First impression review: Lion & Dragon

I really like the idea of historically based RPGs. One of the best campaigns I ever played in was a GURPS historical campaign. But I probably like the idea a little more than the actual experience of playing them, because so much of my playing history has been D&D.  Anyway I’m always curious about games that claim any kind of “authenticity” or to be informed by historical research, so Lion & Dragon caught my interest with it’s subtitle: “Medieval Authentic OSR Roleplaying.”

Right off the bat I should admit I am generally turned off by main author, “RPGPundit.” He espouses hateful politics and is the sort of self-promoter who will complain constantly about being mistreated while attacking other people shamelessly. So I definitely wouldn’t want to be around him in real life. But there are lots of people I don’t like. This review will, to the extent possible, bracket my thoughts on the person and focus on the product.

The fact is, it’s a pretty neat game. The rules are relatively concise and the layout is nice. I appreciate games that don’t overdo the graphic design, and this has a mix of new and public domain black & white line art. Nice. The system itself is a mix of ideas, like a heavily house-ruled Moldvay/Cook D&D game. The classes reminded me very much of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, with heavily niched areas of expertise. Instead of regular charted progress in class abilities, each time a level is gained the player rolls for a random benefit — a mechanic I’ve seen on several blogs a good 8 or 10 years ago (for example), but one I always thought was a clever way of keeping characters unique. The magic system is significantly different than standard Vancian D&D, with clerics gaining a short list of miracle-working abilities and magic-users (“magisters”) focusing on summoning, alchemy, and similar pursuits. All characters are humans, with northern barbarians and the Cymric being classes in themselves, while other nationalities may choose from the standard thief, fighter, MU, and cleric classes. This all looks good.

Unfortunately the major problems in the game are where it fails, sometimes badly, to fulfill the promised “medieval authenticity.” According to the introduction, the promised authenticity relies on five pillars:

  1. social status is extremely important
  2. monotheism
  3. magic is rare
  4. life is cheap
  5. civilization is survival

The first point had me thinking this was a promising start. Looking back on what I consider the most important attempt at “medieval authenticity,” Fantasy Wargaming, social class was given extremely detailed treatment in both the introductory essays and the mechanics. In L&D, there are just six social classes listed:

  • ex-slave/serf
  • peasant
  • villain (city-born)
  • knightly nobility
  • lordly nobility
  • aristocracy

Clerics, we are told, roll only to determine their origins, but all considered to be of the knightly class on strength of their office. (This is a pretty big departure from medieval authenticity in itself.) A short, vague discussion of how social classes interact follows, and social class will determine a character’s initial background skill and starting wealth. It does not affect how many siblings one has, or how many of them are still alive, or options for character class. It does appear again in the section on law and trials, however.

The description of the “villain” as “city-born” is flummoxing. A villein in medieval England was a rural dweller, with feudal obligations to a lord, and possibly little more than a peasant. If the intent was to have a middle-class type, perhaps “burgher” or “guild member” would be a better fit. This is something other games (like Fantasy Wargaming) handle better by bifurcating social classes and statuses according to ‘estates’ and hierarchies, so that one might compare conscripted peasant to a lay brother to an urban servant to a rich villein, all of similar status but in different spheres (landed/warrior class, religious, urban, and rural). Failing that, the social classes just need to be expanded to a much larger list. People born in a city could range from paupers to Lord Mayor, after all.

Another factor one might expect to impact characters is gender, but apart from noting that females are excluded from the magister collegiums (schools that teach magisters, or magic-users), gender has little impact on a character’s interactions and status. This is partly explained by the fact that the Church of the Unconquered Sun is egalitarian.

And this is perhaps the most glaring problem with L&D. The monotheism of L&D is not Christianity. There are clearly reasons for this decision (avoiding offense to players, opening up more opportunities for female characters, simplicity). But the medieval period was certainly colored by the peculiarities of Christian doctrine and lore, and it is odd that this would be hand-waved. Similarly, L&D adopts the Law vs Chaos moral-metaphysical order of D&D. While this is also described as a equivalent to good/holy vs evil/unholy, the concept of Chaos in L&D includes not just the Poul Anderson-inspired idea of the indifferent or hostile faerie otherworld, but also the Warhammer world’s idea of chaos as a force for mutation. Chaos cults and mutants, and even skaven rat-men are a part of L&D too. This is jarring and odd, but an enterprising DM could make sense of this with reference to the nightmarish art of Bosch and Bruegel and other grotesques as precedent, and to perhaps casting Chaos cults as pagan survivals. In any event the DM will have to determine what exactly mutations consist of, as the rules simply point the Cults of Chaos book for information on that. So in a way, mutations are not really part of the game at all, or at least not the core game. This is a strange decision, but presumably fits in with a marketing plan that requires purchase of at least one supplement to complete the game.

So. not doing great on the first two pillars. How about “Magic is rare?” The strongest part of the game is the magic system. For clerics, the miracle system is enviably simple. For magisters, the magic system is much more complicated but includes a lot of authentic detail. RPGPundit has often mentioned his interest in the occult and it is obvious that much of this section is inspired by occult literature. It would perhaps be quibbling to note that much of this literature is from a later period than the medieval. Having colleges that teach magic seems a little contradictory to the idea of magic being rare, but on the other hand, Toledo and Salamanca were reputed to have the best colleges for magic in medieval Spain. So the Collegium are not totally without precedent.

The aforementioned section on trials is also quite good. The rest of the rules are interesting variant rules for D&D. The combat rules take inspiration from a number of sources, and at times it looks like house-rules for a more combat-intense LotFP.

The companion volumes Cults of Chaos and Dark Albion provide more setting details. CoC is described as offering more detailed information on heresies and cults, including demon-worshipers, as well as rules for chaos mutations. It would appear that the forces of Chaos in the setting are similar to what the medieval Church and Inquisition imagined as the forces of Satan; presumably all heresies are ultimately devil-worship. DA is said to contain more detailed rules stressing the importance of social status, but as it was actually published before L&D it is unclear if these would supplement or simply repeat what is in L&D. DA contains generic OSR material that overlaps with  or contradicts the things covered in the L&D rules such as character classes and magic, based on what I could discern from reviews.

As I haven’t rolled up a character, let alone played this, I can’t offer a final judgement, but my overall impression is that this game suffers from being over-hyped by the author. It looks like a good system with some great ideas, but it tries to be too many things, in my opinion. It tries to be

  • a game for “medieval authentic” play (whatever that means; it is less clear as one reads the rules) in traditional D&D style adventures
  • a game system to use with the Dark Albion setting (which is a sort of mix of the Warhammer Old World with traditional D&D by way of the 100 Years War, with both “serious” and “dark” content mixed with jokey ideas like France being ruled by literal Frogmen) and
  • a game to perhaps challenge similar adaptations of the B/X rules but shift the focus to other modes of play in more historically-based settings, like LotFP and other OSR games that actually push the boundaries of what D&D is.

I feel like it could be used for the first two purposes readily enough: ignore the mutations and frogmen and the Church of the Unconquered Sun for the first mode. As-is it is suited for the second (though honestly I wonder if even the author uses the bizarre Dark Albion setting). But there is really nothing to support a DM hoping for the third option. The DMing sections give no advice on designing adventures, and the “wilderlands adventuring” guidelines are bare-boned tables with a few suggestions for encounters like “bandits” or “wild animals.” Worse, the explanations for the encounters often add nothing useful, such as: “GIANT. This encounter would be with a giant, of the type chosen by the GM as most appropriate for the area and terrain.” And, of course, an entry for Mutants that again points the reader to another book. More information on social interaction-based adventures (such as diplomatic missions, visiting court, travel, investigating heresy, or incorporating the excellent legal system into an adventure) would be most welcome and might actually make the game seem less like a fantasy heart-breaker. Even so, there are some good ideas that might make it worth the effort to polish this into the game it could be.

Published in: on September 4, 2020 at 8:36 am  Comments (4)  
Tags: , ,

Creature compendium by Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr.

Old School Adventures™ Accessory CC1: Creature Compendium

Oh god, not another monster book, right? OGL/OSR monster books are, all too often, crapulous retreads of existing D&D monsters, with maybe a few variations: these orcs are blue! here’s a 2e monster statted out for B/X! purple, cerulean, and amber dragons! another kind of elf, this one lives in the desert! Less than inspired, you might say. You’ve probably got one two on your shelf or hard drive, and it gives you pretty much all the standard monsters, tweaked for a specific flavor of D&D. Ho-hum.

Creature compendium is having none of that. The monsters are mostly things that are not in any other monsters manual. They are not slight variations or reskins of existing monsters. Well, a few feel a bit like reskins, but they also suggest something different. Even the most derivative monsters in the book are kind of cool. I will give you two examples: Dunters and Cyclorcs.

Dunters are goblin red-cap berserkers. Basically tougher goblins, who go berserk like Berserkers, so that seems like a shitty reskin on the face of it. But they also have the traits of folkloric the Red Cap, a specific goblin who haunts an old ruined castle and dips his hat in human blood to keep it red. Except of course this is a whole race, so they lair in ruins and believe they must keep their caps wet with blood. I’ve certainly seen goblins before, and berserkers, and even Red Caps, but this combination of the three is not terrible.

Cyclorcs are one-eyed, overgrown orcs who are distinguished by their slightly better melee skill and worse missile skill; they also speak a dialect most orcs can’t understand. They do not accept leaders of other races, making them more independent than regular orcs. This is, in a way, the worst monster in the book. The only saving grace is that I happen to have a handful of figures that are would be pretty perfect for cyclorcs, so I for one might use this monster too.

And again: these are worst the book has to offer. The rest of the creatures are stuff from folklore or pulp comics that I’ve never seen adapted to D&D, totally new monsters of the sort you might find in the Fiend Folio, or jokey monsters that actually manage to be kind of cool. The introduction explicitly states that this book is meant to fun both to use and to peruse, so: mission accomplished.

There are Carriage worms, which are creepy giant worms covered in smaller parasitic worms. The parasitic worms have a paralyzing bite, and the big worm doesn’t have a real bit attack but can swallow you whole once you’re paralyzed. That is nice and creepy. And it spits a slippery but harmless slime on you. You’re not going to forget this encounter.

A number of monsters appear to be Japanese yokai, like the Whipwhirl, which is a flock of strips of paper that will tangle you up and try to suffocate you. Then there are Revolving beasts, which polymorph continuously into other monsters. These are all solid, and potentially deadly.

The jokey monsters include Ligers (“Ligers are a lion and tiger mixed, bred for their skills in magic”), Rotmouths (the monsters from the movie Critters), and the Mothman.You’ll also find a few monsters from movies (Ymir from the Ray Haaryhausen design, water devils that look like something from Princess Mononoke). But even these derivative monsters are usable. The in-jokes are sometimes subtle (no doubt I’m missing some; but the “Bestial beast” I think must be named in parody of the unlikely names of Fiend Folio monsters) and not all of them are all that funny (Skunkbears). Still, it’s far cry from the full-on stupid of something like The field guide of encounters.

The art is not always great. But as far as I can tell, the author also drew all the monsters, and by the way every damn monster has an illustration. None of those monsters-without-pictures that you skip over in other manuals.

All the monsters are statted out in both AD&D and B/X terms. Those are my two favorite iterations of D&D so I’m happy with that. I’m not sure it’s necessary to give both, since you can kind of derive the briefer B/X stats from the AD&D, but that’s fine. Another thing I like is the index and treasure tables. The index doesn’t just list page numbers, but also gives XP values across several game systems, covering most of the OSR bases.

My main complaint about this book is that the stat blocks are not entirely explained. For one thing, a lot of monsters have a dagger symbol following their name in the B/X stat block and this is never explained (I broke down and sent Mr. LeBlanc an email asking about this, and he said that it just means the monster has spells or psionics or other things not in B/X). There are a few bits of text that either unclear or possibly typos, but nothing as egregious as pretty much anything published for Castles & Crusades. Lastly there is no bibliography or list of sources — a problem pretty much all monster manuals share, so I shouldn’t single out this one. I just wanted to go on record saying it’s something that really ought to be included in every monster book.

I didn’t actually pay anything for my copy — I won a copy in New Big Dragon’s 12 days of OSR Christmas. I’d mention that as a disclaimer, but Mr. LeBlanc did not even ask for a review.  If you want a copy, it’s ridiculously cheap anyway: $2 for the pdf at RPGNow, and print copies are cheap at Lulu (especially if you use a coupon code, right this minute it’s JANEND20 for 20% off; while you’re there look for Paolo Greco’s Kefitzat Haderech and/or Burgs and Bailiffs), or if you’re in the US you can also go straight to the New Big Dragon site.

Published in: on January 26, 2016 at 9:16 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , ,

Dyson’s delves

Some time ago I got a pdf copy of Dyson’s Delves. I didn’t have to pay for it — it was a consolation prize to replace something else he’d tried to send to me and which was apparently lost or stolen in the mail — and he didn’t ask for a review, but it’s only fair to post one now because I have had some time to look it over and have even used one of the scenarios. <Edit: There is also a Dyson’s Delves II? I didn’t know about that until just now when I went looking for links. So this review is just about the first one.>

Anyway idea behind Dyson’s Delves is to provide both a set of usable dungeon adventures and a set of maps, ready to be keyed and stocked (with sheets of blanks provided on facing pages for those who want to keep a permanent record in their copy). Some of the maps and adventures have already been published on Dyson’s blog. They are all pretty good. There is a “mini-mega-dungeon” that was originally published on the blog as “Dyson’s Delve,” and which consists of eleven smallish levels (with room for expansion). This mini-mega-dungeon has multiple entrances, so higher level adventurers could bypass the goblins-infested uppers, and there are multiple paths through the dungeon — the party may need to go “up one, down two” to find everything. This dungeon could easily serve as the centerpiece to a dungeoneering campaign, and yes there is dragon in there somewhere. The dungeon is designed to take a party from first to sixth level. (I have a copy of the “deluxe edition” printed out that I keep on hand just in case I ever need to run something with no preparation… though I’d probably swap out the goblins for almost anything else.)

There are several other keyed dungeons, ranging from single-level adventures to multiple-level dungeons. The dungeons have a variety of difficulties, which is very nice for DMs looking for a quick side-adventure in a campaign, as I am often am because I did not have time to prepare or because the players go so far afield of what I expected. There is a surfeit of first-level one-page-dungeons, so it’s nice to find delves here for mid-level parties. My favorite is probably The charmed grotto (for level 5-8 characters), which I ran  in my home campaign and provided a decent challenge to a mid-level party, but you’ll also find adventures for 3rd-6th level parties, ranging from the award-winning one-page The worm’s gullet  to another multi-level crawl, Erdea Manor.

The blank maps are generally very good.  Anyone who has visited Dyson’s blog will have seen his work, so there is not much for me to add about that.

It’s available in PDF, softcover, and hardback. No-one asked me, but if he did I’d tell him to see about offering in a spiral bound edition, as my experience with perfect-bound print-on-demand has been that they do not hold up well to use at table, especially if you’re writing in them. As it is I guess you could get the pdf and print yourself a copy and have it spiral bound at an office supply store. Or just three-hole punch your printout.

In any case Dyson’s Delves is great idea, well-executed and worth a look.

Published in: on September 15, 2014 at 12:00 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , ,

The tome of “forgotten magical items”. Volume 1, Weapons and armor / by Jon Volden

I just sold off some books and CDs at a used book store (Last Exit Books in Kent, Ohio, a great place) and got enough for some beer money (as well as wine money for the wife, a flashback to selling textbooks in college…) as well as the above.  I saw another copy at a used book store a few months ago so I wonder if someone stumbled upon a storage unit filled with them.

I’d never heard of it before — it was published in 1993.  The interior art, which is by the author is pretty terrible.  He must have had a rad vector art program on his IBM 486 and used that.  The cover is hand-drawn though and an order of magnitude better than the interior stuff (sorry no scans but imagine the goofy designs from the cover here ramped up another notch, more or less looking like the weapons that came with He-Man knock-off action figures).

The magic items are actually not that bad though.  Some have non-combat powers, and some have powers that just plain weird — like the “singing” shield, which compels other magic items to listen and not operate normally.  So basically it dispels other magic items temporarily, but the singing effect makes it unique.  On the other hand many of the items are crazily over-powered (save-or-die effects, shooting multiple fireballs, items +5 or even +6, etc.), making it less useful for most campaigns.  The blurb on the book boasts “over 1000 magic items” and in fact this is true.  It does not even require counting variants within magic item types. That is, the author would not count a “girdle of giant strength” as five different items just because it might be of hill, frost, fire, cloud, or storm giant strength.  There are literally over a 1000 entries, and some have multiple variants, so there are a ton of items.  The only problem is that maybe 1/2 of them are so powerful they’d only be used in a high-level campaign, which means most DMs will have no use for them.*

Although these items are all weapons and armor, maybe half of them grant powers that are not really combat-related.   I really like magic items like that.  Also, there are a number of cursed items, which is OK by me.  I rarely find my players just picking up and trying out unidentified items, since I’m running a version of D&D that has a pretty robust version of the “Identify” spell, but a few of the cursed items would make excellent adventure hooks.  For example, there is an “Axe of hacking” which transforms the user, the first time it is used in anger, into a nearly unstoppable killing machine, hasted and unable to stop attacking until  there is nothing alive in a one-mile radius.  A one-man Death Frost Doom.

There is also an appendix of mostly pointless tables — a % table of random monsters, consisting mostly of the standard Monster Manual creatures, with “subtables” for giant and dragon types (really?), a random alignment table (!), and other similarly pointless tables (all presumably to be used to determine the purpose and qualities of special/intelligent magic items).

There is also a column devoted to an optional rule for “great weapons” — oversized weapons that basically no character can use (you need to roll a height of 6’6″ or more, and a weight of at least 240 pounds, and an exceptional strength, and be a straight fighter class).  It’s pretty hard to see the point of these, if the author really expects no more than one in a thousand PCs to be able to use them.

So really you get a bunch of new magic items, some of them pretty cool, some just Monty Hall overpowered, and bunch of tables you don’t need if you have the DMG, and an optional rule that makes very little sense.  Well, it does date to an era before the OGL (which made it easier for professional game designers NOT employed by TSR to publish D&D stuff) and before blogging (which has made the internet lousy with free new content).

The back of the book promises three more volumes for other kinds of magic items, and while I have not seen any evidence they were published in hard copy, they are now available as pdfs from the publisher “Stainless Steel Dragon”.  In fact I got a PDF copy of the “Volonder megadungeon”** a few years ago (I am no longer sure if that was a prize from some online contest, or part of a bundle I bought to benefit Doctors without Borders back when Pakistan had that terrible earthquake) and I thought it was sort of neat although it also suffered from terrible vector graphics.  It looks like Mr. Volden is still cranking out D&D material, and you can find more stuff on the usual RPG-pdf-selling sites, e.g. .  The covers of his works give a good sense of the vector graphics he uses, although he is also a photographer and uses bikini-clad models for covers now.  He also has a few things on, such as a pair of books of riddles (which judging by the sample riddles and reviews are pretty horrible and were thrown together to cash in on interest in riddles following the latest film of The Hobbit).

So, I’m not exactly disappointed with the book I got, since I saw it as just as much a curiosity as a game aid, and as I write this I see Mr. Volden even signed this copy, so if you can pick up a copy dirt-cheap go for it.  On the other hand you can get three compilations of unique magic items that are at least as imaginative at Lord Gwydion’s blog.  So I’d skip the Tome of forgotten magic items unless you are just into seeing some DIY stuff from before the golden age of the OGL, the OSR, and blogging.


*Ah, but I guess the author would.  He apparently has been running one campaign since 1982 which has taken his players to 30th level:

**Yes, his adventures and maps all appear to use made-up names that are based on his name.  “Voldaria,” “Age of Volondor,” etc.

Published in: on November 26, 2013 at 9:35 am  Leave a Comment  

13th Age playtest

I haven’t posted a session summary or much of anything about the campaign I’ve been running lately, although we’ve been playing pretty much every week.  I just haven’t had a lot of time and one of the players has been keeping a log of the sessions that he sends around via email.  I really ought to have been posting those — they are funny and concise, and it might be interesting to add the DM’s comments where they are not spoilers.

Anyway, having been swamped with work and stuff around the house and so on, I decided to put the campaign on hiatus for a while and take a break from DMing.  In the meantime the group will be trying out a bunch of games, and I hope someone will take over DMing at least for a while until I get my DM mojo back. (Time will go on in the campaign world though so that the player’s various building projects and such can proceed — the bard is building a bardic college, the paladin is starting an orphanage/madrassa,  and other PCs will probably come up with other ways to spend their ill-gotten loot.)

So the first game we tried was 13th Age.  Some of us were very skeptical when it was first announced (“The people who tried to turn D&D in a CCG or MMO bring you the 13th Age”) but the finished product is actually not so bad.  We used pregens made up by John, who DMed, and just had to personalize the characters with the handful of things that are unique to 13th Age: backgrounds, icon relationships, and “the one unique thing about my character” (I am not sure I am calling these by their technical names).

The “Backgrounds” were the thing we liked the most.  Instead of a predetermined skill set, you choose 2 or more areas where you have some experiences beyond your race/class stuff and invoke them for rolls that they would be relevant to, by distributing eight “points” (maximum of 5 on any one thing).  So if you took (as I did for my wizard character) “Secretary of the Forbidden Lore Club in warlock academy: 3” I might add 3 to any roll where that comes into play — knowing the names/quirks of other wizards who might have been in the club too, knowing stuff they don’t teach you in Wizarding School, knowing about secret cults or curses, finding a school chum who might be willing or able to help the party, etc.  The rules encourage something very specific rather than general, as this both makes the skill flexible and fleshes out the campaign world.  Old schoolers might see this as an echo of the optional “background skills” from AD&D 1e, but instead of being limited to professions they can be anything.  As I said, we really liked this skill-less skill system and will likely steal it for any future D&D type games we play.  It is about as simple as you can get while still attaching a number to skills.

The “relationships to icons” (or whatever it is a called) involves selecting up to three of the thirteen gods/demigods/heroes that rule the game world, and deciding if they like you, hate you, or have a conflicted relationship with you.  Some of them are “good guys” (The Archmage, the Emporer), some are “bad guys” (the Diabolist, the Orclord), and some are ambiguous (the Elf Queen, the Shadowmaster).  This basically takes the place of alignment.  In fact it really hearkens back to the origins of “alignment” in D&D, meaning whose side you are on, only in this case you might be on more than one side, or opposing one or more sides.  I think of Treebeard telling Merry & Pippin that he’s not altogether on anyone’s side….  There are some consequences of this choice in play, and the starter adventure in the book notes that certain information or goals might come up according to whether or not any PCs have relationships with specific icons.  We did not delve too deeply into this in our playtest.  It looks OK but I see it as a double-edged sword.  Either you use the 13 godlings presented or you replace them with your own pantheon, which means you need to decide if you’re buying into the whole game-world or not, and supplements or modules for 13th Age will presumably use these icons as important plot points, so if you decide the “icons” present are not for you, you might have to excise a lot from any future materials.  I am not opposed to games with specific settings (MERP and  WHFRP are both awesome games IMO) but I do prefer D&Dish games to be more world-neutral.  Then again if you don’t rely on extras anyway you won’t have a problem.

The last bit is choosing something unique about your PC.  Part of me groans a little because that should be something that develops in play, IMO, but remember the game is catering to new-schoolers too, so I’ll let that pass.  Again there are no specific limits (except it can’t be a combat bonus), but the DM should probably treat this a bit like a wish: get too greedy and it will be a mixed blessing.  I took “I can understand the language of animals” (but not speak it) which seemed like it could be interesting but not too overpowered; another player took “Everyone believes whatever I say” (which did not actually impact the session, as there was little role-playing).  The DM excluded logical impossibilities, and pointed out that it could mean the PC cannot lie at all.

Other than these three areas, the character sheet looks a lot like a stripped down 4e character.  There is AC, and a “mental defense” and “physical defense” for avoiding other attacks.  Class abilities might be at-will, daily, or “cyclic” — the last meaning once per “battle” or encounter, but possibly rechargeable during a battle as the “escalation die” increases.  More on that in a second.  Some abilities are “triggered” by certain events or rolls, for example if your roll is even, or you hit last round, or when you miss.  This I think is a refinement of something in 4e but I am a little fuzzy on 4e now, having not played it much.

The escalation die is the main mechanical innovation we saw.  You use a die as a counter, starting at zero, and increasing by one every round until it hits (and stops at) “6”.  This number is added to the PC’s attack and damage rolls as the fight slowly gets more “climactic”.  Our DM, who actually read the book and some of the discussion online about this game, thinks the idea is to avoid the “all or nothing” first round of 4e games.  It certainly does seem to encourage defensive play in the beginning rounds and it does give the PCs a big advantage later on, if they last!  The weird thing though is that it is anti-realistic (in real life you’d be getting fatigued by a fight, not getting stronger like the Hulk), and an example of what you’d still call a “dissociated mechanic” (a thing in the game that does not really make sense within the game-world).

Monsters looked like they were fairly simple stat blocks — HP, AC, MD, PD, and base to hit/damage are all they really need, plus a few notes for any special stuff.  BIG IMPROVEMENT here.  Movement is not really bothered with since there is no “grid” and really no need for minis, which is a big change from WotC D&D, but we still used minis to keep track of the action.  We just didn’t need to measure or count squares, and put them on the bare tabletop.  That was nice.

Anyway our consensus was that the game seemed pretty good.  It is definitely on the “heroic” side: my 1st level wizard had five spells, and could take three good hits from a goblin before dropping.  And yet there is some danger, and our fighter type guy went to zero hp or lower in both fights we played.  The combats lasted about half an hour to an hour, which considering that we were learning the rules seemed OK.  We worried a little that the escalation mechanic would encourage longer combats generally, but it is still a long way from 4e, where we rarely completed more than one fight in a session.  We only played one session, but agreed it was probably enough to get a sense of the game and what we liked about it & didn’t.  So caveat emptor there — a longer playtest might reveal more good or bad or more likely both.


Does this game feel like D&D? Yes.

Is it rules-light enough for casual gamers? Maybe.

Is it crunchy enough for engineers? Yes.

Would I play it again? Yes, but it would not be my choice for a campaign.

Would I run it? Well….probably not.  There’s still a lot of 4e stuff, and you start out as hero rather than becoming one.

What would I steal from this game? The “backgrounds” skill system for sure.

In a sentence? This is still 4e, but pared down in light of the most common criticisms it faced and with a few improvements actually that make it a better game.

Published in: on November 7, 2013 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,


If you are reading this blog, you are on the outskirts of a phenomenon called the “OSR” or “Old School Revival” (or the R might stand for Renaissance, depending on who you ask).  The OSR is not really movement and the only real unifying principle I see is that it is an intersection of do-it-youselfers (DIY) & players of older games (“old school”).  So the point is that while the OSR might not have much in common on the particulars of their game table, there is an inordinate number of people in these circles who are publishing their own stuff.  It’s mainly the ease of self-publishing that made the OSR possible.  Anyway all that preamble is just to get around to saying that I’ve had the pleasure of helping out on a few projects and one of the ones I’ve gotten the most use out of was an innovative little module/rules-lite game called “Out where the buses don’t run,” a free horror game/module written by Dylan Hartwell, aka The Digital Orc.  Since then he’s been steadily releasing inexpensive but highly imaginative modules for D&D and D&Dish rpgs.  The latest is an ambitious booklet called “Verloren : the rufescent and the atramentous.”  (Yes, I had to look those words up.  I’m not convinced it sounds better than Verloren : the red & the black, but then again he’s probably trying to avoid giving a false impression that this is a setting based on Stendhal’s novel.)

Anyway I say it is ambitious because it sketches out a city of 200,000 and its environs, all ripe for looting and the doom of foolish adventurers.   He knew better than to try to give a detailed key of city such size; instead we have reasonably short summaries of key people, places, and things.  No description of the market district and how many fishmongers there are vs. cheesemongers nor a list of inns.  Just important stuff you couldn’t pull out of the air like cults and factions and how they might come into conflict and how those conflicts might involve the PCs.  Similarly there are some adventure hooks, again with just enough to get the wheels turning, a handful of places outside town that will certainly be monster-haunted, and nine new monsters.  About half the monsters look like stuff I’d use in any D&D and half are more setting specific, but all are interesting and/or disturbing.

In other words the booklet has just enough fluff to give the DM a mental image of the place and just enough meat for several sessions of gaming.  After you use some of the hooks and get the players “into” the setting, a competent DM could run with this for a long time.   Should the PCs succeed in freeing the city, it would make a nice base for further explorations.

The big picture is that the once-mighty city of Verloren underwent a mysterious catastrophe that has isolated it and placed the city under the yoke of a hidden, and horrible, master, that the players might identify and might figure out how to defeat and might save the city from.  It says it is for characters level 5-14, which is quite a range but basically communicates that the mission is fairly grand and it may take a lot of ingenuity, or serious firepower, or some combination of the two to solve the problem.

The challenge is that using the city as written will require introducing a large, lost city to your campaign.  I assume most D&D campaigns would be able to accommodate this but it might not jibe too well with a standard vanilla published setting.  Even so, the threat Verloren faces could be focused instead on some city in your game world.  If you are creative and clever enough to run D&D, you should be up to the task.  The only question is, would you enjoy shipping your player characters to a lost, isolated city for an extended adventure cut off from the regular campaign world.  It sounds like a winner to me, but then again my campaign has characters exploring the dream world and the moon alongside ‘regular’ dungeons and a pit that may lead to hell itself, so maybe I am just more open to this sort of thing than usual.

Dylan very generously sent me — with no strings or expectations for a review, let alone a good review — a hard copy. It’s a stapled digest of just 30 pages, counting the cover as it includes maps.  Dylan illustrated the thing himself, and he does a decent job there; if some of the illustrations are rough, they do have a very consistent feel to them of darkness and doom.  At just $4 as a pdf (or $5 for a print copy) it is a good buy.  Dylan is clearly getting better and better at layouts and design and his editor, thank dog, was not me!  Stop by the Digital Orc for more info.

Published in: on June 21, 2013 at 10:23 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , ,

Out where the buses don’t run…playtestish

This week our regularly scheduled DM was feeling under the weather so we played something else.  I volunteered to run Out where the buses don’t run, a module released earlier by the Digital Orc

I didn’t have time to re-familiarize myself with the module, although I’d looked it over last month and had the jist of it down OK… it did however turn out that I’d never really studied the map, and did not recall some important details…

Anyway I decided to try out the super-simple “Optional Resolution System” as the core mechanic of the game.  PCs were handed a d6 and a note card.  The note card was for their character’s name, background if any, and inventory.  The d6 was rolled first for initial Luck Points and then was the die they used to try to do stuff.  Simple as pie. 

The players (John, Matt, Chad, and Aaron the new guy) were all told, they need to come up with a character — someone from roughly the present day, who might be out at an isolated, old mansion late one afternoon.

John made an amateur TV producer, scouting a supposedly haunted house for his ‘paranormal reality TV show’.  His character was more interested in recording the odd events than participating…he even stood by filming while a ghoul attacked.

 Chad made a gas company employee, there to investigate a gas leak at a house where the gas should have been turned off some time ago.  His character had a pack of cigarettes, but no lighter, which was a running joke, as there are no open flames in the house; at least, no normal fires…  He also proved to be the ‘moral compass’ of the party.

Matt made a mute young man, who had been hitchhiking, and was looking for a lift or directions.  He would turn out to be a fairly nice guy, but kind of stabby. (“I stab her in the head, just to be sure…”)

Aaron’s character was a college student, pranked by his friends who told him a party was going to be at the house.  A typical fraternity/party boy type, he only put down his beer to arm himself later on with a dead cat.  As play progressed we realized he was also the ‘doomed black guy character’ in this horror scenario — always going first and drawing monster attacks. 

I was really tickled that everyone willingly made characters with various weaknesses and quirks.  I suggested a few ideas but they mostly came up with these characters, which play on various horror tropes, on their own while I was busy looking over the maps.

I know most readers don’t care for play-by-play accounts of sessions, and I don’t want to spoil the plot for people who might play this module some time, so I just note some highlights and problems.

I should get the problems out of the way first, and mention that we had a great time playing this.  My wife heard wild laughter coming from the basement all night, and dryly observed “You guys were really having a ball, huh?”  In fact the time flew by, for me at least, so I think we were all having fun.  But the module could be better.

First, this Dylan guy should fire his editor.  There were errors in several places of the texts (the Luck Points optional rules give a 1. and 3. but no 2.!); the key (room 20 mis-cites a critical verse from a book); and the random tables (one typo and a few more errors citing the verse in question).  What a mess.

Third, the module’s resolution depends on the PCs figuring out that they need to do something.  The get a load of clues as to *what* the thing they need to use is, and *where* to use it, but the *how* is up to them to figure out.  They might figure this out on their own, but there are a few things in the module that might actively dissuade them from the ‘correct’ solution — notably a cemetery scene that will punish them for doing the thing they’ll need to do, and the larger issue that some of their clues about what they need to do are coming from very suspect/hostile sources.  Nothing that makes the thing unplayable, but definitely a hinderance.  As GM in other circumstances I would have probably just dropped some hints about the *how*, but they seemed on the verge of figuring out, and I wanted to see how it played out as written.

So some of the highlights of the game, for me anyway, were:

  • Aaron’s character killing a cat, and then using it as a weapon until the party slew a knife-weilding witch.  He threw the cat at the witch to distract her, and before that he used it as a ‘cat mace’ to bludgeon a ghoul.  (I made the cat hit on a 4+ but only damage on a 6)
  • The party realized, after killing a witch that jumped out at them, that they’d just killed someone, on camera, and were probably pretty screwed if the authorities ever showed up.
  • The random effects from the telephones and other features in the house kept the party on edge, especially when the phones began ringing. 
  • The module references a dozen or more classic and/or cheesy horror movies, and players noticed a lot of them in play, leading to quick discussions of various movies, Bruce Campbell, etc.  The comedy/horror mood was not really hurt by these ‘distractions’ and in fact probably helped contribute to the hilarity of the game.
  • My inept accents/voices for the various deceased relatives of PCs provided some comedy relief too. 😦
  • The party bravely sent a comatose, helpless pregnant woman through a whirling vortex to who-knows-where… as a humane alternative to Aaron smashing her head with a shovel or Stabby Matt stabbing her to death, in order to prevent the birth of her possibly demon-spawned baby.  Heroes indeed!

I think my one fear, going into this, was that in my mind horror really works when you care about what happens to the characters, and we played this pretty silly.  But I think the investment the players had, just coming up with a character, was enough to make the menace/fear real in places, even if we mostly played it for laughs.  I would strongly recommend trying this out.  I’ve already given Dylan some feedback and he’s planning a revision, so you might wait until the next the revised version if you like ‘complete and ready-to-play’ modules.  By then it may be available for sale.  But if you are willing to adjust a few things on the fly, this is a really fun one-shot game, and would be very easy to adapt to any published horror game, whether or not you want to use his ‘optional resolution system’.

Published in: on December 1, 2011 at 10:16 am  Comments (4)  
Tags: , ,

Old School Hack … a blast

I heard that Old School Hack was kind of like B/X smashed together with 4e, and in fact it is much simpler than it sounds.  Since Tom had to miss the session (his mother-in-law is in the hospital! But she’s doing OK now), we kicked around alternatives and John volunteered to run Old School Hack.  It was a lot of fun — very light and we all laughed a lot.  That is oneENnie award winner I can agree with.*




*Vornheim just an honorable mention for Best Accessory?  Seriously? Awards go to character building software and tile sets and just an honorable mention to a book that is unlike anything else that’s been done up to now? Eff you, Ennies.

Published in: on September 1, 2011 at 10:00 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: ,

Weird Fantasy grindhouse ed. review part three: What it isn’t, what it is

Man, there is a hell of a lot to cover for this!

I know I’m being very unsystematic and wandering around, but recently I’ve been reading the Referee book a bit and it is really, really good.  I wouldn’t say I agree with absolutely everything, but the advice on finding players, using published adventures, examining ‘weird’ ideas to decide whether to use them in your game, running a ‘sandbox’ type campaign where the players have to show initiative rather than be told what to do, and even providing an ‘end game’ type experience that gets the players using all that loot to research new spells, establish estates (and even invest!), etc. are pretty awesome.  Most of this can profitably be applied to any game.  I’m not really a rules junkie or even well-read in terms of the many RPGs out there and whatever advice they offer to DMs, so I can’t say if any of this is standard stuff or just brilliance on Raggi’s part.  But I did find the Ref material fascinating and worthwhile.

The suggestions about ‘how tough monsters should be’ was hidden here too, so my earlier complaint about there being no way to tell how big a deal the lack of attack bonuses for non-fighters really is, are allayed.  The Ref book suggests keeping monsters within the ‘human’ range of AC 12-18.  In that light, attack bonuses are not as critical as they would be if the ACs ran above 20.

So here I am back to the rules themselves.  At this point I think I am finally “getting it” that LotFP is, despite the foundations in B/X D&D, and despite the marketing of the game as something geared toward old-school gaming, something else entirely.  Perhaps the weirdest thing is that on the one hand James Raggi has been saying it is “not D&D” all along on his blog, but also allowing the perception that it is “an extreme D&D” too.*  In fact the bald claim (in the Ref book & elsewhere) that you can play adventures designed for D&D with the LotFP rules seems bizarre, since you’ll probably need, or at least want, to excise or rewrite much of the magic items and monsters in them (see below).  I think you’d be a lot better off using Call of Cthulhu adventures (Strange Aeons, for example) and other nontraditional fantasy games for ideas.  Lastly, consider the example of play in the Tutorial book.   It’s very funny and enjoyable to read; it is in fact a lot like any low-level D&D game, with quite a bit of combat.  The fights tend to go badly for the PCs but it’s not immediately obvious that the game designer expects combat to be a ‘last resort’ or even just avoided when possible.  That is actually a fairly huge break with ‘standard D&D.’  D&D need not be “hack & slash” but LotFP seems to be designed with the assumption that “hack & slash” will lead inevitably to a TPK.  This is neither a flaw nor an improvement but a notable difference, and while certain parts of the  books reflect this , other parts — like the tutorial — seem to contradict it.

The class-and-levels system of D&D is retained.  But, advancement is very slow,  in the senses that:

  1. the XP rewards are fairly low (the monster XP is at the B/X-AD&D level, rather than the much more generous rewards of OD&D  and later editions; the loot XP is the same but the loot is less common and more mundane)
  2. the rewards for levels gained are more modest (hit dice go up every level until 9th or so, as usual, but saves progress slowly, skills progress slowly if at all, attack bonuses go up only for fighters and stop at level 9, etc.)
  3. the DM is advised to withhold magic items as much as possible, and even mundane items like heavy armor are very expensive

So the net effect should be that ALL PCs are a bit “weaker” than “D&D characters” of the “same level”.  This is not a flaw or bug but a feature.  In last week’s B/X session I was reminded just far beyond the pale a relatively powerful mid-level PC is in a world of 0 and 1st level humans.  One PC has a magic weapon that is fairly potent for his level but among regular humans, it makes him a hero, or a superhero really.  That is D&D too.  I mean, a level 8 Fighting Man is called a Superhero, right?

But in LotFP, even a fairly high-level PC will be in danger should the local authorities decide to arrest him.  He won’t have magic arms and armor to make him a superhero.  Unless he’s a fighter or spellcaster, his only advantage will be the ability to absorb more damage than a normal human!   This makes for a more low-fantasy, low-magic, low-powered game.  That sounds like an interesting game, even if it is not the one I want to run.

I want to play a game where the PCs start out as regular Joes but can eventually fight giants and dragons and wield powerful magic.  I want their henchmen and hirelings to be things like shieldbearers and maybe heralds.  I want them to fight a wide variety of monsters for vast treasures, and travel to surreal realms, and all that.  Sure, some PCs will die horribly and ingloriuosly, but glory is attainable.  That, to me, is D&D.

I’ll run LotFP when I want a game where the PCs are more like competent but regular Joes from start to finish; who can maybe stop the horrors from being summoned in the first place but run like hell if a demon or dragon shows up; who will have as henchmen and hirelings mercenaries, craftsmen, muleskinners and accountants; who will fight mainly against man’s inhumanity with a few “true” monsters here and there (& which will therefore be unforgettable!), and explore weird locales in hopes of finding treasures, and travel a mostly rational world in their quest for adventure (where the magical and surreal and horrific lurks, to be sure, but not under every bed or in every hole!).  These PCs will mostly die ingloriously until the players learn to be extremely cautious and occasionally decisively brave, but like Aristotle said, courage is that middle ground between foolhardiness and cowardice  mapped out by knowledge.  No kicking in doors and laying about with sword and axe; more listening, spying, researching, and approaching a dungeon as a heist rather than a home invasion.

I am not down on either style of play, and think both can be fun.  So, I think LotFP:WFRPGe will stay on my shelf  and until I (& my gaming group) feel like a change, I’ll stick with what I’m doing.

Still, the adventures published by LotFP all look pretty interesting.  The short sample adventure in the Ref book is very nicely laid out for a new DM and has a very cool looking mechanic for handling the whole ‘doppleganger’ thing in a game.  It will take some tweaking to use in a game where the PCs have magic items though.

I commented on another blog that LotFP actually strikes me as a recursive meditation on the weird tale generally.  I said:

the “weird tale” involves setting up some situation and throwing in a twist that completely unhinges our expectations and assumptions…and the LotFP game does exactly that– it makes us think it is sort of a retro-clone D&D, but it turns out to be a low-powered, low-fantasy, low-magic game of investigation more akin to CoC than D&D.

I edited that for typos and grammar but I pretty much would stand by that conclusion.  My brother asked me why anyone would use D&D to play a horror-fantasy when there are other systems that do horror so well.  It could be Raggi just loves D&D and is familiar with it and it’s what he runs and the OGL made it easy to adapt.  Maybe on some level he chose D&D as the foundation for his game just because of all the expectations and assumptions in D&D’s baggage, which he can in turn exploit in the “metagame” (misdirecting players) of the game.  Probably not, but it would be pretty cool if that was the idea all along.



*By “allowing the perception…” I mean commenters all other his blog keep saying this and are not contradicted.  Reviewers say it and rarely get contradicted.  I imagine this is not so much that he wants to deceive customers as that doing constant PR and image management online is impossible.  For example, if you go back to the “tell me what to ask the illustrators to do for this last full-page  illustration contest” thing, many, perhaps the majority, of the suggestions focused on typical D&D parties in what the fan base imagined as “weird” or “horrific” or “hardcore” settings … extreme violence, deathtraps, etc.  Almost none of them were concerned with a town- or city-based adventure, investigation, simple exploration, or the like.  Raggi did mention his favorite suggestions and they fall more in line with the non-D&D theme.  Still, even the contest winner did not really understand. 🙂

Published in: on June 2, 2011 at 8:00 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Realms of Crawling Chaos!

One of the prizes I won* in the OPD contest is a print copy of Realms of Crawling Chaos.  I was hoping against hope that I’d get that, because I like Labyrinth Lord a lot, and I like Lovecraft, and although my current game is much more ‘standard fantasy’ than ‘dark fantasy,’ I do like me some dark fantasy.

It came yesterday in the mail and I have only had about an hour to flip though this 61 page tome of awesome but everything I’ve seen so far is pretty damn good.

Nice art, readable text, a complete table of contents for quick reference, lots of neat tables, plenty of new monsters, spells, and character race/classes, and more.  An appendix gives the sources on many if not all of the elements in the book, and the sources are pretty much all HPL stories with a dash of Clark Ashton Smith.  No crummy August Derleth type non-canonical Lovecraftiana, just pure uncut HPL. (Clark Ashton Smith gets a pass because he was HPL’s buddy and has his own weird ideas with nary a tentacled cliché!)

There is a table of d100 random artifact effects, d100 object types, and d100 strange properties for said artifacts.

There are rules for the effects of reading eldritch tomes.

I’m not a fan of psionics but if you’re gonna use them fit in a dark fantasy setting OK.  There are three pages of rules for them that look playable.

A new kind of magic (“Formulae”) that are spells for creating special substances.

And maybe best of all, a four page essay on “Lovecraftian dark fantasy” which really seems to “get it.”  (Hint: it’s not about tentacles and worshiping a pantheon of mythos beings. It is about pessimism and alienation.)

You could buy it as a PDF for less than $5, or get the print version for $17.95, which seems like a very fair price.  It is printed by Lulu, looks good, and is saddle stitched (i.e. folded sheets bound by being stapled in the fold — a very durable format).

I can’t recommend this too strongly to anyone who might want to introduce a few Lovecraftian elements to their game, whether they go full-tilt “Swords against the outer dark” or just want to sneak in some serpent folk or white apes here and there.  On a scale from knobkerry to godentag, this is a skull-crushing tetsubo! (A few illustrations by Erol Otus or Stephan Poag would push this all the way to godentag)

Note that this is not a complete game in itself but a  supplement suitable for use with Labyrinth Lord (original or Advanced Edition) as well for use with any old school version of D&D (B/X and AD&D would be easiest to adapt); I think it would go nicely with LotFP and any “retro-clone.”  It also has some notes for using it with Mutant Future, a Gamma Worldish retroclone.




*The organizers of the OPD contest asked the winners which prizes they wanted, as there were a LOT of prizes donated.  That was pretty damn nice.

Published in: on June 1, 2011 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,
Wayne's Books

Game Gallery ~ Photo Blog

Ann's Immaterium

Mostly physical culture but also writing, gaming, and other dark procrastinations


Collecting, modelling, painting and wargaming in 28mm

Dragons Never Forget

What were we talking about again?

This Stuff is REALLY Cool

Young scholars enthusiastic to tell you about COOL RESEARCH STUFF

Fail Squad Games

Tabletop games and adventures

Chuck Wendig: Terribleminds

Hey Did You Know I Write Books

Save Vs. Dragon

"We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different."--Kurt Vonnegut


Old School Roleplaying and related musings

Hobgoblin Orange

My return to the world of miniature figure painting and RPGs

The Book Reviews You Can Trust!

Dawn of the Lead

Miniature wargaming and the occasional zombie News

The latest news on and the WordPress community.


Miniature Motivation

Take On Rules

Jeremy Friesen - a poor soul consumed by gaming.

Age of Dusk

A blog that only kills animals.

Roll to Disbelieve

"We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different."--Kurt Vonnegut

A Book of Creatures

A Complete Guide to Entities of Myth, Legend, and Folklore

Making the Past

Diary of an apprentice swordsmith

Ancient & Medieval Wargaming

Using De Bellis Antiquitatis, with the odd diversion...

Riffing Religion

Prophets should be mocked. I'm doing my part.


Magazine of Thrilling Adventure and Daring Suspense

2 Warps to Neptune

Surveying the Gen X landscape and the origins of geek

Dagger and Brush

Miniature painting, wargaming terrain tutorials, reviews, interviews and painting guides


A lair for gaming, sci-fi, comics, and other geekish pursuits.

I bought these adventure and review them so you don't have to.

9th Key Press

Maps, supplements, and inspiration for roleplaying games.

The Rambling Roleplayer Archives

This site is no longer being updated. Check out the new site at

The History Blog

History fetish? What history fetish?

Sheppard's Crook

The occasional blog of a closet would -be wargamer and modeller


A catch all of books, games, and sundry other interests

The Weekly Sift

making sense of the news one week at a time

%d bloggers like this: