Saturday, July 11, 2015

Peanut Butter and Chocolate and Space and WWII

I've been pretty focused on fantasy gaming through DCC RPG for a few years now. And very focused on the same through various versions of D&D for many many years before that. I have delved into Call of Cthulhu, Star Wars (d20), and a few other systems, in the intervening time, but for whatever reason, fantasy gaming has held my attention almost exclusively.

Strangely, I have other interests in reading both fiction and non-fiction, as well as other media. History is probably the number 1 interest, even above fantasy fiction. I tend to hone in on periods of history where major social upheaval provides opportunities for social mobility. All those fancy words really mean, when chaos reigns, people like me have a chance at a different life other than toil and servitude.

The time period around the 1500's seems to be a huge draw for me-- when it seemed that the human race "woke up," realized they had a brain, and started flexing against the strictures of generations of fiat rule by kings, priests, and other thugs. The sengoku jidai period of Japanese history, the Renaissance in Europe, Age of Exploration and the founding/subjugating of the New World. All of these time periods and general locales seemed to undergo painful, war-torn periods from which emerged a completely different world. And all have held my obsessive interest at various times.

It's the same with World War II. The war was so pervasive and echoed so far down history that we still see and feel its impact -- and yet, we can barely imagine what people went through during that time. So many people had their lives taken from them, and so many others rose above the death and destruction to do things that we today find utterly astounding. I was a soldier, and I was in the first Gulf War, but I can still barely imagine charging up Omaha beach on D-Day, standing across the Siegfried line as my comrades fled around me and the Allies advanced, unopposed, crouching in a blown out building in Stalingrad trying to pick off one more Nazi officer, or piloting what was essentially a paper airplane with a thousand pound torpedo strapped to it over Pearl Harbor. From 1939 to 1945, there are too many stories. You can't tell them all.

Science (fact and fiction) has also always held my interest. Whether it was the pulpiest of space pulp to scientific journals crowded with concepts that took me months to understand -- I've always been captivated by our need to understand the universe.

So, yeah, it's only natural that when +James Spahn published the White Star Role Playing Game, that all the chocolate and all the peanut butter converged to one sweet delicious idea: WWII in Space.

+Edward Kann published a great set of RPG books back in the early 2000's called Rocketship Empires 1936. In it the human race was given the power of spaceflight by Martians and so headed out to the stars, very quickly developing technology of a decidedly pulp variety. The concept of the game was fantastic. It hit almost all the cylinders of my interest -- pulp, sci-fi, pre-WWII political strife. I wrote several scenarios based on his universe in the Savage Worlds system (you can still check them out over on the Mystic Bull Cafe. But, Ed abandoned that game, for whatever reason, and I moved on from it.

I did a lot of other work on scenarios and systems related to WWII, but I could never seem to find the right one, or enough folks interested in playing. Rocketship was close, but it was too early. I wanted to take the stories from the actual war and put the sci-fi spin on them. And I didn't want to be burdened by political situations, aliens, and other stuff that I didn't feel like fit.

So, I'm embarking on my own pulp sci-fi journey. Set in an alternate past, starting in 1939 as the war truly starts, only this time, the war starts in space. Why in space? Because that's where I want it to be. I'm not planning to write a campaign setting explaining every detail of alternate history. There's going to be no "campaign map" or write-up of regions, kings/rules, and armies. These are stories about men and women involved in the secret war between the United Kingdom of Planets and the Deutschstern Reich. Between the Dai Nippon Teikoku and the Soviet Star Republic. And unofficially, the American Galactic Union against any and all enemies.

Cut to the crawl...

In 1939, as the brush wars that would eventually become full scale conflict began between the Deutschstern Reich (DR) and the League of Free Worlds, the chamberlain of the United Kingdom of Planets (UKOP) dispatched teams of operators to gather intelligence on the enemy and to conduct disruption operations on its assets in Reichspace. Assembled from diverse cultural backgrounds within the League of Free Worlds, these teams were composed of 4-10 specialists in the fields of human and signals intelligence as well as military, science, and black operations. With broad missions of sabotage, intelligence, counter-intelligence and partisan recruitment, the Space Operations Executive (SOE) fanned out to the stars. Disavowed by the UKOP and the League and hunted by the elite weltraumkommandos, the SOE fought a shadow war against the greatest threat to peace our fledgling space forces have ever known.

And cut to the (working) logo...

The first adventure is a free one -- Bug Hunt. It's Pay What You Want over on One Bookshelf 

Monday, January 05, 2015

Blame it on the Keep, Part 2

I have been fairly inundated with DCC RPG writing, playtesting, and general gaming for a couple of years now. Recently, (mostly due to +Eric Hoffman ) I jumped back into running a B/X/Etc. game based around Keep on the Borderlands.

This campaign took off over the holidays. True to form, the PCs (in game) and deliveries (out of game) changed the trajectory of the campaign world.

I had been angling for a space that I could run a number of the old school modules, since (to be completely honest) I've never played nor run most of them. As you can see from the campaign map, I was going with the U1-3 series (Saltmarsh etc), Ghost Tower of Inverness, Assassin's Knot (at least some portion of it) and White Plume Mountain. The towns and sites up north were reserved for a high level set of adventures that I wrote up several years ago that never got played.

To start out, the PCs wrecked several plans within the Keep area -- drove off the evil priest that was lingering about the Keep, sent the kobolds on a mini-trail-of-tears, and then discovered a barrow in the swamp that links to several storylines in Barrowmaze. I was marking time, really, until Barrowmaze Complete showed up, because I wanted to send them through a modified Barrowmaze -- with just a handful of the barrows and a section of the maze. Then Barrowmaze Complete showed up on Christmas Eve... and the characters ran down their hooks to that area and, basically, refuse to leave.

So, now, the campaign map has changed...

I'm still putting the U1-3 stuff on the coast (in Bogtown, instead of Saltmarsh), and I changed from Greyhawk to Ironguard Motte (mostly because Greyhawk is just too damn big!) for a large settlement in the area.

So far, in the Barrowmaze area, the party has come to the attention of the forces of both Orcus and those dormant (no longer) forces of Nergal. I had planned to link KotBL and Barrowmaze through Nergal (the evil temple in KotBL is an attempt to rally Nergalite forces, due to rumors of artifacts and shrines in the area). The party has raised Varghoulis, a Death Knight dedicated to Nergal, who in turn raised an undead army. He has since marched off to the north to consolidate forces for an old fashion "god raising." In the meantime, the party managed to lob a grenade into the the forces of Orcus, by murdering one of their priests and stealing a bunch of books related to rituals and histories of Orcus and Nergal.

So now, not one but two major evil cults are aware of, and not very happy with, the PCs. This should get really fun, really fast.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Blame It On the Keep

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had a lot to time to game at home and online. I blame +Eric Hoffman  for re-introducing me to an old obsession: Keep on the Borderlands. We managed to get one session in over the holidays, and he's promised a few more over the Christmas holidays. Immediately after the online session, I set up to run the module with my home group. We normally play DCC RPG, but I've been known to switch them back and forth between B/X/etc and DCC. Everyone has extant characters -- so it was fairly easy to move them to the little keep in the wilds and set them loose. Within one session, they had already rooted out a cult spy, made a few fast friends (henchmen), lost one of their fast friends (poor Crannich the dwarf...we hardly knew ye) and sent the kobolds off on their own mini-Trail of Tears (no -- they didn't kill the women and children).

This adventure module has always stood out to me as a model of how such content should be produced: Present the situation without embellishment and let the characters and the DM tell the stories. Of the old school modules that I have the most experience with, I think KotBL did it admirably well. It's also the best "first module" I've ever seen and should be used as a model for anyone producing OSR "beginner" modules.

The biggest challenge for me, as DM, is making the content fresh. I've played or run parts of this module (sometimes both) about 100 times. So, after experiencing the nuanced changes that +Eric Hoffman introduced, I set about working through my own.

In a struggle to find a nice player's map (black and white) for my players, I ran across this post over at Goblinoid Games. Black Wyvern modified the wilderness map for KotBL and spread out the various caves over the whole wilderness area. I really liked this concept and immediately adopted it...  (he also mapped the individual caves with mods for this tact). Unfortunately, now it was even harder to find a player's map... So, I took his map and made my own.

This folder over on Google Drive has two PNG files: DM and Player's map, and an SVG file so you can make your own changes.

So, rustle up some B/X/etc characters and get your ass to the border. There's trouble brewing out there that only the liberal application of magic and steel can solve.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Aga-Krul -- The Fearless Ally

Krul, huntsman and warrior of great prowess took up with the Nergalite dwarves, leading with him his clan of fierce warriors and acting as bodyguard to Agol Umberstone, the prophet of Nergal.
Together they traveled to the interior of Kharg Island and built a fine temple to the Winter Sun. From there, Krul and his clan traveled with the Nergalites to the mountains where the dwarves built a steading and shrine to Nergal.

When the Dissenter freed the serpent children of Qo and forced conversions upon the Nergalites, Krul stood with his master and the faithful few wielding his great bone spear against the vile children of the Destroyer of Worlds. It is said that Krul’s spear killed the Dissenter and allowed a small group of loyal Nergalites to escape from the dwarven steading while both Krul and the prophet were martyred.

Aga-Krul is a 10’ long spear with a bone shaft and a bronze head carved with dwarven runes glorifying the hunt and battle. Due to the many supernatural creatures killed by its original owner, the spear has taken on a strange intelligence and burns with a vengeful purpose. In the hands of any character, the combatant receives a +1 to attack and damage. If the bearer is fighting a “giant” sized creature, including humanoid giants or larger versions of otherwise normal creatures (such as giant spiders, mammoths, and the like) the spear inflicts an additional 1d3 damage. The spear itself communicates to the bearer with mental tugs, half-remembered dreams and, occasionally, more direct methods. These mental pushes allow the bearer to determine whether a given entity is of the Lawful alignment, and a potential ally.

Aga-Krul seeks to avenge its original bearer against the lingering spirit of the Dissenter. The first convert to worship of Qo among the Nergalites was slain by Krul, but its spirit was granted a new form which currently resides in the old temple to Nergal on the island in Wroten Lake. Should the bearer face this demon, Aga-Krul may be thrown with an unerring strike (+20 to the first attack) and deals 2d6 damage, plus the wielder’s Strength bonus. The spear immediately returns to the bearer’s hand. In addition, if the Dissenter is struck by Aga-Krul, one of its special abilities (randomly determined) is neutralized for 24 hours.

Aga-Krul -- The Fearless Ally (PDF)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Black Hole Cloak

In the distant future, Abadel Trank, the halfling nega-sorcerer, found his power waning. Either the universe itself was running out of fuel for magic or someone (or something) was preventing him from reaching the heights that he’d dreamed of since wandering away, half-drunk, from his stepmother’s hobbit hole at the scandalously young age of 34. Trank set upon a project that would consume his last years (literally). Believing that by moving back in time, he would solve both problems, the nega-sorcerer began constructing a portal using a piece of magical fabric he’d stolen from Urma, the Weaver, a minor goddess of home and hearth. His incantations complete, Trank stepped through the
portal, only to find himself tangled up in the fabric and falling through space and time. No one determined what actually happened to Trank, but his housekeeper found the strange black cloak with its shifting pattern of starlight hanging from a peg in Trank’s workshop with a note attached:

It was quite a glorious night of fun. You were very naughty to steal from me, however. Enjoy your trip!
- U

The Black Hole Cloak is a short cloak (regular sized for a halfling) composed of a silvery-black fabric that slides through the hands like water. Inspecting the fabric, one sees a pattern of shifting stars, as if the cloak itself were falling through space at a great speed. Upon occasion (1 in 20 each year), one may see the horrified face of a bald halfling man fly by.

READ MORE: The Black Hole Cloak

Friday, September 12, 2014

Working through the Ketsueki Empire, Part III -- Appeasing the Senmen Kami

It is said that the Suizei priesthood of the Ketsueki Empire has cataloged ten million spirits that are venerate, individually. From the brooding, god-like guardian dragons said to sleep under sea, earth, volcano and even Tsuki, the moon, to the capricious mononoke that spoils sake and hides your waragi, the senmen kami are considered holy such that even the least of them may have a shrine or portion of a temple dedicated to them.

The problem comes when a Suizei cleric faces a "monster" during the course of some adventure. The majority of the monsters in Ketsueki are actually physical manifestations of some venerated spirit. It may be a yokai of the dead, tortured by events during its life or a guardian spirit enraged by the theft of its charge. Regardless, the cleric ends up squaring off against, what is considered to the priesthood, a holy entity. This is not only a sin, but could get the cleric cut off from his or her source of power.

To add to the confusion, there are "unholy" spirits devoted to the goddess Zentai, a dragon goddess brought by Urgil invaders in the distant past and straight-up monsters sprung from the loins of the Beast with Ten Million Heads. Even the priests of outlander faiths are consider unholy.

So, instead of turning every encounter into a gamble between XP and deity disapproval, the cleric must be able to first identify what type of spirit/monster the party is facing, and then have some mitigation other than combat to resolve the situation should the "monster" prove to be some kami that the cleric venerates.

DCC RPG has done a great job in giving clerics a niche within the spirit world. Though wizards must treat with and appease otherworldly entities in order to gain power, clerics are so closely tied to their gods that any infraction results in disapproval, eventually. But, with that risk comes a powerful set of rituals that allows the cleric to further the aims of the deity by healing those that are closely aligned with the deity's aims and driving away or destroying creatures that are against those aims.

For the purposes of the Suizei priesthood, similar rituals can also serve to identify the nature of a creature and/or spirit and to either turn or calm that spirit or drive it away, depending on its nature and the cleric's power.

Identify Spirit
To identify a spirit, the cleric must be within 30' of the creature or possessed item, and must perform a ritual that takes one full round to execute. Mechanically, the cleric rolls a standard Spell Check adding his or her Luck bonus to the roll. The result of the spell check provides the cleric with the essential nature of the creature faced (based on the HD of the creature). Venerated spirits/creatures are those that originate from the Senmen Kami or the Guardian Dragons. Unholy spirits/creatures are those that originate from outlander gods, such as Zentai, the Nemelian pantheon, the Beast with Ten Million Heads and the like. Unaligned creatures are everything from the mundane (i.e. determining that a strange cat is just a strange cat and not a bakeneko) to various supernatural creatures that are not necessarily inhabited by the kami or spirits of outlander gods.

NOTE: If the ritual is successfully cast (i.e. the cleric's Spell Check is 12 or more), but the cleric did not roll high enough to determine the creature's nature, this is not considered a failure and does not incur deity disapproval or increase disapproval range).

Spell Check Venerated Unaligned Unholy
1-11 Failure Failure Failure
12-13 3 HD 2 HD 1 HD
14-19 5 HD 4 HD 3 HD
20-21 7 HD 6 HD 5 HD
22-23 9 HD 8 HD 7 HD
24-26 11 HD 10 HD 9 HD
27+ Any Any 11 HD

Appease Spirit
When a spirit is determined to either be a venerated kami or an unaligned supernatural creature, the cleric can attempt to drive the creature away, calm it, or even charm it. This ritual uses a modified version of the Turn Unholy mechanic. Spirits that are unholy may be turned using the standard Turn Unholy chart in the DCC RPG core rules.

Venerated Unaligned Range Charm 1-2 HD 2-3 HD 4-5 HD 6-7 HD 8-10 HD 10-12 HD
1-11 1-12 - - NE NE NE NE NE NE
12-13 13-14 30' - D1 NE NE NE NE NE
14-17 15-18 30' - D1d3+CL NE NE NE NE NE
18-19 19-22 30' - D1d4+CL D1 NE NE NE NE
20-23 23-25 60' - D1d6+CL D1d3+CL D1 NE NE NE
24-27 26-28 60' 1 D1d8+CL; C1d4 (no save) D1d4+CL D1d3+CL D1 NE NE
28-29 29-30 60' 1d3 D2d6+CL; C1d4 (no save) D1d6+CL D1d4+CL D1d3+CL D1 NE
30-31 31-32 120' 1d4 B1d8+CL (no save) D1d8+CL; C1d4 (no save) D1d6+CL D1d4+CL D1d3+CL D1
32+ 33+ 240' 1d6 B2d6+CL (no save) D2d6+CL; C1d4 (no save) D1d8+CL; C1d4 (no save) D1d6+CL D1d4+CL D1d3+CL

NE = No Effect

D = Driven Away. Creatures up to this HD are driven away in the quantity indicated. This may manifest as a possessing spirit going "dormant" or a creature being physically driven away from the area. The affected spirit(s) receive a Will saving throw (DC = Spell Check) or it must stay 30' away from the cleric and cannot attack any in his or her presence for 3d10 minutes. Such creatures may be treated with, though any such actions suffer a -4 to the Personality check.

C = Calmed. Creatures are driven away and are calmed. This is as driven away, but the cleric suffers no personality check when dealing with the creature. Calmed is a permanent state, unless other factors cause the creature to become hostile.

B = Banished. Creatures of the indicated hit dice and number are driven away from a locale, permanently. This can affect a space the size of a small castle. Banished creatures must permanently stay 120' from the cleric and/or the object or place once inhabited. Banished creatures are also calmed and may be treated with. The cleric can willingly allow the creature back to a banished locale or allow the creature to approach his or her person.

If a cleric achieves a "Charmed" effect, the number of creatures/spirits charmed indicated are of the lowest HD of a mixed group of spirits. Charmed spirits are affected as per the Charm Person spell at the 18-19 result (no save), however, the condition is not permanent. The spirit serves the cleric for 1d3+CL days. After this time, the spirit can decide whether to stay in the cleric's service or not. A cleric can have a number of spirits in his or her service equal to the cleric's caster level + personality modifier. Any spirits in excess of this number are considered Calmed and Banished.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Working Through the Ketsueki Empire, Part II.

By Amdominator on Deviant Art! 
I want to use the spell duel design more often in games (to date, they've only come up once in actual play), and I was struggling to find a way to represent the single combat conceit of the samurai of the Ketsueki Empire. In the period of Japanese history on which the Ketsueki Campaign is based, samurai fought battles essentially one-on-one. The most honorable/skilled samurai from each army would meet between two poised armies and duel it out until one or the other was dead. Then a group of samurai from each army would individually duel. Before long, there was a general melee of individuals dueling before it devolved into what you would understand was a "traditional" battle.

Several years ago, I wrote a sub-system for the Sengoku game that dealt with Go, the Japanese strategy board game. I had a scene in one adventure that required a character to beat a demon at go, and I didn't want the scene to be a simple skill versus skill check, because not only would that be anticlimactic, but it also wouldn't capture the nuances of go. Sengoku, even though it was a chanbara game, had a lot to do with the nuances of the Japanese culture in the 1500s. So, anyway, I developed a more complex system of advantage/disadvantage at various stages of a typical go match, that all resolved to bonus/penalties to the final skill roll.

So, anyway, I combined the wildness of the spell duel system with the design conceit of the Go simulator to get something that I hope you will like.

To play it, take any two DCC characters with a Deed die (samurai character is assumed) and pit them against each other.

And as always, tell me what you think!

Samural Duels! 

Stop Telling Stories or How to Design for the OSR

TLDR: Make a world. Put interesting stuff in it. Some stuff is really bad. Some stuff is really good. It’s hard to tell the difference until characters start messing with them. The DM and players tell the stories, not you.

Before I puff myself up as an authority and thus put myself out there for ridicule, let me start with the most controversial aspect of OSR adventure design.

It’s Not Your Game.
If you’re designing for the OSR, the first thing you have to realize is that the game does not belong to you. It belongs to the DM, the players and their characters. The DM is going to take your carefully crafted magical thing and hammer it to fit with an encounter from Against the Giants, and a random table from the d30 Sandbox Companion, a neighborhood generator from Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad, an NPC based on Private Hudson from Aliens, and a thousand other things of the DM’s own design. And when the players guide their characters into Undersewers of the Mole Gods, they are going to take your perfectly balanced, story-relevant encounters, ball them up, shake out all the XP and gold, and pitch them over their shoulders. All that’s going to be left is the story that the players and the DM tell years later, swigging beers at the Ram Brewery after their last con game. You get part of that story, but you don’t get to tell it.

Have Lots of Things for the Murderhoboes to Mess With
The OSR adventure is not a pre-scripted adventure path with a natural story arc balancing every character role into session-digestible chunks. An OSR adventure is a collection of evocative structures thrown down on a map, some with connections, and others just hanging out there. Your job, as a designer (and I believe it’s your only job) is to build the structures that the characters and DM can pour their stories into. Some of these structures have solid foundations, like an NPC with a detailed backstory, concrete motivations and secret weaknesses. Some may be paper-thin props that when viewed from another angle are nothing more than a blanket fort. Designers use this all the time – an evocative sentence or two to describe a building in a town or a locale on an overland hexmap.

The point is, the characters need stuff to mess with (and typically to destroy). Can there be connections? Sure! There’s a spy in town investigating the cult that gathers at a nearby dolmen every dark-of-moon. Why is the spy there? Who does she work for? Where is her safe house? These questions help to build further structures, thin or solid, but they are not steps in a process for “solving the story.” All of these structures coalesce into a mini-world that may be as small as the town where the spy resides or as large as a galaxy.

Some of the Things are Horrifyingly Bad. Some of the Things Are Amazingly Good. It’s Impossible to Tell the Difference.

Players aren't interested unless their characters are simultaneously threatened with horrible death and unimaginable wealth and power. And they aren't going to stay interested if they can tell the difference.

The bad things need to appear to be horrifyingly bad. Do you throw up “Goblins (3); rusty short swords” or eyes that gleam in the darkness, faint gibbering and the scrape of metal on stone? What are we fighting? What’s its “power level?” Is there any benefit to pitting my beloved Ussa-La the Space Princess against this unknown danger? Do I take the shiny without checking for traps? Or do I risk taking the time to be careful with the constant threat of another horror coming around the corner and trying to eat me?

Piles of treasure, eldritch artifacts, a shiny new space ship, level up… All of these things drive players to put their characters into terribly dangerous situations. And, they’ll do the same thing just for a rumor of these things. A grizzled yazirian holding court in a dusty cantina swears that the UPF ditched a super-secret spy ship on the prison planet of Holeefuckdontcomehere 9S. Not only is it packed with amazingly cool gear, there’s a case with a million credits stowed in a weapons locker. The planet? Nah! I’m sure it’s mostly deserted.

As a designer, make every fight a trepidation. Make running away regretful. You are not in the business of balance. Rewards are not parceled out in commiserate-with-dangers-engaged precision. Uncertainty. Every threat need not be insurmountable, but the threat should appear to be significant. Uncertainty.
And some of the threats should be insurmountable, especially with the stats and things on the player’s character sheet. Some rewards should be wildly overpowering and “unbalancing” to the game. 

It is uncertainty that adds all the tension to the game. It is player ingenuity that leads to its greatest triumphs. And both of these keep the players coming back for more. There’s something amazing out there, and even though there may be horrifyingly bad things guarding it and even though the amazing thing may not be as awesome as rumored, I will go into this world and find out.

Your only job is to build that world.