Aug 15, 2016

[Review] The One Ring

I played a one-shot of the One Ring this weekend at LozCon. This is more notes from that experience than a review of the book:

1) The One Ring is a game about friendship and fellowship that doesn't have rules to allow two PCs to assist one another on a task. Or, if these rules exist, they are not registered in the index at the back, or clearly indicated (via a subheading or something else) in the task resolution chapter. I know because I spent ten minutes looking when we tried to sing a song together. It's also weird because during the journeying phase and at the start of combat, there are group checks where everything throws their successes into a common pool.

2) The scenario we played in (the opening scenario of Ruins of the North) was a good experience, but a bad adventure. There were two main changes that the referee made before the game that made it a better scenario, along with several smaller ones along the way. The big changes were to include a goblin horde that marches down with an orc warboss leader to pin us in the abandoned manor while the ghost stuff was going on, and giving one of the PC pregens a magic sword so we could actually fight the ghost big bad. The small changes included changing the table of possible journey problems so the hazards weren't mainly just wolves, but instead were goblins prefiguring the later horde. Also, all hobbits, PC pre-gen option and NPC alike, were removed.

3) I sang a song to my dwarf bud while he was fighting the orc warboss in single combat, and it made him tougher so he could keep on fighting the warboss (the song was "Atmosphere" by Joy Division). This would be the Tolkieniest thing that ever tolked, except that earlier in the session I had said "What ho! I see the faces of Men and they gladden my heart!" with a straight face when we encountered the NPCs that are a thinly-obscured rip-off of As I Lay Dying.

4) It's one of those games where you have abstract gear, and most of your resources for getting things done (like hope points) are kind of abstract, though thematically it's kind of cool that you burn out and become hopeless when you're in a desperate situation. Everything is meant to tie together to create consistent, recurring themes that are driven by the mechanics, and it succeeds on that for the most part, though obviously point #1 still holds, and also there's a ton of stuff that should have been group checks by default that isn't. Perception and stealth were two obvious points - if I ran this, I'd probably make everyone check perception or stealth and pool the successes on their rolls and then allot them out to notice or hide various traces of passage.

5) I dislike the era of Middle Earth they chose for the game. It's too hemmed in by the published properties. You're not going to refound the kingdom of Arnor, you're not going to prevent Sauron's rise, you're not going to stop Saruman's fall, you're not going to be the ones who win the War of the Ring, etc. What it gets you is that the jive-talking wizards who give you your mysterious quests are all named characters from the books, which is OK, but I'd rather play something set in the Fourth Age where you've got more narrative freedom to make big bads and plots and the few things that you do know about are really open, or the Second Age, which has an overabundance of material that's suitably vague about who did what (at least until they publish yet another volume of Tolkien's grocery receipts).

I'd play it again if it was on offer, but I don't think I'd ever really seek it out as a game to play by preference.

Aug 2, 2016

Necrocarcerus Update: Ribshack of the Demon Prince

Hopefully I'm gonna be running the latest Necrocarcerus adventure, "Ribshack of the Demon Prince" at LozCon, August 12-14. Here's the map:

The back of the menu at Morguul's Place (Click to enlarge)
Morguuland Gift Shop (Click to enlarge)
The hook in is that you're trying to get somewhere else in the afterlife and the only way to get there that you can afford is a package tour through a crappy travel agency that takes you to every tourist trap along the way, including the educational theme park that the cultists of an arch-demon have built atop the place of his imprisonment. Write-up to follow once I run it. Gonna test drive this one with the Black Hack, and see how it handles Necrocarcerus.

Jul 17, 2016

A Few Add-Ons for the Black Hack

I'm putting together a "pick-up-and-go" campaign that's going to start with an as-yet-undetermined group of new roleplayers sometime in the next couple of months. I decided to give the Black Hack a try, and if I like it, I'll switch over to using it as my main OSR ruleset, instead of Swords and Wizardry Core / Complete.

While setting up for the campaign, I created the following documents:

1) A weapon table expanded to include bombs and guns, as well as rationalise which class can use which weapon. Download [pdf].

2) A list of my PC roles (with the Timekeeper and Quartermaster roles merged) and done in something like the Black Hack font. Download [pdf].

3) A levelling rubric for the Black Hack, which I will use in the upcoming campaign. The Black Hack tells the referee to assign a level whenever they think it's appropriate, but I think a clear rubric will help PCs plan their actions better and incentivise them to do interesting things. Download [pdf].

Anyhow, hope folks find these useful.

Jul 3, 2016

[Review] Ursine Dunes / Marlinko / Misty Isles / Hill Cantons

I bought Misty Isles of the Eld a few days ago and read it, which caused me to go back and reread Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko (as well as rereading the two compendiums and the cosmology document). All of these works are all done by Chris Kutalik of Hills Cantons fame, and are set in his Hill Cantons setting, which mixes Vancian Dying-Earth-type absurdism with fantastical trappings drawn from medieval / early modern Eastern Europe, Northern Michigan, and a bunch of well-thought through D&Disms. My understanding is that there are at least two more forthcoming documents, which are referred to by various titles in the existing works, but mainly as "What Ho! Frog Demons" (another point crawl adventure similar to Misty Isles and Slumbering Ursine Dunes) and "the Kezmarok City Supplement" (an even larger city than Marlinko, though the suggestion appears to be that it will focus on the Cerulean Vaults portion of the undercity of Kezmarok).

Overall, I have a fairly positive impression of the Hill Cantons setting and the related works. The books are well-written and genuinely funny, but they also are clearly derived from a well-thought-through conception of what a world with D&Disms in it must include. In particular, all three books are written with a clear idea of how a group of antisocial, violent, impulsive adventurers would navigate them. This is true not only of the parts that are clearly adventure locations, but of the social situations as well. I'm sure anyone who reads modules regularly has encountered ones where the premises of social encounters seems to rely on PCs not acting like PCs, and / or where the NPCs act as if the idea that there are bands of magical murderhobos wandering around interfering in anything they please was a completely new idea they'd never had to deal with before. The Hill Cantons really almost assumes the reverse, and the situations the books present are therefore all the more robust for it.

Of the specific books:

Slumbering Ursine Dunes' strong points are well-realised factions, two good dungeons, evocative imagery and trappings, and its pointcrawl layout, where instead of a hex or a free-form map, the set-up layouts out the various points of interest that PCs are likely to encounter along the way. Its weak points are that it could use a little more set-up for referees. In particular, it needs a few adventure seeds that would bring PCs to it in the first place, push them to keep exploring, and keep them coming back when they suffer a set-back. There are a few quirks of layout that make information occasionally a bit unclear. In particular, there is a hermit who is mentioned without introduction in the major NPCs section, but who is only described in the pointcrawl map key. As well, the maps for the dungeon are found at the back of the book, rather than adjacent to the map keys for them.

Fever-Dreaming Marlinko's
strong points are the clever and evocative writing, and the abundance of gaming-oriented material. The book explicitly tells you that rather than focusing on shopping lists and dull descriptions of shops, it's going to focus on the interesting bits, and it does a great job of this. You come out of it with a clear idea of what Marlinko is like as a city, and what parts to focus on. I do think the book would benefit from a slight reorganisation of the material. In particular, it looks like there's about four or five streams or tranches of adventure ideas which most things tie into, and it would be useful to have a table or other graphic arrangement that would help referees understand this, possibly with some clear inciting events listed for each tranche.

On a very short side note, one very nice thing about this book is that while it contains some puerile humour, this humour is not fundamentally misogynistic or homophobic in character. There are dwarven masseuses who offer "happy endings", but the joke is in the "joyless" character of such in a subversive contrast the usual "wenches and wine" depictions of sex work in adventure games. There are also giant eagle mounts who dump misogynists mid-flight.

I would say that if you were only going to pick up one of the three books, this would be it. I also think it should be your first purchase of the three (I bought them in the order they came out, where Fever-Dreaming Marlinko is the second in the series). Fever-Dreaming Marlinko contains adventure seeds and suggestions for both Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld, filling in the gap one might otherwise have for those adventures. If I were to run a mini-campaign on the current Hill Cantons material, it would go FDM to SUD, back to FDM, then off to MIE, then back to FDM for the wrap-up.

Misty Isles of the Eld's best point is really its organisation. The party will be dealing with a coordinated and professional opposition, and the book does a good job making the encounters and NPCs interesting while not forgetting that. There's a great deal of time spent laying out for referees the various resources the Eld (evil space elves from hell, with Melniboinean flourishes) have at hand and how they use them. I also appreciate how the book manages to make them weird and creepy without having to rely on much explicit gore or sex, instead using the occasional suggestive flourish to allow the imagination to expand in the space it leaves. I think overall this is an excellent product, but one thing it could use is a slightly clearer idea of the process the Eld are following to accomplish their goal (the goal itself is clearly laid out). PCs will encounter several of the things they're using (an imprisoned god, etc.) but it's not always clear how much of a hindrance messing with any specific component is. Does freeing the god mean the Eld's plans are doomed, or can they still accomplish them without it? Information about this, especially in a form where it's at least partially PC-facing, would be very useful for helping PCs focus their activity.

I'm looking forward to What Ho! Frog Demons and the Kezmarok supplement, and I would recommend that if you're interested in pointcrawls and ideas for how to do city-adventures well, these are excellent supplements to pick up.

Jul 2, 2016

[Review] The Black Hack

I've been seeing a lot of mentions of, and material for, the Black Hack lately, so I thought I'd pick it up and take look for myself. In broad strokes, it's basically an adaptation of elements of White Box Swords and Wizardry, Dungeon World, Castles and Crusades, and D&D 5e with some house rules thrown in at critical parts. Surprisingly, it looks like this mix works reasonably well. This will be a review of the game with the Additional Things supplementary PDF available for free download.

Overall, I think the Black Hack is good, but it's good because it's a mix of some great and inspired ideas with some very badly done ones, rather than because it's modestly well-done all the way through. The basic mechanic is d20-roll-under-stat to accomplish anything, with PCs making most rolls. i.e. they roll to avoid monster attacks instead of monster rolling to hit them.

The great and inspired ideas tend to be little ones that aid playing the game. I particularly like the new time system (moments and minutes), the usage die for consumable items, the resting mechanics (an OSR adaptation of the D&D 5e rest mechanics), and the use of opponents' HD as the main stat you have to track. From Additional Things, the tags for gear, the rules for panicking if one runs out of light, and the coin-dice rules are all very clever. These are all solid ideas, most of which could be integrated into any retroclone you're playing, and would add a great deal if they were.

The bad parts tend to be the more slapdash elements of the book. Firstly, the gear list is incomplete, lacking 1H weapons or bows in the gear list. Similarly, it has different weapon proficiencies by class, but these are just random lists of weapons, none of which are mechanically different from one another. The morale rules and the reaction rules should be simplified into the same set of rules, and the old 2d6 system was superior to the one in the Black Hack. The fighter class needs its ability reworded (Additional Things proposes one fix, and I see other versions repeatedly proposed or discussed in the community on G+). The gear list is the same slight alterations on the basic D&D 3.5 gear list that everyone's been using for a decade and a half now. Probably the worst of these various rules is the one for random encounters, which assumes that you're rolling every 15 minutes of real-world time, which I think is just unworkable in most situations.

After reading it, my general inclination is that I like it and want to play it, albeit with some heavy house-ruling. The chassis underlying that house ruling though, is generally pretty solid. If you like universal mechanics, rules-light systems, and / or systems where PCs do most of the rolling, I think you'd like it as well. Even if you don't, I suggest adapting the usage dice mechanics, the coin dice mechanics, the moments and minutes time tracking, and the rules for panicking in the dark for use in your own retroclone games.

Jan 3, 2016

Handling Min-Maxing

Min-maxing player characters in adventure games where that's a viable strategy tends to be unpopular. I suspect the reason for this is that the burden for making encounters challenging to a group of min-maxed PCs falls entirely on the referee. Whereas players have to only min-max one entity (their characters) to get the full benefits, referees have to repeatedly min-max entire groups of enemies, and may even have to create several such groups for a single session. In systems with leveled power progressions, players also have time to incrementally develop their knowledge of how to build and play the character, whereas the referee is usually going in without the chance to playtest an encounter beforehand.

Therefore, I would like to suggest the following non-exhaustive list of strategies for handling min-maxing in games.

Copy Characters

Hold onto character sheets from old campaigns (or ones who have died in the campaign) and reuse them, but this time as NPCs or even reskinned as monsters. Since the PCs usually don't see the stats for monsters, they won't often spot that a monster is actually a reskinned former PC, though they might notice that it uses a similar set of tricks to one.This usually isn't a problem, but rather leads to interesting problem-solving, since the players know how the power interactions work, they can work to neutralise them by interrupting the interaction. You can even split up a character sheet for a suitably high-level PC and create several monsters out of it, especially if they have more than one combination of powers they use frequently.

Most groups in my experience have one person who likes to play lots of different characters, and is constantly drawn to new rules material when it comes out, and tries to create some version of whatever they think the hottest, newest thing is. It can be extremely useful to channel this person's interest in trying out the material by having them build new potential characters, even if they don't want to play them right this second. You can either use the old characters, or the new characters, whichever ones they're not using at the moment. By reskinning them as new NPCs or new monsters, you can do this without "giving away" which particular set of stats and powers is being used.

Monster Colosseum

Every three or four months in one group I was in years ago, we would skip our regular session and instead play "monster colosseum". Everyone got a CR budget (this was in the D&D 3.5 days) and picked monsters out of the Monster Manual until they reached that budget. Occasionally, to mix things up, we would roll on the premade encounter tables organised by CR in the back. Two people (of four or five, depending on who showed up) would draw the map on whiteboard, we would each place our monster teams, and then we'd have a giant battle to see who's monster team would be the last standing.

This had the effect of basically show-casing monsters (especially weird ones we might not otherwise use), and highlighting how to use them most effectively and imaginatively. e.g. one guy once got a bunch of giant wasps and used teamwork between them to pick up the enemy monsters and drop them to do tons more  damage than the wasp sting alone. The referee gets to see how different monsters and different combinations of monsters work with other people doing the bulk of the work figuring that out.

Keep Records

If you have an encounter that works particularly well or particularly poorly, it's worth writing a short note to yourself about it after the game, and storing these notes over time. e.g. "Skeleton archers on hill that's tough to climb, too easy b/c of flight powers" or "Giant wasps can't injure PCs b/c they can only be hit by magical weapons" is about as long as they need to be. If you play using player roles, you can assign this to whoever keeps the notes for the party, and have them turn the notes over at the end of the session. When you're next planning an encounter, you know what to change or preserve right away, rather than having to puzzle out what went wrong based on faulty memories of previous sessions.

Similarly, referees should recycle rules material they know well. For example, I recommend drawing up a couple of spell lists at the start of a campaign and reusing them frequently. You can describe the spells differently each time to change things up, and you can gradually focus on increasing the number of spells you understand extremely well, but having a few spells you know like the back of your hand means less page-flipping, a smaller burden on your memory, and more time spent figuring out how to use the spells in imaginative and interesting ways. I recommend something similar with monsters - learn a few monsters and their powers extremely well, reuse them extensively, and then make minor variations on them as needed.

Lastly, if you notice something works extremely well against the PCs, make a note and figure out how you can exploit it in different ways. This might be a low saving throw, a lack of a particular ability, dependence on a resource that depletes, etc. Write these out on a sheet with each PC's name and particular weaknesses underneath it. If you have space, you might want to list their strengths as well. That'll give you an idea of what powers to look for when you're putting together encounters. Do the PCs have crappy willpower stats? Then maybe mind control monsters that attack those stats would be effective. Rather than having to evaluate a ton of rules material and generate off-the-cuff optimal strategies, you can simply hunt through the available material for the bits that seem directly relevant to dealing with those weaknesses and strengths. Especially combined with the method of encounter recording that I mentioned above, you should be able to winnow through rules material much more quickly, or design off-the-cuff powers that directly exploit those weaknesses.


The more work that's done to shift time away from poring through rulebooks and trying to figure out the rules side of things, the more time can be spent making encounters interesting and memorable. Similarly, the more familiar the referee becomes with the rules, the greater the set of affordances they offer to the imagination. For these reasons, I therefore suggest you do whatever possible to lighten the cognitive burden of optimising encounters.

Dec 12, 2015

Organising Referee Screens

I don't find the information printed on referee / DM screens particularly useful. I use one, but to organise information vertically as well as horizontally. Here's some notes about the way I use them:

1) I use gator clips and paperclips to attach paper and index cards to the panels of the referee screen. I attach information to both the inside and outside of the screen. The outside of the screen is extremely useful as a way of presenting information the players collectively need, though remember to print in a large enough font, or write it large enough, that it can be read from across the table.

2) I use a five-panel screen. On the inside, from left to right, I attach:

a) Random encounter tables, terrain tables or generators, and any overland travel rules I need.
b) Maps in the order I expect to use them.
c) Monster stats, clustered by encounter and then each cluster sorted by the order I expect them to occur.
d) A list of random names. I cross names off as I use them. Behind that, list of major or important NPCs, a calendar / timeline and a relationship map.
e) A list of PC stats that I can consult without telling them (i.e. perception scores, marching order). Behind that. I keep a list of treasure items and information that I expect to use in the upcoming session.

Most of these are sheets of paper. I take them down off the panels as necessary, or else I'll spread them out if I have a minute or two (i.e. grabbing all the monster stats and clipping them to separate panels temporarily so I can track the combat)

3) On the outside, from left to right, I'll attach:

a) Any procedures the party follows as a whole (e.g. overland exploration).
b) The guard's random encounter table unless their filling it out.
c) A copy of any map they have that's relevant to the situation.
d) A list of NPCs, places, etc. they've met who they should remember.
e) A list of any gear, retainers, etc. that the party as a whole has.

Players are free to take stuff off the screen at any time to either look at more closely, to update them, etc., but I try to make sure they put them back up on there before we go onto anything else, otherwise they tend to vanish. The PCs are welcome to attach any other documentation they want to the outside. I use player roles so people know which documents they're responsible for, and which are someone else's problem.

4) I use cue cards / index cards to track information I need at a glance. I tend to generate index cards during play, instead of beforehand, using a sharpie. Remember, you can clip index cards along both the top edge and the side edges of the screen.

Specifically, I write the NPC's name, what they want, and any critical stuff (e.g. "Offers quest to slay goblins - 500gp") on a cue card in black sharpie and attach it to a panel facing towards me when I'm running them. If you get caught up in an interaction or distracted and lose track of what's going on, I find this is most of the information you need to get things back on track. The other thing I commonly do is write triggers for traps, or ongoing environmental conditions on cue cards and clip them facing me so I don't forget them as we go on. If the PCs have weird powers like seeing invisible enemies, I'll also note them on an index card so I remember the invisible enemy or whatever can't sneak up on them.

On the exterior of the screen, I clip index cards with the names and 1-3 word descriptions of any important NPCs they're interacting with. If they're in a distinct location I'll add that too. I'll also clip index cards covering any ongoing environmental conditions the PCs are aware of, along with the mechanics and effects. e.g. "Dark -2 to hit". I usually use one of the side edges to handle marching order for the PCs. Lastly, I'll sometimes clip index cards with any resolutions or goals the PCs made earlier that are shaping their decisions (or any quests they picked up that they might've forgotten about). You'd be surprised at how often players forget these things, so having them written down helps.

I have the players write player-facing cards, rather than taking up my time to do it, except for ongoing environmental conditions. Usually you can dish out some markers and sharpies and handle most of the card writing you'll need in a given encounter in a minute or two if it's distributed around the table. When in doubt, it's the rules coordinator's job to update cards with environmental effects and the caller's responsible for keeping the marching order and the quests / resolutions correct.

5) I have my PCs handle initiative rather than tracking it myself, but if you haven't started doing this yet, you might want to attach it to an inner panel.

6) This sounds like a lot of work, but most of its front-loaded, and there's several ways to save time. In play, it tends to save a lot of time you'd spend wracking your brain for relevant information or reminding people of the same unchanging facts over and over again, etc. and allows you to ensure you have all the information you need right at hand. Here are some time-saving measures:

a) Use print-outs whenever possible. I print off monster stats straight from the book's pdf and write things like HP totals directly on the sheet. I grab images from the internet and print them off for maps etc. I'll print off the page the treasure item's description is on and then just use a highlighter to outline it so I know what's the right thing.
b) Appoint one of the PCs (usually the caller or note-taker) to store any cards they aren't using, and to be responsible for retrieving them when they're needed.
c) Assign a player (the rules coordinator) to produce the document with all the relevant stats you need (perception scores, stealth scores, saving throws, etc.). If they don't produce a new one, you'll go with whatever the old one says, even if it's worse.
d) If possible, seat people so they can reach out and handle the screen carefully to remove and add documentation as necessary. If not, sit someone responsible next to you and anyone who needs to change stuff has to go through them.

7) You can swap out cue cards for post-its if you find it easier. It tends to be harder to reuse post-its, so the more static something is, the better they are. If you only need something once and will never need it again, they're great. If something will come into and out of play repeatedly, index cards tend to stand up to repeated use a little better.