Monday, July 27, 2020

Vampiric-Depressive, Werewolf Patient, and Evicted Ectoplasm: Three "Failed Careers" for Electric Bastionland

Emotions run high in Bastion

You feed off of these emotions


The Stone-Statue Studio of Sherry Sherrymint: A famed artist who's vampiric curse has her trapped with her life’s work--statues--on a small canal island, unable to cross the running water around it.

A key to the backdoor of a local blood bank, fangs (steals d6 HP)
Vampires cannot regain HP in any way besides biting mortals. They cannot tolerate direct sunlight.

£1 Your preternaturally long fangs do d8 damage.
£2 You can sense the emotions of those around you, even through walls.
£3 You can drain 1HP worth of your own blood to make a dose of POISON.
£4 With eye contact and a honeyed tongue, you can DOMINATE any mortal a simple one-sentence command that they must follow.
£5 Pick one alternate animal form which you can TRANSFORM into at will.
£6 You can't be reduced to 0 STR by any means but direct sunlight.

1HP You cast no reflection or shadow.
2HP You take on the CHA score of whoever you last drank from.
3HP Holy symbols and blessed water deal d6 damage to you on contact.
4HP You cannot willingly cross running water.
5HP You cannot enter a place of residence uninvited.
6HP A wooden stake to the heart instantly turns you to ash.

Kromphart, Alice - English / Welcome
All of your meals left Deep Country for Bastion

They didn’t take too kindly when you came after them


Society of Advancements in Goblet Technology: Share ownership of a bowl-sized goblet that turns all liquid inside it into a niche brandy made at least partially of spinal fluid.

A registered lycanthrope license, teeth and claws (d8)

£1 A Job with Mascot Manufacturing: Take a disturbingly realistic fursuit.
£2 Guard Dog Kennels: You ended up getting along with the dogs better. Take one as your companion.
£3 They mixed you up with somebody else and sent you to a Pyromaniac Rehabilitation Facility: Take a map of Bastion’s parklands and approved locations for therapist-sanctioned prescribed burns. Your wolfish nature always disapproved of the practice.
£4 Dan Dewey’s Allmeat Slaughterhouse: Take a sealed lunch pail full of anonymous meat.
£5 St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves: Take an instructive textbook detailing how to adapt to human behavior.*
£6 Coal Mines: Take a pickaxe and a wallet full of nearly-useless company store vouchers.

1HP You cannot wear human clothes.
2HP Your speech is always punctuated with GROWLS AND BARKS.
3HP You struggle to avoid EATING SMALL CRITTERS.
4HP Technically you’re just a BIPEDAL WOLF, not a werewolf.
5HP You have too many FLEAS (all of which are quite polite and do ask you ask)
6HP Your slobber is ACID.

Green Screen Ghost and Spirit 2 - YouTubeEVICTED ECTOPLASM
The variety of cutting edge astral-projection tech in Bastion suckered you in

Now you’re a ghost made of colored ectoplasm, unsure how to get back to your body


Dewey, Cheatem & Howe: A law firm who have been waiting in the lobby of an inn for a client afflicted with severe slow-motion sickness for the past four months.

An outdated map that should lead back to your body’s last location, a bottle of ether.

£1 You got caught up in a drawn out legal battle. When the courts had already taken your home and all your possessions, they still weren’t satisfied, and took your body.
£2 You meditated a little too much one day and transcended right out of your body. You have d4 followers fascinated by your inner peace.
£3 You underwent cryogenic freezing to wait for a time period when your body’s illness has a cure. You can freeze a moderate amount of liquid on contact.
£4 You are actually just dead and hanging around for another go at it. 
£5 You used a designer drug to project from your body. You can contact your old dealer by telegram.
£6 You spent too much time daydreaming at work  

1HP Floating on a boat out to Deep Country.
2HP At the Laraby Medical Suites, undergoing shock therapy.
3HP As a dummy audience member at an unpopular political candidate’s rally.
4HP Passed out in a opium den, the other attendees none the wiser.
5HP As a scarecrow in the fields.
6HP Eating a sandwich and petting a kitten on the stoop of an apartment building.

*This is based off of the excellent short story “St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” by Karen Russell
**These are partially based off of the White Wolf RPG line Orpheus.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

What makes for a weak class system?

This post is to put a name on what I feel the purpose of a class is in a TTRPG and where I find certain class systems lacking more than others.

The purpose of a class is threefold, with each game placing greater emphasis on some than others:

1. As genre emulation. Classes give players an avenue to imagine their character's features, traits, tendencies, etc. as said class appeared in movies, literature, or other games. The player chooses to be a barbarian because they wish to imagine their character as Conan and the naming/flavor text/suggested style of play facilitates that imagination in a way that no other class does.
2. As ludic tools for expression. The class provides a set of tools unique to itself that the player chooses because they wish to express themselves through those tools. The player finds a warlock's spell list and class features intrinsically interesting and so chooses it to satisfy what they wish to accomplish.
3. As balancing act/numbers game. The class facilitates a role that is implicitly needed or uniquely valuable in the game. Compared to the previous item, this is an extrinsic motivation where the class' tools provide value to the group and resolve problems that will be faced in gameplay. For instance, a party has a thief in part because without one, they will lack the tools to manage certain problems.

I've chosen to list three examples here for the sake of simplicity, but one could argue that these are really two purposes, intrinsic and extrinsic, yet I think genre emulation and ludic expression differ enough. Genre emulation and ludic expression are both intrinsic to the class itself, but while genre emulation is diegetic (exists within the game's world), the language of ludic expression is non-diegetic, external to the games world.

Now, games mechanics often have bearing on the games world itself. A spell like Grease, for instance, has a mechanical element to it, but also has effects on the imagined world and theoretical utility within that world. However, because the spell (and other things such as "Hide in Shadows" or "Berserker Rage") are predicated on mechanical language, I think it's fair to say that ludic expression as it exists on most class sheets is non-diegetic. And even if it were not, most players distinguish the genre emulation side of their class from their abilities. There is often a dissonance between them (perhaps we'll call it ludonarrative dissonance? haha) as the kind of character the player imagines and wishes to emulate is not adequately facilitated by the non-diegetic ludic elements. A great source of frustration can arise when a character who imagines the rogue as a shadowy assassin finds themselves without the ludic tools to express that vision.

We might think of Type 1 classes as (for instance) Vampire: the Masquerade clans, whose unique style of vampirism is often based on horror literature or films. Type 2 classes--maybe Dungeon World or Whitehack. And OD&D is often considered to have type 3 classes, where it is valuable to have all for the sake of collective balance.

For that matter, pretty much every game with a class system ends up having a Type 3 element to it. Even in cases where the games don't encourage party balance or anything, people will inevitably consider the raw utility of a class. I see it most often in games which encourage certain behavioral loops (like games which emphasize combat).

I believe some class systems are lacking when the differences between the classes are not well defined or do not adequately follow through on the promises of a class's purpose. To use 5th Edition D&D as an example, the Barbarian and the Fighter both have unique abilities (ludic tools) that differ from one another and unique flavor text and suggested visuals which imply different genre emulations. However, the ludic tools provided to either class do not (in my experience) create enough meaningful distinction between the two. Whether you wrap a swordsman in Berserker Rage or Second Wind, their diegetic interactions with the world do not differ too much. They both wade into battle.

(D&D is often criticized for having a variety of classes that, through analysis of their ludic tools, are ultimately just different spins on 'violence-doer'. Not that violence is a problem, just that there's a singular purpose to 5e classes.)

This is not to say that flavor text and the imagined reality of the player characters is not gameplay or that it is irrelevant to discussion about games. A GM who recognizes their player's desires will tailor description and refereeing to validate and encourage the players' vision of the characters. To differ between the barbarian and the fighter, the GM would most likely use diegetic descriptions or backstory characters to reinforce genre-emulation differences. In my 5th edition game, our druid player and I worked very hard to rebuild the class's ludic tools in such a way that matched the player's vision of his character.

I'll conclude with this statement: A weak class system occurs when the ludic tools provided do not diversify diegetic play. They might not actually emulate the "type" of character they seek to emulate, or they might be redundant.

What do you think?

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Deck of Many Things

My version of the deck of many things, fitted for a Major Arcana deck of 22 cards. Each card has its upright and reversed meaning listed--the orientation of the card influences its effects.

If you don't have a tarot deck, you can try the Golden Thread Tarot app and simply pull until you get a Major Arcana card.

The Fool
Innocence, New Beginnings, Free Spirit
Recklessness, Inconsideration
Upright: The drawer levels up and may draw up to two more cards.
Reversed: The drawer loses one level and must draw again.

The Magician
Willpower, Desire, Creation
Trickery, Illusions
Upright: You can make anything through your mind alone. Can undo an event that just happened.
Reversed: The madness of the world takes its toll on you. You’re not sure of anything. Mental stats decrease by 2.

The High Priestess/The Medusa
Intuition, Unconscious, Inner Voice
Lack of Center, Repressed Feelings
Upright: Medusa’s gaze can freeze the undesirable in place. Can undo an event that just happened.
Reversed: Medusa sees you. -2 to all saves.

The Empress
Motherhood, Fertility, Nature
Dependence, Emptiness
Upright: It’s time to finally reap what you sowed. Gain a powerful magic item or exalt a mundane possession.
Reversed: You’re full of options and short on energy. All magic items lose their magic and replacements appear.

The Emperor
Authority, Control, Structure
Tyranny, Madness
Upright: Fate has bent to make you a leader of men. You gain a keep that must be won.
Reversed: You gain a permanent madness while gaining proficiency in a random skill.

The Hierophant
Tradition, Morality, Ethics
Rebellion, Subversiveness
Upright: The favor of a widely-accepted god and a clerical ally of level 4.
Reversed: The favor of a Weird god and a monstrous ally with 4 HD.

The Lovers
Partnerships, Union, Duality
Loss of Balance, Discord
Upright: Your soul is bonded with another. Advantages of ceremony when around them, and can Scry on them at will.
Reversed: You are certain of nothing, but know that your skills will defend you from a world you perceive to be uniformly violent. Acquire an artifact weapon.

The Chariot
Direction, Control, Willpower
Aggression, Lack of Control
Upright: With control, willpower, and restraint, you could be great. If you defeat your next opponent in single combat or negotiate a peace from violence, you gain a level.
Reversed: You’ve lost control of yourself through all the violence. You must defeat your next opponent in single combat or negotiate peace from violence or lose a level.

Bravery, Compassion, Focus
Insecurity, Weakness
Upright: The results of hard work and dedication always look like luck. +4 on your best and worst saving throw.
Reversed: You know what your weaknesses are, and you can’t shake the feeling that they rule you. -4 on your worst saving throw.

The Hermit
Contemplation, Search for Truth, Inner Guidance
Loneliness, Isolation
Upright: You feel an inner pull toward the truth. You learn a new language. Casters learn a random spell of 3rd level. Non-casters learn a tool proficiency.
Reversed: In your search for mastery, you’ve become isolated from the world. Casters learn a random spell at the cost of -2 to a physical stat. Non-casters learn a tool proficiency at the cost of -2 to a mental stat.

The Wheel
Change, Cycles, Fate
No Control, Bad Luck
Upright: What goes down must come up. Next time you are reduced to 0 HP or crit, get a second wind and regain half your HP. Gain a small magic item.
Reversed: What goes up must come down. Next time you fall to Death's Door or are critically hit, you die or are disfigured, respectively.

Clarity, Truth, Cause and Effect
Dishonesty, Unaccountability, Unfairness
Upright: You know who you are, and it’s coming around to reward you. Gain a level.
Reversed: Your success is being held back by a lie, and the unfairness is coming around. A past sin comes to haunt you until you atone, whereupon you level up. This can manifest as a resurrected enemy, a backstory element, or a past action with an unexpected impact.

The Hanged Man
Sacrifice, Martyrdom, Release
Needless Sacrifice, Fear
Upright: You’ve lost plenty, and you’ll lose more. But it’s nothing compared to what you’ll gain. You lose all material wealth but gain a level.
Reversed: So much has been lost on your journeys. Even more will come. It must be worth it, right? You lose a level but gain 50,000 gold pieces.

Endings, Change, Transformation
Clinging, Stagnation
Upright: Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. Immediately level up in a new class, cannot gain more levels of your previous class.
Reversed: You’re holding on to the past. Who knows if you’ll ever let go? Can never level up again, cursed to undeath.

Patience, Meaning, Compromise
Extremes, Lack of Balance
Upright: A balance has been struck. A powerful enemy seeks to aid you.
Reversed: Balance has been lost. You lose all your material wealth.

The Devil
Excess, Materialism, Playfulness
Freedom, Release, Restoring Control
Upright: Your desire for more has been rewarded, but everything has a cost. You gain the treasure of a powerful devil, who wants it back.
Reversed: A rogue devil seeks to damn you.

The Tower
Sudden Upheaval, Pride, Disaster
Disaster Avoided, Fear of Suffering
Upright: Disaster has struck. This is your last year alive. During it, you will lose everything.
Reversed: Thunder echoes ominously in the distance. You act as a lightning rod for all lightning and cold damage, which you have resistance for. If lightning is within 100’, it will always either strike you instead or additionally strike you.

The Star
Hope, Faith, Rejuvenation
Insecurity, Faithlessness
Upright: You woke today rejuvenated, with a new sense of purpose. +2 to 1 ability score (max 20).
Reversed: You feel drained of hope, like you’re bound to make one mistake, and then you’ll be gone forever. -2 to a random ability score.

The Moon
Unconscious, Illusions, Intuition
Confusion, Fear, Misunderstanding
Upright: In this moment, your unconscious desires could be made manifest. 1 wish.
Reversed: The confused, hidden, and misunderstood attributes of the moon are manifest within you. Lycanthropy.

The Sun
Joy, Success, Celebration
Negativity, Sadness
Upright: 1 Ability Score goes up by 2.
Reversed: 1 Ability Score (randomly determined) goes down by 2.

Reflection, Reckoning, Inner Voice
Doubt, Self-Hatred
Upright: Draw two cards. An ally picks which one applies to you.
Reversed: An NPC becomes hostile, convinced of your danger.

The World
Fulfillment, Harmony, Completion
Incompletion, No Closure
Upright: A destiny will be fulfilled. A lost friend returns to aid you in your current quest.
Reversed: Something in another’s life is incomplete, unresolved, thanks to you. A felled enemy returns for revenge.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Thunderclan and Ludum: Campaign Retrospective

My D&D campaign ended last week. After two years of play, several thrwarted rituals, at least one romance, a masquerade ball, two destroyed cities, and 4 player character deaths, we finally reached a point where we were all comfortable closing the book on these characters. It's tempting to look through and create a highlight reel in my mind of my favorite moments. (Allying with Felkrash, the Marjorie revelation, trashing Jasper Skellig's casino, the rescue of Lady Emilia, Olgo and Simsy, disaster in the Crimson Bat's lair, the trial of Lennoc, the time-warped dungeons of Fort Vaux, Salty becoming the Champion of Aquilas, Zahida tearing Dragon King Ezra's throat open from the inside, Freesia incinerating her own eyeball to prevent the apocalypse...)

But overall it's been an amazing game. I found it incredibly freeing as the game went on and I found out more and more of my ideas were enjoyable and brought out more and more creativity in the players. As time went on I became relaxed, abandoning historical accuracy, tonal consistency, and game balance in favor of a more sprawling and adventurous world. The PCs constantly surprised me and I was always surprising myself with random rolls, little emergent moments, etc. I owe a great deal of this to my discovery of the Old School Renaissance, whose brilliant, imaginative, and freeing ideas have inspired and improved my game.

But there are always lessons to be learned, so let's begin.

1. Structure is painful and not desirable.

I believe now that D&D is firmly unsuited to telling a dramatic 3 arc story complete with fully-fledged character arcs and main plots, primarily because of the fickle nature of players and secondarily because the core loop of typical D&D is not suited to one long adventure but rather a series of problems that demand creative solutions that likely produce more problems.

In a lot of ways, I was very fond of the 'central' plot of the game. At the conclusion, this central plot seems to have been largely about impossible decisions, family, love, loss, and personal transformation. These themes were not primarily decided by me, but rather arose out of me and my player's shared interests and fascinations. The central plot did end up dealing with an apocalyptic scenario that the heroes did have to deal with (or in their case, postpone and indirectly recreate), but that was more or less because I felt like I was stuck in that from the get-go.

My conclusion at the end was that I did not enjoy the world-ending terror of a traumatized queen and her cosmically doomed sons as much as I enjoyed, say, the romantic tension between one secretary and a rockstar, the tension of saving loved ones from a terrible dungeon, or the solemn task of returning a traitorous and mad centaur to be judged by his bretheren.

The stories that I enjoyed running the most were the ones that resisted structure or grand-ness. I like a scrappy story and I like a human story. No matter how much human drama was present in Queen Rosaria and the moral weight she shouldered, the scale of it was less relatable to me and less enjoyable to run. (Though it still was amazing and broke my heart)

In the future, I think shapelessness will be the way to go. No need for world-ending plots when the adventures can be driven by the player characters and the people they encounter on their journeys, and the problems they face. I would rather the characters win a Golden Mask and battle a mad cleric for the fate of a Duke's soul than have them Wrestle With Fate Itself In A Dramatic Battle For The Fate Of Mankind. In real life, there is no finality or climax, just a series of interconnected tales that cumulatively mean everything.

Another negative trait of focused structure was that this campaign often stressed me out unreasonably. I am already prone to nervous fits over the slightest thing, but I did not need nervous fits about "will we finish this adventure in time" or "what if everyone hates me because it took a long time to get to their big ending oh god" and any game structure that prevents that is better in my eyes.

2. 5e characters (even when you ignore and change several rules) develop rapidly, which can alter the game just as rapidly

Character advancement in our game was based on milestone (mistake).

Milestone leveling sounds fine if you're trying to run a game in which 'story' is first and foremost, or if you don't want to add up XP, but either way, it at least requires a clearly set upon definition of a milestone. Otherwise, all level gains feel arbitrary. At least twice, I threw levels to the players for completing tremendous tasks even though it didn't technically mark a major conflict resolution. At one point, I think the players leveled twice in a month, and then didn't level up again for several months. That's all on me, considering I was responsible for it altogether. In the future, I think I will have to either use XP or at least stick to my guns on levels.

By the end of the game, players were between levels 8 and 12. Many 5e DMs will be shocked to hear that a player joining at a time when almost all players were level 9 started at level 4. But this is part of my commitment to creating a dynamic and challenging world that feels real and threatening. In the end, level gaps were present but (in my view) not terribly significant due to the complexity and broad scope of the threats faced. 100HP is a good number, but it can't solve puzzles or negotiate with NPCs. You have a +5 million attack bonus? That's cool, but when the threats you face are so monumentally powerful, it's going to take more creativity and lateral thinking than it is going to take numbers. I believe that a 7th level player character coming up with the perfect solution to kill a CR 20+ Ancient Dragon and executing that plan perfectly is definitive proof that balance is not terribly meaningful.

However, advancement is bound to change the tone and the game and the behavior of player characters, often for the worse. The minute your PCs gain Fireball and magical armor, they start to wade into battle with confidence that they can probably win by attrition, which is ultimately negative in my opinion. The most satisfying battles are ones where the players have a brilliant plan and execute it effectively and quickly. The least satisfying battles are ones where each side expends all their resources in a head-on firefight that lasts until one side collapses.

A lone ambush the party endured at the hands of a Mind Flayer (which killed 2/3 of the party) did make them behave differently, of course, and the fear of that moment hovered over the rest of the game, but part of the players becoming superheroic means that truly terrible threats can appear meaningless. A sufficiently beefy man with a warhammer should be threatening at any level, in my opinion, and in the future I think I'll be searching for a system that allows for that.

Additionally, and this is a smaller beast, higher-leveled players can result in some social problems. One player feels unstoppable and behaves recklessly or cruelly to the discomfort of other players. It can (infrequently) result in a situation where a player behaves in an antisocial or narcissistic way due to feeling entitled to their strength. Fortunately, we never seemed to run into a situation where the majority of players felt so empowered by their 5th level spells that they stopped caring about human drama or started stabbing world leaders with 1d6 HP just because they were kind of dickheads, but power creep and poor behavior can be a problem.

3. I like old school playstyles and mindsets.

Even though I'm still rather young, my first D&D game was B/X D&D, which is now my favorite edition of the World's Most Popular RPG. Its simplicity, directness, sparse beauty, and elegance are so broadly applicable to fantasy gaming that I frequently fell back on many of those rules and rulings when running my 5e game. By the end, the players and I had torn apart and reconstructed enough of 5th edition's rules and cultural assumptions that it's difficult to say we were even playing the same game anymore. (Me least of all. Even though I used the same fundamental math for attack, damage, saving throws, DCs, and etc., I have barely looked at the books in at least a year.)

By old school I don't necessarily mean evoking the exact rules or culture surrounding B/X or OD&D from the 70s, but rather the following principles laid out by beloved game designer and critic Ben Milton, who described old school play as involving high lethality, an open world, a lack of pre-written plot, an emphasis on creative problem solving, an exploration-centered reward system, a disregard for "encounter balance", the use of randomness to generate world elements that surprise both the players and dungeon masters, and a very strong DO-IT-YOURSELF attitude.

I think that my players would agree that these things became more and more apparent in our game as we went on, and I think that I felt more and more at home when these things were at the front of my mind. These standards (and the creativity of others in the Old School scene) helped me feel more creatively liberated. And by the way the players gradually began behaving and acting, this increased their creativity, engagement, wonder, and sense of accomplishment when they achieved the impossible and meaningfully changed the world.

And to close...


1) Tone (the Deep, the World Below, and Concord most notably)
2) Horror (All I have to do is invoke the Alhoon or include a naked person covered in blood)
3) Coming up with weird magic items (I have written enough index cards with weird gonzo spells and items on them for at least two more years of play)
4) Making NPCs that players develop affection for (Marjorie, Rakim, Candaci, Set)
5) People-oriented conflicts (Especially ones wherein nobody is truly evil and the nonviolent solutions are possible)
6) Foreshadowing and reincorporation (Pretty much everything was accidentally or purposely foreshadowed, owing to my own obsession with daydreaming and irony.)
7) Consequences to player's actions (The industrialization of Orlane being the cumulative effect of Thunderclan's action, Ianus' abandonment resulting in a chaotic Hamlet, the resurgent threats of the Redhood thieves when the group failed to deal with them, the way resentment between Vander Coil and Thunderclan insistently grew, how Freesia eclipsed the Monarch, etc.)


1) Economy stuff and treasure with monetary value ("Uh, it's like a bag of gems? Probably worth about 100 gold. In fact, just put 100 gold on your character sheet, we'll just assume you trade it in when you get back to town.")
2) Shutting up and letting players figure things out by themselves ("Guys, before you talk in circles for too long: [blatant hint or answer to the pressing question]")
3) Ending sessions (I really need to start saying "till next time!" as soon as I start to burn out, but aforementioned anxiety about time pressure contributed to this...) (It has become an embarrassing joke that I can't finish a game within 4 hours)
4) Killing player characters (I blame power creep and the fact that it took a while for me to really develop a death-friendly attitude towards RPGs, mainly because I am a soft-hearted crybaby who wants everyone to get along)

I loved this game. It was brilliant, exciting, inspiring, unforgettable, and I'm so glad that the first years-long campaign I ran happened now at this point in my life, where my own demons threatened to swallow me whole (and no, I'm not talking about Orcus). Thank you to the writers of unforgettable modules and the bloggers of the Old School Renaissance for all the advice, assistance, and inspiration. Thank you to all the players, past and present, for your companionship, for gifting me wine, and for believing in this world as deeply as I did. The thunder rolls on into the distance, but the clan is forever.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Review: A Night at the Golden Duck

This weekend I ran Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess’ zine-module A Night At The Golden Duck.

We played it as a one-shot with two veteran players and one complete newbie. I had them roll up Into the Odd characters who all got firearms in their starting package and dubbed themselves ‘Gunpals’.

The premise: Your players shelter from a deadly storm in an inn built out of a tree stump. The hostess tells everyone at dinner about a great treasure (the titular duck) hidden somewhere in or around the inn.

The adventure itself is a stylish black comedy which sets the stage for a) a murder mystery b) a treasure hunt c) the strangest evening ever or d) all of the above and more. The NPCs receive the majority of the focus, and the layout of the inn is simple enough that the majority of the comedy/drama/violence is centered on the five weirdos your players meet.

The weirdness of it is a draw -- the hostess is a giant beetle, a doctor on the premises is a deeply paranoid crow, there is a tremendous royalist ape with a heavy French accent, a cursed nihilist, and a self-confessed kleptomaniac that your players will find darling or annoying… at the start, at least.

Scrap’s art is tremendous, my players were able to imagine a clear physicality for every character (Armstrong is eight feet tall, Chaffinch moves like an animated figurine, Miss Tricks scuttles on the walls) through her illustrations alone. Patrick’s writing -- purple prosey and discursive usually -- is clipped to a length more manageable than some of his other works, making for a quick and engaging read that retains a lot of depth.

The character pages are so vivid and clear that the encounter runs itself. The NPCs each have some reason to side against each other, and the players will almost certainly rub at least one of the patrons the wrong way. Everyone’s nighttime plans will eventually stumble over one another in a spectacular display of poisonings, thievery, and finger-pointing.

I love how many tiny little micro-challenges seem naturally built into the module -- Arm-Long Armstrong’s nighttime habits will give stealthy treasure-hunters a challenge, navigating the inn can be made simple through some clever tree-climbing, and the central mystery can be made a non-issue by a halfway-decent French speaker who asks Miss Tricks to repeat her story again.

It’s hilarious, off-the-wall, full of possibility, and would never play the same way twice.

As for negatives? Well, it’s a big thing in a small package, and it’s hard to incorporate every little NPC’s quirks into the game -- possibly helpful that some of them are bound to be killed through the course of the night. And I’ll echo that the execution of the map on the flip-side of the zine is unfortunate; the map is nice so you want to use it, but it’s attached to the booklet you’ll want to reference and contains the answer to the mystery on it. If you have some time to prepare then you’d photocopy it yourself and scribble the DM notes out, but I didn’t have time and I like how big the map is. Oh well.

So what happened to my group? One of the player characters managed to freak the Doctor out with a simple philosophical quandary and Miss Tricks was flustered by the group’s rudeness many times. Pierre Pierre Pierre and the PCs formed an alliance to suss out the treasure, but before long, [REDACTED] ended up killing Doctor Roaaak and throwing him from the roof into the outhouse. The PCs determined the suspect’s guilt by using the mechanics of Armstrong’s curse, and one thing led to another until one of the PCs murdered Pierre Pierre Pierre in a petty duel. They didn’t solve the mystery -- they found a randomly generated treasure in one of the rooms which allowed them to phase through walls and believed that the error in the Golden Duck story was ‘cannot door’, meaning the treasure they found. Instead the two PCs uninvolved in the duel with Pierre took the treasure and disappeared into the night.

It was a wonderful night and your players will adore it. Everything Patrick and Scrap do, with each other and independently, is novel and wonderful.

Buy it here:

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Ghosts, Part 1

A good ghost suggests something complex, unexplored, and tragic with its every action. It leads players down a quest regardless of what their plan becomes. 

Putting a ghost to rest is more than just fear (that it will kill you if you don't)... it's hope (that the ghost will find peace), sympathy (because most adventurers will naturally see themselves in the dead), and curiosity (because players know that the more information they have on the dead and their lives, the more information they have to help them survive).

Basically ghosts are dope as fuck and here are tables for making a few. Possibly I'll turn to the OSR discord for more ideas. Eventually these will join a bunch of other writings I have on ghosts for a ghastly compendium. We all have dreams.

Image result for ghost painting

Ghost Features, Patterns, and Habits:

1. It drinks from the same body of water every night.
2. It carries something visible only to itself in its scabbed and flaking hands.
3. It pulls teeth from the dead of this place.
4. It smells your palm and pushes its muzzle soft against it if you are unarmed.
5. It digs up anthills and upends birds nest in its search.
6. It lingers by the fire.
7. It never lets you escape without taking something.
8. A deranged mother visits it every night, kisses it, and returns it to its crib.
9. It strips bark from trees. It could strip skin too, and would.
10. It snaps the line to the outhouse, leaving villagers in the blizzard.
11. A body that looks exactly like it is found hanging on the outskirts of town every morning.
12. It taps its foot in the darkness.
13. Flowers grow where it goes.
14. It died in the chimney pipe, and turns all fires in the house deadly.
15. It stocks its home with brave fools -- still alive -- and never lets them go.
16. It screams never end, but you will only understand its words if you mimic its long-dead companions.
17. It falls in love and grows attached easily. It turns on you even easier.
18. It possesses the living and puts them to sleep in odd places. When their host is shaken awake, they strike.
19. It will suffer no cages.
20. It has a twin.

Ghost Forms:

1. Its skin is white like maggot’s meat.
2. Its coat is black as the sky.
3. Behind its mask scratch little claws, rats suffocating in the dark.
4. A great black bear. Blind. A hundred hunters have reported its death. It grows crueler each day.
5. It drifts under the water, looking up at passerby.
6. A ghostly man is led by some invisible thing on a leash. The man is harmless -- the collared thing is not.
7. A lantern swings from its fingers.
8. Its legs are long like yearling oaks.
9. Three of them together --  a pale elk, a hunchback, and a white wolf. They died together, somehow.
10. It has been many things in the past era. Now? A pearly white water flow that seeps through the cracks in the ground. It is much greater in volume than it lets on.
11. Only children can report its form accurately.
12. Three eggs hatched. The fourth lay dead and cold. Now it sings bright and clear near the nest.
13. The cult’s horrific ritual merged their minds together, and their dreams took on an abstract and monstrous shape.
14. The kidnapper would blend into the night in grim, black, thick attire.
15. Its headwear is reminiscent of a warrior of a previous age.
16. The sun has bleached it so intensely over millenia that it is now essentially transparent.
17. This two-headed horse, condemned and unridden, had enough hate in it to keep it alive for just a few more weeks of murder.
18. The woman fussed about the decorations so much that in death, she has become them -- shattered china flying through the air, warped and gigantic candlesticks barring the doors.
19. Thirty joints wherever there should just be one, it twists and angles itself everywhere in the house at once.
20. Two brothers and a small chest they decided was worth killing each other over.

Related image

Ghost Abilities:

1. It saps all desire to escape from its haunt. You belong with it.
2. It sees you most in darkness.
3. It obscures exits easily.
4. It is easy to hide from but impossible to outrun.
5. It steals the air from the rooms it floats within.
6. It will always break something if you drop it.
7. It can change size unpredictably.
8. No fires will burn for longer than d6 turns in its presence.
9. If it touches you, you will not sleep until it is banished.
10. It will never let you see it.
11. It can flee so quick that no bullet or blade will catch it.
12. Its bones lurch and jump around its haunting place, and shoot out at passerby.
13. Its sight alone turns you hostile and anxious.
14. Its bite causes a spreading rot that can only be healed by holy means.
15. It steals your most useful asset.
16. It can start a fire that can only be extinguished with Remove Curse.
17. It saps the ink from books within hours of the book entering its haunt.
18. It will compel you to dance with it.
19. It can drain living things of moisture.
20. It can change the nature of all elemental attacks to their opposite, and reflect them back.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Emotional Motivations vs. Action Motivations

A common theme in D&D statblocks is the inclusion of a monster/NPCs 'motivations', often laid out as whatever scheme they have going on, who they want to kill, what evil plan they want to see succeed or fail.

For the most part they use action-based language to inform the prospective GM.

HD 5. Armor as plate. Halberd 1d10. Movement standard.
Motivations: Serve the Undead Prince Orcus, open a gateway to Hell, overrun the village of Thalma.

I am curious about the possibilities and differences of an emotions-based language for motivations.

So it becomes...

HD 5. Armor as plate. Halberd 1d10. Movement standard.
Motivations: Overcompensation for insecurity, jealousy, fits of violent rage in response to his own perceived failings.

I think both of these function quite well, and tell the GM different things.

The first (action based) is simple and gritty and indicates how best to factor this monster or NPC into a larger picture, adventure, or campaign.

Meanwhile, the second (emotion based) deals with larger concepts but works on a micro level -- it helps you run the encounter with emotional knowledge and nuance, as well as informing you of the things that truly drive this character. Which gives you greater insight when running a social encounter. The possibilities increase when the text suggests that there are ways to befriend or deceive a character that aren't simply "go along with his plan to slaughter a dozen orphans".

Which do you prefer? What strengths and weaknesses do you see in either?