Ennies voting has come and gone. What are these books even? As is often the case I find their picks lacking—in other words I don’t recognize them. The Ennies are the Teen Choice awards of the RPG scene.
What follows are my favourite books of 2015. To qualify for contention your book must have been purchased by myself in 2015 (and ideally published in that year as well, but I honestly don’t give that many fucks about that). Winners were chosen all by myself, based on my feelings about gaming at this moment in time.1 As you read on you might say to yourself, “Ram: these categories are totally different than last years!” Yeah, they are. If you want consistent award categories the Ennies have you covered.
Yoon-Suin: The Purple Lands takes Vornheim’s approach to world building—copious random tables—to an extreme. Rather than describe Yoon-Suin David McGrogan shows the reader how to create their own version of his world. The setting itself is comprised of several regions, each interesting and unique in their own right. Yoon-Suin could have been 4 or 5 books, but instead it is a single epic tome. The scope and vision of the book is incredible, and is as unique as the world it describes.
(I would be remiss if I didn’t call out Matthew Adams and the wonderful art he has provided for the book. One of the few complaints I have with the work is that there isn’t more art from Adams.)
The Perilous Wilds is Dungeon World crossed with all sorts of OSR inspiration. I love hex crawls and wilderness exploration in my D&D. This book is a nice focused look at the subject, coming at the topic from a completely different direction than i’m used to.
There is a fair bit of Basic / Expert D&D in the tone and feel of the book, and also in how the book has been laid out. B/X was very smart when it comes to presenting information, and was seemingly ignored as a design to copy. Well, people copy the trade dress while missing what actually makes it compelling. Perilous Journey’s isn’t so foolish. Almost everything in the book is a tidy spread. It’s a pleasure to flip through and use. A lot of thought has clearly gone into making it useful in a fast improvisational game.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Book of 2015: Scrap Princess and Patrick Stuart for Fire on the Velvet Horizon
Fire on the Velvet Horizon is unlike any other D&D book I’ve read or seen. It is a monster book without stats, a coffee table book you can use in your D&D game, some sort of new-wave fiction. Stuart’s writing is captivating and thoroughly weird. Each of the pages in the book, produced by hand by Scrap, is a piece of art. There are some stand out examples of her “she’s just scribbling god damn it!” style. Seeing so much of her art in one place, and stuff in colour, it really nice. As I’ve said before, there is nothing else like her artwork.
This book is such a great example of two people following their own artistic vision without letting anyone else get in their way. Fire on the Velvet Horizon has the airs of something art-house, but once you dig in it is clear it was written with an eye to towards the gaming table. The book is thoroughly uncompromising in every way.2
This blog post has been a draft for months now. I knew fairly early on what books I wanted to call out, but it has been agonizing trying to pick one book over another for the big award. That said, in my heart I probably knew who the winners were the moment I read their book. One of the biggest reasons this was a hard choice was that Patrick won an award last year and I was worried these awards were just going to be “Ramanan’s annual blog post where he tells Patrick he’s awesome.” And now the mother fucker wrote Maze of the Blue Medusa so I am already stressed for 2017—pressure is on everyone else. Still, you should win if you are doing good work. Every scene needs their Daniel Day-Lewis. ↩
I want to limit myself to calling out three books a year. Maybe that’s dumb, but I think focus is good. I hope people don’t think my Honourable Mentions are also rans. These are all really stand out books in my mind. ↩
Including how small they were willing to typeset the text. ↩
Paolo sent me a copy of The Cthonic Codex, which I had been meaning to buy a physical copy of for sometime. (I am a fan of pretty handmade books—who isn’t?) I had thought this set described a game in the vein of OD&D, but it is in fact a setting supplement for that iteration of D&D you like the best, describing the strange world of the Hypogea of the Valley of Fire. In The Cthonic Codex world building is done through the descriptions of monsters and spells rather than tedious histories and ethnographic studies. This approach to splat books is of course objectively better.
The first codex is a bestiary full of monsters one may encounter in the Hypogea. The monster descriptions hint at notable figures, events, places, etc, in addition to describing the monster in question. Stats for creatures are given for Paolo’s AFG game, in addition to generic D&D. Creatures are for the most part weird, chimeric, magical sorts of beasts. This booklet hints at things revealed in the subsequent two books. Starting with the bestiary seems backwards, but I think it helps make the initial read through of all the booklets fun.
The second codex is about magic. There is a lot of good stuff in this booklet: new rules for spell casting, making potions, new spells & associated schools of magic, etc. These rules are a nice addition to the game: they give the players reasons to wander the wilderness in search of adventure. (Carcosa’s rituals are similar in that they require players go to this or that hex, or find this or that component, but who wants to cast any of those spells?) There are brief histories about the schools and the world scattered throughout this book. You can picture the sorts of magic users that belong to each of the schools. Like Wonder & Wickedness, I found the spells in this book to be an improvement to those spells presented in traditional D&D. They feel magical rather than “gamey”. You could use this booklet by itself to replace the magic in your D&D game with something a bit more exciting, even if you ignored all the bits and pieces about the game world.
The final codex is my favourite. I suspect it would have the broadest appeal. It’s a hodgepodge of all sorts of stuff, primarily collections of random tables. One of the larger sections is the CHTHONOTRON, which are a collection of tables and rules for generating a large cavernous underworld. This underworld is where adventures in the Hypogea will take place. (I learned while reading this book that hypogea is in fact another way of saying underworld: the more you know!) This Codex is the one that presents the world of the Valley of Fire the clearest, though it is still mostly described via magic items and entries in random adventure tables and the like. The final book shines because it gives the referee and players obvious ways of generating adventure. There are random tables for encounters and events. There’s a table which is subtitled “Exceptional Events and Reasons to Roam.” These are the sorts of things I’d love to see in Carcosa. I think The Cthonic Codex does a better job of being terse, while remaining useful. Carcosa is a bit of a mixed bag in this regard.
There is lots left unsaid in these booklets. As the DM you can decide how you want to use the information within: what’s rumour and gossip, what will be a true fact in your game world. In this way it is similar to Carcosa and other such setting books, with its hands off approach to what is the “official” version of the setting. I like books short and to the point. There is a lot of flavour to The Cthonic Codex, all done without an excessive word count. Commendable.
My biggest gripe with OD&D was not with its rules, writing, or art, but with its cost. The game is now a collectable, and has been for some time. The collectors edition Wizards of the Coast made last year is around $100-$200 depending on where you look.. That’s about $15-$30 per staple bound booklet. (Well, you get a nice box too.) If you want to try and track down the originals you likely can’t find them for that “cheap” unless the books themselves are in a state no collector would want. Original boxed sets are usually several hundred dollars—if you can find one that has survived this long. Forget all that: now you can just print your own!
As I have no doubt mentioned on my blog several times now, OD&D is my favourite edition of D&D. At the time it came out I really can’t imagine using these books to figure out how to play D&D. Lucky for you it’s 2016! It’s easy to back-fill any holes in the rules with rules from the Basic D&D rules produced by Holmes or Moldvay. OD&D is a fun starting point for your own variation of D&D.
As I mentioned in my last post, I ran Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer, the sample adventure in Carcosa, over the weekend. Because I was nervous about running a game at a convention, for strangers, I was perhaps more prepared than usual for this game. Going through the process of prepping for the game has caused me to rethink (some) of the opinions I had on what I want from an adventure, and what I should really be doing when I run a game.
I ran Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer more or less directly from the book. I think this remains one of the key things I want from any adventure. I have some modules where room descriptions are so long I could never hope to find pertinent information in their walls of poorly organized text. In contrast the Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer is neatly laid out, well organized, and terse. I had no trouble quickly parsing out what each room was about while my players were exploring. I’m never going to run anything that requires me to re-write it to use it.
To help speed things up during the game I made a little monster tracker for the dungeon: for each room with a monster I had the monsters stats, and the HP of each monster encountered. I rolled up the number of monsters encountered and the HP ahead of time, for any room where these numbers were random. This is the sort of handout that seems like it should be more common than it is. I can’t imagine when it wouldn’t be useful to a GM.
I also pre-rolled all the random encounters that would happen during the game, and made a similar monster tracker for those. During the game I let players roll a d12 to see which of the pre-generated encounters they hit. (I could have just had them encounter them in sequence, but I also like some surprise at the game table.) This was actually more handy than I thought it would be. Random encounters felt as seamless as expected ones.
The Sorcerer has two apprentices (1st-level Ulfire Sorcerers) who wear chain mail and are armed with swords (and one has a short bow and a quiver of 20 arrows). Neither knows any rituals.
The above is one of the room descriptions from the dungeon. I can read this to myself quickly and not stutter when players walk into the room. Well, until they ask me what else is in here. I don’t think I realized how useful some amount of (interesting) dungeon dressing is till I came across rooms like this while running the adventure. I’m not good at coming up with this sort of thing on the spot. (Or not on the spot, for that matter.) What I ended up describing when I ran the module wasn’t particularly interesting. I think a few extra words about what some of the rooms are like would go a long way to improving this module.
Do these two apprentices like each other? Do they like their master? Are they vain? Are they insane? McKinnon leaves this all up in the air. Like the rest of Carcosa it’s up to you to decide some of the finer details of the adventure. The relationships between everyone in the dungeon isn’t fleshed out. There is a Bone Sorcerer, his two apprentices, and an alchemist all operating within this dungeon, along with a tribe of Deep Ones: what is their deal? Again, a few more words here would again go a long way at the game table.
That said, I do think the approach McKinnon took here is reasonable. There has to be a trade off made when your goal is tweet-sized room descriptions. From reading what’s he has written online, I think he is more interested in providing GMs with skeletons and frameworks for adventure rather than something more richly detailed.
I shudder to think of rules lawyers or canon lawyers playing their tricks with my books. The books are meant for the opposite use, the use of creative and imaginative referees who basically say when reading my books, “Ah, I see what you’re trying to do here. Let me finish all your sentences for you.” I never want to effectively tell a referee to sit down and shut up. — Geoffery McKinnon on ODD74
Still, it does introduce more work for the DM. I made a sheet that listed each NPC and a couple words about them, just so I wouldn’t be ad-libbing when the players encountered someone. This wasn’t much work, and helped flesh out the dungeon a little bit more.
Running a convention game was a good experience, much better than I thought it would be. I had 4 small A5 sheets of paper with some sparse notes, but that was more than enough to help me feel like I was ready for most anything. In my regular game I prep the bare minimum I can get away with and still feel like i’m ready for a game. After running this convention game I can see that just a tiny bit more effort would probably improve my games immensely, and take away a lot of the stress I feel when I run a game.
OSCon 5.5 was a lot of fun. I played in a game in the morning and then ran a game—what!?—in the afternoon. I ended up skipping the evening session, because I was pretty beat after 9-10 hours of gaming. If I was willing to power through into the night I could have play tested Daniel Bishop’s upcoming adventure, which I am quite sure would have been a fun session. There are so many old-school gamers in the city and I often forget they aren’t all on G+ gossiping about games: it’s nice to meet new faces; it’s always nice to play in person.
My first game was with Galen F, who ran The Idea from Space, a Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventure. Galen began our game by informing us we were off on a quest to save a duke, likely located on an island off the Southern tip of South America. We arrived on the island to find the wreckage of his ship. My fellow adventurer suggested we torch the boat, just in case it was filled with monsters, and then fish out any melted gold from the debris. That really set the tone for everything that would follow. We did eventually find the duke—who we killed before we realized he was the duke. We managed to save two of his entourage, who we returned to Spain—where they probably spread the terrible scourge that had afflicted them on the island. The chaotic Elf in our party called it a win, and who am I to disagree. It was fun to play.
I had skimmed through this module when it first came out, but it arrived in a box containing A Red and Pleasant Land, Death Frost Doom, and Tower of the Star Gazer, so it was kind of easy to ignore. I remember at the time thinking it was goofy. I’m sure if I had read and reviewed the adventure at that time I would have said it was dumb and you should skip it. Now having played it I can see my impressions of the module were off: it is kind of goofy, but it in a good way. The adventure features two neat factions for the players to interact with and takes place on a small island that was fun to explore. I really should make more of an effort to review things I’ve actually played or ran myself: otherwise what are you really saying?
My session after lunch went well, I think. I always feel a sense of dread and panic when I run a game, so I prepared far more for this game then I do for my regular bi-weekly game—something I should probably rectify. I had notes for all the creatures, I pre-rolled their HP, I wrote out a couple words for each NPC of note, I pre-rolled all the wandering monster encounters. In hindsight I should have printed out the map and cut it up, because it was a pain in the ass to both describe and draw. Otherwise I felt the work I did beforehand helped things run smoothly.
I ran Fungoid Garden of the Bone Sorcerer using OD&D. The hook for the session was as follows:
Your lords are all dead: a strange people from a strange land. Dirt? Or was it Earth? Whatever the name, their home sounded wonderful. Your natural Carcosan xenophobia has been cast aside for a greater purpose: to escape this wretched world.
In a rocky defile, a cool steady breeze issues from a wide crack in the earth. Within lie the Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer. Why would your former leaders ever want to come here?
The players each had a rumours as to why were they were supposed to be here. Two ended up with rumours about how to find a portal back to Earth (within the Fungoid Garden), while the third received a rumour saying everything about portals is nonsense as the reason they were here was to kill the sorcerer once and for all. After the session one of the players remarked he could imagine the game like an 80s cartoon or procedural: each episode featuring the party finding another possible way back home, but always failing.
My regular Carcosa group played a test run of the adventure, which felt like it lacked some oomph. For a variety of reasons this second play through at the convention felt like it went much better. Because of the route the party took through the dungeon they ended up meeting NPCs and creatures in a useful order. Because I usually play that Bone men are indistinguishable from one another to people outside of their race, Michael Prescot’s character was able to impersonate the eponymous Bone Sorcerer twice—once before they killed him and once after. And yeah, the fact they killed him also seemed like a good way to get closure in an adventure titled Fungoid Garden of the Bone Sorcerer.
The space the convention took place in was quite nice. In previous years it was sometimes hard to play because of all the noise from the other tables. That wasn’t a problem this year thanks to the ample space. Like an idiot I only took a photo when half the tables had packed up for lunch, though.
OSCon is a great successor to OSRCon. Stephen and Boris managed to get a bunch of people out again, numbers back in line with the earlier OSRCons. With the space they had rented i’m sure they were hoping for more, but for their first go at things I thought they did an amazing job. I’m hoping they run the convention again next year. It’s probably far too much work for such a small convention, but i’m glad someone’s taking the time to do it.
At the start of the year I had a goal to buy no more than one RGP book a month. This is less about money and more about actually making sure I have the time to really sit and enjoy the books I buy: it’s easy to collect RPG books for the sake of collecting. Anyway, I didn’t really come close to my goal. (I actually did worse than the previous year I tried this experiment.)
The bulk of what I buy continues to be books from the OSR for use with D&D, but there were a few exceptions. I grabbed Ryuutama’s PDF when it was put up for sale, and then quickly upgraded to a hardcover. The game looks like an SNES manual, and doesn’t remind me of any other RPG I’ve played. I backed The Warren on Kickstarter because I thought Bully Pulpit’s previous game Night Witches was well done. That book arrived at the end of the year and looks to be the game about rabbits I didn’t know I wanted to play. I finally bought Dungeon World, after enjoying Perilous Wilds so much.
There are lots of cool zines and small modules being put out by individuals in the OSR now. A Pernicious Pamphlet and In the Woods are stand out examples of this sort of work. I am hoping to make a zine from bits and pieces of my Carcosa game this coming year.
I only bought one book from Wizards of the Coast. The stuff they put out isn’t really of interest to me. I wish they had an indie-imprint doing more interesting work. Out of the Abyss is an enjoyable read, but it’s also large and cumbersome, and I can’t imagine actually using the book to run a game.
If you were curious what books are in the running for The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming for 2015, here you go:
Beyond the Wall
The Stygian Garden of Abelia Prem
Yoon-Suin: The Purple Lands
The Pale Lady¥
Fire on the Velvet Horizon
A Thousand Dead Babies†
Hark! A Wizard!†
Neoclassical Geek Revival†
Scourge of the Tikbalang†
Trail of Stone and Sorrow†
Gem Prison of Zardax†
Beyond the Wall - Further Afield
A Pernicious Pamphlet
Out of the Abyss
The Hell House Beckons
In the Woods
The Price of Evil
Obscene Serpent Religion
‡ Gifts from authors
¥ Bonus Kickstarter reward
† I won all of Zzarchov’s modules, including the then unreleased Gem Prison of Zardax, which I own as a giant pile of paper
Patrick Stuart’s most recent effort is False Stories, a series of short stories (and fragments of stories). There are twelve in total. If this collection was screening at the Toronto International Film Festival I’d place it in its Wavelengths programme: “Daring, visionary and autonomous voices. Films that expand our notions of cinema.”
An aggressive move, opening with The Possessing Verse. The story is told in the second person—who does that?—and the narration bounces between prose and poetry—or that? At first I thought to myself, “seriously, man?” Once the story gets going it feels like less of an art piece and more straight up enjoyable—and at times quite funny—fiction. The format ends up helping narrate the action in an interesting way. The world hinted at in this little vignette feels straight up D&D in a good way.
The second story, The Isogyre, is excellent: short and to the point. A heist, a betrayal, and then we read of the revenge from beyond the grave. The way magic works in this world is wonderfully creepy.
What follows next is a series of stories about the Snail Knights. A twist on Arthurian tales, instead featuring knights that ride snails. Patrick had posted about the snail knights on his blog, and I remember skimming the post and quickly moving on with my life. I didn’t think i’d like these stories, but then I finished them and am now heart broken because the rest of these stories are incomplete, and because the stories themselves are so sad. They are also lovely and sweet. Illustrated I could imagine this being a really nice children’s book. (Well, at times its quite gruesome, so who knows?) These stories are my favourite in the book, and make the whole anthology worth owning.
The next story is fiction produced out of Patrick’s D&D work. We are told the first of a four party story of how Ghar Zaghoun from Deep Carbon Observatory got his magical bow. This was the first story in his collection whose style never really grew on me. The tale itself is enjoyable, and I enjoyed its conclusion, but I think an editor’s help could make it better. (I’m not sure how, though. Help the author find their voice or something like that, right?)
The rest of False Readings is incomplete unfinished stories. Most of these stories I skimmed or skipped. I think I need to be in the right mood to read and enjoy them. I liked Susjinn, the first story for Thieves in the Empire of Glass, but couldn’t get into the second. The last story in this collection, The Death of the King of Ants could probably be some good doorstop fantasy if Patrick had the time and inclination to finish it.
Patrick writes something I buy it: a man has to have a code. I bought this collection because I like to support the people who put out cool stuff in this scene. Patrick’s posted fiction to his blog that I haven’t bothered reading, because I don’t really read blogs to read fiction. I honestly didn’t expect to enjoy this collection of writing as much as I did. That was a pleasant surprise.
The Perilous Wilds by Jason Lutes is a supplement for Dungeon World that expands upon that games rules for wilderness travel. This is the part of D&D I enjoy the most—it’s the bulk of my Carcosa game—so the book was of interest despite the fact I don’t play Dungeon World. The best RPG books are those that are useful beyond the games they are intended for.
The book borrows from what I would call the Vornheim aesthetic. There are random tables galore. The writing is terse, but evocative. The layout is smart: spreads are assembled with care and thought as to what rules, writing, and images appear together on each set of pages. This sort of attention to detail is rare in RPG books.
The art work is all black and white line art by cartoonist Keny Widjaja. The art is very retro, reminiscent of the sort of art one finds in old Basic D&D and early AD&D modules and rule books. There are lots of small illustrations throughout the book.
The book introduces new rules and mechanics to Dungeon World games for travel, making camp, scouting, etc. These could be moved whole hog into a game of D&D. My plan is to do just that in my Carcosa game. The mechanics of Dungeon World are quite simple: roll a 2d6 and you either succeed, succeed with a complication, or fail and face a tough complication. You could model all reaction rolls in D&D on this formula, I suppose. The rules taken together add a structure to wilderness travel that feels lacking in vanilla D&D, and is apparently glossed over in Dungeon World.
There are rules for using retainers that are interesting, with lots of random tables for helping you quickly roll some up. I am also thinking of using these rules in my D&D games to differentiate PCs from their hired help. Often times retainers in my game end up being extra attacks for the PCs and someone to suck up damage from monsters. The rules here would turn interacting with your retainers into a little bit of a mini-game, I suppose, in the same way wilderness travel becomes its own mini-game.
There are pages upon pages of tables in the book to help you come up with a wilderness encounter. Their are tables for generating settlements, monsters, dungeons, discoveries, etc. I plan to use them in a game I am sharing DM duties with here in Toronto. (In my Carcosa game the results for many of the tables don’t make as much sense.)
An additional supplement produced as part of the Kickstarter that resulted in this book, Freebooters on the Frontier, may get me playing Dungeon World. It looks and feels like OD&D Dungeon World—the characters are more fragile, your choices for classes pared down to the core four, and the goal of the game is straight up looting treasure. It seems like a pretty straightforward game to play: my favourite.
Also pictured in the photograph above is A Book of Beasts, which uses the monster generation rules in The Perilous Wilds to produce a small bestiary. The monsters are neat, but it’s probably more useful as an example of how to best use the tables from The Perilous Wilds.
I have been looking forward to this book since it was first announced. I had pretty high hopes for what would be produced, and i’m quite happy with the results. If you are interested in hex crawls and the like this book is well worth grabbing.
What does that even mean? I’m not sure. There is generally a constant stream of this stuff online, if you go looking for it. I normally don’t, but somehow it still finds me. This annoyed me more than other similar posts, for no particularly good reason. I guess this stuff gets tired after a while.
The OSR isn’t all fat White dudes. I didn’t think that needed to be said, but maybe it does? (Spoilers: it includes at least one skinny Brown dude.)
Anyway, my pro-tip to you all remains the same: stop giving a fuck about the games people play. I promise you, no one else cares. No one.
Update 2015-09-10: I could have written this post about a million different things I’ve seen online since the first one from 2012. In the grand scheme of things the image above barely rates as obnoxious compared to what’s come before. Still, yesterday it annoyed me.