A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.

Scribbling

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on September 08, 2021

Tagged: dco patrickstuart scrapprincess osr art

Patrick and Scrap are currently running a Kickstarter for the follow-up adventure to Deep Carbon Observatory, Demon-Bone Sarcophagus, so now seems as good a time as any to talk about their work. I like seeing them succeed. When I first reviewed Deep Carbon Observatory I had the following to say about Scrap’s work:

Scrap Princess’ illustrations contribute to the overall tone of the book. I find her work is so frenzied and terrifying. Maybe that’s not the right word, but there is something about how she draws that I find really visceral. I don’t know anyone else that draws like her.

All these years later, I still don’t know anyone who draws like her. How does she even draw?

My pinned tweet on Twitter is this picture by Scrap Princess, from the Kickstarter for Deep Carbon Observatory Remastered. I like it because it manages to be both funny and creepy simultaneously.

Scrap O Hai There

A few years later she would draw another favourite picture of mine, a picture of madness from Veins of the Earth. (Such an incredible book.) The picture feels like an evolution of the giant. I asked Scrap if that was her intention and she said, “Nope. (Other than its horrible and in a cave?)”

Scrap Madness

People will often denigrate Scrap’s art as scribbles. Which, on the one hand, sure, but there is clearly more going on. I don’t scribble this good. These eyes are piercing. The line work of her drawings feels frantic. It has an energy that feels charged. On Twitter, Warren D summed things up nicely: “I always emotionally respond to Scrap’s art before I finish consciously visually processing it; ‘feel’ it before I ‘see’ it. Most WotC art I see quickly and feel nothing.”

Scrap Crazy Eyes

Fire on the Velvet Horizon is likely peak scribbling Scrap, but maybe also highlights what you can capture in such minimalist drawings. The history of that project is interesting. While Vein of the Earth was stuck in the miasma of layout and production, Scrap and Patrick worked on this monster book. Scrap mailed Patrick drawings and sketches, and he would turn them into monsters.

The thing about Velvet Horizon that gets overlooked, constantly, is that I chose a wide range of drawings to send to Patrick, and that variety included extremely loose sketches, more developed drawings, stuff I thought was bad, stuff I thought was good. Then whatever he responded to , he responded to, and that drawing would then go into the book. However there’s like a few entries where what he responded to was such a bizarrely small and brief drawing that I chose to draw a new drawing to go on that page, but I believe in every case the responded-to drawing is also on there too. There’s a few where the drawing responded to was something in the margins or on the back of another drawing, and I hadn’t even expected those scribbles to be up for consideration. That was all part of the experiment of that book.

Scrap Mermaid

I asked Scrap if she was like Picasso and could draw perfectly but decided that was boring. She laughed in my face. (Well, virtually.) She then went on to say:

Trying to get the hang of basics does inform my scribble style. It’s been an ongoing process of trying to draw conventionally or at least do the basics, turning out bad ugly drawings, but in the process of improving that skill, my gestural style improves as well.

Why does she draw the way she does? We can just ask her:

What has made my drawing looking like how it does is that I really struggle with the basics, especially anything informed by methodicalness and close observation. At some point in high school me and a friend were drawing our own illustrations on a print out of fairly broken fighting game rpg someone had downloaded from the early internet. I was trying to draw conventionally and it was turning out bad, and he was just going for it doing these crazy scribbles and they turned out amazing. Even when they didn’t look like what they were meant to , they still were hilarious. It was at that point that I realized if I just cut loose and scribbled and then tried to turn it into something , it would have much better results.

Veins on the Earth and her later books feature a bigger variety of types of art, but everything she does is always more abstract and impressionistic than your typical RPG drawing. The Blink Dogs and the Anitpheonix from that book are a couple of my favourite examples of her not-scribbling style.

Scrap Blink Dogs Scrap Antiphoenix

Scrap isn’t active on social media, but that doesn’t mean we should Forget about D.R.E. This post mostly exists to share some of her art, and maybe introduce her to people who weren’t around on G+ when she was more active in “the scene”. To get back to where we started, enjoy this picture from their latest Kickstarter.

Scrap Demonbones

[ed. The Demon-Bone Sarcophagus kickstarter is running till September 11th. This post began life as a thread on Twitter.]

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Review: Deep Carbon Observatory Review Reprise: Storytelling as Information Design

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on September 05, 2021

Tagged: dco patrickstuart scrapprincess osr

Dco Trilobite

Patrick and Scrap are currently running a Kickstarter for the follow-up adventure to Deep Carbon Observatory, Demon-Bone Sarcophagus, so now seems as good a time as any to talk about their work. This is easy to do, as I’m planning on running Deep Carbon Observatory (Remastered) tomorrow, it made its way from the UK to me via my brother after a good long while. When I first reviewed DCO it was simply from having read it. I have more thoughts now as I prepare to run the module and talk to other people about their experiences doing so.

Deep Carbon Observatory came out in 2014. It featured a layout that be called serviceable at best. My friend Alex ran the module a couple years later, using that original version of the game. He wrote about the inaugural session on his blog. Our conversation about how to run the game transitioned into one about the game more broadly.

From a “usability” standpoint [the original DCO] is middling to poor. The maps are hard to read, the info design is unambitious. But Patrick knows that good storytelling is a way of organizing information by sheer virtue of being interesting enough to remember. Honestly I think it’s a shot across the bow of most conventional wisdom on module writing. — Alex Chalk

I have written about how Patrick reveals information to the reader seemingly at the same pace it would end up being revealed to the player, something I think makes his books as engaging to read as to play. It’s a very unusual approach to module writing, one I don’t think anyone else follows. The remastered edition of DCO does more work to help orient the reader, but for the most part you are thrown right into the deep end.

Patrick instructs you to read the whole god damn book before you run the adventure. Maybe this is actually a really obvious thing to do with a book, but I think a lot of thinking around information design in modules is rooted in the ideas coming out of the one-page dungeon contest: you should be able to look at a particular spread and have all the information you need to get the job done. The remastered edition brings this sort of thinking to DCO, but like Silent Titans, there are key facets of the module that won’t reveal themselves to you till you get to the end of the book. In DCO Patrick coyly describes the backstory for the module with the sub-heading, “in case of Speak with Dead, use this.” This timeline is exactly the sort of thing that you’d find in the introduction to a typical OSR module.

Patrick wants you to approach understanding a module the way he does: by reading the whole thing. You’ll need to read it all at some point anyway: why not at the start? And so I did, and then felt some panic about how I would even run all of this. There is so much going on in DCO: there are the Crows, the Witch, a cannibal cult1, so many NPCs, the dam and its golem guardians, the actual Deep Carbon Observatory, etc, etc. Jesse Abelman told me to chill out: he ran the module straight from the book!2

The layout of the [new] book was great, I could easily find anything I needed so I barely did any prep between sessions. That said, I’m not surprised it was easier to run from the first edition than expected. I had the same experience with Silent Titans. I think Patrick is so good at creating juicy gameable situations and encounters that everything else almost doesn’t matter. Whatever difficulty there may be in stitching those things together because of how the book is designed is balanced by the actual content. — Jesse Abelman

Jesse’s experience mirrors my own using Silent Titans. DCO feels like there is a bit more going on across the whole module, so I’m curious to see how it plays tonight. With Silent Titans I would lean on Patrick’s writing a lot to describe the scenes, sometimes reading his prose straight to the player. (Some real OSR blasphemy, I know.) Alex mentioned doing the same to me when he was running DCO: “Another thing I’ll say about DCO is I often struggle to improvise description, but I felt I was able to tune into its voice and channel that in describing situations.”

Patrick and Scrap’s books are sometimes maligned for being more art project than gaming artifact.3 I asked Patrick about this and he felt while Scrap and him can sometimes be quite out there and imaginative, they are both keenly aware that what they are making is for a game. If one of them forgets, the other will remind them. Reading their works you can see they are fixated on the game, in a way I sometimes feel other OSR writers forget: things are gonzo, but in the service of nothing.

Judging by my own bookshelf, a lot of adventures are written, read, and never played. As someone writing modules, it’s likely important to appreciate this fact, and try and make something that manages to be compelling even if it only ever sits on a shelf. But there is more going on here: solid adventures inject their ideas into your head as if they were your own. DCO is easier to run because its elements are so compelling. The writing is not simply fanciful or an attempt at post-modern storytelling: it’s all in service of the game.

[ed. The Demon-Bone Sarcophagus kickstarter is running till September 11th.]

  1. Cannibalism features heavily in seemingly every book Patrick writes. What does it mean? Can you psychoanalyze a man via his adventures. A topic for another blog post, perhaps. 

  2. You can watch Jesse run DCO for members of the Guantlet community on YouTube. 

  3. The conversations around Fire on the Velvet Horizon sometimes felt like they missed the point. Each of those monsters is an adventure. They are all clearly designed with the game in mind, even if Scrap and Patrick aren’t smacking you over the head with hit dice and encounter powers. 

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Review: Gradient Descent

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on August 31, 2021

Tagged: mothership osr lukegearing

Gradient Descent

Is Luke Gearing too powerful? Certainly. Luke’s latest work for Tuesday Knight Games is Gradient Descent, a megadungeon written for the sci-fi horror game Mothership. The braintrust at Mothership HQ asks the question, “can you fit a megadungeon in a small zine?” Yes, apparently you can.

I may have been the first person to run the module who didn’t help play test. It has a compelling premise: a giant space station, an evil AI, Bladerunner nonsense, etc: all the good stuff. I read it and was enthralled. Brendan and Evan played a game I ran online, starting in media res, trying to flee the space station with an artifact they found “off camera”. It was a fun game. Months later I picked the module up again and started a longer campaign, which has been running for several months now. As it winds down I have lots of thoughts about this adventure.

Gradient Descent is a 64 page full colour zine: it’s a very dense 64 pages. Like all good OSR books it opens suggesting how you might use this adventure, from the basis of a campaign to something to simply hoover up ideas from. Luke explains some basic procedures of play and how the module works and then we jump right into things. There is an AI, Monarch, that controls a massive space station called The Deep. This is a huge factory complex, abandoned by its corporate overlords. Next we learn about what orbits the Deep. My Mothership campaign had the players begin in The Bell, a small retrofitted thruster that serves as a safe haven for people exploring the station. There they met a small coterie of NPCs who can help kick things off. As part of a larger campaign I would have had them try and cross a blockade to reach the station, and perhaps make friends with Commander Kilroy, another NPC with goals they might help achieve. Along with some “monsters”, these are the things outlined first. Then we move onto the “dungeon” itself, which makes up the bulk of the adventure. The Deep is huge. There are several floors, many sections, and a web of interconnections. It’s a complex and interesting dungeon. In a twisted way you can almost picture what the factory would have been like in the past. Finally the book concludes with a table of random artifacts, some super science. The back cover of the module is an “I search the body” table.

The art by Nick Tofani is wonderfully moody, often creepy. A perfect fit for this module. I would share it with my players often. Jarret Crader, the man behind all your favorite RPG books, did development editing. With a module such as this, I suspect no easy feat. Finally, Sean McCoy did the layout, and it’s a real chef kiss emoji.

The book continues a long tradition of really strong graphic and information design that feels like the most standout feature of the Mothership line. I see a lot of the design cues from one page dungeons at play here. The adventure is laid out with the two page spreads of the zine in mind. You can likely run each section of the dungeon with minimal page flipping. When I was running the adventure, from a PDF, I would normally only need to jump to the sections about the androids, ghosts in the machine, or monarch. If I had the zine in my hands I’d put some post it notes there and that would be that.1 There is so much information this book is trying to get across, and it does a remarkable job at doing just that.

The descriptions in this dungeon are terse. On the whole I think this is a positive, and is what allowed me to run my games straight out of the book. It takes you seconds to read what’s going on in any room the players have walked into. For example:

Gradient Descent Room 1

The square in the title indicates this is a large industrial scale space: you should imagine a large factory or warehouse. In my head when I read this I pictured something akin to rows of corn. To avoid being licked would take some dexterity or creativity. The scene is both horrific and cold: there heads on stakes, but everything is artificial.

Gradient Descent Room 2

What now? Again this is a huge room, but I found it harder to imagine what its deal might be, where the loop of glass was going, and what it might be for. I know you might use sand for cleaning or scouring in a factory, perhaps for making glass, but I couldn’t quite picture what Luke wanted me to take away from this scene. I do like the phrase, “a whisper magnified to a roar,” though. In a space where you maybe expect to hear the clanking and crashing of a factory, this suggests a different sort of noisy space.

Most of the time there is enough for you to improvise on top of, especially for you pro-star GMs. I’m not sure i’m quite there, so I found myself describing rooms as “large industrial spaces” a lot, or falling back on analogies of Toyota factories. I should have watched some old films and made some dungeon dressing tables. I think if there was more space that would be a nice addition to the book: examples of what these alien industrial spaces might look like. A small table of ideas might be all it takes to help cement a space in your head. I would not want to see the descriptions of the rooms themselves expanded: improvising poorly is better than discovering well into play you forgot something important buried deep in some multi paragraph description of a space. I suppose the module is really trying to get straight to the point with everything it presents. We don’t have pages and pages of backstory about The Deep. If you read the module you’ll have a good sense of what’s up, with enough space for you to inject what you want. The module is flavourful: it paints a real picture of this strange alien space, certainly at the macro level.

Gradient Descent declares itself a sprawling sci-fi megadungeon. “But Ram, what does that even mean?” I would have shrugged my shoulders, but thankfully many years ago Gus wrote a blog post musing about what makes a megadungeon both mega and good. I regret not re-reading this blog post before running my games because I think it would have informed my GMing and improved the campaign.

The Deep is split up into 11 discrete interconnected sections. This doesn’t feel like a dungeon where the intention is to fight your way through it, so level 6 isn’t more ‘difficult’ than level 1, just different. The levels vary in size, but playing online most of the meatier ones took a few sessions each to explore. I initially tried to runs the game like a traditional dungeon crawl. I was going to think about rations and light and all that nonsense. I drafted up some houserules for overloading encounter rolls to track more aspects of play, but in the end I dropped it all.  I found it awkward. I am not sure that you can simply map that D&D style of play straight onto Mothership. Stress seems to be the resource you want to worry about in the game. Occasionally room descriptions in Gradient Descent will suggest players gain stress or make stress saves, but I think something more systematic that encompasses the whole module would have been a good addition. Dungeon exploration rules that tie into the stress mechanics of Mothership would be excellent. This is certainly something I will think much more about the next time I run the game.

The Bell is presented as an obvious home base. When I ran my Carcosa campaign the players generally ended each session back in the safety of a town. This way we could rotate new players in if needed week to week, which is generally what happened. The tone of this Gradient Descent campaign would have felt different if I also required the players end each session retreating back to safety—to the Bell or some particular sections of the Deep. This feels more in line with the ethos of a megadungeon campaign, as Gus outlines. You push into the space as far as you can until you must finally fall back. You are hunting for short cuts, trying to understand the geography, making friends with factions to find new safe havens, etc. With the short online sessions I was running I didn’t think this would work. The lack of a clear resource management side to the game also has some impact here: there isn’t a need to return if you don’t really need to resupply. The sessions we played ended up primarily being about exploring the weird space. We would pick up where we left off each session. And that’s perfectly fine, to be honest. There is enough there for it to be a fun experience, but you can do that and much more!

If I could go back I would have certainly prepped more! I am out of practice running games. This module is so well put together it fools you into thinking you can pick it up and just play. (And to be clear, you can, as I have just noted. Ha!) I just think I could have run a more compelling campaign if I had put in a bit more effort. I can picture something stronger! Mind you, no one is or was complaining: the players seemed to enjoy themselves and I certainly did. But maybe there are some lessons for you to do better than me:

This sort of advice would have been good to include in the procedures of play that open the book. I think a much longer section on how to use the book most effectively would be great for new DMs, and honestly old ones like me. I’m not sure running a megadungeon is quite the same as running a normal dungeon, and so a few words discussing how you might approach things differently would have been great.

Overall my gripes are far outweighed by the creativity on display. In these Covid-times I had lost my energy when it came to playing RPGs, but reading this adventure really grabbed me and got my excited about gaming again. Most importantly it did what it said on the box: I ran this giant dungeon crawl for several months with the most half-assed of prep. This is the stuff dreams are made of: truly wondrous.

[ed. This review originally appeared in my friends’ review blog Bones of Contention.]

  1. I am weirdly cheap about shipping, so my copy of this zine had been sitting with my brother in NYC for the last year and change. Of course, it arrived in Toronto just as I wrapped up running things. 

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The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming 2021

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on August 05, 2021

Tagged: osr dnd awards mothership bastionland uvg

The Ennies are in September? I need to remember to not set my clock to the Teen Choice Awards of the RPG scene. Fear not, the awards you care about are beholden to no gaming convention, large or small. 2021 zooms by and was honestly kind of a garbage year as well. These are still dark times, but perhaps a little brighter, thanks to the power of science at the very least. And certainly in terms of RPG books 2021 is shaping up to be another good year. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming are here to make sure we stop and take notice of those books that were published so long ago you might ask yourself, “Why is Ramanan talking about them now?” Each year I create my short list of contenders, the books I think stood out over the entirety of the previous calendar year. Then I argue with the selection committee for months about which 3 books are those most notable in a field where there are many notable books. There aren’t many rules for these awards, but if there is one, it’s that there can only be 3 books.

Best Game: Electric Bastionland by Chris McDowall and Alec Sorenson.

Awards 2021 Electric Bastionland

“Players don’t need to read the rules if they don’t want to. They are simple enough to be learned during play.” Chris McDowall gets right to the heart of it with his followup to Into the Odd. Electric Bastionland is minimalist and terse. D&D stripped to the bone. The game is described in a handful of pages. The rest of the book is setting by way of backgrounds. They are funny and flavourful. The book concludes with advice for running the game: equally well done. The sort of gaming advice you can pick up and take with you elsewhere. Direct and to the point. Pragmatic. It’s quite impressive. The book like the game is beautiful. Alec Sorenson has done an incredible job bringing the setting to life.

Best Setting Book: Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City by Luka Rejec.

Awards 2021 UVG

I was a member of Luka’s Patreon at its inception. He would post his art on G+ and I liked looking at all his drawings so it seemed like a natural thing to do. He would mail out updates to his setting, which I might skim, but would mostly file away to read later. Except that later never came until the book arrived at my door. What a wonderful and imaginative setting. I feel like you can flip to any random page and be presented with some amazing science-fantasy. Like all good OSR visionaries, Luka did all the writing, art and design for the book. Incredible, right?

The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Books of 2020: Gradient Descent by Luke Gearing, Nick Tofanni, Jarrett Crader, and Sean McCoy.

Awards 2021 UVG

I am in the middle of writing a review of this adventure. I ran it the moment it came out, and again as part of a longer campaign. In a year when I was so demotivated when it came to tabletop gaming, Gradient Descent got me out of my rut, excited to play, and then facilitated my playing by making an adventure that was so simple to run. The braintrust at Mothership HQ asks the question, “Can you fit a megadungeon in a small zine?” Yes, apparently you can. Luke Gearing has delivered the goods. Sean McCoy has done a fantastic job of presenting such a complex space in a way that you can run straight from the zine. Really strong graphic and information design continues to be the most standout feature of the Mothership line. Jarrett Crader did the editing on the book, I assume no small feat given how dense the book is. Finally Nick Tofani’s art is wonderfully moody, often creepy. A perfect fit for this module, I would share it with my players often. Gradient Descent is the good stuff.

Honourable Mentions

Lots of love to Prison of the Hated Pretender by Gus L; Pound of Flesh by Sean McCoy, Donn Stroud, and Luke Gearing; Ordure Fantasy by Michael Raston; Acid Death Fantasy also by Luke Gearing (WTF); Stygian Library Remastered by Emmy Allen; Sunken by Mike Martens; and Lorn Song of the Bachelor by Zedeck Siew. Prison of the Hated Pretender is the best introductory adventure to OSR play, and I was happy to see it revised and updated. Gus has been releasing modules at a real tear in 2021, and I’m excited to see what he puts out next.

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The Tension of Kingdom Death

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on December 05, 2020

Tagged: kingdomdeath miniatures boardgames

Kingsman Fight

Kingdom Death is a game where you can be playing spectacularly, and then roll a 1 on a random table and lose your star survivor. Frustrating, certainly, it’s happened to me! But, it can also be memorable and fun. I remember with much amusement Evan losing our best survivor to a bad roll on the Dark Dentist settlement event during our first campaign. Coming at the game with the mindset of an RPG player I find the randomness of the game’s story events enjoyable. When it works well, it brings the setting to life. But, if you are coming at this game with the perspective of a more serious board game player, these events are likely going to frustrate or feel half-baked.

A lot of the meta-game in Kingdom Death seems tied to mitigating and minimizing how the randomness of the game might effect you. The more you play your meta-knowledge about the game increases. You know what weapons to bring on a particular hunt that will work well against a particular monster. You know which survivors you’ll need to bring because they might be effective against some nemesis you’re facing. People learn what settlement events exist and groom survivors to handle them or take the fall as need be. You know what story events are coming up and what you might need to prepare to avoid dire results. Kingdom Death becomes a game of minimizing risk divorced from any ‘story’ that might be emerging through play.

In the past I’d have argued approaching the game with this mindset feels like it’s missing the point. The random death and destruction all feeds into the aesthetics of the game. The game is bleak. Your characters all end up maimed or dead. There is a steady level of attrition and death the game wants you to experience: and it is trying very hard to make sure you experience it!

The thing is, Kingdom Death is really hard. There is a real tension between the RPG side of the game and the tactical board game side. To really succeed in the game you do need to meta-game. You fight each monsters several times, and while the fights will generally be quiet different, you will always learn something useful to help you next time you face them. Beyond that, you need to be so careful with how you spend your resources as you only have so many Lantern Years to build up your settlement and survivors before tougher Nemesis monsters show up to try and take you down a peg. There is no winning this game without a lot of really serious strategizing. You certainly won’t make it far if you aren’t trying to make the optimal choice each step of the way. The game design feels like it encourages this behaviour. Some of the final fights are so tough if you haven’t been on the ball the entire time you’ll likely lose.

I have been playing my recent solo campaigns with a real eye to win. But I will still lose a survivor on the hunt and shake my fists and message my friends to lament their death. It’s still fun! It all shapes the story of my settlement. But, I know not everyone agrees here. When people criticize this game from a game design and mechanics perspective, this feels like the area they hone in on: “The hunt table is too random and stupid.”

But if you don’t mind being eaten by a giant worm once in a while, I think this game is pretty great.

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Covid Kingdom Death

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on December 02, 2020

Tagged: kingdomdeath miniatures boardgames

I am wondering if I should set up Kingdom Death and play a campaign. I just can’t imagine running all four characters. On the other hand this seems like the ideal time to play. - Me, March 28th, 2020.

Almost exactly a year prior my friends and I met and started a new campaign. I hadn’t opened the box since, having other things to occupy myself and my time. But now it was March and everyone was trapped at home. I was trapped with an expensive-as-all-hell board game designed so it could be played solo. This was my time! Two weeks later I laid out the game on the floor of my office and started playing.

Kingdom Death Floor

The previous campaign my friends and I played ended in tragedy during Lantern Year 11, the few survivors of Lion’s Fall succumbing (ironically) to a White Lion. We played that campaign over 2 years, give or take, meeting every few weeks and then months. 11 sessions over the course of 2 years is a very leisurely pace. In April I was playing daily, making it to Lantern Year 20 in about two weeks! This was frantic!

My pace slowed down slightly. I beat the previous big boss of the game, the Watcher in May. I beat the final version of The Butcher, one of the tougher nemesis monsters shortly after. And then I paused and went outside. It was the summer. (I mean, I also played a ton of GRIMLITE, honestly.)

Kingdom Death Watcher

But I wasn’t done. In October the weather was getting colder, and the siren song of this game returned. My settlement was quite decimated after facing the Watcher and the Butcher. I had a handful of survivors, old and battered, and a handful of survivors too young and fresh faced to face the monsters I needed to fight. Each fight was now hours of careful strategy, usually ending in death. My settlement was marching to its end. I messaged some friends:

Lantern Year 27: A plague infects the settlement and we need to fight the Level 3 Kingsman. So this is likely the end of the road for this group. What a journey!

I had one survivor left. She was killed on the first turn: 5 hits, 3 to her body. Rough.

Kingdom Death New Campaign

I am in the middle of a new campaign now. I added some of the expansions I picked up during the Kickstarter. Some extra variety and new monsters too face seemed like it would be fun. In hindsight I regret not picking up more expansions during the Kickstarter. I had avoided the Gorm, another monster you can fight in your first lantern year, and so a good alternative to the White Lion, because I thought the model looked so goofy. A mistake! That content would have been so useful now, as I find myself playing so much of this game.

Kingdom Death takes up a comical amount of space. Playing on the floor is back breaking, and i’m not sure why I’ve not just moved things down to a table ages ago. (I suppose being able to leave things set up if I like is nice) I started off with paper character sheets and a settlement record, as usual, but quickly found the setup unwieldy. Enter Scribe stage right, an electronic record keeper for the game. I don’t think I’d have been able to play as much as I did without it. I use Scribe plus physical gear grids to play and things work relatively well. Playing the game alone is still a challenge. It’s hard to keep track of everything each survivor can do, for example, but overall things work well.

One thing you lose playing alone is the having no one to commiserate with over terrible dice rolls, or cheer with when you manage to pull of something epic. The game is so swingy and punishing, its fun to experience that with others. Playing alone has felt more like playing a fancy board game than playing my earlier campaign with a group, that felt like a mix of game and RPG. In our first campaign we lost Evan’s character, our best surivour, to the dark dentist due to a bad dice roll. It was really funny, his character’s skull became a helmet we would wear for the rest of the campaign. A good moment, but not sound strategy!

Since I wrote my last review Kingdom Death has only gotten even more difficult to purchase. A shame. Though it sounds like a big re-print is coming in 2021. To quote myself once more:

It seems obnoxious to recommend people go buy a game famous for both being very expensive and also always out of stock. That said, you should find this game. I suspect if you like the junk I like—D&D, Dark Souls, fun, etc—then you’ll like this game.

I feel this even more acutely now. This board game is very expensive, an honest to god money hole. But, I think it’s worth that money if you are into these sorts of tactical boardgames. It’s such an interesting and compelling game, one that still feels fresh as I ready myself for my 58th game.

Kingdom Death Floor

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Review: Acid Death Fantasy

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on September 24, 2020

Tagged: troika lukegearing osr carcosa darksun

Acid Death Fantasy

Is Luke Gearing too powerful? Perhaps. Luke’s latest book for the Melesonnia Art Council is Acid Death Fantasy, and it’s kind of hot. A setting book for the award winning Troika. Luke asks the question, “can you distill a setting down to a list of backgrounds, a list of monsters, and a really boss cover?” Let’s find out!

This book describes a fantasy world reminiscent of Dune, Dark Sun, Carcosa, or your other favourite fantasy desert pastiche. A short introduction, a little over a page of text, sketches the world for the reader. It’s enough to give you a sense of what’s going on: there is an opulent mega-city, smaller sultanates orbiting it, water is rare, nomads stalk the desert, there is a jungle full of sentient apes, lizard men, rotting giant mecha, basically all the good stuff.

All the Troika backgrounds help shape the world. Some are brief moments of specificity, like the Coated Man, a knight of sorts, doomed to an early death while covered in a sheet of plastic armour. Others hint at the nature of world, like the Refugee of the Past, a person waking up in this post-apocalypse. Many will help shape your particular game or campaign, like the Deposed Sultan, whose possessions included an adversary, and the title of one of The Thousand Sultanates. Almost all the backgrounds ask questions of the player in a way I think is both simple and useful when starting an open ended game.

In the monster’s section we learn of a world where Freshwater Grub’s plot grand schemes and criminal enterprise, giant worms like in Dune travel the desert, Warflock stalk the desert committing banditry with laser guns, and the husks of great ruined mecha mark the land. Once again the world is detailed in broad strokes, sometimes with strange specifics, sometimes with elements that are very open ended.

But then it all ends! A small list of things to do with this setting and a simple sultanate generator and we are done. I would have liked to have seen the map of the setting described more, like the hex map of Carcosa. More random tables to flesh out hte setting, perhaps. But the approach he took is clearly purposeful, mirroring that of Troika itself.

David Hoskins’ art in this book is really great. I wish like Troika proper all the backgrounds were illustrated! I would would have loved to see art for a Coated Man, Dune Rider, or Narrowman Nomad, to name a few. The same can be said of the monsters. This is a terse book, so more art would help flesh out some of the details of the setting, though perhaps that would calcify things that were meant to be up to the GM to think about.

This book was £26 to my door—that’s like a million Canadian dollars. Honestly, for 36 Monsters and 36 Backgrounds it feels like a lot of cash. Right? But, it’s a full colour hardback book. And it’s good—hard to put a price on that. I mean, at this point I would get anything Luke makes. He’s a safe bet. I enjoyed reading this book. Now I have got to play!

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Review: Song of Blades and Heroes

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on September 20, 2020

Tagged: wargame skirmish minis 28mm sobah

Sobah Skirmish

Played a game of Song of Blades and Heroes today because the D&D Encounters game I was expecting to play wasn’t starting till next week. It was the first war game I’ve played since high school. (And high school was a very long time ago now.) Skirmish games are fun. Tempted to get some miniatures. - Me, 25th October 2012, on G+ (RIP)

Many years ago I would attend D&D Encounters on the same night the Toronto Historical Wargaming Club would host their meet-ups. I would hang out and chat with the club members before and after my D&D games. On one such occasion I ended up playing A Song of Blades and Heroes, which was such a charming game I went out and grabbed the PDF. I never played again, but liked it so much I also bought the book in print a few years later. Fast forward a million years and I am stuck at home with a pretty healthy collection of painted minis. So, I decided to make war bands out of my Warhammer Underworld miniatures and play games: Ram vs. Ram.

A Song of Blades and Heroes by Andrea Sfiligoi is a dead simple skirmish game. You play battles between war bands comprised of about 5-15 miniatures. The game can be played quickly, something I never managed to accomplish playing Kill Team with Evan.

Units have two attributes: Quality and Combat. They may optionally have a few special traits that impact the rules, like “flying” or “savage”. Everything about a character is abstracted into these two attributes and these traits. Even different weapons are undifferentiated. People who like a lot of customization may find it a bit disappointing. I find it refreshing. Making your own units is easy. There is a simple point calculator online so you can make your own units that are balanced against everything in the book and everything else you might make. It’s remarkably easy to make units that feel the way you want them to feel.

The game has an unusual turn structure. On your turn you need to ‘activate’ a model to use it by rolling up to 3 dice. Each roll equal to or greater than the unit’s quality is a success, otherwise it’s a failure. Each success lets you perform an action with the unit: move, fight, etc. If you roll 2 failures you don’t get to activate any additional models and play flips to your opponent. You can obviously play it safe and only roll 1 dice, but you won’t accomplish much. It’s satisfying rolling 3 dice and getting those 3 successes; surprising when you roll snake eyes with your high quality unit.

This is (basically) all there is to the game: that simplicity!

Andrea has built many games on top of this chasis. There is a slightly more advanced version of a Song of Blades and Heroes, with a name you can likely guess, and then a million variations with names you likely can’t. His catalogue of games is all over the place. He’s an impressive and prolific game designer.

I love this game and I can’t recommend it enough, but I would be remiss if I didn’t spend a small amount of time moaning about the books frumpy layout and information design: it’s frumpy. I feel like a good editor and graphic design person could turn this book into something superlative. As it stands, it gets the job done.

Anyway, I am reviewing the game not the book. The game is fucking great. If you are interested in miniature war games this is the one to grab.

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The Brazilian OSR

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on August 15, 2020

Tagged: OSR Brazil BOSR

Scott Malthouse, the author of Romance of the Perilous Land, started a cute thing on Twitter where he encouraged people to share retro gaming books from Britain with the hashtag #BOSR—British OSR. It’s fun seeing pictures of old Games Workshop books and art, Fighting Fantasy, Russ Nicholson art, etc. I posted a picture Grail Quest, a serious #BOSR deep cut. But, what if the #BOSR was the Brazilian OSR?

I’m not sure how I stumbled on the OSR scene in Brazil, but it’s there and it feels like it’s having a moment. I think I started following the artist and designer Diogo on Twitter first. He’s made several games and will share his work in progress artwork. He also shares the works of other people in the scene, and slowly I have found more artists and designers working out of Brazil making games, or doing graphic design and art.

I picked up Pacts and Blades first, by Lucas Romlin. A minimalist RPG for you to play Moorcockian inspired fantasy stories. I don’t think I need more RPGs, but this one has stunning graphic design, and makes effective use of public domain art and paintings. Lucas tweeted about his friend Guilherme Gontijo’s game Into the Bronze. Gontijo was the graphic designer for Pacts and Blades, and this game shared its sharp design. I saw he was using Hex Kit to make funky maps and was obviously intrigued. Into the Bronze is a complete reimagining of Into the Odd as a game for playing Sumerian’s during the Bronze Age He has lots of games that look interesting, but I must pace myself!

The next thing I picked up was Escape from Station 52, a solo card game, by Emanoel Melo. I don’t think my printer is nice enough to print the cards, but it looked cool. Again, I’m not sure who shared the game with me, but I shared it joking I could get far just tweeting about Brazilian games. Emanoel tagged their friends in a reply, and I learned of the artist’s Bakto and Alex Damaceno. Alex is redoing Keep on the Bordlands, one page at a time, and the results look amazing.

Alex shared the work their friend Victor Amorim was doing, calling it Hollow Knight crossed with Into the Odd. I love Hollow Knight, and know many other gamers that enjoy that video game, so I let them know this game called Carapace exists. A friend replied, “Carapace has the most direct built in RPG goal I’ve ever seen (without being something like Lady Blackbird): you are getting Marble to build a cannon to shoot a Marble Titan.” It’s true!

Who knows what I am missing. I don’t speak Portuguese. There is likely a whole world of Brazilian gaming I haven’t seen or found yet. Still, it is interesting for me in Toronto to have this small window into what’s happening far from my home. Hopefully for you too.

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The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming 2020

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on July 29, 2020

Tagged: osr dnd awards pbta

Normally I start off with some jab at the Ennies, but this year is too garbage to take cheap shots at anyone, least of all the Teen Choice Awards of the RPG scene. No, we should be positive and celebrate when we can. These are dark times.

The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming exist to highlight truly standout RPG books. Each year it is a battle to whittle down my long list of books to a short list, and that short list down to the 3 books that will claim the accolades and fame. These choices are never easy. The arguments I have with myself are fierce. Still, this work must be done, because for reasons I can’t remember anymore I decided I’d only call out 3 books each year.

The books in contention arrived at my doorstep, or digitally in my inbox, during 2019. Before the Pandemic. A life time ago! Other than that it’s really the Wild West with these awards. Will the categories be the same as last year? Read on to find out!

Best One Page Dungeons Collected into a Fancy Book: Trilemma Adventure Compendium by Michael Prescott.

Awards 2020 Tilemma

Is it appropriate to give an award to someone I play D&D with here in Toronto? Of course it is: this book is great.1 Michael has collected all the one page dungeons he has made over the years—the ones with the cool isometric maps—redone the layout to make them all the more wonderful, and thrown in a bunch of extra tables and setting material and monsters and so much more to round out what would already have been an excellent book. This thing is dense and full of adventure. Great for campaigns or gaming emergencies!

Best Settings and Adventure: Patrick Stuart and Dirk Detweiler Leichty for Silent Titans (with layout by Christian Kessler and editing by Fiona Maeve Geist)

Awards 2020 Silent Titans

Silent Titans is really quite incredible. Patrick’s writing, Dirk’s art, and Christian jamming the art and writing together have resulted in a really stunning book: pretty enough for a coffee table! The world Patrick describes and Dirk illustrates in his abstract style is so thoroughly weird and unique. I was worried it was perhaps too weird: how do you even run this thing? But no, that was a foolish concern! I’ve been running this adventure straight from the book! It’s worked out great. The world we were promised.

The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Books of 2019: Zombie World by Brendan Conway and Mark Diaz Truman

Awards 2020 Zombie World

It had to be Zombie World. I love this game! I’ve been obsessed with it for ages now. Zombie World is not really a book, I suppose. Like a game from days of yore, it came in a box with cards and markers and play mats. No matter! Zombie World is such a simple and well executed game. At its core it’s just another Powered by the Apocalypse game, but somehow all the bits and bobs that make the game come together so perfectly. It’s the most OSR Powered by the Apocalypse game. You heard it here first! I’ve ran it a handful of times and it was so effortless and enjoyable. Zombie World is the game you should all be playing. Yes, you!

Honourable Mentions

All my love to Mork Borg by Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr; Girl Underground by Lauren McManamon and Jesse Ross; Dirk’s Mystery Zine (that would became Super Blood Harvest) by Dirk Detweiler Leichty; The Demon Collective Volume 1 by David Shugars, Camilla Greer, Comrade Pollux, and Mabel Harper and Fungi of the Far Realms Alex Clements and Shuyi Zhang. Mork Borg has a special place in my heart for being such a wonderful OSR throwback, but with some fucking blinding and beautiful graphic design.

I fought the urge to give all the awards to Warcry. Games Workshop didn’t disappoint. Chef’s Kiss Emoji. Painting miniatures is keeping me sane while the world implodes.

  1. I’m not sure you will ever get impartial judging with these awards. Is that something people even want? I assume not. We already have the Ennies where we decide awards using the power of aggregation. 

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