22 June 2015

FLGS still the place to be

Onyx Path, the licensees for the old and new World of Darkness games, is making some interesting new product, even some for the old World of Darkness. If you want them though, do not look to your friendly local game store (FLGS); they have taken the road less traveled, becoming a PDF/POD only publisher (they do have a retailer option for buying books to get them in store, though there are few details about how this operates to an outsider, and I cannot see many stores getting on board without going through a distributor). There are rumors that the revived Chaosium may take a similar strategy, that is just a rumor for now, but is indicative of how electronic publishing is making inroads into the RPG industry.

You tell 'em!
The question: Is it sustainable?

Not having a presence in FLGS is, IMHO, a death sentence for an RPG company, albeit a slow one. While sales might be good for now (Onyx Path seems to be doing well), they must be selling to the large base of current players. Over time they will lose some of the current flock, but where will the new consumers come from?

The FLGS has always been a cornerstone to the gaming hobby by bringing new players into games. Not only for RPGs, but board games, war games and miniatures. It is a place to see the latest games, talk to other players, and even join a gaming group or tournament.

Word of mouth has always been the best marketing device. Forbes Magazine noted that "according to Nielsen, 92% of consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all forms of advertising."(1) Thus is what a game store is all about, face to face community. Sure, you can market to "friends" on Facebook and other social media, but having a person you know recommend something to you in person is way more effective.

My FLGS in Tempe, AZ
The owners/workers at these stores are also good for word of mouth, but I do not expect them to recommend something they do not stock. In fact, I personally would rather get something from them I will enjoy over something I have to order, even if the price is a little higher. It is about supporting a friend who supports their friends.

Now, I always hear the argument, "but it is working for books. E-books are selling well." Sure, but books are not something you do together, as gaming is. If you want to play, you go to where the action is: the FLGS.

Already, some FLGS owners have expressed a little animosity to Kickstarter for taking away a large amount of possible sales for the product when it eventually (if ever) hits their store. It will be interesting to see what the future brings in the online vs. FLGS model.

1. "Why Word Of Mouth Marketing Is The Most Important Social Media" by Kimberly A. Whitler, Forbes Magazine CMO Network 17 July 2014.

18 June 2015

Player's shields? WTF?

The GM's evil lair.
Along time ago, in a marketing department far far away...

I will tell you right up front, I really do not care much for game master screens. For me, role-playing is a social event, and putting a shield between the GM and the player interrupts the sociability. It got a little better when landscaped shields came on the scene, and even better when Pinnacle Inc. made their GM screens really short. For me, all I want is something to block the dice I roll and notes on statuses in combat, and to get miniatures ready for the next ambush. The tables are the added bonus.

Tell me the truth. You want one.
When the Dungeon Master screens for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1e hit the shelves in 1979, they sold fast. After that, AD&D was always four to six players and the top of the DM's head poking over the screen as he rolls dice and manically laughs. To be fully seen you had to stand up, and when I played AD&D the only reason to stand up was to get a new can of Mountain Dew. So popular was the product that TSR Hobbies released screens for B/X D&D, AD&D 2e, Mystara, and Spelljammer. Today the product is alive and well, and for many different games, not just D&D.

That's when the brain trusts in marketing decided to take the next step, creating module AC7: Master Player's Screen in 1985. Finally, everyone can be just the top of his head bobbing above the screen. It had a few useful tables, but it was just so so wrong otherwise. Why? To hide players dice rolls? To hide their character sheet? Talk about sociability disappearing, you never could make eye contact unless two of you were going for the Mountain Dew.

The product was short lived.  No others were made, but I cannot help looking back and laughing at it.

15 June 2015

Horrific news!

KULT IS COMING BACK

First edition. Looks like a heavy metal album.
I was very pleased to come across an announcement I have been wanting to hear for a number of years. Last night I was on RPGnet's No Fun Forums* and a thread caught my eye, "New version of Kult coming." After spitting out my dinner with shock, I cleaned up the table and found the web page for the new Kult.

The new version will have a new rule system (should be good as I did not like the original system), and the world will be updated from the 1990's to today (Smartphones and Prius' oh my!). A Kickstarter is planned for the fall with the book's release set for 2016,

If you do not know, Kult is a game of horror imported from Sweden. It is in a world based on Gnostic beliefs and the kabbalah (and is actually well researched). The blurb from the first edition sums up the setting: "Kult is a contemporary horror role-playing game. It takes place here and now, in the reality of today. But reality is not what we think. Around us the world is dark and dangerous and nothing is what it seems to be. Our reality is an illusion, created to keep us captive. We are imprisoned since ages past by a dictatorial creator. The true world, invisible to us, is ruled by creatures who dominate behind the false facades, our prison wardens and tortures."

Actual scene from Scooby-Doo: Mystery Inc. with H.P. Hatecraft
As I describe it: "Kult makes Call of Cthulhu look like Scooby-Doo."** A warning though. This game takes no prisoners and is meant for mature people that can handle extremely gruesome scenes, and sometimes sexually deviant material. Kids, you will have to sneak it for yourselves.***

CHAOSIUM RETURNS

As you have heard by now, Greg Stafford and Randy Peterson have returned to take the reigns at Chaosium and restore the company to its former glory. As I have written, there is a glut of Cthulhu in the market, but there is always room for the original (they should cancel some of their licensees to strengthen the brand, IMHO).

Shannon Applecline, author of the excellent Designers and Dragons, a history of the RPG industry, has an interview with Greg Stafford about the future of Chaosium.

*My name for it, IMHO. It is the best site for RPG reviews, and the columns are very good, but I tread lightly in the forums. As the joke goes, "How do you avoid getting banned in the RPGnet forums? Don't post there."

**This is not to say Cthulhu is not a great game, but they are two different kinds of horror, with Kult possibly being too much for some audiences. Heck, I'll play both and be happy.

*** Kids, don't sneak the book for yourselves, it really is not appropriate. Also, respect your parents and sit in the corner and be quiet, Daddy needs some scotch.

Little people: Random thoughts on WizKids minis

Getting my wallet out...
I am bit late getting into the D&D/Pathfinder plastic painted miniatures. I never bought any during the Wizards run of them, and my first set I began to buy on a regular basis was the Pathfinder Battles: Legends of Golarion. These were to augment my Pathfinder Bestiary Box Set of cardboard figure flats, one of the best deals for enhancing your fantasy combat. There are several more boxes of these flats, one for each bestiary book, and special pawn sets dedicated to Paizo's adventure paths giving you special creatures and NPCs you will meet in the campaigns.

I also have bought a bunch of the We Be Goblins singles for some future massive goblin attack it is calling for, and the Pathfinder Battles Iconic Heroes, boxes 1-3 (actually, I ordered box 1 from Paizo's web store and am waiting and waiting. I have never found Paizo to be the fastest shipper around. It was sold out everywhere else, so what could I do? There is a store on Amazon selling a new box for seventy dollars, three times retail, and wants fourteen bucks shipping for a one-third pound box. Rip off!).  I just bought my first Dungeons Deep box, the new Pathfinder release I am really jazzed about. My wife also has two special boxes, the White Dragon Evolution and the Red Dragon Evolution sets. She does love dragons.

Drizzt is a bad mother- shut your mouth!
From the new D&D miniatures I have the Icons of the Realms Starter Set with its six figures, and a bunch of boxes of the Icons of the Realms: Tyranny of the Dragons set (though I never did get my Mindflayer- damn you random packing).

For a complete look at all the sets, with rarity and photos, check out the Pre-Painted Plastic Mini's Gallery. It even has future releases on it and checklists for collecting. It has the new D&D and Pathfinder sets produced by Wizkids. It also lists other sets, like D&D Attack Wing, Mage Knight and the Star Trek games.

I am very excited about the new Pathfinder set. Dungeons Deep has several figs usable in other genres, mainly horror. The Mi-go, Elder Thing and Yithian are perfect for Call of Cthulhu, as is the gibbering mouther mouth horror, which though not Cthulhu, fits in well. There is also a Chupacabra that is useful for Conspiracy X or Delta Green. It also includes a few dungeon dressing items: bubbling cauldron, burning brazier*, iron maiden, and a sarcophagus. Also, there is a mimic in that classic "the chest is gonna eat you" pose, along with a matching closed chest to fool everyone. I will be buying these up over the next couple of months.

Mi-go, you go, we all go.
One of the things I love about these minis is they are pre-painted, because I am a pretty middling painter. Recently the output is looking pretty good. The Pathfinder Battles Iconics Heroes boxes are all really good. Excellent detail and very good paint jobs. My first box of Dungeons Deep all the figs look fantastic, especially the very cool Clockwork Golum. I would say most of the figures are above average to very good.

Then, out of nowhere, some of them are just okay, and their is no rhyme or reason why this one figure here and another way over there succumb to this. I know WizKids, who produces the minis for both games, uses computer sculpting so detail should be good. I am not sure how they get painted, and maybe that is where it falls apart. Luckily, there are way more good than bad.

I wish that WizKids would make a horror set, with creatures and types of human heroes both 1920s and modern. Maybe they could license Call of Cthulhu. I am not holding my breath though. Only fantasy seems to get the mini loving.

* Back in high school I was part of the RPG club, and once a week we would stay after school and play in a classroom while the hosting teacher did her weekly grade and attendance paperwork. One day our DM described the room contained a "burning brassiere." The teacher looked up and said, "that's a brazier. Unless they just walked into a women's lib meeting in the '60s."

12 June 2015

History lesson: a review of Designers & Dragons

If you love something you want to learn the history of it. When I bought by first Police album (Synchronicity back in 1983) I knew nothing of them except that Every Breath You Take was dominating the radio and MTV. I dropped the needle on the LP and was hooked. I did not stop there: I hit the record stores, bought previous albums, and even picked up a book about the band because I wanted to know more about them.

The same goes for the role play gaming hobby. If you love to play you just should enjoy learning where the game came from, or if you are an older player like me, relive the past and fill in the many holes in your memory of it.

You want this. Period.
Designers & Dragons by Shannon Applecline is the four books for you, in either trade paperback or e-book. Published by Evil Hat (the FATE people), it covers RPGs from their emergence from war gaming in the 60s all the way to now. This is the second edition and is greatly expanded. The first edition was a single volume, a mere three hundred pages. The second edition is far expanded, becoming a four volume set, one for each of the four decades of the RPG industry: the 70s, 80s, 90s and the '00s (I think it is pronounced "oughts"). The entire series is four times the size of the original, clocking in at 1200 pages (according to the description of the print edition on Amazon; I read the Kindle versions and there is no real page count). Being a niche project of such a large size, a big thanks should go out to all the RPG fans on who backed this project on Kickstarter or it might not have happened..

The book is well researched, with Mr. Applecline interviewing many of the actual people involved, as well as letting people from the companies in question review sections for accuracy. He scoured other books about the industry and sifted through piles of gaming magazines, many long out of print, and any other source he could get.  The result is astonishing.

Each decade tells the story of the major, and some minor, players in the RPG industry, and their influence on it. It takes each company all the way through their history even of it ends after the decade of the book, which is better than breaking up the company histories into different volumes. For example, TSR's history is contained in the '70s, but the story of TSR continues until its demise in the 1990's (to be truthful, the TSR section really begins in the late '60 with an overview of the war gaming crowd that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson came from).

The title is apropos. It is about designers and their dragons. Very few old school companies are still around, defeated by dragons of bad business moves, lawsuits, even weariness claiming its victims. The survivors often show the scars of battle.

Oldest School, baby!
There are stories about the personalities. The writer treats the subjects respectfully, never painting people as villains or heroes, but not whitewashing the controversies and conflicts.

The books are breezy to read, in an easy going style. It is defiantly not a dry, college textbook. It kept me reading because every page there is interesting facts that made me, a guy who thought he knew a lot about this subject, learn something new.

Applecline ends with appendices that include a series of "10 Things You Didn't Know About..." for each era. They analyze the trends that dominated the era. You'll revisit the rise of the splat book, the moral crusades against role playing, and how designers and players felt about how the game was to be played, which has changed over time. To cap it off, Greg "Chaosium" Stafford writes the introduction and comes across as both a designer and fan.

Since history is being made all the time, and new facts from yesteryear are uncovered, Mr. Applecline wants to keep the facts up to date, and has a column on RPGnet about it (in fact, the column was the genesis of the project), though it has not been updated for a while. and has just updated it with a look at the recent history of Chaosium.

To wrap it up, I give this book five out of five long swords. I highly recommend it.

11 June 2015

My d20 is as unbalanced as I am!!!

This video is going around the gamer news and blogs. It is a way to see if your d20 is unbalanced.


This reveals the truth about randomness in games not being quite random. Last year I played a Pathfinder campaign as a player and  a d20 I was throwing rolled low. It was so bad that I only threw one natural 20 over four weeks with one d20 (I keep some stats on these things), luckily I confirmed the critical.

This is the exact reason that Lou Zocci created Gamescience way back in the early days of RPGs. Back then the only dice that were available were really crappy dice from China. These were the type included in the old D&D Red Box. Blue and brittle, they were my first dice. I remember the small flakes of plastic that fly off when they hit the table, changing the shape and balance (though they were made so poorly they barely had balance out of the box anyway). Gamescience was the first to make dice from high impact plastic and the first company (and it looks like one of the few) to care about balance. Here is an interview with Mr. Zocci himself talking about his dice:



An alternate method to test dice is using a mathematical method, like the chi-squared method (WARNING: MATH!).

You could also use these tests for evil, finding the dice that are unbalanced in your favor. Of course, we would never do that would we?

09 June 2015

Lankhmar has been Savaged: A review of Lankhmar: City of Thieves

A book you should read!
"Sundered from us by gulfs of time and stranger dimensions dreams the ancient world of Nehwon with its towers and skulls and jewels, its swords and sorceries ...  Dominating the Land of Lankhmar and crouching at the silty mouth of the River Hlal in a secure corner between the grain fields, the Great Salt Marsh, and the Inner Sea is the massive-walled and mazy-alleyed metropolis of Lankhmar, thick with thieves and shaven priests, lean-framed magicians and fat-bellied merchants—Lankhmar the Imperishable, the City of the Black Toga." -Fritz Leiber, Swords and Deviltry

Those words open the first collection of stories set in the world of Nehwon, mostly set in its legendary city of Lankhmar. This was the setting for the tales of two rouges, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. An odd pair, a tall barbarian from the North and a short, sword wielding thief (and a bit of a sorcerer), became like brothers trying to survive and thrive in a world with opportunities to win riches and lose them just as suddenly. They do all the things that great heroes of sword and sorcery do: eat, fight, womanize, gamble, and drink (not necessarily in that order).

The tales started as a series of short stories by Fritz Leiber, the first published in Unknown magazine in 1939. This was the age of pulp anthology magazines dedicated to imaginative stories of horror, noir, sc-fi,supernatural, crime and fantasy In the fantasy genre many heroes were created that are still known today: Tarzan (Burroughs), Elric (Moorcock), and Conan and Kull (Howard). A new set of magazines were released each month to enthrall readers. Leiber himself was inspired by a famous author of fantastical tales published in pulp, H.P. Lovecraft. Many of Leiber’s early stories were mythos-like horror, before moving on to become a master of science fiction and swords and sorcery.

Gray Mouser and Fafhrd
The pair of rogues was originally created by Harry Otto Fischer in a letter to his friend, Leiber. Fafhrd  was based on Leiber and the Gray Mouser was based on Fischer. Leiber liked the characters and began writing about them, with Fischer assisting on a few stories. The stories were collected into books starting in 1970, mixing the older tales with new ones as well, the last written in 1988. They are available today in printe-books and read to you by Neil Gaiman in the audiobook version.

Dungeons and Dragons is often said to be inspired by Tolkein. The races are for sure, but the staples of D&D came from other literary sources, Lankhmar being a major influence. You can see this from the Appendix N listing in the AD&D first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide where it lists Leiber as a "most immediate influence,” and in the first edition Deities and Demigods (aka Legends and Lore) Lankhmar’s heroes were stated out along with a collection of monsters and gods. The pair were not meant to be messed with, with Fafhrd being a 15th level Ranger, 13th level Thief and a fifth level bard. Gray Mouser was a 11th level fighter, 15th level thief and a 3rd level magic-user. Probably this was their final statistics.

Remember this AD&D book, Shane?
Lankhmar was previously available as an official licensed first edition  AD&D background starting in 1985, and later for second edition. Interestingly, one of the books released, Lankhmar: The New Adventures of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, was designed by none-other than Shane Lacy Hensley, the creator of Savage Worlds!

In 2007, Mongoose Publishing issued two game books based on the setting and then dropped the line. Now in 2015, Pinnacle Entertainment Group has released a new series of game books, this time for Savage Worlds. Oddly, another company is also licensed to make Lankhmar game materials, Goodman Games for their Dungeon Crawl Classics old-school game, though no date has been set for release.

SAVAGE WORLDS: LANKHMAR

So far three books are available for the Savage Worlds version of the Lankhmar setting, currently in PDF but soon in to be a physical book. You can go to Pinnacle's website and see how to order it. The first book, Lankhmar: City of Thieves, is reviewed here. The other two books so far is a book of adventures, Lankhmar: Savage Tales of the Thieves Guild, and the latest, Lankhmar: Savage Foes of Nehwon, which has characters to befriend/back stab (or both), plus an adventure generator.

Since the physical book has not shipped yet, I am reviewing the PDF. It is ninety eight pages of full color art with Pinnacles standard two column layout (which means it is good), and has artwork that ranges from above average to pretty good. Maps are very well done.

"Buy me!"
The first seventy pages are mainly rules, items and magic. The last part of the book gives an overview of the city, gods, the lands of Nehwon, stats for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and stats for common character types encountered in the alleyways and bars of the city. It has an index and the PDF is fully bookmarked (both of these are necessities in any game book, IMHO). The PDF has a few errors and possible omissions. One of the reasons for its release far ahead of printing is so the fans can search out and report problems, which will lead to a print edition with minimal errata. I hate errata so this is just fine, even though I cannot wait to have the book in my hands. At least you know it will not be a disaster like with the first printing of Mongoose Publishing’s Conan role play game (I love Mongoose, but that whole deal with that still stings).

CHARACTERS

I usually do not mess with reading the rules too much, because I usually will be running a game under another system (unless the rules are melded to the feel of a game). However, Savage Worlds is my go to system these days, so I looked at the rules intently.

First off, everyone is rogues in this city. This is not rogue as in a guy who can pick pockets, back stab, bypass traps and pick locks. It could be, but in this sense rogue means a “dishonest, knavish person; scoundrel” (thank you, Dictionary.com). You need to be this kind of person to survive in a world of skulduggery (thank you, Thesaurus.com). It is a general term, so you can still have a character based around what you want to play. Sorcerers are rogues, ex-mercenaries are rogues, and basically anyone of any profession who is trying to get by in the thankless city is one as well.

Making characters is the same as in standard Savage Worlds, and racial templates, new hindrances and edges are provided. Most players will create humans, the main race and most populous in Nehwon. This is not a Tolkein-ish setting, so there are no elves, dwarves, orcs, or other Middle-Earth derived races. There are cultural packages available that differentiate one human group from another, though these can be ignored if you want to create a specific kind of character: Lankhmarts (residents of Lankhmar) are used to danger and know how to watch out for it, while a Northerner, like Fafhrd, is bigger than most, and knows how to survive in the wilds. Other cultural packages are the Kleshites (jungle dwellers) and Mingols (who, as the name suggests, is based on the mongols. Not the best disguise, Fritz).

Told you they were weird.
There are two other races, but are rather uncommon. Nehwon ghouls are not undead, but they are weird enough to unnerve a person when met. Their flesh (skin, organs and arteries) are transparent, and you can see the skeleton though it. They eat flesh of creatures and other sentients, not all but enough to get a reputation for it. Ratlings are half humans and half intelligent rats who mated (I do not want to know details). Though not accepted in Lankhmart society, some are able to disguise themselves enough to fit in unnoticed in the world above.

The new, world specific hindrances and edges are detailed, and a list of prohibited edges provided to keep the feel right. A few of my favorite new ones are Amorous, a hindrance that makes a character easier to trick and be cheated when the character finds them attractive; close fighting allows knife fighters to move into the reach of a longer melee weapon to gain an advantage, and lunge allows a sword fighter to extend their reach, like a fencer. In Nehwon it is typical to name your favorite weapon, and the edge Named Weapon gives a bonus for it (combining with Signature Weapon can make a interesting combo). Many of the new hindrances and edges will be useful in other settings as well.

GEAR

All the gear needed for the setting is here in one place to make it easy to peruse. The prices are in Lankhmar coinage (made of tiks, agols, smerduks, and rilks). While this adds flavor to the money, I find this causes the same problems I had with the Freeport Companion for Savage Worlds, making converting items from other books difficult. Steve Jackson's GURPS handles this by having a generic currency, marked “$” that represents dollars, or gold, or credits. It might be nice to include standard prices for each item for conversion purposes.

Armour and weapons are typical medieval, but you will not see anyone walking around in full plate. The best armor is chain, and that is used by soldiers and guards. Most people will wear nothing more than leather, some no armor at all (but that does have advantages as you will see below).

FIDDLY BITS

One thing I find admirable about the designers of Savage Worlds is that they get that different genres need rules that support the feel of the campaign. A fantasy campaign has a different feel than a hard sci-fi or hard boiled noir. This is accomplished by special Setting Rules. There are several for Lankhmar, but they are easy to implement and will not make the game any less fast, furious, or fun.

Some of the changes include not allowing bennies to offset critical failures, so there will be a few more complications because things go wrong. However, when a joker pops up for the initiative cards, everyone gets a benny, which is a fair trade.

Lankhmarts always seem to be living on the edge, and part of that is they are always needing money. This need drives the characters to sometimes take a job they find distasteful or outright wrong. There are rules for making coin disappear to keep this pressure building.

The Knock Out Blow simulates the fictional act of knocking a person unconscious when you have the drop and hit them in the head. This would be good for noir stories as well, because characters are always thumping each other in them. It is not good for a realistic campaign as hitting people in the head is more likely to cause serious brain injury and possibly kill rather than the character waking up groggy a little later (kids, do not thump each other in real life, only the game).

A young Denny Crane.
Heroes in Lankhmar heal a little faster and shake off bumps and bruises, allowing characters heal up and get back to adventuring (there are no clerics and few magic capable of healing). Most interesting is the Unarmored Heroes rule. In many stories heroes are unarmored and end up with their shirts off (like James Kirk in Star Trek; he always gets his shirt removed). In this setting it lets a character improve their soak rolls.

The setting section it also has rules for handling guilds (like the thieves guild; there are many different guilds in Lankhmar from beggars to “ladies of the night"). Rules for shadowing are also included.

SORCERY AND MAGIC GEAR

The section on sorcery details the three types of magic in use: white magic, elemental magic, and black magic. Each has its own allowed power list and rules, though all basically work the same. White magic is a safe general magic to use. Elemental magic is not just air/earth/fire/water, it can mean non-traditional elements as well. Ice, earth, and sea are examples in the book. This affects the trappings of the powers. There are rules for making your own element for your spells. Cheese, for example, could be made an element (that is not in the book, I’m just kidding about cheese, though you could do it if you want a bit of silliness).

"I love you, Graywand."
Black magic is the dangerous type of sorcery and can end up consuming the character. The implementation reminds me of West End’s Star Wars RPG, where using dark side powers give dark side points until the character is consumed and becomes a villain NPC. It is the same here, the character gains corruption and becomes an evil NPC if he gains too much. Also, corruption alters the character and leads to new hindrances, usually physical, that can make the character into a freak show. The reward is that black magic is easier and faster to cast. A character can only use one type of magic, and the other disciplines may switch and become black sorcerers, however black sorcerers can never change away from the dark arts.

There are several new powers described, and some existing ones are altered to fit the world better.

The big difference is the how magic is cast. It does not use power points, instead is uses a variant of the No Power Points option in the Setting Rules section of the Deluxe rule book. The big difference is that some of the casting modifiers to the character’s arcane skill are larger, therefore harder to cast. Damage Field in regular Savage Worlds would have a -2 to cast; it is -4 in Lankhmar. This may be offset by taking longer to cast. For every round a character concentrates the penalty is reduced by one all the way down to zero. So, taking two rounds of concentration and casting on the third round would give a -2 to the arcane skill for Damage Field. Black magic users halve the casting penalty to allow stronger effects in less time.

There is also a system to cast spells as rituals. These take much more time, as much as a hour or more. Rituals automatically double the range of a spell, and there are options to further increase the duration and range as well. The example in the book uses the bolt power, but allows it to hit a subject on the other side of town (nifty!). A character can also try to use a power he does not have through this technique using his arcane knowledge, only it is harder to do. Other characters helping in the ritual, and the sacrifice of resources can improve the chance of the ritual working.

There are a few magic items detailed in the book, but not many. This is because in Lankhmar magic items are very rare. It is far from D&D’s “every treasure has something glowing in it.” Because of this, there is no sitting around deciding if it is better to have the ring of regeneration in the right-hand ring slot, or the ring of protection +1 instead. Another change of pace from the usual.

THE WORLD

The rest of the book is about the world of Nehwon and the city of Lankhmar. There is a short 4-page section with a map to give to the players (you will have to copy it or print it from the PDF. Only very bad people deface their books). This gives the basic layout of the city and a bit of knowledge about the rest of the world.

That thing with them, its in the game book.
Then comes the GM only material. I will not go into detail here as it is a lot of fluff content about running games in Nehwon that a GM should delve head first into. It includes geography of he world, and then a very good section on the city. The thing it does most successfully is to explain what being in the city is like, from the smoke that always seems to fill the air, to the alley ways and stinky taverns. Use this wisely to describe the city to your players, GMs.

Coverage also includes weather, society, government and the law (or lack of it; there is much corruption in Lankhmar). It is also an immoral place full of dens of prostitution and the sad fact of slavery. Though against our rules today, these are common place and accepted in Lankhmar. In fact, prostitutes even have their own guild.

Also detailed are some of the more common places the characters will find themselves, such as the Silver Eel tavern or the Park of Pleasures, each with a nice description. However, it is very basic. Do not expect the depth of Freeport: the City of Adventure with its massive number of locations, in depth details, NPCs, and adventure seeds. Is this a knock? No, it is the standard for books like this and upholds tradition very well. You will have to use your imagination to fill in the rest. An NPC book has just been released.

Religions are interesting. There are lots of them, and they come and go. The more followers they have, the better situated they are on the Street of the Gods. At the front of the line is the most popular god of the time (they always seem to wax and wane and often disappear), with the smallest of cults at the other end, with bunches in the middle, all vying for converts. The gods are silent, though, and unlike many fantasy games do not grant any power to their clergy (so there is no ducking into the nearest temple of good to heal up. Another cliche breaker). There is another set of deities in town, The Gods of Lankhmar, but no one worships them, and for good reason. They have a temple, but it is not for people to come to, it is to lock the gods in. In one story Fafhrd summoned them to stop a rat plague. It was much like a Godzilla movie, they were a force to fix a problem, only with  massive collateral damage.

AND ANOTHER THING

The book also includes two short adventures. They show the dubious morality of the setting as both include tasks that could be considered criminal. However, characters do have to eat (and drink, and drink more), so are they going to pass up an opportunity?

SUMMING IT UP

There is much I like here. In fact, I am not sure of anything I dislike, which is a rarity. I did post a suggestion that they add a section describing some of the gods people worship in the books, and while there are rules that point out that there are many languages, there is no list of any. I am sure they will get fixed, if not when the final version is out, but also possibly in other books.

Here are a few quick thoughts about the book which I consider standouts. YMMV.

Humanocentric
No Tolkein races here, which is a nice change of pace. The standard fantasy races are used too much, so much so they are called “standard.”

Morally Ambiguous
Characters will have many choices to do right and/or wrong in a game. While they should be moral people at heart, they have to struggle with the things they have to do to survive.

The Magic System
The changes to the powers gives them more “grit” to fit into a gritty world. I like the contrast of the different styles of magic, and the interesting temptation of black magic.

Armor and Weapons
These are right for a more realistic medieval world. Who wears plate mail all the time, anyway?

Awesome Setting Rules 
The changes to the fiddlybits of the game do a great job of setting the mood. Simply put: These rules rulez.

In conclusion, I love it. Great read, great crunch, great fluff content. I will make a warning, there is a bit of content that may not be great for younger kids. There are prostitutes, including a “whore’s guild.” plus the whole moral ambiguity that I liked I think restricts the age groups to mature teens on up who can appreciate the shades of gray.  Anyway, as an adult I want more games for grownups!

Buy Savage World's Lankhmar: City of Thieves at Pinnacle Entertainment.

06 June 2015

The Pyro: From Team Fortress 2 to Savage Worlds

In the free-to-play first person shooter Team Fortress 2, there are a series of classes you can play. The fast Scout with his baseball bat, the Heavy Weapons Guy who is slow but has a really big chain gun to spray down foes, the Spy with the powers of invisibility and disguise, the Engineer who can construct robot guns and dispensers to replenish teammates, the eagle-eyed Sniper, the Soldier with his rocket launcher, a Medic to keep the team alive, and the grenade launching Demoman.

Then there is my favorite: the fire-crazy Pyro. Armed with his flame thrower and fire ax he runs around the map spewing flame, igniting and chopping up enemies. Better yet, through his Pyrovision Goggles he sees a world a different reality, one with no death, balloons everywhere, and bubbles flying from his flamethrower. This view of reality makes him even more dangerous, turning any remorse into joy, and making him hard to scare or taunt when in a world of floating unicorns and candy suckers.

As the old saying goes, "When you play with fire, you are going to have fun."*

 Here is the Pyro in action:



Here he is in Savage Worlds. Flame on!

Name: The Pyro
Rank: Seasoned
Race: Human (Inhuman?)
Attributes: Agility d10, Smarts d4, Spirit d6, Strength d8, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d8, Intimidation d8, Notice d6, Shooting d10, Swimming d4, Throwing d6
Pace: 6, Parry: 6, Toughness: 5(2); 9(6) vs. fire, Charisma: 0,

Gear: 
  • Flamethrower d10 (2d10, Special)
  • Incendiary Pistol d10 (2d6 fire, 12/24/48)
  • Firefighter Axe d8 (Str+d8), 
  • Fire Retardant Suit: (+2/+6 versus fire)
  • Pyrovision Goggles: Immune to fear, taunts and intimidation.

Hindrance:
  • Muffled Voice (Major Hindrance): The Fire Retardant Suit covers the head, making it real hard for the Pyro's voice to be understood. Any character who hears him must make a Smarts -2 roll to understand what was said.
Edges:
  • Combat Reflexes
  • Dead Shot
  • Extraction
  • Improved Extraction

* Actually, you will also get burned, probably badly. So kids, no playing with fire. Thanks.

04 June 2015

Actor Thomas Middleditch talks GURPS on Late Night with Seth Myers

A star is born!
I woke up this morning to the latest Daily Illuminator from Steve Jackson Games. Scott Haring, an editor at SJGames, announced that GURPS was a guest on Late Night with Seth Myers. Well, the guest was actually Thomas Middleditch, an actor currently starring in HBO's Silicon Valley series, as well as a nice resume of other projects. The thirty-three year old actor and citizen of Canuckistan brought up his favorite RPG and waxed poetic about it. He even began to talk about his latest campaign. You can see the interview here.

This is not the first time Middleditch has mentioned GURPS in the media. It featured in a 2014 interview in Rolling Stone with  Middleditch, and had a brief mention in coverage of Silicon Valley's showrunner in Wired Magazine, Mike Judge (famous for Beavis and Butthead, and one my top ten favorite movies ever, Office Space). It seems like Middleditch is not afraid to mention his hobby.

GURPS Geek!
Middleditch joins other famous people who have revealed themselves as former role-players: Vin Diesel has talked about it on a few talk shows as well as wrote the forward to TSR's book Thirty Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons; Steven Colbert has mentioned D&D several times in interviews and in bits on the Colbert Report.  Many other stars have mentioned it as well, but no where to the extent of these guys. 

This interview on Late Night was different though, and more important for two reasons. One, Middleditch is still an active role play gamer at thirty-three, whereas Diesel and Colbert gave it up long ago. Yes folks, grown ups play games. Second, he highlighted GURPS, This is good because I get the impression that general people think the only RPG is D&D (maybe Vampire, but not for good reasons. Thanks a lot sensationalist media always looking for a scapegoat).

Do I think this coverage will suddenly make RPGs more mainstream? No, but it does feel good to see someone from our community stand up for role play games on a big stage. It also might make us a little less wary of telling people about our wonderful hobby.

Exploring “The Derelict.” An adventure review.

The Derelict is an adventure for the GUMSHOE role-play system. Written by Ben Riggs and Ryan Harmon Smith, and published by Long Winter Publishing. It is available as a 55 page PDF, with no print or print on demand versions avilable. I purchased mine from DriveThruRPG for the low price of $2.95, marked down from the full price of $7.99. I do not know if this is the permanent price, so it might rise in the future.

Bad hair day?
Long Winter Publishing is based in Wisconsin, hence the "Long Winter” moniker. On its website it lays out an interesting, creator driven business model. Eighty percent of the net profits go to the creators of the product sold. Some of the remainder goes to local charities in the company’s area. The company administrators make no money unless they make product and sell it. The rest of the profits I guess go to overhead, marketing, and so on, though it is not indicated on the site. The online catalog lists only one release, but not this one, so I am not sure if they have any more on the way.

I purchased this while searching for a one-shot sci-fi horror adventure to run at a gaming convention. Searching on DriveThruRPG brought up a few items, but not as much as there should be IMHO. Sci-fi horror is an under-served genre. I ended up with The Derelict and an anthology of adventures for The Void RPG titled Pandora's Paths I: Adventures. Seeing nothing else catch my eye to buy, I downloaded them, did some reading, and decided that The Derelict is my choice. Pandora's Path also has some very good writing, but The Derelict fit the feel I was looking for: isolation and desperation.

Because I already decided to use Savage Worlds as my game system, I was only interested in the story, so I will not review anything mechanical, like monster statistics or anything. I'll need to take the basic descriptions and create my own. Even without covering mechanics, there is a lot to go over. I also almost never run an adventure verbatim, instead I like to make changes to make the story more my own. When there are good ideas in the adventure as written, it helps prime my imagination. In the end, the final adventure I will run at the upcoming convention will be a combination of their ideas and mine. Does this one grab my imagination? Read on.

BIG SPOILERS AHEAD

Do not read further if you are going to play this. This is GM’s only.

Listen to River Song... or else!

THE ADVENTURE: OVERVIEW

The adventure has a very good start, and it seems aimed at a first adventure to start a campaign, or a one-shot based on the way the group is brought together. The characters are the crew of a deep space freight hauler on a ten year voyage from Earth to another planet. There are four crew characters, each with a job on the ship, and a stowaway character. I assume this adventure was aimed at four or five characters as the stowaway is easy to drop to make a foursome.

The game starts with pressure filled excitement. The crew is awoken from cryonic sleep with alarms going off and objects hitting the hull. They find that they are halfway from Earth to the destination. The ships systems and drives are malfunctioning. The crew soon discover that they need to abandon ship or, in fifteen minutes, the ship will explode. Their only hope is to figure out a way to dock with a nearby mysterious ship that seemed to have appeared out of nothing.

This is as close to an in medias res opening I have seen lately in published adventures. In medias res means "in the middle of things." In writing this refers to starting with action and explain the circumstances later.  An example would be a hero on a TV show. In it the hero is being chased by thugs, escapes over a fence, and finally loses the pursuers. Who are they, what do they want? You have to contemplate this as it happens. Finally, the danger over, we get the exposition of just what exactly was happening. Keeping the attention of an audience involves ticking their intellect, in this case making the ponder the action and want to know what happened. This is used many times at a commercial break on a TV show to stop you turning to another channel. Here you start in the action, learn what is going as the scene develops, and the player's get caught in learning the answer as well as the action itself.

After getting to the mystery ship they must investigate what it is. Obviously from Earth, but the type of ship is unknown. They then have a series of encounters revealing a supernatural influence to the ship: creatures disguised in dead crew members skins, encounters with ghosts, a crewman whose kidneys have stolen, a lost child who should not be there who gets freaky fast, and the mess hall with dead bodies, signs of deadly fights, and a pair of eyeballs attached to a brain floating in a sink... And the eyes look at you, still alive and aware. It is all designed to sap some sanity, a bad thing for characters but a good for upping the tension.

During this, the writer’s give good advice on pacing and keeping the characters under stress. Many of the encounters are optional but are detailed enough to throw them in and keep the game moving. As time passes, things get weirder and weirder.

The King and still champion.
Finally the characters will make it to the bridge (though maybe not sound in mind or body anymore). There they encounter the rouge AI controlling the ship. Think of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, possessed by none other than The King in Yellow. He is readying the ship for a hyperjump into the black hole at the center of the galaxy and certain death for our heroes, all while saying crazy things and being extremely unhelpful and anoying. The crew need to continue into the bowels of the ship to save it.

Next comes more exploration. In the ship's chapel they discover the history of the vessel’s designer. He is a centuries old cultist and the ship was specifically designed to house the spirit of the King in Yellow. Then Korterba, the cultist, reveals his insane self to the characters. He tells them crazy things, and then warns them of a creature that will kill them.

Korterba follows them to engineering and then transforms into the moster he warned them of. He attacks, trying to stop the characters from stopping the jump. Then the airlock opens and the characters must try and survive.

Those character still alive and sane make it to the AI Nest. They need to do a David Bowman, they need to Daisy, Daisy the AI (in other words, deactivate the AI, for those who have not seen 2001. Also, why have you not seen 2001? Rent it now).

This leads them to the hyperdrive chamber, a terrifying reveal, and a terrible choice that will need to be made. Played right, with players being serious in their motives, this could be the best scene in the entire adventure, and possibly one you will talk about when remembering your favorite game sessions.

THE PDF

The layout is good, though it could use some better organization. In the first part, before the adventure begins, the sections named the Introduction, the Hook, and the Spine, which layout the overall story, could be placed together and combined. The section describing the mystery ship should be part of the later Horrible Truth section. This would flow better and have less repeating of information.

Most of the artwork is decent, though there is not a lot of it. I did not like the cover artwork; while portraying a scene from the adventure; it struck me as somewhat comical. Inside, the art that is there is functional, but not that eye catching. Although the reason for buying an adventure is for the text, artwork can help to set the mood for the GM, it comes up short of that duty here.

Like many good Cthulhu games, this one has a bunch of handouts for the players. It also has five pre-generated characters for GUMSHOE.

Straight up there are two things I do not like about the PDF itself. First, no bookmarks, a major no no IMHO. Even in something linear and short, it still needs good bookmarking. Second, if you highlight text and copy it, it pastes into the destination with a lot of bad characters. For example, the text on screen reads, “The computer also reports a radar contact within 1,000 klicks of the Flux. According to records, the ship should not be there.” Pasted into another text field you get, “􀀖he computer also reports a radar contact 􀂠ithin 􀅗,􀅖􀅖􀅖 􀂔lic􀂔s o􀂏 the Flux. According to records, the ship shouldn􀈂t 􀂋e there􀇯"

I do not know if this was intentional to intentionally inhibit copying, or something is wrong with the building of the PDF file. Probably the latter as they did not restrict copying in the security settings. I see they used a third party program called PDF Enhancer to optimize the file. This may have led to the problems. Either way, I like to copy text out for rewriting and adding my ideas into the text so they are complete on a sheet of paper. I cannot use this for that as the time it takes to fix the problems is a waste to me.

SUMMATION

This is a well written adventure. It has some very good encounters, excellent hints on running it for the GM, and has the always cool bunch of handouts. The opening sucks you in immediately, the story proceeds at a breakneck pitch, and the ending is top notch. Kudos to the integration of the King in Yellow into a sci-fi setting. Here, it really works, and should make Cthulhu fans very excited when it is revealed.

One item I think could have been improved is the stowaway. It seems to be thrown in without much thought. The captian trusts him. He has nothing to make him untrustworthy. He could just have been another crewman due to the lack of drama in his character.

So I whole-heartily recommend this adventure, and I look forward to more from this publisher as the first taste of their work was delicious.

02 June 2015

The Crystal Ball Strikes Back; The future of D&D

D&D is like a bouncing ball, one moment it is up, the next down, but it seems to rebound. The reception of fourth edition would be enough to take a smaller publisher down, but Wizards of the Coast survives because of the deep pockets of Hasbro.
Loves touching his ball.

The release of Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition has been a success. The Boston Globe reported back in December how good the roll out was. “’Distributors and retailers say the new edition is selling better than expected,’ says Milton Griepp, founder and CEO of ICv2, a publication that covers geek culture. ‘And expectations were high.’”

The bean counters at Hasbro love a success, and there is nothing like riding a wave. Let’s look into the crystal ball and see what the future of D&D holds:

Hasbro is laughing at you.
From Entertainment Weekly, 15 September 2015:

“With D&D returning to its bestseller status in the role play game industry, publisher Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro, the game giant that owns Wizards, have laid out their plans for the future of the game.

“Greg Leeds, CEO of Wizards of the Coast, noted that while sales have been strong overall, they were at their highest when the fifth edition was first released. ‘A new edition seems to be the sweet spot. Data shows the excitement of a new edition is what our consumers want, and we will fulfill their wishes.’

“Leeds revealed that four teams have been working on the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth editions of the game. ‘The strategy maximizes value by premiering a new edition every four months,’ he gloats.

“Look for the sixth edition in Q1 if 2016, followed by the seventh through ninth editions to release over the course of the year.”