Forbidden Castle – Stephan Poag Cover Art for Adventure Fantasy Game

Stephan Poag is my favourite OSR illustrator. I contacted him, asked if he’d like to draw a cover for AFG, details were supplied, then he quickly produced an early sketch, feedback was exchanged and acted on.

Then, delivery of what can be only described as “100% faithful to actual game content”:

There’s something about purchasing original art for your game that makes it more real: probably the fact that your pet-project starts to have a material cost, I’m not sure. Working with Stephan has been a pleasure and I hope to do more of the same in the future.

Oh, I almost forgot: AFG will be available soon in two formats: digital and print+digital bundle.

The Digital format will be 4.50£ and will give you early access not only to the PDF of the final version and the early versions, but also to the LaTeX source files in case you want to annotate or modify it. Yes, you get the source files. And on top a 4.50£ discount on the Print+Digital version, so when you decide to upgrade you will pay only the difference.

The Print+Digital bundle details are yet to be perfectly finalized, but will set you off 12£ + s/h for a softcover version of the final release of AFG, an A4 64-pages staple-bound book with colour cover and b/w interiors.

In both cases you get to have an early view of the game, test it and give feedback. I’ve been at the same time writing and playtesting AFG for more than a year now, but I can always use more feedback. You deserve not less than the best. :)

AFG is done, and OGL-free

Yes, done. Not complete or perfect, just done.

I wanted to have some early version copies before my spring trip to see family in Milan and I wanted some copies to give to my players there. My plane is next wednesday so I wanted to send the copies before thursday start of business hours.

But the book was a mess. The holdings chapter needed a monster generator and treasure tables, no rules for teaching and for development of Secret Weapon Techniques, lots of spells still missing, sparse illustrations, not many notes on how to create a campaign and run a sandbox/pointcrawl/megadungeon.

But I had enough feedback and momentum, and I’ve been developing the system for the past year or so. Play a bit, ask for feedback, tweak the rules, play a it more, ask for feedback, tweak, lather, rinse, repeat. Repeat. Repeat a bit more. Do math to verify that, no, the system it’s not going to break in weird places. Play again, endure the spells when you can’t muster enough players, enjoy when you can, be thrilled when players rediscover the thrill of adventure gaming and are forced to make hard, interesting decisions. At some point stop working on it because, hey, if I deliver it people might not like it.

So a while ago I kind of froze. Post-postgrad school depression and dissertation burnout really knocked me out for a few months.

Then play it a bit more to realize that, despite still very rough on some edges, testers really like it. And that making expensive armours and firearms available makes financing critical from level 1.

So in the past few days I just went into “software project management” mode and cut features from the first release. No religion chapter, no example dungeon or setting, keep the magical items to the bare AFG essentials. Cut the unfinished spells and campaign development notes. Add the illos you have to get in, and don’t worry if they don’t look perfect. Stop freaking out about typos, bad grammar and remember that, while a couple of sections might not have been perfectly proofread, proofreaders have done a good jobs of being nitpickers.

Then discover that you’ve written a game stat-compatible with most OSR material without using any non-original game mechanic (except stuff written by Sham). That you’ve done away with experience points, spell memorization, the way combat works, clerics, the pain of single-classing and the meh of multiclassing. You’ve written 30 original spells, new magic item concepts, completely new combat rules and that, since the whole manual has been made through clean room development, it’s OGL-free. Because I want people to play the Original Fantasy Adventure Game and I don’t think that it needs to rely on specific rules, giant fire-breathing flying monsters or underground fortifications, much less on the good will of WotC.

This early morning at half past five I sent the final revised file to Lulu. Some parts are terrible, some are good, some need more work. But it’s done.

Done is the drug that makes you feel Great, Done is the ingredient to More.

Quick Unique Spellcasters

New developments in the OSR are looking quite interesting. I’m not referring to the whole YDIS/Kellri shenanigans (I don;t care much about YDIS, I consider his blog to be a fun satirical self-referential OSR pastiche) but to what Roger the GS is doing with game presentation and rules, taking the one-page approach a step too far toward awesome.

In particular I’m really happy about his Wizard rules: we had a productive discussion on spell levels, memorization and the like and, despite I initially had quite different ideas on the topic (having spent a while researching magic systems for fantasy games got me some possibly clever insights), I think his approach is different but superior due to being fun.

The planning aspect of the magic user, instead being of centered on daily memorization and resource control, is based on individual spell scarcity (more and diverse spells will see play) and long term research (Fireball isn’t enough when you can cast one, so you want to research more and diverse offensive spells). I believe, furthermore, that uninformed choices are less fun and interesting than informed ones: memorizing in advance, while supporting some interesting kind of gameplay, for me appears less interesting than deciding, on the spot, which spell I should cast now and save the party, at the price of not having the spell available until the next day. We’ll playtest it later on tonight. :)

This makes also easy to generate  spellbooks for magic user NPCs:

  1. Give the wizard LEVELd2 spells (more expert wizards will have researched or obtained more spells).
  2. That’s it really. No memorization faff.

There is also the more awesome method:

  1. Go to the previously covered Dying Earth Spell Generator.
  2. Take the first LEVELd2 entries and put them in the MU’s spellbook. Look ma no studying I don’t need to do homework today I swear.
  3. Improvise spell effects. Be awesome. Reward the few surviving PCs with an awesome spellbook.

This kind of casting also introduces new possibilities for minor magic item crafting. I’ll cover them in the future.

GM challenge: Best Practices

Ckutalik over at the Hill Cantons asked every GM’s three best practices. I wrote an almost answer years ago because, you know, I can see the future.  But I want to give better answers this time around. Or try at least.

  1. Strip mine your surroundings for ideas and turn them into archetypical subverted caricatures: I really really like creating NPCs out of people by making them a subverted caricature of the original to make them into a different entity. The same can be done with anything else: places, events, items. Caricatures magnify what’s important about the entity but the subversion gives it deeper, interesting shades. For example: I need a merchant city, so I pick Dunbarton, put it in the middle of Genoa and make it ruled by a never-seen immortal queen and her secret police. When I needed a shady broker I took my dad (a salesman) and gave him a gang of thugs. My demihuman races have Italian regional accents, but have magnified idiosincrasies (my halflings are more halflingish than yours, and speak Sicilian). Filthy Phil (a really stinky ragman and garbage-sifter in my current setting) is inspired to… well, I like dumpster diving (the best stuff you can get is free). The beautiful thing is that you can do this on the fly in games: players usually are fascinated by deep NPCs and they think deep NPCs must be important hence worth their time: oftentimes they just like them, especially if you play gonzoish adventures. Which gives me enough time to actually link them with the rest of the setting in (you guess it) subverted caricatures of existing relationships.
  2. Evolutionary game elements rock: the reasoning is that of the 10 campaign elements (npcs, odd objects, etc) you introduced in the last settings, players will pursue maybe 2. They will pursue the most interesting, because they don’t care about the others. So if you improvise you can just come up with a good/boring element ratio of 1/4, the players will kill the bad ideas by not caring about them. The morale is: stop fretting about the quality of your improv, just care about players’ feedback. If you only come up with amazing ideas, the players will pick only the most interesting so, instead of having gold and platinum in your game, you’ll have only platinum. Of course this works only if you are not a control-freak railroader. There is only trying, diversity is king, survival of the most adaptable and so on.
  3. Play with your players: the game is yours, but players live in it. I suppose you don’t hate them, so your goal is to have fun with them, not at their expenses. I’m not saying to indulge in monty haulism, but if you have a choice between doing what you want and doing something that your players find interesting (and doesn’t irk you), go for the second one: players will feel engaged (read point 2 above) and they will steer the game for a while, giving you overworked GM time for thinking about other stuff. It works best when a player goes like “I wonder if Mr X is obsessed with orchids because of an ex lover or something” and you apply point 2 and yeah, it’s because his mom loved them and he has an Oedipus complex. If your bud Dan feels supergood when his PC saves a young girl and gets closely but not necessarily sexually involved with her, you have a major player driver in your arsenal that you can use every time without fault: remember to apply subversion from point 2 above to keep things different. More in general, Intuitive Continuity works extremely well, if you don’t need to have your ego fed at every step of the game.

In general, I favour player centered design: it works with software, why not for D&D?

On Rules/Rulings and Enjoyability. Or “You mean the entire point of the game is to roll dice?”

There is an OSR roundtable going on at the always excellent Beyond the Black Gate, featuring a bunch of OSR personalities; go and read all of it as it’s particularly stimulating. James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, writer and purveyor or many  fine RPG products, answered the following to one of the many questions asked:

“You mean the entire point of the game is to roll dice?”

An answer that made me think about action resolution and how it interacts with dice rolling, and what good action resolution is.

I wanted to make a short post and it’s becoming a long unreadable mess, so I deleted the rest and rewrote it here in a fraction of the wordlenght. Let’s start with a real-life experience.

My (30th!) birthday party, 10 players at the table, half of them never played with me before. I was half drunk, full of pizza and unbearably caffeinated, with scarce prep. Starting from a prepared location I decided to run a fast-paced post-disaster investigation, with a dash of drama, followed by humanoid hunt. Everybody had a really good time, rolled dice when appropriate and partecipated. Why?

I knew what the game was about.

Good rules/rulings use dice (or not) in ways  that guide a specific game in the direction that is enjoyed most and bad rule/rulings make for a “meh” game, the variability of rulings pushing far more the boundaries for both awesome and terrible experiences and reflecting appropriately on the “”social capital” the DM can command from players.

Obviously clumsy DMs with scarce experience might want to use rules as a crutch and come up with rulings at an appropriate rate, while more DMs more expert with the game allow themselves more room for rulings. Wilder games might want rules and rulings pushing for more random outcomes and settings than adventures in Middle Earth. We don’t just roll dice: we roll dice only when we don’t manage to prepare an automatic success through other action: for example blocking a door from being opened might require a strength roll, but nailing the door shut not only is automatic but also automatically succeeds at blocking the door.

The advice for you, master of any skill and orientation, is that before you pick a set of rules or start flailing rulings left right and centre you should understand first what the f**k your particular game is about, and plan your actions accordingly. Any campaign is potentially different. Heck, that might even change depending on adventure or on players’ moods, and surely it depends on yours!

Once again, know your game, your players,  yourself.

There are dangers, in the vaults

There are dangers, in the vaults.
Men-eating ghouls, rat as big as hounds,
distant eerie tunes, creepy glowing runes,
dragons of flame, elves of deadly aim,
slimes that eat your flesh,
birds that gouge your eyes,
stirges that bleed you dry
(not to talk of the vampires),
and the whole lots of goblins, ogres and kobolds,
not to forget of the Great Underground Hobgoblin Empire.

There are dangers, in the vaults.
Vorpal scythes,
swallowing pits
disintegrating purple rays
poisonous darts,
electrifying plates,
and don’t try to pull
any of the five chains.

There are dangers, in the vaults.
Gold shining, gems glittering,
tomes full of forbidden lore, relics of the kings of yore,
riches making honest men
greedy like fallen dwarves
and things ending up in strange places,
steel blades beneath shoulder blades,
hemlock in wine bottles,
people left in deep pits.

There are dangers in the vaults.
And,
trust me this time,
the meanest, darkest,
nastiest,
most disappointing of them all, are
“Adventurers armed and dangerous”.
people you used to call
“mates”.

There are dangers, in the vaults.
You don’t get to
pick yours, son.

emergent plot – stirring up the sandbox

Aye, I know. I dropped the “P” four letter word in the post title of a supposedly OSR blog. The OSR police will come here with their 1d100 hirelings wielding glaive-guisarmes and hook-fauchards and lay siege to my parents’ place (I’m visiting) until I repent or burn my copies of Ravenloft and Tales of the Lance (those fools don’t know the dungeon/basement has a hidden exit).

Anyway: as previously mentioned IMVHO one of the most important hats DMs have to wear is the MC one: ensuring that everything’s running smoothly and that everybody’s having a good time. Not winning, but enjoying. Most importantly, keep the game going and provide players with stuff to interact with, while feeling more and more a part of the game world and able to intervene on it. Deconstructing the game to its bones you just need to provide players with 1-3 “encounters/events/interactions” for every gaming hour.

One of the most productive ways to do this, for me, is to come up with overly ambitious NPCs and villains, and to make sure their brilliant secret plans to fame/sex/their parents’ approval/gratification/power/gold/munchies are coherent with the setting: this way, for scarcity of resources, as there’s only so much land/gold/etc available, conflict will arise, and the NPCs will be at each other’s throat in no time. Note that NPCs might not even know that they have conflicting plans, or who is opposed to them and in which way, or even that there are opponents… I’ll call these kind of NPCs “big players” (call them factions if you want, but they’re not factions di per se).

Best bit, they’ll be hiring PCs to do the hard/nasty work: this way PCs will possibly ingratiate their patron, get money and experience, push forward the patron’s plans and set back his opponents. Doing this they’ll get a bit of reputation (good or bad) as the words of their deeds spread, eventually being known to other big players in the campaign, which will try to interact with them in various ways: murder, bribes, blackmail, appeasing and so on. This should “automagically” create something that looks like a plot, making it emerge straight from the interactions between campaign elements. The situation should be unstable so that players tipping in a direction or the other can cause things to happen differently.

It might be that PCs will understand what’s going on and decide (probably later in the campaign) NOT to be hired, but to play their own part in the big game, becoming “big players” themselves in what’s “traditionally” D&D endgame (or Ars Magica first “summer” and then “autumn” Covenant seasons).

The most typical way to propel the plans are either “trigger driven” or “time driven”:

  • Trigger driven: things happen when player’s actions (or inaction) trigger them; for example, the Tyrant of Syrak decides to send his war navy to blockade Marchil when the PCs arrive to Syrak, just in time to see the galleons leaving the harbour in full sail, or even better to join them as privateers.
  • Time driven: NPCs do things all the time, interacting with the PCs just by in-game means; for example, the first of March the Emperor sets his armies off to new campaigns, armies that will take a proper number of days of overland travel to reach their destinations, a proper number of days to lay siege to cities and so on. As the time goes by, other “big players” will react accordingly as either their minions will report to them or simply rumors spread.

Note that in both cases I deliberately made the action noticeable to the players, either through rumors or direct interaction: making developments noticeable to players is very important, and justifies spending money for spies and the like. Some kind of rumor mill is needed, possibly with the players spending resources toward having better information sources. Of course some information will be worth a lot.

A simple example follows:

Up and Down the East Coast

  • On the East Coast there are two Kingdoms (North and South), separated by tribes of marauding orcs.
  • Kingdom South has lots of alpacas and needs iron for its heavy cavalry. King South is an epicurean slob, but cares much about his people, who loves him back (mainly because of light taxation and reasonable justice system and code of laws).
  • Kingdom North has iron and needs nice and warm textiles because winters there are horrible. King North is very greedy and (as you’ll read) has a nice business going on.
  • Kingdom N and S are very good commercial partners and enjoy a long military alliance against the orcs. There is a sound that would enable them to trade by sea avoiding to sail around the big Isle of Nasty Waters, but it is home to a strangely active dragon (currently trying to assemble a big hoard to attract a mate). No one goes in the Dragon Sound… almost no one.
  • Oversea trading is done via the Trading League, a trust of ship-owners owning galleons seaworthy enough to double the Isle of Nasty Waters. They have bought out, brought in or sunk all other trading companies in the two kingdoms, and talked the kings into taxing imports not coming from the the kingdoms, resorting to pretty much anything to keep on being the real “king of the hill”.
  • Marks on the borders of the two kingdoms would like to be independent, squish the orcs, grab & settle on their lands and join in a league, thus securing an inland trade route. If they could get rid of the dragon they could also secure the Dragon Sound, the Isle of Bad Waters and make the Trading League’s operations less viable unless they get a nice share.
  • Independent pirates try to capture ships for ransom around the Isle of Bad Waters, sometimes fleeing in the sound, where they pay the dragon for protection. They could team up and settle in the sound, as the kingdoms’ war navies are not that big.
  • In the North big landowners are a bit grumpy because of the trading guild, as local winterflax (a kind of flax that lives north) is not commercially viable anymore. Their distance from their Capital makes them not really politically powerful or active. The King doesn’t care as he owns the iron mines, financing fortresses and mercenaries with money gotten from the mines and its thieves guild.
  • Said mercenaries can kick orc asses before breakfast, no sweat, but want to be paid. Or else.
  • The Archery Commanders in the South see the whole heavy cavalry thing as an overly expensive exercise that not only takes away a lot of their prestige, but makes the South Kingdom reliant on foreigners to equip their army, and would like for this shenanigans started by young hipsters to stop and return to the old traditional mounted archer. The “new” heavy cavalry Commanders are a smart bunch of young and brave officers that study military theory, fight very effectively (think winged hussars) and are a bit annoyed at their gramps using strategies and tactics from a few centuries ago.
  • Two thieves guilds (one per city) buy stuff from the pirates and, at times, sinks or capture foreign ships or buy their mutiny; this is done mainly to fix prices (at times both guilds and the trade league act in concert) and both have vast hoards of iron and wool hidden in both cities and their surroundings: the relative scarcity is at the moment created by the Trading League and the Guilds. The North Guild secretly pays his king a quarter of its gains every season, also secretly recruiting spellcasters to curse the local nobles and their lands so that winterflax doesn’t grow well, while the South Guild is tolerated by his king and nobles as they source them with the good stuff anytime they want. Or else.
  • When the players will realize the stupid amount of gold and iron the dragon is sleeping on, they’ll start drooling over themselves.

Sandboxes, pacing, improvisation and expectations: part 2: your players are unique snowflakes a.k.a. psychographics are lame

All the posts in the serie here.

Picking up where I left last time

This post was supposed to be about players psychographics and what drives them and how to deal with that but the topic has been discussed, dissected & bled dry so many times I don’t feel the need to even go near it.

Instead I’d like to go meta on that and spend a couple of words on the relationship between your players and your game. If this sounds like utter poppycock to you, leave a comment:

  • they’re all different: different people means different needs means different things they get out of playing, and different ways of moving in social spaces. If you’re friends with them, cherish the thought that you know how to handle them in meatspace and realize that it takes great people to completely separate what happen in game and what happens around the table, because by its own nature of gamespace is subversive and used to behave in ways not possible in real life. Don’t pidgeonhole players in the usual G/N/S or whichever taxonomy they invented this month: as you have 5-10 people and not 5-10 hundred thousand, you can afford to treat them as unique snowflakes. This allows you to put treats and challenges in your game for all of them. It’s not so much work…
  • on a more general level, in all games, but in RPGs evermore so, every participant is perfectly able to spoil the fun of everyone else, so partially responsible for everyone else’s fun. Don’t play with dicks, and don’t be a dick yourself. This applies even more in sandboxes as there’s no shame involved with derailing the plot, killing important NPCs or torching villages.
  • ask them for feedback: what makes them tick and what ticks them off about how you and other players play. There are some games I’ve run lately which seemed totally lame to me but, after soliciting feedback from my players, were great fun. To get better you need to learn from your errors and your successes, but to tell them apart you need feedback. Also, when things happen at the table take a note (mental or otherwise) of how people react: feedback asked might be not totally genuine for a number of reasons, so understanding how they react to events is very important. Think ethnographer.
  • you’ll see patterns of behaviour: for example, my group never scouts any location. Never ever, and their retinue has a number of rogues. Yours might always scrutinize every corner of every room for treasure, or they might always play wiseguy with all NPCs. If and how you want to use this knowledge as DM is up to you: plot is a metagame element usually absent from sandboxes (at least in its traditional sense of “predetermined string of events that are the focus of the attention”) but you can always metagame in other directions.
  • knowing what they want is easy: ask them! They probably don’t need exactly what they want, but it can be a nudge in the right direction. In general in a sandbox they’ll pursue activities they like (think Pavlov’s dog) and avoid what they don’t, so if they never scout it might be because they don’t like it or because they don’t like falling back or running away (also known as: I’m insecure and I don’t want to fail also in gamespace).

So, yes, you created your world and it’s a shining and beautiful gem but to remember to think of how your end users will interact with it.

How I learnt not to suck at running games

I remember my first RPG session: I ran S. Andre’s Amulet of the Salkti for a bunch of classmates in primary school. It tanked: as I was basically the only one that was up for running games I didn’t have much to learn from so I kept on tanking for years, improving slowly. After a while I learnt that with what we would now call hexcrawls peppered with published adventures players enjoyed more (and allowed me to sneak in locations and plots if I felt inspired or simply rolled up something myself).

Fast forward a few years, there’s a single piece of writing that changed the way I run games: Roleplaying Tips’ Session Checklist (second part here).

Go. Read both parts. Come back.

Ok, it’s not that mind shattering. But I realized three things:

First: I had a list I just needed to fill in to have enjoyable sessions.The first adventure I ran with this was a campaign reboot (why the campaign needed a reboot is a nice topic for another post) and the players were glowing. It almost never happened before. The following adventures were the same. Maybe it works for me because I just needed a “metagaming crutch” to make my games better: perhaps with more significant encounters, maybe because it’s focused towards the game user model.

Second: my left-sided brain realized that a GM is at the same time a content creator, an entertainer and an MC. GMs have to put adventure materials together, make a nice session out of them and keep the evening enjoyable and with a nice rhythm. Players have great responsibilities and RPGs are no democracy, but instant recall is always an option.

Third: you can’t get better than content created specifically for players. Sure, engaging all the PCs is good (I see it as a failure if it doesn’t happen) but I feel that engaging  and entertaining all the players is the holy grail of RPGs (and downright impossible with a new group). Forget about deep plots, coherent settings, verosimile NPCs if players want gonzo sandboxes filled with ducks and flumph civilizations.

User Experience is King.

Sandboxes, pacing, improvisation and expectations: part 1

I’m going to deconstruct a bit the process I use to build a sandbox, starting from last session. It will take a number of posts because there are plenty of things to write about.

All the posts in the serie here.

This is what happened last session, in about four-five hours:

  • after meeting a basilisk last session, they’re left with a couple of statues of people from their huge menagerie of henchmen, followers and fanboys.
  • so they decide to go and get some trees up the mountains (they’re in a rocky desert/badland type area by some less desertic mountains where actually trees happen to grow).
  • they go up and they kinda totally stumble in a giant rattlesnake. Ms Wyslosky, the badassest fighting-person of the party (follower of one of the two wizards) gets bitten three times before dispatching the reptile. Then fails three saves out of three and die horribly.
  • they manage to make a raft to bring the statues (and themselves) to the nearest city. I forgot to mention to you, reader, that there is a canyon in the desert with a river at the bottom. I also forgot to mention that they’ve never seen any boat on it. On the way some of them fall off the raft (rapids, aha) but they manage not to die or to lose anything except a copied spellbook due to water damage.
  • then they meet a bunch of naiads. Somehow the reaction roll is stupidly high so the nixies are friendly and don’t enslave all of them, instead the leader (Lily) introduces them to their which-queen, which returns the statues to meatyness. Since they can’t pay the queen asks somebody to be left there in slavery: they talk one of their henchmen (an ex-petrified halfling) to hang out with tens of hot water-nymphs. I foresee death by snu-snu for chubby here. Party begs the queen for informations about who could resurrect their friend, which tells them about someone in the desert, the entrance of his place sealed by a stone slab with complex engravings in some forgotten language, and another guy living way upstream by the river, up in the mountains, guarding a mausoleum all by itself by a ruined tower (the word “mausoleum” evokes bad memories to my players). They decide for the latter as the which mention the former is way more inhospitable, but she still thinks that they will get no help.
  • they get back to the Unís, the big merchant city, and don’t find anybody to raise their companion. Duh, magic is banned there, unless you’re a Templar. Templars are a cross between civil servants, secret services and commando troops rolled into one badass corp that hang out in a castle on top of a craig by the city harbour, and they bow just to the Queen. The Queen of Unís has been on the throne for hundreds of years and doesn’t really appear in public. None of the PCs are templars (in this campaign), so no special ju-ju fo them, but they find an experienced mercenary that accepts to go with them (for twice the normal pay).
  • They start walking upstream and meet a flying wizard. After another awesome reaction roll it turns out that, yes, the wizard is actually looking for apprentices and tells the pc the location of his tower before flying away.
  • going upstream they reach a waterfall, try to give a look behind it but don’t manage to due to the strength of the river.
  • they are ambushed by a bunch of grunge elves. No, not those from HackMaster, just grungy elves. Fight is hard but the party overcome the challenge and manage to find their treehouse due to a lucky charme person. And Loot was had.

All of this hauling around the body of the fallen in a barrel full of brine.

Now, 10 encounters in 5 hours. None of this was planned. They all enjoyed. Most things were rolled on the fly using the expert box or Kellri’s netbook or based upon existing knowledge.

I have to go and continue the session now. Next post will be about expectations.