Friday, May 29, 2020

Making Magic Items Stand Out

@JustMrLeeds on Twitter asked an astute question:

#TTRPG question for both DMs and players: How do you let your players / does your DM let you know you found magic item without just saying it’s a magic item?

I tell my players they taste iron in the air letting them know there is a magic item around they don’t already own.

I gave a short reply, but wanted to expand on it:

Image by Mystic Art Design
 from Pixabay
The Language of Magic

The first thing you may want to do is set up a language of magic items. These are descriptors, embellishments, and other memes within the campaign world that, if they are used consistently, scream "Magic item here!" when a player hears it. This also lets you add an element of Hard Magic to your campaign, as PCs will know that to get magic to stay in object X, element Y has to be added.

For example you might add one of the following to several magic item's description:
  • "It is covered in engraved ancient Suloise knotwork"
  • "It glows faintly blue when it gets close to the area of effect of your spells."*
  • "It includes Dwarven markings embedded with a shimmering red stone."
  • "It has a goetic seal drawn on it."
  • "It smells of something almost like citrus."
After you use any one of these more than once, the players will start seeing a pattern. If they ran into two magic items that had an orihalcuhm stud in the fabric, the next time you drop " The hatband is decorated with metal studs, mostly silver, but one looks to be orichalchum ." They will instantly get excited and proud of themselves for noticing the pattern.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Making an Adventure pt.4: The House of Amber Lanterns

The Treasures of the House of Amber Lanterns

I originally came up with the idea of developing the adventure tentatively called The House of Amber Lanterns based on a twitter exchange which can be seen here. After creating the Possessed Carp as a bit of a gag monster - and while I was taking a long time on research on my article on Punk RPGs - I decided I would do a run-through of my Accelerated Adventure Planning tool while timing myself. I wanted to see how long it would take me to create a 20+ encounter adventure with the tool.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi 1798-1861 was a one
of the great masters of the Ukiyo-e wood-
block art. His images ranged from famous
battles and historical figures to monsters
and mythical creatures.
As usual with adventure design, however, I got a little carried away. For the purposes of the exercise, I could very easily create a dungeon using entirely stock monsters and treasures, and completed the adventure to a playable creation in just a few hours. My preference is always to create original content for things I want to share however, and my creativity got the best of me. I ended up writing out eleven detailed NPCs and six original monsters. This took me three and a half (admittedly distracted) hours beyond what I had used for creating an adventure with the tool. And that doesn't count getting sidetracked on reading about the finer points of Kabuki or getting lost in the artwork of Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

By making creatures and magic items that are unique to your adventure, you keep your players from falling into a rut of familiarity. If they know the monsters and the treasures, they are able to predict how they work, plan their tactics, and use the items withput experimentation. It works against immersion: it makes the monsters less terrible and the magic items less wondrous.

I have one step left in using the Planning tool, but first, I wanted to carry on with the more enjoyable creative work of inventing magic items for the adventure that I am imagining.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

A Monster in 3 Systems

That Guy.
I just finished an adventure in my ICRPG GAME, and had a really enjoyable Twitter conversation with game developer Harley Stroh based on my description of the game:
Tonight's #ICRPG game: the PCs learned of an ambush & turned it around on much deserving enemies; demons down tiger pits, warlock ritual sites rigged to explode,  & javelineers finding their cliffside undermined. A clash with giants from the underworld nearly led to a #tpk #ttrpg

Harley asked my about the level of the characters, and that got me thinking. It is hard to fully translate ICRPG to D&D because it is effectively levelless and classless, except in a vestigal manner. So, how do I offer a comparison?

It's a slightly dead-end to the thought process, but I considered for awhile whether it might be better to discuss the challenges and monsters the PCs face. Would it be helpful to stat the monster (with equivalent mathematical probabilities) between several different systems so that people had a point of reference?

I am not sure. It has problems, conceptually. For example, in my campaign, the PCs are fighting horrors called N'druni. One N'druni attacked a party of 3 major chatacters an 5 loyal henchmen, and in 3 rounds, crushed 3 heavy fighters, killing one, and leaving two others dying. So, you could look at an OSR translation of the N'druni and ask,what sort of party could the OSR N'druni do that to, and get an equivalent... But that is not as useful a measure as I would like.

But it did sound fun.

So here I have created the N'druni for three D&D based systems with an eye to the Math. Done in the presentation style of that game.

ICRPG: The Original Version

The Monster's design is very loosely inspired
"Burger" or "The Memory Eater", a boss
monster from the 2002 video game Dark Cloud 2
a.ka. Dark Chronicle 2. Concept art image
© 2002 Level-5 Game Studio
N'druni Grazer ❤❤❤❤❤

+5 STR, -2 DEX, +2 CON, +4AC, +8 WEAPON EFFORT

The N'druni are giants that first appeared in the Bush of Ghosts. They began as spirits trapped in the Warp too long while waiting for their unfinished business to be resolved. They found a way to be reborn as flesh and blood things that embodied their insane hunger. Now they breed and grow across Northern Kharré. Each time one is born, a mad  ghost is reincarnated with all of its hateful feelings intact. They devour anyone they encounter out of spite.

Berserk: Each time a N'druni drops someone to 0 HEARTS with a melee attack, they may make another attack.

Regeneration: At the end if each of its turns, a N'druni may make a recovery roll unless it has been harmed by fire or used its berserk power in the last turn.

OSR (BD&D) Version

N'druni Grazer

Armour Class: 4
Hit Dice: 5+5** (L)
Move: 120' (40')
Attack: 1 Slam
Damage: 3d6
ThAC0: 15
No. Appearing: 1d4 (1)
Save As: D9
Morale: 10
Treasure Type: I
Intelligence: 7
Alignment: Chaotic
XP Value: 575

Monster Type: Giant (Very Rare)

N'druni Grazers are purple-fleshed giants with a tapir-like and tusked face that sports a second, shark-like maw on their neck. They stand 17' tall and have stout, Dwarven proportions. Their skin is thick, like a pachyderm and patchy with bone deposits and tufts of quills.

The reincarnation of mad spectre, N'druni Grazers attack and eat humans alive out of spite. They destroy homes and mangle animals whenever the whim strikes them, and will eat until sick if the flesh is available. They have no compunction against eating their own fallen.

The N'druni Grazers are bloodthirsty, once they have downed an enemy, they go berserk: Each time they reduce a target to 0hp, they get an additional attack against a different target. Their morale raises to 11 for 1 round after using this power.

N'druni have the power of regeneration, the ability to grow back together when damaged. Each round, roll 1d6, on a result of 1 or 2, they regain 3hp. However, the N'druni cannot regenerate from fire, on a round when they have been damaged with fire their Morale is reduced to 8, and no regeneration roll is made on the next round. They also do not roll on a round after they have used their berserk power.

Terrain: Lost World, Open

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG

N'druni Grazer: Init -2; Atk slam +5 melee (3d6); AC 16; HD 5d8 +5; MV 30'; Act: 1d24; SP: Berserk, Regeneration: crit on 20-24 1d10/G; SV Fort +2 Ref -1 Will -1: AL C.

The N'druni are squat Tapir-headed brutes the size of hill giants. They are mad, hungry ghosts escaped from the Warp and made flesh. They are interested only in tormenting, killing, and eating fleshy life.

N'druni go Berserk when they sense a meal is near. Each time they reduce a target to 0hp,, they gain an additional d20 action die that can be used to attack a new target. A single kill-crazed N'druni can hear through a squadron of foes in minute if they ride the wave of madness long enough.

The N'druni regenerate 1d4 hit points at the end of each of their turns so long as they have at least 1hp left. This healing doesn't work if the N'druni had used its berserk power that round, or if it has been hit by fire since its last turn.

What Did We Learn?

If I were a glutton for punishment,  I could probably do a D&D5e stat block as well, but that would take me as long as the other three combined...

As is, I can see how similar these games still are under the hood a lot more easily by statting them out. In older D&D and OSR games Hit Dice really were an estimate of how many solid hits a character or monster could take. With the easily tweaked damage output of a PC in ICRPG, a heart is about the equivalent of rolling a d8 for hit points. Things like AC (once you get over ascending vs. descending) are pretty equivalent as well, and have a similar level of bounded accuracy. The underlying math for these systems is close enough for easy translation.

You can get a feel for at least what a character can handle by seeing what they are facing... to some degree.

Honestly, though, it depends on your definition of "handling." Even when they were fresh and rested, just three of these things killed a PC, crushed two henchmen, and critically wounded another. So, at best, I can tell you that an ICRPG party of 4 PCs + henchmen can barely handle a TPL 36 in BD&D's (janky AF) encounter balancing system. I would say somewhere between the equivalent 3rd and 4th is about right, although we are talking about veterans of 15 adventures, here, who would easily be at the endgame of a typical, modern D&D campaign. ICRPG, like many OSR games is focused on generating perpetual low-level play. Campaigns can last a hell of a lot longer because of it.

Of course, my players are obsessive about stacking advantages and choosing their battles. There is no such thing as a straight-up fight in my campaigns. Cunning makes up for lack of mechanical levels any day.

Bonus: Into the Odd

N'druni Grazer

20 HP 18 STR 9 DEX 11 WIL
>Always hungry, meat-eating giant with the face of a tusked tapir. Maims and kills for fun.
>Crushing blow: 3d6 damage
>Berserking: If it deals critical damage, the N'druni may attack a secondary target.
>Regenerates: Regains 3 HP at the end of each round unless it berserked or taken damage from fire.

 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. By Brian C. Rideout. And is done under the Open Game License 1.0a.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Making an Adventure pt.3: The House of Amber Lanterns

The Monsters of  the House of Amber Lanterns

The House of Amber Lanterns is done Steps 1-3 of my Accelerated Adventure Design Tool. Step 4, "Enrich Your Notes" is where you add content, mechanics, and useful details.

One of my personal preferences when creating a D&D adventure is to create lots of strange and unique monsters that my players won't recognize as a generic D&D monster. This keeps the metagaming down, as players can't use their knowledge to anticipate the monsters' strategies and abilities, more importantly,  the alien feel of custom monsters takes the PCs out of their comfort zone. The encounter becomes scarier, and engages the PCs more deeply.

Now, theoretically, I  could do these in order of appearance throughout the notes as I enriched them, but monster design is one of my favourite parts of planning, so I will do that first.

So glancing over my notes I will need:
  • Kamaitachi
  • Tiny Fire Elementals (Inka)
  • Marionettes
  • Bunraku Puppets
  • The Ghost Guardian
  • Shinigami
  • Jubei
  • And some simple stats for all of the evil spirits.
I will also need to look at stats for Shadows, Soldiers, Atrack Dogs, and Giant Centipedes to make sure I don't need to tweak them. I am thinking that I want this adventure to be hard, but survivable for BD&D / OSR characters around level 4. That will be my aim for design.

Timing this will be more a tribute to the simplicity of designing for an OSR compatible system, and maybe my familiarity with BD&D more than anything.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Making an Adventure pt.2: The House of Amber Lanterns

So Far...

This is part two of a series I am doing using my Accelerated Adventure Design tool to make an OSR dungeon crawl. In the last session, I brainstormed some ideas, gave a general outline, selected a map, and planned the first seven encounters.

The adventure focuses on the PCs investigating the castle of a noble family of magicians and entertainers who need to possess bodies in order to ensure their own resurrection. The adventure actually creates some interesting constraints:

First, Most of the danger in this adventure will be tricks and confusion.  Only the samurai bound to guard the castle, some spirits that watch it, and an evil samurai within are interested in fighting the PCs to kill them. The rest want to control them and make them vulnerable.

Second, for this adventure to work, I am going to need to create a mechanic for possession that is far more interesting than a saving throw. I am, in some ways, creating an edge test for my own design tool by adding an extra layer.  The key here is to make sure I am comfortable with the system I am using, and to make the mechanics simple enough to be easily ported. That will be the most interesting article of the series, I suspect.

Third, the spirits in this castle will be fractious: they want to make sure they bring themselves back to live... but certain other members of the family they would rather see dead.

Fourth: Japanese castles, like the one I am imagining setting this adventure in are often huge and deliberately complicated. Doing a room-by-room adventure module would render a megadungeon-scale creation. That is not my aim. So I am going to treat buildings - or at least their floors - as "rooms."

"Japanese Castle, Night - sample view" by Ross McConnell © 2019 2-Minute Tabletop
This will require me to provide some resource to flesh out the rest of the contents of the building, but for purposes of creating something playable it is not particularly important.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Resource Spotlight: Worldographer

In the early days of D&D, there were no rules for outdoor travel. When overland journeys had to take place, the manuals had recommendations for other war and exploration games whose rules would handle the job well. This kind of piecemeal game-jumping and rules hacking was a huge part of the 'zine-driven war game culture of the 1970s.
"Gettysburg" Game Board (1988 ed.)
© Avalon Hill

The most popular tools for large-scale exploration and warfare were hexographic maps. They are significantly better than square grids for accurately measuring travel distance. Games like Gettysburg made Hex' maps the gokd syandard in war games snd tactical simulations.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Punk RPGs from HōL to Death is the New Pink

The Evolution of Punk RPGs:

from HōL to Death is the New Pink 

Cover, HōL
by Simon Kono
© 1994 Dirt Merchant Games


Cover, Death is the New Pink
by Angie Groves

© 2017 DIY RPG Productions

The Rundown

HōL and Death is the New Pink are two examples of what I term Punk RPGs. HōL was one, if not the first game of this genre, while DitNP is a very recent example of one. The come from different times, different milieu, and have different aims, but also have significant commonalities that provide an important insight into the hobby of Table Top Role-Playing and into the broader culture.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Making an Adventure pt.1: The House of Amber Lanterns

Making an Adventure

I decided to keep a diary of my process for designing an adventure for a table-top role-playing game using my Accelerated Adventure Design Method. The goal is to end up with a downloadable PDF of an OSR compatible adventure.

While Blogging, proofreading, & the extra steps involved in making a PDF aren't covered in that method, I think that this would be a good test of my methodology.  So, I will keep a running timer of how long the process of adventure planning takes me.

The Concept

My idea here is a twitter exchange I had with @adventurersrole and @BettaGamesHQ. You can see the exchange in screen captures in my article on Possessed Carp. So I have thatvwas my start.

My idea is of a palace that once held a collection of wicked and cruel nobles. They were mighty iillusionists, tricksters, and entertainers. When they were killed by a local champion their evil spirits were left trapped to haunt the place. Now they seek to free an imprisoned spirit that will resurrect them... but they can't perform the rites without bodies... Now they seek adventurers to possess.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Random Doodle: Posessed Carp

From Twitter

This originally led me to stat out a possessed carp for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, as a gag. Generally,  if I have a clear picture, I can create a monster for DCC or an OSR game pretty quickly, I have notebooks ful of 'em.

So I thought it would be fun to redo it as an OSR creature.

"Fish Underwater" by Dragan Lukovic
from Pixabay.
Possessed Carp

Armour Class: 10
Hit Dice: 1 -4* (S)
Move: Flying; 30' (10')
     Swimming: 90 (30')
Attack: 1 slap
Damage: 1d4 -2
No. Appearing: 2-8 (0)
Save As: N
Morale: 11
Treasure Type: Nil
Intelligence: 11
Alignment: Chaotic
XP Value: 25

Monster Type: Undead (Rare)

These fish are found in meditative Koi ponds in the ruined manors of wealthy families fallen to evil and corruption. They are haunted by the spirit of either their former master, or someone whose flesh they fed upon. All fish in a group may act independently,  but they are all possessed by the same ghost, what one senses, they all sense, and all speak in unison in the language the possessing spirit.

Every round, instead of acting, one carp may let out a wail in a human voice. All creatures within 30' of the carp that can hear it must save vs. Spells or become afraid, suffering a -2 on attack rolls and saving throws for 1 round.

While the fish themselves still live, they are corrupted and diseased. Anyone hot by their slap must save vs. Poison or spend the round unable to attack or cast spells for one round as they wretch.

Terrain: Ruins

I have so enjoyed this particular design, and the concept the prompt created that this will be the first of several  creatures and encounters I will design and then stitch into an adventure for download.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. By Brian C. Rideout. And is done under the Open Game License 1.0a.  Except the "Fish Underwater " image which is reproduced and shared under the Pixabay license.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Random Encounter: The Oil Pits

Random Encounter: The Oil Pits

Random Encounters is where I will share encounters that I have designed over the years and would like to share.

"Squirming Mass" by Ron Spencer
© 1991 Wizards of the Coast 
The Oil Pits was originally a part of my conversion of The Temple of Elemental Evil for Dungeons and Dragons 5e. It was an encounter I designed to fill Area F 35. Oval Room of the Fire Node.

The inspiration for the encounter was a Magic the Gatehring card entitled "Squirming Mass". The colouration of the ooze depicted on the image suggested a animated blob of oil to me.

This was intended as a jump scare encounter for characters levelled between 8 and 10. The fight itself would be fast and furious, with the players trying desperately to rescue a surprised ally before they are boiled alive.

To keep up with the challenge rating system, I was forced to make a monster that would be hard to make good use of in other circumstances in D&D5e. The Oil Beast presented below for an OSR system is significantly toned down to make it generally more useful.

This encounter could easily be plugged into a cavern or ruin in a desert or volcanic environment.

You can download a PDF version of this encounter here.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Game Review : HōL: Human Occupied Landfill

Review: HōL: Human Occupied Landfill

HōL Cover Art
by Simon Kono
© 1994 Dirt Merchant Games
Authors: Todd Shaugnessy, Daniel Thron, & Chris Elliott
Publisher: Dirt Merchant Games via Black Dog Game Factory
Game Engine: Custom 2d6 roll-over system
Marketplace: Amazon (used)

Note: This is a retro-review I am putting together so I can use it for compare and  contrast with newer role-playing games. It will not follow my standard format.

'Claimer: This article is full of nasty language discussing a nasty game about nasty things happening in a nasty place. Adults only. Mentally as well as chronologically.

First, A History Lesson.

In the backward primitive days of 1998, I used a brand-new World Wide Web based book store called Amazon to buy a copy of HōL with my credit card. Half of my friends thought I was insane for using a credit card on the Internet... especially with a totally unknown company with a name that made it sound like a porn site.

But I was in University, damnit, it was a time for doing crazy things.

So yeah. I'm old. Which means I am old enough to remember this wierd little gem that was the first of a genre.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Product Review: Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren

Review: Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren

Author: "Cedric the Guide"
Publisher: Feral Gamers Inc.
Game Engine: System Agnostic
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG

I am going to start this review by saying that Feral Gamers Incorporated have made me a fan, more than anything, because they are striving to create the best games that they can.

I made the first article on this blog a review of their role playing game Delve 2e, a fantasy survival role playing game that uses a custom engine, taking parts from Dungeons & Dragons, parts from Warhammer fantasy, and mixing them with their own ingenious Mechanics for handling time and barter. It was a game that I could find no real mention of on the internet, and only one review of on YouTube. And it is a game that I thought deserved some love.

My core philosophy in writing reviews is this: anyone can criticize. If, however criticism only identifies flaws, and fails to celebrate strengths, it is as Hemingway put it, a matter of cowards watching a battle, then shooting the survivors. Good criticism identifies a work's strengths so the Artist has incentive to give us more of the same. And it offers suggestions on how to deal with weaknesses. That way, the critic helps later works become stronger, and is in service to everyone.

Feedback is not just the breakfast of champions. It is a crop you cultivate to better feed the world.

After I posted my review of Delve 2e, both here and on DrivethruRPG, it felt as if they took the feedback I gave them to heart. The creators at Feral Gamers addressed the criticisms they could within a couple of weeks. I am very proud to say that I have had to put Editor's Notes and corrections in that first article.

One of the strongest points of Delve 2e is its setting. The PCs of Delve are Castaways on the Island of Cragbarren. A mountainous Island that once held a thriving civilisation... and now is full of ghost towns, overrun with monsters, and abandoned by its neighbors. Thanks to a magical fog, it is also a navigational hazard that has several shipwrecks every year.

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Transformative Power of RPG Manual Art

After spending a fair amount of time discussing art in two contexts, the value that Art adds to Death is the New Pink and in discussing the Art of Ross McConnell on 2-Minute Tabletop,  it occurs to me that there is a dialectic to be made about the artwork in role-playing game manuals and I think the people of the OSR and DIY role-playing communities are in a particularly good position to explore.

More Than Just Pictures

The Artwork in role playing game manuals is - or at least ought to be - significantly more than pictures to fill in blank spaces or maps. It serves a broad range of functions, some of the easiest of these to identify include:
  • Positioning the game within an aesthetic space. (I.e.: anime-inspired, visdo-gameish, DIY, Punk, Old-school, pulpy, dark.)
  • Displaying attention to detail and production quality.
  • Convey information about setting or chatacters.
  • Provide visual aids to assist gameplay.
  • Drawing fans of a particular artist to creations.
  • Creating a shorthand for recommended play style.

These are just surface-level functions of the Art. On deeper analysis, we can see even more complex functions and cultural impulses at play.