Wednesday 29 February 2012

Lets Read... Mythus pt2.1

Comment posted by
Kelvin Green Feb 27, 2012 10:22 AM
No sample character? That's a shame!
Well, yes and no. There is actually a sample character in the Mythus Prime chargen chapter. He's introduced to us in the various How to Make a Character boxouts, but has such a silly made-up fantasy name - Kristof (*pshaw!*) - that I simply refuse to mention him. But, as the peanut gallery have demanded it, I'm going to waste some time and effort making our very own Mythus Prime HP for the enjoyment and edification of the readership.

Name: Chongo van der Bheetschtick (he's from alternate magicworld Holland)
Social Class:
5, Freeman landowner (rolled 4)
Vocation: Soldier (Chongo was not gestated in a sufficiently high-caste womb to be worthy of the Cavalier vocation, and I didn't fancy taking a drop in social class just to take the Mercenary career)


(120 divided as desired, min 20, max 60)

Mental: 35
Physique: 50

Our guy is pretty strong, but only average in the fields of finking or praying at things.

(all = base ## + 1/2 TRAIT)

Automatic Skills
Speak Native Language (M) 47
Perception (M) 47
Riding (P) 55
Career Skills
Combat, Hand Weapons (P)55
Combat, HTH, Lethal (P)45
Combat, HTH, Non-Lethal (P)40
Combat, Hand Weapons, Missile (P)40
Criminal Activities, Mental (M) 27
Criminal Activities, Physical (P) 50
Escape (P)50
Gambling (M) 37
Streetwise (M) 37
Survival (P)45
Free Pick Skills
+ 3 Physical Skills
Arms & Armour  35
First Aid  35
Mountain Climbing  35
+ 2 Spiritual Skills
Alchemy*  27
Metaphysics*  27
+ 1 Mental Skill
Appraisal  27

* Skill related to magic use

So, we've basically got a default adventurer type with hobby-level interests in chemistry and philosophy.

Net Worth: 10,000 BUC + horse of 7,000BUC value (127 Physique)
Bank Account: 2,000 BUC
Cash on Hand: 900 BUC
Disposable Monthly Income: 50 BUC

Thanks to the magic of "refer to Advanced Mythus" I have precisely no clue as to whether this amount of cash is good or bad. If the 1 BUC = $1 thing is taken as a given Chongo is doing well for himself if seen from the standpoint of a Gujerati dirt farmer.

Sword (4d6), Spear (3d6), dagger (2d6)
Full Chain armour (12) and cosmetic shield
Hard wearing travel clothes
Rope, lantern, oil, paper and charcoal, minimal camping gear
Minor trinkets and curios

No kit list in Basic Mythus. This is just a default adventuring rig.

Wound Level (3/4 of Physique): 37
Heka (sum of magic skills): 54
Attractiveness: 13 (Attractive/Cute)

So that's a Mythus Prime character.

The massive block of percentile skills reminds me a great deal of a BRP* or WFRP char sheet, and the numbers on offer are reminiscent of starting skills score in those two games. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make me wonder: why not just play RuneQuest or WFRP?

Some of the skills are also a bit odd. The idea that criminal activity is a specific skill set - as opposed to just doing things in a way that the local Powers That Be don't approve of - is a bit strange to my mind. Similarly the sweeping generality of, for example, Criminal Activities, Physical or Mental stands in stark contrast to the very very specific distinctions of Combat, Hand Weapons vs. Combat HTH Lethal vs Combat HTH Non-Lethal.

Oh well, I'm sure it'll all start to make sense as I head further down the rabbit hole... (either that or I'll eventually be found gibbering and scribbling on the walls)

That said Zak's theory that Mythus was EGG's poison pen letter to the goggle-eyed clue lacker element of the gaming world (" 1992 Gary had received So. Much. Stupid. Mail. that he figured there were people out there who needed "sheet" defined and needed "how to roll dice" explained.") is beginning to have a certain horrible logic. I'd hate to think that Mythus was what AD&D was meant to be.

Monday 27 February 2012

Let's Read... Mythus, pt2

Continuing this 'until I lose the will to live' investigation of Gary Gygax's Mythus RPG for material that might be useful for old school games.

We start this post with a two page b+w art spread of humans in 'exotic foreigner' costume posed before fantasy architecture. Pretty cool, would befit Tekumel, Talislanta, Jurone or suchlike. Nice work by Janet Allusio? Big bold headings inform us that, for better or worse, we are entering The Mythus Prime Rules Player Section.

Chapter 1: Creating Your Heroic Persona
Eight pages of chargen? Ok, I've seen entire games with less pages of rules, but we'll persevere. At least the tables and sidebars (complete with faux frayed parchment box edges) break up the relentless blocks of text.

1: Determine Socio-Economic Class (SEC)
OK, this is a little odd to someone habituated to D&D, but makes a kind of sense in an Unearthed Arcana-ish, game-as-simulation-of-fantasy-society way. Social station determines a lot of life chances, and Mythus seems to be a very crunch-heavy, simmy game. Roll 1d6+1, 2 = peasant, non-free, 7 = non-titled aristocrat. No explanation of what use this will be later; no reference to later sections. 2/10 Must try harder.

2: Generate Traits. Sorry, that should read TRAITS
Characters have three TRAITS (allcaps as original): Mental, Physical, Spiritual. 120 points divided between the three, min 20 each, max 60. We get a table that explains 26-35 is Average, while 56-60 is "Incredible! You are as smart as a rocket scientist, as strong as a champion weightlifter, or as full of faith as a saint." We're also introduced to Knowledge/Skill (K/S) areas (aka "skills" to Earthlings), which are related to one TRAIT or another. It takes the better part of a page to explain this.

3: Choose a Vocation

Two columns of blah blah, including a paragraph about how children learn. This is where we first encounter the acronym STEEP (study, train, experience, education, practise), the derivation and meaning of which has bugged me since I bought Epic of Aerth nearly 20 years ago. There's also one small table that contains the information you actually need: 7 classes, their primary TRAIT, and their minimum Socio-Economic Class (SEC) requirement. The next page introduces you to the classes: Alchemist, Astrologer, Cavalier, Merc/Soldier, Mountebank, Thief, Wiseman/-woman. These are pretty self-explanatory to any fantasy gamer.

4. Select K/S and STEEP Points

No, I'm not joking. That's the actual title of the "Pick Skills" section. Mythus loves it some acronyms.

K/S and STEEP are explained again. Then there’s a master skill list. Eighteen Knowledge/Skill areas per TRAIT. Most of the skills are pretty self-explanatory: Boating, Gambling, Smithing, Street-wise, etc. You also have a bunch of less obvious fields like Aptropaism, Dweomercraeft, Tolerance or Charismaticism. There are no actual skill descriptions; those are 50-odd pages away in the Advanced rules, which is massively helpful to a new player. Basic Mythus: SO basic it doesn't include half the information required to play. Was 'crippleware' a word in 1992?

Each class, sorry, vocation gets 10 of these 50-odd skills at a set base score to which is added half the character's score in the related TRAIT. So pretty prescriptive, given the restrictions on TRAITS. Quite how you manage to spread a list of ten skills per vocation (oh, and the news that everyone gets 6 additional skills at 10, as well as Perception, Speak and Ride at 30) over four pages escapes me.

5. There is no section five.
Either there's a chunk of the chargen rules missing, or T$R's legal team claimed that use of the number five was a distinctive property of their most popular RPG, or the Editorial staff were asleep on the job. The error speaks for itself. Let us pass on with no more said.

6. Establish Finances and Possessions
Again, the actual title of the "starting money" section.

A sidebar introduces the concept of the Base Unit Coin or BUC, which is the default coin of whatever setting you're in. One BUC = one buck, and prices are generally based on real world prices. OK, but this does mean that starting cash is going to be a couple of orders of magnitude too fiddly for most people to care about.

How much money do you have? Well, there’s no absurdly simplistic "3d6x10gp" here. *snerk* Oh no. Starting characters have Net Worth, and Bank Accounts, and Cash on Hand, and Disposable Monthly Income, all determined by random rolls derived from their social class, sorry, SEC. On top of this they also have their Basic Possessions: Dwellings, Clothes and Furnishing, Misc. Gear, and GM's Option. We're also told to refer to the Advanced Mythus rules for even more(!) detail.

After two pages of this a disclaimer says "Don't worry about figuring out every last item your HP has right now; all you need to have immediately is a very general idea of what the character owns." *headdesk*

7. Finish Any Miscellaneous Information
A paragraph suggesting that you describe what your PC, sorry Heroic Persona, looks like, and there's a table on which you can roll the Attractiveness of your HP (2d6+8, 1 = Nasty, 10 = Average, 20 = Stunning). Note: no HP is ever less than averagely attractive.

And now we've got our character: 3 stats, a slack handful of skills, and a very, very specific breakdown of net worth. Almost like the game was written by a former insurance adjuster or something...

Chapter 2: Conducting Actions
Two actual pages of text to say "roll d% under your skill K/S or stat TRAIT, or just GM fiat it" and to explain that timekeeping is important. No actual details on travel times: apparently we should refer to the Advanced Rules for those. That is already becoming an annoyingly familiar refrain.

Game time is divided into the Action Turn (5 minutes), Battle Turn (30 seconds) and Critical Turn (3 seconds): HPs can cover 1000:100:10 feet in those periods walking, or three times that running. Easy to remember, and the names are really helpful, because there's no way anyone could ever mix up the names of those three scaling turns in the heat of play.

Any correspondence of these nested turns to the time measurement system of AD&D is obviously purely in the imagination of the reader.

Next Time: Heka, Mystical Force of Magickal (sic) Castings, Combat and XP

Now far into this are we? 20 pages? Oh sweet Raptor Jeebus, that's only 1/20th of the way in.
"Bring us the finest wines know to humanity!"

Saturday 25 February 2012

Untimately's 20Qs

Answering this mainly for my own satisfaction. And coz, hey, bandwagon!

If you decide this stuff early, you are less likely to have misunderstandings and more likely to all be on the same page.
Truer words never spoken.

1. Ability scores? 

3d6 in order.

2. How are death and dying handled?
0 hp = down. GM has a "Dead, Dying or Malingering?" table which is rolled on at the end of combat.

3. Raising the dead?
Can be done. Has complications. You tend to bring things back with you...

4. Replacement PCs? 
Promote your senior henchman to PC status. Else 0xp, 3d6 in order

5. Initiative: individual, group, other? 

6. Crits and fumbles: how do they work? 
Nat 20 = attack again.
Nat 1 = foe ripostes (gets to attack you again)

7. Benefits for wearing a helmet? 
No, but not wearing one makes your head AC9, and I understand you keep important stuff in there...

8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?
Yes, oh god yes. Please, fire into melee, make the GM's day...

9. Run from some encounters, or kill everything in our path?
Invest in running shoes. There's always someone bigger and nastier out there.

10. Level-drainers: yes or no?
Yes, Con drain.

11. Can one failed save result in PC death?
Yes, because actions have consequences.

12. Encumbrance tracking: how strict?
I use the nice and simple LotFP Enc. rules (25 items max, bulky items count for more), so things are pretty self-regulating.

13. What's required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?
PCs gain levels only when they return to town and integrate their hard-won experience as life lessons and new techniques.
New spells/lvl = Int mod. You can sub in potion formulae instead...

14. What do I get XP for?
You get XP for killing, theft, drinking heavily, and seeing/doing new stuff. The last is in accordance with Jeff Rients' XPloration rules.

15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?
Description. If you don't say you're looking, then you probably walk right into it.

16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?
Retainers are heavily encouraged, unless you fancy starting at 0xp when your PC goes "Blargh! I'm ded". Morale is pretty much by the book.

17. How do I identify magic items?
Magic items tend to look magic IMG: the more powerful an item is, the more awesome it will look.
You have to attune the item (takes 1 turn) and then attempt to use it. Command words must be researched (interrogating sprits, sages, monsters, etc.)

18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?
Potions, scrolls and minor charms (+1 to something), yes.
Major stuff, not a chance! You have to take major magic off someone/-thing who already has it.

19. Can I create magic items? When and how?
Scrolls at L1, potions when you learn the formulae. Magic items at L9.

20. Splitting the party?
You can if you want. But expect to spend half your time listening to other people having cool adventures...

Thanks to Brendan for setting these out.

Monday 20 February 2012

Let's Read... Mythus, part 1 of ???

Dangerous Journeys/Mythus: the 400+ page magnum opus fantasy heartbreaker created by the King-in-Exile of RPGs after his ousting from the kingdom forged by his own hand. This here is the first of a semi-regular series of posts chronicling my delving of this ... creation ... for ideas that might be usable in Classic Fantasy Role-Play Simulacra Games.

Why am I doing this? 50% coz I need a break from battering my head against the ever-mutating hydra of GCX; 50% coz Mythus has a kind of "is he serious?" car-crash fascination. It's almost like watching a much-loved celebrity have a massive public breakdown.

Expected outcome?

Quick note on nomenclature:
  • Dangerous Journeys - EGG's post-TSR universal RPG system.
  • Mythus - fantasy RPG using the DJ system.
  • Mythus Prime/basic Mythus - Dangerous Journeys lite. Trimmed down by Dave Newton.

Part the First
In which our hero dips his toe into the pool.

Gary Gygax's Dangerous Journeys Mythus FRPG
Big fat book. Elmore cover. Back cover blurb talks a good fight. So far, so early 90s fantasy.

After the credits and frontispiece proceedings open - in accordance with tradition - with the contents pages. Yes, pages. Two of 'em, in dense two column layout. Numbered chapters broken into sections, then into subsections. This is the antithesis of Chill's posh restaurant menu minimalism and seems comprehensive, if a little overwhelming at first glance. Big bold headings inform us that the first 55 pages (Chapters 1-9) are the Mythus Prime system rules. After that you've about 300 pages of Advanced Mythus rules split across chapters 10-17. Rounding things out are Appendices A-to-M, then several pages of indices.

Next up, the Editor's Preface by Lester Smith. This sets the tone for the whole book by being a dense, unrelieved textwall which causes my eyes to glaze over 2-3 times per column. ("Oh, this bodes well", he said.) The introduction openly compares/contrasts Mythus with AD&D. Supposedly Mythus " like a jam session in which one mythic vision provides the unity, but the individual musicians are free to improvise upon that theme -- and any sort of musical instrument is allowed." There's quite a bit of this, but boil away the verbiage and it comes down to: D&D is class-based, Mythus is 'descriptive' (aka: a skill-based RuneQuest clone).

A brief, ranty aside: was textwall really the state of the art in game books in the early 90s? I remember Palladium books of the period being similar in their layout (two column, b+w, fugly fonts), but not so bloody dense. A bit of checking indicates that two column b+w was pretty much an industry standard, but there doesn't seem to have been a universal ideological aversion to paragraph breaks. The spacing and typeface of the Mythus rulebook says trenchant things about GDW's typesetting and editing departments circa 1992. ("Show us on the doll where whitespace touched you...")

Enough of that. What new horrors wonders and delights await?

Page 6: Welcome to the Mythus Game in a big fat heading. I feel duly welcomed. And then night fell and the textwalls attacked me. Three paragraphs of author introduction before we even get to the industry standard What is an RPG? section. This is followed by a section on The Gamemaster which dangerously asserts that "...a GM must have material prepared for game action spanning days, weeks, months and possibly years of roleplaying activity by the player group."

No! Bad Gary! Stop poisoning the well!

I will speak from bitter experience and say that this sort of thinking is BAD ADVICE that lead me astray in my younger days. It's the gaming equivalent of someone telling you to spend several years at a conservatory of music before starting one's knockabout garage band. Over-preparation kills campaigns in the cradle and discourages starting GMs: anyone who recommends it is not your friend!

It's not impossible that this "first spent a decade creating your world from scratch" advice was actually written by Dave Newton, but I doubt it. The echoes of the thunderously magisterial "...YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT." (AD&D DMG) are classic Gygax.

This shocking piece of sabotage - however well-intentioned, poor advice is still poor - is thankfully balanced by this: "...the time required is dependent on how well the player team operates, how well it uses its creativity and imagination in problem solving." Creativity? Imagination? Is that player skill I see being emphasised? OK, I can live with that.

Page 7: The Roleplayers - introduces the idea that you play Heroic Persona, which is Dangerous Journey-ese for Player Character. Game Premise: A potted introduction to Aerth, an alternate world where all myths are true. Supposedly the myths and legends of our world are bleed-through of actual historical events on Aerth. That's potentially cool.

Page 8: Continuation of Game Premise section.
Heka (magic energy), the underworld of Subterranean Aerth, the interior Hollow World, Faerie and the NetherRealms are introduced. And somehow all that potential coolness just oozes away through the cracks. The forthcoming Mythus Magick and Epic of Aerth products are plugged. Division of Basic from Advanced Mythus is emphasised ("...almost two separate games, in fact!"): Basic is for beginners, Advanced for 'veterans'.

Another aside: Epic of Aerth is all kinds of not good. It's an alternate Earth fantasy setting with no sense of the fantastic. Yes, there are elemental gems, but they're nothing remarkable beyond going up to 11 on the Moh's scale of hardness. Yes, there is a Hollow World, but all the dinosaurs are logically coralled by geological era. Yes, Atlantis, Lemuria/Mu and Lyonesse are all in there, but they're either made as dull as ditchwater or given a lazy-ass 'lick-and-a-promise' treatment. And there are - no word of a lie -16 pages of tables determining how the quality of education in your home country modifies your ability to learn magic.

But back to the matter in hand.

Page 9: Common Vocabulary
A page-long Introduction to Mythus jargon, and to the physical impedimenta you will need to play the game.
Personas: Heroic Personas (HPs) are PCs. Other Personas (OP) = NPC. Evil Persona (EP) = villain character. "There are many other types of OPs as well -- see Chapter 15 of the Advanced Mythus rules for details." I'm not sure if this change to the established nomenclature of the hobby is an end run around T$R's legal department, or if the Cosmic EGG considered it a necessary and useful innovation.
Sheets: a definition of a sheet as a sheet of paper. I am not making this up. There is a paragraph about sheets of paper and how they can be used to record character information. Also an invitation to look over the character sheets in the back of the book when you "...want to take a moment from reading text". Sady this flickering glimmer of self-awareness is soon quashed and we're off to explore the wonderful world of:
Dice: the system uses d10s and d6s, which is nice and simple. But then we get the better part of a page explaining how to roll a d%, d3 or d5. Very... thorough, is the nicest thing I can say about this.
Useful Items: "Besides dice, pencils are necessary for play, of course." *facepalm* Recall that this book was published in 1992, nearly two decades after D&D became a household name. There's handholding, and then there's insulting the intelligence of the reader.

And that's the endless preambling over with. Several thousands of words of text relieved by two generic heroic fantasy illos: a dragonship at sea (by Ellisa Mitchell) and a half-naked barbarian fighting a writhing dragon (subtly credited to Ellisa Mitchell, and thanks to faoladh the Magnificently Chappeau-ed for the catch). These are technically well-executed b+w line work and seem to (intentionally?) echo the style of the 70s Savage Sword of Conan comics.

Nine pages in and we've not even scratched the surface. What was the editor doing when he was supposed to be trimming verbiage?

Next up: Character Generation and Conducting Actions

And it looks like I'm definitely going to need more booze...

Saturday 18 February 2012

Let's Read... Mythus - Prelude

I'll just leave this here, kk?

Draft rules for a Dangerous Journeys/Mythus drinking game.
  • Every needless acronym in place of a plain English word (K/S, STEEP, BAC, FAC, MRCap, FPM, TAD, ACE, etc.): take a drink.
  • Every neologism used in place of an existing piece of gaming lingua franca (HP in place of PC, Battle Turn for Combat Round, Weretherion, Unmortal, etc.): take a drink.
  • Every instance of thesaurus abuse (Heka <=> vril <=> orgone <=> mana): take a drink.
  • Every instance of naked "Increase Your Word Power"-ism (e.g. Agathcacological, Therimorphy, etc.): take a drink.
  • Every paragraph of tangential haut gygaxian verbiage that doesn't actually have any use in play: take a drink.
  • Every column of wordswordswords that could have been precis-ed down to one paragraph: take two drinks.
  • Every page of wordswordswords that could have been reduced to one simple rule: take four drinks.
  • Every clever or useful idea you spot for your game: drain your glass.
The horror begins Monday and ends, well, whenever my sanity finally snaps like a twiglet.

Pic Source: Loneliest Drinking Game drunkenly swiped from

Monday 13 February 2012

[ACKS] Reagents and Dungeon Farming

[note: I'm not saying the Autarchs are "doing it wrang!" in their clever little book, I'm just offering a couple of unoriginal ideas to expand on their mechanics.]

Questing for Reagents/Special Components
Suggestion: Instead of cutting out hellhound hearts to the value of so many XP the PC gets the value as quest treasure for achieving something unique and campaign-specific during an actual adventure in search of reagents.
Benefit to the GM: creating a magic item costs not only time and gold, but actual player attention too.

For example, instead of trawling the Caverns of Howling Flame waiting for the WM check to come up hellhound for the dozenth time the would-be item crafter might instead learn through research (ACKS, p117) that he can gain a similar effect by plunging his half-forged pet project into the Flame Everburning at the heart of the Pyrovaults. Oh, and the Pyrovaults haven’t been looted for a century or more, so it looks like the expedition will pay for itself too.

"Igor! Send word to my companions and round up the henchies. We’re going on a spree!"

This gets Crafty McWizardington out of the tower and off on an adventure; no Final Fantasy-style hellhound whack-a-mole required.

When he finally reaches the Flame Everburning his item-to-be benefits from an XP-value equivalent to that earned in the adventure it took to get there.  You might want to think of this mana (*wince* I know, I know) in terms of 4E's residuum, except not sucky, or in terms of the Tome Series high-value, high-magic planar currencies, but not so fungible. The player gets item creation value directly tied to his character’s in-game exploits.

  1. You cannot buy this kind of mojo on the open market (it doesn't travel well).
  2. *This* particular thing is usable only to create *that* type of effect. Primal Shadow is only good for stealthy items; the heart of a star is good for illumination, prophecy or navigation magic; the fires of Orodruin are only good for invisibility and/or mind control effects, etc.
  3. You have to batter your way through substantial opposition (i.e. have an adventure!) to gain any value from it.

[I’m sure Alex and the lads already have something like this in mind for their magic sourcebook. But this will do me until they drop paper on the subject.]

Creating Magic Architecture
I was reading an old thread on The Gaming Den (caveat lector) the other day about instituting themed Dungeon Heart-style power fonts as features of a fantasy campaign. These sounded pretty cool; basically monster-and-arcane-weirdness generators that popped up in the most dangerous, inhospitable places that could be tapped for power by someone who met the correct criteria. What are the correct criteria? Consult your GM for details. For example, the Master of Snake Mountain gets a bunch of lizardmen minions, can add snaky powers to his tamed monsters, and might have unique magic or lore at his command, but he has to meet some odd fairy tale requirement - like having a serpent's heart - in order to do so.

Although it doesn’t look like the mechanics side of this ever got off the ground it might have potential as source material for old school games that uses the ACKS dungeon harvesting idea (ACKS, pp141-142), maybe tied in with the modified reagent gathering idea suggested above.

For example, Crafty McWizardington wants to set up a regular supply of (for example) necromantic item-creation mojo, rather than exploiting an existing one-off circumstance.  Fine. He just needs to make sure he matches the pre-requisites for mastery of the Well of Forlorn Souls, then make his way there, knock over any existing occupants, and set himself up as the new landlord.

If you want to extend this arcane warlording mini-game further you could even have wizards create their own power fonts. The easiest(!) way to do this would be to delve a dungeon and fit it out to meet certain criteria:
  • Arcane Resonance: First find your site of infamous death and horror. You can’t built a necromancy-enhancing necropolis in the Heart of Sunny Pixie Valley or on the flank of the Volcano of Eternal Burnination: it just doesn’t work that way. The local ambiance has to be specifically aspected to the type of magic you want to exploit.
  • Traditional Design: You have to build it to certain - less than optimally efficient - designs. These might form gigantic arcane runes, generate/run along/block necromantic ley lines, draw and channel the innate qualities of the Void Between, or whatever. Plot out your dungeon to be as awesome-looking as possible, ok it with the GM, then get them peons a-digging! ("The contractor want five silver per cubic foot?! My counter-offer is ‘I’m a goddamn wizard who can kill his entire family with my mind and then reanimate their corpses to work for free.’ How does that affect the quoted cost for the work?")
  • Decorate Appropriately: Sure, the traditional dressed masonry is a classic look, but it doesn’t conduct death magic especially well. You’ll probably have to plate the walls with expensive obsidian and onyx, and trick the place out with baroque skull carvings, bone sculptures and fountains of blood. Oh, and ramming the point home by recruiting some undead for local colour won’t hurt either.
  • Blasphemous Rites: This is why you keep those scheming snot-nosed apprentices around. It is also a chance to break out the Ritual Magic research rules and send the wizard off on more reagent quests.
  • Campaign-specific Criteria: This last should be something unique and memorable: mythic/fairy-tale stuff, like keeping a lovelorn noble scion* trapped there in a nightmare dream-state between the boundaries between life and death. (Maleficent: dungeon-builder)

* Princesses are traditional here, although I'm sure a suitably winsome prince would also be acceptable in these enlightened modern times.

Meet all required criteria to the GM’s satisfaction and Crafty McWizardington reaps the benefits:
  • so much item and/or undead creation mana per month,
  • the chance that random monsters turn up in his trendy new dungeon,
  • he gets to call himself Magus of the Nightmare Labyrinth (or something equally grandiose).
Of course, your own dungeon may - and likely should - provide additional advantages to the player character who owns it. Building your own arcane conduit dungeon from scratch should be a bigger, more impressive achievement than simply wandering over to someone else's patch, kicking them in the teeth and proclaiming "Right! I'm the daddy now." Reward player investment. Maybe building your own thaumo-generator is a requirement for lichdom (or godhood, or whatever) in a way that simple control of one isn't.

Now this ‘item XP for free’ mechanic might look like it contradicts my earlier assertion that such things should only be available as a pay-off of actual adventuring. Of course, nothing in life is free. (No keister-sitting rent-seeking on my watch, thankee very much!)

Your surreal reign as Psychopomp of the Oneiric NetherManse or Arch-Arsonist of the Pyrovaults is all gravy until word gets around and adventurers turn up to trash the place, greyhawk the fixtures, and leech your mana for their own purposes (see Reagents, above). To my mind 1,000XP-equivalent of creation mana a month implies that roughly 12,000XP-worth of adventure-worthy complications (hostile WMs, adventurers, etc.) turn up at your doorstep over the course of a game year. Whether you want to use the standard Wandering Monster tables, or something like Charlatan's (thanks to Blizack for the catch ) Dungeon Notoriety interloper generator, or GM fiat is up to you, but sitting on a power source should attract scavengers.

And that's why you stock your dungeon with fearsome monsters and killer traps keyed to your particular decorative theme: when you set up a dungeon adventure comes looking for you. It’s practically a law of nature.

(Not at all a) Spoiler:
this is totally what the Vaults of Nagoh were set up to do. A bunch of mad wizard kings pooled their resources to harvest vast amounts of magic in various flavours. Of course, wizards being wizards, this master plan underwent phase change from ‘visionary’ to “We meddled too far! AGH!!!” quickly and messily. Cue Strangelovian explosions.

So, reagents and harvesting. You can either repeat some of the most facile, grindy fetch quest elements of WOW; or you can do something flavourful and specific to your game that also answers the old vexed question of 'Dungeons: WHY?!'

Wednesday 8 February 2012

23 Stoopid Answers to 23 Sensible Questions

(JOESKY Tax content at bottom of post for those who don't fancy reading a bunch of egoblogging wordswordswords.)

In accordance with my informal policy of leaving no passing bandwagon unmolested, and because I need to type something to get my fingers limbered up, I hereby present my answers in brief to the open interview questionnaire posed by that odd arty bloke with the eyebrow-raising resume. Thus spaketh the Zak:

Repost and answer. Or, if you don't have a blog, answer in the comments. Or be a big rebel and do neither.

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be?
I don't invent. I steal, file off the serial numbers, and exploit to the hilt. Original ideas are things that happen to other people.
I am quietly pleased with the Chambers of Devouring Night though. I've had to institute a Jeff-style XPloration bonus just to get people to set foot in them, the cowards.

2. When was the last time you GMed?

Sunday 22th Jan. GCX playtest. I learned many valuable lessons in 'theory != practise' and 'the wastepaper basket is your best friend' that day.

"Why did you think I meant critique when I said critique? Don't you know that's code for 'massage my ego subcreature'?"

3. When was the last time you played?

An RPG? September 2011.
Any fantasy game? Sunday 29th Jan.

4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven't run but would like to.

Spelljammer Ulysses 31 using a Terminal Space/Mazes+Minotaurs mash-up system.

5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things?

Scribble notes. Smile enigmatically. Roll dice for the noise they make.

6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play?

Wine gums or hard candy. I'm a bit of a stickler for no crumbly foods (and no glasses!) at the table. Children get food on their books, adults should not. Especially not my books. I will use a cigar trimmer to take fingers in payment!

7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting?

Mentally draining, yes. Hell on the vocal chords, yes. Physically exhausting, no.

8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing?

Pass. It's been entirely too long since I've played in a truly memorable game. We had fun a lot of fun with moral dilemmas in an L5R game a few years back...

9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither?

Everything turns into Nextwave or Metalocalypse in the grubby hands of my players. Everything. Nothing is sacred; everything is there to be mocked, then stolen or destroyed.

10. What do you do with goblins?

Nothing! Any rumours you have heard to the contrary are scurrilous calumnies on my good character. Srsly? Generally they turn into a vicious version of Froud's "Labyrinth" goblins, or possibly L5R's bakemono: funny right up until their clownish antics turn nasty and start downing PCs.

11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)?

A lot of the gadgets and gimmicks from issues 1-24 of "Transmetropolitan" (yes, people still read that).

12. What's the funniest table moment you can remember right now?

In-game: Possibly the First Annual Vaults Spontaneous Mook Convention. You know the situation, it was that one time that *every* WM roll came up a 1 (memo to self: check Eye of Sauron d6 for excessive evilness). Halfway through a pretty standard fight more creatures turned up.
"Uh oh!"
The fight continued. Check for racket: more monsters.
"Fight on!"
Check again (#=1) And more...
(#=1) and more...
(#=1) and more...
Eventually the party clear the area, settle down to bind their wounds and loot the dead. I tick off the turn and note it's time for another WM check. *clatter, clatter* "Hey, guess what lads..."
"Don't care. Routing. Dump the swag. Leave the dying. Devil take the hindmost!"
They hared it back to the surface like rats out of a drainpipe. First time I've used the pursuit rules in a while...

Meta/Tabletalk: The Manifestation of the OmniFred. It was deemed by the usual decision-making process (hubbub and half-heard drunken inferences) that individuality was merely an illusion, and that all people and objects were actually aspects of Fred. Our apprehension of the inherent Fredness of all things lasted the rest of the evening. It got very weird. Thankfully no pianos required shifting.

13. What was the last game book you looked at--aside from things you referenced in a game--why were you looking at it?

Chaosium/GW "Stormbringer". I was looking at it coz that's what was propped on my printer.

14. Who's your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator?

John f***ing Blanche and his scritchy, mad, fever-dream art.

15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid?

No. Only my arousal.

16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn't write? (If ever)

It was a TSR adventure we played back in the day. I vaguely remember it being some "But thou must..." Dragonlance railroad. The players - trained in the school of hard knocks (and sly shankings) that is WFRP - said "screw the plot" and instead set about harvesting wandering monsters for their skin and organ resale value (weasel fur, fire beetle glowpods, Vilstrak gullet gems, etc). Fine by me; I'd only read a couple of pages ahead anyway. IIRC it all went TPK when they decided to raid a Roc's nest to steal the eggs.

And that is why you do not play Dragonlance ever! after immersing yourself in wildlife documentaries for an extended period.

17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in?

Semi-circle of sofas with a large low table in the middle. Side table for refreshments. Good lighting. Instrumental background music turned low. No TV. Phones set to silent/emergency only, thank you.

18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be?

K.A.Pendragon and HoL. One is a serious-minded evocation of myth and literature; other is like someone made the inside of my nasty bogmonkey head into a game.

19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be?

Terry Gilliam films, HMHB, 2000AD, Cinnabar, Gear World

20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table?
People who don't take themselves too seriously. We're adults playing Lets Pretend with our toy soldiers FFS! Punctuality (the courtesy of princes), attention to the matter at hand, and not being a rowdy attention hog are also appreciated. People bothering to learn the rules seems to be a hopeless pipe dream though...

21. What's a real life experience you've translated into game terms?

My fear of centipedes.  Although I've yet to introduce my players to the recurring nightmare of having one hatch out through your eye...

22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn't?

The Concordance of Riskail by Netherwerks - the only role-playing product transmitted back to the Toxic Era by a surrealism-loving insectile hivemind. I would buy it SO HARD! And so would all other right-thinking people.

23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn't play? How do those conversations go?

Lisa (Mrs Chris). Her geekery is Errol Flynn films, baking and arts-&-crafts, she's only ever played Heroquest, and she doesn't read extruded genre product. She understands the appeal of creating emergent improvised adventure stories, but has no desire to partake. All this - combined with a patient, understanding nature and a dry sense of humour - makes her a fantastic 'outside the bubble' sounding board for ideas.



Spell: Deliquescent Transition (Wiz2)
Caster's body, clothing and held items melt into a varicoloured fleshy ooze. In this form the caster may squeeze through any non-air/watertight space at 1/2 normal speed. Yes, they can climb walls and ventilation pipes. 1 Round to dissolve flesh, 1 round to travel, 1 to reform. While in ooze form caster is AC 9[10], no Dex bonus.
Additional complication: encountered dungeon oozes think the caster has a purty mouth.

(yeah, like a potion of gaseous form, only less so.)

Friday 3 February 2012

ACKS Eats 5E's Lunch, Belches Heartily

[All content-creating efforts are going into another project ATM. Breaking blog silence only to post an opinion piece/review.]

Note: this is based entirely upon the PDF version of ACKS, released 01/02/2012.

Adventurer Conqueror King System
Authors: Alex Macris, Tavis Allison, Greg Tito
Format: 8.5" x 11", pp270.
Colour cover, black-and-white illos throughout.

Adventurer Conqueror King System (hereafter ACKS) is a Kickstarter funded semi-retro-clone that basically does what WOTC want to do with 5E: namely, nick the best elements from preceding editions of D&D and kludge them into one (hopefully) all-conquering whole. That said; ACKS does borrow more from some versions of D&D than from others.

Expected Elements
ACKS is basically the BEC- of BECMI, with mechanics rationalised and extended to suit authorial taste.
  • Most of the mechanical chassis - classes, spells, proficiencies, equipment, adventuring mechanics, monsters, magic items, stocking dungeons, encounter tables - will be pretty much home ground to any fan of Classic D&D. Even ACKS' (well-executed) new classes will look more than a little familiar.
  • The integrated 'roll over' core mechanic of ACKS owes something to the SRD. Where ACKS differs is in being a close-ended system: you always roll your d20 hoping to exceed the target number. This puts a hard cap on difficulty and keeps bonus inflation within the bounds of sanity. No one "falls off the RNG" in ACKS.
  • Magic item creation looks to be straight from 3E, albeit with a BECMI-style success roll required.

Nice Touches
There's a lot to like in ACKS, though it does tend to conceal the more subtle system interactions which illustrate its cleverness. I don't want to derail myself by talking about those, go see the games' developer blog for that.

My personal favourite take aways are things that look - at least in isolation - like simple, elegant "I wish I'd thought of that" house rules:
  • The formalisation of the 'henchmen as vassal' idea, and accompanying henchmen-of-henchmen trees as the basis for a feudal structure, is an ingenious idea.
  • Carousing (blow stacks of cash to no benefit) as an XP bank for your next character.
  • Abstract combat you can either keep simple or complicate as much as you like. 
  • Grapple rules? Sure. One paragraph. And you can boil them down further to: "roll to hit, he saves vs. paralysis or ends up pinned."
  • High level magic (L6+) is situational one-shot rituals. No wish-per-day breaking of the setting.
  • Created monsters - wanna make constructs, undead, or hideous hybrid monstrosities? Certainly Mr Mad Wizard, here are the rules. Go crazy you cackling maniac you...
  • Tapping the faith of the masses and/or sacrificing them on unholy altars for magic makes Cleric happy.
  • Hijinks and skullduggery rules for when the Thief gets back to civilisation.
  • Build dungeons, then exploit their monster infestations for XP and reagents.
  • Rule tribal humanoid domains (poor and backward, but swarming with Orcy cannon fodder).
  • Gain XP from your profits as a merchant prince, feudal lord or arcane experimenter, but only over a certain threshold (dependent on character level). You can do much more than just adventure, but adventuring still gives the best XP return on effort invested.
  • All magic items require reagents in their creation.
  • Formalised rules for creating PCs above level 1, along with equipment, batcaves, and accompanying cadres of vassals and pet monsters.
  • Sharktipedes.

My ACKS niggles are totally matters of taste. What bugs me will probably make the next gamer priapic with joy.
  • The sections on arbitrage trading, generating a setting, determining local trade goods and suchlike are comprehensive and appear to scale well. But they are a bit, well, spreadsheety for my tastes. Less BECMI domain system, more Birthright-style abstraction would have been nice here. But then I consider anything more complex than counting on my fingers just too damn fiddly.
  • My old bete noire of Treasure Types ("Five types of coin? GTFO!") rear their ugly head, albeit rationalised somewhat for the 2010s. Type A is least valuable, R most. Statistical average value is given right there on the table. Supplementary gem, jewellery and "replace cash type with equivalent value in trade goods" sub-tables are good. The same treature types are used to generate monster swag and dungeon loot. Believe me, it's high praise when I say that I probably hate this take on Treasure Types the least.
  • The suggested magic item reagents are sadly WoW-esque ("bring me a dozen troll hearts") rather than mythic ("bring me the sound of a shadow"). But that's easily amended...
  • I'd love to have seen some of the inevitable D&D standby monsters - especially the interchangeable humanoids ("Kobold, Goblin, Morlock, Orc, Hobgoblin, Gnoll, Neanderthal..." *snore*), scaling animals (bears, big cats, crocs, non-giant snakes, rodents, birds of prey, etc.) and niche-encroaching wastes of space (*cough* hippogriff, caecilian) - dropped or rationalised in favour of new Auran Empire beasties.
  • I know the writers were limited by page count, but it would have been nice if they'd been able to include a couple of their excellent ACKS blog articles (economics from the ground up, the magic ratio of worldbuilding, etc.) in the book as sidebars. It would have made some of the figures generated by the system a little more transparent to the casual reader. Don't hide the clever, dammit!

Easter Eggs
Things that tickled me, because I am small of brain and easily pleased.
  • I'm not sure why a sheep (80lbs) is considered a form of lodging (p42). I don't know, and I don't want to know.
  • Spotted on the ACKS patron list: the name Mike Mearls. Nah. It couldn’t be that Mike Mearls, surely? Must be some other guy. ;)

Is ACKS worth the money? Well, it's no Vornheim in terms of immediate open-and-play utility (what is?), but I still bought it sight unseen on the strength of a few developer articles. The lads at Autarch talked a good fight, and they delivered. The book appears well laid-out, well cross-referenced, the writing is clear and coherent, the artwork thematically unified without being straitjacketed by a corporate 'house style'.

Issues of taste and "I wouldn't have done it like that" aside ACKS is a damn fine distillation and extension of Classic D&D. The writers manage to integrate the rulership end game into the main killing-and-theft game without having the economy go to pot. As anyone who's played 3E knows: that's an achievement in itself.

So, ACKS scales all the way up without breaking, gives us new mechanical toys to play with, and it still looks like D&D. Your move WOTC...
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