new monster: Space-Cephalopod

Yes Master, I’ve met those things already. When we were space-traveling from the Space-Planet to here we had problems with a space-cephalopods assault. They rammed us, breached the space-hull and came in with 8 laser guns each, one in every tentacle…

– Ugub’s Dialogues with Master, volume XVII


HD 3-16, AC 7 [13], Mov 6m, Dm 1d6 or by weapons SA: 8 attacks, grappling SQ: severing tentacles

Space Octopi are a race of star-faring octopi from a planet far far away. Over the ages they adapted well to lack of water, gravity and oxygen and manage to act normally without air for a couple of hours and without bathing for a week.

They can wield a one-handed weapon in each tentacle (two tentacles for a two handed weapon, three for a polearm), but can’t charge or run.

Tentacles can attack to grapple, dealing no damage but holding the victim in place, giving an AC negative modifier of 1 for every tentacle to the victim.

It’s possible to aim at tentacles, which can suffer up to 1 damage per HD before being unusable until the damage heals. Damage dealt to tentacles is not applied to the octopus HPs. The speed is capped to the number of usable tentacles.

Image credit:

Dice test, Volcano and Life

I am a d4

Take the quiz at

You are a d4: You are bright, perceptive, and driven. You would be considered a blessing to mankind, if you didn’t insist on using your powers for evil. You are devious, deceitful, doubtful, and downright dangerous. Assassins can learn a lot from you. If your fellow party members knew how rotten you were, they’d go over and join the bad guys. Justified or not, you are meticulous in your ways: A poison for every person, and a dagger for every back. Much of your day is spent scheming or plotting. The rest of your time is spent trying to convince others that you’re simply misunderstood.

Odd. I just plot the demise of my players’ characters. 😉

And, yes, the last two weeks have been a very lean period for the blog. As excuse I can say I’ve been in Britain at my s/o’s and we’ve been quite busy (the first week holiday, the second s/o had to sort stuff and me telecommuting since my flight back to the Old Continent got canceled due to fire and earth elementals fighting somewhere in Iceland and I had to do work regardless of my location). Not all days have been merry but it’s always good to spend time together. ❀

Gamingwise, this allowed me to think a lot about stuff and to work on “my fantasy game” (supporting both OSR and d6 mechanics, hopefully), play some Carcassonne and San Juan with friends and s/o (she likes both, yay for me). I also found myself at the gaming club of one of the local universities and being kinda asked to run a game (I had with me S&W Whitebox in a three ring binder), but having nothing to run I chickened out instead of improvising for a bunch f people I never met. Shame on me.

Could spend some time writing on O-P-Dungeons…

TPK! A.K.A. survival can be shameful and the Way to Play

During the last game the whole party got defeated. Mostly killed, the rest captured, one of them sent back naked (in the snow) to ask for ransom.

The long story is that the party managed to get from the local Assembly of Barons the right to refurbish and garrison Rodemus Keep (yeah, Rodemus Keep from Moldway) for a year (renewable in perpetuity), in exchange for the right to taxing the trade route to the Eastern Kingdom (route that should be protected by the keep, which at the moment is obviously unsafe).

But it’s winter and the keep is up in the mountains, over a mountain pass. They’ve been there already but failed to completely make it safe. Random tables tell me that a band of hobgoblins moved in and stroke a deal with the remaining Rodemuses.

What happens is that they go in commando style and kick a good quantity of ‘bear asses. Next session 3 players don’t show up and the remaining two decide to push in with their retainers. That means the following forces got in:

  • Player 1: elven thief LVL 3 accompained by:
    • cleric LVL 1
    • halfling fighter, LVL 1
  • Player 2: fighting man LVL 1 accompained by:
    • two thieves, LVL 1
    • an elven mage, LVL 1
    • a cleric, LVL 1

Went in a keep where they know bugbears live, without trying to get any scouting or tactical advantage: just go in, kill them, get treasure, get out.

Somehow they managed to survive to the first encounter slaying 3 + 3 ‘bears (reinforcements arrived), and fell back. Then they moved in again and got wiped out by 7 other ‘bears: this time the defenders were prepared and the PCs, despite almost  . Just the two PCs and a cleric survived (at -1 hp or so, I let PCs die at minus something, usually -5, unless the final blow has been massive, such as a boulder tossed by a giant or a dragon bite, for which going to 0 is enough).

The usual feedback via email followed, where it emerged (to sum it up) that they would rather have their characters die than escape because they think that fighting smart or retreating is dishonorable. This is from a thief and a warrior that has no problems sending his henchmen dying. Adding on top that since characters die so easily, they would rather play as they please and die. This is contradicted by the fact that somehow one of them (and other players as well) managed to keep PCs alive till level 5. Adding that it’s my fault because I don’t scale encounters.

Ok, I admit this made me a bit bitter, but enough with the ranting now. When we started I expressly told them what kind of campaign I was about to run and what kind of play I expected from them. I started doubting that running this kind of game for these two players was not worth the time and effort (both mine and theirs) if they weren’t having fun and I told them so (adding that I’m not interested in running non-sandbox games). But, they say, games are still fun, so they’d rather play, and nobody asked me to scale encounter or to pull punches.

At times I wonder if the right choices have been done. Possibly the kind of game is wrong for the players, or I can’t handle it as a DM, or simply they’re looking for something else but we keep on playing together because we’ve been friends for more than 10 years (on top of that we’re all related to another member of the group) and playing is what we do together.

The Way to Play, for me, is not about Doing Things the Right Way. The Way to Play, for me, is to fail better, less often, less painfully. To have more fun, more intensity, get more out of playing. Accepting failure as a gamer, as a DM, as a friend. Accepting that the means used at times won’t work. Accepting as well that people change and, if RPGs don’t cut it for everyone anymore, it’s time to stop with them and start pursuing other pastimes, or to find different people to play with.

automation means automated failure

Malfunction: this word spells doom, humiliation and failure to all thinkers, inventors and artisans everywhere. Every time a device fails, roll 1d10 and consult this (oh so sweetly untested) table. If an entry specifies light, normal or severe damage, apply a penalty of -1, -2 or -3 to the following rolls on the same table until repairs are carried out:

  1. explode: the device explodes, spraying shrapnels of itself around, setting its combustible on fire and making explode what’s prone to go boom in the radius. Damage from 1d6 to 10d6 in a radius from 10 feet to 1000 yards, depending on power source, size, complexity. Device is destroyed, scraps worth 1d60% can be collected and recycled.
  2. misfire: the device works in the most damaging way to the user possible. Maybe the physiognomic lens aims wrongly, or the aetherodyne collector discharges during the wrong phase. Be creative: think Wile E. Coyote. Light damage.
  3. fall apart: a critical part of the device falls off, making the device inoperable. Normal damage.
  4. short, jam, leak: something (current, liquid, mechanical part) went where it shouldn’t really have. Severe damage.
  5. rattle: the device emits a horrible noise (possibly alerting nearby creatures of the device operation) but works as intended. Will keep on emitting the noise every time it’s used until repaired. Light damage.
  6. interrupt: the device doesn’t work at all and won’t work for the next 1d10 usages or 1d10 rounds/turns/hours, as appropriate. Repair (as per light damage, time halved) will make the device work again.
  7. oscillate: for the next 1d10 uses, the device will operate at varying levels of effectiveness, alternating between double and half of the norm. Repair (as per light damage, time halved) will make the device work again.
  8. weaken: the device works at half of the intended power.
  9. break: the device stops working. Severe damage.
  10. or more: fail: the device does nothing, except consume the resources needed to work. +1 to all following rolls.

Repair: time needed to fix a device is 1d6 rounds, turns, hours, days or months depending on the device complexity. If damage is light  or severe step time up or down accordingly, and quality of equipment available affects time accordingly. Repair will also eliminate penalties due to the related malfunction.

North of the Wall. Also, Imperial Badassery

The reason for the lack of posting in the last few days is that I’m currently in Britain having fun with the locals. Yesterday we drove from Manchester to Glasgow and stopped to visit Hadrian’s Wall.
Seeing the wall provoked a number of thoughs, such as:

  • invading a place and cutting it halfway with a stone wall 7 feel thick and a few meter high and protecting it with a stupid numbers of watchtowers will be from now on my own metric of Imperial Badassery.
  • it takes an implausible amount of stone to build something like this.
  • sure lots of workers must have died to build it. Badass-o-meter off the scale.
  • romans made AMAZING mortar. How it sustained 2000 years of horrible Cumbrian/Northumberlandish weather is impressive.
  • sure Caledonia (Scotland nowadays) must have been really inhospitable to Romans to wall it off and not bothering to conquer it (ok, Antonine’s wall was built later and further up north because apparently they had afterthoughts about Lothian, the Borders and Inverclyde. Antonine never went up there, and if he did he wouldn’t have bothered)
  • I expected to see “ROMANES EUNT DOMVS” written on it. My expectations not being met, I resisted and managed not to vandalize it.

Pretty pictures once I get back to the continent…

Guest Post: The Rise and Fall of a Game Master

We were cooling off after one of our three-hours long gaming sessions and, as it often happens, we drifted to campaign building, sandboxes and all the usual topics.

Somehow I ended up retelling how campaign building, to me, was totally different when I was 16 years old. And yes, this assertion makes me sound like a wizened old moron.

When I was 16 I didn’t have to prepare anything before a session. In fact I could go on for hours, events and people would play around in my head and in my players’ eyes, all of it made up on the spot, coherent, a bounty of gaming opportunities.

In fact I recall starting one of our most tasty campaigns ever, one which my players still recall fondly even if it ended in a total party kill*, with just this thought floating in my head: the main character is a young noble coming back from the war, where he finds that his father has left, along with most of the cash and the entire family entourage, for a distant land.

I recall, during the middle of the first session, that I told myself: “Sure this father of his was mighty crazy to leave land and title behind for a random exploration, what sort of family would follow him?”. The abandoned castle exploration turned into a tour of the family’s follies, from the weird underground theatre where ogres were showcased and trained to perform circus exibitions, to the endless labyrinth of tunnels that Aunt Greta had magically dug to loose herself, finally succeeding, never to be seen again. The exploration went on and on for multiple six-hours long sessions, all of it was entirely made up on the spot, without effort and without worry.

I wonder if the style of that campaign, and others, could be defined as being a sandbox. There surely was no story arc for the players to follow, at first, then all of my ravings started to be pushed consistently in one direction by the players together. It somehow climaxed multiple times before, at last, the aforementioned showdown on the flying steps, versus a dozen Balrogs.

After that golden period though, I entered a dark age, from 17 up to 20 and maybe a bit beyond, everything changed.

My mind was empty, I felt a kind of suffocation, no matter how powerful was the initial idea for the campaign, after a few minutes into the first session I was lost into a bleak landscape and my players began to watch tv in the meanwhile.

I must have aborted a dozen campaigns after a couple hours of struggling, painful “play”.

At first, of course, I blamed the players, who would loose interest before I could enter “the flow”, which, I told myself, would certainly happen after a session or two. But, while it was true that I was never allowed more than one session to prove the worth of the campaign, the whole concept of just needing a couple sessions to start properly GMing was bullshit. I am now sure that, even if we had endured dozen of hours of the gray void I was evoking at each attempt, nothing good would have come of it.

Like the efficient customers of a product marketing simulation, my players killed my campaigns just in time, as I was starting to truly feel the pain. I guess that their perfect timing was due to the fact that they were feeling the same pain.

Witnessing the abortion of so many campaigns I started to put in more and more time in preparation, something which I never had to do before. Yet, all of the preparation in the world did not let me run a successful campaign; and, towards the end of the dark ages, I tried hard enough to know.

How did I leave the dark ages? In my humble opinion I never fully left them, or, better, I never could return to the golden age. Maybe that’s because we are unable to meet for whole afternoons thrice a week, but it’s also because I now only partially manage to enter the flow.

I start with a fine scenario, but it must be fairly detailed. I must have a good idea of all the entities involved in the core of the scenario and what are their goals and personalities. Then I fill in the rest during the game, and it works. I tend to begin with no more than a couple “forced” adventures to warm up the group and to provide ways for them to show interest in one or more of the seeds. The introductions are definitely part of the scenario preparation and I prepare them to introduce as many seeds as possible without messing everything up.

Unsurprisingly, this structure is pretty much the same that popped up in the golden age. During the dark ages, starting from this very same structure (albeit unconscious), I made a full circle, from totally unstructured “The characters are crazy deamons” campaigns, to meticulous “On the 6th of Larane the Agrikan knights leave Dirisa” epics, and finally back. All equally unsuccessful.

One very telling detail of the good campaigns is that, for all the preparation, almost nothing which actually proved memorable to me and my players was prepared. Most of the stuff that was really great, we invented on the spot, just like in the old days of yore. The difference now is that the great stuff is not present in such quantity as to be self-sustaining, I need solid, reliable, pre-produced mortar to support and breed the rest.

A few examples of the stuff that really worked great :

  • The merchant Galibaf, who will cater only the best stuff to the best adventurers, but who always leaves the PCs feeling like they have been duped, because, you know, Galibaf always wins a bargain, hands down.
  • The welcoming folks of the city of steel and coal, Volkgrendel, who speak like operetta nazi yet always gawk at the players and ask why THEY speak with “So veird an achzent!”.
  • The goddess Berella, who switched sides from being a dark and evil goddess into a purported goddes of light, thanks to her timely bedding with the head of the light pantheon, just as the fortunes of her previous partner, the god of violence, were waning. The switch meant that the PC who was worshipping her, as a professional assassin, found himself a paladin one week later. Yet, at crucial moments, he manifested peculiarly sinister powers, which hinted at the true nature of his Lady. He unofficially began to hail her as “The whore of heavens”, as she was often too busy “working” up the hierarchy of light, to answer his calls.

The stuff that I prepare, instead, even that which I consider to be top notch, which I often expect to astonish and gratify the players, the Blunderbuss, Dago and other cool stuff which does not belong to this post, is rarely a huge success. Sometimes it’s memorable, but it is not such a force in the campaign as I would have expected. I finally came to the conclusion that I must strive to prepare the best, most interesting stuff without hoping that it will guide the campaign. No matter how central I may believe a prepared piece of stuff to be, the central NPC in the main campaign seed, it will always be just context for the players, it’s the stuff I make up on the spot to react to the players actions in that context that becomes central and truly drives the campaign.

[And now, for something completely different: you would not believe it, but I just witnessed a snow avalanche while typing this. I’m on a train and while exiting the Gotthard tunnel I glanced out to see a previously green valley being engulfed by tons of snow sliding from mountaintops]

Finally, to wrap up this endless jaculatory with an endless closing, here follows my take on my shifting and ebbing performances in game mastering, and read carefully, because this is going to be utterly simplistic and obvious, proving that if there was any entertainment to grasp from this post, it was certainly located upflow from here:

Since the same campaign structure has both succeeded and utterly failed, which is the difference between the golden age, with its effortless and huge success, the dark age, with its serial failures, the silver age with much more technique and fair results?

A child’s unrestrained imagination, finally replaced by technique and experience?

Imagination, yes, but I think it has but a weak relation to brain age. The fact is that between 13 and 16 I was living and breathing my games. I didn’t invent all of that stuff on the spot without preparation, that’s nonsense. The preparation was there, it was pervasive, entertaining and completely unstructured. It took up most of my free time, even if I was apparently doing something else.

Lots of what I happened to see would push me to broad fantastications. Not plain stuff, as one might expect when picturing the way a child’s mind works, no, I was never inspired by a bus or by the bleak church standing beside my flat. It was the clouds, the mountains encircling Turin (which I could see once a week when pollution and fog were lifted by the odd windy day, thanks to the city’s marvelous weather), roman ruins, castles, NASA images, the Silmarillion (never a book was more boring, but such style!), maps, ancient pieces of furniture, game books, avalanches…

The good news is that this kind of stuff still has the same effect on me, it sparks my imagination. I just became good at focusing on “important stuff” and I didn’t let the multitude of inspirations around me run their full length in my head.

That’s what killed my games when I was a teen. I suddenly became focused on mundane stuff : school, technology, girls, friends, parties and the time my brain spent on thinking crazy was reduced to near-zero. What a waste!

Dedicated, time-boxed efforts to prepare the campaign resulted in a drift towards rigid adventures which killed the campaign even sooner than usual.

The first fine campaign I was able to run after the dark ages (the one which in fact marked the end of it) was run during a very peaceful period of my life, with little or no worries. Then I noticed that I had switched back to fantasticating and understood its relationship with the quality of my gaming sessions.

I’ve come to value my absent-mindedness, it’s what keeps me out of the dark ages. I’ve begun to breed it rather than the campaign itself and I’ve found that things have started to work, a bit, once more.

In one line: to me, the most valuable preparation is preparing a state of mind.

[*] : but it was a full-party kill set on the flying steps leading to the altar holding the ultimate sword of power, the only one capable of stopping the war between two races by proving that none was superior, but both were inferior to the now extinct smiths of said sword.

I asked Carlo, my GM to write a guest post, after the discussion mentioned at the beginning of the post. He runs a GURPS 4th edition campaign. It’s a rules-heavy sandbox and my character is a monk, whose order I shall label “celtic shaolin” for lack of better words. Anyway, he mostly does software engineering, not RPGs, so don’t expect to find about dragons & daemons in his blog. Yet.

my gaming bag and me

My first memories of a “gaming bag” feature a surplus german black shoulder bag with the three AD&D 2ed core books (bought in Dublin at Virgin Megastore, good times) and nothing else but dice, some paper and pencil. Maybe Dragon #200, as it has nice spells. Being 13 and living in the sprawl north of Milan, I didn’t have much stuff (as there were maybe two game shops within 100 miles). BEC has been bought at the local toy shop over the years, with a strange adventure called “Palace of the Silver Princess”. There are things I still don’t grok in that module, by the way. Sometimes the bag was filled with the three BEC boxes, fitting perfectly, not a millimiter to spare.

Of course later this changed, as you imagine, with more trips to the game shops, paid jobs, more shops opening and closing, conventions, credit cards, ebay, moving to Britain. A big backpack soon took over the bag and allowed me to carry around 8 or 10 d20 hardcovers, plus a campaign notes binder and a bag of dice. I guess most of you know of what i’m taking about. The comforting and plush design aims of the d20 systems were too tempting back then.

Nowadays, I’m back to the black bag, but with just Mosley and BE (withouth CMI, and just for spells and overland travel), the awesome Kellri’s CDDN#4, the same campaign notes binder, same bag of dice, plus another one for players that arrive without kit. And also Carcosa, because work on tinker gadgets is still in progress, and there’s a Cthulhu cleric in the party…

Last bit, a bunch of printouts and home-rules (which are slowly replacing Mosley & Mentzer). I plan to get rid of all the rulebooks, replaced by “our game”: not a correction of what Gygax, Mosley and Mentzer wrote, and not a prescriptive source, but simply a collection of rules and rulings that we found working for us and that we use (so, useful stuff, not stuff put in the handbook just as filler).

Because the 64 pages of Mosley, despite being quite contained and handy, are not what we need. During the game we just need references, not rules. That is, assuming we need something at all. I wonder how will I play in 10 years…

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.

from the bookshelf: Tumbleclicks

I’m a big fan of choices in games. Possibly rich and meaningful, “real” choices. Choices that can actually force you to change strategy. Going for versatility over reliability for example. As I’m in the process of writing a number of spells to supplement or replace the standard panoplia from B/X, I came up with this to “almost” replace knock, hold portal and the like, as it does almost the same things but, well, takes more time to work, if if works at all. Plus it’s bound to make my cousin really happy, since he’s really really into charme- and compulsion-like spells:

Tumbleclicks – Level 1 MU

Range: self

Casting time: 1 round

Duration: 3 rounds + 1 round/level

The magic user will be able to speak the forgotten metallic language of locks, clockworks and other metallic mechanical contraptions. This will allow the caster to impart to locks and mechanical devices simple orders such as “lock”, “unlock”, “stop” and the like.

The only problem is that the clicks pronounced must be tuned to a specific device, and the caster has a 1 in 6 chance to finding out the specific intonation for a given device every round. Once the specific tone for a device has been found the magic-user will be able to use it again successfully every time if the spell is active, even during a subsequent casting.

Only a single order can be issued per round.