Breakout 2017 was a lot of fun. I’m glad I grabbed tickets a million years ago. (I wish I could remember how I heard about it now.) It’d been over a year since I last attended a big gaming event. The weekend was exhausting, but I got to try a bunch of games I’d likely have never played if left to my own devices. I also got to see a bunch of gamers I only know from the internet, and a few friends I don’t see nearly enough.
The organizers of Breakout are indie-gamers so that side of table top gaming was well represented. Lots of indie game designers and players are in attendance. If you want to play indie games this convention has you covered. There was also a really big contingent of people playing D&D 5e Adventurers League. My old DM from back when I was playing 4e public-play is a big part of that scene and was there as well so I got to catch up with him. If you were into boardgames there was an even bigger room full of people playing those. If you are the most hard core of old-school D&D nerds you might find the convention lacking: Kiel Chenier was the only person running anything old-school. Maybe that’ll change as the convention grows.
This was the biggest gaming convention I’ve been to. Of course, I basically go to none so maybe that’s not saying much. There were lots of people and lots of games, anyway. The old-school D&D conventions in Toronto (OSRCon and OSCon) are much more modest in their scope in comparison. This convention was big, but not overwhelming and annoying the way FanExpo has become.
I ended up playing 4 games while at the convention (2 games of Night Witches, a game of Apocalypse World, and a game of Swords Without Masters), and attended one panel. I spent the rest of my time hanging out and drinking beer. My advice to anyone attending a convention is to not go overboard with the gaming. I ended up with a few gaps in my schedule and it gave me time to relax and chat with the other people there. That’s often just as much fun as gaming.
The convention was well organized and well run. People were friendly. I had a nice time at all my games, and the people playing them were are all really welcoming. You can’t ask for much more than that.
After my Apocalypse World game I went to a panel discussion about GMing advice with Robin Laws, Matt McFarland, Anna Kreider, and a dude who wasn’t Emily Care Boss (who was sick). I enjoyed the talk, it was well done. The moderator Donald Fraser did a good job making the audience questions sound like they were all carefully chosen by him. I like when people are forced to write down their questions, thereby avoiding the risk of a crazy person rambling on.) Robin Laws is funny: I should check out his podcast. I had an hour break after the panel in which to have a beer and chat with John Willson about RPGs. While we drank Corey Ried popped by to say, “hey.” He was running the next game I would play, Swords Without Masters.
Swords Without Masters was written by Epidiah Ravachol. The only thing I knew about the game was that it was published in his zine, Worlds Without Masters. I had assumed it would be some sort of indie variation on D&D—that it was most definitely not. The game is firmly in whatever genre you would place Fiasco within. (I want to say Story Games, but that name feels meaningless: this game was also nothing like Apocalypse World.) Swords Without Masters is a story telling game. There is a loose framework of rules that exists to help give your story some direction.
Our session began with us figuring out what image best represented each of our rogues: Swords Without Masters is a game about rogues in the vein of Conan the Barbarian. I picked a classic Earl Norem Masters of the Universe painting—of course. Your character is a name and handful of narrative hooks—terse when compared to traditional RPG characters. It didn’t take long to get the game started.
We began on a battlefield surrounded by our enemies. A game of Swords Without Masters is broken up into a series of phases: Perilous, Discovery, and Rogue. We began in the Perilous Phase. As the name implies, this is when the characters face danger. The DM, called the Overplayer in this game, starts by rolling a pair of dice. Each die represents a mood, jovial or glum, so you better be able to tell them apart. The higher die’s mood wins, and the Overplayer begins narrating the hardships faced by the players keeping the mood in mind.
Corey didn’t waste time trying to front load a lot of explanation on the rules for the game. He’d tell us what we needed to know to keep playing. The game is simple to teach. In our first phase he let us know we could take control of the narrative by picking up the dice. There is a back and forth: the Overplayer narrating an escalating level of danger and destruction until the players jump in and push back. When you don’t have the dice your character can do whatever they want, but they ultimately need to be failing. Once you decide you’ve had enough of losing you can pick up and roll the dice. Your higher die becomes your tone. You tell the story of what’s going on, narrating how your character overcomes their obstacles in the style of the current tone.
I found the game challenging to play because coming up with an interesting story on the spot is tricky! (I’m both boring and unimaginative.) All of the players were initially hesitant about picking up the dice. This meant the situation we were in just got more ridiculous. By the end of the session we were more comfortable interrupting the Overplayer to take control of the action.
When you roll doubles your rogue is stymied. This means that whatever you had planned to do while in control of the narrative must fail. During this initial phase one player’s character was trapped while the other characters escaped. That’s how we chose to end the phase.
Stories need not be told linearly. We played the Discovery Phase next, travelling back to a time before the fighting when we were all imprisoned together. In this phase the rogues pass the dice around, rolling immediately, and narrating some new piece of information about themselves or the world. Whenever they do so they ask the Overplayer a loaded question about this discovery. (e.g. “Why didn’t my talisman protect me from the Titans?”) The Overplayed answers, thereby revealing more about the world and the conflict at hand. The Overplayer decides when this phase ends. When we played we usually ended things after each player had a turn sharing a discovery.
Our third phase was the Rogue’s Phase you take turns passing the dice around asking the other player how their character will accomplish some particular goal. (“How did you scale the unscalable wall?”) This phase is about highlighting how awesome your character is in the tone the dice command. You can also make demands of the Overplayer to learn more about the world and its other inhabitants.
The game continued on like this. The Overplayer decides what phases are played and in what order. During the game the players will write down the motifs they find most interesting about the story being told. There are also rules for tracking mysteries and morals based on your dice rolls. These are all called threads in the game. When you hit 9 motifs it’s time to wrap up the story. The players can now choose to reincorporate a thread into the story they are telling. Once they have done so they are no longer allowed to pick up the dice and drive the narrative. After all the players have reincorporated a thread into the story the game ends. This end game mechanic is smart: your story ends up feeling coherent because the conclusion draws from various threads raised earlier in the game. (Our game ended with us destroying the Arch-witch, though it took the sacrifice of one of the players to accomplish the goal.)
I find these narrative games very demanding. With traditional RPGs the story you tell is generally grows organically from play. (Well, at least in good games!) The scope of Swords Without Masters is so grand in comparison: I often felt stuck trying to come up with something to say or do. We were all quite over the top in how we played, but in hindsight we should have mixed in more modest and quiet questions and answers. I suspect if I had played more of these story telling games I’d have done a better job at that sort of pacing.
Having to narrate your lows as well as your highs is fun. The flipping of the tone from jovial to glum also works well. Your character sheet has a good list of words associated with each tone to help you when narrating. The loose structure helps ground what would otherwise be a bunch of people talking about how awesome their characters are—though there is definitely a lot of that going on.
I grabbed the game itself while writing this review. The rules are well written and clear. For each of the phases and rules I’ve mentioned above there are lots of examples of game play. There are also “advanced” rules that extend the game if you want something slightly more complicated.
This was a fun game to play, something I likely wouldn’t have done outside of a convention setting. (I liked having a chance to play all these different games while at Breakout Con.) This game will likely feel unsatisfying if you are looking for more objective challenges in your games than “tell a compelling story”. But, if that’s what you’re looking for this game works really well. Swords Without Masters feels different and novel.
My second day of BreakoutCon began with a game of plain old Apocalypse World. There are many games built on top of the rules for this game I often forget that underneath them all there is a game about playing horny people in the post-apocalypse. Our game was based on a one shot adventure written by Baker to introduce people to the game—his Keep on the Borderlands, I guess.1 At the start of the game we were asked if we wanted a game that was gonzo or serious. I think we were all on the fence and so ended up with something in the middle.
I wasn’t fussy at all about what class I played, so I let everyone pick their playbooks first (classes in Apocalypse World) and I picked the last one, a Skinner. My character was a hot singer whose gender was ambiguous, dressed in some haute couture whose origin and continued upkeep was unclear. You get to pick two moves when you start. I picked one that pushed my Hot stat to +3 and another move that sort of charms people who see me perform my art (singing). And then we started asking each other questions.
Apocalypse World has rules for building relationships between the characters that are great and seem like the most interesting innovation in the game. Each class has a series of questions you ask. Other players chime up to answer, granting you a history bonus with that player’s character. By the time everyone has asked their questions you have a web of interconnection between everyone at the table. Too heavy for the sorts of of OD&D games I play where I make characters in a few seconds and refuse to name them till they survive the session, but on the whole this wasn’t an onerous process at all. For games like 5e where you are likely to create characters you hope to have stick around for a while these sorts of mechanics should be stollen whole hog. (I can imagine questions for each of the classes in D&D.) This is the mechanic to steal from this game, not that 2d6 business. That’s pedestrian in comparison. Before the game had started there was already a little heat.
The set up for this one-shot involved everyone getting a letter that told them a little bit of the action and asked them to roll and see what the current deal was, a custom Apocalypse World move to start their game. These letters introduced additional backstory and adventure hooks. The hard holder failed their “love letter” roll so our game began with us trapped in our hard hold, surrounded by an enemy gang, with things looking bad for us. Also, a rival faction inside our compound split off and holed themselves up. Also, there were a bunch of spies working a against us inside the compound. Also, the mud flaps, weird fish people we were trading with, were suffering the effects of a highly contagious disease. Also, the worlds psychic maelstrom was fucking with several of the NPCs (and myself). Also, a whole other bunch of stuff was happening. I appreciate that there was lots of things for our characters to latch onto and explore, but it meant that a lot of the interpersonal adventure hooks we figured out earlier never really came into play. It was comical how zany and hectic the opening situation was. (Also, the villains name was Ambergrease, which I love.)
Unlike D&D where you usually adventure as a group, in this game all the characters were usually off doing their own thing. Everyone was running around trying to figure out how to make sure things didn’t explode. This felt a bit awkward at times: there were often long gaps between a player being called on to narrate what their character was getting up to rolling to see what was going on. We’d all listen to what the Chopper was doing, or the Angel, or the Brainer, and then wait for things to circle back to us. I personally don’t mind this: I liked being able to relax and listen to what was going on around me. There was always something going on.
The tone of the game was quite different than that of Night Witches. Failed rolls lead to more complications, but in Apocalypse World proper success would often be just that. My character began the game with a +3 Hot. This is pretty sweet, and made any actions I needed to take with my Hot stat an easy success. The starting stats in Apocalypse World (in contrast to Night Witches) produces fairly competent characters from the get go. My Skinner was amazing at being Hot. It was unlikely i’d fail if called on to roll against that stat. This encouraged me to deal with problems by using my ample hotness whenever possible. I don’t think this is that unusual: D&D and most games with stats will reinforce your character’s roles and personality by incentivizing moves that require a particular attribute. With this game those situations where we were pushed to leave our character’s comfort zone were usually more interesting, because these end up with the failures or partial successes that produce interesting plot twists. Night Witches scales everything down, and you can produce a lot of strife and conflict that’s also very quiet. With Apocalypse World to generate that same level of conflict felt like it required a whole lot of action to be going on. One thing we didn’t do in our one shot that I suspect would result in people choosing to use their less amazing stats is the rules for marking stats and advancement. The DM and the player you have the highest history with each mark one of your stats. When you roll a highlighted stat you mark experience. In this way the game can encourage you to not just use sex to get your way.
Apocalypse World looks to focused on producing narratively interesting situations. The problem solving in the game will usually require you to make one die roll, that leads to another, and another, and another. In the book they refer to this as moves snowballing. Trying to minimize how many rolls you need to make to accomplish your goals might be the approach to the game more tactically minded players take when playing. (How do I work the situation so my Skinner can seduce this person rather than threaten them with violence.) As far as I can tell you don’t give out bonuses for coming up with an amazing plan that ultimately requires you shoot someone, though perhaps the steps that lead up to you shooting someone might set things up so that you don’t need to roll to make that shot and execute them. There is a different sort of player skill at work. That said, my guess is people are playing Apocalypse World because they care more about interesting narrative than “winning”.
By the time our session was wrapping up we had maybe wrangled enough food to survive and held off the rival gang, but were likely in the midst of being overrun by infection disease and evil brain control. It was a fun game, and I’m glad I got a chance to finally play Apocalypse World.
I’ve had the book for several months now, having backed the Kickstarter. There is a lot to love about Apocalypse World even if you have zero interest in playing the game and think everything I’ve said thus far sounds dreadful. The book is worth owning for the DM advice. The book presents one of the best summations of how to run a sandbox game. (The Warren takes that advice even further) There are some OSR products I’ve seen recently that do a good job here, but I suspect many were inspired by how Apocalypse World presents its advice. The book is very practical in how it talks about running a game. The tone is conversational.2 The advice is direct. You do this and then you do this and then you do this. These are things I think other game publishers could learn from.
That said, I don’t think this is a good book to learn how Apocalypse World games work. Both Night Witches and The Warren do a better job of explaining the rules to their game (and games like them) than Apocalypse World does—in my opinion. Of course, Apocalypse World is a much heavier and more complicated game. Each playbook is quite different from the next. There are lots of moving parts in the game. (You can ignore what you find complex and the game will chug along just fine. We looked to have ignored a fair bit while playing our one shot.) The second edition book I own includes advice for hacking the game, which is likely also of interest to people who are game nerds.
Sometimes the tone is too conversational. “You are hot and you do this fucking thing you hot person.” The way the book talks to you can be annoying. It flies too close to the sun. I both write, talk, and sound annoying: there isn’t anything wrong with that. ↩
My first game at BreakoutCon was a session of Night Witches. Night Witches is an RPG written by Jason Morningstar. For those not familiar: in Night Witches you play Soviet fighter pilots in an all women bomber unit. The game was totally different than anything I usually play, and my first time playing a Powered by the Apocalypse World game. That first game was so captivating I ended up playing again the next day (continuing the action where things left off). I was positive about the game after reading it a couple years ago. Reading a game is miles away from playing a game. I feel I have much more to say about this game now.
Our session opened with a somewhat involved character creation process: we described our characters and answered pointed questions about their history as the DM narrated our travels to the front. (An example question is, “Why does the NKVD already have a file on you, and how did you get around that black mark to join the regiment?”) This added a small bit of colour to each character and helped differentiate what would otherwise be 4 generic Russian air women. My character was “the Raven”, which seems like the jerk archetype in Night Witches. When I play D&D my characters are usually generic adventure person until they starting doing something interesting. (At which point i’ll fold that stuff into their character.) I began this game with a rough sense of what the character might be like, which was useful since Night Witches is a game primarily about social interaction. Beginning the game with a blank character would have made playing difficult. When presented with conflict each player had a different approach they would take, coloured by the basic personality they had fleshed out during this in-game prep. As with D&D my character’s personality evolved through play: by the end of the second session my Raven was a full on Mean Girl.
As mentioned above, Night Witches is a Powered by the Apocalypse game (an Apocalypse World hack). Briefly, this means that the core mechanic of the game is rolling a 2d6 to perform certain actions. On a roll of 10+ you succeed: fantastic. On a roll of 7-9 you succeed, but some number of things will go wrong. Anything else is a failure: it’ll be bad. Night Witches plays with this formula a little bit, to great effect.
Night Witches is split into two phases. During the day you wander around base and interact with your comrades. At night you fly bombing missions against the Nazis. At first glance it might seem like the night missions are the important phase, but the bulk of your play will take place during the day. The night missions are a fairly structured mini-game: you roll to see if you find your targets and roll to see if you hit them. Complications in the mission might change this general structure.
The attack run move is a good example of how Night Witches rarely lets you “win”. Here are the list of complications when you make that move:
The damage to the target is not significant and it is your fault.
You fly through a storm of flak (triggers Enemy Fire).
A plane in your Section is damaged, GM’s choice.
You and your fellow airwoman are Marked.
On a 10+, normally a great success in Apocalypse World, you are required to choose 1 from that list. I can tell you from playing the game that all of those options suck. It’s easy to come back maimed or dead after a night mission.
The game does provide one way to help you succeed at night. During the day some of your moves will let you add points to the mission pool, which you can spend during the night to increase the results of your dice rolls. The consequences of failure during the night are so steep that trying to build up a mission pool is an important part of the game. This is what pushes you to act during the day. More so, getting these mission points is usually one option out of a few you pick on a successful roll. You will often sacrifice something to get them, which further drives conflict in the game.
A perfect example of how this works is the “Act Up” move. During the day you are going to be dealing with assholes: commanding officers, chauvinists, the secret police, etc. Your natural reaction as a player is likely to argue when someone starts an argument with you. In this game you are playing a women knee deep in a sexist society so it’s complicated. Whenever you act up you need to roll a 2d6 to see how things go:
Make someone do what you want.
Ensure that there are no consequences for Acting Up.
Add one to the Mission Pool.
On a 10+ you get to chose 2, on a 7-9 you get to choose 1. So, even rolling high you are faced with a tough choice: will you make a personal sacrifice to add to the mission pool? So much of the game is structured like this. As you play you end up picking up complications with each roll, success or failure. This is what ends up making the day phase interesting. You aren’t just loitering on a base with your buddies.
When I wrote about the game last one of my concerns was with how gamey it might feel.
Action is free-form until you do something that would require you making a Move. These are the pivot points in the game. Moves are specific: you eyeball someone or act out. There are a handful of moves each character can perform. The analog to characters classes in D&D are natures in Night Witches: someone has the temperament of a hawk, or an owl. Natures grant additional moves characters can learn as they level up. In this way the game feels similar to 4th Edition, with its discrete list of powers. I’m curious if this feels as stifling as I found it with 4th edition. Are players who are good at eyeballing going to constantly try and give everyone cut eye to get their way? (Maybe I just played 4e with goofy players.)
This didn’t feel like a real issue in our game. I thought the game played fairly naturally. We would all play to our characters strengths, for the most part. I was worried this would result in weird behaviour, but in play it generally meant the mechanics pushed our personalities in certain directions. The characters with high luck were brash and insubordinate, the characters with high guts were more likely to use their feminine wiles to get their way. I thought it worked well.
This game begs to played over several sessions. You develop all these relationships—friend and enemies—over the course of play. When that first game ended I really wanted to keep playing to see what would happen next. I think as a one shot the game might feel a bit unsatisfying.
As I have noted it’s a tough game. I can’t imagine how an air women from the first session would make it all the way to end of the war. Your characters have 4 harm—hit points—and when you use all 4 up you die. That’s not that hard to do. As you rest during the game you can reduce your harm. On the other hand your character also has 12 marks, which are permanent. Certain moves will ask you to mark one off. Another way to die is to pick the “Embrace Death and Face your Final Destiny” mark. After a few sessions that last mark is going to start getting harder to avoid. (My character ended the 2nd session with 4 marks.) I wonder if the game starts to feel unrelenting and nihilistic as your run a long campaign. (Perhaps that’s the point?)
Night Witches is an excellent game. It’s well thought out and put together. Of course, you have to be interested in playing a game about soviet air women or it’s likely going to disappoint no matter how well designed it is. I thought it was a neat game when I first read it, but playing it helped me appreciate that it is in fact a fun game and not just a cool art project or stunt. If you are going to play one game about Soviet women in an all women bomber unit during WWII make it this one.
Remember that the purpose of your prep is to give you something interesting to say when the next session starts. Remember that your NPCs are just not that complicated. You’re not holding back for a big reveal. You’re not doling events out like you’re trying to make your Halloween candy last until New Years. All your threats have impulses they should act on and body parts leading them around, so for god sake, have them act!
— Apocalypse World, pg 121, Vincent Baker
I am reading Apocalypse World by Vincent and Meguey Baker, which seems appropriate given the current state of world affairs. Sometimes I find the way it is written annoying, while other times I appreciate its direct and casual manner. On the whole the book is great and the advice scattered throughout can and should be picked up whole hog and used in your most oldest of old school D&D games. Apocalypse World tells you how to run a sandbox game without ever calling it that. The book seems quite revelatory, while managing to not take itself so seriously.
When I was running my Carcosa game I had a lot threats in the wilderness so subtle and so slow moving my players would often not bother investigating to see what was going on, or would get bored of the investigation and move on with their lives. Their biggest enemies were the Jale Slavers, dirt bags who kept on showing up in random encounter rolls, and The Dominant Reflection, an insane Bone Man sorcerer who they had inadvertently set free in the first session, and his cult. These two groups were antagonistic. Trying to deal with them was a clear and obvious goal. After they displaced the The Dominant Reflection the sessions that followed were in an awkward place where they was really only one enemy in play: they were on good terms with most everyone else they interacted with.
In hindsight I should have been far more pushy and straight forward with all the groups I had in play during that game. My Snake-Men from the distant past never once showed up in the game directly because I thought of them as ‘boss monsters’ to be encountered later. The players would see the aftermath of their actions, or stumble upon their army of Carcosan Zombie Men wandering the wilderness, but I never really gave them enough clues to indicate what was going on. Similarly I had a cult North of where the party spent most of their time, but because the party never ventured North after the early sessions this other faction just sort of sat fallow “exploring” a megadungeon the party didn’t care about anyway.
The advice I’ve quoted above seems simple and good. There isn’t much point preparing stuff just to have it sit fallow. Your NPCs Machiavellian plots are probably quite lovely, but I suspect at the table simple and direct action is likely just as much fun to play.
Broodmother SkyFortress: Buying any other adventure is just throwing your money away
Alongside Broodmother Skyfortress, the brains at Lamentations of the Flame Princess also published Blood in the Chocolate. Kiel Chenier did the writing, layout, and maps. The art is by Jason Thompson, notable for his Family Circus style maps of adventurers exploring infamous dungeons. The premise of the adventure is quite simple: you are a group of adventurers tasked with breaking into a mysterious chocolate factory run by a Spanish countess and absconding with details about her operation and samples of her ingredients. The most obvious inspiration for Blood in the Chocolate is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and there are nods to that story throughout the adventure.
If you have read any of Kiel’s other adventures I would say this one is more or less exactly how I would imagine a Kiel LotFP adventure might look like. There is violence and horror and sex, but it all comes off as fun and a little bit goofy. Also there is a hot fat woman.
I helped Kiel play test the adventure several months ago with his regular D&D group. We met up again shortly after the book was released to play the now completed adventure with the Toronto OSR posse (#torontOSR). Both games I played involved some amount of scheming to break into the factory, followed by sneaking about in search of clues for how this countess was producing her chocolate. In the second game a few of us were poisoned (a likely outcome in the factory) and so we spent part of the adventure trying to find a way to cure our compatriots of their creepy affliction. We managed to win over one of the pygmies, who was so enamoured with us he ended up helping us explore the factory and find a possible cure. (There are rules for how to win over the pygmies presented in the adventure.) Both times playing this adventure were a real blast.
Kiel produces well laid out adventures. This book continues that trend. Kiel’s books are great examples of what people should be doing with the works they produce. Like The Hell House Beckons, this adventure features cheat sheets for the rest of the book. The front end papers are basically the one page dungeon version of the adventure. The back end papers feature important random tables, and stats for the monsters you’ll encounter. There is also a handy pygmy tracker you can use to keep track the 150 pygmies the adventures may kill. The book opens with an overview of the module, advice for how to run it as a one-shot versus as part of an ongoing campaign, and an overview of the main villain and her army of pygmies. This makes up roughly half of the book. The second half is the adventure proper. There are cutaways of the map scattered throughout this section. Room descriptions are bulleted lists, and generally strike the balance between being terse, but not too terse. I do have the same gripe about room descriptions as I made in my previous two reviews: occasionally they spill over to subsequent pages. If you aren’t careful you might assume a room description is complete and not flip the page to see there’s more for you to read. That said, this is a small complaint and the layout is really is well done. This book feels designed to be picked up and run straight out of the book.
I like Jason Thompson’s art. The stuff that is going on in the book could be presented in a very graphic and gross manner. Thompson’s works convey it well but manages to do so in a way I think better suits the book. Many of his pictures are gross, but also not so gross. It’s a tricky line to walk and he does a great job. The PDF of the adventure also comes with one his walk through maps, which is, as always, fantastic.
Buy this already. It’s a good book and Kiel needs to eat. LotFP continues to kill it with their recent releases and this is really no exception. If you are bored or annoyed by some of the more avante garde adventures LotFP puts out, this is a nice solid dungeon crawl to win your heart back. Raggi is curating a solid set of adventures.
While 2016 might have been one of the shittier years in recent memory, it was seriously killing it when it came to RPG books. I continue to mostly read books coming out of the OSR. My favourite publisher remains Lamentations of the Flame Princess: they had a stellar year. Maze of the Blue Medusa was finally released and it’s so beautiful it’s unreal. Like last year, I did end up buying some “indie” games: Burning Wheel’s fancy new books], and some interesting looking Apocalypse World games, including the original game itself.
I buy a lot of RPGs, but managed to buy nothing from Wizards of the Coast. I feel like they are leaving money on the table by not catering to a wider variety of tastes with their work. They need an indie imprint.
I buy stuff when stressed and it’s clear I was stressed at the tail end of the year. I ended 2016 with far more books than I had planned to buy. My attempts to limit myself to a book a month has been one of my less successful projects.
Towers Two is the work of David Brokie, completed posthumously by Jobe Bitman (writing) & Jeremy Duncan (art). Brokie is perhaps most famous for being a member of Gwar, the death metal band from outer space. (That the guitarist from Gwar was also a big D&D fan should come as no surprise.) Like Broodmother Skyfortress, this project was also started back in 2012 as part of James Raggi’s (crazy) crowdfunding project of that summer. As someone who helped fund the few adventures that made the cut, this arrived at my doorstep a few months ago. So, about 4 years late. James isn’t good at getting his Kickstarter projects done on time. He is good at getting them done well, though. This module was slated to be a 32 page softcover booklet. I ended up with a 120 page full colour hardcover book. That’s crazy, but seemingly everyone involved in this project was a little bit crazy too.
The first thing you’ll notice as you flip through the book is all the amazing art. Jeremy Duncan’s work in this module is really quite inspired. (I recommend you grab the physical book because I don’t think the PDF does the art justice.) Jeremy’s art is bright, colourful, messy, detailed, crude, psychedelic, cartoonish, gory and intense. It’s in the same vein as the few pieces of art from Brokie that made it into the book, but ratcheted up. (I do love Brokie’s cover: it’s a shame we didn’t get more of his art in colour as well. Don’t do heroin. That’s probably the bigger tragedy here.)
I didn’t think I’d like Towers Two: it sounded kind of cheesy and juvenile. It is in fact both of those things, but it’s also a very well done sandbox adventure. There is no real overarching plot to push the players through, but instead plenty of factions to interact with and a couple obvious villains to harass. Wandering the region around the eponymous Towers Two will likely provide enough excitement for several gaming sessions.
The adventure is aggressively “R” rated. The super villain is an alien creature who controls people by sticking tentacle probes up their butts. Two magic items described in the module are the Death Phallus and the Cunt Whip. There is a “rape table +4”. It’s pretty easy to drop or tweak all of this stuff from the adventure and still have it be coherent, but you should probably know this stuff is there if it’s the sort of thing that will bother you.
I liked the overall structure of the adventure. It opens with a great overview of the whole adventure, describing some background information and detailing all the factions and characters the players may encounter. The information is all presented up front so when you encounter these things later in more detail you already have a sense of what’s up. The adventure is ‘wordier’ than I generally like. Some descriptions of dungeon rooms or wilderness areas are quite long, and at times repetitive. Nothing here is boring, though. It’s all pretty bonkers. I don’t think this module would be quite so easy to run as Broodmother Skyfortress, but it’s far larger in it’s scope. The book concludes with Brokie’s original draft, which is interesting to read as a gaming artifact. Jobe Bitman stayed true to Brokie’s original vision, but a lot of the truly gross or out there ideas came from Jobe not Brokie. I’m not sure if Brokie felt he had to reign his crazy in, while Jobe felt he had to let his out to live up to his idol.
Alex Mayo, who did the layout for Broodmother Skyfortress, also did the layout for Towers Two. This book also does a great job of showcasing the art within. There is art on almost every page, and everything is quite visually interesting. In this book the text is set in a smaller font and split over two columns. In an A5 book I find this sort of layout can feel a bit tight. (It was easy enough to read casually while I wasn’t playing, but perhaps would be trickier to quickly scan in the middle of a game.) I have complaints about room descriptions being split over pages, but on the whole this is a very pretty book. This book is far denser than Broodmother Skyfortress. It feels like there is far more text to read.
Towers Two is a fun book. It’s worth grabbing just for the art. The fact the adventure itself is also really well done is a nice bonus. There is lots of gaming material here, and it’s all really quite unique. It’s interesting how all over the place LotFP can be with their modules. This adventure is nothing like Broodmother Skyfortress, and nothing like Blood in the Chocolate or the Cursed Chateau, which I will write about soon.
The actual adventure takes up the first half or so of the book. It’s about giant shark elephants and their giant shark elephant broodmother that live in a floating skyfortress—hence the name. These monsters are riding through your campaign world fucking shit up. The players will presumably want to stop them: because they are invested in that world, because you’ve hidden some McGuffin in the Skyfortress, or for some other nonsense reason. The actual “adventure” portion of this book is a pretty small subset of the whole book. The Skyfortress is 20 rooms (12 above ground, 8 in tunnels underneath). It’s not a particularly complex dungeon, but there are lots of things for the players to interact with and perhaps use to stop the giants. Stopping the giants will be tricky: the giants are giants. Players will need to get creative to defeat these monsters and save the day.1
The book is written in a conversational tone. As you read the adventure Jeff interjects with words of encouragement, advice, and humour:
There are times in the course of a good role-playing campaign when it is important as a Referee to have one’s crap together. Like, if you spring a riddling sphinx on the players then you need to have some riddles and some solutions ready. But sometimes it is important that a Referee propose a problem to the players with no preconceived idea of the solution. Your players want to get to the Skyfortress. How the heck are they going to do that? Hell if I know. Don’t worry, the players will figure something out.
There’s lots of great advice about running games throughout the whole book. The second half of Broodmother Skyfortress is full of some of the best posts from Jeff’s Game Blog. Taken together the book is probably one of the best getting started guides to running games. (Certainly for running games in an “old-school” style.) Jeff said he took inspiration here from the old basic modules In Search of the Unknown (B1) and Keep on the Borderlands (B2). This module does a far better job than both at teaching a DM how to run a game. It’s advice is far more clear and direct. (We have chapters like, “Yo Jeff! What if I don’t have a campaign?” and a whole section about what you as the DM need to work out before you play, because this adventure should be tailored to your campaign.)
This is one of the bigger LotFP books, clocking in at 160 pages. James published this softcover adventure as a big colour hardcover book—as he is known to do. The layout was done by Alex Mayo. This book feels like a high point for his work.2 Outside of the room descriptions, most of the sections of the book occur in one or two page spreads with matching art. The layout does a great job of showcasing all the excellent Ian Maclean art. There is so much art in this book. In addition to being great to look at, it also helps you orient yourself in the book and find particular sections of the text. The borders are done in this Kirby-esque style that looks great. They are coloured differently between the two portions of the book, making it easy to jump to the advice section. There is lots of love here.
Broodmother Skyfortress is fantastic. It’d make a great gift for any dungeon master, certainly someone just getting started. Everyone involved has done a really great job. This book can hold you over till we get a real LotFP Dungeon Master’s Guide.
There is so little to complain about I will take the time to nitpick. The description for Room 2 requires you to flip a page to read it all, which isn’t the end of the world because it’s clear the description is incomplete: the text on page 67 ends mid-sentence. The description for Room 3 similarly spans multiple pages, but in this case it’s easy to miss the extra information found on the next page: the text on page 68 doesn’t suggest there is anything else to read. Trying to manage stuff like this is one thing that makes laying out a whole book tricky. But, like I was saying, there is very little to complain about here: on the whole this is top shelf work. ↩
I had pitched the D&D campaign as Masters of the Universe crossed with Carcosa. Looking back at it now, i’m not sure that’s what I was ever really running. It was often goofy and light hearted, which I like, but without all the Masters of the Universe overtones I was hoping to inject. What I had been running, in hindsight, was a Western. Perhaps this is coloured by my reading a Blood Meridian, but it feels like the line between post apocalypse science fiction and the Wild West is quite fine. You have lawlessness, violence, and a collapse of societal norms and obligations in both. My players spend their time wandering a dangerous wilderness, visiting towns with their own rules of law. They go on missions escorting caravans, and hunt slavers for bounty.
Because I am so chronically underprepared, I went with XP for gold as the means of gaining levels. Rather than simply giving people XP for killing slavers directly, I gave my players gold in the form of a bounty in their home base. The end result is they travel the wastes cutting off heads to prove they have killed a vile Jale slaver. Gruesome, no doubt, but it’s all sort of abstract in the game. No one really dwells on the fact they are carting around a big bag of heads. After reading McCarthy’s book it feels far more dark and grizzly. It’s easy to project one story on top of the other.
Westerns are one of my favourite genres of film, but they aren’t what I had intended to run. When I pick up my Carcosa game again I need to think harder about what themes and tropes made Masters of the Universe the show it was. Also, I need to run a D&D game again.