Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Post-Apocalyptic RPG Playtest Freebie

Happy Saturnalia or other non-specific holiday. I've finally broken the cycle of playing the Game that Shall Not Be Mentioned and feeling happily productive again seeing Misty Isles of the Eld in layout, writing What Ho, Frog Demons and in the final stretch of finishing a Space Habitat generation chapter for Trey Causey's upcoming Strange Stars OSR supplement.

In fact I've been productive enough to push out another iteration of Anarchy RPG (alternate title the less sophomoric Fucking Anarchy and Shit), a d100 BRP-like hack of Evan Elkins and I's unpublished Feudal Anarchy. Think a bloody scavanger game somewhere between Fallout, Mad Max, Kung Fu 2100 and spaghetti westerns. The heart of it is a souped up version of FA's lifepath like chargen.

I will be running some playtest, grow-the-rules bottom-up sessions online at Google Plus over the holidays and next couple months. Let me know if you want in. 

So anywho here's a free version of 0.2 with two alternate, utterly unofficial (though very nice) covers by Trey. Download it here and here

Anarchy 0.3 will add:
1. Miscellaneous starting artifacts and gear table.
2. Advanced Vocations for chargen.
3. A ton of new gear.
4. A ton of guns and other weapons. Naturally.
5. Car chase and combat rules.

6. Bestiary.  

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Coming Soon Misty Isles of the Eld

The best of news, after seven tough love editorial iterations The Misty Isles of the Eld is in layout. I am proud as hell again that we decided to take what were supposed to be 16-20 page mini-adventures and hammer them into fully-realized adventures.

Like Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, the Isles is longer and more content heavy than the original Slumbering Ursine Dunes main adventure (clocking in at over 72 pages). It's a pleasure to create in itself (my main motivation in being involved with the Hydra Cooperative) and we wanted to make sure that those who took the risk of backing us feel that the good faith and support is being paid back in spades.
The Eld naval port

What you can expect in the Isles:
Tons of art. The ever-talented and prolific Luka Rejec has packed the thing with his superbly quirky art. Expect to see something like 4-5 times the amount of illustrations than in the Dunes and Marlinko (and what art too). The unfinished front and back cover that mirror the complicated dual nature of the Isles (a section of a horrible cold dimension transposed onto a pastoral mythic wilderness) you can see down below at the very bottom.

Four dungeons. One large one (the body horror-industrial Vat Complex) with its menacing sealed off-west wing, body-horrific industrial process and gates to pocket dimensions. The flying god-prison Monument Five, meth-fruit Plantation House and Colonel Zogg's Pagoda Bunker are all in there.

Full “extra-planar” pointcrawl. The wilderness crawl spreads over one main isle and two smaller islets subdivided by massive, movable grubs. Nearly each one of the sites has a corresponding Luka illustrations.

An “Anti-Chaos Index.” A backwards version of the dynamic sandbox tool I use in the campaign and in both previous adventures. Through their actions the players shape the very reality of the Isles. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst, but always for the weird.

A slew of new otherwordly monsters (some truly wonderful examples by Robert Parker).

A large collection of bizarre technological Eldish artifacts and treasure. Includes a random generator for miscellaneous artifacts picked up.

A new psionicist player class, the Psychonaut, with a soft scifi twist. Including its own powers and mutations.

God-Torture Artist at Work
Grub-Ridge in motion
Front Cover (Pastoral). Work in Progress.
Back Cover (the Cold Hell). 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Building Dynamic Sandboxes Part II

The Building Dynamic Sandboxes kickoff post felt a bit light without some of the supporting entries so instead of waiting until tomorrow I am going go ahead and post Part II. (There will indeed be a Part III centered on Faction Dynamics, NPC Actors, and Notebooks, likely Monday).

Beyond having a regular campaign news cycle and building less static encounter charts, I've found having generators for large-scale regional or realm-wide events to be extremely helpful in injecting fluid situations into the campaign. My personal druthers is to concentrate on (or at least having on hand) generators that are either escalating (with PC-action and NPC triggers) or random --even better is when I can manage to combine elements of both.

The Chaos Index. If you've read Slumbering Ursine Dunes or Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, you have perhaps an inkling of what the Chaos Index is. The Hill Cantons has a campaign conceit in which human civilization is hemmed and battered with supernatural/mythic/faerie zones known as the Weird. Because the boundaries between the Weird and civilization tend to move back and forth I put together a track similar to what one might find in wargames.

The track moves up and down when actions inside the game either roll back the forces of the Weird or trigger greater chaos. As the track escalates away from the baseline the afflicted campaign areas get more anarchic and stranger. When things get to relatively high levels things get really odd and start to set off various events.

One, of course, doesn't have to buy into that kind of pretentious cosmological shenanigans. Something like the Index can just easily be adapted for any escalating situation in your campaign: the ebbs and flows of a war and its impact on the surrounding countryside; the rise and fall of a sinister looming great evil/dark overlord, etc.

But let's go back to my Chaos Index for a concrete baseline example. Here's are a few index-related excerpts from Fever-Dreaming Marlinko.
Click on me.
Me too. 

Now that's pretty elaborate and takes some heavy lifting in terms of thinking about the variables that might apply to your own campaign world. The idea is to capture movement, no need to overdo it. 

And, hey, truth be told I use a way more stripped-down, loosey-goosy version at my own table most of the time. I tend to take notes at the end of a session and make a fast and loose judgment call about whether I should move the index. “So the players killed the Ernest Borgnine wizard creating badgerman clones in his vats?” That's going to ratchet down the Weird a slot. “Oh they broke open that lead-sealed chamber containing Nezarr the Aborted, well thats four slots upward.”

Similarly what happens as you hit each level of escalation doesn't have to have a fully-developed chart. One can just as easily seat of your pants as I often do. “Oh this week the Index jumped up pretty high. So that must mean that the war against the kozaks is spiraling out of control. Let me say make it twice as likely that players will encounter a kozak warband.”

Event Charts. Event charts and similar mechanics have been with the tabletop hobby for a good long time but are strangely underdeveloped and neglected by designers. Wargamers of the 1960s-70s frequently employed random chance cards in battles and campaigns, a phenomena that got ported into Dave Arneson's Blackmoor with interesting and sometimes hilarious results.

Oriental Adventures fielded one of the few examples of a good overarching and flexible system for generating events in an old school D&D product. OA's system has multiple levels of magnitude. Big ticket events are diced once a year, medium/regional level events monthly and small-scale daily events are nicely cross-indexed to terrain (and produce some immediately actionable type things like discovering a lost ruined temple and the like).

Though it produces some events that are either or culturally-off (and I want my campaign-shaking events coming in more frequently than annually and monthly) it's an easy system to adapt. The general architecture fits in nicely with the routine of campaign news that I think is important to establishing good habits. I will admit to relying on OA's system quite often when I get stumped for ideas.

Surely you have some personal favorite campaign events systems? Designed your own? Jacked it from Birthright or some other product?

Building Dynamic RPG Sandboxes Part 1

[Part Two can be found here.]

Tabletop rpgs lord over other gaming forms in several key areas. One major area is in the ability to provide robustly reactive campaign worlds that can take players and GM alike into totally unexpected places.

I have my shortcomings as a GM (pacing in online sessions for one) but over the years that the Hill Cantons has been active I've worked like hell to make the campaign feel alive and ever changing—to make all the whirly bits whirl. I've tried to extend that dynamic feel to the published mini-sandboxes of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko. (The upcoming Misty Isles of the Eld has several, some that radically transform the region through player's actions.)

Often providing dynamism is just a matter of thinking through after a session ends how the various pieces of your sandbox (the machinations/reactions of NPCs high and low, what an in-game activity like a massive treasure haul did to change a base settlement, etc) are organically pushed and pulled by players (and other actors), but it helps immensely to develop a range of tools and habits to give it depth and consistent motion. Here are a few of my own tricks of the trade (cut into two parts for length).
Campaign News Cycle. I've written about this before in depth, but an important glue in the Hill Cantons campaign is the weekly news.

Regular news updates serve a triple function: 1. they force you as a GM to have think about the moving parts of your world on a regular basis, 2. it provides players frequent active choices in interacting with these moving parts, and 3. they create the illusion (and to some degree the reality) that your campaign world is a real, living place.

Dynamic Encounter Tables. This is a new piece for me. While I am generally pretty good at developing unique encounter tables (it's an easy and eminently practical shortcut in providing an interesting feel to an area) they have been mostly static.

I've started making them more dynamic in two ways:
1. Adding a variable New Developments slot that is basically a place holder for a special encounter tied to either a recent news event or an action that the party takes. A concrete example is that there has been a recent invasion by horse-nomads (kozaks) just to the north. If that slot is hit on the chart the party will hit something that has to do with event, maybe it's a patrol by the local militia, foraging stragglers from the horde, deserters etc.

2. I have been using encounter pools for total numbers of certain creatures (especially important in the colony-building Feral Shore campaign phase). Kill 30 Grotmen total over the next month? Well their local population is exhausted and something else will fill that niche. It's a pain to track so I do limit this to certain factions or types of monsters. It plays out at the table well, often giving me ideas for what's happening when new creatures step in.

Sample chart:
Upper North Mythic Woods Encounters
1-2  Personality
3-4  Creature
5  Mishaps and Magic
6  New Development

  1. 1d6 War Bears pilgrims
  2. 1d3 Revocan Honeyback Bears
  3. 1d4 Infested Boars
  4. 1d10 Reverse Centaurs (20 total)
  5. 2d4 Dirt-Gnome Mushroom Hunters (30 total)
  6. 1d4 Lost Village Children
In the next part I will chatter on about using a Chaos Index (or other overarching dynamic model), Encounter/Event Notebooks, Faction Dynamics and more. (Quite a bit more is written about sandbox mechanics here.)

Undoubtedly many of you sandbox vet GMs out there have a host of your own, feel free to lay them on in the comments.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Ten Other Eccentrics, Scamps and Scumbags You Will Meet in Marlinko

The ever-talented Jason Sholtis made my week by drawing a just-perfect character sketch of Glamdalf (that's him above), one of many NPCs of escalating weirdness that appear in Fever-Dreaming Marlinko. It reminded me that I have been sitting on this list of “out-take” NPCs that didn't make it into the final draft.

Given that petty crime (especially small-scale grift) is a widespread, popular pastime in that strange little borderlands city, many of the following are likely to be in the annoying nuisance category of urban NPCs.

[Oh also I done got interviewed about the Hill Cantons by Jack. Check it out here.]

Roll a d10 (if you must)
1. Radko the Ruffler. 0-level Man-at-Arms. Leather Jack, tattered uniform surcoat, sabre. Approaches a Fighting Man and claims to have been a veteran in the Kozak Wars. Claims to be looking for honest work or a donation to get him through a hard time. If hired on, he will split at the first opportunity, stealing an item of value from the party.

2. Havol the Hooker. 0-level combatant. Padded, polearm. Hp 4. Despite the name Havol is not a prostitute but instead has gained his underworld nickname by using his long, hooked polearm to grab hang lines of clothes, spring open second-story shutters and commit other pole-related crimes.

3. Poor Tomas the Ubra-man. A second level mountebank. Hp 5. Feigns anxiety disorder claims that it prevents him from fulfilling seed money for a wilderness expedition and is now financially destitute. Carries an Ubra-stick, a white-painted staff that signifies a former patient/indentured servant of the Ubra work camp for the mentally ill. Will ask for specific amounts of alms money (5 gold and 2 silver), offering rumors and gossip (true and useful at first but increasingly more fanciful and far-fetched as he runs out of info). Will pretend to have a panic-induced heart attack if ever confronted.

4. Bedka the Bawdy Basket. First-level thief. Leather jack, hand axe. Hp 3. A matronly, rosy-cheeked pedlar of kitchen ware. She bribes servants to steal items of value from the townhouses of their patrons.

5. Petr, Prigger of Prancers. Second-level thief (stealth skill 4). Leather jack, lasso, sabre. Hp 10. A wee, bow-legged, skilled horse thief, Petr will approach the party either as means to off-load stolen horses (giving deep discounts of 40-50% off the listed horse price or as marks to be stolen from.

6. Janos the Jarkman. Forgerer of papers. He can knock off 200-400 gp worth of inducement fees (bribes) to Marlinko or contrada authorities by filing mountains of official-looking falsified paperwork. Takes a commission of 30% from any cash saved. He's backed by One Armed Jiri and any attempts to cheat or otherwise metaphorically fuck him will suffer retribution from his semi-criminal society.

7. Zela the Inflicted. 0-level woman-at-arms. Half plate (AC:5), spear, sword, large container of tallow soap. Hp 2. High strung, fidgety with deep black bags under her eyes, she will offer her services as a hireling. While earnest in trying to pull her weight, she will panic when asked to individually take on a task even half-dangerous. Discreetly soaping up her face, she will feign an epileptic seizure in such a case.

8. “Whipjack” Wahlo. 0-level man-at-arms. Studded leather. Trident. Hp 5. Broad-shouldered, black-skinned (literally) and barely speaking the local tongue, Wahlo is a shipwrecked sailor from the Scarlet Sultanate. He is quite anxious about his “papers” (forged by Janos above) and being picked up by the local authorities--and is sadly ignorant of the Overking's law granting free right of passage to distressed mariners. Manipulative PCs could wheedle him into serving at a pittance of the hireling rate. A patron however who informs of his legal rights and undue worry will gain his near-fanatical loyalty and gratitude.

9. “Upright Man” Uli. 3rd level thief. Leather, quarterstaff. Hp 15. Though dressed in a threadbare and patch-covered doublet, grey-haired Uli is almost stately in countenance. Uli has a finger in every small scam or theft below Jiri's interest. All on this list owe him a favor, the women owe their hearts and the petty criminals owe him grudging fealty. He may be persuaded to intercede in trouble with any listed here—for a fee.

10. Frazalina. Daughter of Fraza the curio dealer. Thin, spindly-necked and sharped-nosed, Frazalina is uncannily similar to her old man in both appearance and aspect, she is also freakishly honest—and a racist. She is likely to offer a commission for appropriating rare macguffins in local murderholes. She is in terrible company on this chart.  

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Revised Thief Class for B/X or LL

I should know better than to tamper with the core classes. By no means are they platonic ideals but the unbalanced, moldy old D&D classes seem to somehow balance in the mix of a party. And pragmatic me notices that they work more often than not. 


I don't really like the pitifulness of the B/X version of the Thief. There's just something about that d4 hit die and being not all that much better at things thievish at lower levels than your party mates, that doesn't line up with the rose-tints of my AD&D memory with its ballsier thieves.

Anywho here's a not particularly earth-shattering (but perhaps sweet spot hitting) revision of the class that synthesizes elements of the first and second edition AD&D thief with the d6 skill elegance of Lamentations's Specialist. As always eager to hear from fellow gear-heads about if you'd think this works or not.

Comparison to B/X or LL Thief
  • Moves to the 16 percent jumps of a d6, which produces a bit less skill at first level. Climb Walls take a bigger hit to put it in accord with starting second ed levels.
  • Gains skill in larger jumps per level. A second level B/X Thief gains roughly 20 percent scattered across skills, this thief bumps up 32 percent with the two +1 d6 modifiers.
  • Trades in the incremental across-board bumps of the B/X Thief for the focused choice of the second edition Thief.
  • Gets the d6 hit die of AD&D.
  • Collapses Hide in Shadows with Move Quietly into Stealth
  • Starts reading MU scrolls at less of a chance of success but a level earlier.

Requirements: None
Prime Req: DEX
Hit Dice: d6
Maximum Level: None
You know what this class is about. Read Leiber. 

The Thief can not be in favor of the combination of order and weal as an alignment. She/he also knows Thieves Cant, an argot of the local language. 

The Thief can wear leather or padded armor and use any weapon (but not a shield). When attacking while hidden by Stealth behind or on the flank of a creature, the Thief may backstab at +4 to hit and double damage. At 11th level the Thief can backstab at triple damage.

All Thief skill rolls are made on a d6. A skill check is successful if it is at or lower than the skill roll. At each new level past first, the thief can distribute points to a skill as they choose. A skill may be not go higher than 6. The GM should decrease or increase the chance of success for easier or more difficult tasks. Skill descriptions are the same as btb with the exception of Stealth which covers both Hide in Shadows and Move Silently.

At level 9, the Thief becomes name level and gains name level things. At level 9 they can also begin to use Magic User scrolls.

Base Thief Skills
Climb Walls: 4
Pick Pockets: 1
Find/Remove Traps: 1
Locks: 1
Hear Noise: 2
Stealth: 1
Read Languages: 0
Read Scrolls (at Level 9): 3

Hit Dice (1d6)
Bonus Skill Levels
+1 hp
+2 hp
+3 hp
+4 hp
+5 hp
+6 hp
+7 hp
+8 hp
+9 hp
+10 hp

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Fever-Dreaming Marlinko and Slumbering Ursine Dunes Review Round-Up

I have been remiss in posting blogside reviews of my full-length, broke-in-the-head adventures. Promotion—and most of all self-promotion—being one of those necessary bits for micro-publishers that I have never felt entirely comfortable with. 

I do think the reviews, all of them thoughtful, constructively critical and by people who I respect in their own right, have interesting, broader things to say besides what's in the product. 

(Appearing below are some wonderful unpublished concept sketches of war bears and cave dwarfs that came out of the Kickstarter by David Lewis Johnson.)
Fever-Dreaming Marlinko

Slumbering Ursine Dunes

Hill Cantons Compendium II

Friday, September 4, 2015

Hero-Cults of the Hill Cantons

It is known that in the post-Hyperborean period that the Godhead now revered as the Sun Lord roamed the world conducting great feats. Achingly similar stories of his virile prowess and —the bullwhipping of the Unachus, the jilting of the White Goddess, etc--are told throughout the known world. One school of contemporary thought maintains that the Sun Lord was merely a mighty folk hero, a fleshy mortal sac like you and I, another that the many and diverse manifestations are the work of many separate local heroes...

Secular champions of Solarity aspire to join and excel in membership of one of the myriad orders tied to the veneration of individual hero-aspects of the Sun Lord. While not-always-coherent—combining features of religious sub-cults, secret fraternities (or sororities), hygiene-product pyramid schemes and military organizations—the orders serve as an important supplement to the Overking's levies and small standing army.

In truth they also serve as an pillar for status jockeying of the wealthy (who can sponsor “surrogate knights” that legally owe all accolades, titles and bragging rights to their patrons) and the occasional hard-earned (and bribe greased) rise of a tough, resourceful citizen-soldier.
General Requirements of Membership
  • A horse, a suit of half-plate, the favored weapon of the order, the uniform of the order and a pouch of order-ordained fetishes and herbal smudges.
  • A retained man-at-arms in similar martial attire and horseflesh.
  • A leveled ranking as a fighting man or woman of no less than third and of noble or gentle birth (forging the pedigree certificate and bribing registrars for 50-200 gold suns is a well-known and public secret.)
  • A war-trained stallion of such quality that 250 gold suns would be your starting range (preferably of such exorbitant luxury that one should feel a sudden sense of anxiety and regret over the sticker shock at the end of the haggle).
  • The uniform of the order woven from Himyari cotton of the highest thread count (150 gold suns) or from the finest flumph-silk (300 gold suns).
  • A fluted suit of plate or half-plate heavily and richly embossed around a central circular design (leering deodands or empty-eyed cherubic faces being highly popular, usually weighing in from 200-1000 gold suns).
  • An elaborately etched burgonet or great helm with impressive crestage (wizened horns, tapered bird heads etc, 150 gold suns).
  • Two or more men-at-arms and a valet/fetishholder.
Cult Matters:
All ritters are required to bring themselves and their full retinues twice a year to the order's regional musters:
Winterkanc, a fortnight-long series of ceremonial reenactments of the hero's acts and life in the days before our dear Sun-Lord's annual step back from the arduous daily grind of riding through the sky 9-12 hours a day (not that's he complaining).
Sommeroct. A month-long series of elaborate and ritually-inflected “flower wars,” grooming classes, military drills, wrestling matches, weapons competitions, theological debates and skin-care day-spas.

The Big Name Orders
Puissant Scions of the Pointed Stick
Hero-Aspect: Adalfuns

Motto: It Is Better to Suffer the Rich Man's Needle than the Gate of a Horned Camel

Taboos: Crossing a river without three full stops and looks backward. An opponent worth fighting must be bandied with before smiting. Riddles must be answered.

Favored Weapon: Lance or Ostrovan pike. Sabre.

Uniform: Pastel tabard worn over puffed and slashed armlets and tights. The order's copper and lapis lazuli badge is worn on the right shoulder.

Favored Meaningless Alignment Choice: Chaotic, Good, Not-Asshole.

Perks: Mighty Jab, +2 to damage when using pike, lance, or spear. (4th level), Obfuscation, +2 to surprise following verbal bandiage (5th level), Jaunty Tune, resist fear-based spells or powers at +5 to saving throw (6th level). Command of a banner of 10 order brothers/sisters and retinue (8th level).

The Contumelious Companions of Owald
Hero-Aspect: Owald the Obtrusive. The fierce and eternally drunk slayer of Smak the First.

Motto: Here is the Primrose, Dance Here

Taboos: Rumination for more than a minute is to be strictly abhorred. A host-offered adult beverage must never be followed by less than a sip. The color blue is never to be worn.

Favored Weapons: Sword of illegitimate origin (coarsely titled a “bastard sword” by the ill-mannered). Horseman's flail.

Uniform: Ecru surcoat with personal device on the left shoulder and a furious sanguine sun ablaze mid-chest.

Favored Meaningless Alignment Choice: Lawful, Good, Irritable

Perks: Iron Liver, can drink as many drinks as CON without being intoxicated (4th). Resist Contemplation, +3 to any charm, suggestion, or other mentally-based magic (5th). Rivek's Ragequit. May voluntarily enter a berserk state (as per the berserker) for 1d3 rounds. On the final round of the state the ritter can elect to leave combat moving at double his movement without penalty or attacks of opportunity. (6th), Command of a banner of 10 order brothers/sisters and retinue (8th level).

The Golden Company
Hero-Aspect(s): Dalibor and Luboš 

Motto: Twinned Fate is Inexorable

Taboos: Passing twins without offering a gift of worth. The eating of beans and legumes.

Favored Weapons: Great Axe. Metal-banded wrestler's gloves.

Uniform: A black-and-white checkered long surcoat and white-plumed helmet with rough animal skin neck trim. Gold-plated wrestling belts.

Favored Meaningless Alignment Choice: Lawful, Good, Neutral, Supernal
Perks: Luboš's Laconic Clinch-Hold, a grappling maneuver at +3 STR up to 19 (4rd level). Twinned Image, as per the spell Mirror Image providing only one illusory self (5th level). Jaundiced Eye. +2 to hit any extradimensional creature (6th level). Command of a banner of 5 order brothers and a roll on a random wandering monster chart (8th level).

Lady Friends of the Unctioned Falx
Hero-Aspect: Vac the Virile

Motto: Warmth Above, Emptiness Below

Taboos: Using male pronouns for any man other than the Sun Lord. The eating of bread and foods rich in carbohydrates. Being a man (though since gender is a social construction this is more flexible than it appears).

Favored Weapons: Falx, a polearm topped with a long curving scythe-like blade. Preferably anointed weekly with sanctified small beer. Falchion or hatchet.

Uniform: Mustard-yellow sarong. Polished-steel breastplate with bronze inlay. Burgonet mandatory, always worn pushed back and high on the crown.

Favored Meaningless Alignment Choice: Lawful, Good, Neutral, Not Unctuous

Perks:Vac's Wonder-Hands, the grip in one hand is built up so strong as to be able to grip a falx in one hand and perform minor actions in the other (4th level). Detect Dissembling/Bullshit, as per Detect Lie spell (5th level). Drogo's Splintering Spine. Falx produces explosive d10 damage on a roll of “10” (7th) . Command of a banner of 10 order sisters (8th).

Friday, August 28, 2015

An Interview with Zzarchov Kowolski

One of my favorite guilty blogging pleasures has been using interviews as an excuse to have conversations with game designers whose work I enjoy. A guilty pleasure I hope to indulge a bit more as I get into the home stretch of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes project.

Today's interview is with Zzarchov Kowolski, one of a handful of gaming folk that share a single walkable community called Canada (or so I am told). On again/off again in various Google Plus games I have run into Zzarchov and found him to be hilarious, anarchic and creative, but it's his adventure design that I admire the most, in the main because he eschews the D&D as a Straight Guy school of thought, never fails to write a memorable adventure site, and doesn't seem afraid to experiment with out-of-the-box forms.

Hill Cantons: How did you get involved with all this? What drove you into game design and publishing? What have you found to be most challenging about DIY design/publishing? 

Zzarchov Kowolski: NGR (Neoclassical Geek Revival) was my own collection of house rules to run a game in the vein I wanted to run (a focus on stealth, more gameable priest mechanics, more explicit hitpoint mechanics).  At a certain point, especially when bringing new players on board,  it became easier to just teach it as its own thing.  So I began to work upon streamline and better plugging things in together.

Eventually I figured I may as well make this work available to others in case they could provide any feedback or playtesting. Google+ and Constantcon really kicked that into high gear by letting me run with multiple groups which consisted almost entirely of GM’s in their own right, which is a very unique opportunity.  People like Kyrinn S. Eis, Tim Shorts, and Ian Burns were really helpful during the first release.

From there I just kept putting out more and more things.  

HC: What are some of the important things you learned about honing your craft? Did the lessons come in big leaps or bit by bit?

ZK: Once you’ve run through the gauntlet the first time it gets much much easier for the second release.  As a corollary your first release is going to be pretty bad when you look back at in in five years no matter what.  If it didn’t it would mean you hadn’t learned anything in the last five years.  Also, invest heavily in good layout and try to find someone who is good at it if you don’t have the skill.

The greatest challenge boils down to scheduling.  Things always take longer when you get a bigger and bigger team. DIY publishing is very few people’s day jobs and the work has to navigate around people’s schedules.  The more people who are needed at any given point the more likely that someone will experience a nasty dose of life and will need to slow the project to a halt. Keeping small teams for any individual project and/or a hefty dose of patience is really helpful.

HC: Dear lord, tell me about it. What are some other ways you find to cope or work around that kind of delay chain?

ZK: There are limited things you can do to change delays unless you want to become a taskmaster boss or a demanding client  (which I do not aspire to be during my off periods). Finding a good pool of talented freelancers that you have a good relationship with will do wonders. A pool is key,  life will happen to people and if one person is involved in everything you are doing then when life happens to them everything grinds to a halt for everyone.  That in turn means you might not be able to keep things afloat in the interim, and you’d just end up screwing them over even more by not having anything for them to work on when their life calms down.

HC: Many of your adventures feature procedural experiment, innovative bits that set them apart from traditional adventure design. Scenic Dunnsmouth had the randomly-changing, ever-replayable map, Under the Waterless Sea (a personal favorite), alongside its fresh, fun Polynesian setting and weird/beautiful pearl-based economy, had a dynamic mechanic for changing the adventure if you switched sides and aided the Deep Ones. Gem-Prison of Zardax (your most recent baby) has an intriguing series of puzzle diagrams. Can you talk some about those experiments. What were you aiming for? How did they work out in writing and most importantly at the table?

ZK: Whenever I write an adventure for publishing I am trying to focus on a specific reason for the adventure to exist on people’s shelves and be used over and over again.  Scenic Dunnsmouth was designed to showcase how you can build replayable adventures for use with the same game group each campaign without getting stale.

I have run Dunnsmouth probably 8 or 10 times, with the same group at least 4 times. I always stick a version of it somewhere in any game I run.  My home game is a post apocalyptic one at the moment, and you can bet Dunnsmouth is there somewhere.  One of the games with my home group didn’t involve the “main adversary” of the adventure.  They burned the town to the ground trying to find out where “they” were.  It was great when I told them after the fact.

Under the Waterless Sea was on the one hand a way to showcase how to handle the impact of PC shenanigans on large scale events

HC: By doing a weighted point system?

Yes, but also in having a number of different “commando” actions (including some that just worked out as wartime looting) that would have an impact.  That makes it easier to fairly adjudicate what happens without letting your own moral compass shade reactions to PC generated chaos. That is all secondary though, as far more importantly to me it was a way to make a “water level” that everyone doesn’t hate.  

In another example Thulian Echoes was showing how to replace the dreaded GM infodump for past expeditions. The ability to “play through” the past dungeon delve in the past is a repeatable way to make research into adventurers of your campaign world’s past something more interesting than a sage roll. It also lets you generate some neat consequences to surprise the GM a bit.  Much like Dunnsmouth,  I think there needs to be some interesting gameplay mechanics for the GM.

Similarly, Lamentations of the Gingerbread Princess was an alternate wish system,  The Gem Prison of Zardax is a showcase of how you can have a dungeon spanning set of interlocking puzzles. In addition to its spoiler based goal,  The Pale Lady was also a good test of how much of a song’s lyrics I can get into an adventure without anyone noticing (a lot).  That last one is really more of an author game mechanic.

HC: You've also experimented with trying different funding models. With Under the Waterless Sea you attempted to try and use something like the Steam early access model. Tell me about that. Did it work? Would you try it again?

ZK: The “Buystarter” for Under the Waterless Sea worked,  but it was still a tempered success.  On the one hand it no doubt might have exploded larger if I could have allowed a kickstarter process where people could pledge higher than the initial low amount (I had more than a few people asking how they could do this),  but it also had very low risk.  No one was going to be left waiting for 4 years wondering if they would ever get their adventure (I am not immune to the risk of life happening after all).  I might end up doing it again for a small release.

It ironically hasn’t done much better than my ill-advised surprise release for The Gem Prison of Zardax where I posted about it once on April 1st and then just released it later with no additional pre-release announcements. 

HC: Word of mouth and the power of reviews—especially by “opinion leaders” (for lack of a better word)--seem hugely important to micropublishers.

ZK: Absolutely, there are a lot of things released and no one has time to read them all.  The opinions of trusted reviewers are a big sway to most people.

HC: What kind of reservations do you have about Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general?

ZK: To follow up on the earlier questions,  life happens.  Delays happen. With your own project, you and you alone as responsible for those delays.  Once you take someone's money,  you now have other stakeholders that you have obligations to.  It doesn’t help that the project can easily spiral beyond your control to manage it.  To pick, pack, and ship 50 books is a lot different than 1,000 books.

HC: So what's next? You have a revision of NGR coming down the pike? Anything else?

ZK: I have an updated layout and art version of NGR ready to go,  but I am looking to go for a larger project of breaking it down into a core and full rule book.  I might go for the dreaded kickstarter for that project, with a guaranteed release of at least the updated layout and art versions.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Quick(ish) Tour of Revoca Town

At first sight Revoca Town appears to be an atomized mess of bleak, narrow-windowed tower-houses and muddy alleys sullenly and suspiciously walled off from each other.

Admittedly, repeated glances do not disabuse one of that impression.

The town is, in point of fact, a brooding self-confined mess of mutual hostility, a sorry state only reinforced by centuries of Pikra-Svar, a peculiar local form of blood-feud characterized by ritualized passive-aggression and baleful stares. 

An elaborately-embossed beech post-board--weekly festooned with a host of veiled slights, oblique satire and faint praise scrawled anonymously on small pieces of vellum--plays central stage for Pikra-Svar feuds. Rankled talk of such messages typically dominate conversation for weeks (if not months) over dinners taken in the dark shadows of the windowless halls, ultimately culminating with feigning even knowledge of the physical existence of the rival individual or clan.

Fortunately for the traveler, years of near-universal repressed neighborly hate has left each towerhoused clan intensely eager for outside company. Revoca as such is unique among the towns of the Hill Cantons in not only not wanting to utterly fleece newcomers, but in actively competing to host travelers. That is...for roughly a week in which time they become too familiar and find themselves suddenly and viciously put down on the board.

People of Note
Brako the Heinous. Just outside of town sits Weapons and Shit, a one-stop hut/craft shop/dojo run by Brako, an ancient, not-yet-set-on-fire 41-year-old Chaos Monk. He's got Himyari throwing stars, shit on chains, nunchuks, kamas, fucking pommel horses. All that shit.

Princess Zuzu, Girl Wizard. The potent, precocious and precious Zuzu will trade and cast spells if you sit for tea with her and wear a party hat (and throw in some change for her next admiral's uniform). Totally not a real princess. 7th level User of Magic.

Svart the Woodcutter. Tight-lipped Xamuran rover of the mythic wilderness to the east. Though he looks like he would kill you soon as look at you, locals say he's the man to hire as a guide (50 gold suns or a 1/3rd share a session). 1st level Ranger. Hp: 8. Big ass axe.

Father Hog/Sister Sow. An immense, centuries-old, ring-eyed talking pig runs religious services in the community. Switching between the roles of a gruff but jovial, mustard-yellow-berobed Father Hog half the week and the world-wise, maternal, rouged, midnight-blue-gowned Sister Sow the rest, the pig manages to serve both the local Sundome and softshell-heretical Evening Star Lodge.

That's one dedicated pig, pa.

Places of Note
Our Lady of the Not-Lake. While most outsiders might recognize this as a flower-festooned, “country”-aesthetic pagan shrine to the Pahr lake godlet, Mojca (pronounced MOY-tsa) of the Tarn, locals will correct you, maintaining that this is, in fact, Mojca the Creek-Goddess. The narrow, broken-edged lapis-lazuli-covered pedestal the primly-painted idol rises out of seems to have been at one time a large circular (perhaps “lake-like”?) surface.

The Void Lodge. A rather large and tolerated community of heretics live in Revoca. Worshipers of Habeka the Lady are mostly members of the moderate Evening Star Society, but even members of the mystic sect the Starry Void have some aboveground representation here in the form of an underground lodge.

Which I acknowledge is a confusing way to put it.

Throvemesto. Miners make up a distinct community just to the west of Revoca proper. Behind a wooden stockade sit rows of tidy, stone dormotories. The miners, proud working folk, disdain both the “bow thugs” of management and the residents of Revoca who they view as insufferably "mental."

Hrad Morva. Perched up on the high mound north of town is the strangely contrasting sight of the Lady's castle. The bulk of an ancient earthen hill-fort jostles with the new-fangled chateau.
Places to Stay
Everywhere (see the first section above). Start with the better families with the sturdy well-kept towers near the market and then work your west through the increasingly immiserated clans. Visitors who have attained a Rank greater than that of Third and exhibiting a manner less than base are invited to dine and dwell with the most noble Knyaz Draga III “the Twitterlight" at her castle, Hrad Morva.

Or avoid the whole game (you would, with your coastal elite ways) and stay at the Four Dumplings, a quaint, three-bedroom, tower-inn run by the invasive and saccharine-friendly cat-masked widow Pani Velka. The cost in coins is cheap (5 silver ladies/night), the cost in emotional comfort immeasurable.

Places to Shop
It's simple, you can't buy anything but the barest of staples until the bi-weekly markets on Drunkday and Moonsday. Fortunately an aspiring border ruffian or murderhold procurement specialists wandering the rickety market stalls and charming refuse-decorated grounds can find an array of tools of the trade for purchase. There is always a chance of finding strange and enscorcelled items strangely on a random-seeming weekly-fleeting basis.

Revoca Town Fun Facts
Xam. Defying easy stereotype are the Xam, a tight-lipped, industrious and physically distinctive group of locals with dull-golden skin that seems to glisten sparkly in the sun. They as, a race, seem inclined to humble, physically-oriented positions such as shepherd, water-fetcher, pigkeeper or woodcutter. Uniformly curly bronze-red hair and gray-eyed with a look of perpetual menace, really they would kill you as soon as look at you.

The Xamuran Whistle. A regional dialect made up of  high and low whistles developed by Xam shephards, naturally expressing a limited vocabulary and range. Most all native Revocans can at least whistle a few cutting tones.  

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Misadventure, Mishap and Exploration Challenges in D&D Wilderness

I knew the ladder was a Bad Idea. My fortysomething mind microcalculated risk and sagely pshawed it long before my ankle got caught between the doubled up last rungs.

But I had passed by earlier in my long meandering walk and it nagged at an earlier me, defying me to go up and see just what was on top of an aging, abandoned industrial block of a building. Anticlimax that's what. Four seconds of panic then a “hey idiot twist your leg” moment followed by a totally-not-worth-it pile of broken glass, a handful of steel vent ports and an obstructed view of asphalt wastes and new lofts.

Still I am glad I did it. I can even bend this back to elfgame relevance. But first some shaggy dog.
It's the summer of 1993. I, along with a gaggle of earnest, hoodied, patched and gamey-smelling anarcho-punk rawk kids, have been busy wearing out our welcome at a Madison coop house of earnest, bright-eyed local hippy-vegan kids. Aaron, a lanky (and yes gamey) buzz-headed kid from the Bay Area is holding court about the trains he hopped to get here: the long hours (days even) waiting in a yard for a "hot" express train, what kind of car makes a terribly uncomfortable ride, what it's like to get chased off by security (the “bulls”) etc. 

It's all misadventure, but I am instantly drawn in. We talk for a while and exchange piles of collage-suck xeroxed zines. His opens up a decade of doors for me. Between the shaggy dog stories of everyday life in the Bay Area hardcore scene and sweet, funny poems about Punk Rock Love, there were all kinds of misadventures filled with little mishaps. Long accounts of walking tours, most of it trespassing in abandoned industrial, almost all of that just about daylong adventures exploring the urban spaces that we most all just buzz on by.

I guess I gravitate naturally to that kind of exploration and the things that stick in my mind are always framed by some setback: the sapling breaking as I cross the creek, smashing the binding deep in the snow-covered woods on my crosscountry ski, lying in the keel of a boat retching with six-foot swells, watching half my backpacked in food for the week slide down a gorge, watching all my gear float down a creek suddenly engorged over night, running from a group of teens in the great hollow-shelled Detroit railroad hotel, running from security guards inside a shuttered factory, running from what I thought was a bear.
Me inside the Detroit Railroad Hotel circa 1997. 
Watching my dad fish out my brother who has been pulled under by the murderous current, losing my intertube with my dad and brother in a raging Kern river rapids and having to spend the afternoon climbing a mountain in shorts and cheap plastic flip-flops.

That last--which happened when I was still flush in my awkward, rpg-engrossed tween time--gets me to the relevant gaming-related point. I went home and wrote a version of what happened into a dungeon: a mile-wide underground river with some “come drown in me” boats and roaring rapids, whirlpools and secret caves. It was super crude mechanically and railroady but I remember having some kind of Shit that Can Go Wrong table. It probably was my first attempt to do real

Which leads me to my second punchline, maybe one thing that has made wilderness adventuring weak sauce in many D&D presentations is that it doesn't capture mishap well. I mean sure you have the usual beautiful organic misadventures of actual play. The “holy shit, I knew that scattering of bones and high smell of decay was a bad sign...why did we crawl in here” moments.

But generally outside of some mechanics for getting lost, food resource management and the one-off listing of things like rock falls on an encounter chart there isn't a lot of modeling of the horrible, funny things that happen that make the wilds and travel themselves such an adversary.

The closest I have seen to having a good, solid model of environmental challenge was the obscure Heart of the Sunken Lands put out by Midkemia way back when. Worked in there was a whole subsystem where the players had to deal with daily occurrences of such joys as horses going lame, jungle rot, spoiling food, etc.

I know, I know it's not rocket science figuring out these things. Maybe many of you have already homebrewed your own ways to do this (please, do share), read/adapted lifted something from other rpg products or think that it's just not a fun thing to throw into a game (maybe totally valid), but I kind of want to throw in more of that in my wilderness games. 

The wild places should have things, elements that are scarier than just the eight hit dice whozeewhatsee you run into. More ways to model hard gameable resource choices one has to make when an ankle turns, food is suddenly gone, blinding storms or the trail washed out. 

Yes please.