Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review: A Baker's Denizen - A Labyrinth Lord Adventure

Disclaimer:  I received a free a copy of this adventure from the writer for evaluation purposes.
The adventure can currently be purchased at RPGnow here.

This was not a bad little adventure. Although I level quite a bit of criticism against it in the sections to follow, I think it actually holds together rather well as a situation for PCs to stumble across in the course of their travels. Aside from the typical itinerant adventurer scenario, it seems like just the sort of thing to include in a city watch style campaign.

The art was sparse but decently done.  The three dimensional dungeon diagram was nice, although it seemed an unusual choice to provide both color and black-and-white versions of the same illustration in the document.

The art on the first page (defacto cover art) isn't bad, but seems a bit arbitrary (the door to a bakery?  A crypt?).  Also, the text box for the credits runs over the illustration.  The margin art is presumably meant to look like some kind of elaborate book binding, and the pages had coloration to evoke a sort of stained velum appearance. I'm not generally a huge fan of this sort of thing, but found it unobtrusive in this case.

The scenario focused mainly on a specific location adventure, with some reference to other areas of the city (we’re told in passing of a Merchants Quarter, Craft Alley and "Enclave"). But reading it, I found myself wishing for more of a city overview with random tables of emerging incidents (like the Baker’s issue).  Still, for what actually it is, the write-up seems adequate.

I suppose I'm being a bit puritanical here, but I could have done the incidental discovery of a “phallic device”. It doesn’t appear integral to the unfolding situation, and the product really contains no other overt sexual elements I can recall. In my mind this single inclusion doesn’t change much, except to delaying the age I might want my kids to read it.

There are other passages where I believe the author was intending to leave things up to the adjudication of the Game Master, but to my reading simply leave situations and motives unclear:

"Greymalkin may be predisposed to help the Characters achieve their goals, if it seems to fit her overall plan"
What is her overall plan?  Just to get free?  Why not act before now?

"If the crypt is under assault ... Greymalkin will not act to protect Ystala. Her death will free the Marilith on the Prime Material Plane to wreak chaos without restraint."
Might be useful to know what obligations Gremalkin is actually under if it can decide not to defend the witch.

"Ystala’s vengeance would not be denied..."
What vengeance?  The only people we've been given to understand had wronged her are her former master (dead at this point) and her father (never discussed again).

A part of me sees Ystala’s relationship with the homunculus as an unnecessary, superfluous detail, since it is now dead and only tangentially relevant to any current action. It’s not impossible those events may influence her actions during the current adventure, but it seems unclear how that might be the case.

Some of the organizational choices seemed a bit odd as well:

Some monster details are provided in the sections where a creature first appears, other details are provided in a later Monsters section.  I generally prefer monster info in the section where the creature is appearing, so I don’t have to flip around to reference it.  I can understand separate section if the monsters recur frequently.  However, I really would prefer at least a physical description of new monsters in the section they're used in.  I'd never heard of a Dark Creeper before and had to flip to the end to find it.

The supplement starts out giving an very general overview (almost a teaser) of the weird situation leading to the adventure, then a section on the city of Elbion in general, then back to the explaining the adventure background leading into the adventure itself.  It's not a huge issue, but in general I'd be more inclined to skip the initial scenario, start right off with the city description and transition from there into the adventure itself.  The overview doesn't really add anything, although if the document had a cover it could be used as a cover blurb.

Descriptions of Ystala herself are split between two sections of the document:  Page 4 describes quite a bit about her and gives her stats.  Page 8 gives more information about her history.  Some of the information in both sections is useful and interesting.  But I’d prefer to have it all in one place, and it seemed to me some of her history was a bit superfluous and could have been included in a shortened form.

The crypt map comes after all the descriptions of locations it contains. I'd personally prefer it come first, so I know in advance the layout of the numbered rooms being mentioned.

The map shows eight sarcophogi, but only three are described. I suspect any players I game with would routinely check every single sarcophagus, so more ideas of their contents would be helpful. A compass rose would also be useful, as one section of the text refers to Ystala being in the southwest. I believe this means behind the top of the stairs, but is somewhat ambiguous given isometric depiction of the area.

The new magical items and weird materials found were a nice touch.  They tended to be low powered and/or very specific in use.  In my humble opinion games could generally use a few more things along these lines in preference to the usual plethora of magic wands, armor, weapons and potions.

Despite these criticisms, the Baker’s Denizen seems a perfectly serviceable little adventure which would probably be a perfect fit for most fantasy settings. Would make a good entry on any random city encounters table.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A haphazard assemblage of my D&D likes and dislikes throughout editions.

This is inspired by, if not probably the most direct response to, Catty Big's inquiry regarding a 5th edition review.  It's also heavily rambling, so hold on to your hats.

My tastes in D&D and it's ilk are pretty eclectic.  As with music I rarely like all of one thing, but tend to find certain things I really like in most products.  Below are general impressions of several editions and related products.  Keep in mind these are all subjective feelings and not deep analyses.  Your mileage may vary.

Caveat:  Sometimes I like to build for lots of damage or one thing or another. But usually I'm not too fussy about balance, as long as I feel my character's abilities haves something interesting to contribute both inside and outside of combat.

Swords & Wizardry (0th edition retroclone)

Advantages:  Small and pretty straightforward.  Pared down and easy to tinker with.

Disadvantages:  Some bits still feel a bit cobbled together and arbitrary.  Mechanics not all the most unified, but not the worst in this regard.  Not really geared for "balance" between characters, but arguably the issue of balance doesn't seem a major complaint during play.

AD&D 2ed

Where I got my start.  Always have nostalgia for this.

Advantages: Just love the flavor of the thing, so many neat options and interestingly fleshed out settings.

Disadvantages: Pretty Byzantine as to how stats effect rolls.  Lots of special limitations on classes and races.  Many different types of dice mechanics rolled depending on situation.  Roll high good in some cases, roll low good in others.  Save categories seem random.  Skills tough to master and chance of success abysmal, no unified difficulties, etc.

D&D 3.x

Felt like a breath of fresh air when it first came out.

Advantages: Much more standardized and unified mechanics. Things like multi-classing made sense. More flexible about races, classes, etc.  Saves just intuitively made sense to me.  Customization with Feats was possible.

Disadvantages: Many nit picky feats that don't do much but allow for better feats further along. Nit picky +/- modifiers all over the place for this and that. Exhaustive rules could mean a lot of looking up.  The rate of increase in bonuses per level for various things could make it easy to get left behind in something you didn't max out completely. Linear fighter, quadratic wizard power issues (in my experience both bad for fighters at high levels and bad for wizards at low levels. Also in my experience Sorcerer really rocked more than Wizards if you weren't going to bother cranking out scrolls all the time.). This was also the heyday of build optimization.

D&D 4E

Played for about a year now, and see why some love it, but not really my bag.

Advantages: Possibly the most balanced edition.  Possibly the most mechanically unified edition.  Probably the best edition if you're in to grid-based tactical play.  3E had "incantations" as an add-on, but 4E added non-combat rituals as a definite thing anyone could do.
Reskinning classes, abilities and monsters is trivially easy, as very little flavor is actually tied to the these things. In fact each class strikes me as little more than a vaguely themed collection of mechanics with particular combat focus.

Disadvantages: Not so interesting if you think grid-based tactical play is kind of dull.  Combats can take a long time (hit points are increased from previous editions) unless you're really great at the rules or vastly better than your opponent.  Most combats didn't feel like much of a threat if they were balanced.  It's like they wanted every battle to feel epic, but often every battle seems much like just going through the motions.
It's taken some of us most of a year to really figure out how to optimally use our character abilities tactically.  When I DMed, I felt like I was trying to juggle a new set of vaguely similar, but subtly different monster powers in my head every time I created a new encounter.
Character abilities seem very largely oriented to combat, utility powers exist but often seem irrelevant or more of a hassle to use.
As a personal gripe:  I'd heard that this edition was so balanced that rolling up an ineffective character was nearly impossible.  Then I rolled up an average dwarf fighter and found myself stumbling around widely spread battlefields only occasionally nickling and diming oppnents to little effect while my comrades laid into them with various ranged or heavy damage attacks.  As a fighter was damn hard to get hurt badly, but didn't feel very effective.
The need for increasingly powerful weapons is baked into the system. You're literally supposed to petition the DM for equipment you want the next monster to "drop".
To be vague and unhelpful: Many things about the system (classes, magic items, general mechanics) seemed not very evocative and rather "samey", from my perspective.

D&D 5E

I've played four different characters in this system under DMs with very different styles (one very by-the-book, one very homebrew & random tables).  Both were great, though neither game has gotten above level 6 or so.  Often feels like a lighter, more flexible version of 3rd Ed.

Advantages: Powers and talents feel more unique to me again, less cookie cutter, but not in the haphazard design manner of AD&D and earlier editions.
For the most part Feats feel pretty useful and distinct to me.  This plus backgrounds give some nice ways to customize a character.  Feats include the ability for anyone to pick up rituals or cantrip use.
Classes are reasonably evocative, but also pretty easy to re-skin if you prefer.  I feel like the differences in classes are more than skin deep in several cases.
Combat against superior foes may be difficult and deadly, but at the same time seems more possible due to the shallower power curves. Even without incredible weapons and abilities, you still have a modest chance to at least hit opponents.
Variety of powers made me feel that my characters always had something interesting to contribute both inside and out of combat.
Like the idea of cantrips you can use for free at any time.

Disadvantages: There can be a lot of specific talents to keep track of.
There is somewhat of a shortage of non-magical classes (e.g. I like the Barbarian, but even the this class is magical in a sense).
Character creation can feel pretty involved given the number of different choices, though they do try to unload some choices to other low levels so it's not all at first.
The article was right that certain saves won't see a lot of use (but on the other hand for other skill and combat related checks each of the attributes is very useful).
Flavorwise, and this is just me, I sometimes feel like the many direct-damage cantrips you can spam all the time make magic combat for spellcasters kind of vanilla.  Or make it like super-powers.  Which can be fine for some settings, but I kind of like the idea of cost-free powers being a bit more subtle.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Long Now Elf Love

Today for your reading pleasure, a brilliant and delicious excerpt dredged from the corners of the internet:


Anonymous No.19334013 06/02/12(Sat)06:24 No.19334013
Once, we had an elf who fucked one human, once, and developed this psychotic obsession with bringing him back to life after he died.

She sort of faded into the background after a while, we forgot about her, but two campaigns later her research started popping up, and this escalated until it turned out that she was basically getting ready to harvest all life on Earth to try and bring her pet goldfish back to life. By the end of it were were up to our balls in hideous soul-stealing goblin mutants that ate souls and vomited them back up as pearl catalysts for some ancient resurrection ritual.

Five fucking campaigns of fighting this insane elf, motivated by love and heartbreak to destroy the world and overthrow the will of the gods to bring her husband back, because SOMEONE just HAD to hit on the elf chick.

Way to fucking go, Riley.

Anonymous No.19334019 06/02/12(Sat)06:25 No.19334019
dear god i want to be in your group

Anonymous No.19334106 06/02/12(Sat)06:52 No.19334106
You say that now, but you'd be eating your thumbs by the end of it. It's so enraging to go through these enormously fierce trials, and then realize that they aren't clever at all, they were just engineered by a woman with infinite time and no sense of proportion.

Example: Her research notes were all written in Dwarvish, which was the language of choice for scientific notation. But then apparently she thought "oh hey, someone might read my notes and figure out my plans."

Now a sensible person might start writing in code. She destroyed the entire Dwarvish civilization, and annihilated their culture. Then she invented Esperanto and taught it to the humans. Nobody speaks Dwarvish except her anymore. Fucking unbelievable. THIS WAS A WHOLE CAMPAIGN.

Anonymous No.19334136 06/02/12(Sat)06:57 No.19334136
Holy shit. Tell us more.

Anonymous No.19334184 06/02/12(Sat)07:10 No.19334184
I'm not sure what I'm supposed to say. The whole affair is just so agonizing from start to finish that it hurts just thinking of it.

Like in campaign three, when she introduced a wonder-crop that was like a combination between Potatoes, Wheat and Rice. Grew in huge paddies, each one was the size of a bowling ball, you could take in five crops a year easy, didn't deplete the soil, and, oh yeah, after the tenth year they basically flooded the atmosphere with sentient anthrax, to induce migration inland. YAY.

Or like in campaign two, when she tore open the abyss with a huge ring painted with seven hundred gallons of her own blood carefully extracted and frozen over the course of decades, and used it to suck out the very spirits of entropy and chain them to her will so that she could put out the sun for the fifteen minutes she needed to do some stupid syzygy shit. No no, not because the sun needed to vanish for the alignment herself, she just wanted better lighting to see the stars. Not like she could've just used a telescope or anything.

Every fucking time, we end up dealing with this hideous series of catastrophes, and a campaign later we realize just how trivial the actual motivations behind them were.

Anonymous No.19334191 06/02/12(Sat)07:12 No.19334191
You really need to invest in a better DM.

Anonymous No.19334203 06/02/12(Sat)07:15 No.19334203
In his defense, this all started because we foreverDM'd him. Not exactly subtle revenge. I mean at least it's still fun, and while you're playing it you never notice, but then afterwards you're left going "did we just spend six months cockblocking an elf?"

And the answer is yes. Six months cockblocking an elf. There was sentient anthrax and bandersnatches involved, sure, but when you get down to it it was cockblocking an elf.

Inquisitorial-Librarian No.19334211 06/02/12(Sat)07:17 No.19334211
No, no, his DM is a genius. To induce that kind of rage and frustration and yet keep the players going?

This is gold. Comedy and campaign gold, I say!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Pawns of Hypnos (a setting mashup)

Inspired by Paul Schaefer's recent comments regarding am mashup of Ravenloft, Warhammer and Call of Cthulhu's Dreamlands.

Setup:  The PCs are modern era human dreamers, relatively new to the Dreamlands, but acquainted with Dreamlands lore to some extent through outside sources.  It seems the Dreamlands of Earth have mutated since classical times (i.e. 1920s era Call of Cthulhu lore).  As it approaches time for the stars being right in the waking world, the Earth's Dreamlands have separated into loosely connected nightmare realms.  Each realm is given shape by the will of great old ones worshiped as Chaos Gods, or by powerful but decadent or delusional dreaming human sorcerers.  Life in these realms is nasty, brutish, short and typically a bit Dickensian.

As their mortal bodies lie in comatose slumber in the waking world, Hypnos has taken an wry and inscrutable interest in the PCs, shaping the bodies of some into elf or dwarf or other less savory fare. For his own amusement or perhaps some cryptic purpose these pawns find themselves drawn through the misty borders between realms attempting to survive and sometimes pursuing the behests of various elder gods and others.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Toward "Old School" style 4th Ed. D&D

Having run and played in a weekly 4th Edition game for about nine months at this point, I feel like I've got a basic sense of the system at this point, at least over the first few levels.  And while play isn't abysmally awful, I have had issues with a few aspects, mainly revolving around the omnipresence and tedium of combat.

However, other folks in the local group seem to enjoy the system well enough.  And 4E does have some interesting settings and material I would appreciate the opportunity to mine (Gamma World & Dark Sun in particular).

So, with that in mind I've come up with a few, five, patches I'm hoping to try out in the foreseeable future, once the current adventure path wraps up.  These are each intended to deal with specific issues, hopefully revamping them with an "old school" sensibility, but without gutting the system entirely.

1)  Combats take forever.  Characters will almost certainly win against all but the most extreme opponents, but it takes forever to happen, probably due to high hit points.

Solution:  All hit points halved (round up).

2)  Combat is the first, best option.  When you've got a fist full of different combat powers and a barrel of hit points, everything starts to look like a combat.  Why sneak or trick or build something, or use your environment cleverly when you could just walk in and blast everyone in sight?

Solution:  Combat is exhausting.  At-Will powers are free, but every Encounter power after the first, used during a given combat costs a healing surge.  Similarly the first Daily power used during a combat costs a healing surge, and each additional use during the combat costs two surges.  This is doubly useful in increasing character fragility, as I almost never had a session, or even an in-game day, where characters came close to using up most of their healing surges.

3)  Wiff factor - Part I.  In other editions, if I miss in combat it's no big deal, just one attack.  And if I'm using a power it is often either auto-hit, has a chance to hit multiple targets, or continues to be effective for awhile after a miss.  Trying to run a basic fighter in 4E I found that daily powers provided none of these benefits typically (granted this is not the same for all classes).

Solution:  Characters can spend a healing surge once per round to re-roll.  This is in addition to Elven rerolls and such.

4)  Wiff factor - Part II.  If average combats don't seem much challenge, then combats against high level opponents are a wiff fest for the unoptimized.  Unlike previous editions, 4th Ed. AC escalates right along with everything else.  Eventually even the bigger bads can get wittled down, it just takes way longer, with even less effectiveness for those who haven't bothered to min-max.

Solution:  Reduce all monster defenses.  Recalculate each as:

New Defense rating = (Old Defense rating - ½ Monster Level) (rounded up)

5)  Quirky spells not a thing so much.  Combat spells are just fancy combat maneuvers.  Fine as far as they go, but don't really give me the feel of weird, esoteric incantations.  On the other hand rituals exist to mitigate the issue, but they are pretty costly unless you expect the game to be raking in the gold.  Rituals also seem very much in the vein of, "Use X gold pieces to solve logistical problem Y."  I prefer my magic quirkier and of more varied flavor.

Solution:  Rituals and their equivalents are much more common with three results:

  • Finding Components - No need to pay for components most of the time.  Characters foraging for components roll a Nature or Arcana check every day.  The number rolled is the number of GP worth of components found.  Components may be traded with hedge wizards in rural economies to acquire the right ones for a given ritual.  In urban economies apothocaries may even trade components for gold.
  • Extracting Components - Many creatures have materials of intrinsic value as part of their flesh.  The average goblin, bugbear or kobald won't be worth any more than a human corpse, but more exotic foes such as a Roc or Mind Flayer may be broken down for components equal to their XP value.  This may seem a ghoulish task at best, but can provide a ready source of magical materials and income.
  • Scrolls & Potions - Rituals can take awhile to work.  However, at no extra charge a ritual caster may convert any a ritual effect into one-use scroll or potion which produces the same effect.  Potions may be used by anyone, while scrolls may only be used by those who could enact the ritual.  Level is not a limitation.  However, a scroll also be deconstructed to reproduce the ritual for later use.  For all you know dungeons are chock-o-block with these things.
  • Strange New Rituals - Old school non-combat spells may be converted to rituals as long as a ritual does not already exist.  The level of the ritual is the spell level x3.  Parlor tricks or very simple effects are normally only level 1 or level 2.  Component cost is equivalent to existing rituals of the appropriate level.

Update:  A revised version can be found here.  
Thanks to G+ OSR & O5R communities who gave feedback.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Wyrms & Warrens - Centaurs

At the request of one of my players, a new PC race for Wyrms & Warrens:

Ability Score Modifiers: CON +1, WIS -1
Experience Cost: 2 times the standard XP to advance each level.
The typical centaur appears human through the waist and upper body, springing from the shoulders and lower body of a horse, though zebra, goat and cervid morphology is not unheard of. A centaur can move as fast as a horse and carry as much weight, though when undertaking actions with the human portion of their bodies they gain no special strength advantage.
They also gain one of the following abilities:
Paragon – Like Chiron, these centaurs are among the best of their kind, superior even to most humans in their grasp of the arts and sciences. Centaur Paragons lack the WIS -1 penalty and instead gain an INT +1 or WIS +1 bonus.
Charger – Having seen many scuffle, centaurs of this sort have become superior in combat, able to wield a melee attack per round with their front hooves, doing 1d6+1 damage on a successful hit. This attacks comes in addition to those made with conventional weapons.
Lout – Weakness to strong drink is a tragically common affliction among centaurs. However, for some, the imbibing of alcohol facilitates a legendary capacity for destructive and poorly thought out acts. After heavily drinking (at least two gallons of alcohol), these centaurs gain +5 on any roll which involves damage to property, or is ill advised given the laws and social norms of the area. This effect lasts for about an hour, and leads to morose feelings which prevent it's reuse for the next week.
CompanionYou find you work well with the two-foots. Any humanoid you form a special bond of friendship may ride yourback and work in excellent concert with you. In battle this grants you and your companion each +1 to attack and damage when together. For rolls not directly involving causing harm, instead gain +5 if there is a reasonable way you could both work together.
Sign & PortentsThe world is full of mysterious forces and the hints of things to come. The incredulous joke that you're a superstitious grumbler, forever jumping at shadows. The joke will be on them though when next the unseasonal smell of petrichor presages an ambush, as you know it must.
Gain a +2 to any save in a situation you have expressed trepidation over. The bonus arises if you have pointed out the subtle omens (real or imagined) ahead of time, and functions even if the exact danger provese other than you suspected.

Sylvan HuntersYou originate among the wild dwelling centaurs, a people adept with bow and spear. When using spears or any bows except crossbows, you gain +1 to attack and damage rolls.

Friday, July 24, 2015


Reading through the first couple chapters of the Monte Cook's Cypher System, and it is pretty neat.  The only thing that seems a bit odd to me is the requirement to multiply a Difficulty rating (1-10) to a Target Number rating (Difficulty x3) which is actually rolled against.  This seems especially odd in the case of expending effort, where you spend several points to lower the difficulty, which in turn lowers the Target Number, which you then roll against.

Also while reading, the three pool system brought to mind Michael Wolf's wonderful WYRM System.  This in turn led to wondering:

Why not just roll a d6 for Cypher and cut out the x3 Difficulty conversion?

Looking into this, there's little trouble so far in switching from d20 to a d6 system.

Maybe as I read Cypher further there'll be a later section where the need to multiply by x3 will be better justified.  But in the meantime, the conversion seems pretty straightforward:

Basic roll

The standard roll for each system is as follows:
Roll 1d20
TN (3-30) = 3x Difficulty (1-10)
Roll 1d6
TN (1-10) = Difficulty (1-10)

Special Rolls
Roll 17 = +1 Damage
Roll 18 = +2 Damage
Roll 19 = +3 Damage or Minor effect
Roll 20 = +4 Damage or Major effect
If rolling a 6, reroll and interpret the reroll as follows:
Reroll 1 = +1 Damage
Reroll 2 = +2 Damage
Reroll 3-4 = +3 Damage or Minor effect
Reroll 5-6 = +4 Damage or Major effect


Example: Using 1 Effort.
Spend 3pt then Difficulty -1 (TN -3)
Spend 3pt then Difficulty -1

Edge 1

Example: Trying to reduce the Difficulty by -1 and Edge 1 applies.
Spend 2pt (instead of 3) then the difficulty is -1.
Spend 2pt (instead of 3) then the difficulty is -1.


Bonuses are a tricky conversion because it's the only place I've noticed so far where a number directly effects TN result and not difficulty. Tentative conversion is to treat each bonus as an Edge specific to the situation

Example: Bonus of +2 used to expend Effort 1.
+2 to the d20 roll.
Bonus of +2 lets you spend only 1point to (3-2=1) to reduce the Difficulty one step.