Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Review: Frostbitten and Mutliated



This is an in depth review or analysis of Frostbitten and Mutilated. I am writing this after having read the book. I have yet to use it but am planning on using it sometime soon.

Initial Impressions

To be honest I wasn't super pumped about it when I heard it was coming out or even when I heard it was Norse/viking themed and based off of heavy metal stuff. It made me roll my eyes a bit.

I don't listen to heavy metal, I have nothing against it, it's just not to my particular taste. I do kind of like the imagery of it, the music videos and themes the music embodies etc. but I'm just not a fan of the actual music even though I've tried. While I'm not into heavy metal, I am into Norse mythology and viking history. I've read the Norse myths, the Eddas, stuff about the history of the vikings. etc.

Going into Frostbitten and Mutilated I had two main fears about how it might be:

  1. Full of low hanging fruit: I feared that it would contain the usual basic references that most Norse/Viking based stuff does: a section about the Norse gods, a section about runic magic and some kind of rune magic-user character class, maybe giant wolves as character mounts, a section about the socio-political structure of Scandinavia at the time, several different types of giants, like fire and ice ones. Basically all the stuff you could pretty much copy-paste from a bunch of historical and mythology books and slap together into a shitty sourcebook that there already exist dozens of.
  2. FUCKING METAL!!@#$!@#: you know, the kind of heavy metal aesthetic that is not just a bare chested warrior riding across the tundra but one riding across the tundra with the heads of his slain enemy tied to his horse, and the heads have spikes in the eyes, and those spikes are made of coffin nails. Cause you know, METAL!!! Don't get me wrong. I don't mind the aesthetic of heavy metal but I find it a bit derivative at times where it just keeps on throwing on 'metal' imagery instead of developing it's ideas and creating nuance. It's one thing to have a 5min song be mainly full of a single type of imagery/emotion, but a book, even a gaming one, is a different medium. You can only have so much of the same before it begins to fall flat and feels repetitive.
Anyways, I am really glad to report that my fears and assumptions regarding Frostbitten and Mutilated were false. That it has none of the above problems. That it really won me over and I found myself enjoying it and quite impressed.

I think it also shows Zak's caliber as creative type. I find a lot of creative types, especially when beginning, their work is full of references. This isn't necessarily bad, more just leads to something a bit more predictable and average. They don't take time to mix and match, to throw contrasting things together, to balance developing elements and ideas vs adding more of the same. 

I find creativity is like cooking. You're making something for consumption by other people. First you learn by following a recipe. You produce something average. Then as you get better you learn to cook without a recipe and really find your own unique style and voice. Zak is a skilled cook.

Anyways, I'll stop rambling about creativity. I think overall one of the things that impressed me the most about Frostbitten and Mutilated is that Zak managed to preserve and explore the themes  of Norse mythology and vikings without actually referencing a lot of  Norse Mythology and Viking stuff. This made it seem really fresh, but deliver on what it promises.

In this way Frostbitten feels almost more like a work of Norse mythology than some of the gaming stuff that actually has Odin and Thor in it because it feels like you're not just reading about things from a Norse myth, in some kind of dry fashion, you're experiencing it.

And the best part is that you're players probably won't realize this at first. That they're in a Norse myth, they just don't know it yet.

What You Get

Overall Frostbitten and Mutilated is a thin book. It packs a lot in at 144 pages. It's probably the most play-ready RPG book that I've ever read where it feels like anything that wasn't immediately interesting or usable was discarded. It doesn't feel like something that was written and then play-tested, but more like someone had an evolving campaign, created stuff for the players as they went along, and then took the notes, edited them, and complied them into a book. I'm actually curious if this was the case.

The book is divided into a few main sections:

Inhabitants: an A-Z listing of peoples, monsters, and things you can encounter in the Devoured Lands. They are all laid out in very easy to use encounter style.You could flip to any page in this section mid-game, quickly scan it, and use it in play. This is probably the most interesting and engaging section of the book. It's also the longest.

Most of the inhabitants can be loosely grouped into the following:

Amazons: basically heavy mental themed tribes of warrior women. A nice way to have vikings/barbarians but without them being your stereotypical Conan types.

 Animals: yes, animals. Like foxes, wolves, crows, worms, etc. They can all talk. Most of them think they're above you. They all behave in certain ways, like crows like to sneak upon sleeping characters and try to peck out their eyes. Wolves never flee until they have at least one kill, etc. Despite being seemingly 'ordinary' animals, your characters will probably be more afraid of them then most monsters they'd encounter in more generic adventures. Zak really knows how to make even ordinary animals interesting, to grant them a personality, a sense of character. I also find the use of animals as a primary monster type ingenious in the sense that it really strikes home the theme that the very land is against you. That you're in the north, the devoured lands. What is domesticated elsewhere, subdued by man, is wild here, more than wild; crafty, haughty, and more dangerous than you. You can tell Zak has been gaming for many, many years and really understands the medium of pen-and-paper RPGs. Where you can't just 'tell' your players things like themes, character, it needs to emerge through play.

Witches and folkloric creatures: these are also interesting. Includes some pretty original takes on classics like trolls and drowing demons. You can tell Zak probably read some actual folk tales and things and thought hard about how to create interesting mechanics for them that embodied these tales so they keep the weird folkloric vibe. Where puzzling out exactly what they are and how they work will keep adventurers on their toes.

Overall I think the most impressive part of this section is how Zak managed to combine three elements that are pretty different on the surface: animals, amazons, and witches, and yet, combined them in a way that they complement each other nicely and help approach the themes of the book in a different way. Like the Amazons contain your themes of violent bloodshed, your animals a harsh nobility, and the witches and folkloric creatures a sinister weirdness. Things that are all kinds of themes loosely associated with Norse mythology.

My only nitpick with this section is that a lot of the inhabitants are enemies of each other and I kind of lost track of who didn't like who. There was no overall diagram or map keeping track of how they related to each other and it would have been nice to have had one.


Calendar and Map: a hexcrawl coupled with a sequence of events that is the 'plot'. The hexcrawl wasn't bad. It uses square 'hexes' and has the description of what you encounter in them, actually written out in them. I thought this was a cool innovation.

I know there is some logic as why to use hexagonal hexes, that it's because the distance to the center of each side is the same so if the players are in the middle and the hex is 6 miles or whatever then it represents the line of sight in all directions, the horizon.

But honestly after having used hex maps for several years I find them a pain. I find determining the X and Y location in hex maps is just harder to do at a glance when compared to an actual grid. Furthermore, we tend to think of directions as being in East, West, North, and South, it's hard to correlate this to the hex map. In one direction the hexes never line up in a nice row and you always end up moving in a zig-zag like pattern that is annoying.

I also feel like most RPG products aren't as 'simulation' based as they used to be. Most hex maps are abstracted maps and don't have a real scale. Or at least when I use them that's how I play them where I'll just make each hex equal to a days or half a days worth of travel. There really is no need to use hexes.

I feel like having the map a grid accomplishes what it needs to do and overall makes it more readable. More RPG stuff should do this.

The Calendar was basically a bullet list of what the major NPCs are doing on each day of a month that repeats cause the lands are stuck in a time loop. Overall I found the Calendar to be a good idea cause it adds a sense of dynamism to the world. The major NPCs aren't just standing around waiting for your players to come across them. They are actively doing things in the world and interacting with each other. It's kind of like the idea behind Adventure Fronts in Dungeon World (Yes I am referencing a 'story' game in an OSR review).

Here is an example of an adventure front that I stole off of reddit:
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Frog People of Izun-Druk
Impulse: to be taken seriously
Cast: Frog King Bleggeleg, Captured dark dwarf overseer Gazdrik
Doom: Usurpation
Grim Portents:
  •         Bleggeleg begins to rule frogmen in secret, still sending slaves to dark dwarves
  •         B learns to eat magic from magical items
  •         Frogmen begin raiding humans and dark dwarves for magic artifacts
  •        B. achieves massive size and power
  •         frogmen actually throw off dark dwarf rule and establish their own city
  •         begin nighttime raids into Leudik (from city below) looking for wealth, magic, sacrifices


Stakes: Why is Bleggeleg's cache of magic items so volatile? How big can Bleggeleg actually get?
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Even if you know nothing about how adventure fronts work or are supposed to work. I could probably give someone the above and they'd be able to figure it out and referee the NPCs involved in  a dynamic way.

This is probably going to be my biggest, and one of my only, criticisms of Frostbitten and Mutilated. After reading the Calendar section three times, I still don't really understand who the NPCs are and what they are doing. Like I'd have to take the info, slowly parse it, make notes and diagrams and shit to really understand it.

Overall I like the Calendar section and what it's trying to do, I just think the execution was a bit poor. It's also something I'm a little bit surprised at as it's executed in a very text heavy manner and Zak is usually pretty good at displaying information in a visual manner.

Like something like this would have helped tremendously in terms of remembering which NPC is which and who hates who:


Or even just having the different physical paths of the NPCs, as described in the calendar, labelled on the map via different coloured lines or something.

Overall the map and Calendar feel like two separate things and the Calendar is very text heavy. I feel like the information in both could have been presented a little bit better. It's still usable, I'm just lazy as fuck and hate re-reading and parsing stuff like a textbook to figure it out.


The Dim Fortress and Sevenfold Tower: two short dungeons. The Sevenfold Tower was kind of a neat high concept dungeon. I really don't have any complaints with it. It seems like it'd be fun and interesting to run.

The Dim Fortress, which is supposed to be the final dungeon in the whole 'calendar' was kind of short. It was filled with interesting NPC monsters but if I were to run it I'd probably expand upon it. What's there feels like the highlights of an ordinary dungeon with a lot of the 'inbetween' removed. If I were to run it I'd add more 'inbetween'. Overall it's not bad where it's pretty easy to expand and customize to your campaign.

Though it would have also been cool to have some kind of rumour table or something for it to build up suspense. Like if it's the secret 'final' dungeon that most of the big NPCs are interested in and which the players can discover if they're smart, it would be nice to foreshadow it more in some way.

Character classes, spells, substances, and survival skills and How to make a wilderness sandbox and Random Tables: basically all alternative rules and systems that you can add to your game in a modular fashion. It's a bit of a grab bag, but a very useful one that allows you to pick and choose what you want to use and how you want to flavour your game. I'm not going to go though this section too much. Don't really have any complaints or criticisms about it. It all seems very useful and a lot of nice to have extras and overall is pretty awesome.


Art

I always feel a bit out of my element critiquing art. I'm not an artist and lack a fine eye. Overall the art in Frostbitten and Mutilated, all done by Zak Smith, fits the heavy metal themes of it very well. It's all black and white and looks to be in a variety of mediums from ink pen to like paintings or something, I dunno, not an artist.

My only criticism is that it can be hard to discern details at times in some of the artwork. I just feel like it kind of sacrifices information for style a little bit although I also can see how it's look is part of the overall punk/heavy metal aesthetic. This is more just a minor nitpick. If you really like the the style you probably won't have an issue with it.

Luka Rejec is credited with the design. I'm not sure if this is referring to the layout or not. Overall I really like the layout, the use of fonts, the black and white text/background at times, and other things like this in the book. It keeps it really visually interesting, is readable, and really heightens the style.


Conclusion

Innovations:
  • Making ordinary animals actually interesting. Also having a lot of 'named' monsters with unique mechanics. Like seriously every monster has something really unique about them that really gives them a good sense of character and would make for really interesting moments in game. They really, really embody the themes of the setting.
  • Being super usable. It's probably one of the most immediately usable gaming books that I've ever read. It fundamentally treats everything like an encounter and most things about the world is learned through encounters. More RPG books should be designed this way.
  • Squares instead of hexes. This is an innovation I never knew I wanted but now I don't know if I could go back to hexes.
Buy if....
  • You like vikings and Norse mythology and northern landscapes but, like me, fucking hate most products on the market that try to embody these things.
  • You want something that is very easy to run with no prep.

Downsides:
  • If you intend to use the Calendar and 'plot' you're probably going to have to read it all pretty closely and  make notes to get full use out of it.
  • I really can't think of any other downsides. I have criticisms, but overall I'd suggest it to anyone who has an interest in RPGs.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

The Coven, available now!



I am happy to announce that my first RPG product, The Coven, is now available on drivethroughrpg for the price of $2.99 USD. It is 45 pages long PDF. You can view a 10 page preview of it there. Here is a description of the game:


The Destitute Widow, the Unmarried Spinster, the Bookish Waif, the Crippled Hag—you are women from all walks of life who have become bonded through helplessness and injustice. Stuck in your horrid village and the medieval society it embodies, you have sold your souls to your dark Sovereign and become a coven of witches. Salvation lies forever beyond you! But Fear not! In seven months time your Sovereign shall come.

But first you must prepare the way. Upon the full moon of each of the seventh months you must hold unholy Sabbath. Upon the seventh, in final rite, your Sovereign will emerge upon the earth!

In The Coven players create a group of level-1 female magic-users who are all part of the same coven of witches. The Coven must attempt to hold Sabbath every month while avoiding the other villagers and authorities who would seek to stop or destroy them. A wise Coven knows that fear and subterfuge are far more powerful than a raw display of magical power. They must carefully balance trying to achieve their goals with the attraction it garners. Whether they ultimately seek to wreak bloody vengeance or simply the power to correct suffered injustices is up to them.


The Coven requires the rules presented in the Lamentations of the Flame Princess core rulebook and Vaginas are Magic (also by Lamentations of the Flame Princess) to play.


The Coven includes:

  • 12 Character backgrounds
  • 6 different Dark Sovereigns to worship
  • Randomly generated unholy Sabbaths
  • 12 Tables to randomly generate a village and its surrounding lands.
  • 7 tables to randomly generate virtues and 7 tables to randomly generate vices for each villager.
  • 2 new VAM spells.
  • Information on the structure of the game and how to run it.
This product is an independent production by Luminescent Lich Publishing and is not affiliated with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a registered trademark owned by James Edward Raggi IV.

Screenshots:








Wednesday, 1 August 2018

The Coven coming soon!


Ever wish the worlds most favourite roleplaying game had more satanic references?

Ever wish you could actually embody the paranoid fear of the Christan right?

Ever wish you could pretend to be a witch who has occult powers and who is trying to hold unholy sabbath to summon their dark Sovereign upon the earth in a few months time?

Ever wish you could play such an RPG with other players where you are all witches in the same coven and the GM plays the authorities, The Church, The Law, the Guilds, and the Learn'd Men, who are trying to stop you and make sure that, as a women, learn your place?

Ever wish you could roleplay a Coven of witches as it seeks to fight back to get revenge on the oppressive authorities in your awful medieval village?

Then watch this blog!

As my first rpg product, The Coven will be coming to a drivethroughrpg near you very soon! Here is a sneak peek:






The Coven is based on the rules found within Lamentations of the Flame Princess core book and Vaginas are Magic and requires them to play. The Coven is an independent production by Luminescent Lich Publishing and is not affiliated with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a registered trademark owned by James Edward Raggi IV.




Monday, 9 July 2018

The Structure of a Session

Structure is talked a lot about in RPGs. Most often in the form of how to structure a good encounter, how to structure a campaign, or adventure, etc.

What is not often talked about, and which is something I think is one of the most important forms of structure, is how to structure a session. I define a session as the time between players sit down to play and the time they get up to leave. It could be one hour, or several. It is during this time that the players and GM engage in play. Some groups have a session every week, some every two weeks, some less frequently. What is accomplished during a session can vary, same with the relationship between sessions. A bunch of sessions could be part of a year long campaign, a small multi-session adventure, or even just a one-shot adventure.

I think it is important to talk about the structure of a session because OSR games tend to traditionally have a strict structure to their sessions and I think this is one of the things that makes the OSR different from more modern styles of play. The classic example would be a megadungeon. Traditionally, no matter how the previous session ended, the player characters start in the small town outside the mega-dungeon, their goal to recoup and recover if needed, interacting with the townspeople as they do so, and then venture back into the megadungeon. There they will risk life and limb for treasure, all before deciding to stop, hopefully in a empty room or safe haven, and then play will resume next time outside of the megadungeon as the current session started. Traditionally you're supposed to also have the PCs make their way out of the dungeon before the session ends but I know at least for myself, I've largely hand-waved this, they just start the next session in town.

I don't think it's by chance that the megadungeon style of play is so popular or has lasted so long. It sets a strict structure to a session which does two important things which I view as ideal:
  1. It allows players to retread the same ground and become familiar with it's location and peoples. They can try to take advantage of this familiarity so their character can progress further in the world.
  2. It allows for a regular mixed style of play.
This second point I think is more important than a lot of people realize. Most RPG games aren't a singular game, but groupings of rules that are designed to adjudicate certain commonly occurring activities of play. Such as combat, social situations, puzzle-solving, exploration, etc. Most players have a few of these activities that they enjoy more than others. Some players like combat, some like social role-playing, some like exploration. What I find, almost all players do not like, is doing the same activity all session. 

Having a structure to the session seems artificial on the surface: couldn't the player simply begin and end each session in the dungeon? Couldn't they spend an entire session shopping in town or an entire session convincing the local Lord to gather an army for them to command?

Yes, you can, and I find modern play tends to be much more forgiving in this manner. In modern play the evolving narrative takes you where it will. The player characters very often are considered more important than normal humans much the same way that the characters in works of high or epic fantasy tend to be always at the center of world changing events and tend to have a high degree of influence and control in shaping them. 

Most OSR games in contrast tend to embody swords and sorcery or other forms of fantasy that aren't high fantasy. Where if you, as a dirty commoner can manage to gain an audience with the King, he'll talk to you disdainfully for a bit, before largely ushering you away, and probably not consider your proposition unless you have some significant leverage. The narrative in OSR games doesn't have the yes...and approach that more modern games tend to. It tends to be always much more constrained by the verisimilitude of the game world, which in turn is often constrained by the structure of the session.

Part of the reason characters don't start where they left off in a megadungeon is to allow for time to progress, the megadungeon gets partially repopulated, stuff happens, NPCs storylines advance, etc. this creates a sense of verisimilitude for the players as they feel their characters are part of a living breathing world that will and does continue without them, that has agency and existence beyond them, much like the real world does. The narrative can't take them where it wills because, as like in the real world, things aren't that simple.

I think the structure imposed on a session is an artificial construct that is necessary. It helps move along play and keeps people from getting bored as it introduces a variety of play. I think the rules of OSR games are also written around this idea. Most of them tend to be rules light where there is not enough complexity, or depth to them to engage in the same activity all session. I also think it is better for this structure to be repetitive. Partially because, as already mentioned, it allows the players to become familiar with the game world, and partially because it allows them to see the consequences of their actions really play out. 

If the narrative of a story is wide ranging: a couple combat based sessions spent in the south seas fighting pirates, a session or two spent in Blackport, a session spent talking to the King, and a couple more sessions traveling along the coast, I find very often the consequences of actions tend to become very abstract and disconnected as the time and place in which they occurred and the time and place in which the players are now, become removed. If a player character stabs a beggar in Blackport, generally it's not a big deal. They'll never see them again and probably won't remember it after a session or two. If they piss off the King, it's probably also not be a big deal, the narrative continues. There are consequences of course, the players may be chased by the Kings men as they travel up the coast, instead of being helped by them. But I find these consequences tend to lack a certain weight as there is still a sense of forward momentum in the narrative. They will continue in their story and world events, as the primary agents of it, adventuring along, regardless of what they do. There isn't a sense of true loss, of finality, or world events or more consequential actions spiraling out of control.

In contrast, with the repetitive nature of a session's structure when playing a megadungeon, the players always begin and start in the same place, and often tread over the same ground. While this may seem like it is a recipe for boredom, I find it often leads to play where there is a greater sense of depth and consequence.

An RPG game is not like a high fantasy novel. The players haven't read chapters about a certain NPC character, been privy to their inner monologue or read a lot of backstory about them when they meet them. They get to know them through play and play only. By having the players talk to the same NPCs at the beginning of every session, they get to know them better and the NPCs begin to get fleshed out more. In my experience this causes them to care for them more. They are much more reluctant to annoy the local tribe of orcs in the megadungeon and have them rampage from it, slaughtering all the townsfolk they have befriended, espeically if they know that once killed those townspeople are not coming back and they won't have anyone to buy their stuff from in the village. In this manner things tend to have a greater sense of weight, as there has been more interaction and more investment.

Session structure is invariable tied into the world/game structure. This can make it hard for certain styles of game to embody the session structure and it's ideals that I have outlined above. However I think with a little alteration it's possible to have a more strict structure to your session and have outlined some common styles of play and how I would structure the session for them.

Megadungeon: 

This is probably the easiest. As I have already outlined the players start and end each session in a small village outside the megadungeon. The goal each session is to venture into the megadungon and find treasure. Starting in the village allows regular interaction with NPCs and the spontaneous creation of character relationships and evolving storylines.


Hex-Crawl:

This is a little more complex. I find the easiest solution is to take a hub and spoke approach. Where the players start off  in some city/town/village that serves as a hub. It has a number of points of interest equidistant around the main steading that serve as spokes. The players always start and end each session in the steading. Each session they can decide to venture out to a point of interest, explore, or re-explore it. The points of interest are often connected narratively on the fly by the GM and help reinforce a greater story. Once players have exhausted an area and explored everything around it, they can venture onto a new steading which serves as a new hub.

For example one spoke may be a necromancer lair. Another a strange pool of water with a meteorite in it. When the players explore the strange pool of water the GM may decide that the meteorite is unholy and the necromancers want it. And so the necromancers begin to spy on the players and infiltrate the town. Once the players have totally explored the area and wiped out the necromancer cult they may get ominous signs that the next town was the true base of the cult and so decide to move onto it to further pursue their goal. The next town thus becomes the new hub.


Wilderness Exploration:

Some hex-crawls are a bit different where they are mostly untamed wilderness or where the players find themselves strangers in a strange land that is largely unknown and alien. It's fairly easy to begin and each session in a camp. Where the players characters have decided to setup camp and rest for a few days. But I find in addition to this the best thing to do is structure the setting and game with the idea of A QUEST. 

Where they are not just exploring, they are on an important quest! Kind of like how in The Hobbit Bilbo and his gang weren't just exploring an interesting wilderness landscape that had a forest with giant spiders or goblin mountains. They were on a quest to get to Smaugs lair. The Quest gave them purpose and direction, something that is often sorely needed in wilderness type hex-crawls. This may seem like it's limiting player agency, but I find if you tell the players that they can just explore anywhere, they'll explore the goblin mountains a bit or the forest full of spiders but soon feel a bit directionless. However, if you tell them that at the other end of the map is the lair of a dragon and you have a magic key to break into his lair, it becomes immediately more interesting. In this manner the Quest has a way of giving the player characters immediate personal connection with what they are doing.

The Quest also creates a setup for re-occurring characters. Where they aren't just exploring the Desert of Death by themselves, they're part of a caravan lead by the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred who is determined to find the city of the Elder Gods lost in the sands. Each time they are in camp they'll have to talk to him and deal with negotiating his interests and their interests. Or the party isn't just trying to cross the Black Marshes, they're trying to bring the body of their slain comrade to his home village on the other side of them. And every step along the way they're being harassed and harried by Glothgar, the leader of the local gnoll tribe who killed their comrade and gets perverse pleasure from trying to steal and desecrate his body.





Sunday, 17 June 2018

Inspiration for Veins of the Earth

As mentioned in this post, on vacation I had the chance to visit Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico. I didn't know much about it before visiting but it proved to be one of the most interesting and impressive things I've seen and I've done a fair amount of traveling. I highly recommend seeing it if you're anywhere close or even doing a road trip to go see it.

The darkness proved to be to much for my camera phone but I had brought along my compact camera and managed to take a bunch of pictures that turned out okay. I've selected a bunch to use as inspiration for Veins of the Earth.

The entrance:




Various Stalactites









It's kind of hard to see it in the picture, but the picture blow is more of a wide angle shot of one of the chambers, It kind of illustrates how disorienting things can be. Nothing is really flat, everything is organically shaped. There are tons of protrusions everywhere ranging from boulders to stalactites and stalagmites, to the cave floor sloping up or down. Even though the cavern was light with spot lights to guide you, it was still kind of hard to tell where you were in relation to the chamber you were in. All the protrusions in your visual field serve almost as visual noise where it's hard to tell if they are near or far due to the sizing and similarity of things. Everything kind of looks the same. I can't imagine how hard it would be to navigate using a head lamp where you can only see a small section of the cave at a time. You could look at one area and see a grouping of stalactites, walk around a bit and come back to the same place, look in a slightly different area, a few feet off, see a different set of stalactites, and think you were in a completely new cavern. It's hard to navigate by landmark in this manner.


Hole in ceiling here leads to another chamber:


This is a fairly good picture at giving an idea of what the cavern system was like. Where you can see down the cavern and how round and organic shaped it is with tons of stalactites hanging. Where it's like being in the throat of some beast or something.



This kind of illustrates how deceptive things can be. Although the rock looks soft and wet, it was hard and slippery.


The scale of things was also pretty disorientating. The cave seemed to exist in an almost fractal nature where in this picture although it looks like it's a big cavern, and although some of the caves looked like this, it in fact was tiny. Probably only a foot or two high.




















Saturday, 9 June 2018

Review: Veins of the Earth

This is an in depth review or analysis of Veins of the Earth. I am writing this after having DM'd a campaign using it so I am familiar with how it works in play.

Initial Impression

When I first purchased Veins of the Earth several months ago I read through it in several days, totally absorbed in it in a way that was unlike most other RPG product that I've read.  Part of this is due to it's unique writing style. It has a narrative/poetic feel to much of it, gone is the dry disembodied informative tone that most RPGs have. In a way I think this is perhaps it's biggest innovation. Most RPG books are written in a style that is similar to a technical manual or encyclopedia. When they're not written in this manner they tend to be filled with snippets of actual fiction, examples of play, stories set in the world, setting history told in a chronicle style, and other useless fluff. Both these approaches I find lackluster.

Veins does an excellent job writing about things you will actually use in-game, mainly monsters, with an an evocative and engaging style. The text does a far better job of actually portraying an engaging and flavorful setting than most multi-volume fantasy series that I have read. Reading Veins of the Earth was a wholly refreshing experience for me. It turns a cave, a simple hole in the ground, into a whole new frontier. An abyss that transcends it's geologic nature to embody different aspects of time and space, light and darkness, that force you to examine the experience of existence underground. Not just dry game stuff like how would you travel about, or what things are you likely to encounter, but how would it effect you emotionally? Psychologically? Socially? How would the alien nature of the environment really shape it's monsters? And deep time.

In this manner I find the true strength of Veins is that, beyond it's well designed monsters, it gives a good idea of the themes it is trying to convey and how to convey them through game-play. This in turn helps the DM create encounters and things for the players to experience that go beyond their stats and create a sense of shared storytelling.

What You Get

You get a 357 page hardcover book. It is illustrated by Scrap Princess with a ton of art. It has a sewn in bookmark, nice thick pages, excellent layout, and overall very high production values, as often seen in Lamentations of the Flame Princess products.

Overall as an RPG book it's a bit difficult to classify. The first 150 pages, basically half the book, is a very detailed bestiary. The second half contains rules and information on how to run an adventure or campaign in Veins of the Earth.

While it gives a strong sense of setting I would not consider Veins of the Earth a setting book. I consider all of this to it's benefit. The OSR movement seems to have largely done away with setting type books, books that act as encyclopedias on a world. I view this as a good thing. I'm not going to read 300 pages detailing the history of a world and it's places and people, all of which I will probably forget and just make something up on the spot at the table.

The chapters of the book are as follows:

Why the Underworld: 

This chapter is short, only a few pages, but really good for setting the tone and themes that Patrick Stewart is trying to convey. If you like this section chances are you'll like the rest of the book.

Pariahs of the Earth: 

Basically a bestiary. As mentioned before takes up about half the book. The monsters it in are very evocative. Some a little more off the wall than others. However there is enough of a mix of serious, quirky, odd, funny, dangerous monsters that no matter what kind of game you run you'll find some that you'll want to throw at the players. Every DM is probably going to have a different one that they will want to use in their very next adventure and one that they will never use.


Cultures in the Veins: 

These are more like essays on what the main races are in the Veins. They're short and don't really contain much immediately gameable information. People seem to be a bit critical of this. This section does feel a bit less fleshed out compared to the rest of the book but overall it didn't mind me to much in the sense that you'll probably have to adapt the main cultures and races to how you want them to function in your game so this section gives you an impression of them and leaves it up to you figure that out.

Light and Dark: 

This section is gold. Contains rules about the importance of light and how fuel for it functions a currency and other rules that really make the setting different from just a normal underground dungeon. Also written very well where it really gets across how to use the rules to make the players feel like they're in an alien environment.

Encumberance, Exploration, Climbing, and Travel:
Generating the Veins: 

These two chapters mainly about generating the Veins and traveling about in them. Overall this section probably breaks from standard DnD the most where it really attempts to present cave systems as dynamic 3 dimensional organically shaped environments, as apposed to the connected vaulting Styrofoam rooms you see on tv or in movies. It also tries to make all the minutia relating to navigating a cave, climbing, rope, exploring, etc. interesting beyond the standard skill check to see if you succeed on climbing the rope and fall and take some damage if you don't.

Overall I think this is probably the most bold and ambitious section of the book as it departs from the whole standard encounter list of combat/trap/trick/social that seems to embody DnD. After having run a campaign in Veins I have mixed feelings on whether or not it succeeded and will discuss it further in the following section.

Items, Treasure, and Spells: 
Madness and Change:
Appendices:

These sections are similar in the sense that they're all full of little things, spells, items, charts, that are evocatively described and easy to just drop in your game if the players do something unexpected or to create an interesting situation. Some are purely text and lack game statics or detailed information about how to use it in game, but anyone who is familiar with OSR material can probably generate stats or particular effects or how it actually functions in the game on the spot. Overall these sections are a really nice grab bag to pull from and you can tell a lot of work went into making each thing interesting and creative.

How it Plays

I ran Veins for about a 3 month campaign that is detailed here:


I decided to run it a bit like a megadungon. Where the players would awake to find themselves in the Veins of the Earth and wander about it it. Where it would be an endless series of connected caverns.

I started off using the cave generation methods in the book to generate the caverns. I had to drop this after a while as it became a bit too tedious and time consuming. If I had a bit more prep time I might have stuck with it more. What I ended up doing was dropping a handful of dice onto a piece of paper and tracing circles around them. These would be the caverns and then I'd draw lines in between them and using a simple chart to decide if the connecting tunnels would be large or small or what 'wall' they were on. This didn't create as dynamic cave systems as the book does but were a bit more organic than your normal 2 dimensional dungeon.

I found the main problem about running the game is that most of the material in the book falls into two camps:

  1. One where the Veins is a cloistered cautious cave exploration simulator where a lot of emphasis is put on climbing and navigating through a complex cave, where every decision can be the decision between life and death and where there is a fair amount of suspense over managing resources and the minutia of cave exploration. You are alone in the dark with scary shit. Basically like the film The Descent.
  2. The Veins as a alien underworld filled with strange monsters and stranger races.  Where there are societies and cultures and more your typical DnD stuff. Where it's a place for endless strange adventure as the players explore this underground frontier.

I found this to conflict at times where the cave exploration stuff is very slow, methodical, and the suspense comes from the realism which requires a lot of description and work to make climbing and navigating caves seem dangerous and interesting. While the more typical DnD stuff tends to be less realistic, a little more off the wall, and where it's engaging because it's weird and dangerous but you still kind of want to intreact with it anyways.

With the cave exploration stuff the hardest part is the DM has to come up with non-binary consequences and decisions to stuff like climbing up a wall and across a cavern. As otherwise it can become a bit tedious if the main consequence to every cave climbing action is 'you fall and take some damage'. The 'cumulative failure' charts in the book help for this. I don't really know if they have an actual name. They seem to be inventions of Patrick Stewart and I'm really surprised no one seems to have talked about them much. 

You can find an example on page 208. Basically it's a chart that requires a player to make a skill test on every ability stat and if they fail a roll something bad happens, possibly cumulatively. This is a really, really unique way of making skill tests a lot more interesting as it makes them less binary. Where one failed skill roll can lead to six different results and it stops an over reliance on strength and dexterity to simply solve all climbing related tasks. It really shows how exploring a cave can be a mental and emotional test and how there are multiple ways a situation can go wrong and get dangerous very fast.

I almost wish there was more about this mechanic in the book. Kind of how to really use the charts and make your own to really help facilitate climbing and exploring a cave being less tedious or less of a binary slog. If you created some more of them and just used a side view map of an actual cave instead of creating your own you could have a really cool one shot adventure:



Overall I find, while very interesting, the cave generation and exploration material in the book requires a bit of a different mindset and buy-in from the players then your standard DnD. The introduction of the more typical DnD material conflicted with this. 

It all wasn't a huge issue. Just that if I were to run it again, now that I've run it as more of a typical megadungeon, I think it would be fun to run it more as a short one shot. I'd take the above map, make it the lair of a monster form the book, fill it with a few weird items and other things, and reveal parts of the map as the players explore and navigate it instead of trying to describe it to them. In this manner I'd try to highlight the realistic cave exploration stuff in a one shot adventure that I found a bit more tedious in a long campaign. Although this said the stuff that I did use for my campaign was awesome and worked well.

So I guess overall it all plays very well, you just have to be a bit selective about the material in the book. It's like cooking. If you use all the spices all at once it's not going to be as good as if you're selective and tailor the spices to what you want.

Art

Scrap Princess' art style is quite different from your traditional RPG art style. I'm not an art critic so I'm just going to describe it based upon the impressions it made on me: claustrophobic, impressionistic, fragmentary, flowing, dark, scribbled, insane, elegant, unearthly, cramped.

Normally the art of Scrap Princess isn't to my particular taste. It's well done, and I don't hate it, but if you had approached me and told me that it was going to be used to illustrate an RPG book I'd just scratch my head and think, huh, wonder how that is going to work, seems like an odd choice.

But work it does. The art of Scrap Princess is perfectly matched for Veins of the Earth. Very often it's not depicting a in an anatomical manner like you'd see in a encyclopedia. Instead I find it's often depicting the monster as you would find it. That is as if you actually stumbled across it in the dark a mile underground. That scattered terrified impression it makes in the shadows of your lantern, the scattered glimpses you try to relate to others later. In a way the art does a tremendous job of really conveying the themes and emotions of the Veins of the Earth. In this manner it doesn't just depict, but really illustrates the setting.

Conclusion

Overall if I were to describe Veins of the Earth in one word I would say impressionistic.  It's not a book that lays out a lot of information in a dry manner nor a book that delivers you a lot of lore in a chronicled top down manner.

Instead I find most of all it tries to give impressions of things. How particular monsters may be scary and operate on logic that is different from what you'd encounter above ground, how caves are cramped, twisting, and confusing, how darkness can seem alive, how easy it is to die alone underground, how the weight of stone above can drive men mad.

It packages all these impressions up with enough crunchy game material so you can plop them into your game. But overall does very much leave a lot of things up to you. While the information design of the book is very well done, and it's easy to use, I wouldn't particularly call it a prep free book in that sense that it leaves it entirely up to you to decide exactly what your underdark will be like and you will have to be selective and make decisions regarding it before you start play. In this way it might not be the best book for the beginning DM although you could do far worse.

However with it's wealth of creativity, it makes this very easy to quickly imagine how you want your underdark to be. It's literally bursting with ideas and will probably get you excited enough about them that you'll have no problem using stuff and running off on a tangent.


Innovations:
  • The evocative writing and art which gives a sense of the setting and themes and which is packaged together with stuff that the players will actually encounter instead of written in a dry, top down encyclopedic manner that seems to be the standard in the RPG industry.
  • Describing monster stats in a system neutral manner with things like comparing it's AC as chainmail or leather armour etc.
  • Actually telling what kind of loot the monster has in the monster description. This makes each encounter more interesting, a great way to convey lore about the monsters to the players through the items they get when they kill it, and should pretty much become the standard in all RPGs.
  • Those 'cumulative failure' charts that require players to roll on every stat as described above. These are a huge step in the right direction in trying to make ordinary actions, such as climbing across a cavern, more suspenseful and dramatic.

Buy if....

  • You plan on doing anything underdark related ever.
  • Or if you like interesting and engaging monsters. Even if you make no use of all it's other material, it has a ton of interesting monsters you can drop into pretty much any campaign.



Downsides:

  • It's pricey.
  • Will take some prep and a fair amount of thought to run a full campaign or really make use of it's material.


Thursday, 7 June 2018

The Endless Descent Recap

(To see the previous post in this series click here)

(To start at the beginning of my blogging about my Veins of the Earth Campaign start here)


So, it’s been several months since I last posted about my Veins of the Earth campaign. I meant to blog about each session but life got in the way with preparing to move across the country. Anyways, I’m going to give a condensed version of the campaign.




The Gang further explored the Salt Mine that they found themselves in in the first session. They soon came across a partially destroyed Roman temple that had somehow fallen deep into the earth. Inside they found a statue to Athena and one of the Gang claimed a magical spear. Afterwards they came across more Roman ruins, the remains of an entire city block in fact, all flooded with lava. Hoping across the roofs they made it to the far side where they entered into the Forum. Inside they met a bunch of Pyroclastic Ghouls. While they were only about 30 in number they were convinced that they were the inheritors of Rome and that their leader, Augustus Coriolanus was Emperor.

The Gang soon referred to the ghouls and the sunken ruins in which they resided as Ash Rome. It proved to be a bit of a base for them during further explorations of the Veins. The Ghouls told them that the lands to the east were submerged in water and there lived a terrible aquatic monster there and that in the lands to the west lived the strange enemies of Ash Rome.

The Gang decided to head to the west, partially because of the sizable bounty placed upon the head of the terrible aquatic monster. They soon came to a series of caverns half filled with water. After being attacked by some scissor fish, they decided to fashion a boat from the remains of a dead giant beetle. They then begun to sail the under ocean. They came across the Knotsmen who were willing to trade information for children. After some careful questioning and insight into the history of the Knotsmen the Gang learned that the Knotsmen run an orphanage in the Veins. They take children and take care of them, giving them probably the safest and best environment to grow up in the Veins, but however upon natural death the child’s soul goes towards paying off the Knotsmen unending twisted debt where they bargained away the future of their very race. The Gang was a bit conflicted about this.

Regardless the Gang continued on and soon the terrible aquatic monster came upon them. It proved to be a Castillian Caddis Larvae. They decided to retreat a bit to fight it on the shore. A decision which proved prescient as it killed all their hirelings and almost killed the entire Gang but they were saved by a bunch of lucky saving throws and the help of the holy spear gained from the temple to Athena.

After slaying the Castillian Caddis Larvae the Gang returned to Ash Rome. Word had spread about their deed, and the sizable stash of weapons which was now up for the taking and a coup had begun in Ash Rome. The Gang largely did not get involved but decided it was probably best to get out of town anyways.

They headed to the east where they came across a labyrinth of living statues of which the Gilgamesh was their leader. They killed the Gilgamesh and managed to narrowly escape with their lives but were a bit undecided about what to do next. They wanted to get out of the Veins but did not know what the best course of action would be.

However soon two things became apparent: the first was that they were being helped by some strange unknown beings. The Gang would awake from their slumber to break camp and find that items they owned that were wearing down would be repaired and that several times they would come across useful items such as rope, like someone had left it where they would find it when most needed.

The second thing that became apparent was that they were being watched or followed by another more malign and sinister force. They would sense it watching them by feeling an immense hatred. It would appear but only in purest darkness when the Gang had extinguished all their light sources. In the darkness it would appear as a silhouette of a tall lithe figure in the darkness, a silhouette of pure negative space blacker than black. Sometimes the figures would do things, like they’d see a flash of black and whatever enemy they were fighting would be dead. Sometimes it would attack one of the party members laugh, and then disappear. The figures did not respond to questioning and seemed capricious, most often vanishing soon after the Gang became aware of their presence.

After traveling on through the Veins the Gang made their way through spiderweb filled caverns in which the Arachnopolis Rex ruled. After rescuing some children the Gang reluctantly traded some of them to some Knotsmen for information about the two forces which seemed to be trailing them. The Knotsmen explained that they were the Aelf-Adal and the Gnonmen, and that either would probably be able to tell them how to get to the surface. The Aelf-Adal realm was ruled over by a capricious sexless Queen, a kind of dark underworld fairy realm. She could be bargained with albeit at great risk while the Gnonmen were prisoners and would need to be freed.

The Gang decided that the Gnonmen sounded like the better bet and so set off. After navigating their way through the sticky lairs of the Arachnopolis Rex, they soon left that cavern system behind and made their way to the Gnonmen. When they finally found the location where the Gnonmen were said to be held prisoner they found a strange sight: an iron door in the middle of a cave.

After knocking on it a slot in the door opened up and a gruff voice asked for a password. After several attempts it told them that they were expecting anybody to pick up the shipment anytime soon and to go away. After bursting in and exploring the cave system beyond the door the Gang found they had stumbled upon an illicit drug production operation run by several strange gray dwarves. They were using enslaved Gnonmen in order to manufacture their powdered drugs Willy Wonka style. The ingredients for the powder came from several encaged monsters from the Veins including a Fossil Vampire and Tachyon Troll  that the Gang freed and teamed up with. The Tachyon Troll ended up betraying them and the Gang killed it with some help from the Fossil Vampire which they swiftly got out of the way of after as it seemed to be very, very powerful. After exploring the caverns further the Gang discovered that the key to the Gnomens enslavement was a magical bell made out of star metal. The Gray Dwarves would ring it to hypnotize and control the Gnonmen who couldn’t stand it’s sound. In a battle on thin iron walkways over a dozen boiling cauldrons (full of mould being magically grown to turn into the drug powder), the Gang killed the leader of the operation, freeing the Gnonmen and earning their gratitude.

The Gnonmen helped the party ascend to the surface and Gang headed off to other adventures.