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.
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