Sunday, June 28, 2020

Game Review: Dungeon Bright

Dungeon Bright CC-BY Game Icons
Game Review: Dungeonbright

Author: Ben and Jessica Dutter
Publisher: Ben and Jessica Dutter
Marketplace:, DrivethruRPG
Engine: OSR / d20 -derived

Caveat Majora: This is a review of v0.1 of Dungeonbright. I have a lot of crtiticisms of this game, many of which may be addressed later on. I hearby promise that if TTRPG Twitter does not send me fleeing to the hills to become a hermit, I will review vers. 1.0 when it comes out and link it here.

Dungeonbright is a self-published small RPG with a lot of big ideas, some of which are pretty damned cool. There are things I want to try with ideas embedded in Dungeon Bright. But I am not sure the engine is workable. 

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Tunnel Goons: A Tiny Review for a Tiny Game

Game Review: Tunnel Goons

Tunnel Goons Cover Art by Nate Treme
CC Highland Paranormal Society
: Nate Treme
Publisher: Highland Paranormal Society 
Game Engine: Tunnel Goons Engine
Marketplace: Free Download

Tunnel Goons: An Analog Game for Nice People is one of a handful of super-light RPGs that have come across my desk as I have been taking my deep dive into indie RPGs.  While it is not the lightest system I have ever seen, it comes pretty close.

The game uses a 2d6 + Stat roll-over mechanic where players try to beat difficulties ranging from 6 to 12. Characters have three stats, hit points, and a carrying capacity. Amount under or over a target indicated damage taken or (where applicable) dealt.

The game is classless, but uses a simple levelling system where a character levels up once every two gaming sessions, with an increase of 1 to a stat and 1 to either hp or carrying capacity. 

In other words it is a pretty simple game that has almost zero learning curve. I can now recite the rules verbatim after a single read of the two-page manual. If I wanted to run a game completely off the cuff, and was low on batteries for my phone, I could run this in a heartbeat. In fact, it might be the perfect tool for entertaining my wife and oldest son in the car if the law permits our usual summer road trip.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Module Writing Grind

"Self Organization" Sculpture by Courteny Brown (C) 2020.
Currently on display at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.
Right now I am putting together my first module for publication. I am using a dungeon that I built both to coach players in OSR thinking and put ICRPG Core 2e through its paces. 

I have another one coming fast on its heels, and, while the articles need editing, The House of Amber Lanterns is also in process of being put into module format. A fourth DCC RPG module needs one more playtest and some art.

Up until now, I have had  the luxury of just using scribbled bullet form notes and mind maps when playing D&D. My Temple of Elemental Evil conversion is the closest I have ever come to writing a module. 

Friday, June 19, 2020

Childhood Nightmares: The Grinning Spook

My four-year-old son is blessed with both incredible creativity and my love of monsters. Almost every day he is telling me about some kind of new monster, killer robot, or mysterious flower he has discovered in his imaginary voyages. Some are so wonderful and strange that I have to adapt them for D&D.

The "grinning spook" is a wierd terror that occupied our conversations for over a week as he told me stories of their increasingly varied and improbable powers. Eventuslly I pointed put that these creatures would probably destroy the world in any story they were in. He thought about this and did an amazing thing: he revised them to be something frightening but reasonable to use as bad guys in a story.

This is a snapshot of my son's favourite creation when it was its most interesting and fun, statted out for use with OSR games. If you are looking for a monster that is bizarre, Burtonesque, and challenging, it might be just the thing.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

"Gaminess" or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ICRPG

I wanted to expand on an idea I had regarding ICRPG:,which is the matter of what I call "Gaminess," that is to say, the times when a game or its subsystems remind you that they are games.

"Unlocking Chests: Basic Effort"
by Hankerin Ferinale.
ICRPG in particular does this through its deployment of video game tropes:
  • It uses hearts to measure increments of 10hp.
  • It has defeated enemies drop chests full of randomized loot.
  • It relies heavily on a simplified crafting system.
  • The best optional mechanic for limiting spellcasting, Spellburn, creates an MMO-style reheat.
  • Character upgrades are handles solely by optimizing gear.
My personal goal in gaming, old-school as it may be, is to create a simulation of a living, breathing world. One where things happen beyond the PCs' actions, where NPCs react like human beings, not robots, and where economies, cultures, and ecosystems respond to the magic and technology present in the setting.

I can't create a perfect simulation, obviously. Instead, I strive for a mix of internal consistency and keeping metagame intrusion down to a minimum. I try not to remind my players that they are in a game.

The inclusion of deliberately "gamey" tropes as I have played ICRPG over the last year has been challenging because it is so radically different from my usual style. I find the inclusion of them jarring, although my players are very comfortable rolling with it by comparison. I dislike how the video gaming tropes remind the PCs of the game.

ICRPG is, of course, not the only game that does this Shadowrun's constant reference to tactical AR displays can definitely draw your attention to the fact that you are playing a game. The same is true of Knave, with its spell list that is brimming with video game references and jokes.

And, thanks to Dungeons and Dragons' place in gaming history, of course, its tropes of levelling, hit points, and slotted spellcasting are so abundant in video games, playing D&D role-playing games can feel like engaging with / deploying video gsme tropes now, even if D&D did it earlier. 

I am a stoic at heart. I am of the belief that if something bothers me and not others it is more likely a problem with my thinking than it is a problem with a system, setting, etc. Before I attack a problem I always try to check whose problem it is. In this case, the problem is clearly located between my ears, and not in the book.

To wit: My goal of having a realistic (to me) simulation is not what my players are looking for, or they would find it jarring, too. It is clearly not a problem everyone experiences in TTRPGs.

And no matter what game you are playing there will always be times when the game's mechanics get in the way of verisimilitude. Armour Class is a classic example: it works nothing like real armour does, and my players are forever taking notes trying to derive a monster's AC so that they can decide what feats and spells are safe to deploy.  They treat it like a game of numerical battleship together. There are a thousand game design choices that can suddenly pull a player out of the Theatre of the Mind and suddenly aware that They are just sitting at the kitchen table. 

One must accept that Simulation is an unattainable ideal, something to chase after accepting that you will never fully reach it, content with the good things you create in the pursuit. Rather like a knight chasing the Divine Feminine in Courtly Romance.

Why did I find this particularly vexing? Was it that the use of these video game tropes just seems like brazen disregard for the goal of simulation?

If I could answer that question, I could probably make WotC's day by explaining what went wrong between them and the fans in D&D4e. But the bigger question was, "How do I get over myself and really enjoy the incredibly well-designed system that is ICRPG?"

The Dybbuk from the D&D 3.5e
"Book of Vile Darkness" makes a
badass visual for a Minecraft
 Ghast re-imagined for ICRPG.
© 2002 Wizards of the Coast
My answer came, ad it often does, by talking with my four-year-old. My son is only allowed to play a curated set of puzzle games and classic NES / SNES games at his age, but he loves watching more advanced games being played. He ix particularly obsessed with Minecraft and Plants vs, Zombies. When I asked him to help me plan what monsters his mommy and his uncles would face in D&D that night, he chose, creepers, ghasts, and endermen from Minecraft

At first I was tempted to say "no" and point out that this was not that kind of game, but then I thought "Why not?" I'd drawn loose inspiration from video games before; I was using a few video-gamish spells borrowed from Knave... why not make a video game adventure.  And so my PCs found themselves exploring the lost Dwarf Fortress of the wizard Gnajom, with his secret spells for shsping Earth and Stone, while fightimng past exploding plant monsters left over from his alchemical experiments. And it was a hit!

I realuzed that video game tropes, like fantasy tropes are things people can enjoy and take for granted very happily, and the block I was feeling was mostly just my own expectations of which tropes were andcwete not in a game as a matter of arbitrary taste. Much like Judge Jen over at mentioning how she "doesn't like too much Science Fiction chocolate in her Fantasy peanut-butter." I didn't want too much video gsme pineapple on my tabletop pizza... but if ypunembrace it, its fine.

 "Captain N: the Game Master" © 1989-1991
DIC Animation City. Captain N was a Saturday
 morning cartoon about  boy who was sucked
 into a Nintendo NES and became a hero moving
 betweenof different Nintendo games' settings
to thwart an alliance of  game villains
In fact, exploring it like this made me appreciate some games like Super Blood Harvest and The Ultraviolet Grasdlands that intentionally model themselves on a video game aesthetic. And it let me see an opportunity. As I am trying to get my son to try ICRPG with me, Incouldbprobably grab and hold his interest by creating a campaign where the heroes are in a video game world, or travelling betwern video game worlds. Something like a mix of TRON, Captain N: The Game Master, the metaplot of Battletoads, the horror movie Arcade, and the better holodeck centred episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation

Often where we struggle, there is room for self-understanding and growth.

I'm curious to know how other GMs approach "Gamey" elements that stand out like proud nails in their RPG sessions. Please let me know if this bothers you, or if you embrace them.

Did this affect your appreciation of D&D4e or ICRPG?

Friday, June 12, 2020

Game Review: Index Card RPG Core 2e

Game Review: Index Card RPG Core 2e

"Index Card RPG Cover" by Hankerin Ferinale,
  © 2018 RUNEHAMMER Games
Author: Hankein Ferinale
Publisher: RUNEHAMMER Games
Game Engine: d20... kinda'...
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG 

Index Card RPG Core 2e (ICRPG) is the brainchild of Hankerin Ferinale of RUNEHAMMER, 5e Hardcore Mode, and Drunkens and Dragons fame.

Of all the games reviewed on my site, this one is easily the most playtested. I am currently about 30 adventures into a home ICRPG campaign that has spanned everything from dungeon crawling to adventures inspired by Heart of Darkness to Game of Thrones style intrigue. It is one of my two go-to games.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Selling Water in the Wasteland

Cover art, "Death is the New Pink"
by Angie Groves,
©2017 DIY RPG Productions 
In Death is the New Pink by Mike Evans, one of the most unusual and innovative and interesting (to me) mechanics is the engine the game provides for running a business. It is part of DitNP's move to introduce dominion-level play into a modern RPG without bogging the game down with excessive mechanics.

The description of the business mechanic includes a discussion of losses, threats to the business, and how 'dealing with them' can prevent the losses from taking place. This is kept intentionally quite vague.

It works like this:


New Back Alley Dealings generate 1d4 GB of income each month. They also face threats from thugs, competition, damages, etc. that cause 1d4 GB in losses unless dealt with. If a Back Alley Dealings goes broke, it is bust and shuts down.  Meat Bags can feel free to dump their own cashflow into a Back Alley Dealings to prevent it from shutting down. 


If a Back Alley Dealings ends a month in profit, it’s income moves up to the next type of die, to a maximum of 1d12. Sadly, this means you attract more troubles and threats, increasing the die size for that as well.  (Evans, p.31)"

Why This is Awesome

The rules are simple and straightforward. I felt, however, that they needed a little attention. Like how to determine threats, what to do to eliminate them, and what a player might be able to do to deal with them. This one mechanic has the power to generate huge amounts of player-driven adventure. If the players feel invested in their PC's business and can adventure to make it better, they will write the campaign on their own.

"Robo Killer"  by Kelvin Green  (C) 2017 DIY RPG Productions
In situations like this, ideally, the
PCs should have no one to blame
but themselves for being there.. 
In a good campaign-length game, this is one of the things a GM ought to be striving for: a setting where PCs have their own self-generated in-game motivation to adventure. Ideally, the GM should be able to just sit back and let the PCs make up the hooks for him or her.

But the trick is, how do we do that without adding more needless rules and complications?

I've to pitch a business rule set inspired by the rules in Death is the New Pink to make a simple, functional system that turns a Back Alley Deal into an adventure-generating machine.

I am making it system agnostic, so that it can be readily imported across multiple systems and settings, but, I intend to make it entirely using mechanics that are congruent with a game as simple as Death is the New Pink. So here we go:

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

How to Use One Page Dungeons: "Into the Demon Idol"

The Free Marches of Dreilac
My Campaign setting,
I am currently running a sandbox campaign in Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG for friends and family. After the PCs survived a Level 0 Funnel and a training dungeon, they find themselves in the sprawling kingdom hundreds of miles from home with a leaky starship and a lot of pluck. From here, the PCs are free to chase rumours, explore, and look for work all over the kingdom. I have seeded a few dozen low level adventures throughout the kingdom they can explore.

To make this possible, I gathered a ton of one-page and five-room dungeons. Some are seeded on my campaign map, and some are there to pull out of my hat in case the players zig when I expect them to zag.

Tonight, there was some serious zigging. When one of my players cancelled last minute, they decided to bring out the "B-Team": the other funnel survivors they choose not to play in my training dungeon, and head off in a different direction than the characters they had played for the last few sessions.

Thankfully,  they decided to chase rumours of bandits in some nearby ruins. I set that rumour to lead to Jobe Bittman's one-page dungeon "Into the Demon Idol." Reproduced here:
Into the Demon Idol © 2013 Jobe Bittman, Released under
 a Creative Commons by-Attribution Share Alike 3.0 License

Because I knew where they were going, I just grabbed this document out of my Google drive and did a quick scan, and put a minute of thought into how to enrich it and make it work in my campaign. It was a simple process that only took a minute in my head. But, I realized that what I did was actually pretty complicated, even if I did it very quickly.

I decided to parse it out and turn it into an article.

Making it Work

There are a few things a game master needs to do to use a one-page dungeon or a five-room dungeon to fit them into a campaign. I will go over each, and then I will show exactly how I executed each for "Into the Demon Idol."