A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.

Review: Carcosa Review Reprise

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 28, 2015

Tagged: carcosa lotfp osr mastersofcarcosa

You should do a post … having DMed several sessions, about what you find Carcosa brings to the table and what you’ve done to make it “yours?” — Cole Long

I write reviews for gaming books I never actually use to game, which feels kind of dumb but what can you do? Now with Carcosa I can actually comment on the book with insight from using it to run a D&D campaign.

I’ve ran 7 games of Original D&D game set in Carcosa. The original idea for the game was to mix in elements from Masters of the Universe into the Carcosa settings, but that hasn’t quite happened just yet. I’m really not familiar with most of the literary references that inspired Carcosa, which makes running the game “interesting”.

I wanted my campaign to start in a Lawful settlement. I had catalogued all the settlements in the game as a byproduct of working on my Random Carcosa web application. The highest level Lawful leader in Carcosa is 11th level and can be found in Hex 1011, along with a crazy robot.

Village of 270 Bone Men ruled by “the Swift and Silent Beginning,” a lawful 11th-level Fighter.

The unwary may fall prey to a deranged, spherical robot (AC 18, MV 180′, hp 25) with treads and retractable appendages, nets, self-repair, infrared, and long-distance vision. It will seek to abduct stragglers and take them to a small, hidden outpost to be shackled in close proximity to radioactive waste. Each hour spent thus requires a successful saving throw to avoid mutation.

I printed out some hex graph paper and drew the region around this hex, marking down the settlements and their allegiances to the battle between Law and Chaos. The official Carcosa map in the book is missing this information, which would have made it about a million times handier. Zak Smith drew in his Carcosa book, but I just can’t bring myself to do that.

There are slavers nearby in Hex [REDACTED] terrorizing the region, and so I made them the main threat in the game. I decided the town of Invak would offer refuge to former slaves. This would explain why a party of PCs would likely include people from the various races of Carcosa. Chaotic villages close to the slavers were likely to supporters, as were Neutral villages nearby. Villages closer to Invak would be against slaving. Invak would be a bastion of egalitarian and progressive thought, in another wise terrible world. The town to the South of Invak became a trading hub, liking Invak with a few other towns near by. In this way I fleshed out the relationships between the various villages in the area.

I answered Jeff Rient’s 20 Quick Questions about your Campaign, which helped me think more about what my game would be like. From an older blog post about Carcosa I knew “the Icon of Judgment” was the strongest sorcerer in the world. I made some rough notes about what his deal might be, but thus far it hasn’t really come up in play: mostly because I haven’t brought him up at all. The castle of Chaotic Orange Men North of Invak became a crazy cult running bizarre gladiatorial games.

I drew a map of the hidden outpost. It seemed like a good dungeon to begin the game with. Players would start shackled in the radioactive wastes. I introduced a small group of Bone Men, who were hiding out inside this outpost. They had imprisoned one of their members for [REDACTED]. The robot would only be ‘active’ at night, and would only travel through the wilderness, so the players wouldn’t have to worry about it unless they specifically tried to instigate a fight with it. There were also lasers, spawn, and other things that felt like Carcosa.

This was enough to start playing. I ran a session with Gus and Eric, two of the regular players from my Monday night D&D group, and things continued from there. I am constantly underprepared for each session we play, but things usually work out—for the most part.

Eero Tuovinen has done an amazing job with the layout of Carcosa. Carcosa is a well laid out book that works well at the table. I flip through it often looking up monsters, hex descriptions, and the like. Most everything is easy to find, and more importantly easy to read. McKinney has a very terse and direct way of writing that I like. He manages to be evocative without wasting too many words—usually.

In terms of helping you build a campaign, Carcosa brings barely any information to the table. The book succeeds in selling the idea of Carcosa, without really telling you that much about it. Are all the races identical besides their colour? Do they all share the exact same culture? Are their multiple languages in the world? What are the towns and villages like? What do people eat? What’s a GP in Carcosa? There are so many questions about the world that are unanswered. Explicit relationships between hexes are few and far between. This encourages the sort of brainstorming I did to get things going, but is also one of the big criticisms of the book: it all feels so random. I would have loved for some discussion from McKinney on how he explicitly organized and ran his game.

The big win for Carcosa is that I never feel like i’m doing it wrong. I never have to look something up so-and-so important NPC, or double check the date such-and-such event took place. Carcosa is a loose framework for building your own Carcosa. I’m not sure I have done that great a job of build my own Carcosa, but i’m hoping that I am not too far off.

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Review: Night Witches

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 27, 2015

Tagged: storygames apocalypseworld nightwitches

Night Witches was released to the public a few days ago. The game was produced as the result of a successful Kickstarter—like most games nowadays—and has seemingly been in the works for years now. The game caught my eye because it features artwork by Rich Longmore, the illustrator of Carcosa. $12 for a PDF of new Rich Longmore art feels like a steal. The fact there was a whole game that came with it was a nice bonus. And so it came to pass I bought my first story game.

Night Witches is a game with a very specific focus. Everyone plays Russian fighter pilots from the all women 588th Night Bomber Regiment, who the Nazis referred to as the Night Witches. I play in several D&D campaigns right now and they are all over the map when it comes to setting and tone. House rules might differentiate the games slightly, but for the most part we are all playing D&D. People in the D&D scene will add or drop rules to shift the focus of D&D slightly. Someone into dungeon crawls will focus on light and encumbrance rules. Someone interested in horror might introduce sanity rules. These sorts of tweaks seem minor when you look at a game like Night Witches. The whole game exists to support this very niche experience.

The game play in Night Witches is fairly straight forward. Play is split into two phases: days and nights. During the day you role play the action that happens on the airbase. At night you fly bombing missions and try to kill nazis. Night Witches is based upon the rules for Apocalypse World. Action is free-form until you do something that would require you making a Move. These are the pivot points in the game. Moves are specific: you eyeball someone or act out. There are a handful of moves each character can perform. The analog to characters classes in D&D are natures in Night Witches: someone has the temperament of a hawk, or an owl. Natures grant additional moves characters can learn as they level up. In this way the game feels similar to 4th Edition, with its discrete list of powers. I’m curious if this feels as stifling as I found it with 4th edition. Are players who are good at eyeballing going to constantly try and give everyone cut eye to get their way? (Maybe I just played 4e with goofy players.)

Night Witches seems to be first and foremost about collaborative story telling. At least, this is what it seems like coming to the game from D&D. I’m curious if all the bonuses you collect and moves you have are in fact far “gamier” than they sound on paper. There is probably a tactical element to succeeding in your air missions that is more evident in play. (Not that i’m particularly interested in that sort of thing. I like playing OD&D because there are barely any rules.)

In Night Witches characters each have 4hp (marks), and when you use them all up you are dead. The way this works sounds similar to the Grind in a Torchbearer. You get progressively more stressed and injured, culminating in your passing. Character death looks to be the likely outcome for most characters in a long running campaign. My assumptions about story games were that this sort of thing was uncommon. (In contrast to the meat-grinder D&D games I have become used to.)

There’s a lot to like about the rule book. The book is well laid out, both in terms of how it looks and how it functions. It opens with advice on where you should start reading, based on your experience with table top games and Apocalypse World games. The start of the book has all the player facing rules. The middle of the book has the rules the GM would need to run a game. There is advice on running your first session, how to teach people the game, etc. Most of the rules for the game fit on the character sheet. (Again, something that was common in 4th Edition, and apparently how all the Apocalypse World inspired games work.) I suspect it’d be easy to use the book during play.

The new artwork by Rich Longmore is fantastic. I have no regrets about picking up this book. My only gripe is that there isn’t more Longmore art. The other artist featured in this book is Claudia Cangini, who did head shot style comic portraits of women from the 588th Night Bomber Regiment.

I still haven’t played Night Witches. I’m not sure when i’ll get the chance. Hopefully sooner rather than later: it seems neat and it’s certainly different.

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Dwimmermount's Room Descriptions

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 15, 2015

Tagged: osr od&d dwimmermount

Dwimmermount is a beast of a book: several hundred pages long and packed full of pulpy science-fantasy. The dungeon was developed and written by James Maliszewski of Grognardia fame, but edited and published by Tavis Alison and Alexander Macris from Autarch. Dungeon of Signs has a thorough review well worth reading. I agree with much of what Gus has to say about the book.

The dungeons development was chronicled on Grognardia. James wrote about the problems involved in turning his dungeon into a book:

Translating sparsely worded notes into something that not only makes sense to others but is thoroughly usable by them is harder than it looks, particularly when one has, as I have, come to appreciate firsthand the benefits of sparseness. Having run many levels of Dwimmermount numerous times with groups of different gamers has taught me to find liberation in a certain degree of vagueness, as it gives me flexibility to tailor the dungeon to whoever is currently sitting at the table with me.

There was clearly a disconnect between James and Autarch when it comes to the level of detail expected of a D&D module. The introduction to Dwimmermount touches on this. Autarch finished the book, and so had the final say when it came to the descriptions of the rooms in the dungeon. They are often quite long. Many people seem quite happy with this outcome. I find the level of detail a bit overwhelming. Often times rooms describe things that really don’t need to be spelled out. I prefer terser descriptions: it’s easier to parse out what’s important.

Level 3B begins as follows in the printed version of the book:

In the south-west corner of this room is a tall fountain constructed of white alabaster. The fountain’s surface is decorated with arcane symbols, while the fountain’s basin is visibly discolored, being darker, almost blackish, in places. Covering the basin is a vitreum canopy.

At present, the fountain is not working. If the Power Generator (Room 10) is turned on, the fountain can be activated from the Control Room (Room 3). If activated, the fountain begins to circulate azoth. The vitreum canopy covering the fountain protects spectators from being splashed by the toxic quintessence, but equally prevents them from gathering it. The hemisphere is immune to damage from weapons and similar physical attacks, but if it takes more than 50 points of damage from spells or magical effects, the material will shatter and allow direct access to the fountain itself. 7 gallons of azoth can then be collected per minute, up to a maximum of 1,200 gallons, although this can only be safely done by a character in an environment suit. See Appendix F, Azoth (p. 379), for more details on the properties of azoth.

The areonite pipes that feed the fountain are too small for humanoid creatures to traverse, and highly toxic besides. If the characters somehow get into the azoth pipes themselves (e.g. by diminution), see Chapter 6, Overview of the Dungeon, p. 77, for details on where they might travel.

The room is currently occupied by four throghrin, who guard the steps from Rukruk’s Throne Room (Room 34) on The Reliquary (Level 2B) from interlopers on this level.

Throghrin (4) [AL C, MV 120’ (40’), AC 6, HD 3, HP 13, 12 (×2), 10, #AT 1, DG 1d8 (battle axes), SV F3, ML 10]

The throghrin keep a chest containing 3,000 sp near the steps. If hard-pressed by attackers from this level, the throghrin will abandon this treasure and retreat upstairs, hoping the chest will distract intruders long enough for them to gather reinforcements.

That’s pretty meaty. Who is going to get through that sitting at a table? This is one of my big complaints with a lot of the Goodman Games modules as well. A lot of room descriptions are interesting, but also far too long. Actually, this is probably a fair complaint of most modules published today.

James’ draft of this room for the book is a bit shorter, but hits a lot of the same notes.

In one corner of this room is a strange fountain made of whitish stone and decorated with arcane symbols and covered with a glass-like material. The fountain’s basin is visibly discolored, being darker, almost blackish, in places. At present, the fountain is not working. The controls to activate it can be found in Room 3. If activated, the fountain begins to circulate azoth. The material covering the fountain is immune to damage from weapons and similar physical attacks. However, if it takes more than 50 points of damage from spells or magical effects (wands, etc.), the material will shatter and allow direct access to the fountain itself.

The room is currently occupied by four throghrin, sent down by the hobgoblin king on Level 2B.

Throghrin (4) [AL C, MV 120’ (40’), AC 6. HD 3, HP 13, 12 (x2), 10, #AT 1, DG 1d8, SV F3, ML 10]

The throghrin have a chest containing 3000 sp that they guarded zealously.

He doesn’t spend time talking about gallons of Azoth, or go into too much detail about the what needs to happen to re-activate the well. Both descriptions suffer from burying the lede: they discuss the monsters currently occupying the room after talking about an inert well and how one might go about reactivating it. What’s more important the moment a player walks into this room? This seems like the sort of thing that should come up while editing a book. (I guess the stat block stands out regardless of where it is in the description.)

From seeing James’ rough play notes for other levels of this dungeon, and seeing how he has run games in person, my educated guess for what the original room description was is the following:

dry well, 4 throghrin

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Review: Wonder & Wickedness

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 11, 2015

Tagged: osr od&d

Wonder and Wickedness Cover

Wonder & Wickedness was released at the end of 2014, within a week of Zak releasing A Red and Pleasant Land and James publishing his new zine The Excellent Travelling Volume. December was an action packed month for gaming. I had been following along on Brendan’s blog as he published early versions of his “Spells Without Levels”, and read an early draft of what would ultimately become Wonder & Wickedness. What was finally published is much grander in its scope and vision.

Wonder & Wickedness re-imagines magic for Dungeons and Dragons (and its ilk). The primary conceit of the whole supplement is that spells are not subdivided into levels of progressively more powerful spells. Spells are broken down into schools of magic, arguably a more evocative arrangement. Each spell is designed to be used from first level onwards. They either scale in power, or posses a utility that goes beyond hit points. We have 7 schools of magic—Diabolism, Elementalism, Necromancy, Psychomancy, Spiritualism, Translocation, and Vivimancy—each with 8 spells, for 56 spells total. The book begins with the original magic spells from OD&D’s Men & Magic booklet as its primary influence, and recreates them in novel ways. This initial list of spells is then expanded upon so that each school of magic has an equal number of spells.

For some spells, their original inspiration is clearly visible, though I find the re-writes more fantastic. In Men & Magic we have Read Languages:

The means by which directions and the like are read, particularly on treasure maps.

This becomes Comprehension in Wonder & Wickedness:

The meaning of obscured or indecipherable communications is laid bare. This spell may be used to understand the words of any language or read the true intent of a cyphered missive. Even spirit or animal speech, such as the groaning of clouds or the howling of wolves, may sometimes disclose their secrets.

The reworking of Light, which becomes the Diabolism spell Gleam, is great. Ones natural inclination is to assume Light would be some sort of holy spell, not the result of demon worship.

Conjure a hovering magical spirit of radiance that does not shed heat, does not require air, and is not doused by water. A gleam per level may be summoned and the illumination of each is similar to torchlight.

Gleams may be directed to bedevil enemies, which will cause temporary blindness if a saving throw is failed as long as the spirit remains engaged.

I find the magic presented in Wonder & Wickedness is flavourful in a way much of the magic in most editions of D&D is not. The edges around each spell are looser than they are in later editions of D&D, in this way staying true to their roots. Spells here aren’t simply cheat codes for various game mechanics. Brendan remarks on his philosophy in designing the spells in the books foreword:

I attempted to be suggestive rather than comprehensive. This is in the spirit of the original game, and means that the text cannot foresee every possible outcome. The Referee will be required to make rulings. Can poltergeists be damaged by magic? How are they permanently banished? I prefer to think of the spells here as a point of departure, not a voice of authority.

Following the spell descriptions are magical catastrophes. Each school has 12 corresponding catastrophes, giving us 84 catastrophes total. These are all over the place when it comes to their effects and severity. They are one of my favourite parts of the book.

Several lesser air elementals are imprisoned within the sorcerer’s body. Each time the sorcerer casts another spell, one is released and must be dealt with (standard reaction procedure applies, and there is a 1 in 6 chance that any such elemental released will be the last). These elementals may steal any words the sorcerer attempts to speak, and the sorcerer will naturally float atop water as long as any such elementals are contained.

I was hard pressed to pick an example catastrophe. There isn’t any one that serves as a good example of what the others are like. They are each quite unique.

The book ends with a listing of 50 magic items. Like the spells presented earlier in the book, these magic items are far more interesting than what you find in a typical D&D book. There is an implied world suggested by these items, and the spells, that is lovely and creepy. I won’t spoil any of them by reprinting one here. They all manage to convey a lot of ‘magic’ without a lot of needless verbiage—something I have noticed in a lot of the magic items I see shared on G+.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the entire book was illustrated by Russ Nicholson. Perhaps i’ve buried the lede by mentioning that here? Anyway, hells yes. His new drawings for the book are straight-up amazing.

The books layout and design is beautiful. The book is A5 in size, with single columns of large text on each page. It’s nice to read on my iPad mini. I’m sure it’ll be twice as nice as a physical book. As noted, most everything in the book is prefixed with a number, making it easy to randomly roll for magic items, spells, or catastrophes as needed.

Wonder & Wickedness was one of my favourite books from 2014—and there were lots of great books in 2014. If I ran a fantasy D&D game i’d definitely use this book as the basis for how spell casting works: it’s better than the original. What!

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Nan's Bag of Sweets

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on February 23, 2015

Tagged: homebrew lotfp

James Raggi recently ran a contest soliciting magic items for the new LotFP Referee book. My entry didn’t make the cut, so you get to enjoy it right now. I think it’s pretty LotFP.


A simple looking leather bag, with drawstrings to hold itself shut. A crude image is burned on to one side of the pouch. Like a Rorschach print, it’s unclear what image the artist had wished to convey. A face, perhaps?

That bag is full of sweets: liquorice and other such things. When opened it is so full the candy almost spills out. The owner of the bag may draw out any number of sweets, fistfuls at a time if they desire. There are always more sweets in the bag. These sweets are unremarkable: tasty, but likely to give you a stomach ache if you eat too many.

Upending the bag will cause all the candy to fall out: one small bags worth. And then the bag is empty, its magic gone.

If anything else is placed in the bag—a tough feat, the bag is bursting after all—the bag looses its magic: when opened next it will be empty.

If someone who does not own the bag attempts to draw candy from it, there is a 50% chance the candy is both tasty and poisoned (save vs. poison or die in d6 turns, bleeding from all orifices during that last turn of life).

The owner of Nan’s Bag of Sweets will feel a supernatural compulsion to offer candy from the bag to any children they encounter, the voice of old Nan echoing in their head. (Save vs. Magic to resist the bags charms.) Children always draw poisoned candy from the bag.

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Desert Lotus Potions, Poultice, Poisons and Powders

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on February 22, 2015

Tagged: carcosa lotfp osr homebrew mastersofcarcosa

Potions and poultices prepared by an experienced hand can temper the addictive and dangerous properties of the desert lotus, producing powerful restoratives. There is always a risk associated with the lotus, but they are perhaps greatly outweighed by the rewards.

d20 Item Description Cost
1 Green Lotus Poultice Restores a dCarcosa of hit points to a wounded character. Takes 1 turn to apply. 1d6 x 50GP
2 Green Lotus Potion Ingesting this potion will restore 2dCarcosa hit points. 1d6 x 100 GP
3 Black Lotus Poison A slower acting variant of the deadly Black Lotus Powder. Those ingesting this poison will die in dCarcosa days if they fail their Save vs. Poison at -6. 1d4 x 1000 GP
4 Jale Lotus Potion This mind expanding potion grants the character d6 psionic wild talents. Each can be used once, over the course of the day, while the drug slowly works its way through the characters system. 2d6 x 200 GP
5 White Lotus Potion Cures those afflicted by the effects of White Lotus Powder 1d10 x 100 GP
6 Blue Lotus Potion Ingesting this potion fills a person with a deep sense of calmness. Characters are immune to all fear effects. This potion is a favourite of Sorcerers who wish to commune with terrifying Old Ones. 1d4 x 100 GP
7 Blue Lotus Poultice Applying this poultice takes one turn, after which a characters skin will feel completely numb. Characters are immune to damage from extreme cold, heat, and acid. This effect lasts 9-12 hours. 1d10 x 100 GP
8 Yellow Lotus Powder The powder distilled from the beautiful Yellow Desert Lotus produces the most horrific waking dreams when inhaled. Characters must make a Save vs. Poison or go completely mad, physically paralyzed, their mind trapped in a terrible nightmare. 1d10 x 100 GP
9 Yellow Lotus Poison This poison is a powerful paralytic, usually applied to the tips of arrows and blades. Characters must make a Save vs. Poison or be unable to move for 1d6 turns. 1d10 x 100 GP
10 Bone Lotus Poultice Applying this poultice takes one turn, and renders the character skin and organs translucent like those of a Bone Man. This effect lasts 9-12 hours. 1d6 x 50 GP
11 Bone Lotus Potion Drinking this translucent potion will render the imbiber gaseous, allowing them to pass through anything that isn’t air-tight, and making them impervious to most attacks. 1d10 x 100 GP
12 Purple Lotus Powder When mixed with other slow burning herbs and smoked this powder acts as a depressant, relaxing the mind and making its user completely open to suggestion for 1-4 hours. 1d6 x 50 GP
13 Orange Lotus Potion Produced using the sweet nectar found within the buds of the Orange Desert Lotus, this potion grants super-human strength to those who drink it. Characters do an additional dice of damage when attacking with melee weapons. This effect lasts dCarcosa turns. 2d4 x 100 GP
14 Ulfire Lotus Poultice Applying this poultice takes one turn, and leaves the characters skin feeling dry and rough. Characters gain an addition +2 to their AC and to their saving throws where applicable. This effect lasts 9-12 hours. 2d6 x 100 GP
15 Ulfire Lotus Potion This potion is a powerful anti-poison, nullifying the effects of any lotus based poison or powder. 1d6 x 100 GP
16 Brown Lotus Poison Typically applied to the tips of arrows, this poison instantly kills those who fail their Save vs. Poison. 1d4 x 500 GP
17 Dolm Lotus Potion The character feels a quickening of their body and mind as this potion takes effect. Characters double their movement rate, and start combat at the top of the initiative order. This effect lasts 1d6 rounds. 1d4 x 500 GP
18 Dolm Lotus Powder When smoked as a powder this lotus produces an unnatural lethargy (and euphoria) in its user. Characters regain dCarcosa hit points, but are unable to do anything besides lay around for 1d6 turns. 1d4 x 50 GP
19 Red Lotus Poultice The restorative power of the rare Red Desert Lotus is without equal. Rubbing this poultice over a dead character’s body will restore them to life, assuming they fail a Save vs. Poison. 2d6 x 1000 GP
20 Red Lotus Potion This potion fills the drinker with supernatural vigour that lasts 9-12 hours. If killed while under the effects of the drug the character will instantly return to life with dCarcosa hit points, as their body absorbs all the red lotus in its system. (This effect can only occur once.) 2d6 x 1000 GP

Each usage of a potion or poultice produced by a desert lotus apothecary has a 1 in 20 chance of producing a great feeling of a addiction in the user. All powders have a 1 in 6 chances of being addictive. Players who are currently addicted to what they have just ingested must take another dose (which grants additional positive effect) or be at a -1 on all rolls for the session. Using a desert lotus product more than once a session increases the chance of addiction by 1, 2, 4, 8, etc.

Apothecaries that work with the desert lotus will generally have a random selection for sale week to week, prices varying based on the availability of flowers.

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Why Are We Together

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on February 14, 2015

Tagged: carcosa lotfp osr homebrew mastersofcarcosa

The default setting for Carcosa is full of xenophobia. I wanted a list of reasons why a group of adventures of various races might be adventuring together. I started writing one, but got stuck fairly quickly. So, I asked my friends to help out. The good entries below were all written by people other than myself. They call that Gygaxian Democracy.

Why are we together?

  1. Awoken from a lotus induced stupor you have fled from a sorcerer. I’m sure they want you back.
  2. Escaped from Slavers! One day you will have your revenge on those bastards—unless they get you first.
  3. Members of a traveling troupe of actors. You know one play, which you tweak based on your audience to play up on the local prejudices.
  4. Members of a janissary regiment, put together by long gone—perhaps?—Alien overlords.
  5. After years of wandering with your herd the symbiotic fronds were yanked out from the backs of your heads. Who knows how many years you lived as root heads.
  6. Returned to Carcosa after being experimented on by the Space Aliens. Hopefully they don’t come looking for you again.
  7. Cultists! (Must share a common alignment.)
  8. Foundlings raised by Lawful spawn hunting illuminati.
  9. The wrong coloured children of an otherwise homogenous village. Did they treat you well?
  10. Refugees who have fled a natural disaster. Famine? War? God damn Aliens with laser guns?
  11. Kidnapped orphans raised deep in the desert by a mad, but kindly, old couple.
  12. Psychically summoned to a crashed space ship. You have no memory of the recent few months.
  13. Members of a diseased community of outcasts. Everyone shares a common (mostly harmless) mutation.
  14. Emerged from a sorcerer’s birthing vats deep within an abandoned complex. (Thousands of other pods full of replacement PCs available as well.)
  15. Once from a religious community, where all members wore body obscuring clothes and lived as equals without colour based caste. After the sorcerer’s troops/raiders/slavers/shaggoths came that dream, and the obscuring robes and windings, have been cast aside.
  16. A bad medicine show went through some villages a while back selling poisonous mutation causing ‘snake squeezings’. The adventurers are relatives of the slain, banded together to hunt down huckster and deliver ‘justice’.
  17. All that remains of the local criminal underworld, driven out by an unspeakably violent new boss or spawn inquisitors.
  18. Each character bears the same tattoo, which causes horror amongst village elders Carcosa wide. (The characters have no memory of when or how tattoo appeared.)
  19. The former retainers of a group of strangely coloured people who spoke a weird language and claimed to be from another world called Dirt (or Earth or something like that). The original adventurers are all dead, but retainers continue to adventure together. Some continue to search for a portal to this world of Dirt, because there are no shoggoths there.
  20. You each have vague memories of a past life as a White Man sorcerer, until you performed some ritual that split you into different facets of your core personality.

In the game I am running now, the players rolled a 3 when starting the campaign. So, they are all members of the acting troupe The Rainbow Connection. Their back story has been far more fun than I had thought it would be.

Thanks to Stuart P, Brendan S, Evan W, Gus L, and David R and everyone else for their ideas and suggestions.

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Stocking a Dungeon

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on January 09, 2015

Tagged: osr d&d diy

I’ve had to start making dungeons for my players to explore. Unsurprisingly, that’s something that comes up with some frequency in a game called Dungeons and Dragons. There is lots of advice on this topic from people much smarter than myself, which I now collect conveniently in one place for your edification as well as mine.

I do things like Patrick Wentmore. I have a little program that spits out what should be in each room using the rules from the Moldvay basic book. I’ll then try and think up what each “monster”, “monster + treasure”, etc might be. I’ll sometimes shuffle things around, or place important monsters or treasure ignoring the suggestions from the random rolls. Oftentimes it is fun trying to figure out how things might fit together, what the unguarded treasure might be, etc.

No doubt there are countless more posts on this topic out there. What do you suggest someone look at for inspiration or ideas?

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Review: A Red and Pleasant Land

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on December 30, 2014

Tagged: lotfp osr zaksmith art

Wife is now fooling around on the tablet I bought so I have email access when traveling. It has the Alice in Wonderland books preloaded on it and she is amazed.

Me, I’m suddenly struck by the idea of putting a young blonde in a blue dress on the cover of an adventure I’d call “Eat Me.” — James Raggi, August 23rd, 2012

A little over two years ago James Raggi mentioned in passing this idea of doing an Alice in Wonderland Adventure. Zak S replied with a phrase that became a bit of a joke on G+: “For a modest advance…” Presumably there was a modest advance, because here we are.

Zak would occasionally share bit and pieces of the book he was working on on his blog: artwork he had finished, or a table or set of rules he had written. I helped play test the module a few times: once with my OD&D group, a couple times with Zak himself, and most recently with Kiel just as the final layout for the book was wrapping up. Zak used a photograph of me as a reference for the Knave of Hearts, after asking for photographs on G+. I have been watching in real time as this book slowly came together. I bring this all up to try and highlight just how much I have been anticipating this book, how completely unrealistic and unfair the expectations I have placed on the final product are, and to suggest that I am perhaps too emotionally invested in this book to review it properly.

Voivodja

A Red and Pleasant Land is a setting book that describes Voivodja, the Land of Unreason. Rather than using the travel guide gazetteer format commonly used for these sorts of things—which, if we are being honest with one another, suck—A Red and Pleasant Land presents its world primarily via elements that are all usable at the gaming table: dungeons, monsters, new rules, and random tables. A Red and Pleasant Land is more about helping a DM build their own version of Voivodja than presenting some canonical version of the place. In this way is reminds me of Carcosa.

A Red and Pleasant Land begins with a brief overview Voivodja. It’s 18 pages long and is probably the only part of the book you’d be expected to read beforehand if you wanted to run things by the seat of your pants. The book starts off with a discussion of what makes this place different than your typical fantasy setting. The history, geography, and culture of Voivodja is examined at a very high level. Mixed in with all of this is advice on how to use the book and run a game in Voivodja: this is something more books should do. Much of this section of the book is adventure hook fodder. (Croquet, a staple of Alice in Wonderland, is presented as an obvious source of adventure: players might play to get an audience with the queen, be hired to track down a obscure wickets, etc.) Voivodja is a strange land where a king and queen have been waging war upon one another for time immemorial. Two other factions have decided to enter this fray, both deciding who to ally themselves with as the adventure begins. The setting is designed to support a game built around the conflict that comes from the players interacting with various NPCs with conflicting goals.

An Alice

To go along with the new setting is a new character class, the Alice. The character is an interesting twist on the Specialist from LotFP. Every time the character gains a level a percentile die is rolled: this may lead to new powers or bonuses inspired by the events in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland rather than simply gaining more skill points or saving throw improvements. The Alice also has the ability to get exasperated. Doing so lets them roll on an exasperation table, which may lead to the sorts of strange events, again clearly inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: a door appearing out of nowhere, something that normally wouldn’t be able to talk suddenly starts talking, etc. I played an Alice during the play test for A Red and Pleasant Land, but didn’t take advantage of this power—i’m boring I suppose.

A look at the new monsters and NPCs of this world is up next. There are 4 factions in Voivodja, led by: the Heart Queen, the Red King, the Pale King, and the Colourless Queen. Beyond your typical stat block, almost all the creatures in this book have relationships or alliances that could lead to adventure and conflict. This also helps present the setting to the players. Most of the monsters in the book are quite interesting. I particularly liked the Guests, which are basically demons. A Red and Pleasant Land features a great random demon generator that you could steal for any fantasy game. There is also a Brown vampire: trés fantastique! There is an illustration for almost every creature presented. Hopefully you know what a horse looks like.

There are two dungeons presented in detail in A Red and Pleasant Land: the Heart Queen’s palace, and the Red King’s castle. They are both fucking bonkers. Of the two I love the Heart Queen’s castle the most. The games I have played exploring that dungeon have been some of the most fun I’ve had playing D&D. I think they are both well executed and interesting: big enough and weird enough to support multiple sessions of play.

The book concludes with some new rules and then some random tables. (Of course it does.) As I mentioned in my last post about A Red and Pleasant Land, Kiel used these tables to generate an adventure for us to play more or less on the spot, without anyone really noticing what was going on. That seems like high praise for this portion of the book. My favourite title in the whole book is found in this section: “Idiotic Voivodja Filibuster Conversation Openers”. There are lots of great tables, many of which would work in other settings. All games need a “where have you been?” table for when a player shows up late or misses a session, and a good “I search the body” table can tell the players a lot about the world they playing in.

Alices

Like Vornheim, A Red and Pleasant Land is as much a book about a particular setting as it is a treatise on how one should go about writing and presenting a setting in general. Zak has clearly approached this problem from the perspective of someone sitting at a gaming table. How much information does the DM need to successfully run a campaign set in this world? How do you best present it all? What things need to be quickly referenced? These are questions that seem to be rarely asked by most authors and publishers, including Wizards of the Coast. This book is worth buying as an example of good graphic design, even if you aren’t interested in Dungeons and Dragons.

The two large dungeons presented in the books are a perfect example of this attention to detail when laying out a page of text. The map of the outer defences of the Red King’s castle, along with the descriptions of the rooms on the map, all fit on a two page spread. Most sections of this palace have cutaways maps along with descriptions that fit on one or two page spreads. Occasionally you will need to flip back a page to see a map, but this hardly feels onerous compared to the typical presentation of dungeons in most modules. Room descriptions are all bullet point rather than long paragraphs, making it easy to quickly figure out what’s going on. There is no superfluous text. This is true throughout the book. Blocks of text that might need to be looked at during a game are usually presented as bulleted lists, while sections of the book that will likely be read before or after a gaming session are often longer and more flowery.

This level of thoughtfulness permeates the whole book. There are next to no tables that don’t fit neatly on a single page, or aren’t part of a tidy two page spread. (The few tables that are too big for a two page spread are clearly marked as spilling over to the next page.) Beyond the dungeons and the rare monster, there is basically nothing in this book that would require you to flip a page to get all the information you need.

The layout of this book is really stunning. Jez Gordan has done an amazing job here. In addition to being so throughly functional the book looks beautiful.

This book is great. The artwork is amazing. The layout is amazing. The content is amazing. The physical book itself is amazing. I’m not sure why I even bothered writing this all up now. When it comes to gaming purchases this is a safe bet. Even if you have no interest in a D&D version of Alice in Wonderland, there is enough creativity here to steal or twist into something else.

Zak Smith made an art book that doubles as a D&D module. If nothing else it’d make a good coffee table book.

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Another Box from Finland

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on December 28, 2014

Tagged: lotfp books kickstarter

LotFP Box from Finland

People, this box! This is the box I have been waiting for. If you could only see my full-body sobs for joy.1 All the way from Finland comes another box of goodies from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Because I have backed so many LotFP Kickstarters I somehow ended up with 4 extra books beyond the 2 I ordered. I will probably write about each in more detail shortly, but I thought I would say a quick word about the books after flicking through them really quick.

As I have mentioned previously, there is no one I am aware of anywhere else in the RPG scene make books as nice as James Raggi, including all the big name publishers: Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, etc. A Red and Pleasant Land has tiny print run compared to the new 5e books, but is comparable in price and is physically a much nicer book. The paper is nice thick and matte, and the binding of the hardback is actually signature stitched. (It’s disappointing how many hardbacks nowadays are essentially casebound books with hard covers.) A Red and Pleasant Land is actually nicer than the Penguin Classics reissue of Alice’s Advneture in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass that I recently purchased—and that book is pretty nice itself! All of the recent LotFP books are produced with a level of care that now seems to be lost in most of the publishing world.

Beyond book fetishism one can also appreciate LotFP books for their art. There is obvious effort put into sourcing good and interesting art. I can’t say I’m always a fan of the choices Raggi makes, but there is never a piece of art in his books that feels phoned in. His books have much nicer covers than most modern fantasy novels, and certainly most RPG books. Of this recent batch of books, I love the cover of No Salvation For Withes the most—the interior art is too gross and terrifying for me sadly.

I love books. It’s refreshing to see there are still people out there who love them as much as me.

Red and Pleasant Land vs. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

  1. Well no, there are no tears, but I am pretty hyped.

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