A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.

The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming 2019

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on August 05, 2019

Tagged: osr dnd awards

I used to try and get my awards published before the Ennies announced their winners. I was worried a book I liked winning an Ennie would take away from my also giving that book an award. But then I thought, “the Ennies are really stupid: they should be racing to beat me.”

Just when I think the Ennies are getting their shit together they go and nominate Dirk for best cartography, but not for best art? And then both Troika (Best Game of 2018) and Silent Titans (short-listed for 2019) don’t win anything? Come on! I do see more names I know getting the recognition they deserve, but the Teen Choice Awards of the RPG industry will never truly provide what I am looking for.

The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming continue to be a beacon of shining light in the darkness that is the table-top role playing game scene. The judges have deliberated at length about the merits and artistic achievement of each book, agonizing discussions that run for months on end. No votes or pandering: voting gets you Trump and Brexit.

The books in contention were all bought by myself in 2018, or fulfilled as Kickstarter rewards or pre-orders that year. Basically, if I didn’t have it in 2018 then it’s not on my long list for these awards. That’s basically it. I know what you’re saying: “Ram, 2018 was so fucking long ago.” Look man, I don’t make up the rules. (Actually, what you’re probably wondering is why the 2019 awards are for books I grabbed in 2018. Now that’s a good question.)

Best Game: David Black for the Black Hack 2e

Awards 2019 The Black Hack

David Black’s simple rules for playing D&D, the eponymous Black Hack, felt like a real part of the zeitgeist with its initial release. People have always been hacking up their games of D&D, but now all of a sudden those hacks became This Hack or That Hack. The second edition of the Black Hack takes everything that made the first edition so great and refines it neatly. The game is still clear and concise, but with some refinements that makes the game stand out a bit on its own. The new book is a lovely hardback, with enough tables to keep you gaming for some time. This is the good stuff.

Best Setting Book: Jason Sholtis for Operation Unfathomable (with layout by Jez Gordon)

Awards 2019 Operation Unfathomable

I was, to put it lightly, maximum hyped for the release of Operation Unfathomable. Jason Sholtis would share all his illustrations on G+, presumably as he wrapped them up, and I would +1 those posts so hard. It felt like he was drawing for ages and ages. And then there was a Kickstarter and finally a book. True joy. In many ways this book exists in contrast to the Veins of the Earth (Best Setting of 2018). Both books present the horrors of the Underdark, but Operation Unfathomable has a sort of goofy cartoon charm that I love. There is time travel and laser guns and bug monsters: all the good stuff. That we have two glorious visions of the Mythical Underworld, each bizarre and unique in their execution, is a testament to the creativity within the OSR. Jason’s adventure is a good introduction to what could be a longer jaunt in the underworld. (His players apparently said no thank you to the terrors of the deep, forcing him to develop the next overland adventure he plans to publish.)

The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Books of 2018: Mothership & Dead Planet by Sean McCoy, Donn Stroud, and Fiona Maeve Geist

Awards 2019 Mothership

Technically, these are two different books. I don’t give no fucks. I got both zines at the same time, I read them at the same time, and I fell in love with them at the same time. With Dead Planet and Mothership we are given a sufficiently creepy scenario to freak your players out with, and the rules you’d need to run a sufficiently creepy science-fiction horror game. They are both short zines: an excellent format for games. Both books really stand out because of their graphic design. Sean has said he took his inspiration from magazines rather than books, and I think the approach works well. Mother Ship and Dead Planet are so visually engaging as you flip through them. Dead Planet in particular is a very colourful affair, but that colour is used to great effect. Mothership reminds me of Alien, while Dead Planet reminds me a bit more of that crossed with Warhammer 40,000. What’s not to love?

Honourable Mentions

Lots of love to Trophy by Jesse Ross (found in the Gauntlet Codex Dark 2), The Dolorous Stroke by Emmy Allen, Knave by Men Milton, and Through Ulthans Door by Ben Laurence. Trophy has been slowly growing with each issue of the Gauntlet’s Codex zines, and I’m really curious to see what it becomes.

My love of Warhammer continues unabated, and I would be remiss if I didn’t give Kill Team a shout out. So much of my last year has been spent playing games of Kill Team or building and painting miniatures in preparation for those games. Warhammer has helped keep me sane. Warcry is out right now, so 2019 RPG authors you are once again on notice.

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Review: Kingdom Death

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on April 23, 2019

Tagged: kingdomdeath miniatures boardgames

Kingdom Death

I have a giant farmhouse-style dining table. It came from a café my brother-in-law’s ex-girlfirend ran. It was too big for that space, so they replaced it with a bunch of smaller tables. It’s a really big table … but not big enough for Kingdom Death!

Kingdom Death is a boutique horror board game, most notable for being really expensive. Or for its overly grotesque and elaborate miniatures.

To play the game you need to build four starting survivors, the characters the players will play, and the White Lion, a terrible monster that is trying to kill the players. The game asks a lot from you to get going, but compared to playing Warhammer the ask is quite modest. I built the initial set of minis over the course of a few days after the game arrived. Games Workshop minis look to be engineered and sculpted with an understanding someone is eventually going to have to glue all this plastic together: seams are usually well hidden, there aren’t a billion fiddly bits to fit, most parts fit cleanly and don’t require you to take a knife to them, etc. The same can’t be said of the Kingdom Death minis I’ve built so far. Each has been a bit of a slog. That’s not to say the challenge of building them hasn’t been fun, or that the final products aren’t great. I love the Screaming Antelope, even if I’m going to have to learn how modelling putty works to finish it up. Kingdom Death has a stellar style and artistic vision.

The game is complicated, but not overly complex. The bulk of the game is the showdown, where your characters fight a monster. On your turn you can move your survivor and attack. You roll to hit, draw hit location cards for the monster you’re fighting, roll to wound each location, and repeat the process till the monster is dead or all the characters are. Hit Location cards might have extra rules about what happens if you score a critical hit at that location, or if you fail to wound the monster, etc. Monsters are controlled by an AI deck, cards that explain what they will attempt to do. This deck is also the monster’s hit points. As you wound the monster they lose cards from their AI deck: their tactics will dwindle as the fight progresses. This is really quite ingenious, and probably one of the most compelling parts of the game. A lot of the complexity in Kingdom Death has been moved to the various cards that come with the game. You don’t need to learn a lot of rules, because for the most part everything you need to know is written on a card. The game can have lots of interesting edge cases and rule tweaks throughout because you generally don’t need to flip through a rule book (that much). Using random decks also makes each fight a little unique. The lions you fight will all be a little bit different. (And as they are injured, the way they fight will change in uniquely as well.)

The rule book opens with an excellent tutorial that walks you through the important details of the game and runs you through a typical showdown. They’ve done a great job distilling a reasonably complicated game down to something quite digestible. I met up with Evan and we played through this tutorial game. It was a lot of fun, and we managed to kill the White Lion on our first try, though it cost us one of the survivors. I don’t think it took particularly long for us to get comfortable with the game and its rules.

My cousin Jana joined us just as the fight was wrapping up, and we all played through another aspect of the game, managing your settlement. After the tutorial fight your characters will find a lantern horde and a group of survivors living around it. The foundation for the whole game is this settlement phase. You need to manage your settlement, creating a society that can survive in this dark world. During the settlement phase you’ll learn new skills and craft gear to help you fight more monsters (to earn more resources to build more gear to fight more monsters, etc). This phase doesn’t take particularly long to move through.1 We discussed what gear we should build with the resources we earned in our first fight. Once that was settled we decided we’d hunt another lion.

The last aspect of the game I haven’t discussed is the hunt. Your characters march down a small board towards the monster you are hunting. There are hunt cards on each square that you need to deal with as you move forward. Some cards will push the creature up towards you or away from you, shortening or lengthening the hunt. Each monster has their own hunt cards, and there is a big table of general events you will likely roll on as well. In our game one generic event featured a giant worm bursting from the ground and almost eating us all. We had to each spend a survival point (a resource each survivor has) or our character would die. That’s what the game is like: you can more or less randomly instantly die.

Our second fight with a White Lion actually felt smoother than our first. We had some lucky critical wounds that helped weaken the lion early in the fight. We made it out more or less unscathed. It feels like we’re in a good place to continue our adventure.

The game is played over a series of “lantern years”. In this way the game is more like D&D than a traditional board game. You have characters that can grow and die. Your settlement improves or dwindles over time. There are story events in the game that flesh out the world and add some substance to all the fighting and dying. There is a loose narrative structure to the game and its campaign. There is also all the implied story that comes from all the random elements of the game: the details from your fights, the hunts, and the events that happen in your settlement.

The game is expensive as fuck. I don’t think you can really sugar coat that. It’s the most expensive board game I own, by far. That said, it’s well worth the money if you are into miniatures. The amount of plastic you get is crazy. After seeing how much Games Workshop charges for stuff Kingdom Death starts to feel like a steal. (I am guessing the Phoenix that comes with Kingdom Death would likely be a $100+ miniature if sold by Games Workshop.) Of course, none of that changes the fact the game is expensive as fuck.

Is this a review? It seems obnoxious to recommend people go buy a game famous for both being very expensive and also always out of stock. That said, you should find this game. I suspect if you like the junk I like—D&D, Dark Souls, fun, etc—then you’ll like this game.

Kingdom Death Percival

I wrote most of this review in 2017, and then sat on it because that’s something I do. We finished our campaign at the end of 2018. Of course, we lost. We made it to Lantern Year 11 before the last of our surivors died. Our town was full of murderers, so when the monsters didn’t get us, our fellow survivors would. It was a fun campaign and we learned a lot. I decided to post this review because we just started playing again this past weekend.

The last survivors of Lion’s Fall, Murderess, Hope, and Lucky, set off on a hunt hoping to stumble upon a man … so they can hopefully make some babies. Sadly, that’s not how things worked out. They kill a White Lion cub while out and are set upon by its enraged mother. Murderess is the first to die, dying of shock when when her arms are torn off while simultaneously being decapitated. Lucky suffered an intestinal prolapse and was hamstrung before bleeding. The final survivor, Hope, was disembowelled (3 times!) and suffered a collapsed lung from vicious attacks to her body. With her last breath she speaks some words of bravery for no one to hear.

And that’s Kingdom Death!

— A summary of the last game of our first campaign of Kingdom Death, from a post on Google+ (RIP)

Kingdom Death Game Over

[ed. I fucked up and accidently deleted this post. This is it mostly recovered. One day maybe i’ll fix all the links. God damn it. — Me, July 18th 2019 ]

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Silent Titans - Mystery

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on April 11, 2019

Tagged: osr falsemachine silenttitans

Do you feel like one of your things with your adventures is not really explaining what’s up till the end? And even then maybe not really. — Me!

I have been reading Silent Titans. I am so hyped for the physical book, but I have the PDF right here right now and I’m not made of stone. I love Patrick’s work. He has made some of my favourite RPG books. So, I started reading. I have so much I want to say about this book, so I’ll start with something simple.

Patrick’s books all have this element of the mysterious to them. One thing I found particularly interesting about Deep Carbon Observatory is that it just begins with a bang. There isn’t any attempt to orient the reader with the larger picture. There is no overview of the adventure. There isn’t even an introduction! You are in Carrowmore and everything is shitty. As you read the adventure you learn more about what’s going on. The adventure reveals itself to the reader in a way that mirrors how it reveals itself to the players. The very end of Deep Carbon Observatory has the closet thing you’ll find to an overview of the module.

Silent Titans is very similar. The book’s opening is as dramatic as that of Deep Carbon Observatory. The players and the reader are both dropped right into the action. What the fuck is even happening? If you are the player, you play to find out. If you’re the GM, you read. There isn’t a summary or a quick start guide. There is just this book full of Patrick’s writing. Terse—for a change—but still evocative.

The book moves on to describe a town, what will likely be the PCs home base. Then some different locations and people the PCs might encounter. And then he’s talking about a Titan. I know it’s a Titan because the book is called Silent Titans. But that’s really it. There isn’t some detour to discuss Titans, the history of Titans, nothing. You are now on a Titan and it’s go time.

You must read this book carefully. It’s so terse it feels incredibly dense. So much is packed into each sentence. It’s an engaging read because as the reader you don’t know what’s coming. (And because Patrick writes well, of course.) There is a mystery to everything that’s going on, and just like the players the reader can enjoy discovering that mystery as well.

Patrick manages to make books that are engaging on and off the table.

Is this the best way to make a module? It can’t be, right? I feel like common wisdom is overviews and repeating information and cheat sheets and this and that. This book is so intense and takes real effort to process compared to other modules I’ve bought.

But it’s also intensely creative and interesting. Would the book lose some of that if Patrick had a big flow chart at the front of the book mapping everything out?

Probably.

I like to introduce stuff at the same rate that players find it out. Really that’s all the DM needs to know anyway. — Patrick!

[ed. I fucked up and accidently deleted this post. This is it mostly recovered. One day maybe i’ll fix all the links. God damn it. — Me, July 18th 2019 ]

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Review: Black Hack

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on April 07, 2019

Tagged: blackhack davidblack osr

I bought the Rad Hack in April of 2017.1 Ben Milton posted one of his videos flipping through the book and I was hooked. Karl’s art is killer. The game itself is a hack of another game, The Black Hack by David Black. For reasons I don’t really recall anymore I was thoroughly disinterested in the Black Hack, despite it being everywhere in the OSR at the time. I was probably busy running my Carcosa game and obsessed with OD&D to pay it much attention.

Games like Rad Hack felt like they were coming out every week. Everyone seemed to be making a “Hack”. Just like the early days of the OSR where people were all publishing their own character classes for Basic D&D, you also saw a lot of people publishing new classes for the Black Hack. I asked David what he thought made the game so compelling to the rules hackers out there. There are so many rules lite OSR games, what made this one standout so much? He had two thoughts. First, the rules were short and to the point. The core game was 24 A5 pages long, and these pages are far from dense tracts of text. Second, Bruno Bord converted the game to plain text and put the results of his efforts online as the Black Hack SRD. The barrier for entry when it came to making your own tweaked hack of the game was certainly low. The game feels like a true viral hit.

The Black Hack is on my mind because I helped Kickstart a new edition of the game. You can now get the second edition of The Black Hack as a dope-ass hard cover book, one that marries the simplicity and terseness of the original rules with pages and pages of tables and advice on running an old school fantasy game. A smaller booklet version of the rules still exists, clocking in at 20 pages. So, anyone worried David was going to bloat up his game should relax. This second edition feels like a gentle refinement of the earlier edition of the game. I suspect only the most ardent of Black Hack fans will notice the changes that have been made. (What did he do to armour! That crazy man.)

Black Hack is a mechanically simple game. Players have 6 attributes recognizable from D&D. To accomplish any task you must roll under the appropriate stat. Almost all rolls are done by the player. You roll under your STR to attack with a sword, and you’d probably roll under your DEX to dodge a dragon’s fire breathing, for example. I want to say that’s basically it, because that’s basically it. There are small rules included that make sense for a game designed with the game play of D&D in mind: a simple encumbrance system, rules for exhausting your supplies, etc. It’s all very well done and intuitive.

Compared to the first edition of the game, the second feels rounded out with an eye to helping new players to D&D get oriented. It begins with a page about role playing games and how this game works, followed by an example of play. The rules for the game then follow, those that both players and GMs will care about. A lot of what is often left unsaid in various versions of D&D is made a bit more explicit in this version of the Black Hack. David talks about the structure of the various phases of a D&D game (in the dungeon, exploring the wilderness, being in town, etc) and tries to break that all down into a common structure of play with a common language to describe what the players and dungeon masters are up to.

For old-hands of the OSR the Black Hack feels like it has a lot to offer. The rules are simple and get out of the way. They are easy to hack and tweak as needed. Some bespoke classes and new equipment lists you’ve taken your art-house D&D setting to the next level! The larger hard cover book is also packed to the brim with all sorts of little tables and advice useful when running a D&D game. Poison! Panic & Light! Rival Heroes! Drugs! What’s on the Corpse! Etc! If you can conceive of it coming up in a D&D game it’s likely David has made a page about it in the book. There’s a sample wilderness, dungeon, and tavern, so you likely could get quite far with this book alone.

Something else new with this edition is the inclusion of a small bestiary. Mechanically a monster is some HD and a bullet point or two about how they might attack the characters. It’s funny how small the entries are for these creatures compared to something like the entries from the Second Edition Monster Compediums. Each entry features some random tables that cover what the monster is up to when the party encounters them. (These things aren’t just standing around waiting to fight.) This bestiary isn’t exhaustive, but is likely good enough to get you going. It’s also instructive to see how simple it is to make a monster.

I normally run LotFP when I’m not running OD&D. The Black Hack feels like a nice alternative to both games, being simpler and a bit more of a blank slate than LotFP. I think if I was to pick up my Carcosa game again I’d run it using the Black Hack. (Maybe write up my own Carcosa Hack, borrowing from the Black Hack and the Rad Hack.2)

Hopefully it goes without saying you should buy this game. It’s available as a PDF if your means are modest. You can grab the box, dungeon screen, booklets, folders, and hardcover book from SquareHex. I regret not getting the box. Don’t make the same mistake as me when you’re doing your shopping.

I have lots more to say about this game, but I think i’d like to play it a bit more first.

[ed. I fucked up and accidently deleted this post. This is it mostly recovered. One day maybe i’ll fix all the links. God damn it. — Me, July 18th 2019 ]

  1. I’m sad I can’t link to the G+ post where I talk about picking it up. We are in the darkest timeline now. 

  2. Even the Rad Hack has its own SRD. This community is amazing. 

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Review: Harlem Unbound

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 24, 2019

Tagged: cthulhu coc callofcthulhu harlemunbound chrisspivey breakoutcon breakoutcon2019

I don’t recall exactly how it came up, but someone asked if the character we were talking to was White. They weren’t being weird: it was pertinent information. We were playing a game set in 1920s New York, most of our characters were Black, and we were worried about racism. Chris said something to the effect of, “This is Harlem. It’s the twenties. Almost everyone is Black. I’ll tell you when someone is White.”

People: this is what I am here for.1

I’ve never played a Call of Cthulhu game. Lovecraft’s fiction wasn’t something I grew up on, so those sorts of games were never on my mind. But, I do love a lot of other pulp fiction, jazz music, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and other things that all felt adjacent to the setting of Chris Spivey’s game Harlem Unbound. I also love the idea of a game where everyone goes insane and dies at the end.2 I saw Chris was running a game at Breakout Con and signed right up.

In a strange inversion of my typical reviews I will write about a game I have played, but whose rulebook I haven’t read. So, maybe this is me just telling you about a game I played this one time that was fun.

Harlem Unbound was kickstarted quite successfully in 2017. Chris’s game then spent 2018 winning awards, as far as I can tell. Last Gen Con Chaosium announced they would publish the second edition of the game. Nicely done.

The mechanics of the game were very straightforward. Chris explained them quite quickly before our session got going. Your characters have some percentile attributes, similar to those found in D&D, and some percentile skills. To accomplish tasks you roll under those stats on a d100. If a task is hard, you need to roll under half that stat or skill. There are also advantage/disadvantage mechanics similar to D&D 5e where you roll two Tens dice and pick the best or worst result. All characters have a Luck skill they can use to succeed on rolls in certain situations, but you lose some each time you do so. Finally there is the infamous SAN score for your sanity. When you encounter eldritch horrors you need to roll under your sanity. You’ll take some ‘damage’ to your fragile psyche, which will be a lot or little depending on if you fail or succeed. If you take more than 5 sanity damage at a time, you roll on a special table that tells you what terrible fate befalls you. No one hit 0 sanity—I assume you explode or some such thing. The game we were playing was “pulpier” so our characters had more hit points than your typical Call of Cthulhu character, though we didn’t look to be invincible.

Call of Cthulhu is a game about investigation. There is a mystery the players are trying to solve. In this game we were hired to find out who killed a teenage boy we were all connected to in some way. He was run over by a car in a part of town he shouldn’t have been anywhere near. His sister was a famous singer at a local Harlem nightclub. There were shoot outs, other mysterious deaths, ties to local gangland drama, the mysterious past of our benefactor, and a whole host of other leads that took us around Harlem. As the game progressed we quickly realized things were weirder than they first appeared. The game culminated in the death of the women who had hired us to find her brother’s killer, a few people having nervous break downs, and a terrible spider demon being unleashed on the world. It felt like a very on-brand game of Call of Cthulhu.

A common complaint I have read (and now witnessed) with Call of Cthulhu is that investigation is such a key part of the game, but failing rolls may stymie your progress. The solution here seems to be creating scenarios where there is such a web of relationships between all the action that players will eventually make their way to centre of the mystery, though their route may be quite roundabout. (This actually feels like it may help set up stories that are quite over the top and pulpy: the librarian is also dating the mobster who is also a cultist, etc.) I thought it was fun trying to figure out what was going on. We tracked all our leads on a sheet of paper in the middle of the table, so we wouldn’t forget avenues we might want to explore later. My understanding is in Gumshoe you always are making forward progress: that you can’t “fail” a roll and be blocked in your investigation. I can see the appeal there as well, though the Call of Cthulhu approach does appeal to the OSR part of my brain. Sometimes you just don’t succeed! I liked that there was the occasional dead end.

There are lots of essays about the racism of H.P. Lovecraft. So many that trying to find writing about cosmic horror as an analogy for racism are harder to find. But that writing must exist: it feels so on the nose. Setting a Cthulhu game in 1920s Harlem feels like something someone should have done already. You have gangs, prohibition, jazz bars, and all that excitement. You marry that with the experience of being Black in America at that time3 and I think you have something really compelling.

There is a new edition of Harlem Unbound due soon, and I’ll likely grab it when it comes out. I feel stupid for not backing the Kickstarter at the time, though that was likely the responsible thing to do. The current edition is still available as a PDF, and also includes the rules for running games using the Gumshoe system. If you’re a Call of Cthulhu fan buying this thing feels like a safe bet.

My character in this game of Harlem Unbound was White! Plot twist.

  1. An aspect of Luke Cage that I really liked was just how aggressively Black the whole show was. The only characters who were White were those where there being white was thematically interesting: the corrupt cop and the villain Shades. It was cool to see such an inversion of your typical TV show. Mind you, that first season probably should have been several episodes shorter. I digress. Ironically, in this game I picked the White pre-gen. 

  2. Chris claims this isn’t how all Call of Cthulhu games end. Sure, buddy. 

  3. Well, and now: we didn’t solve racism, people. 

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Review: Zombie World

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 17, 2019

Tagged: pbta magpie zombieworld breakoutcon breakoutcon2019

In the middle of our Zombie World game

Last year Magpie games kickstarted their new Powered by the Apocalypse game Zombie World, a game by Brendan Conway and Mark Diaz Truman. This weekend at Breakout Con I managed to run the game for some friends—new and old. I ran Zombie World twice, both off the books “hallway” games. I mentioned to Mark Diaz Truman I was going to print and play with the PDF (which went out to Kickstarter backers a while ago) and he sent me a demo copy they had on hand.1 I hadn’t a run a game in almost two years, and I’ve never run a PbtA game before. I was nervous!

I didn’t prep for either game, and both games worked fine being played totally off the cuff. The dream! I ended up flipping over the illustrated population cards when I needed to come up with a new NPC. (I’ll try and make an online generator for spitting out zombie world NPCs in the future: that would be handy.) When things were meant to get worse, I would usually sit on the move till I had a good sense of when or where to mess with the players. I am not that familiar with how people normally run these games, what the cadence is for calling for moves versus just letting players accomplish things, etc. I found myself often asking players if they agreed with my choices, or if I was being a dick. Ha. I had fun running both games, and I learned a bit in both.

The first game was set in a prison. I had one player who was always ready to draw from the Bite deck when the need arose.2 So the group’s simple mission to search for food and some supplies turned into a series of unfortunate events that ended with my cousin bitten by a zombie, who later later turned and killed bit another player, leaving a third player to kill them both, while the forth fled away in the darkness. The two surviving players returned to the prison to find it fallen to infighting, which is where we ended things. The flow of the game felt quite natural. The pace of success and failure worked really well.

The second game was set in a hospital. Michael, who played in the first game, reprised his character. We decided he arrived at this hospital with the survivors of the prison. This game started with the group being told there might be a zombie on the loose in the floors of the hospital above them. I escalated things from there because of some failed moves. The characters were quickly on a mission to purge their hospital of zombies. I felt I got a bit more tripped up on who would draw for what in certain situations in this game.3 I hate reading rule books mid game, so just went with what I thought made the most sense, and that worked out well enough. This game ended with the players trying to flee up onto the roof while running from a swarm of zombies—no one died! After the game one of the players, Stephanie, made what felt like a really helpful suggestion that likely would have made the game flow a bit better. She thought I didn’t include enough downtime between the moments of tension or action. This would have given the players more of an opportunity to interact with one another and with the NPCs.4 If I had simply had some of the NPCs in their enclave push back against their plan it might have shifted how the game played out. In this game the players didn’t get a chance to reveal their traumas or past, nor play up their various relationships. The way I was running the games was maybe too close to how I’d have run a D&D game. I should watch some zombie films or replay Last of Us to remember that the real monsters in the zombie genre are other people!

I love the rules and structure of this game. I suspect people will hack it or remix it for other genres. I can imagine someone doing a “Grotty D&D” version, where you replace the bite deck with an ignoble death deck and call it a day.

Character creation was super fast and produced these really interesting people (eg. crotchety priest turned enforcer, a psychotic prize fighter turned xenophobic cult leader). Character creation is quick because you are just dealing out some cards. The slowest part is people talking about the relationships they might have—you deal cards between players to facilitate that. If characters die it’d take seconds to get them back in the game because you wouldn’t do that step again. Death is always on the table in this game, you are fighting zombies after all. I might declare this game to be the most OSR of all the PbtA games. It feels like its in that same headspace, anyway.5

The 2d6 dice rolls of your typical PbtA game are turned into a deck of cards: 6 Misses, 3 Edges, an Opportunity, and a Triumph. (This spread is a bit ‘tougher’ than the 2d6 distribution would yield.) The cards also work well because there are moves (like helping/hindering another player, going on point, foraging, etc) that involve drawing additional cards from that deck. You know how many cards of each type are in the deck, so can think through how helpful or not that will be. Drawing from the deck felt a bit like a ritual. There was a bit of a pause and some tension while people picked their cards and flipped them over for everyone to see.

There is a separate deck for seeing who gets bitten by a zombie. Unlike the “2d6” deck this one isn’t reshuffled. You draw a card and see if you are safe, threats escalate, or you are bitten. Players know there is one bite card. Each player that avoids it is making it more likely for the next player to draw.6 Everyone knows that card is coming, soon. A good source of tension.

I really liked Zombie World. I haven’t run a game in ages, and this felt incredibly easy to run. I took it out of my bag Friday afternoon, we made characters quickly, and just started playing. That it’s all cards really feels like it changes the whole dynamic of the game. This feels like the sort of game you could trick people into playing RPGs with. It sounds like my real copy should arrive in June, which is when I expect the game to go on sale. Keep your eyes open.

This is the hotness.

After our Zombie World game

  1. Love that guy! 

  2. Joe DeSimone! You thought he was just a cartoon head on Twitter, but no, he’s real. 

  3. I probably should have watched the videos on the Kickstarter page

  4. I also realize thinking back that I am trained from running a lot of old-school D&D to often treat all the social interaction as something managed by player skill. (“Yes, you were convincing, the NPC does what you want!”) In this game some of those interactions are also meant to be possible pivot points for the action. I would often have NPCs do what the players say because it sounded like a convincing plan to me. Or players would “open up” or “get in each other’s faces” without having to draw and see how that interaction gets complicated. 

  5. A close contender would be the absolutely amazing The Warren. Perhaps the only thing really holding it back from claiming that title is that it’s a game about rabbits. 

  6. This reminded me of the “trap” card in Kingdom Death monster. 

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Carcosa and Canon

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 05, 2019

Tagged: carcosa

For a little over a year I ran a biweekly OD&D game set in the doomed world of Carcosa. My goal was to play up the more silly and gonzo setting elements of Carcosa: the aliens, mutant dinosaurs, etc. Carcosa was the first setting I encountered that some how managed to communicate what it was all about, while leaving so much up to the individual GM to figure out.

One day I will make a zine for my Carcosa game, and when I do it’ll open with these quotes.

I have always been reticent about answering questions about Carcosa. There is no Single Ideal Carcosa to which other referees’ Carcosas must conform. I tried with Carcosa to lightly sketch (but in lurid colors) a weird world of nightmare. I want to awaken feelings of the weird and of horror and of awe with Carcosa, such that the referee can then use Carcosa to satisfy within himself and his players the deep desire for darkness and the weird.

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. — Geoffrey McKinney on ODD74

Of course anyone can do anything he likes with Carcosa. There is no One True Wayism about Carcosa, nor is there an “Official” Carcosa. My attitude towards my creations is that of Gary towards D&D in 1974, not Gary towards AD&D in 1982. — Geoffrey McKinney on Dragonsfoot

My words do not even pretend to be Official Carcosa. There is no such thing as “Official” Carcosa. There is only YOUR Carcosa. Do with it as you will, and may the Old Ones mutate your thoughts into an indescribable campaign. — Geoffrey McKinney on Dragonsfoot

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Kill Team

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on January 01, 2019

Tagged: warhammer killteam 40k minis anthrodact

Anthrodact 1 Skitarii

One of the more interesting 40K games Evan and I played was with my cousin using a mission Evan cooked up: his Navigator Scribeguard (Imperial Guard) against a mix of the recently awoken Blood Mormont Primaris Space Marine chapter and Adeptus Custodes. He ended up winning, managing to get a unit off the board to spread heresy!

That was a proper game of 40K, but many of the games Evan and I have played have been with model counts far closer to skirmish games. I was excited when Games Workshop first announced Kill Team, official skirmish rules for 40K. The game sounded like exactly the sort of thing I was looking for: a bigger focus on narrative gaming with rules that are straightforward and modern.

I picked up the Kill Team boxed set a few days after it launched. My original plan was to get the rule book, but I am a sucker for these boxed sets. The game comes with a lot of terrain and sprues for two kitbash friendly units I have been interested in: Genestealer Cult Neophyte Hybrids and Skitarii Rangers/Vanguard. I have wanted that cultist box for a while. It seems like the base for a lot of interesting modelling projects.

We played one game of Kill Team to test out the rules, playing a simple mission that continued on from the 40K mission mentioned earlier. I made a small Space Marine list from the miniatures I had on hand for our first game and made up a mission that picked up where our last 40K game left off. The mission tweaked the ambush mission from the core Kill Team rule book.

After that game there was a big gap in our gaming. I started building a new Kill Team mixing the sprue that came in the boxed set together, dubbing the models the Skitarii Dravidian. (The Skitarii Rangers in the squad are all named after Tamil numerals.) Evan started work building new Imperial Guardsmen out of some sprues our friend Gus sent him some time ago. These two forces served as the inspiration for a narrative campaign we are trying to get going: The War of the Intolerable Question

Anthrodact 1 Guard

Like a glittering toxic icicle, Shentech’s manufactorum needle hangs above the infamous hive world of Necromunda, just outside the jurisdiction of Lord Helmawr. No one goes there, and no one leaves–but the manufactorum isn’t idle.

Once a year, a single, battered, yellow canister grav-chutes to a disused landing pad in the spires of Hive Primus. Marked with the Shentech seal, the canister is claimed as salvage, assayed by Helmawr’s inspectors as pharmaceutical compounds, then sold to the waiting Shen agent for a tidy profit. What happens then, precisely how this compound is employed, is a secret of the Navigator House. Or it was until recently, when a report from an Astartes Kill Team on Salmagundi showed the same Shentech canisters present on the planet of the Blbliarchs. The compound was being used somehow in their hypno-savant training.

It was yet another link between Salmagundi and their recidivist employers, the Navigators of House Shen. For the Custodes, the revelation of the compound offered a tantalizing opportunity to smash one of House Shen’s few verifiable assets–and destroy or damage the capacities of their legal team in the process.

The Custodes mobilized one of their many assets on Necromunda: a zealous and crudely innovative local church of the God-Machine. Well-equipped and motivated to learn the secrets of the Needle and stamp out any techno-heresy they might find there, the ops team was shuttled to orbit for the assault.

Debris and dust filling the landing bays showed the station had been inviolate for centuries. Beyond the airlock were dignitaries of the Needle’s degenerate laborii tribes, long-limbed and twisted parodies of their dutiful, hive-dwelling counterparts, planetside. The language was barely comprehensible but the invaders knew instantly that their smash-and-grab mission was going to be more challenging than they’d thought: the laborii were many; and might cling impudently to life. What was worse–the station possessed its own dedicated security detail–somewhere deep in the needle, a force of vat-spawned guardians were rising from their dormant state. The worshippers of the machine god made camp as the sour notes of an ancient klaxon wailed.

There are two forces in play to start, Evan’s vat grown soldiers tasked with defending the manufactorum and my rag-tag Skitarii elimination clade who have invaded. Perhaps in later games we will introduce other units or factions—if we build anything interesting or someone else ends up joining our games. We know there is one weird faction on the station itself to start, the Labourii. Evan came up with 6 regions in the station, and I helped expand them all so they each had 2 areas you can interact with if you win the mission. These provide some additional hooks for the game. We also press-ganged our online friends into helping us come up with a d66 table of events to have happen after each mission.

Anthrodact 1 Skitarii Vs Guard

We have played 2 missions so far, a little bit hodgepodge as we settle into the game and try and figure out how to best run a campaign. It’s been fun to build and paint something with a concrete goal and purpose in mind. I’m thinking about other models that would fit in with the theme of this campaign to build as well.

Kill Team is a fun system. It’s quite simple: if you are familiar with 8th Edition Warhammer 40K you’ll understand most of what’s going on. The turn structure mirrors 40K, but besides the movement phase, all other actions are done in an “I go, you go” fashion. List building is much simpler, as the set of models available for you to use is so small. The game seems like a good introduction to Warhammer 40K, which I assume is quite purposeful on Games Workshop’s part.

I have been digging into Necromunda to get ideas for our campaign. Necromunda offers up a slightly more complex skirmish ruleset, but one that I think suffers from its mix of old and new style rules. With Kill Team there is no arguing about whether a unit is hit by an explosion’s template or not, for example. Necromunda’s advantage is a much richer campaign system, more interesting lists of weapons for your units, more complex rules for injuries and experience, etc.

I’m hopeful Evan and I can get something interesting going with this Kill Team game. Let’s see.

Anthrodact 1 Skitarii Vs Guard Ii

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Review: Kill Team Commanders

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on October 21, 2018

Tagged: warhammer killteam 40k minis

I picked up Kill Team Commanders over the weekend, despite my better judgement. It’s a small boxed set (a rule books, some cards, and some tokens) that add rules for fielding stronger “commander” units in your games of Kill Team. If you’re on the fence about this expansion, here are my quick thoughts:

If you’re wondering why I reviewed this expansion before reviewing Kill Team proper, i’m wondering the same thing. I love Kill Team and have too much to say about it, I suppose. Now that’s a boxed set worth buying.

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OSR OPML

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on October 11, 2018

Tagged: osr blogs opml

This title sounds extra nerdy because it is extra nerdy, but this is a nerdy hobby and being extra nerdy can sometimes be good. Assuming you aren’t already using a feed reader of some sort, here are some things you should do now.

  1. Download the OSR OPML file to your computer, and remember where you put it.
  2. Go to feedly.com.
  3. Click on the grey “import OPML” button.
  4. It’ll ask you to make an account. You can simply use Facebook, Google, or Twitter to log in, or make your own Feedly account.
  5. You will see a box where you can drag and drop an OPML file. That’s the file you downloaded earlier! Drag that thing over!
  6. That will upload it to Feedly.
  7. That’s all the OSR blogs people have collected so far, and now you can read them all aggregated together and it’s wonderful.

A feed reader will check for updates from your blogs, grab them all, and display them as one long stream of posts. It’s very convenient.

I’ll update the file daily or something, as people add more blogs to that Google Doc. If you are already using Feedly or some other feed reader they are normally smart enough that you can import an OPML file and it’ll figure out what’s a duplicate. I’ve re-imported this file a few times to test and it seems to work out fine. If you want your blog or another blog to be part of this giant OPML file, simply add it to the original Google Doc: my scripts will eventually find the change and update the OPML file.

For those of you who care about this sort of thing, the code that makes this all go lives on Github. I also have the same information available as JSON. I’m sure someone can think of something creative to do with that.

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