Monthly Archives: July 2018

Ennies publisher guide

It can be difficult to keep all the game studios straight, especially with the proliferation of personal brands. Since it is Ennies season, and the voting page for publishers is awkward to use, I thought it might be helpful to highlight some publishers that I consider notable, along with my reasons. I have included a few big players as well that any reader of Necropraxis is probably already familiar with, that want to note for particular actions.

(Inexplicably, Lumply Games, Meguey & Vincent Baker’s brand, and the publisher of Apocalypse World, does not seem to have been nominated. What? Moving on.)

Chaosium Inc. deserves praise for reprinting classic RuneQuest titles in high-quality editions, keeping the back catalog available digitally, and reinvigorating Glorantha with a beautiful new edition of RuneQuest that builds on the classic version.

Cubicle Seven did a great job with the 5E Adventures in Middle-Earth line, though the art is a little brown for me. The mechanics are thoughtful in how they try to support the feel of Tolkien’s stories. I think the 5E Middle-Earth books would be a good mechanical base for a low-magic 5E game, even ignoring the setting.

Dolorous Exhumation Press is “Dungeonesque” Jack; I consider his first Tales free compendium an OSR classic and Krevborna is great.

E.M.D.T. is Gabor Lux, writing some of the best current AD&D style content, but more usable and with less verbosity.

Fria Ligan (Free League) is relatively new to me, but Forbidden Lands, which bills itself as retro open-world survival fantasy, looks to be a promising fusion of old school mechanical goals with focused design principles. Not sure whether the final result will match my tastes, but worth keeping an eye on. (They show up twice for some reason on the list at the time of this writing. I hope someone fixes that.)

Goodman Games, along with work on DCC, deserves praise for keeping other old school classics, such as those by Judges Guild, in print and bringing them to the attention of the mainstream, such as with the 5E conversion of B1 and B2 (my review).

Hydra Cooperative is the non-commercial hobby collective behind Operation Unfathomable, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Misty Isles of the Eld, and many other key OSR publications. (The entity itself is non-commercial, but I think individual creators may earn profits.)

Jarnringen publishes the Swedish Symbaroum setting and RPG (see the Iron Pact fan site). The rules of Symbaroum are a bit mainstream for me, but the art is wonderful and evocative (I ran a short-lived campaign in the setting using my own rules). Symbaroum is also somehow associated with Modiphius, which I mention below.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess probably needs no introduction here. James still deserves support for being unwavering in commitment to quality of physical product and willingness to take risks. Frostbitten & Mutilated is also up for a number of awards.

Lampblack & Brimstone publishes supplements associated with or brand-adjacent to Dungeon World, but their pubs are just as useful for OSR play. Freebooters is a slick ruleset and I consider Perilous Wilds one of the classic hex-crawl supplements. Servants of the Cinder Queen is a short module worth checking out. The taste in art is impeccable too.

Lost Pages is Paolo Greco, fellow book snob, meticulous bookbinder, and the publisher of my own Wonder & Wickedness, along with games such as Into the Odd (my review) and his completely sui generis masterpiece, Cthonic Codex (False Machine review).

Melsonian Art Council: Undercroft zine, Troika, Fever Swamp, Crypts of Indormancy.

Modiphius Entertainment is assembling an intriguing catalog of what I might call hybrid mainstream-indie games… is that a contradiction? Mutant: Year Zero, Legacy: Life Among the Ruins (an Apocalypse World derivative), and so forth.

Necrotic Gnome Productions is Gavin Norman and an always reliable source of good B/X style content and rules, such as Dolmenwood, B/X Essentials, Theorems & Thaumaturgy (my review). Necrotic Gnome has plans for expansion and fancy editions, about which I am excited.

Olde House Rules does Pits & Perils (my review).

Red Box Vancouver is Johnstone Metzger, of Metamorphica (classic edition is pay-what-you-want), innumerable trad-friendly adventure modules such as Evil Wizards in a Cave, the Nightmares Underneath OSR game, Dungeon Full of Monsters, etc etc etc. He has also done a lot of work on powered by the apocalypse style games and so may be slightly less well known among the DIY D&D crowd.

red moon medicine show does Vacant Ritual Assembly, one of my favorite zines, though it has recently been dormant. Issue one is one of my top used-in-play supplements, for the ghoul market (my review).

Schwalb Entertainment is Rob Schwalb, industry veteran, who has created the mechanically innovative Shadow of the Demon Lord (my review), which may be slightly heavy rules-wise for someone with B/X tastes but is nonetheless worth checking out.

Sine Nomine Publishing is Kevin Crawford, creator of many products useful for old school exploration-focused games, including An Echo, Resounding, which is a must-read if you are interested in new takes on domain play. Additionally, he has created several free publisher tutorial products, such as this guide to TSR layout and Exemplars & Eidolons, a playable old school game which is also an InDesign layout tutorial.

Squarehex is Peter Regan, of Oubliette, a stylish old school zine from the early phase of the OSR, and is also involved with the practical side of the Black Hack second edition Kickstarter.

Steamforged Games publishes the Dark Souls board game.

Swordfish Islands is Jacob Hurst, who has singlehandedly created a couple books with production values higher than Paizo or Wizards of the Coast and also happen to be fantastic old school hex crawl resources. Swordfish Islands is also up for product of the year.

Wizards of the Coast, despite managing Dungeons & Dragons, the Coke brand of tabletop RPGs, and needing no further promotion from me, deserves praise for making Fifth Edition D&D a versatile version that can be used for old school or new school play, and for keeping the TSR back catalog available.

State of the art

Old school, smooth ride (photo credit)

There are several rules trends that I have come to see as evolutionary improvements. That is, there are a few rules that seem to be simply superior approaches to solving certain game design problems, at least most of the time. Below is a list of rules I would place in this category. Improvements are always relative to some goal, so I have organized this post around the game design problems that the various innovations address. Many of these ideas have older pedigree, and the innovation may be in application to traditional fantasy roleplaying games rather than pure invention.

Though simply superior is a strong claim, and of course there are exceptions, I think anyone writing or hacking rules, especially for OSR or DIY D&D type games, should think carefully before ignoring these developments.

Goal: make chargen fast and easy

Even in games heavy on characterization, quicker character generation is advantageous. Who wants to spend a full session on character generation, especially if people must make decisions which will ultimately influence play minimally?

  • Determine starting gear randomly rather than shopping. Ideally, the possible starting gear packages will be varied and evocative while still always being gameable. For example, a butterfly net made of silver thread for catching fairies rather than just bedroll and torches. This set of tables for OD&D starting gear by class could be more evocative, but for sheer utility are still one of the tables that see the most direct use in games I run.
  • Support fully random character generation. Players who prefer to make all the choices themselves can still do so, but random characters are invaluable for the casual player or the player who needs a replacement character quickly. For example, see the one-click total party kill online character generator.

Fast character generation also makes lethal consequences more tractable.

Goal: minimize bookkeeping

Resource management adds weight to a game, in both good and bad ways. Not all games demand complex resource management, but I think it is better to let the nature of the game determine rules requirements rather than neglecting the consequences of encumbrance due to the hassle of using cumbersome mechanics. There are simple systems which yield benefits for gameplay similar to complex calculations of weight carried.

  • Approximate encumbrance. One significant item per point of strength or some flat limit are both well-tested. Abstract encumbrance rather than bothering with details such as weights, which probably requires players to use a spreadsheet or other computerized prosthetic. See the Lamentations of the Flame Princess encumbrance rules (2013 Rules & Magic, page 38, free no-art version; still too heavy for me, but usable) and Papers & Pencils (making encumbrance work) for the recent ground zero of usable encumbrance rules. Historically, Dragon Warriors (by Morris and Johnson), back in 1985, used a flat limit of ten significant items, with minor adjustments based on character strength.
  • Overload the encounter die or use a hazard die for timekeeping and event engine. Winter can be a potential downtime event outcome (with a nod to Torchbearer) as can various other events. This makes a setting live without requiring complex tracking or Tolkien-style world building on the part of the referee and builds such fictional developments into the core gameplay workflow.
  • Randomize the exhaustion of consumables, such as with a Black Hack style usage die, event engine outcome, or overloading an action test (such as attack roll or ability check). The illogical edge cases are easy to handle. Similar rules have been around at least since the Necromunda ammo roll1, and probably earlier, but have only become popular in D&D type games over the last few years (see archive of this 2011 intwischa post).

Goal: maintain tension at desired level of difficulty

Low level D&D is a sweet spot for dungeon exploration games. One easy way to maintain this tension is to keep hit points low and have zero hit points mean death, as the rules of OD&D and B/X dictate. However, low HP and death at zero can be more punishing than many groups desire. Witness the wide variety of house rules to increase the survivability of first level characters, even among hardcore old school players. For example, max hit points at first level is a common house rule and Lamentations of the Flame Princess has minimum hit point thresholds (2013 Rules & Magic, page 7, free no-art version).

Goal: develop content that will see play

This includes character options, powers, and abilities. For player-facing rules, this generally means removing level gates on powers. In-fiction requirements, in contrast, such as locating an ingredient or seeking out a teacher, create concrete goals and prime adventure, as opposed to the more abstract idea of just get more gold and at some point 9th level will roll around.

Goal: minimize numerical inflation

(This has some relation to developing content that will see play, as flatter power curves mean balance violations are less mechanically shocking.)

Goal: keep content fresh

Are these referee techniques or house rules? Either way, I am including them here.


Thanks to people that suggested commonly used house rules when I asked on Google Plus (private share; opt-in here).


1. Thanks to Paolo Greco for mentioning this a while back.

Good reviews

A critic is someone who enters the battlefield after the war is over and shoots the wounded.
—Murray Kempton

What makes a good review? This is my take, and is unapologetically opinion. There are plenty of useful reviews out there that fail to hit all these notes. But these constitute my ideal. This post was prompted and informed by several Google Plus conversations (here and here, at least).

Constructiveness

Reviews of tabletop RPG products generally concern finished products, so why bother with thinking about improvement? The ship has already sailed. First, focusing on constructive feedback forces the reviewer to really think about why something is a problem rather than just following feelings. Second, writing constructive reviews helps avoid snark. Third, providing constructive feedback reveals reviewer priorities and biases concretely. Simple criticism is often underspecified. For example, if a reviewer says that the monsters were too generic or too simple, the reader has to infer the meaning of generic or simple from past experience or make their own best guess. If the reviewer says that the monsters would be improved by adding attack routines and combat weaknesses, then the reader knows that the reviewer is specifically looking for tactical complexity in monsters and can weight the review accordingly.

Thesis

The best reviews use the review form to express a more fundamental idea, rather than simply evaluate a product. I imagine this criteria may be somewhat controversial. I understand preferring a focus on functionality and simple facts. However, reviews have audiences beyond just immediate buyers. They also inform future creators, including creators other than the original product’s author. For example, when I discussed Courtney’s Megadungeon zine, I framed my review around the idea of presenting a megadungeon piecemeal using the zine form. I make no claims about how insightful that particular thesis is, but that is what I mean by more fundamental idea. Someone else might run with the baton you provide. Reviews shape the form in addition to describing and evaluating.1

Focus on value

Price is what you pay, value is what you get.
—Warren Buffett

Apart from ease of use, which is in some ways a measure of future opportunity cost, when I review something, I try to pay attention only to the value. I do not see the role of a reviewer as to judge whether product X is worth Y dollars. First, who knows what the cost will be in the future? For example, maybe a product will get new pricing (such as becoming pay what you want), be included in a bundle, or go out of print and become scarce. Second, I lack the info to evaluate how the value I see might match up to any particular reader’s resources. One person’s extravagance is another’s impulse purchase. On reflection, while writing this post, I decided that it may be useful to include how much I paid, and when, for commercial products, as that makes it easier for a reader to make a judgment and also makes the source of the product clear. So when I get a chance I may go back through my reviews and include that information. And that serves as a nice transition to considering free copies for review provided to reviewers by producers, and the attendant incentives.

Absent conflict of interest

The best reviewers do not accept complimentary copies. I believe Bryce buys all the modules he reviews (“I bought this stuff and read it so you don’t have to”). Consumer Reports buys the stuff they test (“Our shoppers pay full retail and purchase all the products we test to generate our ratings from the same places consumers do; we accept no sample products for testing”). I would never review something I was given a free copy of for purposes of facilitating a review. A commitment to this principle has been in the about section of Necropraxis since before it was called Necropraxis. I think this helps to maintain editorial independence.

For a given individual reviewer, of course ethics can outweigh incentives, but in the ideal case the incentive will be absent. I need to know more about a reviewer to have a sense of whether the incentive will matter compared to a case where there is no incentive. Similar concerns justify why people often prefer to pay for a fee-only financial advisor, because conflict of interest is less likely. I don’t think this is a categorical taint, but it is a factor that must have an effect in aggregate. I believe a norm against accepting free copies for review would be beneficial.

The scene is small enough that there will always be some degree of nepotism in reviewing materials created by friends. This problem is different than the appeal to material self-interest inherent in free review copies, but is related, and is probably harder to systematically combat in a small hobby scene, but we can still try. I disclose in a review if I feel this is a potential factor. All I can say here regarding this principle is to do your best and perhaps try to put on a slightly more critical hat when reviewing something by a friend or acquaintance.

Absent numerical ratings

Numbers, or star ratings, when applied to reviews, are heuristics, designed to help the reader avoid deliberative thinking. Tabletop roleplaying products are way more complex than Uber rides, and Uber rides are about the most complex product or service that I think might benefit from using such heuristics. I prefer drawing attention to particular strengths and weaknesses, with explanations, rather than just providing numbers. Numerical ratings provide only an illusion of objectivity, unless they are tied to specific definitions, but even then I think ratings are more likely to get in the way of actual consideration.

Absent snark

Good reviews are entertaining, because who wants to read hobby material of any kind that is boring? Trashing someone’s work for the shit-stirring is the low road to entertainment, and can be particularly tempting when writing a review, as the mindset of reviewing is generally critical. As a writer, snark can be easily confused with wit. Unless you are Nietzsche or Wilde though, your snark is probably not witty.

Further, the Internet attention economy and social media feedback loops incentivize snarky reviews. In the short term, and maybe even in the long term, snark will probably get your blog more views. It might even be a road to low-rent celebrity. However, I would rather be respected by a small number of people for civility than known by a large number of people for being a clown. Of course, good reviews will honestly point out shortcomings or problems and avoid pulling punches, but there is always a way to do that without snark. Given the social dynamics and the technological affordances of the Internet, I am probably spitting into the wind here, but mean spiritedness and snark are the bane of thoughtful discourse.

Basis: play versus perusal

For RPGs in particular, it is also helpful to be explicit about whether the review is based on using the material in play or simply reading the product. Reading a product for inspiration or entertainment is a perfectly legitimate use of a game product, but the review reader may be looking for something else.

Consideration of format

I am a book snob. I like the physical objects, and poorly bound books make me sad. This means that, generally, I avoid print on demand books for anything other than small booklets or pamphlets. If it is hardcover, I want stitched bindings. I realize that others may have different concerns, but if I was reading a review, I would always like to know whether a hardcover book was produced using a traditional print run using offset printing and whether the book has a stitched or glued binding.


One of the more thoughtful professors I have had so far in grad school provided a template for writing reviews of academic articles in one of his classes. Though the task of reviewing an academic article differs from reviewing products in several ways, I think this template could still be a reasonable starting point. A functional review can often handle each of these points with a single paragraph.

  1. Description. Restate the core idea or main function of the work in your own words. Mostly avoid evaluation here. This ensures that you understand the author’s goal and potentially reveals misunderstandings earlier rather than later. In an RPG product review, it might be reasonable to foreshadow the overall evaluation either in a topic sentence or final transition sentence, but minimize judgment. If you have an idea around which you are organizing your review, here is where you provide an overture.
  2. Praise. List strengths. If there are no strengths, why are you even bothering? Deciding to review a product at all is a form of curation and publicity. There are no RPG products that are so bad that trashing them is a public service.
  3. Major shortcoming. Discuss the biggest problems. If possible, explain potential fixes. Keep this to one, or at most a handful, of issues, and prioritize.
  4. Minor shortcomings. Here is where you can unload on everything else. Again, explain potential fixes. This often works well as a list with bullet points.
  5. Conclusion. Tie everything together and summarize the overall judgment. Here is where you can best most effectively unfurl your opinion flags.

1. Tangentially, I think the same thing is true of good session reports. A good session report has a thesis beyond just a chronological list of what happened in play. Grognardia was particularly good at this. But that is a topic for another post.