Monday, 17 October 2016

Review: The Black Hack

To say that I'm late to the party with this review is a bit of an understatement. When The Black Hack Kickstarter funded back in February is was a mere blip on my social-media radar. I looked at it briefly, thought, "Ugh, a roll-under mechanic," and "Do I really need another retro clone?" then moved on. What I can say now with no reservation is it deserved a closer look.

As the year progressed multiple genre-Hacks using David Black's "The Black Hack" as a base cropped up. It wasn't until I saw what Mike Evans over at DIY RPG Productions was doing with his own sword, sorcery and super-science genre hack called Barbarians of the Ruined Earth that I decided I had to pay the Two US Dollars to get the PDF and find out what all the fuss was about.

I get it now! I understand not only why people love this version of tabletop fantasy role-playing, but also why it has spawned so many of its own hacks!

It is described as: "The most straightforward modern OSR compatible clone available."

It's a bold claim, but it has merit. The game fits comfortably into twenty A5 (half-letter-sized) pages, including the cover, acknowledgements page, Open Game Licence and character sheet. That means the game only uses sixteen pages to explain how to play.

With a core mechanic based on rolling under character statistics, the rules are clear and for the most part easy to understand. The writing is straightforward and economical. As a former journalist and a parent with little time to read rulebooks, I appreciate David Black's tight writing.

There is no art beyond the cover, but the layout and design is clean, with good use of white space and easy-to-use tables. It has two columns per page for most of the book. The typeface used for the body text is a standard serif font, offering no distractions or obstructions to reading. The headings and titles all use the distressed sans serif typeface you see on the cover. I like this particular choice as it embraces the "quick and dirty" nature of the rule system. The effective headings, bolded text and good use of white space makes it easy to reference the book for specific information despite the lack of page numbers.

The best use of white space is on the four pages of character class descriptions where each class gets its own page with a single column running down the middle of the page. This gives a special emphasis to these pages and leaves room to make notes around the text in the huge margins. It also allowed me to print out a few character sheets with the rules for each class on the back.

The rules themselves surprised me in their simplicity and flexibility. The core mechanic involves rolling under the relevant stat for any given action on a twenty-sided die (D20). Since stats are rolled on three, six-sided dice (3D6) player characters all start with a good level of competency. The balance of power from the difference between the levels of the player characters and the Hit Dice of their opponents (monsters) creates bonuses and penalties to combat rolls. The advantage/disadvantage mechanic that is a big part of the success of 5th edition D&D is also used to maintain the power balance and protect the specialisation of the different classes.

The rules are a solid blend of old school simplicity with modern improvements. The system simplifies resource tracking with the usage dice that also creates an unpredictable element to resource management. There is a six-item death-and-dismemberment style table for characters who are knocked "Out of Action." The sundered shield option to sacrifice a shield to escape damage is included as well. Encumbrance is streamlined with obvious penalties.

One interesting mechanic is how the players do almost all of the rolling, similar to Monte Cook's Cypher System. The player rolls under their relevant stat to attack and again to avoid attack. Because of this change, armour provides extra hit points instead of making it more difficult to be hit.

I didn't like it the first time I came across the idea of class-based weapon damage, but here it serves to eliminate the pages of weapon lists that you see in other clones while still having some variability in damage. I like how it assumes that fighters are more dangerous with weapons than other classes. It certainly makes sense when you look at fantasy fiction. Conan is just a deadly with whatever weapon he picks up and Fahfrd names all his swords "Greywand" because they do the same thing. The addition of the unarmed/improvised damage by class is smart. It means a balanced weapon of war like a spear or sword is going to be more effective than a chair leg or shield bash.

Spells are handled in a way I think will see more use of utility spells at lower levels. The player starts with the spell slots you see in most OSR clones, but the slot only expires during casting if the player fails an Intelligence roll. The total of spells memorised is restricted by level so players need to decide what they want to have prepared for fast casting and what they'll be pulling out their spellbooks for. It feels like the ritual casting option in 5e D&D without being so finicky. Also, this design choice creates uncertainty in the resource management of spells. If anything should be uncertain, it's magic!

The spell lists themselves are short, with single line descriptions filling one page each for divine and arcane spells. This is another good choice. Reading the spells I find the shorter descriptions far harder to misinterpret and stretch to irrelevant purposes than the longer ones of other clones and editions of D&D.

The monster entries are also almost always one-line per creature. Since they only roll damage, that, their hit dice and any special attack or defence is all you need. The list is two pages long and has creatures from one hit die up to twelve. With these examples, conversion of any other monsters should be no problem.

Player character progression by level is a nice innovation that works with the core mechanic. The player rolls a D20 for each stat and raises any stat they roll over by one. Each class has at least one stat which they roll twice for. Besides that each class also has a hit die that they roll for more hit points.

The game only has four classes including Warrior, Thief, Cleric and Conjurer. These four cover the basics and leave plenty of room for meaningful differences between party members. There are no rules for different fantasy races, but if you need them in your game it's not difficult to add them. With such a simple system, bolting on extras will be half of the fun!

That is why we see so many genre-based hacks of this system out there. The system is so straightforward and simple it would take some serious effort to break it. While reading the rules I came up with three genre hacks I'd like to do with it myself!

The example of play is one of the better ones I've seen. A player could read that one page and grasp almost the entire system.

I'm not surprised the game is picking up momentum. The Kickstarter had 604 backers. I don't know how many PDFs have sold since then, but The Black Hack community on Google Plus has 810 members as I write this review, implying it is only gathering more fans.

Still, the game is not quite perfect. I would change a few things that I don't like.

The cleric has a spellbook. This choice is not terrible mechanically, but for the sake of flavour I would call it a prayer book and refer to casting divine spells as performing miracles. It would create better separation between the cleric and conjurer.

The conjurer spells have "read languages/magic" as a third level spell. I'd put that back into the first level list and add "fly" to the third level list. Before I run this system I might come up with a streamlined version of the "summon" spell from Lamentations of the Flame Princess as well. If I can get it down to two A5 pages I think I'll slip it into my copy.

Armour points are used up during combat, but return after a short rest. Shields are included in this rule. I think shields should be persistent in their effect. I would give a character a bonus to their level for the purpose of defending against attacks from monsters of plus one for a small shield and plus two for a large shield. That way a first level character attacked by three hit dice monster could roll without any penalty to avoid getting hit instead of the plus two penalty for fighting a more powerful monster. The persistence would make shields particularly useful and would make the choice to "sunder a shield" to avoid damage a harder one to make.

Fighters get one attack per level every round. That is way too much rolling in combat for my taste. I like the speed provided by this system and after third level the fighter player would grind every round to a halt during his or her turn while rolling hits and damage. I'd replace this ability with the ability to use shields offensively against more powerful monsters so they get the bonus levels when attacking as well. I'd also allow fighters to roll to hit with two-handed weapons without the plus-two penalty. Those two changes should protect them as the most effective characters in any combat without putting the rest of the party to sleep every round.

Overall, these are small things and likely have as much to do with my gaming taste as anything else.

For two bucks this game is a steal! I printed my PDF out as a booklet on five sheets of paper. This thing will go into my bag for every face-to-face game I play. I'll probably put a small notebook in with it with some quick adventure generation tables and class-based equipment lists so I can use this game as a quick replacement if some players cancel at the last minute.

I think the best use of The Black Hack is probably introducing new people to fantasy RPGs. Its blend of old-school flavour with modern mechanics is a great doorway into the possibilities of tabletop role-playing. Its simplicity means no one is left behind and there's way less of the, "What am I rolling now?" and more, "I do X!"

Well done David Black!

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Dangerous Magic in Fantasy Gaming

I started reading the Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock just before Christmas. The magic in the stories and some other things that have come up while gaming has me re-evaluating magic in fantasy RPGs.

Back in the days of 1e and 2e D&D, when I played a magic user I would bend spells until they broke. I found ways to use spells that had little to do with their original intent but worked within their description. I drove GMs nuts with my descriptions of how my characters were using the spells because they'd would constantly need to make a ruling on whether it would work out the way I wanted or not. Things like casting an Enlarge spell on a wooden door in a stone frame so it would shatter as it grew too big for the space it was in, or casting a Knock spell to unlatch all the buckles on the enemy's platemail.

The newer games have either nerfed the spells or created far more explicit descriptions that don't allow for these interpretations of effects. That's progress I suppose.

I recently found myself exercising those old creative muscles again in a Fifth Edition game I'm playing. We're well into our second year of play and my Warlock hit 9th level. That means she can summon Elementals now. When I saw that ability as one of many on the menu to choose from at 9th level I thought about the Elric stories and all the things I could get an Elemental to do during the one-hour duration.

Now I look at the abilities of the different elementals and figure out what kind of things I can do with them. The reaction of horror from the other players when my character commanded an Earth Elemental to drag an opponent into the ground and leave him there was something of a surprise. I figure a Warlock has the moral flexibility necessary to bury imaginary bad guys alive.

Between the four kinds of elementals my character can solve a lot of problems. Combat and movement are two common ones. For instance, Air Elementals can carry your character through the air and blast your enemies. So much more fun than a regular Fly spell!

I've mentioned before that I'm working on my own fantasy game system and one of the priorities I have is to make the magic system more open. To design it to reward creativity and unconventional thinking. As wonderful as that is, it's taking a long time for me to test everything and make certain the game does all the things I want it to do (like be fun to play). Not to mention that a lot of people don't want to change their game even though they might like to bring what I'm talking about to their table.

The pulps that influenced the creation of the first RPGs leave their marks on the magic systems we take for granted now but the structure keeps magic safe and largely predictable. Magic was always a bit scary in those old stories. A good example of something that they brought into the structure is the creature from Robert Howard's first Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword," inspiring the Invisible Stalker spell. When you read Michael Moorcock's Elric stories though, they summon water elementals to create a fog to hide their navy or fire elementals to set fire to a town when attacking. They summon terrible creatures of chaos to get secret knowledge or help navigating the different dimensions. These creatures have their own agendas and goals. Sometimes negotiation is necessary and sometimes they simply oblige.

I know that Stormbringer has a magic system that works like this, but I don't play Stormbringer nor do I know anyone that does. What I think I need is an OSR/5e D&D compatible character class that uses magic from other creatures and does no magic other than summoning and binding them to the caster's will.

Using the Magic User/Wizard class as a base, we could get there pretty quickly. For whatever system you are playing in simply adopt all the hit dice, skills, weapon and armour restrictions, etc of the Magic User/Wizard class and swap out the spellcasting for summoning and binding magic that can be used any time.

This piece is actually my own attempt at drawing. I'm hugely jealous of people who can illustrate their own blogs so I'm going to try to learn to do this. If you are interested in my journey in that department or you want to see the links to the reference model you can see it at DeviantArt

This makes it easy to drop the class into whatever game you are playing without disrupting the game balance as it exists. If you are playing LotFP you get a character that can use any weapons and armour, like the rest of them but the lower hit points and lack of martial manoeuvres balances out the magic abilities. In 5e, the proficiencies and characteristics fit the flavour created by that system and its assumptions about setting.

Although for 5e, it might make more sense to use the warlock as a base for a summoner class. Once I've tested it out it would be nice to see if it would work for an Eldritch Knight. Elric was a warrior first. He only summoned elementals for large scale effects or to save him from drowning. He fought for himself.

The magic of summoning should be accessible but dangerous. Since the entities often want to get to our world for whatever reason summoning them should be easy while the real challenge comes when trying to control the creature. I also like the idea that it gets more difficult to control new entities throughout a single day. That way there's a good reason to conserve the magic and use it only when it's needed. That escalating danger is a good reason for characters using this kind of magic to be universally feared by ally and foe alike.

I already have summoning magic baked into my own game and tests are going well so far. I'll be putting together an OSR Class for summoning soon, but since I'm playing mostly 5e and playtesting my original game I'll probably do one for 5e D&D first. If you beat me to it, send me a link!

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Island Crashers!

Last month Brent Newhall threw up an impromptu Fantasy RPG design contest. There was only about two weeks to come up with an RPG that fit a list of parameters. He was tired of the same-old same-old in Fantasy RPGs. He wanted something without the standard tropes of Sword and Sorcery so the contest was to make a game without things that you'd expect to see: No swords, no dungeons, no guns, no boring monsters, no women in revealing outfits, no barbarians, no Vancian magic, and no elves/dwarfs/hobbits.

"Island" by Elbardo
Back when I first started the blog I mused about a mash-up between Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom and Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea settings. I never did anything with it before, but the more I thought about it the more it fit Brent's requirements. I had to lean it more toward Earthsea than I originally planned, since swords and the scantily clad are a big part of the Barsoom identity, but it would fit naturally.

With my setting decided and ten days left in the contest I cleared a few days to sit down and write. I have a scattered collection of hand-written notes for an RPG system that emphasizes fast, pulpy play that I've mentioned here before. I took that scattered mess, read through it, and then I wrote.

The 3D System is designed to facilitate the fast-paced pulpy play that I love. There is room to be creative as a player. Combat is usually decisive and brutal while having the robust quality needed to for the fight scene in The Phoenix on the Sword. Magic is freeform, making wizards almost as dangerous to partner with as they are to face if they overreach their ability.

"Ruins - Environment Sketch" by Jorge Jacinto

The character generation system is integrated with the system. If there is a weakness, this is it. Anyone who wants to run in their own home brew setting will need to adapt the character generation tables to fit their dream setting or rewrite them entirely. I plan to make at least one fairly generic version of the game that can be used for different settings but the implied setting is going to be baked in regardless. What could be a bug for some I see as a feature. In the process of rolling up a character a player should get a feel for the world that created that character. The character is a natural product of the setting and fits into it.

"Overgrown Temple" by Jorge Jacinto

The Island generator is also not as complete as I would like. I'll finish fleshing it out after the contest, but for now it has a lot of repetition and does not go to the 216 unique encounter entries that I originally conceived when I started it. There was not enough time to fill it out the way I wanted within the contest time but it will allow a GM to create a viable point-crawl on an island in 15-20 minutes.

"Turtle Island" by Khirono

The setting for Island Crashers is an Archipelago that is slowly sinking into the sea. The need for new land to settle sends explorers out into the blue for new island wildernesses to tame. Too bad they aren't the only ones interested.

I basically jumped on the contest to force myself to get the game into a playable form that I could share. I don't know how Brent will be choosing the winner or even when. The draft for Island Crashers is rough, but usable and the island generator should get you a couple of decent islands for your group. There are some subtle hooks to draw your party into intrigues in the Archipelago proper, but there's no reason why you can't start with something like that.

If you do take the time to read through the rules I'd like to hear what you think about it. If you actually give it a try, I'd love to hear how it went and what your thoughts are.


"Fantasy Island" by Peter Lee


Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Game Master Player Character, or Why I Broke My Own Rule

I don't like Game Master Player Characters. They make me uncomfortable as a player and as a GM. I don't mean Non-Player Characters, but party-members controlled by the GM that get a share of treasure/experience and act as protagonists in the game.

The dangers of a GM PC are huge! The moment they do too much it stops being a game. Once the GM is controlling both sides of the action in the game it's just a story. That means the other people in the group go from players to spectators and that isn't fun for anyone. As a GM, a lot of the excitement for me comes from not knowing what the players will come up with in any scenario. I do my best to anticipate them so they are challenged and enjoy the game, but the surprises are where the magic happens. A GM PC threatens that.

An evocative image from the late Dave Trampier

There are some terrible reasons to add a GM PC to the party. Some of the worst are things like, "guiding the story," or, "protecting the plot." If you want alpha readers for your novel it will go better if you are honest about it. Don't trick your players into doing that for you. "So the GM can play too," leads to some terrible wankery as well. Even if you have the best of intentions as the GM, you know what is coming, the deck is always stacked in your favour. It's not a challenge and it's definitely not much of a role playing game if the only variable is the dice.

Sometimes people will want a GM PC if a "critical" character class is missing from the party. This sort of thing often happens in D&D when no one wants to play a cleric. GM controlled clerics that are essentially just walking heal-bots ("OK, Kolbar casts Sanctuary and prepares to heal you guys") can always be replaced with a cache of healing potions. Solid play can solve a lot of these problems too. Hit points are a resource that are spent during the course of an adventure. Clerics are one way to extend that resource but solid strategy and magic items can do the same.

Fifth Edition D&D doesn't have the same niche problems. Between the backgrounds and the feats it's not hard to cover off all the skills and abilities that are useful during an adventure. For example, I play a Warlock in one game with the Healer feat who does an excellent job as the party healer even though we have a cleric, because the cleric player would rather cast battle spells and fight.

GM PCs are a good way to mess up a game. I don't like them and I don't use them. You can imagine my horror when I realized I needed one for a game I'm running.

I'm running a game for a couple of new players who didn't want to play with experienced players even though there are a tonne of amazing, supportive players who are great to new people in the hobby. It's only them and a party of two people is a problem. It's too small to challenge without risking a Total Party Kill in every encounter. One bad round is the end of them. Creative play can allow a party of two to dish out plenty of damage in an encounter but they still only have so many hit points. The players chose to make stealthy characters which helps but there are times where even the most clever players end up with their characters in a pitched battle. They need at least one more character there to divide the attention of the opposing forces.

I didn't want this added character to overshadow the PCs but I wanted a character that could draw fire and have the hit points to stay in the fight. My players also didn't create characters that could cast magic, which is pretty common for new players. That's why I also wanted the character to have some casting ability to help show the players the possibilities and get them comfortable with the magic rules.

I thought at first a fighter or paladin who went with a protector martial role would be good. Add in the Sage background, the Magic Initiate feat and we have a wizard's apprentice who took up arms after his/her master was killed in the field.

As cool as that sounded, I decided to go with a straight up wizard. I knew I wasn't introducing her until they got closer to their destination so I could start her at 2nd level with a School of Wizardry already established. I made her an Abjurer. The defensive magic and extra hit points make her extremely hard to kill. I decided that a Rock Gnome with their extra knowledge of magical devices would be handy because she could not only identify the function of magic items, but also their names and history which makes them more interesting. Even a +1 sword is special if it has a history. The Rock Gnomes also have a bonus to constitution which adds some more hit points.

I decided the only fair way to make the character is with the standard statistics (15, 14, 13, 12, 10 and 8) and standard hit points. I'm fairly lucky when it comes to rolling so this keeps the character in balance with the party, stat wise. I used the standard HP per level instead of rolling as well. It's high enough to hit my objective without giving them the wrong expectation for what a Wizard can be. Either of them could have made this character. Also, if one of the PCs dies the player might want to take over this character rather than roll up a new one so I need to keep it all fair and balanced.

In our second session it worked out well. The players had a forbidden book, the Malleus Deus from the Tales of the Scarecrow adventure they did in the first session. This forbidden item allows a wizard to cast a selection of cleric spells. After their new party member explained how dangerous it was to even know the location of this dreaded item they wrapped it up and locked it away at the Keep's vault. After some play they decided they trusted the wizard enough to let her transcribe a couple of spells into her book before locking it up again so she could cast Cure Light Wounds.

Another one of Dave Trampier's images

After railing against NPCs covering traditional party roles I have a little wizard who can take some serious damage, cast some useful wizard magic and healing spells. Still, she has no serious offensive spells, with only Sleep and Hold Person she is strictly support. No chance of overshadowing the rest of the party or becoming some kind of mobile weapon. So far, when in melee she casts Blade Ward or Shield to keep herself in the fight since she doesn't actually have an offensive cantrip.

We're several sessions in and the players like her, considering her a part of the team. They say she is useful without being in the way of anyone's fun. Jeff is more reckless than Megan so he tries to get the NPC to break standoffs with a third vote. The first time it happened I was surprised but should have realized that they would get the third member of the team to cast a vote. I'm not comfortable with that because I don't want to guide the party, but I do my best to keep my GM ideas out of it and rely of the character's back story and experience to make those calls.

Now that they are closing in on fourth level and have a third player starting next session I'm looking forward to transitioning the wizard out of the party and into a friendly NPC living at the Keep.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Session Report: The NewBs become Players!

I'm running a small, 5e D&D campaign for a group of first-time players. Last game something amazing happened. They became Players.

It wasn't until after the session that I understood what had happened and I only thought it through because I was wondering what was making me grin so long my face hurt.

The transition from new person to RPGs to Player is a a subtle change. It has nothing to do with knowing what die to roll, the rules, or where to look for stuff in the Player's Handbook. It happens the first time a player figures out how to transcend the rules and make their characters more effective than they have any right to be on paper. That first wacky plan or strategy that bends what you have on the character sheet into something incredible. That's the moment when they stop imagining the board game structure in their heads and realize they can try nearly anything.

My gang is running through the Caves of Chaos in old Gazetteer-era Mystara. The party is small, with only three of them so they explore with great stealth and care. A common tactic is to send the party wizard's spider familiar ahead to recce the hallways and rooms before entering. The spider can get under most (but certainly not all) doors in the rough hewn caves and that makes the difference between a stealthy retreat and a TPK.

They encountered the hobgoblin guardroom at the top of the stairs from the goblin lair (room 23) from the goblin side. From there, they couldn't get any information other than the sound of a lot of voices. When they encountered it from the other side they found out there was around a dozen well-equipped hobgoblins (actually 13, it's hard to count from a spider's perspective). They slipped away, snuck up on some torturers, saved some prisoners and fought their way out of the ravine. The success of saving the prisoners increased their renown at The Keep on the Borderlands, but they kept thinking about that room.

They knew they couldn't take it in a straight up fight. The party has had close calls with goblins and it's obvious the hobgoblins are far tougher than the goblins. They started looking at their sheets and asking questions. The teifling could cast Thaumaturgy which, among other harmless effects, makes tremors in the floor. "That's pretty scary in a cave, right?"

The wizard had cast illusions in the past to improve their chances to hide from patrols in the valley so they asked some questions about how the tremors mixed with illusions of rocks falling out of the ceiling might work and the bold gambit was hatched: They would fake a cave-in and strike in the chaos. An elven thief, a tiefling monk and a gnomish abjurer against 13 hobgoblins.

I live in a mining town. Work occasionally takes me into the mines and I've been down as far 7,400 feet underground. While I have never experienced a cave-in (and I hope I never do), you can't go down to any depth without being aware of how dangerous it is. While sounds of tremors coming from the walls would not create panic in hardened warriors, it would induce immediate action. Adding falling rocks would create some panic and a lot of action.

With the hobgoblins spread throughout the room I decided their actions would be based on where they were. The two closest to the door the party was coming from would exit and run down the hall, away from the cave-in. The two closest to the barred door would get the door open and get out and down the stairs. The rest would try to get under the table or press themselves against the walls and between crates for safety.

Despite the monk never hitting once with his spear the entire session (he even dropped it once), the surprise round went well. Two hobgoblins went down to a sleep spell (and looked like they were crushed by rock!), another one dropped to the thief's sneak attack with an arrow and a fourth reeled from a nasty kick by the monk. I ruled that the hobgoblins couldn't use their martial prowess ability that gets them extra damage on each hit when fighting in groups because they were too distracted by the falling rocks to work together effectively. The removal of that advantage was key to the party survival as they took some lumps but didn't lose anyone. With the hobgoblins engaged in escaping the room the party was also able to attack them in smaller, more manageable groups.

The party won, quickly grabbed some loot and then ran for it through the goblin caves (and four goblins) to get away from the hobgoblin reinforcements coming to help after the cave in.

Certainly some critical rolls went in their favour, but the conception and execution of a plan that basically tripled the effectiveness of their plucky little band marks their graduation to seasoned RPG players. Now they'll be searching their environment for advantages and trying all kinds of crazy stuff to turn the tables on their more powerful foes. That is where player skill changes the game.

I know they've made the switch because once they got back to the Keep they started reviewing everything they know about the different factions they've encountered and how they relate to each other. They are discussing how they can make use of that.

From a DM's point of view the campaign levelled up. I need to be ready for all kinds of crazy stuff from here on out.

I couldn't be happier.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

First Session Report: Journey to the Keep

Last Monday we kicked off our first real session of our new 5e D&D campaign set in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos and the Known World of the BECMI D&D era. A historic night here in Canada for all sorts of reasons but for my players it was their first game ever.

All the good stuff for the first session!

For two people who had never played an RPG before they dove right in and played well. During character generation last time they chose to link their bonds. The Tiefling Monk with the Hermit background learned his monk skills while on his hermitage and it completely changed how he interacted with the world for the better. His hermitage started because he was implicated in one of the scams run by the Elven Rogue with the Charlatan background. The Rogue's bond is guilt over burning the Monk by shifting the blame to him. Thrilled with his new worldview, Traorin (Tray) feels grateful to the Rogue, Ano, for setting him on the right path and he returned to Specularum to help her see the light too. Sadly his return caused problems for Ano, who was in the middle of a Scam at the time and they had to leave the city in a hurry. These background choices helped us get the party moving and give a reason for them to adventure. The party headed north to the Barony of Kelvin but didn't stay long because of the harsh rule of law attitude of the place. They continued north along the Duke's Road to the Barony of Penhaglihon in the Wufwolde Hills. That's where they heard about the Keep on the Borderlands which seemed like a good place to lay low for a while and scam the odd merchant from Darokin.

The pair made friends with a halfing trader named Bobberto Farstrider, who was taking a wagon load of dry goods up to the keep. Bobber was pleasant company who was flattered to be travelling in the company of an exiled elven prince from Alfhiem (Ano's default persona - she's actually a Vyalia wood elf). He happily gave up his tent to make Ano more comfortable while he and Tray slept under the wagon.

Tales of the Scarecrow cover image by Jason Rainville

The magic started when they came upon a ripe cornfield by the side of the road. They knew something was fishy right away since it was early spring and there's no way corn was going to be ready for harvest at that time of year.

Megan, who plays Ano, was not down with the cornfield. She felt her character would see no profit in exploring it and she thought it was a pretty obvious trap.

"This is a frickin people-hunting alien cornfield and it's going to eat us!"

They argued in and out of character with great reasons on both sides. Jeff, playing Tray, wants to explore and check out the strange things and Megan, playing Ano, doesn't want their characters to die in the first session. To break the deadlock, Tray asked the NPC, Bobber, what he thought. Of course the NPC wants you to go down the trail through the unnatural cornfield to the strange farmhouse! Bobber felt adding a few bushels of ripe corn to the wagon would definitely make this a more profitable trip for him and wanted to inquire at the farmhouse they could just barely see from the road.

I'm impressed with these two. Once inside the clearing in the centre of cornfield they did well. They investigated the interior and exterior of the cottage with care. They worked under the assumption that everything would kill them but were still open to possibilities. They were compassionate with the lone survivor in the house and managed to get quite a bit of information out of him because of it. They tried to save him even though they figured out he was cannibalizing his friend.

They lost all the NPCs but managed to come up with a great plan that saved themselves involving the harpsichord and the wagon. They also lost the oxen though, so they left the wagon by the side of the road with a sign warning others away from the field. I was a little worried about inflicting a Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventure on brand new gamers, but as scary as they are there is always a way to think yourself out of them. I had been through the Tales of the Scarecrow once before as a player and my character came out of it well ahead. It's just a matter of figuring out how to use what you have. Besides, I gave them extra resources with the merchant and everything in his wagon (that they dumped on the ground for their plan). Turns out I didn't need to worry. They have the natural paranoia necessary to navigate an LotFP adventure.

They took the two books even though they discussed the option of just leaving them there. Both books now link them back to Specularum and I'm hoping I can use them to pull the party into B6 The Veiled Society or some other kind of shenanigans in the big city. They are hoping to sell the books since the receipt they found says they are so valuable.

They kept the Sword Which Is Uncertain, a beautifully crafted magical rapier. The rapier treats all targeted ACs as 14 no matter what armour they have. It also strikes a random target on a modified roll of 16 or 17. I'm thinking of simplifying it to an unmodified roll of 13 or 1. Ano is using it despite the curse because Megan thinks Jeff deserves to get a few random stabbings for dragging them into that cornfield.

The Keep on the Borderlands by Erol Otus

After that they hiked the rest of the way to the Keep, travelling safely and sleeping comfortably in Bobber's tent (one of the few things they were able to keep and still escape).

Once at the Keep they got a room and made friends with a Gnomish Wizard (Abjuration Tradition) who was able to identify and put a value on their loot. Their new friend managed to get close to the Caves of Chaos once, before her party was slaughtered by goblins. She knows vaguely where the Caves are and has agreed to join the party to provide some magic support.

The Tales of the Scarecrow turned out to be a great encounter adventure for the road. They could have driven past with no consequence, but I'm glad they played it out. For new players I wanted them to play a modern adventure before they got stuck into the Caves at the Keep so they'd realize there are all kinds of possibilities and more than one way to play any situation. I was also glad to see they were willing to talk and investigate since that will help them in the Caves of Chaos. They are a small party so they need to be smart.

I enjoyed seeing them get a little more sense of the world as well. Talking to the NPC they learned he was travelling out of the Duchy into the Republic of Darokin and specifically to his home city of Vornheim.

This version is WAY better! Go get one at RPG Cartography!

Next session will be the Caves of Chaos. I'm using the DnD Next conversion from the playtest for the Caves while using B2 for the Keep. I have a beautiful, colour coded map of the Caves of Chaos with the monsters listed in their locations I downloaded from RPG Cartography here. I'll be converting anyone from the Keep on the fly as needed.

It will be interesting to see how they approach the Caves of Chaos. There is a lot going on there, and they could definitely play the different factions off against each other. With a Rogue, a Monk and a Wizard, the party is also light and stealthy. They might be able to do a lot in the Caves with hit and fade tactics. I can't wait to see how they play it!

The gear for the first session:
B2 Keep on the Borderlands, GAZ1 The Grand Duchy of Karameikos,
LotFP's Tales of the Scarecrow, the map of the Known World from X1 The Isle of Dread,
 and my little black book of campaign notes.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Review: "The Hell House Beckons"

This is a first look at Kiel Chenier's haunted house adventure and tool kit, The Hell House Beckons. If you are looking for something different for your table that embraces the spirit of the Halloween season, keep reading!

Before you read this review it's important to note a few things in the spirit of full disclosure. Kiel gave me an advanced copy of the PDF. I didn't pay for it like everyone else so my copy has typos and other errors that yours will not. I won't be able to comment on the editing. I've also gamed with Kiel as a GM and I like him. It is possible I am biased in his favour even though I will do my best to be objective. This review will be a bit spoilery, but I won't include any information players can use to beat the adventure.

My first impression of the cover was that it mixed cartoon style silliness with some serious creepy horror. It reminds me of the Hilarious House of Frightenstein TV show for kids from the 1970s (Vincent Price was a cast member). I scrolled further expecting some Evil Dead style shenanigans. The Evil Dead impression fit as well as anything. Kiel is drawing on many horror tropes for this adventure, making it a kind of Frankenstein's monster itself.

Kiel is upfront in the GM advice section about how his goal is to make the House a malevolent character in its own right. The House is trying to harvest the party's blood, souls and sanity for its own evil purposes. The House itself has a long, terrible history and the PCs will have easy access to it. The background gives some clues to what they'll find in there but none on how to deal with it.

Even the successes of the group can feed the House. Any blood spilled or souls destroyed gives the House the power it needs to confront the party directly. The other thing feeding the House is the sanity mechanic. The adventure adds a new Sanity statistic to the PCs and NPCs. The Sanity stat is where the system agnostic approach comes up a little short. The Hell House Beckons is designed to be used with pretty much any D20 RPG but it is clear that the adventure was written with Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons in mind. If I used that system I'd add a few rules of my own. The text encourages this behaviour but doesn't make any suggestions.

The first thing I'd do is give some fantasy races a bonus to the Sanity statistic. Tieflings would definitely get a bonus of one or two from their infernal heritage. Others would depend on the setting although Dark Elves would certainly have a bonus at my table. Dwarves would also be a good choice and work well with the back story. Since the house only claims its Sanity points from the characters after a save I'd give certain classes proficiency bonus on the save as well. Warlocks are a must for proficiency on a Sanity save. I would consider giving them advantage on it with certain pacts as well. I think Clerics, the adventure-specific NPC Medium class and maybe Wizards of the illusion or necromancy school should also add proficiency to Sanity saves.

The deadly countdown is a mainstay of horror so the Hell House Beckons supplies some endearing NPCs as red-shirts. While I liked the NPCs for the multiple ways they give clues about the House (dying is only one of a few), I find the NPCs add a Scooby Do element to an adventure that punishes such actions without mercy (let's split up and look for clues gang - oh no, a ghost chopped off Daphne's head and is wearing it!). It's not necessarily a bad thing, as it increases the party's vulnerability without directly harming the PCs and the players can work to overcome it. The NPCs also cover off particular archetypes usually found in horror movies that the player characters are not likely to supply without turning the thing into a railroad or story the players are watching rather than playing in.

The House keeps the souls of the recently departed from going far so all dead PCs hang about as ghosts who can still play. There's even a possibility of returning a ghostly soul to its body and coming back. That means even the staunchest non-killer GMs can indulge in a little PC slaughter guilt free.

My character will have bacon in his or her pockets to avoid this fate.

The best thing in this adventure is the way Kiel handles the ghosts. In the Hell House Beckons ghosts are all unique creations. There are a few linked directly to the house's history, there are some more general entries that could easily be dropped into nearly any adventure, and there is a table for creating random new ghosts. This variety makes the ghosts far more interesting since different ghosts will respond in different ways and can be defeated or helped by different strategies. My favourite part is how the ghosts are tied thematically to the place or way in which they died. This addition makes the ghosts more like what you would find in a good ghost story or horror film. That they fit the expectation of the source material rather than the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual is a huge win in my book. I'm not fond of all the ghost descriptions including: "Usual Undead powers and immunities apply." It means your GM needs to have a bestiary or monster manual with ghosts in it to have everything you need to play. Some of these other elements from whatever bestiary may not work well with what is already here. I would have preferred Kiel include complete descriptions and make whatever changes he felt were important to the theme of the ghost for the Hell House Beckons himself. Zak Smith completely rewrote vampires in A Red and Pleasant Land and that adventure won four ENnies. There's no reason to hold back.

The ghost of the succubus might be my favourite image in this adventure.

The ghosts can inflict some strange and horrible effects on the characters. For example, ghosts that drowned can fill a character's lungs with water. One ghost that spent much of its life in the form of a cat can infect a character with cat-ness. You think cats are cute until they are replacing your character's limbs and sprouting from random body parts. The juxtaposition of the ordinary with the horrific has worked well for the more frightening episodes of Doctor Who. A skilful GM could make the cat disease a frightening experience. It leaves the character completely helpless as their body is high-jacked by fluffiness. I'd be tempted to drive that home by meowing loudly whenever that player tried to talk. It depends on who is playing though.

I'm starting to think Kiel is afraid of cats. Who could blame him?

There are plenty of unsettling effects throughout the House and a great horror staple of a monster who harasses the party with hit and run attacks from random hiding places all over the mansion until killed. The 1970s classic horror movie qualities of the Sackcloth Boy should satisfy the expectations of the horror true-fans in your group.

Think a mutated feral halfling child with garden shears is no challenge for your party?
Yeah, you're wrong. So very wrong.

The tables are useful for developing the House but they could be used to flesh out any similar haunted house type adventure. Since the die drop table uses room names as well as numbers that correspond to the map you could use it to quickly populate any mansion, manse or manor with the macabre. Kiel also includes unnumbered floor plans of the house at the end of the PDF in case you want to do exactly that. We have a fully realised adventure and excellent example of how to use all the tools with the Hell House Beckons, but the tool kit included allows you to quickly make up your own haunted house with ease. This adventure could be used as is, cannibalized for parts (yum!), used as a design tool, or simply mined for ideas on how to run ghosts. I think I'll run it as is with 5e, and then use it as inspiration for adventures built around the haunting of a single ghost with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. If you are going to use this adventure with an older edition or a retro-clone you might want to adjust the hit points. Everything has a pile of hit points which is again, pretty consistent with 5e play.

Die drop tables are the new blue dungeon map.

The layout of this adventure is solid; two columns with a fair amount of white space. The tables are easy to use and read. Small uses of red are effective in creating emphasis or controlling how you move your eyes through the document. Neither too much nor too little, the use of red is just right. The whole PDF is also hyper-linked for efficiency so you can use it on some kind of electronic device at the table (with the apparent exception of my Chromebook - computer nerds who feel the need are welcome to tell me it's because the Chomebook is linux based or I'm not using the right ap or whatever in the comments below). The cartography is clean, easy to understand and well thought out.

I would be remiss if I didn't say anything about the art. Anyone familiar with Kiel's blog/RPG Tumblr page Dungeons and Donuts will recognize Kiel's whimsical art. In the Hell House Beckons, the art conveys the character of the NPCs and the horror of the situations while remaining in his personal style. This weird mix works for me because it only adds to the creepiness of the whole thing, but I'm already a fan. The occasional use of heavy blacks conveys a sense of the tone but may drain your printer's ink cartridge. I also like the use of red in specific places, especially with the Pale Artist.

Had I'd paid the $9.99 USD for the PDF, I'd be happy with the purchase. There's a lot that can be used in the Hell House Beckons. It's obvious that Kiel put a great deal of effort into this adventure. I admire his ambition to change how ghost like creatures (ghosts, spectres, etc) are used in D20 RPGs. He created some good tools to do exactly that.

If you want a good ghost story for your table, check out the Hell House Beckons from Kiel Chenier!