Remember that the purpose of your prep is to give you something interesting to say when the next session starts. Remember that your NPCs are just not that complicated. You’re not holding back for a big reveal. You’re not doling events out like you’re trying to make your Halloween candy last until New Years. All your threats have impulses they should act on and body parts leading them around, so for god sake, have them act!
— Apocalypse World, pg 121, Vincent Baker
I am reading Apocalypse World by Vincent and Meguey Baker, which seems appropriate given the current state of world affairs. Sometimes I find the way it is written annoying, while other times I appreciate its direct and casual manner. On the whole the book is great and the advice scattered throughout can and should be picked up whole hog and used in your most oldest of old school D&D games. Apocalypse World tells you how to run a sandbox game without ever calling it that. The book seems quite revelatory, while managing to not take itself so seriously.
When I was running my Carcosa game I had a lot threats in the wilderness so subtle and so slow moving my players would often not bother investigating to see what was going on, or would get bored of the investigation and move on with their lives. Their biggest enemies were the Jale Slavers, dirt bags who kept on showing up in random encounter rolls, and The Dominant Reflection, an insane Bone Man sorcerer who they had inadvertently set free in the first session, and his cult. These two groups were antagonistic. Trying to deal with them was a clear and obvious goal. After they displaced the The Dominant Reflection the sessions that followed were in an awkward place where they was really only one enemy in play: they were on good terms with most everyone else they interacted with.
In hindsight I should have been far more pushy and straight forward with all the groups I had in play during that game. My Snake-Men from the distant past never once showed up in the game directly because I thought of them as ‘boss monsters’ to be encountered later. The players would see the aftermath of their actions, or stumble upon their army of Carcosan Zombie Men wandering the wilderness, but I never really gave them enough clues to indicate what was going on. Similarly I had a cult North of where the party spent most of their time, but because the party never ventured North after the early sessions this other faction just sort of sat fallow “exploring” a megadungeon the party didn’t care about anyway.
The advice I’ve quoted above seems simple and good. There isn’t much point preparing stuff just to have it sit fallow. Your NPCs Machiavellian plots are probably quite lovely, but I suspect at the table simple and direct action is likely just as much fun to play.
Broodmother SkyFortress: Buying any other adventure is just throwing your money away
Alongside Broodmother Skyfortress, the brains at Lamentations of the Flame Princess also published Blood in the Chocolate. Kiel Chenier did the writing, layout, and maps. The art is by Jason Thompson, notable for his Family Circus style maps of adventurers exploring infamous dungeons. The premise of the adventure is quite simple: you are a group of adventurers tasked with breaking into a mysterious chocolate factory run by a Spanish countess and absconding with details about her operation and samples of her ingredients. The most obvious inspiration for Blood in the Chocolate is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and there are nods to that story throughout the adventure.
If you have read any of Kiel’s other adventures I would say this one is more or less exactly how I would imagine a Kiel LotFP adventure might look like. There is violence and horror and sex, but it all comes off as fun and a little bit goofy. Also there is a hot fat woman.
I helped Kiel play test the adventure several months ago with his regular D&D group. We met up again shortly after the book was released to play the now completed adventure with the Toronto OSR posse (#torontOSR). Both games I played involved some amount of scheming to break into the factory, followed by sneaking about in search of clues for how this countess was producing her chocolate. In the second game a few of us were poisoned (a likely outcome in the factory) and so we spent part of the adventure trying to find a way to cure our compatriots of their creepy affliction. We managed to win over one of the pygmies, who was so enamoured with us he ended up helping us explore the factory and find a possible cure. (There are rules for how to win over the pygmies presented in the adventure.) Both times playing this adventure were a real blast.
Kiel produces well laid out adventures. This book continues that trend. Kiel’s books are great examples of what people should be doing with the works they produce. Like The Hell House Beckons, this adventure features cheat sheets for the rest of the book. The front end papers are basically the one page dungeon version of the adventure. The back end papers feature important random tables, and stats for the monsters you’ll encounter. There is also a handy pygmy tracker you can use to keep track the 150 pygmies the adventures may kill. The book opens with an overview of the module, advice for how to run it as a one-shot versus as part of an ongoing campaign, and an overview of the main villain and her army of pygmies. This makes up roughly half of the book. The second half is the adventure proper. There are cutaways of the map scattered throughout this section. Room descriptions are bulleted lists, and generally strike the balance between being terse, but not too terse. I do have the same gripe about room descriptions as I made in my previous two reviews: occasionally they spill over to subsequent pages. If you aren’t careful you might assume a room description is complete and not flip the page to see there’s more for you to read. That said, this is a small complaint and the layout is really is well done. This book feels designed to be picked up and run straight out of the book.
I like Jason Thompson’s art. The stuff that is going on in the book could be presented in a very graphic and gross manner. Thompson’s works convey it well but manages to do so in a way I think better suits the book. Many of his pictures are gross, but also not so gross. It’s a tricky line to walk and he does a great job. The PDF of the adventure also comes with one his walk through maps, which is, as always, fantastic.
Buy this already. It’s a good book and Kiel needs to eat. LotFP continues to kill it with their recent releases and this is really no exception. If you are bored or annoyed by some of the more avante garde adventures LotFP puts out, this is a nice solid dungeon crawl to win your heart back. Raggi is curating a solid set of adventures.
While 2016 might have been one of the shittier years in recent memory, it was seriously killing it when it came to RPG books. I continue to mostly read books coming out of the OSR. My favourite publisher remains Lamentations of the Flame Princess: they had a stellar year. Maze of the Blue Medusa was finally released and it’s so beautiful it’s unreal. Like last year, I did end up buying some “indie” games: Burning Wheel’s fancy new books], and some interesting looking Apocalypse World games, including the original game itself.
I buy a lot of RPGs, but managed to buy nothing from Wizards of the Coast. I feel like they are leaving money on the table by not catering to a wider variety of tastes with their work. They need an indie imprint.
I buy stuff when stressed and it’s clear I was stressed at the tail end of the year. I ended 2016 with far more books than I had planned to buy. My attempts to limit myself to a book a month has been one of my less successful projects.
Towers Two is the work of David Brokie, completed posthumously by Jobe Bitman (writing) & Jeremy Duncan (art). Brokie is perhaps most famous for being a member of Gwar, the death metal band from outer space. (That the guitarist from Gwar was also a big D&D fan should come as no surprise.) Like Broodmother Skyfortress, this project was also started back in 2012 as part of James Raggi’s (crazy) crowdfunding project of that summer. As someone who helped fund the few adventures that made the cut, this arrived at my doorstep a few months ago. So, about 4 years late. James isn’t good at getting his Kickstarter projects done on time. He is good at getting them done well, though. This module was slated to be a 32 page softcover booklet. I ended up with a 120 page full colour hardcover book. That’s crazy, but seemingly everyone involved in this project was a little bit crazy too.
The first thing you’ll notice as you flip through the book is all the amazing art. Jeremy Duncan’s work in this module is really quite inspired. (I recommend you grab the physical book because I don’t think the PDF does the art justice.) Jeremy’s art is bright, colourful, messy, detailed, crude, psychedelic, cartoonish, gory and intense. It’s in the same vein as the few pieces of art from Brokie that made it into the book, but ratcheted up. (I do love Brokie’s cover: it’s a shame we didn’t get more of his art in colour as well. Don’t do heroin. That’s probably the bigger tragedy here.)
I didn’t think I’d like Towers Two: it sounded kind of cheesy and juvenile. It is in fact both of those things, but it’s also a very well done sandbox adventure. There is no real overarching plot to push the players through, but instead plenty of factions to interact with and a couple obvious villains to harass. Wandering the region around the eponymous Towers Two will likely provide enough excitement for several gaming sessions.
The adventure is aggressively “R” rated. The super villain is an alien creature who controls people by sticking tentacle probes up their butts. Two magic items described in the module are the Death Phallus and the Cunt Whip. There is a “rape table +4”. It’s pretty easy to drop or tweak all of this stuff from the adventure and still have it be coherent, but you should probably know this stuff is there if it’s the sort of thing that will bother you.
I liked the overall structure of the adventure. It opens with a great overview of the whole adventure, describing some background information and detailing all the factions and characters the players may encounter. The information is all presented up front so when you encounter these things later in more detail you already have a sense of what’s up. The adventure is ‘wordier’ than I generally like. Some descriptions of dungeon rooms or wilderness areas are quite long, and at times repetitive. Nothing here is boring, though. It’s all pretty bonkers. I don’t think this module would be quite so easy to run as Broodmother Skyfortress, but it’s far larger in it’s scope. The book concludes with Brokie’s original draft, which is interesting to read as a gaming artifact. Jobe Bitman stayed true to Brokie’s original vision, but a lot of the truly gross or out there ideas came from Jobe not Brokie. I’m not sure if Brokie felt he had to reign his crazy in, while Jobe felt he had to let his out to live up to his idol.
Alex Mayo, who did the layout for Broodmother Skyfortress, also did the layout for Towers Two. This book also does a great job of showcasing the art within. There is art on almost every page, and everything is quite visually interesting. In this book the text is set in a smaller font and split over two columns. In an A5 book I find this sort of layout can feel a bit tight. (It was easy enough to read casually while I wasn’t playing, but perhaps would be trickier to quickly scan in the middle of a game.) I have complaints about room descriptions being split over pages, but on the whole this is a very pretty book. This book is far denser than Broodmother Skyfortress. It feels like there is far more text to read.
Towers Two is a fun book. It’s worth grabbing just for the art. The fact the adventure itself is also really well done is a nice bonus. There is lots of gaming material here, and it’s all really quite unique. It’s interesting how all over the place LotFP can be with their modules. This adventure is nothing like Broodmother Skyfortress, and nothing like Blood in the Chocolate or the Cursed Chateau, which I will write about soon.
The actual adventure takes up the first half or so of the book. It’s about giant shark elephants and their giant shark elephant broodmother that live in a floating skyfortress—hence the name. These monsters are riding through your campaign world fucking shit up. The players will presumably want to stop them: because they are invested in that world, because you’ve hidden some McGuffin in the Skyfortress, or for some other nonsense reason. The actual “adventure” portion of this book is a pretty small subset of the whole book. The Skyfortress is 20 rooms (12 above ground, 8 in tunnels underneath). It’s not a particularly complex dungeon, but there are lots of things for the players to interact with and perhaps use to stop the giants. Stopping the giants will be tricky: the giants are giants. Players will need to get creative to defeat these monsters and save the day.1
The book is written in a conversational tone. As you read the adventure Jeff interjects with words of encouragement, advice, and humour:
There are times in the course of a good role-playing campaign when it is important as a Referee to have one’s crap together. Like, if you spring a riddling sphinx on the players then you need to have some riddles and some solutions ready. But sometimes it is important that a Referee propose a problem to the players with no preconceived idea of the solution. Your players want to get to the Skyfortress. How the heck are they going to do that? Hell if I know. Don’t worry, the players will figure something out.
There’s lots of great advice about running games throughout the whole book. The second half of Broodmother Skyfortress is full of some of the best posts from Jeff’s Game Blog. Taken together the book is probably one of the best getting started guides to running games. (Certainly for running games in an “old-school” style.) Jeff said he took inspiration here from the old basic modules In Search of the Unknown (B1) and Keep on the Borderlands (B2). This module does a far better job than both at teaching a DM how to run a game. It’s advice is far more clear and direct. (We have chapters like, “Yo Jeff! What if I don’t have a campaign?” and a whole section about what you as the DM need to work out before you play, because this adventure should be tailored to your campaign.)
This is one of the bigger LotFP books, clocking in at 160 pages. James published this softcover adventure as a big colour hardcover book—as he is known to do. The layout was done by Alex Mayo. This book feels like a high point for his work.2 Outside of the room descriptions, most of the sections of the book occur in one or two page spreads with matching art. The layout does a great job of showcasing all the excellent Ian Maclean art. There is so much art in this book. In addition to being great to look at, it also helps you orient yourself in the book and find particular sections of the text. The borders are done in this Kirby-esque style that looks great. They are coloured differently between the two portions of the book, making it easy to jump to the advice section. There is lots of love here.
Broodmother Skyfortress is fantastic. It’d make a great gift for any dungeon master, certainly someone just getting started. Everyone involved has done a really great job. This book can hold you over till we get a real LotFP Dungeon Master’s Guide.
There is so little to complain about I will take the time to nitpick. The description for Room 2 requires you to flip a page to read it all, which isn’t the end of the world because it’s clear the description is incomplete: the text on page 67 ends mid-sentence. The description for Room 3 similarly spans multiple pages, but in this case it’s easy to miss the extra information found on the next page: the text on page 68 doesn’t suggest there is anything else to read. Trying to manage stuff like this is one thing that makes laying out a whole book tricky. But, like I was saying, there is very little to complain about here: on the whole this is top shelf work. ↩
I had pitched the D&D campaign as Masters of the Universe crossed with Carcosa. Looking back at it now, i’m not sure that’s what I was ever really running. It was often goofy and light hearted, which I like, but without all the Masters of the Universe overtones I was hoping to inject. What I had been running, in hindsight, was a Western. Perhaps this is coloured by my reading a Blood Meridian, but it feels like the line between post apocalypse science fiction and the Wild West is quite fine. You have lawlessness, violence, and a collapse of societal norms and obligations in both. My players spend their time wandering a dangerous wilderness, visiting towns with their own rules of law. They go on missions escorting caravans, and hunt slavers for bounty.
Because I am so chronically underprepared, I went with XP for gold as the means of gaining levels. Rather than simply giving people XP for killing slavers directly, I gave my players gold in the form of a bounty in their home base. The end result is they travel the wastes cutting off heads to prove they have killed a vile Jale slaver. Gruesome, no doubt, but it’s all sort of abstract in the game. No one really dwells on the fact they are carting around a big bag of heads. After reading McCarthy’s book it feels far more dark and grizzly. It’s easy to project one story on top of the other.
Westerns are one of my favourite genres of film, but they aren’t what I had intended to run. When I pick up my Carcosa game again I need to think harder about what themes and tropes made Masters of the Universe the show it was. Also, I need to run a D&D game again.
The Feywild is called many things by its inhabitants: the Bright, the Truelands, the Everwood, and so on. Only mortal outsiders, and fey who have spent an great deal of time in the mortal world, call it the Feywild. Most fey look at folk who use the word like backwards country bumpkins (imagine calling the ocean the “really big puddle” or a castle the “big stone house”).
For the 100th issue of EN5ider Kiel wrote an adventure set in the Feywild, the fairy kingdom of the Forgotten Realms. Now, that’s not really my bag, but I was curious to see what Kiel could do in a few pages: a fair amount. The adventure opens with a brief background of the Fedwild and the adventure. Thankfully Kiel doesn’t waste page count explaining what a magical fairy kingdom is. (You’re smart, you’ll figure it out.) Instead Kiel answers a series of useful questions that most GMs would probably ask when picking up any adventure: “How does this adventure begin?”, “How did we get here?”, “Who is this important NPC”, etc. This is a solid way to open any adventure, really.
The adventure takes place in Hedgegrove, the topiary hedge maze town ruled by Princess Dandelion. Kiel’s drawn a cool looking map of the site, though I’m not sure how easy it would be to use in play. (If I wrote better reviews I’d have played this adventure and told you how it worked out.) The most interesting part of the adventure comes next, the random tables: Random Fey Trade Requests, Random Shops, Fey Oddity (Mutations), and a Random Encounters table. All of these could be plucked up and placed in any campaign that contained a fairy themed site. The remainder of the adventure is spent describing some quests a party can undertake on behalf of Princess Dandelion in order to escape the Feywild.
Though the PCs’ excuses can sway Dandelion’s temperament, she invariable decides to be lenient with them—provided they can complete a grand collection of quests on her behalf.
Now this is the sort of sentence I don’t think you need to write. With most any adventure, any time you find yourself writing out that what the PC’s do doesn’t particularly matter you should just cross that right out. It’ll probably make the adventure better. That’s some free gaming advice for you! It’s also my only real complaint with this adventure.
It was interesting to see what is clearly a very Kiel adventure in a different context. This adventure is light hearted and whimsical. Kiel’s been writing a lot for EN5ider recently, so if you are playing 5E you might want to check it out. I’m surprised WotC isn’t doing something similar.
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. ↩
Including how small they were willing to typeset the text. ↩
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. ↩
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.