Wednesday, 29 December 2010

recession-proof gaming XII - last one this year...

The financiapocalypse shows no sign of slowing down.

That doesn't mean you have to give up gaming though!

Character Sheets - online character sheets for Labyrinth Lord, Dark Dungeons, OSRIC and others.

Systems and Settings
Crimefighters - Pulp adventure in the tradition of The Shadow and Dick Tracy.
Pars Fortuna Basic - From the Land of Nod, an innovative take on weird fantasy.
Warrior & Wizard - An OGL retro-clone of The Fantasy Trip.

BattleMapr - A rapid battlemap maker from The Weem and Forrest Hatfield.
Dave's Mapper - Another geomorph remixer from Dave Millar.  Thanks to Trollsmyth for the pointer. 
Geomorph Compilation - Courtesy of dysonlogos of A Character For Every Game.

Monday, 27 December 2010

from earthsea to asgard

Some responses to Othello in the 41st Millennium courtesy of Lord Gwydion and 5 Stone Games deserve consideration.  There are reasons offered by commenters as to why there is a dearth of people of colour in game publications and maybe as a result, around the gaming table.  Is it surprising when entire worlds are portrayed where people of a particular ethnicity don't appear to exist? 

Some blame a dearth of source materials.  Even in the day of Holmes the Physician - examples of fantasy and SF fiction where protagonists and characters aren't white existed.  For example the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin.   Which makes the TV version of Earthsea by Sci-Fi with it's white protagonist jarring.  And when Le Guin says this thirty-six years later, you have to ask what's up with the status quo.
"I have received letters that broke my heart, from adolescents of color in this country and in England, telling me that when they realized that Ged and the other Archipelagans in the Earthsea books are not white people, they felt included in the world of literary and movie fantasy for the first time."
-- speech to BookExpo America children's literature breakfast (2004).
The quote is from Pam Noles' essay Shame, a poignant study of why representation matters.  Yet arguments persist that tabletop RPGs are a Caucasian thing, a view ignoring the existence of Japanese RPGs, industry figures like Louis J. Porter and fans.  These arguments support a primary demographic of... Comic Book Guy.  Fortunately there is more in heaven and earth than dreamed of in that philosophy!

It's been argued versimilitude is a problem as characters of colour can't use the equipment of their Western peers and may need historically accurate costumes leading to racism and stereotyping.   For a moment, let's indulge the quixotism in championing historical fidelity for games with dragons, wands of fireballs and Cthulhu.  Why wouldn't a warrior with access to plate mail use it? Plate mail was found from Spain to Japan.

Even with concerns over other cultures using European arms and armour, positive examples exist.  The 12th century Moorish warriors of al-Andalus used Frankish crossbows and wore mail like Christian neighbours while using better-quality cuirasses in place of heavy breastplate.  Fears of appearing racist seem unfounded when it comes to this issue.

Rather, be concerned when white separatists calling for a boycott of the Thor movie over Idris Elba playing Heimdall claim support from irate comic book guys.  Presumably Tadanobu Asano as Hogun The Grim and Natalie Portman as Jane Foster isn't a problem?  Never mind Marvel's Asgard differing from the home of the Aesir.  Or the Viking propensity for assimilating into foreign cultures (e.g. Normans, Rus, Varangians)...

Greyhawk, Golarion and the Forgotten Realms acknowledge the appeal of world cultures with places like Ket, the Minkai Empire and Rashemen.  The presence of games like Legend of the Five Rings and Nyambe prove settings outside medieval pseudo-Europe are commercially viable.  So is the question merely one of accessibility?  Of opening the eyes of the audience to an unfamiliar world?

Writing a different culture is not without risks.  There is a fear of appropriation in portraying a different culture.  Of using masks rather than getting under the skin.  Adequate research, hard work and a dash of empathy are needed.  Such endeavours need work and risk crashing and burning.  However, this is the strength of tabletop RPGs, the ability to try and imagine another person's life while having fun doing so.  What better challenge?

Monday, 20 December 2010

spurred to greatness - review: advanced feats the cavalier's creed.

Advanced Feats: The Cavalier's Creed by Open Design.
Metric: Banners.  Though I admit being a fan of Don Quixote, windmills would mean I'd turned this review into a Terry Gilliam movie.
DISCLAIMER: This review is of a PDF copy provided by Open Design.
5 banners (out of five)
Advanced Feats: The Cavalier's Creed has found a level I've known the series can hit since The Witches Brew. Sigfried Trent and Open Design have got it right on the content.  The walkthough is informative, the feats add to the class and support other classes.  The builds are excellent stuff.  One faulty bookmark isn't enough for me to mark it down, even at my level of pedantry.  If you've got the Advanced Players Guide and need to understand the cavalier, get this.  Wonder if there's going to be an Advanced Feats compilation?

Content: 5 banners (now this is how you do it).
The walkthrough comes out swinging, a mechanical breakdown of the cavalier, the potential of it's class abilities is defined and it's foibles explored.  If your GM likes to play with wilderness sandboxes, this is an ideal class. Hardcore dungeoneers may find the horse somewhat cumbersome yet without it, the cavalier is a combatant missing some of it's perks unless you're allowed collaborative feats in which case, things get… interesting.

The feats are how you design for Pathfinder or 3.xE. Interesting toys for the cavalier and the mount and again, non-cavaliers can benefit from a range of feats (Rogues with Pack Attack? Scary!) in here.  The design notes in here were nice, showing the thought processes behind the decisions made.

Three solid builds and the mount details help confirm their importance in this build.  The Green Knight showcases how a half-orc can win spurs as a shield to allies and a threat to their foes.  The Tawny Knight, a gnome/wolf tagteam that combines to cause mayhem would work well in a dungeon.  And the Black Knight brings rapier, buckler and sheer mayhem with a lance to bear, despite inevitable Pythonisms.  Didn't feel another build was needed here this time so this is it done right.

Art/Layout: 5 banners
Awesome cover? Check. Interior layout is crisp and well-ordered with heraldic designs and vines giving a smooth appearance that shows how far things have come from Secrets of the Alchemist.  One minor blemish, a bookmark is mislabelled.  Everything else is slick and beautifully done.

Overall, this brings it all together. If you have a Pathfinder GM looking for an excuse to use high-strung knights and jousting in the manner of BBC's Merlin, this is a great holiday gift that keeps on giving.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

the verlore fragments

Verlore, one of many petty gods of the lost, watches over people, things or causes.  Tales of lost children now safe and shivering, of heroes misdirected and armies sent into peril.  All of these show his hand. The tomes of sages describe Verlore as " old man, forgettable of face, clad in ragged robes and road dust, approaching from any quarter, wielding a traveller's stave and shrouded in illimitable dread."  In his presence all but the strongest will feels uncertainty and a desire to be away.  This in itself has led to problems for in his wake, the people of a city may bustle into unfamiliar alleys and unexpected routes.
The Archincanabula notes how witches use cold iron and rowan to ward against him.  He is said to converse with treants and play blind-man's buff with dryads.  The last seems unlikely yet the princes of faerie honour Verlore as that rare thing, a fair and principled god.

Yet peculiar desperation leads petitioners to ask a god of the lost for directions.  Petitioning Verlore is to court uncertainty, he is always irritated by such requests unless the petitioner is particularly charming, female or both.  The unseemly, foul and unfortunate find themselves far off the mark.  Where Verlore's wrath is incurred, the petitioner may vanish  to appear somewhere they have never been and seemingly far from what they know.  While he rarely tolerates confrontation he has banished arrogant souls to The Eternal Maze or brought them to distant places only to vanish before them.  Landmarks vanish and symbols of despair are etched into roadsigns in his wrath.

For this reason, he is placated rather than worshipped.  Travellers leave him offerings, an extra meal or pair of shoes by a broken milestone.  Sailors ward against him by casting offerings over the side.  In some ports, old beggars with staves are driven from the quays for fear of lost wealth.  If there are clerics of Verlore, they are pitiful creatures, plagued by missed appointments and missing items.  To wander aimlessly is to be 'touched by Verlore' - something most adventurers keenly wish to avoid.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

the zaros road crawl

The Zaros Road Crawl is a three pub run from the Zaros Road Taverna to the Minotaur's Horn to the Standing Sphinx.  Yes, the last one is new, a desperate den of villains built on a necropolis haunted by brigands, rogues, undead and witches.  The information on the Taverna and Horn is expanded and tweaked.  All three have price tariffs and plot hooks. Also there are tables for roadside incidents, travelling traders and grave goods.

If you have a couple of hexes of temperate hills with a road leading up to a mountain range, this will help populate the area, provides three ready-made distinctive bases of operations and adventure hooks for you to flesh out as much as you like.  If you've cleaned out a ruined keep recently or are heading into the mountains, this may be a suitable route for you.

You can download the PDF here or from the downloads page. I'm looking at alternate formats though PDF is a standard widely available on computers and e-readers.  This one is on me, The Zaros Road Crawl is Creative Commons Non-Commercial Sharealike.  If you have preferences, feedback or just want to say you've used it, link back or leave a comment.  Have fun with it.

    Wednesday, 8 December 2010

    othello in the 41st millennium

    We deal in fiction.  This is hopefully obvious to everyone.  Middle-Earth, Hyborea and Melniboné are no more real now than at conception.  Arguing for authenticity in fiction is counter-productive at best, quixotic at worst.  Particularly where dragons are involved.  Is one Pakistani hobbit going to spoil immersion in a race Tolkien describes as brown-skinned?  Peter Jackson disagrees and rightly so.  The BBC's choice to cast Angel Coulby as Guinevere in Merlin acknowledges it's audience just like Shyamalan's The Last Airbender ignored theirs.  Yet black greasepaint for drow is used by fan movies and LARPers and is tolerated - something that really angers people of colour.  Most drow being villain material helps perpetuate a harmful stereotype.  Nor is this the only example.

    In the Imperium (be it ancient or of the 41st millennium), humans of colour have disappeared or are worse, demonised. Dark Heresy introduced a black Inquisitor who believes he can negotiate with Warp daemons.  So the token person of colour is doomed.  Classy, huh? Compare this with a positive archetype like Dante from White Wolf's Mage: The Ascension.  Othello could easily be adapted for Dark Heresy and is in keeping with the game's themes of suspicion and deluded belief.  John Kovalic retorts to an advocate of a white-only Imperium asking if inclusion of different ethnicities is the right thing to do, why he hasn't done it yet?
    As a co-founder and co-owner of Out Of The Box Games – a company we built up to multi-million dollars in annual sales in just a few years – I have direct experience with huge untapped markets and their potential. And you know what? We did it by being inclusive.

    Some think Shakespeare can only be performed in the original form.  It doesn't make films like Romeo + Juliet or Ian McKellen's performance in Richard III any less entertaining or accessible.  Try telling those behind The Lion King they have to stop because they're doing Hamlet wrong.  See how far that gets.  If an author or designer makes an aesthetic, philosophical or technological decision to alienate some of their audience?  They must own that decision and - hopefully - learn from it.  It is good business sense to give positive images of different races.  So why is the industry still having difficulty with this?

    Monday, 6 December 2010

    into the woods - review: tales of the old margreve

    Review: Tales of the Old Margreve by Open Design.
    Metric: Matryoshka (Russian nesting dolls).
    DISCLAIMER: This review is based on a PDF copy with the Margreve Companion and some neat paper miniatures provided by Open Design.
    Summary: 5 matryoshka (out of five). This screams 'Run Me!!' loudly and often.  An entire setting inspired by Slavic, Russian and Teutonic legends through the lenses of del Toro, Tim Burton and the Brothers Grimm.  With monsters, magic and adventures on top, it's beautifully crafted and evocative - the art is delightful.  If you have a Pathfinder GM, get them this for the holiday season and go into the woods.

    Content: 5 matryoshka (be sure of a big surprise).
    3/4 location, 1/4 magical beast.  Add mystery and terror to taste.  Fans of Thomas Covenant and Ravenloft will intuitively grasp the Old Margreve, others are quickly brought up to speed concerning the hunger and territoriality of the Margreve.  Various locations are described, some are magical gotchas for the party with everything, others offer unusual environments for encounters, some of which cater to high-level parties.  An army of treants you say?  Some of whom are petrified?  This could be a bad day.  The peoples of the Margreve (forest folk, Kariv gypsies and exiles from Doresh) are given enough detail for characters.  There's plenty of details for a GM to include to make this sing.

    Magic is evocative, with names that go beyond bald description and into mood.  Step Like Me needs to be a ranger spell too but other than that, everything is good.  The 0th-level incantations are a thing of beauty and offer tangible benefits (and concurrent drawbacks).  Publishers of PDFs should look on these and take note, the bar just got raised again.

    The bestiary is breathtaking.  Creatures like the myling (who combines restless ghost children with Sindbad's Old Man of the Sea), the sap demon (an ooze that possesses the unwary) and the suturefly (who sews up the mouths and noses of liars) show top quality. Russian folklore is well represented with the rusalka, leshy and the zmey - a three-headed dragon that lusts after flesh and courts maidens. Every entry has re-usability and drips with flavour.

    The adventures are wonderful examples of how to twist fairy and ghost stories into adventures. This may not be to everybody's taste but honestly, even the most obvious is excellently crafted.  Saying  more will spoil the surprises but all of these are exceptional and could with a little foresight provide wonderful flavour to a campaign.  Personal favourites include Hollow (atmosphere through the roof), Gall of The Spider Crone (the 'WTF? This is awesome!' moments fly thick and fast) and The Lustful Dragon (a high-level romp through the Margreve). Plus Grandmother's Fire features Baba Yaga, everyone's favourite Russian witch in a tale to return fire to a cursed Margreve.

    Art/Layout: 5 matryoshka (effective and enchanting).
    The cover shows denizens of the Margreve watching a band of heroes taking nervous footsteps into the woods.  Interior art is used effectively, black & white illustrations give a fairytale quality.  The bestiary illustrations are effective in this, the Children of the Briar, deer centaur and vila in particular.  Cartography is excellently done and the locations mapped evoke the flavour of the setting.

    In closing: An exemplar patronage project, this deserves your time, attention and money.  A damn fine book in it's own right, it compliments Paizo's Kingmaker adventure path beautifully.  In my view a contender for Best RPG product of the year and on par with the first Forgotten Realms or Ravenloft box set. Yes it's that good.  Open Design have also provided additonal source material in Kobold Quarterly and compiled these into a Companion that's also worth taking a look at as it compiles all of this in one place and offers some additional thumbnail NPCs on top.

    Saturday, 4 December 2010

    inns & taverns: the tricorn cow

    Sat amid rolling hills a half day inland, the Tricorn Cow is a two-storey tavern and adjoining buildings at the corner of a coach road.  The circular green sign shows a brown cow with a third horn jutting from it's forehead.  A haven for travellers risking the moorland roads, brigands and beasts are known to the locals.  The Cow keeps it's windows shuttered and peat fires banked.  This lets it avoid serious trouble, the three fierce mastiffs also help.

    From the outside, the tavern and stables are nondescript and occupied.  Whitewashed stones and green-painted wood are accented with black pottery icons of local fertility gods.  The interior smells of burning peat, leather polish and pipeweed smoke with hints of sawdust, ale and sweat.  The paved floor is stained and worn in places.  The taproom can hold up to thirty people comfortably.  At any given time, between five and eight patrons smoke, sup or talk in low voices.    Candle-light reflects off copper panels behind their brackets, yielding homely ambience and deep shadows on whitewashed walls.   The hearth burns lumps of hardened peat.  A large slate behind the bar is scuffed with chalk marks indicating how many drinks have been bought.  Pride of place overlooking the bar is the mounted head of a brown cow with three horns and staring red glass eyes.  Those wise in animal husbandry see this is no fake.

    The Tricorn Cow serves a strong brown ale with a hint of salt brewed in it's cellar and jugs of cordials made from local herbs.  It's proximity to a port provides wine and jugs of rum.  These are served in clay tankards and goblets skillfully made by one of her older children and the locals each have their own personal tankard.  Meat pastries, a thick onion broth and slabs of hard cheese are sold for fair prices.  In cold winters, mulled wine is served to local delight and high demand.  Enough ale is made that Amaret will sell the occasional small barrel to those who want it.  The barrels are decorated with a pot badge stamped with the insignia of a three-horned cow.

    The landlady is Amaret, a blowzy, ruddy-faced goodwife with grey-streaked hair.  Clad in patched skirts, dark chemise and woolen shawls, her six children (who share her colouring only) work as stablehands, cowherds, chambermaids and brewers.  Her earthy humour and fiery temper endear her to workers and artisans, courtiers find her coarse.  She tells rude jokes, serves ale and enjoys the occasional pipe.  Handsome travellers may find themselves propositioned but locals find her strictly business.  Versed in herbalism, animal husbandry and brewing, she keeps the Cow running though she says one day she will move back to the coast. She will bring in a cook from the port to help prepare food for the winter.

    Accommodation is offered to paying guests.  A common room that holds twelve is often filled by those who won't risk the moors at night, coachmen and their guests.  Two private rooms with scented candles and thick comforters are chill and overpriced.  Despite this, they are still popular.  The stables are well-kept and while the stablehands are young, they are skilled enough to tend warhorses.  The large mastiffs discourage thieves and skulking types and are confident around horses.  For the poor and desperate, Amaret will let them sleep in the cowshed but this is really the court of last resort and the smell will linger until it is scrubbed off.

    Amaret and local coachmen spread a story about the Tricorn Cow being a protector of hospitality.  Along the way, the story gained notoriety and spread via the port. Now people far and wide invoke the Tricorn Cow against unruly guests.  The local nobility consider it a quaint story yet the mischevious provide 'evidence' of the Tricorn Cow's existence.  At least one dead brigand was found trampled and pierced by horns so maybe, just maybe... Needless to say, Amaret will not reveal the truth.  It's good for her business.

    Saturday, 27 November 2010

    three things: automatarch's regalia

    The Automatarch rules a nation where mechanical wonders perform laborious tasks and great engines harness the elements.  Lost in the Siege of Unmaking, restoring the regalia earns royal patronage.  To say nothing of access to all manner of marvellous machinery and mechanical conveyances...

    Crown Cognate
    This ornately-tined gold crown is studded with tiny sapphires, violet garnets and ornate cogs of alchemically-hardened amber.  When worn, the crown clicks and whirrs to life, the cogs turn and small arcs of electricity move around the tines of the crown. This provides the wearer with a +4 enhancement bonus to Intelligence.
    Market Cost: 24,000gp
    Creation: Caster level 9th, fox's cunning.

    Orb of Foreknowledge
    This chased orb of bronze, gold and sapphire emits wisps of aromatic steam and makes a continuous ticking sound audible up to 10 feet away that negates any attempt at stealth.  Once a day, it may provide answers to five yes or no questions in the manner of a commune spell.  The questions are answered by a lawful entity obsessed with simple order and mechanical precision. 
    Market Cost: 10,000gp
    Creation: Caster level 9th, commune

    Scepter of Manifold Purpose
    This stout rod decorated in gold filigree and indigo lacquer conceals a number of blades within it in the manner of a brandestock.  By depressing parts of the filigree, the scepter can extrude various blades, spikes and other items which allow it to perform the following functions.
    • +2 short trident (treat as a +2 shortspear).
    • +1 shocking light mace
    • By extruding a slim copper prong to the ground, the scepter provides resist electricity 20 but cannot be used as a weapon while this property is being used.
    • A lens may be extruded which acts as a magnifying lens (+2 circumstance bonus to Appraise checks on small or detailed items). 
    Market Cost: 32,000gp
    Creation: Caster level 9th, alter self, magic weapon, resist energy, shocking grasp

    This content is published under the Open Game Licence 1.0

    Saturday, 20 November 2010

    inns & taverns: pudding's tavern

    Pudding's Tavern is tucked in a busy side-street, jostling with bakers and four storey narrow houses. The circular oak sign has the name painted in gold. It's dark walls and doors radiate warmth and a constant hubbub of activity. The smell of bread and hops is a constant companion interrupted by cooked food. The guild marks etched in the lintel showing the approval of bakers, butchers carpenters and potters who drink here.

    Inside Pudding's is bustling, often crowded. Tables and stools occupied by off-work artisans clump together. The smells of food and drink mix with fresh sawdust on the floor and the orange light of the hearth and lamps at the larger table. Stairwells leading up are sometimes taken by guests laden with clay tankards. Kitchen staff emerge with boards of pot pie and sticky tartlets intent on their buyers who bellow directions. The bar alternates between quietly occupied and stacked two deep as the artisans drink in waves with the industrious staff scratching tallies on a huge chalkboard behind them.

    The house ale is dark ochre with a potent bite and treacle aftertaste. Other ales are served, a pale ale favoured by thirsty smiths and a thick, dark stout more commonly served by halflings to their friends. Those who don't drink ale can buy either red or white wine or a measure of fortified red wine to keep the chill away. In food, the tavern excels. The local bakers provide pot pies and cakes in return for a tab and this benefits all parties. Pudding's is used to showcase some of the finer eating. Prices are a little above average but the quality is repaid with interest. Artisans out to impress often visit Pudding's as part of an evening's entertainment.

    Games of chance are a regular occurence, the butchers who drink here play games of draughts and lay wagers. Students of human nature will notice the butchers here are skilled gamblers capable of bilking the unwary in drinking contests, draughts or even simple wagers. They are often accompanied by a squat, tenacious dog of uncertain breeding and many sharp teeth. This beast is beloved of many regulars and waddles around like he owns the place.

    For accommodation, Pudding's is functional. A few coins will rent a key to a narrow room for a night with a straw mattress and a chamberpot with a covered lid - the keys all fit each other's locks and guests are told that their possessions are their own concern. Most guests leave the key in the lock. Larcenous types don't usually visit and those who do attract the malicious attention of the landlord's cat, an ill-tempered, aged beast with broken teeth and razor claws who stalks the halls with the stealth of a goat. Guests will find the cat glaring balefully at them when they leave the room. The cat never visits the ground floor - the dog and it are well-acquainted of old.

    The tavern is named for the family who founded it forty years ago. Former bakers, they decided to change direction and their fortunes were assured as a result from careful deals negotiated with the artisans of the town. The latest owner works as the landlord and business is booming under his careful eye. He brews the house ale to a family recipe and keeps this secret. Barring war, famine, pestilence or even sudden death, the Pudding Tavern will continue to prosper for some time.

    Monday, 15 November 2010

    three hundred... of now.  That proved the old adage the first hundred are easy what follows makes it interesting.  Now a question - what do you want?  

    What I'm working on right now:
    1. Putting together a PDF of selected inns & taverns and some extras with it.  Sort of a combination pub/dungeon crawl in the tradition of Griffin Mountain.  This ensures I meet the Chatty Challenge since 4E's transmogrification into Essentials derailed my sekrit project.  Barrowman! (shakes fist).
    2. Exploring GamefulThere is cool stuff and some familiar faces though the tabletop RPG enclave is a small part of a seriously cook picture.  Everything has that new paint smell and for those thinking games can change the world, it's serious gravy.  It will be interesting to see what happens next...  
    Seriously, what do you want to play?

    high in his stirrups - review - advanced feats: the summoner's circle

    Review: The Summoner's Circle by Siegfried Trent  
    Metric: Pentacles.  Pokéballs came a close second but let's not go there.
    DISCLAIMER: This review is based on a PDF copy provided by Open Design
    Overall: 4 pentacles.  The walkthrough brings people up to speed on an ambiguous class and expands it's options, the feats are versatile and provide pointers on how to get the best out a class with hidden depths though a couple are a bit shaky and one is missing.  The builds illustrate the virtues of the class though GMs may want to review the master of arms build before allowing it at the table.

    Content: 4 pentacles.  The walkthrough shows how a summoner sits ambiguously to more traditional roles.  Spells like a sorceror specialised in conjuring and buffing, a cleric's hit points, thief armour and weaponry.  This chimera is a tactical nightmare with the right player and Siegfried Trent gives some insights in how to do that which is seriously needed for some players who want to try something a bit different without breaking the flow of an established game while they find their feet.

    The feats are a balanced selection and fill in some gaps though a few will cause discussion at the table (I'm looking at Improved Multiweapon Fighting and Multihanded Weapon primarily) and Usurp Spell is missing but if you have Advanced Feats: The Witch's Brew you'll find it there.  The feats are a mix of class specific and versatile, particular favourites include Hardened Spell, Improved Shield Ally and Touch of Grace.

    The builds are interesting stuff.  The Chess Master is an excellent tactical build and my favourite of the three as it showcases the archetype.  The Mythic Rider will appeal to the players who want something a bit different from their summoner.  The Master At Arms is ambitious in building a combat tag team and at high levels is a holy terror but most GMs will try to apply some sanity - something that Siegfried himself admits needs to happen.

    Art & Layout: 4 pentacles.  The cover art by Michael Bielaczyc is good and shows the distinctive nature of the eidolon.  Interior art and design suggests otherworldly flavour with some silhouettes reminiscent of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu.  Layout is clean and concise and the winged eyebeasts add a touch of whimsy.

    Overall this is a good product and for the price a worthy addition to your Pathfinder toolkit.  There are a couple of glitches on content which surprised me given Open Design's recent exceptional quality - it went a bit Wizards of the Coast there!  It would be an interesting exercise to see how some of these feats combine together but that may be a subject for another article.

    Saturday, 13 November 2010

    cthulhu double feature: brown's plaid and macleish's heid

    Brown's Plaid
    A whisky brewed by ex-islander and Glasgow resident Douglas Immanuel Brown, according to an old family recipe.  The bottles are often left unheeded by most respecting bar staff to moulder quietly at the back, their plaid decorated labels (Brown's Distillery Est. 1899) stained with dark, oily residue that smells faintly of lye.   The story of Brown was quietly suppressed by the local church, tales of his still exploding in a blast that left bubbling pools and oily tar "...where once Brown distilt baurley-bree" can be found in the more discerning Scottish libraries as a warning to moonshiners everywhere.

    The whisky itself is harsh stuff, pale amber in colour, readily condensing on the side of the glass and reeking of peat.  It's taste is ferociously sharp and warming.  Those drinking must make a CON x3% roll not to cough and be blinded by tears for a round.  Alcoholics (incipient or otherwise) and the mad are strangely unaffected by the brew. Brown himself was tainted by exposure to the lloigor and this whisky carries some of that as well as trace alkaloids associated with hemlock - a part of Brown's recipe.

    Those drinking three measures (or more) of Brown's Plaid experience unpleasant dreams of flight/falling and the presence of something reptilian.  They will also wake up 1d3 magic points lighter (or 1 Wisdom damage) for the experience.  Downing a whole bottle (apart from the potential liver damage) results in drunken visions of swirling reptilian shapes and puts the drinker into telepathic contact with a dreaming lloigor - an experience costing 1d6+1/2 Sanity for that night. In addition, the hangover is itself a thing of horror.

    Macleish's Heid
    This tribal artifact is an overmodeled skull moulded in the likeness of a Ponape tribal ancestor.  The skull is covered in layers of baked sago and palm pith to flesh it out.  These layers are dyed with white pigment then decorated with curved lines of red paint.  Disks of sea shells, snail shells and braided human hair completes the likeness.  The ancestor has widely-spaced staring eyes, a pronounced overbite and narrow jaw. The skull itself has not been exposed for scrutiny.  Doing so would be considered sacriligeous by the tribe and would likely damage the layering and decoration without extreme skill.

    Named for noted anthropologist Josiah Raphael Macleish who never returned from a journey to Innsmouth and was finally removed from the missing persons records 15 years later.  The 'heid' was stolen from the antiquities cabinet at Miskatonic University after donation by the grieving Macleish family of Edinburgh, Scotland after Josiah's disappearance.  Stories of the 'daisent heid' are whispered in certain taprooms frequented by Edinburgh students familiar with exotic diseases or anthropology.  The story goes bad luck followed the 'daisent heid' - property is vandalised, rooms burgled and at least one woman abducted.

    There are no game benefits for owning Macleish's Heid.  Those familiar with the Mythos or Deep One hybrids may recognise certain common traits to the latter (an Int x5 roll to gain +1% Cthulhu Mythos, only one roll possible).  The misfortune of those owning the 'daisent heid' is caused by various attempts to retrieve it by private collectors or Deep One hybrids.  These groups maneouver about each other and the current owner of the 'heid'.  The artifact is worth a pretty penny but worth a lot more to certain Ponape families who can't offer much beyond being able to guard ancient secrets and keep Deep Ones from hassling the former owner.

    Sunday, 7 November 2010

    remember, remember - review: kobold quarterly 15

    Review: Kobold Quarterly 15 by Open Design
    Metric: Traps (these kobolds are tricksy).
    This review is based on a PDF review copy from Open Design.
    Overall: 5 traps. The Kobold moves from strength to strength.  The cover is exquisite, content is varied and innovative with artwork ranging from good to awesome.  The traps theme is interspersed with druidry, the new King of the Monsters (sporting a new look) and going beyond the DM's friend with situational modifiers and perspective-based dungeoneering.   
    Content: 5 traps.  Fantastic stuff.  Lots of quality 4E love ranging  from John Flemming's Rig This making use of ritual mechanics for player character set traps through Quinn Murphy's A Call to Awesome to provide situation or genre-keyed criticals to Phillipe Menard's Jack in The Box with it's traps that transform into monsters and vice versa and Jobe Bittman's Horakh, the newly-crowned King of the Monsters.  Anthony Eichenlaub's Masters of Great Skill uses skill-based utility powers to provide players additional alternatives.
    Pathfinder love is also available: Alex Putnam's Blades from the Past offering magnificent toys for fighter-types.  Pits of Despair by Andrew Hind offers 12 twists on the pit trap.  Children of the Wood by Stefen Styrsky uses the Margreve as backdrop for nature magic, divine domains and a sorcerous bloodline.  Collaborative Killers by Michael Kortes offers group tactics for combat and magic.
    An inside view on the 'Satanic Panic' via James Lowder's 'Those Dark Dungeon Blues' shows how far advocacy of games has come.  In constrast, the interview with Margaret Weis talks community-driven games and the Cortex system and it's settings inspired by television.  Monte Cook's Simulating Game Reality talks about core assumptions of the rules providing flavour for a game world in a thoughtful discussion.  Book reviews offer more delights though all the books are parts of ongoing series, including the latest Naomi Novik as well as gifting ideas for those who don't yet game.
    Mario Podeschi's Side-Scrolling Dungeons is great stuff, showing the virtue of three dimensions and platforms.  While the article uses 4E mechanics in it's example it can be adapted for any game and may offer inspiration for other genres also.  Finally the Cartways, where Wolfgang Baur introduces us to the urban underworld of Zobeck including The Smuggler's Market and the Black Chamber of Anu-Akma could easily be adapted for Pathfinder, d20 or 4E.
    Art/Layout: 5 traps.  Cover… (insert Homer Simpson-style drooling).  Is a print available?  Interior art compliments with high points being Nature's Orders, the weapons from Blades From The Past, Horakh and the tower in Going Vertical.  Minor (and I mean minor) layout glitches on the 4E articles are the only foot wrong - a two column layout for those articles would fix this.  On a lighter note, Stan!'s cartoons pull two aces this issue - the 10x10 toon will be funny as long as Desperate Housewives is broadcast.
    In closing, this is how a PDF magazine should be, colourful, interesting content, articles bookmarked and with unobtrusive links to products and related sites.  It's particularly neat to see the RPG blogosphere spawning articles for publication and proves there's plenty of life in tabletop RPGs even if some parts of the industry may feel otherwise.

    Saturday, 6 November 2010

    inns & taverns: the lance and board

    Positioned at the edge of the first piazza after the market gate, The Lance And Board is a well-maintained stone gatehouse bought as the city expanded it's walls.  The sign of a shield with a chequerboard pattern and three golden balls on a red chevron has weathered siege, fire and riot and remains conspicuous.  The sign advertises a moneychanger as well as the tavern proper and provides a covered arch to shelter those coming inside.  The ground floor is mostly stables and up to 12 horses may stay here.  At least six of the stalls will be occupied at any time by guest mounts and a small team of five grooms and two guards work diligently to take care of them and discourage would-be horse thieves.  The gate arch has stairwells left and right leading up into the building painted with murals of crossed lances decorated with vines and champion's wreaths. 

    The left stair ascends to a small, austere room lit by tallow candles and protected by two armed and armoured guards where a pair of moneychangers behind desks convert foreign coins or valuables into local currency at 10% commission.  For a fee, they will recommend jewellers to those wishing to travel light.  A quantity of coin and capable reinforcements wait behind locked, iron-bound doors.  The right stair ascends to a well-lit mezzanine where travelling cloaks and bulky weapons may be stored for a coin then up a small flight of stone stairs into the tavern proper.  The Lance And Board is a warm, well-lit tavern with arched pillars between six booths along the east and west walls, each with a chequerboard on it.  The common floor often has people standing about drinking and talking loudly around the central hearth where a ruddy-faced cook bakes flat loaves and roasts pigs and chickens.  The north wall has a lengthy bar where three staff and a manager serve drinks.  Stairs are situated in each corner to the upper floor.

    The Lance and Board prides itself on it's selection of ales and wine, as a free house it has seven different ales available and seven different wines.  The ales range from a thick stout to a nearly-white cherry ale that finds favour among the nouveau riche.  The wines range from simple house reds and whites to a warming red said to use magic in it's brewing and a cloyingly-sweet pale dessert wine favoured by particular nobles.  Other drinks include a sloe genever and a fortified wine drunk by out-of-favour servants who want to forget.  Apart from the hearth's flatbreads and roasts, sweetmeats and in autumn and winter roasted chestnuts are available along with mulled wine served with herbal possets.  Those used to traveller's fare find the Lance And Board a most welcome change.

    Accommodation is favourable in comparison with most city taverns.  There are four suites capable of holding four in comfort and eight smaller rooms capable of holding two in slightly less comfort.  The suits have beds with actual feather mattresses and coverlets while the smaller rooms favour straw mattresses and blanket for their intended use as servant quarters.  The walls are decorated with murals of night skies and knights on horseback.  A rumour that the stars change with each season is just that but looking up at stars instead of cracks will fool some.  The rooms are attended by a pair of scullery maids who will for a few coins provide hot water for bathing and minor repairs to clothing.  Those seeking base companionship will find themselves in need of a cure for pox much to the amusement of the landlord if it comes up in conversation.

    The landlord, Budley, is a former man-at-arms who works for the owner, a wealthy former knight who used the money from his tourneys wisely.  Confident in the face of problems, he knows the moneylenders working with him are able to provide up to a dozen armed soldiers if things get out of hand.  He is on excellent terms with the city watch and often provides information on newly-arrived strangers in return for preferential treatment when it comes to problems.  Between this and the moneylenders he is in an agreeable situation and knows it - this makes him cocksure dealing with women not of breeding and his reputation as a womaniser is firmly cemented in local gossip.  This hasn't scared off the merchants or their guards but fewer nobles visit the Lance and Board than did.  Those helping restore his good graces will earn a boon friend.

    Wednesday, 3 November 2010

    surges of the darksea war

    The presence of a blue comet in the sky was foretold as a dire portent and it fell into the ocean. The star sank beyond light and stirred up unspeakable horrors in the Underdark. The Darksea War renewed violence as the comet brought betrayals and insurrection with it. While those on the surface were distracted by their wars, the Underdark rang with the sounds of internecine battle.

    For the mind flayers, this was disastrous as former allies and thralls turned on each other. This forced them to call on those mind flayers who had descended to depths known to few where their greatest minds dwelled. Yet despite these setbacks and burned by their experiments with star spawn, the mind flayers innovated as inquisitors and scourges supported by Thoon hulks and slaves attacked at the behest of the elder brains. The elder brains created strange beasts - intellect devourers - to aid their troubled kin. The appearance of devils among the mind flayers to counter aboleth demonic allies troubles those few who know of them - the idea of a cambion born of a mind flayer is enough to give anyone nightmares.

    The aboleth were less susceptible to the comet's malevolent influence, most of their allies were already insane or their thoughts alien to the influence of the comet. They drew again on the Far Realms and used their allies as proxies between themselves and their demon and elemental allies. Their loyal allies the kuo-toa evolved in their madness, grew more battle-seasoned as their madness helped avert the comet's influence and their priesthood became more battle-adept.

    Both sides used the despicable, demented derro. Most derro gladly ally with the aboleth, some formed alliances with mind flayers against mutual drow enemies made bold by Lolth cultists. The derro savants have learned much from the aboleth, including the dreadful practice of surgical enhancement to produce warped slaves whose deformed organs and painful treatment provokes insanity. Their loathesome ways make them universally reviled yet the aboleth tolerate these manic allies.

    The growing presence of the Far Realm has brought more entities. More foulspawn, heralded by warpcaller piping means more mercenary insanity. Meenlocks are avoided by both sides despite foulspawn working with them - their corruption has claimed more than one thrall. The arrival of mimics serves only to destabilise conflicts further as they eat their way through thralls and servitors. As the war continues, the imminence of the Far Realm attracts forces intent to banishing it's denizens - the presence of psychically-gifted races grows in an attempt to restore order. Yet this war is a deep wound which has been allowed to fester for centuries. The Far Realm's denizens are not going without a fight - and the two warring nations know what that means.

    Tuesday, 2 November 2010

    rough beasts - review: book of monster templates

    Book of Monster Templates by Rite Publishing.
    Metric: Pawprints (From what? You'll find out...)
    DISCLAIMER: This review is based on a PDF copy provided by Rite Publishing.
    Summary: 4 pawprints.  Book of Monster Templates (BOMT) is useful for GMs looking for something different and for classic adaptations for their Pathfinder game. The artwork is solid, minor typos lurk at the edges but the content itself is consistently good with strands of brilliance.

    The use of templates makes things easier for a GM and promotes rapid play. A good template can form the core of a campaign arc. Combination of templates is good in moderation - too many games can become creature features.  A whole book of templates may spawn multiple campaigns.

    There are blinding examples of brilliance here at all character levels.  Undead sea hags doomed to eternally collect taxes, liches orbited by shrunken dragon's heads singing their praises, parasites stirring armies to fight wars for demons and devils, irresistable forces made flesh, bizarre experiments, hiveminds and magically-imbued entities.  Some templates adopt classic archetypes while others adopt a more Questhaven-centric worldview but it's easy to hack them into your game.

    This book acknowledges it's influences without excessive lampshading - references to Aklo, beasts changed by eating magical items and giants gaining power from the earth show both literary roots as well as elements borrowed from comic books and movies.  You'll also recognise familiar faces, GMs looking for particular setting hacks for Pathfinder can find them here.

    Artwork/Layout: 4 pawprints. Black & white interior art is consistently good and the cover by Hugo Solis shows a rune-carved dragon about to consider the dilemma of ordering dungeon takeout (i.e. adventurers).

    In closing you probably won't use all of them. That's not a bad thing, some are specialised tools but the strength of BOMT lies not just in it's ideas but also it's reusability. You'll be able to return to this well again and again if you're a Pathfinder GM. This one is worth your time.

    Saturday, 30 October 2010

    three things: necromantic prosthetics

    Ghost-Touched Eye - This pale, milky-white eye will when inserted into an empty socket graft itself in place permanently causing incredible pain (treat as nauseated) for one round.  Afterwards, the eye sees normally and enables the wearer to see things that are out of phase or in the Ethereal plane by concentration to a distance of 120 feet. Someone with a ghost-touched eye still needs other magics to interact with things in the Ethereal but sometimes, forewarned is forearmed.
    Market Value: 80,000gp
    Creation: Caster level 9th, Create Wondrous Item, Heal 8+ ranks, true seeing.

    Hand of Bloody Bones - This hand is skeletal and always dripping with dark blood, it activates when it is attached to the stump of an arm.  The hand is considered to have Strength 15 and can claw as a +1 weapon for 1d4 damage.  By smearing some of the blood along an slashing weapon then wielding it (a full-round action), the hand grants that weapon the wounding property until it is dropped by the wielder.  The hand of bloody bones smells of freshly-spilled blood, causing problems in certain situations (DM's discretion).
    Market Value: 5000gp
    Creation: Caster level 10th, Create Wondrous Item, spectral hand, vampiric touch.

    Ghoul's Teeth - This set of teeth is activated by carefully affixing them against the gums, if the user had normal teeth, they all fall out.  They give the wearer a bite attack similar to that of a ghoul, inflicting 1d6 damage and forcing a Fortitude save (DC12) or causing paralysis for 1d6+2 rounds.  The downside is the elongated canines and thicker molars deform the face and lead to drooling, causing a -2 penalty to Charisma checks and Charisma-based skill checks.
    Market Value: 20,000gp
    Creation: Caster level 6th, Create Wondrous Item, Heal skill 8+ ranks, ghoul's touch

    This content comes under the Open Gaming Licence v1.0

    Wednesday, 27 October 2010

    field of dreams - review: coliseum morpheuon

    Coliseum Morpheuon by Rite Publishing
    Metric: Nightmares (from the Khaaaaaan!!!). Got that out the way.  Now to business!
    DISCLAIMER: This review is based on PDF copy provided by Rite Publishing with supporting map packs and paper miniatures.

    Overall: 3.75 nightmares.  This is a book of two halves. Good ingredients with new rules, spells, feats and traits strewn among NPCs and monsters.  Nagging slips in organisation, mechanics bloat and chibi-esque artwork tarnish good stuff wrapped in Jason Rainville's gorgeous cover.  Canny GMs have lots to love with floorplans and riddles as well as quirky settings, fun encounters and memorable NPCs if they adequately prepare.  Fans of the Rule of Cool will be squeeing hard.

    4 nightmares (5 nightmares in parts).
    The introduction starts off a bit stiff but kicks up a notch as things turn to the Plane of Dreams, lovechild of Lovecraft's Dreamlands and the old World of Darkness Dreaming.  I like the setting and the gazetteer provides thumbnail sketches of various places to go and people to see along with some exquisite surreal art. 

    The Dreamburning rules are reminiscent of White Wolf's Wraith or Evil Hat's Don't Rest Your Head. Creating a threat for high-level characters is a nice idea - attacking what drives them makes it different.  Mechanically there are assorted feat-like traits but repairing dreams requires serious magic or sacrificing others and their dreams.  There's no way good characters can inspire hope (or Hope). The mechanics are thematically consistent with the Coliseum's setting and explains the attitude of many major NPCs.  A table summarising the Dreamburning options (and other feats) would be very helpful.

    An outline of what kinds of creatures live in the Plane of Dreams including new monsters like the chittering dream eater, malevolent denizens of Leng, oneirobound slaves who weave things from dreamstuff and predatory qarnjthak lends a more Dreamlands cast to the setting.  I'd have liked more creatures here but the Coliseum and Appendixes scratch that itch later.

    Then the Coliseum itself, drawing on hints of Alighieri's Divine Comedy, early Bas-Lag, late Melnibone and the Village from The Prisoner.  The history of the Coliseum is outlined with it's origins as domain for the nigh-omnipotent Khan of Nightmares.  Now the Coliseum is a melting pot for the denizens of Dream, populated by primal entities, mechanical monsters, otherworldly opponents and feckless fey.  Some read like using a large hadron collider on monster templates.  For example the Hounds of Ill-Prophecy, tiefling were-Nessian hellhounds with levels.  This aside, there's interesting folk - the Queen of Thistles, the Pasha of Swirling Ashes, Deuce of Clubs and the Khan of Nightmares make memorable encounters.  Lady Puzzledeep is a gem showing how conflicting motivations can elevate a character.  All the major NPCs also have Dreamburning options so they can join in the fun.  Fans of Planescape will certainly approve.

    Then a series of enjoyable riddles before Chapters 6 - 8 take you into the Coliseum proper; that second half I mentioned.   The Trials of the Damnation Epoch range from sublime to deadly and end in a very high-stakes game of King of the Mountain (yes even at 16th - 20th level!) before a series of proposed encounter structures in which the preceding pages suddenly make a lot more sense. Encounter setups make individual elements flow and offer staging tips and battlemaps.  Putting Chapter 10 (Secrets of the Coliseum) between Chapters 6 and 7 would offer a layered look at plots enmeshing the Coliseum and it's characters.  There are battlemap expansions for the encounters that are worth looking into including MapTool files - a nice touch acknowledging the presence of Internet-run games.  Jonathan Roberts again excels in his cartography.

    Appendixes include NPC antagonists and potential characters who provide a benchmark.   Everything you need to play is here. GMs seeking continuity could use this after Paizo's Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path by using both products' ties to Leng.

    3 nightmares.  While the cover and internal art by Jason Rainville is beautiful, elements are liberally recycled particularly as cameos for boxed text.  Minor NPCs get miniature-type artwork.  Personally I think the contrast jarring, even though the miniature artists provide art for both Rite Publishing and Paizo.  Maybe I'm being picky but it seems to detract from the visual appeal of an otherwise fine product.

    Overall, this is good stuff.  It needs polish, an index for all the crunch would have been nice and the Dreamburning rules look balanced but maybe need their own indie game to truly shine.  High-level Pathfinder adventures are not exactly a common commodity and the re-usability of the Plane of Dreams and the Coliseum as a setting makes it worthwhile for those high-levellers who've been there, done that.

    Tuesday, 26 October 2010

    alchemist alternatives: poisoner

    I recently reviewed Advanced Feats: Secrets of the Alchemist and mentioned an extra archetype or two would be appreciated. Alchemists are a strong mix of short-range offence, personal buffing and potion manufacture and Secrets expands those options further. So here's a classic archetype that will give a games master a twist on the alchemist and a ready-made villain for heroes to curse.

    "Here's a little something for what ails you."
    The poisoner makes a good villain for your Pathfinder campaign as they use dark methods. While more insidious than most, they can drop bombs like any alchemist worth their saltpetre. Starting poisoners take risks like anyone else but soon become less susceptible to their own tools. There are bombs for undead and poison-resistant inconveniences, the poisoner becomes a terrifying foe at higher levels.  Their skills makes them effective in treating comrades (including clerics) and providing support in the wilderness as well as the alchemist staples of providing potions and - of course - poisons.  Any race can pick this build - poisoners are a pervasive evil.

    Abilities: Dex 13+ Con 13+
    Skills: Craft (Alchemy), Heal, Knowledge (arcana), Knowledge (Nature), Sleight of Hand, Survival.

    1st. Frugal Crafting feat 1
    2nd. Smoke bomb discovery
    3rd. Great Fortitude feat
    4th. Stink bomb discovery, +1 Intelligence
    5th. Master Alchemist feat
    6th. Sticky poison discovery
    7th. Point Blank Shot feat
    8th. Concentrate poison discovery, +1 Wisdom
    9th. Precise Shot feat
    10th. Frost bomb discovery
    11th. Advanced Alchemy feat 1
    12th. Poison bomb discovery, +1 Intelligence
    13th. Reliable Bombs feat
    14th. Delayed bomb discovery
    15th. Rapid Shot feat
    16th. Elixir of life discovery, +1 Wisdom
    17th. Opportunity Shot feat 1
    18th. Extend potion discovery
    19th. Improved Greater Fortitude
    20th. Grand Discovery (Poison Touch), inferno bomb, eternal potion.

    1 - feat in Advanced Feats: Secrets of the Alchemist

    Formulae that work well with this build include:
    1st: bomber's eye, crafter's fortune, cure light wounds, disguise self, expeditious retreat, true strike
    2nd: bear's endurance, blur, cure moderate wounds, restoration, transmute potion to poison, undetectable alignment
    3rd: absorbing touch, cure serious wounds, displacement, heroism, nondetection, remove disease,
    4th: cure critical wounds, death ward, detonate, fluid form, neutralize poison, restoration, stoneskin
    5th: delayed consumption, dream, magic jar, nightmare, polymorph, sending
    6th: eyebite, heal, mislead, shadow walk, true seeing, wind walk

    Saturday, 23 October 2010

    inns & taverns: the twopenny crow

    The Twopenny Crow is a riverside inn and ferry to a forlorn island graveyard.  A sprawling cruciform bungalow with attached stable and rose garden, it's sign is a two-headed crow with spread wings.  The bungalow and stable is made of whitewashed cement with dark-stained beams and decorated shutters and doors.  The stable is quiet and a pair of black cart horses rest in two of the stalls.  A stand of yew trees shelters the inn from wind decorated with bright scraps of red and yellow fabric while a rowan and a blackthorn form an arch for travellers to shelter under.

    Inside the inn is coloured autumn.  The walls are yellowed by pipeweed smoke or painted crimson, indigo  orange.  The beams are carved with ornate flower and leaf patterns.  Painted tiles of crows, scarecrows and various flowers hang between tallow lamps.  The furniture is lower set than usual, concession to numerous halfling patrons.  There are two main rooms, a large communal bar with tables and chairs arranged in orderly rows with a clear space for people to stand and talk and a smaller lounge with tables and chairs closer to the walls.  Those wanting food are encouraged to go to the lounge.

    There is a variety of drinks available - a dark reddish beer with floral hints and bittersweet aftertaste unique to the house and at least three other beers as well as cyser, cornwine, a ferocious sloe gin, a bittersweet rowan spirit and in winter, mulled spiced cyser and a floral mead. For food there are a variety of pastries with seasonal fillings from spiced meats with parsnip and onion to a sticky apple and blackberry mixture.  Fresh bread and hard cheese is available with a generous dollop of dark, sticky and spicy elderberry and onion pickle.  This is particularly loved by the halflings who always try to learn the recipe from the landlord, Ebur.

    Ebur is the rock the Crow rests on. An excellent cellarman, skilled carpenter and undertaker, his ordered mind and strong baritone quells most outbursts. He leaves the bar work to his younger sister, Iola - herself a herbalist of repute.  Both Ebur and Iola lost their spouses to the war and visit the island on quiet days to grieve.  Sometimes, Ebur will be called on to act as an undertaker.  Not much escapes the attention of these two who somehow instinctively side with the wrongfully accused and who find themselves helping put wrongs right, often with the help of itinerant adventurers.  This has led to the Crow being avoided by local sherrifs until things are getting out of hand.

    The ferry to the island graveyard is operated by a pair of brothers.  One is blind (though his hearing is formidable), the other is mute.  Both are staunchly loyal to Ebur whose quick thinking saved them both from being eaten alive by ghouls.  Though the island is now cleared of undead, the brothers maintain a steadfast vigil and both carry swords and horns that are sounded in the event of unnatural activity on the island or from the river.  If the horns sound, all of the locals will come running - past incidents have involved attacks from ghouls and other undead raised by fugitive necromancers or evil cults.

    Tuesday, 19 October 2010

    apologetics now - the softback revolution

    The paradox of choice bedevils those confronted by variety.  Exponents of world cuisine buffets know this.  It was a similar situation for 4E D&D players, a profusion of classes and builds for each class made for tricky choices modified by races, hybrid characters and more.  Add options in additional core books, core classes in non-core books (Et tu, Swordmage?) and a steady stream of errata.  Then add D&D Insider with exclusive tools and character classes including the Assassin. The overhead for the game is significant despite potential re-use and proved intimidating to new players.

    So this year Wizards released D&D Essentials Red Box as a gateway to the hobby.  This is a good thing.  Other Essential boxes are forthcoming (Heroes of the Fallen Lands, Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, DM's Toolkit and Monster Vault) to expand the horizons of new players. Maybe less endearing for those who've already invested in 4E are scheduled Essentials products.  Bill Slaviscek explains in a recent Ampersand column.

    We're not talking about anything earth-shattering; rather, numbers have been tweaked here and there to make creatures more challenging, or powers have been given more interesting and dynamic effects.

    Of course this tweaking extends to player characters - the slayer and knight are versions of the great weapon and guardian fighter. The new build for the druid goes further, losing the wild shape class feature.  While Core Rules and Essentials are compatible, it's clear Essentials is the future for D&D which may annoy those who invested in the last bookshelf.

    Future releases include in February 2011, the Class Compendium: Heroes of Sword and Spell which converts five classes in the 4E Player's Handbook (cleric, fighter, rogue,  warlord and wizard) into Essentials format.  March 2011's Players' Options: Heroes of Shadow brings the once-exclusive assassin, the necromancer and the hexblade to the table.  Other Essential softbacks with the remaining classes will probably follow - Class Compendium: Heroes of Legend appeas a likely candidate.

    As for that simplified game promised by the new Red Box?  Enjoy while it lasts.  There's a whole new bookshelf on the way!

    Saturday, 16 October 2010

    rpg books on lulu you say? buyer beware!

    The Underdark Gazette has seen a bunch of Wizards of the Coast books appearing on Lulu. Apart from some 4E books, there's also Lords of Madness miniatures.  Wait, what?  Being naturally cynical, I went to go have a look and corroborate this with Wizards and Ingram Book Group who were also mentioned.  Neither site refers to it.  In addition there are other books appearing.  Books from Mongoose Publishing for example.  Or are they?

    Companies like Green Ronin and White Wolf are using Lulu to publish and distribute books. Clearly the examples I've mentioned in the previous paragraph are not doing so.  Doubtless there's going to be another backlash against using established technologies.  If you're a tabletop RPG company and you're not using Lulu, it may be worth checking to see if someone is.


    Wednesday, 13 October 2010

    recession-proof gaming XI: embodiment of free

    So the financiapocalypse still rumbles on. Gaming is still going on and the quality of free stuff out there gets better and better. If you needed any evidence of this, take a look at the links below and maybe try a few at your table. Incidentally if you have a free (as in free) game or game-related thing you want to spread the word about let me know in the comments!

    d20 Freebies - Courtesy of Paizo.  Download and review!  Thanks to Geek Related for the tip off.
    Project Aon - Joe Dever's Lone Wolf game books and setting books for Magnamund.  Inspirational stuff and a nice collection of solo-based game books as well.

    Age of Shadow - An OpenQuest game (BRP retro-clone) with Tolkien overtones and no divine magics.  Thanks to @ubiquitousrat for the tip-off and Sorceror Under Mountain for being the kindly uncle on this.
    Hell for Leather - Quick pick-up game of dice towers and extreme violence in the veins of Running Man and Battle Royale.  If you like this, take a look at the game at Cobweb Games.  
    Old School Hack has the Winter 2010 playtest version up.

    Floorplans & Maps
    RPGmapshare - Maps and map objects for personal use.  Thanks to NewbieDM.

    Labyrinth Lord Character Generator - Elegant and really quite nice for those pick-up demo games.

    Sunday, 10 October 2010

    living by numbers

    Today is a somewhat unusual day if you believe the symbology of numbers holds some significance.  The tenth day of the tenth month of the tenth year.  What does that mean?  There are also five complete weekends (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) this month, an event that happens every 823 years.  So make the most of them. Unique events - weddings, environmental activism and even events celebrating numerical significance though that last seems a bit meta.  Still, not every day is Doomsday, is it?
    Courtesy of Mark A. Mandel

    A sense of order in a chaotic universe is  comforting.  The objective of a calendar is to bring order and where these things change, other things follow.  The world doesn't always fit neatly into a numerical model - witness leap years as a hack to get around that.  Of course if you change the rules, as Pope Gregory XIII did to try and keep Easter where it should be, there will be differences of opinion - and in RPGs, often that kind of philosophical difference leads to a fight. 

    This is easily transplanted into a game as long as consistency is applied.  Perhaps a particular calendar day is favoured by one or more divine powers.  Celestial events may be ordained to occur and certain numbers may hold arcane significance.  The plot hooks that can be spawned from this are multifarious - want to foil an evil ritual?  You need to be there on this date.  This builds a sense of tradition and permanence as long as the events are observed in the game. There is little point having all this neat stuff if your players don't see it.

    Saturday, 9 October 2010

    inns & taverns: the angel under the hill

    Some dungeons never die, they just get repurposed.  This is true of The Angel Under The Hill, a roadside inn that was a former abandoned shrine.  Not much is known of this new inn - while certain locals drink there, most do not believing it disrespectful to those once worshipped there.  The fence around the inn holds a courtyard and small stable, the sign is the rear view of a winged man holding up a ceiling.  The inn is recessed into the hillside with a pair of columns flanking the ironbound oak door.  The stable is manned by a polite yet brisk groom who charges two silver for it's use and considerably more for overnight care.  The horses however will get one of the best treatments in a stable it has ever experienced.

    Inside, the main hall of the inn is lit by smoky tapers.  The walls are dressed stone with hand-sized iron grilles to disperse smoke and allow the air in.  Pride of place is given to the large tapestry of an angel, whose face is obscured, wields a flaming sword against a green dragon.  The floor is a mosaic of an angel with a blazing sword.  The angel's face is obscured as the mosaic tiles are fused together by some great heat.  A raised stone hearth blazes cheerily at all hours and a long wooden bench resting on barrels serves as a bar.  Of the shrine's other trappings, there appears to be little evidence.  The main hall can hold twenty in comfort among five square tables.  Four smaller private chambers from the main room seat four in comfort, six at a pinch. 

    The inn sells a russet ale that travels indifferently and has come some distance to be here.  There is however, a good red wine and measures of a fortified port-wine (called martasblode) available.  Slices of salted pork, rolled pork meatloaf served with pickled parsnips, a spicy mushroom and onion stew and a hard, flavourful cheese round out the menu. Prices are reasonable and quality is good except for the beer.  The landlord tends bar and will happily pay for better beer.  Though an inexperienced brewer he is an excellent cook able to turn beans and hard-tack biscuits palatable though he has few talents beyond this and running the Angel smoothly - his wife and son serve ale and tend to the accommodation of guests.  Though he knows the Angel is a former shrine, he will not give up it's use without significant coin.

    Accommodation is offered - twelve austere rooms with single straw cots and covered chamberpots that to monastic residents will feel just like home.  Others will find them small and slightly uncomfortable but dry, warm and clean.  The walls are whitewashed and scrubbed clean, those moving the bed however will find tally marks on the wall.  Tallow tapers are made available for those who need them as is a bowl of water heated by a poker.  There are no other decorations and the acoustics in these rooms are exceptional as the walls between each room are five feet thick.  The Angel has numerous chambers deeper than this accessible by a stair behind the bar.  Here the landlord keeps pigs, an extensive mushroom and vegetable farm as well as a larder and kitchen.  There is a brewery but this is haunted by mold and beerstone, a professional would need weeks to return it to a fitting place for the manufacture of beer.

    There are currently no threats of invasion or secret passages, much to the chagrin of adventurers who visit the Angel Under The Hill although the tapestry contains some interesting references to the location of a dragon's hoard (reputedly the dragon slain by the angel) though spotting them requires a keen eye and knowledge of the weaver's trade.  A tunnelling monster would probably be the only thing that could encourage the landlord to surrender this inn to someone else beyond using more extreme measures.

    Wednesday, 6 October 2010

    the phantom isles

    From the voyages of Maelduin and St. Brendan to the Crocker Land Expedition, islands observed then lost to later travellers persist. While sailors are cast as unreliable witnesses and prone to tall tales, phantom islands persist in adventure stories even where the world is mostly known. In some cases it may be a simple case of mistaken navigation, where a fog bank or sand bar is mistaken for something more substantial.

    Other circumstances have fantastic explanations like the leviathans of old; the Old English Fastitocalon mentioned by Tolkien in Tom Bombadil or the zaratan catalogued in Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings and later in al-Qadim. Others may be wreathed in enchanted mist like Hy-Brasil, set to appear when the stars are right. Though that phrase may indicate a seagoing encounter with a more horrific outcome of course.

    All are opportunities for adventures. Misplaced navigation may take an expedition into a new world. Yet other errors are introduced by map makers, intended to flatter the courtly patrons of expeditions or deceive the gullible. When these maps hold promises of wealth or new lands, adventurers are drawn like moths to flame. And in many of the worlds we explore, there be dragons.

    Monday, 4 October 2010

    strange brew - review: advanced feats: the witches brew

    Metric: Cauldrons.  It's traditional.
    4.5 cauldrons. Comprehensive introduction to witches in Pathfinder's Advanced Players Guide, a feast of feats that expands character options for witches, spellcasters and for other classes as well as class builds based on three classic witch archetypes. 
    This review used a PDF provided by Open Design.

    Content: 4.5 cauldrons.  Witches Brew takes a slightly different tack to Secrets of the Alchemist, introducing the witch class rather than assume prior knowledge.  It focusses on versatility and parallels between it and the current magus playtest can be drawn.  The witch offers a mixture of magics and this versatility makes it both powerful and a frustrating one for those used to narrow focus.

    The feast of feats here range from the witch specific (linked resistance) to those applicable to spellcasters (guarded casting) and beyond to any class (robust health).  Sigfried Trent's capability in taking the feat system in different directions provides a GM will a toolkit from which numerous games can be woven - using item focus to create wizards with bejewelled tomes of arcane power for example.  Some checks and balances will need to be applied and the facility to swap feats in and out as a character develops is suggested here to develop versatility without being tied to feat trees.  There are a couple of feats that stand tweaking - seduction could eliminate it's overt sexuality instead cultivating favour and jealousy (like Sauron/Annatar in The Silmarillion) but if you're OK with wicked witches vamping it up, it'll do, pig, it'll do.

    The builds are classic witch.  The arch-witch as tactical counterspeller, magical misdirector and wizardly foil is terrific, the white witch provides a flavourful healer/buffer and the wicked witch is just that.   Another build would have gone beyond the classic poses and made this brilliant - maybe an elemental-based witch showcasing patron magics. 

    Layout: 5 cauldrons.  The cover art by Christophe Swal shows a cowled male witch bedecked with scrolls, tattoos and talismans, a sloshing tankard of ale and booted foot resting on a barrel of ale.  A subtle challenge, evoking femininity without being feminine.  Inside, magic circles lurk behind the text and all text is clear and readable.  Bookmarks for sections enable efficient use and if Secrets of the Alchemist was a bit rough, this is polished smooth.

    In closing this is excellent stuff and for the price sets a high bar for PDFs to beat.  Witch characters get new toys (familiars get a deserved boost) and their GMs have a lot of toys to play with.  More like this please.

    Saturday, 2 October 2010

    three things: magical masks

    Aspect of Order - This jade mask of a face with a guarded expression enhances use of lawful magic while worn. Spells with a lawful descriptor gain +1 to their DCs to save against and the caster gains +1 to caster checks to defeat spell resistance.  While worn, the wearer has a lawful aura with it's power determined by their level.
    Market Value: 2500gp
    Creation: Caster level 6th, Create Wondrous Item, Spell Penetration, magic circle vs. chaos.

    Dread Visage - This wrought iron and jet mask of a sneering, saturnine face enhances the use of evil magic while worn.  Spells with an evil descriptor gain +1 to their DCs to save against and when worn, the caster gains +1 to caster checks to defeat spell resistance.  While worn, the wearer has an aura of evil with it's power determined by their level.
    Market Value: 2500gp
    Creation: Caster level 6th, Create Wondrous Item, Spell Penetration, magic circle vs. good.

    Facade of Chaos - This oddly-stained cloth mask has bone buttons for eyes positioned below the eye holes and ragged strips for hair and hiding the mouth so the wearer appears to have a bearded, scrunched up face with four eyes.  Trying to use Spellcraft to identify what the wearer is casting is difficult (a +5 to DC) but it's effect on magic is unpredictable.  Spells with a chaotic descriptor get +1 to their saving throw DCs.  All other spells modify by their DC by 1d3-1 (a roll of 1 means the DC is lowered by 1).
    Market Value: 1250gp.
    Creation: Caster level 6th, Create Wondrous Item, Spell Penetration, magic circle vs. law.

    This content is created under the terms of the Open Gaming Licence.

    Friday, 1 October 2010

    carnival round-up: preparation

    This month's RPG Blog Carnival is at it's logical conclusion.    Plenty of people writing games with the new academic year and long nights drawing in and it's Read An RPG Book in Public Week.  Preparation seems to be a lost art yet what's missing in quantity is made up for in quality.

    Compromise and Conceit offers an example session prep for a mystical alternate America. Detailed plans and giving everyone something to do makes this a good example of planning collaborative play.

    Pen and The Sword suggests Triage as a solution for preparation for those GMs blessed with a surfeit of stuff to put in their game, offering a seven-step plan to reap an excellent game from the chaos.

    Monsters and Manuals warns us to Be Prepared while planning a WWII zombie survival game on the Eastern Front with lost German POWs using Cyberpunk 2020s Friday Night Firefight rules.

    Nuketown shows how to run a game in 60 minutes with a prepared GM's kit and points us to an example of how to prepare using a three-page manifesto.

    Campaign Mastery shows how flowcharts can be used to help plan and prepare games, providing examples of how to structure an evening's session.

    Time for the carnival to leave town but for some, the preparation continues...

    Wednesday, 29 September 2010

    with a whimper - review: apocalypse world

    Apocalypse World by lumpley games.

    Metric: Doomsday clocks.  The use of this image as a health track and for other game elements is one example (of many) of how this game uses design to devastating effect.  It's more conducive than six boxes and Apocalypse World (AW) is chock full of details like this.

    Summary: 5 doomsday clocks.  It's not often you read a game that will change how you play RPGs.  While the collaborative nature of story gaming may not be for everyone, there are adaptable ideas - the use of fronts (collaborative threats defined by plot/character relationship arcs), choice- and question-driven interactions, stakes and charged situations can be applied to established games to take them in new directions. This game deals with mature themes and includes sexuality (implicit and otherwise) with survival in a broken world.  Those looking to re-create games in the spirit of early Mad Max, Book of Eli, The Road, The Stand, Earth Abides or The White Plague will find lots to enjoy.

    Contents: 5 doomsday clocks. AW is densely packed with innovative content and evocative language.  The design of it shows considerable thought and how effective monochrome is at evoking mood.  It has it's own voice and this shines into how a master of ceremonies (MC), the AW games master interacts with players from the first session to the end of the game.  A series of player moves (basic and specific to roles) and MC principles and strategies enable improvisational play, cheat sheets for fronts and individual playbooks for the roles facilitate planning and juggling this may be intimidating for those unfamiliar with this style of play.

    Troubleshooting options for moves are available to help you and your players differentiate between them.  That said, once you familiarise yourself with the methods, the learning curve slackens and you find yourself looking at the game and thinking about how cool it would be if (insert situation here).  Of particular note is the MC love letter, which presents a choice-based decision process, where benefits and consequences are woven with player-provided names and backstory.  Some players may balk at the additional work (and grumble until they get a killer scene) but for email, forum or blog-based games, this format seems ideal.

    Layout: 5 doomsday clocks. Monochrome and simple, section artwork is redolent of good parts of the old World of Darkness, like the game itself, it focusses on characters. The only complaint is that the PDFs lack bookmarks - a minor problem mirrored in a lot of PDF products. This is a relatively minor caveat and overall the design and style of the book is quality stuff.

    Support: 4 doomsday clocks.  The game is well-supported by it's website including the wonderfully named Barf Forth Apocalyptica forum.   Playbooks, character sheets and planning sheets for first sessions and fronts are available.  The feeling is that more is coming - given the buzz from ChattyDM and Gnome Stew who have both identified how versatile the principles in AW are - it would be surprising if this game fails to endure. There's plenty of noise about Apocalypse World - deservedly.  Vincent Baker is one of the more accessible designers from the Forge and the post-apocalyptic vogue that's hung overhead like hungry buzzards for the last couple of years is a potent setting.

    I'm particularly struck by the resonance with early World of Darkness only with better editing, practical advice on developing in-game relationships between characters and without metaplot uber alles. The game begs to be hacked and a profusion of variants can be found on the forum. The book is as much a toolkit for deepening character development and interaction during play as a game in it's own right. In conclusion, this game will elevate your roleplaying - think of it like going to the gym.  Some temporary discomfort and self-consciousness but soon you'll be doing things you hadn't even believed were possible.  You can acquire your copy from the Indie Games Unstore and PDF fans may want to consider the lumpley games bundle for your device of choice.

    Saturday, 25 September 2010

    inns & taverns: the three suns

    The Three Suns is a punning name for the three sons of a retired adventurer who decided to take the money left to them and set up a tavern catering to more of the same.  The Three Suns waits at the corner of the marketplace of a busy market town intent on separating the unwary from their money.  The sign is a blue sky with three sunbursts in a row with the words 'Three Suns' underneath it in yellow paint.  The Three Suns is a sizable three-storey building of dressed stone and oak complete with stable and courtyard.  People are greeted at the door by a pair of imposing gentlemen in spiked leather armour who assess visitors on seemingly random criteria (if you look interesting or like there's a story behind your appearance usually) and then grant access with a friendly bit of advice "Watch your head."  They do not engage in small talk but the observant notice the one on the left looking thoughtful from time to time.

    The Three Suns is a sunken-level tavern with high ceiling supported by wide beams large enough for a gnome or halfling to sit comfortably.  Three wagon wheels decorated in yellow and gold paint serve as candelabrae.  There are benches and trestle tables capable of seating eight each side lined up under each wheel with sufficient space for two people to walk side by side between them.  The walls show almost no sign of their original plaster having been scrawled on with significant layers of graffiti, leaving a banded effect on the walls notable for bardic doggerel, gnomish puns, halfling recipes and scurrilous rumours about various public and private figures as well as a quantity of magical script that appears to resist casual vandalism.  Those wise to such will discover the inn's patronage by a number of reputable wizards.

    Over the bar is a carved slate with the motto "You break it, you pay for it." and a list of beers with prices that are a bit expensive (+15% on normal) ranging from a simple nut-brown to a smoky-red dwarven ember ale to a black stout.  A collection of tankards, some of remarkable provenance surround the slate in a carved wooden case.  The ales kept here are deserving of the price and no less than six beers at any time as well as a collection of liquors and spirits bordering on the obsessive.  A large barrel of rough red wine is also available, served by the jug and watered according to taste.  When it comes to wine, the Three Suns policy is that you have one kind - rough red.  This policy appears to be sponsored by a criminal guild and those bringing in their own learn such behaviour is discouraged.  While salted nuts and pickled gherkins and onions are provided, there are no meals served at the Three Suns.

    Obriana the landlady, is a former first mate and natural at her trade.  Scarred, tattooed and full of stories, the cat-o-nine-tails worn at her hip is a well-used warning.  The concealed silver knives remain that way until someone does something stupid.  Five working staff keep drinks flowing and run events like arm-wrestling tournaments, small lizard races and hopboard game tournaments.  All are fiercely loyal, capable of hefting a barrel of beer, holding their own in a fight or talking a drunkard out the door.  They dislike violence but are pretty good at it, each carrying a concealed knife and a sap.  Gambling is a common vice here and the house protects it's own and it's odds.  Most patrons don't mind and those who do find the door quickly enough.

    Accommodation is provided on the implied understanding is food is consumed in a number of small rooms (maximum occupancy two people) on the top two floors. Prices are expensive to encourage short stays.  Simple straw mattresses and wooden furnishings are low-maintenance and the walls are regularly re-painted and once a year see some repair due to peepholes being repeatedly drilled into the walls.  The chambermaids at the Three Suns are not discouraged from plying other trades and one seamstress regularly offers to repair clothing as a sideline while working in the rooms. Older trades are tolerated with Obriana and her staff with the help of some off-duty watch officers carrying out an occasional purge to ensure the Three Suns doesn't get a reputation.  This 'turning of the sheets' is almost a public spectacle with screaming women and scurrying patrons seeking to keep their honour. 

    Apart from the active gambling, the Three Suns encourages bards to perform.  Obriana has a weakness for music and this has led to more than one minstrel getting a 'lucky break' here.  If a bard has the nerve to ask Obriana for a table, she will take 20% of the earnings for doing so.  The audience is tough and more than one minstrel has left for adventure after a bad night here.  Obriana takes this mixture of fortune in good cheer, often using the minstrels as cover to get rid of beer that isn't selling at cheap prices.  To the locals, the Three Suns can be forgiven it's occasional mis-steps on this point alone.  The presence of bards leads to gossip and as a source of information, few places can rival the Three Suns in terms of value.  This has resulted in the Three Suns becoming the first inn visited by those new in town and looking for work.
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