Saturday, February 29, 2020

Thought Eater: Ray Otus

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It took going on the show to actually give the show a proper listen. I had listened to maybe 2-3 random episodes of the Frothcast before and enjoyed them but I hadn't dived in proper. And when I was on the show I hadn't listened to any of the Sunday Zine Club episodes. Shame on me.

Ray Otus is on this episode. I discovered Ray's stuff by randomly finding his zine Plundergrounds. I thought it looked killer even though I didn't know anything about Dungeon World. I quickly signed up for his Patreon and I generally stalk him about the interwebs.

In the interview I found myself nodding in agreement over and over. Seems that Ray and I share a lot of philosophical ground when it comes to creativity. Specifically, he was talking about how monetization often ruins a creative space. And I agree. There's a beautiful energy in creative spaces that are fueled not by money, but by passion. When you create something in spite of not making money on it then you really love it.

It reminds me of my days in small press comics. We would make our comics, photocopy, fold, staple, and mail in trade to lots of other creators doing the same thing. We had co-ops and clubs and conventions. We had review zines and zine zines. It was awesome.

So I agree with Ray on this. But there is a big caveat.

For some people, their creative life is a dream of freedom. They are stuck in shitty jobs (or no jobs) and they have talent. They want (need) to be paid. I never hesitate to pay someone for their creative work, especially if I know that person isn't just doing it for fun. If they are trying to make a go of it as a living then I will support that effort, if the creations compel me.

I think Ray totally agrees that creators must be paid. His point wasn't that people should give away their work for free. His point was that if you're in a position to be able to give it away then that's a noble thing. I think.

When I published issue #1 of Black Pudding I remember having an internal debate about whether or not I should make it Pay-What-You-Want. I considered setting a price. I didn't want to charge too much so that no one bought it. And I didn't want to make it free so that I couldn't earn any money from it at all. This was my creative labor, I wanted to have the option of being paid. So PWYW was, for me, a perfect solution. If you can pay me something, and you want to, then I'm happy to accept. If you can't or don't want to, then enjoy the work for free with my compliments.

As an aside, this reminds me of old debates back in the oughts among webcomics creators regarding charging for your stuff. A lot of comics back then were experimenting with paywalls. As far as I remember, those experiments didn't work out. A more reasonable model, and probably more enduring, was to publish your comics for free online and sell peripheral merchandise such as print collections, tee shirts, and mugs. Very early on in my online life, I adopted this philosophy. My preferred model is to offer my primary work for free (digitally), then sell related items. DriveThruRPG makes that super easy. But I'm too damned lazy to really capitalize on actually selling merch. There's a tee shirt link on my blog that I doubt anybody ever clicks. There's no Black Pudding shirts up there! I need to fix that.


Referee This

What follows is a rant. You have been warned.

I have made it no secret that I have a preference for the moniker given to an RPG's "master", at least in the text of the rules. When it's D&D, you are a Dungeon Master. No shit, right? If you're running a game of Call of Cthulhu you are the Keeper. If you're killing zero level characters in DCC RPG you're a god damned Judge.

And it's that last one I favor most of all. I confess my reasons are not related whatsoever to the meaning of the word, other than it being nice that the word kinda means what you're doing. I know a lot of people have objections to terms such as Dungeon Master or game master because of the "master" part. I mean... whatever. I understand that argument. I just think it's balls stupid. I don't give two shits what the word means here. I'm running fantasy RPGs, not doing social studies.

(In the background while reading that last bit imagine the sound of a can of beer being popped open and a farting noise, right? Hah. No but seriously.)

Where was I?

Judge. I like that term. Because of these four reasons:

  • It rolls off the tongue
  • It has some history
  • It's very very short so I don't need to shorten it
  • It is not god damned "referee"

I mean it. I fucking detest the term "referee" for a game master. I'm not too keen on "game master" either, but that one's so generic and milquetoast it has not only lost all teeth but all real meaning to me. But at least it's not fucking "referee". I can live with GM. It's so banal it's invisible. But if the game text says I'm the "referee" I will call myself Judge, thank you very much.

I can't even explain why I hate that term so much. I know it has been used in various classic games such as one of my favorites, Star Frontiers. And that's ok. I can deal with that in older games. But not new games. Why would you use that word in a new game? Come up with something unique to  your own game. Or at least go with GM for fuck's sake.

Yeah yeah, I know. It's just a name and doesn't matter. I know that. And honestly how often do you USE the title of the GM in your games? In my experience, almost fuckin' never. It's mainly an aesthetic choice for the game text. And I'm into aesthetics. I'm into vibes. I'm not into technical manuals. Generic terms like "referee" just scream toaster oven instructions. If you expect me to read your game book and run it or play it then don't bore me. MÖRK BORG my ass.

(It'll be hilarious if it turns out that game just uses "referee".)

/rant

Garsh! I'm a Ref-ur-EEEE.

EDIT: MÖRK BORG uses the term "Game Master". Turns out the text doesn't discuss this very much, as it doesn't discuss anything very much. God damn that's a nice lookin' game. Anyway, you can get by with GM (or even god damned referee) if you game is sufficiently cool. But I'm watchin' you... 

Comments

I used to leave my blog wide open to comments, but there were so many spam posts from people selling garbage I had to change it to an approval-only setting. Then the shit stopped. So recently I decided to experiment and take the approval setting off.

BAM. Immediately I'm hit with tons of stupid posts selling shit. So we're back to approval-only. Such is the nature of this internet world.

From the back of the room: "You must hate America. Why can't a guy make a living spamming blogs to get clicks that invariably lead to scamming people out of money?"

TANGENT: Did I ever tell you how much I hate advertising? It's insidious. Dawna and I were recently watching Community on Hulu and it is almost more than I can bear due to the huge blocks of advertising we have to endure. Thank satan for the mute button. Also, now I somehow link happiness to a car. How did that happen?

Wanna buy a sundial?

Daughters of the Goddess #4 (Old Art VIII)


This was from a series of Daughters of the Goddess - the Geans of Pan-Gea. There were six of them, I believe. All on bristol with markers and pens, per my usual style back then. I do miss working in that medium sometimes.

Oh, and this one was colored by my wife Dawna Keeney! She colored a bunch of my art back then. We should do that again...

Friday, February 28, 2020

Fawn Rainchild (Old Art VII)

Fawn Rainchild c. 2004 or 2005

Sand and Something

I haven't been drawing much lately. Part of the reason is just lack of time and inspiration. Another part is that I've completed all of my outstanding paying gigs (exception for one or two I need to do). Another reason is that I'm more in a noodling phase than a doodling phase. I'm thinkin'. It's scary.

Mostly I'm thinking about Dead Wizards. I can't predict what I'll actually do this year but I truly hope that this game will see publication in 2020. I've definitely never been closer to settling on the core mechanics, theme, and all that important jazz than I am right now. This game has been through many changes over the past couple of years and none of the iterations have felt as right as this one.

So one big open question about this project is the title. I've been using Dead Wizards as the working title for a few years. And while I like that name quite a bit, it's abbreviation is DW... same as Dungeon World. And like it or not that bugs the shit out of me. I know it's a minor thing, but it's enough to put me off.

So the title I'm leaning into right now is Sand in the Bone.

It's still evocative and kind of metal, even though this setting isn't "metal", per se. It's definitely sword and sorcery and Sand in the Bone has a gritty feel that I like. Plus it gets some of the setting's feel right in the name, sand being a central theme to the game.

ASIDE

I had set myself some hard rules about naming this game. I said absolutely zero of any of this:

Noun & Noun
Word of the Thing
Black anything

Success!

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Catina (Old Art VI)

(To clarify, these last few days I've posted images from my art folder going all the way back to the oldest files, in order. This is an exercise in examining the past and unearthing what I might have forgotten. Most of these have little or no commentary.)

Brush markers and Prismacolor markers

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Let the Dead Stay Buried Please V

Jer Arr, a concept from like... 2003?

Furry Pirates: A Terrible Tale of Table Tyranny

Tables are part of RPG DNA. There were tables in Dungeons & Dragons and there are tables in nearly every RPG since. Nearly, not all.

This is because tables are the way we have decided to present data that changes per given criteria. So if you tell me that a warrior hits on a 7 or better I don't really need a table for that. But if the warrior's to-hit of 7 becomes 6, 5, 4, etc., depending on their level of expertise... now I might benefit from table.

Some games' core mechanics are table-based. Certainly D&D's mechanics employed several tables such as the classic to-hit vs. AC, or the cleric's turning table, or the saving throw matrices ("matrix" is another word for table, albeit with a wider range of application which we do not give a shit about here).

Here's a screenshot of attack tables from the game Furry Pirates, which I own for some reason.


You see how that one works? Simply ascertain your ability in attacking, cross reference it against your target's skill level in defending, and you'll find your base chance of hitting. Then I guess you make your roll. If you happen to be defending, you'll need to do that same kind of exercise but on a different table. Easy-peasy. This method probably flows like warm butter over a hot skillet during play. Right?

My interactions with players at public games leads me to suspect that this would not go over very well with modern groups. To be fair, it probably didn't go over well when it came out. How many people out there have played this game ever? More than once?

I don't want to trash Furry Pirates, here. It is certainly not the only game to have a lot of tables*. Tables can be great and are part of RPGs forever. But table mechanics tend to be more bothersome. People love to roll on a table for a special event, such as a critical strike or "you found something cool". But to have to constantly reference large, complex tables for repetitive actions? No way. I doubt anybody enjoys that.

And I know that I often bitch about people who seem to be incapable of even engaging with any game's mechanics. "I just want to tell my stories, not read rules." (Then try not playing games!) But there is a point at which the game system is asking a bit too much. And to be completely fair I have never played this game nor do I know all its rules. So I could be wrong about it. But my gut tells me that attack matrix is clunky as fuck at the gaming table.

*I own a couple of the Rolemaster books and last time I flipped through one I was greatly impressed by how all of it was tables. All of it.

So now that I've trashed Furry Pirates for having a very ridiculous combat mechanic, let me do it a solid and sing some praises. This game has a lot of cool pirate shit in it. It's explicitly set in the real world (The New World, c. 1700) and is loaded with stuff about ships, sailing, piracy, voodoo and magic, actual historical figures like William Teach (Blackbeard) and Captain Kidd, and a load of awesome resources you can use for this and really any pirate game. It's like the author was fascinated by the subject and crammed all their knowledge and ideas about it into a game with talking animals as characters. Which, honestly, sounds like a lot of fucking fun to me.

Art by Terrie Smith

Monday, February 24, 2020

Let the Dead Stay Buried III


Alignment Tongue Lashing

Law vs. Chaos!? DAT rocked.

Alignment kinda sucks. And it's also kinda awesome. But mostly I'm leaning toward the suckage. With caveats.

Here's my entry point to alignment.

B/X description of Law as "good".
I got my dirty paws on D&D red box and devoured it. I grokked the alignment immediately in the simplest terms:

Lawful is good.
Neutral is neutral.
Chaotic is evil.

This scheme is explicitly stated in both B/X and BECMI editions of D&D. I have heard people argue on the interwebs that alignment in classic D&D should not or does not map onto a moral code, but is rather an adherence to some kind of cosmic battle plan of Law vs. Chaos. This idea comes from the ways that these notions are used in various classic fantasy stories, such as those written by Michael Moorcock. And I get that. I guess in original D&D that was the intention, or at least a strong inspiration. But very quickly they started mapping the "bad" monsters onto Chaos and the "good" ones on the side of Law. Then they made it concrete in both B/X and BECMI: Law means good, Chaos means evil. Done and done. Easy to grok.

If we go back to the original game I think it's still very clear that Law is good and Chaos is bad. On page 9 of Men & Magic there is a table showing which alignments are suitable to which races/creatures. Would you say that being in the company of ghouls, evil high priests, vampires, and mummies makes you kind of "bad"? Yeah, I agree. It does. So Chaos is evil even in original D&D, no matter what a few grogs want to argue*.

Holmes took things to a new level.
In 1977 Holmes complicated matters by introducing another axis to the alignment table. Now we have not only Law and Chaos, but also Good and Evil enter the picture explicitly. I am less familiar with the how and why of Holmes D&D as I never even laid eyes on this version until 2012 or so. I didn't know it existed. No one I knew had it and I don't remember seeing ads for it. I came into gaming in 1984 so I guess I missed the boat on that one, along with original D&D, which I also never laid eyes on until 2012 or so. That's right. Actually my first visual treat in RPGs was the DM at school and his 3-ring binder containing B/X rules. Imprinted for life.

With Holmes, our 3 alignments become 5: Lawful Good, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Evil, and Neutral. This is weird because Holmes is, arguably, the first iteration of the "basic" D&D branch of the game, which adheres to only Law, Chaos, and Neutrality. Holmes is the only place the 5 alignment method is ever seen.

Holmes' system definitely breaks the whole Law = Good structure. Because now you can literally be Lawful Evil. What does that mean? It means that being Chaotic now doesn't automatically make you evil. It makes you unpredictable and maybe selfish, but not a total cunt.

Holmes' method was more sophisticated than the simple 3 point system, but that wasn't complex enough for Gary Gygax. So when the AD&D Players Handbook dropped in 1978 the world was formally introduced to the now-classic 9 alignment system. This is the one I came to glom onto when I was running and playing D&D in the mid 80s. It's a very intuitive system when you think about it. It's clearly a way to map alignment onto morality and behavior. I would argue that any notion of alignment being connected to a cosmic struggle is annihilated with AD&D. Here if you are Lawful Good it means exactly what you see on the tin: you want things to be orderly and you prefer to do good instead of doing harm. If you are Chaotic Evil you're the opposite of that: burn the church with the people inside, take a dump on the steps, and steal a car to get away.

Here, this Nic Cage schematic kind of sums it up. Sort of.


When playing in 1e style games I tend to favor Neutral Good or Chaotic Good alignments. I dislike LG and have no interest in being evil. I don't really get neutrality here. But that's ok.

Alright, so that's my history with and understanding of alignment. Now what am I doing with alignment today?

Nothing. Because it sucks. And leaving it out of the game has zero impact. Hell, I wasn't even aware that I wasn't paying any attention to alignment until I actually thought about it.

But there's a caveat. Games like DCC RPG, for example, do a very nice job of making alignment matter. In that game it is allowed to be simple 3 point alignment and it is pretty explicitly described in those broader, cosmic war terms... not in terms of good and evil. So in DCC I think it is far easier to play a chaotic character who isn't evil. And there are nice mechanical reasons to use alignment in that game. If you're a thief, your skills are linked to your alignment. When clerics Lay on Hands, they heal you differently depending on your alignment relative to theirs. Touching weird statues may impact you differently if lawful vs. chaotic. It's a cool little mechanical knob you can pull and play with.

In D&D not so much. There are some magic items that impact or favor alignment, and there are alignment restrictions on some classes (depending on version), but other than that it's really just a useless bit of wasted space on your character sheet. Fight me.

*Much love to the grogs. Keep on keepin' on, just recognize that you're wrong, based purely on text.

Here I am talking alignment.
And here I am again.
And once more, probably contradicting what I said on this post.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

I Am On Sunday Zine Club

As promised, here I am on Jeremy "Frosthof" Smith's podcast for the Sunday Zine Club. I have not listened and I am not sure if I can listen. Not yet. I'm weird about my voice. I guess we all are.

Please let me know if I sound like a complete dumbass.


Fate Condensed

I have never played Fate, but I know something about it's DNA (here's a post about FUDGE). This post is mostly about Fate Condensed.

If Fate Core was too damn crunchy...
FUDGE was a toolkit RPG. You really couldn't just open the book and start playing. You first had to understand its structure and then make some key decisions about what kind of game you were going to play. Because FUDGE was a freeform, universal, do-it-yourself gaming engine. It was a tool you used to build your own RPG.

A lot of minds went into the development of this game. Fate has a rabid following. I really had no idea other than hearing it mentioned on podcasts here-and-there, especially when I started listening to gaming podcasts not laser-focused on the OSR (hey... people play other games!).

(As an aside, I see that Leonard Balsera was a co-creator of the game. In my many investigations of ways to handle initiative, I have heard the term "Balsera initiative" or "popcorn initiative", which I am a huge fan of. It's the initiative style where each player decides who goes next. Like, I go then I say you get to go, etc. Here's a write-up of a version of it.)

The book starts off telling us what we need and telling us what's been changed from Fate Core. Then it goes into the first order of business with any Fate or FUDGE game: what's your setting? Because, remember, these are generic games. I'll talk more about that shortly.

Special Insert: Holy shit... I  just remembered vaguely that maybe I did play in at least one session of Fate several years ago. I have this crude memory of a tank and a revolution... no wait... that's not MY memory! It's a memory of a podcast where they played Fate? Holy shit I'm getting old.
/insert

Next it goes into describing characters. These are the main elements of a character:


I can see the DNA of FUDGE here because there is no straight list of attributes. You have to define your character by their Aspects and Skills and stuff. Now, in FUDGE, from what I remember, you're asked to come up with your own list of attributes. So maybe you're going to do western action and you decide that all characters will have Grit, Smarts, Shootin', and Ridin' as their main attributes. In Fate it seems to be less centralized. Each character has their own individual list of attributes.

This appears to be a very player-facing, player-friendly game.

I remember some podcast or another in which the host expressed a little confusion about how to use Aspects vs. Skills. The text says that Aspects are who you are while Skills are what you can do. That seems like a reasonable distinction but I can also see where it would be confusing in play. If my Aspect is that I'm The World's Deadliest Assassin and I have a Skill called Stab a Bastard... actually as I type this it kinda makes sense, doesn't it? The Aspect is broad and the Skill is narrow.

In fact, that is exactly the descendant of the FUDGE structure. You'd select an attribute, such as Dexterity, and then you'd have your skill, such as dancing. Dex is broad, dance is narrow.

Fate Ladder
Things are rated in +/- with an adjective to describe them. This is straight FUDGE, but they've added 2 additional levels at the top and bottom of the ladder. What I remember about this ratings table is that it doesn't satisfy the desire for granularity. People who love percentile systems where they can get +1% incremental improvements will not love the adjective ladder. However, this is very efficient and clear. It should be intuitive that the person who is a Good shot is a better shot than the person who is Fair. And that's what Steffan O'Sullivan was going for when he created FUDGE. Bravo.

There's a list of 19 standard Skills, such as Athletics, Lore, and Stealth. This list is similar to what you'd see in modern D&D and it seems like it would cover most of the bases for a generic game.

Skills are ranked per the adjective ladder. All PCs begin with 1 Great, 2 Good, 3 Fair, 4 Average, and the rest Mediocre. Seems legit and simple. No fiddly bits here.

Then the text tells you that when you're building your setting you'll want to consider do you want to keep this list or do you want to change it? This list seems custom-made for the most bog standard kind of RPG experience: exploring, fighting, getting treasure. So if you're thinking of using Fate to do a teenage angst drama club melodrama then maybe you'll get rid of Shoot in favor of Freestyle Rap.

I like the FUDGE dice roller.
Stunts are cool and unique things your PC can do that others cannot. Like... Smack Talk Smack Frenzy.

As we get into the details of how to play I spy a really nice, important bit of advice: fiction first. That is, describe what you want to do then figure out how it works in the system. This seems intuitive but I think we all get caught up in what's on our character sheet and forget that this is how RP works.

I played in some D&D 4e games (I think about 10 sessions in total) and this was a really big problem. Let me be clear: the game was fun. I enjoyed the hell out of playing it and would gleefully play again. But I was not doing much roleplaying. It was mostly battle mat combat with minis. I did spend most of my time analyzing my character sheet and deciding which powers to use next. This is the opposite of roleplaying. Fun, but not RP.

No, this is not a sourcebook.
There's a "bogus rule". This seems to be there as a mitigating factor for handling players that will milk the shit out of a system. These are the players who are hardcore gamers. If it is possible to get +10 instead of +9 they will velociraptor the fuck out of that fence until they get +10. So... "I bring down my axe into the wizard's skull. I'm using my... Raised by Frogs Asepct... because... when I leap up I'm looking frog-legged."

Other players: "BOGUS. Denied."

There's a nice bit about creating aspects (small "a") during conflicts. If I'm reading this correctly, it's just a way to formalize the use of terrain, environment, conditions, etc. So if you knock a bookcase over in front of a door maybe that becomes an aspect of the battle: BOOKCASE BLOCKADE. So when your villain tries to escape you can invoke BOOKCASE BLOCKADE and get some mods. Or something like that.

I dig that idea. Not sure how it works in play as I've never tried it. It does feel like the traditional turf of the GM to keep tabs on how that stuff affects a scene. You can do this in any RPG, narratively. But Fate gives you a crunchy rule for it.

There's a lot more to this book. It's 58 pages and what I've talked about so far is through page 28 or something. There is a lot of advice about playing and running the game, NPCs, character development Fate Points, etc. I feel like this book contains a lot of useful tips that are widely applicable to RP in general, not just this game.

And this fucker is free. So, no reason not to check it out. Will I play it? I dunno. Definitely not on my hit list to run and I'll most likely never run it. But I'd happily play in a game being ran by someone else.

Let the Dead Stay Buried II


Art from Ron Edwards' Trollbabe RPG, c. 2003 or so.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Let the Dead Stay Buried I

In this wee series I'm a gonna post one piece of art from as far back as I can go each day until I grow sick of keeping up with it. Sometimes I will have comments, other times I will not.


Thought Eater

Jeremy "Frothsof" Smith is a podcaster and absolute RPG nut. He loves gaming, has a passion for talking about gaming, and is, by all measures, a great person. I had a great time going on his podcast to record for this Sunday's Sunday Zine Club. The episode isn't up yet as it isn't Sunday, so I'll post a link tomorrow.

I wanted to post this and acknowledge that Jeremy took a stand on the right side of the argument in the recent Bob Bledsaw II discussion. That's not always easy to do when your audience contains at least some people who are either a) in agreement with assholes or b) want to "keep politics out of gaming". Jeremy stated his opinion and stood by it. Good on him.

On a lighter note, I love that Jeremy's podcast exists because it's a really nice way for me to get the aggregate of cool shit that's happening in gaming while I'm on my way to work! I can take mental notes and remember to go to his blog later and click the links I heard him talking about. Good stuff.


FUDGE

Sometime in 1994 or 1995 I had stumbled upon Shadis Magazine and got a subscription immediately. This was about 5 years after I moved from my hometown and our original AD&D group disbanded forever. I had moved to GURPS, for a time, and was feeling rather isolated in my gaming needs. I was running random games here and there, maybe once or twice a year, and creating gaming junk on my own. Discovering Shadis was like realizing that yes indeed other people do this too!

From the pages of that magazine I must have found out about FUDGE, Steffan O'Sullivan's seminal "freeform universal do-it-yourself gaming experience". And I had to have it. So I sent off an order for a copy. As you can see, I got #94 in a 200 copy limited run, which I assume was the game's first printing/edition (?).

I was mind-melted by the cool-ass Lego-style building blocks that this game represented and I wanted to make something immediately. But I never did. I never even read the entire book. I think it was because I was just so isolated at the time. I didn't have any gamer friends and when I did get to run something or play something it was either AD&D or I used a loosey-goosey system I invented called the ROC RPG (Random Order Creations).

Years later it seems that FUDGE inspired and underpinned Fate. So I should be interested in and excited about maybe trying this game. Yet I'm not. In fact, when a 14-yo kid showed me his copy of Fate and wanted to talk about it I just didn't know what to say. I talked about having FUDGE back in the day and I had listened to a few podcasts about Fate so I knew a little about it. But I couldn't muster the desire to play it, even with this sparkly-eyed kid clearly wanting to play it. I can be a bit of a selfish guy and at that time I wanted to run Barrowmaze using B/X D&D.

Not sure what the point of this is other than to explore this weird memory. I'm always thinking about things I did in the past and why I did them. Or why I didn't. I wish I was more proactive and I wish I worked harder at things. I cringe when I think of all the years I didn't play many games or make much art or create things in general. Holy hell, am I getting old?

I hope that kid is running games now, Fate or otherwise.


Here's my copy. #94... from '94!

A Reflection on Dead Wizards

What follows is a long-winded reflection on Dead Wizards* and where it is headed for the future.

This might be the first time I mention the game in the blog:

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.

But that was 2017 and I know for a fact I ran a Dead Wizards playtest locally almost 4 years ago. Or something like that.

This all started when I looked at Swords & Wizardry White Box and fell in love with the simplicity of the single saving throw. Somehow that morphed into a desire to make a sword and sorcery RPG which somehow morphed into sand and sorcery.

Sand and Sorcery

(Which, BTW, might make a killer game title.)

I am not sure if this label has a distinct definition. If it does, I am unaware. But it is what I use to describe Dead Wizards. All I mean by it is that the genre is sword and sorcery and that the setting has
a desert sands flavor.

First, about sword and sorcery. To me, S&S is fantasy wherein magic is both uncommon (but not necessarily "rare") and dangerous. There are no high elf good witches here. The genre sometimes has a bleak view of humanity too. But all I'm really concerned about is that the magic is uncommon and the heroes are larger than life - but still all-too-human. If you are a person who turns into a cat, then  you are weird and dangerous to others, not special and magical.

The sand bit is a little harder to nail down. I am not interested in making fantasy Arabia, but I am interested in riffing on some of the fantasy Arabian tropes. I'm also borrowing heavily from various African cultures and even dipping a little bit into India and southeast Asia. But none of them are the model and this setting isn't a representation of any real world analog. It is fantasy, pure and simple, wherein the people are not white and the landscape is not European.

If that is confusing all I can say is I'm going to try really fucking hard to practice "show, don't tell" with the presentation of this game.

And on to that reflection stuff

So the game began its life as a S&W hack. I ran one or two sessions in that vein, which were fine. Then I broke away for a while to do Rabbits & Rangers and when I came back to it I tried to design an original system, but with lots of S&W bits. The system was kind of modeled on the old descending AC from D&D. You had three categories and for each you'd have a to-hit table. That playtest was short but wen't OK as well. I still wasn't feeling it, though. I ran a few sessions of it and then my mom got sick and I kind of fell away from running games for a bit.

The next stab I took at it was even more of a non-OSR system. This time no playtesting took place. And now I'm back at it with another redesign. This one feels more right than ever before. An important element fell into place recently where a piece of the setting kind of clicked with the system. Namely, sand.

Since sand is everywhere in the setting, I thought what a great way to express it - have a "sand" category on your character sheet. Sand is how much willpower you can exercise over the world in which you live. The powers-that-be express their will on the world, and sand is their blood. So characters can use sand to express narrative control in the game.

This takes me back, back in time to 2001 when I wrote The Pool. The same concept is at play here. There is a bit of a gamble to the use of sand and the payoff is narrative control. This idea is what I remember being the most powerful and prescient impression I got from The Forge. This simple notion that a player could do some of the work that a GM is normally doing. Of course that idea blew up after those days and now we have probably hundreds of games devoted passionately to narrative gaming. Back then, not so much.

To be clear, this is not a story game. It would be fine it if was, but it isn't. This is a traditional RPG in the sense that you have a GM and players and the GM is responsible for setting the stage, describing things, and adjudication. But, like The Pool, this game allows for some degree of narrative control to go to the players via the sand mechanic.

I'll speak more about sand later. I've yammered enough tonight.

*I decided it was preemptive to bold and italicize a game that doesn't yet exist. So until I actually have a manuscript, I won't bold and italicize Dead Wizards like I normally would. It doesn't matter, I know. Stop judging me. My blog, my rules.

More posts about this game over the last few years:

Playtest #3
A Bit of Dead Wizards
Drawing Gaj'Uth the Three Headed Elephant

Friday, February 21, 2020

A Very Simple Thief House Rule

Thieves. The nasty buggers and their nasty nasty shitty skills in old school D&D. I ranted about this before. But here's a quick fix I actually used in my first ever Labyrinth Lordb campaign in 2014 or so.

Use the percentile skills as given but let the player add the entire score for the relevant ability to each skill. So for example you begin with a Move Silently skill of a paltry 20%. But using this house rule you can add Dexterity to that number. So if your Dex is 15, you're rolling 35% at first level. Still not fantastic, but much better than by the book.

Thief char sheet I drew for Blueholme.
I suggest pairing up the skills like this:

Open Locks - Dex
Remove Traps - Dex or Int
Pick Pockets - Dex
Move Silently - Dex
Climb Sheer Surfaces - Dex or Str
Hide in Shadows - Dex
Hear Noises - add Wis modifier

I also strongly suggest taking Cook/Marsh up on adding these skills to the Thief right from level one. Mentzer didn't include them because he thought they were stupid. Mentzer was wrong. I wanted my ventriloquism.

Climb Ceilings and Overhangs - Dex (as Climb Sheer Surfaces minus 20)
Ventriloquism - Int or Cha (as Move Silently +10)
Distract - Cha (as Move Silently)
Mimicry - Int or Cha (as Climb Sheer Surfaces)

Ventriloquism would work more-or-less like the spell. Distract would cause an enemy to lose initiative or get a -1 on their next attack. Mimicry would fool someone into thinking they were hearing another person or animal.

This is not the first time I've had thoughts about Thieves. Nor will it be the last. As long as the record stands that old school D&D Thieves suck there will be rants about it, not just from me but from everyone every day all the time.

Here I am talking about it in 2015.

And in 2016.

And I revisit the topic in 2019.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Prowess AC

From the pages of Black Pudding #6, here is a house rule about armor class.

Prowess AC is an idea that I think would serve any sword and sorcery campaign well. If you're doing a high magic game, probably not so much. I'd also strongly encourage allowing PCs to improve their ability scores over time and/or having a more generous stat generation method than 3d6.

For those who might complain that this is unrealistic because of real world combat, all I can say is keep doing you and I'll keep doing me. Peace out.

But seriously, feedback is always appreciated on these little house rules as I don't always have the opportunity to test them out.


Wednesday, February 19, 2020

What Happened to the Androids and Orgies?

I am absolutely not a scholar or historian on the topic of the history of D&D. But I have burned through enough podcasts and blog posts to know a few things. And I know that way back at the beginning there were androids and there were orgies.

There were also demons, devils, and demigods you could fight and - arguably - slay since you knew their AC and hit points. Times change, don't they?

Mix it up, Erol Otus.

In those heady early days D&D was a tiny little weirdo game that almost nobody knew anything about. It seems like even the people who knew about it and played it didn't know much about it since the rules were cryptic as fuck. In those days, flying way under the radar, it's easy to see how you could get away with having a harlot table in your core rulebook or writing an article about orgies.

(Not only cool shit like an orgy article, but also pretty bad shit like the way they tried to make ability scores align with real-world assumptions about men and women... as if playing an elf game had to be physiologically "realistic". Thanks Lakofka. I'm glad the idea didn't take much root and I'm happy D&D today is explicitly inclusive.)

Fast forward a decade. Hoo-boy, how the times changed. I was a teen in those days. I remember quite well the motherfucking PMRC. I was one of those rural white boys headbanging to Grim Reaper and W.A.S.P. and Ozzy as they lashed out against the prudes and crispies and censors in their music.

(On that note, check out the Filthy Fifteen playlist and rock out.)

(Also, it is not lost on me that the response from the rock and metal community wasn't just about taking a stand. In those days, making an angry song against Tipper Gore was a sure fire way to sell a lot of records. Also, fuck Tipper Gore.)

Darlene
In the mid and late 80s, TSR, publishers of ye olde D&D in its many forms, were a bloated corporation fat on the sudden and super popularity of their product (you don't get a Saturday morning cartoon easily, remember), yet beginning to flounder and fail as a business. They were trying to play it safe. They were trying to duck the Moral Majority's deadly knives by nipping and tucking the fuck out of D&D. Gary Gygax was tossed out of the company and the new controllers were not interested in fighting a culture war. So when the now 15-year-old game was revamped to it's official second edition, they did a little house cleaning.

No more demons. No more devils. No more gods with ACs and hit points (at least I'm fairly sure about that one... am I wrong about that? Huh). Definitely hells to the no on titties, booty, and orgies. There is no harlot table in the 2e DMG. No ice devils or beelzebubs. No naked succubi.

Likewise, by this time there was no more getting the chocolate of "straight" fantasy into the peanut butter of science fiction. You would no longer find androids in the monster lists. The high fantasy genre had gelled into a money-making monster as the new game in town were trilogies of fantasy adventure novels and trilogies of trilogies of fantasy adventure novels in which not a laser pistol nor a robot was to be found.

It all felt so god damned vanilla.

And hey... let me be absolutely clear about something. I would not want a harlot table in my new DMG, unless it was utterly gender neutral or wildly gender diverse. Men are harlots too, you dopes. So this is not some cro-magnon argument for returning to the "good old days" when "men were men". Fuck that noise in the ear.

All I'm ranting about is how the influx of attention and money tends to skew the deliciousness and quirkyness of content toward the mean. The middle. The boring-as-fuck.

I'm guilty too. I have, on numerous occasions, mitigated, rounded, smoothed, watered-down, and toned-down my own shit before putting it out in public. This is largely because I want to be liked by as many people as possible. I don't publish stuff simply because I want to have stuff published. I want people to like what I do. I want everyone to like what I do. And that, my friends, is a problem. You cannot please everyone and trying to do so leads to the great big boring land of Milkquetoastington.

"You mind? Peeing here."
I have worked in Milquetoastington. I have contributed to its off-white towers and trimmed its creme picket fence lines. I don't enjoy it. And what I don't enjoy I figure nobody else is going to enjoy either. I try to create based on the philosophy that if I love what I'm doing then at least one person on the planet will love it. If I don't love it, then I can't assume even that much.

I don't make resolutions or promises. I know myself and I know I'm prone to going down different paths on a whim. I allow myself to wander. I try to steer myself, I try to work at what I'm doing and have pride in it. But I don't make resolutions. So this is not a resolution to be less filtered in 2020. It is, however, a public acknowledgement that I have filtered myself in the past and since I didn't like my games or music being filtered I should probably not worry so god damned much about how many people like me. Without being a dickhead, I just want to be me. I'm too damn old to be anything else.

/rant


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Underground Down Below

The biggest feature of the new Black Pudding is the 8-page adventure based on Evlyn Moreau's stunning little map shown below. In the same way I created Vault of the Whisperer in Black Pudding #2 based on a map by Karl Stjernberg, I created Underground Down Below based on Evlyn's map. I hope someone gets to play it and have a good time.


Monday, February 17, 2020

Beastfriend Class

From the pages of Black Pudding #6, here's a class that I think might actually engender peaceful solutions to conflicts. Certainly if I was playing this class I'd be trying to avoid battles. Now, that's not in any way an argument against fighting in RPGs. I love a good combat. But there are a million ways to game and killing shit is just one of them, right?


Sunday, February 16, 2020

Black Pudding #6 is Alive!

I just dropped the new issue of Black Pudding on an unsuspecting population.

It's free to download if you want. Drop me a few bucks if you can and if you dig the work.

I will post about the print version at a later time.

What is that sme...OH CRAP!
ASIDE: I know it's Zine Quest month. And that's weird because I didn't time this for that reason at all. Everyone who knows me knows I named my imprint "random order" because that's kind of how I create things. Randomly.

An RPG Folder Named Destiny

A continuation of this series wherein I examine the contents of my RPG folders and sort that shit out.


Dungeon Gits is a "very small" RPG by Scott Malthouse. You get what's on the tin with this one. It's very very small. I read the rules today for the first time (that I remember) in like less than 1 turn*. And it's great! It's a simple 2d6 + mods vs. target system with an open ended class and knack setup. You can whip up a character in... (pauses to go whip up a character, start to finish, setting timer...)

*If you don't know how long a turn is you need to turn in your old school license to drive**.

**I kid. No such gatekeeping shall be rendered here.

Yep, it took me 3 minutes and 15 seconds to create Dilhawl the Fisher Fish. Well over half of that time was spent buying gear.

One question I had was about a rule on page 4 that says "you can only use weapons or armour with a bonus equal to your Bashing attribute". In my mind that should be "equal to or less than". Otherwise my dear Dilhawl can't use a dagger... one of the only weapons he could afford to buy. Am I mis-reading that?

I could dice with this game. And it's creative commons, so you can take this little bad boy and reskin, remix, hack, supplement, and tear it up all day long. Just give Scott credit. Here's a review of the game, which is probably longer than the game itself.

Cool art, maybe public domain? There's no attribution. At first I though this one was Erol friggin' Otus.




O Povo do Buraco #1 is a Brazilian zine written for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Carlos Silva and Tertoleone give us words while Diego Santos gives us pictures. The pictures are really cool, very comic book in style. The writing seems fine but the English is a little uneven. Not a big deal, as long as you know up front that this was probably originally Portuguese and has been translated.

This bit is on page one, wherein the author describes The Hole, a wretched place of vile cultish activity:
"cruelties that none of these soft-heart millennials would dare to imagine in their deepest darkest nightmares"
 Which is kind of a weird thing to write in an RPG book unless you actually want to alienate the youngest portion of your potential audience. But hey, LotFP is a game-ethos that attracts shock-value creators. I mean, if  you're into both fantasy and something like grindhouse or slasher flicks or the like then this is probably a good fit.

Anyway, the zine seems to be describing a village that has become the hub for a drug ring. The drug is in the Vatapá, which is a kind of shrimp-bread-peanut mush. Very interesting. If I was gonna run or play this I'd want someone to make that dish and bring it to the table in exchange for like 6 re-rolls or something. Neat.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Respite

I'm closing on a completed issue #6 of Black Pudding. One of the pages is devoted to a handful of little house rules that are unrefined and mostly untested. I'm calling it "unfinished puddin'".

Magic and Potential and Teen Me Mind Blown


I remember the first time I realized what RPGs were all about. It was upon reading/browsing (let's be honest here... I was a browser, not a reader) an issue of Dragon Magazine and I have no idea which one. It was during those months when I first became acquainted with D&D at school. The DM of that little game traded me some materials, such as the B/X Expert book and some Dragon issues, for some comics. There was some kind of adventure in the magazine and it was, I think, about an ogre or featured ogres. I do remember that the covers to the issues I had were the fucking awesome chess pics by Denis Beauvais (whose website makes my eyes hurt it's so MySpace-ish).

I had no idea what I was reading. I grokked pretty quickly that it was some kind of setup for adventure. But at this time I hadn't yet got my dirty mitts on the red box, nor even the Expert rulebook alluded to above. I only had Dragon.

First thing I did when I got this shit home was get out a spiral bound notebook and write my first ever adventure. I only wish had that notebook now so I could cringe. It was a house with a few rooms and an ape creature in the attic. It had a floor that would collapse with you. It was on the edge of a ravine in the snow. It was a call to adventure!

At school I recruited a couple of guys and they rolled up characters. One of them was just dead-set on getting high scores. It really bothered him that his character's stats were less than 18. I'll never forget that. It was my first time as DM and I basically caved to his needy mcneeds and he ended up with some ridiculous fighter whose worst ability score was like 16. I have no idea what the other guy played nor do I really remember who he was. Vague, these memories are.

But the point is that I had that moment where you understand, at least broadly speaking, just what an RPG is. It's not a story you read, nor is it a story you tell (although that's how many/most RPG texts kind of framed it). No, an RPG was all about what could be. It was this salad bar of delicious goodies that a DM could cook up and then see what the players decide to put on their plates.

It was lightning in a bottle! Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? Everywhere and anything.


Supercalla Adventure?

I haven't committed to doing it yet, but I'm thinking about writing a 48 page follow-up to Supercalla called Supercalla: Eastbound, based on the scenario I've been running these last couple of months. And yes, it's totally inspired by, but not very similar to, Smokey and the Bandit.

If I do this, the book would include the adventure along with maybe 6 new backgrounds and a bunch of creatures and items that have appeared in the game sessions, such as space piranha and time-distortion ray guns. Stay tuned to this batchannel for future updates, highway hunters!


Thursday, February 13, 2020

Arzra

Back in the early 2000s I was doing more comics. I had this comic going for a few months (doing 1 page a week) that was about a gender-shifting catperson named Arzra (spelled backwards: Arzra). I really fell in love with this character. The whole gender-shifter concept, for me, was a direct inspiration from Tanith Lee's Death's Master. Lee's Flat Earth books are foundational to my inner fantasy worldview. I place them squarely in the sword-and-sorcery category alongside Robert E. Howard's Conan.

Anyway, Arzra was a gender-shifting catperson version of Conan. I wrote the character as a wanderer, getting into adventures, with a strong sense of savage honor. At this time in my life I was a pretty rabid individualist in my philosophy. I would have called myself "libertarian" at the time, though the term for me had a different meaning than what we think of today (I always picture cowboy hat-wearing rednecks with guns screaming about free speech today). For me, this was about opposing authoritarian moral police.

Arzra was meant to be a vehicle for me to tell exciting fantasy stories that could be sexy and philosophical at the same time. I have several scripts lying around and they generally involve the character wandering into a weird place and encountering a weird entity, usually with some kind of dialog exchanged that cuts to the bone of how I felt about religion and morality. Arzra wasn't inclined to take a knee before authority and he had no interest in being responsible for anyone other than himself. She was a barbarian, after all, albeit with a sharp mind. She could slice you open as easily with her words as with her sword.

The art to the left was part of the comic, which was done with brush markers, colored pencils, and Prismacolor markers on bristol. I believe the pages were something like 14x14 inches. It was a lot of fun to do, but the amount of labor that went into each page was a bit much for me to sustain over time. And these were totally rated R pages with lots of nudity, making it a bit awkward to share later on Facebook and the like.

I did a bunch of drawings of this character for the period of a year or so and I really hoped I could turn it into a "regular" comic book series. Alas, doing anything "regular" just doesn't seem to be in my DNA. The only reason Black Pudding has persisted (yes I'm still working on #6!) is because it has very few constraints. I allow myself to wander and do whatever I like, within the domain of old school D&D style gaming. If I tried to make each issue themed or have an ongoing comic in it I'd probably flounder and sputter out. Much love to creators who can crank out issue after issue of comic book series over time. Salute!

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Ahmry

This one is from around 2008. It's ink on bristol, I believe. And it's one of my favorites from that time period. I have a color version as well, but I wanted to just post the bw drawing here. What I like about it is the simple composition and the mix of shading styles. Not too busy, it feels like it has the right amount of detail. I can look back at this and smile.


Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Lace Featherdawn and the Domain of the Kitty Cats

Back in the mid-2000s I drew a lot of cartoon catgirl art. I was, for a time, really into that aesthetic. I wasn't a furry, in the strict sense. I never identified with the label and I just didn't have much common ground with that community beyond a great love for anthropomorphic cartoon animals. It wasn't a lifestyle or identity for me. I just appreciated the aesthetic of what I still call "funny animals" and "cartoon animals". And I still do, very much.

Drawings like this one are little gems in my catalog. This figure looks really nice, I think. She's sexy and soft and strong and cool. But of course when you mix funny animals with pin-up sex appeal you are treading on the kinky turf of the furry fandom whether you accept it or not. I never fully accepted it.
She's not bad, she's just, y'know, drawn that way.
I guess it's because this is, for me, just another pin-up piece. It's actually part of a broader project at the time to create a fantasy world peopled by these animal-type characters that weren't straight-up reflections of any particular animal. Lace Featherdawn isn't a cat. She's a catgirl, for sure, but not a cat. She's a fantasy character that is part of a fantasy species.

I used to doodle in the margins a lot.
Of course I was probably resistant to the furry label because of all the heavy heavy baggage it comes with. Furries get a lot of shit. They are unfairly maligned by the broader public because at a casual glance it looks creepy and fucked up to be drawing sexy animals doing it (the furry fandom is pretty rife with porn, y'know). I didn't want to be put in that category and since I didn't really identify with the label I didn't feel any need to subject myself to such torture. I wanted to draw sexy cartoon pin-ups and so that's what I did.

Later when I created Rabbits & Rangers I intentionally avoided ever using the furry label. R&R is not a furry game book, it's a funny animals game book. It's Bugs Bunny and Captain Carrot and Usagi Yojimbo in a dungeon. Full stop. But since funny animals are included as part of the furry aesthetic, then if you are a furry R&R is going to be in your wheelhouse even if I don't consider it to be a "furry fandom book".

There's probably a Venn diagram showing some overlap between old grogs like me who read Usagi Yojimbo and young whipper-snappers who identify as field mice. But the similarities, for me at least, are only skin-deep and the divide between me and the field mice person is substantial. Much love to you, mouse. Be your own self and fuck the haters.

All of this reminds me how very interesting the topic is. Like... what is it about animal characters that is so appealing? When I wrote R&R I was absolutely engrossed in making each animal type distinct and hopefully fun to play. Each type was like a mask. And therein, I think, lies the appeal. Cartoon animals are masks. They are stand-ins for ourselves, with the animal bits being character traits we fantasize about - not at all unlike superhero powers. Where's the bright line between a guy who can fly and shoot eye lasers vs. a guy who is a walking, talking alligator? Both are humans at the base (we couldn't identify with them otherwise) and have fantastic augmentations (flying, chomping!).

Maybe there's some book out there that dives into this idea? I dunno.