Sunday, December 3, 2017

Review: Midlands Low Magic Sandbox Setting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

Review: Xanathar's Guide to Everything

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

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

Well... sorta.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 17, 2017

Advanced Labyrinth Lord Cover Image Released

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Review: Lamentations of the Flame Princess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

JEShields and the Art of Love

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Low Fantasy, High Quality

I got a chance to play with a group of my old OSR buddies last night, and man was it a blast. I found my "playing for about 2 - 3 hours sweet spot" discovery to continue to hold true and the casual nature of my fellow players kept the mood light, while the experience of those at the table allowed for there to be enough focus for us to progress in the plot. There was, however, something new to me: The game played: Low Fantasy Gaming.

LFG was something that rang a bell in the back of my mind, but I'd never pursued it. I figured "Oh, just another retroclone." Well, the reason it kept sticking out in the back of my head was because +David B kept singing it's praises (and believe it or not I pay attention to that fool). When I found out that LFG was the game being played, I was like "Sure, whatever." and didn't give it much thought. But pretty soon, my expectations were blown away. LFG is way more than "just another retroclone."

I went to the Low Fantasy Gaming website and downloaded the PDF, which is free by the way. I was immediately impressed by the quality of the production - especially for being free. The book is chock full of black and white line art and set on a nice parchment style paper. It's easy to read, and evocative. The clean two-column layout is easy to read and flows like fresh water.

LFG lives up to its name. This is not Forgotten Realms. The core rulebook has just five classes: Barbarian, Bard, Fighter, Magic-User, and Rogue. While it includes rules for playing Dwarves and Elves (using a race-and-class basis), these are very optional and it is generally assumed that all PCs are human. Magic is rare, dangerous, and something not meant to be messed with. The game repeats over and over again that magic is not common. As someone who prefers low magic, this is a huge strength in my eyes. 

The game's mechanics clearly have their roots on OSR-style gaming, but make regular use of the 5e Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. With a lower instance of healing magic, player characters find their hit points increasing with a stronger center baseline. Fighters, for example, roll 1d5+5 per level. The game does make use of some particularly funky dice (like d5s and d30s), and while that might be a turn off for some folks, I didn't mind. Given all my gaming these days is happening on Roll20 and that I've got a few sets of DCC dice, it wasn't even a thing. It also has a skill system that's robust enough to covert most situations without being bogged down in detail. If you have a skill, you get a bonus when making an attribute associated with that skill - that's it.

Attributes themselves are handled a bit differently. The game has seven attributes. Six of the attributes we all know and love are present: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, and Charisma. Wisdom has been split into Perception and Willpower, which I think is a smart move on the part of the creator.

There are no saving throws. Instead you have a Luck score, which begins play at 10 + Character Level. Luck and attribute checks are made by rolling 1d20 and scoring under the associated number. But, in the case of Luck, each time you make a Luck roll, your Luck temporarily drops by a single point. It's simple and quick and shows how long term adventuring can take its toll on even the most skilled adventurer. In addition to Luck, characters also begin play with a Reroll Pool equal to their level. This is, quite simply, a number of times you may choose to reroll a d20-based roll in a gaming session. It's a simple way to keep yourself from being hosed by one bad roll.

Both the magic and the combat system have a bit of seasoning from Dungeon Crawl Classics. Any combatant (not just Fighters) can engage in minor and major exploits in combat and whenever a spell is cast the mage runs the risk of drawing some dark and terrible thing down upon them. It makes casting spells a real risk. Speaking of spells, gone are the "High Magic" spells of traditional games. You're not teleporting anywhere, bub. You're also not bringing anyone back from the dead. 

But, if you're lucky, an ally who seemed slain at the end of a battle might just be Mostly Dead (yes, that's a term in the game). Brushes with death come at a cost, though - and you're likely to suffer a battle scar or permanent injury. In a world without a lot of healing magic, combat is dangerous and deadly. It's effects are lasting. There are rules for chases too. This seemed strange at first, but I like it - because "We run away" should not immediately mean your player characters are safe. 

LFG has no default setting, though it openly says it's not meant for highly magical campaigns. Inspirations include settings like Westeros and Hyborea, or even Middle-earth. The low-fantasy elements are reinforced once more by a level cap of 12th level. This puts characters firmly in the "hero, not walking god" category, which is a nice touch. Gaining levels are not done via XP, though. It's largely based on having extended downtime and GM fiat. While this might bother some gamers, I like it. It means characters aren't going to feel hosed if they didn't fight any monsters or find any treasure in a given session.

Ever since D&D 5th Edition was published, many in the OSR community have attempted to do an "O5R" game. Low-Fantasy Gaming is the perfect blend of OSR gaming and 5th Edition mechanics. It's not afraid to draw from multiple sources to create something that's truly unique, infinitely playable, and easy to pick up and run. +Steve Grod, the creator of LFG, has made an absolute gem of a game. He's also made this gem of a game very, very accessible. The PDF is free on and print versions of the game (both hardcover and softcover) are available at an at-cost price on Lulu. More over, he actively supports his labor of love with quality PDF supplements which he posts on the LFG website. New classes, new adventures, and sandbox settings are added regularly.

The long and short of it is that Low Fantasy Gaming is a game that's been in front of my face for a long time and its somehow been unnoticed. It captures the dangerous low-magic flavor of OSR gaming that I love so much, but weaves many modern mechanics into the design to create something that is both familiar and new. I'm very, very excited to see what the future of FLG is going to be and even more excited to get together with my Saturday Night Crew to continue the adventures Low-Fantasy adventures of Esteban de Silva, el Ladron de Flores - and I haven't been excited for an upcoming gaming session in a long, long time.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

RPGaDay 2017 - The Whole Month

Day 1: What published RPG do you wish you were playing right now?
Star Wars: Force & Destiny. I love, love, love that game. It captures the Force (not just the Jedi) perfectly and does it with a great rules set. I adore running it, but never get to be a player. Maybe some day.

Day 2: What is an RPG you would like to see published?
An RPG based on Neil Gaiman's novel/mini-series Neverwhere. It's a fantastic piece of open-ended urban fantasy that's just ripe for a role-playing game.

Day 3: How do you find out about new RPGs?
Like everyone else these days: The Internet! It's nice to get an occassional surprise, though that's rarer and rarer these days. The wierdest thing is when you find out about a new product because you're writing for it, but can't say anything - often for a year or more! - do to Non-Disclosure Agreements.

Day 4: What RPG have you played the most since August 2016?
Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars. I ran a long term campaign of it for over a year and it was an absolute thrill-ride. The group fell apart do to out-of-game issues, but it was a total blast when everyone was firing on all cylinders.

Day 5: What RPG cover best captures the spirit of the game?
The original West End Games Star Wars Roleplaying Game. That 1987 cover had Luke, Han, and Leia leaping off the page with their blasters blazing and ready to save the galaxy. I never truly WANTED to be a gamer until I saw that cover.

Day 6: You can game every day for a week. Describe what you'd do.
First of all, I wouldn't. That's asking for burn out. Two games a week, tops - assuming I'm running them both. Three if I get to play in at least one. I'd spend that extra gaming time writing or prepping for my campaigns. At one point I was gaming six days a week in my early twenties, but that was a mind scramble even then.

Day 7: What was your most impactful RPG session?
That would be the session where I was playing in a Rifts game and another player said something specifically with the intent of hurting my feelings and embarrassing me in front of everyone else at the table - including my girlfriend at the time. I told him "Fuck you," and he proceeded to leap across the table and scoop me up in a choke hold before attempting to snap my neck. When I finally got loose, he then came after me with a butcher knife and I felt the house. Everyone at the table blamed me because "that's just how he is" and my girlfriend actually left me over the incident. Needless to say, that stuck with me and it took a long time before I was willing to play Rifts again.

Day 8: What is a good RPG to play for sessions of two hours or less?
Swords & Wizardry Light. The entire rules system fits on two double-sided pages and you can make a character in less than five minutes. You make your hero and jump right in with both feet. It's so quick and dirty that it ought to be a crime.

Day 9: What is a good RPG to play for about 10 sessions?
Star Wars, either the FFG or WEG incarnation. You can have a fantastic story arc over that span of time and the characters really reach a comfortable level of power and proficiency. After ten sessions it really feels like you've told a "trilogy" of movies.

Day 10: Where do you go for RPG Reviews?
I usually follow word-of-mouth over on Google+ and see what folks are buzzing about. I tend to have similar tastes to many of my friends in the OSR, though with some deviation. From their opinions, I can usually get a sense of whether or not I'm going to like a game.

Day 11: What 'dead game' would you like to see reborn?
I got my wish answered recently. The original Star Wars RPG by West End Games. Fortunately, it's about to be unfrozen from carbonite, as Fantasy Flight Games is releasing a 30th Anniversary 2-book set of the core book and Star Wars Sourcebook. I can't wait. Quixotic Jedi, ho!

Day 12: Which RPG has the most inspiring interior art?
In spite of my bad table experiences with it, I always thought the Rifts books had some fantastic black and white line art that really capture the gonzo sci-fi "that's so cool!" pulp nature of the setting. It made me want to BE what I saw in those pictures.

Day 13: Describe a game experience that changed how you played.
I could reference Day 7, but that feels like cheating. Years ago, when I was a teenager, I was in a game where my character was killed by other members of the party because he was under a charm spell and they (being self-serving thieves) left him to die because of the spell's effects. It was very appropriate for the session and the campaign and even though my character died, I didn't feel like I'd "lost." It taught me that character death can be a good and fitting thing in a campaign if handled appropriately.

Day 14: What RPG do you prefer for open-ended campaign play?
White Box Fantasy Medieval Adventure Game. This is an repackaging and updated presentation of Swords & Wizardry White Box. It's light rules and reasonable character progression rate makes it a very "drop in/drop out" game, which is important to me in these busy times where I sometimes go weeks, or even months, without rolling them bones.

Day 15: Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most?
This is an easy one. Swords & Wizardry White Box. It's strong and familiar foundation have allowed me to build some fantastic material onto it without getting lost in endless rules glut. I just love it for its core utilitarianism.

Day 16: Which RPG do you enjoy using as is?
There are a handful, both on opposite ends of the spectrum. White Box Fantasitc Medieval Adventure Game and Fantasy Flight Games' Star Wars both are almost instinctive to me and I can run them without little-to-no rules changes. Same for Star Wars d6 and most classic World of Darkness games (Vampire: The Masquerade, Changeling: The Dreaming, etc).

Day 17: Which RPG have you owned the longest but not played.
West End Games Star Wars Roleplaying Game. Owned it in some incarnation since 1987 and haven't gotten to play (not GM) since 1997. Far, far too long.

Day 18: What RPG have you played the most in your life?
This is a softball question for most, and I'm no different. Like everyone else, the foundation of my gaming is found in one version of Dungeons and Dragons or another. It's simply the game that most people default to, often because it was their introduction to the hobby.

Day 19: Which RPG features the best writing?
Is it self-serving to say The One Ring? Well, that's my claim. The One Ring captures to near-perfection the nuances and subtleties of Tolkien's Middle-earth while still leaving plenty of breathing room for new advventures and original characters. I can open any book in the line and turn to any page and find something fascinating.

Day 20: What's the best source for out-of-print RPGs?
If you're talking digital, OBS is king. That's DriveThruRPG and RPGNow. As far as physical, I've found a lot of luck on the Google+ Goblin Emporium community where old gamers buy, sell, and trade games all over the place. Noble Knight isn't bad either, but their pricing is really swingy.

Day 21: What RPG does the most with the least words?
Swords & Wizardry Light. A complete game in 4 pages. Three races. Four classes. Gear. A solid bestiary. Combat and adventuring rules. It's built for speed, not for looks - but its damn fine at its job.

Day 22: Which RPGs are easiest for you to run?
White Box (either Swords & Wizardry or FMAG), d6 Star Wars or FFG Star Wars, or The One Ring. I know the White Box rules set like the back of my hand, and am immersed in the setting material of the other two. I'm proud to say that in the case of all of those listed, I often don't need to prep and when it comes to campaigns, I develop a vague outline and just jump in from there.

Day 23: Which RPG has the most jaw-dropping layout?
I'd have to say Dungeon Crawl Classics. The art in that book is just splattered all over the place and captures the feel of the game perfectly, but it never feels obtrusive or unnecessary. The text is clean and easy to read, so between the two it's both beautiful to look at and easy to use at the table.

Day 24: Share a PYWY publisher who should be charging more.
That dumbass at Barrel Rider Games should stop listing his White Star and White Star Companion at PWYW. I mean he's even got the prints marked at that price. Total business noob who's throwing money out the window.

Day 25: What's the best way to thank your GM?
Invest in the game. I don't mean buy books, dice, or snacks. Take the time to learn the basics of the system, actively create ways for your character to be involved in the storyline presented, pay attention at the table (and put the damn cellphone away!). GMs work really hard to get the game set up for you and do a lot of work to make sure you have a good time. Show them you appreciate it by investing in material presented.

Day 26: Which RPG provides the most useful resources?
Depends what you define as a resource? For me it's utility at the table and material that's easily applied to a campaign. For that I'd have to say Star Wars d6 hit it out of the park with two of their products: The Gamemaster Guide (2nd edition) and Galaxy Guide 9: Fragments from the Rim. The Game Master Guide is the single best "how to GM Star Wars" book I've ever read, and its material is really applicable to any pulp-style game. Very few rules, but lots of golden advice. Fragments, on the other hand, was filled with ten thousand tidbits that could be used to launch campaigns, add depth to the setting, or introduce engaging NPCs. I used that book until the cover fell off.

Day 27: What are your essential tools for good gaming?
Other than the obvious books, dice, pencils, and players I'd have to say an actual table to play at. Not a coffee table or TV trays: a table. It keeps everyone's focus in the same place and creates the implicit sense that everyone is gathered together as a group and for a group activity.

Day 28: What film/series is the biggest source of quotes for your group?
Wow? Just one? Probably Star Wars, simply because we play it most often and everyone's seen it a thousand times. There's never a bad time to "Have a bad feeling about this."

Day 29: What has been the best-run RPG Kickstarter you have backed.
Easy. John Wick Presents' 7th Sea Second Edition Kickstarter. Absolute transparency, regular updates, and early delivery of product. 100% top notch and professional.

Day 30: What RPG genre-mashup would you like to see most?
Though I never read it, I always liked the idea of Gothic Cyberpunk. GURPS CthulhuTech and an old CP2020/Vampire: The Masquerade crossover article from White Wolf magazine both really seemed like a lot of fun. But, you don't see sci-fi done quite like that every often. It's not "horror sci-fi," not really.

Day 31: What do you anticipate most for gaming in 2018?
Maybe I'll get to be a player in an on-going campaign? Maybe even a Star Wars campaign? Or The One Ring? Yeah, pipe dreams I know...

Sunday, August 20, 2017

These Dice Ain't What They Used To Be

So, tonight I unexpectedly got to play in a 5e game. I was thrilled to do so and had just said to my wife "I really need to play D&D, it's been weeks and I miss it." Well, someone out there heard me and granted my wish. Thanks, Universe.

I made my character easily enough and we sat down to play. From 6:30 to about 9:15. Not a long session, by any stretch. But here's the thing - I had an absolute blast. For two hours and forty-five minutes, I was Dregnr Bloodbeard, Dwarf Barbarian, and it was pure fun. Never once did I feel fatigued or overwhelmed, nor did I wonder if gaming was "worth the effort."

I learned something about myself - maybe I ought to slow down in my "old age." Ten years or fifteen years ago, a four hour session was standard. We often pushed for six or even eight hours. But tonight's "shot in the arm" of gaming, really felt just right.

For a long time, I had considered getting away from the table both as a player and GM. Just focus on design and playtesting. But tonight taught me that maybe, if I take it a bit slower and in smaller doses, that it's still as much fun as ever - even after 30 years.

This also reenforced why I love the OSR (and particularly White Box) so much. With rules light systems, you can get a lot of active gaming in, in just a few hours. That way time doesn't feel wasted by looking up rules, modifiers, and outlying material. Just leap right into the game, and head off on an adventure. Man, it was nice to realize that I may not be as young as I used to be - but the spark is still there and adventure still calls to me.

Friday, August 18, 2017

A Fault In Our Stars: Starfinder, ADnD 2E, and Repeating History

So I wanted to talk a bit about Starfinder and how I see it. Not as a game or in comparison to White Star, but as a business move and why I think Paizo chose to release a sci-fi adaptation of their juggernaut fantasy roleplaying game. But to do that, I have to go back to 1989 and the release of AD&D, 2nd edition.

However you feel about AD&D 2nd Ed, it was an absolute runaway hit. It made money hand over fist and sales had exploded far beyond expectations. The books brought slick, previously unseen production values to the game with full color core books that were priced to buy. By 1993, AD&D 2nd edition dominated the market and it was the game when it came to tabletop RPGs. Granted, tabletop RPGs get compared to D&D by default, but this was unprecedented.

It seemed as though there was nothing AD&D 2nd Edition couldn't do. The campaign settings were fresh as gamers explored Ravenloft, Dark Sun, and Birthright. The seemly endless slew of class and race books gave players new ways to customize their characters with optional kits and new equipment, spells, and sub-races. There was no end in sight.

Until there was.

The long and short is that TSR was on the verge of economic collapse because of the runaway success of AD&D 2nd Ed. They had to keep producing supplements to maintain an ever diminishing revenue stream. That's the nature of tabletop roleplaying games. Roleplaying games are a niche of a niche of a niche market. Most folks who play them do so casually, briefly, or out of curiosity. They borrow a book from a more active friend while they're playing, or they buy a single core book for their own reference. Maybe they buy the "core three" books, but never grab a supplement. They might grab a supplement which focuses on their favorite species/class if they're really into the game. But the fact is, most gamers aren't rabid consumers of every single thing published for a game line.

So, TSR had to keep producing supplements on more minuet elements of their flagship game to keep the money coming in. But as the product line bloated, the profit margins thinned. AD&D 2nd edition had more books released for it than you can count (I stopped at 250...) and let's face it, some of them were very narrow in their focus. (Did we really need Thief's Challenge, let alone Thief's Challenge II: Beacon Pointe?)

But, to keep these more tightly focused products viable, you have to keep much of the previous library of material in print, maintain storage space to keep unsold product, pay your employees, and keep the lights on. So, eventually, the numbers just didn't add up and TSR was on the verge of collapse. That's when Wizards of the Coast came in and bought the company.

Then came D&D 3E. There was a lot of backlash against it at first. So many people had spent over a decade chasing the dragon (so to speak) keeping up with the endless gamut of 2nd Ed books that they felt betrayed by the fact that D&D 3E was going to render all that time and investment invalid. While many players recognized that a new game being published did not obligate them to play it, I still understand their frustration.

But in the end D&D 3E and its OGL were a success beyond all predictions. So much so, that when it ended and 4E was announced in 2007 and released the following year many gamers decided not to invest in yet another itteration of the world's most famous fantasy roleplaying game. Enter Paizo's Pathfinder. Serving as as rallying point for those who wishes to continue playing D&D 3E, Pathfinder was released under the OGL with a few minor changes to D&D 3.5.

And it exploded. Pathfinder was a runaway hit, like AD&D 2nd Edition before it. It even managed to out-sell Dungeons and Dragons, the very game from which it was born. For a brief time, Pathfinder was the Rebel Prince, dethroning the king of all roleplaying games.

Pathfinder began to release supplements, as is expected. From the Advanced Player's Guide to Mythic Adventures, they left no stone unturned, no supplement unpublished. Soon the runaway success of Pathfinder ran away with them. Ten years later, and countless supplements later, Pathfinder feels its in the same place as TSR was in 1998. But, unlike Wizards of the Coast, my guess is that Paizo doesn't want to alienate the fans that have been loyal to them for the past decade by releasing a Pathfinder, Second Edition. So, how do they add longevity to their product line when the vein of ore that is fantasy seems tapped?

Starfinder feels to me like an attempt to extend the longevity of the Pathfinder product line and IP without releasing a second edition. But, I'm uncertain about it's potential for success. Yes, it sold out at GenCon - but there hasn't been a whole lot of buzz surrounding it that I've noticed. Admittedly, I'm over here in the OSR corner of the RPG community - but still, the tabletop roleplaying game community isn't exactly vast.

Do I hope Starfinder is a success? Absolutely. By all accounts Erik and the folks at Pathfinder are good people. Besides, even at its most successful, RPG publishing profits are razor thin. Given that many fantasy gamers aren't interested in sci-fi (and vice versa), I'm doubtful that Starfinder will be as successful as Paizo needs and that may create a rough road for Paizo in the days to come.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Why I Don't Do Kickstarters

It's funny. When I tease a product one or two people usually ask when I'm launching the Kickstarter for this. The answer is always "I'm not." I don't crowdfund. That's not to say I never will in the future, but I can't imagine a circumstance that would warrant me doing so. Turning to Kickstater makes me feel uncomfortable, it makes me nervous. It's a great way to get your product out there and get support, but I don't think it's for me.

I did one crowdfunding, several years ago. I did an Indiegogo for Class Compendium, my largest project up to that time. But I didn't do it specifically to fund the Class Compendium. I did it because my computer was becoming unreliable and without a computer I couldn't publish at all. So, I did an Indiegogo with half the money going to art for the Compendium and the other half to a new laptop. Nothing fancy, just to keep myself writing. I made all this very clear in my pitch video.

I thought Class Compendium would be easy. It was almost done before I even launched. It was so close. But, to be safe, I gave myself an extra six months as padding for my deadline. That was a helluva lot of wiggle room, right? Wrong.

You see, one of my stretch goals was to add a spell index in the back. A complete spell index. That way any class in the Compendium would have instant access to spell details right in the same book. No flipping between books. Easy, right? Well, not so much. See, at the time I worked solo. I hadn't found awesome layout guys like +Jason Paul McCartan+Michael Herrmann, or +Thomas Novosel. From cradle to grave, it was a one-man show. Everything was done manually. Everything.

It took me all my padding time to get that damn index in place. I even went over deadline, though only by two weeks.

For me, that was unacceptable for several reasons.

First and foremost, I hate missing deadlines. It feels unprofessional. If you give a deadline, meet it. People even said "Two weeks isn't bad at all for a crowd-funding project." Didn't matter. Late is late for my releases.

Secondly, I'm very mercurial in my interests. As it stands at the time of this blog, I've got two large projects in the works (White Star: Galaxy Edition and Saga of the White Box), a large project I won't name, as well as four small projects, one personal project, a project I'm secretly working on, and am coming up on a freelance gig. It's like someone gave Attention Deficit Disorder a pen and a set of dice. This means that focusing on a single project for an extended period is very difficult for me. I get an idea and I want to grab it and run - then bounce between the many hollows of my mind.

That makes for a potentially disasterous crowd funding project. And that's not fair.

It's not fair to those who put their money in my hands. It's not fair to the way I operate. It's just asking for a train wreck and permanent damage to the good will the OSR has been so kind to grant me. So, I won't be doing Kickstarers or crowd-funding projects any time soon. I'll be patient, leaping from passion to passion, hoping folks are kind enough to accept the time it takes for me to get a project to the table. So far, the community has been quite kind in that regard - and I am appreciative of that grace.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Review: Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells

+Diogo Nogueira is a work horse in the OSR. Known primarily for preaching the Gospel of Dungeon Crawl Classics and being an amazing artist, what some may not realize is that Diogo has published his own fantasy roleplaying game. It's not another retro-clone, though it shares some commonalities with traditional d20-based games. Diogo's baby is called Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells, and it's available in both PDF and digest-sized softcover on DriveThru and RPGNow. Did I mention that both the PDF and the physical are priced at Pay-What-You-Want at the time of this writing?

Nogueira's love of Howard, Smith, and other iconic pulp fantasy authors is evident in his product. The entire book amounts to 48 pages, but that page count could probably be cut in half if you removed the art. That's not a criticism at all. It's the art and how it's been carefully selected or crafted to evoke that Hyborian feel that really sells the game.

SS&SS really trims the fat, though the author's inspirations seem evident in reading the product. Diogo's love of DCC is obvious, but I also get a bit of a White Box vibe going on. I feel as though he took Dungeon Crawl Classics, D&D 5e, Swords & Wizardry, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, and Polyhedral Dungeon and ripped them apart of the Tree of Woe, then reassembled them to create something both familiar and different.

With only four attributes, three classes, and no skill system you'd think the game would feel a bit thin - but not so. The author is clearly trying to emulate a specific subgenre of fantasy and he stays laser-focused on that style. The system is pretty simple. Attributes (Physique, Agility, Intellect, and Willpower) are determined by your traditional "roll 3d6" method.

Tasks are accomplished by rolling a d20 against an attribute value. If you score under your attribute, the task has succeeded. The closer you get to the attribute without going over, the better you did. These tests can be modified by Positive or Negative Die, which works in a manner similar to D&D Fifth Edition's Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. If it's a Positive Die, you take the better. Negative, take the worse. Combat is actually resolved using the same attribute test mechanic, but the monster's hit dice modifies the roll - meaning a monster who's hit dice exceed a character's level are going to be harder to hit while those that are lower are going to be easier. Simple and elegant.

Some fast and dirty pulp spice is added by adding options to push your roll (ala Call of Cthulhu 7th edition) and a Luck option. Equipment and weapon ammo are also handled in a truncated, but intuitive and appropriate way.

Casting a spell? Intellect test. Trying to be stealthy? Agility test. It's all that simple.

Weapon damage is equally simple. Small weapons (whether dagger, short sword, hand ax, whatever) do a 1d6. Medium weapons do a 1d6, Large weapons do 1d8. Warriors automatically increase this die by one type (d4s become d6s, d6s become d8s, d8s become d10s). Any class can use any weapon.

Armor provides a form of damage reduction, but make you easier to hit by capping your Agility, while shields make you harder to hit.

Spells are simple, nasty and potentially dangerous to the caster. Casters choose the power level of the spell their casting, which modifies their roll. That means you can potentially throw a heap-nasty spell, but there's serious risk of things going south if you roll poorly. Men were not meant to know sorcery in SS&SS. Magic items are similarly powerful, but always with a cost.

Monsters all have one statistic: Hit Dice. They might also have specific special abilities, but given the player-centric nature of dice rolling and how hit dice of an opponent impacts combat, that's all you need.

Like I said earlier, where this game really shines is in its art and flavor. SS&SS requires characters to begin play with a Complication, which can be randomly generated if necessary. In addition, charts are included to generate on the fly adventure scenarios. These charts, again combined with the art, really give it that dirty sword-and-sandals pulp feel. What's so impressive that a lot of the art in this book is stock art that's been floating around for a long time - but when you get an artist to actually put a book together as a labor of love (which this clearly is), the unity of disparate parts really shines.

If I had to offer any criticisms, it's that SS&SS has a few areas where efforts to keep things brief make some explanations feel truncated or abrupt. Another sentence or so explaining a few of the rules would have clarified things quite a bit, but after reading over it a second time the designer's intent became pretty clear - so this is a minor issue at best. And for being PYWY in any format,  there are really no complaints. Another minor issue was that though the book included an ample list of monsters (35 or so), they did not appear to be organized in any fashion. Having them listed alphabetically or by HD would make for easier reference.

Long and short is that if you're looking for an ultra-light pulp fantasy game you can stuff in a backpack and run on the fly, Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells is a must. Grab it now. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The White Box One-Sentence Background

So one of the common arguments I see regarding Swords & Wizardry White Box and White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game is that it's too narrow. Characters have no abilities beyond their combat or class related listings to give them any definition, background, or motivation. I regard this as a strength of the system as it keeps things simple - but I understand how it could frustrate some people.

So, I tried to come up with a solution that kept to the core of White Box's simplicity. I give you the One-Sentence Background.

The One-Sentence Background is exactly that. A character's background defined in a single sentence. This sentence must include some form of motivator and some kind of profession or skill outside the character's class.

Example One: Arki the Dwarven Fighter was a Blacksmith who wants revenge for the destruction of his clan.

Example Two: Jana the Thief is a former Woodworker who took to the road to search for her missing daughter.

The profession is something the character can attempt to use as is appropriate to the situation and with Referee approval. This can be narrative, or mechanical. If a mechanical system is used, I'd recommend having the character simply make a Saving Throw, but receive +2 to any saves tied to using their profession.

The background has no mechanical effect. It simply serves as a springboard so players can call back to their character's primary motivation and have a sense of how their character will act in a situation.

Simple enough?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

From North Texas to the Apocalypse

Thanks to the amazing generosity of the OSR community (lead by +James Shields and his sneaky GoFundMe), I had the pleasure of attending North Texas RPG Con last month. It really was a whirlwind of an event for me, in spite of being a small con. It was an absolute pleasure to put faces to familiar names and I had a really good time.

Unfortunately, while I was gone, things in the more mundane part of my life conspired against me and I returned to a seemingly parade of cataclysms. On my first day back home my wife came down with a tooth infection that had her laid up for the better part of a week. As soon as that resolved itself, my toddler daughter decided to get her sleep pattern seriously out of wack and put the whammy on both my wife and I for about a week. Just when that settled down, my home became infested with fleas (but not my dog, long story) and I was forced out of my home as we fumigated the house for the better part of two weeks. 

In short, it's been a rough month since I got back from Texas.

But, I can venture to say that things are finally settling down. White Star: Galaxy Edition is deep into layout and we should have the PDF available by the end of summer with the print version to follow soon after, White Box Gothic and White Box Compendium are both now available in softcover digest format on Lulu, and a new White Box-driven genre book is currently being drafted by yours truly. I won't go into any more detail than that on this draft, except to say that +Matt Finch himself spouted the title at NTRPG and kindly gave me permission to use the moniker he so elegantly crafted.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Custom Dice in Table Top Gaming

So we all know the standard array, right? d20, d12, d10, d8, d6, d4, and maybe a second d10 for percentage rolls. They're familiar old friends and they've been with us on many, many adventures over the decades. I've heard from many old grogs brag "I've got dice older than you, kid" and may have even made the boast on occasion myself.

Lately, with more modern games, I've noticed a trend towards custom dice. At first, I knee jerked against this and felt as though it was a cheap marketing tactic. But over the years, I've grabbed more than a few custom dice for some of the games I own. In fact, two of my favorite games use custom dice.

Fantasy Flight Games' line of Star Wars RPGs uses some pretty seriously custom dice. They use custom two types of custom d6s, two types of custom d8s, and three types of custom d12s. None of these dice are numeric and the game is all but impossible to play with standard dice of these types. Given that the game already has a $60 buy-in for a core book and $15 for a single set of these dice, I really felt it was as cheap marketing tactic. Now, a few years later I'm not so sure.

Star Wars Dice

Cubicle 7 Entertainment's The One Ring Roleplaying Game also uses custom dice, though theirs are not as extreme as FFG's. The One Ring uses custom d6s numbered 1 to 6, with the numbers 3-6 shaded and a little symbol next to the 6. It also uses custom d12s numbered 1-10, with the 11 replaced by a Gandalf rune and the 12 replaced by an Eye of Sauron. It's easy enough to remember these changes and use standard dice. That being said, the game does play a bit faster with the specialized dice and during the game's original release in a two-book slipcover edition, they included a set of one of these d12s and six of the d6s. Extra dice could be purchased, naturally.

The One Ring Dice

So, why is this not a cheap marketing ploy for me? Well, because of the thematic elements. When I pull out my big ol' sack of Star Wars dice, my local group knows its Star Wars time. At the table its almost become as symbolic of the setting as John Williams' classic score. When I pull our dice for The One Ring, their elvish script styling immediately remind everyone of the subtle changes that make Middle-earth unique. It might not seem like much, but along with character sheets and game books, gamers are always looking at their dice. Its a constant reminder of the setting, its tone, and the associated tropes. It can help keep gamers in the game, and I think that's both awesome and important.

Star Trek Dice
This all came to mind because I saw there is going to be a set of d20s and d6s for the upcoming Star Trek RPG. Now, I've zero interest in Star Trek, but in seeing the dice I immediately went "Now that's really cool! Really thematic!" It immediately got me into a Star Trek mindset.

I think that's the real value of little things like custom dice, especially for IP-based games. They remind you that the game you're playing isn't just D&D - its a specific universe, with a specific style. This can easily get lost because games are so constantly compared to the tonal flexibility of games like D&D. Pulling gamers back into that IP-based world is important, or else we'd just play a generic RPG where these things could be easily slotted in over the often high-priced official versions released by various publishers.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Not Quite Lightspeed

I'll cut right to it. I was aiming to release White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying: Galaxy Edition in PDF by the beginning of North Texas RPG Con during the first weekend of June. Sadly, this simply isn't going to happen. This does not mean Galaxy Edition is going anywhere. It's coming, and this delay is being implemented to prevent releasing a rushed product.

We're now aiming for a Summer 2017 digital release instead of Spring 2017, with print to follow. Until that time, if you want to get an idea of what White Star is all about you can grab the original White Star and the White Star Companion at a Pay-What-You-Want price for both PDF and Print at and

I appreciate the support and patience everyone has shown the game and apologize for the delay.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Musings on Majesty

I love RPGs based on intellectual properties. These games provide fully fleshed out settings, backgrounds, tones, and are often filled with ready-made adventure hooks. A really well-written IP-based RPG that's created by folks who have a genuine passion for the material is a magnificent thing. But, what do you do when the rest of your group isn't as passionate about that intellectual property as you are?

I have a new local group and we've been gaming together for a few months now. They're great. Strong communication, mutual respect for one another, and a willingness to learn the mechanics of the game at hand. I really can't ask for more.

That being said, I've wanted to run a game of The One Ring for years - since the game's release really. I know Tolkien inside and out. I love the depth and majesty of his creation. I want to sing in the Hall of Fire in Imladris. I want to stand atop the Eagles Eyries. To shop in the great marketplace of Dale. I want to walk under the shadowed canopy of Mirkwood.

There is beauty and adventure beyond your doorstep.

I want my players to understand the depth and beauty of legends like that of Beren & Luthien. I want them to marvel at the foreboding magnificence of Orthanc. I want them to revel in the mead hall of Edoras.

Though they are fans of the Lord of the Rings films, they do not share my fierce love of Middle-Earth as a whole. So, how do I pass that on to them? How do I get them to buy into the subtle aspects of the source material that separate it from traditional D&D? How do I provide to them a genuine Middle-earth experience at the gaming table? Is it possible?

Just some musings and rumblings from a passionate fanboy.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Review: Tails of Equestria: The My Little Pony Storytelling Game

I'm a Brony.

How did this happen? Well, believe it or not, because I lost a bet. Back when I played way too much Lord of the Rings Online, one of my kinmates and I cut a deal. If helped me with a raid and we succeeded, I had to watch two hours of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Being a man of my word, I held my end of the bargain.

I have to admit that from the get go, I was surprised at the depth of world building - but it was still a show about magic pink ponies and there was no way it could be that good. Well, by the time I looked up, I'd watched a dozen episodes and had no desire to stop. I'd been corrupted. I was a Brony.

The thing is, the show really is pretty damned good and I've no shame in speaking on my love of it. It's show populated by cast of female leads who, though archetypal, all are engaging and interesting to watch. The show uses common elements from the Campbellian Monomyth and extensive elements from world mythology - particularly Greek mythology. Anyway, it's a good show. It doesn't talk down to kids as it tries to teach them the value of not being an asshole - or as they say the "Magic of Friendship." After much convincing, even got my wife to watch the show.

And she became obsessed.

Like seriously. She is a publish novelist and immediately dove headlong into the fan fiction community - even making so much of a name for herself as to warrant being a special guest at BronyCon (the biggest MLP convention in the country) for three years in a row (so far).

Why am I telling you all this?

Well, when an intellectual property becomes popular among the demographic of young men who are traditionally regarded as nerdy or geeky, then someone's going to license it for a tabletop RPG.

Enter Tails of Equestria: The My Little Pony Storytelling Game. I purchased a copy for my wife for Mother's Day and gave it to her when it arrived today. I have to say, I wasn't expecting much, and am pleasantly surprised.

The MSRP is $35 and for that you get a 150-page full color book with gloss pages, evocative layout, and a steady stream of stills from the television show. I've seen gaming books that charge $60 that don't have this level of production quality.

Now, the game is marketed from the get-go at the same audience as My Little Pony - young kids. It assumes that the reader has never gamed. Because of this, it as a simple, but functional system for character creation, task resolution, combat, and various unique elements of the setting material.

The game breaks characters down into three stats: Body, Mind, and Charm. They are rated at a die value ranging from d4 to d20. Contested rolls are made between opponents using the stat and the high roll wins. Characters also have Talents (like Knowledge, or Flying (unique to Pegasi) or Telekinesis solely the purview of Unicorns)) which have their own die value along the same scale. Some tests require the character to have a skill to even attempt it, while others do not. Roll Stat + Talent, take the highest single die, meet or exceed difficulty. That's it.

Combat is resolved in the same fashion. The winner of a combat test (which they call a "Scuffle," how adorable), does an amount of damage equal to their successful roll. Damage comes off a flat Stamina, and when your Stamina is reduced to zero, you have to rest and are exhausted. The game does not have character death.

It's a very clean and simple mechanic and excellent for introducing new gamers to the hobby. But where the game really shines is its clean mechanics for evoking the themes of the source material. For every player (including the GM) there is a pool of "Friendship Tokens" that can be used to re-roll dice, increase chances of success before a roll, or provide minor narrative manipulation. These tokens are earned by being a good person - being a friend. If a new player joins the game, they add a Friendship Token to the pool - but that token is not removed if that player cannot return to the table. Their friendship and the spirit of what they contributed remains. Absent, but not forgotten.

The game operates on a level system that runs up to 10th level. Each adventure (not necessarily session) results in every character gaining a level. When you gain a level you can increase a Stat, increase a Talent, or take a new Talent.

There is also your obligatory introductory adventure - but I have to say, its really well-written and surprisingly in-depth. Like everything else in this book it oozes with innocent charm and themes of the source material shines.

The truly excels as an introductory roleplaying and by tying it to a popular IP for the age range that many kids discover tabletop RPGs, I have to say that this game is a real winner. Not to mention the lessons it teaches are positive and very in line with the show. There's enough crunch and wiggle room to engage more experienced gamers, but the simple mechanics and approachable text make it perfect for young would-be dice rollers. I think it would be especially good for helping a parent whose child is into MLP get into tabletop gaming. The game is even playable diceless by full page drop-table for each die-type (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20). Simply close your eyes, and put your finger on the page. So it literally has everything in one book necessary to get kids gaming.

Supplementary material has already been produced with obligatory bag of Friendship Tokens. These, of course are sparkling purple plastic gems. Next up is a Box Set which includes several blank character sheets, a GM screen, a full adventure module, and a set of dice - all with an MSRP of $25.

I really think Tails of Equestria is an obvious purchase for any gamer who is a fan of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, or for any parent who has a child who is both a fan of the show and has expressed interest in tabletop gaming. Heck, my 2 1/2 year old daughter hasn't let it go since it came in the house - and she's just enjoying the art. Gotta get 'em started gaming early, right? Well, I can't think of a better game to open with.