Monday, August 31, 2015

Games We Only Played a Few Times in High School

The computer hacker of the fantasy-future...looks like a member of Flock of Seagulls

Shadowrun - I think we only played this once. Our adventure was just a trip to the corner convenience store; while we were there some thugs tried to rob it and we started shooting at them. This game seemed really complex to us at the time. Too complex to play a second time, in fact.

Curiously, there were no rules for depilatories or prices for teddies in the rulebook
Cyberpunk 2020 - I think we may have played this twice. During the first mission one of our characters died; the character's player was pretty salty about this, so his next character had Robocop-style armor to be as invulnerable as possible. In the second mission a grenade rolled under his feet and his armor let him survive the blast, so...mission accomplished?

Ugh, that cover gives me a headache
Street Fighter - All I remember about this one is that it was way less fun than actually playing Street Fighter II at the arcade.

Okay, maybe it's just because the previous Street Fighter cover is so crap but this still looks compelling to me
Stormbringer - I know it's old school to believe that balance doesn't matter, but there is something janked-up when your starting character might be a leprous beggar and your pal's character is an assassin-sorcerer who owns a demon blade. Anyway, I ran this one and I remember us having a good time with it. We did part of the Rogue Mistress campaign (I don't think we finished it), which was a total railroad but no one cried about that in high school and we had fun.

Remember when having an understated cover was a bold design choice?
Vampire: The Masquerade - Given my love of Gothic nonsense, you might assume I played the hell out of this, but we only played it twice. We could not figure out what adventures modern vampires would really get up to. This wasn't helped by the schizophrenic nature of the game: the fluff was all about angst, intrigue, and "the monster within," but the system was pure Goth Superheroes.

Why are they fighting on clouds again?
1e AD&D - my only experience playing 1e AD&D was a short-lived Oriental Adventures campaign that derailed due to the silly names we gave our characters. I think our party included characters named Godzilla and Ninja Gaiden, which annoyed the otaku-in-training DM. Otherwise, we just ran 1e adventures with 2e, like the young heathens we were.

DC Heroes  - I didn't understand the system at all, but I think we punched some villains or threw cars at them. My lack of knowledge of the DC universe probably didn't help me get into this one. 

Paranoia - We were too young or too immature for this one at the time. The punchline of the adventure we played was that a giant bug was demanding Proust from troubleshooters who didn't know what a Proust was; the real punchline is that it was being played by teenagers who had also never heard of Proust.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Great Moments in Historical Sluttery

My friend, collaborator, and dwarf-acrobat-playing pal Tenebrous Kate has been tearing it up with a series on some of history's most interesting women over at Slutist!

Ride shotgun with Calamity Jane.

Or get Byzantine with Empress Theodora.

Or maybe shake it off with Anita Berber.

And if you can't get enough of Kate's art, now is a great time to get caught up with her webcomic Super Coven. The current story arc is called "The Devil Riffs Out," and I may have had a hand in it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

An Interview with Jez Gordon

This is the first in a series of interviews with people I know who play roleplaying games. My goal here is to not just showcase what they've put out as product, but to also touch on how they play, why they play games, and what inspires their gaming. Our first guinea pig interviewee is Jez Gordon, whose art and layout work you may have seen in Porphyry, A Red and Pleasant Land, The Magnificent Joop van Ooms, the revised Death Frost Doom, et al. I can also personally attest that Jez is a super fun player. He has a blog named Giblet Blizzard, and it is here. You should check it out.

Without further ado, let's learn something about the man, his art, and the way he approaches gaming.

Q: I just realized that I don't know anything about your history with art. Did you go to art school, doodle incessantly as a child? I have no idea. Fill me in on how you developed you skills.

There's pics of me drawing dinosaurs the first day out of the womb, and I'm pretty sure I left some graffiti behind in there too. I had encouraging parents, they supported me in whatever it was I was interested in. I have an obsessive personality so there's very distinct phases of what I was interested in while growing up (dinosaurs, Superman, Star Wars, Greek mythology, early Apple IIe games like Chopper and Lode Runner, Tolkien, and they all squished into D&D) and during whatever phase it was, I was drawing.

I drew dinosaurs, I drew my mum dressed as Superman, I drew tonnes of Star Wars stuff... when Clash of the Titans came out it turned me on to Greek myths and there was like a two month period where every night after dinner I'd trace the outline of the Greek peninsula. Chopper and Lode Runner made me look at drawing for the first time in a stylised way, and after school I'd be at friends places drawing these endless side-on stick figure battles on page after page, and then we'd stick them together in these megawar deathpanoramas. In 3rd grade I saw a high school musical of The Hobbit (somewhat different — they had these KISSpunk rocknroll goblin dance troupe that were great, and Thorin and Co. all go home happy after the dragon is dead) and that put Tolkien on the horizon... and then the Bakshi Lord of the Rings film was out, and I was more and more interested and then suddenly lost in Middle Earth. Shortly after that my cousins came back from Indonesia for Christmas where they'd been to an international school, and an American friend had put them onto D&D (thanks Quentin!), and my Aunt gave me the Moldvay Red Box thinking I'd like it. And then I was drawing character illustrations for all my guys, and for my friends, and I never really stopped.

Later on in high school I was always the guy drawing in English class, but I wasn't encouraged by the school to pursue fine art. I spent a lot of time drawing chicks for the cool kids in the year, but mainly cribbed my style from TMNT characters and Wormy comics (there's a reason why my Pre-teen Dirty-gene Kung Fu Kangaroos never made the comic stand). It wasn't til I dropped out of advanced ancient history in 11th grade and needed to pick up a subject that I ended up doing visual art for the HSC (dunno what the American equivalent is, the SATs?) and that ended up being my best subject.

My folks insisted I get qualifications after school, but I flunked uni entry to all the nearby fine arts degrees and was still just too young in the head to move to another city, but I ended up qualifying for an Associate Diploma in Graphic Design at a very well respected public institution, and somehow in between the grunge and Hellboy (boy did I love Hellboy) and playing in bands I ended up getting the certificate and heading out into the real world, where I quickly realised I knew nothing about design. I did six months of computer skills, and the next year Quark Xpress and Photoshop where EVERYWHERE in the industry and I barely knew anything about it.

I bounced around between a few jobs for the first few years learning computer skills on the job, til I ended up in a printshop doing fast turnaround layouts and four colour/spot color proofing and that was a real important step in my career; that close to the furnace you get to see exactly how printing works and I think that's an essential part of the trade. The proofing press did work for the Sydney Morning Herald, which is one of the big newspapers down here, and I knew the design manager at SMH from college so she got me a design job there for a few years; and after a brief dabble in Disney animation and film concept illustration (zombies, zombies, and more zombies) I went on to a series of better paying but soul destroying jobs working for Foxtel, which is the largest cable tv provider in Oz. I did a long session with those guys — having an excellent design manager makes such a difference to the job — working on films, boxing and wrestling promotions. Tons of storyboarding. All this corporate work taught me a helluvalot about dealing with clients, and while there's little work I'm proud of from that time there was tons I learned about professionalism and negotiating with people who don't think in visual terms. And then my wife and I got jack of living in the big city and we moved to New Zealand.

About the time I started getting involved online with roleplaying games (which I had never stopped playing and illustrating during all that time) and doing Secret Santicore in 2011 I landed a job at the local Dunedin newspaper where I ended up working alongside a nationally recognised political cartoonist, and it was from him I learned the basic techniques I now use in the black and white style I'm most known for. You wouldn't recognise it if you put our work together, but it's the same (very simple) technique and it just seemed to work perfectly with what I was trying to do.

If you look at the quality of concept artists out there, there is so much horrifyingly good talent out there that's being brought together thanks to the net. It's a global market. And while I've always been "the drawing guy" among my friends I look at so much of the stuff that's out there and just know I'll never be as good as they are. When I realised that I was pretty broken artistically for a while, cause it's what I'm best at, and I'm too far down the track now to take three years out to retrain. And then I realised that if you can't be brilliant, at least be unique. Have a style that's yours. And I think over the last four years of hammering out that black and white style (I've never drawn so much in my life, it's awesome) I've managed to peg out a style that people (hopefully) recognise as distinctly mine. 

Q: You're not only a talented artist, you're also a really accomplished layout wizard. What are the big mistakes that people producing game content make in the way they present their material?

I think gaming graphic design is almost always disadvantaged by this pressing need for content creators to be so goddamn wordy. You shouldn't need 600 pages to communicate everything you need to make an excellent game (unless half of your book is gorgeous art). The more wordburners and darlingkillers involved in the process before the document ends up in the graphic designer's lap the better. None of us are getting time-richer, so the more succinct the job is the better. But it's rare that you can be fussy about that.

The next thing that kills me is walls of text. I like going to my UFLGS and flipping through gamebooks, but as soon as I hit a full page of text my eyes glaze. You need to break up every page with visual hooks and deliver your words in digestible chunks. Headings should always be bigger than you think. Work with the author to try and find out if there is a better way to visually represent what they're trying to communicate to the reader, and if there is a better way, do it.

And if there isn't a better way, smash the walls with art.

Q: Are there any ways in which being a visual artist affects the way you run games or even choose a game to play?

Yeah I think there is. Choosing a game... bad art will make it so much harder for me to get into a game, bad layout won't help either.

In how I run games... yeah I've been thinking about it and I think that the phrase "theatre of the mind" is obsolete. "Cinema of the mind" is much closer to how I like to run a game. yeah I think it's trying to recreate a cinematic experience using every tool you have except a screening room, which is where the players' imaginations kick in. So (perhaps unconsciously until now) everything I do in prepping for a game has been to help simulate that experience. I like having a soundtrack ready to go, a theme song to kick off every session; I work on striking visual scenes to frame the game in. I like having a poster sized map of the campaign on the table, it provides a strong visual cue and help sets the experience and is good reference especially if you're playing a game that moves around a lot. I don't go for miniatures — I love'em but just don't have time to paint any more — but I've got a lot of mileage out of Pathfinder pawns. With my skill set it's easy for me to make my own out of character and monster designs. I think the single most influential piece on my game mastering is in WEG's 1st Ed Star Wars roleplaying game, and time and time again I do stuff that comes straight out of the cinematic experience they suggest. And given how formative Star Wars was on my creative development it's really not surprising that I'd go for high action, dramatic gaming.

Q: You know I'm excited about the Dead West project that you're working on, but I want everyone else to be excited about it too. Give us the elevator pitch for it, please?

I guess the intro from the game will do the job:

DEAD WEST is a weird fantasy roleplaying game inspired by the myths and legends of the Wild West. It takes a lot of cues from the American story— emancipation, the Civil War, and the aftermath of internal conflict; the frontier, exploration, opportunism, and exploitation; and the technological revolution, firearms, rail, and industry — then feeds the lot into a fantasy grinder. Mix in some eldritch horror, aliens from beyond the stars, mutants and monstrous critters and yeah... you get the idea.

Basically I just wanted to make a great setting and game rules for gritty, cinematic action and adventure stories.

The other thing I wanted to do was present my take on the classic d20-based roleplaying-game rules. I’ve played every version of the big game since I got the Moldvay Red Box for Christmas back in ’81, and there’s good stuff to be found in every version of the game, as well as cribbing some of what I think are the best bits from other RPGs as well.

I think there’s a few philosophies at play in deciding what stayed, what was cut, and what got mutated: ease of play, inclusion, what seemed to make the most logical sense (to me anyway), and just whatever was cool and fun at the game table. Which really is the overriding factor here, cause that’s what really matters to me when I sit down to game.

The problem I'm facing right now is that I started on this before 5th Edition D&D was released, and there is sooo much good to be found in it that I'm wrestling between sticking with the d20 rules I currently have, or abandoning them for a straight up 5E setting. I'd like to think that some of my ideas have merit and are worth seeing the light of day, but the amount of fun my gaming crew have had with 5E makes it very hard.

The other thing is I'm designing, illustrating and writing it all at the same time. There are probably more functional methodologies out there, but I think it's worth it. Every word on the page is meant to be there.

Q: What is your dream project that you'd love to illustrate? What is the most unexpected or out-of-character project that you'd like to work on?

Right now it's one that pays well enough to justify the last four years getting to where I am now! That Silver Ennie was awesome, but it doesn't put my kids through school... yet :) Moneygrubbing aside, the project I dream about, the one I most want to see on the shelves, is just to have one of my own games published. To walk in to the game store and see one of my own on the shelves... yeah I'll be pretty happy about that. Really I just want to get to a point where I can do what I'm good at, for people who seem to really like what I do, and earn enough to live off. Don't have to be rolling in it, just making ends meet to the point where the worry is gone. That's what I dream of.

I think the tyranny of distance has been given a solid kick to the balls but is far from out; there's no way I could be doing what I do now for clients around the world without the net and especially G+, but still the distance is there. The networking opportunities, the full time employment opportunities, you can only really get them in North America or Europe, and I'm not at a stage in my life where I can drag my family to the far side of the world. Is it insurmountable? Will see.

Out of character projects... I dunno. I'm honest with clients who've asked me to do stuff that I find morally objectionable or too confronting, there's no point working on something unless you're going to give it your best. I'd like to do more work at both ends of the age range. My black and white style isn't really kid friendly, but I like doing stuff for kids every now and then and have a huge variety of styles from over the years that I could use; and at the same time while I think I'm right where I want to be in terms of violence in my art, I wouldn't mind tackling more sexually explicit stuff too. I'm proud of the way I've depicted women in all my art, they're strong, tough fuckers.

I'm not outspoken about it but I feel very strongly about gender equality, LGBT rights, humanism, environmental degradation, and to work on more politically themed art would be good for my soul.

Q: What's the one piece of advice about running a game that you wish you had when you got started in the hobby?

Honestly, just go read that section on GMing from the old D6 Star Wars game:

Q: What's next for Jez Gordon?

I've spent the last four years working on other people's projects, helping them get illustrated and designed; that was a very deliberate decision on my part as a means of getting known in rpglandia and I think it's worked. I'm still doing lots of work for clients — I've got the design to do for Veins of the Earth by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess, maps for Jeff Rient's Broodmother Skyfortress, and James Raggi has always got a billion other ideas for me to work on; plus I've been speaking with John Harper about illustrations for Blades in the Dark which I'd really like to do, and I really hope I get the design gig for Jason's Sholtis' Operation Unfathomable which I love, though both those projects are far from locked down — but now I really want to start putting my own stuff out there. People know me for my art, and for my design chops, but I also wanna be known for my ideas, for my games. I have no idea yet whether I've got the writing skills to pull it off, but I think I'm at the stage where I've got to give it a go. Dead West and Goreball out for public playtesting by the end of the year, that's what I'm aiming for.

Beyond that, check with my Muse.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Owl Hoot Trail

I made a mistake: I avoided Owl Hoot Trail (2013) when it was released.

In my defense, back in 2013 it seemed like a new D&D-based (I don't want to say "rip-off" but...) game was being released every other week. Most of these were fantasy heartbreakers, but some of them were "D&D + other genre" tweaks. The vast majority of them were derivative; they seemed like the sort of thing that warranted a couple pages of house rules, instead of being a wholly new product. I lumped Owl Hoot Trail into that category, and I was wrong.

Owl Hoot Trail is a D&D-based game set in the "fantasy west," but the game is so well-done and focused on its premise that it rises above being a D&D hack. The elements of character creation will be familiar to most gamers: you choose a race (half'ins [hobbits], hill folk [dwarfs], humans, orcs, shee [elves]), origin (greenhorn or native to the frontier), class (gunslinger, marshal, ruffian, scoundrel, scout, gadgeteer, mentalist, preacher, shaman), and figure out the usual details (hit points, equipment, etc.) Instead of the usual six ability scores, Owl Hoot Trail uses three broader thematic categories: Grit, Draw, and Wits. The ability scores are point-assigned rather than random roll, another slight departure from the norm.

There is also a simple skill system with a short but encompassing list of skills: Amity, Learning, Toughness, Wilderness, and Wile. Wile, for example, can be used for reading a person's motives, intimidation, seduction, and bluffing at the poker table. Although that level of abstraction won't work for everyone, I think it works well in a game that aims to be fast-paced and loose. The skill system itself is a standard d20 + modifiers vs. difficulty class assigned by the GM. Similarly, combat is handled with a d20 + modifiers roll vs. the opponent's Defense score.

If that's all there was to Owl Hoot Trail, it would be easy to write off. What really makes the game shine is how it zooms in from that general resolution framework to focus on areas that are linked to the genre it is emulating. For example, the combat system introduces the ideas of Zones and Trailin' to better emulate a cinematic Wild West gunfight. Zones are abstract measures of distance; if you move to a new Zone (scrambling to get behind a water barrel for cover when bullets start flying, perhaps) you are Trailin'--you take a penalty to your defense and act last in initiative order. There are also more detailed rules for gunfighter duels, high-stakes gambling, horse charges, cauterizing wounds, mooks (cowpokes and cowpunchers), etc. The subsystems presented in the book are small, but very flavorful.

Small and flavorful is also an apt description of the fantastical elements in Owl Hoot Trail. The uncanny powers of mentalists, gadgeteers, preachers, and shaman are given very brief descriptions, but they fit the game's atmosphere very well. The bestiary is similarly slight on details, but it's more than enough to populate your fictional fantasy frontier with beasties. The world-building section of the book is a scant few pages, but I get the impression that the action of Owl Hoot Trail is meant to take place in front of a broad-strokes backdrop; the attitude seems to be "describe something with fantasy western flair and get on with it," which I can appreciate.

All of the "game" takes up half of the book. The other half is a mini-campaign called "They Rode to Perdition" that is meant to be played over four or more sessions. Frankly, I love this and wish more games would include a starting set-up this extensive. The adventure does a great job illustrating how the game is intended to play, how to bring in the subsystems where appropriate in an adventure, and how the adventures to come can be structured. The adventure also looks like a ton of fun.

All in all, this game is a great little package that seems ideal for quickly getting into a game--short campaigns or one-shots might be ideal here. I also reckon this might be a great first game to expose a green table-top gamer to. The physical object is a slim, digest-sized volume with decent black and white interior art. It is available here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Five Things to Do with Isle of the Unknown

Five things to do with a book you bought, looked at, and said "Oh, this seems curiously empty. Great cover though."

The characters go hex to hex catching the Pokemon-like monsters on the island; the Zodiac wizards are the Gym Leaders to be defeated; the clerics are helpful trainers; the statues are ways to access the Pokedex.

Wizard Fighter II: Super Turbo
The wizards on the island have all come to the island to do battle with each other, Magic: the Gathering-style, but the rules of engagement state that they cannot leave their chosen territory. This means that they compete with each other by vying for agents to sabotage and attack the others. That’s where the characters come in: who will they ally themselves with, and what reward is offered? Will they betray their patron if a better offer comes along, or do they fight for some higher ideal?

Weird Game Hunt
The characters are big game hunters exploring an uncivilized island, looking to bag some freakish trophies to mount in the ancestral manor. This probably isn't the most politically-correct idea in our post-Cecil moment. Mix in some of H. Rider Haggard's She for kicks.

Ritualis Interruptus
The wizards have all come to the island to perform a great magical working that requires them to complete a vast ritual in concert with each other ; their positions on the island all relate to a web of ley lines. However, there is some Ancient Evil that wants to prevent the beneficent ritual from happening. That’s where the characters come in: how will they safeguard all of those wizards from attack by the minions of the Ancient Evil?

Missionaries in a Pagan Land
The clerics on the island are all missionaries who are bringing the light of the One True Religion to the pagan isle. Cut off from the homeland, the clerics are counting on the characters to deliver much-needed supplies (bibles, food, weapons--maybe not in that order) to counter the pernicious influence of the isle's powerful pagan leaders (the Zodiac wizards, naturally). The statues are pagan idols (or perhaps the earthly manifestation of the pagan gods themselves) to be toppled and destroyed. Win hearts and minds, or bring religion with fire and sword--your choice!

Monday, August 17, 2015


"Unplayable" is a word that gets bandied about in discussions of games, usually as hyperbole for "I don't like this game." I've definitely encountered games that I just didn't have it in me to learn. I never made it out of character creation in Gygax's Dangerous Journeys, for example. 

But I think there is only one game I've read that I really considered unplayable: Nobilis, 3rd edition. I read it cover-to-cover and ended up having no idea how you were actually supposed to use it. 

I don't want to offend any fans of it, but...I literally could not find the game in there. Note: I'm not saying that everyone would have this problem; I am saying I tried and could not make heads or tails of it at all.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Etched City

The Etched City is a novel you need to read if you enjoyed China MiƩville's Bas-Lag novels or M. John Harrison's Viriconium stories.

The first section of K. J. Bishop's The Etched City is set in Copper Canyon, a fantasy wild west region currently enduring the aftermath of a revolution. The novel's protagonists, the gunslinger Gwynne and the doctor Raule, were on the wrong side of the revolution; currently on the run, they flee the continent and make their way to Ashamoil, an uncanny version of the nineteenth-century colonial metropolis.

Once in Ashamoil, the tone and atmosphere shifts perceptibly; the wild west conventions give way to the languid decadence of an imaginary, slumbering city awash in equal parts mysticism and casual violence. In Ashamoil, the duo part ways only to find their paths occasionally and momentously crossing. Gwynne leverages his violent propensities as a lieutenant to a crime boss, and becomes entangled in a romance with a strange, metamorphing artist; Raule tries to find redemption for her violent past by ministering to the residents of one of Ashamoil's impoverished boroughs, and begins to study a rash of pre-birth deformities afflicting the populace.

The world-building is exquisite, and the characters are compelling. And yet, this isn't really a typical fantasy novel in that it isn't driven by plot. Instead, The Etched City shows us a fantasy world in which art is a more potent force for change than the sword, the quest, or valor. As Wilde noted in The Decay of Lying, "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life." This is a fantasy novel for dreaming aesthetes. 

The only thing I don't like about this novel is that the cover of my copy looks like the image below and not the image above:

And now, some quotes to entice you:

"the drug in his system made it easy for a particular type of pleasure to come to him: that nocturnal enchantment or glamour in which the heart, seeking mystery, and the eye, loving obscurity, collude against the survival instinct’s desire to see everything clearly."


"You know, the wisdom that is now conventional claims that light creates shadows. But the facts are otherwise. Darkness came first and is infinitely older and more enduring than light. Light borrows a little space; then it dies or it moves on, and the dark exists again as if it had never been disturbed."


"But when all was said and done, blades were utilitarian. Even the finest sword was a kissing cousin to a butcher’s knife."


"in nearly all else with which today’s poor humans are filling the world, I see a quelling of the numinous, an ashening of the fire of life."


"At last, standing exposed to the dark and the wind, she abruptly and deeply regretted joining the revolution and supporting the violence that mocked her true aspirations. She felt more than defeated; she felt extinguished, and it was a relief."


"In particular, she labored long hours to meet a steadily growing demand for her erotic portraits. In these, her new lover’s influence showed. She told Gwynn that he was linear and monochromatic, he was ideally suited to the engraver’s medium. Faces and figures in her work became sparer, their beauty more martial; they acquired something of their prototype’s tranquil mein, and also something of the current of malice that could be observed in his habitual gestures and expressions."


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How I Write an Adventure

To be honest I don’t spend a lot of time writing or prepping scenarios. My experience is that the more you attempt to nail down what’s going to happen, the more you’re actually straight-jacketing the possibilities for things to go in unexpected and fun ways. 

Let me walk you through my usual method. Here’s how I prepare an adventure:

I usually start by picking something that already exists to riff off of. In my example case I decided to ”remix” a movie I had just watched earlier in the week: The Vampire Lovers

Basically, The Vampire Lovers is already a filmic remix of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, a tale of a young girl being preyed upon by a mysterious visitor. (Now that I think about it, Carmilla is already a novelistic remix of Coleridige’s poem Christabel.) Halfway through the process I added elements drawn from the movie Black Sunday just to freshen in up.

Putting pen to paper, the first thing I do is sketch out the main NPCs. Since the player characters will be investigating
the strange goings-on in an ancestral manor house, I made notes on the residents:

Elena Karmore - 16, red-haired, beautiful & innocent, has fallen ill (lamprey like wound on throat, blood on sheets,
weak and comatose)

Morgan Karmore - father of Elena, veteran of a war in the past, stern but caring, will do anything to save his daughter

Dr. William Hull - acts like he has something to hide, powerless to improve Elena’s health

Carmen Delinda - governess, 30s, dark-haired

Boris Norling - hulking & strong, loyal servant of the Karmore family, superstitious, believes the illness to be witchcraft

Lizbeth McDonnel - 16, blonde, visiting the Karmore family, ethereal and stares into space

In Carmilla, it is the young woman visiting the afflicted family who is the predator–she’s a vampire. I decided I didn’t
want to go with another undead villain since I tend to overuse those, so I decided that a witch was siphoning off Elena’s
blood with a strange external organ. But I also wanted to switch it up a bit, so I decided at this point that the governess,
Carmen Delinda, was the culprit.

I also decided to plant red herrings that could implicate any of the above as the cause of Elena’s illness. A search of
the NPCs’ rooms would reveal that Morgan had brought back books of black magic from his time in the war, the doctor had a number of mutant organ specimens in jars of spirit, Carmen’s room was conspicuously bare, and Boris’s room had pagan idols mixed in with icons of the orthodox faith. I also had a list of ways the NPCs would cast suspicion on each other, but these barely came up.

Now that I have Carmen established as the villain, I wanted to figure out who her minions are. I decided on redcaps
because redcaps are creepy as fuck and it makes sense that evil fey would align themselves with a pagan witch.

I then decided that Carmen needed a second in command, so I made up an undead woman whose face is obscured
by a black lace veil who drives a spectral coach. Now that I’ve added an undead creature to the mix, I retroactively
made Carmen a witch who has returned from the grave to seek revenge (this is where Black Sunday as an influence comes in.)

I had also decided that I wasn’t going to make new stats for any of these. My love of reskinning is known far and wide. Carmen is basically an evil cleric, the redcaps are goblins, the woman in black is a ghoul who uses a whip instead of claw/claw/bite.

At this point, the back-story has emerged in my head: a century ago the missionaries who brought the Church to this
area waged a holy war against the indigenous pagans who refused to convert. The ringleader of the pagan resistance
was a witch named Lady Nemarc (yeah, I did the anagram thing, sue me) who was eventually hung by Church inquisitors. However, at the moment of her execution she cursed the town, saying ”We will drink your children’s blood! Our vengeance will wait!” Which means that Carmen has come back to fulfill the terms of her own curse; Elena is to be
the first of her ex-sanguinated victims.

I then sketch out some NPCs in the town who can reveals bits of the back-story as the investigation proceeds: local
priestess, librarian, storyteller at the tavern, etc.

Now I need a hook, but this is easy when the players will go in the direction of adventure: they find an overturned carriage on their way to the village; the coachman bears a lett‚er from Morgan Karmore to the cathedral to the south begging for them to send an exorcist to help his daughter. Then, at the inn, Boris bursts in to recruit anyone he can to help protect Elena at the Karmore house. Once there, the characters can investigate, ask questions, etc. 

Then I make a list of things that might happen each day and night; characters being pulled aside by NPCs dropping hints and red herrings, attacks by the redcaps at night who want to remove Elena from her bedroom (which has been blessed
by the local priestess, unwittingly preventing Carmen from feeding in that chamber), etc. These aren't "railroad" elements; they're just things that could happen in response to the players's actions and interests in the game.

Then I sketch Carmen’s lair, a simple faerie mound in which she was buried by the inquisitors who killed her. Add treasure, tidy up, and that’s the framework. Now, there is no telling what the players will do within that framework. In fact, there were some really awesome things that emerged that I hadn’t counted on: the party’s assassin using her disguise ability and a ventriloquism spell to impersonate Carmen to send the redcaps away, a high-speed chase on horseback as several characters attempted to leap onto Carmen’s spectral carriage, etc. But those unexpected bits are the best part. You can’t plan on them, you just need to give them the space to come up naturally.

All in all, I end up with about two pages of notes, which is more than enough to run a three to five hour game with. It's loose, and you have to be willing to improvise within the framework, but it is what works for me.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Hear Ye, Hear Ye!

During their downtime, it makes sense that characters in a campaign are hearing rumors, engaging in conversations wherein information is exchanged, and paying attention to the world around them. How do you convey that information at the start of a session?

Here's what I want to try. I made a "town crier" sheet that I can distribute before a session that lets players now what their characters have learned in the meantime between the "on screen" action of a game session. This is what the template looks like:

Image shamelessly stolen from Darkest Dungeon

Here's an example of it filled out with a pertinent bit of news:

Friday, August 7, 2015

GURPS Screampunk

Jo Ramsay’s GURPS Screampunk (2001) is one of those books I wouldn’t have known existed unless someone had
mentioned it to me. The book is a supplement that aims to combine elements of Gothic Horror with Steampunk–a
mash-up of Victorian terror and Victorian-inspired science fiction. The book itself is quite small; it’s 32 pages long and
the form factor is about the size of a comic book instead of a full-sized or digest-sized book.

Before I go further, I’d like to preface this review by stating for the record that I am extraordinarily tough on the way
role-playing games present ideas drawn from Gothic literature. It drives me absolutely mad the way many game authors simply get the basic ideas of the Gothic so horribly wrong. 

That said, GURPS Screampunk has left me precious little to moan about. Ramsay’s presentation of the Gothic’s history,
its themes, its use of locations, its metonymy, etc. are all absolutely spot on. Now, perhaps I’m being the typical
academic and only saying that because her view of the Gothic matches my own conclusions, but the explanation of what the Gothic is and what it does as a conventional mode strike me as being extremely well researched. I’m particularly impressed by the Shocking Revelations Table, a useful tool for determining how a character responds to social disorder. I’ll definitely be hacking that into my own games at some point.

The second chapter deals with bringing the Gothic to bear on steampunk. In many ways, steampunk initially seems like a bad fit for a Gothic makeover; it is, generally speaking, often techno-euphoric in character and ”Tut, tut, cheerio!” in attitude. However, Ramsay makes a good case for the ways in which the conventions and tropes that define steampunk can be subverted and mined for Gothic Horror. Indeed, since one of the big criticisms often levied at steampunk media is that it effaces or obscures the worst parts of the 19th century (such as the poverty of the industrialized working classes, the dark side of scientific progress, systemic sexism, etc.), Ramsay sees the potential to delve into all the messiness of that historical period and make it gameable through a Gothic lens. 
For example, she suggests that the typical Gothic mob can be refigured as Luddite or Chartist mass violence.

I can’t speak to the mechanical bits in the character chapter as I’ve never played GURPS, but the discussion of
archetypes drawn from Gothic literature and the Victorian era is a nice primer. (I can’t be the only one who thought
of Gomez Addams and Lurch when reading the Eccentric Aristocrat and Sinister Servant entries.) Similarly, the section on plot hooks and scenario ”layout” make good use of the source material as well as one could in such a brief chapter. The bibliography at the end is particularly pleasing: it deserves bonus points for citing Walpole, Radcliffe, and Lewis as leading lights of the mode; the modern authors are quite well-chosen (nice to see Ligotti and Morrison listed); the author managed to spell Edgar Allan Poe’s name correctly (a problem which has plagued Ravenloft and  Lamentations of the Flame Princess products, among others).

All in all, this slim book is a stunner. I genuinely wish Steve Jackson Games had put out more slim volumes of this caliber back in GURPS’ heyday. It does a lot with very few pages.

As a bonus, here's some designer commentary and excised bits that didn't make it into the book.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Okay, I'm Actually Mad About the ENnie Awards

Seriously, the 5e Dungeon Masters Screen got an award? 


Okay, I'm not really mad but...WHY?