Thursday 31 December 2015

Star Wars 2020

Well, I've been itching to run a game in the Star Wars universe, but I don't have any Star Wars RPG products and I can't be arsed with learning an all new system anyway. What shall I do?

You may recall the "All Zombies on the Eastern Front: Polish Resistance" game I ran a few years back. It was Cyberpunk 2020 hacked for a WWII setting. And what is Star Wars if not "Nazis in Space". So Cyberpunk 2020 seems to me like a good fit for running a Star Wars game. Especially with Luke's new cyberhand--you know what I'm talking about! It doesn't get more cyberpunk than that!

That said, I have my work cut out for me:

1. Modify the character generator for Star Wars.

I hacked together a little character generator for Polish Resistance. With a little work, we can make build Star Wars PCs.
  1. Add a force stat
  2. Change the skills list
  3. Change the equipment list
  4. Add different species of characters
  5. Update the character sheet

2. Build a Setting

sample map
Star wars makes this easy due to the huge amount of world-building others have done before me. That said, I need to pick some small piece of the Star Wars Universe to focus on and then apply Border Princes methodology to it.
  1. Map it
  2. Detail some adventure locales
  3. Determine who are the movers and shakers in this place and the politics between them
I'm currently thinking Airam Sector, 30 years after the battle of Endor i.e. right after the events of the latest film. I figure, after the fall of the Empire, Pirates and Rebels no longer needed to hide in such an out-of-the-way system, so the place went through a bit of a decline. The PCs start as scavengers or slaves under some minor Hutt-type character. The adventure begins when they stumble over on a choice piece of salvage, a working starship--their ticket off this rock!

3. Space Rules

While Cyberpunk 2020 is a very general-purpose system, we still need some starship rules. Fortunately, there's a huge amount of material to help us with these:
So I just need to collect the rules we'll be using in one place for easy reference...

4. Stat Things Up

Finally, I need to stat-up a whole bunch a equipment, ships, and creatures for use in the sandbox. Again, Wookiepedia should be quite helpful here.

So that's the plan. Hopefully, a week from now, we'll be ready to begin!

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Book Review: Red Planet Blues

Wow. That was the darkest book I've read in a long time. It's also one of the better books I've read in a long time.

Robert Sawyer's novel Red Planet Blues is a mashup of the Hardboiled Detective and Science Fiction genres. With regard to the latter, the book draws inspiration from Mars Fiction(Burrough, Heinlein, and probably others), as well as post-humanist Cyberpunk. That said, despite the broad base of inspiration, Sawyer has crafted a story with a character all it's own.

But back to the darkness. Hardboiled Fiction is all about the Hardboiled Hero and Alex Lomax is just such a hero. But there is no Hardboiled Hero without a Hardboiled World, and it is a dark dark world indeed.

Raymond Chandler defines the Hardboiled Hero as a man of honor in a honorless world. Indeed the Hardboiled Hero's heroism is one that springs from the very corrupt world it stands distinct from. It is this very paradox, that Vice can breed Honor, and Corruption Truth, that gives the Hardboiled tale it's redemptive quality.

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption...But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man...He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man...He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. ...He is a common man or he could not go among common people...He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness...He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. ("The Simple Art of Murder", Raymond Chandler)

The world that Alex Lomax lives in is a bleak one indeed, though Sawyer has a way of understating it's bleakness. It is the small world of the Martian Frontier, which draws desperate people, hungry for a new start, certain that they won't get one on Earth. The narrator doesn't shove this point down your throat. Yet everyone we meet seems to be in a state of quiet desperation.

Not only that, but many of Mars' inhabitants Transfer. The post-Humanist angle of the book is that the technology exists to "Transfer", to copy your mind into a cybernetic brain and install it in a robotic body of more than Human ability. This sounds nice, but the law forbids two copies of the same mind to exist, so the final step in the "Transfer" process is to euthanize the original biological copy(though the Marketing types breeze over this point, as the book points out). And many people on Mars do transfer to overcome the harsh environment, so the ultimate implication is that Lomax is living in a society of mass-suicide, with the only caveat being that those suicides are replaced with robotic copies. That said, the narrator doesn't shove this idea in the reader's face. Rather, Lomax finds himself in one situation after another that accentuate this perverse reality. Each time, the the reader's cognitive dissidence is heightened, leaving him, like Lomax himself, wondering why only he seems to be bothered by this state of things.

Anyway, bottom line, really bleak novel, though Sawyer manages to lighten the mood somewhat in the story's denouement. Sawyer is a master craftsman of mood and it's really a wonder to watch him ply his trade...on you, the reader.

Monday 2 November 2015

DCC Wizards Go Out With a Bang

"If I lose, If I lose, let me lose!" (Gamblin' Man by Welch and Rawlings)

Due to the heart-wrenching nature of today's topic, dear reader, today's post has musical accompaniment, so click play and read on, my friends.

Another One Bites the Dust

Well, as you may have guessed, I lost another wizard.

You may recall how Battle Mage died, fighting the half-dragon cultist and his electric breath. Well, Kunab the Wizbarian has met a similar fate, but we'll get to that soon...

DCC Wizards

High on Style, Low on Hitpoints
I love playing DCC Wizards. Rather than getting a small number of spell slots, you can just keep casting a spell until you fail a spell check. In practice, I found this means a very different style of play.

Standard DnD wizards need to save those precious few slots for when they really need them, as such they creep around the battlefield looking for an opening to cast something. As a DCC wizard, however, you typically just keep casting magic spells each round. That said, spells tend to fail or succeed weakly, so the DCC wizard feels more engaging, giving the player something to try each turn rather than waiting around for your time to come. And sometimes, you roll big so this repeated casting ability can yield incredible power.

However, he's still a wizard, so unless he has great Stamina(Constitution), they don't get many hit points. The result is a character who chaotically wields amazing power but is, as the same time, very fragile. Kunab, for instance, was maybe 7th level with about 11 hit points.

Speaking of Kunab

Speaking of Kunab, I was about to tell you how he died...

DCC Wizard Problems: "Which loincloth matches my skull mask?"
But first let's recall the good times. Remember when the lad's giant Eagles helped defeat the White Dragon? And what about that time when things got awkward with the Half-Dragon warrior lady? Good old Kunab, always good for a spell or a laugh...

Anyway, most recently, Kunab found himself soaring on the back of a huge Metallic Dragon, along with the rest of the party. Being such a fragile little spark-plug of a guy, he took the conservative position to aftward of the beast. Things went South fast though, when the party encountered a Green Dragon and his wyvern buddies.

On his turn, Kunab summoned up another of his ever-useful Giant Eagles. Then, the Green Dragon got it's turn. He flanked our silvery mount and sprayed acid all over the beast's tail-end, catching Kunab full-on in the spray. When the dust cleared, the party saw only a Wizbarian-shaped crust on the Dragon-hide where Kunab had been.

The Psychological Trauma

Now, I won't lie to you--it's painful losing a much-beloved character, especially one with such personality and a bitchin' loincloth to boot. That said, I think it was a fitting end for the young wizard. He lived the life of an adventurer/murderhobo to the fullest, killing monsters, looting treasure, and getting himself into all sorts of compromising situations. As such, I think that Tyrell's final words to Roy make for a fitting eulogy:

The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long - and you have burned so very, very brightly, Kunab

Sunday 27 September 2015

Book Review: Darwin's Bastards

I'm not entirely sure what to make of the 2010 short-story collection "Darwin's Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow". From the subtitle and cover art, one might expect a collection of pulp-inspired yards running the gamut from Gernsbackian wonder stories to tentacled Lovecraftian abominations. Instead one will get a mixed bag whose common thread is that they are written by Canadian(often Vancouver-ite) authors. This bag includes, hands down, some of the best post-cyberpunk that I've read to date. It also has many stories that are more experimental or even allegorical in nature, and these generally didn't resonate well with me. Some of the stories aren't really science fiction or even genre fiction and are written by authors who are working outside their usual genre. I'd like to hear the story behind this collection, but my guess is it went something like this:

  1. Let's make a science fiction short story collection with all Canadian authors
  2. We didn't get enough submissions, let's loosen up our definition of science fiction and ask some local non-genre authors to contribute stories
  3. Oh, Weird Tales and other classic pulps are making a resurgence--let's work that into the marketing

So, for the short version of this review, of the 23 stories contained within, 5 were excellent, and a few more were quite good. The book is divided into 4 sections and all the best stuff is in the first and last section, so my advise would be to just skip the two middle sections. You might also want to read William Gibson's story, though I found it a bit underwhelming.

Anyway, for the long version of this review, we won't dwell on what I didn't like, instead let's talk about the best entries in this collection:

Survivors: This is not the end my friend by Adam Lewis Schroeder

A epic road-trip through post-apocalyptic Canada. An action packed story with some subtle, and not so subtle insights into how Canadians view Americans(and themselves, in contrast). Schroeder's tongue-in-cheek humor is great.

The Aurochs by Lee Henderson

A post-cyberpunk tale of the black market for medical treatments, fossils, and car parts. A really entertaining read and another story with a great, always understated, sense of humor.

Survivor by Douglas Coupland

A tale of reality TV(another very cyberpunkish theme) and the apocalypse, brimming with black humor. The jaded British cameraman was an inspired choice for a narrator, taking a so so premise and making it hugely entertaining.

The Personasts: My Journeys Through Soft Evenings and Famous Secrets by Stephen Marche

This is a fictional ethnography of a fictional subculture based around a sort of roleplaying/acting sort of thing. This story isn't really science fiction, or genre fiction for that matter, but it's so good I just don't care. Especially interesting for readers who are pen-and-paper RPG fans like myself.

Sunshine City by Timothy Taylor

This was my favorite story in the collection. It's a post-cyberpunk tale told as a Hardboiled detective story and it's really well-done.

This story taught be something. The plot is fairly simple, the mystery easily unraveled, the characters all hardboiled archetypes(the hardboiled hero, the femme fatale...) but a good hardboiled tale don't demand complexity in those things. A good hardboiled tale is about the setting, the relationships, and most of all the feelings that these evoke.

In Sunshire City, our Hardboiled Hero, a burned-out detective of sorts, has been called to this decadent place to be duped. Everybody is in on the charade and he himself suspects it, though he stays because his old friend asked for his help. All the characters are sympathetic in some sense, all of them have been hurt by this tragedy in some way, though only our hero is the sort of man-of-honor who is willing to seek out the truth no matter what the cost. This code of honor is why he can't bring himself to live in this sort of place and why he burned out and essentially resigned from Human society.

Dougal Discarnate by William Gibson

A ghost story set in the Kitsilano neighborhood of Vancouver. I got the impression that Gibson is saying something really deep and profound about his old stomping-ground, but I guess it really just went over my head. This saddens me since I was born in Vancouver and I sometimes like to fantasize what life would have been like if my family had decided to stay there and I had grown up a young Vancouverite, rather than a Southern Californian...

Twilight of the Gods by David Whitton

I enjoyed this little post-cyberpunk story of soldiers entangled in a messy maritime conflict. Quite entertaining, through. Like most Norse mythology, it ends rather disappointingly.

Gladiator by Jay Brown

A post-Cyberpunk story where the Libertarians have won and medical research can legally be performed on any Human subjects who are willing. The protagonist reminded me of The Count, in Gibson's Count Zero, when we first meet him, a poor white kid who grew up in the inner city and harbors unlikely dreams of success. The difference is that, rather than dreaming of being an amazing hacker, our protagonist dreams of being the Guinea Pig in the development of the next big drug. The Existential tragedy that ensues is both predicable and compelling.

Saturday 27 June 2015

On Lego Castle Design

My kids have finally reached the age where they can play with legos, so for the last couple months I've had the opportunity to build things with them once or twice a week. I was really into legos as a kid, but it's been 15-20 years. Anyway, getting back into it, I'd like to talk about designing castles.

Simple castle construction
As a kid, and even as a teenager, I remember finding lego castles a frustrating challenge. I would get a castle play-set, build the thing according to the instructions, and it would turn out great, but if I tried to build something of my own design, it would end up quite disappointing.

Now, working with my own kids, I've build a few, rather humble castles, each a bit more complex than the previous one, and I'd like to take the opportunity to share my novice thoughts on castle design.

Sorting Pieces

So this is something which is so obvious to me now but which I don't
Corner piece
think I knew as a kid. Before you start building something, take five minutes to sort out the pieces you will likely need. This saves you time looking for specific pieces later, and it also gives you an idea what materials you have on hand. When building a castle, that usually means:

  • all the various large castle wall pieces
  • a good supply of the various types of pillar pieces
  • any grey or black arch
  • lots of assorted grey bricks
  • a good number of black bricks

The Walls

Castle with various wall types
Now let's talk about the walls. When I was a kid trying to do this, I would connect several lego wall pieces together and get a very boring castle. So the first thing I would like to point out is that you have many options regarding walls:

  1. Wall/Door Pieces are quick to put up and cover a lot of space. 
  2. Arches on Pillars are a great alternative to a filled-in wall pieces since they are quick to put up, don't use a lot of bricks, and give decent access to the inside of the castle, which is important if this castle is for your kids to play with
  3. Open it's also valid to leave rooms artificially open on one or two sides so the kids can play. That said, you still need to keep things structurally strong. 
  4. Bricks can be used to fill in between wall pieces or even to build entire walls, but this is time consuming and uses up a lot of pieces. They're nice and strong, though
  5. Crenelations are good for the top level or can even go under an arch
  6. You can also make a drawbridge, portcullis--I'm not there yet, though. It requires hinge pieces, string...
Castle Walkway/Flooring Example

The Floors

So you've finished a level of walls on your castle. Now you're going to need to put floors and walkways.  This isn't just a place for your lego men to hang out. Having a broad and well-supported floor will help you put the next story on your castle.

So you pick out some thin lego pieces for your flooring, but how do you support them? The castle wall pieces have a lip to support a floor, but that usually only gets you 80% of the way to something load-bearing. You'll need to come up with a creative solution to get you the rest of the way. Upward-slanting pieces can help with this.

The Foundation

Foundation needed...
Another challenge is if you have an irregular base plate like ours. Before you can even start your castle, you need to create a surface to build on. That means covering over the pits and expanding the floor with pillars and arches. It's a bit of work, but it results in a more more interesting construction.

Embracing the Subjective

So these are the general ground-rules, but you can take them in a lot of different directions and create some really diverse castle designs. There's no correct design, but there are a few categories one can judge the castle based on:
  • Complexity of design- how many stories does it have? Are there separate sections?
  • Structural integrity- how strong/stable is this Tower of Babel you've erected?
  • Accessibility- I mentioned this before. Can the kids easily access all parts of the castle and put their guys there?
  • Colors- is the coloring aesthetically pleasing?(This is a hard one--takes a lot of work if you're picky about colors)
  • Variation- do you just have flat, featureless walls or are their variations? (bonus points for greebling!)
  • Decorations- are there flags, crenelations, colorful roofs, etc?

A whole lot of castle!
All in all, this is a very deep, complex creative venture and I completely understand the guys who make a full blown hobby out of building gigantic lego castles. A lot of things are like this: coming up with an idea, developing it, modifying it, trying to get everything to fit together just right like a puzzle. DMing your own sandbox can definitely be like this. Even composing a semi-coherent blog post...

Tuesday 16 June 2015

Kicking Sky-Fortress Keister

Well, a month has passed and we finally picked up where last session's cliffhanger left off. Would the party survive? What kind of vampire would be be turned into?! Sparkly or shiny?

The answer, my dear friends, was "None of the above."

Clubbing Amongst the Clouds

WARNING: this GIF may cause blindness,
nausea, and whooping cough
The vampire's thralls that confronted Weiwei were a bit pissy, but they weren't looking for a fight. They refused to commit to anything, even biting the dark elf, without permission from their master, who was taking a beauty sleep. So the party decided to piss-off and look for somewhere more "happening".

On a side-note: the party's composition was a bit different from last time, due to some misplaced character sheets, so we were joined by a couple anonymous pre-gens. So Drogo and Roarrawrurmph had stand-ins. I was still playing as Rama and Kunab though.

First we headed off to some big old tower being guarded by ogres. Someone(Pam maybe) sweet-talked them into taking us up to the top of "the tomb" to check out the view, where we summarily murdered them(Rama managed to knock one off of the battlements with a DCC Feat of Arms), leaving evidence that "the cultists did it". But, the alarm was raised so we ran-off before we could be identified.

We ran into some caves which led to a tense encounter between the wounded party and an adult white dragon. To keep the peace Rama presented it with his magic golden Ale-producing flagon, since anyway he puts little value on material things, valuing the more subtle things in life like returning things to the primordial chaos.

At that point, the party found a secluded passage and hunkered down for a long healing and rest period.

The Politics of Armageddon

After a mostly undisturbed rest, the party emerged from their cave to find the castle's denizens in utter chaos. You may recall that we spent last session poisoning the castle's food stores and fomenting the already latent tension between the castle's various factions. Now was when all that time spent "murdering nothing and taking none of their stuff" paid-off.

First we saw many dead cultists and a few dead giants. Then we were accosted by a Giant patrol. We managed to maintain a parley, and mentioned that our alchemist had cured us all of the poisoning. They insisted we come cure the cloud giant master of this flying fortress as well, so we went along with them.

Cloud Giant
Harlan Ellison in a toga
After much talking and plotting and more talking, we found out that the giants are actually sort of "good" but that they are helping the cultists so that can have a huge Giant-Dragon war when Tiamat rises and all get to go to Valhalla(sort of like those guys from Mad Max). Something along those lines(my mind shuts-off during exposition)...

The tomb, it seems is being run my the spirit of the Cloud Giant's dead wife, so we went to speak to his better half and convinced her(and afterwards him) that we had a less risky way of helping them kick dragon butts. Something to do with collecting the masks of dragon control so they can have their big showdown on a smaller scale.

With all the politicin' out of the way, it was time to clean-up this castle from any cultist allies and that meant one thing-- it was time to go DRAGON HUNTING!


The party headed back down to take-on the White Dragon in it's lair, with a couple Ogre meat-shields in tow.

Now the thing about this dragon is he likes to just hang-out on his ceiling roost like some giant pigeon that you can't get rid of. And the DM played him well--every time we dislodged him, he's kick some butts then head back up there.

It was a tough fight, but we got him in the end, with Weiwei landing the final shot as he tried to escape.

My guys didn't do much damage, but Kunab the Wizbarian kept summoning giant eagles which kept him occupied, while Rama, though he couldn't reach the dragon to do any damage, absorbed a lot of the hits(including 3 successive rounds where rocks fell on him, then the dragon fell on him, then more rocks fell on him), so he was a good and dutiful meatshield.

I have to say, this was my first slaying a dragon in DnD(computer games don't count) and I have to say, it was flippin' awesome!

(Rama still took back his flagon, though. For all his high-and-mighty ideals, he's still that much the murderhobo.)

Post your favorite stock-photo of a dragon and a flying castle in the comments.
This was mine...

Monday 15 June 2015

Humanism and Scifi

The greatest of Literature is, by nature, Humanistic Literature. It teaches us something about the Human experience in a more visceral way than any cold-hearted essay could. It is the epitome of Human Culture, comprising, in the words of Matthew Arnold, "the best which has been thought and said in the world".

That said, there is a different type of Literature that conforms to this definition, yet which is the polar opposite of Humanistic. I am, of course, talking about those categories of Science Fiction that give us a window into other, non-human, modes of thought.

Some Noteworthy Examples

Asimov was one of the first to do this well with his robots and his many explorations of their Artificial Intelligence and it's implications. His robopsychologists must grapple with an intelligence created by Man, but ultimately different.

The Cyberpunk(and post-Cyberpunk) genre updated this approach with it's portrayal of vast AIs floating majestically through cyberspace. It also developed a literature of Post-Humanism, considering how the Human experience may change with the expansion and modification of the Brain,by means of computing and genetic engineering(consider Shiner's "Till Human Voices Wake Us". I'll just mention Ann Leckie's "Ancillar Justice" as a recent notable entry in this category genre. In Leckie's case, she imagines a new form of consciousness formed by the merging of AIs and post-Humans(I haven't gotten hold of Leckie's book yet, but I've heard that it takes-on the topic in a way that is both unique and compelling)

David Brin's long-running Uplift series considers yet another category, that of "Uplifted" animals, whose intelligence has been increased through a long-running program of applied genetics. Brin offers a compelling vision of these creatures(generally dolphins and apes) and their experience, intellectually comparable to Humans, and yet so utterly different. Brin's recent story "Aficionado" offered a good example of this literature.

Finally there are the stories that explore Aliens from deep space. This is perhaps the most difficult type of non-human intelligence to imagine, as it deals with things truly beyond the veil of Human experience. I can think of lots of examples, yet few of this that I felt really excel in their portrayals of intelligence that is truly alien to Human experience. Orson Scott Card's "Speaker for the Dead" does a pretty good job of this, with it's "Alien Anthropologists" exploring an alien culture(and finding their initial assumptions turned on their head in the book's climax.)

Know Thyself

These different categories of Science Fiction dealing with non-human minds give us an entirely different perspective on our own situation. Suddenly, through the power of contrast, many of our traits are revealed to be distinctly Human, rather than universal. In this way, fiction blazes the trail ahead of Science itself, exploring other forms of intelligence and learning about ourselves in the process.

RPG Connection

Since this is ostensibly a blog about Pen and Paper RPG's, let's ask the question "Do any Pen and Paper RPG's explore this theme?" 

Answer: I don't know. I don't really read that many RPG products. Maybe in the comments, you could point out the examples you know about. That said, here is a short list of stuff that did make it onto my radar:

  1. Steve Jackson's "GURPS Uplift" rules are an obvious example, though I've never played it.
  2. Cyberpunk 2020 deals with the post-humanism theme with Humanity Loss Rules, resulting in mental illness. One could imagine an alternate set of rules which embraces post-humanism, rather than treating it like a Horror game mechanic.
  3. Monsters and Manuals has posted on this theme. I wonder if some of this sentiment made it into his Yoon-Suin setting...
  4. False Machine's evocative posts on the Derro and other denizens of the Underdark sketch a strange and alien intelligence. I expect that monsters from his "Deep Carbon Observatory" would incorporate this theme, though again, I don't have time to many RPG products these days, even such worthy ones, so I don't know.

Monday 8 June 2015

Fighting Fantasy Cthulhu Review

So, in March(I think) Chaosium released what's basically a free Fighting Fantasy-style book to promote the release of Call of Cthulhu 7th edition. It's been sitting on my hard drive for a while, but I finally found a few hours to play through it, so here's a review of that session.

The Rules

Alone against the flames is a 64 page pdf solo adventure to help you learn you CoC 7e. It's pretty quick to get started--just download it for free, along with an "Investigator Sheet" and the "CoC Quick Starter Rules".

As for the former, I was a bit put-off that the character sheet is two pages. That said you never use the second page and you're walked through filling out the first page step-by-step so it's actually the simplest new RPG I've gone through the process of learning in recent years. That said, no dice were used in creating the character, which was a big disappointment for me. Also, it could have used a more varied choice of careers.

As for the "Quick Start Rules", I groaned when I saw this 48-page document, but actually I only ended-up skimming the two pages on combat that it referred me to when that become relevant.  So AATF really succeeds in throwing you right into the game without making you read tons of material first.

The Adventure

So, as I mentioned before, the format is Fighting Fantasy(disclosure--I've never played a Fighting Fantasy game book before). Basically it's a "Choose Your Own Adventure" plus a character sheet.

I only played through the adventure once(over a few hours) but there are a total of 270 entries and, I'm guessing, probably half a dozen different endings(I got one where my character dies, but at least I survived till the climax and went out with a bang!)

It was quite fun and I intend to create another character and have another go at it!

Horror Games(spoiler warning!)

So playing this adventure was very different than playing a DnD sandbox or even a published adventure. It become clear very early on that we're in a classic horror story plot arc and, of course, these things have rules. In this case, the rules are taken from the story's two major sources of inspiration:

For instance, the game offers to let you try walking to the next town in broad daylight. Now it was fairly clear to me that the only way I was walking out of this town is at night, with mobs of cultists chasing me Innsmouth-style. But at some point, after maybe the third time they gave me the option, I went for it. I immediately failed my outdoorsmanship skill check and it became clear that if I didn't turn back the adventure would probably end there, so I did.

Or when I met the old man, similar to the character from Innsmouth, it was clear that I had a potential ally in this outcast.

Or when you meet the town's Mayor-- it's clear the guy is the cult leader and you had better play dumb.
My point is, that in your typical sandbox adventure RPG, your imagination is the limit and you can chase whatever schemes your twisted little mind can come up with.

In a Horror Plot, on the other hand, it's more of a "game of chicken" with the "rules". It's a horror game so you know it's not going to let you run away too easy(as an aside, this provides an interesting solution to implementing the Naive Victim in gaming), but a the same time, if you wait too long to make your move, then you'll miss your chance. So you keep your eyes open and your ears pealed for any information that can help you and wait for the moment to try your luck and get away. It's quite fun, but it's a different sort of fun, and I suspect you have to be a horror fan to really get the maximum kick out of it...

Monday 11 May 2015

Dragon Queen Sky Fortress

It's time for another Session Summary...

The Roster

  1. Drogo Carradine(played by A)- Half-Ogre Monk. MONK SMASH!
  2. Pam(played by L)- badass Dwarven Alchemist ported from WFRP 1e
  3. Wae Wae(played by L)- the Drowess archer with a heart of gold
  4. Bilbo the Halflink Assasin(played by S)- cute but deadly
  5. Roarrawrurmph(played by S)- a Gold-colored dragonborn Paladin
  6. Princess Leah(played by EL)- a tune-twisting bard
  7. Rama(played by me)- axe-wielding DCC warrior. He lives for destruction and the primordial chaos.
  8. Kunab the Wizbarian(played by me)- Codpiece rocking DCC wizard. His goes is to get off as many spells in a session in the most humorous way possible!

The Mission

Something about sabotaging a flying cultist castle so that other cultists can take over. Wait, we're working for the cultists now? Well, Rama's cool with that as long as he gets to destroy stuff. Kunab is probably too busy trying to cast his crazy DCC magic to realize what's going on...

The Plan

So A's two bloodthirsty kids came up with a plan to set all the cloud-castle's respective factions at each other's throats. Those include:
Rezmier(the one on the left or the right? You decide...)
  • The Cultists, their foxy half-dragon mistress Rezmier, and the white dragon Sky Chaser Man Pony
  • The Giants- they run the Broodmotherless Sky Fortress. What are their motives? Money? Power? Affordable monthly payments?
  • The Vampire- she sounds a bit pissy about the whole working for the cultists thing
  • The Red Wizards of Azkaban- why are they here?

The Execution

So the party started-off with the stone giants who keep the castle maintained. They didn't like the cultists. The party convinced them that we're the nice cultists and it's the rest who are the assholes. We warned them to keep their eyes out for a cultist plot to topple the control-tower(now Kunab has something to do with his shatter spell)

The party went on to the Mad Wizards of Red Riding Woods. We sweet-talked them out of their feather-fall spell.

Then Pam broke into the castles pantry and poisoned the heck out of everything. But the lock broke on the way out--better get out of here before anyone places us at the scene of the crime!

We met some very cheeky kobolds, but since they're the ones who are supposed to cook-up the poisoned fare, we let them live. We did leave them with the lingering rumor that the giants plan to eat them.

At some point we accidentally knocked on Rezmier's door. The party had to think fast to avoid a confrontation. Despite his 18 Personality, Kunab rolled a natural 1 while trying to bluff. He had to think fast, so he started asking "Mistress" to "Punish Him". Things got weird fast. Rezmier and the Party's hasty parting was mutual. (Actually, the DM's mother walked by the table right when I was shouting "Mistress, punish me! PUNISH ME!" I almost lost the thread, but I managed to fight though it and stay IN CHARACTER!)

Finally we made it to an old rickety tower. Kunab decided to take it down wit
the party next session?
h a shatter spell, but ended up giving Wae Wae two arrows enchanted with Shatter instead(Isn't DCC magic just CRAAAAZY unpredictable, kids!?) Then Wae Wae and the Mannikin decided to climb up the tower and face the vampire and her minions all alone because REASONS! Ok, it was getting a bit late and my attention span was more on how to sneak some more jelly beans from A's kids without them noticing than infiltrating the least-blingy tower in the place!

That's where we called it a night folks, and what a night it was. Stay tuned for next time when Wae Wae and Frodo take on the Undying Ones alone and we find out the answer to the perennial question "What to do when half your party are Vampires?".

Sunday 12 April 2015

On R A Salvatore and the Echoes of an Earlier Age

Somewhere along the line, I reached this point where I was embarrassed of many of the things I enjoyed way back in high school. This certainly applies to much of the music that was in vogue in the 90’s, but it also holds true for my then favorite author, R. A. Salvatore.

The Folly of Youth

R. A. Salvatore is a bestselling fantasy author, who got his start writing DnD tie-in novels set in the Forgotten Realms. (He gives some great interviews, which are worth listening to at-length, but one of the themes I found interesting is how much of his career was determined by split-second decisions.)
Why, looking back, do I find myself embarrassed of my former Salvatore fandom? For one, his popular character Drizzt Do’Urden, is a total Mary Sue. He's an Elf who lives nearly forever who, as a child, dominated the Drow version of Ender's Game and is painfully proficient at everything under the sun, a sort of Fantasy Superhero, and yet, he’s an outcast who must fight for acceptance and bla bla bla…my brain just turned-off. That, plus the fact that his writing itself, characteristic of many popular writers of the day, is rather thematically simplistic and artistically uninspired. It is, however, utilitarian. Salvatore writes in a clear and organized fashion and I almost never have to puzzle over what I just read. In fact, his books just fly by easily--they are supremely readable.

Sort of like this guy...
I was introduced to Salvatore’s work while hanging out with one of the coolest guys I knew in HS. Tony was a smart guy, but in a cool way. He had interesting hair. He always had an intelligent opinion on anything and it sounded even more intelligent because he was originally from Leeds and had a really great accent. At one point, during lunch, he pointed out that he was currently reading through Salvatore’s Drizzt books. It wasn't long until I had gone to Barnes and Noble and procured every book of Salvatore's and over the next few years I read them avidly and repeatedly(OK, actually I remember finding the Cleric's Quintet rather dull--but I still read through all five books twice!)

Fast-forward through half a life time, 8 years of higher education, 9 years of full-time work, the last 8 of them including marriage and raising a family. I'm picky about what I read. I don't just read any old genre fiction. I read Genre Literature! Let's just hide this collection of Salvatore books behind the Gibson, the Weird Tales greats, the Tolkien, and the thick cobwebs of bibliophile snobbery...

Rereading Salvatore

You know, where the entire events of the Hobbit took place...

Lately, I've been reading the first 2/3 of Salvatore’s “Crimson Shadow” trilogy, which I think belonged to my younger brother, but somehow ended up in my book hoard. I’d never picked it up before. They definitely have their weaknesses. Luthien is a fairly run-of-the mill fantasy protagonist. A young, naive lad who goes out into the big world and rises to greatness. At least he’s not a farm-boy. Instead, he’s the son of a lord, who spends most of his time in “the arena”, a combination of Roman gladiatorial combat and the Chivalrous Tourney.

And, of course, it apes Tolkien insufferably(though one could certainly claim that all modern fantasy literature shamelessly copies Tolkien, usually quite poorly). There's Luthien's name, of course, though apparently it's an appropriate name for Human Males now, and even more confusingly is the fact that the stories are set in Eriador. Is the Crimson Shadow an unauthorized sequel to Lord of the Rings or is this a different Eriador? I was surpised to see that no map appears in the beginning of the books, but then I realized that it's because the setting is just Fantasy Britain re-skinned with new names. Eriador is Scotland, Avon is Britain(or maybe just England?), and Gascon is France. Also, the Cyclopians are clearly just reskinned Orcs.
Salvatore's Avon

The books are very readable, although the plots are a bit simplistic. Also, there are lots of little details that strike me as poorly thought-out. For instance, in the many mass combats, neither army seems to use scouts and this allows them to get away with all sorts of tricks that wouldn't work if this huge army would just deploy a few scouts to look out for ambushes/keep an eye on the other huge army. That said, I could totally see how Luthien's character would have been relatable for my teenage self. He's a young guy with a good heart and lots of potential but who is clueless with regard to girls, politics, and just generally everything. That said, everything he tries succeeds spectacularly, sometimes because he listens to his friends, sometimes because of sparks of raw talent, and sometimes due to honed martial skill, and he rises to fame and fortune(besides that, the second book is all about this love triangle where he has to choose between foxy half elf girl or fiery redheaded warrior chick. Not only that, but then their rivalry changes to ever increasing fondness for one another, to the point where you start wondering where this is going--I'm starting to understand why this guy was my favorite author in High School...)

Of Fair Folk and Bird-Men

symbolism doesn't have to be subtle...
Anyway, to sum up this rambling review, I've made my peace with Salvatore. He writes very readable fantasy, with true general appeal, especially to young men(as I once was myself). As to the lack of Artistic Merit... I think the recent movie Birdman does a better job than I could of presenting the dialectic of creating entertainment for an audience vs. creating art for art's sake. The film shows how impossible it is to completely separate between the two. Salvatore's work is immensely popular, but one also get's the impression that he truly loves coming up with this stuff, and perhaps that is Artistry at it's truest, regardless of how entertained the snobs and critics may be...

Thursday 9 April 2015

Catching-up with the Dragon Queen

Behold Kunab! Wonder and be amazed!
Well, I can't say I've been terribly on-task with our Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign. I've been lazy about posting updates and also I've missed many of the game sessions. Real life has been getting in the way again and when I don't have as much time to game I also find I'm less excited about posting summaries when I do manage to join our group. That said, I've had a week's vacation to recharge my batteries, so here goes:

Session X

First off, I switched-out Sir Manly for a bitchin DCC Wizard: Kunab the Wizbarian, randomly generated at 6th level from He's pretty mediocre at the whole Magic-thing, and a bit low on the hitpoints, but he got personality up the wazoo!

On the trail of the dragon cultists and their treasure, the party found themselves at the nexus of a number of teleporters, and near a rather large and imposing hunting lodge.

Kunab summoned some small birds to spy the place out and the party determined(incorrectly, as it turned out) that the place was being run by cultists and rather ripe for the plunder. We weaseled our way inside and split the party to more speedily loot the place. Half the party(including my characters Kunab and Rama), went off to check out one of the rooms dominated by a large magic painting, while the other half went off to poison the lodge's food supply with sleeping elixir.

Kunab, Rama and the party's Paladin quickly found themselves on the wrong side of the tapestry which, much to their dismay, included exactly zero magically enchanted stags and one all day hike to rejoin the party.

The rest of the gang ended-up in a full-out brawl with the kitchen staff and then other denizens of the lodge, which they managed to survive.

Finally, towards the end of the day, the party was reunited and we got to meet the mistress of this lodge, Talis, a high-ranking, magically-inclined cultist. She immediately saw through our attempts to explain away the reduction in her staff but nevertheless hired us to sabotage the plans of her rival cultist.

Session X + 1

Gulliver and Laputa
Is the following session, Talis sent us after her rival's floating castle, which is being used to transport the hoard.

(On a side note, floating castles are one of the most popular trope's in fantasy literature. Their first appearance seems to be Laputa, from Gulliver's Travels, though even that seems to be inspired by the floating island of Aiolia from the Odyssey.)

In any case, the party made their way to this remote village near the floating castle, disguised as cultists with the pass-code to the castle. We quickly ended up in a fight to the death with the inhabitants of the local tavern.

Now here we had a misunderstanding. All the players had assumed the village was full of "civilians" not associated with the cultists. So, when they started actively trying to prevent us from leaving the bar, things quickly escalated.

DCC and VSOP, always a winning combination
Towards the end of the combat, the DM told us that, in fact, the village was entirely populated with cultists and that he had told us that already and it was our problem that none of the players had heard that detail. That may be true--we had a lot of info dumped on us at the start of the session, while leveling-up our PCs and I'm sure I missed at least half of it.

Now there is certainly something very Old School about that sort of "Gotcha" DM attitude. That said, I generally prefer a different approach. It's true that the DM should act as an oracle for the setting whenever players ask, but that isn't enough. I think it's also the DM's job to proactively correct player misunderstandings regarding setting details.

Many of our players have jobs and families and we only get together once or twice a month for a couple hours. None of us has the time to read about the setting on our own. Not only that, but our game sessions tend to be rather rushed, trying to fit as much as possible into 2 hours or so. So often times, the setup for a session occurs while ordering pizza, leveling-up characters, or communicating with players who are running late or trying to connect via video-chat. That being the case, the DM should keep an eye out for misunderstandings or missed information.

Of course, there's another side to that coin, that we, the players, also need to make sure and ask if something is unclear and to try and help the DM understand what we have missed.

In any case, the party eventually neutralized the denizens of the tavern, stole their magic mug of endless ale, and blended-in to the large cultist caravan, before we could be caught by the cultist Warden and his pet wyverns. Once we passed through the gates of the floating castle, we ended the session there...

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Old School Inspiration from The Man Eaters of Tsavo

Masai Warriors
In DnD, people often talk about sources of inspiration for the DM to craft his gaming world and the adventures therein. A more neglected topic, is the need for Player Inspiration i.e. materials to inspire players in playing their PC. That said, with the trend towards player-led action in general, and sandbox gaming in specific, I think this latter type of inspiration is of growing importance.

So with that in mind, I found some powerful player-inspiration in the appendix of Colonel John Patterson’s “The Man Eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures”(1907). After recounting his many adventures while working as an Engineer building the railroad through the British East African frontier, Patterson begins the book’s appendix with some advice for Europeans organizing a gaming expedition in those territories. This practical guide from another era is fascinating and it looks like something straight out of some alternate player handbook. It gives a good idea of the sort of preparations the party would want to make before an extended search into the unknown, and could easily be used as an adventure hook for an actual RPG scenario set during that time period(perhaps as an alternate beginning for Masks of Nyarlathotep).


Col. Patterson
The good Colonel begins with the topic of weaponry:
The battery, to be sufficient for all needs, should consist of a .450 express, a .303 sporting rifle, and a 12-bore shot gun; and I should consider 250 rounds of .450 (50 hard and 200 soft), 300 rounds of .303 (100 hard and 200 soft), and 500 12-bore shot cartridges of say, the 6 and 8 sizes, sufficient for a three months' trip. Leather bandoliers to carry 50 each of these different cartridges would also prove very useful.
A couple of hundred rockets of various colours should certainly be taken, as they are invaluable for signalling to and from camp after dark. These can be obtained so as to fire from a 12-bore shot gun or from a short pistol, and some should always be left with the camp neopara (Headman) for use as occasion requires.

He then continues on with other assorted equipment:
The hunter's kit should include a good pith sunhat, a couple of suits of khaki, leather gaiters or a couple of pairs of puttees, wash-leather gloves to protect the hands from the sun, and two pairs of boots with hemp soles; long Norwegian boots will also be found very useful. The usual underclothing worn in England is all that is required if the shooting is to be done in the highlands. A good warm overcoat will be much appreciated up-country in the cool of the evenings, and a light mackintosh for wet weather ought also to be included. For use in rocky or thorny country, a pair of knee and elbow pads will be found invaluable, and those who feel the sun should also provide themselves with a spine-protector. The latter is a most useful article of kit, for although the air may be pretty cool, the sun strikes down very fiercely towards midday. A well-filled medicine chest should of course not be forgotten.
A good field glass, a hunting and skinning knife or two, and a Kodak with about 200 films should also be carried.

This goes on for a while:
As regards camp equipment, all that need be taken out from England are a small double-fly tent, three Jaeger blankets, a collapsible bath, a Wolseley valise, and a good filter; and even these can be obtained just as good locally. Chop boxes (food) and other necessary camp gear should be obtained at Mombasa or Nairobi, where the agents will put up just what is necessary. About a month before sailing from England a letter should be sent to the agents, stating the date of arrival and what porters, etc., will be required. The sportsman will then find everything ready for him, so that an immediate start may be made.


Patterson then gives advice on hirelings, paid in Rupees, of course(all of his Headmen, Gun-Bearers, and many of the workmen throughout the book are actually Indians who come by boat to work in British Africa for extended periods)
Unless money is no object, I should not advise anyone to engage porters at Mombasa, as equally good men can be obtained at Nairobi, thus saving 20 rupees per head in return railway fares. It must be remembered that for transport work men are infinitely preferable to donkeys, as the latter are exasperatingly slow and troublesome, especially on rough ground or on crossing streams, where every load has to be unpacked, carried over, and then reloaded on the animal's back. The caravan for one sportsman—if he intends going far from the railway—is usually made up as follows, though the exact numbers depend upon many considerations:

  1 Headman ................ 50 rupees[1] per month.
  1 Cook ................... 35    "         "
  1 Gun-bearer ............. 20    "         "
  1 "Boy" (personal servant) 20    "         "
  2 Askaris (armed porters). 12    "         "      each.
 30 Porters ................ 10    "         "      each.
[1] The rupee in British East Africa is on the basis of 15 to the pound sterling.

He then discusses, at length, wages (half are paid in advance), equipping hirelings, as well as how to pick good men for each role.

Alt Treasure

The next section is an English translation (from Pakistani) of the epic poem written by one of the workmen, in Patterson’s honor, upon his slaying of the second Man-Eater. The poem is very colorful, but too long to include here in full. One gets the impression that the poem is among the Colonel’s prize “possessions” from his time in Africa, along with the silver bowl his workmen had commissioned for the occasion, the new sub-species of Kudu(T. oryx pattersonianus) that Patterson discovered and was named after him, and of course, his many hunting trophies.

Excerpt from epic poem by Roshan mistari, son of Kadur mistari Bakhsh

I think there’s a lesson here for both players and DM. “Treasure” doesn’t have to be gold or magic items. Really, it is the adventures themselves that are most valuable. As such, the keepsakes that recall our adventures and the companions we shared them with are the possessions we most prize.

Colonial Map

Finally, like the best RPG products, Colonel Patterson finishes his book of with a very game-able map:

As a final note, I'll just point out that "The Man Eaters of Tsavo" is a great read, especially if you like Edgar Rice Burroughs' fiction. You can get it on project Gutenberg, but I prefer the PDF version which has pictures.