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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.