Friday, September 25, 2015

The Undercroft

To be honest, I've avoided the 'zines coming out of the DIY RPG scene. Most of them seem to be focused on kinds of fantasy I'm not that interested in, such as Gygaxian-flavored D&Disms, mighty-thewed sword & sorcery, and "generic weird OSR." Furthermore, the quick proliferation of 'zines made them really difficult to keep up with; when everybody seems to be putting out a gaming 'zine, it's hard to sort through them all to find the ones that will appeal to you. We are definitely living in a game 'zine renaissance.

It wasn't on purpose that The Undercroft fell into my hands. I ordered Into the Odd from Paolo Greco at Lost Pages, and he and Daniel Sell (the editor and mastermind behind Undercroft) generously offered to send me the first four issues of the 'zine for review. Being unfamiliar with the 'zine in question, I didn't really have any expectations for it; worse yet, I started to get a sinking feeling when I read the first lines of the introduction to the first issue: "In Heaven Everything is Fine. But not here. Here, everything is awful. If you aren't losing your limbs to obscure diseases you're having them lopped off by solicitors and disgruntled historical figures. Life is hard and short." You see, the miserycrawl style of RPG play really doesn't appeal to me. I have no desire to play or run games in which the characters are syphilitic beggars armed only with shit-covered sticks as they explore a crapsack world of filth where every NPC they encounter is, at best, a shitlord, or, at worst, a cannibal. 

But that's not what Undercroft is. Not really.

Yes, there is vileness here, there is Ligottian weirdness here, there are creatures and men who would love to gut you and dance in your entrails. But there is also humor here that reminds me of David Lynch at his most knowing, Poe in his sardonic moments, or the comical madness of Michael Chabon's "The God of Dark Laughter." Everything might be awful in the Undercroft, but tongues are lodged squirming in cheek and the humor is as black as you should take your tea.

Tone now described, what treasures await within the pages? Since Undercroft is a 'zine with many contributors, the content is a mixed bag--but there is a lot to love or at least give you pause for thought. For example, the alternate rules for disease presented in Alex Clements's article in the first issue are a fresh and interesting take that gives disease a number of "Disease Hit Points" that must be winnowed away by casting of the Cure Disease spell. Similarly, Barry Blatt's "The Treason of the Guitar" sets-up a clever and goofy adventure scenario that mixes historical Puritanism with groan-worthy modern allusions. There are plenty of new monster ideas to play with throughout the issues I sampled. 

The first two issues have a "Compatible with Lamentations of the Flame Princess" blurb on the cover, but let's be honest: you can figure out how to use this stuff in whatever game you're playing if you've a mind to. Early on, the art is mostly historical illustrations, but original art is added to the mix as the issues progress. Like the content, it is a mixed bag, but the good pieces are really good and there's nothing truly eye-searing given that this is a small-press publication.

Over the course of the four issues of Undercroft that I've read, I went from having no prior opinion on the 'zine, to being wary of introduction's tone, to enjoying the thing thoroughly, to buying issues five and six to round out my collection. I wasn't looking for a 'zine to support, but I found one anyway.

Or did it find me? I shudder at the prospect.

Print copies of the 'zine are available here, and the last time I checked they were ON SALE. PDFs can be had here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Master of the Hill Cantons: An Interview with Chris Kutalik

When I first joined Google+, everybody over there seemed to be talking about how cool Chris Kutalik's Hill Cantons campaign was. Haven't heard of it? Well, here's a quick primer on what you've been missing out on. Over the years, Chris has not only kept up with his blog, he's also put out quality gaming materials such as By This Axe, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko -- he's truly a model of self-publishing efficiency without any of the crowd-funding goldrush flim-flam.

Q: The Hill Cantons is one of the best-regarded and long-running campaigns to come out of the old-school blog scene. One thing I've always wondered about the setting: how to you balance the folkloric inspirations in it (Slavic myth) with the more humorous aspects (pantsless barbarians, Church of the Blood Jesus, etc.)?

It's funny and a bit sad, I suppose. When I launched the Hill Cantons campaign in 2008 it was like just most any leisure thing you do as an adult: something I thought this would be fun distraction for a few months as I get through some big life changes. The blog started as something totally modest, a player-info clearinghouse for house rules, play reports and the like.

I don't think I had any pretensions other than I want the game to be a radically-plotless West Marches-like sandbox and the setting background to be a fantasy mirror of Bohemia during the insanity of the Hussite Wars mixed in with heavy dollops of Jack Vance absurdity and tone, Moorcock Eternal Champion-era fever dreaminess and J. Eric Holmes's anarchic gonzo. Which of course is a totally pretentious and contradictory, unsustainable trainwreck of an idea.

The West Marches “no town adventures and no overarching plots” was the first casualty to actual play and years of playing just starting growing more and more layers over the tiny 30-by-30 mile sandbox that was the starting core. One of the first of those layers was adding pre-Christian Slavic mythic elements (which filled in a lot more as the play groups hit mythic wilderness areas like the Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Feral Shore). It just hits some satisfying nerve in me.

Leaving aside the balls-out gonzo, elfgame elements, much of the comedy comes straight out of the two strands in Czech humor/culture that are lodged some deep, cracked place in my own psyche: a dark, dry gallows humor (the kind of culture that produces one-liners like “an optimist is someone who thinks things can't get worse”) and the slightly absurd and satirical school that produced such things as Hasek's Good Corporal Svejk or Capek's War with the Newts. (Not that I claim to be doing anything like their work when running or writing about D&D ferchrissakes, just nodding at their influence.)

Q: In what ways has the Hill Cantons setting changed over the course of the campaign due to the players' actions? Is there any advice you'd give to a fellow DM about how to make their world responsive to the characters over the long haul?

It was completely transformed by their actions as I kind of hint at above.

As a kid or teen I just played with the people around me: my brother, close friends and camp mates. These days I have been super lucky (and intentional) about getting players into the game who are pretty dynamic and thoughtful people. It's a waste to not try and build an environment that gives them free rein.

At one point the players decided to just up and leave the campaign area in the Hill Cantons proper and really never came back. They moved their center of activity to a half-ruined city a couple hundred miles away and I had to scramble to build almost build a whole other campaign--and they did another big move to a colony-building effort in the Feral Shore two years back. I love that kind of player-driven surprise and challenge.

That last part is a big question and I have to admit that I am kind of stumped for a concise answer. One of the pillars to a long-running campaign with high player buy-in is being very deliberate and regular in soliciting honest feedback (and actively listening to that feedback). A second I believe is finding a sweet spot in between having enough material fleshed out to give players options but not so much detail that you waste material. Practice just-in-time production.

Also learn to let go of your own precious ideas, NPCs, sites whatever that just don't get picked up by the players. While I think it's more than fine to recycle/reskin unused material, don't oversweat it if something doesn't stick. Like say a big underwater ruined city, cough, cough. Not that I am bitter.

Q: Aside from Hill Cantons, I think of you as a guy who makes time for the occasional game of Traveller. Is there something about Traveller that scratches a gaming itch that your usual D&D can't reach, aside from the obvious change of genre?

Traveller has always been my “second game.” Technically, it's the first rpg product I ever picked up. I remember buying a model kit for a tank around 1979 and reading through 1001 Characters which is just this collection of hexametric numbers for character stats, strange skill notations and military rank. It seemed so esoteric, so otherworldly. I played an ungodly amount of it starting a few months after playing rpgs (good old Holmes Basic).

It's funny sticking with it now as an adult because most of the Campbellian hard-SF buzzcut books that influenced it I am just not a big fan of. I do however still love the shit out of the lifepath character generation, tramp steamer/heist mode of play and the softer, aesthetic overtones of say the Terran Trade Authority books and other 1970s SF art which filled in the gaps of those art-free little black books back in the day. So it stays in my rotation. 

Q: One thing you're known for is asking your Google+ circles what they've been reading lately, and if it is good. Turnabout is fair play: what have you been reading lately, and is it good?

I am mostly fishing for new things to read. Right now I am reading Bathhouse at Midnight by W.F. Ryan which is really not about half-ogre handjobs but a thorough (and credible) exploration of folk magic in Russia. Holy shit is it good.

One of may favorite chapters is about zagovory (“false prayers”) which are these lyrical invocations. Take this actual Russian 17th century folk magic spell against erectile dysfunction; "I, servant of God N. shall arise, blessing myself and I shall go crossing myself into the open field under the beautiful sun, under the bright moon, under the crowding stars, past the grave of the bones of the giants, and just as the bones of the giants do not bend or break so may my member not bend or break against woman's flesh and parts and memorial bones. And I servant of God N. shall take my red elm stick and go into the open field, tossing up its head and looking into the sky and moon and Great Bear...and strike the three-year-old bull on its horn.”

Predictably I have been trying to figure out ways to shoehorn that beautiful, unintentionally hilarious weirdness into gameable form for the campaign.

Q: What is the Hydra Cooperative and what is the benefit of producing game materials as part of a group as opposed to working as an auteur?

I am hesitant to universalize the experience. There are any number of highly creative people—most of whom are putting out all of their work free or at-cost—with intensely personal visions about how to design games or adventures who just work better as one-man operations. And there are any number more of people in hobby publishing who just plain don't play well with others.

I come out of a couple of decades (journalism, labor organizing) of working with small, tight-knit groups of intense, passionate people focused on common projects. Personally I thrive in that kind of work environment and tend to find cross-inspiration working alongside creative or driven people. I know you are required to politely say things like I really love working with folks like Trey Causey, Robert Parker, Anthony Picaro, Mike Davison, Humza K, Luka Rejec, Jeremy Duncan, David Lewis Johnson and Jason Sholtis. But I really do. It's like a dream team of my DIY gaming soul. 

Q: I consider the Kickstarter you did for Slumbering Ursine Dunes to be a mega-success in that it funded, people love the gaming content that came out of it, and you managed to deliver the product without squandering the backers' money. What tips would you give a new game publisher about to embark on their first foray into crowd-funding?

I was fairly critical as a hobby blogger of the first wave of gaming Kickstarters. It seemed a bit too close to the unchecked insanity of the pre-crisis financial industry of last decade where you had too much easy money floating around with little to no consumer accountability. No wonder it produced so many trainwrecks.

But inside of all that you had people like Kevin Crawford creating great, responsible and ethical counter-examples. The lessons as I see them are first and foremost to treat backers not as wallet-things or pre-order buyers, but as people who are taking a risk and supporting you. Secondly to have something written and ideally ready to go when the Kickstarter ends (expecting the reward first and then the writing to follow is really kind of foolish). And the third is work like hell and don't quit. (A big hats off to Robert Parker who faced some real world grief and who still pushed through to not just edit but to add sections of his own to Marlinko.)

Well we are still a year later working on the stretch goal adventures, but we are intentionally over-fulfiling them, having turned them from was supposed to be sketchy “further adventures” outlines of 15-20 pages each to fully-realized products (Fever-Dreaming Marlinko was 6,000 words longer than the Dunes even). I feel pretty proud of how we handled the Kickstarter, in the main getting the main adventure out right before the December 2014 deadline as we promised.

Q: What's next for Chris Kutalik?

I am going to drink a lot and stay up all night!

Seriously though, I see a full docket ahead. We have Jason Sholtis's Operation Unfathomable coming down the line and I look forward to switching out of writer/designer hotseat mode. We also may have a Big Fucking Surprise coming down the pike in early 2016. And of course there's still all kinds of things I want to write or design from undercities to microgames.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Demons, Devils, and Death Drives

I've been revisiting some Edgar Allan Poe stories I haven't read in a while, which has got me thinking about Freud's theory of the death drive. And somehow that has filtered into thinking about Krevborna's demons and devils.

One of the grand things about making your own campaign setting for D&D is that you can choose to exclude as much of the inherited D&Disms into your world as you want or bend those D&Disms in a way that wouldn't necessarily work in an already established setting; you can pick and choose from the "canon," or discard it entirely.

Since Krevborna was my first "5e setting," I wanted to play around in D&D's sandbox without feeling beholden to the way D&D tends to do things. For the purposes of illustrating what I'm getting at here, I'm going to talk about what differentiates demons and devils in Krevborna.(1)

According to the 5e Monster Manual, demons are "the embodiment of chaos and evil--engines of destruction barely contained in monstrous form" and devils "live to conquer, enslave, and oppress." Looking at those two basic building blocks of differentiation reminded me of Freud's theory of the death drive. According to Freud, the instinct toward death, destruction, and dissolution can take a myriad of instinctual forms. As he states in "The Economic Problem of Masochism," "The instinct is then called the destructive instinct, the instinct for mastery, or the will to power." Demons, then, with their "embodiment of chaos" and function as "engines of destruction," are clearly manifestations of the death drive as a pure destructive instinct.(2) Devils, on the other hand, as beings who "live to conquer, enslave, and oppress," are manifestations of the death drive as the instinct for mastery and the will to power writ monstrously large.(3)

Sure, that's a neat theoretical congruence, but what does it mean in terms of world building? First, it helps explain the "Blood War" between demons and devils that was a big part of 2e's canon. As manifestations of a cosmic death drive, you might expect that devils and demons should be allies against the life-loving races of the world, but although they are manifestations of the same force each group is so focused on their particular flavor of the death drive that it excludes the methods and schemes of the other. The will to power of the tyrannical devils is simply incompatible with the demons' chaotic urge for obliteration, and vice versa. A libido divided against itself cannot stand.

Second, this strife between two supernatural forces out to either enslave or destroy mankind gives mankind a profound weapon against both: as more and more of the nature of these beings is revealed in play, it gives the characters a natural tactic that can aid them in the struggle against cosmic darkness: either side could be carefully leveraged against the other to keep both of these death instincts in check--a kind of libidinal stalemate. Even if the total defeat of demons and devils is impossible for mere mortal agents--and can the death drive ever truly be banished entirely?--the way in which they can be pitted against each other keeps things in necessary stasis. It isn't so much that the Moorcockian struggle between law and chaos is a substitute for good and evil, it's the notion that destruction and tyranny must be maneuvered into a stable state for the greater good of the continued existence of all.(4)

(1) - The general populace in Krevborna would recognize no practical difference or theological distinction between demons and devils, of course. Superstition and inherited belief masks the real cosmological truths that govern the universe.

(2) - Since Orcus is a a demon lord associated with the undead, this also colors the setting's view of what undeath is: it isn't an orderly process, it's life inverted into deathless chaos and always already an impulse toward decay. 

A tangent: liches, then, wrest the power of undeath from its chaotic roots and transform it into a kind of perverse order to defeat the natural entropy of mortal existence. The results of this, however, ripple outwards in a fractalized, chaotic pattern, once more serving the ends of destruction.

To keep the "D&D canon" a little distant, instead of referring to demon lords by their more familiar names I think cults devoted to them in Krevborna will call them by their more obscure epithets. Blood Lord for Orcus, the Sibilant Beast for Demogorgon, etc.

(3) - Asmodeus, chief of devils, is simply referred to as the Devil by the Church of Saintly Blood.

Also, it is interesting that the Monster Manual gives a genesis point for demons (they are spontaneously generated by the Abyss) but there isn't an origin attached to the devils. For now, I'm going with the fallen angels archetype.

(4) - Of course, this doesn't have to come into play just in the late game of high levels; it can also be something that texturizes the more obvious intrigues and power struggles in the setting as well. The vampires of the von Karlok family are essentially demonic; the Graymalk witches are essentially diabolic.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Shadows of Esteren - Prologue

Shadows of Esteren: Book 0 - Prologue exists in the liminal space between a quickstart and a starter set. It aims to introduce the game's setting and basic mechanics, offers a selection of pre-made characters in lieu of character creation rules, and concludes with a trio of adventures.

Shadows of Esteren bills itself as "a medieval role-playing game with a horrific and gothic influence." The game's setting is a peninsula called Tri-Kazel that is comprised of three kingdoms. The overall feel of the kingdoms is Celtic medievalism. The lands are feudal and isolated, but they're also experiencing a time of anxious flux; the ancient Demorthen religion (akin to fantasy druidicism) is being contested by missionaries from a Christian analog and by Magience (a kind of proto-Enlightenment scientific revolution). These themes map pretty nicely to Gothic tropes; it sets up a tension between reason (Magience) and faith (the Temple and Demortehn), as well as between tradition (Demorthen) and more modern ideologies (the Temple and Magience). The people of Tri-Kazel also live with the threat of the Feondas--unfathomable monsters who have preyed upon them since time immemorial. The information on the setting in this section of the book is presented in broad strokes, but combined with the more specific information that comes with the scenarios in the back of the book it should be enough to convey enough of the setting's feel to get by for a number of sessions.

The book's explanation of the game system is more akin to a brief summary than a full tutorial; the purpose of this chapter is to give you enough to play the included scenarios. As the text notes, some more complicated areas of the full rules (such as the game's combat and sanity systems) are presented here in a stripped-down form, while other rule systems (such as magic) are omitted entirely. Characters in Shadows of Esteren aren't defined by the usual mental and physical ability scores; extraordinary strength or intelligence, for example, are handled as Advantages and Disadvantages. Characters are instead defined by traits called Ways that determine their personalities and psychological makeup: Combativeness, Creativity, Empathy, Reason, and Conviction. Characters also have a number of broadly-defined skills called Domains. The names of these skills are sometimes a bit opaque; the applications of "Close Combat" and "Erudition" are clear enough, but you might want to have a cheat-sheet handy for what "Relation" and "Natural Environment" cover. Disciplines function like skill specializations, allowing characters to transcend the cap on skill ratings in narrower areas of expertise. What Domains and Ways can be used for is open to interpretation at the table. The task resolution mechanic is similarly loose: players roll a d10 and add the ratings in a Domain and Way that seem applicable to the situation and hope to beat a target number based on the task's difficulty.

Interestingly, the game seems a bit ambivalent about being a game. For example, an aside notes that it's more important for players to role-play well than to game the rules, and that they should "limit the use of the game system to a minimum" (17). Clearly, the system has been kept simple so that it can remain "off-stage" until needed to resolve some bit of narrative tension that can't be decided based on role-playing alone.

The six pre-made characters are far more than just filled-out character sheets. Each characters gets a full-page portrait, a hefty block or two of background text, and a description of the character's personality, along with all the pertinent stats. The characters' back-stories help fill in the broad setting overview given at the start of the book; through those backstories we learn of the Varigals (professional news-bringers that travel the Tri-Kazel), the order of Hilderins (a knightly organization), and the religion of the Temple.

The three scenarios in the book are tied together but can be played in any order. The book suggests two different sequences to chain them into a short campaign. All three scenarios are largely investigative: "Loch Varn" involves navigating a series of flashbacks to figure out how the characters got to the place they awaken at, "Poison" casts the characters as detectives looking for the cause of a poisoned river, and "Red Fall" has an amnesiac adventurer waking up with a bloody sword and a half-eaten corpse beside them. Each adventure is heavy on text and will likely take some time to prepare, but the use of helpful icons to guide the GM's way are a nice touch. 

As an entryway into the Shadows of Esteren series, I really don't see Prologue working for new or inexperienced players. There is simply too much in the book that relies on already knowing some of the ins and outs of role-playing games. Similarly, some of the scenarios in the book would be an absolute nightmare for new GMs to run for their group; "Loch Varn," in particular, has a complicated timeline that is central to pulling the adventure off successfully.

Players and GMs who have already cut their teeth on other games might have a better experience with Prologue. As a physical object, the book is a gorgeous hardback with fantastically moody art. The setting's blend of Celtic, Gothic, and almost steampunk-ish weird science is unique, and the world certainly carries and conveys its own flavor. It's also worth noting that the English version of Shadows of Esteren was translated from the French edition of the game, and frankly it sometimes shows. While the game's often baroque verbiage could be an attempt to capture the Gothic's purple prose, it feels like something is frequently being lost in translation. This is particularly vexing when the language barrier gets in the way of a clear explanation regarding the finer points of the rules. Nevertheless, although some lines might require multiple readings to parse, it is possible to put all the pieces together.

However, Prologue is something of a tease--while there is enough to play a handful of sessions with, you'll definitely need Book 1 - Universe to get the full Shadows of Esteren experience.

Book 0 - Prologue is available as a free pdf here.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Howling Void

The Howling Void describe their music as "Glacial meditations on the Mysteries," which is apt. If you have a taste for funereal doom metal, join this procession unto the grave:

(this album was in heavy rotation as I worked on Arksylvania) 

Click the links and listen, ghouls.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Man Behind the Wampus: An Interview with Erik Jensen

As far as I can remember, I first "met" Erik Jensen online when we were yelling at each other over 4e's debatable merits. But a chap can't stay cross with another chap for long, and I've since come to see Erik as the exemplar of someone smart and interesting who takes an old game with an expected playstyle and uses it to do his own inimitable thing. His blog, Wampus Country, should be on your reading list; waiting for a new post is like waiting for Christmas: torturous anticipation, but completely worth it.

Q: In my opinion, Wampus Country is one of the great unpublished settings. Can you give us a brief description of it and how it came about?

I think we can agree it’s “unpublished”, at least! The gimmick behind Wampus Country is that it’s intended to be a frontier-exploration thing that’s sort of on the edge of dream logic, or seen through a child’s eye in some ways. Instead of a ‘mythic underworld’, it’s the mythic frontier, where the lands rarely-trodden by civilized man feel no particular need to conform to man’s physics. The other feature that varies from standard D&D is that the tech level is what I’d call “mixed 19th century” - Wampus Country has reliable revolvers, for example, but no electricity or steam power. I wanted to keep the explorers on horseback and try to maintain a “Lewis & Clark” vibe initially. The original concept was to mash up American frontier tropes - like tall tales - the way regular D&D mashes up European folklore and mythology with willy-nilly abandon. And, on top of that, Wampus Country is sort of a twisted America, but in a loving way rather than a cynical one. I don’t know if that intent always shines through, but it’s there in my head.

I said ‘intended to be’ earlier because the campaign, and the setting, have wandered a bit from the initial concept - I suppose that’s a normal, organic development. Wampus Country has veered more deeply into comedy and satire in actual play. What was supposed to be West Marches with pistols has turned into a kind of episodic sitcom. And I’m not complaining about that - there are plenty of games and campaigns out there with a wild west inspiration, or even tall tales, but I might be one of the only ones consciously doing D&D-America-as-loving-sitcom. Whatever that means! The influence of my son has been very strong from the early days, as he’ll come up with things I wouldn’t, or see things from a really original childlike perspective. He’s an important part of Wampus Country and has a role in creating the setting; he’s also been a player.

Q: How does prepping adventures for Wampus Country differ from prepping adventures for a more traditional fantasy setting?

There are two questions in there, because part of it is Erik’s GM Style, and the other part is Wampus Country. I’m an improv guy at heart - I spent a lot of time in college performing improv comedy - and my preferred way to GM any game is minimal prep. I’ll have half a page of notes to riff off of, and most of that will be ridiculous NPC names over which I’ve agonized. I imagine some other GMs draw and redraw dungeon maps to get them perfect; I recite silly NPC names and practice accents on my morning commute. And, actually, I guess that’s where you see the overlap between a desire for minimal prep, and really trying to hit those Wampus comedy notes. When I prep to run Wampus Country, I have to make sure I’ve prepped and seeded those opportunities for escalating danger and escalating ridiculousness. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t - I think when you’re running a game that’s meant to be a comedy, you have to be ready to seize opportunities and weirdness when they pop up. You probably need the right players to really make it sing, but I’ve yet to have a player who didn’t get warmed up and throw some comedy down. Players need to buy in to the genre. Just as you’d expect a certain level of lethality from an old-school game, you have to be ready for a certain level of nonsense. When you play Ghostbusters, you kind of want to get slimed. The other change I’ve noticed - and this is player-driven - is that Wampus PCs, or maybe their players, are reluctant to kill off NPCs. Especially if they’re amusing. It’s like there’s implicit buy-in that some NPCs - or maybe even most of them - “deserve” to be seen again on-camera. We’ve ended up with an immense roster of NPCs in and around the starting areas because of this, so there are a ton of potential interactions between NPCs, and between NPCs and PCs.

Q: One of the things I really admire about Wampus Country is that it led to my favorite house rule to come out of the old-school blog scene: It Gets Worse. In what ways does that house rule change D&D's usual mode of play?

Your favorite? That’s high praise, and a strong statement. One hopes that it changes the mode of play because it removes some of the fear of lethality and drives players to attempt really heroic or ridiculous stuff, which was what I was aiming for. But I have some news for you: It Gets Worse only sort-of works in play so far for me. That might surprise some people, so let me explain. The concept is that when you hit zero hit points, the PC doesn’t die, they just get placed in a more difficult or weirder situation. Complications instead of PC death. It works great as a guiding principle - this is a tall tale, a picaresque comedy, and the best way to get out of a bind is to escalate and change the sort of bind you’re in. Every player knows that if their PC gets in a bad way, things will very soon Get Worse and they’ll have an opportunity to squirm out of something even more ridiculous. And that’s great.

But here’s the problem: Wampus Country has evolved into the sort of game where PCs almost never get reduced to zero hit points. There are several reasons for this. First, I’m not much of a lethal GM most of the time, so there’s that baseline. Second, the players I’ve had are not, typically, uncautious types. Combine these, and you’re not threatening PCs very often - not physically, anyway. They have their care-abouts, and those get threatened pretty easily, but again, that’s shifting the tone of the campaign. I sometimes think that It Gets Worse would work better for someone that isn’t me. Is that weird? And, it’s worth noting, some other seemingly-clever rules tweaks designed to enforce internal genre - like the Wampus Country Hat Rules - only sort-of work in play as well. We always forget the damn rule, or again the minimized lethality means that a rule originally designed to get a new saving throw is less necessary or desirable. The Hat Rules actually work better adapted to 5e, where the right hat just gives you advantage on every appropriate save. There, done. I think the first version of a house rule is often very clever, but it’s the third or fourth version of it that can actually approach elegance. The process is iterative, and it can be rough to see your clever contribution just plain not work.

The takeaway: mechanics that reinforce campaign concepts are easy to dream up, but not always easy to employ. No plan ever survives contact with the players. It’s an evolving thing. But the point of it - and what probably drove the conversation around it’s creation, adoption, and discussion afterward - is that I think at the point when It Gets Worse was posted, we were at one of the peaks of the “Old School Is Lethal!” sine wave. As a deliberate counterpoint, it got some attention - and maybe more than it deserved, because of the context. But nothing happens in a vacuum. The gaming “scene” is a conversation.

Q: Another thing that I admire about Wampus Country is its longevity; it's been an on-going game for a number of years and an impressive number of players have gotten a chance to explore the setting. Do you have any advice you'd give to a fellow DM who is looking to run a lengthy, open-table campaign?

Wampus Country has been on painful hiatus for far too long, and that’s entirely on me as far as prioritizing work and family stuff far ahead of the backburnered hobby stuff. But it certainly had a nice run in its first push, and I’m proud of that. Something like fifty different players with seventy different PCs have taken a dip in the Wampus Country pool, and I guess that’s nothing to sneeze at when you’re talking about open tables. For a while there Wampus Country was the only consistently-run FLAILSNAILS open table, as some of the earlier campaigns had either gone closed-table, or weren’t running every week at the same time. I tried to run every Friday night, and there were some play-by-posts in parallel at several points as well.

I don’t think there’s a secret to running a lengthy open table. You just do it. Run your game. Schedule your game. Shill for your game, and play in other people’s games if that’s an option - building that community is important, and people who see you’re a fun person to play with will be more willing to try you out as a GM. I think the trick is that if you’re going to do an open table, you have to really embrace the open table. You can’t get disappointed when players don’t pick up the leads you wanted them to chase, or when your favorite PC’s player doesn’t come back. You just run, run, run, and let the campaign build itself. You can’t give up. If something tanks, oh well, you move on. My first play-by-post didn’t run right and I was disappointed with how it all worked; so I learned from it, and tried again with a play-by-post that tried to play to the strengths of the format, and that one was more successful. It’s all a continuing experiment.

Q: One thing I always associate you with is Transformers. What is it about them that captured your imagination? And have you ever found a way to translate that love of transforming robots into an rpg?

A: That’s interesting, I don’t think I spew about Transformers that much in social media, but I’m definitely a fan, as is my son. I loved the toys, the comics, and especially the cartoon, and I love the continuity porn of the various versions. I like Marvel Comics’ continuity porn as well, but that’s probably a more common malady. Like any kid in the 80s, I had my fill of Transformers and other mecha stuff. But the Transformers - like their cousins, G.I.Joe - had that amazing cartoon which was, after the season, an amazing mix of superheroes, sci-fi, pulp stuff. I think it was the blend that hooked me. Marvel Comics, when they’re good, work a similar magic of blending genres into this monstrous, beautiful thing. D&D’s another offender. The 80s were a good time to be a kid and learn about crashing genres.

Transforming robots in rpgs have not had a great history. None of them have caught on in a general way, even though there are “big names” in mecha games. There are plenty of games that have done it, but the ones I’ve seen so far are either too crunchy for me - I’m thinking of Mekton and HERO here - or they are more about mecha as a genre than the actual mecha. Someone once tried to sell me on Bliss Stage as a mecha game, and that’s not what the game is about, not really - it’s a relationship game that happens to have mecha in it. That wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted, and continue to want, a game that does all the adventure stuff well, and the custom robot characters well without needing a calculator. They always say to write what you’d want to play, and of course that’s true, but...I have told myself for years that I should write a game that includes transforming robots and tokusatsu stuff, and like most gamers I’ve tried to write it half a dozen times, but the moral of the story is I’m not a game designer. Or at least, not a from-scratch guy. I have the setting all set in my head, I’ve posted about it in the past, but it’s a covered-in-cobwebs type project at this point.

Q: You're currently involved in TridentCon. What are the most difficult parts of organizing a gaming convention? What are the most satisfying parts?

TridentCon is very small - last year we had about seventy attendees, we’re hoping to break a hundred this year. The difficult part is that although I have some helpers this year, it’s still essentially a one-man show, and trying to get things prepped while balancing the day-job and family stuff can be difficult. Getting other people excited about an event that isn’t happening for six months is a challenge, but that’s when the groundwork has to be laid. Finding a site, recruiting good GMs, publicity. And growing the thing each time means you can’t just fall back on what worked last year - there’s always something new to do, something new to learn. It’s definitely satisfying, though, once the con starts - walking amongst the tables and hearing the laughter, that’s the payoff. TridentCon is building up to be a little con that’s big on dungeon crawling games of yesterday and today - we have D&D5e and Pathfinder, many many offerings of Dungeon Crawl Classics, and even sessions of Castles & Crusades and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea lined up. That’s a lot of fantasy, and it gives the proceedings kind of a family reunion vibe, even though we have other games - FATE, Shadowrun, for example. This year TridentCon happens to be on the same weekend as a gameday in Washington DC, but that event is 18+ and focuses more on indie and under-publicized games, which is great, because there’s something for everybody. Gamers in the mid-Atlantic can go to DC and drink beer while they play Night Witches, or they can bring their twelve-year old to TridentCon and teach ‘em how to stab goblins. I don’t see it as a competition, any time gamers can get together is good by me.

The whole point of TridentCon was to bring gamers together for charity, in the same way Save Vs. Hunger has done so successfully. In our area there is strong organized play presence for both 5e and Pathfinder, but there are also naturally these little home groups that never talk to one another. I want to get them talking to one another and cross-pollinating, and the con is one way to hopefully do that. At the same time it’s showing the community that we can give back, visibly, as a group. And I confess that I enjoy reminding the public that “gamers” didn’t always mean sitting in front of the X-Box.

Q: What's next for Erik Jensen?

We’re expecting our second child around Christmas, so that’s my major household focus at the moment, but I have hobby plans as well, and I want to get some of those out the door and in print in the coming quarters. It’ll all be under my Daydream Tiger imprint, so watch for that logo.

I always get questions about the Wampus Country Almanac, which is the notional setting book for that campaign, based on the blogposts and the actual-play. That’s still in the works, because it needs to be completely written before I start scraping together art and layout. It’s not just a matter of bundling the blogposts, because let’s face it, blogposts alone don’t necessarily give you what you’d need or want in order to make a setting book. A lot more material is needed, and I want to make sure it’s good material, drawn from play where appropriate, and in the proper Wampus spirit. I don’t want to pad this setting-book with things that a reader would expect from a non-Wampus book - like NPC stats you’re never going to use, long lines of hit points for first-level bandits. Nobody wants that from this book. The Almanac needs to be a summation of Wampus Country, and be a good setting and a good read, even if that means sacrificing some other things. I think in the case of the Almanac if I have to make choices between “entertaining” and “useful at the table”, I’ll choose entertaining every time, although that might buck current fashion. I want this to be the book you flip through over and over on the john, trying not to laugh out loud, and you’re always finding new little things throughout. The presentation will be a layout nightmare; in my head there are marginal illustrations and fold-ins and cut-out paper dolls and comic strips and sheet music and recipes and all manner of crazy crap. A mix between a farmer’s almanac, a kid’s magazine...but it’s a setting book. You learn about the setting through this in-universe artifact, that’s the goal, and the whole thing is just chockablock with adventure hooks. Although I started running Wampus Country with Labyrinth Lord, the Almanac will be system-neutral.

There are some adventures in various states of completion that should come out first, though - non-Wampus stuff, probably for DCC. There’s one about Mayan vampires that I started years ago right after that first Secret Santicore, that one’s nearly done, and I think once I break the seal the others will finish up in sequence. I’d like to present those in a magazine-style format that feels kind of like Savage Sword of Conan and those sorts of magazines, color covers with black and white, almost newsprint interiors. I want the covers to really express a pulp vibe - I really like things that look like other things, and I think that will match the DCC milieu just fine. So all those adventures, when they start rolling out, will be titled and numbered like issues of a periodical - the working title is Tales of Valor & Sorcery since it would allude to my sons’ names. This really is a family affair! Another adventure in the pipe, one that I’m playtesting at TridentCon, involves surviving and escaping a dwarven prison. That’s been fun to mess with because I can play with all these “prison movie” tropes, and there are tables for generating your prisoner - their crime against dwarfdom, a d30 contraband table, and all of that. Obviously, there’s a comedic aspect. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and frankly I don’t think I know another way to be. We’re hoping to combine that funnel with another adventure a friend is writing, plus a bit of a hexcrawl, and call it all Heavy Metal Devil War, since it’s about dwarves versus infernal terrors. If the hexcrawl portion is seeded with a hundred different music-related jokes, well...don’t be surprised. But if you can’t get behind dwarf berserkers in KISS makeup, you’re probably not the audience for this particular romp.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Night of the Walking Dead

I'm thinking back over the time I ran Night of the Walking Dead for a new group of players. It was an unqualified success; I don’t think I’ve ever gotten actual applause before at the end of a session!

Night of the Walking Dead is easily my favorite adventure from the Ravenloft era. The premise is interesting, it covers the three main ”scenarios” of D&D-style play (wilderness exploration, village exploration, and a ”dungeon”), and most importantly it can be finished in one 4 1/2 hour session if you keep on target.

I did, however, make some changes to maximize the module’s potential for this group: Instead of arriving there through the mists the characters were shipwrecked there with no signs of their fellow travelers. In retrospect, this was a really great choice because throughout the adventure they wondered if they would find anyone else from the wreck or if they would find out what happened to their ship–that turned out to be an adventure seed that could blossom into a further campaign hook later down the road. (The party was comprised of a paladin, a wizard, a druid, and a cleric.)

- One thing I did to speed up the pace of the game was to cut one of the monster encounters in the swamp. One is enough, really.

I also changed the nature of the encounter I did use; in the adventure the characters are supposed to be attacked by a crocodile, but I re-skinned the croc to be a tentacled swamp beast. This also proved to be a good change as the unknown nature of the thing that attacked them had them wondering if it fed into the mystery at the heart of the adventure.

- When the characters encounter Luc in his floating house out in the swamp he’s just sitting there in catatonic silence. I had him forlornly plucking at a banjo–this meant that the characters could here his creepy music as they approached, which set them on edge and initially made them deliciously afraid of the harmless Luc.

- Mordu was the hit NPC of the village; I really played up his craziness and made him a bit of a conspiracy nutter who believed that a swamp cult was responsible for the village’s curse. I also played up his red licorice consumption; you see, the red licorice left behind at the scene of the crime is a literal red herring, but it actually started to creep the players out as to how obsessed with the candy certain villagers are. If a ”plot device” like that exists in a game, might as well make it weird and wring every last drop of paranoia out of your players.

- Actually, maybe Brucian the priest was the hit NPC (see below). Since his religion isn’t specified in the module (other than that it is good), I had him serving three Beast Gods. Since those beasts seem evil, it caused the players to initially distrust him, but they eventually came to see him as their best ally in the village. The arc from distrust to friendship was really interesting to watch and made for some great role-playing.

- The dinner party scene is far too good (and potentially gory) to leave up to a chance visit to the plantation house. I had Jean invite the players to dine at the plantation house after they ransacked his house in the village. He was aware that they had been in his house because the adventure specifies that he watches them from a hidden passage as they search his home, so this fit perfectly. Since the players had sorted out the mystery at this point anyway, I had Jean explain himself in true supervillain fashion. He also coaxed them to eat human flesh and join him on the path to ghouldom.

- I had the town’s priest and the constable accompany the characters to the old cemetery for the final showdown with Marcel. This seems like something those NPCs would actually do in defense of their village and I thought that the characters might need the backup. They didn’t need the extra hands, as it turned out, but by the time they got there they had emotionally invested enough in the priest that when his neck was snapped by a zombie they were all a bit shocked and dismayed. (The constable almost snuffed it as well, and he never managed to hit any of the bad-guys in the final fight anyway.)

- Some oddities in that last scene: if the players scout around the old cemetery instead of raiding each tomb they will quickly realize where the main action is and avoid ALL of the monsters in the other mausoleums. That’s player skill as opposed to character skill in action, I suppose.

- Despite being tough to kill, Marcel does kind of crap damage. Also, I changed his deathly aura thing into a miasma that caused black pustules to break out on the character’s bodies when they failed a saving throw. This was nice and gruesome.

- The cleric’s player decided that his character was going to stay in the village and take Brucian’s place as the spiritual leader of the community–that was some excellent role-playing.

Good times in the Domains of Dread.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

An Interview with Trey Causey

Trey Causey's From the Sorcerer's Skull was the first gaming blog I encountered. His boundless creativity (and commitment to a regular, and astoundingly prolific, posting schedule) helped me see the potential in getting gaming ideas out into the wild with a minimum of fuss. When he isn't embarrassing the rest of us with the quality and quantity of ideas on his blog, he's busy putting out fantastic books such as Weird Adventures and Strange Stars.

Q: From your long-running examination of the Warlord series and your weekly comics posts, it's obvious that illustrated fiction is a big point of inspiration for you. In what ways has your interest in comics carried over to gaming? Are there any ways in which comics have changed the way you approach writing gaming material?

I think comics encouraged me to always be a bit more "kitchen sink," a little bit more "gonzo," in the GMing and world-building, even when trying to play it straight. That doesn't come through with every idea necessarily, but I think it's my default mode. They also probably made me more interested in visuals and the look of things. I tend to start commissioning art well before I start really writing a project (which is probably not that way to do it!) and I've always been interested in kind of set-pieces (in terms of distinct locales and action) for the player's to interact with/in. Probably the need to really convey a visual style has effected by writing, though I consciously try to curb that a bit, as what I've got in my head isn't necessarily what someone else needs to have in theirs. Still, I think that influence, partnered with talented artists, is responsible for the distinctive look and feel of my stuff.

Q: You've released well-regarded game books independently, but you've recently joined forces with the Hydra Collective. What was the impetus behind that? What does being part of a collective of content creators enable you to do better than you could do on your own?

Doing projects on my own is a lot of work and can be expensive. The chance to combine efforts meant a chance to get some help shouldering the various unfun burdens. I also feel like my stuff hasn't necessarily reached its biggest possible audience--even within the relatively small rpg community of G+. Having a bigger megaphone can't hurt. Those were the practical considerations, I guess. Beyond that, it's enjoyable seeing other people's projects come to fruition and even doing small, lower pressure, creative things to help that along: finding fonts, goofing around with designing ads, etc. Kicking around cover concepts with a talented guy with his own strong aesthetic like Jason Sholtis is probably more fun than writing a page of my own stuff, honestly.

My hope is that Hydra will make me more productive than I would have been otherwise and give me the satisfaction of helping other people do projects that might not have happened if Hydra hadn't have been there. 

Q: Over the years you've built a lot of different game settings. One of your most recent games was a Sargasso Sea-inspired game that you ran for a group of first-time 5e players and a few "lapsed players." Are there any special considerations that you kept in mind when crafting a setting for first-timers in a new edition?

I tried to go lighter on the "special snowflakeness" than I might otherwise in the setting, and to say "okay" to anything that was in the Player's Handbook. With the adventure set in an interesting location, the players could imagine their characters from as generic a D&D world as they wanted or needed, and I still get the sort of sense of place that made it fun for me. Being as these guys were mostly veterans of White Wolf games and Shadowrun, I tried to sort of play to their expectations, which wasn't really hard, as I don't typically run high-lethality, heavy resource management games most of the time anyway, but I did have to recognize their desire for more tricked-out or specialized characters than I normally roll with.

Q: I think everyone who has been making game-stuff for a while has a project that "got away"--something you started working on but ultimately grew bored with or gave up on. What's yours?

There are a lot of projects lying dormant or semi-dormant that I plan to get back to--someday. There are a couple that I feel like it's less likely that I will, though not because I think they're bad ideas. more just that too much time passed without me moving forward with them. One is Eldritch Earth or Planet of the Elves, a semi-Bakshi, post-apocalyptic fantasy. The other is probably Pulp Space, my alternate history, spell-jamming sort of thing.

Q: Best things you've read, seen, heard lately? What things are you most looking forward to reading, seeing, and hearing in the near-ish future?

The best movie I've seen recently is Spring. As I'm between books at the moment, reading-wise I'm digging the new fantasy comic, The Spire. I'm looking forward to giving The Etched City a second go, as I put it down too hastily years ago, as your recent review now shows. I'm interested in seeing del Toro's Crimson Peak and Snyder's Batman vs. Superman.

Q: What's the game product you wished existed? What thing that does exist comes closest to scratching that itch?

From an utterly selfish (and perhaps self-aggrandizing) standpoint I wish there was something like the Guide to Glorantha for Weird Adventures. More realistically, I would kind of like a Bas-Lag rpg or supplement for a game I have. There are the old d20 Dragon articles, which handle the mechanics fine, but lose the flavor--which is probably what we'd get again, but I can hope that something as enjoyable to read as GURPS Goblins could come out of it.

Q: What's next for Trey Causey?

Next are the the two Strange Stars gamebooks. The Fate book is somewhere in putting corrections in layout. When your layout guy is in demand, you sometimes have to wait in the queue. The Old School gamebook, compatible with Stars Without Number or really any old school sci-fi game, is in the writing stage. After those two, I have in mind to do two adventures: the pirate thing, In Doom's Wake, and the first thing from my sort of Oz-ian 5e setting, the Land of Azurth, Cloud Castle of Azurth. I tend to be at the mercy of my creative whims, though.