Tuesday, December 31, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 21, 2019

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Old School Essentials: Review

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 3, 2019

The Journey Together

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Hero's Journey: Words Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Hero's Journey, Second Edition: Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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