Wednesday 28 December 2022

[Preview] Dragonbane / Drakar och Demoner Beta

At the end of november Dragonbane's beta version dropped, which I started devouring with gusto. Three days later Free League announced that they are going to heed the wishes of the swedish Drakar och Demoner community, and overhaul the skill list to be more in line with previous editions. I did not expect to see the forthcoming changes before the final version, so I continued reading the rulebook, and took some time to digest the current version. Literally a few minutes after I opened Blogger's editor to write this preview a mail arrived about a major update to the beta rules. Oh well, here I go reading Dragonbone again, cover to cover...

Merry Christmas, everyone!

So, the current beta contains the complete Rulebook, the half-finished Adventure book, initiative cards, improvised weapon cards for inns, caves, forests, a map of Misty Vale, and a map for the town of Outskirt. Each one of them is pleasing to the eye with a predominantly brown and green colour scheme, breezy layout, and stunning illustrations. I would have loved to see some Paul Bonner art too, but I guess his mythic tone would not fit the "mirth & mayhem" motto1.

The Rulebook is 116 pages long and covers both how to play and run the game. The short page count is largely the result of terse, effective, no-bullshit writing. The latter still needs some refinement: some abilities would benefit from more clarification, some skills should have more telling names, and sometimes the text feels awkward - probably the result of English being the second language of the writer.

Character creation is swift and straightforward. There are six kin (human, halfling, dwarf, elf, mallard, wolfkin), each with one or two unique abilities and a table of six names. There ten professions (artisan, bard, fighter, hunter, knight, mage, mariner, merchant, scholar, thief), each with a recommended key attribute, skills, heroic abilities2, three equipment packages, and six names3. Age category is a surprising artifact: the older your character is, the shittier the attributes are, but the more skills they start with. Once you have your kin, profession, and age, you can roll up your six attributes (Strength, Constitution, Agility, Intelligence, Willpower, Charisma) using the 4d6k3 method. After each roll you must assign it to an ability score, and can swap two scores in the end4. Now you can calculate your derived ratings (Movement, Strength Damage Bonus, Agility Damage Bonus, Hit Points, and the mouthful Willpower Points), choose your trained skills, and you are good to go. The base chance for skills is based on their relevant attributes, which is doubled for trained skills. Other than these you must also define motivation, gear, memento, appearance. Every step offers you to choose or roll on a table - whatever floats your boat.

Yes, you can play as a wolfkin
with a catfolk fursona.
Encumbrance and experience are also explained here. They follow BRP traditions with some changes. You can carry STR/2 items, but worn armour and weapons at hand don't count. Heavy objects count as multiple items, while others are so small, that you need multiple pieces to count as one item. Skills gain advancement mark for critical and fumble rolls, plus by answering a post-session questionnaire about your achievements. Once you have all your advancement marks set, you roll for each skill. If you exceed their current score, the skill improves by one point - up to 18. You can also train skills with a teacher, though there is nothing about how much they would ask for their services5.

The mechanics use a d20 roll under method for attribute and skill tests alike. There is no resistance matrix like in older BRP games, they are handled by opposed tests. Instead of bonuses and penalties there are boons and banes, which are akin to D&D's advantage and disadvantage: roll twice, take the better roll if you have a boon, or the worse if you have a bane. Fumbles happen on 20 and are called demons, criticals happen on 1 and are called dragons. Failures can be pushed, meaning you can reroll at the cost of gaining a condition. There is one condition for each attribute, and while they are in effect you roll every test affected by it with a bane.

The current skill list offers 20 general skills, 10 weapon skills, and 3 magic skills. That's around twice as much as the quickstart and first beta had, and probably the most controversial change. Fans of Free League systems argued, that having more than 16 skills is too much and adds a considerable amount of crunch to the game. I disagree with them, for several reasons.

First, a few more skills don't add more mechanics to the game, but they do help on defining and differentiating the common tasks one can encounter during an adventure. The previous list was uneven in this regard. Social interactions, physical activities, and education alike had only one skill (Persuasion, Athletics, Lore in this order), which made them a cheap and trivial choice for characters who want to focus on either. For other activities it was hazy, which skill one should use. Then there were tasks like performance and crafting, that got no skills, but were tied to professional heroic abilities, which is all fine and dandy for a class-based system - but Dragonbane ain't one of those.

Second, this is a skill-based game (duh). Your characters are differentiated by what skills their had. Their mix and match is what gives these games the flexibility we love these games for. Too few skills, and your game is no better than a class-based game. Heck, some games reduce their skill lists to a point where they should just drop the idea of separate skills and ability scores, and just merge them6. Why write a skill-based system at all if you don't want a proper skill list?

Third, this is a game with 40 years of legacy. You have to keep some degree of similarity and compatbility with older content and appeal to fans of earlier editions. People who know Drakar och Demoner want to play Drakar och Demoner, not "Forbidden Lands D20 Roll Under Edition". Dragonbane already gets way too much crap for having too many D&D-isms and Forbidden Lands-like mechanisms.

Speaking of D&D-isms, we have feats too, called Heroic Abilities. They include passive bonuses (like improving HP and WP) and active abilities (which cost of WP) alike. You get one Heroic Ability in the beginning, and a new one after reaching 18 in a skill or performing a grand heroic deed.7 It is a diverse list that has both some characterful options and some musthaves - like those that allow multiple attacks or parries, dodges.

Onward to battle! The biggest difference from BRP-based games is the lack of strike ranks or DEX/INT ranks. Initiative is determined by drawing from a deck of cards marked one to ten. You can delay action by swapping cards with those coming later down the line, and there are Heroic Abilities that allow you to manipulate initiative. Your character can move and perform a single action. Parries and dodges use up your action too. Because of this brutal limitatation you must take into account the initiative order to make smart decisions. A wasted action can be the difference between life and death. If you are familiar with BRP, the rest of combat will be nothing new: attack rolls are contested by parry or dodge rolls, on a success you roll damage, subtract Armor Rating. There are rules for critical hits, fumbles, severe injuries, weapon vs armour type, and of course a bunch of spot rules for all kinds of hazards. Fear is surprisingly elaborate with is table of random effects.

That's some cool art. It would be a shame
if the chapter didn't have rules for demonology
and necromancy...
Spellcasting requires WP and a successful skill test. Your character can memorize INT spells, but can also cast from a grimoire at a slower speed. Some spells have multiple power levels, which increases their effectiveness and WP cost. Once out of WP, your character can sacrifice HP for more, but it is an unpredectible process. There are bonuses for criticals, and d20 table of mishaps for fumbles. Similar to RuneQuest, iron hinders spellcasting, so you don't dress your mage in plate armour. Besides generic tricks and spells that everyone can learn there are three schools: Animism (nature and healing), Elementalism (elemental attacks and summoning), and Mentalism (psychic powers and chi). The spell lists are solid but short. Some spells even feel redundant, because they are basically the upgraded versions of other spells. There is a hidden spell tree too: advanced spells require another spell as prerequisite before you can learn them. Overall what you get is a generic spell point-based magic system. There is nothing new under the sun, but it gets shit down. Necromancy ASAP, pls!

Gear is usually the most boring chapter of every rpg. I was pleasantly surprised, that even the blandest item got a meaningful effect neatly summed up in a single sentence. Clothes can protect you from environmental hazards, tools can assist you in tests, wearing an extravagant hat can help with persuading others, etc. Sure, there is a short armour and an exhaustive weapon list too, but here it is the rest of the equipment chapter I fell in love with.

The monster list is barebones with its 15 entries and short chart of 11 common animals. You won't find imaginative weird abominations here, just tired and tested classics. Dragonbane introduces the monster mechanics from Forbidden Lands, which lead to a lot of confusion, partly because the unfortnately chosen name. There are "monsters", who act like environmental hazards with HP, and include supernatural creatures, colossal monstrosities, and swarms. They have a crapton of HP, a chart for attacks, they always hit, but some attacks can be parried, dodged, or resisted. Then there are "not-monsters", which includes NPCs, humanoids, and animals, who work just like your player character. While the monster mechanics are interesting, I would have preferred a more consistent system8. On the other hand, the attack charts have some fun moves, not just Fifty Shades of Damage, and I also dig the Ferocity value, which means how many times a monster can draw initiative9.

The final chapter about running the game is a mixed bag. The rules for handling journeys, foraging, hunting are concise, yet comprehensive - I adore them. The stat blocks of typical NPCs and the random NPC generation table is servicable, though I would move them to the bestiary. There is some generic GM advice and a short guideline for writing adventures supplemented by three random tables, but beyond that you are left to your own devices. Like most modern games, the rulebook doesn't teach you how to properly design an adventure10. I don't expect an entire Tome of Adventure Design in the back of the book, but some more advice accompanied with exact examples would be welcome.

Kudos to Free League for listening to the community and including a printer friendly character sheet in the back.

All this map needs is a hex layer.

The current version of the Adventure Book is 54 pages long and introduces the town of Outskirt, its points of interests, its important personalities, regional random encounter tables, and three adventures: Riddermound (the one from the quickstart), Bothild's Lode, and Temple of the Purple Flame. All three adventures are shorter affairs with simple layouts, but they all have some cool encounters, interesting NPCs, and memorable gimmicks. The presentation is top-notch, with terse writing, clear layout, and effective use of highlighting, colours, and bullet points. I won't take a deeper look into the book for now though, because it's far from complete. Rest assured when the final version drops, I will return to the topic.

Free League has no easy job with balancing between their in-house design principles and the legacy of Drakar och Demoner, especially with both sides having fervent advocates among the fans11. Rewriting the skill list and professions was a big decision that will get a lot of praise and booing alike on the forums. As for me, I am happy with which way then went, and how quickly they applied the changes. Dragonbane promises to be a fun game. The boxed set will be perfect for one shots and short to medium length campaigns, and with proper support I can easily imagine Dragonbane as one's primary game for years long campaigns too.

Until next time!

1 Boy, do I hate this slogan... The game isn't as light, goofy, and heroic as the motto suggests, thanks to its nigh-BRP level of lethality. I guess they had to justify ducks somehow...

2 In the previous version the beginning Heroic Abilities were set in stone for each profession. Opening them up is a welcome change.

3 While I dig the profession-based nicknames, the racial names table feels pretty low effort and useless. Those charts should be at least twice as big. Heck, the Creating NPCs table later has 60 names on it!

4 This method feels awkward. It makes more sense to me to roll first, swap two scores, and then decide about kin, profession, and age.

5 Baffling considering it took a half sentence to do so for the original Magic World back in the day.

6 RuinMasters is a good example: with four attributes and six skills based on them, what's the point of having both? That game also suffers from badly defined attributes and skills, which is partly the result of the excessive minimalization.

7 Originally they were awarded every fifth session. I prefer this approach.

8 Consistency is a key feature of BRP-based games for me. That's why BRP works well as a generic system and why it was big deal compared to D&D back in the day: everything worked the same way. Separate mechanics for monsters feels like a step back, no matter how mechanically intriguing they are.

9 This way monsters can have multiple attacks spread out over the combat round, instead of fucking someone up with one long attack routine once it's their turn.

10 While it's absolutely not my cup of tea, WFRP3e still deserves some praise for having a GM's book that actually tells you how to design adventures and build up a campaign.

11 And then there are the OneD&D refugees too!

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Monday 28 November 2022

[Kickstarter] Open for Simplicity

You can't have enough John
Hodgson covers
After my gushing about OpenQuest (even made a character sheet for it while practicing Affinity), I think it's no surprise, that I'm excited about Newt Newport's newest project, which is simply called SimpleQuest. The Kickstarter launched just recently, and if you are quick enough, you can catch the early bird pledge, or be an early bird that catches the pledge worm, or whatever. Once again, there is an option for both dirt cheap print on demand booklet and for a quality sewn printing.

SimpleQuest is a small format, lighter iteration of OpenQuest. The biggest difference mechanically seems to be swapping out the original three magic systems with the unified MP-less One Magic System already introduced in the OpenQuest Companion, otherwise it mostly focuses on trimming down the rules, content, and stat blocks. I won't delve depper into the details about about the differences between the two games, because there is already a preview for a book and a comparison with OpenQuest on the Kickstarter page.

In several ways it seems to be closer to what OpenQuest 3e was intended to look like, before the author decided to stay truer to the roots for the anniversary.  With Dragonbane and SimpleQuest in the pipeline, 2023 already promises to be a good year for fans of BRP and its derivatives.

Monday 31 October 2022

[Review] Castle Drachenfels

I'm pretty sure I've seen this
illustration before...
Let's celebrate spooky season with a horror adventure! To make things interesting, it is not one written for Call of Cthulhu, World of Darkness, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, or any other horror game: Castle Drachenfels is a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1e adventure that takes you to the creepiest place the Old World has to offer.

WFRP is one of my all time favourite tabletop rpgs thanks its career,system, visceral combat, volatile magic, and badass setting. Alas the latter suffers from a serious identity crisis. Is it an unholy lovechild of Tolkienian and Moorcockian clichés? Heavy metal dark fantasy with gritty heroes and unspeakable horrors? Grimdark low fantasy of crapmongers dying from syphilis and critical hits? Epic high fantasy with dragon riding heroes and fancy armies? It depends on which iteration you are looking at.

Jack Yeovil's1 1989 novel Drachenfels takes the murder mystery / gothic horror approach. The novel starts where most stories typically end. A group of adventurers led by the knight Oswald von Konigswald and the vampire Genevieve Dieudonné infiltrate Castle Drachenfels. Most of them ends up killed or incapacitated, but in the end Oswald fights and defeats the castle's lord: Constant Drachenfels, the vilest sorcerer of the Old World. Twentyfive years later Oswald hires the playwright Detlef Sierck to recreate the Great Enchanter's defeat on stage for the event's anniversary. The play will debut in Castle Drachenfels, and the audience will include Karl Franz and the few survivors of the original party, among others...

Drachenfels is one of the better classic Warhammer novels2, and its titular antagonist is my favourite Old World villain. He is a master necromancer and daemonologist. He is as old as mankind. He is phyisically imposing and wears a cool metal mask. He has no tragic backstory and not an ounce of humanity left. He commits crimes against humanity just for shits and giggles. He is like Doctor Doom, but without any redeeming qualities. Nagash, Malekith, Archaon can kiss his ass, they are lame.

Castle Drachenfels is a unique piece among WFRP1e modules. It has neither dark conspiracies to unveil, nor epic journey around the Old World: it is a dungeon crawl focusing on a single location, a huge ass haunted house. While there are some ideas how to insert the module into The Enemy Within, The Restless Dead, and The Doomstones campaigns, I advise against doing so. Use it as a stand alone adventure instead, with lots of backup characters, because it is a fucking deathtrap even for experienced characters. 

Players won't see much of the Great Enchanter during the adventure: he is either dead or in the process of regenerating. For the latter scenario there is a ticking clock mechanism based on the number of rooms the characters explored. The longer it takes to reach him, the closer he is to recovering his ultimate form. Don't fret though, his fortess is a worthy adversary and a character on itself. It is like a living organism invaded by a virus - it will mess with the intruders and retaliate when attacked. It is also indestructible until the weather vane is removed, which will release a hellish storm and a Fiend3.

The place is chock full of memorable encounters. Some are scary, like the corridor of gargoyles, others are silly, like the insulting puppet theater, and then there are some really fucked up things that belong in a LotFP adventure, like the kitchen where the zombie servants turn into familiar people, start flaying themselves, and throw their flesh on the grill. While some sections of the dungeon have a central theme, most rooms feel like set pieces thrown next to each other without rhyme or reason. The casual use of fantastic scenery might also surprise WFRP fans - rooms leading to the Realms of Chaos, spectacular permanent magical effects, encounters with powerful creatures are not uncommon. The warp points and passageways are also worth mentioning: while these paths that bend time and space are far from the central feature of the castle, there are several of them and they can mess up mapping and exploration greatly. While there is an appendix with ideas to spice them up, even there the general advice is to not overuse them, because they are frustrating.

The famous "nope" corridor of Castle Drachenfels.

There are two gauntlets that are grossly unfair. What do you say about a trip to the fucking Realms of Chaos? How about four in a row with no turning back? The other challenge has four alignment themed rooms, with the final leading to the coffin of a powerful vampire lord and his sidebitch. The latter will feign friendship to keep you occupied so her master can wake up from his beauty sleep - then you are fucked. This scene actually rewards murderhoboing. There is a yawning dude in the coffin? Stake the bastard! Shit like this makes it hard to trust the few actually helpful or not immediately murderous NPCs.

Speaking of NPCs... This is one of the weaknesses of the adventure, and not because those present are badly written or uninteresting, but because most of them are hostile, distrusting, and loyal to Drachenfels. Interactions with them promise to be fun, but rarely rewarding. Even the few genuinely helpful ones won't be of much use. Gerd the Mutant is grateful if you wake him up from his magical sleep, but a few turns later he dies from a chestburster that was kept in stasis by his slumber. Snitlet the Snotling is more of a comedic relief than a useful companion, but at least he is an entertaining one4. Bardul the Hunchback is the only with potential long term benefits for the party, for he knows the castle well and can navigate the warp passageways. There are also spirits, but they are more like dumb tools for the GM to foreshadow, or railroad the players, or mess with them. The appendix offers further NPCs to add colour to the place, and you should absolutely use them. My favourite is a band of greenskins called Gobrot's boyz, whose leader is smart enough to ally with the PCs if they prove themselves useful, and whose "gurly" will start flirting with one of the PCs just to stir up trouble.

Rewards are plenty. Slaying the two bosses can earn the characters 3 Fate Points, though they are likely to lose just as much in the process. The XP awards look good, and there is a great deal of magic items - including some cursed ones. There are dozens of potions, the Wand of Dust, which is the bane of undead, Blackshards, which are focused negative emotions that can be exploded in someone's face, Lermontov's Grimoire, which contains the extremely useful Cure Insanity spell, or Warptorches, which help navigating the warp passages.

Drachenfels himself towering over
some unfortunate soul.
Why would anyone visit this hellhole though? The book offers a few ideas, for some reason in the back of the book. The seeds include cultist hunting, sabotaging the stronghold, recovering someone's heart literally, or stopping the resurrection of Count Drachenfels. They are more than hooks: you get a half page outlines with a beginning, complications, and an ending. Several of them introduce further NPCs, which as I mentioned above, the adventure needs badly.

You know what else it needs even more? Good maps. Castle Drachenfels pisses me off in this regard. The overview maps only show walls, stairs, and doors. Windows? Nah. Furniture? Forget about it. There are floorplans for a few rooms, which are more detailed, but alas that's just a small fragment of them. Even worse, there is no grid. There is a scale on each map, but it is much easier to estimat distance by counting squares than pulling out the tape measure. The dungeon layout is non-linear, but would benefit greatly from some secret doors. The writing is good old-fashioned Games Workshop stuff: it is evocative and fun to read, but a bit too wordy for its own good. Adding more highlighting, bullet points, and cross referencing would also improve the usability of the text, but we are talking about an adventure from 1992. The art is top notch like in every other WFRP product of the era, though there are reused assets familiar from other books.

Due to its vulnerable player characters and being a product of the late eighties and early nineties, the typical WFRP adventure focuses more on intrigue, investigation, and characters. Despite bearing the marks of its era, Castle Drachenfels is an odd exception, being an unforgiving gonzo funhouse dungeon. It is WFRP's Tegel Manor and Tomb of Horrors in one, and despite its shortcomings, I can't help but appreciate it for that.

Rules system: WFRP1e
Publisher: Games Workshop
Publication date: 1992

Format: print, pdf
Size: letter-size
Pages: 112

Available from:
  DriveThruRPG (pdf)
Old-fashioned meatgrinder,
Warhammer style!

1 Also known as Kim Newman.

2 Canonically the novel is outdated with its oddities like Karl Franz being crowned emperor in 2491, goblins working for humans, vampires mingling with men openly and living in asylums, et cetera. The Empire Drachenfels depicts is a more open-minded and chaotic country than what you can see in the modern lore. 

3 "...a spirit of pure Evil, drawn from the Warp where all things are possible and everything exists, by Drachenfels himself." Cool shit.

4 Snotlings are always entertaining.

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Wednesday 31 August 2022

[Kickstarter] ...of Dragons and Demons

The cover has once again Elric
and a dragon on it, but on less
amicable terms.
A while back I had an urge to homebrew a d100 game based on Basic Roleplaying called Hecatomb. - which I eventually abandoned due to work and my offspring eating up my free time. Back then I mentioned that my sweetspot would be something akin to Drakar och Demoner, the legendary swedish rpg, which RiotMinds failed to deliver to their non-viking audience1. Times have changed since then: Free League grasped the rights from RiotMinds, teased us with posts about a new edition for months2, until finally announcing that a new edition of DoD is coming to Kickstarter on the 30th of August. Oh, and it will be available in English under the title Dragonbane.

It seems people got a raging dragonboner for Dragonbane, because the campaign funded in four minutes, and it keeps chewing through stretch goals like there is no tomorrow. It's no wonder though, Free League has a solid reputation, the cool art is already enough to whet one's appetite for the game, and they even included a 44 pages long quickstart so you don't have to buy into the game blindly. That's how you do a fucking Kickstarter.

Based on the quickstart Dragonbane looks like a lightweight and lighthearted mix of old-school BRP mechanics and Free League's signature game design elements. On one hand you have six characteristics and sixteen skills (plus a few more for magic) that you have to roll under with d20 to succeed3, attack rolls versus parry rolls, criticals that can pierce through armour, simple rules for weapon breakage, spells fueled by magic points, and so on. On the other hand you have the utterly simple and brilliant condition system seen in other Free League games, drawing cards for initiative, advantage and disadvantage, pushing failed tests, and monstrous monsters that act like a natural hazard with hit points and a random table for attacks rather than as a creature. And instead of becoming a hodgepodge of conflicting ideas, the whole blend feels smooth and natural, like they always belonged together. And whenever I find something I miss or dislike, my mind immediately goes "oh I can borrow that from RuneQuest/Stormbringer/OpenQuest" or "there is a rule for that from Forbidden Lands I can convert".

My expectations were high, and I was still surprised and amazed. I don't even want to criticize those design decisions I don't fully agree with, because they don't bother me, they aren't bad at all. I only have two issues with the quickstart: some of the weapon qualities from the character sheets are not explained anywhere, and the module is pretty meh and overuses the monster system (though the constantly reviving undead lady and lord are a pretty damn good idea).

Dragonbane is a promising rpg and the only one in the near future I am genuinely excited about4. It has tons of potential, especially if third party support can gain some momentum at release. The d100 game I wanted is here, ironically using a d20 for resolution. Now it's time for Kopperhavets Hjältar to follow suite.

1 We got the overcomplicated mess of Trudvang Chronicles and the half-assed RuinMasters instead.

2 Usually in swedish, so I had to get it translated to learn, that it contained no meaningful information about the game.

3 Originally DoD used d100 roll under for tests like traditional BRP games, but the DoD: Expert expansion for 3rd edition moved on to using a d20 roll under system like Pendragon. It works the same way, it's simply just less granular. Considering how a lot of people have problems with reading d100, that might not be a bad idea at all.

4 Except for HackMaster 5.5, but that has yet to be announced officially, and if it finally reaches the Kickstarter I will be drunk for days and won't shut the fuck about how awesome bears are in the game.

Wednesday 13 July 2022


Oink oink, motherfucker!
Eldrad Wolfsbane of Meat Grinder fame is back and does exactly what you expect from him: unleashing his inner twelve year old to create cool modules for old-school D&D with shitty art1, monospace fonts, and lots of exclamation marks! If the title of DIE! DIE DIE! PIG ORC! was not enough to get you in the mood of slaughtering humanoids, then absorb the introduction too:

The kingdoms of the Northwestern Lands have fallen and the wars have been lost! MAN, ELF, DWARF and HALFLING are on the run or are waiting for THEIR DOOM!
Gnolls from the northeast!
Piece of SHIT Gnolls!
Fuck Gnolls!
Goblin's, Hobgoblins and Bugbears from the East!
Killing! Snorting! Raping!
Goblinoid FUCKS! We hate them!
Fleasheaters! They kill and eat the women and children!
They even eat the babies!
The ROTTEN Undead from the Southeast!
That ROTTEN Undead! That SMELL!
In the Kingdoms of the East, Mankind is being wiped out!

Do you feel the raw energy, the unbridled passion, the sense of imminent doom immediately? It makes the blood boiling! Yes, fuck those humanoids indeed! And this goes on as the author introduces the land from the point of view of desparate refugees who cannot find peace until finally reaching HIGHHILL town. The port town has a handdrawn map, some rumours, a paragraph for each quarter, and of course random encounter tables! Day encounters are your run of the mill port town encounters, with the sole exception of some rakshasas2 serving as a middle finger to player characters. Night encounters have a better chance of ending up nasty, with the table including a wight, a vampire, or the specter of Old Mr. Gunderson the old dead Werewolf Hunter. That's what I call local colour!

Well hello Mr. Fancy Pants!
Highhill is followed by The High Forest Wildecrawl. We get eleven local encounters, including pompous mercenary douchebags waiting to take advantage of the local conflict, a haunting nightmare, a pack of hell hounds, a huge ass necropolis, and a sprawling swamp ruled by morlocks, among others. I love the NPC names. DEATH MONGER, Groggy Monley, Big Stinky Betty, Chopper the Ogre - even without description they immediately evoke an image about their owners. Beside names most encounters have some detail that make them memorable. One that really stood out  to me is the Lone Troglodyte:

A Lone Troglodyte lurks here. He wears ornate Plate Male and Shield and carries a grand sword. He has a backpack full of supplies. He appears to be looking at a map and is strangely far more intelligent than an average Troglodyte. He plans to find the treasure on the map and quietly retire. He had an entire party of fellow Troglodytes but they had all slowly been killed off and he is the LAST ONE!

That's a surprising amount of background for a surprisingly unorthodox NPC. He has the potential to be remembered and talked about years later by your players. Cool wilderness encounters earns +10% for the final score. There are no hexes on the handdrawn wilderness maps though, which earns -10%.

The final section is about the Old Holy Fort, a 21 room dungeon invaded by those goddamn pig orcs! The map is disappointingly linear. It has some branches, but there are no loops, there are barely any secret doors. It needs some heavy Jacquaysing, right now! The party will face all the orcs right in the very first room, and if they are laser focused on killing them they will quickly finish their mission - or die trying. There is more to the dungeon though than orc barracks and shitting rooms! Beyond their quarters lie a path to the underworld, rooms of critters, crypts with lurking undead, and a mysterious underground area hidden behind an altar where morlock priests breed humans as livestock. The latter was unexpected and got close to Lamentations of the Flame Princess territory, but the author stopped at barrels of pickled humans and generational slaves.

21. Past the secret door is actually where the Key of Deadmoore is held. In an untrapped display case. A mysterious laughter erupts for a few seconds when a PC gets the key. END

Awesome! That's how you end an adventure! Don't tell me you wouldn't be hyped after such ending to see what's coming next!

DIE! DIE DIE! PIG ORC! is deliberately amateurish, juvenile, minimalistic, but does not feel artifical like 50 ShaDes Of vOrpal3 and is actually playable. Behind the rampant ramblings of a youngster lies an adventure with terse, evocative, and fun encounters. It ain't no Meat Grinder, but hey, you cannot churn out a cult classic everytime!

Rules system: B/X
Publisher: Eldrad Wolfsbane
Publication date: 2022

Format: pdf
Size: letter-size
Pages: 24

Available from:
  DriveThruRPG (pdf)
It definitely has pig orcs
who should die - and more!

1 Except for the occasional public domain images of course.

2 I had flashbacks of City State of the Invincible Overlord, where your daily stroll to the grocery store can easily become a deadly encounter with a high level monster.

3 50 ShaDes Of vOrpal does deserve a praise for its art, because that feels totally authentic. When I was twelve those who were "good at drawing" drew exactly in the same style as seen there.

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Tuesday 31 May 2022

[Content] Single Page OpenQuest 3e Character Sheet

This is what the platonic
OpenQuest campaign looks like.
Those who have follow this blog probably know that I like tinkering with character sheets. If you like fancy and decorative sheets, then these aren't the ones you are looking for - I prefer a minimalistic and printer friendly design and cramming as much useful information needed on the sheet as possible. For a long time I have been using Inkscape to make character sheets, but its a vector graphics editor first and foremost, and its limitations slowly started to become annoying.

Last year I bought the desktop publishing application Affinity Publisher on a sale, and never looked back.  Its dirt cheap compared to InDesign and other professional applications, it is far user friendlier than Scribus, and you have to buy it only once. I learned its basics while tinkering with Hecatomb's layout, so even if that projects remains abandoned, at least the time spent on it didn't go to waste.

While re-reading OpenQuest 3e recently I felt an urge to fuck around a bit again with Affinity Publisher, and I ended up retooling one of my character sheets for the game. Newt gave his blessing, so here you are, download and have fun! C&C welcome. Stay tuned for more, as form-fillable versions are coming soon.

Update #1: I added the Affinity Publisher templates to the links.

Single Page OpenQuest 3e Character Sheet (A4)
Single Page OpenQuest 3e Character Sheet (US Letter)

Single Page OpenQuest 3e Character Sheet Affinity Publisher template (A4)
Single Page OpenQuest 3e Character Sheet Affinity Publisher template (US Letter)

Monday 30 May 2022

[Loot] Opening Call of Cthulhu Classic

"That thing was too big to be called
a box. Too big, too thick, too heavy,
and too rough. It was more like a
large hunk of paper."
I have been in the mood of rolling some percentile dice for a few years now. Unfortunately I did not have any chance to run any game from my small but vicious collection of Chaosium games and their relatives, and Hecatomb1 had to be put on hold due to lack of time and brain capacity. At least I was lucky enough to play a few one shots of Call of Cthulhu 7e as a fat and fast-talking archeologist professor Jacob Smith.2

Just like Dungeons & Dragons, Chaosium's games are also having a renaissance. Unlike Wizards of the Coast, Chaosium has been putting some serious effort in keeping even their classics alive. Their RuneQuest Classic is one of the most cherished books on my shelf, so it was a no-brainer for me when their Call of Cthulhu Classic boxed set's Kickstarter was announced, that I will dish out some serious cash on that. Originally I wanted to get the classic one inch box, considering my firstborn was on the way, but then I changed my mind when I imagined him looking in my eyes a decade or two later and calling me an idiot for not buying the majestic $100 set that will probably worth a small fortune when I perish.

It was a long and slightly bumpy ride, my patience growing thin as the boxed set kept getting delayed due to various global crises. Today though the wait has come to an end when I found a thick and heavy box from Poland lying on my office desk. With eyes gleaming from excitement I borrowed my collegue's kampfmesser to tear it open. When I finally shoved away some of the packaging material I hesitated, but in the end gave up on sacrificing said collegue to the Old Ones - though the urge was hard to resist.

The two inch boxed set contains enough material to play Call of Cthulhu for a lifetime. Its contents include:

  • A paper detailing the contents of the box. Yay!
  • The second edition Call of Cthulhu rulebook, with errata included.
  • A Sourcebook for the 1920s, which has some additional trivia and content for the era.
  • A few character sheets that you will likely never use in the age of pdfs and cheap printing.
  • A poster map featuring the 1920s world map on one side, and a map of Arkham on the other.
  • A size comparison poster featuring the various lovecraftian monstrosities from the rulebook.
  • Silhouttes featuring characters, monsters, and monsters not included in the original set. Naturally you will never cut them out, afraid of ruining the integrity of your boxed set. Still, they are neat, and since you get a pdf with the package, you can print them out yourself on sturdier paper.
  • Shadows of Yog-Sothot, "a global campaign to save mankind" according to Chaosium. We know though, that unless the Keeper is fudging or light hearted, that will never happen.
  • Trail of Tsathogguah, another world spanning campaign. I have a hunch Chaosium is either not familiar with their games or trolling us.
  • The Asylum & Other tales, a collection of seven scenarios, including one from the late Dave Hargrave of Arduin fame.
  • Cthulhu Companion, a sourcebook containing four more scenarios and some additional rules.
  • Fragments of Fear, another companion with a bunch of stuff and a scenario.
  • A Keeper's Screen, which has some handy tables, but is not cardstock.
  • A crapton of handouts on thin paper.
  • A set of dice.

I would have been happier if some of the handouts and the GM screen were printed on sturdier paper, but I'm also pretty fucking satisfied with the quality of the poster maps. It's a pity though, that the 1981 Chaosium Games Catalog and the original Basic Role-Playing rulebook were only included as pdfs. The rulebooks and modules are softcover, saddle-stitched, just like in days of yore, though they probably have more hit points than the originals. Overall I'm very satisfied with the contents. All it is missing is Masks of Nyarlathotep, and it would be perfect. Dear Chaosium, please do an expanded QuestWorld boxed set next!

To finish this blogpost off, some shitty pictures of the contents hastily made on my desk follow... If you need more pictures of anything specific, feel free to ask, and I will do my best to take a photo of it.

By the end of summer I had a pretty neat player's rulebook of some 30 pages, but endless rules revisions, my firstborn, and work interfered and I lost my will to continue with it. Plus there are a crapton of percentile games out there already, so I might end up just house ruling one of them and using the setting when I finally rise from my ashes as a Referee.

He looks basically like Jack Black's character from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. He kinda acts like that too until there is some action, when he kicks ass. Not the most original character, but I enjoy playing him.

Sunday 2 January 2022

[Review] The Heroic Legendarium

If you thought Traveller's cover
was minimalistic...
Now that 2021 is behind us the time has come to talk about my favourite OSR product of the year. There were some damn fine canditates, but in the end it was a seemingly unremarkable book that stole my heart. The Heroic Legendarium looks like a university textbook: it has no kickass cover, no interior illustrations, no super functional modern layout, not even bookmarks. What's inside though shows years of hard work and an unparalelled understanding of one of the hardest nuts of old-school gaming: post-Unearthed Arcana AD&D 1st edition.

Whether because of the disillusion with modern D&D's bloat, the lack of free time, or taking the first zen moment of old school gaming1 too seriously, the majority in the OSR community seems to gravitate towards the various B/X clones and lightweight games. On the fringes though there are still people who love a good deal of complexity, and enjoy stuff like Arduin, HackMaster, RoleMaster, RuneQuest, or AD&D. The latter is a pretty controversial case, because a lot of people are fond of its content, but few appreciate its many nuanced rules. Trent Foster Smith is one of these rare connoisseurs. He is the author of The Mystical Trash Heap blog and the legendary AD&D Companion, which was a collection of AD&D material by Gygax and original ideas inspired by his work. Including Dragon magazine articles and alike can be a legally risky endeavour though, and eventually the AD&D Companion was scrapped to be revamped as The Heroic Legendarium. 

"Rules Modifications and Expansions for use with OSRIC™ and Other Compatible Advanced Adventure Games" - says the description, with a wink. Once you open the book you will realize that this is a white lie: THL is an AD&D supplement through and through. It uses or touches upon almost every obscure bit of AD&D, including all the things most of us never dared to use or gave up even trying to understand2. Like Unearthed Arcana the book is split in two, the first half containing all the new player-side content and the second half focusing on game mastery.

The Players' Section is a grabbag of errata, revisions, and new options. New races include the cat-blooded (non-furry catfolk), dhampirs (non-edgy half-vampires), dragon-blooded (non-scaly half-dragons), and half-ogres (the classic loveable big oafs). Each has its own uniques advantages, disadvantages, restrictions, and even such details are covered as character age and racial preferences. Unlike tabaxi, dragonborn, or tieflings these new races can be easily integrated into more grounded campaigns, because they don't stick out like a sore thumb from the average sword & sorcery city crowd.

The part about classes starts with fixes for druids, cavaliers, barbarians, thief-acrobats, monks, before moving on to the new classes. And what fine classes they are! Mystics are a mix of spiritualists and diviners who always possess psychic abilities3, have a second sight, know astrology, herbalism, and alchemy. Hunters are primitive fighters with a bunch of survival skills. They feel like a mix of rangers and barbarians. Savants are magic-users with sage-like abilities. Their spells largely depend on their chosen fields of expertise - thus they are not unlike specialist wizards from later editions, but with thematic instead of school-based specializations. Mountebanks are charlatans with a strong focus on verbal flimflam and swindling over thievery. They can also cast some degree of magic and brew potions. Bards get a massive overhaul to work as a standalone class available at level 1, though its advancement scheme shows elements of the original AD&D1e bard. The bard also gets the beloved jester as a sub-class, who has a mix of thief, acrobat, mountebank abilities supplemented by pranks and a hint of illusionist magic. None of these classes are original or particularly new. We have seen them in Dragon magazine, Realms of Adventure magazine, or were promised by Gygax for AD&D 2nd edition, and also appear in Adventures Dark and Deep. Nevertheless, these are just as good and valid iterations as the others.

Character creation does not end with choosing race and class though. There are rules for Socio Economic Class (modifies starting money and reaction), Birth Order (only interesting for seventh children), Appearance (a new ability score that replaces Comeliness and alters reactions), Joss Factor (kinda like luck points), Knacks and Quirks (akin to HackMaster's Quirks & Flaws, but far more vague). There is a secondary skills table too with random results for each race. Equipment also gets expanded with more coin types, common items, and weapons - including oriental weapons, boomerang, pole axe, epee, and rapier4. Surprisingly there is no new armour, but I can live with that.

The largest chunk of the Players' Section is of course spells. Mystics, Savants, Mountebanks, and Bards all have their own unique spell lists. Sometimes even spells from the earlier rulebooks are altered slightly to fit the new class thematically better. For example Mystics have Speak With Dead like clerics, but since they are mediums they need a cat's eye agate talisman to cast it instead of a holy symbol. The highlight of the spell list are the bardic songs. While many of them overlap in functionality with older spells, they behave differently because they are songs now with fitting names. For example, bards don't cast Sleep, they sing the Drowsiness Lullaby.

Psychic talents also get some much needed revision and clarification, followed by Focused Energy Activation Teachniques5 - a grabbag of wushu and cinematic moves that must be learned through special training6 and can be used only by spending Joss Factor on them. There are multiple levels of FEATs, from minor techniques like Blind Fighting, through moderate techniques like Weapon-breaking Strike, to major techniques like Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique.

It's for OSRIC. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

The Players' Section ends with an essay titled Habits of Highly Effective Players, an expansion to Successful Players from the original Player's Handbook. It is broken up into six parts and covers such important topics like thinking outside the rules, the importance of taking smart action over being overly cautious, and setting your own goals. It is well worth reading even if its advice feels trivial after years of gaming.

The Game Master's Section is fucking dense. It starts with a thorough explanation of handling wilderness exploration and planar adventures. Combat gets some love too, first in form of some additional rules for certain situations (reach advantage, speed factor of natural weapons, using shields against missiles, etc.), followed by a clarified and simplified overview of the initiative system. Yes, with fucking segments and speed factors. I still prefer HackMaster's system over this one, but damn, it actually feels playable!

After all the crunchy rules THL delivers a hefty chapter of GM advice. Honestly, after all the crunch it was kind of a relief reading these. Even if they don't say anything new or ground breaking after a couple of years of running games, they are well worth reading, for they cover a wide variety of topics from world building, through rational dungeon design, to common establishments in medieval settlements. Speaking of settlements, the book does not get bogged down with your usual dungeon, hex, and city crawling, but turns things up to eleven by devoting an entire mini game to domain management! And it isn't just building shit and conquering hexes - there are guidelines for marriage, siring offsprings, diplomatic relations, handling indigineous people, and so on. It is pretty vague, leaving the fine details usually in the DM's hand, which can be seen both as an issue, or a feature. Finally, just like there was advice for successful players, DM's get some best practices too, plus a bit about handling inter-party conflicts.

The section ends with treasures and monsters, as expected. There are new treasure tables for dungeon levels, and some sweet magic items, like a magical dreamcatcher, a knife that can tear a portal between prime material planes, the puzzle box from Hellraiser, or a rather powerful clock that can mess with time. Good stuff. Monsters start with revision of AC, damage, hit points, psychic abilities, etc. before moving on to the interesting part, the new creatures. I might have been tired at this point, or it might be because I have read a metric shitton of bestiaries already, but this was the least interesting part of the book for me. It's a grabbag of all kinds of creatures, and I can't recall any that I haven't seen before in some form or another. There are oriental monsters, more demons, fantasy gypsies, semi-elementals, thouls, and so on. It's not a bad collection by all means, it just felt haphazard.

Surprisingly there is only one appendix, which is a new list of inspirational reading. I expected to see a collection of the various charts, short monster stats, and maybe some new random encounter tables.

Reading THL was joy, mostly because how closely it felt to reading my original AD&D books. The writing has a gygaxian baroque flair. It feels natural and is entertaining, though sometimes hard to grasp. It is an immensely inspiring supplement. It got me in the mood of running AD&D again, it made me want to use some of its content, and motivated me to take off my AD&D books from the shelves to read them again cover to cover. And that was enough to be forgiving about layout and design when scoring the product7. The AD&D Companion is dead, long live The Heroic Legendarium!

Rules system: AD&D1e / OSRIC,
Publisher: Storm Fetish Productions
Publication date: 2021

Format: pdf, hardcover
Size: letter-size
Pages: 156

Available from:
 DriveThruRPG (pdf, print on demand)
The minimalistic design hides
unadulterated first edition feel.

1 See "Rulings, Not Rules" in Matt Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.

2 Thinking of reading ADDICT again alone makes my head hurt.

3 "Note that the term “Psychic” is used in place of “Psionic” throughout this work, as the use of the latter in Original Edition games is actually a misnomer and that term is properly applied only to the combination of psychic talents or phenomena with electronic devices, such as a machine powered by psychic energy." - The Heroic Legendarium, pg. 76.

4 I'm still baffled why AD&D1e had such a short and simplified list for swords while having an abundance of polearms. If there is an article about it I missed, please drop me a link in the comment section below.

5 It is only during the writing of this blogpost I realized that the abbreviation for it is FEAT. Smooth.

6 Which is eerily similar to DCC RPG's "Quest For It!" mantra that I keep parroting in my old-school campaigns too ever since I fell in love with the game.

7 If it gets a revision with art, I will definitely get back to it and update the score.

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