I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Fifth Edition D&D versus 13th Age (the good, the bad and the damned)

Let me start by saying that I'm not really into edition wars and I think both games are awesome. 5e is currently my favorite RPG, and 13A has awesome ideas that I would use in ANY version of D&D, and some I have adapted to my own RPG.

But then again, I (very) often read affirmations such as this in many different forums (specially in some forums that frequently seem to have an anti-5e bias):

Well, I must disagree. "D&D but better" is a true mark of the so-called Fantasy Heartbreakers, and it is not what 13A is about. The games are very different from one another, despite being inspired by previous versions of D&D (specially 3e and 4e), and they scratch different itches.

I assume most of you are more familiar with 5e D&D than 13A, because I am, so I'll compare 13A's ideas as alternatives to 5e, even though 13A came first. You'll see that I find that most alternatives in 13A have some good and some bad aspects (therefore, the good and the bad), and, in a few cases, I prefer using a combination or another alternative in my games (my RPG is called Days of the Damned... therefore "The damned").

Backgrounds and skills

5e skills aren't perfect - but they are few and straightforward. Backgrounds, in 5e, give you a few features and a couple of skills. Say, if you pick the City Watch background, you may get the Athletics skill. In 13A, you create your own background (of course, you can do that in 5e too), and it functions as a skill. So you may have "I was on the city watch +3" instead of "Athletics".

Interestingly enough, in 5e each background has an unique feature, but in 13A, where backgrounds are more unique, mechanically they all work exactly the same.

The good: you come up with your own skills! Every character - and every background - is unique! You don't even need a list.

The bad: when playing 5e, I'll often say something like "everybody roll Athletics to climb the wall, DC 15". In 13A, it would be something like "everybody roll Strength plus any relevant background... city watch? How come you can climb? Oh, you worked in the watchtower, okay. And you? Purple wizard? Ah, you also studied in a tower. Halfling from the shire? Well... you can say you climbed in and out of holes, but maybe add half of your background* instead of it all. Yeah, round down. +2 instead of +5. Probably. You have Sheriff +3 too? How does that apply? You had a watchtower in the shire? Okay, you can use that instead..."

(*not actually in the rules AFAIK, but I have seem one of 13A's designers suggest that in an interview.)

The damned: I use eight skills, and that is it (although you can have specialties). Backgrounds are very specific and give you advantage in very specific circumstances: if you are a Barbarian of the Icy Mountains, you certainly get advantage when climbing mountains, but if you want to jump or ride a horse you better have the Athlete skill.

I think this rule is very useful for 5e: this barbarian would get advantage when rolling Nature and Survival in the Icy Mountains (because barbarians are often so bad at this stuff in 5e), but no advantage for surviving in the hot desert.

Unique characters

13A has a very interesting feature called One Unique Thing: "Your character’s One Unique Thing (their unique) is a special feature invented by you, the player, which sets your character apart from every other hero. It is a unique and special trait to your player, and markedly unusual. The intent is that it provides a special flavor to the campaign and can assist the GM in determining how your character can interact with characters and story in the campaign". (source)

The good: every character is special and awesome in some unique way.

The bad: character funnels and disposable characters are no longer a possibility, if you like those. Also, some people seem to think it is an awesome idea to use this feature to change the whole campaign setting. You're not doing "I was the last person to ever see the sun" in my Ravnica campaign, sorry.

The damned: in fact, I think OUT is a great idea that I use for many games, with the caveats above.

Theater of the mind

D&D 5e has ranges in feet; you can walk 30 feet in a round, hit someone 100 feet away with a bow, etc. Remember, in 4e you moved "X squares" per round and miniatures where mandatory, RAW. In 13A, you have "positions" instead: Nearby, Far Away, Engaged, etc. As it says on the SRD, "Combat is dynamic and fluid, so miniatures can’t really represent where a character ‘really is.’".

Plenty of people seem to think 13A is perfect for "theater of the mind" battles, where no miniatures are used. It probably is, for them. But I don't use miniatures in my D&D games at all, and I have an incredibly easier time dealing with concrete measurements (even if I don't worry about EXACT distances, the distinction between 20, 100 and 300 feet is important to me) than abstract "positions". So 5e is perfect for me in this regard too.

Overall, "abstract" mechanics where concrete measurements could be used are harder for me and my friends to deal with. For example, I think saying "I have 97 gold coins, I spend 13, now I have 84" is easier, faster and simpler than saying "roll you wealth with a -1 penalty to see if you can buy other stuff this week" like you do in some versions of Fate RPG.

The good: if you dislike dealing with numbers or grids, 13A seems to be a good fit.

The bad: if you prefer concrete numbers or good guidelines about using grids and miniatures, 13A is not a good fit.

Characters x Pillars

5e D&D explicitly mentions its adventures are based around three pillars: Interaction, Combat, and Exploration. Characters are notably absent from this list (although this is a whole different discussion, I think it illustrates my point). 13A has a strong focus on characters: OUT, lots of feats and powers, loads of HP, etc. The way Icons work also indicate that the world turns around the cahrachters, in a way (or that they are the focus of all adventures).

The good: 13A has lots of possibilites of customization, a great number of feats (too many for my tastes, but hey, you don't need to sue them all), and characters can become demi-gods.

The bad: see "backgrounds" and "unique characters" above for some examples on how infinite character possibilites can bring some problems.

The damned: my games can go either way, depending on the campaign. In Days of the Damned  I list "Interaction, Combat, Exploration, and Character Development" as main foundations, with Character Development being the most important one, so in this regard it is closer to 13A.

Roll to see how you attack

13A has this interesting feature where some attacks are only activated if you roll a certain number (a "natural 17", for example), or at specific rounds in the battle (every other round, after three rounds of combat, etc, depending on the escalation die). For example:

Flexible Attacks 
Flexible attacks allow you choose your target first, make your attack roll, and then use the natural unmodified die result to determine which of your eligible flexible attacks to use. You still use the modified roll to determine whether or not you hit, but your flexible attacks trigger off the natural result on the die sitting in front of you.
If you have some attacks that are flexible and some that are not, declare whether you are making a flexible attack or a specific non-flexible attack before you roll.

Some features have both limitations: "Triggering Roll: Any natural even roll, when the escalation die is 2+", which can be a bit confusing IMO. By comparison, the 5e action / bonus action / reaction economy is a lot simpler.

Monsters have similar features, that trigger on a "Natural 16+" or "Natural even hit".

The good: you have interesting attacks that you don't have too think too much about; just roll and see what you get. Some compare it to "artificial intelligence" for monsters.

The bad: this rubs some people the wrong way - myself and some 13A fans included. I like declaring my intentions before rolling the dice. If I want to bash with my shield, I would prefer "hit or miss" instead of "hit with shield or hit with your sword". I can see it is a good idea to have "artificial intelligence" for monsters, and even special attacks that trigger in some rolls, but overall I prefer to play my NPCs instead of letting the dice make this choice. I also believe there is a  reason most videogames don't let chance tell your character if he hits with sword or shield.

The damned: I included some rules on how to plays NPCs in combat. I use special attacks as default tactics, with some built-in limitations.

It´s okay to enjoy multiple games!
Other things...

No good or bad here, these things are mostly a matter of taste.

Zero-to-hero: In 5e, you start as a somewhat limited character, with a significant chance of dying in a few rounds, and eventually can turn into a mighty hero - but with plenty of weaknesses (in you saving throws, for example) - maybe somebody like Conan or Elric. In 13A, you start strong and unique - and end up as a true demigod.

Popularity: 13A is a great game, but is a niche game within a niche hobby. It has less fans than 5e, certainly, but also Pathfinder and OSR/Old-school D&D for most metrics I can find. It is nice to try new games. It might be harder to find compatible players - always easy to find D&D players where I am.

Smaller numbers: 5e use smaller numbers all around, which I happen to like. HP-bloat, to me, is a downside of WotC-D&D, and 13A only makes it worse - a 10th level rogue has (6 + CON mod) x 24 HP, and ten feats!

Innovation and tradition: 5e D&D tries to keep some "classic" D&D features, while 13A has more experimentation and innovation. As far as quality goes, I think both options are equally valid. I prefer 5e's saving throws, for example, but 13A method is good alternative if you want the attacker to make all the rolls.

New school x Old(ish) school: the definitions vary from person to person, and both "schools" have its fans. By most metrics I can think of, 13A is mostly a "new school" game while 5e is mostly a "middle school" game, a "compromise edition" of sorts. Old school has been described by things like "Hero, not Superhero", "Starting characters aren't special", "There is no "story" being created on purpose", not focused on the character sheet, etc. Of course, if you're using different metrics, you'll reach different conclusions.

My favorites: OUT, the escalation die (awesome idea), the monster stat-blocks for 13A; and the action economy, bounded accuracy, backgrounds, and advantage/disadvantage for 5e. The art, for both. Great games overall.

Who wins?

Like I said before, my favorite is 5e, but both games are awesome. Both have SRD's you can find it the internet for free - and, what is better, you can easily combine your favorite features of both games into your own house-ruled Frankenstein system. I do that all the time!

As someone said before me... since we have both options, gamers win!

Did I forget something? Are there other reasons to prefer one game over another? Any other features that can be exported form one game to the other? Let me know in the comments!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Review: Liberation of the Demon Slayer

Liberation of the Demon Slayer* is an OSR dungeon adventure by Venger As’Nas Satanis. I bought the 70-page black & white watermarked PDF on impulse a few days ago and, after a quick glance, got interested in reading it cover to cover.

The book

The book contains two main parts: about a dozen pages of various ideas and house rules, and then the adventure itself: a gonzo dungeon, with six levels, preceded by a few notes on the nearby village, relevant NPCs and a rumor table.

The book is not particularly well-organized. It is written in a stream of consciousness manner, with a conversational tone, jumping from subject to subject. For example, we go from setting to house rules and (a few pages later) back to setting again, without turning a page or starting a new chapter between sections. The index has seven entries only, indicating each level of the dungeon and a page explaining how to use "the shapes", powerful artifacts that you can find during the adventure. There is a point in the adventure in which the adventures get teleported (in a very railroad-y manner, unfortunately) from level 2 to an alternate "Level 0" in another dimension, and the whole level 0 is described in the middle of the level 2 chapter, as if the reader was meant to be transported with the text. Some rooms include lengthy descriptions about the NPCs and setting.

This lack of organization didn't detract much from the reading, but it might make things harder for the GM when using on the table.

The B&W art is very good, overall, with a few really impressive pieces (and a few amateurish ones) and decent maps (by Dyson Logos). There are some definitely NSFW pieces, but nothing that will scare you, assuming you looked at the cover before buying the book.

By the same metric, I assume nothing in this book will offend you if you're not looking for that; there is little explicit gore or sexuality, and all of it can be ignored without destroying the adventure. There are also a few subtle jabs at religion, art, etc. I found some of it amusing, and most of it gratuitous, but not too extreme nor too distracting.

Overall, I think the sex and violence of the module is meant to differentiate it from other similar adventures, and, although it succeeds in generating some controversy, is far from the only thing that the book has to offer.

Obviously, if you think the cover is offensive or the the author's pen name is too puerile for your tastes, this book is probably not for you. If you're interested anyway, let us take a look at the contents.

The system

LotDS is a OSR adventure, aimed for the more classic forms of D&D. Venger proposes a number of house rules regarding magic, hit locations, negative HP, saving throws, ability checks, etc. It also has some GM advice on using sex, violence, and weirdness, which is pertinent. Mostly interesting ideas, but some of them seem untested or half-baked, and nothing is really groundbreaking. Regardless of this, I found this section useful to get the feel of Venger's games, which is helpful for understanding the adventure.

There are two highlights in this part: a good breakdown on PC's motivations ("REASONS FOR ADVENTURING") and a very nice dark secrets table, with more than thirty dark, funny and extreme entries, very appropriate to the book but useful beyond the scope of the adventure.

Although it doesn't mention any specific system, LotDS seems like a great fit for DCC RPG, with it's dark humor, high lethality and gonzo awesomeness. If you play Lamentations of the Flame Princess and like their modules, LotDS might also interest you.

The setting

LotDS's setting is both fresh and familiar. In true old-school D&D style, it includes orcs and aliens, demons and "K’tulu", kobolds and laser pistols, magic and super-science, dragons, spaceships and a mind controlling orange. This level of gonzo is probably going to be too much for some people, but others might find it a good way of adding strangeness to standard D&D tropes or changing the pace of the game for a few adventures.

In this setting, religion, demons and magic are deeply connected (an idea that was common in old real world beliefs, but absent in many versions of vanilla fantasy), elves and magic are mostly evil, and demons and devils coexist with Lovecraftian deities. It reminds me of "weird fantasy" settings such as Arduin or Rifts. For my particular tastes, I found the setting has good ideas that can be mined, but not enough coherence to use exactly as written for other purposes (beyond running this particular adventure).

Using a completely alien setting without the gnolls and medusas might make things more interesting, but perhaps this is meant to place the adventure solidly on D&D-land. The author offers some good advice on dropping this adventure in a "standard" D&D setting and then dialing back the weirdness after the finishing the dungeon if necessary.

The adventure

The adventure is presented in a very straightforward manner, at first: a group of adventures must descend into a dungeon to recover a magic sword (the "demon slayer" of the title) to fight an incoming demonic horde. Fortunately, the dungeon itself is a lot more interesting than the premise would indicate.

Level 1 is a series of caverns; level 2, a flooded dungeon; level 3, a spaceship; levels 4 and 5, dungeons filled with cultists, vampires, dark elves and monsters; level 6, a fire dungeon filled with lava. Although the maps are good, traveling from one level to another isn't clearly explained on the first read. There is also a "level 0" within level 2 that, strangely enough, is a quest to find a magic item inside the quest to find a magic item. You read that right.

The demon-slaying sword is located on level 1, so there is little explanation on why would the PCs delve deeper. Presumably, after getting the sword and gaining more experience, they would try to find the demons below to stop them from being  menace to the village. In any case, the dungeon is quite big, so there in material for a lot of adventures (the author mentions between 7 and 13 sessions, which sounds reasonable to me).

The dungeon has the same strengths and weaknesses as the setting: lots of fun ideas, not enough coherence. Each level has a clear theme and interesting conflicts and factions, which is good, but the whole makes little sense, which - by the foreword - is intentional. In short, this resembles a classic "funhouse dungeon". The point is not the cohesive whole, but the fun challenges being presented.

In that aspect, LotDS succeeds in what it proposes to do. Facing the dungeon seems impossible by using what is is your character sheet; one must think outside the box, explore (the extremely powerful) magic items, and make deals with various NPC's in order to survive. This is definitely an adventure to challenge the players, not their characters.

It is worth mentioning that the adventure seems very, very deadly, with death rays, powerful monsters and multiple possibilities of TPK. This is better suited for players that are willing to really put their character's lives on the line.

In conclusion

This book was published in 2013. and, as the author seems to admit in the last page, feels a bit like an early effort - although still a good one. It has plenty of useful content, the writing is good and it contains some great art, but it lacks organization, cohesiveness and focus (if that's what you're looking for). It is a decent read and it seems that it would be a fun adventure to run or play - which is the whole point of the module.

If the "funhouse dungeon" premise interest you, or if you like gonzo adventures where anything can happen, I would recommend checking this out.

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Grokking 5e D&D (I) - Skills, and how they (don't?) work

The Fifth Edition of D&D took me a while to fully understand. One reason is that, contrary to what it may seem, 5e is in some ways different from all other editions (although probably not as much as 4e, for example), even though it keeps enough classic features to allow most fans to recognize in 5e a (somewhat) familiar version the game they always loved.

Another reason is that 5e is a bit opaque about some of its design. For example, it is clear that skills are, by default, more important than tools, and some tools (thieves' tools) more important than others. The designers realize this, and create backgrounds (and other rules) accordingly, but at the same time create a feat that lets you choose tools OR skills, as if they had similar importance, which can be confusing to newbies.

I like it more now than when I first started playing (j fact, it is probably my favorite game at this moment), so I though I would share some little insights about 5e's philosophy. They might be obvious to some (specially if you're a long time 5e fan), but they may also vbe helpful if you're trying to understand the system a bit better.

The first things that comes to mind is how skills work. Or don't work, depending on what you're looking for.

The thing is, you cannot rely exclusively on skills do do things in 5e - including the things skills are supposed to do.

The proficiency bonus is small, from +2 to +6. I do like the idea of smaller numbers in general, but this means your proficiency will only make the difference between success and failure 30% of the rolls, that's on level 17. For most of your characters' career, proficiency will only be useful about 20% of the time.

This causes other unexpected effects. For example, clerics are not that good at religion, since it is Intelligence-based. Nature is also based on Intelligence, making wizards better at it than rangers and druids. Wizards do not have the option of being great at arcana; the Arcane Trickster is probably better (if that is what the player wants), since he gets Expertise, even if the Wizard casts more powerful spells.

Fortunately, the designers know this - and they have taken several steps to "fix" it, by using different features other than skills.

A cleric can be good at religion - if he takes the right archetype. A Champion fighter can a "remarkable athlete", not because of his athletic skills or the (quite unremarkable) feature of the same name he gets on level 7, but because he gets more points to put in his abilities as he levels up. Even a wizard is decent in arcana, not only because of the skill, but because he will often have better Intelligence than other classes (even if they have the skill). Druids and rangers can be good at dealing with nature - by using the appropriate spells and features.

The rogue, being the best at skills, gets not one, but two fixes: expertise and "reliable talent" - because skills, by themselves, are unreliable.

Copyright: Wizards of the Coast
Of course, a Fighter gets better at fighting (which is NOT a skill or ability check, but worth mentioning here), not (unlike earlier editions) because he has a better chance to hit with every roll, but because he gets more attacks (as seen in some of the earlier editions), better criticals and other features that have nothing to do with attack bonuses (I do acknowledge this option has some significant upsides, such as allowing the level 20 wizard to have a good chance of landing a blow if he attacks a powerful foe with his staff, even if the damage is minimal; on the other hand it leads to hit point inflation instead of skill inflation, which deserves a different post).

As you can see, if you look at the big picture, the game works as intended. But, in order to keep the "bounded accuracy" idea, it has sacrificed some degree of simplicity.

If the designers had chosen to make proficiency equal to half-level (or half-level +2, of course) for some "expert" skills, or just let advantage from multiple sources stack, or just allowed more possibilities of expertise, you could do away with multiple class features at once - making the game a lot simpler.

On the other hand, this would make classes too similar to each other for some players. Unfortunately for me (since I like simpler systems), many people seem to prefer having different ways of relying on skills instead of having more significant skills (i.e., greater bonuses) to begin with.

Like many others, this is an aspect of 5e that works as intended, although it might look a bit strange at first sight. Even if you disagree with some of the designer's choices - and I often do - the results make plenty of sense.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Review: Dungeon Grappling RPG Supplement

The Dungeon Grappling RPG Supplement is exactly what it says on the thin: a supplement for adding (or "fixing") grappling for D&D - more specifically, for Swords & Wizardry, Pathfinder and 5e. The three system are explicitly supported with numbers and stat-blocks, but the book is probably useful for any version of D&D (and most RPGs, really). It is a 53-page (including cover, OGL, etc.) full-color PDF, that was successfully kickstarted and is available on DTRPG* (check the previews!) and also here.

This review will focus on the S&W / 5e parts, as I'm not much familiar with Pathfinder. Suffice to say, as far as I can remember from Pathfinder, this book would be a great addition not to add options, but to vastly simplify and rationalize things.

It was written by Douglas Cole, the author of GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling. I think this fact is worth mention because, as far as Dungeon Grappling is concerned, Douglas seems to really know the subject. Dungeon Grappling is, for the lack of a better word, quite realistic (although not overly detailed) in its portrayal of grappling. Which means, among other things, that grappling can be more efficient than punches, can put the attacker in a bad position even if his adversary is worse off, allows for interesting choices (improving one's position, causing damage, disarming, etc, are all possible choices), and so on.

Cover by Michael Clarke

The art is also very impressive for a relatively small project. The cover art from Michael Clarke looks amazing, and the book is filled with color illustrations from various amazing artists. Full disclosure: one of them, Rick Troula, is a friend of mine and the main artist in my own upcoming RPG, Days of the Damned (he is also the author of the most awesome image in the book, in my opinion, featured below so you can judge for yourself - in any case, all art in this book looks great).

In fact, if something bad can be said about the art is that some pieces that were shown on the previews seem a bit underutilized; some good looking pictures are very small in the book, which doesn't detract form the whole thing, really. The design is also good looking overall and easy on the eyes (not only good looking but easy to read).

The system itself was more interesting that I had expected from the previews, that seemed to indicate something a bit more complex. In fact, Dungeon Grappling has some options that are too detailed for my tastes; fortunately, it also has very straightforward alternative to these options, using simple conditions instead of "grappling points". The supplement is very well written, which makes the ideas easier to get in a first reading. Support for three different versions of D&D adds some confusion, but it can be easily avoided if you only focus on the system you want.

As far as balance goes, Dungeon Grappling doesn't maintain strict conformity to 5e's or S&W's rules. Some options put a great emphasis on Strength over other abilities (which makes sense, and it's a good thing in my opinion, specially for 5e) and size or proficiency bonus over HD and CR. Grappling can often function as a shortcut for strong creatures to bypass usual protections - as it should be, in my opinion. The book acknowledges such questions but doesn't dwell on it too much, playing fast and loose with some suggestions ("you could do it this way, but also this other way if you prefer", etc.).

In any case, S&W's and 5e's means of "balancing encounters" are not that important or reliable, and I honestly don't care that they are affect if that is the price for making fights exponentially more fun, which Dungeon Grappling potentially does.

I think it is fair to mention that the Kickstarter went really well and the PDF was delivered earlier than promised.

art by Rick Troula.

Overall, I am impressed with the work. Most problems I've noticed were fixed by turning the page - literally. "Wouldn't it be better if...?", "Oh, okay"; "But what about ...?", "I see, he thought of that too". The author has provided multiple options for most mechanics - for example, when I wrote about Fifth Edition stunts, I mentioned some ups and down of using  using damage as a gauge of effectiveness instead of skill contests, and Douglas provides both options.

The book includes grappling for characters, monsters, spells, etc. It considers monks, thieves and other classes; it mentions using weapons when grappling and taking them from your enemy. In short, Dungeon Grappling has all I could expect from a book like this. I would recommend it for anyone wanting to add more grappling to a 5e or S&W / OSR game.

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Sunday, January 08, 2017

1000 Lawful Deities (random table)

In my Days of the Damned game, there are three types of gods. So far, I've been calling them the Ethereal Lords, the Earthbound Gods, and the Masters of the Abyss. Suffice to say, one could roughly identify them with Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic deities in D&D games.

The lawful ones are an interesting challenge to me; since I'm a fan of Moorcock, and I don't  necessarily identify Law with Good, I figured all lawful religions would a few uncommon beliefs to someone looking from the outside, even if their core practices were about loving your neighbor, feeding the poor, etc. Not things like wearing purple on a Friday, but completely different philosophical outlooks.

If you want a similar table for Neutral and Chaotic gods, let me know in the comments and I'll share the other two. BTW, this table was inspired by this post. Krevborna's patrons are evocative and colorful, so if you're looking for demons, devils, fey and great old ones you can find them there. This is another great option for evil cults.

In any case, here are the Ethereal Lords, presented in a random table format. You can roll a single d10, or roll two or three dice to mix and match and create new deities on the fly - nothing wrong with different religions adopting similar taboos, as it could create interesting situations.

DO  NOT use the comments section to make disrespectful comments about real world religions and beliefs; they will be deleted. This chart is made for use in fantasy games and isn't intended to criticize or reflect upon any real religion. If you feel that any item on this table is disrespectful for some reason, let me know and I'll do my best to fix it. 

If you're a follower of the Obsidian Scribe, etc., and feel I have misrepresented your beliefs, fell free to comment too!


Adjective Noun Taboo
The Aureate Patriarch Wealth is the only mark of righteousness. Poverty is not enough – the weak and lazy must be punished further.
The Symmetric Lady Both halves of a person, a couple, a building, and so on must be reflections of each other. Mirrors are sacred symbols, and the ambidextrous fit for priesthood.
The Radiant Knight All false faiths must be destroyed. The extermination of all unbelievers can be postponed until they are outnumbered by the faithful, but evil cults deserve no respite.
The Faithful Maiden Physical intimacy must be carefully controlled and never shared with a loved one, for love must remain pure.
The Celestial Spirit Those who lead others are heretical, for all people are equally slaves to the divine rule. The church shall be the sole authority in the earth.
The Obsidian Scribe No one but the wise and the chosen may learn the secret teachings of the faith, although everyone is bound by the immutable laws of the universe that few can understand.
The Hidden Sovereign Holy people are immune from sin, and when they steal, lie and hurt the innocent, their victims should be thankful, for they have been blessed.
The Iron Thorn Pain is the only path to purity. It must be embraced. Comfort corrupts the soul. All should suffer in order to become better.
The Grim Inquisitor The guilty must be drowned. The innocent must be tormented until they confess their guilt.
The Blind Scholar Reason is an obstacle to the understanding of hidden truths. Only through insanity can revelation be achieved.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Review: Obscene Serpent Religion

Obscene Serpent Religion (or "OSR", pun probably intended) is one of the finest works from one of my favorite RPG authors, Rafael Chandler. Labeled "a 32-page mini-supplement for Lamentations of the Flame Princess", it is actually compatible not only with old D&D and OSR stuff, but really with most RPGs, since most of the ideas there are system-independent. I see it working with 5e D&D right out of the box, for example.

The supplement does exactly what it says on the thin - it describes (through random tables) a snake cult, with multiple possible members, tenets, poisons and taboos. It looks - and reads - like a black metal album, with lots of blood, gore, NSFW art and appropriately grotesque ideas.

Like most of Rafael's stuff, this supplement pulls no punches. It is weird, creative and extremely useful if your game features any kind of evil cult or religion, not only ophidic ones (also, any adventures featuring snake-people of any kind might benefit). You get things that you can use to create adventures, dungeons, factions, NPCs and monsters; motives to fight the cult, make deals with them, loot their temples or even join the group. Also half a dozen tongue-twister if you ever need them!

The ideas described in there are compatible with "regular" fantasy RPGs, but very different from most "vanilla" cults you'll find in most of them - even the horror-themed ones. Less "sacrificing innocent people to serpent god" and more "In a public place, you must [shove] a serpent into the body  [mouth, wound, etc] of a powerful foe with many allies [...] so that all know the cost of opposition".

It packs a lot of content in its 32 pages, so much that I almost wish all RPGs were written that way. Its fun and easy to read.

I have both the PDF and the print version from Lulu, and I recommend both (well, as a 32 page paperback, the print version is not impressive to look at, but worth the price).

If any of this interests you, this book is, undoubtedly, a good use of both your time and your money.

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Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Actual play report: Krevborna retrospective 2016

Happy new year!

Let us start it with a retrospective, before I get to the goals and whatnot...

Well, I've decided to write a bit about some of the games I've played, so that they don't disappear into oblivion (BTW I just remembered I did this at least once before, although that was more advice than recollection). But, as things often go, I want to start this backwards, which means I'll start with the last campaign I played, Jack Shear's Krevborna (check here for campaign logs, etc). So I'll have to choose another day to tell you about the campaign we had to stop because the player characters killed a baby, or the time when my character had his head cut off with a katana and then rolled perception to notice; today I'm writing about my latest, best campaign of 2016.

First of all, it might sound premature to write about Krevborna, since I sincerely hope to continue playing it in 2017. The campaign isn't dead, although it has plenty of dead in it (undead, undead, undead!). But the end of the year seemed like a good time to write this.

Now, I'm not going into the whole Krevborna setting here, since you can just read Jack's posts for that (in short: it is a Gothic, Ravenloft-y D&D 5e campaign play over hangouts, with a rotating cast of characters / players, a sandbox feel, and a great balance between 5e's "three pillars"). Instead, I will write about my impressions about using Google Hangouts for the first time, meeting new people and playing my character.

Jack's recruiting poster.
The first session

I had never even used Google Hangouts before, and I was a bit doubtful about playing over the computer, as most of my games were played with old friends or in gaming conventions. I'm also a bit shy when talking to people over the phone or computer (face to face is easier for some reason). AND I was going to play with some people I had never met, but had been playing with each other for a while already; I was the only new character in my first session - even if it was a rotating cast. So you can see why I felt slightly anxious.

Things went better than expected. Hangouts works well for RPGs, but what really made the game work was the people I played with. Jack and the other players (Jez Gordon and Andrew Shields) were amazingly welcoming;  they went out of their way to get me into the game and give me way more than a fair share of the spotlight (you can see it in the adventure description). At the risk of sounding awkward, I must say that the first session was a lesson on how introducing new players to an ongoing campaign - and probably contained some good ideas on how to introduce new people to the hobby.

(BTW, you may know the people I mention here from their amazing work - Jack, Trey, and Andrew from their blogs and writings, and Jez for his art and design in multiple RPGs).

Sandbox play

One of the things I enjoy the most in Krevborna is the sandbox aspect; characters choose what plots to pursue, there is no predefined story line (as far as I can tell!), parties are formed according to availability, and the rotating cast can completely change the way a session goes.

Let me give you one example: in one adventure, we decided to investigate some information about a creature trapped in some kind of dungeon. Our NPC contact suggested using enslaving the fiend to fight our enemies, which might have seemed like a good idea... but... The PCs were my paladin of vengeance, Andrew's fighter (an acolyte of St. Othric), and Jez's Luka (described as a "trigger-happy urban ranger" that was going through serious soul-searching and in a quest for redemption).

As a result, we spend a big part of the session discussing if it was morally right to use the forces of evil against itself. In the end, Luka shot the trapped demon in the head. Is is likely that tone of those things would have happened with different characters.

In one of the most intense sessions, only two players showed up. We ended up biting more than we could chew, and one of Andrew's (awesome) characters died. This left me alone against an enemy that I wasn't sure I could deal with, but I decided my character was more likely to die than to run. In the end, Tristan survived, thanks to a dagger he got from... a random encounter in that same session! It seems like chaos and randomness create better stories than the ones we plan in advance.

In any case, I have bad memories of GMs protecting my character from bad decisions. It has been a while since I lost a character, and the risk made everything more fun. Also, losing Andrew's character was bad, but doing the eulogy and seeing the town he saved named after him was awesome. I felt a bit bad for not using all my powers correctly, though - I was still learning some nuances of the 5e paladin and I thought he could have survived if I had been smarter, but I guess it is all in the game.

This aspect of the campaign made itself more apparent as we played on (here is one extreme example of Luka's behavior completely changing a session). But even from the first session, it was easier for me to get in this kind of campaign, because not for one moment I felt like my character was intruding on an ongoing "story" that I could derail.

Art by Jez Gordon.
The players and their characters

Now let me tell you about my character...

I am playing Tristan, a paladin of vengeance. which I found to be a fun class to play in 5e. Tristan is a good guy, but the whole "vengeance" angle is fun to toy with. He is in many ways the typical "do good" paladin, eager to die fighting evil if necessary, but he also occasionally lies, cheats, backstabs and uses evil weapons and allies to punish the wicked. Also, I'm playing him straight; when we first found signs that the church could be hiding some nasty secrets, my first comment was "well, we all have our secrets" (to Trey Causey's character, who, I figure, has lots of secrets of his own). Tristan is not above hypocrisy.

Now, one of the cool aspects with playing with Andrew, Jez and Trey (the ones I played most sessions with, although I did have a couple of sessions with other awesome players) is that they play characters full of flavor - interesting backstories, shades of gray, etc. - and in a similar uncompromising fashion. Nobody fears derailing the plot while being true to their characters - and they often do (see above).

This is only possible, I think, because Jack doesn't try to control the PCs actions and choices. He provides an awesome setting, plenty of interesting plot hooks, and he is cool with letting us talk among ourselves (often for long times....) to figure out things and decide what to do - even when we reach a stalemate. Adventures are fair and balanced, but two characters died already. The stakes seem more real this way - in a different adventure where only two players showed up, we avoided combat altogether because we weren't sure that we could get out of there alive.

Also, even though nobody has time for anything these days, its cool to see people that are dedicated and excited about their characters. Jez, in addition to providing great drawing of the characters, wrote a long, in-character letter to my character revealing his past (I wrote back, of course!), and Andrew often writes posts with thoughts from his most recent character, the fabulous Kylic.

Every one of these characters feel alive, with story and personality - not a bunch of numbers on a sheet.

The bloody Verdict on Krevborna

This is a meaningful campaign, so I've decided to keep records. I hope they're useful to you - it might be interesting to see a campaign through a player's perspective. Mostly, I wanted to record the best campaign I played in 2016, and one that I'm really looking forward to playing in 2017.