Category Archives: Reviews

Review of Klein’s The Ceremonies (spoiler-free)

2016-12-26-20-59-41-klein-the-ceremonies-coverSeveral years ago, I was looking for highly-regarded recent cosmic horror novels. I asked online and somebody recommended T. E. D. Klein’s novel The Ceremonies. I finally started reading it a few months ago, somewhat distracted by other books and priorities, but made my way through it slowly and finally finished in a few days ago.

One way of looking at The Ceremonies is as a 500-page callout to others in the know. The primary viewpoint character is a young, unaccomplished assistant professor of gothic literature, Jeremy Freire. Jeremy regularly discusses the various horror novels that he is reading to prepare a syllabus for a class he is planning to teach. This device allows Klein to drop literal references to the existing corpus of cosmic horror and its genre predecessors. Some key works within this literature even serve as diegetic plot elements, such as a short story by Arthur Machen. Because of this, The Ceremonies itself works as a syllabus of cosmic horror or strange tales.

Readers who enjoy this tradition of cosmic horror will recognize many formulaic elements. That may sound like a criticism, but the formulas are used skillfully and the writing act itself (on Klein’s part) almost seems ritualistic to me. Even the mostly-wooden characters are in keeping with Lovecraft. While I never really sympathized with any of them, they worked as archetypes with just enough individuation to keep my interest. Daniel Day Lewis would make a good Sarr, a farmer who is one of the main supporting characters.

The plot is slow and meandering. It is skillfully crafted enough that the events generally did not feel contrived to me in the moment, but when viewed from a high level the story does rely on several somewhat unsatisfying coincidences. The plot exists primarily to support a mood, however, and the mood is effective. At its best, The Ceremonies has some of the best horror writing I have come across, especially the way that Klein is not afraid to use classic elements where they serve his purposes, which I appreciate.

The parts of the story I enjoyed most were the evocations of mysticism and the carefully detailed monstrous elements. Klein never falls into the trap of Lovecraft-inspired cliches, there are no tentacles to be seen, and his horrors never seem taxonomic. Due to the almost inbred nature of the allusions and references, readers who are not members of the Lovecraft fanclub subculture may find the length trying. That said, my overall reaction is favorable.

The Ceremonies is Klein’s only novel, though he also has a collection of novellas (Dark Gods) that I am now interested in reading at some point. Supposedly, he has been working on another novel called Nighttown for 30 years and it may actually be published soon.

Kingdom Death

2016-12-11-08-39-49-kingdom-death-banner

5 of 7 core monsters with 4 prologue survivors

Though I heard about the first Kingdom Death Kickstarter when it launched in 2012 and adored the aesthetic, A) I do not really play board games and B) I had no experience assembling miniatures. So, I passed. However, after seeing some of the models in the wild, I took advantage of the Black Friday 2015 opportunity and bought a copy of the core game along with the Sunstalker and Flower Knight expansions. The game arrived early January 2016 and then it sat on my shelf unassembled for almost a year. The 1.5 reprint/update Kickstarter prompted me to actually attempt assembly. It took me a few weeks to assemble the four prologue survivors and all the core monsters.

Overview

It is surprisingly hard to find a concise description of the game. Here is my attempt. It is a cooperative campaign board game where four survivors wake up barely clothed in an unlit land. The ground is all stone faces. The survivors hunt monsters for resources and found a settlement near a pile of creepy lanterns. Players grow the settlement, building structures, developing innovations, and reproducing. They stave off inevitable entropy for as long as possible.

Male dung beetle dancer pinup concept art

Male dung beetle dancer pinup concept art

You have to assemble complex components yourself without any official instructions (though the community stepped up enthusiastically to fill this void). The art is beautiful, but the aesthetic includes sexual objectification, gore, and puerile humor that mixes the two. You will need to have friends that are okay with this if you want to play the game with other people. Your survivors start weak and fragile, similar to zero level characters in trad D&D terms. Rule zero of the game is when in doubt, rule against the survivors. Pinups like the one to the right are promotional items, not part of the game. (I am not interested in discussing opinions on the representation of sexuality or objectification in this game.)

Gameplay

Gameplay alternates between tactical combat and settlement building. More specifically, after the first story prologue fight that introduces basic concepts, the cycle is settlement, hunt, and showdown. This cycle constitutes one lantern year (the time it takes one of the creepy settlement lanterns to burn out). A full campaign in the core game is 20 lantern years. I think a reasonable real-world session would be one or two lantern years generally, but I do not yet have extensive experience. During my first play (we were four players), we did the prologue and lantern year one. This took about four hours but included taking cards out of shrink and looking up lots of rules. I think it would be significantly faster the second time. Note that you also have to assemble some miniatures first, though you can get by with only the white lion and four survivors to begin with (see remarks on assembly below).

2016-12-18-15-48-07-kingdom-death-prologue

Hitting from behind!

Showdown Phase. The showdown phase (where you fight monsters) is straightforward two-dimensional tactical combat. Move some spaces, take an action. The showdown board is small enough that it seems like few turns would be movement-only (I consider this a good thing). Players rotate controlling the monster though the monster controller needs to make few decisions as the monster actions are mostly dictated by an AI deck.

In addition to the AI deck, each monster has a hit location deck which controls various monster reactions. After survivors hit, they must confirm damage as well (accuracy adds to hit, strength adds to confirming hits). I was worried at first that this might result in many turns where engaging multiple resolution systems would lead to no overall effect, but in practice that did not seem to be a problem. A monster-specific resource deck controls the resources that the monster could potentially yield. Actual drops are determined mostly randomly, though some hit locations give access to specific resources. If the survivors defeat the monster, they scavenge resources which can be used to build things during the settlement phase. Some monster fights use terrain pieces to increase the arena complexity. Overall, the tactical combat is simpler than 4E D&D, one of my few points of comparison (I consider this a good thing).

2016-12-18-15-34-03-kingdom-death-monster-ai

White Lion monster AI card

Monster AI. The AI deck also doubles as the monster health score which means that the monster actions become less variable and potentially more predicable as survivors wear it down. The AI deck system also means that the same monster can be reconfigured in many ways with differing difficulty. For example, we fought the white lion twice, during the prologue and the first hunt. The AI deck construction was different between those two and the construction incorporated randomness. The lion we hunted (level one) had 7 basic and 3 advanced AI cards, randomly selected (this also meant that it had 10 health, though note that you need one final hit to take a monster down after that total is depleted). For me, the AI deck is probably the most compelling game design I have seen so far in Kingdom Death. It is approachable from a player standpoint but seems to generate a lot of emergent complexity. There are many lessons here for D&D monster design, probably best realizable through sets of tables.

2016-12-18-17-06-55-kingdom-death-hunt-phase

Hunt board

Hunt Phase. Between settlement phases survivors can go on a hunt, though this is not the only way to encounter monsters (encounters can be caused by settlement events also). The hunt, which hopefully culminates in a showdown (briefly described above) plays out on a one-dimensional track where events occur on the way to the monster. In our first hunt, one of our survivors was terrified to death by the screeching and yowling of a lion in heat so we went into the lantern year one fight with only three combatants. This could mean that one player might be out for the showdown. The game is collaborative enough that it might still be fun, but I am not sure (we did the prologue fight with four players but were down to three anyways for the first hunt and showdown). Our first lion hunt ended in a TPK. Since there are still some other survivors left in our settlement, the TPK is not game over.

2016-12-18-16-52-36-kingdom-death-settlement-phase

Settlement board

Settlement phase. In some ways the payoff to playing Kingdom Death is the settlement phase. It is sort of like a fun, collaborative, non-homework version of building a character in games that require complicated character builds. However, unlike complex character building, success in the settlement phase depends not on voluminous knowledge of the rules text and combos, but rather on success during previous showdown phases and a few choices about what to prioritize. Also, as discussed below, I think that the settlement is the primary fictional element of play in Kingdom Death, not the survivor. As you can see in the image to the right, the settlement phase also has its own board, which similar to the hunt board is a one-dimensional track that walks players through the procedure.

Prepare to Die

2016-12-18-18-11-54-kingdom-death-lantern-year-1-tpk

Defeated by ground fighting (TPK)

The survivor is not the primary element of play in Kingdom Death. The settlement is. When you lose a survivor, that is a setback but the settlement’s remaining population acts as a buffer (and the slain survivor’s gear is not lost but automatically returned to the settlement). As I understand it, settlement wipes are certainly possible (though I do not know how common). If you would be frustrated by such a loss after, say, 20+ hours of in-person play rather than experiencing it as the dark closing chapter of a story to remember, this might not be the game for you.

One strain of traditional D&D play is similar to this approach, where the setting and adventuring party are the first-order units of play and the adventurer is, while not disposable exactly, at least not central. I have run games like this before and participated in them and I think that this approach offers a unique potential for engaging play. In such a game, impartially resolved catastrophic failure is possible but not fatal to the campaign, increasing the potential stakes of decisions. Kingdom Death is a far more focused game than D&D but it provides examples that could be adapted to a D&D game centered around developing a party or settlement. In fact, I do not think it would be that hard to run an OD&D game using many Kingdom Death mechanics directly, perhaps replacing magic items and treasure with resource drops and settlement crafting and adapting monster decks to D&D monsters.

Metaphysically Ambiguous Dark Fantasy

Beyond gameplay though, the aspect of Kingdom Death that originally drew my attention, and sustains my interest, is the aesthetic and setting which reminds me of two of my other favorite fantasy franchises, Berserk and Dark Souls. This is not that surprising, as I understand that Berserk is an explicit influence on the designers of Kingdom Death. These three, Berserk, Dark Souls, and Kingdom Death, make up what is for me a dark fantasy trinity. All three have complex, well-designed, internally consistent worlds with ultimately ambiguous canons. There is enough detail to keep my interest but not so much that the audience ever really knows exactly what is going on.

The world of Kingdom Death is an endless plain of stone faces lit occasionally only by lanterns. Why? Where did the survivors come from? Who knows? Despite the detailed and baroque monster design, all three of these franchises also have an ultimately restrained sensibility that rests more on mythical resonance than raw newness. None of the three franchises are shy about recruiting cliches, but the cliches are never used thoughtlessly and often adjusted (though never entirely subverted, which I also appreciate).

For example, the background text for the Black Knight, previously a collectible model but being developed into a game expansion in the current Kickstarter:

They say if you take a lantern that never lit down the trail of corpses and past the whispering stars you will find an ancient figure atop a crest of determined faces. Treasured by a hidden cult of loyal squires, the figure will awaken for only the most honorable of challengers. For generations, the Black Knight has unknowingly defended a settlement of people hidden in the ruins of its home.

Assembly

2016-12-15-09-22-16-kingdom-death-watcher

What wraiths look like from now on

These were the first miniatures of any kind that I have ever assembled. As noted above, the mini parts come attached to sprues as cast in the factory and must be clipped out. There are no official instructions, but I found the guidance on Vibrant Lantern satisfactory except for the phoenix and the watcher. I used this one for the phoenix and this one for the watcher (both linked to from Vibrant Lantern). For general advice, I found this conversation useful. Several issues tripped me up that might be obvious to experienced model builders. Below I address some of these issues. Hopefully that will be useful to other gamers with similar levels of experience.

Tools. You need to buy at least two things to assemble the minis: sprue clippers (I got Citadel Fine Detail Cutters, $35) and plastic glue (I used Plasti-Zap, $4). A model file would be helpful to clean up join points but I did without. Another useful tool that I did get was a clamp (Irwin One-Handed 6″ Bar Clamp, $12).

2016-12-12-18-39-49-kingdom-death

That’s right, those are all individual hands

Glueing. The plastic glue begins to set quickly as long as you do not jostle the pieces, so the technique I found most useful is to find a way for gravity to hold the parts together so that you can go do something else (the clamp can help with this). To be safe, I generally attach a few parts and then let them fully dry overnight before adding anything else. You can have multiple models in progress, but do not clip parts before you are ready to attach them because it would be easy to mixup or lose parts. Assembly was time consuming in a hurry up and wait manner but not exactly difficult. I found the absurd complexity of the process somehow motivating. I used up a full ⅓ oz bottle of Plasti-Zap to assemble four survivors and all seven of the core monsters, so I would recommend buying more than one bottle of glue.

2016-12-09-21-06-24-kingdom-death-prologue-survivors

The four prologue survivors

Basing. Each mini base is two parts: bottom and inset. The core game comes with a small number of special face inserts. This is just a cosmetic detail, but you will not have enough for all the minis. I used four of them on the prologue survivors. Hopefully, the 1.5 Kickstarter will include an add-on to get more face inserts. See discussion of stone face bases here and here. There is no special correct placement of minis on bases. Just glue them on however looks reasonable.

Gaps. While most of the parts fit together well, if you are anything like me you will still end up with some fit gaps in the assembled models. The phoenix was the biggest offender here (use more clamp, I guess). I have heard good things about Tamiya Basic Type Putty (which is itself gray) and so will likely look better than Green Stuff before painting. I have not used either of those myself yet.

Expansions

I have not yet used any of the expansions in play, but as I understand it several of the expansions offer alternate campaigns (Dragon King, Sunstalker, and Flower Knight) while others offer monsters that can sub in for core game monsters. The Gorm can be hunted early on (otherwise the White Lion is the only monster that can be hunted during the first few lantern years). The Lantern Festival, which was intended to extend a campaign past 20 lantern years, was cancelled because the designer was not satisfied with how it worked. The Lantern King model is amazing though, so I hope it becomes available in some form. The upcoming Nightmare Ram (available through the new Kickstarter) is intended to offer some sort of dungeon crawl experience. See here for more. It looks to me like the game should play just fine with no expansions. The core game alone, if you dig the style, should provide lots of replay value.

Conclusion

My handsome pal Josh modeling the showdown board

My handsome pal Josh modeling the showdown board

Play was smooth and none of the phases were that complicated. The hardest part of playing the first time is finding the various kinds of cards (there are a lot of different kinds of cards). A few of the mechanics seemed like they could be streamlined in minor ways. For example, weapon and monster accuracy is a target number (used to hit) while strength functions as a bonus that is compared to a toughness target number. Both kinds of stats can have bonuses and penalties. It is also easy to get a few of the stats mixed up (strength versus accuracy, movement versus speed, and so forth).

I never felt like there was choice paralysis, even when we were making decisions about items to craft during the settlement phase. I can see how that might change as you build more settlement locations and have more kinds of resources to draw on but hopefully the complexity increases gradually. I am not yet sure which elements of the game are best served by cards and tokens as opposed to just writing things on record sheets, but so far I am enjoying the physicality of everything. At this point, I am kind of a super-fan of both the world and game mechanics, but I am not blind to the fact that there are a number of drawbacks which make Kingdom Death a big commitment and probably not for everyone.

Additional Resources

Chris Handley’s videos with Beasts of War are the only decent actual play videos I have found. They have so far released lantern year one, lantern year twolantern year threelantern year four, and lantern year five (I have not watched all of them yet). Chris’s Instagram has many nice examples of painted models too and is worth checking out for inspiration (and check out his amazing hair!).

Disclaimers

First, I am far from a Kingdom Death expert. That said, I have assembled all the core game monsters and played it, so I can speak to some aspects of setup and play. Hopefully the fact that I am neither a diehard board gamer nor a miniature person might help me speak to other similarly casual gamers that nonetheless find the Kingdom Death vision compelling. Second, I am backing 1.5 for the upgrade pack and some expansions.

 

Shadow of the Demon Lord review

Rob Schwalb is probably best known for his work on 3rd, 4th, and 5th edition (“new school”) D&D, though he has also worked on many other RPG properties, including Green Ronin’s Song of Ice and Fire tie-in, Warhammer, Witch Hunter, and Numenera. Shadow of the Demon Lord is a solo effort, originally crowd-funded. The short overview is that it is a (dark) high fantasy setting with some innovative and streamlined mechanics, both in the core engine and in the character build system. Like many non-indie games, it does not provide much in the way of referee procedures, instead trusting that you more or less know how to run RPGs already, but in this regard it is no worse than games like D&D 5, the AGE system, or various Fantasy Flight 40K titles (just for a few examples).

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 3.16.07 PMEngine. SotDL will be easily recognized as a d20 game. The two major resolution systems (attack rolls and challenge rolls) are d20, roll high and represent fictional results at a rather low level of abstraction. For example, attacking with a weapon or climbing a wall. Attacks are d20 plus some ability versus opponent defense (basically, AC). The other resolution system is the Challenge Roll which is a target 10 ability check. For both systems, bonuses and penalties are applied by rolling some number of d6s and taking the greatest result (much like the advantage rule in D&D 5, but only applied to the bonus dice and with more than two dice possible). The positive dice are called boons, the negative banes, and they cancel so that 2 boons and 1 bane reduces to a single boon. This sounds like a fun approach that also restrains potential bonus inflation.

The fast turn/slow turn approach to combat looks promising. Players always get to act first but combat turns proceed in two phases. Player fast actions are followed by enemy fast actions. Then, player slow actions are resolved followed by enemy slow actions. Each combatant only gets to take one action of either type generally, however, so opting to take a slow action (like casting a spell) means that you grant the enemy initiative. This is a rich tactical tradeoff that also obviates the traditional initiative overhead, which in my opinion often does not offer much in terms of gameplay beyond the casino uncertainty of simple side-based initiative as suggested by Moldvay Basic D&D.

Character Build System. There are around 50 pages of class options and that does not include spells (a separate chapter of almost 40 pages), “ancestries” (that is, races), or “professions” (that is, backgrounds). This means that more than a third of the 272 page book is made up of essentially character build options. That may sound somewhat damning to anyone (like me) for whom character optimization feels like homework. However, it’s actually done very cleverly.

Characters don’t have levels. Instead, the group as a whole has a level and there are advancement rules for up to level 10. Player characters begin at level zero and gain a class (“novice path”) at first level which is expected to be at the end of the first session. The novice paths are takes on the classic 4: magician, priest, rogue, and warrior. As characters advance, they gain an expert path at level 3 and a master path at level 7. Extra abilities from each path (and ancestry) factor in regularly as the group gains levels. For example, the advancement that comes from attaining level 6 comes from the expert path that was chosen at level 3. This means the various path abilities are interleaved trough character development rather than sequentially gained, such as with Warhammer style careers or D&D 3 prestige classes. It feels tight.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 3.22.55 PMMost interestingly, the consideration set of path options explodes at each tier. There are 4 novice paths, 16 expert paths, and 64 master paths. Though there some clearly related sequential choices, there are no prerequisites. A character could be a magician, wizard, necromancer or a magician, wizard, sharpshooter. In all, there are 4096 basic class combinations just considering the paths. Recall that on top of the three paths, there are also ancestries, professions, and spells (for magic-using characters). The paths are laid out in a way that is not intimidating to me (which I rate as a significant achievement considering how I generally react to extensive character build options).

This kind of flexible, cross-archetype advancement was pretty much what I was going for back when I was working on the initial version of Hexagram (prior to The Final Castle), and as far as I can tell is completely realized here. And, it largely avoids the mess created by most multi-classing approaches. So, A+. The slow unfolding of character options is a wonderful example of smart game design that seems like it would serve many kinds of player well.

I have not read the options closely enough to know whether they are exploitable in the sense of being able to create a much more effective character based on rules mastery, but my general impression is that this danger is minimal. I also doubt initial character creation would take more time than Basic D&D. Select an ancestry, roll for or select a few ancestry background details, roll for or select a profession, roll for gear by starting wealth, and you are done. There is a standard battery of personality type questions, but they are really just suggestive and could easily be skipped in favor of just extrapolating based on the other background info or developed in play.

Referee Procedures. SotDL addresses how to run the game in chapter 9 which runs a bit under 40 pages. Most games within the D&D tradition have rather weak or only implied referee procedures, especially in second edition and beyond. Random encounters become relegated to optional subsystems and subservient to satisfying narrative development. Impartial game resolution is often deemphasized or eliminated within this tradition. Instead, fiction-derived and player satisfaction principles dominate, with deference to hero journeys, three-act plots, and ensuring that every player gets a chance to shine.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 3.13.08 PMThe referee guidelines remain mostly within this paradigm. The first part of the chapter is tips about how to use the resolution systems (when to call for a challenge roll, for example). There are some notes about intended theme and how to convey horror, terror, and revulsion at a high, conceptual level. There are some good principles buried within, such as thinking about and planning roughly for at least three adventure conclusions, corresponding to success, failure, and partial success respectively. This approach would ensure that player actions have an effect on the story development which I find more satisfying than predetermined plot.

Apart from the system-specific guidelines though, there is not a whole lot here to distinguish what the referee does from other, related games with one major exception: an event generator called Shadow of the Demon Lord (from hereon, “Shadow” to distinguish it from the name of the game as a whole). The Shadow is a d20 table that generates scenario features reminiscent of Apocalypse World fronts. Basically, the Shadow changes the world in some way, generally creating a looming danger. For example, here is one of the results, Black Sun:

The Shadow eclipses the sun, turning it black. Impossibly, light still emanates from the shadowed disk, but it is brown, sickly, and unwholesome. The sun’s gentle warmth becomes a hellish furnace, destroying life as the landscape becomes a bone-strewn dustbowl.

In addition to setting changes, some Shadow results come with minor mechanical modifications, such as making certain kinds of monsters more difficult, though as far as I can tell that is mostly a sideshow. Most Shadow results are pleasingly substantive and many have further specific tables to help flesh out the results. The Shadow system is useful and does real work for the referee beyond just communicating good advice, which is really the tabletop RPG equivalent of broscience. The system could probably easily be bolted on to other games as an corruption event generator or magic catastrophe table.

It is also worth noting that that advancement scheme is designed around a limited number of sessions (10 or 11) rather than the traditional perpetual RPG campaign. This seems like a good idea to encourage concluding campaigns with a sense of closure rather than seeing them fade away due to waning interest or life intervening (players moving away, and so forth) but such an approach could also be applied to most systems without too much effort.

Setting. As presented, the default setting of Urth is surprisingly high fantasy. I was expecting something somewhat more restrained, or at least thematically consistent. Something like the early entires in the Diablo franchise or perhaps a realization of metal album covers. Instead, the setting is flying castles, institutionalized magic, and demi-humans everywhere. This is a matter of taste, but for me this detracts somewhat from wonder and horror. It feels a bit like someone took all the extra awesome things from the genre toolbox and jammed them into the same setting. Steampunk clockwork! Super-metal demons! Weird west gunfighters! So far, there is little established canon, however, so players should be unlikely to come to a game with very strong content expectations and this could easily be tuned or replaced by the referee. The level of setting detail reminds me of nearby market alternatives such as Numenera. Overall, this part of the book is neutral for me.

Roughly one-sixth of the book is monsters, which are arguably setting content as well, and while some of them are generic, many are creative. They probably deserve more attention in this review, but the post is already running long. I may discuss them more in a future post.

Bottomline. If you are going to have a tabletop RPG with a zillion classes but you do not want it to feel overwhelming to more casual players, this is a good way to do it. Unfortunately, the PDF is not bundled with the hardcopy. Perhaps it is a bit unfair to criticize, but given standard industry practice, this makes me feel like I am being charged twice for the same content. The total cost for me was $46 (hardcopy) + $10 (US shipping) + $20 (PDF) = $76. In the end, I decided that it was worth it to me, but it caused some internal grumbling. You can buy the PDF or pre-oder the physical book here. The physical book has not shipped yet, but Rob confirmed on G+ to me that the binding is stitched (yay!). I will make another note here once I have confirmed that in person. The expected delivery is currently December 2015.

Images used in this post were extracted from PDF screen shots of art in the book that I liked. I do not think all of the art is this good, but there are a lot more pictures not featured here that I also liked.


Purchase info

  • Date: 2015-09-19
  • Price: $56 USD
  • Details: Backerkit pre-order

See here for my approach to reviews and why I share this purchase info.

Concise 5E DMG review

On Google Plus, Paolo asked if the 5E DMG is worth buying.

I can only speak for myself, but (paging through it again right now) this is what I got out of it.

  • Campaign events section is good (can’t think right now if I have seen anything better anywhere else along these lines).
  • Cosmology is okay (but about the same as every other D&D cosmology summary). The 4E DMG might actually be the strongest in this area.
  • Adventure generator is okay (but Matt’s Tome of Adventure Design is better).
  • NPC generator is okay (but Courtney’s On the NPC is better).
  • Villain generator is good.
  • 10 pages of alternative rules is good.
  • The monster creation guidelines is a wasted opportunity for a generator.
  • Random dungeon generator looks approximately equivalent to the one in the AD&D DMG (which you can download for free from WotC’s web site). I haven’t used the 5E one yet.
  • Placing all the writing, story, and plot oriented books in the inspirational reading was a strange choice. For me, such are irrelevant to tabletop roleplaying. Get a copy of Apocalypse World and read the principles there (play to find out what happens, etc).
  • The actual directions regarding what a referee does in prep and in play seem somewhat muddled and poorly organized.
5E DMG page 215

5E DMG page 215

The wizards cabinet picture on page 215 is maybe one of my favorite RPG book illustrations and manages to both have super slick production values and be amazingly atmospheric. I wish the whole book looked this way. Page 262 is notably good also and feels a bit like a slightly more polished relative of Poag’s stuff. There are a few other good illustrations, but in general I find the art disappointing.

I consider the emphasis on rulings to be a good thing for a new referee, but if you are already somewhat experienced that does not matter so much.

I think it’s probably worth buying for the historical value alone, to see where the mainstream game is going and has gone. Also if you are playing anything approaching official 5E (which I am still interested in trying), especially for things like the magic items.

Oh, also the binding is glued rather than stitched, which is unacceptable for a book with a $50 sticker price, especially one that might be used heavily. This is what happens to books with glued bindings (image credit to Gloomtrain‘s Majordomo, Mateo). WotC, if you are reading, I would replace my current set of 5E core books with premium editions were they to have real bindings.

Inventory v.1

Inventory v.1 is a small paperback by Sam Bosma with labeled illustrations of items an adventurer in a fantasy setting might carry. That is all. It is a nice mix between mundane and fantastic, humorous and serious, functional and superficial. Immediately, my mind went to using the book as a trinket table for starting PCs.

There are 71 items, and they are not numbered. This is a somewhat awkward total to use as a random table. One could always roll 1d100 and re-roll results above 71, but 29% inefficiency is unsatisfying. There is a solution, however: the d6-12 table. This is a variation on the d6-6 table, where one rolls 2d6 and reads the results as a number base 6. A d6-6 table has 6 * 6 = 36 entries.

Happily for my purposes here, a d6-12 table has 6 * 12 = 72 possibilities, leaving one extra for the blank page at the end. (I put “roll again or choose” there.) So, to determine an item randomly, roll a d6 and a d12 and look up the relevant page. Since the pages are not numbered, I wrote in the d6-12 numbers for each item (as you can see in the pictures).

In addition to use as a collection of starting trinkets, each item could come along with a characteristic ability. For example, beginning with the Giant’s Axe might grant the ability to wield gigantic weapons (OD&D rules: 5 encumbrance slots but a full additive 2d6 damage). Beginning with the Abyssal Bell might come with fluency in the language of demons (and the bell itself summons a demon when rung; consult either the AD&D DMG Appendix D or the LotFP summon spell).

You can buy Inventory v.1 here. As far as I know, it is only available in hardcopy softcover. Some sample pictures are included below. LotFP Rules & Magic (A5 size) included for scale. Sam also has an art tumblr. I have been thinking about putting together a basic, portable DM box for myself (something about the size of the original white box with a base rule set or two, dice, a Moleskine full of dungeons, etc). When I get around to that, I think I will include this little book too.

2015-06-08 19.27.32 inventory v1 2015-06-08 19.28.14 inventory v1 2015-06-08 19.28.42 inventory v1 2015-06-08 19.29.23 inventory v1

Helheim class and review

2015-05-09 17.15.51 helheimIt is hard to say too much about Helheim without spoiling the story, so I will keep this brief. First, I liked it. It is a relatively self-contained story with an engaging, vaguely Norse setting that focuses on an undead warrior and some witches. (What more could you want?) The art is a bit photoshop for my taste (flat in both color and line), but it gets the story across just fine and has some creative character visuals. The setup would work nicely for a small faction-based overland adventure. The depiction of the supernatural is good too; recognizable but not cliche. Overall, recommended.

You can get it at Comixology, and notably the publisher has enabled DRM-free access to PDF and CBZ formats. Just checking that, it looks like there is a followup series, Brides of Helheim, but the collected edition is not out yet and I have not read it. Helheim is by Cullen Bunn and Joëlle Jones. You can find more info about Cullen Bunn at his site. He’s also behind The Sixth Gun.

Here is a PDF version of the class detailed below.


Helheim class

  • HD, attack, save, and XP as fighter
  • Benefits: toughness (damage reduction), body augmentation, undeath
  • Drawbacks: recovery and charisma loss, stench, no missile weapons

A helheim is a zombie raised from the body of a hero or person with otherwise exceptional will. Such zombies are often employed by witches as enforcers of curses or avengers. Sometimes, the witch’s necromancy is not sufficient to fully dominate the creature, however, and the helheim becomes free.

Toughness: Helheims ignore 3 points of damage from mundane weapons, including claws and teeth. Each time a helheim suffers damage, they lose one point of charisma permanently. These points never return, and represent the descent of the helheim into a mass of patchwork, stitched flesh.

Augmentation: As helheims grow in power, they may incorporate body parts from defeated foes. For each experience level, a helheim can incorporate one special body part. Such parts may be added or replaced during downtime with surgery, but only from fresh bodies slain by the helheim’s own hand in combat. The remains of an execution will not do, being tainted by passivity and oppression, the qualities most inimical to a zombie-creature’s autonomy. Incorporated parts may grant additional capabilities. For example, a harpy’s wings might grant awkward flight. Actual abilities may be less literal, however, as negotiated between player and referee. Any powers granted should be determined with an eye toward maintaining future challenge within the game.

Undeath: Helheims do not need to eat or breathe, but they must periodically fall into reverie, much like sleep, to retain their humanity. Otherwise, the helheim will slip back into a partially catatonic state waiting for necromantic commands.

Recovery: Helheims do not recover as normal. Instead, damaged limbs or body parts must be physically stitched back together or replaced. Any necromancer or mundane surgeon can accomplish this task, but a helheim may not repair themselves without assistance.

Stench: The stink of the grave is never entirely absent from a helheim, as the zombie body is continually rotting from the flux of necromantic energy. This stench makes it impossible for a helheim to surprise enemies with a sense of smell unless chaotic circumstances would make such senses useless.

Weapons: For all their great strength, a helheim’s motor control and visual acuity are crude. Though they can use thrown weapons such as daggers and small axes, they cannot effectively use missile weapons. Beyond several hundred feet their undead eyes perceive only a phantasmagoric riot of swampy color.

The helheim class is suitable either for new first level characters or as an option for deceased player characters raised from the dead.

2015-05-09 17.26.06 helheim

The Buried Giant

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Set in the British dark ages one generation after Arthur, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant mostly follows the adventures of an elderly couple on a journey to visit their son. A mist of forgetfulness blankets the land, so the story unfolds shudderingly as if through a clouded or scorched lens. This both evokes a wonderful mood and allows Ishiguro to narrate without explaining too much too quickly. Though there are several underlying ideas, the novel is rewarding even if read as a straightforward fantasy, so I will not burden you with my thematic interpretation.

The depiction of myth-historical Britain and the way combat is described are worth focusing on in particular. The ogres and monsters and fairies and dragons are none of them cliches, and this is particularly impressive because Ishiguro describes them all in detail rather than resorting to the common strategy of leaving the imagination to the reader. For one example that I think does not risk spoiling anything overly much:

They might have been gazing at a large skinned animal: an opaque membrane, like the lining of a sheep’s stomach, was stretched tightly over the sinews and joints. Swathed as it was now in moonshadow, the beast appeared roughly the size and shape of a bull, but its head was distinctly wolf-like and of a darker hue—though even here the impression was of blackening by flames rather than of naturally dark fur or flesh. The jaws were massive, the eyes reptilian.

And the warrens that the Britons live in would be a great backstory for a series of mega-dungeons. It would not stretch the imagination to have many of these connected together in one great subterranean sprawl, partially taken over by restless dead, ogres, and other haunts while being active “towns” in other areas.

For warmth and protection, the villagers lived in shelters, many of them dug deep into the hillside, connecting one to the other by underground passages and covered corridors. Our elderly couple lived within one such sprawling warren—“building” would be too grand a word—with roughly sixty other villagers. If you came out of their warren and walked for twenty minutes around the hill, you would have reached the next settlement, and to your eyes, this one would have seemed identical to the first. But to the inhabitants themselves, there would have been many distinguishing details of which they would have been proud or ashamed.

The technique used to describe combat is singularly effective, with many paragraphs of positioning and perhaps some exchange of words prior to any actual attacks. The closest thing I can think of is the high noon contest of nerves in the wild west, but this is not quite that. Finally, the conflict is concluded swiftly with decisive action, with the loving detail focused on the slow buildup rather than a balletic interplay of punches, stabs, and blocks as is usually done in cinematic or adventurous combats. It is probably unlikely that any game would be able to capture this sense of combat, but it might be worth trying. A single scene ends up having many paragraphs like this:

Then the two men became fixed in their new positions, and to an innocent spectator, they may have looked, in relation to one another, practically unchanged from before. Yet Axl could sense that these new positions had a different significance. It had been a long time since he had had to consider combat in such detail, and there remained a frustrating sense that he was failing to see half of what was unfolding before him. But he knew somehow the contest had reached a critical point; that things could not be held like this for long without one or the other combatant being forced to commit himself.

Ishiguro’s Gawain is also perhaps one of the most memorable characters I have read in a long while. Here is a taste.

What do you say, sir? I’m a mortal man, I don’t deny it, but I’m a knight well trained and nurtured for long years of my youth by the great Arthur, who taught me to face all manner of challenge with gladness, even when fear seeps to the marrow, for if we’re mortal let us at least shine handsomely in God’s eyes while we walk this earth! Like all who stood with Arthur, sir, I’ve faced beelzebubs and monsters as well as the darkest intents of men, and always upheld my great king’s example even in the midst of ferocious conflict. What is it you suggest, sir? How dare you? Were you there? I was there, sir, and saw all with these same eyes that fix you now! But what of it, what of it, friends, this is a discussion for some other time. Forgive me, we have other matters to attend to, of course we have. What is it you asked, sir? Ah yes, this beast, yes, I understand it’s monstrous fierce but no demon or spirit and this sword is good enough to slay it.

A successful writer of literary fiction can afford to dedicate five or more years to the writing of a single novel, and the level of resulting craft is clear. Though doing so is a career risk, I hope that more serious writers experiment in this way, because The Buried Giant is a masterpiece. I devoured it over the course of a few days despite my current huge grad school workload, and I plan to read it a second time soon. Recommended without reservations. Apologies for the long quotes, but I felt like I needed to let the novel speak with its own voice.

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending delivers fantastic visuals, including lepidopterous attack ships, galactic palaces, refinery cities inside gas giant planets, and gothic cathedral styled battle cruisers. The last I suspect were a conscious homage to 40K, especially given that at one point the protagonists need to “break through a field of war hammers” (some sort of geometric space mine). Warning, there may be some mild spoilers below, though I do not think they would really spoil the movie.

The plot is somewhat ridiculous, though not nearly as bad as some reviews I read made it out to be. The Wachowskis retain their fixation with harvesting human resources as seen in The Matrix. The universe is apparently ruled by giant space cartel noble families that live for millenia due to youth serum harvested from subject planets after they have marinated in DNA diversification for long enough. I actually enjoyed the over the top performances of the antagonist Abrasax siblings. Eddie Redmayne’s Balem Abrasax in particular was suitably Harkonnen with his decadent rasp, though his final behavior was not really believable for a semi-immortal space magnate.

Channing Tatum, unfortunately, does not sell the space wolf character at all. Someone with more believable sense of violence and threat was required, and the primary impression I got from his performance was tranquilized. Further, he looked soft, clearly not having trained very hard for the role. Chris Evans, Henry Cavill, and Hugh Jackman as action heroes have raised the bar and Tatum just does not cut it here. This is especially clear in his shirtless farmhouse fight scene where the camera seems to recoil from ever focusing on his midsection. It does not help that he has zero chemistry with Mila Kunis, who also does not seem particularly committed to her role as Russian immigrant housekeeper turned space princess (yes, you read that correctly). Her character is not particularly competent or clever and seems to be largely carried along with little agency of her own.

The major plot arc is essentially the navigation of galactic inheritance law. The process of claiming her title requires Jupiter to proceed through a host of kafkaesque and ridiculous official requirements. The source of this bureaucracy is unclear, but the sequence itself is enjoyable enough, and it culminates with Terry Gilliam himself playing some sort of heraldic functionary, in a clear homage to Brazil. There is a capitalist exploitation theme under all the action, with the Abrasax heirs being primarily concerned with the profit from their youth serum business.

The combat, both in terms of style and power level, looked on screen like how Numenera reads, especially the gravity parkour boots and materializing energy shield. The gravity surfing is not something I think I have seen on the screen before, and it was genuinely kind of exhilarating to watch, especially since much of the action happened in my city, Chicago. I think I could even see my apartment building in a few of the scenes.

Overall, the parts are more interesting than the whole, but we do not get many big budget space operas. The vistas are probably worth it alone, though occasionally the style overwhelms the substance so much as to be distracting.

Oh, and there are dragonborn (which, surprisingly, I can not really find any good pictures of).

jupiter-ascending-005-970x646-cjupiter-ascending-0030-970x646-cjupiter-ascending-00390-970x646-c(Images from here.)

Slumbering Ursine Dunes

SUD cover from RPGNow

SUD cover from RPGNow

Chris K. of Hill Cantons is one of the procedural innovators of the OSR blog scene, and his innovations are all the more valuable for arising from solutions to problems experienced in actual play. For examples, see posts on point crawls, ruin crawls, and the chaos index. So, I was excited to see how Chris would realize these ideas in a more formal product, such as Slumbering Ursine Dunes (original kickstarter, current RPGNow PDF).

For a quick overview, the atmosphere of SUD is one part Slavic mythology, one part Moorcock. The major points of the content are a small scale, keyed wilderness, two medium sized “dungeon” adventure sites, a collection of monsters, faction details, and a modular subsystem (the chaos index) which could be used generally. The dunes and adventure sites are both flavorful and easily integrated, I suspect, into most exploration-focused hex crawl type campaigns, though see the note on Slavic cultural specificity below. The tone is light, and though it violates my general preference for setting as straight man (players generally add enough humor on their own), the numerous jokes and site gags here work. For example, the sloth variation on another classic monster, the Terminax, etc.

The basic structure of SUD is a master class in faction design, and for me this was both a complete surprise and its strongest component. Adding any factions at all to an adventure site increases the richness of potential interaction, but the distinct character of each faction here seems like it would drive dramatic conflict particularly well. There is one faction of each major alignment quadrant (lawful good, chaotic good, lawful evil, chaotic evil). Thus, one faction is just interested in carnage and watching the world burn, but all could be useful by enterprising and creative players. When I bother with alignment at all, I generally gravitate toward cosmic interpretations that equate chaos and magic, such as forwarded by Carcosa and LotFP generally, but this setup makes the nine point alignment system shine in a way that I have not seen done nearly as effectively before.

The Slavic cultural inspiration has both upsides and downsides. It makes the texture of the setting more distinctive, but it also makes the dunes slightly harder to drop into a campaigns without modification. The names in particular seem like they may need to be replaced, though that is no big labor. That said, I suspect this distinct cultural flavor will be a draw for anyone that has been saturated with the English-Germanic pastiche implied by many D&D settings and modules. The Moorcockian influences are, for me, uniformly wonderful. For example:

The Eld presence in the Dunes precedes even that of the Master, the extradimensional elves having wrestled the Glittering Tower from the Hyperboreans back when their necromancer king-led states began to crumble more than a 1,500 years ago and then lost it to Medved when he ascended to divinity in the area.

I also enjoyed the immanent divinity of the many minor gods. This is not just a point of taste, though it is that as well. Making deities immanent means that players can interact with them in play. It transforms a campaign element from either info dump or character build option to active encounter, so engaging all players, not just those that do their homework.

The area of the dunes is intended to be governed by mystical, dreamlike logic rather than staid ecological assumptions. In Chris’s home campaign, this is manifested as shift from rational, civilized areas to impressionistic, wild areas called the Weird. It is easy to say this, but standard causal assumptions can easily reassert themselves unless the Weird manifests in play, either through continuous referee engagement or some game system. The chaos index is such a game system. It consists of three a5 pages detailing a simple state machine and several random tables. The referee (secretly?) maintains a number representing the irrationality of a campaign area. (Pause a moment to absorb the irony of managing chaos with a numerical, predicable framework.) Depending on the chaos index level, the referee rolls on various tables which include outcomes like a tesseract opening, the arrival of Eld Bubbleships, and shadowy illusions. The chaos index by default rises 1d4-1 points each session (thus, the expected rise is small but positive) and is also affected by player actions. The system is light enough that I do not think it would be a drag to use, and the tables could be repurposed for encounters or magical catastrophes even if you do not want to engage in the rather minimal bookkeeping.

The layout is unfortunately not as useful as it could be. Objects such as tables are often spread between two pages or even between two spreads. Examples. Pages 7, 8, and 9. Pages 41, 42, and 43. Zombastodon stats are on page 54 and description on page 55 (which are two different spreads). And so forth. Maps diagrams and key entries do not generally share a spread, requiring either page flipping or printing out maps (one more thing to shuffle). Descriptors are also often nestled within several paragraphs of prose, which means I either need to read and take notes, scramble to reread continuously during play, or miss details. Though this remains the standard mode of module writing, and is good at communicating atmosphere during a linear read-through, I find it difficult to use at the table. These are not huge flaws, but I highlight them to bring them to the attention of future creators. A table of contents (both textual and as PDF metadata) would also have been appreciated, to allow quick access to modular tools such as the chaos index.

The art in SUD proper (example) is also not exactly to my taste (the texture looks too much like Photoshop brush). It adequately illustrates many included situations, but does not excite me. I am looking forward to the art in the related and upcoming Misty Isles of the Eld supplement by Luka Rejec.

Despite the layout (objective) and art (subjective) critiques, this is a great little module with several new ideas and fun, interesting details. The content could easily be used in an existing hex crawl, many of the tools are modular, and it is particularly worth picking up to see the faction presentation and how those affiliations permeate all aspects of the scenario.

You can buy the PDF or print on demand perfect-bound paperback at RPGNow.

An odd toolbox

Interior illustration by Jeremy Duncan

Interior illustration by Jeremy Duncan

Disclaimer: Lost Pages, the publisher of Into the Odd, also publishes my book Wonder & Wickedness.

Chris McDowall‘s Into the Odd started out as a game in what I would consider the 0E tradition, but it has evolved into something more distinct, both in setting and rules. The setting is the early modern fantastic. It recalls to me the mystic retro vibe of Full Metal Alchemist, but less manga and more Lewis & Clark.

The game itself is pared down to the absolute minimum of rules. This is closer to Searchers of the Unknown than it is to B/X. Character ability scores are strength, dexterity, and willpower, still 3d6 each. Basically, the 3E save categories reworked as abilities. Ability checks (called saves) are only reactive, rolled to avoid danger “from a risky action or situation.” There are no classes and magic powers mostly come from from arcana, a general catchall term for magic items. Determination of starting equipment is rolled into ability scores such that low stats tend to come along with a psychic power or arcanum.

My favorite innovation from Into the Odd is the leveling system. Accomplishing certain diegetic goals, in the manner of Xbox achievements, rather than XP thresholds, results in gaining levels. For example, to reach second level (“Professional”), a character must only survive one expedition. There are only five levels. When you unpack the mechanics and terminology, the underlying character details are not so different from D&D advancement (+1d6 HP per level and so forth), but the shift from “high score” (XP) progression to achievements is psychologically powerful. It would be a fun experiment to play B/X using this approach, perhaps extending the achievements up to tenth level and including objectives oriented around establishing a stronghold.

Sixty arcana are included, divided into three tiers of rarity or power, standard, greater, and legendary, 20 of each. Unfortunately, only the standard arcana are numbered, making it slightly less convenient to determine greater or legendary randomly, but one can always count down the page so that’s really a just me quibbling. Most could easily be adapted to other fantasy games and I appreciate how concisely and evocatively they are written. For one example, from page 11. Book of Despair: Summon a 20ft area of tentacles that lash out and grab. Anyone within must pass a str save to break free. The mass of tentacles has 10 hp and is destroyed at 0 hp.

In addition to the modular aspects noted above, there are a number of interesting design decisions in the game itself considered whole. For example, there is no attack roll, just a damage roll. This may seem odd to D&D-accustomed eyes, but mathematically the traditional attack roll followed by damage sequence can be collapsed into a single expected damage value (with the possibility set including outcomes of zero), and just rolling damage is not so different from an abstract, high level view, especially with ablative armor (which introduces the possibility of inflicting zero damage).

Overall, the book has 2 pages of character creation, 2 pages of rules, 1 page of guidelines for running organizations (which could probably benefit from expansion), 3 pages of 60 arcana, 3 pages of play example, 2 pages of referee advice, 1 page of example monsters, 1 page of advice on treasure, 1 page of trap rules, 1 page of setting background, 8 pages that contain two adventures (one dungeon and one hex crawl), 2 pages detailing a town, and the Oddpendium (14 pages of random tables including things like insane council decisions and weird creature inspiration). Definitely worth a look for anyone interested in rules-light approaches to fantasy games focusing on exploration.

Buy Into the Odd at the Lost Pages store. Note that come 2015, it may be unavailable for some period of time due to EU regulations.