Friday, July 13, 2018

The Forgetting Shield

This is a relic of the Ulvenbrigad in my Frostbitten & Mutilated game.  A rival adventuring party stole it, but the PCs managed to steal it back, although the cleric died in the process.  Anyway, enjoy!

This large shield of black metal bears a strange, twisting symbol on its face, done in some manner of relief.  Anyone within 60’ viewing the front of the shield must make a save versus Magical Device or be affected by the symbol’s effect.  (During combat, attackers get a +2 to the save because they aren’t concentrating on the shield as much as their opponent’s movements.)

Anyone failing the above save is lulled into a state of unconsciousness that lasts for 1d4 hours.  Upon awakening, he or she has completely forgotten the events of the previous day.  In cases where the subject has experienced severe mental trauma, this amnesia will cure them of any insanity or mental disorders caused by those experiences.

However, the shield also has a massive side effect: it emits microwave radiation in a 60’ radius.  Water within 60’ of the shield begins to boil, and living things are wracked with pain as if they are on fire.  The pain is so intense that everyone within 60’ of the shield, including the wielder, must make a saving throw versus Paralyzation in order to act normally.  Those afflicted will usually either collapse or attempt to move as quickly as possible out of the radius.  Creatures that roll a 1 on the saving throw against Paralyzation take 1 point of damage from blisters and surface burns.

Because both of these effects are permanent, the Forgetting Shield is usually stored in a strange basket of woven metal, and only removed by the strongest warriors.  (This basket acts as a Faraday cage, in case any of your PCs get any brilliant ideas of what to do with that.)

This artifact works roughly the same way in any old school class-and-level RPG variant, but if you're using 5e, I'd check out the Symbol spell to help adjudicate the effects — Con save for pain, Wis save for amnesia/sleep.  I'd set the save DC at 20, although you can set it at 15 if you're a generous soul.  If you see the shield in combat, gain advantage on the Wisdom saving throw.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Rules of Engagement

I've been ruminating on several blog posts for several months, so here's a sliver of one that I should get out of my head sooner or later.

Back around the New Year, a friend of mine was talking about D&D, and how he didn't like the idea of how a fighter with high Armor Class (or low Armor Class, if you're playing with descending AC) is going to use hit points less than everyone else.  It means that our hypothetical fighter is not engaging with every part of the system, and so this GM is inclined to include monsters with better to-hit scores that will strike an inflated AC more frequently.

That almost sounds like a punishment.

If a player makes a character a certain way, that's presumably because they want to play that character with certain expectations as to how things are going to go.  If you play a high-movement, low-AC character, you presumably expect to stay mobile enough that you're never a valid target (or if you become a valid target, you leave).  If you play a wizard, you want to engage with those tasty spells.  And if you make someone with a notable AC, you want to be the immovable object.

Don't punish that choice by devaluing their AC, instead look at everything else on the character sheet.  If you still want to provide a challenge or target hit points or whatever, they probably still have several weaknesses that enemies can exploit.  Your hypothetical walking shield wall is probably still vulnerable to spells, being neither the most mobile nor the most strongly-willed.  And that's without getting into other consequences such as threatening their equipment, allies, family members, fellow party members, and the like.

Besides, there's no need to punish players for their good decisions when they're always likely to cause blowback with their bad decisions.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

State of the Madicon 2018: Three Months' Dead

The state of the Madicon is strong.

It's been three months, but I'm just now getting this on the blog.  Nicole and I made the annual pilgrimage to Harrisonburg, VA for Madicon 27 from March 9 to March 11, 2018. (Interested parties can read about Madicon 22, Madicon 24, Madicon 25, and Madicon 26.)  Since we're so far removed, this will likely be short and sweet.

Friday night saw hang outs and light board gaming (we tried the Mage Knight Board Game, which was probably a little more complicated than we ought to have tried to tackle at the time, but was still entertaining), but the meat of my con memories come from Saturday.

A last-minute substitution on Friday led to me running an Unknown Armies one shot rather than my usual Lamentations of the Flame Princess nonsense.  (Fortunately, I was aware of the eventuality, so I had both prepped.)  Tying in with my usual campaign, the players were high school students whose friend went missing, apparently into a mysterious cave that wasn't there just the other day.  Examination of said cave led to an Otherspace depicting a strange Soviet Los Angeles, replete with weirdos, velociraptors, and morlocks.  I think people had fun, but it also went in an unexpected direction: to find their friend and escape, the teenagers ended up cutting a deal with some mystics on the other side, who returned to our side of the gate.

The setup.  Click to enlarge.
The Objective board.  Click to enlarge.
The character sheets.  Click to enlarge.
That evening saw a continuation of Arashi's long-running 7th Sea game, which was just intense as usual.  There were costumes, there was wine, there were tears, there was awkwardness, it was a hell of time.  (And we've been dealing with the emotional fallout for three months now.  Compounded, of course, by the fact we haven't been able to play as often.)  Not as many pictures as previous Madicons, but I believe there are more unflattering pictures lurking on the internet somewhere.

Sunday we played Nevermore, which is pretty fast once you get the hang of it, and then we headed home.

Sadly, this will likely be our last regular Madicon, as the group with whom we travel probably isn't going in quite the same arrangement.  But we will no doubt set foot in that glorious land again.  If only for Glen's Fair Price.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Review: Frostbitten & Mutilated

I haven't posted in a while or done a review in even longer, but here we are.

Despite unabashedly enjoying Zak S.'s work, I'll freely admit: I didn't love this book.  Not at first, anyway.

It took a bit to infect me and implant its wriggling parasites under my skin.  So this review is as much a description of that process as it is an actual review of the book.

First things first: the core stuff.  Size A4, 144 pages.  Written and illustrated by Zak Smith, published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  There's little wasted space: it starts with a short introduction to both the book and the setting, and then launches into the bestiary, which is about 44% of the book and forms most of the world-building.  (If you just want cool monsters to throw into a winter-themed hexcrawl like the Kraal, which I think is partially this book's spiritual ancestor, it's here.)  The next 15% of the book is the "plot," such as it is: featuring a map, a couple of dungeon maps, and a timeline of events, this is the structure your PCs will roam if you're using the book as written.  (If you want a ready-to-go sandbox campaign, that's where you'll find it.)  The next 14% of the book is new rules: new classes (Amazon and Witch, both set up in the random advancement system style that so many OSR people like to use), new spells (for Witches or maybe Magic-Users), new substances (a magical metal and two chemicals), and new survival rules for use with the Bushcraft skill (because you're traveling across inhospitable territory).  The rest of the book is rounded out with an essay on running sandbox games and then a host of random tables to assist that process.

All this stuff is presented in a straightforward and concise manner, and once you get your bearings, the book is very spatially oriented, so you can find stuff without consulting the Table of Contents or the Index.  Even if I don't remember something offhand, I can flip to it in a couple of seconds, because it's exactly where it's supposed to be.

Basically, he took his own advice (as he usually does), and instead of giving us some boring historical litany like some Tolkien reject, you just get stuff like, "Ovv was the ruler of the forgotten civilization that built the Dim Fortress in aeons so remote even the sister-witches recall it only as you remember the texture of the first carpet you crawled. His kingdom was awful, and he was a despot—the kind of man who inspired gods to invent death by old age. But he got in under the wire. All his subjects and enemies long dead, his stronghold entombed, he sits still atop the Darkthrone, ten feet tall, clutching his sword, waiting for someone to be a bastard to."

That's all we get about the king, and that's all we need.  He's a jerk.  His stats bear this out.

But as noted, I didn't love it at first.  (Don't get me wrong: I still liked it, but would have called it the weakest of his books.)  Despite having some great ideas and solid world-building, this initially fell flat for two reasons:

1) Of all of his books, it feels the most like his blog.  While there are some great products that are basically just gussied-up blog posts — Veins of the Earth comes to mind, although it's so jam-packed with extra stuff that you don't notice you already read half of it — this one basically just felt like throwing down Euros to re-read posts I'd previously read for free, only with fewer typos and prettier art.  For that matter, a small portion of the material here previously appeared in another form in the Vornheim book.

2) It also feels like a setting I might create.  Vornheim feels 50% like some setting I'd create: a drunken orgy of ideas from Borges and Leiber and Peake, formed into a sprawling, decadent pulp city.  Twisted spires and political masterminds are totally my jam, but I'd probably never invent brilliant bits of color like homunculus assassins that hide in human bodies, or the fact that the world was created by medusae using the lithified remains of demons.  Maze of the Blue Medusa and Red & Pleasant Land are 100% things I'd never create — tone-wise, they fit right in, but a baroque dungeon of ancient, sad ladies and a vampire Wonderland are probably outside my wheelhouse, and that's totally rad.  On the other hand, a mythic Scandinavia of eternal snows where beasts and women run free, unfettered by the chains of Man, sounds like an idea I could have, and if I did have it, it would probably look similar: all idiosyncratic beasts and weird magic and berserkers like Maenads.

The first thing that changed my mind about the whole thing was Rushputin's comment that F&M has an excellent layout and is very usable (as described above).  I hadn't noticed at first because that's just assumed.  LotFP books in general and Zak S. books in particular are going to be very usable at the table and easy to find what you need.  That's just assumed at this point.

The second thing was that a friend of mine requested I run it, so I had to start working with the text to prepare the module.  And that's usually a chore, but this was super-easy.  I don't have a full hexcrawl of the entire map prepared yet, but I have some adventures around Rottingkroner prepared, and then some other stuff out in the wilds.  Random encounters can handle the rest until I have to stock hexes.

So, you ultimately get a highly-usable sandbox setting full of black metal Scandinavian goodness.  It deviates from the facts of Norse myth, instead drawing its inspiration from the feel of Norse myth, as well as fairy tales and pop culture.  And plus there are marauding Amazons that might try to kill or recruit you for intruding upon their lands.  It's a solid book, although it seems more restrained than his other work.  On the other hand, perhaps that makes it more accessible to readers from more traditional fantasy RPG backgrounds.  If you're looking for an Arctic/winter-themed sandbox setting, or you want to put some mythic flavor in your games, this is a solid pick.

(As for the weird things I want to inject directly into my veins, there are a couple of gems in here.  Of course, I love the bleak setting, the mythic feel of the animals, and the weird spells, but special mention goes to the owls.  Owls are weird in the Devoured Land, possibly in a way that refers back to Ken Hite's "The Owls' Service" from The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time.  If you are familiar with how snakes work in Vornheim, owls are anti-snakes.  Definitely worth a look.)

One last thing: We still haven't started the campaign.  We were supposed to start Friday, but one of our players had to cancel at the last minute.  Since I was ready to go, though, I did run a one shot set in the Devoured Land.  It was beyond stupid, but we had so much fun that it led me to write this post in the first place.  As with so many things, RPGs are meant to be played, and are probably only best measured in light of that activity.  After all, using the Devoured Land at the table is where Frostbitten & Mutilated truly shines.

I started the first party in square H7 on the Devoured Land map (pages 82-83).  Having taken the road from Rottingkroner and camped for the night, they set out first thing in the morning, traveling upriver along the River Slith.  A light snow is falling.  A couple of hours upriver, I roll the first random encounter, a lost traveler.  I consult one of my own random charts and determine she is a lost noblewoman.  That suggests her backstory: she was clearly traveling these lands to seek the Amazons in the hopes they could perform an embryoctony, and she was separated from the adventurers who escorted her out here.  She seems frightened and starved, and very wary of this party of three strange men before her.  They're not heading back to Rottingkroner as that would blow their profit margin, but she's welcome to travel with them as they explore this land.  Perhaps they can help her find her companions?  Another two hours, another random encounter, and they find a twisted tree, big enough to provide shelter.  Since they have another mouth to feed, the halfling decides to hunt; he finds nothing, but that takes up the rest of the day, so they make camp.  As the party begins to bed down and take watches, I roll another encounter and get fucking Blasphemer and his rat swarm.  I flip to his page, read, "Blasphemer may utter an Unholy Word (as the spell) once per week. So be careful out there," and then flip to the Holy Word spell and read that.  There is a short pause as I re-read it several times to ensure I'm reading it correctly.  It... instantly slays characters with fewer than 4 HD?  Just like that?  Based on my read of the spell, I rule it doesn't affect the wizard, but with everyone else dead the rat swarm finishes him off.  Total Party Kill #1.

Since that was very short, and I have more pregens, I give them a second chance.  The second party also starts in square H7, but this party of pregens has the Summon spell.  One player convinces the wizard she should cast it the night before they head into the Devoured Land, so that if she binds the demon long-term, they have a servant.  She agrees.  She rolls — the demon is more powerful than expected, and she blows the binding roll.  It possesses her.  The PCs go to bed.  She pretends to sleep.  On her watch, she massacres the rest of the party, then goes off into the wastes to do whatever permanently-incarnated demons do.  They never even leave the road.  Total Party Kill #2.

I've been laughing about this all weekend.  On the one hand, my players are aware there might be a small fortune in noblewoman's jewelry only a few miles upriver from the road in the Devoured Land; on the other hand, there's now a demon-possessed wizard somewhere out there.

A++, would run again.

Monday, December 11, 2017

A Night to Remember

Last week, I finally saw James Cameron's Titanic (in theaters, no less!), and can honestly say it didn't live up to the twenty years of hype preceding it.  (Despite perhaps being a technical masterpiece, the script is terrible.  And James Cameron makes a woman the main character despite clearly not knowing how to write women.)  But we're not here to talk about movies; we're here to talk about role-playing games.

I got through the atrocious writing by focusing on how D&D-able it is; specifically, the modern-day salvage story.  (You could also make a very strong case for Traveller.  I mean, the salvage crew feels like a Traveller crew in the way the doomed crew of Nostromo also feels like a Traveller crew.)  If you're like me and have been living under a rock for the past twenty years, a salvage crew heads down to Titanic looking for a legendary diamond set in a necklace.  They don't find it, but they find an old drawing depicting it on a woman.  The woman, now 102 years old, gets in contact with the salvage crew and tells them her story in the hopes that it will enable them to determine where the diamond landed during the shipwreck.

The setup would be a bit like Zzarchov Kowolski's Thulian Echoes: the player characters catch wind of the fact that some notable treasure is locked away in some dungeon that used to host regular life, like a castle or a shipwreck.  (I immediately thought of Palace of the Silver Princess, which contains a ruined palace and the promise of a giant ruby.)  The environment is so inhospitable that the player characters want to gather intelligence before delving the dungeon, so they seek survivors of the place's doom and interview them.  (You could also do written accounts as in Thulian Echoes, but I think I like the unreliable narrator aspect an interview brings.  Like the "lucky breaks" from Thulian Echoes, except the players may or may not know about it.  Essentially, the challenge of Thulian Echoes comes from the unintended consequences of revisiting a dungeon centuries after the last adventuring party passed through it.  And maybe the fact that it's all a lie.  The challenge of this theoretical Titanic adventure comes from the fact that the interviewee might be lying or suffering from dementia.  Or maybe it's also all a lie, and you get lured to the shipwreck just to be eaten by deep ones.)  Once you've found a suitable survivor, the players get to play through a mini-adventure as the people living in the place before its ruin.  (Depending upon how you want to run it, it might also be a good chance to try out another system, like Hillfolk or Bedlam Hall or whatever.  Although if your players are fine with playing level 0 common folk, then just stick with D&D.)  Track where the treasure ends up, write down whatever parts of the map the interviewee mentions, and then the current party goes and makes a surgical strike trying to find the treasure.  You might want to come up with some ground rules, something like:
  • If the treasure leaves the dungeon, it's lost.  You might still be able to interview people and track it down, but it's not in the shipwreck/manor house/wherever you expected it anymore.
  • If the treasure is too close to the door, it was stolen by grave robbers in the intervening decades.  It's fine if all the treasure is in the same room, but not too close to the exit.
Although maybe those things don't bother you — after all, if the location is difficult to reach (like a shipwreck), then even being inside the door is a challenge.  And if the treasure leaves the dungeon, maybe the PCs can figure out the interviewee is lying and still has the damn treasure.  (Wouldn't it be something to see Bill Paxton shaking down Gloria Stuart for the Heart of the Ocean at the end of Titanic?)

It also occurs to me that if the player characters track down multiple interviewees, you could play through the flashback adventure multiple times and get some sweet Rashomon action happening, where the truth ends up being somewhere in the middle.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Modern United States Random Name Generator

Did I never share this?  Apparently I never shared this.

For my Unknown Armies game, I built a random name generator using U.S. Census data.  First name data comes from 1974 birth records (representing the mean age in 2011), and surname data comes from 1990.  It generates ten male and ten female names at a time, in what should represent a statistically accurate distribution (at least according to Behind the Name).  Click CTRL+R to refresh (but don't be a jerk and edit it, or else I'll be forced to hunt you down).

Random Name Generator

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