Category Archives: Reviews

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.

Vacant Ritual Assembly #1

Vacant Ritual Assembly (VRA from hereon) is a zine by Clint K. primarily about his LotFP campaign. This format seems ideal for sharing personal campaign material with a wider audience. Zines are more professional and put together than blog posts, but not ambitious enough usually to get mired in development hell. They seem to naturally lend themselves to non-comprehensive treatments, in contrast to a setting or megadungeon publication. I have been unsure for a long time about whether or how I might share my Vaults of Pahvelorn campaign materials, but I am so impressed by what Clint has put together here that this will likely be the way I release Pahvelorn.

Other than an interview with Chris M. about Into the Odd (which is also enjoyable reading), pretty much everything within is a useful game tool. My favorite part is the ghoul market, which, along with being atmospheric, also solves elegantly the treasure economy problem that all treasure-for-XP referees must confront in some manner. Almost any cemetery of significant size will contain a passage to the Ghoul Market. The mark of the White Ankh on a tomb or mausoleum indicates that the edifice serves as a gateway. The market is a form of mythical geography where PCs can buy a small number of randomly determined magic items between games or raise the dead by engaging the services of the skinsmith (which may result various grim alterations such as a character’s head being replaced with that of a bull). Oh, and “essence” (charisma points) are also accepted as currency. These six pages + the curiosity shop worksheet are top shelf supplement material.

As might be clear from the above description of the ghoul market, the setting implied by VRA is slightly more magical than the default LotFP expectation, shaded toward something like classic Diablo, which I like. Additionally, there is a half page of house rules, some external media recommendations, a minor firefly god (Luminari, Lady of the Golden Lamp), a flooded village adventure, and a mansion map (“Greycandle Manor”) with unfilled key. I gather this last item was an undead lair that was cleared out and claimed as a home base by the PCs in Clint’s game. Overall, the tone is creative and flavorful without being turned up to 11.

VRA is available in print or pay what you want PDF. The ghoul market alone is worth your time. Highly recommended.

Unsolicited aesthetic opinions on the 5E Monster Manual

1. In general, the art is even better than the PHB. There is an almost biologic sensibility, like what might be recorded in the notebook of a 19th century naturalist. The influence from real animals on the illustrations is more pronounced than in past versions. Not in terms of direct realism, but just in that you can recognize features, poses, and behaviors that make the creatures seem more anatomically resonant.

2014-12-10 16.22.32 copy

2. Other than the green dragon, which I like, the dragon shoulders are pronounced in a way that looks somewhat ridiculous (this is worst in the red and silver dragon illustrations). I don’t care how much muscle a “real” dragon would need, it does not look good.

2014-12-11 08.55.16 silver dragon

3. The small landscapes scattered throughout might be one of my favorite features, especially the one right prior to the demon entries. They evoke exploration and weird expanses.

2014-12-10 16.17.36 landscape

4. The best and most creative art seems to be for the monstrosities. See the aboleth below, for example. The worst is for the humanoids. I like the gnoll and ogre. The bullywug is okay but then it’s also really hard to mess up a frog person. Which leads me to…

5. Most unimpressive new visual identity: goblin. Successful goblins I have seen are cute (Gremlins and Pathfinder), Tolkienesque (Alan Lee and Angus McBride), or faerie tale (Arthur Rackham and Ian Miller). This one is just boring.

2014-12-10 16.21.36 goblin

6. Most impressive new visual identity: aboleth, probably. It no longer looks like a big fish with funny eyes and tentacles, but something truly alien and new. I don’t think I’ve seen anything that looks like it before. (And if you have the book, check out the smaller picture on the following page of an aboleth seemingly pulling itself over land with its tentacles.) There were a lot of other good candidates here though. See also the mind flayer (the Darth Vader style makes it really feel like an extradimensional invader) and the manticore (that mouth!).

2014-12-11 09.06.43 aboleth

7. Most unsuccessful illustration: tarrasque. Makes it seem about the size of a goat. Seriously, look at that thing and tell me it’s bigger than a large dog.

2014-12-10 16.27.35 tarrasque

8. Most successful illustration: I don’t know that I can pick just one. Green dragon, pit fiend, succubus & incubus, lich, medusa, wraith, pseudodragon, mind flayer, shadow, drow, darkmantle.

9. I like this succubus and incubus picture and appreciate that the incubus was made attractive too. Likewise with the angels (particularly the deva) and the yuan-ti (which also remind me of the snake men Masters of the Universe toys).

2014-12-10 16.27.08 incubus succubus

10. The demons and undead are effective except the marilith, which just looks awkward. Zombie is kind of weak, but lich, mummy, and wraith are awesome. Mummy approaches legit scary (something about the unnatural but yet still natural head shape) and that’s pretty rare in RPG illustrations.

2014-12-10 16.24.26 mummy

Dark Souls preliminaries

Channeler (source)

Channeler (source)

Dark Souls has captured my attention like no other video game before. The basics of the game are relatively simple. You have a set amount of resources, including health, a number of healing potions (called estus flasks), and perhaps some spells depending on your advancement and equipment choices. You set out from a bonfire to explore an area, collecting souls as you go. Souls are acquired by (mostly) killing enemies and (occasionally) found as treasure. If you rest at a bonfire, resources are replenished and all recurring enemies respawn. Bosses and mini-bosses (for lack of a better term) stay dead once killed. If you die, you lose all souls that have been gained from killing enemies (though not those found as treasure, which remain in your inventory until you convert them to actual souls that can be spent). You can reclaim any souls lost if you return to where you died before you die again. Souls can be used to level up (increasing your choice of any one stat) or as currency to purchase items.

These dynamics should seem extremely familiar, because other than a few nuances, they almost entirely replicate the OD&D game approach of recovering treasure to gain XP using a limited number of resources, such as HP and spells, which replenish between excursions. Every action you take is a balance between risk and reward. Do you want to go a little bit farther, risking the souls you have accumulated, or do you want to return to a bonfire to replenish resources (and perhaps level up)? Is now the time to challenge a boss, which, if defeated, will permanently alter the game world, perhaps opening up new areas?

Pinwheel (source)

Pinwheel (source)

The twin factors that make Dark Souls so remarkable are extremely tight gameplay and an aesthetic sensibility that manages to be both restrained (in an almost classical manner) and wildly creative. The style is primarily brooding European gothic, with plate armor, visored helms, western dragons, gargoyles, and so forth, but, as with many Japanese fantasy games, there is also a smattering of East Asian gear and many of the creatures have a vaguely Shinto demeanor.

Being primarily* a one-player, action RPG, combat is the main element of gameplay, and almost all PC capabilities and equipment are geared towards combat efficiency. That said, running away (or past) enemies is often a viable strategy, and, in addition, many dirty tricks are possible, such as knocking enemies over ledges or into the path of traps. Dark Souls combat is real-time and highly positional, though minimal reflex is involved. Combat is paced, almost languid. Almost all actions have very explicit animations, allowing the player to predict and react to enemy attacks and maneuvers once they are learned. This also extends to PC actions, such as drinking a potion or casting a spell. The time taken often exposes you to enemy attacks, meaning that every choice must be carefully weighed and could potentially have consequences. The game rewards careful approach and intelligent tactics far more than quick reaction times.

The regions (stages?) are topologically relatively simple, sometimes almost linear, but the connectivity between regions provides a much more vivid sense of extended world than many more open games, which often contain large amounts of open expanse that feel blank and under-detailed. Further, the connections between many areas are somewhat concealed, requiring careful investigation (though no pixel bitching). There are several areas, including some near the beginning of the game, that I did not discover for a long time due to oversight. Finding a new area to explore always felt like a major accomplishment, either by coming across a hidden path or defeating a gatekeeper boss.

Skeleton wheel (source)

Skeleton wheel (source)

Though the difficulty of Dark Souls is overstated (I am not very good at video games, and have been able to make considerable progress, though I have not yet finished the game), it does not coddle the player. I can imagine that this might feel frustrating to some people, but I have found it refreshing. There are no undo mechanisms, not even a way to reload an earlier saved game. Once you make a change to your character or the game world (such as by choosing which stat to increase during a level up), it stays changed. If you accidentally kill a friendly NPC (as I did with the first merchant I met), it stays dead. Congratulations, you just made the game more difficult. (In my case, I was unable to buy crossbow bolts until reaching a significantly distant area). Because of this design, defeating a difficult enemy or finding a way around a devious challenge feels all the more satisfying. Personally, I have maintained a strict embargo against looking up strategies online (with the exception of some mechanical issues, like figuring out how to aim the longbow), and would highly recommend this approach, as it makes investigating the world far more engaging.

Titanite demon (source)

Titanite demon (source)

This game is so amazing that this only scratches the surface. I would particularly recommend those interested in traditional D&D, especially OD&D, to give it a spin. Many elements will be recognizable, and, in addition, the design decisions that are different have been (for me) quite fruitful in inspiring ideas for tabletop games, both in terms of setting and game mechanics. You will need some patience to begin with, as you get used to the dying in order to learn how things work, though that passes relatively quickly. Don’t worry too much about which class you start with, as you will be able to level any character into any abilities. My current game (still the first and only character that I have created), is up to around 130 hours. It is the only video game that I have played where I expect to make a new character immediately after finishing the game to see how it plays with other advancement choices and perhaps tackling regions in a different order.

* There are some online features that allow other players to leave signs within your game or assist during fights, but I have not used them and based on my understanding they do not seem important to the experience of play.

Doom-Cave

IMG_7326 doom-caveJames Raggi’s LotFP modules have generally two, rather extreme modes. The first, which I will call serious, includes Death Frost Doom, Hammers of the God, Death Love Doom, Better than any Man, God that Crawls, and Tales of the Scarecrow. The second, which I will call goofy, includes Monolith Beyond Space and Time and Fuck For Satan. The goofy modules often use incomprehensible space aliens rather than “a wizard did it” to justify the various puzzles and dilemmas presented to the players. Doom-Cave certainly belongs in the second grouping.

The categorization presented above is not perfect, as, for example Grinding Gear presents a set of absurd (though fictionally justified) puzzles within a relatively serious context, and Tower of the Stargazer (notably, one of my favorite of Raggi’s efforts) includes in an offhand manner a reference to bopping mossy plant creatures on Necropoli Centauri. The goofy mode modules often include anachronistic, present-day references (such as Wiki Dot Pod in Doom-Cave, which is actually explained within the fiction of the module). Depending on the group, this kind of humor could easily fall flat.

Another common Raggi module practice is the use of dungeon maps reminiscent of game boards. This is true most obviously here and in God that Crawls, but can also be seen in Grinding Gear and Death Frost Doom. There are lots of winding, 10-foot corridors intended to eat up PC movement rate and create attrition cost via random encounters. I do not think this sort of “tracking movement” is particularly bookkeeping heavy, contrary to some criticism, but it does require a certain discipline of taking your turn and moving your squares that may be foreign outside of combat to many RPG players that were introduced to the hobby during the 90s or later, where gaming is usually presented in a more dramatic fashion with all the paraphernalia of fiction in other media forms (scenes, plot, character arcs, and so forth).

The most interesting parts of the module for me are the monsters. The “no monster manual” philosophy of the system often pays rich dividends in this area, and Doom-Caves is no different in this regard. The monsters are interesting in mechanical execution in addition to conception. They are more than just different configurations of HP, defense numbers, and special attacks. For example, there is one group of monsters where each individual depends on the state of all the others (and surprisingly, this is done in a way that looks like it would be easy to run at the table). The monsters are all illustrated well in sketches by Gennifer Bone, the artist who is also behind Rafael Chandler’s in-progress Lusus Naturae bestiary.

The single most glaring weakness in Raggi’s goofy mode is that players often add plenty of anachronistic goofiness on their own to even the most serious of scenarios, as Noisms discusses in D&D as straight man. This is actually one of D&D’s unique strengths compared to other narrative forms. If all the modules in a campaign were of this type it would probably get old.

Raggi modules can be read a bit like zen koans meant to smack you upside the head with their absurdity to remind you that in these games of adventure really anything is possible, as long as you have a group of players on board. Why Limit yourself to the expected? Yes, yes, you do not need such prompting and how dare Mr. Raggi waste your time? If that is your reaction then you will probably not enjoy Doom-Caves much. From a perspective beyond that of any single group or referee, I do think it is nice that someone is putting together works that embody this philosophy.

In general, LotFP modules (especially those by Raggi himself) tend towards bundles of toys for players to interact with rather than coherent fictional scenarios (and I would argue that this is true even of the more serious modules, such as Death Frost Doom, though to a lesser degree). That said, a goofy Raggi module can probably best be used as a weird ice-axe to shatter the frozen sea of a placid campaign world. As a final assessment, I like the monsters more than the actual adventure. Even with a goofy, campaign-disruptive premise, I would prefer more connections between the disparate encounters and set pieces for use in my own games.

The Doom-Cave of the Crystal-Headed Children was LotFP’s contribution to Free RPG Day 2014 and I understand that it will be available in the next month or so for free download as well.

IMG_7326 doom-cave

Pits & Perils

Pits & Perils cover (source)

Pits & Perils cover (source)

The ranks of zero edition style games are increasing. Pits & Perils is a game in this mode, presented as a single PDF booklet of around 80 pages. It seems letter-sized when I open the file on a computer, but uses a generous typewriter font that is easily readable on my tablet without zooming, and I suspect it would print well as a digest-sized hardcopy. Illustrations are sparse and done in a charming woodcut style (digital excerpts mostly drawn from History of the Nordic Peoples by Olaus Magnus). The tone is reminiscent of pre-advanced Gygax, concise but enthusiastic, which I assume is intentional based on the other design choices.

Tasks are resolved by rolling 2d6. Nine or higher is a success in combat, while seven or higher is a success out of combat. As you might expect, some character and situational bonuses apply, but not enough to dilute the essential elegance and simplicity of the system, unlike many games that rely on modifiers. In combat, damage inflicted is one point for rolls of 9 to 11 and two points for 12 or higher. Most rules needed for common dungeon exploration tasks are handled elegantly. Encumbrance is just flatly limited to 10 items beyond armor. “Anything more is simply too much. Characters cannot perform if overburdened with equipment, and gold coins are bulky in large amounts” (page 17). Suffocation and drowning is handled simply with saving dice and the accumulation of damage.

Rather than roll 3d6 down the line during character creation, as is traditional, the player instead rolls once for exceptional abilities (which happen to be drawn from the classic six). This rule is inspired. Most of the time, this will result in only a single “ability,” but players can choose two on rolls of eleven or higher. The actual distribution is a bit strange (for example, you roll 2d6 and only get “strength” if you roll 2 or 11 or higher and choose it). Further, there are some minor complications (such as that dwarves treat rolls of strength or charisma as constitution instead). For a simple, pickup game of D&D I would be tempted to use a mutation of this rule, perhaps simplifying it to roll 1d6 for exceptional stat and then grant a simple +1 bonus to whatever is related to that stat.

There are six classes: cleric, dwarf, elf, fighter, magician, thief. Each one of these seems to roughly associate with one of the abilities, though I am not sure if this structure was intentional. The experience progression tables require less XP than many similar games, with second level being achieved around 200 XP for most classes and mid levels occurring around the low thousands. For example, a fighter with 3200 XP is 6th level according to these charts. That is probably not a bad approach. Who has time for multi-year campaigns, anyways? Class abilities are minimal. Fighters get +1 to attack dice, the use of all weapons and armor, and two attacks at 9th level. That’s it. There are no other bonuses hidden in other advancement schedules such as can be found in the OD&D attack matrices or saving throw tables. The magic system uses a very simple spell point system with no levels. Casting any spell costs one point.

There are a few things that I am uncertain about, including:

  • The benefit of wearing armor is just bonus hit points
  • All projectile missile weapons seem to get +1 damage for being two-handed
  • Thieves need to wait until 9th level (“robber baron”) for a backstab ability
  • Random encounter math implies only 1 encounter every 36 turns

These are relatively minor concerns within the overall scope of the game and are easily adjusted by a referee, but are still worth noting. Of greater impact for gameplay is the relationship between character HP and damage. As noted above, most attacks deal only 1 or 2 damage and there are very few potential bonuses to damage. Using a two-handed weapon grants +1 (making every hit do either 2 or 3 damage), and there are a few magic weapons that can increase damage. Relative to damage potential, character HP (which is static, based on class and level) seems high, ranging at first level from 5 (for magicians) to 10 (for fighters). This is not necessarily a bad approach, but it is most definitely an impactful choice, leading to far more durable PCs than in, for example, OD&D or B/X.

I often have a short attention span when it comes to reading game content such as spells, feats, magic items, monster descriptions, and so forth, usually just skimming such material while reading the occasional entry in full. In this case though, I read every single entry in the entire book. Here are a few choice quotes, to give you a sense of the rules.

BOLT scores 1d6 hits on a single target. The caster adds +1 per 3 levels gained, so a 3rd level magician would deliver 1d6+1 hits. Lightning can sunder doors up to 5′ thick and melt gold within 10′ of the point of impact.

–Page 14

Harpies attack with their two razor sharp claws. About one-third (1-2 in 1d6) are SIRENS. These use an evil song to hypnotize victims within 30′. These must save or fall into a mindless trance and present themselves for slaughter.

–Page 36

A MAGICIAN’S HAT looks like an ordinary pointed cap. However, the wearer can pull any normal/non-magical item, like a ladder or rope, out of the hat up to 3 times per day. The item must be of less than 10 GP value, so armor, weapons, and other valuables cannot be produced. This includes foodstuffs and living things of all kinds, even rabbits!

–Page 51

Exploration and problem solving is the meat and drink of these games, provided the referee makes it challenging and fun.

–Page 65

Final thoughts? Recommended if you enjoy reading variations on the 0E theme. The PDF can be bought at RPGNow for $5 and happily does not include a watermark.

Hiroshige hexcrawl

For a while I had kept a particular Taschen edition of Hiroshige’s 100 views of Edo in my “saved for later” section on Amazon, waiting for it to come back into stock. I had heard that it was of excellent quality given the low price and also bound in a traditional east asian manner. Well, just recently, I noticed it had come back into stock, and was still less than $30 though enough to qualify for free shipping. By the way, Edo is the old name of Tokyo, which was built up from a fishing village by the Shoguns during the years leading up to what is now considered the Tokugawa period of Japanese history, as a power center separate from the traditional imperial capital of Kyoto, whose emperor acquired a more ceremonial, pope-like role as true power came to be located in the Bakufu (the Shogun’s military bureaucracy).

Here is the book itself:

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The external hard cover is not attached to the book proper. But more on that later. Naturally, the first thing I thought about when paging through this gorgeous book was RPG setting. It even contains a keyed map of Edo, which could be used to set the scene whenever PCs visit a particular area.

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One could, of course, set a full campaign in Edo itself and probably never run out of material (perhaps focusing on the Oniwabanshū, the Tokugawa era secret police?). But why stay in Edo? A highway, the Tōkaidō, connected Edo to Kyoto, with officially maintained stations periodically along its length, and this great road was also illustrated by Hiroshige in the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō. The Kiso Kaidō, an alternative route between the two great cities, is also illustrated by Hiroshige in the Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō (though unfortunately Wikipedia does not seem to have copies of the full set). The Eight Views of Ōmi shows Shiga prefecture around Lake Biwa, which is also sort of between Kyoto and Edo (though closer to Kyoto).

Some thematic coherence is gained by sticking with the work of Hiroshige, but there are many other older works, even if one wanted to only use woodblock prints, that would also fit. The encounter tables could perhaps be built from Gazu Hyakki Yagyō and other traditional yokai bestiaries. One great thing about this approach is that almost all of this work is now in the public domain. All 100 views of Edo can be seen on Wikipedia, for example, in addition to the other sets linked above.

Okay, so it would probably be more of a point-crawl, but that does not have quite the same ring. Add this to the ever-growing junkyard of campaign ideas.

Back to the book itself, which is worth showing off. Most traditional east asian books were softcover in this manner, though this particular one reads left to right (the western orientation) rather than right to left. The cover feels like silk but is probably some synthetic microfiber, and notably every page is a double-fold (not sure what the correct book binding term for that is); you can see the technique in one of the pictures below. I have also included photos of a few of my favorite prints so that you can see them in the context of the book, though the full versions on Wikipedia linked above probably contain more detail.

Now this is how you make a book. And so cheap!

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Complete Vivimancer

complete vivimancer coverGavin N., author of the City of Iron blog and the previous Labyrinth Lord supplement Theorems & Thaumaturgy, has released another book, the Complete Vivimancer. T&T is something of an OSR Tome of Magic, introducing several new specialist magic-user variants and a host of new spells and magic items. I previously reviewed it (and the PDF is free, so you really have no excuse not to check it out). The Complete Vivimancer takes the eponymous class introduced in T&T and expands it further.

Unlike T&T, the CV has an A5 layout, which I much prefer. As a PDF, the size is perfect for tablets without needing to resize. Beyond the size, the layout style feels improved as well. Details like duration are offset from descriptive text when needed, but no strict format is used, which is appreciated (including useless null info like magic resistance: none rather than just leaving it out is something that bothers me in many RPG layouts). The art is suitably weird and of a particular, consistent style. There are many worms, veins, pustules, and so forth. Breeding and reproduction are (as you might expect) constant themes. Total content is around 80 digest sized pages with periodic illustrations.

In an effort to serve as an all-in-one reference, the Complete Vivimancer repeats the relevant content from T&T alongside the new material. I can imagine this might bother some folks, but it seems appropriate to the project, and in any case there is a lot of new content as well. Interestingly, a number of spells from core Labyrinth Lord are included also, but subtly adjusted to add a vivimantic flavor, which is a nice touch. For example, the vivimancer version of jump notes that the subject’s legs develop a springing capability similar to that of a cricket, which I would probably run with and rule to be an actual insectoid transformation. Depending on how seriously a given referee takes the re-skinned details, this could dramatically alter how some spells work (as it should).

That said, what exactly is included? First, the details of the class, which look at a glance to be identical to the standard magic-user (d4 HD, only daggers, no armor, create new spells and magic items at 9th level, etc). There are some guidelines about the cost of maintaining a laboratory and keeping experimental subjects, which are required for some vivimantic spells. The spell list itself is impressively large, with 30 spells each for levels 1 through 3, 20 spells for level 4, and 12 spells for each level thereafter. A slightly more restricted list of spells (12 per level) is also provided for referees to prefer a slightly more restrained spell list.

What are the spells like? Symbiotic familiar causes a plant- of fungal-based familiar to grow in or on the magic-user’s body. Anthropomorphism allows the magic-user to impart humanlike consciousness and tool using ability to an animal. Leech blast is an area effect spell that covers enemies in a mass of bloodsucking worms if a save is failed, doing continuous damage. The chimera spells are a take on monster summoning, with randomly determined qualities, and look like they would be fun in play. Detach makes a body part separate from its owner, though remaining under his or her control (allowing crawling hands and so forth). Lockroaches are a living magic item that functions sort of like a knock scroll (I bet you can guess how they work). While a large number of vivimantic effects are permanent, allowing, for example, a given vivimancer to over time create a horde of fungal zombies, importantly (as far as I can tell) vivimancers do not have any special influence over most creations, requiring intelligent and creative play.

How specialist magic-users interact with the advancement systems of a campaign is somewhat complicated. How do magic-users learn new spells? Must they find new spells through adventuring, as suggested by Labyrinth Lord page 19, or do they automatically add one or two new spells upon level-up? This is tricky because it interacts with the system that the referee uses for awarding treasure. If you are following the LL rules strictly, magic-users are not able to research new spells until 9th level. Personally, I think this approach has some shortcomings, as few games last until 9th level. It is mentioned on page 72 that one might want to relax this rule, but guidelines beyond that are not given. Some house rules or treasure placement fudging are likely required to make sure that vivimancer characters are able to acquire sufficient new spells.

In addition to the spells and magic items, which make up the bulk of the CV, there is a one page appendix of psionic powers which looks perfectly serviceable and a random table based mutation system. Like Gavin’s other work, the CV is thoughtfully written and carefully constructed. The LL chassis that it sits upon is widely compatible with traditional fantasy games, making it easy to incorporate spells and magic items into a given campaign even if you don’t use the class itself, though the vivimancer archetype might also be well served by some more innovative rules. That said, I understand the design decision to remain close to the original magic-user. As with T&T, the entire work other than the name is open game content, making it easy to include spells or other content that you like within your own OGL-licensed products. Overall, I think I would enjoy playing a vivimancer myself, which seems like a good bottom line assessment.

Complete Vivimancer hard copy

Complete Vivimancer hard copy