Sunday, April 21, 2019

Top 5 Desert Island RPGs

This is in response to DravenSwiftbow’s recent video of his Top 5 Desert Island RPGs. Dave gave a good, solid list which emphasized diversity of genre and system over depth within any one game. He picked self-contained core rulebooks (and one box set) which makes sense. He ended the video asking for people to give their own lists of whatever number or classifications in the comments. Because I’m a wordy dum-dum, I decided to write a short blog about it rather than dump a huge block of text in Dave’s comments.

There are too many ways to do this I’m going to multiple lists. First, I’ll try Dave’s idea of multiple genres. I’m not a big sci-fi fan, but Warriors of the Red Planet would give me exactly what I want from that genre in one slim little volume. For horror, I’d pick the sixth edition of Call of Cthulhu because it’s in one volume (and it's the one I own) and benefits from the advancements made over several editions while still hewing closely to the original vibe. For something more exotic, Empire of the Petal Throne is perfect for its complete world that's intriguing and mysterious. (I just realized that Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa falls at an intersection of all three of these games.) For something to fill the D&D slot, I’ll pick the Holmes Basic box set – either the first printing with the geomorphs and the monster & treasure assortment, or the next one with B1. It may only go up to level 3, but you would be free to extrapolate the rest as you saw fit, and in terms of a ruleset that really totemically gets to the core of the D&D vibe, it’s hard to beat. I’m not really big into superhero games or cyberpunk, so I don’t really have a fifth pick. I guess I’ll choose MERP for nostalgic reasons.

Another way to look at this is to pick setting books, modules, and toolkits instead of an actual game system. Once you’ve played TTRPGs for long enough, it’s easy enough to pick a core mechanic and make up your own system. Many of us can play D&D without the rulebooks by now, so perhaps the best bet would be to bring something with lots of random tables to help generate an infinite amount of adventure. The danger with just picking modules is that it’s an endless trap. Picking five modules to run forever is pretty limited, no matter how sandbox-y they are. There are about five really good megadungeons out there which would keep you busy until the end of time, but it would get a little same-y after a while. Campaign settings can be really good and open (various 2e AD&D, Dolmenwood, and Midderlands), but their specificity doesn't always give you the latitudes you might like.

As far as toolkits go, books like Veins of the Earth can give you procedures to build your own campaign world, but you need to choose them wisely to give you a breadth of settings. You could choose something like the Fight On! compendium of Vol. 1-4, John’s Stater’s NOD or Hex Crawl Chronicles, or James V. West’s Black Pudding collection which are all filled with great ideas. The Judges Guild really perfected this kind of variable setting supplements with their Ready Ref Sheets, City State of the Invincible Overlord, Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Dave Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign, and any of their early modules (Tegel Manor, Caverns of Thracia, Dark Tower, or Citadel of Fire). You could do a lot worse than just picking five things from the early JG stuff.

In terms of something self-contained, any of the OSR retroclones would really do the trick. Basic Fantasy, Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, Delving Deeper, OSRIC, DCC, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Blueholme, and many others give you everything you need in one book. In all honesty, one of these games is all I would need. Whatever you wanted to change you could house rule into your own system and in a lot of cases the clones are easier to run than the original games because of some of their modern innovations. However, these kinds of desert island questions aren’t just about practical usefulness. It’s about inspiration too, and that doesn’t always match what’s pragmatic. Sometimes it’s about what brings you joy, even if that comes from a place of nostalgia and sentimental attachment.

To speak to that, although it would be nice to have a breadth of systems or genres, in the end, I really just want to play some form of D&D. It’s my first love in this hobby and what I’d choose over anything else. If I was going to Frankenstein a nice feel-good collection of five D&D products, I suppose I would pick the Moldvay Basic set (with B2 Keep on the Borderlands), the Cook/Marsh Expert set (with X1 Isle of Dread), the 1e AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide by Gary Gygax, the 1e AD&D Monster Manual, and the original edition’s Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes (the original, unedited version, not the incomplete WotC resissue). Even though these five span three different editions of the game (0e, 1e, and B/X), this is D&D to me. I’m one of those people who feel all TTRPGs in some way are just house-ruled versions of the original (this drives people nuts, sorry).

In that spirit, maybe the best choice of all would be the original game and its four supplements: the white box (with the 3 LBBs), Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, and Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes. You can extrapolate everything from these five, and in fact, we as gamers have over the last 40-some years. What are yours?

Saturday, April 20, 2019

10 Monster Setting – Fiend Folio

Shane Ward of 3 Toadstools Publishing posted a cool idea on MeWe and his blog about taking your favorite bestiary off the shelf, choosing 10 monsters, and designing a setting around it. I’m someone who generally feels most fantasy RPGs are overstuffed and under-curated. The idea that a fantastic realm would support the vast array of humanoids used in many campaigns (goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, orcs, gnolls, bugbears, lizard men, etc.) in addition to the nations of mankind has always stretched my credulity.

I started by selecting monsters according to various types: a semi-intelligent humanoid, an undead, an ancient fey race, a creature from classical myth, a giant/ogre/troll-type, something aerial, something to jump out of the water, something extraplanar, and some crawling thing underground. It seemed like a sensible way to begin as well as making sure you covered a broad scope of creatures.

What I found was that my self-imposed taxonomy was fairly constrictive when applied to my favorite monster books. Some bestiaries lean more towards some categories than others. This classification also doesn’t necessarily address settings of uniform environmental terrain or weather. Thematically, a selection of monsters for a desert setting or an arctic setting might make more sense than some Noah’s Ark collection.

Anyway, here’s my list. I chose the First Edition Field Folio as my book. It was the first AD&D book I ever got (from Sears!) and the vibe of its artwork and oddness has had its stamp on my gaming ever since. People either love or hate this book. It has a reputation for being filled with silly frivolities no one would use in a game (like Flail Snails and Flumphs). And yet, FF contains some of the most iconic creatures/races in D&D culture: Aarakocra, Tabaxi, and Kenku – all now PC races, I believe; various monsters from the classic G-D-Q modules (Drow, Kuo-Toa, Svirfneblin, Lolth); the Lovecraftian Grell; and the classic extraplanar races of the Githyanki and Githzerai.

I couldn’t quite get the list down to 10. I cheated a bit by picking two for one category (the underground critters are little), and a broad grouping of monsters for two others. I left a bunch of good ones behind, including some of the more iconic ones to help it feel more original. Still, it was hard not to include the Giant Troll and the Mountain Giant, both of which I think I like better than their more standard counterparts. I’ve put the categorical list below, but first, let’s look at the setting, a Dark Ages analogue of the lands around the Black and Caspian Seas in the West, stretching to Tibet and Myanmar in the East.

Welcome to Casperovia (meh), a land of isolated city-states and falling kingdoms, separated by mountain passes and deep forests. The common folk are superstitious and hesitant to travel at night. You can hear the Doombats shrieking from their mountain cave eeries at the witching hour, ridden by evil men called Doomriders. Necromancers send out their subhuman Grimlocks from their cavernous pits to raid small villages and bring back innocent victims to defile in terrible rites.

Those few who wander into the underworld may find death in lowly forms of life crawling beneath the ground, like the Volt and the Osquip. Deeper still are the Deep Gnomes, those small fey creatures who left the world of light long ago when mankind awoke, and now dig deep into the dark places singing to the rock of the secrets of old. Lower still lie ancient cities buried in a cataclysmic event, forgotten necropolises filled with Coffer Corpses haunting dead streets having died before their spirits could be put to rest. Now these guard the technological wonders of a bygone age.

The surface world has its own terrors like the lonely Ettercap with his spider hoards hunting the woods spinning web palaces of sticky, dark death. The seas of Casperovia are a dangerous place for the men who sail them, as siren Kelpies lure them into their botanical embrace in the guise of beautiful water nymphs. In the cities, women and children dare not walk the streets at night for fear a Penanggalan will swoop down on them and feast on their flesh. Pregnant women are a particular favorite of the creature, with tales of traitorous midwives revealing their nature filling new mothers with dread.

A new evil, the Slaadi, has entered the land through a doorway deep in the earth, hidden somewhere within the Fire Swamp. Like the Penanggalan, they can change their demonic toad shape and walk among humans as one of their own, with the threat to capture and enslave them. However, all is not lost. Some say the dragons from the East have returned after a long slumber. Perhaps these wyrms of old may put their past enmities with humans aside to banish the extraterrestrial frogs.

Semi-Intelligent Humanoid – Grimlocks
Undead – Coffer Corpse
Ancient race/Fey – Svirfneblin (Deep Gnomes)
Classic Myth (Southeast Asia) – Penanggalan
Giant/Ogre/Troll – Ettercap (giant-sized)
Crawly Underground Dweller – Volt and Osquip
Aerial – Doombat
Water-based – Kelpie
Extraplanar – Slaadi
Lizard/Wyrm – Dragons, Oriental

Sunday, April 14, 2019

New Games and Campaigns

Today's post is really just a way for me to get down in writing what I'd like to focus on in gaming for the rest of the year. My regular Basic Fantasy campaign is winding down. We were going to end it last session, but we needed to cut it short due to time, leaving the PCs halfway through Death Frost Doom. We were supposed to finish it off today, but real life got in the way. In any case, we only have one more session left which means I'll more time to try out a lot more games and put energy into other projects.

First up, I'm working on polishing my notes for the city of Slateholm and submitting it to the Basic Fantasy Workshop. These were all the loose pages of scribbled notes and random tables I used for that portion of my campaign. My players only touched a very small part of it for the couple of sessions they were there and I think there's enough good stuff there to be useful to someone running Morgansfort. My intent with this isn't for these notes and tables to become their own module, but more just in the spirit of sharing what I put together.

Next, I've been slowly working on a draft of an adventure for Basic Fantasy. My idea is pretty large, and I'd like to playtest it before submitting it to the Workshop. At the core is a neat little dungeon idea surrounded by a mini-hex crawl. I think there's a lot of potential for it. I don't think I'll have a draft by the end of the year like I'd hoped, but if I can get the central dungeon written and tested along with the nearby town and surrounds, that will be good.

I'm also chipping away at fleshing out the one-page dungeon I submitted to the One-Page Dungeon Contest last year (I was one of the many runner-up winners). I think I tried to pack too much into the one-page concept and there was a lot of vague details left for the GM to fill in. I was initially going to write this for an OD&D-type system, but tonally it doesn't quite fit (perhaps Swords & Wizardry). There's some body-horror elements that are actually more of a fit for a Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure. I'm less comfortable with those systems, however, so we'll see what I think once it's written. I think if I just pitch it to a Basic-style game, I'll be in the ball park, at least.

Speaking of OD&D, I have a hankering for writing a couple of small scenarios for either or both Iron Falcon and Delving Deeper. S&W is pretty well-supported with adventures, but IF and DD each have their own flavor of the early game which I think is worth supporting. All of these adventures will need to be played through too, so I plan my gaming for the next several months to be running various versions of OD&D.

A side benefit to running all this 0e will be that it will help me to really figure out what I like or don't like for my own 0e system I'm putting together. I know that the last thing the RPG community needs is another OD&D clone, but it's really just a way to put my own house rules together in a format to share with players. I'll probably put it up on Lulu for free digitally and a print version at cost, but the main purpose won't be commercially-driven.

I've also, strangely enough, been looking at 5e. One of my players in my local group wants to run a campaign and I'm curious to get a feel for the system that everyone is playing. I've taken a good look at the free Basic Rules, and while I think there is some good things about it, I'm not quite sold on it. There are some things that I still have hard time with. I'd like to give it a fair shake though.

And because I can't leave well enough alone, I've started putting together, not just one, but two different set of hack rules for 5e based on the SRD. In other words, 5e if I had written it. It's a little bit of an experiment. How much can I take out and still stay true to the rules or the spirit of the rules. Can I make a version of the game I'd want to play, but still use the same engine to be 5e-compatible? It's my way of getting under the hood and learning the system as well.

All this for 2019 and I'd still like to play a little Call of Cthulhu and Empire of the Petal Throne as well. I suppose it's better to be busy than bored.

GM Notes - Morgansfort Session 14 - Death Frost Doom - Part 2 of 2

So, here stands the final chronicle of my two-year Basic Fantasy campaign. It ended a year ago and I'm just now getting around to fini...