Monday, January 6, 2020

Strange, Dangerous, and Inhuman: The Fey and Fairie

When I was a boy I loved fairy tales. Jack and the Beanstalk, Puss in Boots, Rumpelstiltskin - I devoured all of it. My fascination that there was a strange and magical world full of fantastic creatures just beyond my senses drove the imagination of a young boy who was forced to stay inside due to childhood illness. It was no wonder that I would later develop what has become a lifelong passion for fantasy, mythology, and role-playing games.

As I grew older, I became more interested in fairy tales - but in their original forms. The truly strange and unnerving fairie stories of the Brothers Grimm and the like. This lead to an interest in the mythology of the British Isles and what are sometimes called the Fair Folk. They were magical and powerful, beautiful and terrible, and above all they enchanting. It was only natural that the Fey would feature prominently in The Hero's Journey 2e.
Tesh, Changeling Warrior

Because of its roots in British folklore and Celtic mythology, the Fey are more present in The Hero's Journey than in more traditional fantasy role-playing games. In fact, right from character creation, players have the opportunity to take up the role of a Fey character through the Changeling lineage. But make no mistake, this lineage is no shapeshifter. A Changeling in The Hero's Journey is a strange being that has been left behind from the realm of Fairie in place of a mortal child stolen long ago. Though life in the mundane world has muted their strange nature, it is still ever-present and they are almost always regarded as vagabonds, miscreants, or cursed by most "civilized" people. But their Fey nature grants them some unique benefits which range from being ever so slightly out of touch with the flow of time to the ability to remain unnoticed and ignored by mortal eyes.

In addition, The Hero's Journey features a myriad of Fey creatures in Chapter Eight: Menagerie. Each of these creatures is designed to cleave very lose to the folklore that inspired the game. Kobolds are not cowardly trap-smithing lizard-dogs. They are tiny wizened men that dwell in the deep places of the earth, guiding and condemning underworld travelers with their strange knocking. Fey Cats are not panthers that cast strange illusions, but innocent seeming felines that will suck the soul from a mortal body as it sleeps. And a Fey Queen is as beautiful and terrible as the season she commands and all who comes into her presence know only fear and awe.
A kobold, passing between the deep places of the earth
 as it returns to its hidden city of stone. 

Magic itself is also infused with the energy of Fairie, particularly illusions and phantasms. All deceptive magic has ties to the realm of Fairie, for they are the masters of power and perception with little heed for the constants of the Mortal Realm. Wizards and bards that dare to dabble in the magic of the Fair Folk may find themselves making promises to fairy ladies and fey lords in return for magical knowledge, only to be bound forever by the unintended consequences of a promise.

By the same token, the strong presence of fairies and their ilk by no means mandates their inclusion in a Narrator's legendarium. They are simply tool in the wardrobe to color the adventures being told. That being said, it is my firm belief that the strong presence of the Fey in The Hero's Journey 2e can create a gaming that is both at once familiar and deeply unsettling -  just like any good fairy story.

The Hero's Journey, Second Edition goes live on Kickstarter on January 7th, 2020. All art in this blog post is by Nic Giacondino and appears in the game's core rule book. Art is owned by Barrel Rider Games, Copyright 2019.
A Fey Queen, vain and glorious, entertaining the affections of
a Fairie Dragon.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Bonds of Fellowship: The Importance of the Group

Tabletop role-playing games are a group activity. It's a group of (usually) three or more people sitting around a table, working together to collaboratively share an experience that all present will enjoy. Often this experience involves overcoming an adversary or accomplishing a difficult task. More importantly, most folks who sit down to play RPGs together are friends - and if they're not, after a few sessions of play, they're likely to become friends. That's one of my favorite things about tabletop RPGs. It creates a shared experience for all involved, a shared memory, and often a shared sense of victory and accomplishment.

In the case of The Hero's Journey 2e, many of the sources which inspired the game are stories about a group of friends. Whether it's the classic Company of the Ring from The Lord of the Rings, the brotherly bond of Pug and Thomas in Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar Saga, the unlikely friendship of Willow Ufgood and Madmartigan in Willow, or the iconic Companions of the Dragonlance series, none of these stories would resonate as they do without those bonds of friendship. As such, The Hero's Journey 2e has several rules to reinforce this theme.

Tucker, Human Yeoman, protecting
a dear friend in battle

One of its new Archetypes, the Yeoman, is entirely built around this concept. Mechanically speaking, a Yeoman is a supporting Archetype and functions primarily to empower other characters. Thematically, this is done through the use of their Promise ability. At the beginning of each day, the Yeoman declares a promise to one (or more, at higher levels) other player characters (or important NPC) and as long as the two remain within close proximity, the character (or characters) which have been chosen as the beneficiary of the Promise ability receive bonuses. In addition, should a character under a Yeoman's Promise ability become injured or wounded, the Yeoman becomes a truly fierce opponent, gaining Advantage on attack rolls and other abilities. In short, a Yeoman is the heart of an adventuring company.
Tucker, Willow, Flynn, Bandoras, Evelyn, Tesh,
Puckstone, and Kara relaxing around the campfire.

Secondly, while traveling on the road or resting at an Inn, the group can choose to Relax Around the Campfire. This action allows characters to enjoy the company of their fellow heroes and draw upon the strength of those shared good times to find strength of heart in dark times. In short, successfully Relaxing Around the Campfire grants a character Advantage to any one Saving Throw of their choice the next day. The bonds of friendship are strong indeed and can see heroes through the darkest times.

Finally, Chapter Seven: Running the Game features a section on creating player characters that begin play with a reason for those characters to be bound together in their adventures. There is little place for the "lone wolf" character in The Hero's Journey 2e and no one is an island. In short, it is our friends who will give us the strength to survive the horrors we must confront - and that is a theme that has resonated in legends through to the modern day because it is as timeless and universal as friendship itself.

The Hero's Journey, Second Edition
 goes live on Kickstarter on January 7th, 2020. All art in this blog post is by Nic Giacondino and appears in the game's core rule book. Art is owned by Barrel Rider Games, Copyright 2019.
Heroes standing together against the evils of the world

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Courage is There For the Taking: Despair in The Hero's Journey 2e

In most fairy tales and high fantasy stories that inspired The Hero's Journey, all the protagonists had one thing in common: They were afraid. They had moments of doubt and terror. They stood against terrible, impossible foes and (at least at first), they felt helpless or outright ran away. In The Lord of the Rings we see it over and over again. It's a key plot point in what makes dragons dangerous in the Dragonlance novels. And fairy tales, well they're just full of fearful things. After all, many of them where written specifically to frighten children into behaving!

To that end, The Hero's Journey 2e has a mechanic called Despair and characters will sometimes be called upon to make a Despair Saving Throw. But Despair is more than just a "It's a big scary monster, run away" mechanic. Fear and weariness are often part of any great journey worthy of tale or song. Whether it's crossing a Blighted Land or suffering the terrible heartache that comes with the death of an dear friend and boon companion. All of these are part of Despair and all of them play a role in The Hero's Journey 2e.

In addition, every fantastic creature in The Hero's Journey 2e has a Despair Rating. Typically this ranges from 1 to as high as 15, though it can be higher. The more fantastic, more powerful, more overwhelmingly evil such a creature is, the higher its Despair Rating. So, a goblin might only have a Despair Rating of 1, while a horrific Death Knight has a 13. Some creatures have extraordinarily high Despair Ratings not because they inspire fear, but because they inspire awe. None more beautiful and terrible than they Fey Queen with her Despair Rating of 15.
Behold the majestic terror that is the Death Knight.

When the player characters encounter a creature with a Despair Rating five higher than their level, they must make a Despair Saving Throw. Certain Lineages or Heirlooms may grant bonuses or penalties to this Saving Throw. If the Saving Throw fails, the character suffers Disadvantage on all Saving Throws and attack rolls made while in the presence of the source generating the Despair. They are literally crippled by fear.
Tesh, Bandoras, and Willow cross a desolate realm bereft of hope.

But dangerous creatures aren't the only thing that causes Despair. If a character is travelling across a blasted landscape of unnatural evil, it can take its toll and may impose a Despair Saving Throw after an extended period of time. The sheer evil that infuses that Blighted Land seeps into their soul and begins to drain away hope and valor.

Finally, if a player character witnesses the death of a loved one or another player character, they must also make a Despair Saving Throw. Adventures sometimes have dire costs and witnesses the violent or tragic end of dear friend can weaken the resolve of even the most hardy warrior, after all.

Surrounded by death and carnage, Tucker tends to
his wounded friend Tesh.

The Despair rules are present for two reasons. They reinforce that fear is a part of any hero's journey and that, more importantly, it can be overcome. From a mechanical standpoint, a creature's Despair Rating can be used as a measure by Narrator's as to how dangerous a foe is against a group of player characters - though some dangerous beasties that specialize in fear may have surprisingly high Despair Ratings compared to their actual threat level.

Most importantly, fear and Despair never actually remove character agency. Players are at a literal Disadvantage when under the effects of Despair, but they are never unable to act -- no matter how impossible the odds may be. Completely removing player agency is something I as a game designer try to avoid whenever possible. The challenge faced by a player character may seem overwhelming and impossible to overcome, but they should always be given the chance to try...
Kara, with no more than courage of heart and a blade of steel
faces off against a Lord of Flame and Shadow.

The Hero's Journey, Second Edition
 goes live on Kickstarter on January 7th, 2020. All art in this blog post is by Nic Giacondino and appears in the game's core rule book. Art is owned by Barrel Rider Games, Copyright 2019.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Forged in Legends: Magical Items in The Hero's Journey 2e

One of my biggest pet peeves in so many fantasy roleplaying games is the "upgrade factor" of magical items. In traditional D&D-style roleplaying games, characters are pretty excited to find a magic item - at least at first. A +1 Sword is awesome and they're thrilled to find it! That is... until they find a +2 Sword. Then the once coveted magical blade gets cast by the wayside as little more than obsolete technology that's either sold off for gold or simply left by the wayside. Perhaps worse is that when a weapon is described in mere terms of being a "+1" or "+2" weapon, it loses all sense of mystic. It's simply a mathematical improvement over its predictor. In essence, these two factors make magical items the worst thing they could possibly be: Mundane.

Magic items should be part of a character's mystique, part of who they are. They shouldn't be a tool to be discarded when a better one comes along. That mindset undercuts the very nature of magic by removing the fantastic and the sense of wonder. Yet, as characters grow in power they're going to want magic equipment that is more able to handle the challenges they face.

The Hero's Journey attempts to avoid this problem through the use of Myth Points, Aspects, and Heirlooms. Myth Points are earned each time a character gains a level. Every level earned means the character earns one new Myth Point. So at second level, the character earns their first Myth Point, at third they earn their second Myth Point, and so on. Additional Myth Points can be earned by specifically questing for them and performing heroic feats that are... well... worthy of myth.

Aspects are descriptors applied to weapons, armor, and shields. So you might have a Feycraft sword, a Valiant shield, and a Renowned set of armor. An item earns its Aspect or Aspects by the owner spending any Myth Points they've earned to permanently infuse the item with that Aspect. But characters can't select any old Aspect. They have to earn, through play, the Aspect they want. So if a character slew a Goblin King and saved a village, they could choose to apply the Aspect of Goblin Bane to their axe. Or if their shield saved them from the grievous blow of that same Goblin King, they might choose to apply Goblin Bane to their shield. Want a Dwarf-Forged weapon? Well, find a dwarf to reforge your sword. Itching for a Feycrafted shield? Well, you might have to cut a deal with the Fey...
Some example Aspects

Heirlooms are a bit more miscellaneous in nature. The Hero's Journey, Second Edition core book includes over thirty Heirlooms to serve as examples for creating your own to suit your legendarium. It is a magical item that is neither a weapon, a shield, nor a suit of armor that has gained magical properties through legendary deeds committed by an individual using the item or by a its valued place within a Lineage's culture and/or history. So, for example, dwarves as a people may know the secret of crafting Fireworks, but Bingo's Book of Rhymes and Riddles was written by a famous halfling adventurer and its pages sometimes contain surprising answers to fit just the puzzler perplexing perturbed player characters. Using these Heirlooms as guidelines, player characters and Narrators are free to create new and unique items to suit their own legendariums as the story unfolds!

This also means that every magical item a player character finds has a rich history and is not something simply to be disposed of. Magic is rare, fantastic, and flows through the history of The Hero's Journey - it's something far greater than simple "pluses" to a stat.
An example Heirloom

The Hero's Journey, Second Edition goes live on Kickstarter on January 7th, 2020. All art in this blog post is by Nic Giacondino and appears in the game's core rule book. Art is owned by Barrel Rider Games, Copyright 2019.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Keeping Wizards Magical: Wizards in The Hero's Journey 2e

Evelyn, Human Wizard
Wizards as portrayed in the the works that inspired The Hero's Journey are characters like Merlin, Gandalf, Raistlin, and Pug. When a wizard enters a room, people notice. People slink back a bit. People are in awe of the magic they wield. But the reality of playing most traditional fantasy roleplaying games always fell short of that for me. Sure, on paper they were described that way - but when it came time to play the character itself you often found (particularly at low levels of play), that you were more of a liability than an asset. You were no fearsome arcanist walked from legend into reality - you were a fragile glass cannon who might be useful if you happened to have prepared just the right spell for just the right moment. Creative and experienced players learned to work around this through clever use of spells, often in ways they weren't intended. But the truth of the matter was that playing an arcane spellcaster usually was an exercise in patience and (often) frustration. That being said, those who did remain patient (and alive) would rise to become earth-shattering masters of magic capable of shaping reality to their will. But until then, hide behind the guy with the biggest shield and hope for the best.

I wanted to take a minute to talk about Wizards and magic spells in The Hero's Journey 2e. They do find their basis in the traditional spellcasters depicted above, but there are significant and important changes. First and foremost, a Wizard either knows a spell or does not know a spell. End of story. It's not memorized, nor does it require a book from which it must be prepared. Instead, a Wizard is limited in the number of spells they can cast each day before needing to rest - at least in most cases.

The spells that a wizard casts are also different from traditional fantasy RPGs, though many elements are familiar. As an example, this is the spell known as Errant Pilgrim.

When a character casts Errant Pilgrim, they choose one of the three effects described above at the time they cast the spell. So, even if Errant Pilgrim is the only spell they know, there is still flexibility in that single spell. Each spell in The Hero's Journey 2e is linked thematically. Errant Pilgrim has obvious nature themes, particularly those that relate to travel and observation. Stand Against the Adversary is themed around protection from and the defeat of evil foes. Breathed in Silver is centered around illusion and fey enchantment. By binding the spells in this thematic fashion, it allows players to create a character who's Archetype is Wizard, but select spells to give them a more thematic flavor without creating additional Archetypes. So if you want to play a nature-focused Wizard who calls themselves a druid, you might select Errant Pilgrim, Harkening of the High Hawk, and Friend of Birch and Beast for your spells.

Evelyn taps the essence to
cast Fire Both Bright & Sacred
Moreover, Wizards are not without options once they've expended their daily allotment of spell by Tapping the Essence. Tapping the Essence to cast an Apprentice Level spell inflicts 2d6 points of damage on a Wizard - a serious risk that can kill them. They're literally ripping their own essence apart to draw the magical energy necessary to cast a spell. But, even if it does kill the Wizard, the spell is successfully cast - because going out in a blaze of glory is cool. Wizard can always choose to cast any spell they know after they've expended their daily allotment of spells by Tapping the Essence - whether it's an Apprentice, Journeyman, or Master spell

Also, because each Lineage offers a character a few additional weapon choices Wizards are not limited to the traditional "staff and dagger" weapon restrictions - but nor are they martial masters by any stretch of the imagination.

Finally, and most importantly I think, to keep Wizards rare in The Hero's Journey 2e, a character must have an Insight of 15 to even qualify for the class. Few have the mental discipline to wield the arcane arts masterfully. A Bard may occasionally dabble in Apprentice-level spells, but only Wizards ever learn Journeyman or Master level spells. They are the true artisans of enchantment -- feared and awed, as they should be.

The Hero's Journey, Second Edition goes live on Kickstarter on January 7th, 2020. All art in this blog post is by Nic Giacondino and appears in the game's core rule book. Art is owned by Barrel Rider Games, Copyright 2019.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

I'm Going On An Adventure: Writing Adventures for The Hero's Journey

So, with the impending Kickstarter for The Hero's Journey, Second Edition set to begin on January 7th, 2020, I'm hard at work on supporting material in the hopes that the funding is wildly successful and folks genuinely want to play the game. But writing an adventure for The Hero's Journey is a bit different from writing a traditional fantasy module. As I was writing The Hero's Journey, I tried to emphasize that while combat was an element of the game, it was not a strong focus an should not be the first solution in a group's repertoire. In fact, combat should be the last option. When swords get drawn and battle is joined then circumstances must be dire.
Tesh, Changeling Warrior, locked in combat with a Redcap

To this end, as I'm penning these adventures (yes, I'm writing several) I decide to break from traditional fantasy RPGs and not list a recommended level. The world of The Hero's Journey is dangerous, regardless of your level. That's already implied by the fact that characters do not see a huge increase in their Endurance, even when they reach high levels of play. It's more akin to "I can get his by a sword two or three times an probably not die" instead of the more traditional route of "I can fall a hundred feet and keep on swingin' without any problem."

As an example, a 10th level Warrior with a Resolve of 18 that rolled maximum Endurance at 2nd and 3rd level would still only have an Endurance of 50. By contrast, the bite of an Elder Wyrm does 4d10 points of damage. This means that the mightiest Warrior in history, a literal living legend, could most definitely survive ONE bite from an Elder Wyrm. A second bite (or a swat from the other claw and tail attacks it gets in the same round) would almost certainly kill that same Warrior. This also makes a 10th level Wizard that casts Wreathed and Consumed can do between 10 and 60 points of damage to everyone in a 20 foot radius. A genuinely cataclysmic explosion. And that's not to speak of the mind an reality altering powers of the Fey...

So, as you can see, combat is deadly in The Hero's Journey. But strange creatures have no "alignment," and have their own reasons for acting as they do then roleplaying becomes the most valuable tool in a character's bag of tricks. Conan cleaves through countless foes with a swing of his axe. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser face off against half a dozen wizards at the gates of Lankmar. But when Tristan crosses into Stormhold, he rarely uses his sword. In Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship runs from most combat encounters. When Bilbo faces off against the spiders of Mirkwood he uses hit and run tactics to distract them -- not to face them in battle. The clever hobbit doesn't even think to try to kill the dragon outright. It's not that these things are impossible, it's that slaying a dragon or felling a giant in The Hero's Journey is a genuinely legendary and requires genuinely legendary planning, skill, and even luck.

Tucker (Human Yeoman), Flynn (Half-Elf Bard), Bandoras (Halfling Burglar),
and Evelyn (Human Wizard) are about to have a very bad day...

Given that in traditional fantasy roleplaying adventures a recommended level is usually provided to gauge the viability of combat encounters, it seems at odds to name a recommended level when writing adventures for The Hero's Journey. Combat is rare and deadly in The Hero's Journey, regardless of character level. It is the stuff of legendary songs or sorrowful laments. That goes beyond a character's level and permeates the entire essence of the game. Be clever. Be resourceful. Be diplomatic. Be heroic. Your sword when all else has failed, not as the first solution to a problem.

On the other side of that Narrators running The Hero's Journey shouldn't rely too much one combat. A single tense battle or a few small combats to build drama can be useful, but if your game turns into a meat grinder of character, then your players will never get invested in either their characters or your legendarium. Use combat sparingly to keep the inherent drama of its presence high and when players use a quick wit or clever turn of phrase to avoid bloodshed, then that is to be commended. A hero is not measured by the body count they leave in their wake.

So the adventures I write for The Hero's Journey will have no "recommended level." Instead they will tell stories inspired by folklore and heroic fantasy literature. Players will need to rely on more than their weapons and spells to solve problems. They will need to be of stout heart, quick mind, and perhaps, just a bit lucky... but then again, what hero hasn't been saved by these things more often than not?
Bandoras and his lucky Rabbit's Foot

The Hero's Journey, Second Edition goes live on Kickstarter on January 7th, 2020. All art in this blog post is by Nic Giacondino and appears in the game's core rule book. Art is owned by Barrel Rider Games, Copyright 2019.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Old School Essentials: Review

I remember when B/X Essentials first showed up on the OSR scene, and to be honest I was really pretty skeptical. I thought "Oh, this is literally just a reprinting of B/X. That's it. What's the point?" In hindsight, I was outright dismissive. I mean B/X is my favorite version of D&D, and I had Labyrinth Lord, so when B/X Essentials showed up on the scene I wrote it off pretty quickly. And then it started to get released across multiple books instead of being one collected rules set. More over, these books were not released at the same time. I was like "This feels like a really blatant cash grab. Why are people buying into this?" I was particularly disappointed because thus far Necrotic Gnome and its founder Gavin Norman had made some really solid stuff, so for him to seem to be dipping into what looked like a nostalgia fueled cash grab really felt like a damn shame.

Still, the hype around B/X Essentials continued to grow in a slow, but steady way that you couldn't help but notice. Then, Necrotic Gnome announced they were going to be doing a Kickstarter to do high-quality print versions of this same game, which would now be known as Old School Essentials (a much better title). I'd heard several people I respect saying they liked the game, though none of this buzz really said why people liked it. Were they just swept up in nostalgia? Still, many voices I respected were singing the game's praises, so I was willing to give it a shot. I don't normally do Kickstarters, simply because they don't allow for PayPal, so I contacted Gavin and asked if I could PayPal him directly to get in on the Old School Essentials Kickstarter. He said that there was really no need (at that point the game had funded, though the campaign was still active) because it would be available soon after fulfillment was complete via the Necrotic Gnome web store. Great. That's easy-peasy.

Over 1000% over funding goal! Wow!
And then I forgot all about Old School Essentials as life swept me down new roads. Real life duties, a new partnership with Gallant Knight Games, several freelance gigs, and my own projects all combined to drive the game out of my brain space. That was before Noah Green and his infernal Christmas present.

Noah a man who has grown from a fan of Barrel Rider Games into a genuine friend. This year for Christmas he bought me a few of the Old School Essential PDFs. Well, that was it. Finally, I had to face the game for myself, with my own two eyes. What was the big damn deal about another retro-clone?

The big damn deal is that Gavin Norman has constructed a game that is designed specifically towards active playability. Old School Essential's genius lay in its layout and formatting. It is designed to keep play at the table fast and easy. Rules are clearly expressed and easy to understand. More over, page-flipping is all but a thing of the past. At no point in the text do you need to start dancing across the book to find relevant information. All of the information on the classes is spread across two pages, so when the book is open everything is at your finger tips. Same design applies to everything else in the book. Spells, monsters, magic items, gear - it's all presented with the active purpose of keeping game play going so you don't have to stop because a rule is confusing or because you need to flip through pages to find a clarification. In its presentation, in its layout and formatting, Old School Essentials is sheer genius because this is an element so often overlooked by so many publishers and game designers. It is an overlooked way to keep the game moving at an enjoyable pace.

That is why the game is broken across six books. Playing a fighter? Well, you know what you need is in the classes book. Playing a magic-user? All your spells are gonna be in the spells book. Looking for treasure? You guessed it -- all that's gonna be in the treasure book. What's more, those who prefer a single volume version (like myself) can get their hands on that just as easily. Even better? The product quality is astounding. All the books are hardcover with thick, quality paper. They're built to last. No print-on-demand "middling to average" quality here. These are build to last for years of actual use.

The game's not perfect by any means. The art is inconsistent in quality - though I find that lends itself well to the 1980s charm as an homage to the original Basic/Expert D&D and it being a reprint of that game, it has all the inherent flaws of its mechanics. But it is a perfect presentation of that rules set and as such, it has taken its place as my single favorite retro-clone on the market today. I can't recommend it enough.

If you're interested in grabbing Old School Essentials for yourself, head over to the Necrotic Gnome website, where you can grab the Old School Essentials Box Set (which contains Core Rules, Genre Rules, Cleric & Magic-User Spells, Monsters, and Treasure - each in an A5-sized hardcover in a quality box) or the Old School Essentials Rules Tome (a compiling of all the box set material into a single A5-sized hardcover). I can't recommend these products enough if you're a fan of Basic/Expert D&D and it looks like this will be serving as my go-to old school rules set in the future.