06 July 2016

Review: Adventures Under the Laughing Moon

Cool cover. What is inside though?
Conventions are great places to be exposed to new games, and playing a session there has led to me buying into a game I might have not otherwise.

I first encountered Adventures Under the Laughing Moon a couple of years ago at Maricopacon in Mesa, AZ. My session did not leave me chuffed, more bewildered and confused. I was not sure if it was the game itself or the way It was presented. The fellow who ran the short adventure was enthusiastic almost to the point that it felt more like a sales pitch rather than a fan trying to show me what was cool. He was not explaining things well. You would do something and here comes a random rule. The background was not well explained as well. This does not mean the game is bad at all, often this comes from the desire to make things exciting and not overwhelm a player with details that might slow things down. Personally, I like to get the gist of how it works, how it plays, and what it is about to decide if I will invest.

The fellow who ran the adventure was not the creator, Todd VanHooser, the author of a series of fiction that the game is based on and the writer of the game.VanHooser is an underdog author who does not have a bunch of marketing money, a big publishing contract, and seems to be doing it for the love of writing, which is what art is about and I think is wonderful. Thinking that the presentation at the con might have done it a disservice I bought the PDF of the main book from DriveThruRPG, and decided to give it a fair look.


This is a fantasy world with a wild west influence. Six guns and sorcery set in a different planet. It is strongly derivative of D&D in race choices, professions that act like classes, and rules that descend from the old game. The book is 182 pages but somehow seems less due to the content.


The artwork varies in quality, some better than others, but is mainly passable. Some are a bit amateurish, and a few are exciting and attractive. The cover is striking: nicely executed and having that excitement that brought me into role-playing originally. The logo is excellent.
The layout of the book is in the lower-semi-pro category. The combination of choices on line spacing, font, and things like the frames of boxes do not seem to be as well thought out as they should be. A prime example, and one that makes it less friendly to the eyes when reading, is the word spacing. The text is fully justified but it has caused the word spacing to have a lot of extra space that would probably not be there if it was not fully justified. This could be caused by poor parameter choices in the layout program, a poorly designed font, or an application that just not good at it. 

You may be saying “well, the writer is not a professional layout artist” but these days you can look like one: there are good books and tutorials all around on how to do this, and you can easily get a powerful desktop publishing program to do it in, even free (Scribus). Layout is important for readability: I would rather have no pics and good layout than middling layout and artwork.

Also, please do not turn off the ability to copy text in the program! Why do this? Maybe I want to copy something to put in an email to players, or print on a hand out. Is it to stop piracy? I could give them the whole PDF or a print out, so what does stopping me copying a line of text do to solve this problem, except make me have to go through the extra, one minute step of cracking the protection with readily available freeware so I can do what I really should be able to do with the file for PERSONAL use?

The World

Buying this book did not give me a fully playable game in the World of Elderon. There is almost no detail beyond a couple of maps, hints in the descriptions of races professions, and rules, and some short adventure seeds to go on. I expect a better overview of the milieu (I love that word) so you can glean what the creator's world is like without buying a bunch of other books unless you want to dig deeper. I bought the game, give me what I need to play- that is not just rules.

This does not mean a super detailed history and descriptions, but a good summation is needed to convey why I want to adventure in that universe and the tone of the stories I will play. This strongly fails in that department. This one is really bad because the author encourages everyone to read full novels to glean this basic information, “to get a feel for the settings, games masters and players are encouraged to read the fantasy series that inspired the game.” That is fine for a free fan based adaptation, but if you are charging money some of us will not be into reading having to read the books to understand the game world. If people like it they will look to your other work. Pinnacle Entertainment's Lanhkmar inspired me to buy the Lieber novels, and though the game goes into much detail about the world it did not ruin the books, it inspired me to buy them.


The characters are derivative of D&D: Elves, Halflings, Dwarves, etc., and while they have differences they do not fall far from the D&D tree. There are professions, which are basically classes, and all the standard archetypes are here though with a few surprises. It is a point buy system, which is a plus, but the professions still constrain player's choices as in the old game.

It uses skills and again this reminds me of D&D, as they are very similar to AD&D's non-weapon proficiencies.

All in all it is functional and easy to make a character, though it is hard to know what makes a playable character without playing a while. Sample characters would be nice to help guide noobs so that halfway through the first adventure they do not realize they made poor choices.

Also, skills start pretty low, either at zero or a set starting amount based on profession or race, so there is a lot of failure when trying skills. Attributes don't help to make it easier, except in combat. You may have a high intelligence and dexterity and it does nothing to increase you chance to use a skill, though it might stop you from using a skill at all (if you don't have minimum dexterity and intelligence you cannot hypnotize people; being incredibly dextrous and a genius does nada).


The rules are pretty short, only covers the basics and not situations that inevitably will show up in game play, leaving a lot or room for interpretation. While I encourage "winging it" I also want to have things defined so when I wing it I have a clue as to how. Also, how about some examples of play to illustrate the rules? 

It borrows from D&D for its die rolls blatantly, using percent dice for skills and d20 for combat, the author extolling the excitement of rolling a d20 to hit. On top of it spell control checks add another way to roll, starting with 2d10 rolls, adding them together against a target number. Rolling for combat readiness is also a different roll. I prefer systems that use the same basic method to resolve everything. If you roll d20 for an attack roll why not do it for a skill roll. Using different dice method leads to having to learn multiple ways to modify rolls and read them which is another unnecessary complication to getting into the adventure. D&D third edition discarded this old idea when it changed all rolls to d20 and made the whole thing work the same.

Another thing is why percent dice? This goes for other games as well, like Bare Bones Fantasy from DWD Studios. Most systems use percentages, and vary them by multiples of 5%. For a d20 roll each +/-1 is exactly 5%, so rolling less than 6 on a d20 is EXACTLY the same odds as rolling less than 30% on d%. Adding +1 is the identical to adding 5% to a percent roll. Just go with the d20 for everything folks, small numbers.

Oddly, tied rolls are fails.

Reading the rules on skills you would think are no modifiers for difficulty, that it is pass fail and all locks are the same, but this turns out not to be the case. Hidden away on the GM tables at the end of the book there is a list of difficulty modifiers. This should be in the skills chapter.


The spell system is spell point based, and uses  checks for success. There are not a lot of spells even though they are pretty specific in effect. They are in “levels,” which keeps more powerful spells out of the hands of starting characters. Nothing revolutionary.

There is a short section of magic items which borrows heavily from D&D, including a “portable hole,” and the deck of chaos which is the D&D deck of many things with a different name. It covers no new ground and nothing seems to add to the originality of the background.

The Arcane Magic chapter also has a short section on the ways of the Fey, although it seems misplaced; it should go into a detailed world background chapter if it had one.


Combat is oddly laid out. Most of the rules for it are in the Combat Skills, Weapons, and Maneuvers section, but the Taking Damage rules are way back in the Game Play section and the combat section does not even include a “see page XX” reference. How about putting all the rules for game play in game play? This organizational mistake is everywhere.

This system has one of my least liked sacred cows of D&D: armor makes you harder to hit but does not reduce damage. It is armor class by a different name. Characters can learn combat skills and maneuvers which are basically modern D&D feats. The“Laughing Moon” combat skill seems pretty powerful because with a successful agility roll you have a 10% chance of beheading the foe with a hit! A lot of the "feats" seem to be martial arts maneuvers in the spirit of the monk class but there is no background reason for such Eastern flavored unarmed combat.

Initiative is by group and the GM chooses who goes first, no roll (so be sure to buy the GM pizza and pop as this is totally the GM's call). Combat Readiness (think “action points”) is another different roll. You need to above roll a 5 on d10 to see how many actions a character take, with additional dice rolled as they advance in their combat readiness skill. A character with a Combat Readiness level of 3 rolls 2d10, so they can perform anywhere from just one free action on a failure to fifteen extra points of actions. That's quite a spread.

You can attack a lot if you have the actions. You are limited to “only” three attacks with the main hand, one more with a weapon in the off hand, so a character can have up to four attacks. This seems to be needed because the damage system makes it take many hits to defeat opponents.


Each area of the body (the “hit location”) has its own hit points, which if exceeded the area is maimed. The amount of hit points is not well distributed, as maiming a foot is three, and the head is five for a human. Maiming the head means instant death if the GM chooses, so maybe a monetary tip in addition to that extra-meat pizza for the GM would help avoid an arbitrary death. I assume a maimed body part means that body part is useless, but it is not explained. Can you still stand with a maimed leg? Who knows?

For every five points of damage to a body part the character takes one wound. This seems to be regardless of the part, and even if it is maimed makes no difference, so I am not sure why the chest has a hit point value. How do you have a maimed chest? No rules for it. For each wound you get a penalty to your action roll and lose d6 Stamina Points, and if you have a lot of wounds you bleed more stamina every round.

When Stamina hits zero you go unconscious. Go negative you die. Since Stamina is the character's Fortitude and Constitution scores added together, a minimum of 20 for humans. At an average of 3.5 stamina lost per wound, it takes an average of 5.7 wounds to incapacitate him… more because he is likely higher than the minimum. This is why you need to do those multiple attacks I mentioned. Combat skills can make it a bit faster, and a critical hit can inflict some extra damage. BTW: That critical table is weirdly placed after the list of “helpful” names and before the random encounters table (another vestige of D&D). Are they trying to keep it secret?

So, how do you choose to hit a body part? You don't. In the spirit of one of my most disliked bad rules it is random. You cannot target an arm, you just randomly hit it. Facing off against a foe with a dagger in your hand. Ooops. Hit him in the foot. The foot? Really? Rolling a d20 on the random hit location table (carefully secreted on the GM tables along with skill difficulties) gives you the body part hit. You hit the right foot on a 19 and the left foot on a 20. That is a 1 in 10 chance… with that dagger in your hand… of hitting one of the feet.

As for those crits, you get them when you roll a natural 20, and a critical miss on a 1. The crits do not have any tie to the body part hit. A crushing hit on the foot can crush the skull. WTF????


I could go on, but I tire of this. You could accuse me of being a villain, unnecessary harshing the game and being a big dick, but I do not get pleasure or like kicking people. Todd VanHooser seems like a man with a passion, but the passion is obfuscated here under this hot mess. If he ever makes a second edition with a major rewrite I would be happy to try it again. Here are a few ideas:

Get better at layout:  Learn how to do it right or get someone to do it who is. It is not that hard to make a small press project look awesomesauce these days with tools available that are as powerful in the hands of a duffer as in the hand of a pro. It is not like when D&D was written on manual typewriters because that was all they could afford.

Organize: Put everything together that goes together together. For example, have your combat rules damage rules, and the rules for crits all in one place. Do not be afraid to reference another section when the necessary.

Examples: More of them. If there is anything that may be confusing show it in play. What seems straightforward to the writer may not be for the noob. Playtest it and ask what was confusing. You will be surprised what people might be unsure about.

Model: Role-playing games are four decades old, and there have been tons of trial and error in rules sets. Some ideas were terrific, some were bad, but there are very few innovations anymore. Take Traveller, written just a few years after OD&D was released and included skills (which D&D would not have for a few years more), and armor that reduces damage. It was a hit and has become the rule not the exception in most games since because it works and passes a real world test. Old school D&D is not the best for modern games as its roots in wargaming show. Play a bunch of other games and see what works for what you are trying to do, and use them as models. Go to game stores and play one shots there (you are in Glendale Todd, check out Imperial Outpost. My friend Stuart Dollar is a good one to game with; he does a lot of one shots there and a variety of games). I may be wrong, but this game seems to demonstrate a lack of experience outside of D&D games with the creators. Another choice it to use an existing system. Instead of making a system on your own, adapt a system that already exists. OGL games are a goo start, as are other non-d20 games that have free or cheap licenses. Tweak them, but concentrate on what really matters in a game: the background.

More background: Give me a true feel of the game world, its politics, heroes, and everything that makes a world real. Gaming is about adventure not rules. This book is way too heavy on rules and way too light on background.

Playtest: Run it at conventions and ask for feedback on draft versions you distribute on the Interwebtoobs: Do anything to get outside your box. Making a game is like being in love. Your friends see that the problems in the relationship while you are blinded by passion

Get help: Sometimes a creative guy does not do as well with the nuts and bolts. Team with a nuts and bolts warrior.

Todd VanHooser, go back and make a second edition that rocks and pulls me into your universe. As this was the first exposure I have to your writing this game sadly turned me off to sampling other works. That may be unfair, but first impressions can last.

No comments:

Post a Comment