Monday, July 27, 2015


I'm surprised there hasn't been more talk about the watch-us-play-an-rpg series that Wil "King of the Geeks" Wheaton has been going on Youtube. What gives? Is it more fun to argue about why there isn't a history of the OSR and then argue about who is ideologically pure enough to write that history? Are people boycotting Wheaton because he isn't into GamerGate? Is Wheaton-mania sooooo 2012? Or is it just that recorded actual play is really, really hard to sit through? (My money is on that last one.)

Wheaton's Titansgrave is probably the best of this sort of thing that I've seen. The players are all personable, the game moves along at a good clip, and there are actual production values being leveraged here. I admit, I had it on in the background while I did other things, but usually I can't get through a minute of someone else's game. This might not be a bad video to show someone who wants to know what rpgs are like if they're on the fence about it. 

The Chapter Zero video is just Wheaton talking about how rpgs work and describing his homebrew campaign setting:

Chapter One is where the game gets going:

Friday, July 24, 2015

East of West

Creating a "Weird West" setting runs headlong into what I call "the Deadlands Problem." That is, the conventions that constitute the Weird West are already largely set: the discovery of a fantastical substance the powers uncanny technology, gunslingers returned from the grave to seek vengeance, the Ghost Dance was a real and powerful rite, something-something Civil War, the end is nigh, etc. The low-hanging fruit of the Weird West has already been picked and packaged as the expected tropes that come with mixing westerns with fantasy and horror. This is especially true in comics and gaming; too few creators really stray beyond the territory already marked out by Deadlands.

East of West, however, feels startlingly fresh. The comic mixes western, science fiction, and horror-fantasy ideas; it's drawing from the usual set of inspirations, but the end result is weirder and more inventive than the stereotypical sum of those parts. 

East of West is set in an America divided into seven nations: Armistice (a land of strange pilgrims), The Union, The Confederacy, the Kingdom (a nation of black freemen), the Endless Nation (the nation of the united native peoples), the Republic of Texas, and the PRA of Mao (a nation of Chinese immigrants). Unknown to most, there is a wide-reaching conspiracy afoot; each nation is represented by a member of the Chosen who seeks to foster and bring about an obscure prophecy known only as the Message. At its heart, the Message is apocalyptic; though cryptic, it spells out the end of days.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are real in the world of East of West, and three of them wish to further the Message. The Horsemen's aim of fulfilling the Message's prophecy is derailed when Death falls in love with a young woman named Xiaoling who is in line to take control of the PRA of Mao; they have a child, who is late has been taken by the remaining Horsemen and raised within a computer-generated virtual world to be the Great Beast who will usher in the apocalypse. Understandably, Death is none too pleased with this plan for his son and currently searches for his lost child--a quest that puts everyone and everything in harm's way.

While Death searches for his son, the world is falling to pieces. Political instability, arms races and technological advancement, assassination, war, manufactured debt crises, and more rise to make the world ripe for the apocalypse. Amidst it all, Death's son emerges as the most terrifying tool of destruction.

East of West is one of the most interesting comics being published at the moment. If a different take on the Weird West is at all appealing to you, definitely give it a try. I found the first volume a little slow, but was definitely hooked by the second collected edition. And now, the customary image dump:

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What Makes a Monster Interesting?

According to the four guys at that are still super mad that D&D 4e was replaced by D&D 5e, the thing that makes monsters interesting are the unique mechanics that express a monster's flavor. Kobolds are interesting, in this view, because they shift all over the battlefield--emphasizing what sneaky little bastards they are. Gnolls are interesting because they're pack predators and they get a mechanical bonus when fighting next to each other.

I can see how someone might see mechanics as the interesting bit about monsters in a game like 4e that uses a skirmish-level board game as its combat system. The mechanical differentiation is obvious because you see it in action as the miniatures or pogs or whatever are moved around the battle-map of one-inch squares. Certainly, it solves the "bag of hit points" problem: in practice, a bugbear isn't just a goblin with more stamina--it's got something that sets it apart. (5e seems to do this as well, at least with humanoid monsters, but I never see that mentioned.)

Also, 4e's mechanics had to do the work of making monsters interesting because whoever was writing the fluff kept committing hate crimes against flavor text like this infamous table of "Bear Lore":

Note that 4e actually made you roll to learn this stuff. Why?

I'm less convinced that in D&D games that aren't 4e mechanics can and should carry the burden of what makes a monster interesting. This is especially true for games that don't rely on battle-maps and miniatures; since the mechanics of pushes, pulls, swaps, slides, shifts, marks, blasts, and bursts are not defined in a tactile way in "theater of the mind" combat, those mechanics simply hold less weight when you're relying on shared imagination instead of object-defined positioning.

Of course, the notion of "shared imagination" always already suggests what makes monsters interesting in "theater of the mind" games: the interesting bit is how the monsters are described. After you've played in your tenth D&D campaign, goblins probably aren't that interesting anymore. But if you were to describe those goblins (without actually naming them goblins) as "diminutive, wizened, man-like fey, each wearing a cloth cap that appears to be dipped in blood" they suddenly become much more interesting than their stock description in your Monster Manual allows for.

Even a monster with a ton of mechanical options (such as the beholder) is only interesting until you've seen what it can do and it becomes familiar. Changing up the description ("re-skinning") can still breathe new life into what has become rote. To that end, I'm going to be posting a series of regular monsters from the 5e Monster Manual that have been re-flavored for use in my Krevborna setting to illustrate how new description and changing the script adds interest to the same-old-same-old. 

My method for Krevborna is to mine myth and folklore because that fits this particular setting, but you can go further afield in your own games. Get inspired by Clark Ashton Smith, comb DeviantArt for sci-fi monstrosities to be inspired by, roll on random tables if you must; re-skinning gets mileage out of the books you already have (no need to back the latest monster book coming down the pike on Kickstarter when you can DIY) and saves you the time spent crafting your own monster stats by hand (good luck doing that in 5e, by the way).

Monday, July 13, 2015

Actual Play: Daughters of the Eel (part 3)

By using the magical lenses, Herman was able to see that he and Kahl were not alone below deck; three more pale-skinned women, marked by signs of deviltry, were approaching the makeshift chapel slow...until they began to run. Kahl left the room to meet them, destroying one of them outright by calling upon the sacred radiance of his deity. Kahl stepped back inside the chapel to shield himself from the onslaught of the remaining two, which seemed to reveal something important about the ship's chapel: its sanctity seemed to repel these fell beings (1).

Since our heroes were now trapped-but-safe inside the chapel and the monsters had no way to get at them, a brief parlay occurred. This conversation revealed much: these scarred women were indeed members of the Daughters of the Eel cult; they served some dark master trapped beneath the waves (2); they had killed the warden and all his prisoners. They offered a deal: hand the lenses over and Kahl and Herman could leave the ship in safety. Of course, Herman and Kahl declined this offer; furious, the two remaining Daughters of the Eel retreated into the shadows, where even the lenses could not detect them.

Herman and Kahl had to get off the ship one way or another. After some deliberation, they cautious made their way to the stairs. Everything was deathly silent, only the waves lapping against the hull and the creaking of the ship's timber could be heard. Up the stairs, then, and into the cold night air. Nothing stirred above deck.

They made it over the side and into Petrus's waiting rowboat, and began to head back to shore. Then they heard two tell-tale splashes behind them as the Daughters of the Eel dove in to pursue them. Using the blue lenses, Herman was able to target one of the Daughters with enchantment-empowered mockery, which sent her plummeting into the depths of the abyss (3). The last Daughter seemed to have disappeared from sight, but when the trio felt something knocking into their boat from beneath they realized that she was preparing to overturn their boat into the sea and pick them off at her leisure.

A knock from below again. Hands creeping up the side of the boat to rock it upon the waves and then disappear again into the inky blackness. And then, a pale hand rupturing the boat from beneath! Petrus rowed desperately for the shore, Kahl began to bale water from the boat with him helm, and Herman attempted to fend off the Daughter. After a tense struggle, the Daughter was dispatched, but by using the lenses Herman could see that many, many more Daughters clung to the hull of the Harrow beneath the waves.

Although their boat was ruptured, Petrus managed to bring it ashore. Making their way back to the Rended Ewe, the pair were ushered upstairs where they thought they would be handing the lenses over to Gentleman Jim, but instead a woman with long red hair and battleproud scars, and weathered leather, stood gazing out the window at the sea. The duo were now face-to-face with Vanessa Redmayne (4). gesturing for Herman and Kahl to sit, she thanked them for retrieving the lenses and listened to their report of the unholy events surrounding the Harrow. She added a generous bonus to their wages, and commented that with skill in dealing with the unusual had made them strong candidates for further work of this nature, should they be interested...


Friday, July 10, 2015

How I Run City Adventures

Friends don't let friends use detailed city maps. I kid...sort of.
Someone on G+ (and I apologize that I can't remember exactly who) asked me how I run city adventures.

The short answer is: I run them exactly like any other adventure.

In other words, I come up with a brief scenario that presents a problem that the characters can fix, write up the NPCs they're likely to interact with, the most likely ways they'll be drawn into peril, find some appropriate monster stats, and make myself a flowchart of the way things might shake out (but also leaving room to be surprised by player choices I can't account for). I don't really have a set of procedures for this (when I think of fun game stuff, procedures are not what come to mind), just enough notes to get going and to flesh out what the twists and turns that the game takes. 

If the adventure is set in a city or other urban environment, it doesn't really change the basic way I go about things. Here's why: my favorite fantasy novels have always been the ones that didn't come with a map

It's rare that I look at the lay of the land in a map and find inspiration; that goes double for city maps, which just tend to be named streets and the relative position of buildings. My copy of Perdido Street Station has a map of New Crobuzon in it. Why? The map is at best tertiary to the way the city is unveiled in the text. I don't get the feel of a city from a map; I get the feel of a city from the way it is described, the people who inhabit it, and the ways in which activity and personality intersect. It follows that the way I want to present a fictional city in play would be through description, action, and reaction--not the map.

(As an aside, I find this true of the way I actually experience urban spaces. I can't really learn about a city by reading about it, I have to walk the streets and take in the neighborhoods, residents, and unique features personally. Maps are helpful for navigation, but nothing beats being there.)

This is why I find most "city supplements" for games to be generally unhelpful for me. They tend to present information on the city block-by-block, street-by-street, keyed to a map. Worst case scenario: there will be facts and figures for things like yearly wheat consumption and excise taxation charts. I'd rather present the city through its atmosphere in play: what is happening there, who calls it home, what are the anxieties and hopes that burn eternal, etc. 

I might use smaller maps of specific locations within a city because sometimes the position of things matters. But it rarely matters at the medium-and-larger scale in my games. This is also why I don't really do dungeoncrawls or hexcrawls.

For city adventures, I'm not even bothering to make a map of the city. There are practical considerations there, of course, but also that's not how I want players to discover it. I want navigating a fantasy city to be more imaginal than tactical.

Also, I'm fairly lazy and can't be bothered to make a map that big.

As an example of what I'm on about, read K. J. Bishop's The Etched City, which has one of the most evocative fantasy cities as its main setting. Note that there is no map of Ashamoil. Do you feel the absence of a map while you read?

Of course, this is just what works best for me. You might be an entirely different nexus of needs and desires. I'm not the boss of you.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Actual Play: Daughters of the Eel (part 2)

Having spotted bone-white bodies scurry just out of sight through the navigation room's window, Herman and Kahl knew they weren't alone on the prison hulk--even if the warden, guards, and prisoners were yet to be discovered. Returning to the quarter deck, the duo decided to explore the rooms beneath the navigation room. An unlocked door revealed a hallway flanked by two doors on each side, a hatch in the floor, and a doorway at the end of the hall. Faint light spilled from underneath the door at the end of the hallway; this was apparently the light they had seen aboard the ship as they approached it by sea. This room seemed to be their best bet for finding the warden, getting the lenses they had been sent to retrieve, and getting off the hulk.

The room at the end of the hallway was furnished in better style than one would expect for a ship; clearly this was the great cabin used by the prison's warden. The room contained a full bed, chests of clothing and other belongings, a desk, and perhaps most oddly, an ornate grandfather clock. (The clock seemed to be a new arrival to the room as a broken-up packing crate lay nearby.) Despite its skillful craftsmanship, there was nothing unusual about the grandfather clock...until the door to the clock's case was opened, that is. Frigid cold seemed to emanate from inside the clock. A wadded up note that appeared to have arrived with the clock perhaps explained its provenance: Just a little something to help you while away the time, Charles. Please remember that lost time is the cost of your betrayal. Love, Vanessa. (1)

As the pair turned to leave the great cabin, Khal felt a shroud of cold-burning darkness descend upon him, bringing agony in its wake. A thin white hand now protruded from underneath the bed, and it seemed to be directing the ruinous cloud of shadow. As the stalwart adventurers prepared to battle this unholy evil, it crept from beneath the bed; their attacker was revealed to be an impossibly-pale woman whose flesh was decorated with occult symbols etched through a process of unhallowed scarification (2). Spells, rapier, and claw met in the dim of battle; Kahl and Herman were triumphant.

A study of the sigils and symbols on the creature's body suggested that she might have been a member of a cult known as the Daughters of the Eel, but at this point little is known about that fell coven (3)

A search of the rooms to the left and right of the hallway discovered that these were the less-lavish rooms used by the prison's guards. Nothing of interest was found within them, so down, down into the bowels of the ship. What had formerly been the orlop deck had been converted into a place of imprisonment. Where sailor's hammocks had once hung were now cells made of rough iron bars. There were no prisoners to be found, however; the iron bed frames that the prisoners would have slept upon were all crumpled into twists of metal wreckage and the floor was encrusted with dried blood.

At the end of the deck was a small room. Above the door to the room was nailed a crude holy symbol, which Kahl recognized as belonging to a faith friendly to his own (4). Perhaps some pious soul had provided for a way for the prisoners to pray for their own salvation while they served their sentences. Inside the room were a few wooden pews and an altar, upon which stood a much-used book of scripture. An investigation of the altar revealed that among the votive candles, incense, and religious pageantry was a leather case...containing two red lenses and two blue. The object of their mission was now in hand!

Toying about with the lenses, Herman made a dreadful discovery: while using the red lenses revealed nothing, using the blue lenses revealed that there were three more pale, scarred women clinging chameleon-like to the walls by the stairs. And the women were beginning to clamber down and approach this makeshift chapel...



Friday, July 3, 2015


Malifaux is a skirmish-level fantasy war game set at the end of the Victorian era. However, the setting isn't a magicked-up version of our earth; rather, a breach had been discovered that led to another world that is rich in a valuable, supernatural substance, which has now been colonized by ne'er-do-wells, opportunists, and transported criminals. The overall aesthetic is a mash-up of things I like: Gothic horror, weird west gunslingers, and outlandish steampunk inventions. If they ever add pirates I will assume they've been scanning my brain while I sleep.

Despite being a war game, the way the setting is deployed in the rule books has something to offer rpg world builders as well. (And there is an rpg, Through the Breach, that came along later.) The city of Malifaux isn't described in terms of heavy detail; the game bills itself as a character-driven skirmish game, and that is exactly where the setting focus lies. Most of the descriptive heft is given to the various factions that fight for dominance throughout the city and its greater environs. There are renegade sorcerers who run the Miners and Steamfitters Union, the triad-like Ten Thunders, the monopolistic Guild that owns the law of the land, nightmarish Lovecraftian beings who wish the repel the colonizers, etc. 

The emphasis in Malifaux isn't on history or geographic detail, it's on the movers and shakers. Of course, this makes perfect sense in a miniatures war game, as the publisher wants you to buy a faction of little men and monsters to assemble and paint, but that's also something to keep in mind when working on a role-playing-focused setting: the layout of the setting, the number and size of the capital's aqueducts, and the yearly yield of grain is all subordinate to the way people organize themselves, what their schemes are, and who is willing to kill who right now.

Anyway, a Malifaux art dump: