A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.

Review: False Readings

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on December 05, 2015

Tagged: osr falsemachine

Patrick Stuart’s most recent effort is False Stories, a series of short stories (and fragments of stories). There are twelve in total. If this collection was screening at the Toronto International Film Festival I’d place it in its Wavelengths programme: “Daring, visionary and autonomous voices. Films that expand our notions of cinema.”

An aggressive move, opening with The Possessing Verse. The story is told in the second person—who does that?—and the narration bounces between prose and poetry—or that? At first I thought to myself, “seriously, man?” Once the story gets going it feels like less of an art piece and more straight up enjoyable—and at times quite funny—fiction. The format ends up helping narrate the action in an interesting way. The world hinted at in this little vignette feels straight up D&D in a good way.

The second story, The Isogyre, is excellent: short and to the point. A heist, a betrayal, and then we read of the revenge from beyond the grave. The way magic works in this world is wonderfully creepy.

What follows next is a series of stories about the Snail Knights. A twist on Arthurian tales, instead featuring knights that ride snails. Patrick had posted about the snail knights on his blog, and I remember skimming the post and quickly moving on with my life. I didn’t think i’d like these stories, but then I finished them and am now heart broken because the rest of these stories are incomplete, and because the stories themselves are so sad. They are also lovely and sweet. Illustrated I could imagine this being a really nice children’s book. (Well, at times its quite gruesome, so who knows?) These stories are my favourite in the book, and make the whole anthology worth owning.

The next story is fiction produced out of Patrick’s D&D work. We are told the first of a four party story of how Ghar Zaghoun from Deep Carbon Observatory got his magical bow. This was the first story in his collection whose style never really grew on me. The tale itself is enjoyable, and I enjoyed its conclusion, but I think an editor’s help could make it better. (I’m not sure how, though. Help the author find their voice or something like that, right?)

The rest of False Readings is incomplete unfinished stories. Most of these stories I skimmed or skipped. I think I need to be in the right mood to read and enjoy them. I liked Susjinn, the first story for Thieves in the Empire of Glass, but couldn’t get into the second. The last story in this collection, The Death of the King of Ants could probably be some good doorstop fantasy if Patrick had the time and inclination to finish it.

Patrick writes something I buy it: a man has to have a code. I bought this collection because I like to support the people who put out cool stuff in this scene. Patrick’s posted fiction to his blog that I haven’t bothered reading, because I don’t really read blogs to read fiction. I honestly didn’t expect to enjoy this collection of writing as much as I did. That was a pleasant surprise.


Review: The Perilous Wilds

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on October 24, 2015

Tagged: dungeonworld osr indie

The Perilous Wilds and Friends

The Perilous Wilds by Jason Lutes is a supplement for Dungeon World that expands upon that games rules for wilderness travel. This is the part of D&D I enjoy the most—it’s the bulk of my Carcosa game—so the book was of interest despite the fact I don’t play Dungeon World. The best RPG books are those that are useful beyond the games they are intended for.

The book borrows from what I would call the Vornheim aesthetic. There are random tables galore. The writing is terse, but evocative. The layout is smart: spreads are assembled with care and thought as to what rules, writing, and images appear together on each set of pages. This sort of attention to detail is rare in RPG books.

The art work is all black and white line art by cartoonist Keny Widjaja. The art is very retro, reminiscent of the sort of art one finds in old Basic D&D and early AD&D modules and rule books. There are lots of small illustrations throughout the book.

The book introduces new rules and mechanics to Dungeon World games for travel, making camp, scouting, etc. These could be moved whole hog into a game of D&D. My plan is to do just that in my Carcosa game. The mechanics of Dungeon World are quite simple: roll a 2d6 and you either succeed, succeed with a complication, or fail and face a tough complication. You could model all reaction rolls in D&D on this formula, I suppose. The rules taken together add a structure to wilderness travel that feels lacking in vanilla D&D, and is apparently glossed over in Dungeon World.

There are rules for using retainers that are interesting, with lots of random tables for helping you quickly roll some up. I am also thinking of using these rules in my D&D games to differentiate PCs from their hired help. Often times retainers in my game end up being extra attacks for the PCs and someone to suck up damage from monsters. The rules here would turn interacting with your retainers into a little bit of a mini-game, I suppose, in the same way wilderness travel becomes its own mini-game.

There are pages upon pages of tables in the book to help you come up with a wilderness encounter. Their are tables for generating settlements, monsters, dungeons, discoveries, etc. I plan to use them in a game I am sharing DM duties with here in Toronto. (In my Carcosa game the results for many of the tables don’t make as much sense.)

An additional supplement produced as part of the Kickstarter that resulted in this book, Freebooters on the Frontier, may get me playing Dungeon World. It looks and feels like OD&D Dungeon World—the characters are more fragile, your choices for classes pared down to the core four, and the goal of the game is straight up looting treasure. It seems like a pretty straightforward game to play: my favourite.

Also pictured in the photograph above is A Book of Beasts, which uses the monster generation rules in The Perilous Wilds to produce a small bestiary. The monsters are neat, but it’s probably more useful as an example of how to best use the tables from The Perilous Wilds.

I have been looking forward to this book since it was first announced. I had pretty high hopes for what would be produced, and i’m quite happy with the results. If you are interested in hex crawls and the like this book is well worth grabbing.


Masters of the Universe Morality

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on October 13, 2015

Tagged: motu carcosa

Thanks to the hard working people at Wikipedia we have the following life lessons from He-Man:

  1. Man-at-Arms tells viewers they’ll all make mistakes, but to “try, try again” and remain confident.
  2. Orko tells viewers some strangers are dangerous, so never accept gifts from or talk to any.
  3. Man-at-Arms tells viewers He-Man’s brain helped more than his muscles in that problem, and that brains can and should be exercised.
  4. He-Man tells viewers to be cautious, whether or not a public safety official is around.
  5. Teela tells viewers caring adoptive parents deserve the same love caring biological parents get.
  6. Man-at-Arms tells viewers to first consider whether any practical jokes they play on friends may cause accidental serious injury.
  7. Orko tells viewers animals should not be treated as tools, but with kindness and respect.
  8. He-Man tells viewers drugs can not make their problems go away, and will often cause more.
  9. Teela tells viewers to admit their mistakes rather than lying to cover them up.
  10. Teela tells viewers they should question everything that does not seem right, but “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.
  11. Teela tells viewers they should obey their parents, who have their best interests at heart when disallowing fun things.
  12. Teela tell viewers to check with a doctor before physical exercise, and to start off slow.
  13. He-Man tells viewers courage is not so much about braving danger as it is about sticking to personal principles in times of temptation.
  14. Orko tells viewers to not eat any strange fruit they find, no matter how alluring, as it might be poisonous.
  15. Adam tells viewers to share big problems with someone who cares, rather than feeling ashamed to ask for help.
  16. Adam tells viewers money can make others act nicely toward them, but it can not buy a true friend.
  17. Zodac tells viewers to protect their ecosystem from wasteful and dangerous pollution.
  18. He-Man reminds viewers what Prince Adam said after “Daimar the Demon”; if a problem is too much, ask for help from someone you trust.
  19. He-Man tell viewers attention seeking attracts a bad kind of attention, while being polite and helpful makes people like you.
  20. Teela tells viewers music can help them feel better, and suggests singing, humming or whistling when sad.
  21. Teela tells viewers they may get away with a bad deed for a while, but it will eventually be punished.
  22. Teela tells viewers cooperation makes a job easier, and by respecting others’ contrary opinions, they may learn something.
  23. Man-at-Arms tell viewers to resist the impulse to do something their wiser parent says is dangerous.
  24. Orko tells viewers to appreciate the greatest magic of all during their daily life, which is life itself.
  25. He-Man tell viewers anyone can change their bad habits, and the first step is telling themselves, “I can.”
  26. Orko tells viewers parental love is the strongest love there is, and suggests telling their parents “I love you”.
  27. Orko tells viewers to have three meals each day, and to not overeat.
  28. He-Man tells viewers books are a viable entertainment alternative to television.
  29. Man-at-Arms tells viewers they owe much to the adventurers through history, bravely facing unknown dangers so we may follow safely.
  30. Sorceress tells viewers they all have the Starchild’s invisible power to bring people together; it is called love and is invoked through being kind and gentle.
  31. Teela tells viewers to respect trees along with all life, and be a happier person for it.
  32. Orko tells viewers to avoid heavy eating or exercise before sleep, which should be at the same time each day.
  33. Zodac tells viewers it is just as important to know when to use great power as when to not.
  34. Orko tells viewers to admit their mistakes and deal with them, rather than run away.
  35. He-Man tells viewers to enjoy nature, but to leave things where they are.
  36. He-Man tell viewers of the Magna Carta, which they praise as the first step toward social equality, or “the way it should be”.
  37. Man tells viewers that while headbutting walls and doors looks like fun, it is actually quite dangerous.
  38. Adam tells viewers to stay out of abandoned buildings, where they could be hurt or trapped.
  39. Orko tell viewers repetition and rehearsal are key to remembering things like lines.
  40. Man-At-Arms tell viewers to honor their promises, to say what they mean and mean what they say.
  41. Orko tells viewers they do not need talent or possessions, they are special just for being themselves and real friends will know it.
  42. Teela tells viewers nightmares are no more real than fairy tales, and suggests talking about them with someone.
  43. He-Man tells viewers museums are storehouses of knowledge, and knowledge is a power more precious than gold or jewels.
  44. Teela tells viewers fear is a common and natural warning of danger, and to heed it without shame or guilt.
  45. Man-at-Arms tell viewers that accepting responsibility can instantly turn a boy to a man.
  46. He-Man tells viewers not to blindly follow orders from leaders who may be irresponsibly selfish, but consider what is right and wrong for themselves.
  47. Man-at-Arms tells viewers to judge people on their behaviour, not their appearance.
  48. Man-at-Arms tells viewers to accept and learn from their mistakes, rather than beat themselves up about them.
  49. Orko tells viewers carelessness is dangerous, and to “play it safe”.
  50. He-Man tells viewers to not let the spirit of competition lead to injuries or anger in games, and to “play it safe”.
  51. Teela tells viewers beauty is skin deep, that ugly people are often the “most beautiful to know” and those who look beautiful can be ugly inside.
  52. He-Man tells viewers a symbol like a sword can’t make a leader, but intelligence, respect for others and an unselfish desire to do good can.
  53. Adam tells viewers historical figures were once real people, like them.
  54. He-Man tells viewers the threat of drowning is very real, and to never swim alone.
  55. He-Man tells viewers it takes more courage to not fight when someone calls them a coward.
  56. Orko tells viewers to not boast when playing games, to be a good winner and a good loser.
  57. He-Man tells viewers everybody deserves a second chance, but if they keep getting into trouble, they might not be worth keeping around.
  58. Teela tells viewers than being calm and reasonable during arguments, rather than angry, is the best way to solve a problem.
  59. Teela tells viewers their parents are their best friends, since they help and care through illness and other bad times.
  60. Orko tells viewers to not fear others for looking different, but to appreciate their thoughts and actions.
  61. Adam tell viewers to not discriminate by race or religion, rather by actions.
  62. Orko tell viewers patience can keep them from rushing into trouble.
  63. Teela tells viewers to accept responsibility for their mistakes, and not shift the blame onto others.
  64. again tell viewers “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.
  65. Teela tell viewers the “Golden Rule” of treating others the way you’d like them to treat you.
  66. Orko tells viewers to ask for help with their problems, rather than just feeling sorry for themselves.
  67. Orko tell viewers there are vast quantities and varieties of entertainment and information in books.
  68. He-Man tells viewers to help their fellow humans when they see a problem too big for one alone.
  69. Teela tell viewers that, while human progress will inevitably destroy many trees, it is important to leave some areas of wilderness for everyone to enjoy.
  70. Fisto tells viewers to lend a hand when they see others struggling with a task, and to not be too proud to ask for the same.
  71. Teela tell viewers meeting responsibilities for a workload breeds dependability, the “first step to becoming a winner”.
  72. Orko tells viewers to not discount old people, who often have much wisdom to combine with the vitality of youth, resulting in a better time for everyone.
  73. He-Man tells viewers everyone makes mistakes, and everyone deserves a second chance (as he did in “The Golden Discs of Knowledge”).
  74. He-Man tells viewers treating an animal with respect and kindness is far more fun than forcing it to fight.
  75. Man tell viewers to keep calm in arguments with friends, lest they say something hurtful they’ll later regret.
  76. Man-at-Arms tell viewers the best and quickest way to end a battle is an act of compassion, not of revenge.
  77. Teela tells viewers to not “let a few bad apples spoil the bunch”; that is, not blame or judge a group of people for an individual member’s actions.
  78. Man-At-Arms tell viewers play is just as important as work, but to always consider the safety rules of any game.
  79. Cringer tell viewers to trust their instincts, whether feeling fear or courage.
  80. Teela tell viewers a good idea can come from an unexpected place, so to keep an open mind.
  81. He-Man tells viewers fears which might be called phobias can often be healthy and normal deterrents from dangers like fire, water or heights.
  82. Adam tells viewers accepting a dare is oten a foolish path to trouble, and they should do what they feel is right, regardless of peer pressure.
  83. Orko tells viewers a lie not only hurts others, but themselves; lying to cover lies and forgetting which were already told makes a small lie into a big one.
  84. Adam tells viewers cooperation can make a tedious or impossible task much easier and even fun.
  85. Teela tells viewers to let those who’ve been kind and helpful to them know how much that means.
  86. Squinch tells viewers their maximum level of ability isn’t as important as their effort to work at that level.
  87. Teela tells viewers to consider the victim’s safety and feelings before playing a practical joke.
  88. Orko tells viewers to not take a rumor about someone at face value, and ask for their side of the story before judging.
  89. Teela tells viewers to not jump to conclusions; a somewhat bird-like creature lands on her shoulder and repeats this twice.
  90. Man-At-Arms tells viewers not to touch or especially ingest anything labeled with a face like Skeletor’s; just like Skeletor, they spell bad news.
  91. He-Man tells viewers books are the closest thing they have to a working time machine, while holding three fiction books: Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn and The Time Machine.
  92. Orko tells viewers those with living grandparents are especially lucky.
  93. Orko tell viewers if they practice hard at anything they want to do well, the results will eventually surprise them.
  94. Orko tell viewers revenge just leads to more revenge, and to forgive rather than continue the cycle.
  95. He-Man tells viewers to treat envy not with theft, but by asking politely to share; they might even make a friend.
  96. Orko tell viewers their parents punish them to teach right from wrong, not because they like it.
  97. Man-At-Arms tells viewers imagination and intelligence are more wonderful than physical strength, and to exercise their brains along with their muscles.
  98. Man-At-Arms tells viewers to listen to their conscience, and if they’re still confused after that, ask someone they trust.
  99. Adam tells viewers to not gamble with things that aren’t theirs.
  100. Man-at-Arms tells viewers to not feel bad for failure, as long as they did the best job they could do.
  101. Orko tells viewers not to make up stories or exaggerate, lest nobody trust even their true stories.
  102. Man-At-Arms tells viewers to generally be safe, and specifically, to wear a seat belt and not play with fire.
  103. Man-At-Arms tells viewers there is no such thing as absolute good or evil in any group. Orko suggests judging people on their actions, more than appearance or even words.
  104. Teela tells viewers drugs can make them sick, dead or dangerous, and to check with someone they love before taking any.
  105. Teela tells viewers there’s often no time to think about helping a friend, they just have to do it; it may come back to them in an unexpected reward.
  106. Man-At-Arms tells viewers to be good winners, showing mercy and respect to defeated opponents.
  107. He-Man tells viewers of the unstoppable progression of time and its effect of change.
  108. Man-At-Arms tells viewers to resist gluttony and greed.
  109. Orko tell viewers sometimes fairy tales come true. The king says acting beautiful matters more than looking ugly.
  110. Orko tells viewers to leave potentially dangerous practical jokes to the pros, like him.
  111. Marlena tells viewers helping others helps themselves, by making them feel good.
  112. Orko tell viewers not to exaggerate in anecdotes, as it can lead to wildly inaccurate gossip and difficulty in discerning truth.
  113. Man-At-Arms tells viewers that people with different abilities can combine them into an ability greater than the sum of its parts, and this can make many jobs much easier.
  114. Teela tells viewers to be careful when running or climbing, and that it’s more important to get somewhere at all than get there fast.
  115. Adam tells viewers it’s fun to lose and to pretend, but that there’s a line between make-believe and outright lying they shouldn’t cross.
  116. Orko tell viewers not to take gifts from strangers, or keep any secrets they ask you to keep from parents.
  117. Teela tells viewers violence isn’t the best answer to any problem, as it only causes more problems.
  118. He-Man tells viewers doing chores keeps a house running smoothly, even if they seem pointless or boring.
  119. Man-At-Arms tells viewers they can’t win if they don’t try, so to keep persisting even when it looks hopeless.
  120. Ricky tells viewers that having an genuine interest in something makes it seem less like work.
  121. Man-At-Arms tells viewers to weigh out all the evidence and consider the sources before jumping to conclusions.

There are 124 episodes of He-Man, sadly three were missing lessons. I was planning on concluding my session re-caps with words of wisdom from He-Man.


The OSR Isn't All Fat White Dudes

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on September 09, 2015

Tagged: op-ed osr

I saw this over on G+.

People being dicsk

What does that even mean? I’m not sure. There is generally a constant stream of this stuff online, if you go looking for it. I normally don’t, but somehow it still finds me. This annoyed me more than other similar posts, for no particularly good reason. I guess this stuff gets tired after a while.

The OSR isn’t all fat White dudes. I didn’t think that needed to be said, but maybe it does? (Spoilers: it includes at least one skinny Brown dude.)

One of the first posts I made here was about not being an asshole to other gamers. At the time it was in response to seeing people in the OSR moan about 4th Edition or D&D Next. Fast forward several years and I see that the discourse is dumb all over.

Anyway, my pro-tip to you all remains the same: stop giving a fuck about the games people play. I promise you, no one else cares. No one.

Update 2015-09-10: I could have written this post about a million different things I’ve seen online since the first one from 2012. In the grand scheme of things the image above barely rates as obnoxious compared to what’s come before. Still, yesterday it annoyed me.

I had a brief conversation with Ettin on Twitter. He thinks my take away from his snark was incorrect. I’m not sure the point he was trying to make was much better, but sure. Later he had this to say: “If your problem is a tweet about your community but your pals obsessing over TLs of people who blocked them is OK I have some bad news.” That’s fair: trawling someones timeline is annoying, and that’s how I ended up seeing this. I am sure I say dumb stuff often, and having that thrown back in my face days or weeks or years later would probably get tired. That said, it doesn’t make what I originally said any less dumb. Calling people in the OSR garbage is something I think is shitty. I don’t think you can really massage that. Of course, Ettin is entitled to his opinions.

Update 2016-01-31: … but Ettin is probably a troll and his opinions are likely dumb.


Kickstarter Report Card V

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on August 11, 2015

Tagged: kickstarter

Overall I am quite happy with how Kickstarter has been treating me. Most of my recent Kickstarters have delivered without a hitch. Reaper Bones managed to ship a bajillion minis without breaking a sweat. Goodman Games shipped Peril on the Purple Planet and The Chained Coffin more or less when they said they would, with lots of bonus goodies. I’ve got the PDF of The Stygian Garden of Abelia Prem without any fuss. Overall, projects seem to be better run and handled now.

It wouldn’t be a Kickstarter update if I didn’t mention i’m still waiting for books from LotFP. That said, James Raggi has sent me so many random adventures and bonus books the wait doesn’t feel particularly onerous. Of the 4 books funded in the LotFP Summer Adventure Campaign, each has grown in scope and awesomeness. As I’ve mentioned before, more project creators should follow Raggi’s lead with respect to how he handles projects that are off the rails.

In contrast to LotFP, we have Brave Halfling Publishing. I don’t have anything to say here that hasn’t already been said elsewhere.

Champions of Zed arrived, finally, about 3 years after it was funded. If there is one Kickstarter I regret backing this would be it. I don’t want to belittle someone’s hard work, but this project feels so thoroughly half-assed.

# Project Funded Expected Delivery Shipped?
1 The Warren August 2015 October 2015 No
2 The Zine Vault June 2015 November 2015 No
3 Perilous Journeys May 2015 September 2015 No
4 The Stygian Garden of Abelia Prem March 2015 July 2105 Yes!
5 Sol February 2015 August 2015 No
6 Dungeon Crawl Classics: Peril on the Purple Planet August 2014 November 2014 Yes!
7 The Great Kingdom July 2014 July 2015 Hells No!
8 Dungeon Crawl Classics: The Chained Coffin June 2014 August 2014 Yes!
9 Playsets The future of social storytelling. November 2013 February 2014 Yes!
10 Reaper Miniatures Bones II October 2013 October 2014 Yes!
11 LotFP Hardcover Referee Book October 2013 January 2019 Partially
12 LotFP 2013 Free RPG Day Adventure February 2013 July 2013 Partially
13 Appendix N Adventure Toolkits July 2012 July 2012 Partially
14 LotFP Summer Adventure Campaign July 2012 December 2012 Partially
15 Champions of Zed June 2012 August 2012 Yes!

The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on July 28, 2015

Tagged: osr dnd

Every year the Ennie’s come and go and I have no idea what half the games are about or how they even got nominated in the first please let alone win an award. Well no, I do know: these awards aren’t for me. The Ennies are a reflection of what people on EN World are into: stuff i’m not interested in. The Ennies feel like the Teen Choice awards of the RPG scene.

The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming on the other hand are the sort of recognition a game publishers should feel proud to put on their CV. To that end, here are my picks for the best books of 2014, a half year late because why not. Winners were picked by myself, based on my mood this summer day. To qualify for contention your book must have been purchased by myself in 2014—I don’t give a shit when it was published.

The Ramanan Sivaranjan Award for Excellence in Gaming 2015

Best Writing: Patrick Stuart, Deep Carbon Observatory

Deep Carbon Observatory

Deep Carbon Observatory was by far the most affecting game book I read in 2014. The writing is beautiful, poetic and thoroughly unrelenting its bleakness. The fact it also happens to be a D&D adventure is a nice bonus.

The water of the river is ripe with life, over-full with predators and fish of every kind. Pike and strange pale squid flit to and fro. Cuttlefish can barely be seen; camouflage flows across their pigmented skin like paint.

Upriver, in the distance, rises a column of smoke or grey cloud. The only other signs to mark the sky are carrion birds. Columns of their moving forms make black signals in the grey air, sketching spirals over the accumulated dead.

That’s how you paint a scene! And that’s just random text from a random page. The whole adventure is full of that.

This book feels new, different, and completely unique. It is so much more than a simple module.

Best Art: Jez Gordon, Death Frost Doom

Death Frost Doom

That’s what i’m fucking talking about. That this book wasn’t up for a best art Ennie is why I am even writing this post.

Jez Gordon’s illustrations for Death Frost Doom are so completely on point, a perfect companion to the writing in the book. His stark high contrast black and white illustrations have been featured in a few books now, but the style really comes together in Death Frost Doom. The art capture the mood of the module perfectly.

The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Book of 2014: Zak S, A Red and Pleasant Land.

A Red and Pleasant Land

I have written at length about A Red and Pleasant Land so I won’t repeat myself here. This book was several years in the making and it shows. No one involved half assed anything. This book is 100% whole-assing. This is how you do it, people. (Jez Gordon should get some more recognition for the fantastic layout work he did on the book.)

Everything about the book is on point: great writing, great art, great layout, and even the god damn book as a real live thing is great. It’s one of the nicest books I own period, never mind gaming books.

I’m curious to see if anything coming out in 2015 can knock this book of its throne. Your arm’s too short to box with God.

Honourable Mentions for the 2014

Scenic Dunnsmouth, Forgive Us, Evil Wizards in a Cave, The Excellent Traveling Volume, Wonder and Wickedness, and the new 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide are all books worth checking out. That Wonder and Wickedness, A Red and Pleasant Land, and The Excellent Traveling Volume all came out within a week or two of one another speaks to how solid a year 2014 was for gaming.

Finally, though I have no idea what’s up with Torchbearer I still find it strangely compelling. The actual book is quite nice as well.

Till next year. Booyaka! Booyaka!


Dark Sun Railroads

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on July 23, 2015

Tagged: darksun 2e railroads

No matter how well they do, at some point the PCs are discovered, captured, and brought before Hamanu. – Dragon’s Crown, pg. 33

Oh, the railroad. At some point adventures from TSR transitioned from open-ended affairs to highly structured stories. Some people place the blame squarely on the shoulders of Tracey and Laura Hickman, though this seems a bit unfair. With all the tournament modules that came out in the late 70s and early 80s, it seems like there was always an element of highly structured play available as part of the experience of D&D.

I don’t think railroad games are inherently terrible, but making players play the railroad portions out is definitely stupid. If the adventure you are playing only makes sense if certain situations happen you are probably better off being upfront about that and simply narrating what needs to take place. Otherwise you are wasting everyone’s time.

Freedom, another Dark Sun adventure is even worse when it comes to railroading.

Because the PCs must be captured, the Part One encounters are unfair. One or more PCs will be prisoners after each encounter. No player actions short of the miraculous will save the PCs from eventual capture, arrest, or enslavement.

Why not just start the adventure with the players captured? I can see how organically you could slowly end up sending the PCs to the slave pits: it’s a harsh setting after all. Something about the way this is presented seems obnoxious. But look, there are even dumber examples of railroading in the adventure:

For the purposes of Freedom, you do not want the PCs to escape unless a specific encounter calls for escape. The players, on the other hand, will certainly try to escape. All their attempts should fail. Still the players must believe they had a fair chance to succeed. The following tactics let you program fair failure for the PCs, both thwarting and rewarding their escape attempts. – Freedom, part 2 introduction

Who green lit this module? Freedom is such a spectacularly bad adventure.

I found City by the Silt Sea refreshing because it felt different than most of the other 90s-era D&D books I had read. There are probably lots of modules like this one, though it feels like at the time they were few and far between.

Though the adventure is presented in a particular order, each encounter is designed to stand alone. Like building blocks they form an interesting whole while piled together, but how you stack them is left to each DM. – City by the Silt Sea, pg 5

There has been lots written about railroads in the OSR blogosphere. Most recently, Justin Alexander covered this topic quite well: The Railroading Manifesto.


DCC RPG 80, 81, 82

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on July 10, 2015

Tagged: dccrpg osr

I recently backed the two Kickstarters that resulted in small boxed sets from Goodman Games. As part of the first Kickstarter I ended up picking up a modules I was missing from their DCC RPG line. I have continued to collect the modules they have been putting out, despite the fact I don’t play DCC RPG or really use modules when gaming. In this fashion I am a bit of an idiot.1

DCC RPG 80: Intrigue at the Courts of Chaos opens with player characters being whisked away to said courts. There is nothing they can do to avoid their fate, but you paid good money for this module so the least they can do it shut up and take their loss of agency like proper friends. Once at the eponymous Courts of Chaos the players negotiate with the various lords of Chaos to determine whether to undertake a quest to retrieve a MacGuffin artifact—well, sort of:

Give the party time to debate the merits and drawbacks of serving the Host, but realistically, unless they choose to martyr themselves for their beliefs, they have little choice but to agree—if temporarily—to accept the Host’s demands.

Well, that seems kind of lame. The “dungeon” the MacGuffin is located within is basically a spoke of 5 rooms, where players are required to visit each room and solve a puzzle to get to the final room and their goal. I thought the presentation of both the lawful plane and the chaos plane was a little bit uninspired. I wasn’t too impressed with this module, though the art is great. I know other people have actually ran it and had a lot of fun, so keep that in mind when I complain about it.

DCC RPG 81: The One Who Watches From Below is a more traditional dungeon crawl. Characters explore a cave that happens to be sitting on top of a temple dedicated to an Elder God. There are eyeballs throughout the adventure, all used to good effect. As usual, the cover art is pretty fantastic.

The adventure features one of the most creative curses I’ve read, which also happens to involve eyeballs. The requirements placed on cursed players would probably make this a tricky module to run online, via a video chat. In person I think playing the curse would be a lot of fun. This is probably one of the better dungeon crawls put out by DCC RPG. Or maybe I just like this curse a lot.

DCC RPG 82: Bride of the Black Manse is another example of Goodman Games branching out from their usual fare. The adventure takes place in a manor home, and is meant to be played over 4 hours of real time. Inspiration for the adventure comes from Fritz Leiber’s The Howling Tower, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. This looks like it’d be a fun module to run. The manse is a small setting, but it changes as the hours tick by in the real world. Players will need to be mindful of how much time they are wasting while playing.

I still have mixed feelings about the DCC RPG line. Many of the modules feel like they have the same underlying structure, which is usually quite linear. This set of modules was interesting because for the most part they are each unique in their own way. Anyway, these Goodman games modules are probably worth the price of admission for the Doug Kovacs covers.

  1. Zak Smith wrote an interesting article on consumerism in gaming. I think in many hobbies there is always a subset of people who participate in the hobby simply by buying things. With photography I knew a lot of photographers who were more into buying lenses and cameras than they were in learning how to take good pictures. Similarly there are people who seemingly buy gaming books, but don’t really use them to much effect, or produce their own gaming work.


Fire on the Velvet Horizon

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on May 22, 2015

Tagged: osr

Fire on the Velvet Horizon is a monster book, but that description seems reductive. Scrap Princess and Patrick Stuart have produced something very avante garde and truly unique. A monster book yes, but one filled with monsters you would have never dreamed up, written and illustrated by two very talented people.

100 monsters are described within the book. They are presented one per page or two page spread. Each page was laid out by hand by Scrap Princess. The book looks like a punk rock zine. Art is done in Scrap’s frantic scribbled style. Scrap Princess would send the artwork to Patrick as it was completed, and he would describe the monster. Scrap’s art is often quite abstract, so it’s interesting to see how Patrick interpreted particular drawings. Scrap and Patrick live on opposite sides of the globe, so I also enjoy this collaboration as an example of how the Internet is amazing.

Scrap tells you to shut up about stats.

Pictured above is Scrap’s introduction to her new book. The book is systemless. There are no stats for any of the monsters found in Fire on the Velvet Horizon. Each monster is described in great details, but it’s up to the reader to turn the monsters into something more specific for their game. I’ve seen several complaints about the lack of stats in the book, but I agree with Scrap here: stats seem like the ‘easy’ part of designing a monster. (AC 16, MV 90’, 5 HD, ML 8: Done!) This book is 100 adventure, at least. In some cases whole campaigns. Its scope seems bigger than a list of things your players can hit.

I do have one complaint about the book, but it is also a compliment: the layout is crazy! It’s hard to read. At least, harder than a book needs to be. But, the layout is also part of the art. I don’t think it’d be the same book if you had fat margins and blocks of text set to the golden ratio with a nice serif font recreating text from the 16th century. Each page is beautiful so if I need to hold the book a little closer to my face or take off my glasses to read, it’s not the end of the world.

I have barely made my way into the book. Like False Machine I find it hard to read, mostly because it requires (and deserves) your attention and I am easily distracted. The descriptions of the monsters are dense, engaging, and interesting. The descriptions often unfold like stories, with little twists at the end. They are clearly written with an eye for how they would fit in a game. Some monsters are more bonkers than others, but they all have features that would make for fun game play.

The book is most certainly not meant as a table reference. Putting aside the messy zine aesthetic, the writing doesn’t lend itself to quick reference. This is a book to digest slowly. As I have been going through the book I have been noting the monsters I think would fit in my Carcosa game, and then making a small OD&D entry for them that I could use during a game. This seems like the best approach to using the book.

So yeah, this book is good and you should buy it. Patrick and Scrap are making the books no one else is making. This is one of the best examples of what the DIY D&D scene can produce.


Review: Carcosa Review Reprise

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 28, 2015

Tagged: carcosa lotfp osr mastersofcarcosa

You should do a post … having DMed several sessions, about what you find Carcosa brings to the table and what you’ve done to make it “yours?” — Cole Long

I write reviews for gaming books I never actually use to game, which feels kind of dumb but what can you do? Now with Carcosa I can actually comment on the book with insight from using it to run a D&D campaign.

I’ve ran 7 games of Original D&D game set in Carcosa. The original idea for the game was to mix in elements from Masters of the Universe into the Carcosa settings, but that hasn’t quite happened just yet. I’m really not familiar with most of the literary references that inspired Carcosa, which makes running the game “interesting”.

I wanted my campaign to start in a Lawful settlement. I had catalogued all the settlements in the game as a byproduct of working on my Random Carcosa web application. The highest level Lawful leader in Carcosa is 11th level and can be found in Hex 1011, along with a crazy robot.

Village of 270 Bone Men ruled by “the Swift and Silent Beginning,” a lawful 11th-level Fighter.

The unwary may fall prey to a deranged, spherical robot (AC 18, MV 180′, hp 25) with treads and retractable appendages, nets, self-repair, infrared, and long-distance vision. It will seek to abduct stragglers and take them to a small, hidden outpost to be shackled in close proximity to radioactive waste. Each hour spent thus requires a successful saving throw to avoid mutation.

I printed out some hex graph paper and drew the region around this hex, marking down the settlements and their allegiances to the battle between Law and Chaos. The official Carcosa map in the book is missing this information, which would have made it about a million times handier. Zak Smith drew in his Carcosa book, but I just can’t bring myself to do that.

There are slavers nearby in Hex [REDACTED] terrorizing the region, and so I made them the main threat in the game. I decided the town of Invak would offer refuge to former slaves. This would explain why a party of PCs would likely include people from the various races of Carcosa. Chaotic villages close to the slavers were likely to supporters, as were Neutral villages nearby. Villages closer to Invak would be against slaving. Invak would be a bastion of egalitarian and progressive thought, in another wise terrible world. The town to the South of Invak became a trading hub, liking Invak with a few other towns near by. In this way I fleshed out the relationships between the various villages in the area.

I answered Jeff Rient’s 20 Quick Questions about your Campaign, which helped me think more about what my game would be like. From an older blog post about Carcosa I knew “the Icon of Judgment” was the strongest sorcerer in the world. I made some rough notes about what his deal might be, but thus far it hasn’t really come up in play: mostly because I haven’t brought him up at all. The castle of Chaotic Orange Men North of Invak became a crazy cult running bizarre gladiatorial games.

I drew a map of the hidden outpost. It seemed like a good dungeon to begin the game with. Players would start shackled in the radioactive wastes. I introduced a small group of Bone Men, who were hiding out inside this outpost. They had imprisoned one of their members for [REDACTED]. The robot would only be ‘active’ at night, and would only travel through the wilderness, so the players wouldn’t have to worry about it unless they specifically tried to instigate a fight with it. There were also lasers, spawn, and other things that felt like Carcosa.

This was enough to start playing. I ran a session with Gus and Eric, two of the regular players from my Monday night D&D group, and things continued from there. I am constantly underprepared for each session we play, but things usually work out—for the most part.

Eero Tuovinen has done an amazing job with the layout of Carcosa. Carcosa is a well laid out book that works well at the table. I flip through it often looking up monsters, hex descriptions, and the like. Most everything is easy to find, and more importantly easy to read. McKinney has a very terse and direct way of writing that I like. He manages to be evocative without wasting too many words—usually.

In terms of helping you build a campaign, Carcosa brings barely any information to the table. The book succeeds in selling the idea of Carcosa, without really telling you that much about it. Are all the races identical besides their colour? Do they all share the exact same culture? Are their multiple languages in the world? What are the towns and villages like? What do people eat? What’s a GP in Carcosa? There are so many questions about the world that are unanswered. Explicit relationships between hexes are few and far between. This encourages the sort of brainstorming I did to get things going, but is also one of the big criticisms of the book: it all feels so random. I would have loved for some discussion from McKinney on how he explicitly organized and ran his game.

The big win for Carcosa is that I never feel like i’m doing it wrong. I never have to look something up so-and-so important NPC, or double check the date such-and-such event took place. Carcosa is a loose framework for building your own Carcosa. I’m not sure I have done that great a job of build my own Carcosa, but i’m hoping that I am not too far off.