically a howling wilderness with only small bastions of civilization, right? Basically a post-apocalyptic world. (It certainly explains all of the dungeons and other ruins.) And yet, the people in these isolated fortresses and Medieval-Europe-Meets-Mad Max-style ramshackle villages, who have little contact with outsiders, little in the way of wealth or resources, and little access to what we would consider "education" in the modern sense, all manage to speak at least one common, consistent language. And if I'm not mistaken, many (even most) of these people are generally portrayed as literate, too! We're talking modern or near-modern literacy levels in a setting that is both pseudo-medieval and post-apocalyptic. That's got to be some kind of miracle, right? Some kind of magic?

    Well, why not explain all this by sticking a Tower of Unity somewhere on your world map? A reverse-Tower of Babel, the construction of which created a common tongue. The aforementioned blog post called it the "Lexicos Spire." You could even go a step farther and say the Tower somehow creates or enforces other commonalities between the far-flung remnants of civilization, like a common form of currency and a common set of by-laws for all those Thieves' Guilds and Druidic Circles and such.

    And maybe a well-organized coalition of bad guys are trying to bring down the Tower and pull a Babel on the world for their own nefarious reasons. Since this would make life a lot more difficult for the PCs, they might want to do something about it.