Lusus Naturae (Review, LotFP)

Three years ago today, I opened this nerdy little candy stand, averaging a post every five days. Cool.
Let’s celebrate by getting into Lusus Naturae, the first explicit (and boy is it..) Lamentations of the Flame Princess “monster manual”. It’s written by Rafael Chandler, best known in my circles for the Teratic Tome (a universal monster book that just leans heavily on LotFP). It’s serviceably, and occasionally beautifully, illustrated by Gennifer Bone. You can find the pdf here (link) for fifteen bucks. Print version’s expected soonish, but it needs to get shipped from Finland.

So, first, some pontificating, so you know where I’m coming from.
I define “Horror” as “The fear of impending, but uncertain violation”. The violation can be of your body, mind, or assumptions about the structure of the world (psyche?). The uncertainty isn’t just if it will happen, but also when, how, and in what manner. An important part of horror is that you feel, on some level, deprived of agency – usually by biological reactions or simply the apparent futility of action. To defeat it, you must reassert your ability not just to act, but act meaningfully.
Roleplaying games are celebrations of agency; therefore, you’ve got to balance seeming helplessness with the possibility of success. Mystery helps (adding uncertainty), as does things that screw with the rules of the game (see: assumptions about the structure of the world). Players should know that the characters can die, or be horribly affected. On the other hand, only shitty authors coughFatalcough see “violation” and think “RAPE ALL DAY EVERYDAY”. Parasites, mutation, loss of control over personal space, having secrets wrested from you.. all are unpleasant and (properly played) horrifying outcomes.
Lusus Naturae is one of the better horror gaming aids I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t need a Sanity mechanic to make the players start screaming and setting each other on fire..

What it ain’t: This isn’t meant to be “all the monsters” for a campaign. It’s not really a source for wandering monsters, either – though a couple things would certainly be appropriate.
What it does: Adds/adapts a treasure system to Lamentations. Contains an assortment of horrifying, modular mini-Mythosoi with accompanying additions to to your campaign world. Fucks with players.

What’s it about?
Lusus Naturae is basically a dozen metal album covers made into a book. There are some truly Lovecraftian enemies that will alter your campaign world if they show up. The treasure and magic items are highly-portable, and several are quite interesting. You can use at least a couple things in the book at almost any level of play, and you can challenge a low-level party without instantly reducing them to a fine red mist (the main problem with the critters from the MMII, the Fiend Folio, and the assorted “Deities” books in 1e).
It’s also deliberately, sometimes extremely, offensive – and on pretty much every possible level. There was shit in there that skeeved me out, and I used to work as a search engine tester. Many things in the book alter or rewrite the rules; you have to pay attention while using it.

What’s new about it?:
There are several innovations I like, and some I’ve already incorporated into my own campaign. Specifically, several of the summoned monsters have ill omens or Harbingers associated with their appearance. I’m adding them onto the “Omens” section of my random encounter tables.
I’ve also spoken about Death Curses and Desecration penalties elsewhere. I think they’re an excellent, thematic way of adding a little unpredictability to the game. I’ll post more on my current mechanics later. That said, Chandler has expanded on the classic idea to include boons/banes/weird magical things that happen to the person who strikes a killing blow against some of the monsters. These range from small mechanical bonuses or maluses, to extremely specific magical abilities or information and tools. Not every monster has them, but they have an appropriate fairy-tale feel to them.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10
If you’re into horror, the book is almost certainly worth it. If you or your players are easily squicked, or you demand “SUPER SRS, ALL THE TIME” games, it’s not for you. It’s not quite as pretty as the usual Lamentations release, but it’s just as usable as any other.

Detailed breakdown after the jump.


Robotech RPG Tactics, Wave I – Part II (Problematic Models and their assembly, and Component Quality)

This is part 2 of a multi-part series
#1: Compatibility and Scaling
#3: Destroid Defender

In addition, Palladium addressed some of the concerns expressed in this post, including making some of the excluded cards and assembly instructions available on-line (though they’re still partially incorrect)
See the post here.

By way of preface, this was supposed to be a fluff post, and take maybe a couple hours to write while I worked up test models for the game, took pics of the sprues, and noted down the hard spots for a new modeller.

It’s been a sodding week, and I’m only covering the worst offenders so far; the Destroids are on hold until I can get some magnets.

The mini quality has been, hands-down, the most controversial part of the entire game to date. Is everything shit? No, not by any means.
But all three armies (Zentraedi, Malcontent, and UEDF) get the shaft on something. The Quel-Regult is by far the worst offender, with multiple parts that don’t fit, and a missing component (see below). The UEDF player, meanwhile, gets a bit screwed by having even more models to build than the Zen player – models which take almost three times as long to build out, and have significant problems of their own. The Malcontents? The boxed set doesn’t even contain any legal units for them.
And while some of the models are a bargain, the Zentraedi get hosed on a critical component of their army.

Full breakdown after the jump.

Off-line for a couple days (also, Vance, and Wizards vs. Magic-users)

Heading out of town for a few days.
In the meantime, I’ve been reading me some Jack Vance – it’s amazing how many things, subtle things, that D&D jacked from him.

You hear “Vancian Magic” way too often in this hobby from people who don’t understand what it means. Yes, the disposable spells and imprisoning/memorizing them is Vance to the core.
It also implies a bunch of other shit. Research, experimentation, Lost Spells in the Dark and Weird places of the world, barely-controlled Tech and Nanotech. One of the reasons I’ve always had a problem with the 3x + (and even 2e to an extent) is that they simultaneously make research less-attractive/non-existent, and make magic too mundane.

See, a “Wizard” is different than a “Magic-User”. Magic-users, what the common folk call “wizard”, simply have magic. I’ve used several in the past that were 0-level NPCs and/or other classes, but had access to a magical tool, even a toy, or some internal mutation that gave them power.
A Magic-user is a deceptive bastard who uses fear and magic to keep himself off the pyre and serve his needs. Magic-users wield nothing more than a tool; they are laborers, not craftsmen, of Magic – and by 4e, they are all that remains.

(Reginald Balfour) This guy? Candles of Hypnosis and glasses that let him read any code. Boom - "Wizard".

(Reginald Balfour)
This guy? Candles of Hypnosis and glasses that let him read any code. Boom – “Wizard”.

Wizards and Magi, though? They almost understand magic, even are magic to some degree. A Wizard hunts power, knowledge, tools. He hoards as the Dragon, jealous of power, laboring to keep it hard by and thieve it from the less-worthy. A true Wizard does not have equals, but enemies, masters, inferiors, puppets; those with a hold on his soul or his power, and those who depend upon them. Wizards deceive, yes, but also play with Magic in a way a simple “user” never will.
Wizards study, and often die for, their Art – for a Wizard is an Artist, a Craftsman, a maker of Wonder.

The longer or more tightly-regulated the spell description (with limited exceptions), the closer you move to nothing but Magic-“Users”. When Grease stops conjuring a layer of bacon fat in an area and starts becoming “You can but make someone slip, or disarm them”, a Wizard isn’t the only one who loses out.
The entire game feels the hurt, for creativity and “breaking the rules” with magic are the very substance of the fairy tales and sagas we draw from.
More importantly, these acts should be part of the stories we write on our own every time we hit the table. Our tales are of finding wealth and creeping under the weight of dread, exultation and mourning, and above all being clever gits who do what we shouldn’t with every tool we have, because that’s the way Humanity works. It’s what we’ve done ever since we rejected the Garden, and it’s our fucking inheritance right alongside the weight of Adam’s Curse.
The Game shouldn’t be an endless walk down a barren corridor, whose seamless and indestructible walls lead into an unbranching infinity forever interrupted with doors, should not consist of hunting for the one and only key on our collective belt that will fit this lock.

Branch the corridor, tear down the walls. Give your players toys, not just tools; marvel at what they make of broad, Weird powers instead of simple rayguns and a really big sack they fill with FPS-style first-aid kits.


(From John William Waterhouse)
When’s the last time one of your PCs had to do this to use a magic item?

Of Shares and Silver (Historical Inspiration)

With the capture of the pirate ship last session, one of those old DMing issues cropped up again. See, treasure’s always been a problem in D&D – hell, most of the verbiage that’s not tables in the 1e DMG’s section is about developing discretion with it, and making up “appropriate” treasures. It’s one of those areas where Gary’s personal experiences and historical knowledge made certain types of adjucation easy.. but he kinda forgot to mention it to all the newbies out there.

"Pandora" by John William Waterhouse. Public domain.

This is what rolling on the 1e Treasure tables feels like, half the time.

The topic of treasure sizes has been hashed over enough that I’m not addressing it today. There’s another, more pressing problem – what do you do once it’s rolled up? Division seems easy enough, but it can be a Hell of a headache for a GM and the players, especially with the big stuff.

That Class “A” treasure for knocking down a band of Men in the Monster Manual seems huge for PCs, but it isn’t a reward to the players for taking out the camp or ship.

It’s for paying the army it takes.

Think about it – most of the entries in 1e were scaled for stocking hexes or domain level play, not random encounters on the road. To take them out, you usually need an army or at least a band of retainers. Now, most heartbreakers and the main D&D rules vary wildly in their opinions of plunder. But IRL it’s been a thing since the days when an “army” was your cousins and the booty was a couple cows. The historical salaried pay for soldiers was much lower than their actual rates. Plunder was an expected part of their pay. I mean, seriously, would you go to war for the equivalent of about $20 a week? That’s a recipe for desertion and murder. Yes, they were endemic, but knowing that sacking that city over there would pay out in pants, meat, and enough cash to start your own farmstead was a Hell of a motivator. In fact, plunder was so normal, contemporary histories will often extensively remark on “no looting” orders in battles, along with the punishments offered and the general success of the order.

Unfortunately, with widening the scope of booty awards comes the necessity of figuring out who gets what. Now, there are a lot of traditional sharing mechanisms. They were especially important (and handled in much more detail in the literature..) among pirates, but every armed force used them.
Now, I should note that Lamentations already has a booty system, but a) not everyone plays it, and b) I’m a relentless tinkerer.
Here are a few historical examples, which I hope will make fiddling with your game a little easier, and inspire said tweaks.

-Smash and Grab
Can you carry it off? It’s yours. This is what your average rioting civvie is doing, and it’s popular among levied armies or other semi-organized mobs.
Problem is, this doesn’t work in a more structured society. Historically, it led to a lot of murdering and infighting post-battle, so more legalistic/”fair” options popped up almost immediately (either for the division or for the murdering..). If you have to wake up in the morning with the people you’re screwing you tend to treat them a little better in the act, as it were.

-Share and Share Alike
This was a simple split (popular among the more egalitarian revolutionaries and pirates)  and the one most DM’s use – it’s easiest to run with a group of alleged equals. Every man gets a share of equal value, and anything that can’t be split is converted to cash or “bought” with parts of your share. This is implied in the DMG, but contradicted elsewhere. It’s very easy to assign partial shares, however, and the general math is very easy.

-The Thieves’ Bargain, AKA The Pitcairn/Bounty split
A quartermaster is appointed or elected. He divides the booty into shares, then leaves the area, so he can’t see who takes what. He receives what shares are left at the end. A common variation allows each man in order (selected by lots) to take a share, with the quartermaster going last, then anyone entitled to a second share draws lots again for order until all shares are distributed (This means that whomever pulls the most shares also gets the last share left). Another common variation

In the Thieves’ Bargain, everyone gets a number of “whole” shares, rather than half-shares, so the individual shares tend to be smaller. It seems “fairer” to PCs, and offloads some of the work from the GM, plus it tends to increase player investment in the treasures. It does make it harder to “split up” magic items, or other high-value items; historically, they were often diced for – see the description of the Seamless Tunic from the Bible.

-Navy and Military shares
Most militaries had very specific policies, but there were some customary systems. Most of my knowledge is based on the early American and British Naval systems, along with medieval mercenaries and the Roman army; I encourage you to do some more research on your own. Even fishing boats still use a very similar system to the old US Navy divvy.
As with the Thieves’ Bargain, the unit or ship would have a Quartermaster or Paymaster. His primary job would be to issue goods like boots and weaponry, which were usually bought locally with an allowance from the Crown. He would also divide any plunder, but traditionally was not allowed to select the first share. The position was very, very frequently abused, with the QM buying shitty goods (or none at all) and pocketing the allowances, for example. Most armies tried to combat this by instituting particularly brutal penalties for abusive QMs.
There were also issues with lower ranks stealing and hiding loot; the usual penalty was forfeiture of all loot, with flogging, or even death.

In the Navy, prized (captured) ships were sold when they returned to port, or if they still had military value, commissioned and set under the command of the ship’s Lieutenant (necessitating multiple field commissions – 2 new Lieutenants, a Lieutenant of Marines, a new Doctor if possible, a Quartermaster and of course the brevetting to Captain of the old Lieutenant). Cargoes were usually sold and the cash divvied, with the crew having first shot at buying any special items. Prisoners were often enslaved, with any left after replacements (you always lost some in combat and from disease, especially at sea) sold off to middlemen.

The traditional splits varied: usually it was some variation on the following.
Captain/field commander: 3-5 shares, and often pick of the litter.
Lieutenants/officers: 2-3 shares.
Skilled junior officers, such as Doctors or Sailmasters, and non-commisioned officers: 2 shares.
Infantry, Men-at-arms, marines, or any other active combatants: 1 share
Non-combatants: 1/4 to 1/2 shares.
Camp followers, levied Serfs and slaves: nothing.

In a number of cases, you could also be awarded an extra full or partial share.
0 The first man over the wall/on deck in an assault was usually awarded an extra full share (or, more likely, his widow/descendants were). Sometimes this was given to the first survivor over the wall, or to the entire Forlorn  Hope (a slang term for the poor bastards who went through a breach in gates or walls). Used to encourage aggression.
0 Trophies – Bringing back the heads of enemy officers or other leaders. Rewards varied, but the practice was so common that Samurai ettiquette manuals included entire sections on how to clean yourself up, in case your head got taken. After all, it’s your last major social event, gotta be pretty, right? Used to minimize lower-class casualties (kill the officers and you break the army, not the people. Plus it makes it a lot easier to take over). If you just want to encourage slaughter, offer rewards for right ears, thumbs, noses, &c.
0 Pick of the litter – people with multiple shares were often allowed to sacrifice one to jump to the head of the line; if not, the leader of the force traditionally had the right to demand any one share of the loot. This caused some serious friction during the siege of Troy – Agamemnon demanded a specific slave-girl that Achilles had taken, which precipitates the entire last half of the Iliad (and the death of Achilles).
0 The Captain’s Take – In naval battles, the ship’s Captain, Leftenant of Marines, and the Quartermaster were each traditionally awarded the pick of one of the weapons taken before the remaining gear was shared out.
0 Ransom – Defeating a knight and accepting his surrender granted you rights to his arms and horse, which did not count as a share. Often, you had the obligation to take any reasonable offer for their return. In addition, you had the right to keep the Knight prisoner and demand a ransom for his person, or for his body (usually somewhat smaller..) from his fief.
0 Equites – A mounted man was often awarded an additional share for his horse.
0 Sundries – It was common to exempt clothing, food, and other trifles from treasure sharing; you could keep all you could carry, but any weapons or precious items had to be surrendered to the QMs

Literary/Historical Inspiration: Herodotus, #1

So, there have been a lot of dudes who were hugely influential to fantasy, well beyond “Appendix N”. I’ve talked about William Morris before (who was one of Tolkein’s foundations – much of the Good Professor’s work was lifted, based on, or adapted from Morris’, in the tradition of all good storytellers). Another enormous influence was Lord Dunsany, who laid the cornerstone of Weird Fiction for Clark Ashton Smith and HP Lovecraft. Vance was the first to make “wizards” squabbling murderers hunting each other’s spells (although calling D&D-style magic “Vancian” is at best a bit blinkered. Perhaps I’ll touch on that later).

But there’s another figure towering behind them all. Because he worked in the “real” historical field, it’s not as easy to recognize Herodotus’ contribution to the RPG hobby. For example, the first Monster books and Manuals owe him a tremendous debt. Most were compiled from historical sources, especially Medieval bestiaries – which were, in turn, copied from the Histories. Herodotus remained one of the most widely-traveled, literate human beings on the bloody planet until the Crusades, and his work was literally seminal for every other historian and travelogue author down to the present day. He reported not just the things he saw, but the tales he was told, and it is to him we owe the surviving accounts of everything from Griffins to the Bonnacon.

In addition, unlike most other sources, the Father of History hasn’t really been mined nearly as extensively as, say, HPL by the OSR. He describes everything from atmospheric sculptures and rumors to adventure seeds, and is tremendously funny to boot. Even if the translators are shitty writers. Since it’s out of copyright, it’s available for free or very cheaply in complete editions; I have a B&N Classics edition of the Macaulay/Latenier translation, which cost me less than $10, and free versions are available all over the ‘net.
I’ve been through about 3/4ths of the Histories thus far (it is a bit dense..), and every time I find a tasty tidbit I highlight it for future reference. I’ve got far, far too many for my own campaigns, so I’ll be sharing particularly tasty tid-bits with you all. All quotes are referenced by Book: verse, to the aforementioned Macaulay/Latenier translation.

They say that [Queen Nitocris], desiring to take vengeance for her brother, who the Egyptians had slain when he was their king and then had given his kingdom to her, she destroyed by trickery many Egyptians. For she caused to be constructed a very large chamber underground, and making as though to inaugurate it but in her mind devising other things, she invited those Egyptians whom she knew to be guiltiest of the murder, and gave a great banquet. Then while they were feasting, she let in the river upon them by a large secret conduit. They told no more than this of her, except that when this had been accomplished, she threw herself into a room full of embers to escape vengeance.
II: 100 (Adventure/Plot seed)

Fun with magic:

..Immediately upon [cursing the river-god], Pheros suffered a disease of his eyes and became blind. For ten years thereafter, he was blind. In the eleventh year, there came to him an oracle from the city of Buto saying that the period of his punishment had expired, and he should see again when he washed his eyes in the urine of a woman who had had sex only with her own husband and none other.
Book II: 111 (Lulzy oracles: check!)

(His wife failed. So did the wives of most of the leaders of Egypt. After he got his sight back, he took all the ones who failed to another city, and burned them to death. Then burned down the city. Because Egyptians.)

Hand’s still bugging me, so done for now. More later.

Review: The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions (LotFP)

I recently got my copy of The Seclusium of Orphone* of the Three Visions as part of the reward package from the Lamentations Rules and Magic reprint kickstarter. Now that I’ve got more than a couple hours to rub together, it’s time for that review I’ve been promising..
(*I see what you did there)

You can go here to look at my rating criteria. Remember, these ratings are for my needs and tastes, not necessarily yours, but I try to explain my reasoning as best I can.

Overall: 7/10
Every Wizard’s story is.. Max and Where the Wild Things Are”. – Pg. 20.
This book is a useful and inspiring toolbox, appropriate for virtually any universe with magic innit. Elements of its presentation are gorgeous, the writing is excellent, and the art evocative. The essays within will likely change the way you run your games, and for the better. Poor layout choices and redundant content, however, make it feel rushed; at once padded and incomplete. For something so chart-heavy, there are some basic elements missing that would have been helpful. Still, the framework it provides for both magic and Magi – which are explained just well enough to use without treading on most campaign worlds – is delightful and the book itself quite good for a GM looking to add some proper “fucked-up” to his wizard’s homes.

Make no mistake, this may not be the best of Lamentations’ products, but it’s still well above-average for the industry. I probably wouldn’t have bought the print edition based on my first impressions, but after reading and using it the inspiration value alone is worth the price of admission.

You can pick up the print & pdf here for ~22 Euros, order it from your LGS, or go for just the pdf at just shy of 8 Euros.

Detailed breakdown after the jump.

Literary Inspiration: Book of the Dead, Aztec Myths

I’ve got a few hours to touch base before I have to swing back up Seattle way. I’ve been spending a lot of time on the bus (three bloody hours each way for an hour-and-a-quarter drive..), which means I’ve also been spending a lot of time reading. In this case, a shitload of occult anthropology and ancient linguistic works; there’s a reason I play the system I do..
So, I find that a lot of people get way too Jungian when they’re building their pantheons, neglecting just how fucking weird we as a species have gotten in the past. Here’s some examples of ways to weird up your creepy native cultists all proper-like.

For starters, I found a couple of excerpts from Budge’s 1895 translation of the Egyptian Books of the Dead (available here) that were too deliciously pulpy not to pass on.

..The Night-Watchers of Set. Yea, the Night-Watchers of the Crocodile, whose faces are hidden, who dwell in the divine Temple of the King of the North in the apparel of the gods on the sixth day of festival, whose snares.. are like unto Eternity. – Book of the Dead, V.II, Ch LXV, On Coming Forth By Day from the Nu Papyrus

Tell me that isn’t setting off the fires in your head right now. Elsewhere (Ch. LXXI) they consistently refer to “the God of One Face”, which is a hell of a title. Excerpt deliberately partially redacted, as I try to avoid using magical incantations – especially to obvious demons – in my daily life. For some reason.

....the God of One Face is with me… ye seven beings, who support the scales on the night of the judgement.. who cut off heads, who hack necks to pieces, who take possession of hearts by violence and rend the places where the heart is fixed, who make slaughterings in the Lake of Fire.. -op. cit., Ch. LXXI, Papyrus of Nebseni

There’s your demonic titles right there.

Meanwhile, the Aztecs are getting up to their own pantheonic Weirdness; the information here is taken from a book that’s rather badly out of date at this point, “A Primer of Mayan Heiroglyphics” by Daniel G. Brinton. Still, even what’s wrong is a fertile ground to play in. Just, preface all this with “Brinton says that..”. Anyway..
• Aztec Dwarves were the degenerate remains of the previous age of the Earth, having survived the apocalypse in defiance of the gods. Indeed, their very degeneracy brought the Apocalypse. Would explain the dour demeanour and throwing themselves into their crafts, certainly. Holding on to the dying arts of a dead world, lurking underground to avoid the prying eyes of the New Gods, not enslaved to the current god of Death. Adventurers are tired of an eternity of cowering, unafraid (or only a little) of walking under the eyes of the Sun. Some were said to have come, in the last, to the form of flowers.

• Some divine titles and charges (note that these are far, far more interesting than the shit that made it into Deities and Demigods) :
“The Virgin Fire” – Infants
“The Virgin of the Butchered Kill” – Hunting
“The Divine Snare” – goddess of killing by ropes and traps.
“He who tends the cooking fire” – Fisherman’s deity
“The intoxicating Mead” – Drinking, but not boning. So no Dionysis here.
“She who vomits precious stones” – Patron of gemcrafters in amethyst and jade
“The infinite jewels” – Medicine (consider the importance of gems in Western “medicine” until the ~1700s and it’s not that much of a leap..)
“He whose teeth are Six Lances” – War
“The Archer” – War, plague
“Dangerous one” and “The Terror” – War demigods
“Fire is his Face” – Burning things in war
“He who works in Fire” – Destruction by fire in a more general sense
“The Bearer of 8,000 lances” – war

..not that the Maya had a fixation or anything.

More to come later. Gotta head out to the bus now.

All excerpts are from texts in the public domain, your personal cultural heritage. Defend it.

OSR Survey: Trolly Troll’s Top Ten Troll Questions for Your Game.

Got five posts in the queue, but I’m moving cities over the next few days. In the meantime, I’ll do another quizzy thingy, which I got from this dude. Hey, content, amirite?
On to the quiz!

(1). Race (Elf, Dwarf, Halfling) as a class? Yes or no?
Yes and no. I do use racial classes, but I prefer to do cultural classes instead of race-classes if I can (see the Tribal class I wrote up for LotFP a while back). If you want to be an Elf who trained exclusively as a Fighter, it’s fine by me; Slap a Chaotic alignment on there and you’re pretty much done.

(2). Do demi-humans have souls?
Soul, animating spirit, what’s the difference on a mechanical level? Philosophy is a question best left to the players. That said, there are some pretty heavily classical Catholic and Aristotelian underpinnings in most of the worlds I write. So.. Maybe? Elves could very well be demons lovingly shoved into a carefully-prepared Mandrake plant, for all we know, or Dwarves autogenerated when statues are left in the Deep.
…damnit, now I have more things to work into the world.

(3). Ascending or descending armor class?
Descending/THAC0. It’s easier and faster for my old-school wargamer head to compute on the fly. Mathematically, either approach is equally easy and valid, and it’s exceptionally easy to convert, so I don’t get butthurt about anyone’s preferences.

(4). Demi-human level limits?
Never been an issue in one of my games – either the game didn’t last long enough or the character died too soon for it to be an issue. That said, I’ve always thought the whole thing a stupid mechanical patch to justify a DM’s story conceit (id est, why do Humans run pretty much everything?)

(5). Should thief be a class?
Fuck yeah. Or rather, Specialist should. But Paladins shouldn’t – that’s what a Cleric already is. I do “Priests”/White Mages very similarly to druids, only generally with a few more restrictions. Also, staying a miracle-worker requires a dedication to others that most players aren’t willing to accept, when the path of the Church-Militant is so much easier and more.. well, fun, for many.

(6). Do characters get non-weapon skills?
Yup. You can also write a background, and I’ll give you some basic skills based on it. The ones on the character sheet are life-and-death shit, not what you do around the house. You want to be an expert appraiser of pottery with an unhealthy fondness for knots? By all fuckin’ means. Hell, some games – usually the really quick-and-dirty ones – I allow players to interject with a (cue Chekhov) “I can do thet!”. You just have to tell me why and how. It’s an easy way to get players to develop the character more at the table, and it helps define them more than sifting through a 50-page “skill” section.
Also, if you have a skill, it’s assumed to be at a professional level. That means you can accomplish routine things without rolling.

(7). Are magic-users more powerful than fighters (and, if yes, what level do they take the lead)?
It depends. See, the fighters usually have less raw power, but they also don’t occasionally explode into masses of writhing, fornicating batrachia either. Well, not unless the wizard really fucks up. The Winds of Magic have a bad habit of slapping down the arrogant, but they tend to be pretty precise most of the time. Also, wizards get a LOT of shit from the peasantry, where a Fighter can usually be a lot more local-hero material. If it helps, think Jayne/Zoe (Fighters) versus Inara (Yes, she’s a Specialist, but she gets treated a lot like a wizard. Incredibly dangerous Guild and vicious local prejudice included).

(8). Do you use alignment languages?
No, although Latin/Greek, Draconic, and Elvish are very frequently spoken by Lawful men of letters, unknowing cultists/Lemurians, and the Fae (respectively). Large cultural groups that interact regularly in a cooperative way – who, incidentally, often share an alignment for some reason – will usually have some kind of lingua franca. But the linguist in me just can’t quite tolerate the idea that all Chaotic creatures instantly speak the Language of the Fiends as soon as they bargain off their souls.

(9). XP for gold, or XP for objectives (thieves disarming traps, etc…)?
XP for gold, XP as a carrot for good behavior and smart play. Objective-based XP makes for shitty dungeons, because of the choices you wind up having to make with it.
On the one hand, if you want to be fair it can force you to design bite-sizer one-shots, or otherwise set it up so that every convenient “chunk” of the adventure has sufficient challenges for everyone to get the “necessary” XP. But then the players have to go to exactly the right spots to get what they “need”; this philosophy leads to railroading. Plus, the players will inevitably go off the rails, and then you have XP imbalance anyway.
Secondly, it encourages competitive gameplay and punishes players for not doing the perfect Five Man Band (Wizard, Fighter, Thief, Cleric, and a Token Minority). Fuck that. I want 5 Fighters to be able to go in and walk out with the same XP as the “balanced party”, if they play and roll just as well.
Then, if you don’t give a fuck about fairness, you wind up screwing over players in a way they feel is high-handed and arbitrary (and rightly so). Losing XP because they had to ditch gold to flee the orcs is one thing. Being 3 levels behind because the party isn’t finding traps and running heist missions is bullshit.
…also, this question assumes that the role of the Thief is disarming traps. With Specialist, that’s far from a fucking given.

(10). Which is the best edition; ODD, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, Rules Cyclopedia, 1E ADD, 2E ADD, 3E ADD, 4E DD, Next ?
(I consider 3e to still be an inheritor of AD&D)
Of what’s presented, Holmes.
ODD and 1e are both complete, nearly unrunnable clusterfucks, 2e pushes Moral Panic bullshit. 3e is detailed to the point of meaninglessness, and suffers severely from the same splatbook explosion as latter-era 2e. 4e.. I’m just gonna shut up on that one.
I prefer Holmes to M&M mostly because I like his writing style and gaming philosophy.

Bonus Question: Unified XP level tables or individual XP level tables for each class?
I prefer individual XP for its elegance, but frankly it doesn’t make any damned difference for the first few levels of play. Think about it: 5000 XP, and you’ve got a L2 Wizard, Cleric, and Fighter, or a L3 Thief. Wooo. Add less than another grand to that and it really doesn’t change the party dynamic. Also, I find having varied character levels makes the players engage more. They have to make a whole different set of resource decisions when the party’s guide across the Lemurian Plains is a level 1 Specialist with a crossbow and the leader is a level 3 Mage, compared to a time when the leader’s a L3 Fighter and they’re uninvited in Elf territory with only a L1 Cleric.
Back, you filthy heathens. BACK I SAY.Peter Cushing image provided by Hammer Films, no challenge, no authorization, yadda yadda.

I love the 1600s (Okay, the 14-1600s)

So, this has been sitting in my draft queue since I made the post about The Three Musketeers. Sat down and banged it out today.

Something people often overlook in the tabletop RPG hobby is just how long the Middle Ages actually lasted. I’m a fan of the Late middle Ages, myself. It’s an era of upheaval. Society went into a woodchipper and came out in a shape much grander, but that woodchipper itself is ideally suited for adventuring into the ruins of the lost Empire (and its decadent holdout, somnolent in opiatic and truly Oriental splendors) than the low-level skirmishes of centuries past or the industrialized wars of the future.

The era brought the Hundred, Thirty, and many other Years’ Wars, the true birth of the gun, of the flowering of arts outside the walls of monasteries for the first time in a dozen generations. Lines of communication shortened drastically, and (as always) people found out that just because you can make yourself understood twice as fast and twice as clearly, it doesn’t mean that someone won’t want to stab you over it. The only true pillar of society for a good millenium – Mother Church – was unceremoniously kicked out from under nearly everyone. Sure, there had been heresy and even schisms, anti-popes, &cetera. But now the Church of Rome began to realize that it was going to have to do more than trust in God and Princes to protect herself. Then there were the great plagues, increasing both the mobility and the value of the grunt peasant through scarcity, the rise of towns against the fracturing nobility.

Everywhere you look in the histories, there’s shreds of things you can turn into adventures. Paganism is still close enough to the surface that it can break through in all kinds of fucked-up ways. A village in the hills (fine, barrows) chock-full with cannibal halflings was still a too-close-for-comfort nightmare in my family in the 1800’s – imagine what it would have been like 200 years or more earlier, with dipshit foreign invaders trampling all over the sacred places pissing off the locals. And Hell, if all other inspiration fails literally everyone, from the Pope down to tiny shithole cities on the edge of the Baltic, was hiring mercenaries and dispatching King’s Men off on missions of intrigue and/or copious amounts of murder and burnings.

Playing in the historical sandbox makes it easy to build a character and his motivations. Granted, there’s a lot of baggage that carries through to the modern era (remind me to tell you sometime about how the Peace of Westphalia is the real reason global climate change is a problem). And sure, you can offend people, but a quick talk and any level of adulthood at the table mean it’s not a real issue in-play.  No matter how many words you put into your made-up world’s background, when you can say “He’s a French Huguenot on the run, who once served as a Dragoon but escaped during Queen Catherine’s purges, now looking for work in Bavaria”… just look at the motivations on the character, and what that puts in your DM’s pocket. Make it clear to your players that this is funtime, that you’re not putting their religion on trial..

..even if you totally are.

..even if you totally are..

..and that they need to be able to put aside their egos for the characters’ tonight.

But that “baggage” notwithstanding, using the real world allows a few less-obvious things that make your life as a DM much, much easier. Major public figures of the late 16th and early 17th centuries are famous enough that you can name-check them for atmosphere, while still obscure enough that their motives and character are not only questionable but positively murky. The average player’s historical knowledge is pretty sketchy on a good day, and a 20 or even 50-year anachronism for the sake of story (there’s a good example in that 3 Musketeers post) doesn’t hurt immersion. Richelieu sending the PCs to undermine this upstart Cromwell fellow? Sure!
Same goes for battles, let alone wars, and you can make one up that sounds damned convincing. How many people do you know that actually understand the impact of the Battle of Hochstedt, who won, or even the war in which it was fought? (You’d think the War of Spanish succession would involve combatants from Spain, but.. yeah.)

The only reason I know jack over shit about the battle in question

The only reason I know jack over shit about the battle in question

Finally, play in the 17th Century and you too could look like this stylish group of SOBsscreen-shot-2012-12-12-at-11-35-21Or him

This is what a 3rd-level Fighter looks like IRL.

This is what a 3rd-level Fighter looks like IRL.

Or, for that matter, her..

So, about that reward..

So, about that reward..

And then, of course, Solomon Kane. Because really, he’s up there with Van Helsing on the “Greatest Clerics Ever” list.

Not Solomon Kane, but God I love this picture

Not Solomon Kane, but God I love this picture

In conclusion: Great style, turbulent politics, pimping buckles on your shit, and everyone’s fuzzy memory on the details but familiarity with the broad strokes makes this a perfect era for the local murderhobos.

Poste Scriptorum: If you want more sexy, sexy 17th-century armor/clothing pics, go to this blog, it’s frigging delicious. Clothing porn ho!
Edit: Not a lady. Mea maxima culpa.

Review: Better Than Any Man (LotFP)

Before we start, here you’ll find a post listing my criteria for the review.  More Free RPG Day module reviews incoming, but this one I paid for. It’s also the one that, no two ways about it, made the most impact in my FLGS. There’s a more detailed breakdown after the jump, of course.

He's here for your bit- uh, witches


Summary/ Overall impression: 8.5/10
As usual, it’s a B5 saddle-stitched booklet. In what’s rapidly becoming an LotFP tradition (one I like), the covers are detachable and have useful information inside. It clocks in at 96 pages of sandbox adventure, with very little space wasted. Within: Social upheaval, Swedes, Bad People (Note: Largely, not the Swedes!), good art, and very odd wizards/witches.
The crap you hear on the intertubes about how horrid it is? My ass. It just refuses to fade to shadows on the wall for a couple scenes. Unlike most adventures, you’re going to be forced to address the shit you do, and fight, much more intimately than some people are comfortable with. Also, confront the fact that people are dumb, panicky, violent and delusional animals who frequently refuse to act in their own interest.
I’d pay $25 for this (oh wait, I already did, and Jim threw in some more stuff!). That’s ~5 pounds of decent steak or indifferent bacon. With 10,000+ copies out there, it should be easy to find one if you want it.
Edit: The PDF is now available here. You should probably get it.

Artistic Inspiration: Female Biblical Badasses

Since there aren’t all that many good pictures of females suited for the less “gentle” characters in an RPG, I thought I’d post some of my collection today.

Lucas Cranach had a problem. That problem was a lack of creativity and an enormous need for money. Fortunately, noble ladies loved getting painted up as various historical women from the Bible, which allowed them to go punk and be socially transgressive. In the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, many of them wanted to be Judith, a Hebrew woman who slew the general Holofernes in his tent during one of the Jews’ many wars over the Levant…

This is my background at the moment; an absolutely gorgeous piece. I particularly like the no-nonsense sword and the slashes in her gloves that display her ring collection. Her clothes may be velvet, but they make at least a nod to combat function, and she’s not wearing a corset so much as an armored brace. The outfit is tightened-up and easy to move in compared to the older slashed-and-strung outfits below. All in all, a great trophy shot of a higher-level Fighter.

Oh, and there’s a LOT more after the break.1336678547691 (more…)

Sunday Sun Tzu: Introduction

I’m starting a feature here as I iron out a posting schedule and fire up in earnest. Bear with me as I hammer it into shape.

This will be an analysis and commentary on the Art of War from the perspective of a gamer, veteran, and sometime philosopher. I am using three translations at the moment:
The first is the Sonshi (a Japanese translation of a very early date), which preserves more of the original commentaries, but is very, very hard for me to read.
Second is Lionel Giles’ solid but somewhat archaic translation from 1910; he eliminates most of the commentary for readability.
Finally, I’m using Gen. Samuel Griffith’s frequently unduly free translation of 1963. That’s a vicious insult in interpreting/translating circles, but justified here: the General rearranges large sections of the book to fit his own notions, and frequently attacks commentators for their “incomplete” understanding, while rendering many clearly idiomatic passages* literally and vice versa. He does, however, preserve more commentary than Giles, and all his changes are indicated in the excellent footnotes. Griffith also has a very readable style.

*For instance, ignoring the common usage of “one thousand” in both Japanese and Chinese to mean “A great many” and niggling over the exact distance one thousand Li covers in the footnotes.

There will also be annotations and quotes from other relevant works: when I’ve exhausted the man from Ch’i, I’ve got quite a library to pull from for other discussions. I’m sure someone else has done this, but like any interpretation there’s always new and personal ground to cover…

So, on to our first quotation.

Griffith: Chapter II, verses 4-9 (he splits the first verse of the chapter)

When the army engages in protracted campaigns, the resources of the state will not suffice. When your weapons are dulled and your ardor dampened, your strength exhausted and treasure spent, neighboring rulers will take advantage of your distress to act. And even though you have wise counsellors, none will be able to lay good plans for the future. For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefitted. Thus, those unable to understand the dangers inherent in employing troops are equally unable to understand the advantageous ways of doing so. Those adept in war do not require a second levy of conscripts nor more than one provisioning^1.

1:(From Griffith’s commentary:) [The commentators indulge in lengthy discussions as to the number of provisionings. What is written is, “they do not need three”. That is, they require.. one when they depart and a second when they come back.. Following Cao Cao.. ‘they do not require to be again provisioned.’..]

Giles: Chapter II, verses 3-8

Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain. Now, when your weapons are dulled, your ardor damped, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue. Thus, though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays^1. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare. It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on. The skillful soldier does not raise a second levy, neither are his supply-wagons loaded more than twice.

(from Giles’ own commentary in the 1910 edition) 1: [This concise and difficult sentence is not well explained by any of the commentators. Ts`ao Kung, Li Ch`uan, Meng Shih, Tu Yu, Tu Mu and Mei Yao-ch`en have notes to the effect that a general, though naturally stupid, may nevertheless conquer through sheer force of rapidity. Ho Shih says: “Haste may be stupid, but at any rate it saves expenditure of energy and treasure; protracted operations may be very clever, but they bring calamity in their train.” ..[Sun Tzu says] something much more guarded, namely that, while speed may sometimes be injudicious, tardiness can never be anything but foolish, if only because it means impoverishment to the nation…]

Heavy-duty logistics questions? For the first analysis? Why not!
There are several good points in here for both the dungeon crawlers and the wargamers out there.
First: The longer you dick around in a situation, and therefore the more rolls you make, the more likely it is that something shitty will happen to you. Don’t be a dumbass, charging around overstretched, but the only thing “resting for the night” every time your wizards’ spells are exhausted does for you is waste time, light, and food.
When you run out of food, of HP, of oil and rope, that’s when kobolds and 0-level human bandits stop being nuisances and start coming for your scalps.
As a wargamer: if you sit around constantly, never attacking and always playing the safe game, you’re going to get sloppy. You’ll miss the chance to attack when you should, or chose keeping to cover over hammering the unit going for a critical objective.
Second: You have to remember that you’re bleeding resources every second you’re in a dungeon or the wilderness. Get your shit done and go home, or you’ll waste all your money on boring things like arrows and food and torches instead of the true motivation of an adventurer [image slightly nsfw]1286939396890Third: Remember that fighting isn’t always wise – or profitable. You’re risking your life and your bottom line every time you draw steel: make damned sure you know what you have to gain, because it’s pretty obvious what you have to lose. For those of you who actually have “sacred” honor, of course, losing it far worse than just dying – but you can lose that honor in a fight just as easily as you can defend or gain it, and often preserve it without risking a shanking.

Good planning isn’t just about getting out alive. The best plan is one where you get in and get out with what you came for.  If you need to reload on henchmen and horses every time you come back to town, what little there is left to buy is going to skyrocket in price (see also ch. II, verse 11/12). You’re not going to be getting the bravest and best in the city if every man who follows you dies – you’ll be lucky to recruit the hopeless alkie beggars before long. Even the Chaotic/Evil thieves that normally volunteer to go along (and rip you off) will take one look at your people and go, “not worth the blade-venom”.
Wargamers: it doesn’t matter if you seize the objective quickly if your force isn’t enough to hold it, because you’re just going to have to keep reinforcing it. Every reinforcement you divert wastes not just units (and by extension, the points you buy them with), but time. As a general on the tabletop, that’s your most limited resource

An interpretation that both of the G’s ignore here is “Stop throwing good money after bad”. If you’re losing a struggle, look at what the best outcome could be for you. Weigh it against what you have to lose. If you can’t really “win” anymore, lose as fast and gently as you can.. There are things you can’t unsay and shit you can’t undo, but you can recover from an easy loss and go back in later.

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…

From the Archive: Poisons, Pt. III

Or “Finally, the RULES”.
In Part I we discussed the impetus for the rules, and in Pt. II the immature form from my 2e days (plus fed you some examples). This post dissects the actual rules that I’ve derived from them, and a few additions to make the system playable.

My rules assume the 10-second round and the 6-turn hour. 0 HP = unconsciousness, -HP = dead and possibly maimed. I also use the Silver Standard. Convert all SP notations into GP.


“Poison” can be anything from alcohol to henbane, from dimethyl mercury to opium and the Black Lotuses in the stinking pits of Telele’li.

Players may use poisons, but this is never an honorable act, and rarely good. The GM should also be reminded that activities which do not expose the character to significant danger do not grant XP. Poisoning a well and stabbing a man in the back with a venomed dagger both offer similar levels of danger, and should be treated similarly…