Thursday, February 8, 2018

For Love of Basic D&D

I'm a Swords & Wizardry White Box guy. That's pretty obvious. I love to design using that set of core mechanics, as is evident from Barrel Rider Games' White Box line of products and the creation of White Star. I think it's a system with infinite possibilities due to its simplicity and the cleaner, more modern design brought to it by current OSR creations like White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game. In short, it fits like a glove. It just clicks in my mind.
    

 

But believe it or not, it's not my favorite D&D-style system to play. My favorite system to play is Rules Cyclopedia. It's a big, bold book chock full of clunky, archaic rules. From the perpetually confusing Weapon Mastery rules, to the never-once-in-my-life-have I used Seige Warfare rules, to the "who the hell ever reaches 36th level?" Immortal rules. But, by God is that book full of potential. I believe it's the greatest single-volume fantasy RPG ever published. In that tiny font, 3 column layout, my imagination (both as a young boy and as an old grog) soars. Maybe it was because it came out when I was just the right age. Maybe it was the art. Maybe it was hiding away in those pages after a bad day at school. Hell, I don't know. But I know that the Rules Cyclopedia is when I realized I was going to play RPGs for the rest of my life.
  

  

As most reading this blog know, Wizards of the Coast has made the Rules Cyclopedia available in both softcover and hardcover print-on-demand formats now. I'll get my hell mittens. But here's the real kicker: There's some seriously awesome print on demand support for Basic D&D these days. In addition to the RC, they've got the DMR2 Creature Catalogue, B1: In Search of the Unknown, B2: Keep on the Borderlands, and the Hollow World Box set (along with a few other more obscure products and a few of the Known World Gazatteers) available as print-on-demand. Never did I ever think I'd see the day.

That means the Rules Cyclopedia and Basic D&D will be around as long as print-on-demand is around. I guess the game itself finally reached 36th level and ascended to Immortality.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

State of the Halfling 2018

2017 has been a helluva a year for me, and not in a good way. I've had some pretty major developments in my personal life that have forced me to sacrifice time previiously spent working on writing. It's not hyperbolic to say that things in 2017 have been life-altering for me, and in most cases not for the better. 2018 came crashing in with a swift kick in the nuts for the ol' halfling, so there's no calm in sight.

So, with that in mind I wanted to give folks an idea of what's on the docket for 2018 when it comes to Barrel Rider Games.

First & Foremost: White Star: Galaxy Edition is still going to be released in Print-on-Demand on both OBS and Lulu in hardcover and softcover formats. We had some large formatting corrections to make based on the first set of proofs received, and are upgrading to premium paper for the OBS release. Sorry for the delay. Those who have purchased the PDF will receive a coupon for a discount reducing the price to equate with the Print + PDF combo.

Cybermancer: Cybermancer is billed as Fantasy Cyberpunk Role-Playing in the Retro-Future, and it is currently being drafted. It's a retro-homage to old school cyberpunk RPGs we all know and love. It's basically the "big" project for 2018.

Other Projects: I have a slew of other products in development, all in different states of conception. These include Saga of the White Box, Heroes of Amherth, Rad Box: Post-Apocalyptic White Box Roleplaying, several small White Box supplements in the style of White Box Omnibus, Compendium, Gothic, and Arcana.

Because of the changes in my life and the new obligations created, I am no longer providing release dates for products. Project goals might be stated, I can't commit to hard release dates at the moment. My current situation no longer allows for committed time to focus on writing and what time I am given could be immediately consumed by this new personal development, and without notice.

Currently, getting the doors closed on White Star: Galaxy Edition is of the utmost importance and is my largest focus. I want to get it done and out there for everyone to enjoy. I'm genuinely proud of it and want folks to enjoy it at their gaming table for years to come.

Here's to hoping 2018 is a bit gentler and softer to the Barrel Rider, but given the way it's started I'd better armor up.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Review: Midlands Low Magic Sandbox Setting

I've spoken before of Low Fantasy Gaming and its fantastic blend of OSR simplicity and 5th Edtiion mechanics. Seriously. It's good. If you don't have it, grab it. Well, +Steve Grod  (aka Stephen Grodzicki) is at it again with Midlands Low Magic Sandbox Setting. It is currently available as a PDF for $10 on DriveThru and RPGNow. That's usually my breaking point for a digital product, but Steve was kind enough to provide me with a review copy before I even knew it had been released. Even at the price point, I feel like MLMS is practically a steal.




It's a massive product, clocking in at 365 pages and is billed as "a low magic, low prep, customisable sandbox in a 'points of light' medieval fantasy realm" and that's exactly what it is. The region, known as the Midlands, is described in several broad locations. The vast majority of this is wilderness and it is described in the text and repeated in the details of the flora and fauna to be very dangerous. The few settlements are given brief descriptions, a few key locations, along with backgrounds and stat lines for a few major NPCs. In everything, the Midlands are described in terms of adventure hooks. This is a setting that begs to be used. It's not a static painting meant to be looked upon or held some kind of sacred "canon." The player characters will change the world simply by their actions, and that's clearly by design. I feel this is key to campaign setting books, and its nice to see an author who is willing to pass on their creation onto gamers and give them the freedom to run wild without any kind of implication of what is "allowed."

Given that Low Fantasy Gaming has no clerics or divine magic, it was a pleasant surprise to find a fully detailed pantheon tied to the Midlands. I found this refreshing and a true insight by the author that humanity's belief in the divine in the real world is not defined by witnessing miracles at the hands of Clerics or Paladins, but is part of their natural desire to explain why things happen in the universe - to explain the unexplainable. These religions, even without spell-slinging Clerics, still impact culture and society wherever they are found. This kind of real-world mentality really strength to LFG's "low fantasy" element. It gives the setting a real grounding.

Magic is also given a low fantasy treatment. Even more so than the LFG core book, MLMS is a book that hammers home the fact magic is something man was not meant to know. It is dangerous, uncontrollable, and will inevitably lead practitioners to ruin. Magic items are rare to the point that no such thing as a Sword+1 in MLMS - each magic item is unique and was created for a purpose and was likely the product of an long lost era spoken of only in myth and legend. Magic and magic items in MLMS are, well, magical -- as they should be.

While MLMS could easily be seen as system neutral in terms of using the setting, it does have a few goods specific to Low Fantasy Gaming. Three new classes are introduced: Artificer, Monk, and Ranger. The Ranger is the stand-out here, feeling most tied to the material found within this book and they have a true rugged wilderness tracker vibe to them. They feel... dangerous. The Monk is serviceable without being too Wuxia in its stylings, but I admit I'm not generally a huge fan of the class in general so I might be giving this incarnation the short shrift. The Artificer is a cool concept, but feels unevenly written. Some of its abilities are thematic and cool, like the use of black powder weapons and alchemical solutions, while others feel a bit silly like chaintooth weapons (i.e. chainsaw additions). Still, you could pick and choose these individual abilities and it would be easy enough to disallow that which isn't appropriate to a given campaign.

Where the player options really shine are in the Gear Packs and Party Bonds sections. Gear Packs are class-based packages of predetermined equipment for starting characters. Choose a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, a set of armor, and a gear pack and you're off to the races. Party Bonds establish how the party knew each other before a campaign began, and both quick and surprisingly thematic to the material found in MLMS.

There's a short bestiary chapter which is primarily composed of monsters tied to the specifics of the Midlands setting. They're few enough in number to feel unique, but not so many as to feel as though the setting is populated only by these specific monsters. There is also a small section on designing your own monster. Useful stuff for the GM, but nothing unexpected when it comes to supplements like this.

The GM Tools chapter includes variant initiative methods, a really fun random NPC generator and a magnificent series of random encounter tables that really highlights elements of the setting established in previous chapters of the book. I was pleasantly surprised that "random encounter" did not mean "combat encounter" in these charts, as there is no implication of required violence, nor is there any attempt to "balance" these encounters to the level of the player characters. The rest of the chapter is filled with more random charts including tavern generator, name generator, city street name generator, even bar menu generator - but the real shining random table in this chapter is the Regional Event generator. The Regional Event generator details an event that happens every few months or after a year or so that impacts the setting as a whole. Things the PCs are necessarily involved in, but will likely impact their lives: The death of a king, the rise of a supposed prophet, things like that. It gives the Midlands a real living, breathing quality - something that remains present through the entire supplement.

With all this content, we still haven't got to the meat of MLMS: Adventure Frameworks. This chapter includes 50 adventure frameworks , which aren't as thin as random encounters but are designed to be as easy to implement and provide an evening's worth of adventure with absolutely minimal prep. For GMs with no prep time or when your players head off in an unexpected direction, they're an absolute god sent. Each adventure framework is tied to a location type (city, swamp, forest, etc), and provides several hooks and rumors to draw the PCs in. From there, the framework provides a series of linked encounters that will easily cover a full night of adventure. And there's 50 of them. That's enough to run multiple campaigns without ever running the same framework twice. Each framework runs five or more pages and includes around a dozen encounters. Many have matching keyed mapped for those encounters. Given that much of the inspiration for LFG is in the episodic pulps of early sword and sorcery fiction, this fits style of the game quite well and feels like a natural way to run it. Adventure Frameworks cover about 200 pages of this book.

Finally, MLMS's final pages include an index for easy reference of the material contained therein. This useful, but often overlooked touch is always nice.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't discuss the art. MLMS is filled with black and white line art and extensive maps of several locations. Grodzicki makes use of several pieces of stock art by many different artists, but it never feels disparate. This book is packed with visual appeals and there's rarely a page in the entire thing that's absent of art. The maps are both easy to use and visually appealing, which is an important balance, and vary between traditional top-down view and isometric.


Midlands Low Magic Sandbox Setting is a worthy successor to Low Fantasy Gaming. Its over 350 pages of content provide enough material for years of game play, using LFG or any other OSR game out there and for those who are using with LFG the new classes are a nice touch. While I was given a copy by Steve for review and I have trouble with a $10 price point for most PDFs, had I bought this with my own cash, I certainly would have felt like I got a deal. The most ringing praise I can provide is that Midlands Low Magic Sandbox Setting makes me want to run an LFG game physically, at a table, with my local players. Few products do that these days, and so far the LFG product line is batting a thousand. I can't wait for the physical release of this product and will be snapping it up as soon as its available. You can grab it for yourself on RPGNow and DriveThru.



Monday, November 20, 2017

Review: Xanathar's Guide to Everything

In spite of not actively playing or running a lot of D&D 5th Edition, I have followed the game line and think that, over all, it's a damn fine outing by Wizards of the Coast. I've been very pleased with their model thus far of releasing only three or four books per year, with the majority of these being long term, large scale campaign adventures. With the exception of the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, there haven't been a whole lot of fiddly bits added on to the material found in the Player's Handbook.

Well, Xanathar's Guide to Everything changes that. Clocking in at 192 pages, it's an even split of player focused material, DM focused material, and new magical spells or items. When this book was announced, I was very, very nervous. Was the clean, easy to digest 5e I'd come to respect going away? Were we going to begin that slippery slope into countless and ever more ridiculous character paths ala 3.X's seemingly infinite spread of prestige classes? In a few more years was I going to need three, four, or even half a dozen different books to make a character that followed the seemingly unavoidable power creep that always seems to slither its way into D&D a few years into each edition?



Well... sorta.

The first 70-some pages of XGtE is new Paths for each class. Fifth Edition D&D already offers a dozen classes and each individual class has two or three paths within it, as presented in the Player's Handbook. The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide offers a handful of others, but their very specific to Forgotten Realms and number no more than half a dozen (as I recall at the moment). To my personal tastes, that's over three dozen options for focusing and defining your character. I don't need, or want more. But, XGtE has 'em because players like an infinite number of options, even if they know in their hearts that these options will never be explored.

That's not to say their all bad. College of the Sword (Bard), Drunken Master (Monk), Cavalier (Fighter), and Swashbuckler (Rogue) are all brimming with flavor. But several just feel... well.. thin on substance, but long on style. Hexblades (Warlocks), Horizon Walkers (Rangers), and Oath of Conquest (Paladin) all find their origins in third edition with the Hexblade class, Horizon Walker prestige class, and Blackguard prestige class. Sure they look cool, but I don't feel like their presence really explores these classes properly. They feel included for the sake of filling up the corners, as it were.

Second, we have a This is Your Life section which consists of a collection of charts where you can randomly generate your character's motivation, ideology, flaws, and background. While this is good for players looking to flesh out their backstory, it's also excellent for DMs looking to make NPCs on the fly. So, sure, it feels kinda standard to have this sort of thing in books of this type these days - but with good reason, I think.

Next, for players we have some new feats. Now, before you go running in terror like I was inclined to do, I have to remind you: Feats are entirely optional in 5e. This is repeated over and over and over again. Also, there's all of two pages of new feats, and all of them are tied to a character's race. They're solid, with both strong mechanical benefits and a flavorful flourish.

The book then moves behind the screen to the Dungeon Master section. It opens with some clarifications on things like simultanious actions, falling damage, sleeping in armor, and other areas of the game that are either ill defined or can easily bog down play if a group decides to debate such things. Having these clarifications helps keep the game moving, but goes against my general philosophy of "Rulings, not rules." Still, worth having if your group is more interested in the details or you're looking for guidance as a new DM.

Now we get into a long exploration of identifying magic items and spells, designing encounters (and by encounters, it seems implicit that they mean combat encounters), and trap design. I was pleasently surprised to see quite a few pages devoted to in-game down time. What exactly are the players doing on the days/weeks/months between adventures? How does this impact play? What if trouble arises because of their downtime activities. I was really pleased with this section and given the general nature of what's described here, it can easily be cannibalized to any d20-based fantasy game. Spend all your time between adventures simply lounging about drinking? Awesome, recover some lost ability score points. Want to hang out and help the local clergy? Fantastic, you get 50% off the next few spells cast to aid you by a cleric of that church, but watch out - you might get drawn into the politics of the faithful. Want to be a pit fighter? You go right ahead, you'll earn renown and glory -- but you might get your ear ripped off in the process.

Magic items get the full court press in XGtE. From crafting them, to rewarding them, to quite a few new ones - there's a lot to chew on. What I like most here is the fact most of the magic items in this book are very, very minor. The Hat of Wizardry, for example, lets you cast a wizard cantrip that you don't know. But if you fail your Arcana check, you can't try again until you rest. Useful, not terribly overpowering, and offering a nod to the old days of Saturday morning cartoons. A personal favorite is the Cloak of Billowing. As a free action, once per round, you can make the cloak billow out behind you so that you look cool. No real mechanical effect - you just look bitchin'.

New spells? Yep. They're there. You knew they were going to be there. I won't go into it, because it's your standard list of "filling in gaps from stuff we had to cut from the PHB" to "WTF? This is strange. Why'd they include that?"

My favorite part of the entire book is Appendix A: Shared Campaigns. It's basically a few pages on social etiquette at the table between players, suggestions for running a Shared Campaign like those found in the D&D Adventurer's League (or as some in the OSR call this style of play, a Westmarches campaign). It gives recommendations on character creation, gear, simplified rules for rewarding level advancement and magic items. It's very much the "Rulings not rules" section of the book and I thought they packed a lot into 3 pages. In particular, I love the "PHB + 1 Supplement" rule when making a new character. By this rule, for Shared Campaigns, you can only make your character using the PHB and optional material from a single other sourcebook. So if you take Bladesinger from Sword Coast, well then you can't take some Elven racial feat from XGtE. It may seem a little arbitrary, but the amount of book keeping that's eliminated by doing this is well worth it in my opinion.

Finally we get charts with metric boatload of NPC names. Useful, but it does feel like filler.

All in all Xanathar's Guide to Everything really does have a bit of everything. You're certain to find something useful in here, whether you're a player or a DM. It ain't cheap, though, and retails for $50, though online retailers often have it cheaper if you don't have an FLGS. Is it worth the price of admission? Well, I'm not really sure. I grabbed mine at a hefty discount from an online retailer, but seeing as I don't actively play a lot of 5e at the moment, had I paid MSRP I'd feel a bit slighted. That being said, if I was actively playing in or running a 5e campaign on a weekly basis, then I think Xanathar's Guide to Everything has enough meat on its eye stalks to make a worthy purchase.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Advanced Labyrinth Lord Cover Image Released

I have a special place in my heart for Labyrinth Lord. It was the game that introduced me to the OSR and it emulates the RPG I fell in love with as a young man. It was the game that turned my local group onto the OSR after years of D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder. I just can't express my affection for this cornerstone of our little community.

For years, Dan Proctor has hinted at one day combining Labyrinth Lord Revised and Advanced Edition Companion into a single glorious tome. Well, if you've been following the forums over on Goblinoid Games or their Facebook community, you know that this fated day is soon to arrive.

Dan Proctor released the cover for Advanced Labyrinth Lord with original art by Joshua Stewart. I'm sold already. The Orcus looming over a trio of adventures as they face off against the Demon Prince while surrounded by a host of undead warriors -- how awesome is that?


Mr. Proctor has already said that he'll be funding Advanced Labyrinth Lord via a Kickstarter which will launch in late November or early December of this year. It will feature some new art, as well as several pieces from the original LL and AEC. I'll be glad to plunk down a few dollars to get my grubby little mitts on what will undoubtedly become my favorite incarnation of Labyrinth Lord to date. So if you'll pardon me, I'll be in the corner fanboying.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Review: Lamentations of the Flame Princess

If you've been in the OSR for any length of time, you've undoubtedly heard of James Raggi IV's Weird Fantasy Roleplaying Game Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Love it or hate it, people talk about the game. It's one I've avoided for a long time, simply because it didn't seem like something that would appeal to me. I dismissed it as gore for the sake of gore, blood and boobs for the sake of gratuitousness. Basically, it seemed like the "Shock Jock of the OSR." After reading it, I'm not sure that's entirely incorrect - but neither is it a fair assessment of the game. Also, one thing I found kind of off-putting was that I always got the impression that the hardcore fans of Lamentations had the attitude of being "too metal for you."

Then I saw +Matt Finch fantastic YouTube interview with James Raggi. To my pleasant surprise Raggi came off as just a dude. He's no nonsense, honest about who he is, what his game is, and what his beliefs are. I really enjoyed complete lack of pretension. Raggi wrote a game that is his ideal version of D&D, nothing more and nothing less. I can really empathize with that, since that's exactly what The Hero's Journey Fantasy Roleplaying is to me.


Well, I by windfall, I got my hands on a copy of the "Rules & Magic" Core Rulebook for LofTP and gave it a read. I figured it was the opposite of what I generally wanted in my RPG, given my inclination for Tolkienesque fantasy and pulp sci-fi. But I do enjoy Lovecraft and Ravenloft, so I tried to dive in with an open mind.

As mentioned by so many other reviews of LotFP, the production values are fantastic. Bold line art, a clean layout and several full color plates create a book that's visually appealing to simply look through. For the most part, LotFP clings closely to it's B/X D&D roots when it comes to mechanics. That being said, it's not afraid to toss out what doesn't work. It uses an ascending Armor Class system and Attack Bonus mechanic for combat, which is my preferred method. (Sorry, guys, Thac0 is just counter intuitive.) Hit Points are pretty standard for most B/X era games, increasing by a certain die type as the character gains levels. The classes are, for the most part, what you'd expect: Cleric, Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Fighter, and Magic-User. The Thief is replaced by the skill-driven Specialist.

It features a small skill set and a simple d6-based skill check system, which is highlighted in the Specialist class. This thief-replacement is not bound up in the tropes of being a "thief," but is instead exactly what it says: A specialist. The character receives more skills (even from 1st level) than all other classes. These aren't just your traditional "thief" skills either. You can use the specialist to build a ranger, a sniper, a pickpocket, or any other adventuring type of character. It's really well implemented.

Another simple, often mentioned, and major change from B/X to LotFP is that only Fighters increase their Attack Bonus beyond first level. This makes them really unique and gives them a tight role within a party. Also, on a more subtle level, it implies that LotFP is not a game focused on combat. By having one class that's exceptional at combat, it helps remind the group that fighting is not always the way to solve a problem. In fact, fighting is probably a bad idea. Just run!

Magic-Users pretty much run in a fashion similar to B/X, except for a few select spells to evoke that Weird Fantasy feel. Magic is something mankind is not meant to mess with, and those spells hint at that - none more so than the first-level spell Summon. The summoning rules for LotFP are a bit complex, but because the spell itself is meant to be a long ritual likely to be cast in combat, it's not a huge deal. It's complex because the Magic-User does not know what they're summoning, or whether they're going to be able to control it. Generally speaking, reaching into the nether to yank something through will not end well.

While LotFP has no concrete setting there is an implication that it's set designed to be set in an era between the late 15th century to the late 16th century. There are rules for Firearms, Maritime Travel and Combat, Land Ownership and Taxation, and other things not traditionally found in "medieval" fantasy. As a side note, given the game's heavily implied historic context, it feels like non-human classes were included simply as a nod to B/X. They don't quite feel like they fit in with the rest of the game and I think if I was going to run an LotFP game I'd reskin Halflings and Dwarves as something else - maybe Rangers and Tomb Robbers - and not allow Elf PCs. Another nice touch by an implied but not explicit setting is that you can make the game as horror-driven, or not, as is suitable to your individual group - though clearly Raggi wants drive home that things living in dungeons are truly horrible and inhuman and those who dare intrude are genuinely insane.

Then we get to the art. The art in this book is definitely not "family friend," but it does a perfect job of illustrating the style of weird fantasy that Raggi is going for. It's just beautiful to behold in its detail. My favorite piece among the art plates (shown below) is the perfect encapsulation of real-world bravery. The girl in the picture is standing protectively in front of (presumably) her family with her armored father already slain, clumsily holding a heavy sword while tears are streaming down her face. She's absolutely terrified, but she's terrified but still she's putting up a fight. That is bravery. It's just magnificent.

In the end, Lamentations of the Flame Princess is yet another OSR game that I wrote off as something I could just ignore. I did the same with Labyrinth Lord years ago, and avoided Swords & Wizardry for a long time due to my own preconceived notions. You'd think I learned my lesson - because once again, my own arrogance has caused me to ignore a jewel in the OSR that's been staring me in the face for a long, long time.

The final clincher for me was, oddly enough, my wife. She's not an OSR gamer, though she is an RPGer. I showed her LotFP and she was like "I'd play this. This has got a kind of twisted Puritan Fairy Tale vibe to it." My wife is seriously picky about the games she plays, and getting a non-OSR gamer's opinion without all the baggage associated with the controversy and politics surrounding Lamentations gave me an objective opinion from someone I respected.

So yeah, I think I'll be running LotFP some time in the future, much to my own horror and surprise. But then again, isn't that part of what Lamentations is all about?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

JEShields and the Art of Love

James Shields is, in my opinion, the premiere artist in the OSR. His strong line work, dynamic images, and the sheer diversity of what he can bring to life through his art leaves me in awe. James's work was a cornerstone in bringing the visual style of White Star (and especially White Star: Galaxy Edition) to life. It's as if he were somehow reaching into my brain and drawing out how I saw the world of my pulp sci-fi opus.

But James is more than just a guy who can create images for sci-fi, fantasy, cyberpunk, post apocalyptic, modern, or pretty much any other genre of games. He's a Good Man. I have been thrilled to have James's work appear in many of my own products. I am humbled and honored to call him a friend. His generosity, as a creator and as a person, knows no bounds. He's enthusiastic, supportive, and a great guy to talk to. On a professional level, his comissioned work comes back on time and he maitains strong communication the whole time. I can't think of an artist I'd rather work with more than James.

If you want to see just a sample of his work, check out JEShields, his company. He's got hundreds of stock art images from a myriad of genres - and he's even kind enough to make many of them available for free or at a PYWY rate. In spite of his amazing talents, James uses his gifts to be a pillar of the OSR. He does what he does out of love of this community and love of the games we all play.


He wants to bring more art to us all. Maybe you're a publisher looking for more images for your products, or maybe you've seen James's work in products you've purchased. In either case, James's style has probably shaped a game you know and love. So, I'm asking you as a fellow gamer, to help him bring his Kickstarter to life. I've seen what he's got planned, and the price points he's offering for Backer Rewards are worth it at twice the price.



Do it because you love gaming. Do it because you love seeing more art in your books. But most importantly, do it because there's a man who is making these things as an act of love. Please support his continued growth as one of the greatest visual minds in the OSR today.