Monday, November 13, 2017

TridentCon 2017

This last weekend, I was fortunate enough to throw dice at TridentCon, up in Parkville, MD. It's a small, non-profit convention that's largely OSR-focused, but also draws in the Pathfinder and 5e crowds, as well as the myriad of other games people play these days.

I played in two of Rich McKee's incredible Stonehell games, both Saturday and Sunday. These were great old-school dungeon crawls, and a group of third-level adventurers managed to survive a small war against the local goblin tribe with zero deaths (besides the near complete loss of our small group of henchmen), and through some careful (read: a show of pure force) politicking, our party's Fighter became the tentative Goblin King.

The second session was a little more focused on room-clearing and treasure-nabbing than political maneuvers, but was still a blast. Two players joined in at the last minute and had to leave early, but we still managed to make it steal from a dragon, make it down to the third floor of Stonehell, and encounter some Thouls (so old-school!) and fight a pair of weightlifting ogres. This angered the rest of the ogre presence on the third level, so we beat a hasty retreat and just made it out of the dungeon alive.

Eric Hoffman's Eaters of the Dead/The 13th Warrior adaptation was our 1:00 PM game Saturday, and as it turns out, I absolutely do not have the head for miniatures wargaming. The game was focused on recreating the three major battles from The 13th Warrior, and was a great look at the combat systems found in Chainmail and OD&D, but was relatively slow-paced compared to what I'm used to, and the loss of most of my units early-on meant I had to do a lot of sitting and waiting during most of the combat.
Despite this, it was a lot of fun to see old-school wargames in action and to hang out with some truly devoted guys. Eric's games are always an absolute joy to play.

My one viking held the line through two battles, and then he fell down a pit.

Our last game Saturday night was a 5e D&D Greyhawk Reborn trainwreck.
Now, I don't like telling people how to play their games. There's something for everyone out there and you can enjoy what you want if that's your thing. That's cool. But this was so absolutely joyless and bland that I can't help but tear into it.

The game was a straightforward "You're all drawn to this town on separate errands that just might all be tied together by some kind of central plot element!"
This is fine. It's almost as standard as "You all meet in a tavern" but sometimes it just works. However, my read-aloud motivation from the DM absolutely blasted me with more information than I could handle. Something about an heiress searching for a missing piece of property? I honestly can't remember, but it was way too much. Good on a DM who wants to have a lot of backstory, but that's not why I'm playing a game at a con.

Then, to find the damn macguffin I had to look around for information. I rolled up to the village tavern and threw some money around on drinks for the crowd, and schmoozed the villagers for information on the clearing in the forest I was looking for.
Then I had to roll a History check.

See, I like 5e a lot as a game. It's probably the most absolutely standard RPG in all of history, but it works and it's got a fair amount of depth for people who care about that. It's also pretty easy to teach to people. This was absurd, though. I shouldn't have to roll a History check to learn facts from people. Maybe a Persuasion check to coax information out of them, sure, but it's a goddamn role-playing game and I'm going to fucking roleplay. I don't want to just sit around and roll dice and cheer when they mean something good.

Good news is the DM was a good sport and was clearly passionate about the game he was running. He let me talk to monsters, and did a GREAT Kobold impression. He seems like a good guy doing his best to run games. I don't like his style but I can respect him a lot as a person.

Bad news was the entire game played out like my search for information. Some searching in the woods and talking our way through some kobolds found us in a linear puzzle dungeon that came down to a series of consequence-free dice checks.

Raiders of the Lost Ark-style spinning death blades! Roll a check to get through! The next trap room heals you!
You're shot with arrows! They just make you kind of wet!

Some more of this, some combat with some dopey mummies and a simple puzzle, and then a lame boss fight with a powered-down Lich-type dude. He dies, we're all winners! Now we fill out a math worksheet for the wack-ass Greyhawk Reborn persistent game world.

Now, there were good ideas here. I like talking to Kobolds and Goblins a whole lot. They're fun and it's nice to see a DM who can roleplay. Me and him also shared some laughs over me swashbuckling a floating sword Ray Harryhausen-style during the end fight. It was almost a great time, even with some lackluster adventure design, but it was really brought down by the other players. I'm not going to waste my time shitting on anyone here, but saying "of course I'm popular with the ladies" and then yelling across the room at some poor woman from your last game is not going to make me want to play games with you.

There was some DCC Sunday afternoon, as run by my friend Kyle, but that really deserves its own post.

All in all, a great TridentCon! There's some tenuousness about the status of the con next year, but hopefully we'll all be back in 2018.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Generic Fantasy Campaign Seed #458472

Your party is exiting the settled lands of the south for fortune and glory in the untamed wilderness of Hyperborea;
On your way to the most remote outpost of the Acadian Empire, you make camp one night in a small grove beside the rough path you've been following for the past few days.

An old man wanders in from the cold, windswept night to sit by your fire, clad in rags and leaning heavily on a crooked staff.
He offers up what little knowledge he possesses in exchange for his place and a share of the meal.

After he wolfs down what food he's offered, he regales you with this tale-

"Shrouded in a sunless forest, at the foot of the Daggerfall mountains, there lies a keep, built in a forgotten age.

Hidden in its endless subterranean chambers are vaults containing treasure beyond your imagination.

If one could conquer its hordes of guardians, both human and bestial, they would attain an array of unspeakable powers and artifacts, and wealth the likes of which no god has ever seen.

All this and more lie within the Castle of Sorrows!"

Monday, September 18, 2017

Review: The Black Hack

I am a weird fucking stickler when it comes to my RPGs. I'm a huge fan of 1981 Basic/Expert Dungeons and Dragons, and I love Advanced D&D and Dungeon Crawl Classics, but there's a certain sweet-spot of rules-light RPG content that I really, really love. I don't really care for ultra-light games because they tend to lack any inherent flavor of their own. I didn't think I'd like The Black Hack at all because it's essentially the platonic ideal of an ultra-light RPG. On the other hand, it's $2.00.

First of all, let me give you the basics. The Black Hack is an OSR hack of "that Original 1970s Fantasy Roleplaying Game", written by David Black. It's pretty heavily rooted in the spirit of OD&D, but it brings some interesting ideas to the table that seem like attempts to modernize the game, or maybe make it more arcadey? I can't quite tell. Anyway, that's the gist of the game, so let's dive in and see what's cool and what maybe isn't.

The Black Hack does a lot of things I tend to hate outright in RPGs, because at my heart I'm a stickler for the classics. It has armor negate damage instead of raising (or lowering) armor class. It has players roll saves to dodge attacks, rather than having monsters roll attacks. It doesn't even have a sample dungeon in the rulebook (although it does have an example of play, so there's that). There's also only four classes, and doesn't include demi-humans. I'm pretty neutral in that regard, since it's really easy to add features to just about any game, and there's a lot of supplemental material for this ruleset that's at a very similar price point.

However, I was surprised in that I liked all of that, or at least how it's implemented in The Black Hack. I've had a lot of players in my games get attacked by monsters and say "Hey! Can't I roll to dodge?", and I've had to be the un-fun DM and say "Nope. Just sit there while I read this THAC chart I haven't memorized because I'm a schlub." Rolling a saving throw against an attacker (probably, I haven't playtested the game yet) does some interesting things for a player.
First of all, it directly engages them by making them take an active part. As a player, I find it easy to lose track of things when it's not my turn, and just take my punches when I get hit and deal with the aftermath. Then I roll my dice, see if anything happens, and go back to Instagram. Another part of the fun is that it also puts the onus on the player to succeed on their roll. Sure, it's still a random result, but it's so much more fun to succeed or fail by your own doing. It's easy to get wrecked by a non-player monster and feel like the game is rigged against you, especially if you're a new player who doesn't quite get all the rules yet.

The Black Hack also uses Usage Dice. I first encountered usage dice during a pulpy WWII game at a con, where it was used as a simple method of tracking ammunition. The basic idea is that any given expendable item has a usage die associated with it, which is rolled every time that item is used. When a 1 is rolled, the die is reduced to the next die down the dice chain, until you get to a d4, in which case a roll of a 1 or 2 expends your last reserves.

For example: Fafhrd fires an arrow at the Goblin across the room, and rolls a d10 for his supply of arrows. The roll comes up as a 1, so the next time he uses an arrow, he'll roll a d8.

Anyway, this is a pretty cool concept that I like a lot. I prefer keeping track of logistics with specific figures, myself, but unless you're a huge nerd like me, or if you're a new player who's just trying to figure out what the hell is going on, it's a way simpler system, but as a near-complete abstraction of real-life logistics, it can be weird to wrap your head around in some regards.

Experience in The Black Hack is handled in a way that reminds me of something between Dungeon Crawl Classics and Dungeon World. You level up whenever you survive a major event, fight, dungeon level, or session (that's almost an exact paraphrase of the book). When this happens, you get more hit points (yay!) and a chance for an increase to your class's prime attributes (double yay!). This is fine, I guess? Each class also gets added bonuses to their specific abilities. It works. It's not my favorite, but it's straightforward and keeping track of experience points is kind of a bother to some people.

As far as formatting goes, The Black Hack is iffy in a lot of regards. It crams a whole ruleset onto 20 nicely laid-out pages (including the Cover, a title page, and the OGL in the back), which is SWEET if you're into printing off hard copies of your RPG stuff, like I am, but the order information is presented to the reader just feels off to me. Each class has its own page, which is cool (although they don't really need it at all, given how simple the rules for class are) but they're relegated to page 8 of the PDF, when most information for character generation is on pages 3 and 4. Maybe I'm too much of a stickler, but in my opinion, D&D character generation is best laid out as stats, race/class, equipment, everything else. That said, the layout as-is makes sure you know all the mechanics before you get to the classes themselves. I dunno. It's weird.

After the classes, there's a nice lil section on magic for your and a bit of a barebones spell list, but you could easily port over any other Vancian spells you wanted. It works. Nothing really new here.
Then there's a two-page bestiary with monsters listed in order of hit dice (low to high), which is cool. Alphabetical is good for a devoted book, but power level works fine for a two-page list. It's basically just OD&D's greatest hits as far as monsters go, but all you really need is hit dice and the number of attacks/abilities to port over so you can stock your game with anything your heart desires if that's your thing.

And that's it! The Black Hack doesn't seem like it would be my favorite way to play OD&D, but I could see it being fun for a pickup or introductory game with a limited timeframe. It's got some cool ideas and I can definitely see why a lot of people swear by it. It's probably a good alternative to Swords and Wizardry, for people who care about the little differences.
At the end of the day, I don't know if it's for me. but maybe that's okay.

The Black Hack is $2.00 on Drive-Thru

Here's my sample character I made, a Warrior named Theseus. Props for a game where a character can fit on an index card.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

New Post-Apocalypse Game!

This is the little piece of pre-writing I did for a game I'm going to try and run in the next couple months:

"The year is 1997.
The world is in ruins.

In 1983, a Soviet false alarm was triggered by NATO's Able Archer 83 wargame exercise.
They responded by unleashing an R-36 ICBM on Washington, DC.
Within 48 hours, the modern world had been annihilated in nuclear fire.

You have lived most of your lives in the aftermath of a global nuclear war that brought the world to its knees.

You and your companions managed to escape the slaughter in your hometown of New Hope, PA with your lives and what little you could carry.
The truck you stole broke down on the edge of an unnamed town about 6 hours West of your starting point, but by then it was already running on fumes.

You were most likely followed by the masked men that burned your homes and killed your families.

This is the world you live in.
Survive. "

I'm gonna be using the fantastic Ruinations of the Dust Princess, a Lamentations of the Flame Princess deriviative I happen to like.

Hopefully it'll be great!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Real-Life Dungeon Crawling

Under the town of Provins, about 100km from Paris, there's a super rad network of underground tunnels.
See, the French like to build on top of quarries. They tend to build the important shit first, like castles and walls and walled castles, using locally-quarried stone.


Then they go "Oh, fuck, we need to build other things here now, like houses for normal people that aren't castles."

Anyway, this is why a lot of French towns have some kind of tunnel network under them, Paris has its catacombs, and Provins has its underground (souterrain, in French). Everyone knows about the Paris catacombs, though. They've been a pretty popular tourist attraction since the 1700s, when bones got moved out of Paris's giant death pits from the middle ages into the cool pre-existing spooky zone beneath the streets.

Provins's have been made into a tourist attraction as well, but for centuries they were much more than that. After a huge chunk of the town got built out over where the quarry tunnels were located, the spaces got used by townsfolk in lieu of formal cellars, which were impossible in some portions of the town due to the network of ridiculous tunnels that was there instead.

Anyway, visiting those tunnels was probably one of the neatest things I've ever done. Can you imagine living over a huge underground complex and having to deal with it to get to all the crap you could otherwise have in your basement? Even with modern lighting and a recently-refinished floor, it's hard enough to navigate the terrain in the tunnels today. It's also really cold.

As a bonus to hearing me ramble about underground stuff, here's an encounter table of disgruntled townsfolk going about their business in the local dungeon:

On a d4 roll:

  1. Karl the Candler: Selling discount lighting implements to anyone who wanders by. Is accompanied by his two sons, who look exactly like him but shorter and less greasy.
  2. Bert the Mushroom Collector: Using his 2HD truffle-hunting pig, Darlene, to find only the finest medicinal mushrooms. Very smelly, but incredibly friendly. Offers the party vouchers at his market stand, which tends to be open when he feels like it.
  3. d6 Child Adventurers. Will insist they're not in mortal peril. They know where the nearest source of treasure is but insist they're capable of nabbing it. They are most certainly not.
  4. A lost merchant trying to find his underground warehouse. He just took two wrong turns, but no one knows that. He'll pay the party handsomely (1d6x100SP) to help him find his stuff and get it to market.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Encounters in the Great City's Hillside Cemetery

Here are some encounter ideas had while visiting the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris today! They can either be flavor or actual encounters, I'm not sure how I'm going to use them yet.
Use them in your home games!

On 1d6:
  1. A family of squatters shelters in their camp among the tombs. They grip their rusty daggers nervously as you approach.
  2. A gravedigger lectures his 1d4 apprentice(s) on proper technique. He offers the younger among the party a new line of work, and the older members a good deal on a gravesite.
  3. A group of young pranksters who are casting a ritual for fun but getting into much bigger trouble than they reckoned for.
  4. Very apologetic graverobbers. They offer the party a split of the earnings to go into the crypt first, as they pass.
  5. Graffiti artist debating technique with a headstone artist. They wave as the party passes, and offer a swig of hooch.
  6. Funeral procession for: (1d4 roll) 1. A philanthropic merchant, 2. a hated but necessary politician, 3. the leader of a noble family that recently fell from grace, 4. a folk hero among the squatters, his burial paid for by theft and pan-handling
I might add to this, so keep an eye out!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Libraries and also the Future

Paris is a city from the future, probably. Turns out all the cool stuff is exactly where I haven't been for the last week and a half, and I'm just a little spicy about that.

I mean, look at the middle of the National Library here-
I look wistfully into the Neo-Paris skyline as I wait for my hacker contact to hand off 3 megs of hot RAM
It's got a tiny evergreen forest in it, which is not only rad, but is totally the closest we've gotten to the robot pets from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in terms of creating artificial nature in our dystopian cities.

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but it sorta makes sense, though, thinking about it. A lot of speculative fiction is about people dealing with the issues presented by emerging technology, but we've been doing the same thing without thinking about it for pretty much all of history.

A lot of urban design is dedicated to making cities not only functional, but livable. You've gotta have people be willing to exist in your city, once it's built. Libraries and other public spaces are part of that, and reflect what's important to both the designers of these spaces, and the people who end up using them. The forested courtyard here isn't only cool to look at, it's also greenspace, and provides a means for warm, natural light to enter the mostly subterranean library. Also, it deals with an important issue that comes along with a big underground courtyard- dealing with water. 
I'm pretty sure if there were just a patch of grass there, you'd have a swamp the first time it rained. Cool, but not everyone's idea of ideal greenspace. Also, pine trees are cool to look at.

The forest itself isn't accessible as far as I know, but it's still cool to look at, and it's a lot better than the Manila folder-yellow public library I grew up visiting. Good move, France.

TridentCon 2017

This last weekend, I was fortunate enough to throw dice at TridentCon, up in Parkville, MD. It's a small, non-profit convention that'...