Tuesday 24 December 2019

[Homebrew] The Portals of Eremus Have Opened

Like all good campaigns it started in a tavern.
By session #3 they stepped on the moon.
In August our HackMaster campaign ended with a glorious TPK, after which we decided to give the game some rest - it was fun, but it was becoming a bit tiresome, plus we were in the mood to play something else. My best and longest campaigns so far were my two Wilderlands of High Fantasy campaigns (using Swords & Wizardry Complete and D&D5e), and my homebrew Terminus campaign (using DCC RPG). Following the old wisdom "let the shoemaker stick to his last" I decided to run something akin to those: a gonzo kitchen sink sandbox inspired Wilderlands, Arduin, Tékumel, Wizardry 6-8, and the various Might & Magic games.

"I hope it won't be AD&D though" said one of my players after I told them my idea. Once again my plans to use my dream mix of AD&D 1e + 2e + house rules were delayed indefinitely. I rarely let my players have a say in what I'm going to run, but this time I had to agree with him, because I both wanted to minimize preparations and introduce some new players to the game, thus something lighter seemed beneficial. Enter Old-School Essentials, which I managed to upgrade last minute to the print version in the pledge manager, which closed on the night of the aforementioned TPK. After I got the pdf I began to revamp old materials, write new stuff, convert content from other games, draw shitty maps, outsource said maps to someone more skilled, and so on.

This isn't even my final form!
Thus Eremus was born, a continent on Anachron IV, a planet terraformed eons ago by the primogenitors to be a paradise on the galactic fringe. Then they fucked it up during their great war, and vanished without a trace, leaving behind the soldiers and creatures they summoned from across time and space to wage their battles. After a long dark age the survivors began to rebuild civilization.

The campaign which I named Portals of Eremus takes place millennia later, during the tumultuous centuries following collapse of the Tritonian Empire, which ruled over the entire region before it fell apart during the Succession Wars. The players are adventurers seeking fame and fortune in the Contested Lands, where barbaric kings began to raise kingdom upon the ruins of past nations.

We use a heavily modified and expanded version of OSE. Without going into details, the following resources are in use, more or less (sometimes an entire book, other times a few articles only):

Plenty of house rules are work in progress, under playtest, even totally untested. Nothing is set in stone, and if they won't work out as intended they will be changed, retconned, or thrown out. Not that I care too much about balance, but usability and simplicity are paramount. If we keep forgetting to use something, then it wasn't interesting in the first place and should be thrown out. Some highlights of my house rules document:
  • crapton of races for the wandering circus feel
  • monk, samurai, techno class conversions
  • a deck o' stuff table that keeps growing
  • learning skills and talents by training
  • improving ability scores by questing
  • smoother THAC0 and save charts
  • expanded secondary skill list
  • spell point based spellcasting
  • spellburn and spell mishaps
  • expanded weapon qualities
  • dungeon fortune cookies
  • combat maneuvers
  • psychic powers

I will go into the details in future posts. I will also consider writing session reports, but time and time again they have proven to be something I can't keep up with on the long. For now, enjoy the Holidays, and this overview map by Gábor Csomós (author of the excellent The Lost Valley of Kishar).

Work in progress overview map of Central Eremus

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Monday 23 December 2019

[Review] Cha'alt, Part I: Planet of Apostrophes

Beauty is in the eye of the be'holder.
It's the end of December and I finally have some time to sit down and blog again. Since Christmas is right around the corner, it would be fitting to write about something relevant, like The Kringle Castle Invaders or How Orcus Stole Christmas!, but I won't yield to the comformity of the Holiday Season - instead I'm going to write about Cha'alt, like a fucking boss. Cha'alt is the magnum opus of Venger As'Nas Satanis, a controversial OSR author and a many-faced agent of Chaos. Is he a Raggi knockoff? A za'akier high priest of Cthulhu? A mad genius of adventure design? A juvenile metalhead with sleazy imagination? The greatest troll of the old-school gaming community? He might be all of them, and neither...

I have ambivalent feelings about Venger's previous works.  While there is a rampant creativity behind them I enjoy, it's often smothered by incoherent writing. Venger needs someone to discipline him, badly - preferably not with a whip, because he would enjoy that, but with strong criticism. Enter the fair prince of the Netherlands, whose passionate reviews of Venger's works lead to one of the most entertaining bromances I have seen in the history of the OSR. Him jumping aboard during the Kickstarter campaign was the straw that broke the camel's back, and made me shill out the money for the pdf.

I would gladly travel back in time to the very moment I selected my reward tier on Kickstarter to slap myself for being a miserly bastard and not going for the hardcover, because Cha'alt looks stunning. It's a lavishly illustrated book with a nice parchment background. The art styles are varied, and do a good job at telling what kind of kitchen sink madness awaits the reader in this book as the mecha battles, lovecraftian monsters, vast deserts, gonzo postapocalyptic scenes come alive on its pages. Sometimes it's unusually alive, thanks to the cosplayer photos used here and there instead of illustrations. They aren't bad at all, but they feel a bit out of place. Cha'alt uses colours to convey information: all chapters have a defining colour scheme that makes them immediately recognisable, and maps have sections differentiated by colouring too. Sometimes it goes a bit overboard, but it didn't make my eyes bleed. Most of the text is presented in a simple two column layout, with a rather minimalistic use of highlighting and bullet points. It's okay, because the majority of the entries are short anyway, but it does feel a bit lackluster after the clean german precision of Old-School Essentials. The stat blocks do deserve praise though: although far from groudbreaking, they use space effectively, are easy to read, and cover everything you need in a terse style. They are like a very light-weight version of HackMaster's combat rose.

People with 300 hp mechas are the kind of people
one should befriend.
While Cha'alt doesn't use an exact rules system, I wouldn't call it system neutral either: the stats are some hodge podge of a D&D-isms with hit dice, hit points, ascending armour class, and single saving throw. It's straightforward and easy to convert to your game of choice, though if Cha'alt is very old-school in one way, it's balance - or rather, it's lack of. Monster power levels are all over the place, some of them have ridiculously high hit points, and there are save or die attacks galore! The Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 ruleset is included in the appendix, though calling it a ruleset is a far stretch - it's one of those super light few pages long "systems" that I find too vague and basic for anything other than a beer & pretzels session (heck, even for those I would rather run B/X or Tunnels & Trolls).

Enough of the form though, let's talk about substance! Cha'alt offers a post-apocalyptic setting that feels like an unholy bastard of Gamma World, Tatooine, Dune, Lovecraft, and who knows what else. Originally a generic fantasy world, Cha'alt was first fucked up by the Old Ones for shits and giggles, then aeons later again when they re-awakened and started an apocalyptic war with the now technologically advanced surface dwellers. The current era is called the Obsidian age, where ancient technology, sorcery fueled by the corpses of fallen Old Ones, monsters mutated by the radioactive wastelands, and insane lovecraftian cults co-exist. There are also travellers from outer space who visit Cha'alt to extract the rare resource called zoth needed to refine the spice Mela'anj, which will destroy the planet in a few months. The latter is mentioned only casually once or twice, which is surprising considering saving or leaving the planet seems to be a great hook to kick off the campaign.

Cha'alt's (sigh) map aims to look good over being functional. I would preferr having a hex or square grid overlay over the scale at the bottom right corner - I hated using that on geography classes, and still do twenty years later. There are a dozen intriguing points of interest shown on the map, including a city mind controlled by a giant purple demon worm, a high tech outpost guarded with battle-droids, a sea of green slime full of dredge, a hardcore feminist matriarchy where males are castrated, and so on. The journey between them isn't trivial, because most of the region is covered by the S'kbah, a radioactive desert that will kill or mutate the unprepared. The rules and advice for travelling the hostile sands and obsidian patches are simple: bring plenty of food and water, doff your armour, take anti-radiation pills, and avoid other wanderers.

Rare photo of a ga'athrul mating ritual.
The latter should be taken to heart considering what kind of factions inhabit the wasteland: the cults of the desert are worshippers of Old Ones, the skeevers are desert pirates scavenging the S'kbah, the hunter-killer droids are mysterious machines attacking humanoids on sight, the spice frackers are the aforementioned space travellers, the death-stalkers are nihilistic raiders who fuel their vehicles with blood, and the Dha'arma Initiative is a secret sect of scientists trying to change the past so the Apocalypse never happened. All are cool and inspiring, but it's a pity that half of them is so antagonistic by default it's unlikely the PCs will do anything else other than fighting them. If the desert wasn't colourful enough already, gargantuan sand worms, alien dinosaurs, serpentine sirens, and lovecraftian horrors also lurk among the dunes. Except for the sirens, neither of them has less than 10 HD. The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that Cha'alt begs to be ran using Rifts. MDC weapons will come handy.

The overview ends with a generic loot table for NPCs (simple but good), some meh magic items (the good ones are in the adventures), six elf sub-races with vague racial abilities (interestingly none of them has tentacles), a random chart for names (of course most of them has a'po'stro'phes), and some rules about saving throws, advantage and disadvantage, critical success and failure. This section was a bit of a letdown after all the zaniness seen so far, but it's just a slight downturn before Cha'alt picks up the pace again. We are 32 pages in, and the meat of the book is just about to begin, so buckle up!

Other parts of the series:
Part II: Dungeons and Demon Cat-Snakes
Part III: Fear and Loathing in the Black Pyramid

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