Sunday, August 29, 2021

Layout Noodle II: The Slickening

Way back in the olden times when TSR was in business they often produced some fairly slick products, particularly their box sets. A typical late era TSR box set would include two booklets (often with "self covers", meaning there was no cardstock color cover... like a comic book without a cover, page 1 is just the start of the book with table of contents or something), at least one large color fold out map, maybe an adventure book, and maybe some sort of loose extras like player handouts or monster sheets for those god-awful three-ring monster binders.

Overall, these were pretty nice packages. But they were not perfect. Riddled with typos and egregious omissions (TSR was dying after all, budgets were slashed), and often feeling quite hollow. One that I remember most is the Al Qadim box sets. Lovely, with wonderful large maps and cool handouts... but the booklets usually just featured the repeated box set cover art or some repurposed art from some other product. One of them, perhaps Assassin Mountain, actually had the wrong cover title on one of the booklets.

Even the back cover is rad.

Cool as these things were, they pale by comparison to some of today's slick productions. I'm not talking about large publishers here, either. I don't even know what is happening with the bigger RPG publishers these days. But in the DIY scene (OSR, Sword Dream, story games, whatever) there are books being produced that are jaw-dropping in their beauty and scope. Some of these productions are so wild, so artistic, so delicious they may even go too god damn far. I dunno. YMMV. I like 'em, but I don't aspire to them.

This is because I'm a pretty basic sort of creator. I like to work privately, on my own, without too much fuss. I am not a business person, I am not much of an influencer. I do have some social capital in the RPG DIY scene thanks to having been active on G+, doing my Black Pudding zine, and working for all kinds of crazy RPG publishers over the years from Adept Press to Goodman Games to Gary Con to DIY RPG Productions. So if I wanted to do a Kickstarter I believe I could pull it off and be somewhat successful at it. So far I have not had the urge to do so.

Because I'm just a little too basic.

My targets are lower. I come from a small press aesthetic where stealing photocopies and trading zines was the pinnacle of happiness. Low key, low bar, low point of entry. That's me. I want as few things as possible standing between me and whatever sort of creative nonsense I want to do today.

And look... people who can commit to massive projects and create lush, beautiful books that will adorn my shelves forever are supremely awesome. I tip my hat and I continue to shove money at them because I do LOVE what they create (I type this as I drool over my print copy of Knock #1... fuckin' hell this is a lovely object).

Anyway. Not every book needs to be a coffee table tome. Here are some books that inspire the shit out of me right fucking now.

Look at those pants!
Misty Isles of the Eld is from The Hydra Cooperative, by Chris Kutalik. It's part of his Hill Cantons setting and is written specifically for Labyrinth Lord rules (so it works seamlessly with B/X and Old School Essentials). This is a digest sized book with a single column layout. It's easy on the eyes, with clear presentation of information and strong, fun art. In fact, all of Chris's Hill Cantons books (Fever Dreaming Marlinko, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, etc.) are laid out similarly and of equal aesthetic and utility. I love these books because each is self-contained and can be used instantly to run or enhance games. The Hill Cantons books form the loose tapestry of a wider setting, which is, incidentally, the kind of project I'm currently working on (Yria, the world of Black Pudding, a pet project I've long wanted to put into motion).

Pretty much anything from Paolo Greco's Lost Pages line is right in the spirit of what I'm currently working toward as well. Simple, direct layouts that are easy to follow. Pleasing to the eye, for me, and that put the information forward. Check out Lumberlands by Erik Jensen for a perfect

example. It's 48 pages long and presents a robust romp of a setting you can play on its own or as part of some other campaign. This one is system neutral so you can apply your flavor of RPG rules to it. But if you're not into that, don't let it deter you. This book contains lumberjack stuff, cool new gear, poison plants, familiars, squirrels, and sasquatches. It's delicious.

My favorite bit in this book is a table of 100 little decorative and/or utilitarian flourishes you can add to any equipment. For example, a lucky rabbits foot to dangle from your pick axe or a vampire-slaying stake to put on the end of your lantern pole.

And so forth.

Nature of the Barbarian

"Conan is the damnedest bastard"

I stumbled upon something buried deep in my file folders, lost and forgotten. Perhaps for good reason. Who knows?

This is a link to a file on Drive. It is a file created in Mod Plug Tracker, I believe. It's a music file. You can play it in WinAmp, for example.

It's a mix of Vincent D'Onofrio talking about Conan the Barbarian from the movie The Whole Wide World with some ambient drums and sounds I mixed in.

The file extension is ".it", which I think was for some tracker software from the early 2000s. I have no idea if the tracking scene is still a thing or not. I got into it in 2000ish and made a dozen or so tracks. This one and another called Mandarin Slice were my crown jewels, such as they are. I can't locate Mandarin so it is probably lost to the void. Possibly for the better.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Layout Noodle

I come from a small press comics background, a DIY ethos. "Back in the day" we would draw our comics and then photocopy them, paste them (with glue) onto "flats", then photocopy the flats and collate and staple them into zines. It was a 100% manual process. I still have old yellowed flats in boxes in storage for comics I published in the mid 90s. (I need to do some house cleaning)

Fast forward to the digital age. In the 2000s I mostly published my stuff online. I did some print zines, such as Random Order Comics & Games, and I attended the Small Press and Comics Expo (SPACE) a few times to sell them. But I was mostly online, not in print.

In the early 2000s I experimented with digital layout. I played with Word, InDesign, and Dreamweaver. I used an early version of InDesign to layout my game The Questing Beast.

When I got back into RPG publishing in 2014 or so, I partnered with my friend Matt Hildebrand who has handled almost all of my layouts since then. I don't know what magic Matt uses but I don't question it. From the Umerican Survival Guide to Wormskin to virtually everything Goodman Games publishes, Matt's layout skills are on display everywhere.

The exception was with a few projects such as Black Pudding. That zine is laid out "traditionally" in the sense that I'm literally shoving raster images all over a canvas. I'm just doing it digitally rather than with photocopies. The layout process is manual. And fun.

Currently I'm in the mood to learn how to use modern layout tools again. I own Affinity Publisher and I've been playing around with it, getting my toes wet. I did an 8 page layout that is so damn ugly I won't show it to my worst enemies. I will burn it with fire. But it was instrumental in teaching me how to get started and some things to avoid... like stroke lines on inserted text boxes. Ugh.

Stay tuned for more of this riveting material. Next up I want to articulate my thoughts on the current trend of super high quality slick DIY RPG books vs. low key simple DIY RPG books.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

You're a Wizard!

Old school Magic-Users have a tough row to hoe at low levels. The payoff is that when they gain higher levels nobody can fuck with them.

But here's a problem: Most players of D&D (especially classic editions) are playing low level characters almost all of the time. This is especially true for public games where the tendency is to run little dungeon romps for characters in the 1-5 level range.

Wizards in this range are fragile and can't do much. And anyone who argues that you can "still throw a dart" is a fool. Don't listen to them.

Make low level wizards better instead. It's the morally correct thing to do.

To that end, here are some ideas and thoughts I've had about old school MUs over the years on this blog.

In Read That Magic I kind of go off on a rant about using B/X rules as written and how it makes playing a first level wizard kind of lame. I still feel that way. If we assume most games are not going to get into higher levels, then you need to beef up them wizards. Don't be a tool.

In OSE and B/X Spellbooks I talk about three ways you can play B/X rules as written and work it into the fantasy fiction of your campaign. I like these ideas, though I'm prone to just house ruling the shit out of wizards instead.

In Magic-User with Sword I talk about allowing wizards to use weapons other than daggers and to wear armor. Because I detest the notion that they somehow just can't do it. Let your wizard pick up a sword, for crying out loud. They'll suck at using it.

NOTE: One thing I didn't address in that post was just how much emphasis B/X puts on magic swords and just how much benefit that is to the Fighter class. If the wizard can also use a vorpal sword or +3 sword or whatever, then the Fighter's niche is threatened. I get that. And I'm actually OK with the caveat that magic swords want to be used by warriors, not wizards. So a +3 blood drinking sword might simply refuse to function in the hands of a wizard. It's magic, after all.

In B/X Wizard I present a Wizard class for B/X. This was used in my Isles of Rone game and worked quite well, though we only played at level 3. It's actually a little bit more fiddly than I prefer in a B/X class, but perhaps not over the top. It includes the use of other weapons and armor, brewing potions, using both M-U and Cleric spells (I tend not to want Clerics in my games), allows and emphasizes magical research from level 1 forward, and grants the PC one special item.

If I revised this class today I'd do it a little bit differently. I'd open up the Wizard's ability to create magic stuff, including potions, but I'd tie such efforts to time and money more explicitly. It should be no big deal for a Wizard to brew a potion if given a few days to work on it. But of course you don't want the power gamer to convert the 30 days of downtime since the last adventure into 15 potions. But you also don't want overly persnickety potion brewing rules (I still love keeping B/X classes to a single sheet of paper, if I can).

Another idea I'm noodling is to only have 4 house rules for Wizards.

1. You can brew potions, make magic items, and conduct magical research from level 1.

2. You get 2 extra level 1 spell slots from level 1.

3. You can use any weapon but you can't have it ready and also cast a spell and it takes a round to get it out or put it up.

4. You can wear armor, but you have to make a save vs. Spells in order to cast and the armor's AC benefit is a penalty to your save.

Just some thoughts.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Thieves! Dirty Rotten Thieves!

Of late I've been thinking about classic D&D. When I think of D&D I always think of B/X D&D, the classic basic rules from 1981 compiled and edited by Tom Moldvay, Dave Cook, and Steve Marsh. That's my jam and probably always will be. It is a clean presentation of the original D&D rules with some tidying up, some clarifications, some stripping down, and some additions.

It is imminently hackable. It melts over new settings like butter on hot bread. When I think about writing fantasy settings for RPGs I always favor using this rule set as a basis, usually via the use of the game's most effective modern clones: Labyrinth Lord and Old School Essentials.

Thinking about B/X lately lead me to recall some of the posts I made about the topic in the past. I wanted to revisit some of them with fresh eyes and see if my thinking has changed.

Thieves' Skills is one of my favorites. I can't remember if this idea started as a G+ post and then I cleaned it up for a blog post or if it was the other way around. But I do remember when the idea hit me and suddenly thieves and their terrible skill ratings clicked into place and made sense.

Thieves' Skills


You're playing a Thief. You want to pick a lock. You take a peek at your sheet and see that your chance is 15%. That sucks! Surely you can do better than that?

I think you can. I think the Thief's skills are not meant to replace existing stealth rules (such as they are), but to augment them. This is what I mean:

You try to sneak through a room where some orcs are playing bones in the corner. The dice are thrown and the result is 55%. That's well above the 20% you needed to move silently. What does that mean? It means you didn't move silently. It does NOT mean the orcs heard you. It simply means you made some kind of noise that might be heard. So the DM should then make the normal roll to determine if the orcs heard a noise or not.

If you were a Fighter sneaking through the room you'd only get the second roll, not the first one too. So the Thief has an added layer of rules to cover stealth.

Same for hiding in shadows. A failed skill roll means you could be seen. It does not mean you actually were seen. When the Thieves' skill rolls fail you simply fall back to normal rules such as a surprise check or hear noises.

I don't know if this was how the rules were meant to be used or not but this is how I've been thinking of them for a long time. It makes a thousand times more sense to me now than before and it means I don't necessarily have to house rule the Thief (though in all honesty I still do...).

After making this post I revisited the topic several times. In the post THIEVES! I re-state the idea outlined in the previous paragraphs and I introduce my Thief class bennies system, which I later modified into the Black Pudding Playbook's Thief.

In the post Once Again With The Thieves I talked about a new public game I was running and how I modified these ideas once more to suit that table. In that post I outlined this method:

-Thieves roll their skill on percentile dice + an ability check at the same time. If the percentile roll is good, ignore everything else because they have perfectly executed their subtle craft and cannot fail. Otherwise, go with a simple ability check.

-Non-thieves do sneaky stuff on an ability check, usually with Disadvantage. They cannot do super-secret stuff like climbing sheer surfaces or disarming complex traps (unless the player has a terrific plan).

Looking at it now, I still think this method is very good for a public game in which you have no idea who will show up to play. It eliminates the d6 rolls for hearing noises and such, which would be harder to explain to a complete noob. Rolling d100 and d20 at once is fast and smooth. Using Advantage and Disadvantage is both elegant and well known.

Still, as a B/X fan, I want the pure experience so I want as few house rules as possible. I need a good damn reason to house rule.*

In that same post I re-stated the original idea again in a way that I kinda like:

The idea here is to say that thief skills are special. The thief isn't merely trying to be very quiet or trying to find footholds on a wall. They have been trained or have discovered lost secrets or have tapped into natural talents that normal people cannot access. The thief doesn't simply "hide" in shadows, they fucking disappear. If that percentile roll is a good one, the thief cannot be detected. They are as good as invisible, though not in a magical way.

In the post Thief! Stop Thief! I had an idea for using the default saving throws as skill categories. Check it out. I haven't used this and it isn't what I'm leaning toward today but it's a neat idea, right?


My thinking in 2021 is similar to 2015 with regards to Thief skills. Use the skills as they exist, without altering the tables or numbers. But treat those skills as *almost magical*, where the Thief is perfectly successful on a good roll and falls back to the default stealth rules when they fail. For my money, this actually solves the problem with Thieves.

Beyond that, I'm also in favor of giving Thieves another benefit in the form of special tricks. It could be a standard list such as forgery and reading scrolls and what not. Or it could be left wide open so the player can decide what their tricks are. I dunno. I'll ponder that one a little more.

I have some thoughts about wizards too...

* And oh yes, I do house rule. I have many house rules. I don't use them always, but there are a few that are almost always in use (critical hits, luck points, wizards getting more spells).

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Name That Bastard

From the Basic Honey document. For when you need an epic fantasy name.

Basic Honey

I created a B/X reference PDF full of pinup art and naked ladies. It is juvenile and puerile and prurient. All art is © by me and everything else is stolen from some old 1981 text.

If you are not into cartoon naked chicks then don't click on this Google Drive link.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Drawing Woolsey

I'm not great at capturing real people. This is a sketch of the character Woolsey from Stargate. I think it's *almost* there but I don't think his likeness is immediate.

One method an artist can use is to trace from a photo. "Trace" is one of those words that is quite loaded because a lot of us grew up hearing "He traced it" as a slur against your skills. To be clear: tracing is not a bad thing. It's a useful tool. Artists trace their own work all the time.

And it's even fine to use a photo reference under your drawing surface as a guide. Of course you don't want to literally copy it because a) boring and b) copyright. But using it as a guide is helpful.

In this case I wanted to avoid that and just draw from reference by "eyeballing it" as they say.

This is not a skill I've put to the test very often. I'm a cartoonist focused on fantastic subjects like spaceships and barbarians. But I did cut my teeth in life drawing classes all these many years ago and that foundation has been priceless for me.

Anyway... practicing.