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.
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.
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:
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.
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.)
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
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)
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.
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
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.
Just so we’re all on the same page: I love these sorts of books. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
I bought the new edition of Necromunda, Game Workshops miniatures skirmish game about gangs in the 41st millennium. How did I even get here?
I don’t imagine anyone else I know buying any of this stuffs, so I might just treat this starter set like a (god damn expensive) board game and leave it at that. I think there are enough people in Toronto I can scam into playing with me. (Evan being the most obvious.) When I asked my wife if she’d play Warhammer 40K if I bought the boxed set she said “no”, but the way she said it was, “no—you fucking idiot of course I won’t play it.” My cousin lives down the road and is a gamer nerd. Will report back on just how dumb a purchase this was in a few months.
These were my thoughts after opening the box to Warhammer 40,000: Dark Imperium, the new boxed set for the Warhammer 40K game. This was a year ago, give or take. It was a gift to myself for having to deal with a crazy client upgrade at work. I don’t really remember why I was so fixated on this particular boxed set. I had seen it the week before, and in a moment of stress went off to buy my own copy.
I don’t imagine anyone else I know buying any of this stuffs …
I was wrong. Warhammer is like smoking. You never really quit.
Evan helped me get started with painting, and then quickly fell back into the game. He still had a Tau army, which we played our first game of this new edition with. He then sold it off for store credit at the shop so he could start a new Adeptus Mechanicus & Imperial Guard army. (His units are all kit bashed and crazy—really quite amazing.) We would meet to play games of 40K every few months, depending on our schedules.
What’s funny is that people who don’t live near me also got sucked back into Warhammer, likely due to my incessant posting in my secret Warhammer 40K G+ thread. I chat with Patrick (from False Machine) often about Warhammer 40K, and in the time we started talking he went from sitting on the side lines to buying and painting up a cool Rainbow Warriors Space Marine army. I’m not sure if I should feel good or bad about that. A few other G+ gamers will chime in to talk about Warhammer. 8th Edition looks to have helped get a lot of people back into the game.
… I might just treat this starter set like an (god damn expensive) board game and leave it at that …
I was wrong. Warhammer is a giant money hole.
Between Dark Imperium and Necromunda there has been a lot of minis. I ended up enjoying the building and painting part of the hobby much more than I thought I would. So, I quickly started spending money so I would have more things to paint. (And eventually started spending money when I had things half painted. Like some sort of idiot.)
… Will report back on just how dumb a purchase this was in a few months.
I mean, Warhammer is expensive, so in that regards it was stupid to decide to get into the hobby. On the other hand, I do build and paint and play with the miniatures. Warhammer more or less supplanted much of the gaming I did in 2017 and thus far in 2018. It has become my nerdy hobby of note. I have come to love Warhammer a lot. So, a year later I’m going to say this wasn’t a dumb purchase.
I’ve written up several play reports now of the games Evan and I have played at the Sword and Board, from our modest skirmish sized battles to a big 3-person game with my wife’s friend Devlin. 8th Edition is an excellent version of the game. It’s quite straight forward compared to what I remember playing when I was a kid—though I might just not remember Warhammer Fantasy very well. I have heard complaints the game is too random and not strategic enough, which is likely fair, but I wouldn’t say that’s had much impact on how much fun i’ve had playing. There have been so many fun and funny moments in the games I’ve played so far.
Evan and I managed to get together again after quite some time to continue playing some Warhammer. In a change of pace, he designed the narrative mission we would play ahead of time. In the past, I’ve tried to inject a narrative on top of the Open War missions we would randomly generate and play. What he came up with was a lot of fun, and also a lot more narratively interesting.
He tweaked the rules for the Ambush mission described in the core rulebook, adding a lot of narrative flare. Briefly, the Scribeguard (Imperial Guard) had spoke a great heresy against the Emperor of Mankind, and would now have to face the agents of his wrath. The Anti-Heretic Shield Company His Light From Holy Terra (Adeptus Custodes) and the newly awoken Primaris Space Marine Chapter the Blood Marmots were sent to ambush these blasphemers and make sure none would live to speak again. Evan would win outright if he could get half his infantry off the board, and it would be a draw if even one of these blasphemous units managed to escape. The Custodes would win if they could kill all the Scribeguard infantry outright.
My cousin was in charge of playing the Space Marines, so Evan added a twist to the whole battle. Every time the Space Marines fought the infantry of the Scribeguard, they ran the risk of being turned to their side. As Evan descirbed it, “Every time any Blood Marmot unit participates in a fight phase with a Scribeguard unit, roll a dice for each Blood Marmot unit at the end of the phase to test the the Marines’ loyalty. On 5+ their Blood Marmots hear all the proof they need that the Emperor is perhaps actually maybe dead and they turn against the Custodes.”
Evan’s Army had grown since we last played. He now had two tanks and a whack of newly painted and kitbashed models. My army was as follows:
4-Man Custodian Guard Squad
Captain in Gravis Armour
5-Man Intercessor Squad
5-Man Hellblaster Squad
Captain Styx of the Blood Marmots gave the order that began the attack. Missiles pummelled the ground from an orbital strike. The sounds of bolter fire filled the air. The Hellblaster squad to his right let loose arcs of molten plasma from their weapons. The tank they hit answered back, obliterating the unit.
After the first round Jana and I were worried this game was going to be a cake walk for Evan. His tanks made quick work of what we had hoped would be our tank-killing unit, the Hellblasters. Evan’s infantry were quick footed and began their sprint towards the end of the board. We were lucky that the orbital strike Jana called in hit both of Evan’s commanders (though no one else!) which meant he couldn’t give any orders to his units that first turn. My Custodian Guards were a bit out of the way initially, as I wanted them out of the view of the tank. I probably could have been more aggressive with their placement.
The Custodian Guard surged forward, tearing through some helpless Scribeguard infantry on their way to the tank that had moments earlier killed their comrades. Their power weapons quickly turned the weapon to scraps. Their rage would not be satiated till all these traitorous heretics lay dead.
Then it felt like things were flipping. My custodian guard charged forward and managed to kill the infantry Evan had sent forward to block their path. They consolidated towards the tank, and were able to kill it the following round. This continued from round to round. They removed a lot of models from the board. The Captain in Gravis armour also made his way towards the infantry and started cutting them up with his power sword. Evan’s army was crumbling, but he still managed to get a couple models past us: a single infantry, and a commander.
Evan also had one more tank, which managed to kill off two of my Custodian Guard. His Augmented Ogryn Bodyguard killed the last one. And just like that things and turned once more. Jana and I really needed that unit alive to shoot the two models that were fleeing. At the back of the board we still had a lot of heavy hitters: Jana’s Captain in Gravis Armour, my Shield Captain, and my Vesilus Praetor. (These 3 units were a little over half the points of Evan’s entire army!) Unfortunately, those units were all either out of range or didn’t have line of sight to the models fleeing.
The last round was full of funny dice rolls. Jana need a 3 to make a charge and failed by rolling snake eyes. Evan’s sole model in one of his units killed himself while shooting overwatch as part of that very charge. Evan almost lost his unit closest to the board because he rolled a 6 when making a morale check. (He used a command point to re-roll, his last one) This same unit then failed to flee because Evan only rolled a 1 when rolling to advance. He ended up getting a draw by having his commander command himself to “move! move! move!”—this let him take two move actions, and allowed him to clear the board.
This was a really fun game of Warhammer. Perhaps the most fun I’ve had since we’ve started playing.
For these walking demigods failure was an impossibility. Shield Captain Casius reflected on this briefly as he watched a commander of the Scribeguard scurry away. If failure was impossible than this must be the will of their long silent master: he wanted them to burn this heretical house to the ground.
One thing that falls outside the usual discussions of gaming style is the amount of distance any given group or player has towards the game in question—which I think is a shame because I think a giant part of the fun is the distance and, one way or another, I feel like the design of, say, Vampire, D&D-as-marketed-to-adults, D&D-as-marketed-to-kids, Rifts, and Dogs In the Vineyard all imply different levels of distance. Or, perhaps more accurately, the way they’re talked about implies different levels of distance.
I suspect that when a lot of people say they don’t purposefully want to inject heavy “relevant” themes into their games it’s not necessarily because they play to escape reality, but because—like me—when they play they never escape reality, and so any “theme” always remains at a distance. Injecting a theme which one was genuinely conflicted about into this style of play would be, in some way—for this kind of player—trivializing it. — Zak Smith—from a 7 year old blog post1
As I mentioned in my post about Cartel, “These Apocalypse World games are at their best when they help the players navigate what might be unfamiliar territory for them.” These games also seem at their most challenging when they push into areas you don’t expect games to go. To my surprise, I found Night Witches—a game about sexism, death, hopelessness and sometimes hope during WWII—really compelling. It’s not the sort of game I normally play. More so, when I first picked it up it struck me as an odd subject to turn into a game. Acting out the lives of women in this hopeless situation seemed like it could be disrespectful.
Playing Night Witches made me rethink some of my thoughts around these “serious” games. Night Witches seems engineered to push the stories it tells in a particular direction.2 This can help keep serious matters serious. As I mentioned in my review, it’s quite likely your campaign of Night Witches will feel unrelenting and nihilistic, punctuated by brief moments of joy when you shoot down some Nazis. The gears of the game turn a certain way. The game feels respectful of the story it is helping you tell.
Velvet Glove is an Apocalypse World hack where you and your friends play a group of racialized teenage girls living in 1970s segregated small-city America—phew. (I picked it up because it sounded interesting and had a cool cover. I have fast become a fan of these overly specific Apocalypse World hacks.3) I’d say it has some thematic overlap with Night Witches. When I first saw Velvet Glove I had the same sort of knee-jerk reaction I did to Night Witches: should I be playing this game? I’ve played plenty of women in my D&D games4, but in the sorts of games I end up playing in the fact you are a playing man or a women is often immaterial. Or, at the very least, I usually play the same sort of genderless adventure person. Not that i’m adverse to playing a game where I’m asked to take on the role of a racialized women, but can I do that experience justice.
Night Witches feels like the safer game to play because we are so far removed from the experiences of a WWII Russian fighter pilot. You can invest a lot into the people you play in that game and feel safe knowing you probably won’t be called out for “doing it wrong”. There is a distance between you and the women you’re playing. Velvet Glove hits a lot closer to home. The racism and sexism it’s talking about are very much alive today. It’s likely you know people who deal with the problems Velvet Glove touches upon. As such, playing the characters in Velvet Glove feels like it could be more fraught or difficult. The challenge for game designers making these sorts of games is trying to introduce enough structure to the game that you gently nudge the emergent story in a particular direction. (It’s one way to try and understand and criticize these games.)
Velvet Glove and Cartel feel like they come from a similar headspace. They both seem to be a way to talk about how people make hard choices when put in positions where they have limited options. (And perhaps more obviously they both feature protagonists that aren’t White.) Of course, the games diverge in some obvious ways as well. The crimes and delinquency of your teenage girl gang will pale in comparison to the crimes of the cartels. It’s a totally different world. It’s easier to sympathize and empathize with the characters in Velvet Glove. Mark Diaz Truman likely wants us to feel the same way about the characters of Cartel, but for most people that will be a much bigger leap. Mark could have chosen many different topics to tell his story about Mexicans, but he settled on the drug war. (It’s interesting, complex, and exciting, after all.) He outlines both the struggle and ambition of the game he wants to make in an interview he did recently with Brie Sheldon:
Cartel issues a fundamental challenge to the gaming industry through its mere existence: it forces a mostly white audience to consider what it means to be Mexican, without the distance of metaphor or time. In many ways, my game design has been an effort to live up to that challenge, to take seriously the idea that white folks who might not have close relationships with Mexican people might sit down and play through a few days in their lives, not as a joke or a farce… but as a compelling drama.
When I saw this interview with Mark this passage caught my eye. (It’s what prompted this post.) Games can lean on the distance of time or the distance of metaphor to help make players feel comfortable playing roles that they might otherwise be uncomfortable playing. (For example, Night Witches uses time, and Monster Hearts uses metaphor.) It feels like Mark is touching on something similar to Zak’s comment above. Half the D&D games I play are filled with amoral murder machines straight out of a Jack Vance novel. These games don’t often feel edgy or complicated because you are so far removed from the characters you are playing.
You can’t mention Cartel without someone else jumping in to tell you glamourizing the Mexican cartels is despicable.5 This looks to be the most common complaint about the game. The archetypes the playbooks of the game represent aren’t distant or fantastic: they are grounded in reality.6 Mark could tell his story about the Mexican drug trade using allegory (the cartel are the dark elves or some such nonsense), or he could push his story backwards or forwards in time (Cartel: 2120). As players you might be able to avoid dwelling too much on the reality of what you’re playing. But this seems contrary to everything Mark wants to do with his game. His goal—as he notes often—is to push people to play roles that might be uncomfortable for them. He wants people playing Mexicans.
When talking about his game Mark often talks about the Wire. One of my favourite characters on that show is Bodie, a real fan favourite. The thing is, that dude shot Wallace in the first season! It’s one of the most heart breaking scenes in the show. The Wire isn’t glamourizing anything about the drug trade. I’m not sure Mark can produce the Wire of Powered by the Apocalypse World hacks—that’s a high bar to reach!—but it’s not inconceivable that you can produce something very good about violence and drugs and all that bad stuff. There is value in understanding the systems that produce the situation in Mexico today. To pretend it’s all bad people being bad is stupid and simple. There are all sorts of ways to tell that story. Mark chose to make a game.
“You play members of the cartel” may actually be sufficient to make some folks sick to their stomach, no matter what Mark has done to make it clear these characters aren’t good guys. That’s a legit critique.
So … I don’t think that’s a legit critique.
The fact anyone is making a game about the cartels is going to offend some people on principle. If you don’t want to play that game that seems like a totally reasonable response. I can imagine a lot of games I wouldn’t want to play. You probably can too. While I am sure Mark can convince people their understanding of his game is incorrect, no one obligated to engage with Mark to understand where he’s coming from. It’s perfectly fine to think a game is gross and leave it at that. Games aren’t for everyone and this game is likely no exception. But your distaste for a game isn’t a critique: that’s just a personal preference.
All of the games I’ve mentioned in this post could be offensive to people. Sometimes you might agree with what the person finds offensive. Other times not so much. (Some people are moaning about sex fluid elves right now when talking about 5e, after all.)
An argument can be made that no game can do this particular subject justice. And an argument can be made that this particular game isn’t doing its subject justice. But someone needs to make those arguments. My random thoughts above are one way to talk about games like these. There are probably other, better ways, as well. (I mean, what do I know? I play D&D!)
All of these games exist because people didn’t pick up and go home for fear of offending someone. This is likely true of most compelling art.
If I wrote this article now I probably wouldn’t have started with a quote from Zak. But here we are. I still think it is a good quote. Buyer beware, anyway.↩
I do think as players we are ultimately responsible for whether we are trivializing someones experience or not when playing a game. Jason Morningstar isn’t there to tell us off. He can only do so much. ↩
The scene around Apocalypse World is interesting in that it seems to produce these games that can only be described as “very specific.” Not to take away from Apocalypse World—which is god damn fun—but its premise is reasonably pedestrian: it’s the end of the world, we’re all fucked! (And fucking each other.) But from that game you end up with “it’s like D&D, but everyone is a Russian fighter pilot from the all women 588th Night Bomber Regiment” or “it’s like D&D, but everyone is a confused queer teenage monster” or “it’s like D&D, but everyone is a teenage girls battling white male hegemony”. That seems like such a leap! The brain trust on Google+ had a lot of good thoughts about why this might be the case.↩
My random character generator generates women 50% of the time. It also spits out disabled characters 25% of the time. Don’t say I’m not doing anything for representation in the OSR. ↩
Which is true: you shouldn’t glamourize gang violence. ↩
In a Reddit Ask Me Anything someone showed up to ask (with much sarcasm) whether the game would include moves for disposing of bodies in acid, something the cartels do. Mark replied the game already does. Ha! ↩
When I ran my Carcosa game it was centred around a few “safe” home bases. Players would adventure in the wilderness and return to a town at the end of each session. Initially there was only one such town, but as the game moved on they became friendly with other villages and fortifications. The players themselves were part of the “Rainbow Connection”, a travelling troupe of adventuring actors. This whole set up made it easy for players to drop in and out as needed. I wanted a similar set up for adventuring in the Veins of the Earth.
To start, Hans M. and Ian B. suggested a route I had considered myself: peppering the veins with the occasional friendly town equivalent—a gnomen village for example. This would let you run the game like you might any other overland wilderness adventure. My main issue with this approach is that it seems like I’d want people exploring the Underdark to venture further and further into the darkness. I struggled to get people to explore in my Carcosa game because much of the action was centred around their home town. Ian suggested having players being involved in setting up supply caches and building these safe places in the Underdark. That might work, though I think i’d prefer something weirder for my Veins of the Earth game.
The always epic Daniel Dean offered up some straight up Veins of the Earth:
Tiny hands grip you and carry you in the night and leave something in your stead, sometimes another person they have taken sometimes a valuable or inscrutable token, like a trade rat. When and if you are returned it is in similar circumstances, you are here but something is gone, and you have no memory of the time between then and now.
Joshua B’s suggestion reminds me of the above, though its execution is different:
In the grim darkness of the Veins there is only survival. Sometimes people get separated, and wander the darkness, silent and cold, until finally regaining light and companionship.
In a similar vein Dan D. suggests the party travels with a “pack mule”:
Your pack mule is a giant spider that wraps people up in silk cocoons for transit and sometimes forgets to let them out.
This could be fun: you could make the giant spider part of the game proper or something more meta. Perhaps the party needs to protect the creature at all times, or it’s simply something that shows up at the end of each session to gobble the players up.
These ideas could be turned into something gamier, which Brendan suggests:
If regular settlement areas kills the bleak vibe too much, maybe figure out some sort of symbolic save point thing akin to Dark Souls bonfires with just enough fictional logic to not be distracting. Something like pure springs.
Patrick chimes in and expands on Brendan’s idea with a suggestion I like, and might be what I end up using in my game:
A particular kind of dark is ‘safe’ for the Party, maybe they have a contract or agreement with that particular quality of dark so people in it can find each other or rest safely, expeditions are between patches or volumes of that kind of dark. Other darks may be enemies and could be dark-elemental politics.
You could probably mix and match these suggestions nicely as well. Players would be venturing towards the next safe darkness. If they make, great. If they fail, they are gobbled up by a spider or snatched up by the tiny hands, and will need to deal with the complications that come from that.
There are more suggestions in the original thread, but these are my favourite. I think they highlight the general approaches one can take: from reproducing the overland in the underworld to something more “gamey”.
I’ve been slow to go through Frost Bitten & Mutilated because I want to read it in print, rather than PDF. The book follows a format that seems common to many LotFP books, front loading the bestiary as a way to explain the world and what its crazy deal is. (Something to write about another time.) There is a small (8x8) wilderness map in the middle of the book with short descriptions for each region a party can visit—a hex crawl minus the hexes.
Zak’s writing in all his books is what I would describe as evocative and terse. (Terse being the real key to his style, I think.) This wilderness crawl is a good example of his style. Zak is able to jam the descriptions of the wilderness on the map of the wilderness itself because he keeps things short. What you sacrifice in a dope looking map, you get back in one that is more functional while playing.1
References to other hexes make a hex map good. Do that when possible.
You don’t have to prove you’re Grant Morrison in every hex, just make a usable map. It can say “Small inn. Well is empty.”
These constraints force you to be creative with what you write. You end up distilling your ideas to their core components. You’re forced to drop anything tangential, pushed to hint at your ideas through a liberal use of adjectives and open ended descriptions. Linking hexes together to tell a story about what’s going on is another way to build up an evocative setting while still keeping your individual descriptions short.
From Frostbitten & Mutilated:
Five crates rest on a cliff edge high above the sled that pulled them. One contains salted cod, one contains 650sp worth of aquavit, one contains an occult text with the names of 4 drowning demons and a map to the entrance to the Dim Fortress, one contains a sleeping snow leopard, one contains beets and Ribboned Jenny the champion rat. Her swarm is nearby
There is so much going on in this brief paragraph. How did the sled topple of the cliff? Was it the swarm of rats trying to retrieve Ribboned Jenny? What’ll they do when the players enter the scene. As the DM you can decide if the party come upon this scene from above, next to the crates, or from below, next to the toppled sled. Knowing the names for Drowning Demons might save your ass later, and of importance to this module, the location of the Dim Fortress is hard to come by.
This rat, Ribboned Jenny, is mentioned in the first wilderness description:
Tumbledown inn overrun by wharf rats in search of Ribboned Jenny, a fancy-rat from Rottingkroner (see H5).
A simpler wilderness blurb, but there is enough here for adventure and excitement. Will the party help the rats, be harried by them, etc. Tumbledown Inn itself is notable for being the only inn mentioned when describing this winter wasteland.
Both descriptions can be read in a few seconds. When playing the game you don’t need to root around trying to understand what’s going on in the hex. There are trade offs with having descriptions that are this short, but I much prefer short descriptions to long ones when running a game.
Frost Bitten & Mutilated is a good example of a simple functional wilderness adventure. Zak has learned the good lessons from Carcosa—easy to grok evocative description—and skipped over the bad lessons—easy to grok super boring descriptions. LotFP has a big stable of solid wilderness adventures at this point: World of the Lost, Qelong, Carcosa, and now this one.
I spent this past weekend at BreakoutCon here in Toronto. I think Kate, Rob, and their posse have done an amazing job with this gaming convention. Everyone is nice, friendly, and welcoming. (A reflection of the founders themselves, no doubt.) I didn’t get to spend as much time at the convention as I would have liked, but with the time I had I got to play some games and meet some people—what else could you want?
On Friday I played it safe and signed up for two games I had some experience with: Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Apocalypse World. I began my day with Fraser Simons and his friend Yoshi. I had missed Fraser last year, so we made it a point to try and actually meet up: it worked. A beer and an overpriced meal down I was off to play LotFP.
When I saw Sarah Richardson was running a game of Lamentations of the Flame Princess I quickly signed up. Her RPG Bluebeards Bride is really dark and full of horror, so I assumed she’d be a natural fit for running an LotFP game. She dubbed the adventure she ran “Blood Spattered Bride”: it was a D&D take on her Storygame. We played the former wives of Bluebeard who had escaped from his home and returned to exact our revenge. It all felt like a good grindhouse movie, bouncing between creepy and ultraviolent. She’s an excellent dungeon master. The game was a great way to start the convention.
With no delay I moved on to my next game, Apocalypse World. I was joined by my cousin Jana, Yoshi (the dude I met earlier in the day), and another guy named Matt. A really great group. My cousin is always the rogue that robs the party when he plays D&D, so was happy to discover that PvP is a big part of Apocalypse World. He was playing the brainer, and ended up with puppet string holds over most everyone in our base by the end of the game. (This came in handy when Yoshi and an NPC were fighting over control of our holding.) The game came to a pretty satisfying conclusion, but there were so many weird mysteries we didn’t get to wrap up. It was one of those games I wish we had another session to play. So shout out to our MC, Lauren!
I ended up swapping out of a second Apocalypse World game I signed up for to play a new game, Ross Rifles. The session I was a part of was run by one its creators, Daniel Kwan. It’s a Powered by the Apocalypse game set during the First World War. The players are all soldiers in the Canadian army. I really liked the game, and have lots more to say about—which I put in another post!
I didn’t have enough time to play a second game: I had to leave for the ballet in a few hours. Instead I spent my time loitering around and chatting with people. I had lunch with Fraser and John Wilson, who I had met the previous year. I had a beer with Catherine Ramen, who I learned is the author of the game Red Carnations on a Black Grave. I bumped into Michael, his friend, and his son, and we wandered around and I spent some money. We then found my cousin and Yoshi and all talked about Kickstarters and printing books and other RPG nonsense. I ended my con chatting with Jana and Yoshi before heading off to meet my wife to watch a ballet. It was a nice few hours.
BreakoutCon is the best. You should check it out next year if you didn’t this year. It’s likely the biggest gaming convention in Toronto: big, but not too big.
Ross Rifles is a brand new RPG from Dundas West Games that is still in development. It was the last game I played at BreakoutCon, and the first game of the convention that I had never played before. The session I was a part of was run by one its creators, Daniel Kwan. (Daniel is notable for his work running the RPG program at the ROM for kids, his podcast Curiosity in Focus.) Ross Rifles is like D&D, but the dungeons are the trenches of the First World War.
The quick start rules of the game are available now, but the game is very much still in development. The version I played at BreakoutCon has diverged a little bit from the game described in the quick start booklet, and I as I write this Daniel is play testing some new morale rules. They hope to have the game ready to be kickstarted at the tail end of the year. Still, the quick start rules capture the core of the game, which I suspect won’t change much over the coming months.
Ross Rifles is an apocalypse world hack. The quick start is a bit rough: I think it might not be easy to follow if you haven’t actually played the game. The booklet could likely be reorganized to better explain the game and how the various changes to Apocalypse World work. A brief overview of how the game plays and moves from phase to phase would be helpful. With Apocalypse World games you have your agenda and principles and all that noise. I think it’d be good to put some of that down on the page for people who want to run a game of Ross Rifles themselves.1 That said, the game’s rules are quite straight forward, and it doesn’t drift far from the core of Apocalypse World, so playbooks in hand I suspect most groups will manage fine.
Ross Rifles was fun. It plays like a good war movie. We began with our arrival to the front line. Players can play Sergeants, Corporals, and Privates, each described in their own playbook. The game will look similar to anyone who has played a Powered by the Apocalypse game. Some changes of note: characters have a harm track and a fatigue track, with 4 harm indicating death, and 4 fatigue indicating shell shock (which impacts your ability to things)2; each character can gain vigilance points they can spend to do particular actions or impact the fiction of the game (like call throw a grenade, call in artillery, etc); each character can gain ground that represents their forward position on the battlefield. Gaining Ground and moves you trigger by spending your Vigilance points are generally how you succeed at the missions your soldiers are assigned.
After settling in we were greeted by our commanding officer Stan Ho and tasked with searching for and retrieving the camera from a downed German spy plane which crashed in the No Man’s Land. This mission required a majority of our group to gain 3 ground, and that one of the players triggered the Fall Back vigilance move. We spent some time trying to get organized: cleaning our guns, studying maps, surveying the region from the ‘safety’ of our trench. There are moves you trigger while in this phase that might grant bonuses for the later phases. In our case, we mostly flubbed rolls and accumulated shock/fatigue.
Flubbing rolls also meant Daniel collected Threat tokens, which he could later spend to fuck with us, basically. This was one of my favourite parts of the game. It’s like the inverse of mission points in Night Witches. When a player rolled low they would sometimes be presented with the option of succeeding anyway if the DM gets a threat token. As he slowly collected tokens the tension around whether we should eat the set backs from our rolls ratcheted up.
We were ready for action and ventured out into No Man’s Land.3 The moves here are all about making your way forward unseen through all the muck and craters and barbed wire that pock marked the front. Our brawniest private began things by crawling over to cut through some barb wire blocking our path—and rolled snake eyes. So he was stuck under the wire, which remained uncut, and could hear the approach of two German stormtroopers. The rest of us tried to lay low and get in a good position to shoot the troops. (This time we rolled well.) We waited for an artillery strike to provide some noise and light and took out the troops. Our private managed to cut through the wire and we began our advance. My character managed to make it to the camera first. Success! Or so we thought: it was a trap.
We were now under fire, the third phase of the game.4 Here the game shifts to charging forward, trying to circumvent craters, barbed wire, and other obstacles, shooting at your enemies (as they shoot at you), and getting up close and personal with whatever weapons you have on hand. This part of the game was exciting and fun. It’s where the rest of our team managed to make all their ground as they ran to save me from the German machine gunners that had me pinned down and some storm troopers that were making their way to the crater of a plane I was hiding behind. A few of us took some wounds as we were shot and beaten, but in the end we prevailed. I was rescued and we fell back (and so succeeded at our mission).
We played through another short mission and called it a day.5 It was a fun session. I found it all really interesting, as well. I have to wonder if they’ll be able to some how transplant all that knowledge of its creators into the eventual game book itself. I don’t know much about the First World War, so the game felt compelling just from an educational standpoint. The game is very fast to get going. Unlike a lot of other Apocalypse World hacks, you don’t spend a lot of time up front building out the game world or the relationships between all your characters. The setting is set and your relationships are what come out of play. Daniel runs the game with children, and I suspect a lot of how it was designed is to make playing and running the game as straight forward as possible. I think they’ve succeeded quite well in that regard. I’m looking forward to where they end up going with this game.
Magpie Games does a good job with their pre-release versions of their games. They have a good structure I think everyone should copy. (You can grab their “ash can” editions of Velvet Glove, Cartel, The Ward, and Pasión de las Pasiones as PDFs to see some great examples of quick start rules.) ↩
In the game I played Daniel had merged the harm track and the fatigue track. There are now two spots for shock, and 3 spots for physical harm. When you fill up both your shock spots you now roll for shell shock. When you fill up all the harm you’re dead. ↩
The quick start rules call this part of the game “Over the Top” (of the trenches). ↩
The quick start rules call this part of the game “On Patrol”. ↩
I’m skipping over our side trip to find a European beaver to make our mascot because I don’t think it was really core to the main experience of the game, but obviously that was fun. ↩
You’ve got your hands on the ashcan of the full game, a preview of Cartel that’s got everything you need to sample the game before it’s released next year. — Mark Diaz Truman, Cartel “Ashcan Edition”, 2015.
Cartel is like D&D, but everyone is a drug trafficking Mexican gangster. The game is an engine to produce the sorts of stories you see in Breaking Bad and Narcos. Like other Apocalypse World games the mechanics look to push you towards eventual calamity. I suspect like Breaking Bad you would play a game where your hijinks are funny till they’re not.
The game doesn’t drift too far from the general the core of Apocalypse World’s rules, so for most players familiar with the rule set it should be easy to jump into. The genre the game emulates is a lot more accessible than some of the other (particularly niche) Powered by the Apocalypse games I’ve picked up. I think it’ll be an easy game to get into. You’ll recognize the archetypes the playbooks describe: the dirty cop, the naive spouse, the “cook”, etc. The most notable changes to the rules (that I picked up on, and really, what do I know?) is around how you gain experience and advance your character. I am a fan of the change: each playbook has thematic options for how you advance that encourage you to play your role. (And, when you get bored of your experience objective you can move in the opposite direction to cancel it out and pick a new one.)
When I first picked up the game my friend Gus brought up something that’s always on my mind with these Powered by the Apocalypse games: are they making light of a serious topics?
I’m not sure how I feel about a game that romanticizes the Mexican Drug War. Though I want to be a cleric of Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte when we play. … I find Latin American and American pulp narco-fiction to be pretty damn creepy and exploitative (El Marginal and Sicaro both, and also yeah Netflix’s Narcos) already, and I wonder how beer and pretzels tabletop can do better. This is sort of why I like my fantasy games and moral play to be a bit more removed - give me Carcossan cannibals, not Los Zetas. — Gus, 2016.
Moments after Gus asked the question fellow Torontonian and BreakoutCon organize Rob chimed in with a link to an old Gaunlet podcast episode where Mark discusses this very topic with Jason Cordova. Jason is a lawyer and had previously worked with people affected by Mexican drug trade. His initial feelings about this game were pretty strong (and negative). (This interview takes place a year after he first encountered the game, so his views had cooled a fair bit.) Their conversation on this podcast is really fantastic. It’s probably one of the best episodes. (So rare!) I’ve been looking forward to the game since listening to this interview.
These Apocalypse World games are at their best when they help the players navigate what might be unfamiliar territory for them. You can see in the playbooks and the writing and everything that orbits the game thus far that Mark’s really put a lot (of himself!) into this game: exactly what I want from my games that are “like D&D, but …”.2
I have so many half written blog posts I should finish. What’s the point of a blog if you don’t write anything, right? At least this post is more topical, now. ↩