Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review: Hulks & Horrors

It was just the other day that I wrote a post about forgotten OSR games and here I am writing a full blown review about one of them. I'm not really sorry either, because what started as a casual look through my hard drive started developing into a complete campaign over the course of the week. Just like that. And that's something worth talking about, I think (well, I couldn't talk about anything else right now, since I'm totally in world-creation-mode ...).

What am I talking about?

In short: Hulks & Horrors is a free 156 pages long Sci-Fi D&D retro-clone of the B/X variety from 2013. That means 3d6 in a row, race-as-class, heavy on exploration and relying on player skill. It's also highly compatible with other games like it and very much in the spirit of the OSR.

The Game

Roll 3d6 in order (for the classic 6 ability scores), choose class (and maybe some special abilities), get hit points, get 3d6 credits to buy equipment, done. With games as easy as that, it's the little details that make them work or not. A game needs to inspire and the less rules I get to work with, the more I need to get inspired.

Let's start with the setting. So humanity manages to advance to a level where they start to explore the final frontier only to find out that all the great ancient alien civilizations that came before them fell to ruins because of a mysterious plague. Bottom line is: Space is vast and full of ruins and plague horrors, ready for the taking and the shooting at. That's all for now and it's plenty.

After a while humanity managed to find 3 other races who just recently developed spacefaring technology: some Hovering Squids (what the name says), the Omega Reticulans (basically amoeba in power suits) and the Bearmen (again, what the name says).

One of two official art-pieces for the game [source]
There are 7 classes now: the Pilot, the Scientist, the Soldier, the Psyker, the Hovering Squid (flying, multitasking), the Omega Reticulans (a bit pilot, a bit scientist) and the Bearmen (close combat specialist and a bit psyker).

I think it is difficult to keep the balance between new content and quoting the classics. H&H succeeds here, in my opinion. If you know your Sci-Fi, you will find quotes all over the place. The level 6 title for the Soldier class is "Master Chief", for instance (and having level titles is always nice, btw), Bearmen are a bit like Wookies, Psykers can force-strangle victims, stuff like that.

Science is basically hand-waved and works like magic, as each Scientist has a self-built hand tool that's capable of a number of tricks the player chose in the beginning and are limited to charges (just like Vancian Magic). They advance with higher levels, of course. Scientists just need to wave their tool over an area to achieve the effects (and that's a bit of Doctor Who and/or Start Trek right there). Some might have a problem with handling advanced technology like MAGIC, but for me it works.

It's also a constant reminder that most tasks regarding technology, as per the rules, are quite common for all characters and that's a very important bit of information, because tasks are mainly rolls on ability scores (the rest is combat). Those guys know their way around computers and spacefaring equipment, a roll on DEX is enough to find out if a character is able to repair a piece of equipment. No skills, just the assumption of knowledge, with the Scientist being able to achieve exceptional feats. It's all I need to make it work, really.

Equipment is also worth a sentence or two. There are Light Sabers and Power Suits and you'll most likely find the weaponry and equipment you are looking for, with the option to build some yourself. Really, it's all there, but again it's the clever little hints towards classic ideas of the genre that make the generic resonate and results in inspiration. So there is a "Scavenger's Guide to the Universe" characters can buy for a few credits and that works just like the famous "Hitchhiker's Guide" as it provides information about what the characters might encounter.

Again it's the assumption of knowledge (or the easy access of it) that'll work great in the game and leaves plenty of room for player skill ...

Alright, I'll stop. It's simplicity and the right amount of detail and hints that make for a very inspiring mix because it gives a reader plenty of room to project his or her own ideas of what Science Fiction is supposed to be into the game. You'll read it and think "Oh, that Babylon 5 right there!" or Star Wars or Star Trek or Mass Effect or Halo or Red Dwarf ... you get the idea.

DM tools, so many tools!

This is, now, where the game really begins to shine. Exploration got privatized, Space being vast and all that. The idea here is that characters own a ship as base of operations and get a claim for a sector to explore, survey and loot. A sandbox, if you will.

There are several ways to get a ship and a claim, for a wide variety of tastes (one could even skip it) and building a ship is fun for players and DM alike. But that's secondary to the number of random tables you get for building the sector itself! The game is worth getting for that alone.

A short overview: a sector has a number of systems (d12+6), each system has at least one sun and a number of planets and planets might also have moons. As a DM you get a huge variety of results and contents-wise one system might already produce enough material for a complete campaign.

Sure, it's some work, but as far as I could gather (already got a sector map with all the distances and names and one of the 11 systems completed) it's also immensely productive. Ancient ruins all over the place, unique flavor for every ancient alien race you put in it, Urban Planets, Space Hulks, Generations Ships (yeah, Metamorphosis Alpha is like a footnote in my first system ... and that's already a whole campaign right there), strange life forms and even stranger vegetation, alien monuments ... You end up with a very, very big and deep sandbox for the characters to explore and exploit. It's beautiful.
And that's just what the players know ...
Usability is also a big plus for me. So it's relatively easy to tinker with the pdf, like getting a .svg file of a specific page and work it in inkscape. The example above is the result of that. To be fair, though, that might to a good degree because of how ubuntu works with pdfs ... Anyway, it's been quite easy to fill all the blanks and prepare the game. Lots of little details, sure, but fun all the same. It makes the DM sort of a surveyor himself as the sector manifests bit by bit before him.

System, monsters and stuff like that

The system is as easy as possible with two important factors in mind. The first is compatibility (or rule zero, to some extent) and it really allows to use this game anywhere else or convert to it with ease. I really like that the game doesn't try to stand in the way here. I have shitloads of other material and I can just take it and drop it, since the game is rules-light up to a point where it is almost system agnostic.

The second reason is with an eye towards online play. It's something I saw here for the first time (and I'm sure other games do this, too), but it is very welcome, as that's exactly what I'm using it for.

With monsters it's exactly the same. There are some and many quote classic SF creatures. So yes, there are the classic Aliens and Sleestaks and whatnot. But since you could drop almost every monster from a D&D compatible source into the game, you'll never be short of cannon fodder.

And still, H&H features some advanced rules, some rules about building your own monsters and some alternative rules. In the end it leaves an experienced DM free to play the game he wants in almost every aspect, from the specific details in the setting to the extent of rules he wants in his game and the sort of Sci-Fi he favors, while giving him the tools to build a sandbox for several groups of adventurers to roam free for years. And that's really something for a game that's free.

Second official piece of art I could find [source]
What's not to like?

It's not all good and I got some minor quibbles with it. This game is complete and free, yes, but sometimes I thought it could have needed some more editing. Clarity is the biggest issue here. And that's saying something, considering the minimalist amount of rules. Pieces of information are all over the place or completely missing. Sometimes more is better. So there is one tiny table about level progression in the first part of the book that is explained at the end of the book and not referenced. There is an index of tables, but no general index. Some of the rules about creating sectors is a bit too vague and you have to find solutions yourself. Stuff like that.

That's not to say the game is completely bugged. No, it's definitely not. But it's something you will encounter here and there ...

And there is the "issue" that there is no art in the book. I've honestly read that several times. People wouldn't read a set of rules because of that (even if it's free). So if that's a problem, the game won't be for you. I thought it was a plus, since artwork tends to manipulate a reader's expectations. As it is, it really allows for making this your own. It's also far more easy to get on the same page with the players, much for the same reasons.

I love good artwork, and who doesn't, but it shouldn't be an issue if it isn't there.


I honestly don't understand why this game isn't more popular than it is right now. It's rules-light, easy to tinker with, easy to use with other D&D variants and has some great tools for sandbox creation. The level range is 6, which makes it (in my opinion, perfect for a small campaign. Build a sector, give the players a ship and off they go. Or use it to emulate your favorite SF movie/tv show/computer game. All the same, it'll do the job. And for free.

And that's exactly what I'll be doing with this. The sector is in development and I already got a couple of characters and enough players to start this as early as next week. Looking forward to it, too. It's been fun to build that sandbox, with all the little treasures, traps and sights along the way. It'll be even more fun to let the players loose in it. I already got some schemes ...

Even if I'll get just that one campaign out of the game, it'll be a campaign worth playing. If you are in the mood for some light SF or seek some inspiration for a nice and random SF sandbox, you can't go wrong with Hulks & Horrors.

Monday, November 23, 2015

OSR Freebies from the Library Part 1

A while ago I started seeing the phenomenon that people search for good OSR products and get pointed to titles they need to pay for to check them out. There is certainly nothing wrong with earning a buck for role playing material, but the idea to keep those free OSR gems in circulation is today (as far as I'm aware) mostly reduced to either those games that had a huge part in the beginning of the movement or are simply quoted by word of mouth. If at all. And that's where this little series of posts sets in. I'll try and create a hub for those "old", hidden or lost games and materials, see if they are still around and where to get them. I might be in over my head here ...

What you'll find here (and in future posts)

I'll start with my own hard drive and those games I already took a look at so I'm able to share a few thoughts. I'm not trying to explain what the OSR is here and in general this will be about old(-er) games that still produce free material or new games inspired by the origins of the hobby. Main criteria are that they fit the descriptions above, that there is a pdf of them online available and that they are for free. If I have an opinion on the item, I'll share it.

For now I'll go with what I know, for obvious reasons. There is a new page linked in the header of this blog called "OSR Freebies" where I collect them all and if you guys read this and got a link or two to a product worth mentioning, please go ahead and comment here or on the new page. I imagine this will remain incomplete and a work in progress, but that's the nature of the beast. It's also arbitrary and not in chronological order.

It's furthermore important to mention that there are other blogs and sites around that share similar collections. Some are still active, but others are quite old right now or just not up to date. If I find them or know about them, I'll post them. So here it goes ...

Retro Phaze (RPG by John Higgins)

So this is patient zero for me, really. A game from 2010 (first edition) and somehow I came across this again years later, checked it out and started asking myself why this didn't get more love as it did. It's mixing (old) D&D with ideas and aesthetics of 8-bit gaming.

Where to get stuff & Opinions from Others: The pdf is free to download over at lulu, here are some character sheets and additional races (all fan-made) and here is a review of the game.

My thoughts: With 35 pages quite short, but complete. Fourth edition right now, so the author kept working on it (which is good). Some interesting d6 mechanics for the game mixed with what you know from early editions of D&D. Very well worth checking out.

Renegade & Renegade - Corruption (RPGs by David Morrison)

Old version of the Cover...
400+ pages PWYW D&D retro-clones from 2011 with a great wealth of tools to loot for D&D (and friends). Renegade seems to be the "family friendly" and Renegade - Corruption is the darker variant of the same. Both are complete games.

Where to get stuff & Opinions from Others: The pdfs are free to download over at drivethrurpg (Renegade & Renegade Corruption). Opinions can be found here and here.

My thoughts: Both games are huge, professionally edited, they got nice artwork, are more than complete as they contain far more material than most other RPGs care to get out there in one product and claim to be complete, both are compatible with all things D&D, full of options for customized campaigns and PWYW. Those are very high standards and make both games worth mentioning in one row among other OSR titles like Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord.

Hulks & Horrors (RPG by John S. Berry III)

"This is a game of those daring and foolhardy beings that seek fortune in the ancient places of the galaxy. May you find wealth before death!" and that's what you get. 3d6 in order, race as class and tons of random table to create content for this 156 pages heavy SF D&D retro-clone from 2013.

Where to get stuff & Opinions from Others: The pdf is free over at drivethru and can be found here. Reviews can be read here and here.

My thoughts: This scratches a particular itch for me: dungeon crawling in space. H&H is focused on that premise and delivers in spades. I'd play it as is and go from there, but it's highly compatible with all the other D&D games out there, so it's free to loot and change and drop anywhere you want, to any extent you want. There is really no reason at all to not have it in a RPG collection.

Westward (RPG by Roderic Waibel)

This is a failed/canceled kickstarter from 2013 that still delivered and is free now. A 102 pages Western D&D retro-clone with as much fantasy as you'd like to have in it. I stumbled across this by accident and remembered it just recently after reading a comment about if it's a good or a bad idea to mix fantasy tropes with western, wondered why that's even a problem and where I had seen something like that before ...

Where to get stuff & Opinions from Others: Again, drivethru/rpgnow is the way to free pdf. I didn't look very hard, but as far as I know did no one even care to write a proper review. Anyway, here's some buzz I could find.

My thoughts: Scratch "Fantasy" and write "Weird" instead and suddenly this sells (same difference, right?). I've also read a lot that having no art is a big no-no for some people and I honestly don't get it. This is a complete game, again highly compatible with other games like it out there and it is for free. Mix it with Hulks & Horrors and you get Firefly, mix it with Flying Swordsmen and you get Shang-High Noon, adapt Better Than Any Men to it and you get a fantastic Western Sandbox during the Civil War. All of it for free. I could go on ...

Under Xylarthen's Tower (Module by Jeff Rients)

I'll end todays line-up with an old-fashioned 21 pages DIY D&D funhouse dungeoncrawl from 2008, the (very) early days of the OSR. It comes with six fully populated levels on hand drawn maps and should allow a group of level 1 characters to advance to levels 4 to 6. It also comes with house rules for random character-level generation.

Where to get stuff & Opinions from Others: The pdf can be found here and it's best to let the man himself talk about it, so here's a short session report for your reading pleasure.

My thoughts: I used this on several occasions over the years and have a printed version of it somewhere around. It's a great dungeon for one shots or to explore over the course of a campaign. Even if you never get to play it, UXT is a great read (same goes for Jeff's blog, for that matter) and it's free, so there you go.

Enough for today

So that should keep you guys busy for a while. I'll have another one like this up soon, but this should be enough for now. If this made you remember some gems on your hard drive, please feel free to share them in the comments. I sure got way to many on mine. There is so much great free stuff out there and the more I look into it, the more I start to believe that way too much of it gets lost far to fast. This stuff shouldn't get old and forgotten. It should be shared and used ...

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Keeping it hot (addendum to Codex Ludi - preview and conversion rules)

Nothing is older than yesterday's post, so I thought I fire one more and add to it some information people may find useful when testing this on their own or trying to wrap their head around it, maybe even get some more people interested into it. It's also for the D&D fans among my readers ...

So I published the first part of the rules for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs yesterday: the Codex Ludi. First of all I want to thank readers for their interest. This is a small blog and I'm trucking along fine enough, but to see interest beyond checking the blog every now and then for updates is great and helps getting more of it out there. Thank you all! Let's have preview of what's in store.

3d6 in order?

It's a minor detail and will be part of the second booklet for the game (Codex Historia), but I believe the D&D crowd might appreciate the nod in that direction, so here it is. Those who have checked it out might have seen that there is some D&D in the game, but only at it's very core.

Six ability scores, but they are more of a resource and not fixed numbers, there are Saves, but strongly connected to the ability scores and work somewhat different. And combat, well, combat developed a bit away from the initial assumptions of D&D combat, but there are similarities. Namely I took the d20 that is used normally and divided it into a couple of d6 for a more detailed approach of the same (conversion rules will be below).

And yet, despite all those changes, it is possible to use the average Labyrinth Lord Character (or what ever you have, really) for a game of Lost Songs, as long as he follows the same basic assumptions. I won't go into detail about a complete conversion (yet), but will point out that if you were to create a higher level character for Lost Songs, you begin with rolling 3d6 in order for every ability score to mirror that the character already got some scars from adventuring. So every D&D character you might have (especially the from the lighter sets of rules out there) is easily enough ported.

You then just need to distribute the saves according to the rules in the Codex Ludi and reassign the skill (if you have them) and you are almost done. How to convert classes and special abilities is a bit too much to get into right now, but a short cut would be to give fighter classes another Combat Die, thief classes more skills (translate as seems appropriate) and change nothing for magic users (or clerics, if you have them). Keep HP and add Endurance or just roll it all again. The modular nature of all those games should make a transition easy.

Again, there will be more detailed conversion rules in a future post, but while testing it I took the approach described above and it worked. Bottom line is, there is still some "3d6 in order" in Lost Songs.

Converting D&D Monsters to Lost Songs (updated)

I use the D&D Rules Cyclopedia to bridge Lost Songs as soon as I have no fixed rules to work with. That's what you do as DM, you take what you need and make it work. A result of this is that I have a good idea how to make Lost Songs work right now in all aspects at the table without delay. And here is how I do it.

I'm going with monster entries for the English edition of the D&D RC here:
  • Add 10 to hp.
  • Base Attack is HD + 10.
  • Base Defense is according to size and AC:  24 - AC (small); 22 - AC (medium) and 20 - AC (big)
  • Special Attacks are Drop Die Actions (and may be countered).
  • Number of attacks + 1 is the number of Combat Dice a monster has.
  • [when using groups] A tenth of a monsters Movement Rate is used as Initiative Value (further explanation see below).

That's it. The only other thing you need to consider when DMing groups of enemies is to use the Initiative Value (I.V.) instead of rolling initiative for every monster (or it'll slow combat down quite a bit). Just use the characters initiative and if they are below the I.V., they are slower, if they are higher, they are faster. Declare and resolve actions accordingly after that.

The Combat Wheel and using the Environment (also updated)

In a fight it's usually a good idea for a DM to know exactly what happens. Lost Songs of the Nibelungs doesn't uses maps and miniatures but has (more abstract) board game elements nonetheless. Every character sheet has an area where players can put the dice in a fight to illustrate their actions. Since there are a lot of d6 involved and actions might get quite detailed, it's important for the DM to have something similar to work with. That's why I devised a Combat Wheel for Lost Songs. Behold:

With this a DM is able to keep an overview of what's happening in the fight and has an easy way to illustrate it for the players. It's especially useful when handling groups of monsters against characters. There is one more twist to simplify things for a DM: the Environment.

It's something that I always forget, but it really helps creating a vivid and complex fight: combatants use their environment. So at the beginning of a combat encounter in Lost Songs a DM may create a Random Environment for the combatants to use by rolling a d4 first for the number of d6 available in the situation and then that number of d6 to see how effective it might be used. In the terms of the game he creates corresponding statics.

Every 1 that comes up with the environment roll is discarded and produces another d6 as a static for the characters to use. Every 6 adds another d6 for the NPCs/monsters to use. This way the same environment might turn out more or less useful to all. The DM may use those statics now as soon as his Combat Dice come up with corresponding numbers. Environmental dice are just used for their value, not for doubles or triples. Environmental dice produced because of a 1 are used to the characters' advantage, but also with their value only.

When used it might look something like this (older version, but the basics still apply):

I admit, this was a mean roll. But that's not the point right now. You see here that the players 2, 3 and 6 are under attack. The monsters (goblins, if I remember correctly) used the dense undergrowth as best as possible (using corresponding static dice, it was an almost perfect ambush scenario) and cooperated a lot. Still died fast, though ...

There is more to come

Using the book itself and the advice here should help to give you all a good impression of how the game works and the directions it's going to take in the future. Next up will be a post about level advancement that's long overdue.

Feedback is, as always, very welcome. Writing rules is quite difficult, I found, and people talking to me about it is, right after testing it, a great way to find out what needs changing or further explanation.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Lost Songs of the Nibelungs - Codex Ludi (early beta)

I've been approaching this like a drunk sailor so far, going back and forth, bubbling ominous words here and there and generally meandering around. There is a point where one needs to stop worrying and just jump into the cold water ...

So without further ado I present thee the first step of my evil plan to publish my very own role playing game:

Clicking on the picture will also lead to the pdf ...
This is a no art, no fluff, no layout version of the basic rules (including combat) and character generation. That's why I'd still say it is a beta. There are updated character sheets in the back and the rules presented here are all tested and work. It's mainly to give all interested an idea how that game is going to be and should help getting players up to speed for the play-tests I'm going to offer on a regular basis from now on.

Combat might come off as a bit vague, but it is definitely enough for the games I'm DMing and for those giving it a spin using the rules presented here, just follow the main procedures and you will see how it is supposed to work. If not, ask me. I will try and answer all questions as fast as possible.

There will be 3 more booklets like this before the game is complete: the Codex Historia (with level advancement, description of the game's terms and the seasonal aspects of the game), the Codex Maleficium (about using magic and wonders, with spell lists et cetera) and the Codex Creare (about DM procedures).

Further notes on using this as it is right now

Again, this is a beta version. You will be able to get some level zero game out of this. There will be a post about level advancement here on the blog soon (the rules are already written and tested), that should allow playing beyond level zero (and I will provide a pdf additionally to the post). But there is plenty of game right there as it is.

Combat is quite different than in other games, so if what this document describes leaves you scratching your head in wonder, you might wanna check here for further descriptions of it. There might be some slight changes towards the version in the pdf (Rage Die, for instance, replaces all rules for using the Endurance in the game), but in its broad strokes it's very much what is described in the book and comes with examples, conversion rules and the combat wheel! Or you take a look at this newer (but shorter) post for more of the same.

But please, start with the pdf and go from there down the rabbit hole. Feedback will be very welcome, of course.

Shit, now I'm nervous ...

Monday, November 16, 2015

Musings about Longevity of Sentient Beings in the D&D RC (and other Fantasy Games)

I had been in the mood for a post like this: taking a topic and just writing to see where it ends up. It's partly a follow up on one of my very first posts: "Elves are no Mammals, Goddarnit!" (from 2011!). If you haven't read that one, check it out first, if you want to. It has a new class for the D&D RC (easy to hack into variants, of course) and gives examples how I handle level restrictions in the game. Let's get into that, shall we (turned out to be a long one again) ...

A word on immortals in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia

Vampires do it, gods do it and dragons do it, too, they live very, very long lives. Mostly will have done so when Adventurers encounter them and I always thought this should have consequences for a gaming world. Huge consequences, actually. Gods (or immortals, as they are called in the RC) are easy, one might think. And from a general point of true, that's right. They don't frequent the realms of mortals on a regular basis and do most their meddling using avatars or clerics.

But, and that's a huge "but", for a DM playing the D&D Rules Cyclopedia RAW they pose a serious problem. It's mostly ignored (in the games I know of) that Immortals had been mortal beings once and actually earned millions of xp before gaining immortality. They shaped the world, so to say. Even more so, the tasks they had to achieve should, according to the rules, last for a very long time (check The Four Paths on page 223 in the RC).

So one path, for instance, is the quest to travel to three different periods of time and "help three different descendants to retain their kingdoms and perpetuate the dynasty". This is a very particular can of worms worth a post on its own, I guess. How, for instance, did a not-yet-immortal hero do this? How many have tried and failed? Or how do the gods perceive time? I smell several time paradoxes coming along. And adventures connected to it ... But either way you play it, the impact on THE VERY FABRIC OF TIME AND SPACE is immense.

Other paths request the manufacturing of Legendary Weapons or solving impossible tasks, like "driving all dragons from the land or building a castle in the sky". It's all over the place, one is even about reincarnating three times and going the distance with three different classes (again, millions of xp). It's mind-boggling how consequent and ambitious the D&D RC actually is in this regard. I doubt there is more than a handful of DMs in the existence of this game who actually led a group of players from level 1 to immortality (for the off chance that one of them is reading this, please comment and tell me about it!).

Anyway, it's inconsequential if characters actually play all that and get there themselves. The thing is that the rules give explicit guidelines what needs to happen to get there. Consider the number of high level characters that tried and failed, consider those trying right now and those that already made it! Consider the impact this should have on a setting. Even if plane hopping takes some of it somewhere else, all of those paths actually demand of a hero to be active in his home realm. Consider there is a fifths path for the "sphere of entropy" that is on that page by name only, but rings of destruction and mayhem.

And that's before actual immortals start pestering the rest ...

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that although our little heroes are having epic adventures all over the place, leveling up, looting and killing kings, there is a gigantic subtext of other events, powerful events, going on. Needs to be. Because there are already thousands of others more powerful and further ahead in the same game, changing it all by being successful.

People might notice things like this, you know ... [source]
That's what you actually get with such a high power curve as the RC has it: 36 levels for all the humans and then some for becoming an immortal and some more for being an immortal.

How to live for millennia without getting bored (or killed)

So maybe you are thinking right now that it's just impossible to make all of this count in a game. It just can't be done, not even official products do it. It's just too much. And you might be right, but I'm not done yet. There is more, because there are several more Monsters in a game of D&D that are, if not immortal, around for thousands of years. Take your regular undead, like a Vampire. Give those guys a few thousand years to clean up their act and it's really hard to say where they might end up.

Or dragons. They grow up and grow old. They are powerful beasts if they manage to get that old. And if they did, they have a history. Their name should be legend, their influence and power beyond approach. the more I think about the implications of all of this, the more I think Game of Thrones is a kindergarten in comparison to the power plays those guys must have going ...

Which brings us to the concept of longevity in games such as the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. It is, of course, a philosophical concept. And hard to grasp, at that. The question a DM making his own setting should ask himself, is how all those npcs managed to stay alive for as long as they must have been to be the creatures they are.

I think being that obvious about it
isn't the best survival strategy ... [source]
A giant red dragon, attitude or not, just doesn't pop into existence and starts harassing folks for the heroes to get their 15 minutes of fame. No. She must have been around and there must have been a major change in her regular habits to risk getting killed by upstarts like mid- to high-level adventurers. Nothing is that easy. It's actually a bit naive to think it might be even close to being that easy. Living that long and with a superior intellect just doesn't allow for an easy kill.

So that's another thing. Most of those monsters are not only powerful, they are very intelligent, too. Would they even act in the open? Or do they have agents to do their bidding? How big (and influential) should such an apparatus be? How does it compare to, say, human kingdoms?

That's another thing. Humans breed, for those creatures anyway, fast as hell and spread all over the place, leaving their marks. How does a creature like an Elf or a dragon interact with something like this? Is it like us looking at an ant hill? Like, would you care to know the name of even one ant, knowing it won't be around for any serious amount of time? Does it matter? And if it matters, at what point is it becoming a threat and what would powerful creatures do about it? Not because they are evil, but because of necessity.

Powerful Wizards do stuff like this
ALL THE TIME [source]
And this is where we could go full circle. Some humans peak and get as powerful as those monsters are. Immortals might protect humans. The thing is, it won't be about getting powerful enough to confront each other, but more about getting powerful enough to keep the status quo, to keep the balance. Which, in turn, should keep all those involved pretty busy indeed.

What does it look like and who cares?

There is actually one series of fantasy books (I know of) that illustrates the machinations necessary for such a world and some of you might already know them: the Malazan Books of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson. Erikson worked 6 years together with a friend (Ian Cameron Esslemont, who also wrote some good books in the same universe) to build up their world.

First in a great series [source]
They have archaeological and anthropological backgrounds, so maybe those things came somewhat natural for them and the world they build is impressive, to say the least. I always thought it's the perfect example of how powerful creatures, powerful magic and powerful gods would/should shape a world. For that alone it comes highly recommended, so check it out (if you haven't already).

Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is another great example for such a setting. Small human settlements, ruins all over the place, one gets a feeling that humans are merely guests here and it needs powerful characters to challenge some of the residents livings alongside the small castles here (the game being close to be a perfect sandbox setting might have something to do with it). For me at least, Vvardenfell always felt as if powerful entities formed it and it's definitely not just a standard vanilla fantasy affair. It got lots of depth.

There are many good reasons for Morrowind being a classic ... [source]
On a smaller scale, Lord of the Rings is another great example for a well thought out world, with The Silmarillion being a prime candidate of what I'm talking about here (as far as "powerful beings shaping the world" are concerned ...). But Middle Earth is decidedly what I'd call "low fantasy", as powerful characters are rather rare in the Third Age Tolkien is describing in the books.

World Building 101 [source]
What's left is to discuss how all of that actually plays out in our games. I know the Rules Encyclopedia is an extreme example for it, but it gets lots of points (in my book) for trying. Most other games shy away from that kind of scope. Even other editions of D&D, for that matter. But I believe our games would be better for it, if we actually put some effort into making the presence felt of those in our campaign that already lived for a very long time and shaped the world around them.

So how do you all handle those things? If you got an ideas, tips or campaign settings you know of, came up with or used, feel free to share them in the comments. I'd love to hear about it!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Review: Expanded Petty Gods

This is due, folks. And I really haven't seen many people praise this book beyond "It's out! Get it!". So let me talk a bit about the Expanded Petty Gods Tome of Awesome (EPG) and why it's something every fantasy DM should at least check out. If you think this is going to be a positive review, you won't be surprised that much ...

Disclaimer: I did three pieces for EPG. Two of them without any hope to see them published other than on the blog and the third one happening because there was some more room for the Shroom and the Ranger obliged ... Of course I'm happy to see my name in this thing, but I would have to be very desperate to make this about my small contribution to this HUGE book. Anyway, read it with a grain of salt, as they say, and I'll try to write it with the proper distance.

Honestly, I love that cover.
Hard Birth of the Mighty Expanded Petty Gods

I won't bore you with the details, but this book has seen several hands before it manifested the way it did there in the end. Let's say someone started this idea of a collection of Petty Gods and many others liked it, but the sheer scope of the project (and other factors, I'm sure) hindered it from happening until it just didn't happen. Lots of gods already written and drawn, lots of enthusiasm for naught.

Or so it seemed. But then someone else revived it and it got even more attention than it did the first time. Now there were even more gods with more art and great ideas, Michael Moorcock was to write a piece and ... maybe it was just too much? I mean, this got huge, with lots of interest and even more work done up front. But when all was said and done, it remained to be a hobby effort. By lots of creative and capable people, of course, but done in their free time nonetheless. And there are limits to such a thing. Anyway, it wasn't to be. Again.

Imagine, this idea started around November 2010 and it took until November 2014 before the project got its final push and ended up being published a few months later. It took over four years! Well, the cynics among you might mumble something right now about certain kickstarters taking that much time (or more) and still end up nowhere ... But I digress.

What I was aiming for here was that the idea alone managed to gain enough traction over 4 years to not only result in a gigantic community effort worth "327 petty gods, 116 minions, knights and servants, 12 cults and dozens of divine items and spells", it also managed to get published! The work all those people put into this at every stage of the project is just breathtakingly a-ma-zing. Seriously.

What it is and what you get

One of the reasons to write this review (or rather, what made me wanna do now what I intended to do anyway ...), was a (how I see it) unfair comment about this book and a mediocre rating for it on It honestly caught me by surprise. I know we live in a culture of "Meh, I don't like it, so it's bad!" (I just wanted to write "... and it must be bad!", but stopped myself, since there's too much reflected introspective even in that), so I really shouldn't be surprised. But then I checked how many reviews are already out there and got ... not that much. Not in the open wild, anyway.

So this is for those out there stumbling across this post because they had been looking for something like this about the book: Expanded Petty Gods is a collection not only of petty (fantasy) gods, a concept one might be familiar with from such works as the late Terry Pratchett's Small Gods, the often overlooked early D&D supplement Unknown Gods by the Judges Guild or from your Latin lessons about the Roman empire, well, it's also brim full with essays like Create a Religion in your Spare Time for Fun and Profit by M.A.R. Barker and many other great advice about handling religion in (fantasy) campaigns. It also got monsters and spells and items and organisations ...

I'm starting to repeat myself here, but imagine hundreds of people, each putting their creative best to the idea of a book about petty gods and what comes with it and this is what you get: almost 400 A4 pages of inspiration, completely illustrated. The pdf of this huge book is also FREE, for those wondering what such a thing might cost and the Lulu prints are at cost, so the hardcover version of this really, really big book comes down to ca. 22 US $.

One might think that this book is all over the place, given the history it has and the multitude of different writers and artists and what-not, so you might be surprised to see what an excellent editing job can do for a project like this. It's tight, the transitions are smooth, it's perfectly indexed and while reading in it, I always got the feeling that it all connects very well. Richard L. LeBlanc, Jr. (of Save vs. Dragon fame, check out his stuff!) took the helm in the final stages of the genesis of this book and he (with all the others that helped him) did an excellent job to make this look very professional. Expanded Petty Gods is a showcase for why you have professionals for work like this (did I mention that it is free?).

Just a random page ...
Enough praise for now

If you weren't convinced by now, more words wouldn't change it, so I'll leave it at that. This is a huge community effort, with lots of great writers and artists involved (famous and/or not) and professional editing to boot. It's also free and the (at cost!) print versions of it are impressive enough to intimidate most other books of any respective rpg collection (my D&D RC was unimpressed, but that almost goes without saying).

It was written for early editions of D&D and variants, but that shouldn't hinder anyone interested. Most of it is system agnostic or translated to other systems easy enough. So if anything I just wrote resonated with you, dear reader, and you check this out to find new writers and/or artists, use it in your games for the gods (like I do, the players love it ...), as a monster compendium for medium to high level campaigns, as inspiration or just to look at pretty pictures, you won't be disappointed with what the Expanded Petty Gods Compendium brings to the table. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Four Years and all you'll get is some musings about blogging and pictures? Yeah :-)

Sheesh, I've been avoiding to write this one because of the (irritating) feeling that I got to do stuff before I start celebrating something ... but my blog here got 4 years old last Saturday and I can't just ignore that, can I? But other than pestering people with half-cooked ideas (as usual) I wanted to share something with those following the blog instead of just, you know, tell you all how happy I am with the blogging and whatnot. Let's see where this goes. I'll also sprinkle it with some autumn impressions of the area I just moved to (got a new camera and did some testing instead of posting) ...

4 Years of Blogging!

So that just happened. Let's start this with a quote, something Zhuangzi allegedly wrote in a book 2500 years ago:
“Your life has a limit, but knowledge has none. If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger.”
We will get back on this soon. I remember when I started people had some doubts that I'd be able to keep this thing alive, so 4 years and running is kind of a big thing for me. Others were all like what am I trying to do here and do I get any money for the work I'm putting into it. Well, I told them and I'm going to tell you: in this day and age you got to do something to show people you are able to do something. Especially when it's about "creative work". One might be a talented writer (or whatever), but without writing that book nobody will find out.

But there is more to writing and blogging. Talent doesn't do jackshit if you are not practicing. I don't believe you need to write every day and even on the "bad" days or what else they're trying to sell tell you. But what's certainly true is that you need to make it a part of your routine. Read, think, write, read a little more, take a picture, write, play some more, eat something good, write a bit. But make writing a part of all of it.

The more I think about it, the less I think it's about getting good, too. It's about getting to a point where you just do. I think the hardest thing about writing is being able too express ideas ... unfiltered. Sounds simple, but I've seen otherwise far to often. People think and write something completely different and don't even see what just happened. I've done some editing for others and sometimes I was able to guess what they where thinking while they wrote something else entirely. Or more precise, by seeing what was missing in their writing I could guess how they were thinking what they wrote would express what they meant ... See what I mean?

Anyway, there's nothing more honest than a text by someone that can't write. And there is nothing more complicated than expressing a thought or idea unbiased or, better yet, untainted by the one writing it down. You might ask yourself right now what the hell I'm aiming for here. Well, after four years I think I'm starting to get somewhere with this blog as it's not that much about the writing part anymore, but about sharing ideas instead. I know I can put down a text if I have an idea to write about other than having an idea and no clue how to write about it.

And I'm happy and content that things move. I feel like I know things. Then I start writing my very own fantasy heart breaker and all is lost. It's actually difficult to write rules, but even more so to write a book full of rules. Let me tell you a story any time, but writing rules in a comprehensive way? That's a completely new kind of hell. So after four years of blogging I'm right where I started and when I sat down to write this post I remembered the wisdom of Zhuangzi. One is in danger if he pursues knowledge. I believe this is a comforting thought. I believe we could do worse than stepping back every once in a while and just do.

So I stopped worrying and kept writing. It's what I'll keep doing, content with knowing that I know nothing and getting it done anyway.

But it's also about giving, isn't it ...

Anyway, thank you all for hanging around for the last few years. This is a great corner of the internet and there are lots of great people around, reading, writing and commenting. I'm having a great time here! And for the giving part, I'm really close to publishing an early beta of Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, like, "it's going to happen the next few days" close. So stay tuned for when I try to explain how my fantasy heart breaker is supposed to work. There is just one more little thing I need to do ...

Monday, November 2, 2015

Rules Cyclopedia Oddities Part 3

Been a while since I've done one of those and yet, it's a series I very often think about continuing. Well, there I was, looking for something entirely different, when I stumbled across one of those oddities I couldn't ignore ... So here's a little one about another Rules Cyclopedia Oddity!

I don't need to tell you all that the RC is huge, at times confusing huge, even. It's easy enough to navigate most of the time, but structure had never been it's greatest strength. So it's not that surprising to find some missing links between, say, monster entries and encounter tables (like rolling up a monster with one to find out there isn't an entry for it in another or at least not in the index). Stuff like that happens and given the nature of the project (coming around after the release of AD&D 1e and all that) it's a little miracle that it turned out as good as it actually did.

D&D Rules Cyclopedia, p. 155
Reflecting now about this, I think it's exactly those short comings that make it such a pleasure to read and re-read. It's those little oddities that make you stop and think about its contents and a good example for such a thing is this here entry on the right. It can be found in chapter 14: Monsters and is the last thing before they start with the monster entries.

The funny thing is that it's not a mistake. One would think that those tables belong into Chapter 7: Encounters (my first thought, at least), but no, those tables belong to the passage right before that, titled Humanoid (Giant Humanoid, Demihuman, Human) which closes with how complex human NPC characters are and what a DM can do about it (hence the tables as inspiration).

There is so much wrong with it that it's worth mentioning as an oddity. For one, it assumes that most (or even all!) human NPCs the characters encounter are one class or another. It's contrary to almost every other encounter entry in the book.

Or is it? One could argue that even a pirate or an alchemist could have some of the basic classes, right? The rest is tapestry ... Anyway, Human is not a Monster but a Monster Type. To make things even more suspicious, there are Monsters like the Headsman/Thug (RC, p. 184) which work like classes of their own right!*

I'll also mention the rather dubious alignment spread on that table: not one third each alignment, as one would expect, but in favor of lawful alignments! That's worth a debate I'm not ready for quite yet. The implications for a gaming world are .. interesting, to say the least. Let's not go into the missing random determination of the NPCs level.

That's just a cruel way to let a DM hanging in mid-air ...

So it's at least debatable if that first table has a right a exist as it does before one even could discuss if it belongs where it is in the book ... Which is a non-issue (in my opinion), since this really belongs into Chapter 7 with all the other Encounter Tables, Monster Reaction Tables and so on.

Same goes for the other table below that. The question is not only why it is there, but why the f*ck does it even exist, right? I mean, as far as I'm aware it's the only time in the whole book where things get as specific and finale as they do here: 8 (!) reasons for NPCs to appear. That's not much, but easy enough expanded on. It's not even the problem. There are some nice ideas here. Nothing special, but a nice table to have handy nonetheless ... 

And yet, it is strange. There's not even a sample dungeon in there (or the tables to build one, for that matter**). But here they go, giving you an incomplete list of specific ideas what that strangely disconnected NPC might do wherever he is encountered. And for those wondering, gender is a non-issue here, too, at least in those tables it is. It's all a bit lacking, really.

So that's my little post about another oddity I found in the Rules Cyclopedia. You are, as always, welcome to discuss it and share your observations and ideas in the comments below (or on g+).

The other oddities can be found here.

* You can count on a future post about that oddity. Just sayin' ...

** Also worth a future post, now that I think about it.