Monday, November 10, 2014

A Gaming Table Far, Far Away...

(Disclaimer: This started out as a review of Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars: Age of Rebellion Role-Playing Game and turned into a bit more of a retrospective on my experience with Star Wars RPGs in general.)

A long time ago, at a gaming table far, far away I entered the gaming hobby with West End Games' 1987 Star Wars: The Role-Playing Game. RPGs had been this exotic collection of wild art and magical theorms up until then. They were reserved for people like my brother, who to my 9 year old mind, knew everything. I didn't know what a half-elf, balor, or a ranger was and there was no way I was ever going to be able to calculate a THAC0 or know the difference between a d8 and a d10.

But Star Wars? Star Wars I knew. I'd been watching those films for as long as I could remember and to this day have fond memories of sitting on the living room floor watching A New Hope over and over again on Betamax. So when I saw the Star Wars RPG on the shelves, I knew I'd just taken my first steps into a larger world. What's more, it used only six-sided dice. I understood those too! I'd been using those for normal board games for almost as long as I'd been watching Star Wars! This game was perfect!

I spent hours pouring over that book. It all clicked. It all made sense. It was the world that was my first home away from home. I only had one other friend who had interest in role-playing games at that age, so we played Star Wars over and over again. Each time he'd try out a new template. Mercenary, Bounty Hunter, Minor Jedi - whatever. We just had fun running around in the universe. It was pure fun.

That was before the dark time. Before the d20. Before the prequels. When Wizards of the Coast got the license for Star Wars I was excited. Not as excited as when I was young, but I was pleased. Star Wars was coming back to the gaming table and that was a good thing in my mind. I thought I run it just as well as d6. I was wrong.

It just didn't work. The free-wheeling, light hearted galaxy that I'd spent so many hours in was bogged down in charts, classes, and countless feats. Instead of dedicating long campaigns to actually earning the right to call yourself a Jedi, it seemed like lightsabers were handed out like party favors. As one of my friends at the time put it, it was "Star-D&D," and much to my own pain, he was right. After d20 Star Wars, we got Saga Edition, which came closer to capturing the feel of Star Wars but didn't quite get it right. Characters were more than skilled - they were god-like. I knew that things just weren't working when I took a 3rd level Jedi and was capable of throwing starfighters through the sky using the Force that there was a problem.

Again, years passed and my gaming life continued to plod on. It had been 25 years since I made Alex Goldenstar, my first Minor Jedi, back in 1987 and as far as I was concerned my Star Wars gaming was, for the most part a thing of the past. I still held on to my Star Wars RPG d6 core book, but more from nostalgia than anything. I'd only had one opportunity to play in those two and a half decades, but was forced to abandon that campaign after only a few sessions due to real life obligations. (If it matters at all it was a helluva good time and I miss playing Galen Thrace, Youngling Survivor).

So in 2013 Fantasy Flight Games announced they were releasing Edge of the Empire, the latest incarnation of Star Wars for the gaming table. I was skeptical, but hopeful. FFG does very high quality stuff and I love their Lord of the Rings living card game. In fact, I'd never regretted a single purchase I'd ever made from Fantasy Flight. But, that being said, you get what you pay for with FFG and their products are not cheap in production quality or price. So, when it was announced that Edge of the Empire was going to be $60 dollars for the core rule book, plus another $15 for a set of custom dice I decided to give it a pass. Sure, the idea of focusing your Star Wars RPG specifically on the criminal element was intriguing (and in my mind, very smart on the part of FFG), I just couldn't justify spending that much money on another Star Wars RPG.

Besides, my faith in Star Wars had waned. After years of watching the EU Machine crank out crap that ranged from extra-dimensional beings to aliens from beyond the galactic border who were not part of the Force and then being subjected to a Prequel trilogy that was little more than an 8 hour long special effect with a licensing option to produce toys, I just didn't believe in Star Wars anymore. The only good thing to come out of the franchise since West End Games had lost the license was the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. It featured an Anakin Skywalker who was actually a likable swashbuckler and brought that "pulp serial" feeling back to Star Wars. Yeah, it was pretty darn good - but even a broken clock is right twice a day.

But then something changed. When George Lucas sold his Galactic Empire to Disney, there was a new hope in the stars. I knew with this cataclysmic event we'd undoubtedly get announcements from Disney that there'd be new films, new tie-ins, new merchandise. "Sure," I thought cynically, "they've got to keep that money machine printing." Still, it might be good. Maybe, but probably not.

Then Disney pulled the ears of a Gundark and announced they were invalidating almost all of the Expanded Universe. With the exception of the films themselves and The Clone Wars animated series, the entire Expanded Universe was being being invalidated. The last remnants of the old era had been swept away.

Suddenly, I got excited again. I didn't have this baggage that came with being a Star Wars fan hanging off my shoulders. I didn't have to worry about a convoluted, bloated canon that made no sense. I didn't have to know the details of every single comic book or novel to keep up with the next story. It didn't make things perfect by a long shot. The prequels were still part of the canon and that's a damned shame - but I feel like that was done as a gesture of respect to George Lucas.

Which, brings me to an important aside: George Lucas did not rape my childhood. He made three bad movies. George Lucas made my childhood. He's the reason I ran around with a blanket tied around my neck swinging a wiffle-ball bat while making woosh noises. He's the reason I rode my bike a top speed between two tall buildings while pretending to fire off my proton torpedoes at just the right moment. He's the reason I walked out with my groomsmen to the Imperial March on my wedding day. George Lucas changed my life and he changed it for the better, Jar Jar Binks or no Jar Jar Binks. Thanks George.

Anyway, so the weigh of the canon I'd been tied to since all before I was born was suddenly lifted. While that gave me hope, things could still go horribly wrong. I mean the trailer for The Phantom Menace looked awesome. The reality of things... yeah, not so much.

Then I saw Star Wars: Rebels and it did something that hadn't been done since the halcyon days of West End Games - it made Star Wars fun. Holy crap, was that even possible any more? I'd forgotten that Star Wars could be fun. It was nice to be reminded.

So with my faith restored I turned again to the gaming table. I picked up a copy of the massive Star Wars: Age of Rebellion Roleplaying Game. Clocking in at over 460 pages and featuring custom dice, I was skeptical. Having spent the better part of the past five years firmly entrenched in the OSR community, I was used to short core books and simple rules. This smacked entirely too much of 3rd Edition D&D and it's glut of feats and optional rules. But FFG had always put out quality products before, so I kept the faith.

I spent over a week and a half reading the book. It is lavishly illustrated and evokes the visual feel of the Star Wars universe very, very well. Still, I wasn't liking what I was reading. Funky dice with funky symbols which required pages of explanation? Classes, Careers, Specializations and Talents? Wound Points? Strain Points? Experience Points? This did not look good. This was going to be a train wreck. I was going to be selling these books off in a month or two.

Well, then I sat down and actually applied what I read. I was able make a new character in 15 minutes. I then set to testing the funky dice by doing a mock combat against a few storm troopers. Again, things went swimmingly The Force was strong with this one. In theory, Age of Rebellion is a complete train wreck. In practice, it's fast, cinematic and fun. I'm seriously, seriously impressed.

Would I recommend FFG's series of Star Wars RPGs to a gamer? Well, that depends. If you're still rocking the old d6 West End Games and loving it, then no. Both games accomplish a similar (though not quite the same) feel in different ways. But if you're looking for a bit more cinematic and narrative license in your Star Wars table-top game, then yes FFG's game is absolutely worth it - even with the hefty price tag.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Keeping Items Magical

In most D&D-based fantasy RPGs magical items are given a simple numerical value to reflect the power of the enchantments laid upon that object. You have a Sword +1, or a Ring of Protection +2. It's simple. It's quick. It's clean.


It's also supremely boring. Magic is by its nature, an exotic thing that exists outside the norm. It is meant to evoke fear, inspiration, and most of all wonder. Magic is, in most fantasy settings, a mystical force of nature that is inherently part of the world.
So when magic items are reduced down to simple numeric values, they become little more than power tools to enhance a character. They become, in effect, disenchanted. They lose their mystique and, well, their magic. This has always bothered me about D&D magic items because it creates a revolving door. Why bother holding on to a measely +1 sword when you've found a bright new +3 sword?

That has always bothered me because the creation of magic items can take years, thousands of gold pieces in resources, exotic components, and the efforts of a powerful magic user. This means that one is not going to create a magic item without a specific purpose and where there is a purpose there is a specific story.

In my mind, this means that every permanent magic item should have some kind of story or background to it. This gives the object a place in the history of the world and makes it more than a simple +1 weapon. Now, it's all fine and good for the referee to know some basic history on these magic items, but that doesn't do much for a player. However, if players can discover even a snippet of this background they're more likely to recognize the value of this item because it's gone from being "another magic sword" to being a "historic artifact."

Excalibur isn't remember because it's a "+5 Holy Avenger." It's remembered because it's the sword of King Arthur, kept in the stewardship of the Lady of the Lake and is the symbol of all that is noble about the Knights of the Round Table. The One Ring isn't just a Ring of Invisibility, it's got a rich history that has influenced the fate of Middle-earth. A lightsaber isn't just a "laser sword," it's a symbol of the fallen glory of the Jedi Order. Harry Potter's Marauder's Map isn't just a creative use of scrying magic - it is a gift from Fred and George Weasley and was used by his own father before them. These objects are invested in the history of their settings and thus invite players to invest themselves in both the world and to care about the magic imbued in them because that magic has had an impact on their world.

"I solemnly swear I am up to no good."

This is all well and good, but as players level up their characters, they're going to want better loot. So how does a referee balance that sense of depth and history in their campaign with the statistical improvement of the gear that players carry while they level? Personally, my preferred method is to actually modify the treasure hoards found in dungeons. Remove certain magic items that are more powerful than the characters currently have, but in return discuss with those players the option of increasing the power of their chosen magical items. So that +1 mace they got at 2nd level is a +3 mace at 7th level, or even a Mace of Disruption at higher levels. Perhaps these increases in the power of these objects are tied to the heroic accomplishments of the wielder so that the weapon grows in power as the legend of the character also grows.

In short, magic items are more than just simple modifiers on a sheet to a mundane object. They're historic artifacts that have lived through the ages of the world or specific creations designed for a purpose; the more they are invested in your world the more the player characters will be invested. They should be treated as such, and not just pawned off when it's time to divide up the next pile of loot.

Gandalf discovers the ancient sword of King Turgon of Gondolin

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review: Dungeons and Dragons (5th Edtion)

Yep. It's time to finally address the elephant in the room. The giant in the industry. I'm speaking, of course of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition. The game which started it all has been reborn from the ashes of the debacle that was Fourth Edition.  I have to admit that I went into 5th Edition with a negative bias. The previous incarnation of D&D just turned me off in every way possible. Overly streamlined, entirely too high-fantasy - it just didn't feel like the game I had come to know and love over my life as a gamer. So when they announced play-testing had begin for 5th Edition, I was skeptical to say the least.

Well, I'm not afraid to say it: I was wrong.

D&D 5th Edition is a very good game. It's approachable to new gamers, yet offers depth enough for experienced players to enjoy playing. It's cleaned up, well executed and looks good - except for that hideous Halfling art (but I digress). Wizards of the Coast has created a game that's modular. It's as complicated or simple as you want it to be, to a reasonable degree.

By the time a player selects their race (and sub-race), class and background, they've got a solid idea of exactly what kind of character they're playing and who exactly that person is - which is great. As a gamer, I've always been more interested in role-playing over statistics and this does a great job of combining the two and making both aspects engaging to the gamer.

Reading over the combat rules they seem fluid and consistent and for the first time since 2nd edition AD&D combat feels genuinely deadly again. There's a legitimate risk of death when you draw your sword and I feel like that's been missing for quite a long time. Again, good stuff.

So, in short - I think D&D 5th edition is a great game that will appeal to a lot of gamers. I'd certainly play it, but I don't think I'll run it all that often. There's a critical aspect of traditional D&D that is missing for me: Resource management.

No, I'm not talking about copper counting an encumbrance management. That's an aspect of the game that's fun to only a select type of gamer - but not me. Spell casting is no longer on the Vancian "Fire and Forget" system. If your wizard memorizes a 1st level spell at the beginning of the day, he has that spell all day. Now this is cool and doesn't leave your wizard sitting around bored if he's out of spells, which has benefits of its own - but there's no sense of increased tension through a reduction of resources. To me that sense of having your back to the wall and being forced to think creatively in the face of danger is beautifully expressed in traditional Vancian magic.

But it's more than just the change in the magic system that seems a bit "off." Characters automatically get a collection of gear that includes weapons, armor and necessary gear. There's very little concern that you've not got the right tool for the task at hand. Players are given what they need and there's no sense of accountability or learning from one's own mistakes as you play the game - or at least there's less of that present. While this is a nice safety net for new gamers, it feels like it removes the opportunity for gamers to really shine under pressure. It's a subtle element of D&D that seems to have been circumvented. In short, it feels like it diminishes opportunities to have that a sense of accomplishment a player often experiences when they're back is against the wall and they overcome an insurmountable situation through their own creativity.

So, is 5th Edition a good game? Yes. Is it a great game? I'd venture to say so. Does it feel like D&D again? Absolutely. But, I think I'll stick with Labyrinth Lord, Dungeon Crawl Classics and AD&D 1st Edition. The unexpected is an important part of the game for me, and fewer things are more fun than pulling one's fat out of the fire by the skin of your teeth. Those are the stories we tell years after the campaign has ended and I think with 5th edition, there are going to be a bit less of that.

*This review is based on reading of the Player's Handbook only.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Players' the Thing: Why Gamers Matter More Than Games

Everyone's got a "worst game ever" story, and this one is mine. It's got love and loss, reckless battle, and narrow escapes. No, wait - I'm not going to sugar coat this with some pulp window dressing. This story is pretty damned dark, so you've been warned.

Somewhere around thirteen years ago I was dating a lovely young lady gamer named Clarissa. We were both in our early twenties and our relationship was built on the idle fancies and dreams of young love. But there were cracks in the ivory pedestals upon which we'd set one another. She was beautiful, yes. But she didn't engage my intellect or challenge me. I was noble, yes. But I was immature, proud and angry. We had love, though - and that was all we needed, right?

Well, not quite. You see, Clarissa had seen me destroying myself with anger. I was never physically or emotionally abusive, but I was self-destructive. I was physically injuring myself and unable to hold a job due to my own anger and pride. She asked me to seek help - professional help. And I did. I did it for the wrong reasons. I didn't do it for me. I did it for her.

During this time, we were playing in a Rifts campaign. The vast majority of these players were friends she'd known from before the time we had gotten together - which was fine. They all seemed like stand-up folks. Except for one. His name was Eric. He was smart and witty, with a quick sense of humor. He was also mean spirited and enjoyed making others the butt of his jokes. He liked reminding folks of how little they are compared to him. I did not get on well with Eric.

Now, given my own anger issues and Eric's gleeful desire to inflict petty insults on those around him, I realized that gaming with him was a Bad Idea (tm). But he was Clarissa's friend and in spite of three weeks of telling her  I didn't want to game with him, I followed her request for me to endure his slights. Whether it was, as she said, "my own over-reactions," or the ultimate trump card of "do it for her," I continued going to games with this player who only brought out all my anger and insecurities. I did it for her. I did not do it for me.

Well, the inevitable came to pass. My character (a cyber-knight named Patrick Stavenger), was rendered mentally incompitent by a critical hit to the back of the head. I believe all his mental attributes (IQ, ME, and MA) were reduced by half. So, Eric looks across table at me and a wry smile slithers across his face.

"Finally," he says with a hiss, "a character you can play on your own level."

Wow. I was cut. That was cold, brutal and downright embrassing. In front of my friends and my lady he had just blatantly insulted me and it has hurt. But I took a deep breath and sighed, letting it go. Sure, he had gotten to me - but I promised her not to get angry. To be in control. So, with that sigh I tossed my pencil on the table.

That's when Eric leaned in, his smile sharpening. "I'm sorry." He looked me straight in the eye, unblinking. "That's giving you too much credit."

Well that was it. My face twisted in anger and I just snapped at him, "Fuck you!"

That's when the shit hit the fan. With a bellow of anger, he grabbed a chest pole from a nearby set of free weights and swung it across the gaming table at me. I scrambled backwards and narrowly avoided the blow. I thought only of getting away and not getting angry. I couldn't get angry. I had promised.

So I turned my back on him and moved to leave the trailer. I heard the clatter of the gaming table tossed or broken, but I didn't look back. Get out, I told myself. Get out. That's when his arm whipped about my neck and he pulled me into a choke-hold. As he strangled the life out of me and pulled up over and over again in an attempt to break my neck, I scrambled for what to do. How was I going to get out of this without fighting back? Without being angry?

As my vision began to tunnel into darkness I did the only thing I could think of. I dropped my weight. Well, it worked. In surprise, Eric let me go. I stumbled towards the door, thinking only of escape. I didn't look back. I didn't dare waste a second.

Then I heard it: SHINK

I turned back as my hand touched the door knob to exit the trailer to see Eric being held back by three other people, his arm raised high to deliver a wicked stab at my back with a butcher knife he'd managed to grab. He was literally going to kill me.

I got out of the house. The rest of that night is still a blur. But the next morning Clarissa and all the other gamers at the table blamed me. I should know "that's just Eric's sense of humor," or "not be so sensitive." His attempt to kill me was my fault.. Well, you can imagine my sense of betrayal. All of a sudden, I was abandoned by my friends and the woman I loved.

This would lead to a rather dark period in my life. For several months I lingered in a genuine depression. But time heals most wounds, and this one is counted among them. A decade later a very dear friend of mine who I'd met some time after the Butcher Knife Incident (as I came to call it), asked me to play Rifts. Well, you can imagine my reluctance. I told him I prefered not to and told him why. I said he totally understood. Our friendship continued for many years (and still does to this day), when he asked me if I'd reconsider playing Rifts. He aid he really enjoyed gaming with me and loved to run Rifts, and asked me to have a little bit of faith in him.

So, I did. I set aside my dark memories and played Rifts. And you know what? I had a helluva good time. I still don't like Rifts. I think it's an over-blown kitchen sink setting with badly writen, inconsisent rules that are in terrible need of a re-write. The game has no internal tone or sense of purpose. It's just a hot mess. But those players I gamed with in that new Rifts game were men whom  I trusted as friends and brothers - and to this day I count each of them as friends.

I guess this long rambling story is just an example of what really matters. It's not the games we play that make the difference. Its the gamers we play with. A great group of players can make a terrible game into an absolutely magnificent experience. A great game cannot make a terrible group into a magnificent group of friends. Games are simply a vehicle for he human experience, a glue to help create a bond between people. Whether its Rifts, Dungeons and Dragons, Vampire: The Masquerade, Yahtzee, or countless other games doesn't mean a damn thing without friends to share the joy. If we can remember that, damn near any game is worth playing.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Rust Monsters and Enlightenment

Tell an adventuring party that there is a lich stowed away in a haunted castle atop a high cliff with an endless horde of undead servants between him and the player characters and they'll charge off with holy symbols raised and swords drawn. Let them hear rumor of an ancient dragon who has turned countless would-be thieves into a pile of ash before casually returning to its slumber, and they only see magical trinkets and shining jewels. In over 25 years of gaming, I've discovered two words that strike absolute fear into adventurers from Oreth to Toril, from Krynn to Mystara: Rust Monster.

Most players seem to feel like Rust Monsters are the DM's attempt to take a "cheap shot" of parting the player characters from their gear. They flail, they panic, they complain, and of course they swear.The thing is, I feel like all this malice towards the DMs who use Rust Monsters is a bit unfair. I've always felt that this monster is a perfectly valid, perfectly fair monster to use against a party - regardless of level.

Yes, they destroy precious swords and armor - even magical ones! But they're more than just an easy way to part a party from their arsenal. The true danger of a Rust Monster lay not in the creature itself, but a party's reaction to them. Rust Monsters are not, by nature, aggressive. Their attack does not even inflict any damage. The touch of their antennae destroys metal objects instantly, but causes no damage. These two traits mean that in most circumstances the party is under no obligation to fight these feared creatures. They can run away and plan an ambush, prepare ranged weapons such as slings or bows, or even cast a few magic missiles or fireballs to deal with a Rust Monster.

A Rust Monster is a creature who is so feared because he forces player characters to think outside the box. They can't simply kick in the door and attack the monster. Instead they're forced to think tactically and truly consider the nature of their current situation. In my own observations, more experienced (and level-headed) players are able to handle these creatures without too much panic. It's the players who rely on the same old song and dance when it comes to monsters that over-react.

What does this mean as a DM? This means that the Rust Monster (and other unorthodox creatures) can be used to gauge exactly how comfortable and knowledgeble your players are with their given characters, as well as how confident they are. Confidence is important, but if its untempered it can become arrogance. But when it comes to things like Rust Monsters, arrogance leads to a naked adventurer.

So, as a DM, I say go ahead and use the Rust Monster. Sure, your players will probably piss and moan - but more importantly, they might learn something about their character and themselves.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Our Bastard: Anti-Heroes in a Heroic Campaign

Old school fantasy role-playing games made only the most bare bones of moral assumptions regarding what kinds of characters the players will choose. Yes, often players choose to play characters with noble intentions or with lofty causes, but sometimes that can get a bit boring for some gamers. Perhaps you're a neutral tomb raider who's just out for fortune and glory? How can you make it work?

"You can totally trust me."

These characters options are just as valid as the more traditional heroes when it comes to fantasy gaming, but they can be difficult to incorporate these characters into a party of characters who are comprised mostly of "do gooders." To make it work requires effort on the part of all the players involved and the referee and it's something I'd like to address.

So you sit down with your fellow players and referee. Everyone else has made heroic characters off to accomplish great deeds of good worthy of song and legend. Meanwhile, you've made a character who's a little more self-interested. Maybe they want gold, or magical items, or simply to be famous. You know that at some point, you're going to put heads when it comes to a moral quandary. So does this mean you can't play a sketchy thief with a silver tongue and questionable morals just because there's a paladin and holy-rolling cleric in the party? Absolutely not.

There are plenty of famous heroes of sword and sorcery who are most certainly not good. Robert E. Howard's famous barbarian Conan is self-described as "I live. I burn with life. I love. I slay and I am content." He doesn't concern himself with the morality of his choices. Conan does what he does because it is what he desires to do. Whether its motivation via revenge (as seen in the film Conan the Barbarian), or simply that he often finds the supernatural to be offensive and in need of a good killing by his hand - those are his choices and that is all that matters to him. When I was a boy, I read a Conan serial where he stole a drunken warrior's sword. The warrior was passed out next to his blade in a stupor. Conan took the sword because he needed a weapon and he believed that any man who would not respect his weapon does not deserve to have it. Is it opportunistic? Sure. But is it malicious? No. It is what it is.

In some cases neutral player characters are often motivated by a kind of benign self-interest. They're not out to screw over anyone to accomplish their goals - but sometimes you've got to break few eggs to an omelet. The thing is, a neutral character isn't likely to just throw loyalties and friendship to the wind for the sake of what seems like a good deal. They'll take advantage of people, sometimes even their friends, but they're not total bastards - at least not most of the time.

To me, a great example of this type of neutral character is Star Wars smuggler Han Solo. He said from the beginning that he was in it to get paid. "I ain't in it for your revolution, Princess - and I'm not in it for you. I'm in it for the money." Even Indiana Jones (as seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark), says he's motivated by "fortune and glory."

"Damn right, I shot first."

So the question is, if a character can't be motivated by moral obligation to remain loyal to the party and participate in the adventure at hand, what's a referee to do? Well, first thing's first: Everyone in the game needs to sit down and discuss exactly what they're hoping to get out of the campaign. If a self-serving character who is only motivated by money is something that won't fit the campaign in any way, shape or form - well, perhaps the player should consider another type of character.

At the same time, other players shouldn't be so quick to write off that character idea. The trick is group trust and one of the biggest problems in gaming is when player characters do not trust each other. Under the blanket defense of "it's what my character would do" many characters have had their feelings. I'm calling shenanigans on that. That's self-serving excuse that's insulting to other players and the referee. Your personal validation and enjoyment of the game aren't the only thing that matter when it comes to gaming. There is no "I" in "D&D Party".

At the same time, your personal enjoyment of the game is important. So how do you balance being true to your character and not damaging other peoples' enjoyment of the game? You can be a bastard, but learn to be the party's bastard. Be the one willing to get his hands dirty where everyone else won't. Be willing to lie, backstab and double deal on behalf of the party (and sometimes without them even being aware you're doing it!). As a dear friend of mine put it, "Yeah, they're a bastard. but they're the party's bastard." Perhaps your anti-hero knows that hanging out with a bunch of do-gooders will keep his more selfish desires unnoticed, or that these tombs they're always plundering are easy money - all he has to do is tag along and occasionally get them out of a jam. After all, it sure beats working for a living!

This allows the group to maintain a sense of unified trust, and still allow for the non-heroic character to remain true to himself. If you're out for fortune and glory, ask for a larger cut of the treasure. If someone offers you a lot of money to betray the party, go to your fellow PCs and tell them you want a counter-offer. The important thing here is that the key of trust between players is maintained, because role-playing games are a social activity between friends.

So, go on - be a horrible rat bastard. Just be their horrible rat bastard.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Death and Purpose in Gaming

If you game long enough, one of your characters is going to die. In all likelihood, this is going to happen sooner, rather than later. I mean older editions of D&D have a pretty high lethality rate and there's only so much a 1st level character can do to survive. Bad choices or bad luck can contribute to a character's death and it can be quite frustrating.

Especially if you're a bard...

I'm not here to address that. My point of view is that anyone who chooses to take their first steps into a career that involves going into monster-infested caves full of traps, poison, profane magic and arcane puzzles in search of lost riches probably recognizes that they're choosing a very high-risk/high-reward profession. I'm here to talk about character death when it happens to the character you've put a few levels into, that you've crafted, invested in, and really become attached to. Because, taken at face value, it sucks. But, if you take a different point of view, you can lessen the sting of death.

Many players I've seen over the years expect their characters to survive simply because they've got "plot immunity" or that they're player characters. Somehow they think this makes them immune to death. I've met more than one player who thought a DM wouldn't kill them because "without player characters, there is no game." That's more than a big arrogant and to be honest, as a DM I always found it a bit insulting. This isn't as common among experienced OSR gamers, who recognize that early editions of D&D explicitly state that there can often be a high lethality rate - especially at low levels, and that the DM is under no obligation to fudge the dice if they render you dead.

On the other side of that coin are players who look at the characters they play as disposable. "Well, I'm going to probably die, so why bother getting invested?" I've seen players do this over, and over again. Sometimes it happens when they're frustrated at a game's high lethality (which when combined with an inexperienced player can be particularly daunting). But, to my surprise, over the years I've seen many gamers who just see characters as a piece of paper with statistics who is going to eventually catch a streak of bad luck and die pointlessly. If it dies, just make another - no real sense of investment or loss. This frustrates me as a DM, because D&D is a role-playing game, not a small-scale miniatures war game. Yes, combat is an important part of the game and its contribution is to be respected, but so is role-playing. I've seen gamers who don't even name their character. Instead, they simply call them "The dwarf fighter" or "the chaotic halfling."

The key factor is both of these flawed philosophies is that the player's view of character death is preventing them from role-playing. But the fact is death is a part of the game. The flaw I see is a perception that character death invalidates the experience of playing that character as a whole. As if none of it matters, because the character is now dead. The villages you saved? Still saved. The dragon you defeated? Not exactly gonna rise from the grave now that you've shuffled off the mortal coil. Your character may be dead, but they lived an extraordinary life, and if they're lucky they had a pretty cool death.

As a player, I love a good character death. If my character died for a purpose, then its worth it. If I was true to the character without damaging my fellow gamers enjoyment of the campaign, then I did something right. A prime example if a death that could be meaningless, but was given purpose is the death of Boromir in The Lord of the Rings.

By the dice, Boromir got bushed wacked by a bunch of orcs and eventually they just took him down. Purely based on dice, this is a pretty lame death. No one wants to go out like a punk. But, Boromir's death has more gravity because it had purpose. Boromir's player had taken the time to role-play his character with both PCs and NPCs, so they understood that character and his place within the dynamics of the party.

But, meaningful death requires a DM who is willing to work with the players. So, continuing the Boromir example, our good Captain of Gondor has just been killed by a bunch of orcs. A few rounds later some other PCs (Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli) finally reach him. The DM could easily say "Well, you see Boromir's dead body laying there, riddled with arrows."

Instead, the DM gave the players a golden opportunity. He gave Boromir a moment, a few final words, so that all of that character's role-playing paid off in one final, touching speech before he was "officially dead." So, for statistical purposes, Boromir couldn't be healed, revived, or saved. But for role-playing purposes he is given an opportunity to create closure for his character and his death will have meaning for the rest of the party.

The point is, role-playing isn't about your character living on forever. The point is to tell a compelling story and have an interactive experience that's fun for everyone. If players can try to remember that, then when their beloved character dies, hopefully they've laid the groundwork and invested the role-playing time so that it doesn't feel like their time was wasted. If DMs remember to give players opportunities to role-play and develop their characters if an early death comes, then they'll be rewarded by seeing a meaningful chapter in their campaign unfold at the table.

Remember, some of the greatest heroes out of legend end their journey with an early death. King Arthur, Sturm Brightblade, Boromir of Gondor, just to name a few. These deaths are tragic, yes - but beautiful and meaningful. These are characters we remember with a touch of sadness, but the important thing is that we remember.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Limits of the Fading Folk

So one of the common problems folks have with many games that fall under the OSR heading is the level limits imposed on non-human (sometimes called demi-human) races. In Moldvay/Cook era D&D they were a class unto themselves and limited to half as many, or fewer, levels than human classes. In 1st edition AD&D, with the exception of a few race/class combos, they had some pretty restrictive level limits as well. I wanted to throw in my two coppers regarding Demi-Humans and Level Limts because I feel like I am in the minority in that I actually like them. I'm going to discuss this primarily from the rules and limits presented in Moldvay/Cook style D&D and Labyrinth Lord, since those are my favorite OSR games. I should preface this with a fair warning, my OSR gaming is very heavily influenced by the themes, feel and style of Tolkien's Middle-earth so my point of view on the matter is filtered through that love of his world.

A halfling, dwarf and an elf walking together
(from the Brothers Hildebrant's Fellowsihp of the Ring)
According to both the Rules Cyclopedia and Labyrinth Lord rules, demi-humans have some pretty tough limits. Dwarves cap out at 12th level, Elves at 10th, and Halflings at a mere 8th level. What the hell, right? I mean they live longer than humans, so you'd presume that they could actually exceed the normal cap of 20th level (or 36th, depending on your game), right?


Let's begin with the elves, who even according to the lore of my own beloved Lord of the Rings are supposed to be powerful beyond measure when compared to the mortal races. So, why the heck can they only cast 5th level spells at best? What gives? Well, let's look at the elf class. They get to wield any weapon, wear any armor, a solid hit die, great saving throws, a strong Attack Value/Thac0, keen senses and infravsion, an immunity to ghoul touch, extra languages, and they get full access to all magic-user spells (which they cast at the rate of a standard wizard). Now, granted, they pay for that in a slowed level progression because of increased experience requirements - but still, that certainly falls into he catagory of "abilities beyond the gifts of mortal men."

"I'm kind of a big deal." -Galadriel
So, elves have all the powers of fighters, magic-users, and some extra to boot. Why do they cap at level ten? Because, by the lore of Tolkien's world, the elves are fading. Yes, they possess absolutely amazing gifts - but these pale in comparison to their former glory. Fingolfin very nearly slew an evil god in single combat when an entire host of divine beings couldn't do it! That's the kind of powers the elves once had. But that is a world that has moved on, an age that has passed. Even so, the player character elf is still exceptional by the mere fact that they are choosing to adventure. Elves are primarily concerned with their own lands and their own people, after all. In my mind, when an elf reaches name level (9th), they are expected to retire to their own lands and tend to the affairs of the their people. Elrond in Rivendell, Galadriel in Lorien, Thranduil in Mirkwood. Thus, they are no longer adventuring - but instead come to the service of their people. This, to the elvish mind is a greater and more noble thing than plundering ruined tombs and forgotten halls for petty treasure.

"Dragon shmaggin - that gold is mine!" -Thorin Oakenshield

Next we have the dwarves, who are limited to 12th level. They have all of the abilities of a fighter, plus great saving throws, infravision and various abilities regarding caverns and stonework. Unlike elves, they don't have a ridiculously increased experience point cost as they level, though it is more than most other classes. So, why are they limited? I put forth the argument that they're not really that limited. In older versions of D&D and most OSR games, after a character reaches 9th level, they no longer gain hit dice - which is a key factor in character endurance. Instead dwarves gain more hit points per level after 9th than any other class. And this is the way it should be, after all dwarves are a hardy folk are they not? This coupled with the likelihood that they already have a high Constitution which has served them well from 1st to 9th level means its entirely likely that an 11th or 12th level dwarf might have just as many hit points as a fighter well into his teen levels. Also, from the point of view of Tolkien's work, dwarves seem pretty obsessed with establishing their own kingdoms. Thorin Oakenshield sought to restore Erebor to its former glory. Balin (like Durin IV and his son Nain I) sought to free Moria from the hordes of orcs who had overwhelmed it in ages passed. This says, to me, that dwarves are looking to prepare themselves for the ultimate goal of establishing kingdoms and homes of their own. By that logic, by 12th level any self-respecting dwarf should have the resouces and followers to make such an attempt - though in the cases of all the bearded folk above, it cost them their lives. Even Gimli attempts to establish his own realm in the Glittering Caves beneath Helm's Deep in the Fourth Age.

Lastly we come to the unassuming halfling, who reaches level-cap at a mere 8th level. But let's call them what they really are: hobbits. These guys get the full weapons and armor of a fighter, along with an equal Attack Value/Thac0, great saves, a bonus to initiative and missile attacks and an amazing gift for stealth - which they can use regardless of what kind of armor they're wearing! So, yeah, like the other demi-humans, they're a cut above the standard human characters - or at least it would seem so at early levels. But, let's look at the source material to find the game logic. Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry & Pippin set out on their adventure with a specific purpose in mind. They're all looking to go "There and Back Again." They're not looking for the next dungeon to plunder, and adventuring is not a life-long career or lifestyle choice for them. They've got a job, and when they get it done they'll go home and relax. They don't have the drive to go beyond 8th level. Once the job is done, it's done. The fact that they're 1st level shows that they're already exceptional to begin with.

"Well, I'm back." -Samwise Gardner
Lastly, and equally important but often overlooked is the fact that this is an age of legend and it's fading away (according to Tolkien, at least). There will come a time when elves, dwarves, halflings, dragon, goblins and a great many other creatures of the world will fade into legend. Legend will become myth. That which should be remembered shall be forgotten. It is a world of humans, and they are rising to power. Thus, they have an increased level limit. It's an increased potential for greatness, if only they will sieze the opportunity. And they often do. But they leave in their wake the other races, who quietly disappear from the world.

Review: Sly Flourish's The Lazy Dungeon Master

Written by Michael Shea (aka Sly Flourish), The Lazy Dungeon Master is not your traditional gaming supplement. Instead of providing rules or setting material, Shea gives readers a glimpse into how to effectively prepare for a campaign for DMs who either have limited time or, as the title implies, are just not terribly motivated. (In my case, both).

Lazy DM clocks in at just shy of 130 pages. Only about half of those pages are dedicated to the author directly discussing the titular subject of the text. I have to admit, when I finished reading the first 70 or so pages and saw this, I felt a little scammed. I thought the author was padding his page count to up the price. But quite the contrary.

The big focus of Shea's material is streamlining and learning to operate on improvisational ability. He asks readers to boil everything down to a few key points and let games develop organically from there. Basically, if there's more written than can fit on a 3x5 index card, then the DM has gone overboard. While this seems like a gross oversimplification, Shea makes it work with ample examples of how this technique can work for NPCs, locations, combat encounters, and pretty much any other aspect of a campaign that a DM might want be prepping for.

Shea is clearly writing from a D&D 4th edition point of view, and uses 4e in his examples - but the material given here is general and can be applied to any adventure-focused RPG. It lends itself well to any edition of D&D as well as some other action RPGs like Star Wars, Adventure! Tales of the Aeon Society, Mutants and Masterminds, or Gamma World. I'm not sure his ideas would work for games that are more focused on character interaction, deep role-playing emersion, or political intrigue. There might be some application, but the high level of detail required for games like Vampire: The Masquerade or Song of Ice and Fire might prevent Shea's ideas from getting too much mileage here.

Shea takes distinct advantage of digital publishing, siting many other articles on the art of DMing, siting them with imbedded hyperlinks. So in a sense, you're getting a library for the cost of a single book. This is one of those really nice touches that brought some charm to this lovely little book.

The two halves of the book are broken up by a collection of 20-point charts for quick generation of NPCs, plots, locations and a few other little touches. It gives the book a touch of mechanical, at the table application, which I think would have been absent otherwise.

The second half of Lazy DM consists of interviews with the various individuals whom the author sites through out the first half of the book. This is a surprisingly fresh read, with an interview format. It takes the theory presented in the first half of the book and show how it can be applied, modified, or changed to fit the individual campaign of a DM.

Sly Flourish's The Lady Dungeon Master is available for $5.99 in ebook format on the author's website, or for $9.99 on Lulu. I'd absolutely recommend it for newer DMs, or referees with some serious time constraints who haven't found a way to make their game work. More experienced DMs might find the information in here to be things they've discovered on their own over years of gaming, but there are still some fresh ideas in here and it never hurts to take a look into the mind of another individual who takes pride in their gaming. I'd certainly give it a recommendation. It's got a light, conversational tone, and never takes an arrogant tone. The author is casual and honest and even though he wrote a book on DMing, he never presumes to be an authority. Just a gamer helping other gamers.

Darkfast Dungeons: A Kickstarter by Okumarts Games

So, David Okum, author of Advanced Classes: Ducks and owner/operator of Okumarts has recently successfully funded his new Kickstarter project called Darkfast Dungeons. It's a print and play table-top game paper miniatures game that looks pretty awesome. It's got co-op, competitive and solo play options.

In addition, it looks like it'll be highly useful for table-top RPGs, as the board tiles are modular, which lends them well to dungeon crawls. Now, Darkfast Dungeons has some pretty fantastic stretch goals so I'm just helping boost the signal. If you've got a few dollars and you want something that's both a game in its own right and will be highly used for RPG dungeon crawls, maybe you can slide a few dollars his way by backing this awesome project.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Review: Kingmaker

Kingmaker is a short adventure for Labyrinth Lord or OSRIC both written and illustrated by Eric Jones and published by Ludibrium Games. It clocks in at a mere 18 pages, including covers and OGL. It's written for 2 - 8 1st level characters. Don't let the unassuming pencil art or small page count fool you, Kingmaker has a lot of stuff crammed between those covers.

I have to say, this is one of the most original adventures I've read, especially among those written for fantasy role-playing games. Unlike almost every other adventure out there, Kingmaker manages to break the mold in so many ways. It paints, in broad strokes, an excellent backdrop upon which the story is laid. NPCs are given brief, write-ups that give the referee a strong sense of how to play them but provide the freedom to customize each individual character to their own campaign. This isn't a simple "kick in the door, kill the monster, and get the loot" adventure.

Kingmaker starts with one of the most cliche tropes for low-level characters. They're hired to serve as caravan guards. I know what you're thinking: "Ho hum, nothing new there." In a certain sense, you'd be right. But the care put into the NPCs and the setting really make this adventure feel alive. This adventure doesn't wait around for the PCs. It's a living breathing thing.

Instead of a traditional dungeon crawl or collection of "monsters atack the cavaran" cookie-cutter encounters, there's a real story here - which I'll not to spoil. Through the course of Kingmaker, players are likely to find themselves getting invested in the events around them and coming to develop real role-playing experiences that may shape the fate of both their characters and the kingdom in which the module is set. This is one of the few modules on the market that allows low-level characters to organically impact the greater arc of a nation -and that's a rare and magnificent thing.

The encounters in Kingmaker are balanced, but require characters to be intelligent and cautious. Not everything is meant to be fought and losses will occur. It really hammers home that adventures take their toll, both in terms of resources and in terms of psychological impact - and not just on the PCs. The fate of the NPCs hinges on the the actions of the player character - and with a deeper impact than that of whether or not a set of stats are reduced to zero hit points.

Kingmaker is a fantastic campaign openner, especially for gamers who are looking for something that is both tradtional and new. It doesn't have the rooted, developed central location like Brave Halfling Publishing's Larm, but instead trades that for NPCs that you can care about - and that can have a far greater impact on your campaign.

Published by Ludibruim Games, Kingmaker is available for digital download PDF for a mere $2.95 on RPGNow or DriveThru RPG and I highly, highly, highly recommend it. It was lovingly written and illustrated by Eric Jones.

Eberron's Warforged for B/X Gaming!

Over on Lee Reynoldson's awesome blog, Old School Random, he posted a B/X-Moldvay version of the Warforged. I absolutely loved it, so I decided to create  PDF of his idea (with a few touches), and post it free on Google Drive.

While Eberron is a bit of a kitchen sink setting, I always liked the Warforged, and hope that this sees use at my gaming table at some point.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Review: Haunted Halls of the Beggar King Preview

Haunted Halls of the Beggar King Preview, as stated in the title, is a PDF preview of the forthcoming module of the same name (sans the word "preview") to be pubished by GP Adventures. It is written by Ernest Gary Gygax Jr. and Benoist Poiré. The cover art is a classic painting by 19th century french illustrator Gustave Doré. The adventure is designed for a party of 3rd - 5th level characters using any of the "First Edition" old school clones, like OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord (with the help of the Advanced Edition Companion).

This 38-page PDF is billed as a preview, and that's exactly what it is - though it's quite playable and can easily be the source for several sessions of classic high adventure. It's clearly got the feel of being a "rough cut" or "first draft," but don't let that turn you away from the content - because that content is superb. When I say rough cut, I really mean it. This feels like a referee digitized out their personal adventure from a convention game and made it available for the world to see. The layout is that of a simple text document with an easily readable font and no art. There are even still a few typographical errors in the text and some misplaced stats. Given this kind of presentation, some might feel slighted by the $4.95 price tag for an unpolished product, but the content is superb. These men clearly have a deep knowledge and love of the art of the table-top role-playing game and they manage to weave a module that is both familiar in presentation and new in the threats that it presents.

Beggar King hints at being set in a larger world, but never tries to box-in a referee. Instead, it gives a kind of broad overview of what could be the background of the adventure and lets the referee make the final choices of how to implement what is presented into their own campaigns.

As I read through it, I was constantly reminded of Temple of Elemental Evil. That's not to say that Beggar King is a rip-off of T1-4, quite the contrary. It's fresh and original, to be sure - but it has the feel of a module I would have picked up from my FLGS back in the mid-80s. The fact that it achieved this feel without any art or layout to speak of screams volumes to the authors' proficiency when it comes to creating adventures. Not once do you feel like Gygax and Poiré are saying "look at us, we're so old school" or try to push the name Gygax as a selling point. Instead, they let the material speak for itself. It's almost like they're trying to intentionally avoid drawing attention to any frills to showcase - often in spite of the simplistic, rough-shot design.

The adventure itself has everything a gamer could ask for. It's a dungeon crawl to be sure, but one with depth and culture. The NPCs are there for a reason, with their own motivations and concerns. They don't just wait for some player character to kick in the door and nab the treasure over their bloody corpse. The halls of the Beggar King are a living, breathing place with mysteries that not even its inhabitants understand. Also, not every monster is there to be slain. Many can be negotiated with, and that is specifically addressed in the text. This breathes life into the module, instead of making it feel like a paint-by-numbers hack and slash fest.

Because the NPCs are smart and active, the players will need to be the same. While the challenges here are absolutely suited to characters between 3rd and 5th level, that doesn't mean they're going to be easy. Players will need to be cautious, clever, and maybe a bit lucky on ocassion - and that's how it should be. Remember kids, not every monster needs to be fought or killed, and sometimes discretion is the better part of valor! But, the rewards are worth it for the clever and brave.

Also, for the price of admission, you get a lot of dungeon. Almost 120 rooms are waiting for hardy adventurers and the surprises I found were great. From the offering plate of the Shining God to Powell Alferson, the unaware paladin, the adventure is full of diverse content that all fits together nicely. In addition to the individual rooms being filled with all manner of challenges great and small, the dungeon has no less than four factions jockeying for power. Again, the haunted hall is a living, breathing place.

The one piece of original art worth noting is dungeon map. It's a full color map that looks like it came right out of a three-ring binder. Done to look like it was designed with colored pencils, its easy to read and radiates charm. It's a real jewel.

That's not to say Haunted Hall of the Beggar King isn't without its faults, though if the reader remembers that this is a preview, a certain level of forgiveness can be offered. Again, the formatting and sometimes mislabeled or absent material may turn off gamers who expected more spit and polish - but to me the content itself more than makes up for that. One thing that I noticed was the specific absence of experience point rewards for the monsters in the adventure. While the referee can certainly look them up in whatever bestiary they might have on hand, that kind of convience is always nice. Also, this kind of thing is a necessity for some of the unique monsters featured in the dungeon. Some of the locations in Beggar King Preview says "further details on this location will be given in the full release of the product" or similar remarks. While this certainly leaves the area open for referee creativity,  it can feel a bit half-hearted to more picky readers and given that you've laid out a few bucks for the product that's understandable.

All in all, Haunted Halls of the Beggar King Preview is a solid purchase and is available for $4.95 in PDF at he GP Adventures website. It will definitely provide several nights of solid adventuring for players and referees alike, though I'd recommend to those running it that they absolutely read through it ahead of time and make notes where the text makes some sweeping statements or says info will be detailed in the full release. Because of that, I wouldn't really recommend the preview product for new referees or those looking for a "quick and easy" module. This is a glimpse into the mind of two mad masters of role-playing and it comes with a few dashes of chaos because of that. However, it's absolutely worth the effort and once it's got a bit of polish and some more solid editting to it, it has all the hallmarks of standing alongside other great mega-dungeons like Barrowmaze and Stonehell. It's got all the signs of being worthy of the name Gygax, if I can be a bit grandiose.

As a final note, this preview is does not encompass all the rooms that will be featured in the complete Haunted Halls of the Beggar King. The complete adventure will feature two additional sub-levels which are likely to be as equally vast, deadly and clever as the one featured in the preview. In addition, a surface map will also be included which will likely detail the wilderness and local area surrounding the haunted hall itself.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Review: Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay

This review has been a long time coming and my apologies for the delay. Real life responsibilities have been taking up a frighteningly large portion of my time, so I beg your pardon in this matter. Today's review is also on a huge product: Small Niche Games' Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay. This book was funded through a Kickstarter a few months back and in hindsight, I wish I had thrown a few dollars at Mr. Spahn's endeavor because the product is clearly a labor of love. Also, it's a mammoth book, clocking in at 223 pages. The cover is color while the interior is filled with black and white line art that's evokes that old school feel. This book feels like something you'd find on the shelf of the local comic shop back in '83, and that's a good thing in my humble opinion.

The city is the great metropolis of the world of Amherth, Small Niche Games' iconic setting. Think Waterdeep of Forgotten Realms fame or Palanthas from the world of Dragonlance. At least that's the vibe I got when reading through the material.

Before Spahn even gets to actually detailing the setting material, he goes out of his way to thank his Kickstarter supporters. In addition, he goes out of his way to state that the vast majority of the material found in Dolmvay is open gaming content. That means authors are free to take most of the material found and make it their own, both personally and professionally. He simply asks that publishers wishing to produce commercial material based on Dolmvay respect some of the aspects of the world of Amherth that make it unique. In short, Spahn is inviting all the tiny OSR publishers out there to come play in his sandbox. This, combined with thanking his Kickstarter supporters in the first pages of the book gives the author a sense of humility. He seems like just another guy in the table and that gives the whole book a sense of approachability.

The Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay seems built specific for the purpose of adventuring. It's not a static location you watch. It's a city where adventurers show up and change it forever. To this end, Spahn begins by briefly introducing the reader to the major groups that are the movers and shakers of the city.

The first of these is the Adventurer's Guild. Now, I have to admit, I've seen the idea of an Adventurer's Guild in other settings and frankly I've never liked it. It felt like a ham-fisted attempt to shoehorn characters into adventures. It never felt integrated into the setting - simply tacked on to give the DM an easy hook to hang their plots. Spahn avoids this by immediately integrating the Adventurer's Guild into the functionality of the city. In a massive urban environment such as Dolmvay, the city watch will actually hire out members of the Adventurer's Guild to bolster their numbers or tackle crime beyond their ability. This, to me, showed an integration. The Adventurer's Guild isn't just "there," they're a part of the city and how it operates. It gave the organization an organic feel.

The Church of Law and Order feels like the cornerstone upon which Dolmvay was built. They're a powerhouse in the city and at least as powerful as the nobility or royalty of the city. Spahn doesn't hesitate to remind the reader that the church is filled with people and people aren't always good and noble as the religion they follow. The Church is a complex beast and very politically motivated. It's definitely reminiscent of the late European or early Renaissance Catholic Church.

The Guilds of Dolmvay are similarly portrayed as a complex collection politicos who have become economically powerful enough to begin muscling in on the way the city functions. This, combined with a bit of info on the Noble Houses, the economics of the city, the upstart merchant princes and the royalty creates a political web of intrigue that allows you to add a kind of Machiavellian Game of Thrones element if you want to break up the dungeon crawls. Also, this gives player characters something to do when they hit name level and start wanting to build strongholds and gather followers.

We get a few pages on the history of Dolmvay, but it's not some endless dissertation. The author seems very clear that the setting is meant to be "in the now," as it were and that while Dolmvay didn't spring from the ground whole and full that what truly matters is the present day and the player characters.

Following the history is a brief overview of how the laws in the City of Dolmvay function, particularly crimes and their punishments. I have to admit the punishments seemed draconian, but realistic and seemed that some of the harsher punishments might help prevent more aggressively minded PCs from running rampant across the city. Rules for indentured servitude and trial by combat were particularly interesting.

The Dolmvay currency is given a few paragraphs, which continue to show how the Xannen Empire continues to permeate the world of Amherth, even to this day. The holidays and calendar year are given and they are dominated by Saints Days of the Church of Law and Order that are parallels to many modern holidays of the real world. At first I didn't like how much of the material in Dolmvay is a slightly altered or changed aspect of the real world, but it grew on me and I realized that it makes it feel more approachable to new gamers. After all, Middle-earth uses the modern calendar, doesn't it?

Finally, we get to the real meat of the Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay: The people. A city is defined by its citizens, and Dolmvay has no lack of those. You get all kinds of wonderful details. Rumor tables, styles of dress, traditional greetings, body language and gestures common amongst the citizenry, common phrases (including insults, of course!) - these are the pages when the city really seems to finally come alive.

Now that the city has its people, we need to know where and how they go about their business. Dolmvay continues to come alive right off the page in this section. The city itself is divided into two huge wards, separated by the Dolm River which cuts through the heart of the city. Each of these wards has numerous districts and each district is given extensive information. Countless locations and NPCs are provided, along with general details on often overlooked details like whether or not parts of the city are lit at night to water and sanitation. The amount of information given in these pages really makes Dolmvay feel like a genuine, lived-in city. It reminds me of Skullport, Undermountain and City of Splendors and Volo's Guide to Waterdeep, all wrapped into one. The amount of material presented here is enough for several campaigns worth of adventure.

Next we get a break down of different factions within the city and some stock NPCs associated with them. From military organizations to demi-human activist groups to religious cults, Dolmvay is definitely a diverse place with a great many groups each out for their own ends. Then we get several pages of different businesses that operate in the city. Mo specific details are given on individual business are given, only the types of businesses that operate within the city. This is done, I believe, to allow the referee to customize things to suit their individual campaigns.

Now, what does get a little more detail are the inns and taverns of Dolmvay. Spahn goes into the average price of food, drink and lodging in the city as well as providing some local culinary delights and favorite beverages. These kinds of little touches are what keep the city alive and vibrant. It's generic enough to easily fit into almost any campaign, but unique enough to feel real. The reader is provided with a dozen example inns and then is left to fill in the rest of the city as they see fit to the needs of their own group.

And what's an old school supplement without a few random encounter tables? There is one generic random encounter table that can easily be used at any location in Dolmvay, or there are several tied to specific wards and districts through out the city. This gives the referee a certain level of flexibility with the dice without being too repetitive.

Next we get a bestiary, which is no surprise. (And yes, alligators do live in sewer). A few unique takes on some classic creatures are given, which is to be expected. What isn't expected (but should haven been, since I've read Chronicles of Amherth), is some of the new flora. I have to say this kind of thing always makes me smile. Plants are so often ignored in fantasy role-playing games, particularly their effects on people - and herbalism was such a vibrant part of life in those days.

We come now to the Appendices. The first of these is the Valenon, which is a kind of City-State within the city of Dolmvay. Think the Vatican for the Church of Law and Order and you're on the right path. It gives fewer details on how that city state is set out geographically and instead provides a great amount of detail on the Church of Law and Order. From the hierarchy of the church to some of their specific beliefs, I really enjoyed this section because it gave a great amount of detail while still showing the church as an organization of people - and people can be foul or fair, just or corrupt, compassionate or cruel - especially those in places of spiritual power.

The next organization that gets a wonderfully detailed write-up is the Adventurer's Guild. As previously stated, I'm not normally a big fan of these types of guilds in fantasy role-playing. However, the write-up here makes sense and to be frank it just feels so cool. A detailed overview of how the guild functions, different positions and factions within the guild, its services and expectations for members and even a complete map of the guild hall. Being part of the Adventurer's Guild just seems like it would be just plain fun.

And what would a great metropolis be without sewers filled with all kinds of nefarious monsters? Well, I can tell you that city wouldn't be Dolmvay. A collection of stock encounters, maps which can be arranged to create unique dungeons and a few nasty surprises for your players a referee can find quite a few options to keep their players entertained (or entombed) for quite a few adventures.

In the closing pages of Guidebook, we find some quick-creation rules for NPCs. Names, mannerisms, appearance, personality - it's all covered. What's especially clever is there are rules for actually playing 0th level PCs and what it takes to bring them up to 1st level. I love this kind of stuff, as it really gives early players a sense of accomplishment when they "earn" their class. This combined with some random treasure charts to help referees quickly determine what characters might find in someone's home within the city,

The last pages detail the limits of the shared world aspect of Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay, which are few. Pete Spahn is being very generous with his material here, inviting everyone to come play with his toys.

I seem to have to forgotten Tim Hartin's amazing city map. Like the rest of the supplement, it evokes that magnificent old-school feel and really gives you a sense of the city.

So, at 223 pages, is Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay worth getting? Well, considering the price point is "Pay What You Want," I'd say a resounding yes. After reading the PDF, I immediately plunked down the $20 for the physical hardcover and I don't regret it for a second. If you're trying to save a few bucks, but still want a physical copy there is also a softcover available for $13.00. This book is absolutely, 100% worth it. The physical hardcover is great production quality with a sturdy gloss hardcover and thick pages. Also the Special Edition/Hardcover includes the adventure Oak Grove Whispers, which I haven't yet read -  but still, a free module is a free module.

So, in short, Small Niche Games has outdone itself with Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay. I'm looking forward to the Guidebook to the Duchy of Valnwall, which is hinted at within the pages of Dolmvay. But SNG has set the bar high, and the only flaw with this book is that I'm not sure they can out do themselves when the time comes for the next Amherth supplement. You can pick up Guidebook to the City of Dolmvay in whatever format you want on RPGNow.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Review: Chronicles of Amherth

Chronicles of Amherth is an original campaign setting for Labyrinth Lord written by Peter C. Spahn* and published by Small Niche Games. I have to admit, I was pretty skeptical when I first laid eyes on it. The book is pretty unassuming. The cover is black and white. The layout is simple. The interior art is black and white and there's not a whole lot of it. Still, there weren't many original campaign settings for Labyrinth Lord, so I grabbed the PDF on a whim and let it sit on the digital back shelf.

When I finally got around to Chronicles of Amherth I damn near sent Pete Spahn an apology e-mail. Unassuming does not mean this product lacks quality or content. In 70 pages Chronicles of Amherth remembers things that other campaign settings often forget: the player characters. This setting paints its world in broad strokes, with a rich history that isn't filled with an infinite number of details. There's enough here to get a sense of the gritty fantasy that sets the world's tone - but the information presented is given in a general fashion so that game masters can customize the ideas presented to fit their own group. In many campaign settings (Forgotten Realms, I'm looking at you), there's often so much detail and so many NPCs running around that the players aren't really heroes. Instead hey're reduced to simple participants. Chronicles specifically states that the player characters are the heroes, and that very, very few heroes rise to 9th or higher level. This means that there's a whole lot of world to explore, a whole lot of danger to face, and the future will be forged by the player characters. In short, Spahn may have written it, but its really your world to play with.

The book begins with a brief overview of the tones and themes of the setting. As previously mentioned, Amherth is a gritty, dangerous world. Folks don't become adventurers because it gets them killed. The pre-history of the world is one that has seen the rise and fall of several advanced civilizations. Ruins, ancient magic (and technology, if the game master is so inclined) dot the landscape and few places are safe.  The world itself is dotted with signs of what are collectively known as "the Ancients," though in truth this is more a collected remnant of several civilizations that have risen and fallen over the history of this world. Again, Spahn offers hints and ideas instead of stating specifics about these lost societies. The glories of the ancient civilizations could be used to drop in elements of steampunk or sci-fi - as it is stated that these societies had highly, highly advanced technology. Personally, while the text didn't say it, I think it would be cool to give this a kind of Lovecraftian twist. The great thing is that while the text itself allows for this kind of referee creativity to be easily slotted into the setting. The big theme is that the power and technology of "the ancients" is dangerous with a captial Do Not Touch It.

Amherth handles magic in the same way it handles the rest of gaming within the world: it's all about giving the referee tools, not rules. The ability to use magic in the world of Amhreth is inherent. You're either born that way, or you're not. Those who have this gift are called Latents. In this section you find no details on exactly determining if a character is a latent or not, which seems to be to be a storytelling choice. It doesn't necessarily matter what any dice would say - what fits your campaign and gaming style?

The second aspect of magic unique to Amherth is Arcane Bleed, which is just too freakin' cool. I'm going to be using this in every D&D game in the future, regardless of edition. Basically, latents who have not tapped into their magical energy but go out and adventure will sometimes have some of that latent magical energy bleed into objects associated with their deeds. A heroic warrior might find his sword has become magical over time, or a sneaky thief might find his cloak granting him a small bonus to Hide in Shadows. This, to me, evokes Tolkien and Middle-earth. Not because Tolkien has any kind of Arcane Bleed, but because the deeds of an object have an impact on how its perceived by both those who wield it and those who encounter it. I love, love love this idea. It's a great way to create something that's more than just a Sword+1, or even have an item grow in power as the character levels - which helps keep with the low-magic feel of Amherth, but not neglect players of the necessary magic items that allow for high-level survival.

Continuing to facilitate broad ideas that facilitating classic gaming, we move into the section on "The Adventurer's Guild." Now let me begin by saying when I saw this, I thought it was hokey. But in the context of the setting it works. The world is dotted with ancient ruins and different groups of adventurers would certainly benefit from sharing information and having an organization that help them maintain the resources necessary to explore these places. The guild charges a nominal fee and in return they have access to resources of the guild. These are less often magical, but usually academic. This can give characters hints of what a dungeon may hold, so they're not going in blind. In addition, the guild has postings where patrons are looking to hire adventurers. Instant adventure seeds. Finally, and arguably the best part, is the fact that when groups register with the guild they are expected to keep record of their deeds and give their group a name. This kind of touch is perfect fodder for character investment and great role-playing.

Next we get to the world of Amhreth itself. It's got your classic (cliche?) lost history of the great and ancient civilization followed by the rise of a power hungry and genocidal Emperor Xanne. Its implied that he's got exceptional necromatic power and his campaigns of bloody murder are a large reason that demihumans are much less common than humans in the present world. Xanne is murdered on at least three specific occassions, but always rises to new life and vengence the next day. His conquest is pretty much what forges the world into what you have in the present day after almost 500 years of Xanne storming across the world and leaving blood and terror in his wake.

When the author moves on to address the specific cultures of the world he again paints in broad strokes, giving a few pages to define each nation. But in these few pages a real flavor is created, along with a paragraph each defining the general history of the culture, its people, military, geography, along with a few adventure seeds. What I love about the seeds is that they're not your typical "here's how to insert a dungeon in this part of the world." They're each based on the specifics of that culture and as driven by role-playing as by game mechanics, if not more so. Finally, each culture is given a historic comparison to give the reader context. I feel like this was a very smart move on the author's part because in a single paragraph you can turn a reader to real world history and give each nation a tangible tone. However, not all the cultures are purely drawn from history. The Sky Realms of Pax, for example, is a nation of dragon-riding knights who live in floating castles - though when one discovers exactly how they draw dragons into their service, the nobility of these cavaliers might be questionable.

In addition to the nations, you get several unique locations. From the hidden paradise of the Gray Lands to the lightning ravaged Seven Spires Beacon, there are all kinds of fun places to explore.

Amherth is a distinctly human-centric world and the location information reflects that. Each of the demihuman races is given a few paragraphs to describe their place in the world, but that place is marginal at best. Dwarves are caught up in an underground war, the elves have isolated themselves from the rest of the world and halflings are a broken and scattered race. Yes, Amherth is a world ruled by the race of men - but there's an internal logic why.

Once the overview of the world is given, more of the unique aspects of Amherth are given in chapters that define some of the unique flora, monsters and magic items of the world. The flora given here are a surprise, and add a nice touch to the world. Most of the herbs, flowers and trees presented give a kind of minor game effect that can assist (or unexpectedly cause trouble for) traveling adventurers. It just helps create an atmosphere of how wild the world of Amherth really is.

The monster listing is surprisingly extensive. Of special note are the Dark Fiends, or Karthax. These creatures are evil and twisted horrors who may have once been humans or at least humanoids. Its implied that they were once rulers or creators of one of the societies of the Ancients before their own power got out of control. Now they live in darkness and are consumed with evil. They're painted in broad strokes and a clear framework for the enterprising game master to insert any kind of evil monster he might like under their heading, yet they're also a reminder that Amherth is a fallen world with a history of tragedy. Another monster of note is the Ruk, which are clearly meant to be orcish in nature. However, to help foster how pervasive and diverse these tropes of fantasy can be, Spahn decided to define goblins, kobolds and orcs all under the heading of urks - at least statistically speaking. This creates a unique diversity among what would otherwise be a cliche monster and allows the game master to surprise his players when they encounter "just another orc," if they find out that even though it looks like a black-skinned orc, it might in fact have the abilities of a bugbear.

The last major section of the book details magic items. Spahn goes out of his way to make sure all these items of evocative of the setting of Amherth. No simple "+1 weapons." Everything here has a history and was created for a purpose. I absolutely love these items because they never feel like "throw away" items. As a player, I would want to hold on to them because they have depth and a place in the world. Not to mention, some of them are just too cool for school because of what they do - like the Godmap. To be frank, I wish I'd thought of these items in my own campaigns, but Spahn beat me to it.

Chronicles of Amherth closes with a 1-page Appendix that details how monks fit in the world if the referee is allowing them in their campaign. This is a nice touch, but feels a lot like an after thought and less like an endorsement of the class. Frankly, if that's the case, then I agree with the author. I've never felt that monks quite fit in most euro-centric fantasy role-playing, but at least the author makes an effort to give them a place in the world.

So, in closing, I say again that Chronicles of Amherth is an easy book to overlook. It's almost unassuming. It's 77 pages. It's black and white. It doesn't have a whole lot of art. But that's because Chronicles of Amherth isn't truly a campaign setting - it's a campaign framework. Author Peter Spahn gives you a history, a tone and a broad overview for this world and then he encourages you to fill in the rest as you need for your campaign. This is the setting's greatest strength. By encouraging the referee to customize the world, it makes it easier to find a home for that referee and encourages players to carve out a piece of it for themselves. Not to mention, by painting in these broad strokes, it makes it very easy to drop in almost any outside sourcebook seemlessly into an existing campaign. I guess the best way I can describe Chronicles of Amherth is a toolbox as much as a setting. Here's a map, some info, a few new monsters and magic items - now make it your own.

I highly, highly recommend Chronicles of Amherth. It's available at RPGNow. The PDF is 4.95, while the softcover is 9.95. Or, you cut to the chase and get the PDF+Softcover Bundle for 9.95, which I would highly recommend. Even if you never use the setting itself, the book is well worth it just for the monsters, magic items, and flora. Chronicles of Amherth is written by Peter C. Spahn and published by Small Niche Games.

*Reviewer's Note: Peter and I share a last name, and it's not a common one. However, he and I have talked and at best if we are related it's five or six generations back. Just an odd coincidence that two guys with an uncommon last name would end up in such a small industry. We've never actually met, and if we had I'd have hired a Mind Flayer to steal the ideas out of his brain and use them for my own products.