Literary Inspiration: Dumas Knows Adventurers All Too Well..

(Taken from the final, 3rd French edition, and using several translations for guidance – including my own)

On the first Monday of the month of April, in the year 1625, the village of Meung (in which the author of “Roman de la Rose” was born) was in such an uproar, it seemed as though the Huguenots had come to turn it into another La Rochelle* of it. Many a citizen, seeing the women flying down the main street, hearing children crying at open doors, hastened to don his cuirass, and, supporting his (somewhat uncertain) courage with musket or a polearm, directed his steps to the hostelry of the Jolly Miller, before which was gathered a compact and rapidly-increasing group both vociferous and curious.     In those days panics were common; few days passed without some city or another recording an event of this kind. There were the nobles, who made war with one another; the King, who made war with the Cardinal; and Spain, who made war with the King. In addition to these wars – concealed or open, private or public – there were brigands, adventurers+, wolves, and Huguenots, who made war upon everyone. The citizens always took up arms against the brigands, wolves and adventurers; often against the nobles and Huguenots; sometimes even against the king – but never against the Cardinal or Spain. The result of their habits, therefore, on this first Monday of April 1625, was that the citizens (hearing the clamor and seeing neither the red and gold of Spain, nor the crimson and white of the Duc de Richelieu++) rushed toward the hostelry of the Jolly Miller..

(The clamor? It was an adventurer being a dick. There follows a lot of D’Artagnan-directed exposition. Another useful passage after the footnotes.)

*La Rochelle had been the site of several major Protestant/Catholic battles already. It was in fact in open revolt against the crown in April 1625, and had been for about 2-3 months depending on who you ask. The Huguenots wouldn’t be “dealt with” by the Crown until August. They were also known as the Rohan Rebellions, after  Duc Rohan de Soubise. Duke Buckingham would, in 1627, provide mercenary and other assistance to the rebellion – Rochelle had historically been a Plantagenet possession through most of the Hundred Years’ War, and staying Protestant and “independent” would give the English a solid foothold. Interestingly, the core plot incidents recorded in Three Musketeers actually happened closer to 1650, but Dumas put them in a more interesting time period. Food for thought for you DMs out there running a historical campaign, because most of Dumas’ readers over the years have literally never known the difference.
+ I’ve translated “mendicants and thieves” here as “adventurers”. It fits. Really well.
++ Interesting how he emphasizes the noble role of His (Red) Eminence Armand Cardinal du Plessis here, where “the Cardinal” was fine for the rest of the intro. I suspect he’s subtly showing the temporal power of the Cardinal independent of both his official title (Prime Minister) and spiritual role – and quietly lumping him in with the “nobles”.

…The same day, the young man set out on his journey, provided with his parental gifts. They consisted, as we said, of fifteen Crowns* the horse+, and the letter to [the commandant of the King’s Musketeers]**…

(note that he also got a sword, which he broke in a duel and had rebladed in Paris; carried a single change of clothes; and got the recipe for a “certain Balsam, which [your mother] got from a Gypsy, and which has the power of curing all wounds that do not reach the heart”. He uses it a lot over the next few weeks, because he’s a teenager++.)

Tell me that doesn’t sound like an adventurer’s gear.

* Probably large silver pieces. He spends most of them on lodging and weapons repair over the course of the next few days.
+ A very, very bad horse, which still gets good time on the road; it starts at least one duel for our young Gascon, and he sells it against his father’s advice literally the instant he hits Paris – for three Crowns more.
** Stolen, by the Big Bad – because our hero is, wait for it, kind of a big-mouthed dickhead.
++As an herbalist, the healing ointment – insofar as they describe it – is mostly a disinfectant. It’d also keep you smelling fresh and clean. Would probably be an abortifacent if you gave it to a pregnant woman.

So, to sum up; we are presented with a fairly compelling vision of a young Fighter starting his career. He is poor, but pretty geared-up, especially with that healing salve. He dumps his sword on a “shall be splintered” roll (now there’s a thought. Letting a player “splinter” a weapon voluntarily to exploit his opponent’s honor and end a fight with a minimum of lost face)  and repairs it once he gets to town. The entire countryside is in an ideal condition for adventurers. War is everywhere, patrons seek out brave and/or stupid men to do their dirty work, and all manner of bastards exploit the timult to rob etc. The rest of the party is already established, if partially wounded, and he joins them by insulting all three of them by mistake or design (Porthos was totally on purpose, and mostly D’Artagnan being a dick) before having their (illegal) duels interrupted by a “random” encounter. He constantly wrecks or loses his shit, and what little he has rapidly becomes a motivator for the character. The DM, meanwhile, has merrily re-edited the source material to make the campaign more fun for the players, and is playing pretty damned fast and loose with continuity.

Projects pending

4 signatures punched for a mini-book binding test run. Still need some scrap cloth for the covers. Once I get the system down I’ll do a couple octavos of the art-free LotFP books with interior design fabric and wood-braced covers. Should be fun! (The mini-books are being used for a second project that I’m still working on)

Also, I got wood (hurrhurr) to throw together a couple of prop weapons. I figure with S-con coming up, I can advertise for that bespoke prop-making service I’ve been bullshitting about for – Lord, like 8 years now. Now that I’ve got the casting tools and expertise, it’ll be even easier.

About Kickstarters

I’ve seen a lot of pissing and moaning about kickstarters coming in lately.
I don’t care. Why?

I don’t pre-fund things that aren’t already made unless I get something out of it right away. Every kicker I’ve invested in has already paid off in spades. The first question I ask myself when I see a Kickstarter is, “Would I still be happy if this is delivered a year or more late” and the second is, “What if it’s never delivered at all – how much will I get out of this if it fails?”  Yes, I’m a whore. But I’m also investing in things that pay off for me right now. And I assume most of these will be late. For fuck’s sake, professionals can’t even deliver a video game on-time 90% of the time.

Let’s take a look at some of the ones I’ve funded:
Towers Two (and by extension the other adventures in the funding blitz) $175 (by far my largest drop, and about 2.5% of the total cash raised)
Payback thus far:
Backstage passes, free tickets to a GWAR concert I was already going to. $60-100
2 T-shirts, posters, etc. $40
Free hard copy of module T-1 and the Ready Ref Sheets $20-100+ (someone else was running a side-promotion of which I took advantage)

Still not delivered:
5 modules, print and PDF (the 4 that funded, plus a separate one that Jim’s writing) – Orphone, Broodmother, Towers Two, Horror among Thieves. ~$100
Sandbox by a Judges’ Guild veteran ~$20-25

Total payoff:
At least $240, of which I’ve already arguably received more than my money’s worth.

Grindhouse Edition hardback $30
Payback thus far:
Jack over shit.
Still not delivered:
Adventure module by Ken Hite, Print/PDF ~$20
Hardback of the rules: ~$30
Total Payoff:
~$50, plus getting the rules proofread and reissued in a format I prefer.

Better Than Any Man $30
Payback thus far:
Pdfs of several things I’ve wanted to buy anyway, coming out to about $40
Not yet delivered:
Print copies of Another Shitty Adventure and BTAM, pdf copies of all 5 side adventures, and another reward pdf
Total payoff:
At least $50 already. Plus the post about its cover, which has made me laugh harder than most professional comedians have ever done.

Total return on my investments: $200+ cash-in-hand for $235 laid out; potential return is as much as $500. The things I got are ones that I likely wouldn’t have been able to justify buying for months, if at all.  To be brutally honest, even if one or more of these projects fail, I’m still going to be happy I spent that money.
Furthermore, Jim Raggi has already delivered on crowdfunded projects, and the quality of his work is impeccable. He has a reputation for dealing fairly and swiftly with his artists, who are themselves veterans. It’s damned likely I’ll get what I’m “actually” paying for, and it will be worth it.

The reason I didn’t drop dosh on Dwimmermount, by contrast, is that I’d already seen James M. crack up under pressure on his own blog. But if I had, I already knew that he’s got a habit (as most of us do) of taking three times as long to do something as he thinks he needs. James M. has produced a small offering, which was decent but not overwhelming – and produced later than he estimated. He’s dealing with professional artists, some of whom aren’t doing much pro work these days – but has little reputation with them as an employer. Notice, too, that all the rewards at reasonable funding levels are things that aren’t made yet. Each adds even more time to the process of getting it out the door; expansions, which add more time onto the development process, and increasingly deluxe presentations of the core item, which delay and balkanize its production. I had no reason other than my personal affection for the man to give him money, especially since most of that material is going to be freely available if the product ever gets published at all.

It sounds a little sociopathic, perhaps, but in the end Kickstarting something is investing in it; all investing is a gamble. Don’t play a sucker’s game when there’s something around the corner with better odds. Research your investment, and make damned sure that you can afford to lose the money. If you’re spending thirty bucks, remember that that’ll get you a module or two or a supplement book, or half of a rulebook in hardcopy right now from your LGS, who could probably use the cash…

An Origin Story

Zenopus asked us to describe our experiences with Holmes Basic.
In 1989, at the age of 8, I played my first game of D&D (whitebox) with my father’s group. It was his goodbye session, as far as I can remember, played before we moved to the sticks. Players included myself, my dad, the son of a local author, my sister’s Godfather, and a future Grand Arch-Druid. I learned many important things (not all bears are talking bears, for example…), lost my first two characters (neither to the aforementioned bear), and had an enormous amount of fun. But this is the tale of my Holmes.

Christmas 1989 (which I still accord the title of Best Christmas Ever), my now 9-year-old self acquired 2 things that would shape me for years to come. One was a boxed set of Squad Leader, lighting off my devotion to hex-and-counter wargames, not to mention wargames design. The other was a second printing of Holmes, with an unexpected bonus: it also had the books from the Mentzer Basic set within. I rapidly settled on Holmes as my primary source, mostly because his set seemed more dedicated to actually playing the game (see: advice on non-human characters, which which I ran rampant for years). Granted, the Mentzer book was destroyed by a cat about 8 months later – whereas I jealously guarded my Holmes until several pages literally crumbled from use in my late teens. I kept the dice for almost a decade before I lost the last, hopelessly-rounded D20 down a drain in Pensacola.

Anyway, that boxed set served me well. Synthesizing those two books made me realize the value of grabbing things I like from multiple game systems; the elipses in both taught me to house-rule and craft my own content. It also taught me to bash together new rules and systems if the rules didn’t give me what I needed. I used it to run everything from Oz to Narnia*, Star Wars to the Three Musketeers. I even used it as the core of a Lego wargame my brothers and I played intermittently for years. My current brand of D&D is built on it; the first question I ask whenever I see a new system or quirk is, “Will what this adds to the game for me or my players be worth the difficulty over just hauling out Holmes?”.
The dungeons were also most useful.
I consider “In Search of the Unknown” to be a vital part of Holmes. It adds important rules; the hireling supplement in the back of B1 is an orphaned part of the rulebook, and I’ve used its distinctions between henchmen and hirelings ever since. I’ve also found that people who cut their teeth on B2 seem to ignore hirelings as a fact of life. Likewise, the example of the drowning rules under the hallway pit trap give an excellent example of ways to create new rules on the fly. In fact, B1 shaped my perception of D&D more than almost any other source. I’ve run that dungeon into the ground (8, 10 times now?) and people still come back for more. It still kills the stupid and unwary, but it’s not deliberately unfair. The traps are tough, but avoidable (especially for a prepared party). The dead party at the entrance makes the newbies’ hair stand on end, and simultaneously searching them makes the players instantly aware (if they have any brains at all) that there are intelligent monsters up ahead.  The treasures are unique and require creative thinking and ingenuity to extract. The rumors are hilarious.

Years later, in Lemoore, I finally replaced my Holmes set after a good bit of dabbling in 1e and 2e AD&D; 3e was about to come out, and the purchase was initially just for nostalgia’s sake.
It’s worth remembering here that I am a Navy man. 2001 marked my first deployment, and my carrying space was obscenely limited. I had to pack the maximum entertainment value into as small a space as possible; though I didn’t know it, my “1-month” shakedown cruise was about to turn into a 10-month parade of bullshit. I’d brought only the 3e core books, Spycraft, and some 40k/Battlefleet Gothic books. I played three campaigns on that boat, but none of them were all that fulfilling, and I found it increasingly annoying that so much of our games depended on leafing through pages of rules rather than just playing the damned game; that replacing a character became a 3-hour+ exercise in tweaking so no-one put in anything “deadly”.
On the next (allegedly 5-month, actually 10-month) cruise I stuffed my Holmes into the briefcase with my 2e PHB and DMG *(I used the 1e MMs almost exclusively with 2e, simply because it had less extraneous text and a lot more information on playing with the monsters..) and BESM, another simple, compact, and flexible game system. Guess which ones I actually ran? After that, I still ran 3e on request, but I gave up on it about 6-7 years ago – about a year before I found the OSR, as luck would have it.

Today, Mr. Holmes’ creation has the honored “right next to my elbow” place on my bookshelf, inside a folder with T1, B1, and B2; it’s next to my Judges’ Guild folders and the LotFP books.

Project Log: Pinewood Derby (Gary’s)

So every year Kayce runs a pinewood derby at Gary’s (see sidebar) (Gary’s has since, sadly, closed.) to celebrate her birthday. They’ll post more stuff on the Facebook page later, along with a vote for the prettiest car.
Anyway, this is the first year I participated, finally feeling comfortable enough to try. Bought a standard Woodland Scenics $4 kit with a 2×2 block, some axles, and some wheels.

400 and 600 grit 3M sanding blocks.
Gerber pocket knife
X-acto (#2 blades), razor saw (used to start the hacksaw cuts)
Bargain-bin Hacksaw. I think I got it from Harbor Freight like 6 years ago.
JB Weld “Qwik Wood”
Various Deco Art acrylic paints

Step one: Roughing and carving the block.
Partway through the first cut I belatedly realized that I have a blog, and random people might actually like to see this.
SDC10029This is partway through the first cut. You can see the roughed-out design freehanded with pencil on the side of the block here. It changed a little, of course. This is ~3PM

SDC10030Started whittling.  Don’t worry, I patch that horrid fuck-up in the hood later.
SDC10032Mostly finished with the sanding now. You can see my knife in the top right corner here – had to sharpen the blade 5 times before I was finished.
The kitchen floor in the aftermath… After that, it was bondo time.
Here you can see some of the stuff I was roughing out for the decorations. Unfortunately, none of the pictures I took of this step came out :/

Step two: Detailing and painting.
SDC10037Detailed and basecoated. 2 Reaper Bones kobolds, a Games Workshop Land Raider hatch and Rhino hatch arranged like an Israeli/British turret, part of some weird Dr. Frankenstein diorama I bought ages ago (see the comment below for the post where I finally IDd the damn thing), a shitload of Green Stuff, and an Unseen Rifleman (actually a 1/300 Macross destroid) arm. Chain is from my inexhaustible supply of crappy aluminum quarter-machine jewelry chains, anchored with green stuff. You can tell the thing on the head of the “gunner” kobold was supposed to be a taco hat, because pirate kobolds. This was taken around 7:30 PM.

SDC10040First bascoat layer. After this I went to do other shit for the night (cook dinner, watch Deep Space 9 with my wife, etc); ~8:30 PM.

Day Two: Painting.
Started at 9:45 AM. Had to leave by noon-thirty, so I had to bust ass to get this done.
SDC10043In this shot, the varnish is still wet, ~1205. Unfortunately, it started to frost, and I had to patch it.  Text on left side reads “Luv Waggin” and on the right is a “20” inside a triangle. “JATO” in stencils on the rocket pack on the back.
SDC10050SDC10049The Van De Graff generator on the ass-end. I wonder how bad-ass it would be if it went into the red? :b
Note that the “pirate hat” has now, sadly? devolved into a pompadour, but it’s still sufficiently awesome to require no redo.

SDC10055Finally, a shot of me and the other racers on race day (I won!). Kayce’s Twinkie in the middle, Tim entered the Gandalf wagon to its left. (Entries are arranged in order from first place in the races on the right, to last on the left). There’s still a contest for best-looking racer, which will also go up on the Gary’s facebook page.

BTAM Kicker

(edit) Now funded. Wewt, loot, all that.

Resolution progress

Total so far:
5 pages, tabletop wargame (this has been on hiatus for about, oh, 4 years or so. Feels good to get back in the saddle, but I still have the hardest part to go before alpha).
11 pages, D&D/LotFP module (this one’s bleeding into a megadungeon already..)
3 pages, D&D/LotFP monsters
2 pages, miscellaneous musings
Plus various errata notes for the new BT releases.

So far, so good. I’m polishing an essay from last year right now, which I’ll be posting (in two parts?) later. It is, of course, long-winded and pontificatory.

The Butcher

This is what happens when I’m allowed to have an Atlas, plasticard, and rum at the same time.
Needs work on the RT Hazard stripes, cleaver handle, feet, and one more “depth” ink coat before I highlight and seal it. Oh, and redo the “cigar” flamer, the last one looked like ass and I had to pull it. Anti red-eye wrecked some of the highlights, alas.

Runs at almost 70 KPH, flies, breathes fire, shoots lightning from its crotch, does over 70 damage at point-blank range (and can literally carve anything under 45 tons in half, breaching anything <60t, with one cleaver hit to the CT), can continue to balance TSM heat even with half the ‘Mech shot off, and mounts a staggering 19 tons of armor.


Went to Portland all weekend to assist in the christening of my heathenous nieces.  Contracted a foul wet cough and an embarrassing cracking voice; slept for a grand total of less than 8 hours over three days. I’m going to bed.

From the Archive: The Hunger

I am Erich of Halleschtat, sometime called the Faithless. Much have I seen, and many foul things are dead by my hand. Hear my testimony, and be forewarned.

A Gaunt Thing is a spirit of Starvation and Want. When it be seen, it prowleth at night about the edges of any campsite raised within miles of its lair. It do plead most piteously from without the circle of fire for the gift of a morsel or warmth. It shall remain beyond the reach of torch or firelight unless it be invited, and disappeareth at dawn but to return the next even. If one be so foolish as to extend welcome, it will seem affable, but hungry. First it shall inexorably devour all offered foodstuffs, then seize those unoffered, and finally seek to rend and eat its very hosts and their beasts. It will devour the light and heat of a fire , and it is healed by flames. They grow swifter and tougher as they feed, bloating into a fearsome aspect.

Allowing one into the fire’s light or slaying it within the circle will summon as many as a half-dozen more, who will arrive over the following hour. These too must be invited in to enter, but will wheedle, curse, cajole, and threaten their targets constantly and loudly. While besieged by the Gaunt Ones, characters must successfully strive against their Spells each night for each and every Gaunt One plaguing them, or they will find no restful sleep.

Dogs howl at their approach, and horses go mad with fear. Even the cruelest of monsters will be driven off in fear or devoured if they approach the Gaunt; if the Gaunt flee during the night, you would do well to follow their example! Remember too, that an “Invitation” can be broad, as one of my own expeditions did find to their chagrin, and traveling without a flame in their haunts is ill-advised. They are vulnerable to Magics, the juices of waybroad, and to iron, but fade away when slain – seemingly only to multiply as their fellows fall. A Gaunt One in its first aspect is the work of a moment to slay (can you but strike it), but its teeth and claws are as daggers, striking in heedless phrensy when assaulted (or, as my late Portraiter Michaud discovered, when struck by the actinic light of Magnesium). Yet I have felled bears more easily than the first which we encountered.

Thinking these fell things but a backwards tribe in need of succor, we unthinkingly offered warmth and feed unto the first we encountered. Soon we played the hosts to a small pau-wau, each babbling in a chatter much like the local patois. But no other words could we pry from them, of their tribe or their plight, save extasy at the food and speech of an increasing lust for meat. We were astounded at the growth of the first creature, and my chronicler prepared his contraptions to document the Beasts.
Many times have I heard the old saw that a portrait or reflection steals away a bit of the soul, but never did I believe it until after the battle, when I saw what showed on the cracked plate within.


Our greater knowledge of the Gaunt came at a steep price. Fully two day’s travel it took us, and the crossing of some unknown torrent, before the last of the Gaunt abandoned us. But five of the expedition survived; all the Natives had fled in the melee of the first night. We found two of them on the morning, but the Gaunt had found them first.  Weary and half-mad with lack of sleep, even Dulac (who had slept on the trail to be fresh for guarding in the night) succumbed to the Night. An ambuscade by a great Reptile in the night claimed Dulac, and two of the fingers of my hand – but I shall speak of the rest of our escape another day. Know, then, that these beasts may only truly be conquered through a hardened heart and swift legs.

Gaunt Things
# appearing: 1 (but see below)
HD: 1, +1 per feeding turn
AC: 12
#ATT: 2,, @1d4 per.
Morale: 4 initially, 12 once fed.
Special Attack: Keening.
Special Defense: Half damage from most weapons (see below). No matter how they appear, however, they are inimical Fae and not Undead..

Gaunt Things are initially repelled by fire, and must be invited into firelight or a defined structure (a tent counts, but not a campsite).  If uninvited, the Gaunt Things will snivel, plead, and scream just outside the area they cannot enter; characters must save vs. Magic or lose the benefits of that night’s sleep. As the sun rises, all of the Gaunt Things will vanish, to return at sundown. Each night the party successfully resists their groveling, however, 1d3 will disappear permanently.

If invited, or if they are able to infiltrate an unlit campsite, they gain 1HD per Turn spent feeding on the party’s resources. They will first take what is offered, then beg for (and attempt to seize) more. Feeding or killing one summons 1d6 more within a Turn. Summoned  Gaunt Things divide any additional HD the slain one possessed among themselves as equally as possible. Gaunt Things always use the Charge or Press actions in combat.
Weapons wrought from cold iron or hawthorne, magic or enchanted weapons (even banefully-enchanted ones), and plantain-coated weapons do full damage; all others cause only half. Plantain-root powder does 1d4 damage if cast into one’s face. The beast’s true reflections can be seen in free-flowing water and silver mirrors; if cameras are present, they work as well.

No  other “monster” or “animal” random encounters will appear as long as the party is stalked by the Gaunt, and a party on the march will instead find at least one of these creatures viciously mauled and partly-devoured instead. At your option, some or all of the Gaunt Things may gain HD from consuming these creatures.

Reviews: My Criteria, & a Template.

After publishing a few reviews, I noticed that I haven’t really explained my basis for my RPG product ratings all that well. Consider this a manifesto and an explanation in equal measure.

I may seem critical in my reviews, but to paraphrase Tolstoy – the Good things are always more limited (and alas, easy to pass over in some cases) than the infinitude of possible errors and minute shades of Bad and/or just Not Good. I go in with teeth bared and blood in my eyes, but I never expect something to be perfect. I expect it to be average.

So.. what do I like in a game?
I like pulp that punches you in the balls and steals your Priceless Artifact for its Nazi Dinosaur employers.
I like Giant Robots that are only as good as their pilots, locked in strife, as Romance and Madness rage in the background.
I like stratified and vicious intrigue in the halls of power, where pulling a weapon means you’ve lost; where carefully-aimed scandal and boardroom sausage-making are the deadliest tools.

More germanely to this blog, I like Weird-ass fantasy.
Oz, Spencer, the fever-dreams of Dunsany and Coleridge, and my own ongoing folklore studies have influenced my tastes more than Tolkien or Lieber. Even Narnia is my kind of Weird, in its own way. Fey monsters with shortcuts to victory if you can only break the Magic that holds them in this world. Beasts that walk like Men (good, bad, hungry.. as long as they aren’t constantly going for “sexy” I’m down).
I like my hideous, twisted Evil beings to cackle madly and ride the Devil in the night. The cold, beautiful evils in the heights to sell their souls for power. The petty Evil of all men to turn away its eyes and damn itself with the easy path. I want the Good of a simple man to cut through it and blaze out over the world, even as his fellows turn, fall, fail, and die facing the corruption of the world. And I want every one of them as a potential player, not just the Heroes.
My games, unfortunately, have often been much more generic :/

I want my players to say, “Fuck you, I’m not going out on a mountain in a snowstorm” not because the cold will kill them, but in fear of the Yuki-onna and the Jotun; they must fear the forest not just for the HD of the monsters within, but for the half-seen things sniffing hungrily at their souls. (Links to follow as I post some of the more fucked-up monsters I’ve come up with in the last year..).
I’ve succeeded there on more than one occasion, up to the point where I had my players in near-hysterical paranoia in a sewer, up against 3HD worth of monsters.

I prefer my magic to be a rare and nifty double-edged blade rather than generic. Check the Archive posts to see what I mean. I like it when players seriously debate selling treasure, when they start keeping track of that sage three towns over who studies Dark Runes and spends his time collecting the inscribed Gem-Idols used by the Melniboniean emperors as currency.
Again, I’ve been dragged too often down the easy path, although keeping a commonplace book to jot down ideas I have, say, on the bus has helped greatly there. Damn you, ADD, I’ve probably lost more gaming material over the last 2 decades than I’ll ever publish.

I want my players to go off the rails, because they were a faint suggestion in the first place: I want them to MAKE a story, not “tell it with me”. I’m a referee, and hopefully always will be, not a Storyteller. I don’t want A Story for them to play out in what I buy. I want the web of relationships within a scenario explained, and hopefully some of the motivations behind them; I can riff off of a motivation a lot easier if I don’t have to infer it from reading the entire damned thing. Also, the players NEED to be able to fail meaningfully without necessarily destroying their entire adventure. I’m a mechanic: single points of failure (SPoF) – areas where failing stops everything cold – have no place in a working system constantly exposed to hostile action.

So here are my categories, along with a quick explanation of their rankings.
Could I use this on its own merits? Is the thing playable out of the box? File Formatting, Maps, and encounters all fold in, as does organization. Hiding critical encounter clues inside a monster stat-block three pages away from the first room they appear in is the tiniest bit counterproductive. If I can’t read your shitty hand-written and scanned prop, I can’t expect my players to do so. Language use is judged here on its function and clarity, not its artistic merits. If your writing is incoherent and ambiguous, I can’t adjucate with it.

1/10: Basically unusable. The file crashes my e-reader, pages are garbled, multiple critical parts of the content are left out. The author’s language leaves my eyes bleeding, or he makes retarded font choices. Also, the book could be severely disorganized, especially in PDF form. I have to generate craploads of content just to play (not to adapt, but to play it as intended). Maps and props are ugly and unpleasant to use (blueprint blues..). The book requires another supplement or secondary book to function (if you need a basic, “core” book you don’t get shafted here. Likewise, I consider the intent of the module: B1 is as much an exercise in learning to place encounters as it is a training module for the characters).
5/10: Readable, workmanlike, and functional. There are some annoyances, perhaps no index or Table of Contents, or page numbers are not marked. Some language errors, but no ambiguity in the actual rules text. Maps and handouts are readable, if occasionally hard to cross-reference.
10/10: Well-laid out. Finding information inside is a pleasure, and the writing is completely error-free. The maps are clear and may even include insets for particularly tricky or annoying bits. Chapters are coherent and arranged in a logical order. Files use hyperlink cross-references, and are well-bookmarked. All of the information I need to pick up and run is inside the covers.

I assume I’ll have to do at least some hacking with anything I buy – swapping out some of the encounters, changing out treasures, adapting backstories, whatever. This is a measure of how much work it will be for me to use it on the table, and how easy it will be for me to drop it in front of my players. Backstory (along with a bit of the encounters) folds into this as well. Canned encounters are a shortcut, but they make returning to the area difficult. You will likely have to excise and replace them if the players leave.

I’ll have to rewrite this completely, spending a week or more, to play with it. It could be impossible to put it into a campaign world other than the “intended” one.
B1 gets a pass on content, for example, as it’s an exercise in teaching a GM to key encounters. Dragonlance.. not so much. It may be awesome, but bludgeoning the “Awesome” into something other than railroad tracks takes an offensive amount of effort.
5/10: Requires some hacking, probably a couple day’s serious work and brainstorming. There are several elements that, even in a book from which I wouldn’t use everything, I want to steal.
10/10: Holy shit, I want to use this right now. Hacking is minimal, or assumed and accommodated in a non-insulting way – preferably with some simple suggestions. Whole chunks of the product can be lifted and dropped, even between genres, and they make me want to.

Weirdness/flavor, modularity, and utility are always in tension – you add detail to increase the flavor, and every one is a potential chain to the creator’s expectations about the game or to his own assumed world. I like Weird, but not everyone does.

Weirdness generally only applies to Fantasy; flavor is for other genres, and covers the amount of story – NOT STORYTELLING – that will help me get my head into the scenario. The baseline on this is pretty conservative – I expect most modules not to be especially Weird, although I judge modules set in a Weird ‘verse like Oz much more harshly if they ain’t. Weird is a measure of how many encounters are ones that screw with the players or their perceptions, and how much of an odd flavor there is to the occupants. Flavor, by comparison, is the amount of self-contained information presented. Mysteries (solved or not – I can run with either. How many of the things described are related to each other, and how intriguing or inspiring are the connections?
Lizardmen “who are at war with the Kobolds”? Bleah.
“Within the cave lies a trapped, transcendental visionary society of gaunt albino lizardmen. They worship the god of Hunger, and make sacrifices by eating and letting their god steal away their sustenance. They snatch eggs from other creatures to give their god the nascent life-energy within. Kobolds are particularly favored, but almost any young creature will do” Oh Hell yes.
Likewise, the ratio of flavorful magic to “yet another +1, ooh, there must be something with non-magic weapon resistance” shit.

1/10: Banal, pulp in the worst sense of the word. All encounters are straight fights, with only tactics to differentiate them. Any magic is taken straight from another product without embellishment, or offers only simple mechanical bonuses.
5/10: There’s the germ of a couple of interesting things, an interestingly odd monster, or a good framework on which to build. Something I see in it immediately inspires me to embellish the module in a creative way.
10/10: Ju-On.

How much do the non-combat obstacles to the players hinder them? Can they be overcome with wit and ingenuity, or only with luck? How interesting are they? Are there rewards, or do the traps just fuck you over? While you might consider rumors to be just Weirdness/Flavor, they allow you to seed out-of-context clues for your players as well as contextual cues. And lie to them, of course, but enough have to be true that the PCs seriously consider every rumor they know.

1/10: No puzzles/traps, all combat. All of the puzzles and traps can be defeated with simple Skill rolls. The players are punished for being sensible when they’re not under time pressure, or a single trap can end the adventure instantly and is unavoidable. Few, if any, secret doors, or multiple secret doors are absolutely required to accomplish the central goal. Secret areas required to advance are hidden in nonsensical parts of the map, and can’t be found by means other than skill rolls or blunt “pass or lose your arm” choices with no clues whatsoever.
5/10: Some bland, some interesting, but the mechanism is sufficiently-explained that a reasonably ingenious character can get through. Most of the traps have at least one indicator to a cautious party, and all the puzzles have a clue available to the PCs in some way.
10/10: The non-combat sections are engaging. Secret doors open options to the party, rather than blocking all progress; when you die to a trap, it’s probably your fault. The party stands a significant chance of losing a resource other than HP or henchmen – like getting their maps fucked up, or risking an anti-magic field to open doors elsewhere, or even losing time. Riddles are always a plus. There are multiple clues to puzzles and traps, and they aren’t always right in front of your nose.
Note: The Tomb of Horrors rates about a 2 on this scale. Most of the traps are bullshit or non-sequitur, you have to progress through a completely linear series of challenges that test your Saving Throws more than your noggin, and the reward is getting boned in the arse (see what I did there?)

Character Engagement:
Your player, standing at metaphorical entrance to your module, will ask himself one question. “Why the fuck am I going in there when I could be getting ale and whores”. Money and power only motivate for so long. Revenge (legitimate revenge, not “haha, I killed your backstory, now go get the guy responsible”) is always good, but hard to integrate into the START of the thing. Treasures of virtue (You saved our children! You have our eternal gratitude! <3) are a great motivation for virtuous characters. But.. well.. yeah. Hen’s teeth. Mystery, especially potentially lethal ones, is always fun.
You have to tread a fine line here; herding PCs is like herding cats. A good module will have fish, wet food, a spot of catnip and a sumbeam at the end, and a fleabath looming behind.

1/10: All rewards are in GP, there is no reason for the characters to adventure other than “we are adventurers”, and nothing encourages them to remain but masochism and the desire to play the game. “So this old guy walks up to you and points you to the Adventurer’s Guild Help Wanted board, and..”. The adventure opens with a 5-page canned sequence and/or a script. Emotions are forced on the characters on a regular basis. Likewise, there may be a “triggered-cutscene” plot which motivates the characters only into jumping the rails.
5/10: Some non-monetary rewards, and if the players leave they might come back instead of moving on. Special encounters inside or outside the adventure area offer a goal with a reward other than “all the cash you can carry”. Even if it’s “you won’t get enslaved/executed”.
10/10: Your players asked to return, and don’t even quote Monty Python for upwards of 30 minutes at a time. You wind up looking at the clock at some point and going “Holy shit, when did that happen?”, and the only place left open for you to eat at is Denny’s.

Treasure Engagement
Bluntly, will the players feel wealthier at the end of the module, or just richer? Are they keeping treasure as savings for an equipment/character upgrade, or because they like it? How much of the non-magic treasure isn’t sacks of coins? Are they likely to use some or all of the treasure as a tool rather than sell it? Are the players going to have to – and choose to – go out of their way to get it out? B1 was always especially strong in this regard, with treasures ranging from old tapestries to a room full of preserved tools and a set of weightlifting gear.

1/10: All coins/generic jewels, all the time. Perhaps the designer of the module offloads all of the treasure generation onto a random table in another product, or leaves all the goodies in the open.
5/10: Several items are unique, and there are at least a few consumable resources for the party.  Jewelry is well-described if present, and there’s at least one themed hoard. The players face a choice of what to bring out, and there’s a reason to take one or more items of lower cash value.
10/10: Supplies and other items are scattered throughout. Some treasures have obscure worth, while others are valuable but bulky and fragile. Players must make (educated?) guesses about what to bring out, and there is a strong flavor to many or most of the items.

This is subjective as all hell, of course. Your mileage will vary, but I will always explain why I like or dislike the aesthetics of a certain product. I tend towards surrealism.. but then my favorite artists range from woodcutters to Japanese pornographers to Pre-Raphaelites, and I can appreciate a well-crafted example of an art style I dislike. Here I judge the beauty of the author’s language and font choices, not their raw utility. The art should reflect on the text – it’s not enough to have a pretty picture, let me see and feel what I’m trying to make my players experience. If that be revulsion, grotesquerie and offense, so the fuck be it, but make me experience something.

1/10: May have no art at all. Comic Sans and Times New Roman throughout. The layout is messy, and its language infelicitous. Words may be used wrongly, or there is a glaringly non-sequitur picture inserted.
5/10: The author clearly put some thought into the layout. What art there is is related to the text, although it may be displaced. The art is decent, if not inspired, or there’s a particularly excellent choice somewhere within. Word choices show the author is aiming for a tone, and most of the sections of the book have consistent style(s).
10/10: Excellent art and language choices. The tone of the work is not only consistent, but evocative; the art not just technically excellent, but inspiring. Tricky or key set-pieces are illustrated, and well. The book looks good on your shelf and in your hands.

An average of the other scores I’ve awarded, and a summary of my opinion.
It doesn’t have to score highly in all categories to get a good rating. One of my favorite gaming books is artistically atrocious and basically unusable as written, but tremendously inspiring and modular. And no, it’s not the 1e AD&D books, although that was a good guess. It’s a “systemless” book, and among the many sections are a compilation of monsters from folklore and medieval bestiaries, and a summary of herb lore and sorcerous devices. The rest of the book is trash, and I have many primary sources to draw from scattered around the house, but it’s lightweight and incredibly useful as a summary if I need something now. The same is true of the Judges’ Guild Ready Ref Sheets. I also have a few supplements for games I don’t even play. They have little to no “utility”, or are atrocities on the engagement front, but the flavor, inspiration, and aesthetic value keep them on my shelf.
Finally, I’m a cheapass. If I say I’m happy I bought something it means I not only consider it above-average, but felt it was worth money I could have spent on, say, steaks.

Review: Bluholme: The Maze of Neuromen

Picked up this module for free from RPGNow; you can get it here. Been flipping through it all day.

The short and vicious:
Gorgeous art, good ideas, inspiring – but many parts seem badly uninspired. You get far more than you pay for. I’m a cheapass and I’d probably drop $15 on a print version.
More after the jump (and, of course, spoilers)

A Rhyme

Against the sky of Clover’s Dale
a ruined steeple tall.
No rain, it seem, may strike the ground
Within its roofless walls.

No preacher dwell within its bounds.
No other kirks abide.
& in this town of Clovers fell
no images reside.

All smilingly the streets they stride,
bell’s-tower see they not.
No words do speak of God his Keep,
& time seems long forgot

Raggi’s at it again
I want this to happen. So much. Although some of the joke shit he’s doing can go hang.

Literary Inspiration: Oz is Weird, and you should like it.

So, Oz was my first fandom. It’s always been an influence on my roleplaying, and it’s why (in large part) I’m into the Weird. I’d read all of Baum (archival link) before I had ever even heard of Lovecraft (archive)Dunsany (archive), or Smith. (archive)
I want to do a write-up for Oz as a background for Weird role-playing, and I will one day play a game there again (I ran an Oz game with Holmes as a teenager, but haven’t returned since). At the least, I’m working on an essay about its Weirdness, and how you can use its influence in-game

Below the break, as an example, I present the first chapter of The Road to Oz, one of the later books. Read it through. If this isn’t an amazing random encounter with a wizard/fae, I’m a monkey’s uncle. And my sisters don’t go for simians.
It makes for an excellent adventure hook, and the Shaggy Man is a perfect example of a random encounter that isn’t dangerous. It could be – that’s part of what makes Oz what it is. The Love Magnet is a terrifying, horrible thing, and in the wrong hands.. *shudder*. But as it is, the Shaggy Man is a good being (if Chaotic as all Hell), and Dorothy is a Good Girl of the kind that traipses through Faery without fear.

Wanted Poster