Sunday, January 22, 2017

Tanith and Stuff

Warning: I say naughty words and talk about sex in this one.

Haven't posted too much on ole G+ in recent days. So what have I been up to, besides hitting FB with political posts? What's the status? What's the scoop?

I haven't dived into Black Pudding #3 yet. I have 7 or 8 finished pages that MIGHT go in there, but they MIGHT go into their own book. I haven't made up my mind. It's part of a sandbox setting that would not fit in an issue. Maybe I'll dish it out one part at a time. I don't know.

I'm doing a bit of commission work and thinking about slowing down on it so I can focus on my own stuff. I'm always happier when I'm doing my own thing. Call me selfish. I like to do what I like to do and I don't like to do what I don't like to do. And while commissions are fun and I love getting my work out there to more eyes I sometimes feel hemmed in or dragged down when I have several on my plate at the same time. I've never been cut out for that kind of work like so many other great artists seem to be.

My good friend Cyd is running a Penny Hack for us on Mondays, which is probably wrapping up soon. At that point I will ask my cohorts to indulge me once again and dive into a campaign that is largely inspired by mixing up Tanith Lee, Robert E. Howard, Frank Frazetta, and Richard Corben. Some good ole S&S in a project I've been calling Dead Wizards (or Kanebok... not sure how it will appear yet). I ran this once before and it was nice but this is a totally revamped version. Trying some ideas. Breaking the old game down and working from its bones to make a new toy. If all goes well, this will be one of my 2017 publishing projects.

And, while I'm on it, I just gotta say Tanith Lee is fantastic. And queer as fuck, as my friend put it. I read Death's Master when I was 14. Have you read Death's Master? Homosexuality, attraction to cross eyed people, necrophilia, and a sex-shifting hero. It's no wonder I was so comfortable in my 20s drawing boobs and bits. Any inhibitions I had about whether or not sex was an appropriate topic for fantasy were destroyed by Lee's verbosity.

I'm currently enjoying Night's Master (the first book of the Flat Earth series) on audio. It's been many years since I read it. I had forgotten just how twisted it could be. You get demon-on-mortal sex right there in part one and then a dwarf-like demon (the Drin...sort of like duerger I think) fucks a giant spider. Yeah.

I mean, these are not porn books. They are not titillating. They don't get you off. These are dark, twisted faerie tales. Lee weaves wondrous, luscious, beautiful tapestries in her books. Each tale blends into the next, linking characters across space and time. This is where I got my great love for mythological or fable-like settings. IN my own broader fantasy setting, for example, there are a set of core entities. There are 12 of them, more-or-less. They are the gods and demons of the ancient world and they show up in nearly all my work. The Worm Witch, mother of 100 Dooms, was in Pan-Gea and again in a little sci-fi comic I did called Red Path. And she has been mentioned in numerous Labyrinth Lord games I've ran. When I run little one-offs I talk about Black Wing, the Bringer of Death. Or Hunter-Raven, also known as Frimm, God of War and the North. I talk of Nexus the World Tree and Sun and Moon. All of these beings linked together in a single narrative but split across many worlds.

This I owe to Tanith Lee's brilliant Tales From the Flat Earth series. Dark and delightful they are indeed.

Lots more to say about Tanith Lee's influence. But not tonight.

Thursday, December 29, 2016


Fighters don't need much. Their great strength is in their lack of limitations. They can use any weapon, wear any armor, and they have the best attack rolls in the game.

But hey... here are some bennies for fighters that kinda make sense to me.

Cleave or Combat Dominance: Kill a bastard, make another attack. Limit equals level.

Attack and Attack Again: At level 9 you get 2 attacks per round.

Weapon Focus: You practice your ass off and gain +1 to hit and damage with a single type of weapon.

The Vera Rule: You can forgo the weapon focus advantage and pick an actual, single, specific weapon item that you love oh so much and oil it and clean it and lick it... and gain +2 to hit and damage with that specific weapon. You MUST use a weapon for 1 full level before you can rightly name it as your Vera... so don't lose it.


Ye olde cleric suffers from but one underlying problem. It is a class that screams out for religious specificity but it is generic as hell. Are we seriously to believe that priests of Kindheart the Good have the exact same restrictions and spell lists as priests of Cutheart the Wicked? I don't think so.

And sure, the text of some versions of the game will tell you to use your common sense and limit spells that might appear to be evil to those clerics of evil deities. And that's fine and dandy. But what about this ban on edged weapons? Clerics of Slitty the God of Knives can't use knives?

Like the thief, the cleric has has its fair share of debate and house rules over the years. And this is another example, in my opinion, where the Second Edition of the game really seemed to address the problem and kinda got it right. If you haven't read the 2e description of the Priest in a while you should check it out. The whole thing about spheres of influence is a bit fiddly for me and kinda restrains things but it's a valiant effort to make priests more interesting to play (for the record, the “cleric” is the generic priest class of 2e... the good old class we all know and love).

I'm not breaking new ground here. But this is how I handle clerics and how I'll be handling them moving forward. The stuff I'm rattling on about below is not always clearly defined. This is because each campaign may have a totally different set of gods or a different way of interacting with divinity, if at all. If the thief is a specialist who is self-determined, the cleric is a specialist who is utterly constrained in their choices once they make the choice to follow a path of worship and service to a higher power. Those constraints should be tailored to suit the campaign if you want the reveal a fuller range of the cleric's great potential as a character class.

Anyhow... this is what I do...

PRAYER ROLL: Clerics have to pray for spells. I allow them to choose any spell from their list without preparing them ahead of time. Instead, they pray in the heat of the moment for miracles! This is a huge benefit. It turns your spell list into a Swiss Army knife, though you still have the same number of spell slots.

The catch is you have to pray for the power in order to cast it. So the player rolls a d6 and on a result of 1 the gods are deaf, ambivalent, or downright snobbish and refuse to grant the power. The spell does not work.

I fooled around with fiddly rules that would account for falling out of favor, changing the die type up or down. But in the end I think that sort of thing works best if left entirely up to DM fiat. If the cleric is acting obviously out of alignment with their god, then the DM could change the failure range to 1-2 on a d6 until the cleric atones and corrects their behavior.

In the first campaign I ran using this rule I had a situation or two in which the cleric was in very good favor and I either waived the prayer roll for one or two spells or I had the player roll a d8 instead. But those rules are not codified and I don't think they should be.

SPECIFICITY: If I'm running a one-shot at a con or something like that I'll just use the cleric as-written (with the prayer roll). But when I'm doing a campaign or I have more time for prep I want deity-specific clerics. What makes the priestess of Jeff the God of Chairs functionally different from the priest of Bonan the God of Beheading? If there's no functional difference then the religions become all color... kind of meaningless in game terms.

So I'll usually do one or two or all of the things below in order to define a cleric of god X vs. a cleric of god Y.

  1. Change the turn undead power to something else. Maybe it doesn't make as much sense for a priest of the god of machines to turn undead. Instead, maybe they control golems and automatons using the same rules. In my home campaign, the clerics of Frimm the War God can summon the spirits of slain warriors to fight with them instead of turning undead.
  2. Change the banned weapons. It makes sense to limit weapons and armor if it seems like the god in question would care about those things. So play with that idea. I have one cleric sub-class who worship an evil deity that only allows them to tote specially cursed ritual daggers. Another sub-class worshiping a god of tricks and thievery may only pack small weapons that are easily hidden.
  3. Limit the spell list. This one seems simple but can lead to more work than you expect. Depending on how vast your cleric spell list is, you might find it hard to come up with appropriate spells in the right numbers. You might have to... invent new spells! I heartily encourage you to do so. After all, doesn't it make sense that Jibber the God of Babbling has a handful of spells related to talking? And why would a priestess of Rikki the God of Mongooses have any interest in turning sticks into snakes?
  4. Set requirements for the cleric that aren't related to spells or combat. A cleric is not a priest of the temple required to be in attendance day in and day out but they ARE a representative of the god abroad. So they MUST show people what their god is all about. That might require proselytizing, preaching, and cajoling for new converts. Or they might belong to a secret order and might actually hide the fact that they are a cleric at all. They might merely be required to spend x turns per day making a sacrifice or reading a sacred text. If you feel like you've given the cleric a few too many bennies in other areas you can hit them hard with daily requirements and restrictions on behavior. See the classic paladin class or maybe even the cavalier for examples of that. Of course it CAN get silly if you go too far... a cleric of Jeff the God of Chairs should not be required to sit in every chair they find... right? Hmmm....

I guess the trick is to play an intuitive balancing game with the cleric if you're going to make each one god-specific. Personally, I TRY to keep the standard cleric XP table intact no matter what I do. So all clerics advance at the same rate and have the same number of spells. Then I just try to make sure each one's special strengths are balanced against the others. You don't have to do it that way, but that's what I choose.

And ain't that the great thing about screwing around with this game?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


Disclaimer: This is not the first time I've talked about thieves nor is this topic a rarity in the OSR community. It seems there is something about the good ole thief that begs for attention.

So the B/X thief sucks. In fact, all the versions of the thief sucked. Somebody didn't want a first level thief to be any good at sneaking around and stealing things. Oh sure, the XP is cheap, but those 15% and 20% skill ranks are not going to make anyone swoon.

Second edition made a valiant effort to address this glaring problem by granting players the ability distribute “discretionary points” between the various skills at each level. I believe second edition's method is leaps and bounds better than any other early edition. It made playing a thief far more interesting as each PC felt personalized. I would actually use the 2e thief over any of the others any day of the week!

But my flavor is basic. And thus Labyrinth Lord. So naturally I house rule it.

I'm a bit of a stickler for keeping as much of the original intact as possible and adding as few new things as necessary. For the thief, I added more than I normally would. But the thief is the original skills-based class so why not indulge a little?

Here are the two rules I apply to Labyrinth Lord and B/X thieves. The first rule actually applies to ALL old school thieves, in my games at least.

ONE: The General Rule of Thief Skills is Skills Bypass Risk

When the thief makes a skill roll they are attempting to do the task so well that there's no possibility of failure.

If Dirty Durk the thief rolls a 5 against his crappy 20% Move Silently skill guess what? He makes no noise. At all. Nothing can POSSIBLY hear him.

But if Dirty Durk fails that roll what does that tell us? He failed to avoid risk. He wasn't successful at using his skill. He wasn't SILENT. It doesn't mean he was actually heard. What you should do then is follow the normal protocol you would follow for any other class. Maybe make a hear noise check for monsters or just wing that mother. Whatever works for Nadia the Scarlet Mage in this case also works for Dirty Durk.

Don't be a dick and say “You failed your Move Silently roll. The trolls heard you coming down the corridor like a falling piano.” Unless, maybe, Dirty Durk rolled a 100 or something like that.

TWO: I Give Thieves Bennies

I have a short list of thief specialties. I will let thieves pick 2 to start with and 1 at every odd level (3, 5, 7, etc.). It makes each thief different in significant ways by giving the player meaningful choices. It makes thieves sexier... as other games figured out (DCC, Lamentations, etc.).

Here are the thief's specialties. Some may be selected multiple times (stacking). Also note that I do use the elegant Advantage/Disadvantage system from 5e. In case you have been living under a rock, this is just shorthand for rolling twice and keeping the better or worse roll, depending.

Acrobat: Dex check to do stunts or leaps and avoid being slowed down by terrain or being pinned.

Arcane: Can cast Read Magic once per day in order to read and cast spells from arcane scrolls. Must pass a saving throw vs. Spells to successfully cast. Stacking adds one more casting of Read Magic.

Assassin: Backstab damage is increased by x1. Stack for additional x1 each.

Blades: Damage with daggers and knives is increased to d6. Can stack one time to gain Advantage on dagger and knife damage.

Fast Talker: Advantage on Reaction Rolls.

Forgery: Copy any normal document or mimic handwriting with Dex check. Attempt to copy arcane spell scroll by making a save vs. Spells minus the spell level per spell to be copied. Takes 1 week per spell per spell level. Failing a roll with a 1 indicates some nasty mojo and ill luck to follow.

Goon: Advantage on hit point rolls at each new level.

Knife Thrower: Range on thrown knife, dagger, or shuriken is doubled. Stack for +1 to hit.

Lucky: Advantage on two rolls per day. Stack for additional Advantage roll.

Misdirection: Sleight-of-hand tricks with cards, coins, rabbits. Can confuse 1d6 onlookers on failed save vs. Spells, causing them to lose an action. Can confuse opponent in combat on failed save vs. Spells, allowing backstab damage on hit (once).

Skill Focus: Advantage on one thief skill. Stack for more skills.

Slippery: AC is improved by 2 for one round if employing defense only. Stacking improves by 1.

Spider Climber: Can climb across horizontal surfaces such as ceilings same as any other wall. Also, Advantage on climbing rolls.

Thug: Knock out target on blunt weapon backstab. Save vs. Paralysis negates. Knockout time = margin of the failed save times thief level.

Ventriloquism: Throw voice up to level x 10'.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016


OK Ookla... play it cool...
OSR games are mostly about exploration, combat, and acquiring treasure. Mostly. And let's be honest. People who enjoy playing Labyrinth Lord are pretty much in it for the adventure, not the realism. And they damn sure aren't there for love.

But it could be loads of fun to inject some romance into the game, right? I mean we joke about it all the time. My players are constantly running these little background arcs in-character in which they have crushes on NPCs and even other PCs. It is usually played up for comedy.

But in the last post I mentioned the Big Nasty Table of Messy Stuff. On that table could be a simple line such as “You are madly in love.”

You get that result, and there's a sub-table. Maybe it has stuff like “In love with noble or princess.” or “Your love interest is a paid killer.” or “You are mad for a wizard but too scared to reveal it.”

I would allow such a player to opt out of the sub-table and choose to be in love with an even scarier person: a fellow PC. By choosing a PC to be in love with they would earn maybe 500 bonus XP. Not a bad thing for a starting character. If you're a thief, you're nearly halfway to level 2 already!

Of course, you gotta check your context. What kind of players do you have? If you're gaming with all kids, it's a crush. Puppy love. “Oooo... you LIKE him.”. If it's all adults it can be more than that. If it's a mix of adults and kids, don't use romance at all. I would substitute something deliberately funny like “You are in love with beer.”

And how might a lovestruck PC act? You could KISS it (keep it simple stupid). When the player acts toward their love interest in a way that seems less than charitable ("Eh, I let her get eaten by the grue while I try to find a way out.") you could require the PC to pass a saving throw vs. Spells. On a failed roll, their actions cannot go against the other character. If they are in trouble, the PC has to help.

Yeah. So now I'm probably going to write some of these ideas up for Black Pudding. And do the Big Nasty Table of Messy Stuff.

This is what happens when I have a week off from work.

Character Perks

When running Labyrinth Lord or B/X I like to allow players to choose one thing that is special about their new PC. This could be a special item, contact, spell, power, knowledge, or just about anything else they can dream up. I don't quantify the quality. We haggle over it. I have in mind the kind of limit I want. It should be something that I don't think would break my game. They tell me in words what they want and they make suggestions on how it should work, mechanically. I consider it, make any necessary tweaks to the mechanics, and roll with it.

This has a few awesome benefits. First, it gives players a really fast buy-in to their new PC. But it isn't oppressive. It doesn't require a backstory novella, just a single line or two about one thing. That single line or two gives me windows into the new PCs' world that I can use in building the campaign. And if one of them dies, so what? That tidbit of information that helped guide the campaign is still valid. It still stands. We don't have to abandon it because the character to which it was originally attached is no more. If there was a kingdom of rat people beneath the city before the PC died those rat people are still there.

Here are a couple of examples from the last campaign I ran.

-A PC witch who as actually three witches. The Strange Sisters. The player's idea was that the sisters would always be holding hands and would act as one. So he still got one attack per round, casting one spell per round, moving at the normal rate, and so on. In fact, in hindsight the “benefit” didn't really confer any benefits. It was just cool. Like gaming with the three witches from DC comics.

Now, near the end of the campaign the Strange Sisters died. I believe they were crushed by a giant worm, if I remember. BUT... I decided that their trinity should have an impact and I tweaked things until it was revealed that one of the sisters – the eldest – lived. Sure, she was a bit flummoxed that that her sisters were gone but she was still around. With a catch... I didn't tell the player this at first, but the witch had essentially cheated death and was living on borrowed time. Each time she was hit with any attack from that moment forward she would have to save vs. Death or die.

-A PC with a weird luck power. I can't remember exactly how it worked. But basically he had a 50/50 chance of getting “lucky” in a given situation once per day. That allowed him to enact his luck power when he knew his chances were crap. It really didn't come up very often in the campaign, but it was cool.

-A PC with a cloak of fireflies. Sort of. He was surrounded by glowing bugs that acted as a soft light and could potentially have some other benefits. Again, those didn't really come up very much. But they added ambiance.

Arguably, you could do things like the bug cloak as mere color and have no mechanical benefit from it. I could describe my elf PC as being razor thin and having glowing eyes... but that's not going to get me a Light spell.

But I like letting the players be creative and also granting them some minor benefits from it. Of course, the context of the campaign matters too. If its low fantasy then I would limit these special perks to mundane things. You gotta think contextually.

All of this mental masturbation leads me to consider how to use other interactions in the game besides magic and combat. What I mean is, perhaps prices can be paid up front for special bennies. Complication tables, natch. You want to levitate at will because you're an awesome level 1 wizard? Roll a couple of times on the Big Nasty Table of Messy Stuff.

Which leads me to romance...