Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Mini Review: Broodmother Skyfortress

Broodmother Skyfortress

Author: Jeff Rients
Publisher: Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Buy: PDF // Book + PDF Combo


*Buy this if you like your fantasy à la Jack Vance weirdness and like lots of tables and GM advice.

*Do not buy this if elephant/shark combos are too weird for your boring elves & dwarves setting.


Basically a big, floating, cloudy fortress that was created by some gods/other insanely powerful beings but is now inhabited by dumb Shark/Elephant monstaz who wreak havoc on your campaign world; they're powerful and will probably kill everyone, but why not visit anyway?

The latter half is dedicated to reproducing 'best of's from Jeff's blog. These are mainly random tables and GM advice, which in sum is solid. 


I had a bit of publisher credit on DrivethruRPG so I bought this because I liked the look of it and was not immune to the G+ hypemachine (though I have been strangely ambivalent lately). I've been playing a lot recently (OD&D, Warriors of the Red Planet/Numenera, Tombstone, Savage Worlds Fallout), but not writing a lot on here, mainly because I haven't been that inspired and also because I have a shit-ton of academic writing to complete; but this book forced me from my blogging-hibernation.

Serendipitously, this 'adventure' – while excellent in its own right – may be one of the very best Game Master how-to introductions on the market. It is very simply presented, is immensely user-friendly and conversational, even funny at times, and is filled with encouraging exhortations for the new Game Master. You won't find arduous theoretical pontifications on the three conceptual pillars of role-playing adventure, or platitudinous advice for 'storytellers' here. Instead, there is simple (sometimes single sentence) advice that is not only concrete but practical. This part of the work is stellar.

There are also plenty of interesting adventure options. One dubiousness I felt before reading through it was whether the shark/elephant thing was just being weird for the sake of it – as in 'hey, wouldn't it be cool if like, there were these shark-headed elephant giant dudes, and whoa, wouldn't that be super creative and original?' – and therefore a bit kitsch (not in a good way). The answer to that is 'no: it is not kitsch'. The whole conceit of the background has been well integrated and is logical albeit bizarre (in a good way). It kind of reminds me of Jack Vance weirdness. Fucking strange to the point of being comical, but weirdly makes sense. Besides, Rients offers advice to re-skin the monsters, presenting some interesting counter-ideas. By the end of it, however, I was pretty enthralled with the original premise and would definitely run it that way if I ever get the chance.

I like that it would fit pretty well with the flavour/weirdness of my OD&D campaign. The other thing I like about it is it goes beyond the rote 'this-is-how-to-run-my-adventure' thing that a lot of products do and encourages the reader to get their hands dirty and make the thing work for them. While this is not at all anomalous of OSR products generally, I find that sometimes the sparseness or ambiguity of certain products breeds equal frustration as to being overwhelmed with a wall of text: what do I do with this? Thankfully, Broodmother Skyfortress takes a very pleasing middle-ground. The prose does not get bogged down in minutia, but instead relates all the pertinent facts and even additional options, then gets out of the way. The artwork and layout cannot be faulted: I really dig it.

All in all, this is one of the better adventure/supplements on the RPG market currently. Publisher James Raggi's sales blurb claims:

"Since the invention of the adventure module, there have only been five adventures that were rated the most awesome...Broodmother Sky Fortress leaves them all behind.Your game won’t suck anymore! Broodmother SkyFortress: Buying any other adventure is just throwing your money away."

Although obviously being cheeky, I don't actually think he is too far off the mark: (1) Broodmother Skyfortress is very awesome; (2) Your game will certainly improve if you use Rient's advice; (3) if we are making comparisons here, buying other adventures opens the door to the very real possibility of being disappointed – it is that good.

This is probably my first review where I don't have any critiques. What's more is that I want to run this thing immediately, pretty much as written: that is always my internal barometer of whether a product is any good. Many plant seeds of ideas, but few inspire me to follow them more or less as written: this is both due to the time it takes to digest someone else's work and the often potentiality, though not the execution, of interesting ideas that could be taken further. This adventure – let's just call it a supplement – surpasses all those caveats. Have I said it is good? 

Friday, 3 June 2016

Black Hack Test Run

The Black Hack – Fiendish Almanac Blog

For some Friday night fun I thought I would test out The Black Hack as "by the book" as possible. I'm considering using it for a one-shot this weekend, so to familiarise myself with the rules I rolled up four characters (one of each class) and ran a solo encounter against a "carrion creeper" and a "grizzly bear". 

Rolling up the characters...

As The Black Hack claims to take inspiration from the "Original 1970s [...] game", which I assumed to be OD&D, I was interested to see how it fared by way of character creation. I got out my 3d6 and began rolling. Character generation is amazingly close to the 3 little brown booklet process in both flavour and experience. It is certainly as quick, if not quicker, than the original game. I intended to test drive the four core classes: warrior, cleric, thief, conjurer.

The first character I rolled, a conjurer, had no stats above 15 and it ended up being a straight down the line character. As both intelligence and charisma were high, I thought the scores were appropriate for an enigmatic conjurer. It was 3d6 down the line for the cleric too. The warrior, however, had 16 in one attribute, while the thief was so shitty that I had to swap a few scores around – by the rules you can swap up to two – to make it a feasible character. I have seen some people whinging online about the mandatory 2d6+2 roll if the previous score is 15+. Honestly, it makes sense from a mechanical perspective and I didn't feel like it crippled the character particularly. Plus, here's a little secret: you don't have to play by the rules as written.

Anyway, the whole process was super easy. I had read through the booklet once or twice before today, so I was fairly familiar with the rules. Nevertheless, creating four characters can't have taken longer than thirty minutes. I do have a quibble with the "incomplete" nature of the equipment list. Certain items are listed very granularly, like armour, shields, and even herbs, but no weapons are given prices (besides arrows and two-handed weapons). This is kind of annoying and the referee is left to devise their own prices for weapons. Unlike OD&D, armour is especially expensive in The Black Hack, so one assumes that weapons would be too. I went with a quick and dirty house rule that all one-handed weapons are 25 gp if a two-handed weapon is 50 gp. The nature of thieves tools appear to be pretty vague too. I made the assumption that thieves require them to do any of their general thieveries. That quibble aside, making characters was fun. I even rolled all the beginning spells randomly using 1d5 and 1d6 to determine which spells the conjurer and cleric received. I immediately noticed that characters tend to be tougher than a white box game would usually permit. All characters have a higher hit point range and the conjurer and cleric have a high chance to be able to recast memorised spells if their intelligence/wisdom is respectively high. There is a larger range of known beginning spells too. Let me introduce the party:

Hit Points: 8
Strength: 5
Dexterity: 10
Con: 6
Intelligence: 13
Wisdom: 12
Charisma: 13

Sword (1d4 damage), backpack, oil x2, lantern, torches x6, rations, flint & steel, wineskin, 1 gp.

1st – Sleep, magic missile, charm, detect magic
2nd – Darkness, levitate

Hit Points: 13
Strength: 16
Dexterity: 12
Con: 9
Intelligence: 10
Wisdom: 9
Charisma: 11

Gambeson (2 AP), sword (1d8 damage), bow, arrows x10.

Hit Points: 9
Strength: 14
Dexterity: 12
Con: 9
Intelligence: 10
Wisdom: 15
Charisma: 7

Gambeson (2 AP), small shield (2 AP), club (1d6 damage), 45 gp.

1st – Light, detect evil
2nd – Speak with animals

Hit Points: 9
Strength: 12
Dexterity: 12
Con: 6
Intelligence: 11
Wisdom: 6
Charisma: 11

Gambeson (2 AP), bow (1d6 damage), arrows x10, thieves tools.

The Black Hack Playtest – Fiendish Almanac Blog

Three encounters...

To create a fair evaluation of the system I decided I would run at least three encounters. The first was the party against a 1 HD "carrion creeper" (smaller cousin to the carrion crawler?). It took a few skims of the book to work out how initiative and combat actually worked during play, but once I got the hang of things it was pretty intuitive. I immediately liked the initiative system. It was easy and seemed to flow. It's a bit different from how I normally do initiative – I basically use B/X – but it worked well. It appears that there is a single initiative roll per character, per encounter, rather than the round-by-round initiative system of earlier games. The pregen characters absolutely annihilated the carrion creeper. Surprisingly all the characters succeeded in their dexterity checks and gained the initiative before the crawler could act. The thief backstabbed it and the warrior chopped it to bits in a single round, before the cleric or conjurer could even get to it. I decided to pit them against something a bit stronger. I looked at the ogre and even fleetingly thought it would be funny to throw them at the mercy of a demon, until I saw the grizzly bear. On paper it seemed like a good challenge but doable for four 1st level characters. 

In the first run through, the thief won initiative, but everyone else failed their checks. The thief attempted to backstab but missed (the sneak check succeeded but not the attack roll). The grizzly bear retaliated and got the thief pretty good. I forgot that the thief was using a bow, and wouldn't necessarily have been in melee range; I guess that the thief can "backstab" with a bow? The warriors and the cleric both took hacks at the bear but missed, while the conjurer cast a sleep spell. The spell would have sent the bear to dreamland, though I did forget to offer the bear a saving throw; or rather, I forgot to offer the conjurer an intelligence check to determine the spell's efficacy. I did remember to test whether the spell had expended a slot and rolled an intelligence check for the conjurer, who passed, meaning the conjurer could cast sleep again that day. I assumed at this point that the characters would have made mincemeat of the bear once it was asleep.

I ran the same encounter a second time but decided that for whatever reason the conjurer wouldn't use sleep. The bear, as a "powerful opponent", easily bypassed character defences, while the characters made some unfortunately high rolls during their attacks (remember low is better). The cleric, for instance, missed all but one of his attacks! Finally, the encounter was over with the thief crippled (-2 strength) and the fighter disfigured (charisma reduced to 4). Both had been forced "out of action" – or effectively killed – by the bear. That was one tough ursine!

Well, that was fun..

Overall I thought the system was very streamlined and efficient. On paper I wondered how the game would flow, but it was very intuitive once I had clarified the quirks of the game. The "powerful opponents" rule made a HUGE difference. Without this rule I think the system would be pretty skewed. Obviously I cannot comment on how higher levels play out, particularly once some magic items are discovered, but I would definitely play The Black Hack again. The rules are perfectly short. All the essential elements that I like from OD&D are there. It left me excited because the rules lite nature allows prep time to be maximised, allowing focus on campaign details rather than stat blocks. 

Thursday, 12 May 2016

The Black Hack: Mini Review for a Mini Game

PDF: $2.00
Physical: £4.00+

Over the past few weeks my G+ feed has been raging about David Black's new game The Black Hack. "I don't need another system or clone", I told myself, "the hype will die down". But then I kept hearing good things and realised I had some publisher's credit on DriveThru RPG. The price-tag for the PDF is only $2.00, so I thought, "why the hell not?". I downloaded the PDF and began reading. It is only 20 pages long, which is astonishingly short for an entire system. I was immediately impressed.

The Black Hack is an innovative RPG publication. It reconceptualises Dungeons & Dragons, distilling it to its rawest essence, while offering some inspired rules variants. At times the simplicity threw me: "this can't be it?". But it is. I think the minimalism would put some people off, the spartan style is not for everyone. Those new to the hobby – those learning the game for the first time – might, I imagine, find the esoteric nature of the The Black Hack ruleset problematic. The writing implies that the reader has prior experiences with role-playing games. Having said that, it would be an excellent option for teaching the game to new players (assuming the GM has prior experience). Reading through the booklet makes me want to run a game. It is simple, elegant, and improves some of the flaws of D&D without forsaking what makes the game great. It would also be useful as an options booklet for existing systems. I could imagine using the torch/rations/ammunition rules in any edition of D&D: it's easier than the traditional way of doing things. If you are looking for an ultra rule-lite RPG, this is a great purchase. 

Buy it: if you like rules-lite systems.
Avoid it: if you froth over Runequest or Pathfinder. 

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Review: Wormskin No. 1

Wormskin No. 1 (Autumn 2015)

Author: Norman & Gorgonmilk
System: Labyrinth Lord (or similar)
PDF/Print: $3.00 / $5.75

It has been a solid three months since I last posted anything. Nonetheless, I have been busy on a number of projects, both gaming related and otherwise. It is shaping up to be a good year.

Before Wormskin was released I remember +The Real-ish Greg Gorgonmilk posting some compelling WIP shots of the cover and interior maps. That, combined with the professed tone and inspiration of the work — folklore and the fairy tale — sustained my curiosity. Consequently, when it was released recently as a print-on-demand product I decided to purchase the first issue of the zine.

The back cover of Wormskin ostensibly claims to explore:

"...the mythic forest called Dolmenwood, a setting for use with B/X campaigns or similar tabletop systems. Each issue will look at various elements of this eldritch realm situated on the leafy verges of Faerie, where austere Drunes rub elbows with weird elf-lords and talking beasts, where witches wander skyclad and armed with sinister magicks to bind the spirits of hapless adventurers. Be wary."

While in a very abstract sense this is true, much of the 41 pages are dedicated to two new race-as-classes (Moss Dwarf and Grimalkin), detailing thirty variety of fungi within Dolmenwood, and presenting a new monster. There is a two-page map of the area, but it scarcely describes anything canonical of the actual setting — "Drunes", "weird elf-lords", or indeed anything much about the kingdoms or environs within the setting. Personally I would like to see more of the pages of future issues dedicated to exploring this very thing.

With that quibble confessed let me tell you about the things that Wormskin does well. While the text may not explicitly say a whole lot about the setting of Dolmenwood it does imply a lot through the articles within the zine. Overall I appreciated the mood; it fits well with the assumptions of my own campaign world, and there was enough within its 41 pages that I can borrow or transplant to the gaming table.

The zine is attractively presented; Gorgonmilk (I presume) has managed to curate the content in an attractive and legible manner. The (public domain?) illustrations fit the theme of Dolmenwood and +Matthew Adams provides a number of pieces, quintessential of his offbeat and slightly creepy style. Andrew Walter is credited with a coloured piece of the moss dwarf which I really enjoyed. The whole work is latticed with small decorative flourishes, like pictures of 'shrooms and the occult-inspired title page.

The contents provide a reasonable bang for buck. The moss dwarf is an interesting class; I am unsure whether they would be better suited as an NPC (indeed, the "Moss Dwarf NPCs" table is rather inspired), but I can also imagine them being fun to play in a wilderness campaign. The Grimalkin class is imaginative too. It seems to draw upon a similar mythological antecedence to my own Werecat class, but fits within the implied assumptions of the Dolmenwood campaign very tidily. 

The section on fungi is an entertaining and practical addition because detailing specific flora is something I frequently overlook in my own milieux. Providing a wide selection of edible, poisonous, and psychotropic mushrooms adds a compelling layer of realism and richness to any world, and I will probably use this section more or less verbatim at the table. Within these three articles the reader catches glimpses of Dolmenwood: witches, woodsmen, poisoners, "demi-fey", "dank woods", and a relationship with the ephemeral Otherworld. As noted previously, this is something I would like to have seen developed more explicitly, or most certainly in future issues.

In sum, Wormskin is worth the money. Whether you are picking up the PDF or a physical copy, there will probably be something of interest if you enjoy new rules and a zine whose setting is seeped primarily in folklore and fable.