Thursday, December 12, 2019

2019 Gift Guide

Full disclosure: some of the products below were provided by the publisher for review and I contributed to the Tome of Mysteries.

With Christmas around the corner let’s be honest , it can be difficult to shop for us. For as much time and money gamers spend accumulating geegaws: books, maps, miniatures, dice towers, dice trays, dice bags, and, hell, dice in general. Folks outside the Culture are likely not aware of differences between core books and supplements (ex: White Wolf used to publish player’s guides in addition to core rulebooks but the player’s guides weren’t really useful) or which games utilize extra components that are evergreen presents (ex: Savage Worlds’ reliance on playing cards means a cool deck is always welcome). So if you have relatives who don't know what to get you for Christmas or your birthday next year, point them at this.

Gaming Adjacent:
A Dragon Walks Into A Bar by Jef Aldrich & Jon Taylor

Do you like D&D as a core cultural touchstone? Do you like all those D&D-centric episodes of cartoons, sitcoms, and video games?
How about dad jokes?
If you loved Cameron’s sense of humor from the first 3 seasons of Max’s Minions and want it distilled in a book, then this is it. Just released last week, this original work by the hosts of the System Mastery podcast is sure to elicit a chuckle or guffaw from your friends or loved ones who are into this sorta thing.And it’s not just a book of jokes, there’s some tables useful sidebars which impart information or insight into this weird, young hobby we all participate in.

Here’s a good joke:

Where would you find a blink dogs?
About three feet to the right of where you left them.

Because they.. teleport…
never mind.
The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide & The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide by James D’Amato

Covering both of these at once because they contain complementary materials. If you regularly GM the Gameplay Guide provides advice for effective preparation and communication with your players to lean into engagement, exploring themes, and maximizing the stuff your group wants to see at the table. James’ thoughtful essays ring with his experience both as a Second City trained improviser and GM/producer for one of the top Actual Play podcast networks around. The book’s exercises, worksheets, and prompts help you (the GM) with praxis – walking the walking, applying the ideas and shaping table behaviors so you get the best out of yourself and your players.

Conversely, if you’re on the other side of the GM Screen 9 times out of 10 then the Backstory Guide provides prompts and exercises rooted in improv theater that prompts new ways of thinking and applying the most staid and dullest part of character creation – the backstory. The book’s organization is divided into echelons corresponding to character level, over time you develop themes and motifs to form a throughline. Enabling your GM to bring these elements into focus. Something you can hear James do on his current Campaign podcast – Skyjacks.
Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master by Michael Shea

The title directly addresses the 400 lbs. gorilla in the RPG scene but embodies a solid thesis usable in any game – YOU (the GM) will never be as creative as all of THEM (your players), so pull a Tom Sawyer and get them to paint the fence for you. Distribute the cognitive workload.

With great advice, pertinent examples, and checklists this book doesn’t provide as many hand’s on applications as the Gameplay Guide. Instead Return dwells in greater specificity on its topics, whether pros & cons to different styles of combat or conveying the value of reskinning existing monsters instead of creating ones from wholecloth. If The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide sounded too hippie-dippie to you then Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master occupies a cozier middle ground.

Games and Game Accessories:

Savage Worlds Adventure Edition by Shane Hensley

The latest edition of our (Carol and I) favorite game dropped back in September and you can get this gorgeous hardcover for only $30. A more in depth review can be found over on Tommy Brownell’s blog over here and I’ll do my own dissection and discussion of the text for the benefit of folks who’ve never played Savage Worlds before at a later time. This thing is the real deal, people often complain about carrying around too many books and D&D is a $150 buy-in for the 3 core rulebooks.

What takes D&D 3 bloated books, Savage Worlds does in 1 sleek volume for 20% of the price.

Monster of the Week by Michael Sands & The Tome of Mysteries by Michael Sands and assorted authors (including me)

Tired of dungeon delving and want to do something else? Love weekly procedural shows but aren’t sure how to get that to the table?

Then Monster of the Week and it’s companion volume have got you covered. Based on the popular Apocalypse Engine you’ll only need to print out the playbooks and 2 six-sided dice to start playing. Character creation is fast and let’s you hit the table running in interesting directions, you’ll have a game full of interesting conflicts and complications in no time.

And, yea, mysteries are hard but there’s a WHOLE TOME OF THEM! Want more Fringe and less Supernatural? The Tome of Mysteries has that too! It’s covers a lot of ground very quickly with scenario seeds, additional playbooks, a ton of sample mysteries, and custom moves you can re-work for your own game. And if you’re doing Call of Cthulhu or another investigation game then use the sample mysteries anyway so you can still inject some weirdness without it necessarily being the Usual Suspects (Cthulhu, Dagon, Yog-Sothoth, etc).
 Dice from Metallic Dice Games

You might think any set of clack-clack stones are the same as any other but if you ask Carol or Larissa or any other person with the dice fever, you’ll find you’re wrong. Can’t go wrong buying more dice, and I recommend Metallic Dice Games’ products, they’re lustrous and have nice hand feel. They have some great color combinations and they’re timely with their deliveries. Their latest kickstarter arrived a little earlier than estimated, a far cry from the Kraken Dice fiasco earlier this year.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Review: Black Leopard, Red Wolf & Dirge of Urazya

When it was first announced, Black Leopard, Red Wolf was billed an “African Game of Thrones”. The go-to byline for any fantasy series with epic scale promising grit, violence, and realpolitik in contrast to the “pastoral” popular perception of mainstream fantasy. A wrongheaded comparison on multiple levels that we don’t have time or space for today (catch me on the Discord). That sales pitch missed the mark even though it drummed up interest in Black Leopard, Red Wolf prior to release. What arrived was far stranger, denser, wondrous, and more surreal than Game of Thrones and most fantasy novels on the shelf.
What starts as a straightforward testimony from a simple spoken narrator paints a lurid picture of the Kingdoms, their struggles, and the violence in all the spaces in between. Nested narratives lead to a Rashomon labyrinth of perspectives and conflicting account. Planting and watering seeds of doubt regarding Tracker, the protagonist, and his veracity even though he says from the beginning: “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.”

Know this: Tracker has a dog’s nose and won’t lead you astray.

Dirge of Urazya is a zine by Jack Shear of Dolorous Exhumation Press and Tales of the Grotesque & Dungeonesque fame. After making a splash in the RPG scene with his 13 Flavors of Fear, Jack has built a reputation for the lurid, the blasphemous, and the weird with each subsequent release from demonic Western to Gothic blood opera. While most of his work runs 100+ pages, Dirge of Urazya is on the opposite end at a sleek 24 and I love its brevity.

While Umberwell details an Industrial urban hellscape rich with grime, Dirge offers a lean set of prompts so your whole group can create the Gothic, Western, post-apocalyptic, science fantasy world promised by Netflix’ Castlevania (which I swear is Warren Ellis’ Vampire Hunter D fanfiction) and Into The Badlands (Danny Wu’s post-apocalypse wuxia western also available on Netflix). The PDF is only $4.00 (currently on sale for $2.68) and offers far more in value. I recommend pretty much everything he’s written, Jack’s name on a title is a stamp of quality and weirdness you shouldn’t overlook.

Jack provided a good overview of Dirge's development and assembly here and I'll similarly follow that roadmap with my own creative projects in the future.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Review: Codex Dark 2 and Doom Patrol

 Codex is a monthly pdf zine published by The Gauntlet, a roleplaying community and podcast network. Codex is an anthology of small RPGs, supplementary materials, and miscellany centered around a particular theme that has been tied together with use of a color palette and clever graphic design. The free sample issue rotates, and this month's issue is a really good one, so grab it while you can because the games are delightful.

The star of the current is Ghost Drums, a short horror game by Gerrit Reininghaus inspired a Guatemalan ghost story. I can't really say anything else about it without giving away too much, but I am hyped to run this with the Minions in the future and, hopefully, turn it into a limited series podcast. This issue also has the rules for Trophy and a sample adventure, a dark fantasy game about flint-eyed scoundrels plunging into a wilderness that doesn't want them there and won't let them leave. Think of it as what might happen if your OSR play-through of Keep on the Borderlands turned into the Texas Chainsaw Massacre about two-thirds of the way through. Trophy also echoes the thesis of our current limited-series, Tales from the Old Man's Bar™, Don't be surprised if you see Trophy show up on our feed down the line as well.

Both games highlight a subtle shift in design philosophy: rather than playing to find out what happens, the party is playing to find out how it happens. The ending is never in doubt - you're all going to end up turned into sausage; however, the shape and texture of the grinder is flexible. Do you end up bratwurst or chorizo? I expect we'll see more horror games take similar approaches going forward because a strong framework provides a solid foundation for play.

UPDATE: Codex Dark 2 is no longer the freely available issue. Now it's Codex Gold which contains the rules for Trophy Gold. Also an excellent game, which can be found here.

In a similar vein, our present saturation of superhero stories reveals a rhyming pattern - the heroes will triumph at the end but how they'll triumph is the real question. Do they lose a loved one? Do they sacrifice themselves? Does a city get leveled? Do they find family along the way? DC Universe's Doom Patrol takes advantage of our foreknowledge to get weird - like really weird. If you're familiar with the Patrol, then that shouldn't come as a surprise to you. However, if you're new to the team, buckle up.

The show makes nods to the larger DC Universe, but quickly leaves the familiar world of flying strongmen and billionaire vigilantes behind in favor of extra-dimensional snow globes, doomsday prophet cockroaches, boys from Brazil, and a sentient street. Despite the high weirdness, though, the show doesn't divorce or alienate the characters from their humanity. If anything, the intense contrast heightens their all-too human frailties resulting in a satisfying drama.

Anyway, I know people hate spoilers so I'll just say this - Doom Patrol has consistently been one of my favorite comics and the show does not disappoint.

Check it out when you get the chance!

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

14_M4NCH4: A Techno Thriller Framework

"Give a man a gun and he can rob a bank, but give a man a bank, and he can rob the world." - Tyrell Wellick, Mr. Robot

Five minutes in the future, traditional employment is a relic of the past as the atomized job ecology of gigs, jobshares, and mechanical Turks eroded the static workforce. Nothing else really changed because you still need money to survive and to get it you have to hustle the skittle-colored carousels. Renting out slivers of your life to cover the bare essentials - food, water, and rent - as an independent contractor. Time is money made manifest. An endless grind that leaves you exhausted and alienated from your work, your community, and your time.

This is where 14_M4NCH4 (pronounced "La Mancha") comes in.

14_M4NCH4, inspired by the Occupy movement, mostly pays people to congest places of power like banks, corporate/consulate lobbies, and police stations. The pay is a lot better than most gigs and at minimum you just take up space for a couple hours in air conditioned buildings, a DDoS attack in real life. Of course, if you're willing to take risks then the payout rises commensurately with risk keen contractors accruing ranking and supplementary tasks tailored to their skills, forming action groups with similarly ranked individuals to perform some larger goal under cover of a mass demonstration. Could be picking safety deposit boxes full of dirty money clean, destroying or extracting consular data, planting false evidence, returning grifted wealth from big bank accounts, or disrupting an electronic system on-site as part of a larger plan. Some of these spontaneous groups crystallize into full fledged crews and adopting their own agendas separate from the app, while others split up as soon as payment hits.

So. Who's behind the gig sit-ins and high tech Robin Hooding? Who can say? I've got three suggestions:

1) The center of the onion is hollow and the app is on autopilot, forming action groups to foment chaos with no big picture. Maybe the characters step into the vacuum and bend the extensive network of contractors to their own aims.

2) There's a criminal conspiracy at the heart of 14_M4NCH4, using the app and its gigs to create distractions as well as recruiting and vetting future members.

3) The app is actually the human interface for an Awakened collection of marketing and inventory programs used for consumer analysis. They're everywhere, watching and analyzing every aspect of our lives. Engineering exciting news to influence consumer behavior.

A 14_M4NCH4 heist would utilize Wine & Savages' Scheme Pyramid (full disclosure: I playtested those rules and did some proofreading on it) intercut with a Mass Battle (pg. 131) of public opinion using Persuasion and other social skills instead of Battle. With the police breaching the location if the Mass Battle goes poorly. Or just fold police negotiation into Pyramid itself if you like. A longer campaign would operate West Marches style with a potpourri of different characters coming together to do jobs that intersect with the tentacles of a larger, opposed conspiracy.

Inspirado: Sorry To Bother You, Die Hard, Inside Man, Casa De Papel, Mr. Robot, Payday 2, Hong Kong Protestors, The Red Trilogy by Linda Nagata, The Centenal Cycle by Dr. Malka Older, One Thousand Beetles In A Jumpsuit by Dominica Phetteplace, Genocide & Juice by The Coup, Invaders from Mars by Charles Stross,  2013 - 2014 Bank Robberies,

Friday, September 6, 2019

Blackwood: This Wasn't Always Our Shape

 Whether they're the playthings of fey that got away, vicious seductresses who fall in love, immortal tricksters, or men becoming beasts to hunt/fight better; animals transforming into people and people transforming into animals run deep in folklore around the world. They echo in modern media with films like Green Snake, Sorcerer and the White Snake, and Brave.

Here's transformed animals for the Blackwood's elf haunted wilds for Errant Deeds (Forged in the Dark) and the OG Savage Worlds setting. I'm calling them Shapestrong to avoid "skin walker" and other loaded terms.

If you select Shapestrong as your culture, then choose an animal for your ancestry. You can briefly manifest that animal's qualities in exchange for Stress.

0-STRESS - Minor abilities that don't directly impact the game in a significant way. Example: Follow tracks using keen sense of smell (dog). Adopting a surefooted stance on a narrow ledge (goat). Subsisting on spoiled food with your iron gullet (pig).

1-STRESS - Abilities that are temporary and require concentration or exertion to summon.
Example: Manifesting a scaled hide to resist a crushing blow (snake). Rapidly regrowing teeth as you gnaw through rope and steel wire restraining you (rabbit). Sprout a prehensile tail for a third hand swing through the branches (monkey).

2-STRESS - Abilities beyond the ken of man. If it only allows you to take an action, roll an additional die or increase the effect.
Example: Plow through a solid wall (ox). Shout across a city (rooster). Slip through a narrow crack (rat).

These are reskinned xenos abilities from the excellent game, Scum & Villainy.

If you select Shapestrong as your culture, then choose an animal for your ancestry.

My Other Skin Is A... - Spend a Benny to temporarily gain an Edge (you must meet the requirements) or 3 points of Racial Abilities that reflects your animal ancestry. It lasts for a scene.

Example: Screw your courage to the sticking place and facedown an elf with the Brave Edge (tiger). Run incredibly fast for a time with the Fleet Footed Edge (horse). Dash up the surface of the sorcerer's tower with Wall Walker while sprouting Claws (dragon).

Hello My Fellow People - Shapestrong are acutely aware of their heritage and how that agitates  superstitious folk. To compensate they adopt an annoying behavior to blend in. Because people are annoying. Treat this as the Habit (Minor) Hindrance.

The 7 Errants are a fellowship of heroic martial artists and wanderers for Eli Kurtz' Blackwood setting - a mash-up of Wuxia action and frontier fairy tales. You can find the book for sale here and a free quick start bundle here

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Card Captor of Many Things

If you don't know - I'm a member of the Minionworks podcasting collective and I run most of the games. February 1, 2019 was our 5th year anniversary, in celebration we decided to go back to the game that brought us together - Dungeons & Dragons. The gang dusted off their old 4th edition characters and converted them into 5th edition. 

Similarly, I adapted Madness at Gardmore Abbey to the most recent edition. The encounters were pretty straight forward, cherry picking the most memorable/interesting parts. Most of the work was leaning into the module's core conceit - the Deck of Many Things has been split up and you can use their powers with some degree of safety while the Deck is disassembled. In 4e, you can use the Cards of Many Things and fill a space on the board with the specific card's encounter power.

You can find the episode here.

CHAOS CARDS - You can call upon the individual cards in your possession and wield their power. Unless specified in parentheses they require a Use Item Action.

SOUL EATER - Divided as it is, the Cards are no longer fueled by the havoc they cause. You can recharge expired cards by feeding them dying breaths. The bracketed number is how many sapient creatures the card needs to feed from in order to recharge. (You have to allocate the fallen to each card.)
You can also increase the effects of the cards by feeding them your Hit Dice. Each Hit Dice expended increases the attack bonus, damage, and duration by 2.

Vizier - [2] (bonus action) You have advantage on your next attack rill and deal 5 extra points of damage.

Sun - [4] You heal 4D6+4 hit points and become invisible to everyone.

Moon - [5] Instantly recharge another card.

Star - [special] You gain advantage on all rolls until either you fail one or 5 minutes pass. This card can only be recharged by the Moon.

Comet - [10] If you single handedly defeat the next encounter, you (singularly) gain Experience Points enough to gain one level.

The Fates - [4] (reaction) If an enemy’s attack hits you, force them to re-roll it. They have to take the second result.

Throne - [X] You gain proficiency in the Persuasion skill, and double your Proficiency Bonus to that skill. In addition, you gain rightful ownership of a small keep full of monsters. Who can say where? This card does not recharge until the Deck is fully restored.

Key - [4] You teleport 50 feet and take 2D6 points of damage. The card gets your shape mostly right.

Knight - [6] You gain the service of a Knight (see Monster Manual) who appears in a space you choose within 30 feet of you. They belonged to a knightly order that's relevant to the plot.

Gem - [special] You can take an extra action, which includes a bonus action, this turn. A body part transmutes into gemstone after your additional turn ends. It’ll be fiiiiine. This card can only be recharged by the Moon.

Talons - [4] Make a ranged attack with a +11 bonus against a single target. If successful, the target is Restrained for 2D4 turns.

The Void - [4] Make a melee attack with a +11 bonus against a single creature. If successful, both of your souls are drawn from your bodies and contained in an object in a Far Away place, guarded by one or more powerful beings. While your soul is trapped, your body is Incapacitated. A wish spell can't restore your soul, but the spell reveals the location of the object that holds it.

Flames -[4] All creatures within 30 feet of you have to make a Dexterity save DC 16. If they fail, they take 4D8 fire damage and 5 ongoing until they can put out the fires.

Skull - [4] Make a melee attack with a +11 bonus against a single creature. If successful, they fall unconscious.

Idiot - [4] Make a melee attack with a +11 bonus against a single creature. If successful, they are Stunned for 1D6 turns.

Donjon - [4] Make a melee attack with a +11 bonus. If successful, remove 1D4 creatures from play until the end of your next turn.

Ruin - [4] All creatures within 30 feet of you have to make a Constitution save DC 16. If they fail they take 4D10+10 damage and suffer the Poisoned condition.

Euryale - [3] Make a ranged attack with a +11 bonus against a single target. If successful the card's medusa-like visage curses your target. They have disadvantage on Saving Throws while cursed in this way and their speed is halved as their extremities petrify.

Rogue - [4] Make a ranged attack with a +11 bonus against a single target. If successful, the target is Charmed for 2D4 hours.

Balance - [4] Make a melee attack with +11 bonus. If successful, deal 4D12 damage to one target and heal that much.

Fool - [4] (reaction) If an enemy hits you with a melee attack, deal 2D10 psychic damage and they fall prone.

Jester - [4] (reaction) After being hit, you move 10 feet away without provoking an opportunity attack.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Savage Worlds: Square Up

Similar to Conviction in SWADE, Momentum is a new resource that only available to one Wild Card at a time. You gain Momentum when you hit with a Fighting Attack and you lose it when you're hit by one. When you have Momentum, the Multi-Action penalty becomes a bonus (-2 becomes +1, -4 becomes +2, -6 becomes +3). This bonus applies to Attacks (Fighting and Shooting), Grappling, Pushing, Tricks, and thematically appropriate Powers.

For larger maps you  might abstract movement from strict unit measurements to zones. If you do, then you need to decide if characters are slippery or sticky. If characters are slippery then you can move from zone to zone without risking Free Attacks from other characters in the zone. If fighters are sticky, then characters are considered in combat when they enter the zone. When they try to leave then they can decide to you escape \Clean or Messy.
Clean- Roll your Running + Wild Die, if you succeed then you avoid Disengaging Strikes.
Messy- Roll Athletics + Wild Die, if you succeed then you avoid Disengaging Strikes but bring all opponents into the next zone with you.

Scale conceptually models mid and final boss characters, denoting martial mastery and power rather than perpetually raising Traits. Higher Rank = high Scale. You lose your Wild Die when you attack a higher Ranked Wild Card (ex: Novice vs Seasoned) and they treat you as an Extra when they strike back, requiring one Raise to take you out.
So save your Bennies.
This also goes the other way, lower Ranked Wild Cards lose their Wild Die when they attack you. When you attack them, you treat them as Extras. Opposing Wild Cards without an Experience Rank are treated as below your Rank.