Thursday, October 3, 2019

The Journey Together

The draft is done. The art is done. The Hero's Journey, Second Edition is currently in layout and editing. It's been a long, strange process for me. This is the most personal writing project I've ever undertaken -- even more so than White Star. A lot of the thanks for that go to Alan Bahr, who encouraged me at every step to break out of my own patterns and to write the game I wanted to make during every step in the process. And that's what I did. I genuinely love this game, and I really hope you will to.

The Hero's Journey, Second Edition is, literally, my dream game. Not just the rules and the text, the whole thing. I got my first choice for the cover artist (the amazing Jon Hodgson). I got my first choice for interior artist (the irrepressible Nic Giacondino). From top to bottom, everything in this little game falls on me. If you love it, I'm humbled. If you hate it, blame me.

I said in my last post, that I was gonna talk about Lineages in my next blog post. Well,  I changed my mind. I wanted to talk a bit about the art. First of all, it's amazing. I got to include custom art through out the book, crafted to my specifications. That is a rare gift in a small publisher (thanks again, Alan). To that end, I wanted to talk about the art in The Hero's Journey, Second Edition beyond the visuals. Each of the game's eight classes features an iconic character. As the art continues through out the book, those eight iconic characters appear over and over again in almost every piece. That is intentional. This is a game about heroes going on a journey (it's in the title). I wanted to showcase those heroes as much as possible -- and Nic did an amazing job bringing Flynn the Half-Elf Bard, Bandoras the Halfling Burglar, Kara the Human Knight, Willow the Elf Ranger, Puckstone the Dwarf Swordsman, Tesh the Changeling Warrior, Evelyn the Human Wizard, and Tucker the Human Yeoman to life.

But more than just the heroes, this is a game about the people playing them and the journey they take together. The bonds we forge at the gaming table over dice and glorified games of pretend change our lives for the better and I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who ever contributed to a roleplaying game I played. Every close friend I have is someone I met through gaming. My brother and I became close because of a shared love of D&D. I met my wife at a tabletop game. In short, I love all the adventures I've had because of the table, not just at the table.

In this article I'm showcasing three of my favorite pieces Nic did for The Hero's Journey, Second Edition. We lovingly call them "Players," "Assemble," and "The End." But these three images encapsulate so much of what I love about this little game that'll be releasing in the coming months. The shared stories, the shared adventure, the discovery that we're all in it together -- both at the table and away from it. Thanks for coming with me. I hope we have a long, grand adventure together.


Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Hero's Journey: Words Matter

So, as I'm sitting here editing The Hero's Journey, Second Edition I wanted to talk a bit about the game's focus in both this version and the first edition. Both incarnations of the game were build to emulate the style of fantasy found in classic fairy tales and works of heroic fantasy like J.R.R. Tolkien, the Dragonlance novels, and Feist's Midkemia series. The protagonists are heroes -- active forces for good in the world -- and there is a clear divide between good and evil. Magic is truly wondrous and awe-inspiring. Mythic beasts and dangers exist just beyond the horizon, and in the end doing the right thing matters.

In it's original edition, the rules of The Hero's Journey spoke of this a lot. But the rules never truly reflected it. The tropes of the game were bent or ignored in order to firmly fit it into compatibility with White Box games and White Box rules. The new edition of this game makes no such concessions and is, in fact, not compatible with White Box. Well, at least not without some serious changes.

Alterations have been made to every aspect of the game and the game's terminology. Why change terminology? Because language is a reflection of tone and theme. Previously, The Hero's Journey featured eight attributes: The "traditional" six (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom (called Willpower) and Charisma), plus two new ones: Appearance and Luck.

The new edition has paired this down to six, each of which has been titled to lean into the archaic and evocative language of myth and legend.

Might: This is an analogy for strength in more traditional games, impacting melee combat and carrying capacity. The term "might" was chosen because when one hears of "Mighty Heroes" it conjures images of daring deeds and feats of amazing physical prowess. Strength is a bit more dry and analytical.

Alacrity: This is an analog for dexterity. But, it also reflects a character's speed and preciseness, in addition to their physical agility and sense of balance. Again, I felt it was more prosaic and evocative.

Resolve: This is a combination of physical and mental endurance, a blending of constitution and wisdom/willpower. Why do this? Because in so many heroic stories, you hear tale of physically weak heroes who had a strength of will, a resolve, that allowed them to carry on, to push past physical and mental limits, to achieve the impossible.

Insight: I have always found it difficult to roleplay a character smarter than I am. Wizards and wise men in stories are not described as being intelligent, but they are often described as insightful. They are able to deduce more, notice more, and make connections not visible to others. Insight seemed a more accurate term and it combines the "perceptive" aspects of a character often previously lumped into Wisdom in more traditional games. Gandalf or Merlin would never describe themselves as intelligent, but everyone respects their sharp insight into a situation.

Bearing: This replaces Charisma, but is a bit more subtle in its use. Often you have heroes who rise from obscurity and show a "noble bearing." It's an indefinable quality akin to charisma, natural magnetism, and a kind of subtle aura of power that surrounds a character.

Weal: This replaces Luck, but Weal is an ancient term that means a combination of destiny, luck, and a general sense of fate that is tied to an individual. A character is bound by their destiny or fate, to an extent, but still somehow maintains free will. Weal seemed like the most accurate way to reflect this element of fairy stories and heroic fantasy and the archaic term "Weal" seemed to be the most appropriate term to reflect that.

Next time, I'll talk about the Lineages of the game -- how some have changed, some have been cut, and new additions have been made.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Hero's Journey, Second Edition: Why?

A few years ago I wrote and published The Hero's Journey Fantasy Roleplaying. It was idea that began on a lark and was written to be nothing more than "James's ideal version of White Box." Much to my surprise, Mike Herrmann took my writing and turned it into a genuinely beautiful product. That little experiment took me on quite an adventure. It was nominated in 2017 for a Three Castles Award, which lead to me attending my first ever North Texas RPG Con. It was there that I met several of my heroes and met strangers who have since become dear friends.

But even with the unexpected adventures that came with the success of The Hero's Journey, I always felt like it wasn't quite the game it could be. I love White Box. It's my favorite OSR game out there. It's simple. It's clean. It's an infinitely versatile chassis upon which to build a game. I'll forever be both in awe of and in debt to Matt and Marv for their creation. Follow me for a second on a bit of a tangent, OK?

Anyone who knows me for five seconds knows I love Lord of the Rings and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Naturally, I gravitated to a Middle-earth based RPG. I was just a bit out of time to play MERP and instead was introduced to Tolkien RPGs through Decipher's Lord of the Rings RPG. I loved it nad hated it. It was almost perfect. It was almost awesome. It was almost Tolkien. It is a great game. But instead of bending the game's rules to fit the conventions of Tolkien's subcreation, Tolkien's subcreation was bent to fit Decipher's in-house CODA system. It was a great game, but it wasn't quite Tolkien. And it always felt a bit disingenuious because of that. Fortunately, years later Cubicle 7 Entertainment would publish The One Ring -- a game specifically designed to fit the conventions of Tolkien's world. I love that game so much that it inspired me to become a publisher in hopes that one day I could be a part of that game and by extension, that world.

I guess that's what was bugging me about The Hero's Journey. I love that game, but in many cases I chose to bend the genre conventions it was designed to emulate in favor of making it compatible with White Box. And, to be frank, I got a lot of praise for the game. I was (and still am) proud of it. Oddly enough, it was never received as a "White Box game." It was seen by the community at large as a kind of thing in its own right that stood apart from White Box.

That was a bit disappointing back then. Now, it's freeing. People recognizing it as its own game (along with some encouragement from a dear friend) has given me the permission and freedom to do exactly that: To make The Hero's Journey its own game. And it's a helluva game. I haven't felt this personally invested in a game since I was writing the original White Star.

I'm going to try to be more active on this blog and the next few posts will discuss some of the changes coming to The Hero's Journey, Second Edition. I hope you'll join me and more importantly, I hope you'll enjoy the game when it's released. For now, I'll leave you with the new cover art. It's by a personal hero, mentor, and friend, Jon Hodgson. He was the art director and a lead artist on The One Ring and has done art for Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, and countless other companies. He's worked on game lines the likes of Beyond the Wall, World War Cthulhu, Dragon Warriors, Pathfinder, Crypts and Things, and Pathfinder.


Sunday, October 7, 2018

Review: Tiny Dungeon 2e

After reading Eorathril and For Coin & Blood, Gallant Knight Games has really become a publisher I respect for their OSR work. Seriously, they do OSR right. But I wanted to take a look at what I regard as their flagship product Tiny Dungeon, Second Edition. I was completely unfamiliar with the product and was sent a complimentary digital copy.

TD2e clocks in at a smidge over 200 digest-sized pages. Like other GKG products, the black and white interior is cleanly laid out and easy on the eyes. Billing itself as a rules light, fast playing, fast running fantasy RPG, I immediately started comparing it to White Box and my own Untold Adventures. Let me say this right off the bat: Tiny Dungeon is an entirely different beast. It's rules light, certainly. It is absolutely a fantasy RPG. But I'm reluctant to call it OSR simply because it blends classic and modern trends in gaming to create a unique beast that I think has a certain level of universal appeal.

This is a game that runs at lightning speed, yet somehow manages not to sacrifice much in the way of character depth and breadth of concept availability. Character creation is simple. You choose a Heritage, three Traits, a Weapon Group, a Family Trade, and a Belief. It works like this:

  • Heritage: In other games this would be your "race," but by choosing a different terminology, TD2e allows you to design things like multiple kinds of subraces while still having them all be different species. The core book has a surprisingly diverse list of races. From your standard things like Humans and elves (which TD2e accurately calls Fey), to Treefolk and Goblins, there's implications of a rich fantasy setting right at your finger tips.
  • Traits: These are the bread and butter of your character that really define what they do. These would be considered classes or professions in other games. Things like Alchemist, Berserker, and Shield Bearer. All PCs get to select three of them, allowing you to blend several elements into a truly unique character. Each Trait provides a brief example of the benefits it provides -- often this is Advantage on a specific task, but we'll get to Advantage and Disadvantage later (and no, it's not like 5e).
  • Family Trade: This is both a kind of profession and a hint at your character's past. There is no defined list, but you could have a trade like "Blacksmith" or "Street Beggar," or "Orphaned Noble." Basically in a situation where your Trade comes into play you again gain Advantage.
  • Belief: Belief is not, as an OSR grog like me is used to, akin to alignment. It's a core tenant your character lives by. Something that rings true to them deep down in their soul. It might be "I'll always find a diplomatic solution" or "I'll avenge the death of my brother, no matter the cost." It is primarily a roleplaying tool, but can have game impact in certain circumstances.


Playing the game is very simple. The core game runs on the concept of making "Tests." A Test is simply rolling 2d6. If you score a 5 or 6 on either die, you succeed. When you have Advantage you roll 3d6. Disadvantage reduces the dice rolled to 1d6. Again, get a 5 or 6 and you succeeded. That is, literally, 90% of the game's rules. It's clean, clear, and easy to learn. Combat? Just another Test. Climbing a rock wall? That's a Test. Not bleeding out all over the floor after a grievous wound? Yeah, that's a Test.

That's not to say that combat in TD2e is boring or simply a roll off. The author has added simple rules for evasion, focusing your attack, movement, and other staples that flow perfectly with game's core design. It's as robust as any OSR game I've read. For simplicity's sake, unless otherwise stated, all attacks do a single point of damage. But, given that most characters have between 4 and 8 hit points that makes this a lot deadlier than one would think at first glance.

Magic is not handled with a large chart of spells. Instead, Traits (as noted above) determine your character's magical capacity, if any. This keeps the game from being bogged down in lists and charts and allows players to have a spellcaster that's thematically appropriate. There are some example magical disciplines in the book, but they are optional. It's all left to be very narrative and I think that's a good thing.

Gear and Equipment is pretty simply defined. You start with an Adventurer's Kit and a few other items. Anything else you want? Talk with the GM. There are rules for tracking encumbrance and ammo and the like, but these are both abstracted and even as an abstracted concept they're very streamlined and designed not to hinder quick play.

While TD2e includes enough monsters to run a full campaign in the core book, what's more important is that it rightfully recognizes the concept of a monster as simple window dressing for something that's a threat to the players. As such, instead of bloating it's page count with a hundred beasties and baddies, it lists monster categories in a measurement of how likely they are to threaten the player characters and how much of a risk it is to face them in combat. This is pretty damned genius to me, because it lets you describe a monster as you, the GM, see feet and secretly allow a large and nasty hobgoblin to effectively have the same stats as a hatchling dragon -- all without the suspension of disbelief ever being broken.

I never got the impression that TD2e was designed specifically for one-shot gaming, though it certainly could do that with all the speed and ease of greased lightning. That being said, experience and advancement is an optional rule. Because characters begin play at a heroic level of skill and proficiency off the bat, this made sense to me. Even with the advancement rules, progression is slow -- as it should be, given how highly skilled starting characters can be.

All of this is packed into less than 90 digest-sized pages.

The biggest compliment I can give Tiny Dungeon, Second Edition is this: I'm glad I didn't read it until after I published Untold Adventures. If I had read Tiny Dungeon, Second Edition before writing my own minimalist game I probably would have never done it. TD2e is cleaner, faster, and easier to present than my own creation and my hat is off to its creator. I honestly believe it's a better game. I'll definitely be picking a physical in the very near future.

I'll be doing a part two of this review. As I noted earlier, this is a 200 page book, but the rules stop at around 90 pages. The enter second half of the book is mircosettings for use with TD2e and I want to be able to give them the attention they deserve. So, if you'll excuse me I'll be in the corner marveling at this masterwork blend of old school style and modern gaming simplicity as I explore the second half of Tiny Dungeon, Second Edition.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Eorathril: Not Just Another Fantasy OSR Game

I was lucky enough to receive a complimentary PDF of the soon-to-be released Eorathril: Old School Fantasy Roleplaying, published by Gallant Knight Games and written by Alan Bahr. I was not asked to review the product, but after reading it I feel as though to not do so would be a disservice to the game itself.

There are more OSR fantasy RPGs out there than there are kobolds in a ruined keep, so why bother addressing another being added to an already bloated library of selections? I mean after all, I myself have written two complete fantasy RPGs and written a slew of supplements for others. It's an over saturated market, there's no getting around that. Given that, why is Eorathril worth your table time?

A great many things appeal to me when it comes to Eorathril. First and foremost, it's built about a chassis of Swords & Wizardry White Box, so that means there's a ton of material out there which can be easily incorporated into the game and that it's both easy to learn and fast-playing. Secondly, the layout is clean, yet evocative. One of my favorite features is that unlike many authors (myself included), Bahr doesn't use his sidebars to discuss house rules -- instead he gives readers a peek into his mind as a designer and lets them know why certain aspects of the game are designed in the fashion presented. It makes an already rules-light game feel very approachable. But, I think the biggest appeal of Eorathril is that it's a well-presented low-magic setting that is structured around the aforementioned OSR engine with which I am most familiar.

Let's be clear here: Eorathril isn't just "White Box with the magic stripped down." Bahr is clearly building his own unique game with elements he wants to see in the game. Tweaks are present in every aspect of the game: Attribute calculation, hit points, magic items, races, and classes are all modified to suit the "low magic, high adventure" style that Eorathril is meant to evoke. That evocation is present down to the visual design. Both layout and art feed into this theme.

There are no non-human player character races available in Eorathril, in keeping with the low magic feel here. There is, however, an optional rule where the region of the implied setting (which is also the product's title) can grant a bonus to a single attribute. The implication is that intelligent races other than humanity do exist, but they're not human, strange and alien to human sensibilities. In short, they're magical. The classes provided are where Bahr's creation really starts to shine, and I'd like to take a minute here to highlight them:

  • Barbarian: Your classic savage warrior, they are swift and brutal. At higher levels they can seem nigh unstoppable and through simple rules Bahr does a great job of creating a juggernaut worthy of Howard's legacy.
  • Fighter: This is less a generic warrior and more a professionally trained soldier, the Fighter has access to a collection of unique abilities that make them excel at specific combat methods as well as gaining additional attacks per combat round -- a rarity in most White Box variants.
  • Knight: This is exactly what you think, but it is not a Paladin. This is a lord-bound mounted warrior in full armor, as at home on the field of honor as he is in the middle of courtly politics.
  • Ranger: This class clings close to tradition, as skilled hunters and trackers who specialize in eliminating a chosen foe across a wild landscape.
  • Sage: This is the closest thing that Eorathril has to a "magic-user," and even that's a stretch. They do get spells, but only very few and only at higher levels. Instead, they gain insight through long study and keen observation. More Gandalfish or traditional Merlin than D&D fireball-slingers.
  • Swordmaster: The author openly states that this class is inspired by the Wheel of Time series, but I read it and immediately was drawn to the swashbuckler archetypes of Madmartigan and Dread Pirate Roberts from Willow and Princess Bride respectively. I love, love, love this class.
  • Thief: Similar to the Ranger, this class hangs close to its traditional counterpart. It does, however, add specific uses for disguise and poison use, which give them some more diversity in application.


As is befitting a game where heroes are martially-oriented, the weapons offered are extensive and diverse. At the same time, they're not ridiculous or out of genre. He also has a few simple weapon traits which add to that diversity without bogging things down. Also, there's an Arming Sword. Thank you so very much for distinguishing that from a Longsword. They're different weapons and that has always been a tiny pet peeve of mine.

Combat itself is standard White Box fare, with one simple addition: Exploits. If you roll a critical hit with a weapon you can opt to do an exploit instead of doing extra damage. This includes things like disarming your opponent, breaking their shield, or even breaking an object held in someone's hand. He also includes Intimidation and Manipulation rules, which were first introduced in his grimdark fantasy RPG For Coin and Blood.

Spell and Magic do have their own chapter, but given the low-magic theme of Eorathril, you won't see fireballs and magic missiles here very much. In fact, magic missile is the only direct damage spell in the book. Spells only run to third level and while most of them are OSR standards, spells are meant (at least by implication) to be utilitarian and not ground shattering displays of power. Again, only Sages can cast spells -- and even then, only at higher levels.

Magic items exist in Eorathril and all the standards are here that you'd expect. However, when it comes to magic weapons, Bahr has opted to use a variation on the Myth Point system introduced in The Hero's Journey Fantasy Roleplaying. Obviously, I'm a fan of that system and given the low-magic nature of the setting, I feel it's a very, very good fit.

The monster list has everything you'd expect and nothing you wouldn't. It's concise, complete, and highly utilitarian.

Finally, Eorathril closes with a few unique magic items tied specifically to the implied setting that's given some small detail in the beginning of the book. Between these two features, Narrators are given enough material to build the foundation of a fantasy setting with the freedom to take things wherever they'd like to go.

In less than 120 pages, Alan Bahr's Eorathril creates a clean, concise low-fantasy adventure roleplaying game that is as home in a Tolkienesque campaign styled after Lord of the Rings as it is in a Hyborian Age sword and sorcery campaign. I really can't recommend this game enough. It manages to build on the familiar foundation of so many OSR roleplaying games while having enough new material and unique flavor to be a worthy addition to the growing library of fantasy RPGs on the market.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Getting Board: Onitama Review

So, while tabletop RPGs are most certainly my passion, I also enjoy board games on occasion. I'm particularly a fan of two-player abstract board games, especially historic two-player abstract games. Games like Chess, Checkers, Go, and the like. Hnefatafl is a particular favorite of mine. I enjoy these types of games because they are typically easy to learn, only require one other participant, and are (for the most part) fairly cheap to purchase. In the modern board game market, I don't find a lot of two-player abstract games, especially ones with a strong historic theme. However, last year I came across Onitama after being pointed in its direction by Wayne Humfleet and Moe Tousignant. Since that time, Onitama has become my favorite board game.
Onitama

Onitama is billed a martial arts themed tactical game. It is played on a grid board that is 5x5. Each player has five pieces, a Master and four Students. The base game also includes a deck of 16 move cards. The deck of move cards is shuffled and each player draws two, placing them face-up on the board in front of themselves. A fifth card is drawn and set to the side face up. Each player's collection is set along their own back row, with the Master occupying the center square back square. The Master's beginning space looks slightly different on the board and is called the Temple.
Example of Set-up
The goal of the game is to capture your opponent's Master (which is done by landing in the space occupied by the that Master), or by moving your own Master into your opponent's Temple. Each turn you move a single piece (Master or Student) based on the image depicted on one of the Movement cards on in front of you. That card is the set aside and you take the other unclaimed card into the now empty place in front of you, thus replacing your movement options on your next turn.

Your opponent then goes and does the same. They pick one of their movement cards, moves a piece, and takes the card you just got rid of into their hand and sets the movement card they just expended aside. Thus, you cycle through both your own movement cards and your opponent's movement cards.
Cards show permitted movement

The game is ridiculously simple too learn, set up, and play. The constant shifting of movement cards keeps the game dynamic and prevents a sense of staleness or inevitability that is often found in more traditional two-player abstracts like Chess or Checkers.

There is a single expansion for Onitama that's currently released: Sensei's Path. It is just 16 more movement cards. That's it. No huge rules changes, no extra things to learn. A great, solid expansion. Soon Arcane Wonder Games will be releasing a second expansion: Way of the Wind. This expansion adds a new neutral piece that can be manipulated by both players. I'm both excited and cautious about this. Onitama's big appeal for me, beyond the strong themeing, is the depth of play behind the simplicity of the rules. I hope future expansions don't clutter up the elegance of a beautifully designed game.

Onitama is available for $30 MSRP, though online retailers usually sell it for about 30% less than that. Sensei's Path MSRPs for around $15, but again online retailers offer it at about 30% off if you hunt around. Way of the Wind is the forthcoming expansion and is priced at about the same as Sensei's Path. All that being said, if you have a local game shop, spend the extra cash and support the brick n' mortar business.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Simple vs. Beginner: There's a Difference

So, earlier in the week I got into a conversation on Facebook with someone who had some constructive criticism and questions regarding Untold Adventures. I encouraged them to ask their questions because the person was both respectful and the questions were really insightful ones about the nature of the game. It got me thinking about something that seems a bit counter-intuitive.

Untold Adventures is a rules light game, but I would not call it a game that's a good game for new gamers. That's a bit confusing, eh? Without a lot of rules, beginners won't get overwhelmed - right? Sure, that's true. But Untold Adventures relies heavily on Referee fiat, descriptive play, and abstraction. Those three skills don't always come easily to new players or Referees. That's because they need time to build their confidence as gamers and trust their instincts.

Part of the reason I love Untold Adventures so much is that it is a game I wrote, first and foremost, for me. I didn't want to do "just another retroclone" for the sake of sales. That's why it's a PWYW PDF and the PoD will be under $10 in softcover. It's a game that I know I can run given my current life. It's low prep, fast-playing, and character creation takes five minutes. I abstracted so much of the game because I trust in my abilities as a Referee and to make a call on the fly.

That comes from thirty years of gaming and over half a decade creating OSR content. The mentality of "Rulings, not Rules" comes to me almost instinctively. I recognize that such a style of play doesn't come easily to new gamers and that many experienced gamers don't care for it. They want a more defined selection of classes, a more concrete gear system, and other things. That's perfectly valid and reasonable. But, it's not the way I prefer to play, so I didn't write Untold Adventures with that in mind.

Another reason to make it as rules light as possible was to make it as easy as humanly possible to drop in other OSR content. Heck, I wrote it with running Small Niche Games' Chronicle of Amherth (originally written for Labyrinth Lord) and Glynn Seal's Midderlands (originally written for Swords & Wizardry Complete) in mind. I could use both settings with no mechanical conversion, or simply by changing all HD to d6. Conversion takes seconds and can be done on the fly. But that comes at the expense of concrete rules, forcing me to rely on my own confidence that I gleaned from experience as a gamer and creator.

I'm not saying this to toot my own horn. I'm simply pointing out that the level of experience of the individual running a game and playing in a game has a huge impact on that game and is a key factor to consider when choosing, designing, or playing a game.