Tuesday 14 June 2022

New Site - Blogging again!

I have moved this blog to a real website! 


I am maybe blogging again - we will see if I keep it up!

I will leave this site here but I wont be updating it anymore.

Hope to see you there :)

Thursday 18 July 2019

Spiral Isles Review

Spiral Isles is an OSR pointcrawl adventure successfully kickstarted at the beginning of April this year. It was co-written by Jere Hart and Lazy Litch (Shane Walshe), the latter of which also created Woodfall. Given I also backed Woodfall back in August last year, and was pleasantly surprised with what was delivered, I was more than happy to put down the money to get my hands on this new project!

Let’s take a look at what got delivered…

The Product

Like Woodfall, Spiral Isles was delivered as a PDF, with an at-cost print on demand code (for hardback or paperback) from Drive Thru RPG. I opted for the hardback, so I cannot speak for the paperback but, as is expected of POD, the quality isn’t “premium” to put it lightly. It's perfectly serviceable, and Spiral Isles does make use of coloured printing which is one minor improvement over Woodfall.

I've tried to make it look as pretty as possible!

As you can tell from the pictures, the book has a landscape format. This is an odd choice for a book intended for use at the table. I much prefer my novel size supplements that are compact enough to carry around and easy to flip through when I'm running them. There is no practical way to “flip” through this without laying it flat on a fairly large table. What makes this choice even more frustrating is that the layout doesn't even take advantage of this in any way! And no, the “Die drop tables” don’t count, we will be discussing those later…

It would have been nice to see a project from Lazy Lich delivered as a more bespoke product. It's perfectly serviceable don’t get me wrong, I'm just not filled with glee upon opening it like I am with other OSR adventures on the market. Having said that, this is far cheaper than those fancy games! At $22/£17.50, it's cheaper than your standard WotC affair, which aren't really any better quality…

The Content

Moving on, the content is really where this adventure shines. The basic concept behind the Spiral Isles is that they are a location you can take your players after a TPK, when they want to bring someone back from the dead without magic, or otherwise visit the afterlife. It's a great adventure to have in your back pocket so that a session (or even a campaign) does not have to end at a party wipe. Certainly it’s something I have not seen explored before.

The Rules

Lets kick off with the rules that this supplement provides. As advertised on the kickstarter, the whole module is compatible with both the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (5e) and Swords and Wizardry (S&W) rules sets. What this really means is that Monster/NPC stat blocks are written with all the details required for a 5e monster, which as far as I can tell, means they are also compatible with S&W.  It also means that the ghost conversion rules are written for both systems. Ah yes, ghost conversion!

Going Ghostal

So the core conceit within this adventure is that players are ghosts while in the Spiral Isles. What this means is that players basically file away their character sheets, and role up a blue ghost. A blue ghost is basically a level 0 character, with all Ability scores at 9, no skills no abilities and just 1 hit dice. What you do get are a special new Power and a new pool of points to keep track of on top of HP; Life points. There are 4 “ghost levels” you have access to. In ascending order they are Blue, Green, Red and Purple and are basically levels 1-4, except you have no class, and you will only ever have at most 2 special Powers. You get some skill bonuses, proficiency bonuses and get to add a few points to your abilities, but your always going to be under powered, low level characters.

Re-rolling by another name

Before we get into what the Life Points and Powers are and if they are any good, lets first address this conversion idea as a concept. It's kind of weird. On the one hand it's quite clever, because it allows the designer to basically write a mod for the game your group is already playing. If your running 5e, you use all the 5e rules, your just playing with slightly different character rules. The same goes for S&W. On the other hand, there is very little that connects this new character, to your previous one that is supposed to have died. Nothing in the rules actually links them in any way other than their name. They are a class-less blank slate that your free to progress in an entirely different direction to your original character.

While this does give a sense of disconnection with the original characters, perhaps this is intentional! In a sense, perhaps these spirits the players now control, are the most basic distillation of their original character. The only thing that remains are their memories and personalities. It's kind of poetic I guess, and it’s at least thematic. If I were to use these rules at my table, I would probably add my own on top, only allowing players to raise ability scores to the values of their original character, or allowing them to regain spell casting abilities in place of powers. I do largely like the idea though. It allows this portion of the game to play out potentially faster than the original game. Certainly, simpler characters will hopefully encourage more inventive play, and stop players looking for answers on their character sheets in true OSR fashion! It's probably a good way to gently introduce players unfamiliar with the OSR to its ideas and playstyle. Neet.

HP 2.0

So the new stuff you get is basically two new systems that feed off each other. Life points are a revamped version of HP, and Powers are spells you cast using these new fangled Life points. The Powers themselves are fairly mediocre. D&D spells by another name for the most part, nothing really very interesting. From what I can tell at higher levels they can be cast at different Power levels like in regular spells in 5e, but this isn’t actually made clear in the rules. There are about 3 paragraphs about how the Powers work, and two of those are how they work in 5e vs S&W. I’d probably come up with my own.

So while the game asks you to do away with all your original abilities and spells from the original game, it provides you with a little replacement system, and a new number to track. It's a little more complex than that, but that’s the basic gist. The new Life Points are also a universal currency throughout the Spiral Isles. They can be transferred between characters (and monsters for that matter), and they are also used in place of XP to level up through the ghost colours.

This is… cool… sort of. I dunno, I can't help feel the designers have only gone half hog with this idea. Why do we still have HP? I get it, I guess. They probably don't want damage to remove Life points, but still, it's kind of frustrating that you now have two HP-like point pools, that if either are depleted you die for good. I really like the idea of a universal resource for buying stuff, leveling up and using cool abilities. I think this will lead to lots of really difficult decisions on the part of the players, balancing buying cool gear, using cool abilities, and gaining enough to level up. It’s something I would love to steal for a micro-RPG project.

What’s even more interesting is the whole political landscape of the setting revolves around them as well. Characters judge you based on your colour, which is effectively how rich you are. Fantastic! There are even certain areas and events in the Isles where your colour affects what NPC attitudes and if you’ll be shunned or accepted without question. I can already see a mountain of potential drama setup with this mechanic. Very nice.

So in summary, I think the rules are pretty cool if a little half baked. I think they are a clever way to invoke some old school play in a new school game, and I think the life points add a really interesting new resource management mini-game I think would add new dynamic to your 5e game.

The Setting

Moving on, let's look at what the majority of the book focuses on; locations, NPCs and Monsters.

Colourful Locations

The Spiral Isles are split into 4 regions; Blue, Green, Red and Purple quadrants. There are 22 individual islands, each with 2 - 4 locations.

The writing is fairly matter of fact. There is very little in the way of flowery descriptions. In some ways im actually a fan of this style. I wouldn't say I prefer it to more evocative writing, but it serves a very different purpose to me as a GM. Instead of inspiring fantastic visions and unique atmosphere, it provides you with a wealth of specific details with which you can rely on while running. This frees up your GM muscles, allowing you to focus more on setting tone and detailing the landscape yourself.

And when I say a wealth of specifics, I mean it. Every location has a treasure to find, a trap to trigger, an NPC to exploit or an adventure seed to follow. Often a combination of multiple of these. While the treasure is often meager (I think it caught that disease from 5th Edition), the NPCs are dynamic with clear motivations. Often the author will explicitly explain what the NPC would want from the players, and how they may go about getting it. They may have different attitudes towards the players depending on what information they have uncovered, making the world feel reactive.

Not only are these locations brimming with great content, but its very varied and often quite unique. Your standard fantasy adventure bread and butter is here too, with plenty of caves, ruins, cities and hideouts, but some of my favourites are the really weird and wacky locations. There is a roman casino island with greasy loan sharks, various dice games and a fighting pit where players can gamble, fight and get into debt. One island is a geode filled with crystal amphitheatres hosting theatre toups where players can buy masks and props and try their talents in their own shows. Another is a huge tree hotel constantly celebrating a different festival from creepy cult ritual to drug fueled party. Amazing!

The Bad Ghosts

The Monsters are a variety of weird ghosties and fairly standard guards/bandits/cultists. I like the weird monsters, they have some interesting abilities and unique flavour, but they aren't revolutionary. Nothing would be out of place in a vanilla 5e Monster Manual. The rival NPC party provided is especially uninspired. I feel like the art portrays far more interesting characters than the stat blocks portray, another symptom of the 5e-itis that this whole book suffers from. I like the idea though, the rival party slowly stalks the player characters the more they uncover the Spiral Isles’ secrets.

Functional, and handy to have if your running 5e and don't want to thumb through another book i guess. However these monsters are nothing terribly special.

The NPCs and factions are another story however. We see the return of the faction table which was used in Woodfall. This time, it's also provided for the major NPCs as well. This is incredibly useful, and really helps a GM should the players want to get involved in some political manipulation and intrigue. Im generally quite impressed by the details provided for the NPCs, and I do get a good sense of their unique personalities from their descriptions.

Anyway, we have said far too many positive things for a review, it's about time we tackled the unfortunate elephant in the room with this adventure...

The Layout

To put it bluntly, it's awful. I would even argue it isn't even a taste thing, it’s genuinely, objectively, poorly laid out. Its difficult to reference, it's often hard to follow where the text flows when reading, and it's near impossible to work out some sort of hierarchy of sections in paragraphs. Just to really drive home the volume and severity of these problems, here is a vicious list of blunders and the issues they cause when using the book:

Font size is inconsistent. 

This in itself is not usually a problem. Plenty of books do this to differentiate sections, tables or on a map text. However the text size here has no rhyme nor reason I can see, other than to ensure all the desired text fits on the page? It just creates confusion when determining the context of a paragraph. Take this How to Use page as an example. The table text is a different size, fine, but its not the same size in all other tables in the book, that varies considerably. The text at the top is slightly larger than the text below. Why? It makes me think the texts might are unrelated, but they aren't!

Also why is the spacing between text and table not the same above and below? It just looks bad.

Table formatting and implementation is inconsistent. 

Sometimes information is presented in a table, but sometimes it's just a numbered list, and sometimes that numbered list is in a paragraph of text! Some tables are numbered, others are not, some provide a dice size to roll in the header, others are just numbered. The formatting is woefully inconsistent. Font size varies, text alignment doesn't fully make sense, and some column headers don’t seem to align properly. This makes using them often more difficult than it needs to be. The rules for how to use one table are different from the last. Having to read through a paragraph of text to find a list to roll on is just not practical at the table, but putting that aside, it's not even a consistent feature I know to look out for.

Just a brief selection of the various table heading formats...

Also, on a related note, the treasure table is split into 4 seperate d20 tables. They don't seem to be in any way split in a logical fashion, just randomly. Why? Is it so that the basically pointless drawing of a generic treasure chest chat fit in? Could the designers not come up with another 20 entries for a d100 table? It's just shoddy, and causes more inconvenience.

Paragraph columns are inconsistent. 

The book broadly follows a three column layout for text. I say broadly because it's in no way consistent. These columns vary in size and position page to page. Some pages only have two, or one. I’m also not counting where text sometimes spills over multiple columns, which is fine, but still looks bad in my opinion. Especially where the text lasts for only one or two lines. This is what causes you to get lost on pages. The Quadrant summaries are a great example of this. They are intended to be the first things you read but are often found half way down the page with a title smaller than the one for the island titles! This confused me for at least the first 3 quadrants.

This layout is egregious!

There is even on instance of a list just slapped bang in the middle of the page, and it just looks out of place. They have tried to make up for it by providing a border (something which we see nowhere else in the book) but it doesn't help, it just makes the page look too busy.

Its ok, this column follows no rules, its in a box!

The art positioning is awkward.

A lot of it gets cut off at the borders or by text. Some of it overlaps with other elements of text or tables. This largely has no practical problems, it just looks bad. One thing that is a problem are the map labels. All of which are nearly indistinguishable from section titles, making navigating the location pages especially painful.

The die drop table is largely useless. 

This one is a huge shame because its contents are great, and each has their own piece of art as well. However as a “Die Drop” table it's basically useless. Firstly, it's not a “Die” drop table because you don't in any way require dice. You could drop anything, you don't use the number, so what is the point exactly? Why not just a rollable table which would be infinitely more useful. Also, because this thing is POD, its NEVER gonna sit flat. So im never going to be able to use it. Just look at that bow…

Yea useless. Also, its across 4 pages, which is worse! I cant even roll for everything at once. The real nail in the coffin for this, is that they aren't even numbered, so I can't roll even if I wanted to! What if I only have the PDF?!?!? It's a horrible oversight that really throws the at the table value of this book out the window.

The Mirrored Isle Dungeon Description.

Most of the dungeon description is provided in a numbered list on one page. The last two rooms are awkwardly half in and half outside the map, some of it squashed between the border and map. What possessed them to do this? It looks bad and is really hard to read. It just looks unprofessional.

The maps are basically pointless.

They are just coloured blobs. Why don't they have even simple icons and routes or any details at all? They just look out of place on the locations pages.They may as well not be there. All they do is clog up the pages, and push the text around making it even harder to read. I don't mind a simple map, but a simple map slapped in my face every time I turn the page is not helpful when im running a game.

What does this really achieve?

But does that mean it's bad?

I don't want this to come across as a negative review, because it isn’t! I’m not unhappy with the Spiral Isles. I will certainly keep it ready to go should I ever kill my players. I'm also really keen to try out the Life Points system of linking HP/XP/Money/Powers to see how that plays out. I think it will be really cool. I'm also going to mine some of it’s coolest locations for other games for sure.

The biggest issue is obviously the layout, which basically makes it something I simply can't use at the table. It will require me to either memorise bits or make my own notes if I’m gonna run it. Combine this with the relentless infection of D&D 5th edition-ims that flavour all its monsters, powers and treasure a very generic and bland flavour of standard fantasy +1’s to boring numbers, means the adventure would require work from me to get it into a state where id be happy to run it. Not much work, but more work than im usually willing to do!

This is a shame because I really like the content, the weird ideas that can be found throughout the adventure and the really fascinating mechanics that the authors have baked into it. Not to mention the substantial amount of NPC and faction guidance to help GMs like me who struggle with intrigue and politics in their games. Its especially frustrating because a lot of these problems, are not problems in Woodfall! Perhaps its to do with the odd choice of dimensions, but whatever it is, I know Lazy Litch can do better.

I want to love it more than I do, and I think with a rethink of its layout, I would be able to for sure. If your not bothered by the layout, or are willing to put in some effort, there is a great setting and adventure to pull out of this supplement for sure.

Thursday 6 June 2019

Silent Titans Review

Silent Titans is the latest adventure module written by Patrick Stuart, delightfully illustrated by Dirk Detweiler Leichty and published by Jacob Hurst.

The game was Kickstarted in December last year (2018), and is now available in print and pdf. I backed this as soon as it became available. I’d like to think I backed it based on the prestige of its creators in the OSR community, but if I’m honest I think it’s the art that sold me. Rightly so I’d say, I mean just look at it…

Digital images don't easily convey how bold and colourful this is in person.

This stuff would not be out of place hanging in on my wall or in an art gallery, even the maps look this good! Before we get into the content though, let’s start with a quick overview of the physical product that was delivered..

The Product

The book is near identical to the mock-ups displayed on the Kickstarter page, which in itself is an impressive feat. This is even more impressive because the book is just such a beautiful object to behold. Jacob has spared no expense in making this thing top quality, and it pays off in spades with the bright and bold colours in Dirk’s work.

The book sits flat on the table, uses thick, high quality paper, and fully utilises its inside covers. Even the dust jacket has a search the body table and a gorgeous map of one of the dungeons of Wir-Heal on the inside.

If your splashing out on the book, I would recommend getting the bonus pack too if you can. It includes a map book and a booklet of cut-out minis (yes a battle maps and minis in an OSR artsy game). Also a bunch of index card character sheets for the Into the Odd rules, a bookmark with most of those rules on it, and some stickers, all as good a quality as the book itself. The minis are very thick cardstock, the battle maps are thick glossy paper and everything is as vibrantly colourful as the book itself. Absolutely A+ job from Jacob here, I cannot praise it enough.

Everyone likes a few goodies!

What little I can fault is fairly nit-picky. The front map appears to be missing some labels. I’m unsure if this is intentional as something of a player map, but as the pdf isn’t missing those labels I suspect it may be a mistake. Not a huge issue, but it is slightly inconvenient when these things are referenced in the text. The Map book is staple bound, and while will sit flat with a little bending, it's not perfect for using with paper minis. What may have been nicer is simply each map printed as a poster, and folded together. The bonus pack comes in an envelope anyway to hold it all. But none of this can take away from the shear beauty of what has been produced here.

The Content

Now let's take a look at what’s inside. At time of writing, I haven’t run Silent Titans as is. I have run one of its dungeons as a one shot however, so I have a feel for the game.

The Rules & Characters

The game is pitched as “…a bizarre nightmare adventure setting … built to run on the ultra-light Into The Odd rules”. What this means is the game provides stats, challenges and effects for the Into the Odd rules by Chris McDowell. These  “ultra-light” rules are based largely on D&D so converting everything  to something like 5th Edition D&D could be done on the fly without much trouble, though your mileage may vary.

What wouldn’t be such a simple job would be converting it’s pre-generated characters. These are a part of the Into the Odd rules, whereby a character’s randomly rolled stats determine what equipment and abilities they get. Silent Titans takes this one step further and this also determines your name and rough personality. This is an interesting choice, one that certainly helps fit player characters neatly into the setting. Each character is very distinct, and Patrick states; “Anything not specified you can make up yourself.”

This is the first of many design choices that run contrary to conventional OSR wisdom, but I like it. I think is speeds up an element of the game that is usually quite slow and challenging for some players. This does make Silent Titans much harder to drop in to an existing campaign however, though considering how the rest of this game is written, I think that’s probably intentional.  We will get into this later, but suffice to say for now, If you’re going to run a Silent Titans game, it’s certainly most effective to use all the included rules.

The rest of these rules are presented in the mechanics of the dungeons, environments and NPC factions. They mostly consist of telling you which stat to use for saves, something a GM could make a judgment call on themselves, should they be using another system.

Everything else comes in the form of narrative or roleplay effects. Things that affect a character’s senses, damage over time effects or things that affect character memory. None of these are really defined explicitly by Into the Odd, which makes the majority of the supplement fairly system agnostic. Whole dungeon’s, locations and factions could be pulled out and run in any system without much trouble. A lot of the mechanics are neat, and I can certainly see them producing some pretty fun situations to play out. Certainly the ones I came across in the dungeon I ran were great.

In summary, what rules exist in Silent Titans fit nicely, and tend to get out of the way, allowing the GM to focus on why we are all really here, the fiction!

The Fiction

With the fiction, I feel like i have about as much criticism as I do praise.

Firstly, Patrick’s writing reads like GM notes. Lists of things and ideas, with sub-points branching down as you read. They do a great job of sparking ideas, and imagination, but are pretty poor at conveying a scene at a glance. At the table, I like to be able to flip to a page, read a thing and get a good sense for the situation, but that is pretty impossible for the most part in this book. You really do have to read the whole thing, and only then does the world coalesce from Patrick’s flowery descriptions and Dirks abstract drawings. To be clear, the rooms are well described, often with inspiring details that can help you describe these bizarre location to your players. However, they are not very descriptive of the activity within, nor of their connection to wider whole. To really get a sense for what is going on in this bizarre place, you need to read the lot.

This seems to be a step back as well for both Patrick and Jacob, both of which have produce two of the most gameable books that exist! (Maze of the Blue Medusa & Hot Springs Island respectively) Silent Titans does use the repeated information trick used in both previous works, one short summary on a general dungeon map, and another in a more detailed description on a following page. However, unlike the previous books, these summaries are rarely anything other than description. No wider interweaving narrative is conveyed between the moving parts, everything feels independent until you have a picture of the whole in your head.

Also, it's really quite hard to parse. On many occasions, I would read a passage, totally not understand it, read it several more times, look at the art, still not get it and move on, only later to discover a key piece of information that made the whole thing clear. Patricks advice at the start of the book of “Like all my stuff, read it front to back first” needs to be taken quite literally, and even then will take multiple re-reads and flicks through to really solidify in your mind.
On top of all this, once you do get to grips with what is going on it’s... kind of a railroad. It reminds me a lot of the “choices” in many modern open world video games. A multitude of mostly unrelated side quests are available along with the main “plot” quests (the dungeons) available to be done in any order, but you still have to hit all those same beats. The conclusion is going to be mostly the same for everyone. I would even argue that in all likelihood your going to do the dungeons in order, because they are laid out on after the other on the map!

One of the dungeons for even takes this to the next degree. It's all about players waking up from dreams, and Patrick advises you to use unfair rules, scene shifts and “naked railroading” to keep the players on track. I think I get what Patrick is going for here, the idea behind this dungeon about going mad, and imprisoning the characters in these dream scenes until they go along with them. The problem with this  is that it ends up making any player choice pretty meaningless and I can see players getting frustrated when they have to replay through the scenes if they mess up. This does not seem fun to me. The first time they encounter each scene I think would be a fun roleplaying exercise, but once you have figured out how to “beat” the scene and navigate around it, it become more of a mundainity than something enjoyable.

This seems very odd when looking at MotBM and Hot Springs Island, both very much open world adventure settings that really can be explored any which way, and produce exciting unforeseen situations as a result. This is another element of the game that goes contrary of common wisdom in the OSR. A defined and pre-determined story just feels dirty to me. I suspect this is intended, but one quote from the dungeon described above makes me question this, when speaking about the “naked railroading” in the dungeon, Patrick writes; “This [Dungeon] is completely different to the rest of the game, where you should absolutely not do this.”

One of the battle maps provided in the booklet.

So is this intentional? The front of the book does state that this game is about loops, about time travel and the player characters almost having a “do over” of their previous mistakes. I really don't know. However, what I do know is that this, all of it, the art, the fiction, the mechanics, they WORK. They work really well. They are effective at conveying a very particular and compelling aesthetic and this is...

Why Silent Titans Is Actually Incredible

What makes Silent Titans special is how seamlessly the art, the fiction and the rules interweave. To the point where I cannot fathom what inspired what, and I’m starting to question if there is even such a distinction to be made.

While fascinating, this is a marvel to behold in game. Mechanics, art, and rules align perfectly into what i can only describe an an Aesthetic, with a capital A. What Patrick asks you as a GM to portray and what your players to envision, match toe to toe with what Dirk has drawn.
In fact, at first glance, Dirk’s illustrations seem chaotic and meaningless, like abstract doodles. However, once you read Patricks writing they come to life, you recognise characters, monsters, even “architecture” so to speak.

The reason I would recommend the bonus pack so strongly is that this game presents a GM and their player a very distinct, and pervasive aesthetic to the game. It's really what I think makes Silent Titans a groundbreaking supplement. Everything works so well together in creating a very unique and immediately recognisable look and feel. One that doesn’t rely on fantasy tropes and a common understanding on what a dungeon, medieval village or even person is!. As Patrick has done in his previous works, he takes the limitations of the tabletop RPG as a medium, and instead of fighting them, embraces them and builds them into his setting and game.

The clearest example of this is the nature of Wir-Heal (the name of the land in Silent Titans) itself. The idea being that this land is distorted and nonsensical. Space doesn't totally make sense here, and it's difficult for characters to get a clear sense of space while exploring these bizarre lands. That is exactly how it can feel to a player when exploring imaginary spaces. Everyone has their own internal model of a scene, no two of which are going to align perfectly. Thus, Patrick has worked this natural limitation into the fiction of his world. This is again complemented by Dirk’s abstract isometric art style. The art provides exactly as much spatial information as is important in the rules, no more and no less. Patrick's room descriptions provide the GM with high level details and more descriptive information for the GM to riff on. Dirks room drawings provide the players with visual analogues to those key elements. The minis then provide visual reference for the player characters and enemies for combat and navigation, where exact distance is unimportant, only relative positioning and distance matter. This is true both fictionally, and mechanically!

I have yet to be brave enough to take scissors to the minis...

In play this is perfect. Showing the whole dungeon map to the players doesn't spoil anything, because the art is so abstract that its nonsensical to them at first glance anyway, it serves only to tease them with possibility. Then, when they enter the room and those elements are described, they pop out. Suddenly they can see, “Oh, that mass of tubes there is the Cephalopod Prime!”, “All those red circles are Face Crab Keys!”, “That pillar is a GUN?!?!”.

This marriage of mechanics, fiction and art is something I don't think has been done so fully in a supplement before, and I doubt will happen for a long while yet. All that Silent Titans provides, pushes a GM into using them in a certain way, a way which is emphasised by the fiction, codified in the rules, and conveyed in the art. Total unity, something modern game designers both in digital and tabletop struggle with consistently.

I truly think Silent Titans is something special. It has its flaws, yes. As mentioned earlier, it's going to take a certain kind of GM to be able to use what Patrick writes, and a skilled one at that. It also requires players be willing to not necessarily be railroaded, but certainly guided in a certain direction, and have compatible motivations with the setting. I would argue this is true for almost every adventure anyway, but I don't think its something OSR players will be so keen on. Push past those initial reservation though, and I think its aesthetic, outshines all of them.

I’ll certainly be bringing Silent Titans to my Table at the next available opportunity.

Thursday 18 April 2019

The Forgotten Abbey

For the past year I've been toying with ideas for using decks of cards in RPGs, but none of them have ended up condensing into anything usable. That is until this years One Page Dungeon Contest roused me into putting my ideas into action!

The Forgotten Abbey aims to provide a GM with a simple procedure for tracking four core components to a good dungeon delve; the map, random encounters, treasure and time.

The idea is to use the physical properties of the cards to track these elements mechanically. The club cards can be laid out on the table to map the rooms. Discarding the spades keeps track of what monsters have already been dealt with. A hand of hearts and diamonds that the players pick from at random simulates rummaging amongst the ruins, revealing treasures or simply wasting time.

A perfect excuse to show off your fancy decks of cards.

To ensure the time wasted has consequences, the dungeon itself reshuffles if the players dawdle for too long. This has an additional benefit of providing the players with a difficult choice. The deeper they go into the abbey, the more treasure they may find, but the more likely it is that the dungeon resets and the dangers they faced on the way in ressurect.

It has a couple other cool things going for it I hope! The dungeon is broken into three levels, each getting progressively more spooky, dangerous and lucrative. I think the magic items are pretty neat, if nothing else!

The whole idea kind spawned from putting the three decks along the right edge there.

This this was a layout challenge for me, having a lot of idea and very little space! I'm trying to get better at it, but i'm pretty happy with the final result. The page is busy, but the intent is that all the information is just there, and hopefully it's clear where to look for the bits you need as you need them. Feedback from better minds that mine is always appreciated!

I feel like this system might lay the groundwork for a dungeon delving card system. I'm keen to experiment with this idea on another dungeon and see if it works outside of this specific theme.

As mentioned above, I have entered this into this year's One Page Dungeon Contest. The contest is still open until Midnight on the 1st of May, so get writing and you can still get that entry in the door!

Otherwise keep an eye on their site or Twitter for when they release all the entries into a compilation, it always produces a mountain of fantastic material for your game!

P.S. I'm trying to become more active on Twitter following the death of G+. I have even written a little bot that tweets out the latest blog posts from across the OSR blogosphere if that sounds useful!

Saturday 2 February 2019

The Will of Rot

As part of a campaign i'm currently running, I needed a forest to house Mother Mohln of the Mohln race from my very first post on this blog. 

I thought about using Dolmenwood which there is a lot of content for. However, a lot of it is split up between a lot of the Wormskin Zine Issues and I wanted something I could bring along to every session for reference. Plus, its fae aesthetic wasn’t exactly how I envisaged the home of the Mohln.

So, in true OSR fashion, I decided to do it myself! I’ve been wanting to put time into producing another one page adventure location since the One Page Dungeon Competition as I found it so much fun. I’ve also been eating up all the amazing content from Michael Prescott of Trilemma Adventures as i find his stuff so useful at the table its incredible.

I ended up creating The Will of Rot - small hexcrawl adventure set the the Forests of Mohln. I have put it up for pay what you want on itch.io, so click the button below to download it for free.

If you like it, throw me a buck! If your from the UK like me, that’s like 76p! I’ve seen chocolate bars more expensive than that! It ended up being 3 pages, mostly because I have little self control, but also because I created some Maps and a couple tables for use in play. It definitely wears its inspirations on its sleeves, as i've been consuming a large amount of community content lately! Can you name all the OSR creators that I have unashamedly ripped off here? If you end up running it, let me know! Its already inspired viscous hatred of the townspeople of Timberwick and casued the forced adoption of a young Vash in my games. What will happen in yours?

While we are on the topic of self promotion, I’m currently writing an article for a Kickstarter Silver Swords: An RPG fanzine as part of Kickstarter’s Zine Quest initiative. If you like RPGs, especially DIY, OSR and Indie stuff, check out Silver Swords and the other projects that will be running this month!

Tuesday 23 October 2018

[REDACTED PER PROTOCOL 4000-ESHU] - A Dread Scenario

I wrote a SCP themed Dread scenario to run as a spooky one-shot.

If you don't know about The Foundation, I'm sorry about that thing you wanted to do today, but I'm also not sorry because you get to read all of these for the first time!

Player packets ready to go.
This scenario is based on the SCP article Taboo, written by PeppersGhost. It recently won a contest to be SCP number [REDACTED], so I can only hope this scenario does this fantastic piece of fiction justice!

The idea behind this game is to split the required information needed to keep everyone safe between the players, then sit back and watch the inevitable chaos as they attempt to survive not knowing quite enough to stay alive.

Here is a link to all the documents needed to run the scenario - Including digital, and print copies. (Even in letter size for you Imperial heathens.)

I'm very excited to be running a game of this for Halloween this year. If you end up running it, please let me know! I’m really curious to know how it goes for others. 

Monday 1 October 2018

Fantasy Heartbreaker Retrospective Part 3 – Mage & Priest Classes

Let’s talk Classes. This is a breakdown of my design and process for coming up with the classes for Myth & Malice, my fantasy heartbreaker RPG I designed some time ago now. This is part 3, find part 2 here and part 1 here. I have posted a discussion thread on this topic, on the r/RPGDesign subreddit like last time. Onwards!


The classes were where I began with Myth & Malice. I was frustrated with the spell caster classes I was playing/running in my games and felt I wanted to provide players with more control over the magic they cast. Enter; The Mage, (AKA the Arcane Magic User originally) my first foray into RPG design, a custom class for Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Dug up from the archives, this is the original hack I wrote for Lamentations.

The Mage

The core concept behind the Mage is a character who doesn’t cast pre-defined “spells” from a book, but instead can construct their own unique spells by combining different predefined components. I settled on a system that asks a player to pick from a base set of elements to define a spell’s overall theme, and a selection of effects to define its general function, then leave the rest up to player and GM fiat.

The idea here is to provide just enough rules and structure as to produce “balanced” or at least consistent spell power levels, while leaving enough space for creativity and imaginative problems solving.

The incarnation of the Mage in Myth & Malice is a refined and attempted “simplification” of the original Arcane Magic User class. The class’s core mechanic remains the same, and uses a pool of dice, the size and composition of which is dependent of level. Called Power dice, these are the class’s “spells per day” equivalent. Each dice represents a spell the Mage can cast, with bigger dice representing more powerful potential spells.  The mechanic is fairly simple, though requires a few steps;
  1. Pick a dice
  2. Pick one or more Aspects
  3. Pick one or more Forms
  4. Roll equal or over the number of Aspects + Forms
If the roll succeeds, the spell works and the player describes the effect. If the roll fails, nothing happens, and the player keeps the dice. The “Effect” can be mostly anything the player wishes, so long as no direct mechanical benefit is gained. However, if the player wants a mechanical benefit, the value of the mechanical benefit is determined by the size of dice they used to make the roll.

Already, re-reading what is laid out in Myth & Malice, this isn’t very clear. Instead of breaking down these steps clearly, the rules are spread about through the various paragraphs, interspersed with “fluffy” description. Also, I refer to a spell “Difficulty” which is effectively the number of Aspects plus the number of Forms in the spell. This is certainly a hold over from a time when the Forms had different costs, something that should have been caught in an edit.

Now that I hope you have a decent grasp of the concept, let’s talk about its execution

The Mage Breakdown

My aim with these mechanics was to make the “power level” of a spell determined roughly by the dice the player chooses to use to cast it. Thus, my conceit was that the more complex a spell was (that being the more things it was doing) the more powerful the spell was. So, I set about deconstructing what a spell could do into a series of components for players to recombine later.

Inspired by Ben Milton’s Maze Rats, I split spells into the two core components; Aspects (A spell’s overall theme) and Forms (A spell’s purpose or effect). Aspects determine what kind of effect a Form might have based on common sense or GM/Player fiat.  I.E., a spell with the Fire Aspect will burn things, a spell with the Light Aspect will provide illumination. If the meaning isn’t 100% clear, that comes under fiat, a part of the OSR playstyle the Myth & Malice system already leans into.

Forms were a little more difficult to design. I tried the make my list is as exhaustive as possible, while remaining fairly short. I’m fairly happy with the result, but I understand that I’m inherently adding soft limits to my spells providing a defined list, a conceit I was willing to make for the sake of simplicity.

This is probably the only area of the game where I actually considered probabilities. Something which I very likely should have done for other areas. My goal with the spells was for a “reasonable” spell at each power dice size should have a ~75% chance of success. I think I just about achieved this. The below table shows the probabilities of 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 components (that’s Aspects and Forms) added to a single spell, and rolled using each of the power dice sizes.

% Success4681012

Deciding how many power dice a Mage gets at each level was a little trickier however. To do this I initially used the LotFP’s magic user spells per day and D&D 5e’s Wizard/Sorcerer as guides but the results were not received well during playtesting. Players simply felt they had too few spells, and wanted more to do. This is why Mages don't lose Power dice unless the spell succeeds, and why the number of d4 Power dice a Mage can use are unlimited. Both of these changes I’m not happy with now I’m looking back. I think I too easily caved to my players’ demands. I should have stuck with my initial design decisions and simply tweaked the numbers until it felt fair. Outright changing mechanics as I did destabilised other elements of the game too much in the end, and the Mage began to feel too powerful in my later playtests.

Deciding on the lists of Aspects was fairly straightforward. The classic 10 elements seen in most D&D-esk Fantasy works well and I liked the symmetry they provided. Looking back, the extended table of Secondary Aspects by combining Aspects is probably fairly redundant. Most GMs would probably be happy to rule these themselves.  As presented, the table takes up a lot of space and probably overwhelms an already confused new player even further. On the point of redundant information, the referenced Clash tables here do exist, and were intended to be in the GMs guidelines I so often refer to. In truth however, they never came up during play, so I’ve no idea if they were any good.

The list of Forms was produced using a bit more of a scattergun approach. I stole a load of words I liked from the aforementioned Maze Rats tables, before refining them again and again based on existing D&D spells, trying to isolate core themes like “Transport” and “Harm”.

My goal was to provide a fairly comprehensive list, so that players were able to make a vast array of spells. In many ways I think having a defined list actually encourages more inventive spells, as I’ve heard it said before that creativity can be stoked by limitations.

Ideally I also wanted a bit of overlap between the Form’s functions, as I wanted players to be able to create the same effect with different combinations of Aspects and Forms. An example may be a flight spell;

One way of producing it could be Air + Transport, which could move a person with air, perhaps with a gust of wind. Alternatively, Insects + Bind could have a character grow bug wings and use them to fly. Both produce the same end result mechanically, but the in fiction context may make one favourable over the other.

The final table for this class is the Form Mechanics. The intent behind this part of the design is to provide another limitation on spell power. By aligning the Power dice size to the actual numbers of a mechanic, the idea was that effectiveness of a spell is reigned in. While it doesn’t ensure players cannot exploit these loose rules to produce “overpowered” abilities, it does force them to be more inventive.

Overall, I think my solution is still too clunky. There are too many tables a player must consult to produce a spell, the Form Mechanics feel fairly arbitrary and also too specific compared to the rest of the system. 20 Forms seems like too many. I think fewer, with more overlap is potentially more easier for players to digest, and could create more instances of players producing similar spells with different fictional positions.

The Mage Playtesting

I ran a few playtests with the Mage class in a couple of dungeon crawls and a wilderness exploration. I received positive feedback overall for this class (more than the others), and people very much liked the freedom of creating their own spells.

What I found was that people approached the ability in a couple different ways. Some wrote down a list of spells themselves beforehand, and others just made things up on the fly. I hadn’t initially thought players would create spells in advance, but it ended up working just as well, but gave more of a traditional D&D wizard feel to the class. The first playtest quickly found that the number of spells was far too low, this was an iteration that started with 2 d4 spells and 1 d6. In the second playtest I increased the number of spells, and had them only expire upon a filed roll but found people still felt like they had too few spells.

Having spells only expire of a successful casting has its problems however. It meant that there was basically no downside to simply re-trying the spell. Something I did not try was to use the “Clash Tables” hinted at in the text. If I rolled on this table on a failed spell casting, it would provide more gravitas to a player’s decision to cast them, and potentially solve the issue.

I settled on an infinite number of d4s but I’m not certain that was the correct call. Giving the class such a powerful ability makes balancing the other classes to feel as powerful difficult, if not nigh impossible, something which we will cover when we see the Warrior and Adept classes.

The Priest

Next let’s look the priest, I'll do these in the order they were designed for the sake of chronology.
If it's not already clear, my approach to class design is to provide each one with its own “core mechanic” that defines the class’s special ability, unique to it. For the Mage, that was the Power dice system. For the Priest, we have Favour dice.

This class was largely inspired by Mystics from Logan Knight's blog Last Gasp Grimoire. In contrast to Logan’s class, I didn’t want the Priest to require a separate playbook that defined their abilities, unique to each religion. Instead, I lifted the core concept from the Mage, of constructing unique spells from a series of components.

However, the difference is where the restrictions on the spells lie. Mages run out of spells as their Power dice are used. The Mystic by contrast can cast any number of Prayers, and is limited instead by how favourable their God views them, and their Religion’s themes.
At least that’s the idea.

The Priest Breakdown

Instead of a player constructing spells from well defined Aspects and Forms, the player is a devout follower of a certain deity. This Deity has a collection of core beliefs or “Principles”. These work in much the same way as Aspects, but are intended to be more specific to the Character’s religion. In place of Forms, we have Invocations, similar but with a more “miracle” like flavour. Also, in theory any Priest can use any Invocation at Level 1 (however practically, that’s not possible).
In terms of actual mechanisms, casting works totally differently. Priests have a pool of dice, the number of dice is determined by level, and the size of all the dice (from d4 to d12) is dynamic, and has a maximum again determined by level. The “dynamic” element comes from the ability to lose and gain “Faith” through play. “Faith” is the in-game term for the size of dice with which the player rolls. By performing priestly duties, and witnessing holy events, the Priest increases their Faith, and can cast more powerful miracles. However, by witnessing their Deity misunderstand them, or perhaps neglecting their religious duties, this power decreases.

Again… At least that’s the idea…

The intent of Faith is two fold:

Firstly it is to provide another alternative to the “Spells per day” Vancian magic system from traditional D&D. The Priest can make any number of Prayers per day, the limit instead is how much they are willing to risk, and how well they can convince the GM that what they want is in the interests of their religion.

Effectively, when a Priest prays, they choose a Principle and an Invocation like a Mage would choose an Aspect and a Form, and come up with their desired effect. Then, they roll all the dice from their Prayer Pool and count the number of dice that roll equal or over the Target (determined by the Invocation), and tell the GM. Depending on how well aligned with the Characters religion the GM rules the request to be, the Prayer may succeed or fail.

By having better Faith, the Priest is rolling bigger dice, and is therefore more likely to succeed a Prayer Roll, and may try asking for something less aligned to their Religious beliefs. However, as Faith dwindles, the prayers become less and less likely to work, thus the player is reluctant to ask for things outside their religion’s direct desires for fear of rejection.

The second intention was, to give the GM an interesting way of framing failed Priest Prayers, as either their Deity misunderstanding them, or simply snubbing them. This brings the Character of Gods into the forefront much more directly than in usual play. I intended to make “Misunderstandings” much more thematic that is demonstrated in the rules. Again, inspired by the Mystic class from Logan Knight, a misunderstood prayer could be horrific and hilarious; such as a snake god causing their Messiah to vomit forth several snakes instead of spitting venom.

I wanted this to encourage a certain way of roleplaying. I wanted to make the Priest feel more like a religious character, pining for their deity’s attention, but fearful of the repercussions of upsetting them.

In actuality, the priest felt thematic, but as a result of the Prayers, not because of the mechanics I’d built around it. As I discovered when playtesting…

The Priest Playtesting

I did a fair amount of playtesting of this class, more than the others. I had the same 3 Playtests involving the Mage, in addition to a character in an on-going campaign running the class before I moved to a different system. In all cases, the results were the same. Thematically, they were adored. Players loved how much they were embodying the religion, and creating spells was enjoyable and often hilarious. However, the actual mechanic was often misunderstood, or felt disconnected from the fiction.

I created a few religions for the class myself, outlined in the rules. I wanted them to be used as templates, as I think the class is most effectively used when the GM has a good idea in their own heads how the Deity behaves and what it represents. That way, coming up with fun misunderstandings or required religious rituals is easy to improvise. However, any guidance on how to GM the Priest isn’t covered in the rules as is which is a problem.

A Failure of Execution

Re-reading my design notes, and what I put into the actual ruleset now, I can’t help but feel like I pretty heavily missed the mark with this class. The idea behind it, of a very thematic character based almost exclusively on their religious beliefs still excites me. However, I do not think what is presented in the rules comes close enough to evoking the feeling I wanted.

Let’s break down where I think I went wrong, and what I could do to improve it.

  • The Mechanic

It’s needlessly complicated, and unlike any other part of the game. I should unify this with the other mechanics in the game, and make it more robust. Currently, Prayers feel too similar to Mage Spells, and are in some ways far more limiting, with little benefit compared to them. (Especially since Mages get infinite d4 power spells now.)

  • “Misunderstandings” need to be more explicit

I think these are key to making the class feel different. If I let the Prayers be more powerful, and make misunderstanding a more interesting and enjoyable risk-reward system, Players have a tougher choice as to what prayers they may ask for.

  • Gaining and Losing Faith

This needs a rework and a rethink. Currently at low levels it doesn’t have much of an effect in play. Heck at levels 1 & 2 it’s literally pointless. Faith needs to have harsher consequences for losing it, and better definitions about regaining it.

  • The Religions

I loved the ones I came up with. However, that’s not terribly useful for other GMs. I’ve already said that to most effectively use the Priest, a GM needs to have a good “headcanon” about the Religion of their Priest Player(s). Thus, they should really create their own unless they get really inspired by my own. I should make this clear, and create better defined rules around their creation. (More tables, etc.)

To be continued…

Wow! Ok, I had a LOT more to say about these classes than I thought. Hopefully this breakdown was insightful.

As always, please do tell me what you think, discuss this on Reddit, in the comments below, or just think about it a bunch.

Last time again had a great discussion on Reddit, so do check that out if you haven't already.

Next time, we shall continue to clamber through the Classes, and have a final thoughts summary on their interactions!!