Saturday, August 27, 2016

"Sirenswail" Review

Sirenswail is an OSR adventure intended primarily for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess, although it is not officially part of the LotFP product line. It was written by Dave Mitchell, and you can buy it at Lulu. Full disclosure: I'm in the credits for this book because I read an early draft of the adventure and gave Dave some feedback, so I admit that I was predisposed to liking this one before I read the final version. That said, I really do think it's a great little book, and it's well worth picking up.

Sirenswail is a softcover book of 66 or so pages. It's got a classy, somewhat abstract cover by David Paul Hellings which (perhaps not coincidentally?) reminds me of the Mana Cross from Siren. Mr. Hellings also did the map and monster illustrations in the book, which may look a bit amateurish but are appealing to me all the same in their slightly cartoonish and yet somehow woodcut-like style. The map is pretty clear to read and includes a handy hex grid. The rest of the art consists of old public domain material as far as I can tell, but it fits the setting and tone of the book just fine. Sirenswail is "An adventure intended for 5-8 characters of levels 1-3." The book contains "Adult Material," in case you're wondering. A note in the back suggests that this can be used as the first part in a series of upcoming adventures by Dave Mitchell, but it definitely works on its own merits. I see no reason that Sirenswail couldn't work as a one-shot or as something to slot into a larger "non-Mitchell" campaign, and the book seems to be primarily intended for such purposes. I see no signs of any invasive meta-plot.

Sirenswail is what I would call an investigative adventure. The closest thing to a dungeon consists of three rooms, but the real meat of this thing lies in NPC interactions and poking at various mysteries. This is certainly not a bad thing, as evidenced by LotFP adventures like "A Stranger Storm" (from the free Referee Book), "In Heaven, Everything is Fine" (from Forgive Us), and England Upturn'd. Sirenswail offers a lot of interesting NPCs who may either help or hinder the adventurers (and each other) depending on the party's actions. The NPC write-ups are efficient, providing useful motives and traits without taking up a lot of time or space. Many of them could just as easily wind up as friends or foes to the party. Considering that Sirenswail is openly based on the 1973 movie The Wicker Man, the "peaceful" island community is not what it seems, of course. I don't want to spoil too much, but the characters are a big strength of this book.

The book begins with a brief history of the setting - England, 1644. There is more historical information a few pages later, which specifically details the town of Penzance on the coast. This information could have probably been condensed into one or two fewer pages, but it's not a big deal because the book is already a quick read. Most of this isn't strictly necessary, but it's helpful for flavor and for answering a few general questions that might pop up about the setting during play if neither the DM nor the players know much about this time and place, as is the case for me. Between England Upturn'd and Sirenswail, I feel like I should have enough information to start a good campaign in Early Modern England without needing to bury myself in textbooks first. Sirenswail could probably plug into England Upturn'd pretty nicely as a sort of side-quest, now that I think about it, although I'd have to double-check both books to be sure.

The adventure itself is split into three segments, and these can actually be used independently of each other. First, there's Penzance, which depending on the wishes of the DM could serve as either just a jumping-off point for the adventure, a hub from which the party could pursue multiple adventures, or a location for a short urban adventure in its own right. There's a tavern and a weapon shop with unique and detailed price lists, as well as some really good random encounters and rumors. The DM would have to do a little extra work to make the party's time in Penzance an adventure all by itself, but the book provides good inspiration and decent guidance.

The second segment is the voyage from Penzance to the titular island. The book basically says you can either gloss over this journey or make it a bit more eventful. There's a table of random encounters (or perhaps adventure hooks) provided in case the DM would prefer the latter. Again, these ideas might need some slight fleshing-out, but you could use the table, the ship, or the NPCs in other nautical adventures if you don't want to run the rest of the book.

The last segment takes place on Sirenswail, or as the residents call it, The Island. This is the main part of the adventure and includes the bulk of the detail. Again, there is a new and detailed price list for The Island's inn, which is nice. Interestingly, The Island's head honcho insists on giving the party a brief tour when they arrive, which is a good way to present both the geography of the place and several plot hooks to the players. There's a pretty strange set of random encounters that could happen if the adventurers explore at night, which are quite creative and should keep the players on their toes. The adventurers will probably spend most of their time on The Island interacting with the odd residents or examining The Island's landmarks, however. This is definitely a slow burn kind of deal, unless the players decide to try and indiscriminately slaughter everybody, which I'm guessing wouldn't go well for first-level characters. If you want something other than the usual smash-and-grab D&D adventure, this should hit the spot. If you want a slugfest, you should probably look elsewhere, although Sirenswail does have the potential for a few fun and memorable combat encounters. Overall, Sirenswail uses a subtle kind of horror, with good buildup and creepy secrets to stumble upon.

There are a few more odds and ends I should mention. Dave Mitchell's writing style is clear and straightforward, which is good for something that needs to be referenced at the game table, but there's definitely some personality that comes through as well, which is nice. The hit dice for all of the NPCs/monsters are listed as the type of dice used as well as the number of dice (3d8, for example). Maybe this could be helpful if you're using the LotFP Playtest Document, in which hit dice are not directly related to character class. Still, the hit dice almost all seem to be consistent with the current LotFP Rules & Magic book as well. Not a huge detail, but I thought it was interesting and possibly useful. Also, I should mention that this adventure includes the possibility of a huge treasure haul for a group of low-level characters, but considering the difficulty they would most likely face in actually getting it off The Island, I'm not personally worried about it. Still the DM may want to either decrease the value of the main treasure cache or simply be strict about how much treasure the party can carry if this seems like it would be a problem. Honestly, I think it might be a really good idea to put most of the treasure in one gigantic pile and make most of the remaining treasure kind of piddling in this kind of adventure: It should keep the party invested in finding "one big score" before trying to escape, and I bet it would really bring out the problem-solving skills in your players once they find what they're looking for!

Finally, I do have a few criticisms I should mention in the interest of fairness. First, there's a section of the book between the historical overview and the Penzance section which serves to introduce the DM to the premise of the adventure. Unfortunately, it also includes some information that should have probably been moved to other sections of the book in order to reduce page-flipping back and forth at the table. At least this section could have included page numbers for the later sections this information references, and vice versa. Second, there's a slight inconsistency regarding a reward offered to the party for a certain action on page 9; is it 500sp or 1,000sp? Third, the adventure includes some boxed text in the form of sample dialogue for NPCs. I don't actually mind this, since the dialogue is presented as example material that the DM should feel free to change, but some readers might see this as a weakness of the writing, since boxed text seems to be frowned upon by many OSR fans. Fourth, one of the "monsters" can cause a small XP penalty to the person who kills it, which is something of which I'm not too fond. However, it would be easy for the DM to just make the monster worth zero XP instead. Finally, the adventure doesn't have any magic items for the party to find (unless you count a few traps), which is a little disappointing considering the tendency for magic items to be extremely weird, screwed up, and interesting in LotFP. Still, these are minor problems that don't come close to ruining the adventure.

I definitely think Sirenswail is a great addition to my collection, and a strong first adventure for Dave Mitchell. The price is certainly right: I think it cost me about $13 after shipping and handling. If you like the idea of The Wicker Man as an adventure for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, this should do nicely. I think it also works well as a source of ideas for other adventures in Seventeenth Century England, if that's more your thing.

Sirenswail gets a dead French monkey spy hung by nautical pagans out of 10.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

LotFP Skill List Tentative Changes

This is a continuation of my tentative house rules for Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

The list of skills is subject to change before the campaign begins, and possibly even during the campaign if the players agree, but this is what I'm leaning toward right now:

  • Architecture (I would definitely be more liberal with what you can accomplish with this skill than what seems to be included in the original rules, so hopefully this one wouldn't be a wasted skill.)
  • Bushcraft
  • Climb (I might change this to Atheletics, as per Papers & Pencils.)
  • Languages
  • Medicine
  • Seamanship
  • Sleight of Hand
  • Sneak Attack
  • Stealth
  • Tinker
Here is my reasoning behind the skills I am leaving out:

  • Leadership - I think I'd rather have this kind of skill rely entirely on Charisma and the actually words and choices of the players. I could probably be convinced to include it, but I'm hesitant to risk decreasing the importance of Charisma and making it live up to the (usually inaccurate) "dump stat"stereotype.
  • Luck - I could probably be persuaded to include this one if my players really want it, but for the time being I'm leaving it off the list. It doesn't really seem like a "skill" you can deliberately improve so much as a special ability, possibly supernatural in origin, that one acquires by luck (heh). Like Sneak Attack, and to a lesser extent Languages, it doesn't obey the rules that the majority of skills follow, but unlike Sneak Attack and Languages it was only introduced in the Playtest Document (and it doesn't seem to have an equivalent among Basic D&D Thief abilities, making it unnecessary for players wanting to play a Thief-type character), so I don't feel so bad about leaving it out. Also, I'm a bit concerned that the general-purpose nature of Luck might make it more desirable than most other skills by a great enough degree that few points would even go into other skills for the majority of characters I see, and while that's not necessarily a problem (or necessarily even true - again, I'm open to suggestions here), I do find that kind of boring.
  • Open Doors - This skill has been entirely replaced by Strength Checks in my house rules. Besides, if I'm not mistaken, you couldn't put skill points into this skill in the original rules anyway, and could only increase it by increasing your strength (or maybe using Bless or something), and that kind of sucks.
  • Search - Over at the blog Papers & Pencils, LS gave some good reasons for removing the Search skill, and I've seen other good arguments on other old-school blogs, but I don't remember the specifics right now. The way I personally see it, if the players are clever or lucky or diligent enough to try and search an area in a way that seems like it should logically turn up something that I (as the DM) know is there, they should probably just automatically succeed. This goes back to the Rule of Reasonableness I mentioned in my last post. If for some reason I really want to introduce a change of failure to a search (like if the players are trying to detect a very stealthy NPC and the surprise rules don't seem to be enough to cover the situation), I would probably just have the searchers roll either an Intelligence Check or a Wisdom Check, whichever is higher. Also, Search just seems like a boring skill for someone to have to put points into for the good of the party even though there are more interesting things to pick instead.
It is unlikely for characters to reach a high enough level in a Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign for a Specialist to run out of skills in which to invest points (Level 22, if you use my house rules and my math is correct). Still, I'd like to have a contingency plan in case this happens. The obvious solution would be to add more skills, which is what I've done in my Lamentations of the Fallen Lords campaign.

Here's another possible solution. I don't know if it's a good one, but I thought of it while lying in bed and it seemed kind of neat. Once a Specialist has increased every single skill to the maximum number of points, the Specialist can start using any additional skill points in new ways:

  • For the cost of 1 skill point, the Specialist may gain a Luck Point. This can be saved and used at any future time. By spending a Luck Point, a Specialist may re-roll any one die roll they make, as with the Luck skill in the Playtest Document. A Luck Point is basically a one-use item, rather than a resource that can be regained through rest up to a maximum number, like HP or Spells per Day.
  • For the cost of 1 skill point, the Specialist may increase one ability score by 1 point.
  • For the cost of 2 skill points, the Specialist may move one language from their "Not Known" list to their "Known" list.
A third option would be to just have any skills points gained beyond the maximum go to waste, but this doesn't strike me as particularly fun.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Tentative House Rules for My Online LotFP Game

Since I'm hoping to start an online campaign of Lamentations of the Flame Princess with some friends in the near future, I figure I might as well explain some house rules I'm considering for use in said campaign. None of this is set in stone, of course, but this is all stuff I've been pondering for a while, and which I'd like to try out. I also can't promise these are good house rules, but one of my goals is to playtest them, so I guess that comes with the territory. 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.

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.

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.

Character Classes - Options are the Specialist, the Magic-User, the Cleric, maybe the Alice (from A Red & Pleasant Land), and possibly other classes upon request (since there are so many great homebrew classes on blogs and in zines and such).
But what about the Fighter, you may ask? All PCs, of all classes, start with the Fighter's combat options and with a Base Attack Bonus of +2, and gain +1 BAB per level after that (maxing out at +10). Unless you stay at home like a good little peasant or wimpy noble, you have to be a killer to survive in this world. Especially if your career revolves around killing folks/monsters and taking their stuff. (You can probably glean some of my justifications for trying this idea in some previous posts, but I'm willing to explain, discuss, and debate the matter in the comments or on the Facebook group or one of the Google+ groups if anyone is interested. At any rate, it's just a fun experiment, and if it breaks the game I can just deal with it.)

XP per Level - All PCs need the same amount of experience points to reach each level:

  1. 0
  2. 2,500
  3. 5,000
  4. 10,000
  5. 20,000
  6. 40,000
  7. 80,000
  8. 160,000
  9. 320,000
  10. 480,000
  11. 640,000
  12. 800,000
  13. 960,000
  14. 1,120,000
  15. 1,280,000
  16. 1,440,000
  17. 1,600,000
  18. 1,760,000
  19. 1,920,000
  20. +160,000 per level after Level 19.
Ability Scores
CHARISMA - As per Rules & Magic.
CONSTITUTION - Affects Hit Dice (see below) and Wilderness Travel Speed (as per Rules & Magic)

  • 3 to 4 CON = d4 HP per level (+1 from level 10 on)
  • 5 to 8 CON = d6 HP per level (+1 from level 10 on)
  • 9 to 12 CON = d8 HP per level (+d2 from level 10 on)
  • 13 to 16 CON = d10 HP per level (+d3 from level 10 on)
  • 17 to 18 CON = d12 HP per level (+d3 from level 10 on)
DEXTERITY - As per Rules & Magic.
INTELLIGENCE - Affects Saving Throws vs. Magical Effects (and Saving Throws vs. your Magic-User spells)

  • 3 to 4 INT = 2d6 (and targets of your Magic-User spells get a bonus d6 for their saves)
  • 5 to 8 INT = 3d6
  • 9 to 12 INT = 4d6
  • 13 to 16 INT = 5d6
  • 17 to 18 INT = 6d6 (and targets of your Magic-User spells get a penalty d6 taken from their saves)
STRENGTH - Affects item slots per Encumbrance Point (see below) and Melee Attack Bonus (as per Rules & Magic)
  • 3 to 4 STR = 3 item slots per Encumbrance Point
  • 5 to 8 STR = 4 item slots per Encumbrance Point
  • 9 to 12 STR = 5 item slots per Encumbrance Point
  • 13 to 16 STR = 6 item slots per Encumbrance Point
  • 17 to 18 STR = 7 item slots per Encumbrance Point
WISDOM - Affects Saving Throws vs. Non-Magical Effects (and Saving Throws vs. your Cleric spells)
  • 3 to 4 WIS = 2d6 (and targets of your Cleric spells get a bonus d6 for their saves)
  • 5 to 8 WIS = 3d6
  • 9 to 12 WIS = 4d6
  • 13 to 16 WIS = 5d6
  • 17 to 18 WIS = 6d6 (and targets of your Cleric spells get a penalty d6 taken from their saves)
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 a d20. If the result is equal to or less than their character's relevant ability score, they succeed. If the result is higher, they fail. EDIT: I am considering using 3d6 for Ability Score Checks instead of 1d20.

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 the CONSTITUTION house rule above). 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.

Saving Throws - As per the Playtest Document, except that PCs (not NPCs) count Partial Saves as Full Saves, except in the following cases.
  • Saves vs. Death upon reaching 0 HP or less (see below)
  • Breath/Area of Effect Saves (Full Save = no damage, Partial Save = half damage)
  • Saving Throws against effects that would ordinarily still cause harm if the Save is successful (Full Save = no effect, Partial Save = normal effect of a successful Save as written)
  • Saving Throws made to resolve an attempt by a PC to do something unusual not covered by a Skill Check, Ability Score Check, The Rule of One, The Rule of Reasonableness, or any other standard resolution mechanic. For example: Hugh Cain the Specialist is trapped on an alien spaceship. He finds a sealed door operated by a complicated control panel nearby. He happens to have no reasonable way to figure out what each button does just by looking at it (using his Intelligence, for example) because he is completely clueless about both the language and technology of the aliens. He decides to hit buttons on the control panel randomly in an attempt to open the door. The DM calls for a Non-Magic Saving Throw. On a Full Save, the door opens. On a Partial Save, the door opens, but a complication is introduced (maybe the door jams halfway open, or the control panel zaps Hugh). On a Failed Save, the door does not open, and a complication is introduced. EDIT: It occurs to me that since Saving Throws are completely dependent on Intelligence or Wisdom now, using a Saving Throw for this kind of situation still isn't that different from making an Intelligence Check or Wisdom Check. I might just either completely replace these kinds of Saving Throws with INT/WIS Checks, or use Saving Throws instead of INT/WIS Checks only when the possibility of a Partial Save adds something very interesting to the situation.
Bonuses and Penalties to Saving Throws (for purposes of backwards compatibility) - Increase or decrease the number of dice as follows:
  • Penalty of -6 or more = Three less d6s
  • Penalty of -4 to -5 = Two less d6s
  • Penalty of -1 to -3 = One less d6
  • Bonus of 1 to 3 = One more d6
  • Bonus of 4 to 5 = Two more d6s
  • Bonus of 6 or more = Three more d6s
Note that the maximum number of dice in a Saving Throw is 6d6, and the minimum is 2d6, so bonuses and penalties that would normally result in more than 6 dice or less than 2 dice simply result in the maximum or minimum number of dice instead.

Dying - If a PC is reduced to between 0 and -9 HP, the player must roll a Non-Magic Saving Throw and consult the following table:
  • 0 HP:  Full Save = Conscious and Active, Partial Save = Unconscious, Failed Save = Unconscious
  • -1 to -3 HP: Full Save = Conscious and Active, Partial Save = Unconscious, Failed Save = Unconsciousness and Inevitable Death in d10 minutes.
  • -4 to -6 HP: Full Save = Unconscious, Partial Save = Unconsciousness and Inevitable Death in d10 minutes, Failed Save = Instant Death
  • -7 to -9 HP: Full Save = Unconsciousness and Inevitable Death in d10 minutes, Partial Save = Instant Death, Failed Save = Instant Death
If a PC reaches a state of Inevitable Death, no amount of healing, magical or otherwise, can save them from dying. At the DM's discretion, they can rouse themselves from unconsciousness long enough to choke out a few final words, but that's about it.
If a PC is reduced to -10 or less HP, they die instantly.

Skills - The list of Skills includes everything listed in the Playtest Document, plus Sneak Attack (see Rules & Magic). More Skills can be added if desired. The Open Doors Skill is simply replaced by a Strength Check if needed. EDIT: Actually, I probably am going to change the Skill list a bit more than this. See this post for details.
Climbing and Traveling use the new rules from the Playtest Document.
Skills work as explained in Rules & Magic (i.e. Roll a d6 and try to get your Skill score or lower, etc.).
At character creation, every PC starts with 4 points in one Skill and 3 points in another, as chosen by the player. Otherwise, every Skill starts at 1. Skills cannot be permanently increased beyond these starting amounts except through class-based features (for example, the Specialist starts with 4 extra skill points and gains 2 more per level) or through special effects, usually magical, which may occur over the course of various adventures in highly specific circumstances.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Gen Con 2016 Debriefing

I've edited this article to add pictures and to replace most instances of "my wife" with "Jessica" or "Jess." Previously, I didn't use her name or pictures of her because I hadn't yet asked if she was okay with such things when I first published this post, but she has since told me she is fine with having an online presence on my blog.

Sorry I haven't posted for so long! I've got a good reason for (part of) my hiatus, though: my wife Jessica and I went to Gen Con! Here are some highlights:

We played The Keep on the Borderlands in a group of about 11 players (not counting the DM) using the B/X rules. It was our first time with the Moldvay rules and with that adventure. The DM had a bunch of really nice copies of the original rulebook printed from Lulu, along with several different homemade equipment lists representing different shops in the Keep, a burlap sack with "Bag of Holding" written on it (which our party eventually won after a hard-fought battle), and some big, high-quality maps. My character (a cleric) took care of much of the healing and held the light source while our group was attacked by 3 slimes from one direction and 3 owlbears from the other - in a cave partially rendered slippery by running water, no less. Thanks to some houserules from the DM, we were a bit harder to kill than normal first-level characters, but we still lost a party member and almost lost a few more. Jessica's plate-wearing fighter survived many blows that might have felled some of the others, and her short bow helped dish out some decent damage - we each started with random histories that gave us certain abilities or items, and she wound up with extra starting money that clearly came in handy. In the end, a dwarf played by a kid who looked to be about 10 or so wound up landing the killing blows on all three owlbears. The damage he rolled was consistently, amazingly high, and he apparently got bonuses against the owlbears because of the weapon he was using. Naturally, I'm looking forward to reading (and hopefully running) B2 when I get the chance.

We also played a game of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I had to keep ducking out to deal with some bullshit I won't bother going into here, but which was unrelated to Gen Con. Thankfully, Jess said she had a blast the whole time, and I did too while I was in the room. The DM, who was excellent, gave us a choice between Tower of the Stargazer, The God that Crawls, Death Frost Doom, and some one-page dungeons, although he admitted that he wasn't particularly feeling it with the one-page dungeons that day and would have preferred one of the first three options. We all agreed on Stargazer. Long story short, somebody let you-know-who out of the you-know-what, and only 3 of the 5 party members got out alive. I like to think that my magic-user's slime monster (conjured with the Summon spell) and Jess' specialist's time-delayed molotov cocktail (cobbled together with the Tinker skill and some high-proof alcohol) helped delay the enemy long enough for us to make our escape. Our group's fighter went down like a champ after unloading a brace of pistols into the bastard. The dwarf who freed our enemy got disintegrated for his troubles. The cleric was cool, too, but I don't remember what he did off the top of my head. Sorry! On a related note, I wish I could find the particular random starting equipment tables that the DM used to speed up character creation, because they might have been the best I've ever seen for LotFP. The cleric got an acute sense of smell, the fighter got a pet falcon, the specialist got the aforementioned alcohol, and my magic-user got Summon as one of his guaranteed starting spells. It looked like there were many more interesting possibilities, too, and the whole thing was quick and easy to use.

We played some other games that weren't RPGs, and generally enjoyed them. Our group managed to win against Hastur in a game of Elder Sign, which was cool considering that 3 of the 4 players were new to the game, and 2 of those 3 (Jess and I) had never played Arkham Horror, either - I'm told that Elder Sign is essentially just a less-complex, dice-based version of Arkham Horror. I'd be more than glad to get both Elder Sign and Arkham Horror if they weren't so freaking expensive, but that's just the way it is with board games, I guess. Anyway, Elder Sign is fun.

We played Crap or Slap and later wound up buying it, since it was only 4 bucks. It's not that different from Cards Against Humanity, but it's different enough that it kept us interested. How you feel about Crap or Slap will probably depend entirely on how much you like CAH. We played it again with a couple of friends after we came home, and we still enjoyed it. I still have no clue why it's called Crap or Slap, though. Based on the title, I expected it to be some unholy union of Bullshit and Slapjack.

We played two similar games that I believe were from the same company, Ubongo and Dimension. Both were enjoyable, but they did share the same flaw: instead of interacting with each other, they players all work on their own individual puzzles or tasks and ignore each other until the timer runs out, making these less than ideal party games. As fascinating mental challenges, I did like them, though. One is kind of like competitive Tetris, and the other involves stacking balls in an attempt to meet randomly-determined requirements about the composition of said ball stacks. Everyone knows I love a good ball stack.

As for my wish list, I got all the books I wanted and more. Our final haul included England Upturn'd, The Cursed Chateau, the LotFP Rules & Magic book, Carcosa, Vornheim, A Red & Pleasant Land, Maze of the Blue Medusa, an extra copy of Slügs (which I'm probably going to give to someone who doesn't already have it), a Lamentations tee shirt (the one with light blasting out of the Flame Princess' eyes), a Cthulhu Mythos tee shirt from Sigh Co. Graphics, Black Sun Deathcrawl, Warriors of the Red Planet, Mechanized Men of Mars, and a bunch of weird dice for Jessica's collection. I'm sure I'm leaving stuff out. I considered getting one of the LotFP hoodies that said "Because Fuck You, That's Why" but I was running out of cash and I don't think I'd ever get a whole lot of opportunity to wear it.

And of course, I met some famous people I would consider key players in the RPG industry. I love Call of Cthulhu and Quake, while Jess and I both love Doom, so I was embarrassingly awestruck when I met Sandy Petersen near the Chaosium booth. He was wearing a tee shirt with the classic Doom logo on the front and "I wrote it" on the back. He was super cool. I'm looking forward to his next game, which he told me has a very Doom-ish vibe to it.

I met both James Raggi and Aeron Alfrey at the Lamenations booth. Aeron Alfrey signed my Rules & Magic book, which rocks since he made one of my favorite pieces of art in there (and all of the fantastic art in The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time). My conversation with James Raggi went something like this:
RAGGI: (Delivers a general sales pitch, which was a really good sales pitch delivered in a friendly way but which nonetheless kind of confuses me in hindsight because I thought that he made all those flyers so he wouldn't have to do a sales pitch).
JUSTIN: Cool. I'm a huge fan. I've got a shopping list today.
RAGGI: Sure. Which ones do you want?
JUSTIN: Let's see, there's England Upturn'd, and the Cursed Chateau, and the Rules & Magic book, and...
RAGGI: Let me stop you right there. Sorry, I just want to warn you that I can only take cash right now, and I really appreciate you wanting to buy all this but I wanted to give you a fair warning in case you have a card so I don't disappoint you when we're about to finish the transaction.
JUSTIN: Nah, I already knew, but thanks. I specifically brought cash for this.
RAGGI: Oh, cool.
JUSTIN: (Lists more items, shows him a Pembrooktonshire Gardening Society Membership Card.) I don't know if this'll do anything, but I thought I might as well show you just in case.
RAGGI: Yep, that'll do something. (It got me a pretty good discount.)
JUSTIN: How much was that? You got tee shirts? Throw in a tee shirt.
JESSICA: (Having observed, as she put it, James Raggi's eyes getting bigger and bigger with every item I named) Can we get a picture with you two? He really loves what you guys do.
JUSTIN: I can come back when it's less busy...
RAGGI: Are you kidding me? You just gave me a ton of money. If you want a picture, the rest of the crowd can just fuck off for a minute! (To another person browsing the booth) Sorry, no offense.
OTHER PERSON: None taken!

This bystander was kind enough to snap some photos. Instead of "cheese," he had us say "Fuck for Satan!" so whoever he is, he's more than okay in my book. James Raggi did a pretty impressive scream/head bang combo, a touch which I appreciated. I think it's kind of his "thing" when he does pictures with fans. So yeah, James Raggi and Aeron Alfrey are fucking rad.

Later, we went past the LotFP booth again to check out some other booths, and I saw Kiel Chenier from a distance, but I didn't bug him because he was already dealing with a crowd and looked pretty busy. Maybe I should put a Missed Connections ad on Craigslist. That wouldn't be creepy at all. Speaking of Missed Connections, I looked for the Zak/Stoya/Stokely crew, but I couldn't find them during the one chance I had before I needed to get moving for one event or another. I also heard that Zzarchov Kowolski and Jobe Bittman were at the LotFP booth at various points. So to all those I missed: Hi! Thanks for making cool stuff!

Finally, we went to a panel discussion called How to Roll Winning Numbers hosted by none other than industry legend and dice-making extraordinaire Lou Zocchi. I wish I could begin to summarize all of the fascinating and funny history and trivia he shared about those funny little dice RPG players like me take for granted. Being obsessed with dice, Jess took notes. She's expressed interest in writing a guest post for my blog about Lou Zocchi and/or the quirks of dice, so hopefully we can look forward to that.

We saw many more wonders in the land of the nerds: three good concerts, a hilarious (and informative!) panel on detecting bullshit on the internet, legions of incredible cosplayers, and so much more. I don't know if we can go again next year, but I sure hope so!

As for my friends who let us crash at their place: thank you so much for saving us the cost of a hotel and for showing us around the city and making us feel welcome!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Holmes Basic D&D Rulebook Part 12 - Summaries & Skeletons


PART 12 OF 12

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11

Let's start my wrap-up by looking at the art I haven't mentioned yet.

Image from HERE

This is the TSR logo on my copy of the book. He's like the Platonic ideal of a wizard. He's even got the Fantasia hat with all the cute little stars on it. I wonder how this dude would fare in a knife fight.

Image from HERE

Too bad there aren't any stats for lizard men or giant riding lizards in Holmes Basic, because this is a cool image. EDIT: I forgot that there are lizard men in the book. My bad! There are no giant lizards for riding in the book, however. Good thing it's so easy to create new stuff (or borrow it from elsewhere) in the classic versions of D&D. Something about the way the characters are surveying the land gives me a sense that there's this great big fantasy world out there, just waiting to be seen.

Image from HERE

How nice of that fighting man to help that Minotaur with his cardio. Much like yours truly, it looks like he could use it. Also, the weapons and armor on display are pretty stylish. I like the Greek mythology vibe going on here.

Image from HERE

I think these are meant to be Dwarves,. Very Viking/Anglo-Saxon. The silhouetted, cartoony face of the guy in the middle reminds me vaguely of an Adventure Time character, although I'm not sure which one. The variety of equipment is nice. They look like they're holding their weapons awkwardly, though. I think the guy on the left is using his ax to point out some toilet paper stuck to the shoe of a friend out of frame.

Image from HERE

I think this is my favorite piece of art in the book.

Image from HERE

Nipples? In a game for people as young as 12? It's more likely than you think. (It's only because of annoying prudes that this is even worth pointing out.) Also, these harpies are terrifying. Those poor adventurers are doomed.

Image from HERE

Git gud, chump. Hope you brought plenty of Estus.

Image from HERE

I usually think of a manticore as an enraged, flesh-rending murder-beast, but the look on this one's face is more like that of an inquisitive, slightly perturbed who-farted-beast. The tail looks appropriately pokey, though.

Image from HERE

Are those skeletons frowning? I didn't know a skeleton could frown. They must be sad because all the good skeleton music wasn't out yet in the 1970s.

Image from HERE

I think I had a toy sword and scabbard that looked more or less like this when I was a kid. They're probably still in a box in my parents' basement, like the toy shotgun they used in Doom.

Image from HERE

I never understood the candle-on-a-skull thing. Wouldn't a regular candle work way better? I like how the magic wand looks like the plastic toy wand I had as a kid (like the sword above), except with a little knob on one end. This stuff must belong to an EVIL wizard, since there's a bottle of poison just sitting out in the open.

Image from HERE

Open the tomb, face skeletal doom. That's just the way the world works.

I'm very fond of the art in Holmes Basic. It sets the mood fantastically, and I kind of wish there was more of it, although I'm not sure where they could have fit any more art in such a slim volume.

Overall, what else was I especially fond of?
  • This book can work as a very good intro to either OD&D or later editions of Basic D&D, it can probably work fairly well as an intro to AD&D (since this is what the book actually claims to be intended for), and with a little work it can even be paired with David Cook's Expert Set (or so I've heard) or simply used on its own (and expanded with house rules if desired).
  • The rules don't seem to care too much about really fiddly details like whether or not spells can be cast one-handed or while holding an item. I like this simplicity, since I think it gives players more room for creative solutions to their problems and prevents them from having to constantly second-guess whether or not they can actually do whatever simple action seems appropriate because the DM keeps citing some obscure rule buried in the book.
  • The encumbrance rules are similarly fast and loose in a lot of ways, but the few restrictions that are in place seem reasonable. I like the idea of specifying exactly how your character is carrying each piece of gear, provided this doesn't bog the game down too much and completely get in the way of the aforementioned lack of fiddly details.
  • While exploring, characters move really quickly, but have to stop and rest every so often. It's an interesting dynamic that might be worth trying.
  • The phrase "for adults 12 years and up" sends a good message about who can play and how they should conduct themselves while playing. Don't be a jerk, use your imagination, and play intelligently, and you'll probably be fine and have fun whether you're a kid or a grownup.
  • House rules and common sense rulings are encouraged.
  • Monsters are presented as often having personalities and motivations, and aren't always mindless killers.
  • Mechanically speaking, fighting women seem to be treated the same as fighting men.
  • The rules for swapping ability scores at character creation are intriguing, if a bit complicated. I like this approach more than just being stuck with exactly what you roll, and it's nice that you can still have a chance of getting decent ability scores for the class of your choice when things don't turn out as you'd hoped at first.
  • Elves are basically multi-class fighting men and magic-users at the same time, and don't have to switch between classes or chose one class or the other for a specific outing (as some have interpreted the rules in OD&D). It seems simpler and less annoying this way, and the advantages of being a multi-class character are presumably offset by the increased XP needed per level.
  • Players are encouraged to make up new classes and races, as long as they start out fairly week and get stronger over time by acquiring XP.
  • Dr. Holmes is a great writer. He generally keeps things helpful and concise while also adding in some nice little jokes and bits of flavor. The various examples of play are especially nice.
  • I don't really like alignment in D&D, but as far as alignment systems go, I like this one more than the AD&D version because it cuts out the alignments that bug me the most.
  • Fighting men are not only good at fighting, but carrying heavy loads as well.
  • To quote myself, "I like the idea that an Open Door check isn't about whether or not a PC can open a stuck door at all, but rather whether or not they can do it quickly and/or quietly."
  • Doors are evil bastards that actively work against the party.
  • The tables for wandering monsters and reaction rolls strike me as well-crafted.
  • The DM is encouraged to balance encounters to the skill and capabilities of the party.
  • If monsters are chasing the party, they can be distracted or deterred by dropped food, treasure, or burning oil.
  • The tables are all easy to read and compact. They are also repeated at the end of the book.
  • PCs can draw weapons quickly as long as they're not buried in a backpack or something.
  • Scrolls are cheap and easy to make. Magic-users don't seem so puny when they're packing arsenals of scrolls.
  • There are rules for magic-users to create new spells.
  • The spell list includes a ton of cool stuff despite being so small.
  • If you hit 0 HP, you're dead. No "bleeding out" rules here. Easy to remember and appropriately brutal.
  • The words "Melee is the most exciting part of the game" appear within, giving me plenty of ammo for silly internet debates.
  • Flaming oil is awesome.
  • Ranged attacks have a +1 bonus to hit at short range and a -1 to hit at long range. I prefer this to the approach I've seen in other D&D-type games, which is to give no bonus at short range and increasing penalties at medium and long ranges. It's easier to remember and it makes medium range feel like the "proper" range for distance-based weapons while short range is more like point-blank range in that it's easier to hit a close target than usual (provided that target isn't right on top of you and swinging a sword).
  • While underground, archers can't attack at the long range increment unless the ceiling is high.
  • The rules for parrying are neat.
  • Withdrawing from melee gives your opponent a free swing at you.
  • Skeletons don't take less damage from edged or piercing weapons. It's not like a sword is incapable of inflicting blunt force trauma, you know?
  • The monster list is full of awesome creatures.
  • There is good advice for scaling down monsters.
  • As John Wilson pointed out in the comment section for Part 9, the more powerful monsters that are provided can provide a great challenge for large groups of PCs who cut through lesser enemies with ease.
  • You can identify a potion by taking a little sip.
  • Protection scrolls can be used by anyone.
  • The implication that reading a scroll activates it lends itself to some creative uses for scrolls beyond the usual ones.
  • The Ring of Regeneration is super powerful.
  • The Ring of Contrariness is hilarious.
  • Wands can be used in melee.
  • "Wands that have projectiles or rays are considered to do six 6-sided dice of damage and to have 100 charges or projectiles." Wow!
  • There's a good variety of magic items in general.
  • There are consequences for using your hirelings as guinea pigs to test out magic items.
  • The advice for stocking the dungeon is very helpful.
  • The sample dungeon is cool, and I want to run it.
  • All this and more is packed into 48 pages.
In the interest of fairness, here are a few things I didn't care for in Holmes Basic:
  • The default, mechanical uses of the ability scores aren't exactly created equal (then again, when are they?), and I'm not a big fan of the way they seem to be more useful for DM fiat than more predictable advantages and disadvantages.
  • Human fighting men seem a bit sucky compared to the other classes.
  • The book seems to have some weird prejudice against the thief class. Ditto with poison.
  • All monsters can see in the dark. I'm fine with most of them having this ability, but there are some that probably shouldn't have it.
  • Less XP is rewarded for defeating enemies below your level, which feels like overkill to me.
  • The book seems to waffle on the topic of conflict between players, and I don't like the advice to decrease the XP award for sneaking off with the party's treasure while the others are left to die. I think there are better ways to handle that situation.
  • I'm not too fond of limiting the use of thief skills to one try per situation, but I don't hate the idea either.
  • I don't like the way the rules determine what spells a magic-user knows and what spells can be learned in the future.
  • I think the chance of failure when researching a new spell is too high.
  • The need for the "Read Magic" spell is crappy.
  • Fighting men don't get a bonus to hit at levels 1 to 3.
  • The rules regarding shooting into melee are...confusing.
  • Some magic weapons only give you a bonus to hit, while others also give you the same bonus to hit and to damage. I don't see the point in creating this difference.
  • That bit about daggers hitting twice per round and large weapons only hitting once every other round should probably be ignored.
  • A lot of weapons (especially crossbows) don't seem too useful when all weapons do 1d6 damage.
  • I think the game would be better off if it either stuck closely to the idea that almost all attacks and HD are d6-based, or discarded the idea completely and used variable weapon damage. The hybrid approach taken by Holmes Basic seems to me like the worst of both worlds.
  • Only being able to level up every 6 to 12 adventures (not counting low-treasure expeditions) might be a bit harsh, especially if the players have busy or unpredictable schedules.
Overall, I enjoyed the heck out of this book, and would definitely recommend at least checking it out if you get the chance and you're interested in old-school D&D. I'd give the Holmes Basic D&D Rulebook an underground domed city accessible via giant stone skull out of 10.

After reading through this book, I'm left with a major question: how do I personally want to use it at the table? Here's the idea I'm leaning toward at the moment. The party starts out on the Dungeon Moon from Papers & Pencils (which I've mentioned before) using the Holmes Basic rules. If they make it past the third level of experience and/or escape the Dungeon Moon, we start to transition into OD&D rules. I figure this is a good fit since Holmes Basic seems in many ways like a simplified and clarified version of the rules from the three Little Brown Books and some bits from Supplement I. Also, I've really been wanting to try out an OD&D game, but as I've mentioned before, the original booklets can be a little intimidating for beginners like me. Anyway, if the party makes it to the planet below, the game becomes a West Marches-style wilderness hexcrawl using the board from Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival. In short, I think I would mash together my OD&D and Holmes Basic ideas from this post, along with the Dungeon Moon concept, adding in more ideas if they seem appropriate, of course.

I guess that wraps up my overview. If you have any thoughts you'd like to share about Holmes Basic or anything related, please feel free to leave a comment. Until next time, keep your wand of petrifaction close at hand, by Crom!

Friday, July 22, 2016

100 Posts and Quiz Results

If I'm not mistaken, my last post was number 100 on this blog.* I started it on January 1 of this year, and I already feel like I've accomplished a lot in terms of getting into the habit of writing regularly and meeting awesome people in the OSR. I'm thankful for the people who read and comment on my posts, and who inspire me to be more creative and thoughtful.

My current campaign, Lamentations of the Fallen Lords, has been running for about a year now. For years I wanted to get back into playing tabletop RPGs, and now that I'm doing it I really have to say that if you're thinking about starting, it might be wise to just take what time you can, find some people (online if not in person) willing to give it a shot, and get started. Wishing and waiting are less rewarding than doing. I need to apply that advice to more aspects of my life than just playing games!

I have some ideas for adventures and other things I should get writing. I'd like to publish things if I can, and once all the hard work of creating something is done, it seems like publishing it is pretty easy to do in the OSR. The community certainly seems encouraging and receptive. But I should actually get started before worrying about the finish line, right?

One idea my friends seem to enjoy is an adventure idea I've talked about on and off, which they said they'd be glad to help me with. It's partly a parody of James Raggi's style of adventure writing (and the overblown, exaggerated straw man version of his writing that some people seem to think he engages in), and partly a riff on things like Lamentations of the Gingerbread Princess which turn family-friendly material into nightmare fuel. My tentative title is Death Frosting Doom. Let's hope I get off my ass and commit to making this, now that I've announced it to the world.

One last thing. Inspired by this post at Mage of the Striped Tower, I took one of those online quizzes to see "What D&D Character Am I?" While I thought the choice of answers was a little restrictive on some questions and I'm not sure that I'd give all of the same answers if I took the quiz again, I think the results are amusing. Here's what I got:

Neutral Good Human Wizard (3rd Level)
Ability Scores:
Strength- 10
Dexterity- 12
Constitution- 10
Intelligence- 16
Wisdom- 12
Charisma- 15

Detailed Results:

Chaotic Good ---- XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (18)
Chaotic Neutral - XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (16)
Lawful Evil ----- XXXXXXXXXX (10)
Neutral Evil ---- XXXXXXXXXXXXXX (14)
Chaotic Evil ---- XXXXXX (6)

Law & Chaos:
Law ----- XXXXXXXX (8)
Neutral - XXXXXXXXXXXX (12)
Chaos --- XXXX (4)

Good & Evil:
Neutral - XXXXXXXXXXXX (12)
Evil ---- XX (2)

Human ---- XXXXXXXXXXXXX (13)
Dwarf ---- XXXXXXXXXXXX (12)
Elf ------ XXXXXXXXXXXX (12)
Gnome ---- XXXXXXXX (8)
Halfling - XXXXXXXXXX (10)
Half-Elf - XXXXXXXX (8)
Half-Orc - (0)

Barbarian - XXXXXX (6)
Bard ------ XXXXXXXXXXXX (12)
Cleric ---- XXXXXXXXXXXX (12)
Druid ----- XX (2)
Fighter --- XXXXXXXXXX (10)
Monk ------ XXXXXXXX (8)
Paladin --- XXXXXXXXXX (10)
Ranger ---- XXXXXXXX (8)
Rogue ----- XXXXXXXXXXXX (12)
Sorcerer -- XXXXXXXXXXXX (12)

Not bad. I'd play that character. I do have to wonder if your character's level is determined by how confident (i.e. boastful) your answers are. Maybe I need to learn to be more assertive, start throwing around more fireballs and less charm spells, in order to get that sweet, sweet XP. But hey, I'm a lover, not a FIGHTER.

*EDIT: Actually, it looks like my next post is number 100. Not sure how I screwed that up. Oh well.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ananke - Hacking the Water Clock in Death Frost Doom

When I was preparing to run Death Frost Doom recently, I referenced this blog post over at Lamentations of the Blood Countess constantly. There are tons of great ideas here compiled from various blogs, and it's super handy to have the links all in one place. However, one idea I was looking forward to using was to replace the default powers of the water clock with the ability to summon the Chrono-Crone, and when I tried to follow the link to the appropriate post at Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, it said the post didn't exist. I don't know what happened to it, but it sucks that I might not be able to read it again, since I remember it being really good.

So I made my own riff on the Chrono-Crone idea. Here it is.

If you move any of the hands on the water clock, time stops for everyone except those in the cabin. Your surroundings darken, the outside world seems to vanish into all-consuming darkness, and from a glowing blue-white doorway that wasn't there before (and yet was always there) emerges Ananke, Queen of Inexorable Dust. She is a gaunt, transparent, gauze-like humanoid figure with a voice that simultaneously reminds one of the whispering of a moth's wings and the roar of an angry ocean of liquid time. She appears powdery or blurry, and seems to vibrate in place so that you cannot make out any facial features, or much of any features, really. She will ask you and anyone else in the cabin, one by one, if you want to travel through time, and if so, to when.

If you say no, Ananke will be displeased that you have wasted her time, for even though she has an infinite amount of it, she values every instant. You will feel this displeasure in the form of a wave of rapid and inconsistent aging across your body. You will take half of your current HP in damage and suddenly become very hungry, thirsty, and tired. You must also make a Save vs. Magic; failure means you lose 2,000 experience points and magically age by 1d10 years. EDIT: In the comments below, Yora convinced me to change this to 1d10+10 years so the effect would be more noticeable, important, and dramatic. It's Death Frost Doom, so there's little reason to hold back.

If you say yes, Ananke will name a price. It will be something that will hurt you a great deal. Here are some examples:

  1. Every magic item you own.
  2. The last 1d4 years of your memory.
  3. The life of a loved one.
  4. The ability to sense the passage of time.
  5. Gaining an allergy to silver and gold.
  6. Gaining a severe phobia of something you commonly encounter.
  7. Lowering one or more ability scores to 3.
  8. The ability to sleep soundly.
  9. A language in which you are fluent.
  10. All but one point in one or more skills.
  11. The ability to read.
  12. Half of the XP you will ever gain.
If you agree to the price, Ananke will take it from you in a blur, pulling it from your forehead (even if it is a concept and not a physical thing). Then you will abruptly find yourself on the peak of Deathfrost Mountain in the era of your choosing...assuming Deathfrost Mountain exists at that time. You may simply find yourself in the spot where the peak was or will be.

If you do not agree to the price, see the bit about saying "no" above.

Once everyone has decided, Ananke will leave through the glowing doorway, your surroundings will return to normal (if you are still present in the current era), and the flow of time around you will resumes its normal pace.

No matter what happens, from the point of view of anyone outside of the cabin, nothing happened when you moved the hands of the clock, aside from you vanishing (if you said yes) or suffering the wrath of Ananke (if you said no), with either occurring in the blink of an eye, and the appropriate effects happening to everyone in the cabin simultaneously.