Thursday, September 30, 2010

Influence: Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser

I only knew about Fritz Lieber's Lankhmar stories through the "Inspirational Reading" sections of the 1ed Dungeon Master's Guide and the Nehwon mythos of the original Dieties and Demigods.  It was always interesting, but it wasn't until I read the Mongoose RuneQuest Lankhmar supplement that I had really caught the bug and wanted to give the books a whirl.  Last week, I downloaded Swords and Deviltry off of the iTunes bookstore (alas, they don't have The Dying Earth series) and was formally introduced to some of the greatest thieves in fantasy history.

I loved the book.

For my eighth birthday, I received The Hobbit and started down the fantasy path.  My aunt got me the Chronicles of Narnia and The Once and Future King, but I really liked the Tolkien side more.  TSR started putting out the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels and I really stopped reading fantasy when I outgrew that crap.  I picked up some Warhammer Fantasy novels over the last few years, which I considered fun, throwaway reading.  Nothing great, but fun.

Fritz Lieber's Lankhmar books are really great reads for D&D players and referees.  Maybe some of the new-school players might want something more "epic" or "heroic," but for the most part, the concept of adventurers (not heroes) who basically do the right thing for sometimes the wrong reason appeals to the kind of people I play with a lot of the time.  Yeah, some guys really like to try to play the boy scout paladin, but most players are pretty much into self-improvement, loot, and glory.

Having finished Swords and Deviltry, I can see the influence the series had on the game.  And I also see how it can maybe steer you as a player and DM to a different place.  I recommend the books wholeheartedly.  Check them out if you haven't already.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Traveller Sandbox: Using Mongoose's Merchant Prince as a basis for the Troupe

I've been back from Afghanistan for about a week now.  The requisite post-deployment bender is over and it's time to get back to work, both here and in real life.  I put enough PBR into my system over the last four days to make Lindsay Lohan nervous, but I emerged no worse for wear.

While traveling back, I started looking over some of the mini-games and additional rules in the Mongoose Traveller books, to include the fame guidelines in Dilettante and the business rules in Merchant Prince.  The business rules were the ones that caught my eye.  I had created 16 interrelated characters who would form the crux of the troupe.  Using those characters and Merchant Prince, it's easy to create a business framework to give the campaign a plausible background and different mulligans for adventures.

The first step to the creation of a commercial entity is a name and a mission statement.  In order to give the players maximum room for adventuring, I'm thinking it'll be a "troubleshooting" company, which will allow players to be hired out to examine problems and enact solutions that other people/companies cannot handle internally.  Since I'm looking to hold it in QLI's Gateway Domain, I'll set it in the Imperial Trade Cluster and call the company Far End Cluster Executive Consulting, GmbH.  The Far End Cluster name gives the company a throwback to the past and "executive consulting" is a nice, vague way of allowing leeway in company activities. Our mission statement will be "FECEC will solve whatever problems you require with maximum efficiency and discretion."  It's nice, simple, and to the point.

This is, I'm thinking, a Simple mission statement, giving a Control 7 (+0), Dependability 9 (+1), Guile 5 (-1), Management 10 (+1).

The next step is to determine the leadership of FECEC.  There were five characters with noble titles.  I'm thinking they will be the Board of Directors.  They are:

Sir Alaaru Sarudiin, C.E.G. (7 terms Nobility)
Dame Mirai Reus, C.E.G. (2 terms Mercenary, 1 term Drifter, 5 terms Agent)
Baronet Nashu Dinsha, K.C.E.G. (4 terms Nobility, 5 terms Merchant)
Dame Susanna Lien, K.S.C, K.C.E.G. (4 terms Entertainer)
Sir Wulis Vanay, K.S.C (5 terms Entertainer)

One thing I'll disagree with in Merchant Prince is the categorization of Royal Traders as Nobles, not Merchants.  It seems silly that someone like Nashu who spent 20 years brokering deals for nobles will not have access to the Brokerage skill (even though he is a Broker-4).  So, he gets five terms in the Merchants as opposed to 9 in the Nobles.  Spending the points, I decided to give them all at least one point in every skill, since you need to be able to do a little bit of everything as a troubleshooting company.  What we ended up with were the following skills:

Advocacy-5, Agency-2, Brokerage-4, Fabrication-1, Investment-6, Mischief-3, Nobility-6, Propaganda-6, Research-2, Shipping-1

The derived traits for the company end up being Loyalty 10 (employees being fanatically devoted), Reputation 10 (one of the area's most respected companies), Wealth 64 (and this is without any board or outside investment), The starting employee pool is 144.  This gives us an initial ranking of 0.  FECEC is not even close to being a major player in the economics of the region, but they are a highly respected niche agency.

There look to be two Industry Lines that our Wealth and concept can support: Workforce Management and Quality Control.  As a company which can supply labor and process analysis, FECEC's main functions are investigating and auditing companies, as well as getting them in touch with employees who can fulfill certain needs.  This will translate into game terms as investigations and testing (Quality Control) in a Red Team vein, breaking into secure locations to test security and the such, as well as the players being hired out (Work Force Management) on different missions.

At this point, we have a company ready for the mini-games, a framework for the Troupe and several leads on future adventures.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Back Home

I returned to Colorado Springs safe and sound.  No more trips to the box for this guy.

The blog will begin Monday and Thursday updates starting Monday, September 27, 2010.  In the meantime, I will be reacquainting myself with good food and beer.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

GM's Delimma: One Rule to... Ring... them... **facepalm**

While I am sure that many of you are reading James Maliszewski's outstanding column, Grognardia, for those who aren't, I steer you towards the "Old School" does not equal "Rules Light" post.  For someone who has played more systems than Afghanistan has AKs, it's interesting to see people look under the hood of RPGs and start to examine why we like the games we like.

Alexander Macris from The Escapist Magazine, puts forth a very interesting way of look at things:

Perhaps my law school background has colored my thinking on this matter, but I don't view games as "rules light" or "rules heavy". I view them as "common law" or "statutory".

A "common law" game is one in which only the basic principles are given, and then it is up to the GM to elaborate those principles into the law of his campaign over time. However, a good GM does not run such a game by whim; he acts like a judge, following his own past precedents. Over time, the game ceases being rules light, because it has accumulated a campaign's worth of rulings, house rules, and interpretations.

In contrast, a "statutory game" is one in which all facets of gameplay are spelled out by the game designers. Questions that arise during gameplay are solved by re-reading the text and determining what they say, and ambiguities are resolved by trying to understand the intent of the writers.

The benefits of common law games are that they end up being customized to the experiences of their particular set of players. But they rely on having a good Judge (in the literal sense of the world) to issue good rulings, and keep track of his "case law". A bad Judge can screw things up with bad rulings, unbalanced decisions, and so on.

The benefit of statutory games is that you are not reliant on the rulings of a Judge. The drawback is that the games are more complex to understand up front, and may have just as many problems as a common law game, but be harder to fix. 

This is, in writing, what a lot of people who have been gaming for years have experienced in the different games we've played.  How many 20+ year vets can look back to how we played our D&D and say that we did it the same?  I'm sure that if you plopped five old-timers down at a table and talked about the house rules and on-the-fly calls we or our DMs have made, we'd be there for hours.  Hopefully beer is involved.

I don't see many "common law" games coming out these days, none of them from the major publishers.  It's better business sense for a company to follow a "statutory law" mindset.  Let's take the grand poobah of games these days, D&D4e, as an example.  With the extraordinary number of powers and classes and feats and paragon paths and epic destinies and magic items, you've already got a million choices, but they are choices that are already made for you.  "Oh?  You want to play a double-scimitar wielding dark elf who isn't evil?  Cool, choose this, this, and THIS."*

The more statutory you become as a system, the less you can rely on GM/Player caveat to break the mold.  In Warhammer Fantasy's first two editions**, you are reliant on either shoehorning unique character concepts into the existing careers or creating your own.  In D&D 4e, you need to support these options through, at best, creation of a new epic destiny or paragon path.  At worst, you are creating 30 levels worth of powers, that may or may not unbalance the game.

I guess what it comes down to is some systems are better for some players.  When you want your players to have the widest berth, able to do all things with greatness, a common law game is probably your best bet.  When you want something a bit more realistic, where your characters are good at what they're good at and okay at other things, a statutory game is more the speed.

I like them all.  I just like gaming.

* For the record, I LOVED The Crystal Shard when it came out, but I have really developed a loathing for Drizzt in the years hence.  In particular, it was the spawning of "I'm the noble <insert heretofore evil race>, why am I persecuted so?" archetypes in games.  

** I bought the three-ton box that is WHFRP 3e, and I tried to wrap my head around it, but I haven't.  Maybe in November.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The next few months

I'm redeploying from Afghanistan and then moving right into clearing the Army and moving to Pennsylvania from Colorado.

I think I am going to shoot for Monday and Thursday posts here.

The rest of this week may be a wash, however.  Depends on internet access.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Day That Changed My Life

Nine years ago, I was sleeping on my buddy Dan's couch.  I wasn't what you would call a contributor to the common good.  I was technically homeless (although I was pretty much allowed on the couch at will), collecting unemployment, and taking one class at the local college.  It had been a pretty hard night of drinking the previous evening, so I was not terribly pleased when Dan's roommate Robin woke me up.

"Dennis, your mom is on the phone.  She sounds pretty upset," Robin said.  I took the phone.

"Turn on the TV.  We're under attack."

As I turned on the TV, the second tower collapsed.

The next few days were a bit of a blur.  I remember the bars being packed.  And silent.  Everyone wanted to be around each other, but we were all glued to the news.  I tried to give blood, but getting there three hours early wasn't enough to beat the lines.  I gave some cash here and there.  None of it was terribly satisfying.

I realized that the world was no longer about me and I wanted to contribute.

About a week later, I watched a W. speech and it hit me like a ton of bricks.  "I need to join the Army and get in this fight."  That night, I went to my parents' house and told them this much.  The next day, I went into the Army recruiting station.  The day after that, I signed some papers.  The following day, I took my ASVAB.  The next day a physical and a meeting with the career counselor.  I raised my right hand that afternoon.  It was September 24th, 2001.

Nine years on, I am coming to the end of this stage of my military career.  I'm in Afghanistan for the second time, involved in the war I enlisted to fight.  I can add to that five tours to Iraq, the war I am not sure we had any business fighting.  Only time will tell how that plays out.  I have a greater understanding of so many things.  I can call myself a paratrooper and a veteran now, whereas before the words more commonly used to describe me were dropout and drunk.

I realize that this post is all about me, when today should not be.  Today is about the dead we mourn and the families they left behind.  Today is about the images that are forever seared in our minds.  Today is about remembering that there is something larger than each of us individually.

There was a run today on Bagram.  9.11km.  The t-shirts provided to the participants reminded us to "Never Forget."  For some of us who grew up close to or in New York City and Washington D.C., that's never going to be an issue.  Colin Stewart, a Long Island native who I went to basic training with, attended 37 funerals between September 11 and when he shipped to basic.

 You can wrap up things in tidy slogans--Never Forget, Let's Roll, Freedom Endures--but we must remember that there is a greater truth that cannot be summed up in a catch phrase.  Today has a different meaning to each of us.  I guess what is important is that it does have a meaning.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Traveller Sandbox: A Troupe

While watching an Afghanistan morning unfold from the Bagram East Green Bean, I was thinking about Traveller.  I don't recall the exact thought chain but the result was an idea for troupe play.

Each player generates a five or six term character.  If they bust out or choose to retire after five, they stop at five.  If they bust out at six, they're done at six, if they don't--they're still done at six.  These will be the Primary Characters.

Then each player will generate a pair of two or three term character.  Similar rules apply as above.  These will be the Secondary Characters.

Then each player will generate two one term characters.  These will go into the Crew Pool.

I'll fill in the gaping holes in the crew with one term characters which will also be part of the Crew Pool.

If this sounds a lot like Ars Magica's troupe play, you're correct.  I never claimed to be original.

The Primaries will be the main determinants of where the ship goes and what large-scale business it undertakes.  They will drive, early on, the main plots of the campaign.  Each adventure will feature one Primary and the rest Secondaries and Crew.  I'll give players the option to play a Crew in addition to either their Primary or one of their Secondaries.  The Crew characters are, for all intents and purposes, old-school D&D Hirelings.  Sure, some can advance to become Secondaries, as Secondaries can eventually become primaries.  Look at Miles O'Brien on the different Star Trek series he has been on.  What began as what may as well be a named extra, he got more roles on ST:TNG and eventually branched off onto ST:DS9.

A few other thoughts...
  • Primaries need to have a Connection with another Primary and a Secondary, run by a different player.
  • Crew do not get Ship Shares as mustering out benefits.
  • I'm thinking of giving Primaries 3 free Ship Shares and Secondaries 1 free ship share each.  If I have a group of four players, that WOULD give the PCs a 20% discount on the ship on top of what Ship Shares they generate through Character Creation.  This is worth MILLIONS.  I get that.  I think that given the vagaries of this particular style of play, it might be worth giving the players a break, since they aren't exactly set up for success.
  • Trade would occupy a few of the characters who aren't on an adventure.  The rest would get to do something like the Character Catch-Up from Cities, but specifically geared for this milieu.  Since the group as a whole will cover the job aspect with trade/adventure, this would be more of a reflection of what kind of trouble they get into on liberty.
  • I've got several people who I know would love to play, but can't do so all of the time.  This would work very well for them, as they can be assumed to be in the background when they aren't around and email sessions of the CCU would keep them current.
I think this paradigm will result in a much more episodic campaign than an epic sweep.  It sacrifices the singular development of a character for variety of play options and scenarios.  If a group wants to strike out on their own, that would be an easy thing to do.

Who has played troupe games before?  Any advice or criticism?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

I Don't Care Who You Are, This Is Just Cool.

For those of you who love the old school, may I present to you the TSR Mystery Machine...

Props: Bad-ass Orcus Labyrinth Lord Cover.

Over at the Labyrinth Lord blog, there is a BAD-ASS old school poster.  You need to check it out.


Between downloading the season premiere of Sons of Anarchy and dealing with the (hopefully not literal) fallout of Rev. Terry Jones' shenanigans here in Afghanistan, I haven't been too busy with games.  I think I'm going to put off redoing the Career Catch-Up until I have a better idea of what kind of game I'm going to be running in Pennsylvania.

I'm at a pause, then.  Any of my six or seven readers have any suggestions before I find a shiny object to distract myself with?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Toolbox: Character Catch-Up as a Party Generation Tool. (INTERMISSION)

I found pretty quickly that there are some tweaks needed for this to work.  Apparently as swimmingly it went with the first example, I made myself some characters that do not fit quite so nicely in the system.

Plus, I want to work out some of the costs to get them in line with MRQ.

You'll see this thread return, but not until I can get some work done on it.  (Which won't be for a bit, that's going to be some serious tinkering going on)

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Toolbox: Character Catch-Up as a Party Generation Tool. (PART ONE)

Yesterday's blog about "Character Catch-Up" got me thinking.  I acknowledge that using an out-of print source like Cities is kinda craptastic for those of you who may not have it.  It's a generic Chaosium publication, so it's not covered under Mongoose's draconian licensing restrictions, so I'd imagine it would be up to either Chaosium or the authors to reprint it.  Something to look into when I am back in the U.S. of A.

Taverns in Greyhawk are full of people NOT picked for adventuring parties.
 Anyway, clearly from the last post, I love the Character Catch-Up.  I was thinking about other ways to use it.  What if you used it to bring a party together?  Sure, if you have a group of players who have an idea of how they are connected ahead of time, or if you, as the referee, have a plot-derived one, you wouldn't need to figure out how the players know each other.  How often do you get that?  From my experience, you often end up with four to six very unconnected characters.

How do you connect these characters?  Well, you can try to bring them together from the past, or you can bring them together through a random series of events which reflect the randomness that we all tend to meet our friends through.  PLUS, like shown in yesterday's blog, it gives the GM a lot of leads on future opportunities.  Now, some settings and systems are better served for the Character Catch-Up system as it's written right now.  So, for me to test my theory out, I'm going to stack the odds in favor of the system:  Mongoose RuneQuest and the Lankhmar supplement.  A big, cosmopolitan city with clear class structure in a system well suited for the way the system works as its written.

So, we are going to take four brand new RQ characters and have them, week-by-week, go through life in Lankhmar until they get to a point where it's reasonable that they would adventure together.  Then we'll see what leads the GM can take from this and I'll post their final stats in a Rogue's Gallery.

After some work at the East Bagram Green Bean, we have the following heroes:

Grim Vermundson, a bard from the Cold Wastes to the north.  His considerable skill with the hurdy-gurdy and song were not enough for most of his barbarian ilk to overlook his physical weaknesses.  He came south to seek greater acceptance and adventure.
Husayn Tawil, a massive and powerful escaped slave from the deserts of the Eastern Lands.  In Lankhmar, he hopes to find the things that were denied him in his native lands--freedom and gold.
Suleyn the Brewer always felt like he was destined for more.  An accomplished brewer and decent enough baker, he longs for a life outside of his employer's shop.
Marcus Cassius Brutus, an aristocratic warrior-soldier who has returned from campaign.  The decadence of his peers conflicts with the honor of his trade and the guilt from his past weighs heavily on his present.

In Part Two, we'll start the process of running through the weeks to see how the characters' lives devlop and intertwine.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Toolbox: Random Downtime Generator

I was looking through a copy of Chaosium's Cities, which was ostensibly written for all Fantasy RPGs, but is clearly built with Runequest in mind.  While it's got some okay tables for generating encounters on the fly, what really made me go "ooh!" was the "Character Catch-Up" section.  What it serves to do is determine what the characters were up to when the cameras were not rolling.  The original intent was for characters who missed the last session to have something to say for themselves.

I think he heard you say something about the 'stache.

What we're going to do here is see what Selina, the MRQ Lankhmar courtesan from a previous Rogue's Gallery, was up to for four weeks while her man, Tshimanga, is off chasing after a group of brigands who roughed up Brother Kent.

Week One:
Rolling on the Random Events table, we get a 63.  Selina has a chance to invest some cash.  She doesn't have a whole lot of cash, so she'll invest a mere 10 silver smerduks.  Okay, we go to the Investment table, check for fraud (apparently when you start an investment, there is a 10% chance it was a scam and you lose your investment).  She's good (with an 87), so she rolls on the actual table, getting a 94.  The investment is liquidated, and she rolls a 5 to get her investment back tripled.  A 20 smerduk profit on a one week investment.  Nice.

Since Selina has a job, she rolls on the Savings table to see how much of her weekly salary she saved.  With a roll of 75, she was able to save 30% of her weekly income.  I have no idea what that is.  Nothing in the Mongoose Lankhmar book, but my Deluxe RuneQuest book has it.  Oddly enough, there are no prostitution rules in the "Finding a Job" section.  I'm going to say that we'll consider her an Entertainer and her prime requisite will be Influence to see how much she gets paid.  With her Influence of 39, and Lankhmar being a large city, she brings in 7d10 smerduks a week.  I roll 44 smerduks, of which she brings home 13 smerduks and 2 algols.

We have the opportunity to roll once on the Gambling table, but we'll pass.  She doesn't strike me as the gambling type.  She can now buy any kind of items or goods.  She's got 62.7 smerduks, which we'll say she's saving up to eventually own her own brothel (unless Tshimanga stops being a jerk and starts taking her on adventures with him and she can do THAT for a living).  A quality home in a city like Lankhmar is about 6,000 smerduks.  She has a long way to go.

The article has a section on improving skills, but says if your system has its own system, that'll supercede the article.  MRQ has a system, so we'll use it here.  To help her make more money, she is going to practice both her Influence and her Dance skills.  Ever the individualist, she does this on her own without a mentor.  She rolls a 63 for Influence and a 43 for Dance.  Improvements in both!  Her Influence is now 42 and her Dance is now 26.  She decides to bank 30 of her smerduks, and the week ends.

Week Two:
Oh damn.  Rolling an 84 on the Random Events table, her living quarters burn down.  Fortunately, she rolled under 50% and was able to save her belongings.  At least she rented and didn't own.  She earned 35 smerduks, of which she was able to bring home 10.5.  Again, no gambling or investing.  She'll practice her Influence and Dance some more.  She only improved her Influence by 1, but her dance went up a whopping 2.  She banks the 10 smerduks.

Week Three: 
With a 44 on the Random Events table, she befriends someone.  A Tavern keeper gives her free drinks and lets her sleep off the effects by the tavern's fire at no cost.  She earned 35 smerduks, but was unable to save any of it.  I guess the new inn she is staying in is pricey.  She improves her Influence by a mere 1 again, but her Dance goes up a whopping 5!  Guess we know how she impressed the Tavern keeper!

Week Four:
Ooooooh, here is where the mini-game gets interesting and dangerous.  With a roll of 06, Selina is offered a dangerous mission with a 2000 smerduk payoff.  These missions give experience and gold, but could kill your character.  We've previously determined that Selina, deep down, wants to be an adventurer.  That makes it a no-brainer.  She takes the mission.  I roll a 10% death chance, and the roll is a 54, so Selina is now CONSIDERABLY richer, and gets to increase three skills (the recommended average for a MRQ story).  We're going to go with Dagger (39), Dodge (37), and Stealth (12), and she increases them by 4, 3, and 4, respectively.  We then roll to see if she gets to keep her job (due to her absence).  She fails.  I think it was worth it.  We roll to see if we can use the Employment table, as she looks to get a new job, and we can.  She gets hired in another working-class job.  We'll say she starts dancing at a different hall.  She earned 31 smerduks, but was unable to save any of it.  She JUST might be living it up a bit this week.  No worries.  She practices both her Influence and Dance and increase them both by 4.  She then banks her 2000 smerduk payoff.

What started off as a pretty dull and lonely time without Tshimanga turned into an incredibly profitable adventure for Selina.  When he gets back from his little journey, they will be living in a new place and she will be dancing in a new hall.  And she'll be able to tell him about her wonderful adventure.

What's Changed:

New Skill Levels:
Dagger 43
Dance 35
Dodge 40
Influence 48
Stealth 16

33 smerduls
2 algols
2040 smerduks in the bank

Tavern Keeper who will give you free beer and lodging

Wow!  That was actually an enjoyable little mini-game.  I like the concept a lot.  It keeps the characters competitive from a statistical and a role playing standpoint.  Let's say Selina's player missed a session and that's why we rolled up this month.  Now Selina doesn't miss out on the skills the other players earned and has stories to boot.  PLUS, there are a few things that could be used as a plot hook:

The Investment:  Let's say she fronted the money to get a minstrel to play a hall for a cut of the profit.  The minstrel could approach her down the road with other business/adventuring opportunities.
The Fire:  What caused it?  Was someone after her or Tshimanga?  Might they try again?
The Tavern Keeper:  While Selina has the favor already, maybe he can ask her for help with something?
The Adventure:  With the rolls she picked, it doesn't sound like she was up to much good.  Maybe she had to sneak into a cult's secret meeting place and retrieve a stolen object?  Well, now the secret is out and Selina is a liability.
The Job Change: Her old employer could be annoyed/threatened that she will now draw business away from where she was working to her new hall.  It's an ugly business she works in...

I must say, the "Character Catch-Up" is a wonderful tool.  I think I will use it for a lot of games.  It doesn't require much in the way of tweaking.  It's a shame that Cities is out of print.  If you can get your hands on a copy, certainly snatch it up, if only for this mini-game.

Rogue's Gallery: Five Against... Something (LotFP

So, now that I've read the Lamentations of the Flame Princess books, I want to see how it plays.  Since it's 2010 and there are plenty of distractions in Afghanistan, I'm going to be running through this myself with five characters I made up myself.  When I start a group in PA around November time, I'll have real players.  Maybe even a one-shot or two in Colorado in October.  Until then, you make do with JUST ME.
This will also give me a chance to talk about some of my thoughts on different parts of the system as its implemented.

Anyway, I rolled up five LotFP characters.  One of the things about the OD&D system is that you have a total blank canvas to work with.  Based on the stats and equipment I purchased, here is the party:

Luka Jojich, Fighter 3, Clumsy, Very Strong, Armor: Chain & Shield, Arms: Long Sword, Dagger
Grendel Goldenwood, Elf 2, Rude, Healthy, Armor: Leather & Shield, Arms: Long Sword, Dagger, Long Bow
Ulf Kjellson, Cleric 3, Personable, Healthy, Armor: Chain & Shield, Arms: Battle Axe
Predrag Begovich, Specialist 3, Nimble, Armor: Leather, Arms: Garrote, Long Sword, Light Crossbow
Snoggi Karlsson, Fighter 3, Strong, Armor: Chain, Arms: Great Axe

Looking at what we've got there, I started to think about cultures and the like for my sandbox.  I was eventually going to run these guys through Tower of the Stargazer as a test drive for the system, so I gave them each 4000xp, so the elf could be 2nd level.

I split the two human names into a more Slavic sounding names (yes, they are romanized.  I could have left the last names Đođić and Begović, but that's not too helpful to the more Western reader) and some of your more traditional RPG/Fiction Scandinavian names.  One thing I was thinking of putting in my sandbox was a native culture (represented by the -son names) and a more "civilized" culture colonizing the island (the -ich names).

Nothing was really popping yet with these characters.  Having a blank slate for setting doesn't help.  SO, I busted out GAZ7 - The Northern Reaches and rolled up some personality traits.

Luka: Rash, Proud, Courageous, Godless, Vengeful, Open-Minded
Grendel: Proud, Fearful, Godless, Very Vengeful, Lazy, Suspicious, Unreliable, Open-Minded
Ulf: Modest, Generous, Courageous, Very Reverent, Energetic, Trusting, Loyal, Dogmatic
Predrag: Violent, Greedy, Vengeful, Decietful, Open-Minded
Snoggi: Very Rash, Very Violent, Vengeful, Lazy, Suspicious

Clearly, this is the group that signals that the party has begun by throwing the keg of beer THROUGH the window of the Tavern.  Ulf is certainly the odd man out here.  Of course, he is the only Lawful character I generated.  I'm thinking he has hired these folks to explore the Tower.  That's what I'm going with.

So, with descriptions of the characters and filled out character sheets, I'm good to go for tomorrow when I run through Tower of the Stargazer.


Luka Jojich
Male Neutral Fighter 3, Age 19
Cha 11, Con 9, Dex 8, Int 10, Str 16, Wis 9
Hit Points: 21
Armor Class: 16 (melee), 17 (ranged), 15 (w/o shield), 15 (surprised)
Long Sword (+6 AB, 1d8 Damage), Dagger (+6 AB, 1d4 Damage)
Encumbrance: Heavy
Equipment: Backpack, Bedroll, Winter Clothing, Cookpots, Waterskin, 5 days Iron Rations

Grendel Goldenwood
Female Chaotic Elf 2, Age 169
Cha 6, Con 13, Dex 12, Int 9, Str 12, Wis 11
Hit Points: 10
Armor Class: 15 (melee), 16 (ranged), 14 (w/o shield), 14 (surprised)
Long Sword (+1 AB, 1d8 dmg), Dagger (+1 AB, 1d4 dmg), Long Bow (+1 AB, 1d6 dmg, range 50/600/900)
Encumbrace: Heavy
Equipment: Backpack, Bedroll, Winter Clothing, Tinderbox, 5 days Iron Rations
Spell Book: detect magic, light, read magic, ventriloquism

Ulf Kjellson
Male Lawful Cleric 3, Age 24
Cha 13, Con 13, Dex 9, Int 12, Str 11, Wis 12
Hit Points: 19
Armor Class: 17 (melee), 18 (ranged), 16 (w/o shield), 16 (surprised)
Battle Axe (+1 AB, 1d8 dmg)
Encumbrance: Heavy
Equipment: Backpack, Bedroll, Winter Clothes, 3 torches, Waterskin, 3 vials of Holy Water, 3 days Iron Rations, Silver Holy Symbol

Predrag Begovich
Male Neutral Specialist 3, Age 19
Cha 10, Con 11, Dex 14, Int 10, Str 10, Wis 11
Hit Points: 17
Armor Class: 15 (melee, ranged, without shield) 14 (surprised)
Garrote (+1 AB, 1d6 dmg), Long Sword (+1 AB, 1d8 dmg), Light Crossbow (+2 AB, 1d6 dmg, range 50/150/400)
Encumbrance: Heavy
Equipment: Backpack, Bedroll, Extravagant Clothing, Winter Clothing, Lantern, 2 vials Lamp Oil, Specialist's Tools, Tinderbox, Waterskin, Mallet, 2 Iron Spikes, 5 days Iron Rations
Specialist Abilities: Language 2, Sneak Attack 3, Stealth 2

Snoggi Karlsson
Male Neutral Fighter 3, Age 18
Cha 11, Con 10, Dex 11, Int 11, Str 14, Wis 12
Hit Points: 14
Armor Class: 16 (all the time)
Great Axe (+5 AB, 1d10 damage)
Encumbrance: Severe
Equipment: Backpack, Bedroll, Winter Clothes, 50' Rope, Tinderbox, Waterskin, 5 days Iron Rations, Bottle of Liquor, Steel Holy Symbol

Saturday, September 4, 2010

What It Is: Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Okay, here is my detailed review of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, by James Edward Raggi IV.  From here on out, it's going to be known as LotFP,  for obvious reasons.
Buying it.
This is only a review of the PDFs.  The actual boxed set is on it's way to my fiancee's house in Pennsylvania, since I'm in Afghanistan and PDFs are all I need.  That said, much respect to Indie Press Revolution for being the only USA Vendors that *I* saw that offered both the PDFs and hard copy for $65.  For those of us who deploy overseas or travel often, a PDF option is just too good to pass up.  I found IPR on the LotFP blog page, where James lists all of the vendors (and actively solicits more to be posted).  Sure, it's in his best interests to do so, but by having a comprehensive list of vendors, it allows the consumer to find the package that works best for their particular situation.  I found just a box set for as low as $50.  While the bundle looked better for me, I appreciate the choice.

Skimming it.
I skimmed all of the PDFs first to get an idea for the vibe of the game.  What permeates this game more than the grim and moody artwork is the love for the genre and its roots.  A 21-page recommended reading booklet (not list) discusses the influences to the game, paying homage to and giving the reader reasons to check out these books which have created a whole industry of games.  The whole set seems focused on hooking new players, so some grognards may not enjoy the Barney-style breakdowns and examples, preferring a Gygaxian aloofness and elitism.  As someone who genuinely loves RPGs and would love to see more people playing them, I embrace James' attempt to write a game that will bring players into the hobby.

The Tutorial Book.
Is it 1984?  Last night, I played through the tutorials and felt like I was 9 years old again, partly because James chose to sacrifice originality in the name of nostalgia.  I was one of the kids who got into D&D by chasing Bargle and mourning the death of Aleena the cleric.   Swap Bargle with Iri-Khan and Aleena with Alice and you have the tutorial from the original Red Box.  The choose-your-own-adventure style second tutorial is eerily close to the Red Box version as well.  For those keeping score at home, my burgeoning adventuring career ended abruptly, getting eaten by a ghoul after one round of combat.  After the tutorial adventures, James breaks down a lot of basic gaming concepts and includes a pretty realistic and thorough example of play.

The Rules Book.
Clear and simple.  It jumps right into making a character.  A lot has been made of the reordering of the attributes (they are alphabetical instead of leading off with Strength) and lack of prime requisites. The former is merely a cosmetic change and the latter only effects one out of twenty characters (even less in the case of the racial classes who needed two abilities at 16).  Since the game is derived from the old Basic Rules-era D&D, they have the racial classes, meaning all Dwarves and Halflings are Fighters and all Elves are Fighter/Magic Users.  I've never been a huge fan of this, particularly the Halfling Fighter aspect of it.  I'd rather have seen them as a modified Specialist, which is the LotFP version of the Thief.  I love what James has done with this.  Instead of advancing across the board in all thieving abilities, Specialists are able to place points into the abilities as they see fit.  This gives you the ability to customize him to be a locksmith, pickpocket, or thuggish assassin, as opposed to a watered down version of all three.

One of the other big talking points character-wise results from the decision that in LotFP, unless you are a Fighter, your hit bonuses remain static.  The fighter is the only class which gets more accurate as they level up.  I see this as an outstanding balance to the increasing spell lists and skill points the other human classes get.  The only class I think gets short changed is the Halfling.  The Dwarf and Elf classes enjoy better average hit points than the Fighter and Magic User, respectively.  The halfling, though, gets a bonus to his Dexterity score and Armor Class and has less hit points than the Fighter.  That one-time bonus never gets better.   From a game mechanics standpoint, the Halfling offers little growth.

The Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic alignment system is in effect in LotFP, true to its roots.  In the Warhammer-esque camp of Magic = Chaos, all Elves and Magic Users are required to be Chaotic.  Personally, I love the concept.  Unfortunately, the concept is not reflected in the mechanic.  Pre-memorized slots with preordained effects are far from chaotic in practice.  I'll get into that more in the section on The Magic Book.

The equipment lists are decent.  They've got more than the bare minimum but could certainly be expanded in future supplements.  They have a good variety of equipment to choose from, however, so no complaints there.

After the information you need to make a character is presented, James then gets into the bulk of the rules you need to play the game.  It's fitting that a game from Scandinavia has robust maritime and survival rules.  Even sleep deprivation is covered in the "Hazards" section.  The two rules that I particularly like are the encumbrance rules and the language rules.

Encumbrance, in most games, can be a tedious exercise in arithmetic, leading many to just abandon it.  LotFP's system has a checklist where certain criteria (types of armor, number of regular items possessed, and oversized items) are given a point value.  A dwarf in chain mail with 15 items, none of which are oversized has 3 points, making him Heavily Encumbered.  Not every item counts, and the character sheet is well set-up to keep track of what does and doesn't count.  It's quick and easy, and thereby much more likely to be used.  Instead of determining what languages the characters know ahead of time, you begin with a base of racial/cultural languages and once you encounter the language in person, you roll a simple check to see if you understand it, modified by how different the language is from the languages you know and your Intelligence score.  Very quick and very flexible.

LotFP has extensive rules covering Hirelings and Owning Property/Businesses.  I like the variety and the depth of explanation given.  The Encounters and Combat sections are clear and succinct with a lot of options for the players, but not too many to slow the game down.  One thing I like about the explanation of the Character Sheet which ends the Rules Book is that there are index links to the sections of the book which address each part of the Character Sheet.  Not enough companies do this.

The Magic Book
Many of the differences between LotFP and the original game are cosmetic and in the flavor text.  One huge difference?  There is no spell to raise the dead.  Well, raise the dead in a manner that most players would want to be raised.  Animate dead is alive and well, but if players want to come back from the dead, it appears they cannot.

Like I had mentioned previously, the Magic User and Elf spell mechanic (identical to the (until recently) traditional D&D slots) does not, in my mind, adequately reflect that chaos is the source of arcane magic.  You can use flashy effects and the casters can be as random and chaotic as they come, but when you really get down to it, the task of learning, studying, and flawlessly executing with results within reasonable expectations is incredibly orderly.  The only thing chaotic about magic in LotFP is the damage rolled.

In the author's defense, I'm not sure how much you could have done with it and kept it true to it's roots.  Something like the 2e Wild Mage from the Tome of Magic is more fitting with the vision, but I don't know how much of that (if any) is in the SRD and recreating something that doesn't violate OGL might have been a bridge too far.

The Referee Book
By starting off the book with "This Book is Compost," James signals that the Referee's Book isn't a necessity.  It is a Barney-level breakdown of what every good referee knows if they are a good referee.  After reading the book, I can't say I am that much better a referee, but I also have been playing the game for 26 years and have spent the majority of that time running games.    What the tutorial book was for players, this book is for referees.  It is a book that old-timers won't need to consult, but new referees will find invaluable if they haven't picked up a guide on how to run a game before.  We can't always assume that players have played a particular RPG before, so there is a chance that LotFP is the first exposure someone has had to running a game.  So kudos to the author for at least hoping that his game is the gateway drug to a wonderful hobby.  The quality of the advice is high, both broad AND deep.

Overall Thoughts
Whether it's intentional or not, game designers not intentionally writing a generic rules set will allow the themes they love to permeate the mechanics of the game.  From these rules, it is clear that a LotFP games are hard, gritty quests to unforgiving locations where the elements are as deadly or deadlier than any adversary you may face.  I like it.  For the most part, the system is the OD&D many of us grew up with.  The subtle changes balance out the characters a bit more and add a new layer of danger.  With no mulligans in the way of easy resurrections, the learning curve can be harsh.  It requires players and characters to be smart and not approach a game in the manner that they might approach an MMORPG.

With that, a certain maturity is required.  I remember playing Warhammer with some players who tended to throw their toys out of the pram if their character suffered any kind of disability.  Players like that are probably not ready for some of the adult themes hinted at in the game--in the recommended reading, Clive Barker was given equal time to J.R.R. Tolkien.

I like this game.  Any concerns I have about mechanical things are minor and easy worked with, ignored, or modified.  What I love about this game is it's attitude.  The tone its written in, the way the mechanics steer the game, and even the moody artwork, all point to a vibe which I love.  As soon as I was done with my initial skim of the game, my brain was already coming up with ideas.  There is nothing in the rules or the referee's guide that points you in a specific direction.  It's a subtle prod, one that gets you going "What about..." and then allowing you to make it happen.  I like that.  I like it a lot.

If you want a more balanced and deadly OD&D ruleset, look no further than Lamentation of the Flame Princess.  If you are looking for a gateway game and don't want to subject your target to 4e, look no further than Lamentation of the Flame Princess.  If you are intimidated by a wide open sandbox with little firm structure as a referee?  You may want to look elsewhere.  If you get annoyed with frequent, easy-to-use explanations written at an "I've never played an RPG before" level and prefer your games to be an esoteric code that only certain people can understand easily?  You may want to look elsewhere.

Friday, September 3, 2010

LotFP: I think I'm sold.

Sometimes, all I need is the right introduction:

Quite possibly the best disclaimer in the history of gaming.
With this, I was introduced to Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the newest entry into the OD&D clone sweepstakes and one that totally nails the vibe I want to play.

I'm not going to lie, I was not feeling the D&D Sandbox I had going on.  The reviews of LotFP piqued my interest and when I downloaded the PDFs of the set, I skimmed them.  Wow.  There is an enthusiasm, embodied in the disclaimer above, which has hot me deep.

I will do a deeper reading and more through review in the next few days.  Early indications point to THIS as the game that I will sandbox and WILL run when I move back to PA in November.

I've already started sandboxing.  I've got villains, neutrals, and heroes in mind already...

My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives...

Oh yeah, THAT fiendish.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

We're Not Worthy: The Most Amazing Game I'll Never Play

I am not ashamed to admit that my senior year, my group of gamers fell in love with Vampire: The Masquerade.  Shut up.  It was 1992, we were all punks, skate rats, and the sort, and Vampire was the first game on the market that marketed "cool."  I picked up Werewolf, Mage, Wraith, and Changeling when they came out.  Of those five games, there are two that I would ever consider picking up again: Wraith and Changeling.

The concept of a Shadow, a dark side, is difficult to deal with.  Players don't like showing weakness in their characters.  It's why systems struggle with psychological damage.  The Shadow concept in Wraith takes even more control AWAY from a player and allows his character's dark side to run amok.  This goes against the player empowerment principle that almost every other role playing game strives for.  Even Call of Cthulhu, where a long-running campaign can only end in death or insanity, has the characters bravely fighting until the end.  Wraith reminds us that sometimes we do things we don't want to do, and it's not always our choice.

I'll be honest, I hated Wraith when it first came out.  I didn't get it then.  Having seen the darker side of humanity in 9/11, in depth research on the Rwandan genocide, and my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, I get Wraith now.  Of course, because I get it, I'm not sure I want to go there.  Or more to the point, I don't know if I want to take friends there.  And for most of us, friends play a huge part in our gaming lives.

Wraith: The Oblivion is totally the Requiem for a Dream of role playing games.  It is a dark, moody piece that totally fucks with you at your root.  It is, without a doubt, the best game White Wolf has ever put out, and the only one which I think accomplishes what it set out to do.  Unfortunately, it's very nature requires the players to go into a deep, dark place that most people are not comfortable going into.  It just doesn't line up with why most people play RPGs.

Rogue's Gallery: "Fast Johnny" Buckman, Mutant Deer Courier (ATB)

I've been reading a lot of Zak's posts on his awesome blog about his upcoming mutant animals campaign.  I played a bit of TMNT & Other Strangeness back in the day, but After the Bomb was leaps and bounds the better version.  So, I dropped a couple bucks at Drive Thru RPG to get the After the Bomb books for surprisingly cheap.  I rolled up a character and here is what I got.

"Fast Johnny Buckman"
"Fast Johnny" Buckman, a strapping young... no, too easy.  A mutant deer known for his strength and speed, he quickly became well known around the factories that he worked at as not just an optimistic and hard worker, but a hell of a ball player.  He managed to escape the clutches of the Empire of Humanity during a baseball tournament and made his way to Cardania, where he plays ball and works as a courier.

Anyway, here is his stat block:

Real Name: Johnny Buckman
Alignment: Scrupulous
Attributes: I.Q. 9, M.E. 10, M.A. 11, P.S. 24, P.P. 13, P.E. 19, P.B. 12, Spd. 45
Age: 22 Sex: Male
Size Level: 13  Weight: 342lbs Height: 7'2"
Hit Points: 19   S.D.C:  64
Disposition:  Friendly, cheerful, dependable.  LOVES baseball and looks to talk to anyone about it.
Human Features: Hands: Partial, Biped: Full, Speech: Full, Looks: None
Natural Weapons: Seasonal Antlers (Summer/Fall 1d6+9 damage, Winter/Spring none)
Animal Powers: Advanced Hearing, Advanced Smell, Extraordinary Speed, Vestigial Hooves
Level of Experience: 1st
Level of Education: No formal education
Occupation: Courier, Baseball Player
Skills: Athletics, Barbering 73%, Boxing, Camouflage 25%, Land Navigation 40%, Prowl 30%, Running
Weapon Proficiencies: Auto/SA Rifle, Blunt, SA Pistol
Secondary Skills: Baseball (Batter) 64%, First Aid 50%, Hand to Hand: Basic, Wilderness Survival 35%
Attacks Per Melee: Five

Rogue's Gallery: Selina, Lankhmar Tavern Girl (MRQ Lankhmar)

Selina has never sought adventure but it certainly has a way of finding her.  Unsure of her exact background, although she looks as though she is from Sarheenmar, Selina only knew slavery as a childhood.  Possessed of good looks, charm, and grace, it was clear that she would serve the pleasure of her master.  While learning the skills which were so important to her future, Selina fell in with an older girl, Yenda, who was not born a slave.  Yenda's stories of a life outside of her brothel sparked a fire in Selina's imagination.  Realizing there was a better world outside she had no comprehension of, she quickly convinced Yenda to escape with her, to find a better world.  The duo made their way across the eastern continent until they returned to Sarheenmar.  There, they earned their keep as courtesans, using the skills learned in the harems to survive.  Unfortunately, their independence offered them little protection.  Yenda was killed by an influential and sadistic client, who then came looking for Selina to ensure he was not turned in to authorities.  Selina knew she needed to leave Sarheenmar, so she managed to charm her way into the companyof merchants destined for Lankhmar.  She has been in the city for several years now, working for the House of the Red Lanterns.  With the House, she has found protection and stability.  As is often the case in Lankhmar, strange things befall Selina or her clients with disturbing frequency.  Unlike most, however, Selina does not attempt to ignore or avoid these oddities, instead finding herself as part of some adventure or another.  The madams of the House certainly disapprove, as she often returns battered and bruised, not a condition requested by customers.

Selina has built up a certain detachment from many things, sexuality and romance first among those, but is far from callous.  Her warm nature is a front with customers but true for those close to her.  The proposition of freedom excites and scares her, which is why she only dabbles in adventuring.  She has grown weary of her work and could probably be lured away from it by adventuring companions.

Using Selina in your campaign:
The statistics below are those of a Novice Runequest character, so you could use her as a pre-generated PC with no problems.  As an NPC, it is probably advisable that she is not known professionally (unless other PCs are House of the Red Lantern employees), as her "union rules" and professionalism prevent her for forming any attachment or providing information on other clients.  If she is met during an adventure, it is likely that she will want to join along.  She has little in the way of hard adventuring skills, but is certainly willing to learn.  She would make a good apprentice/hireling for more established adventurers.

Selina, Tavern Girl
Background: Slave
Profession: Courtesan


Combat Actions: 3
Damage Modifier: +0
Magic Points: 12
Strike Rank: 12

L Arm-4
R Arm-4
L Leg-5
R Leg-5

Craft (Painter)-20
First Aid-20
Lore (Animal)-10
Lore (Art)-20
Lore (Plant)-20
Lore (Lankhmar)-10
Lore (World)-10
Play Harp-34

Member of the House of Red Lanterns

29 Silver Smerduks
5 Bronze Agols
Work Clothes (All Fancy):
5 Dresses, 3 Belts, 2 Corsets, Coat, 2pr Gloves, 5pr Shoes, Bustle
Street/Adventuring Clothes (All Common):
Breeches, Brimmed Hat, Cloak, Doublet, Gloves, High Boots, Leather Belt, Shirt
Adventuring Gear:
Slingbag (Flint & Tinder, 2 1-hour Torches)

Dirk (Dmg 1d3+2, 4AP/8HP)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Traveller Sandbox: The Rough Patch

I can blame it on the pain in the ass it is to write while sitting on a bed in a wooden hut in a shithole country, but the simple truth of the matter is that when you find yourself making more characters for a half-formed sandbox than you do writing patron encounters or other GM material, you have hit a wall.

Wall, meet head.  Head, meet wall.

I came up with one sub-sector plotline I am pleased with:  The Subsector Governor has been creating, through conquest, an empire of his own.  A flagrant violation of Imperial Laws of War, what makes this interesting is that the Third Imperium has done NOTHING.  There has been no fallout from the Sector or Imperial administration about this.  Needless to say, the subsector has no idea what to do about this.  I've got ideas for the whys and wherefores, as well as how the players can get involved.  I'd also like them to have the choice to NOT get involved and just have the events play out in the background, with second and third order effects being the ones the character sees.

Other than that, I'm not seeing much in the way of intrasubsector plots.

I've got a whopping three patron encounters written.  I set a pretty ambitious goal of 150.  Clearly, that is excessive.  I'd like to have a good number for the systems that are actually players, tapering off as the interest in the system wanes.  I'm actually thinking of getting jiggy with 760 Patrons, 1001 Characters, and a bunch of system names in a hat.  Take a patron or a character, the system description, and apply vigorous Referee hammer blows to make it work.

This is kind of a venting post, so if some of you more experienced GMs have any advice for getting over the hump, I'm listening.