A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.

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!

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Review: The Black Hack

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on April 07, 2019

Tagged: osr davidblack blackhack

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.

  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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The Dolorous Stroke x Warhammer 40,000

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on August 24, 2018

Tagged: warhammer 40k osr wargame skirmish

Now that I am basically a full on war gamer I was happy to see that OSR superstar Emmy Allen’s latest endeavour was a skirmish game. The Dolorous Stroke is inspired by Inquisitor, the Lord of the Rings skirmish game, Arthurian stories, and Dark Age Of Sigmar / AoS28 kit bashed miniatures. I am down for all of that.

I have a few miniatures from Kingdom Death that might work in this sort of setting. I could likely make a neat Dark Souls inspired knightly retinue. The game has a really lovely implied setting—which I will now ignore for the rest of this post. I have a ton of Warhammer 40,000 miniatures, and I’d really like to use them with these rules.

Emmy provides a ton of advice in her game about how to make your characters. For each stat she outlines what reasonable numbers should be. She provides various examples for different types of characters so you can get a sense of what a scholar knight or a monk or an acrobat might be. Using a model’s stats from 40K as a guide it shouldn’t be too difficult to use the rules of The Dolorous Stroke to play games set in the Grim Darkness of the Far Future.

Warhammer Minis

In 40K we have the following stats for a character: Movement, Weapon Skill, Ballistics Skill, Strength, Toughness, Attacks, Wounds, Saves, Leadership. We can use these as a guide to creating characters for The Dolorous Stroke, whose attributes are: Speed, Accuracy, Prowess, Strength, Toughness, Wits, and Education.

Movement maps to Speed and we can more or less use the value as written. 6” movement in 40K is quite common, but in Emmy’s game it seems like 5” is closer to the norm. You should probably subtract 1” from most 40K characters Movement attribute to get your new Speed score. (Note that this may make some characters—like Plague Marines—particularly slow.)

Ballistics Skill maps to Accuracy and Weapons Skill to Prowess. In Warhammer you roll over your skills on a d6. A Ballistics Skill of 3+ (like that of a Space Marine) would be equivalent, more or less, to an Accuracy of 6. Here we use Emmy’s advice that you are usually trying to roll low on a d8. The way you roll with your Prowess stat in combat differs from how your Weapons Skill is used in 40K, but I think it’s reasonable to map scores the same way.

BS/WS Rough Accuracy/Prowess
2+ 7+
3+ 6
4+ 5
5+ 3-4
6+ 1-2

Strength and Toughness serve the same purpose in both 40K and The Dolorous Stroke, though the way the numbers are used differ. Emmy suggests you use the value of 4 or 5 for a typical human. In 40K most human characters have a Strength and Toughness of 3. Space Marines have a toughness of 4. Plague Marines a toughness of 5. Numbers of 6 or higher are usually reserved for giant robots, tanks, dreadnoughts, etc. I think I would map things as follows:

40K S/T TDS S/T
2 2-3
3 4-5
4 6-7
5 7-8
6 8-9
7+ 10

Characters that have multiple attacks in 40k (an Attacks score greater than 1) should be given combat abilities in The Dolorous Stroke that highlight the fact they are proficient fighters. Characters with high Leadership scores may also deserve some skills to highlight that—like the aptly named Leadership skill for example.

A characters Saves attribute in 40K is usually an indication of how good their armour is, or some hint at their natural resilience. Space Marines generally have a score of 3+, with Terminator Armoured characters or heroes being given 2+ saves. The lighter armour of a Guardsmen is usually a 5+ save. These numbers can be used as a guide when deciding the bonuses of the armour in The Dolorous Stroke. I would treat a Guardsmen as having +1 armour (Light Armour) while a Space Marine would be +3 (Heavy Armour and a Helment).

The last two attributes in The Dolorous Stroke, Wit and Education, don’t map to anything in 40K. You should likely use your judgement here, based on how you imagine your particular character.

All characters in The Dolorous Stroke can take at most 7 hits before they die (as you lose 2 Blood cards per hit). You will likely die sooner because of injuries or other circumstances. To represent characters who have more wounds in 40K, you may want to give them skills that limit the ways they lose blood or take injuries.

I would treat Psyker’s in 40K as Magic-Users in The Dolorous Stroke. You can re-skin existing spells or make up new ones as required. In 40K a Psyker risks danger when they manifest powers from the Warp. I would tweak spell casting in Dolorous Strike so that drawing an Ace or a King results in possible peril from the warp. The most straight forward thing to do is have the Psyker lose some number of Blood cards. If the Psyker dies you should have the units around them affected by the turmoil of the Warp. Maybe they explode. Maybe a demon erupts from their body.

I would simply re-skin existing weapons in The Dolorous Stroke for your 40K characters, using their existing Weapon Profiles from 40K as a guide. You can represent weapons that do more damage in 40K by having them result in the loss of more Blood cards. The Dolorous Stroke is straightforward enough that coming up with bespoke weapons should be easy enough.

Gaurdsmen

I haven’t actually tried using any of these suggestions in a game. I haven’t even played The Dolorous Stroke yet! At first glance it looks to be a very cool game, and I suspect a lot of people will be talking about it sooner rather than later. I’ll report back if these ideas work out or not. (Or, maybe you can tell me if they worked for you.)

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The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming 2018

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on August 01, 2018

Tagged: osr dnd awards

Are the Ennies good now? I certainly recognize more of the books and people that get nominated. I’m not sure that’s a sign they are good, or just a sign that the scene I love is getting the broader recognition it deserves. With that recognition comes a shit show of grief as the older darlings of these awards lament being cast aside for new D&D stupidness.1 I suppose that’s the problem with being the Teen Choice Awards of RPGs: teenagers are fickle creatures.

The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming are my answer to the Ennies. They are a reflection of my singular tastes. Are my tastes good? Yes. Yes they are, obviously. (Why else are you reading this dumb blog post?) These are all books I love for inscrutable reasons that are mine alone. Maybe you will like them too.

To be considered for an award a book must have been purchased by me in the previous calendar year. The books mentioned are all from 2017. Maybe you’ve blocked that year out. It was a pretty shitty one. Anyway, that’s basically the only rule here. Most everything else is made up as I go.

Best Game: Daniel Sell and Jeremy Duncan for Troika

Troika

There is something captivating about Troika. Daniel has managed to capture the weirdness of 80s UK fantasy in this love letter to Advanced Fighting Fantasy. Troika is a simple game with delightful art by Jeremy Duncan. Much of the book is filled with backgrounds for characters, and this is where the weird British fantasy is at its strongest. If you just want to play D&D, you can steal these backgrounds along with Troika’s superlative initiative rules and take your game to the next level.

Best Setting Book: Patrick Stuart & Scrap Princess for Veins of the Earth (with layout by Jez Gordon)

Veins In The Dark

The most expensive book I own, perhaps. One of the most beautiful. It’s comically thick. Scrap Princess’s art falls on almost every page, which has been typeset with care by Jez Gordon. Patrick’s writing is excellent, as usual. This is best book Patrick and Scrap have done. It’s such an imaginative retelling of one of the most common parts of D&D: the mythic underworld. Everything in this book feels new and fresh. Patrick’s Olm and Knotsmen should become as iconic as the Drow and Ithilids of D&D. This book includes some of Scrap’s best artwork. She manages to hint at the horror that exists in the darkness of Patrick’s underworld. There is so much going on in this book it can be overwhelming. It’s a delight to read and re-read. Patrick is such a fountain of creativity I look forward to what he will produce next.

Best God Damn Book of 2017: Jacob Hurst, Gabriel Hernandez, Evan Peterson and Donnie Garcia for The Dark of Hot Springs Island

Hot Spring Isles

The Dark of Hot Springs Island is exactly the sort of book I love: it’s well written, well laid out, the art is great, and the book itself is pretty fucking fancy. The Dark of Hot Springs Island is a refreshing take on how you write and publish a hex crawl, and perhaps adventures in general. Many recent hex crawls look to take a lot of inspiration from Carcosa (itself taking inspiration from old Judges Guild modules). They are terse and compact. You are expected to divine a lot about the world by reading the descriptions and making connections between them.2 In contrast to something like Carcosa, Hurst presents his world with far more clarity and verbosity. Jacob has thought hard about what work a DM would need to do to run his adventure, and figured out how to make that task easier. There are tables and useful locations and advice throughout the book. It’s very clear how to use the book to run the setting presented, something many books don’t do well. This is what I found most compelling about the book, and why I ended up picking it over Veins of the Earth.3 This book is engineered to encourage the sort of emergent story telling people enjoy about OSR games.4

Honourable Mentions

All my love to Adam Poots for making Kingdom Death Monster, Fever Swamp by Luke Gearing, Maze Rats by Ben Milton, Fleshscape by Emanuele Galletto, Bluebeards Bride by Whitney Beltrán, Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson, and the Chromatic Soup zines by Evlyn Moreau. Fever Swamp in particular was on the cusp of taking one of the top spots. It’s a lovely dense little adventure that looks like a weird children’s book. But, like the Highlander, there can be only three.

I also have to give an extra special shout out to Games Workshop for their Dark Imperium boxed set. Warhammer 40K has me enraptured. I was tempted to pivot these awards so they were just selections of the best miniatures of 2017. RPG nerds of 2018: you are in competition with Necromunda and Kill Team. Don’t fuck it up.

  1. Or indie hotness as the case may be. 

  2. Just so we’re all on the same page: I love these sorts of books. 

  3. The drafts of this post has had the two books trade spots several times as I got closer to my deadline to publish. They are very different books I love in very different ways. Veins of the earth is unbelievably creative. It’s so good I want to eat it. But, at the end of the day, the idiot part of me will always love a book that holds my hand when playing D&D. Also, how many times does Patrick need to win the top spot? The man needs to share the love. 

  4. The companion players guide is also fantastic and deserves a shout out for being one of the few times I’ve read enjoyable game fiction. 

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