Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Game Review: The Mecha Hack

Cover for The Mecha Hack
©2018 Absolute Tabletop
Art by Brandish Gilhelm
: Matt Click
Publisher: Absolute Tabletop
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG
Engine: The Black Hack

I love the Black Hack it is a smart, fast, flexible adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons that is designed for light, fast, simplified play. It works best with short campaigns that don't take themselves too seriousness.  After reviewing the engine and doing a little solo play, I ran a ten-session campaign of the Wasted Hack, and truly enjoyed it for its fast, frenzied, and silly form of entertainment this engine engenders.

If you want details on the engine, I recommend you read the rules here, or my review and summary of them here.

About 2 or 3 months ago I developed a real itch to play a battlemech-based game. I used to play BattleTech in junior high school, but, my friends found it too slow paced for their liking, and it was hard to sell them on a extended campaign of it. Let alone MechWarrior / Alpha Strike.

While looking at current options, my first impulse was to try Lancer RPG. Unfortunately, the flavor and setting text of Lancer is so politically charged in the way I find repulsive that I couldn't get into the game.  Then I remembered The Mecha Hack.

Art by Brandish Gilhelm, ©2018 Absolute Tabletop

This one got on my radar a couple of years ago when Hankerin Fetinale mentioned that he being hired to just purely do the artwork for someone else's role-playing game on his YouTube channel, which I thought was a great turn of events for him. I love his artwork (which is often credited under the name Brandish Gilhelm,) because of its high energy comic bookish style. Well this technique is definitely improved over the last year or two, akron's work remains simple in its technique mostly black and white are using a three color palette at most, and unpretentious. It's the antithesis of everything that mainstream corporate role-playing game art is. And that makes it glorious and gets hope to less talented artists like myself who want to create games with their own Art.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Game Review: Cairn

Author: Yochai Gal
Cairn cover by CosmicOrrery
Publisher: Self-published
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG, itch.io
Engine: Mark of the Odd / Knave Hybrid

I have played the hell out of Cairn over the last few days. It is a strange, fun and fast hybrid of the OSR's two popular open Engines: Knave and Mark of the Odd, with a few clever twists of its own.

Cairn tends to favor MotO: it uses its three stat model, highly lethal combat system, and armor/hit point rules. This means that combat is a last resort unless you can guarantee an ambush or superior position. Attacks always hit and do damage by weapon type unless the attacker is at significant disadvantage or advantage, at which point the die changes to a d4 or d12, respectively.

Knave lends its equipment slot system (although all PCs have a fixed 10 slots), and a stripped-down d10 version of it's tables for virtue, vice, misfortune, reputation, clothing, skin, hair face, and build. It also has its own variant set of Knave's d20 tables for determining random character equipment. In addition to randomized name tables with a distinctly Anglo-Saxon selection of names. 

Cairn also uses Knave's magic system: characters carry spell books that represent a single spell. However the spell can be cast multiple times; each time a spell is cast it causes fatigue, which fills an inventory slot, a note from Mausritter that I really appreciated.

Alternative spell lists that include spells that deal some damage, along with random character tools and other expansions are available on Cairn's homepage.

Cairn doesn't have a level system like its parent games do instead, characters burn scars whenever they drop to zero hit protection, but don't lose points of strength. When they take these i stars, after they look great they may roll dice to increase maximum hit protection or certain abilities scores as prescribed based on the injury that dropped them to zero. This takes the idea that "that which does not kill me makes me stronger," and interprets of quite literally in the game.

Karen is specifically set at the edge of a large haunted wood full of ruins of some past cursed civilization. A realm haunted with goblins and trolls and vicious animated plans. It takes a lot of its inspiration from Gavin Norman's Dolemnwood setting.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

'Zine Review: D12 Monthly Issue#7

Cover to D12 Monthly Issue#7
Art by Dean Spencer
: YumDM
Marketplace: YumDM.com
Engine: Edition Agnostic Dungeons & Dragons

This is my last review in my rapid-fire sequence of review of D12 Monthly. I am all caught up at last! I want to boost creations like D12 Monthly whenever I can with this platform. Cool passion projects by hobbyist designers like me.

I'm always looking for more like it. 

You can read my reviews of the previous issues you can find them here: zeroonetwothreefourfive, and six.

Issue #7 is devoted to outdoor exploration. It offers articles on slot-based encumberance, timekeeping in Overland travel, and solid GM procedures for handling them, advice on best practices in designing random encounter tables, and rules for camping that gives the PCs something important and beneficialto do.

The regular Weapon Spotlight gives a cool perspective on spears. Location! Location! Location! Gives us a strange, wondrous location in the form of a set of menhirs with magical secrets and a dungeon underneath, and the Personalities article details the culture of the Barbarian tribes in a region that is built up over the course of the examples in many of the articles.

While there are a few slip-ups where mechanics that only apply to later editions of Dungeons & Dragons are used, in general this issue of D12 monthly is one of the best thus far at creating a totally addition agnostic set of tools.

Monday, December 20, 2021

'Zine Review: D12 Monthly Issue #6

Cover for D12 Monthly #6,
Art by Daniel Comerci
: YumDM
Marketplace: YumDM.com
Engine: Edition Agnostic Dungeons & Dragons

I'm still playing catch-up on my quest to review every issue of D12 Monthly. I chose D12 Monthly because Russ over at Yum/DM started blogging about the same time as I did, and I want to be a booster, a guy who helps other people in the indie RPG scene find their best audience.

I'm always looking for more awesome TTRPG content and more content creators to do the same for. 

You can read my reviews of the previous issues you can find them here: zeroonetwothreefour, and five

Issue #6 of D12 Monthly is focused on giving you more options with the Undead, and it definitely adds some cool ones. The only regular column we see reappearing in this issue is Weapon Spotlight.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

'Zine Review: D12 Monthly Issue #5

Cover for D12 Monthly #5
Art by DbaldriArt
: YumDM
Marketplace: YumDM.com
Engine: Edition Agnostic Dungeons & Dragons

Until a few months ago, I made it my mission to review every issue of D12 Monthly as a way of boosting Russ over at YUM/DM, for no other teas than I like his writing and I live to boost the signal.

I'm always happy to do the same for other small-time and OSR TTRPG content creators. 

You can read my reviews of the previous issues you can find them here: zero, one, two, three, and four.

But around September, I got tied up writing content in a new schedule with a different Modus Operandi  now I find myself behind by three issues oh, and I hope to pick up the slack before the new year.

Issue #5 of D12 monthly is dedicated to Divine Magic and characters, particularly clerics. It started strong with an article on designing a Pantheon for a homebrew campaign setting, and then goes on to offer an article on thinking through how the rules of clerics in society, what their rituals and rites ought to be like. There are also articles on what happens when clerics fall into disfavour, an alternate turn on dead ruleset, and an article featuring alternate powers for paladins dedicated to Gods that don't fit in the standard law and Valor profile that we tend to associate with Paladin characters. 

By way of regular articles, we have a Weapon Spotlight article on maces, and an expanded location location location article detailing the religious community of Riverbend. The Twisted Tables offering this month is a selection of an alternative ways to start a campaign the usual tavern or slave pit.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Game Review: Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City

Cover, Ultraviolet Grasslands and
the Black City, by Luka Rejec,
©2019 Luka Rejec

: Luka Rejec
Publisher: Exalted Funeral
Marketplace: Exalted Funeral
Engine: SEACAT

I am treating this December as my month the catch up on things I've really been meaning to do for the blog. That includes articles I've been dying to write, catching up on reading things that I'm dying to read, and creating reviews I have been putting off.

One review I have been dying to get out of my head, but have found the job so big it is difficult to fully articulate my thoughts is Luka Rejec's Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City. This book is huge, complex, and gorgeous.

Artwork from UVG
©2019 Luka Rejec
The year before last, Luka put it up as a pay what you want item temporarily to celebrate Karl Marx's birthday. Being the perverse contrary and I am, I decided to promote Luka's capitalist venture by paying a little more than the suggested pay what you want price. Go figure.

I'm glad that I have this book. And it is definitely on my gaming bucket list to run or play in.

So, how do we explain Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City?

Artwork from UVG ©2019 Luka Rejec

Thursday, December 16, 2021

A Syllogistic Approach to Game Choice

One of the most annoying forms the discourse around  Dungeons & Dragons takes is the discussion as to whether or not there's a right way to play the game.

(I mean, there are some more annoying forms of discourse, but I would rather not engage with them.)

There are a few people, some of whom I played or conversed with who have a clear ideas of what constitutes the right way to play D&D. And they are connected to some guys who are very happy to harp on it ad nauseam at the top of their lungs. And the funny thing is they have great arguments that no one wants to hear because of how they are presented.

I've played D&D number of ways. In fact I've gone through phases that correspond to each of the six cultures of play recently identified by The Retired Adventurer, which is a compelling article. And here's the thing, they each yield radically different results, and have radically different experiences from one another.

None of these are the right or wrong way, but there are wrong ways to play if you are looking for a particular experiences. For example, if you want a campaign that lasts a very long time, do you need to consider having robust Dominion rules.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Game Review: Index Card RPG Core Master Edition

Author: Hankerin Ferinale
Publisher: RUNEHAMMER Games and Modiphius
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG (digital) / Mödiphius (print)
Engine: Custom d20-based engine

Note: I'm going to start by saying that Hankerin Ferinale delivered on his promises. When he released the new edition of ICRPG this year, one of the first things he did is release a PDF with the updated version of the rules and added it to the library of anyone who has bought Index Card RPG Core 2E from DrivethruRPG. My first look at his new Master Edition was through this updated product. He has followed through on his promise to future-proof every edition of his game when I saw that he had made a contract with Mödiphius and that they would be responsible for releasing the next iteration of ICRPG, I was concerned that wasn't going to happen. Hats off to you, Hankerin.

My review of Index Card RPG Core 2E has to date been the most read review on this site by a factor of three, and the third most read article overall. People are interested in this game and for good reason.

Disclaimer: When I mentioned online that I was wistfully considering buying Viking Death Squad and Index Card RPG Core Master Edition hardcopy, but just couldn't afford Mödiphius; shipping to canada, even with their new us store, hankering decided to sweeten the deal. He sent me PDF copies of both role-playing games for review, can challenge me not to want to buy those games hard copy when I was done. And I am sold. I am now saving up to get myself hard copies of both games. Especially as Viking Death Squad has been an instant hit with my wife, and has become her one-to-one game of choice for the foreseeable future.

So, that begs that I had the caveat to this review that I have been gifted a copy of this manual from someone I have a positive relationship with. I don't think that will bias this review, as it very much repeats many of the points of the previous review, which was written long before I ever personally interacted with Hankerin Ferinale.

The Review

Index Card RPG Core Master Edition is an update to the Index card RPG cCre 2nd edition that I reviewed in 2020. This game that is derived from Dungeons & Dragons and is reasonably intercompatible with it, but it's rules are so streamlined, and in places innovative that it is by no means the same game, and is released under its own license.

And it's heart, Index Card RPG resembles a d20 game. All tasks in the game are assigned a hit point total expressed in increments of 10 called Hearts. Characters roll a d20 and add an appropriate ability score modifier and bonuses added by gear at the character is carrying up to a possible +10.

The roll must beat a Target, a number set for the entire room or encounter by the GM. All things done in the encounter have the same Target. So if you enter a dragon's layer with a Target of 17, picking locks, searching for missing objects, or attacking the dragon and its minions all would require a 17. Monsters have their own stat modifiers for when the GM rolls for them, but they tend to be sparse. Very few monsters have a modifier to defense that makes them harder to hit.

If a roll is successful, some tasks succeed automatically. Others, called Efforts, require time. This is handled by giving every task that requires significant effort a number of hit points expressed in Hearts. So, picking a simple lock might require only one successful roll, a good quality lock might require a full heart of successful rolls, and an exceptional lock might require three or four hearts to undo. Characters have an array of dice for different kinds of tasks (Effort Dice). Doing anything with your bare hands reduces the hip points of a task by a d4. Doing it with a melee weapon or appropriate tools gives a b6. Using explosives or firearms a d8. Using magic or high-tech energy devices a d10. A test with a natural 20 does Ultimate effort adding an exploding d12 to any roll.

This makes the game incredibly consistent. A GM assesses difficulty for the entire room of the Target number, and then the complexity of a task by assigning Hearts. Just like ability scores, effort dice can have modifiers from gear or from the character. A particularly potent magician might have plus two or plus three two the d10 role to determine how well their magic accomplishes attacks. Warrior might add a bonus to weapon and tool damage, for example.

Equipment is the most important thing to determining a character in Index Card RPG Core. The character may carry up to 20 items, and gain the benefit from 10 "equipped" ones, while the others are stored on their person in the way that does not benefit them. Some items just add capabilities to the character. For example, having shovel means your character can dig when they might not be able to otherwise. Other items because of quality, magic, etc add bonuses of up to +3 to an ability score roll or type of effort rule, or grant some sort of unique ability like a magic spell or special move.

A task might be declared particularly Easy or Hard by the GM which applies a plus or minus 3 to the roll. There are also certain conditions under which player characters may be able to reduce the overall Target of an encounter.

Previous editions of Index Card RPG Core were effectively classless and level-less. Characters begin with one Heart and therefore ten hit points, and can only gain hit points in increments of 10 through special items called Heartstone that has to be equipped. An initial selection of a character class granted the character starting equipment that grants a PC extra capabilities. For example, a Mage started with a spell and spell-powering crystals, While a Shadow (thief) started with a cloak that makes hiding easier and a set of thieves tools for picking locks and disarming traps. A Blade, (which is an offensive warrior) gains a kit for maintaining weapons that added to their weapon damage, and a magic gem that increased the damage on one weapon by plus three.

Classes were otherwise simply lists of gear for GM to reward a character when they reach specific milestones along a scene. A custom class to be created simply by changing the list of starting and special reward gear. Classes were essentially vestigial.

This level-less and classless approach has been abandoned slightly by the new Master Edition, however. Characters classes matter in so far as they not only set starting gear, but also grants one of a choice of three special abilities that are independent of year. After rolling 20 natural 20s, the character gains an advanced version of that ability. After that, after an additional 20 natural twenties they gain both another option they did not select and the advanced version of that option. After their 41st through 60th natural 20s, they gain all the remaining special abilities for their class. Classes also continue to have milestone equipment lists that serve as rewards for accomplishing in campaign goals.

A secondary optional character advancement system that was adapted from 2e's ICRPG Magic is also included in the Master Edition. With this system, you choose a specific path your characters on, which lists a number of achievements the character must accomplish. When they have made those achievements, they may select one special character ability unrelated to their class. Once they have gained one of those abilities, they may attempt to gain another from that tier or work on a goal from the next year in the path, which includes more difficult goals, but offers more potent rewards.

This has removed the level-less and classless element from the game to some degree. Characters now have abilities innate to them that cannot be lost or taken away. These remain less significant than the abilities one can gain by finding rare epic level Loot.

It is worth noting that Loot itself is randomly generated whenever characters achieve a objective for their adventure or defeat a creature of three hearts or more. Some Loot may also be placed around the adventure site.

Both versions of ICRPG Core Master Edition include two campaign settings: Alfheim and Warp Shell. Alfheim is a fantasy setting in which human beings are on the brink of extinction and must Ally with other species in order to survive. The setting has been significantly expanded from its original incarnation in ICRPG Core 2e, with more races, classes, and setting specific gear.

Warp Shell is a science fantasy setting inspired by Warhammer 40,000 and, as with Alfheim it has been significantly expanded with new races, classes and abilities.

If you have the Master Edition itself, rather than Master Edition update that was was issued to purchasers of ICRPG Core 2e you will also have Ghost Mountain, a weird west setting, Vigilante City, a superhero setting, and Blood and Snow, a primeval fantasy setting. All of these were originally developed for ICRPG Core 2e in their own sourcebooks. Therefore they are not included in the update for 2nd edition.

As with previous editions, the GM section of ICRPG Core Master Edition is rife with excellent advice on encounter design, simplified adventure planning, effective GM in mindsets, and a list of archetypal encounters and the types of roles they might require. Some of this has been refined to be even better than they considerably impressive GM section of 2e. In other places it's an exact copy/paste.

Encounters in Index Cared RPG Core are expected to be placed on a timer to add pressure. Methods for adding complexity and interest to make ancient counter memorable are excellent. Tools for modifying encounters on the fly to provide challenge to player characters are also provided.

ICRPG is a very fast and light variation on Dungeons & dragons. One can simply grab a monster from an OSR game or early edition of Dungeons & Dragons and run it by granting it the same number of Hearts as it has hit dice, and keeping the Target close to the creatures armor class. ICRPG characters are roughly equivalent to 4th level AD&D characters.

More recent additions of D&D such as 4th and 5th edition can be used by granting a creature number of Hearts equal to its challenge rating divided by 2, then rounded up. Characters are pretty close to 1st or 2nd level D&D 5e characters.

Mechanical Differences Changes

Characters in ICRPG Core Master Edition are slightly more powerful than their second edition counterparts. During character generation in 2e, characters we give in 6 points to distribute amongst attributes, armor, and as bonuses to Effort dice. Now they have six points for attributes, 4 points for effort bonuses, and armor class is equivalent to the Constitution bonus. Very few players wanted to put points into effort or armor when building second edition characters.

Magic is slightly more powerful in Master Edition, using a d10, and guns are granted the d8 position to make them more effective then swords or bows. Tools now Grant a d6 of effort to make using tools better than trying to accomplish a task with one's bare hands, which still does a d4 worth of effort.

As before, the system is extremely fast and easy to learn, although the character advancement systems have added a slightly higher level of complexity to the game.

What I Loved


I am currently running a Warp Shell campaign for Index Card RPG Master Edition. This game runs fast. Combat encounters, even complex ones, tend to resolve themselves in just a few minutes. You can get a lot of gaming done in a very compact space of time.


Having an openly declared Target number, and a simple consistent mechanic that covers every possible task from saving throws to picking locks to doing battle makes this an extremely simple system to plan for and run.

The Game Master Section

The game master section of Index Card RPG Core Master Edition is a slight improvement over the already formidable ICRPG Core 2e game master section. It offers incredible tools for planning adventures, great advice for designing memorable encounters, and tools for adjusting encounters on the fly. It offers a very useful philosophy for approaching game mastery. Having a list of the archetypes of classic dungeon encounters makes planning even simpler.If someone were to ask me to give them sources for the best possible advice on running TTRPGs, I would tell them to get Index Card RPG Master Edition first, then the Campaign Guide and Catacomb Sourcebook from AD&D2e, then finally XDM: Extreme Dungeon Mastery by Tracy Hickman,

Low power curve
Characters advance a little more notably then they did in icrpg core to e, but character advancement is highly randomized and still mostly based on loot. Characters rarely become invulnerable feeling the way that can in third Edition and later of D&D. Characters never become superheroes. Because characters are also limited to 10 pieces of gear at a time and have a roof of plus 10 to any role, as they do reach the Pinnacle of their ability, they have to literally make trade offs to optimize the roles their character takes in the party. If you are spellcaster, you're going to need to carry magical crystals to fuel your spells, and spell books to contain them all, plus something to enhance your end bonus and your magic effort. That leaves very little room for armor and weapons, for example. And while you might be slightly better towards the end at casting spells then you were in the beginning, the difference is not so great that a one heart monster is not a threat to you.

If a character loses all of their gear, they're left with only a few character class abilities, some of which are gear dependent anyway, and so a character can be reset to nearly beginning level of ability whenever it suits the campaign, which ends itself to a greater level of campaign longevity.

Icrpg has removed some of the complaints that I had of the previous edition. There's no more hunting for buried rules, everything is a lot more clearly stated. Useless vestigium like weapon tags have been removed from the game. Character death is a little easier to achieve.

Hankering fur nails art has come along by strides. He retains the original vibrant, energetic comic book style, but his artwork has become far more detailed and evocative.

Community support
There's lots being created for icrpg, including my own module Harkins slave pit. The runehammer forum is one of the most supportive and energetic online communities I have participated in.

Backward compatible
The material written for second edition remains fully compatible with Master addition, with perhaps the exception of pre-generated characters. Overall, gear for the master Edition has a slightly different numerical character than the loot in second edition, but it will not make a significant difference to actual gameplay..

Future proof
Hankering kept up his promise to keep icrpg future proof offering free updates to existing additions. Andy kept his word. I'm willing to believe he would do the same if he developed a 4th edition of icrpg in the future.

Setting agnostic
While icrpg RPG core Master Edition offers plenty of settings, the game itself is not setting bound. It can easily be adapted almost any genre with only a few simple design choices. The addition of classes has made it a little more labor-intensive to write a new setting for the game, but only slightly so.

Toolkit design philosophy
Much of icrpg core, whatever edition, is designed with modularity in mind. A few of these ideas could easily be pulled out and inserted into other ttrgs.

Hankerin Ferinale
Hey YouTube channel that has some of the best advice for d&d, being very open to talking to other developers and gms, and is dedication to making sure people get the best quality products they can, hankering is one of my favorite people on the Indie TT RPG scene since the covid-19 lockdowns begin, however, his format on YouTube has become too long and involved for me to continue to follow it. That said, I highly recommend his playlist on DM tips and tools for any GM of any level of experience.

Growth points
Introduction of gear independent progression
One of the things I absolutely loved about index card RPG was the fact that if you stripped a character of all their gear, all they might be left with are possibly a couple of wisdom-based divine magic powers, and those are randomly gained. You can effectively hit the reset button on a character simply by taking away gear. And class was nothing but a gear list as well. This made an effectively classless and levelless role-playing game.

By doing this icrpg licked to the biggest problems with Dungeons and Dragons scalability and party balance. Players no longer need to consult with each other about what they're going to play, because they can always find dilutes to fill in roles that they aren't building their characters around. There's no need to make sure there's a cleric in the party when anyone can pick up a healing object.

And by making even classes nothing but gear lists, level was not particularly significant. Characters only attained a certain level of power that was highly manageable. Even a one heart monster with few bonuses remained challenging.

By adding in the random character possession, characters are more locked into a singular role, and they can't be reset to Zero by taking away all of their gear. They will always have some abilities that have become innate to the character. This makes class and level mean a lot more than they did in previous editions, and I do not think that necessarily improves the experience. Overall I would say it's a step in the wrong direction for icrpg.

I written several separate articles on this topic since first running icrpg core to e. Index card RPG owes a lot to video games. In particular, it draws a lot of inspiration from games such as the legend of Zelda and final Fantasy series. This requires a shift in mindset when thinking about how to play. And it is a turnoff for a number of gamers I know. It has made icrpg a bit of a hard sell at times.

Title Confusion
Index Card RPG Core Master Editionis a completely self-contained game that evolved put of Hanketin Furnale's attempts to hack and simplify the DMing process. This started in part with creating a system of dungeon design using illustrated index cards, also called "Index Card RPG:" If you want this game, be sure you are buying the right product.

A word of warning about Warp shell
I started running a science fiction campaign in warp shell rather than designing my own setting, and found it a very difficult setting to use for a space opera more along the lines of traveler. Teleportation, regeneration, self-duplication, and return from Death are all far too readily available in this setting for the kind of stories I was hoping to tell. This game is a surprise in part because the warp show of second edition was not quite the same design. It had a farm more conventional Star warsesque feel to it. This setting has evolved significantly from the second edition.

I'm a huge fan of icrpg as a general purpose role-playing game. If you're looking for something in which to create your own world, run a traditional fantasy game, or just to use an alternative to Dungeons and Dragons, you can't go wrong..

Because of its modularity, it's also very easy to integrate rules such as Dungeons & Dragons style timekeeping, alternate magic systems, or new character class concepts without too much difficulty. It's a perfect platform for hacking new rules in, or taking rules out to hack into your system.

At this point I have run multiple campaigns with multiple groups using icrpg. I would estimate that I have put in nearly 300 hours of play in the system. It is one of my three go-to systems. And I highly recommended if what you are looking for is either a streamlined d&d, a good hacking platform, or a set of alternate rules for a traditional ttrpg.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The Open Engine Elephant

One thing that's worth considering when you talk about opening game in exactly how necessary they are. The big elephant in the room is that game rules cannot be copyrighted.. you cannot, in fact, own the rules to a game like Dungeons & Dragons.

What can be protected is the intellectual property connected to Dungeons & Dragons. The content, the name of the game, unique characters and places imagined up for it. Because Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark, another person cannot simply publish a different game called "Dungeons & Dragons" without unlawfully abusing the intellectual property of Wizards of the Coast.

Likewise, the specific way in which the game is expressed, it's tables, the language used, can be protected as intellectual property. The Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook as it is currently written and designed can be copyrighted. (The title "Player's Handbook" also cannot be copyrighted.)

>The d20 mechanics? The proficiency bonuses, character classes, and monsters that are named after mythological or public domain beings? Not so much.

Anyone could rewrite a game's rules in their own words and if they are sufficiently reworded, require no licensing from the original games developers. This is part of the reason why we had such an explosion of role-playing games in the early '80s. Any company with a shirt in the small press or boardgame industry could create a game by re-writing competitor's rule-sets and re-flavoring them,

For that matter, a number of role-playing games that are popular right now are built on older engines rewritten with little or no relationship to the original writers. Troika! Numinous Edition, for example is built on the old Advanced Fighting Fantasy engine, but does not credit it primarily because the current rights holders to Fighting Fantasy have opted not to have any working relationship with its creator. Whether they like Troika! or not (Daniel Sell assures me they do not,) is immaterial, there's no legal action they can take to stop him or and a few others in the OSR community from building games on the engine.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Game Review: Viking Death Squad

Viking Death Squad cover
Art by Hankerin Ferinale
©2021 Runehammer Games

Author: Hankerin Ferinale
Publisher: Runehammer
Marketplace: Mödiphius, DrivethruRPG
Engine: Custom Opposed d6 Dice Pool System

Full Disclosure: Hankerin Ferinale gifted me a copy of Viking Death Squad as thanks for my reviews and frequent praise of ICRPG on my platform. I do not feel that this has biased my opinion of the game; if it was disappointing, I would have said so. But I also feel, for the sake of integrity, that I need to put that up front. With that said, I will open by saying exactly what I said after I started reading the manual:

Where has Viking Death Squad been all my life?

Viking Death Squad is a science fantasy RPG set in a post-apocalyptic world inspired by one of my all-time favorite songs: "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath. The game is set in the 100th century, when the earth has been reduced to an ashen husk that is being fought over by the cyborg armies of a dying interstellar army, the Infinitum for their masters "The War Pigs" and the demonic legions of Hell itself.

Caught in the middle of this conflict are the last remnants of human beings, hiding in scattered underground communities and struggling for survival. A human rebellion against both invading forces, The Screaming Skulls have recently liberated the War Pigs' most dangerous weapon: the Immortals: cybernetically enhanced superhuman clones of 8th century Norse warriors that have been granted the ability to raise themselves from the dead a limited number of times.

The Screaming Skulls were only able to free a handful of these immortals before the Infinitum destroyed the rest rather than have them fall into rebel hands. Only ten currently wander the "Urth" working with the Skulls. But they, and the chance they represent is enough to give humanity an edge in the war for survival.

Players may choose either to play an exceptional human member of the Screaming Skulls or one of the Immortals. Statistically, the Immortals are much tougher than the humans, and may come back from the dead three times (with ways of gaining more resurrections available, but rare.) Should all ten Immortals die their final death, however, all hope is lost, creating a unique fail state for the campaign.

The game sports a unique 70's metal aesthetic and setting design, with a lot of unusual mechanical choices and experimental game mastering tools that make it a very different game from many that I have read.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Why I'm Creating an Open Engine

My upcoming games Deathtrap Lite and Midnight Zone are both built on an engine I developed inspired bysome house rules created by Stephen Smith. I call it the Over Six Engine. An SRD and generic version will follow by completion of the two games I am working on. I have a stripped-down sample on DTRPG at the moment.

I intend to make Over Six an open source engine. I won't write a complex license, either. Instead, I will offer it with a CC-BY license, similar to Knave. I will provide a "Powered by Over Six" graphic that can be included on covers and promotional material, but it will be voluntary. This will let creators better get the attention of fans of the system.

Why Make a New Engine?

Honestly? Because I can. When I started the project, it was a proposed overhaul for Stephen's custom skill system. As I worked on the skill system, I saw how it could easily replace saving tbrows, magic, and exploration mechanics. I almost immediately saw how it could also replace combat and create a unified system.

I just couldn't help myself. It was almost a compulsion. I wrote the game in my spare time in a week, wrote a spin-off over a month, and now I am on a final editing pass. It has been a joy to work on.

But there is a good logical reason as well: If I write things with my own system in mind, I don't have to rely on the OGL, even if the game can use OST monster stat blocks in a pinch. It frees me from having to have a bulky, space consuming, and IP-compromising legal agreement with a third-party. How can I complain about that?

My Publishing Plan 

I'm not in a big rush. My intention is to finish my initial Player's Handbook in December. I will continue to publish articles, and hopefully have my holiday module out in the next few weeks. Once that's done I can get Deathtrap Lite Basic out.

Then I will work on Midnight Zone ultimately with a starting adventure module and GM's Guide for Deathtrap Lite. Mostly, that will be additional content and advice, and not critical to play. My Hope Is that I will get enough playtesting from the community to create a better version, and kickstart a finalized edition of Deathtrap Lite in early 2022. Quality is important to me.

I will offer anyone who bought the demo or the Basic Corebook a discount on the finalized version. 

Why Offer the Engine Openly? 

Honestly, the most useful answer to that is that I want to share. I think my system is clever, and I'd love to see what other creative minds do with it. I also want to make creating content for the system as easy as possible. A simple license that gets rid of all the guess work will make that possible.

By letting people to remix it to the genres and playstyles they like, I can curate a library of rules and content that will help make the game more flexible, adaptable, and elegant than I could have ever made it myself. 

Friday, November 26, 2021

Game Review: Grave

Grave does not have a cover; I chose this image
By 07imamwahyudin from Pixabay to seve
as a result of thumbnail; I think it suits.
Author: Jason Tocci
Publisher: Self-published
Marketplace: Itch.io
Engine: Knave

Grave is a TTRPG built on the Knave engine designed to emulate "soulslike" Genre of video games.

If you aren't familiar, "Soulslike" games are games that borrow much of their design and game play from Demon's Souls and its sequels Dark Souls. It has become a genre unto itself. Games in the genre include:

  • Demon's Souls
  • Dark Souls 1 & 2
  • Blood Bourne
  • Hollow Knight
  • Darksiders
  • Nioh
  • Star Wars: Fallen Order

The hallmarks of a soulslike game are gothic, often post-apocalyptic settings, heroes who are dead, dying, or somehow infected. Characters are often vampiric in some way, deriving their power from stolen souls or blood. Souls, blood, etc, also serve as currency in the game. Villains are often heroes who have been driven mad by their experiences. Friendly NPCs are often morally ambiguous or insane. The player characters in souls like games often die early in the game or begin the game dead. Death, however, is a temporary state. A character can continue to come back from the dead, or adventure while they are dead, but at a reduced ability until they can return themselves to life. Resurrection takes a toll on characters, they're often corrupted or scarred in some way. NPCs the heroes are often twisted into monsters to illustrate this. Body horror is a common element.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Engine Overview: Knave


Outside of Mark of the Odd, the OSR hasn't got too many open engines of its own. It relies quite heavily on using rules borrowed from various editions of Dungeons & Dragons mixed with a massive array of house rules that have been shared by the community over the years, arranged in different remixes. Other, older rulesets like Advanced Fighting Fantasy and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay also make appearances as remixes (Troika! and Zweihander, respectively.)

The OSR hobby hasn't needed too many alternative game engines. Using pre-existing and familiar rules was part of the original notion, after all. As the OSR has become more alienated from Wizards of the Coast, many OSR creators are looking for options that allow them to distance themselves from the company and reliance on licenses that they control. There have been a few open engines coming from the OSR in the past five years.

One engine that is picking up steam at the moment is Knave. Created by the YouTuber Ben Milton of Questing Beast fame. I reviewed it last year here. Knave has recognizable elements of Dungeons and Dragons, but each and every one of the modified to the point there it is not quite like any edition of Dungeons & Dragons, it is still close enough to D&D that you can use old school modules like Keep on the Borderlands with it. 

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Open Licenses: Engine, Content, Content Creation

When talking about resources for developing role playing games, it is important to distinguish between a content creation license and an engine license, and this is a distinction I do not see commonly discussed. When we call a game open, we are often fail to discuss what exactly is open about it. What is being offered to you to make use of makes a big difference when considering whether or not to make use of a game license.

Open Engines

OGL joke hidden in
Goblin Slayer (Manga vers.)
Isdue #26
When the game's engine has been made open, most of the game's mechanics are available. You can build a game that uses the same dice rolls, terminology, and gameplay loops as the original game for which the engine was devised. The game you build might have different setting character type of genre, and it might have particular rule hacks and modifications to make it play more the way you want it to play, but you have effectively used the game itself.

An open game engine may or may not include access to the game's content. By content, I mean things like specific names places, creatures, etc. For example, in Blades in the Dark, you have the city of Doskvol with its Leviathan blood trade creating electroplasm make lamps for light and heat; you have enchanted crows, and a masked corpse taker cult, and the death bells to destroy the dead before they rise; and there well as the specific neighborhoods with strange trades. None of these are in actual the engine of the game. They are not its engine but rather its content. If one were to license Blades in the Dark as an intellectual property for adoption into novels or television programs, it is that content, not the engine that would be of primary interest.

Content Usage License

Very few games hand out their content openly. The major exception I can think of is Dungeons & Dragons. The Open Game License grants access to a lot of signature Dungeons & Dragons characters, spells, and monsters. The owlbear, for example, was unique to Dungeons & Dragons until Wizards of the Coast gave tacit permission to anyone who cared to use it by way of the OGL. But, in the case of D&D  they keep an odd mix of open and closed content. While I might be able to make use of a Norker or Half-Orc, Mind Flayers and Beholders are strictly protected. As is Greyhawk and its various Deities, or any of the other setting worlds.

With the DM's Guild license, it is possible even to make use of material for some of the established settings and the monsters that are otherwise designated product identity. The downside of which is that you have very limited ownership over your own creation.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Engine Overview: Forged in the Dark

Blades in the Dark cover
Art by John Harper 
©2017 One Seven Design
The Basics 

The Forged the Dark system is one of two engines to come from the mind of John Harper.  Harper made his initially name by developing the very popular Lasers and Feelings engine. He has a Knack for elegant mechanics and sophisticated, compact settings. 

Forged in the Dark was originally engineered for Blades in the Dark which I have reviewed here. It is an engine very strongly rooted in Forge philosophy, and most definitely sits on the story game end of the design spectrum. 

The Engine

The game operates on multiple levels of play with different loops and subsystems. At its most granular level, engine works has an excellent heist simulator. And about three-quarters of the games using the engine simulate some kind of criminal enterprise for shady dealings. 

Friday, November 12, 2021

Open Game Engines: Advantages & Disadvantages

In this article I want to give a brief and incomplete history of open game engines, and then talk about the pros and cons of using them. 


Open tabletop role-playing game engines I didn't start with the Open Game License, but the OLG certainly sparked off the wildfire of open game engines created in the last 15 years.

When the OGL was created, it was hoped that it would create a lingua franca for tabletop role-playing games. That because anyone could create something compatible with the system setup for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition, also known as the d20 System, it would spark a huge upsurge in creativity in the industry while also boosting the sales of (the then-struggling) D&D 3E products by turning them into developer resources.

It worked, too! For the first seven years, we both saw Wizards of the Coast licensing products such as Call of Cthulhu and releasing them as d20 System games, other companies releasing licensed d20 products, such as Green Ronin's Stargate SG-1 RPG, and a profusion of companies releasing adventures and player resources such as Necromancer Games and Goodman Games which produced a huge number of products built on the d20 System.

It became apparent very early on that system does matter, and the d20 System didn't  necessarily do a good job at some things. For example, Call of Cthulhu d20 was not nearly as fun to play as the original Chaosium system, as characters were far tougher than CoC characters, and levelling is antithetical to the slow decay of a CoC hero. Anumber of alternative systems very quickly cropped up. 

Older Online Community Projects

And, of course, there were already community projects to develop play game engine as a shared project. Thrash comes to mind immediately. Originally a game built to simulate the Final Fantasy games, and derived from the engine that ran underneath Final Fantasies 1 - 7 and 9. Anyone who is a participant in the thrash for him was welcome to contribute their own rule modules, etc. That it was not an officially licensed project eventually LED some members of the Thrash community to build a game based on the engine divorced from Final Fantasy as an IP, and to rebrand Thrash as an anime action game.

A more modern example of this that I will be looking at is the GLOG (Goblins Laws of Gaming)  which is a highly modular crowdsourced RPG. 

The Proliferation of Engines

Actually openly releasing a games engine, with a license similar to the OGL, however was essentially a new innovation. Many of the early open engines released didn't stand the test of time. However a few, especially ones grounded in communities of designers have and endured for quite some time. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Game Review: Super Blood Harvest 1-3

Scenario introduction, Super Blood Harvest 2
Art and text by Dirk Detweiler Leichty 
©2019 Dirk Leichty
: Dirk Detweiler Leichty
Publisher: Self-published / Swordfish Islands
Marketplace: Swordfish IslandsDrivethruRPG
Engine: Dirk! / Mark of the Odd 

The Super Blood Harvest books are a trio of short role playing games with integrated scenarios that run on a pared-down version of the Mark of the Odd engine specifically called Dirk! Created by the artist and developer Dirk Detweiler Leichty. An omnibus in hardcopy is available through Swordfish Islands.  (I have the PDFs separately from the Swordfish Islands bundle they released at the beginning of the Lockdowns i  2020)

Each of these three scenarios involves player characters as escaping prisoners of-,veterans of a war against,- or people living in the ruins of an empire ofv ampires from outer space, or dealing with the aftermath of - a vampire invasion. It draws a fair amount of its inspiration from Gothic science fiction like Lifeforce, Vampire Hunter D, and Invaders from Space, as well as from the art and comics Mobius.

These games embrace strong video game aesthetic. The pre-generated characters are offered in a page meant to mock up a character selection screen. The final page of Super Blood Harvest reads "game over". And most of the adventure is presented as a dense isometric map drawing in marker and coloured pencil that strongly evokes classic NES era isometric games like Solstice, Snake Rattle and Roll, and Marble Madness.

Cover spread, Super Blood Harvest
Art and text by Dirk Detweiler Leichty 
©2019 Dirk Leichty

Extremely tight versions of the rules are explained on a single page in each super blood harvest book. In addition, a separate Dirk! four page rule book is available with more detailed explanation if one is needed.

These adventures are designed to be fast and lethal, and make me think of the "Nintendo-hard" games I grew up on in the 80s. Players will likely go through several characters before either having to start the scenario over again after a TPK. It will likely take most groups multiple tries to escape the dungeon particular to Super Blood Harvest and Super Blood Harvest 2. I expect that Super Blood Harvest III would have a high PC turnover rate as well.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Engine Overview: The Mark of the Odd

The Basics

Mark of the Odd compatibility 
Logog, ©2020 Lost Pages
The Mark of the Odd was developed by Chris McDowell for the Into the Odd role playing game that has become a popular OSR game engine thanks to its fairly open license and simple design. Some of its best-known examples include Electric Bastionland, Death is the New Pink, and Mausritter. Super Blood Harvest one, two, & three are other goid examples.

The game clearly comes from Dungeons & Dragons DNA , but has been significantly evolved away from it.

The Engine

Characters possess hit points and three attributes that stars rated 3 to 18. The statistics are usually Strength , Dexterity, and Willpower. Although the specific names vary from game to game. All tasks are handled by rolling a d20 under one of these three stats.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Open Engine Month

 This month I'm going to be studying and talking about open game engines. I want to discuss some of the resources out there for someone who would like to design a game, but doesn't quite know where to start and I will be talking about the two role playing games I'm currently developing.

Along the way I will try my best to discuss intellectual property and why it's murky water when it comes to open game design.

Obviously, I can't cover every engine. But, I will be covering the d20 and OSR engines, talking a little more about Powered by the Apocalypse, discussing Mark of the Odd, as well as Forged in the Dark, Fate Core, Open d6, Open Legend, and the GLOG.

I hope to introduce my own open engine by the end of year.

Also, I will try to review some games that serve as examples of those various engines.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

My Top 5 OSR and Non-OSR Indie RPG Roundup

 Friday night while chatting with my wife (who's has avid a gamer as I am,) I ended up discussing what I like about my favorite OSR systems, and my favorite NON-OSR Indie and small developer systems. It turned into kind of a "round up," and I thought I would share it here in a slightly more polished form.

This article isn't as objective as the reviews I usually offer. It's very much subject to my own taste. But, I hope it might help you find games you enjoy if you're anything like me.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Adventure Work in Progress: The Queen of Decay

 "The Princess Bride"  by Ted CoConis ©1974 Ballantine
Inspiration can come from the strangest of places. I wanted to share the background on a work in progress I have about halfway completed.

A sci-fi enthusiast who discusses book covers followed by a lot of the people I follow on Twitter posted this image, which was a 1974 cover for The Princess Bride by Ted CoConis.

There was a lot of discussion about how poorly this cover represents the content of the book. Which I think is a fair appraisal. It's pretty clear that the artist did not read the book, or even have the vaguest idea of what was in it when he designed the cover.

He is, rightly, quite proud of his work and it shows up in his website portfolio. I love the work, but it certainly doesn't scream The Princess Bride to me.

One of the commentators in the original thread, Paula Richey, made this fantastic comment. About how the art loses its appeal given the context. But might be more appropriate for a story about "battling through a hallucinogenic swamp to rescue a hot princess held captive by an evil necromancer."

Needless to say, my Low Fantasy Gaming group were all in agreement that this was a fantastic idea. My GM recommended that we mock it up as a module for a laugh.

As I have my own adventure module template sitting in Google docs, and bookmarks to dozens of pieces of cool fantasy art, I made a mock module, in which I presented the hot princess and The necromancer, as well as a module premise.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Another Example of Campaign Pitches

I would like to share an example of how I write campaign pitches.

Whenever my group finds itself between campaigns, we open the floor too anyone who wants to proposing to run the next campaign. Over the years, my group and I have perfected the gardening one page pitch that tells us a lot about what the group members can expect about a given game.

This document also doubles as a campaign planning cool. And I have described how I use it as such, here and here

Generally speaking, I like to put forward two or three campaign pitches to my group. On a good day, many of the other players will put out at least one. I start with a title, and then a tagline invokes the kind of story I want to tell which is short and pain, comedy, saga, or one shot. I also include the genre intend to use, and some keywords to suggest tone.

After that I give two to three paragraphs that describe the premise of the world and the opening scenario. As well as suggesting some of the content they may run into.

If I felt a need to give a warning over a kind of content in the game, for example: if I plan on having a lot of sex in a campaign, I would mention it here.

I follow that up with one or two paragraphs and a second section talking about my ideas as a GM, this is where I include any important information like time limits, whether or not I'll be using homebrew or module content, and any really big rules adjustments.

Finally, I list some films on the TV shows, novels, and video games that I am using as inspiration for the game.

This most recent pitch document was designed to initiate a more serious and lengthy campaign, after the goofball five session game I ran of the wasted hack over the last month and a bit.

For the record, my playes chose Null Point, so my next step is to write a Primer

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Wargaming Has A Lot to Offer TTRPG Players

Drab Arguments & Dank Memes
Recently a crowd of story game developers started branding Dungeons & Dragons a "wargame."  I thought this a bizarre step in the eternal game of linguistic chess that people seem to like playing these days. D&D might be a lot of thongs, but it certainly isn't a traditional wargame, or even a Freikriegspiel. It is constructed to provide a very different challenge and experience to wargames, and has mechanisms they will never need.

Whether Dungeons & Dragons accomplishes the goals for which it was constructed effectively or not is it worthwhile question. But this is not really the discussion they are trying to have. 

Although, I suspect that part of the problem is that the people playing this game of nomenclature are operating from a narrow, story-telling and play-acting definition of "roleplaying." They are setting out to claim that Dungeons & Dragons is not a role-playing game because it does not exclusively encourage the type of role-playing they enjoy. Again, this has been a linguistic disconnect since the 1980s. They want to exclude versions of the hobby that don't fit their intentionally narrow criteria of it. Which makes their commentary less than useful

Honestly, it wasn't really worth taking the bait on that discussion, but it got me thinking:

I have played a few war-games in my day. GW's, Battlemasters and Warhammer 40,000, and FASA-era BATTLETECH mostly. With as mattering of small indie role-playing games here and there. And I do believe that they have improved my skill as  a GM and amateur game designer considerably. Mostly because it gives you a broader perspective on the whys and wherefores of TTRPGs. 

Here are some of the benefits I have personally gained from playing wargames. 

Monday, October 18, 2021

Planning for a Mystery or Exploration - Driven Campaign

Last night I kicked off a campaign in Low Fantasy Gaming (my favorite retroclone!) and I had a very strong start. In fact, I would say it had the best buy-in I have managed to get from my players in a very long time. I chalk a lot of it up to an adjustment to my planning method.

I returned to Old-School games because I have less time for gaming than I used to; I needed games that were faster, lighter, and more flexible than Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons 5e. I have according ly also been working on trying to find the best combination of tools and techniques for campaign planning.

The Narrative Bumper Pool Method 

Narrative Bumper Pool Diagram 
from XDM: Extreme Dungeon Mastery
By Tracy Hickman
Illustration by Howard Taylor
Traditionally my campaign planning has always been done in a mind map and flowchart. I put together a map of the various conflicts and factions, and how they are likely to collide. Then I create a flowchart of how events from the first adventure can lead the players to following adventures and events in the campaign.

This creates a Narrative Bumper Pool like the ones described in Tracy Hickman's XDM: Extreme Dungeon Mastery. The hooks and opportunities offered at the end of each adventure moves the PCs around a grid of possible events and developments towards a number of possible conclusions.

Of course, players tend to add their own branches and events to the grid. It rarely remains true to the original design.

The bumper pool system is very narrow. You need relatively little information to dive into the campaign and get the players engaged. It balances dynamism with enough constraints to keep the planning moderate. If you are at point D on the chart here, you really only need to plan clearly for E, F, or H.

The problem with the Narrative Bumper Pool method is that you need to make sure players are invested heavily enough by points B or C that they are motivated to keep moving, which means that adventures A, B, and C have to do a lot of heavy world-building and get the players emotionally involved.

And that means you need to pack a lot into them to create that buy-in. It works best if you throw the characters into a struggle for survival, or to defend kith and kin. It predicates your campaign on setting a particular sort of urgent tone.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Powered by the Apocalypse Engine: An Overview

Cover to Apocalypse World 2nd Ed.
Art by Ivan Bliznetsov
©2010 D. Vincent Baker
PbtA Context

After my reviews of Dungeon World and Down and Out in Dredgeburg, it has become clear to me that it would be helpful to my readers if someone put an overview of the Powered by the Apocalypse engine up on the web that offered a neutral and detached view on it. So, I thought it would give the swing in explaining what Powered by the Apocalypse engine is, and what it is for.

Powered by the Apocalypse is a open game engine, meaning that it is a game engine anyone can use without royalties so long as they meet the relatively light requirements of the designer set out in the terms of the engine's system reference document. These are usually modelled on the Open Game License released for the D20 system back in 2000.

An open game engine allows any developer who wants to do to build a new game without having to develop the mechanics of the game from scratch. They simply take an existing game and modified until it is sufficiently different to fit their theme, world, or ideas.

Some other examples of open game engines include: 

  • The d20 system from Wizards of the Coast
  • The Forged in the Dark engine from One Seven 
  • The Mark of the Odd system by Bastionland
  • Every TSR-era edition of Dungeons & Dragons thanks to the legal safe harbor established by OSRIC
  • The upcoming Powered by the Middle Finger by DIY RPG Productions
  • The Open D6 engine.
  • FATE 2.0

What makes Powered by the Apocalypse stand out is that it is extraordinary popular, used by quite a few games. And it is one of two engines that has really defined the Storygame ethos.