Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Freebooting on the Frontier [3]

The first entry in this series can be found here.

"The Three-Headed Horror," I think to myself, "Just how bad is that, exactly?"

To the inhabitants of Threshport, it's the worst thing around, but according to my players, it's known for snatching children, not attacking full-grown adults. So I decide that it's Solitary, Large, and Cautious, and then I refer to the "Monster Maker" sidebar in The Perilous Wilds—just a compressed rewrite of the monster-making rules in the core Dungeon World rules—to guide me:

I quickly jot down the essentials, but I don't give it any moves, since with improvised monsters I like to just let moves emerge through play.

Three-Headed Horror
Solitary, Large, Cautious
Damage Three beaks b[3d10+1] (reach)
HP 16   Armor 2
Special Quality Winged

I tell them that some time in the mid-afternoon, still pushing through the jungle, they hear the beating of mighty wings behind them. "What do you do?"

Everyone describes taking cover except one player, who asks, "How much of a forest canopy is there?" and since I have no ready answer, I ask in return, "How much would you like there to be?"

"A lot."

"Okay, let's see if you Get Lucky."

Get Lucky
When you hope things will go your way, roll +LUC: on a 10+, they do, this time; on a 7-9, they do, but there’s a tradeoff—ask the Judge what; on a 6-, DO NOT mark XP, and you get the opposite of what you hoped for.

I love this move because I can go to it whenever I find myself hesitating to answer a player's question about a situation. If I have a clear mental image, or I've already made a decision about the object of the question, I run with that; but if it's totally up in the air, I'll ask them to Get Lucky and riff on the result. In this case, the player rolled a 10+, so yes: plenty of tree cover, "You look behind and see the upper limbs of the tallest trees waving as something really big swoops over them, in your direction."

So everybody tries to hide. And I ask Rowe, the character with the lowest Dexterity, to Make a Saving Throw with Dexterity.

Make a Saving Throw
When you act or react in the face of danger, roll...

...+STR to use sheer muscle
...+DEX to use speed and agility
...+CON to resist or endure
...+INT to think fast or focus
...+WIS to perceive or intuit
...+CHA to charm your way out
...+LUC to close your eyes and pray

On a 10+, you do it, as well as one could hope; on a 7-9, you do it, but there’s a catch—the Judge will offer you a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice.

(Yeah, yeah, it's pretty much just Defy Danger, I know. Forgive a guy his nostalgia for nomenclature)

I only ask Rowe to make the roll because in this kind of situation—a bunch of characters doing the same thing and hoping for a positive result—I think it's most efficient and satisfying to have the responsibility fall to the least competent character. It might be different if people were describing ways in which they were helping one another, but in this case it's five green adventurers abjectly diving and hiding. Every person for themself.

Rowe rolls a 7, and I tell him that as the Horror sweeps across the treetops directly overhead, and everyone is showered in loose branches and leaves, there's a moment when the beating of its massive wings parts the canopy and one if its three great eyes stares right down at him. The three heads together let out a tripartite screech that makes the characters' blood run cold  (I try to imitate a sort of a Godzilla chorus), but the thing continues on its way. I've decided what the creature's going to do, but from their perspective it's not stopping, and soon the sound of its beating wings fades.

Everyone gets up and moves cautiously ahead, until the tree cover ends in an open expanse of tall grass, rolling down and away from them to the east. Selina and Cóldor break right, skirting the treeline, while Elorfindra, Rowe, and Ogethas decide to head left. A moment later, the Horror drops down from the sky into the open area, facing them. All three heads let out a deafening shriek, each twisting on a long neck to scan the jungle with a great golden eye.

Once again, everyone takes cover, and once again I ask Rowe to Make a Saving Throw with DEX in order to avoid being seen. He gets another partial success, and I tell him that as he presses his sweaty, large body into a bed of ferns, a red snake about the length of his arm slides out of the foliage and onto his back. Ogethas, in cover behind a wide-boled tree nearby with bow in hand, puts two fingers on an arrow in her quiver.

"What do you do?"

"In a whisper I say, 'welcome, friend in nature, make yourself at home,' and put off as many good vibes as I can manage in my panicked state."

"Make a Saving Throw with Charisma."

He rolls a 12. The snake slips off his back and into his shoulder bag, and Ogethas shakes her head in a combination of consternation and disbelief. The Horror lets out another shriek in three-part disharmony. Everybody hold position, stock-still.

I had decided for myself that if they didn't do anything stupid at this point, the monster would take off and continue on its way, But then Elorfindra, thinking either that it would be good to draw the Horror's attention away from the rest of the group, or just trying to save her own ass, makes a break for it, running directly back into the jungle the way they had come. The Horror notices, all three eyes locking onto the movement, and launches itself heavily into the air to give chase above the treetops. Inexplicably, Cóldor gets up and runs after the elf Cleric.

I say inexplicably, because at the time I could see no logical reason why either of the elves would do what they did in this situation, but a moment later I realized they were both acting directly on the "Reckless" character trait. And boy does Cóldor follow through: he runs to the largest nearby tree and begins scaling it as fast as he can, with the intent of attacking the monster in hand-to-hand combat. Ogethas, Rowe, and Selina look on in disbelief, certain that he's going to die. Elorfindra peels back around in a wide circle toward the tree—not running away after all.

The Horror sees Cóldor climbing the tree and slows to a hover, beating its massive wings above the canopy and sending all manner of fruit, dead branches, and foliage showering to the ground. It rises and dips, eyeing him through the branches, looking for an opportunity to lunge. He describes his intent to get as high as he can and then jump onto the monster.

At that moment, Elorfindra arrives at the base of the tree, draws her shortbow, takes aim at one of the great eyes as it peers through a break in the branches, and lets fly.

Shoot or Throw
When you attack a target with a ranged weapon, roll +DEX: on a 10+, you inflict damage; on a 7-9, you inflict damage after resolving 1 of your choice:

* Mark off 1 ammo
* You have to move to get the shot, worsening your position
* Just winged ’em—roll damage twice and use the lower roll
* You attract unwanted attention

She rolls a 10, then 1d6 for damage and gets a 6. I don't subtract the Horror's Armor value because its eye was the target, and a large one at that. The arrow disappears into it and the thing recoils in deafening agony, pulling back from the treetops. I glance at the tags I had hurriedly assigned and note Cautious. I describe the Three-Headed Horror reeling away and flapping ponderously into the distance, its cries echoing through the jungle. I make a mental note that the creature will return one day.

Everyone regroups, and words are had with Cóldor regarding his stupidity. He ignores them and dismisses the monster as a coward. This would be the first of many occasions when Coldor's recklessness would invite danger, to often hilarious effect.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Freebooting on the Frontier [2]

My last entry recounted the first hour of a three-hour session, and this one covers only about the next half-hour of actual play time.

After everyone equips themselves to satisfaction, they assemble at Threshport's gate and set off into the Red Jungle, in the direction of the Pit of the Giant. The island is largely unexplored, with no other settlements besides Threshport, so there are no established roads pretty much any way you head will take you into the wilderness.

Time to put the Perilous Wilds rules into play. We had already established that the Pit was about a day's journey on foot, and they were clearly headed into untamed wilderness, so their actions trigger the Undertake a Perilous Journey move, which has been altered from the Dungeon World original to read:

Undertake a Perilous Journey
When you travel through dangerous lands, indicate the course you want to take on the map, and ask the GM how far you should be able to get before needing to Make Camp. If you’re exploring with no set destination, indicate which direction you go. Then, choose one member of the party to Scout Ahead, and one to Navigate, resolving those moves in that order.

I ask them who's going to Scout Ahead and Elorfindra the elf Cleric nominates herself. No one objects, so we go to the move:

Scout Ahead
When you take point and look for anything out of the ordinary, roll +WIS: on a 10+, choose 2 from the list below; on a 7-9, choose 1.

* You get the drop on whatever lies ahead
* You discern a beneficial aspect of the terrain—shortcut, shelter, or tactical advantage (describe it)
* You make a Discovery (ask the GM)
* You see sign of a nearby Danger —ask the GM what it is, and what it signifies

She rolls a 7, +0 for her WIS for a 7, and chooses 1 from the list: "You make a Discovery (ask the GM)." If they were traveling through a prepared region I might look through my notes for a pre-planned Discovery, but the point of this session is to make most stuff up as we play, so I go to the Discovery tables in The Perilous Wilds.

These tables are designed to generate prompts for the GM to build on, not to spell out things in detail. The Discovery tables fit onto one 8.5" x 11" page spread:

These days I ask my players to do all the rolling, and the Discovery and Danger tables use 12-sided dice, so when we sit down to play I make sure everyone has a d12 on hand. I've found the quickest way to generate numbers for these tables in play is to ask them each to roll a d12, then tell me the numbers one at a time until I get a result. This can feel weird at first, as there is a pause while the results are determined and interpreted, but it gets faster and smoother with practice.

The first three d12 rolls in this instance are 9, 3, and 6, which gives me Structure > Infrastructure > "road." Under "Infrastructure," it says I can roll to see whoever built the road it using 1d4+4 on the Creature table, and the result in that case gives me "human."

As an aside, I should note that all of this die-rolling goes relatively quickly; asking for rolls, referencing the tables, interpreting the result, and describing what they see takes about 20-30 seconds.

The job of the GM is to interpret the prompt in context, which in this case is a humid jungle on an unexplored island. So, I'm thinking, if there's a road on an unexplored island, it must be an ancient road built by some past human inhabitants. I tell Elorfindra that while everyone is taking a midday break in a clearing, she notices an unnatural shape in the undergrowth. She pulls away the ferns and grass to reveal a weathered stone pylon, about waist-high, and encased in fine green moss. She scrapes away some of the moss to find that the pylon is completely covered in runic symbols, worn down to the point of being barely perceptible.

Selina the Magic-User comes over to see what the elf has discovered. She examines the runes to see if any of them look familiar, which triggers the Recall move (Freebooters on the Frontier's rejiggered version of Spout Lore):

When you seek the answer to a question by drawing upon your accumulated knowledge, say why you might know the answer to that particular question. If the Judge buys it, roll +INT: on a 10+, the Judge will give you a complete and truthful answer; on a 7-9, the Judge will give you an answer, but you won’t know it’s true until you put it to the test. If the Judge doesn’t buy how you might know the answer, it turns out you don’t know much about the subject.

I ask her why she might know the answer, and she cites her years of studying both history and magical texts. I buy it. She rolls: 9, +2 for her INT modifier = 11. I tell her that most of the runes have been obliterated by the passage of time, but she can make out one that repeats—a stylized sheaf of grain that represents the deity Dalia.

In the course of making stuff up on the spot, I'm always looking for ways to connect things. At the beginning of this session, we established that Dalia is the Goddess of Life, and that there was an earlier and ill-fated colonial presence on the island. As they investigate the pylon and what it might signify, I'm pulling things together in my head: an ancient road, marked by the sign of the Goddess of Life. What does it mean?

Elorfindra starts looking for further archaeological evidence, describing how she stands at the pylon and scans the surrounding area, looking for more. So she triggers Perceive:

When you pay close attention to a person, place or thing, roll +WIS: on a 10+, hold 3; on a 7-9, hold 1. Spend your hold 1-for-1 to ask the Judge questions about the object of your attention, either now or later. But ask carefully; if there’s no way you could reasonably know the answer, the Judge will just tell you you don’t notice anything unusual.

She gets a 7 and for her question asks me of there's anything else of obvious human construction in the vicinity. I decide there is and tell her that she finds another pylon, just like the first, about 50 yards away to the southwest. She and Selina scrape off some of the moss together and find the same markings, the only recognizable one being the mark of Dalia.

This puts me in an interesting spot. At first I had been thinking the pylon was a milestone on an ancient highway, but now I've said there's another one only 50 yards way. So something else is going on here, but what? I'll have some time to think about it, because before the halfling and elf can start searching the undergrowth in earnest, the others insist on setting out, in the interest of reaching the Pit before nightfall.

Since the initial Scout Ahead move resulted in a Discovery that led to a brief break in the journey, I say they need to Undertake a Perilous Journey again for the next leg. It's been noticed at this point that Selina has the best WIS modifier (+1), so she is urged to take point. Unfortunately, she rolls a 5, +1, for a 6. She marks XP, but I get to make a GM move (or Judge move, in FotF parlance). After a moment's hesitation, I decide to go ahead and throw a Danger at them. I could roll one up, but I'm going to go with one we've already established—the Three-Headed Horror.

Will they survive contact with the creature the locals fear above all others?

Friday, June 5, 2015

Freebooting on the Frontier [1]

Well, my intentions to post regularly here were derailed by the launch and management of my latest Kickstarter campaign. To my delight, it was a rousing success, and thanks to the money raised I'll be able to produce and print The Perilous Wilds, an overland adventure supplement for Dungeon World, along with a whole bunch of other fun things.

Among those things is a Dungeon World hack called Freebooters on the Frontier, my attempt to map the feeling of playing old school D&D in the late 1970s and early 1980s onto the *World system. It's a highly subjective reinterpretation, based on both my personal memories of that time and my more recent love affair with the DCC RPG. Much like Funnel World, a stretch goal from my previous Kickstarter campaign, Freebooters has taken on a life of its own.

About a month ago my game group wrapped up an epic campaign based on a different Dungeon World hack, so the timing was right to begin playtesting The Perilous Wilds and Freebooters in earnest, on a weekly basis. And since the game content is being generated mostly on the fly, I thought it might be of interest to record our experiences here.

Characters in Freebooters are generated almost entirely at random, with only a few decisions points. This is a game about making the most of what the dice give you, and trying to survive and get rich in a brutal world.

Here's what the dice gave us in the first session:

Elorfindra, Evil female elf Cleric of Diador, God of Death.
Appearance: shaved head, shining eyes
Traits: self-pitying, mad, reckless
Strength 5 (-2); Dexterity 10 (0); Constitution 8 (-1); Intelligence 12 (0); Wisdom 11 (0); Charisma 13 (+1); Luck 12 (0)
Armor: 2; HP 4; Load 6
Gear: Holy symbol (polished black stone sphere), short bow, quiver of arrows, chainmail, healing potion, adventuring gear (5), rations (5)

Cóldor, Evil male elf Fighter
Appearance: squint, large hands
Traits: egotistical, impatient, reckless
Strength 16 (+2); Dexterity 13 (+1); Constitution 7 (-1); Intelligence 10 (0); Wisdom 7 (-1); Charisma 10 (0); Luck 9 (0)
Armor: 2; HP 7; Load 11
Gear: Billhook (favored weapon), leather armor, shield, adventuring gear (5), rations (5)

Selina, Good female halfling Magic-User
Appearance: aged, hairless
Traits: benevolent, disciplined, courteous
Strength 8 (-1); Dexterity 14 (+1); Constitution 9 (0); Intelligence 16 (+2); Wisdom 13 (+1); Charisma 13 (+1); Luck 16 (+2)
Armor: 0; HP 1; Load 4
Gear: Arcane orb, spellbook, dagger, spell components (3), rations (5)
Spells: Blood of Omnipotent Perception, Ulana's Delicate Knowledge

Rowe, Good male human Magic-User
Appearance: notable nose (piggy), strange marks
Traits: curious, loving, generous
Strength 11 (0); Dexterity 9 (0); Constitution 13 (+1); Intelligence 16 (+2); Wisdom 11 (0); Charisma 11 (0); Luck 3 (-3)
Armor: 0; HP 4; Load 4
Gear: Arcane orb, spellbook, bag of books (5), healing potion, rations (5)
Spells: Zace's Globe of Blood, Cynjobulon's Venom Guide

Ogethas, Neutral female human Fighter
Appearance: dark skin, clear-eyed
Traits: dependable, boastful
Strength 10 (0); Dexterity 16 (+2); Constitution 12 (0); Intelligence 9 (0); Wisdom 9 (0); Charisma 9 (0); Luck 12 (0)
Armor: 2; HP 8; Load 10
Gear: Longbow (favored weapon), quiver of arrows, chainmail, healing potion, adventuring gear (5), rations (5)

After everyone rolled up their characters, I put a "terra incognita" island map in the middle of the table (from Mad Vandel's Map Pack, another stretch goal that collects a bunch of unlabeled and blank maps by Josephe Vandel), told the players that they were new arrivals at a colonial port town on this unexplored island, and asked them what sort of climate the island might have. They agreed it was tropical, a generally hot and humid place.

Before getting into the game we needed to set the stage a bit, so I passed the map around the table and asked each player to add stuff to it, based on specific questions. First the port town, which they named "Threshport." I asked them to roll some dice to determine the town's tags, and we got Prosperity Moderate, Population Booming, Defenses Watch, then Lawless, and Blight (which reduced Booming to Growing). I added Trade (capital city), because that's the whole reason the port exists, and I asked them what was up with the blight. They told me there's a local disease called the Dimming that causes a certain segment of the population to lose their sight.

Then, players added regions and sites of interest to the map, the names of which they could choose themselves or roll up on the tables provided for that purpose in The Perilous Wilds. Everyone decided to roll instead of choose.

Twice around the table and we had this:

As they added stuff, I asked them what was notable about each addition, and took notes for future reference:

Devil's Quagmire: no birds
The Dark Peaks: totally unexplored
God's Sound: every 1,000 years this peninsula rises from the sea
Sands of Despair: a desert that drains all hope
The Shifting Forest: there's an oasis at its center
Pit of the Giant: vaguely footprint-shaped, something's down there
Sword Keep: first colonial outpost, overrun many years ago by thorakians (savage termite-folk)
The Circle: a barren circular patch delineated by ancient standing stones
The Gate: a ruin of mystical origin, from which someone recently retrieved an indecipherable book

Then I asked them what local creature the locals feared most, and they told me it was the "Three-Headed Horror," a giant hawk monster with three heads, a single huge eye on each.

The last thing I asked them about was their base of operations in town. Where did they meet, and where do they gather to make plans? In the great open courtyard of the local temple to Dalia, the Goddess of Life, where free food is distributed to new arrivals and the needy.

We started play in the courtyard, discussing their first foray into the wilderness. Everyone agreed that the Pit of the Giant, being only a day's march away through the jungle, was an ideal first venture.

Next time I'll recap their journey to the Pit.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A One-Shot of Whiskey

For a while after our Spawn of Azathoth campaign came to an untimely end, our entertainment on game night consisted of a series of games that could be played in a single evening. At some point in my exploration of the indie RPG scene, I had put together a "one-shot survival kit," a plastic tub containing a bunch of rules-light stuff that I can pull out at a moment's notice.

This kit contained Fiasco, Carolina Death CrawlPowers for Good, In a Wicked Age, Adventures on Dungeon Planet, a binder of one-page dungeons, and a bunch of games from One Seven Design. One Seven is John Harper, a prolific designer of RPGs that crouch, ready to pounce, at the intersection of brevity and beauty.

Mr. Harper is so prolific, and his designs cover such a tantalizing gamut of genres, that I eventually gave them their own kit box. I have to say that a plastic storage tub fails to do them justice, though—what they really want is their own spinner rack or vending machine.

Usually on a one-shot night I pull a bunch of stuff out and ask everyone what they feel like playing, and usually no one has any strong opinion, so I've gotten in the habit of just running anything I feel excited about in order to sidestep the "I dunno, what do you guys want to play?" dilemma. Luckily, my players trust me not to be self-indulgent, and I try to live up to that trust by giving a lot of thought and consideration to what they might enjoy before I throw something new at them.

On that first Lovecraft-free game night, I was still in a 1930s sort of mood, and John Harper had just put out Bootleggers: Smuggling Run via his terrific Patreon. So I printed it out, brushed up on my Prohibition history, and prepped a quick-ref GM aid for myself (I only used a handful of the items on this thing, but it gave me a sense of security and helped ground my improvisation). That night there wouldn't be a menu of games to choose from; we would sit down and play something I had pre-selected. But I wanted to get them into the mood, so at the last minute before I left the house I dug up an old steel flask, filled it with bourbon, and tossed that in my backpack too.

In Bootleggers, the players are the eponymous smugglers, small-timers at first, striving against the law and rival forces to hit the big time without ending up in the big house (or bleeding out on the curb). Character and gang advancement happens when the PCs rack up enough "scores," which are rated according to the number of cases of booze they can smuggle or steal. It's a concrete, perfectly thematic way to track experience that feels great in play, pushing the same buttons as the gold-as-XP approach in old-school D&D.

But the best thing about booze-as-XP, as we soon discovered, is that it's fragile: a car crash or hail of bullets—not to mention a G-Man with a fire axe—can wipe out your precious cargo. So not only do you have to get the goods from point A to point B in order to level up, you need to make sure the maximum possible number of cases or barrels survive the trip. This ended up being my single favorite aspect of the game, because of the way it forced the PCs to behave in situations where their score-in-the-making was under physical threat.

After gang and character creation, which made for a nice transition into the milieu of the game, I set the scene: it's a chilly November night and the four of them are split between a sedan and a flatbed pickup, pulling into the back lot of a distillery on the St. Lawrence, just outside of Montreal. They're antsy after the 10-hour trip from Providence, and anxious about their first score. One of them has a cousin who works at the distillery, and arrangements have been made to cross his palm with U.S. currency in exchange for enough barrels of Canadian whiskey to fill the flatbed. They're expected to knock shave-and-a-haircut on the loading dock door to announce their arrival, and that the coast is clear. They stop just inside the parking lot gate, and the two guys in the sedan get out to confer with those in the truck

At this point I pull out the flask, unscrew the lid, and hand it to player on my left, saying, "You pass around the flask one last time." There's a pause, and they all exchange glances, but none of them says anything. And then they pass it, taking swigs one after another, until it comes back around to me and I screw the lid back on. I had brought the flask on impulse, not sure what I was going to do with it, but it ended up being the perfect thing to set the mood and mark our crossing of the threshold of play. That none my friends batted an eye at this potentially awkward stunt reminds me how lucky I am to get to play with them on a weekly basis.

When the barrels were half-loaded, thugs dispatched by the Prohibition King of Providence showed up, and the ensuing shootout played out like the Victory Motel scene in L.A. Confidential, only with less SMG and more knife.

It was among the most intense and gratifying fights I've experienced in an RPG, with every die roll honored, the lives of the PCs very much a stake, and all of them surviving, miraculously, unscathed. When the smoke cleared, someone asked for the flask again and described his character trying to steady his hands before taking a swig. The flask went around the table one more time.

They made it across the border safely via back roads, but in the hours of driving between Quebec and southern Vermont the shootout had been reported and investigated, and American authorities notified. So they encountered a roadblock on Interstate 91, just a few miles from the real-world building where we were playing. From there things tipped into one long, intensifying downward spiral.

Half the gang met their end in a shootout with state police on a moving train, while the other half limped back to Providence with only 2 of their original 8 barrels still intact (they had crashed the flatbed, and managed to get only 2 barrels into another truck, hijacked from a dairy farm). I house-ruled that each barrel was worth 2 cases, which for a Level 1 gang gave them a total of 2 scores.

Realizing that they would need 4 more scores to reach Level 2 (and knowing this was a one-shot), they described mourning the loss of their friends, abandoning their life of crime, and drowning their sorrows in the fruits of their ill-advised efforts.

All in all, Bootleggers provided the best one-shot experience we've had to date. One side effect of that is that it made me want to run a full-fledged Bootleggers campaign some day; another is that I am super-excited for John Harper's next big project, Blades in the Dark, which will be launching on Kickstarter in March.

Thanks for the good times, John! Looking forward to more.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Between Then and Now - Part 1

I hadn't written anything here in over a year until yesterday, but my gaming life has been full in that time, and some of it worth sharing. So I want to take a few posts to quickly cover what my players and I have been up to.

The last games I recorded here were Pathfinder-to-Dungeon-World campaign I ran for a year and a half, and a play-by-post game of a Dungeon World hack. For the Pathfinder game, I used the Kingmaker Adventure Path, which I chose after reading many reviews of the various Paizo offerings. After about a year of getting increasingly annoyed with the extreme fiddliness and tedium of the Pathfinder rules, I managed to sidestep GM burnout by converting everything to Dungeon World. It worked great for a few months, but then some members of the group moved away and the campaign came to an ignominious end.

Those of us that remained then started the classic Spawn of Azathoth campaign for Call of Cthulhu, using the Trail of Cthulhu rules.

One of the many excellent props available from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

Again, I had done my homework: read the reviews, read discussions of the system's pros and cons on RPGGeek, listened to some actual play podcasts. But despite my due diligence, I became annoyed and disenchanted with ToC pretty quickly in play—to me at the time it seemed like a codification and commercialization of what could have just as easily been a single, solid essay of GM advice. More crucially, the rules felt neither intuitive nor immersive, which made it feel like they were getting in the way when I wanted them to be falling back.

Providence, Rhode Island circa 1937 

Now, it's clear that thousands of people play and enjoy Trail of Cthulhu, and that Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws are super-smart, good guys with tons of experience who are not by any stretch trying to pull a Cthulhu cash-in (as one listen to their superlative podcast will prove). In retrospect, I see that my personal sensibility and encountering the system at the wrong time combined to thwart my enjoyment.

A small part of the old white-guy supporting cast.

Unfortunately, that "wrong time" appears to extend from the point I first played Dungeon World (or more accurately, Adventures on Dungeon Planet) into the foreseeable future. Because once Vincent Baker showed me that parallel *World, I didn't want to go back. Or, to use a different and even less clear metaphor, when someone hands you a knife, you want to cut everything up into poetry.

A selection of unspeakable excerpts, still awaiting discovery.

In practical terms, this meant that after three sessions of our Cthulhu game I yanked it into that other *World, just like I had done with our Pathfinder campaign before. You can read my rough and overcooked version of the rules here. I've learned a lot since then, but it was a part of my learning process, and it did the job at the time; the campaign ran for another five highly entertaining sessions.

Visionary. Frightening. Kind of a mess.

Ultimately, real life reared up again and some of our group left town, so we abandoned the characters at an observatory in Montana. Which is just as well, because after reading and rereading the published campaign material, I ended up feeling that Spawn of Azathoth was kind of a mess in terms of its internal logic. Ahead of its time in many respects, but ultimately too dependent on coincidence and an incoherent plot to give me satisfaction without a lot of extra work on my part.

My day job is teaching how to write and draw comics at the Center for Cartoon Studies, one of the great side benefits of which is an annual influx of geeks who have either played RPGs before, or have always wanted to try. This means there is no shortage of players for my games, but turnover is high, so it's proven hard to play a campaign to completion. However, without skipping a beat we had another full table the week after our leap into Lovecraft ended, and for a while we played a bunch of shorter stuff.

In Part 2 I'll write about what we did after Cthulhu.

What do you do, after Cthulhu,
After Cthulhu, what do you do?
Stare into the Void for eons on end,
Hoping Shub-Niggurath will wgah'nagl fhtagn

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Let's make it official

When I started this blog as a way to share the excitement and fun I was experiencing with my weekly game group, I chose a name that was evocative of the kinds of adventures we were playing at the time. When I ended up writing and kickstarting one such adventure myself, it seemed only natural that I should use the same name for my publishing venture.

To date, as "Lampblack & Brimstone," I have put out two small books, currently available on DriveThruRPG:


And I'm planning more. The next one will be called Perilous Journeys, and it'll be a rules supplement for Dungeon Worldmy current game of choice, and the one that inspired me to make my own stuff in the first place.

When the kickstarter for Servants of the Cinder Queen closed, I sent out a survey to all of the project's backers, asking them to vote on what sort of thing they'd like me to write next, and "wilderness adventure" won out by a large margin. So I asked the Dungeon World Google+ community what they would like to see in such a book, combined a bunch of suggestions with my own ideas, and dug in. A couple of months later, what I initially envisioned as a humble 32-page saddle-stitched booklet has turned into a 72-page book that will need to be squarebound. At least it'll still be digest-size...

If you're curious about the form this project is taking, I've been posting previews of the various sections here.

This is all just to give some background to my reviving of this blog. On top of all the other things I have going on, producing Servants and Funnel World took me away from maintaining this space, but this is where I want to consolidate all of my RPG interests. My hope is to continue using this blog as a place to record thoughts about my experiences as a GM, which are swiftly becoming inseparable from my publishing efforts. I have to playtest everything, after all!

So: here's hoping I can post something interesting at least once a week, and make the visit worth your time!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dungeon World Under the Microscope

Our weekly Pathfinder-to-Dungeon World game continues apace, but that is not enough! I must have more Dungeon World! That feeling started back in July, when I was just starting to get into DW and was looking for ways to cram more play into my life. In my constant daydreaming about DW, it occurred to me that it might be cool to play a game of Ben Robbins' Microscopewhich I had been wanting to try after backing the kickstarter campaign for his next game, Kingdomand use the resulting world as a setting for a Dungeon World campaign. I came up with the idea independently, but of course it turned out I was by no means the first person to do so.

So I knew that I wanted to experiment with combining the two games, but I don't have enough free time each week to fold a second multi-hour rpg session into my life, so I decided to run it as a "play-by-forum" game at brokenforum, one of the handful of gaming boards I frequent. In a play-by-forum game, you don't have to adhere to a tight schedule (we've averaged a post roughly once a day per participant since we began), and players can check in when they have a spare moment here or there. It was open invite, and I capped it at four players. Once we had our group, I started a thread for the Microscope game, and about two months later we had our setting. You can read the original thread here, or just skip to the summary via the Google doc I set up to record our history. As we went along, I started to pull together a Pinterest board of visual reference so we would have a foundation upon which to build our common understanding of the world.

After we had a rough outline of our world's history, we chose a period in which our game would be set. I threw together a list of potential classes, and each player chose one to play. The idea was to have the race and class options evolve out of our setting, and then adapt them to Dungeon World, customizing as we went. DW is eminently flexible, as the profusion of hacks and mods for the system can attest, so with a little tinkering we were up and ready to run. We ended up with four characters who ran the gamut of customization levels, from a Telani Preserver who hews pretty close to the stock DW Druid, to a Wik Deadspeaker, a class we created pretty much from scratch. All of the resulting character sheets are viewable here.

I had it in my head when I started the game that I would make character portraits for the players as a way to get them further invested in the game, and as a little reward for taking the time to indulge in the experiment. So before we could start play I needed to whip those up. I've enjoyed drawing rpg character portraits since the 80s, when I would often spend more time developing a campaign than my high school buddies and I would spend playing, so it was fun for me to do, especially as a way to take a break from the sort of drawing I do for the comic book that comprises one of my day jobs.

So here are the four characters, as developed from scratch to final colored portraits:

Kalil Ru'Hana, Wik Deadspeaker

Tek'Utl, Telani Preserver

Saul Odelo, Archivist Finder

Amulus, Searcher Scout

We started playing the game proper last week, and it's been a lot of fun so far. Two great things I've discovered about GMing a PbF game are that I can post images to supplement the story if I feel like it; and I have more time to consider how the story is going to unfold. What a PbF game lacks in terms of excitement and off-the-cuff improvisation, it makes up for by allowing you the time to think things through. And that leads to a different kind of story, less theatrical and more like a book being read one page at a time.

If you're curious about how the adventures of these four intrepid souls will play out, you can follow the thread here.