Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Majestic Wilderlands has finally arrived!

Good Afternoon, All:

My copy of Supplement VI: The Majestic Wilderlands has finally arrived in the mail. I shall spend the next few days devouring its contents, and prepare a review of the supplement to be posted here.

Looking Forward To It,

Saturday, December 26, 2009

New Template: Organizations and Secret Societies...

Good Afternoon, All:

I've been trying to come up with a simple format for laying out information on Organizations and Secret Societies. What follows is the basic template:

Name Of Organization
@Brief paragraph describing the organization and its place in the setting.
Headquarters: @Location(s) of the major headquarters of the organization.
Members: @Approximate number of members in organization. Also includes notes on recruiting practices.
Organization: @Notes on leadership, hierarchy and even secrecy.
Goals: @The motivation of the organization, as well as the obstacles that challenge the organization.
Symbol: @The symbol of the organization.

What follows is an example of an Organization from one of my future product releases, a campaign setting I am calling Hammersong's Legacy:

Ancient Order of War Sages
The Ancient Order of War Sages is a fairly widespread order of battle-mages originating from the City-State of Thorjak. Known for their talents in both battle and sorcery, the War Sages are often sought as specialists and consultants by mercenary bands and noble courts.
Headquarters: The City-State of Thorjak houses the Library Arcanum, the campus of the Ancient Order of War Sages where young battle mages gain competence in both spellcraft and warskill.
Members: The names of approximately a thousand battle-mages appear on the public records of the Ancient Order of War Sages, and perhaps half that many are secretly members. The War Sages approach only the most virtuous and accomplished of battle-mages and eldritch knights to join their ranks.
Organization: Under the guidance of the Grand Magus Thaelandreus, the Order's Lord-Savant, the War Sages are organized by the towers with which they have declared their membership. Members bear the title of Savant, and study both the arcane and martial arts from Master-Savants on campus.
Goals: The Ancient Order of War Sages is dedicated to the preservation and protection of civilized territories from forces, both external and internal, that might disrupt the population of civilized lands. Due to their generally public status, the War Sages are often targeted by those that support humanoid hordes, enemy armies, infernal legions and other forms of brute force that can be brought to bear against the civilized territories.
Symbol: The War Sages use the white phoenix as a symbol of their Order, demonstrating that through purity, the Order shall always overcome the threat of darkness.

So, what do you think? Does the format work? Does it provide enough information to inspire adventure without stifling creativity? Any constructive feedback would be appreciated.

With Regards,

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays!

Good Afternoon, All:

Given that this is the time of year when we celebrate with good cheer, I thought that I would offer up Season's Greetings to all. Merry Yule! Happy Solstice! Merry Christmas! Happy Kwanzaa! Happy New Year! Happy Boxing Day!

Happy Holidays,

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Review: Stonehell Dungeon, Down Night-Haunted Halls...

Good Afternoon, All:

I have finally completed reading through Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls, by Michael Curtis. Here's the basic blurb from the website, to give you an idea of what this book is all about:

Stonehell Dungeon is a classic-style megadungeon, filled with enough monsters, traps, weirdness, and treasure to keep you gaming for a long, long time. Explore over 700 rooms, encounter more than 40 new monsters, and discover 18 mysterious magical items -- and that's just in the first book!

Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls details the first six levels of a megadungeon intended for use with the Labyrinth Lord™ role-playing game, but is easily adaptable to most early versions of the original fantasy role-playing game and its retro-clones. Featuring art by J.A. D'Andrea, Lee Barber, Marcelo Paschoalin, and Ralph Pasucci, Stonehell Dungeon gives the game master all the necessary information to run his players through the dungeon, while offering enormous opportunities to customize and expand on the site.

As you can see, this product declares itself as the first half of a fully-detailed megadungeon, capturing six levels (plus the surface) inside 134 pages. This review contains my impressions of the product, in the hopes that you find this information of use to you when considering whether to pick this book up or not.

I picked up the print version of this book. Stonehell Dungeon is a softcover RPG book, perfect bound, with 134 pages printed in black and white. The front and back cover are glossy black, with the occasional series of red splotches that may be intended to conjure images of blood splatter. The front cover also includes a line art drawing of a single adventurer raising a portcullis within the dungeon, a nice piece provided by J. A. D'Andrea. The product has a title page, a credits page, two pages for an index and a page for the legal licenses, leaving 129 pages for pure content. The typeface is easy to read, in a two column format save for the two pages that detail the map for each sublevel. The maps are black and white, as are the other illustrations found through the text. I found all of the art to be well drawn and appropriate to the setting and flavor of the book. All in all, I found the book to be well organized and well-written. I don't necessarily like the red splotches on the cover, but otherwise, I think it's very well produced.

In terms of content, Stonehell Dungeon is very dense. Fortunately, Michael Curtis's writing style makes it a very interesting read, and the only places that really bogged me down were the room details are each sublevel. As begitting a product that calls itself a megadungeon, Stonehell strives to create a setting that could serve one or even more campaigns rather than create a site for a single, albeit large, adventure. Although all of the game mechanics presented in this tome are for Labyrinth Lord, it is presented in such a manner that this setting could be used with very minimal adjustments with any of the retro-clones or original editions of the World's Most Popular Roleplaying Game. With a little investment in creature and treasure conversion, I could see this product easily being used for a 3E/Pathfinder or even a 4E campaign.

After a brief introduction, Mr. Curtis dives right in with details on how to use the dungeon, followed by a simple two page history, Stonehell's secret, general dungeon features, common residents found in the dungeon, thoughts on changing the dungeon over time, how to customize the setting to make it your own, identifying those elements that he would leave up to the individual Referee to resolve, a list of adventure hooks and even some rumors. In eight pages, Mr. Curtis packs in a lot of great information, but I found it interesting to read and complete enough to start me mentally salivating over the prospects that might be found within.

After that, the true content of the megadungeon begins. This product details six major layers (the surface and the first five levels of the dungeon). The surface layer is comprised of three sections, and each of the five dungeon levels are made up of four sections or sublevels apiece. All told, that's 23 maps, complete with details on their contents and their own individually flavored populations, all in conflict with one another on some level.

Each major layer is detailed in the same manner, much like a chapter of the book. First, Mr. Curtis presents the collective map for the entire layer on one page, followed by a single page that contains a bestiary of sorts for the level. This bestiary provides the basic stats for all of the creatures that appear in that level for ease of reference, as well as a quick overview of the core concepts for each sublevel within that layer. Right after that, each sublevel or section is then detailed.

Each subsection is displayed in the same consistent manner. First, Mr. Curtis provides us with two to three pages that give us an overview of the sublevel. This includes more detail on the conflicts of that particular area, the population that the player-characters are likely to encounter, special dungeon features, important NPCs, new monsters, new magic items and new spells. After the brief overview, Mr. Curtis then provide a two-page version of the One Page Dungeon template. Page one contains the map and some basic notes for use with the adventure, like elements that don't occur in a given room or random encounter tables. Page two of the template contains a list of all of the rooms on the map, along with a brief sentence or two describing its contents. For example:

Dormitory: Smashed bunks; moldy furniture; smell of mildew. Empty.

Many of the rooms have inhabitants and/or treasure. Those would be written instead of the word "empty" in the example above. I simply chose an example that doesn't give away anything so as not to spoil some of the surprises. While this method of presentation does not spell out the "read out loud" text that other adventures would, Mr. Curtis does an excellent job of capturing the level of detail needed to create and describe the room's contents. In addition, I found his work to be highly imaginative and inspiring. I could easily picture myself running this entire setting, if only I had the time to do so in addition to my current game.

After all of the maps have been detailed, Michael Curtis completes his masterpiece with two appendices. The first provides three random tables to cover dungeon dressing and the contents of containers such as bags, pouches, satchels and small chests or wardrobes. The second appendix lists the special monsters that populate Stonehell. Among them are the Vrilya, perhaps based on the public domain work The Coming Race by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Only two of this mysterious race are detailed, but Mr. Curtis promises more will appear in Stonehell 2.

My Thoughts
All in all, this book is simply amazing to me. I found that it sparked my imagination with almost every page. The conflicts are varied and appear to be a lot of fun. In addition to the major conflicts that flavor each sublevel, Mr. Curtis has also added fun little elements and scenes that really captures the flavor of Old School gaming to me. I found myself consistently wondering how I could fit this in as a second weekly game with my particular schedule, or if I should wait until after the baby is born and make this my next campaign. I couldn't be happier with my purchase of this book, and I know that I'm going to pick up the second one as soon as it becomes available later on in 2010.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, I'd have to give Stonehell Dungeon a 9.5. It's probably worthy of a 10, but I don't want my second review to identify a product as being the penultimate. However, this is a damn fine product, and I think any Referee or Gamemaster that enjoys running large dungeons would be remiss if they didn't pick Stonehell Dungeon up, in either PDF or Print-On-Demand. It's just too good to let it slip by.

That's My Two Coppers, Anyway,

The Obligatory XP Post: Acting Like Heroes vs. Shopping Like Citizens...

Good Morning, All:

Today I'm writing the ubiquitous Experience post. It seems that everyone is posting their thoughts on awarding XP, and as I have a different take on the matter, I suppose I should contribute my random thoughts here to the blogosphere, in the event that they might help a fellow GM out.

Experience awards motivate players to pursue certain tasks, based on what earns XP and thus character advancement. D&D, and most other fantasy games in general, tend to offer XP awards for two scenarios: killing things and getting treasure. Doing so tends to engender adventures and activities that focus on those two elements. Some GMs, seeking ways to reward other actions, have come up with convoluted systems for alternate XP awards that encourage the kind of game they want to play. I've even published an advancement system of my own a few years ago, called OGL Alternatives: Alternate Advancement System. In it, I provided a basic system of determining XP awards for level-based games that reward actions that create the kind of game the GM is looking for. I use a variant of that system now, with almost every game I run, be it Savage Worlds or D&D.

The core of my approach to XP awards is simple: I want to give rewards based on what I want out of my game. I hate games where we spend the entire session sitting in a bar and get nothing done. I hate games where we spend the entire session shopping for equipment and making our spell selections, basically doing prep work that we should have handled between sessions over email or whatnot. That's just a lot of nonsense, and as a player, I'll leave a game that spends too much time in that kind of arena. It's just not fun for me.

The kind of games that I love are those that actually show some forward motion from the start of the session to the end of the session. I want to look back at the end of a session and see that we've accomplished something, that the investment of an evening away from family created something I can be proud of. I also enjoy becoming immersed in the setting, learning new things, or as the GM, presenting campaign elements that the players can remember and use later to increase the perception of the world as its own unique entity. I tend to provide a bit of history and culture with my settings, and it is rewarding to me to know that the players are picking up on it.

With all of that in mind, I tend to use the following system for rewarding experience. I have three primary categories (for low point systems like Savage Worlds) with two supplementary categories (for systems like D&D). The three primary categories are:

1. Forward Motion: If the game moved forward, and the group has completed more than one major scene over the course of the three-hour session, then the group earns one Session Point.

2. Completing A Goal: If the group resolved a story arc that they elected to pursue, such as finishing a dungeon or resolving the attempted murder of a noble's son, then the group earns one Session Point. (This should happen every two to three sessions, so story arcs are typically measured in terms of five to ten significant scenes each.)

3. Learning Curve: Each member of the group is asked in turn to identify three things they, as players, learned about the game world over the course of the session. Of course, they cannot repeat something that was previously mentioned. (I rotate the starting person each time so no one gets screwed all the time by always going last.) If the player can do so, then they earn one Session Point.

The supplemental categories sometimes vary, but I prefer the following:

4. Roleplaying: Each member of the group is asked in turn to provide two ways by which their actions in the session remained true to their character (roleplaying character flaws, alignment, allegiances, or simply fulfilling their role). If the player can do so, then they earn one Session Point.

5. Heroism: If the character engaged in an activity during the session that put himself or herself at significant risk (physical, social, mental, or otherwise) in a manner that allowed the group as a whole to succeed, then the character earns one Session Point.

For low point games like Savage Worlds, GURPS or Hero System, the Session Points convert directly to experience point awards. For D&D and other systems with scaled XP progressions, the Session Points are multiplied by some base number to determine the number of XP earned.

I've even used the above with the standard D20 approach of awarding XP based on conquering monsters, granting 10-20 XP/level for each Session Point, so that the average of the above equals the experience of one encounter appropriate to the party's level.

Ultimately, though, the core of my preferred system of experience awards is designed to encourage the kind of game activities I appreciate, both as a GM and as a player. I think that's the best foundation for any XP system, and I hope that this post has provoked some thoughts on that subject. Ultimately, whatever you decide to do with XP, so long as it leads to a game that you and your gaming group enjoy, then you've made the right choice.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Quick Update...

Good Morning, All:

Today, I continue with my work on the Referee's Guide for MyD20 Lite. As the Player's Guide is almost complete, and ready to move into layout after a little more playtesting, I am hoping to have my first contribution to the OSR available for free in PDF and for a minimal fee in Print-On-Demand sometime in January.

I have also almost completed my reading of Stonehell, which is a pretty dense book. When that is done, I should be able to post a review of the book here for those interested in it. Once that is done, I hope to review Rob Conley's Majestic Wilderlands sourcebook as my next OSR review.

I'm still dabbling with two setting books, one for Sci-Fi and one for Fantasy. I should be able to deliver at least one of those in the coming year, if not both.

Yeah, I'm doing a lot of writing right now, and it's only a matter of time before one of my projects finds its way to completion and out into the world at large.

More Later,

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Two More Cents On Game Design...

Good Morning, All:

In reading through Swords & Wizardry, I had one of those simple little "Eureka!" moments that people get when things fall into place for them. This may sound obvious, and indeed it is, but somehow, it just hit me. In reading the class descriptions, I noted that each class had its own single saving throw value. After remembering how saves were done "back in the day", rolling under the number on a d20, it occurred to me that one could easily use some simple math to convert each saving throw progression into a bonus that is added to the d20 roll, and compared against a target number/difficulty class of 20. The observation had been born of my experiences with 3E, but what hit me was the realization that this was probably how 3E saves came about. Mathematically, saves had thus remained the same in concept during the transition from 2E to 3E (aside from categories, of course), and then further adjusted by varying DCs.

I suppose the Combat Algorithm post over at Delta's D&D brought the convolutions to mind, and this simple realization cemented the concept in my head. Just as this was the math that lead to Ascending AC as an option to D&D's original Descending AC, I saw this pattern elsewhere, and spent a good five minutes reviewing Swords & Wizardry just looking for similar evolutions and admiring the elegance behind the D20 System, all made possible by using basic math skills to bring everything to a single defining Core Mechanic. Like most gamers, I took readily to the Core Mechanic of 3E without really giving much of a thought as to why. Now, almost ten years later, it dawned on me as to the exact reasons why.

Like I said, it was something simple and obvious, but when it suddenly comes together and settles into your head, you develop a new appreciation for a new perspective. As a game designer, I love it when I have those realizations and can bring them together in a simple yet elegant game design. When that happens, you get an internally consistent system that lends itself to intuitive mechanics once the core concepts are understood. I think that's what makes some games easier to learn than others, and what separates the Swords & Wizardry systems of the world from the World of Synnibar rule sets.

Two More Cents On Game Design,

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

MyD20 Lite Player's Guide, v0.3 now posted...

Good Morning, All:

I've posted an updated version of the MyD20 Lite Player's Guide on my files site:

This file has a few minor changes, including a new spellpoint progression and max spell level advancement for both Priests and Mages, and an optional Action Points section. I still need to integrate 8th and 9th level spells, though.

With Regards,

Monday, December 07, 2009

Majestic Wilderlands is now out in PDF!

Good Evening, All:

I've just noticed that Rob Conley has finally released his Majestic Wilderlands supplement in PDF format:

I am waiting until it is available in book format before I order the book. Once I've got my copy in hand, of course, I'll be making a review of it here. In the meantime, I'll continue to read through Stonehell and try to get a review of it up here soon.

More Later,

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Review: World of Onn, Supplement I

Good Evening, All:

This is a quick review of the World of Onn: Supplement I, by Jim Bobb of Fantasy Adventures Studio. This review is based on the Print-On-Demand version of the product. The World of Onn: Supplement I book, which I will abbreviate for the rest of this review as WO:Sup1, is compatible with the Swords & Wizardry Core Rules.

In Print-On-Demand format, WO:Sup1 is a standard-sized softcover RPG text. Its black cover and white lettering are very simple and understated. The line art used for the front cover image is a bit pixelated, but captures the flavor of the early editions of "the World's Most Popular Roleplaying Game" that Swords & Wizardry was created to emulate. The text on the back cover is large and easy to read, offering a description of the contents of the book: expanded character abilities, new sub-classes, new items, new spells, new monsters, some combat variations, and a World of Onn gazetteer. That's a lot to pack in 146 pages, but I think it does a pretty good job of it.

Kimberly Nicholson did the cover art and all of the interior black-and-white line art, keeping a consistent "old school" flavor to the artwork throughout the book. Her work comes across as a talented amateur, but she's got a lot more talent than I could hope to show. The art fits the flavor of the book very well, and like many of the older edition books, there are numerous pictures of busty women scantily clad, so I have to give the book props for that.

Although the book has 146 pages, four are basically the title page and table of contents, two contain the legal text and the last page is blank. The rest is all Open Game Content, and there's a lot of great content there. The text is easy to read, and well presented. I had no problems reading it, at all.

After the obligatory introduction page, the author wastes no time in jumping into the rules he wants to present. We start off with the Characters chapter and ability scores. Ability scores are further defined than in Swords & Wizardry (S&W), offering additional modifiers and clarifications that lend themselves to a simplified AD&D 1st Edition feel in some ways. Although the stat breakdown is based on four-point spreads instead of the bell curve of the S&W optional rules, I did like the effort put in here. I may borrow some of this for my own S&W variant, but really, it's for those that want a simple 1E flavor to their characters. System shock is back, and the number of languages you can speak are defined now.

Character races have been separated from class, and a new consistent rule for level limits for non-humans based on your class's prime requisite stats is introduced that I really like. The races of WO:Sup1 include the common races of men, dwarves, elves, and halflings, as well as new races (inspired by newer editions, it would appear) such as the forged ones, giantkin, tigrans and trollkin. I like the flavor of the newer races, and in general, their abilities seem somewhat reasonable when compared to the original races. (They may be a little more powerful than the average, but not nearly as bad as other examples of these concepts that I've seen.)

The character classes of this book include re-writes of the three primary classes of S&W (Fighting-Man, Cleric and Magic-User), as well as six new sub-classes, two for each of the main classes. These are Druids and Shao Disciples (for Cleric), Divine Champions and Rangers (for Fighting-Man) and Illusionists and Bard (for Magic-Users). In each case, the classes typically have a nubmer of new abilities they can gain over the course of their adventuring career. For example, Fighting-Men now start with Weapon Mastery, and gain Combat Options (much like MyD20 Lite's Talents in concept and execution). The Magic-User gains spell research and item creation abilities. The Bard has bardic lore, bardic luck (an inspirational ability), spells, the ability to decipher script and a stronghold at higher levels. The list goes on. I like many of the options presented here, and I will likely integrate some of them into my own growing Player's Guide.

In addition to new special abilities, each class is defined with three new saving throw types based on 3E's save categories: Ego (Will), Dodge (Reflex) and Toughness (Fortitude). This is a bit confusing at first, as these columns aren't explained until you get to the saving throws section under Combat, but those who have read MyD20 already know that's a direction I went as well, so I like it.

The Equipment chapter is short, but contains a large variety of weapons and armor types, as well as more items available for purchase. I particularly liked the three adventurer's pack options.

After that, we come to the Magic section. Here, we are treated to some clarification on spellcasting that brings magic closer to that simplified 1E feel, and then cover spelllists and spells for each of the spellcasting classes. Within each class, spells are listed alphabetically, without regard for level.

A two page section introduces the continuous initiative system, which pretty much starts you out on a particular number and then you simply add your next initiative roll to your current score to get the next place on the initiative ladder you go. There are no circular rounds. Taking faster actions means you get to do more in a combat than taking slower actions.

The Combat chapter offers a good number of clarifications that bring the game closer to that simplified 1E feel I'd noticed before. All in all, I like the clarifications. The concept that a critical fumble gives all enemies within melee attack range a free attack against you is cool, and one that I will probably introduce into my games. Another interesting twist I noticed was that, with no Rogue class in the game, there's a rule that basically gives everyone the ability to backstab. As I said, there's some neat stuff there.

A two page section on Playing the Game introduces rules to let characters make listening checks to hear noises, detect traps and secret doors, and heal others a little (1d3) after combat by bandaging them up, as well as clarifying the power of wishes.

Monsters is our next stop. At nine pages and over twenty monsters, there's some neat new stuff in here, included a lower HD minotaur species that could have been a character race, dragons of Onn, some new elemental types, forged ones and mek stats, and even a Shifter Cat that resembles a certain miniature I have of a panther-like creature with tentacles popping out of its shoulders. I definitely liked seeing that in the list.

Twenty-two pages of treasure really help to integrate the new spells, classes and races into a World of Onn game. I liked flipping through this part and reading some of the new things I found within this section. The Elemental Armor is pretty cool, as are the Elemental Weapons, and some of the new miscellaneous items. I'm going to have a lot of fun raiding this section.

After magic, we finally get to see a two-page hex map of the World of Onn on pp. 120-121, and we're off into the world of Onn. The history section is a page and a half, and then there's half a page on altering Onn to make it your own game. There are both steampunk meks and black powder weapons by default in the Onn setting, but the Referee is encouraged to make changes if they feel the need. Six pages cover the list of lands, which are short and succinct but very well written, with lots of adventure ideas in them. (Of course, there's the ubiquitous Great Kingdom among the entries, probably a tribute to the old kingdom of the same name shared by both Greyhawk and Blackmoor back in the day.)

The Appendices of WO:Sup1 are interesting and varied. There's a one-page synopsis of the deities of the World of Onn, followed by a one-page appendix on golemcraft. After that, we spend two pages on rules for enchanting magic items, and three pages on familiars. Finally, there are three pages on strongholds and followers, including a table for each major class in regards to the type of followers a character of that class might attract, at least in terms of numbers and levels.

Whew, that's a lot to pack into one book!

My Thoughts
All in all, I really like the flavor of this book. If I weren't writing my own S&W variant, I'd be using this book for my next D&D-based game. There's a lot of good meat in there, and it's very well integrated with itself. I definitely consider it a quality effort. As it is, I know I'm going to be raiding it for a few things here and there.

It does have a few downfalls, but these are minor. The art, as I've mentioned, does have an amateurish quality to it. I like it, but there are some that might not. While I like a lot of what's in the supplement, I don't like some of the things: I think the Continuous Initiative Cycle is an interesting idea, but I don't want to use it in my game. It just doesn't appeal to me. Also, I don't like mechs and such in my fantasy. That's one of the reasons I didn't get into Eberron back in the day. I don't mind black powder weapons, though.

There may be those that may feel that twenty pages or so out of 146 is too little for a world setting. I like the way it was handled, but I think I would have enjoyed more information regarding the setting. I thought I was getting a bit more of that when I picked out the book. Still, that being said, I really like what I got, so I'm still glad I picked this one up.

All in all, I'd have to rate this product as an 8 out of 10.

Now that you've heard what I have to say, what do you think of the book? Please feel free to leave a comment and let me know, and if you liked the review, I'd appreciate hearing your thoughts on that, too.

With Regards,

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Two New Items Came In The Mail...

Good Evening, All:

This is just a quick note to mention that two items I ordered from Lulu just came in tonight's mail, both related to the OSR: World of Onn, Supplement I by Jim Bobb of Fantasy Adventure Studios, and Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls by Michael Curtis of Three-Headed Monster and the The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope blog. I will hopefully be posting a review of both products in the near future.

More Later,