Category Archives: Roleplaying
I got my signed copy of Razor Coast in the mail last week (number 68 out of 500), and spent the weekend reading through it. When I originally kicked in for it, I was mostly interested in the “high age of sail” done D&D by Nick Logue, one of the stalwarts behind the Pathfinder adventure paths. I knew Razor Coast was going to be a mega-campaign (over 500 pages) done in build-a-campaign form, which sounds awesome. But it’s even more awesome than that, and really impressed me.
What Razor Coast provides is a ton of interesting set pieces, NPCs, plot threads, and adventure seeds, for two large-scope canned campaigns—one major plotline, one minor one. What intrigues me is that it’s constructed in a very abstract, modernist way, as in I can see some elements of indie gaming rubbing off. Also, more than a passing influence by the choose-your-own-adventure genre.
The book advises the GM thus: rather than come up with one plot and forcing the characters to adopt, it gives the GM a ton of elements to throw in that all lead in similar directions. What you use are the plot threads the players show interest in, the ones they follow; those lead to the different encounters and NPCs, which impacts the way the campaign is built. Theoretically, you could re-play the campaign a half-dozen times with limited overlap, just with another group of players (or even the same group of players making different decisions). An NPC who was at odds with the players one game may be a loyal ally this time, etc.
I guess this sounds a lot like any other RPG, but Razor Coast is more fluid and dynamic than most prepackaged campaigns. Most D&D modules—Ptolus, Paizo’s Adventure Paths, Red Hand of Doom—are very straightforward with plot. The author(s) come up with the linear adventure plot, the players and GM follow it. There are places where players can fall off, where they may not even be hooked to begin with. The value of a canned adventure is greatest when the players willingly follow it, because their characters have reason to. As soon as they try to do something outside the realm of plot, either the GM is scrambling to come up with ways to point them in the “correct” direction, or forcibly railroading them.
Razor Coast has a definite “save the world” goal, but offers tons of options—essentially, the trick here is getting the players to avoid the plot, as potential hooks are thrown in with the set-pieces and random encounters. The design is pure Bethesda-style sandbox set on a tropical pirate paradise, where just about every encounter is a hook for the players. If they ignore one, there’s always another; handling something in one way alters how future encounters happen. There’s a metric ton of developed NPCs with complex relationships and goals, which makes things interesting—especially since so many of them have triggers for ill-fated ends.
What makes Razor Coast the pinnacle of d20-based adventure design is that flexibility—for plot, the GM needs to read through his arsenal of hooks, then can sit back and watch it unfold while focusing on the nitty-gritty (combat, roleplaying NPCs, description, etc.). Player interest and action is the driving force, which makes it seem—well, from an armchair general prospective—more rewarding. And less likely to be an issue when the players inevitably go left when you expected them to go right. The GM’s given aids to track how the story is developing, and encourages them to complicate things and build dramatic tension for the plot arcs.
It’s a sandbox. It’s a fully-realized epic campaign. It’s determined by player initiative. It’s got tons of options and complexities for the GM to throw in. Everyone wins.
Digging through the Appendix N of the original D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide uncovers a lot of lost treasures, books now forgotten save for those in the blogosphere with fringe interests such as reading—reading old science fiction and fantasy novels in specific. Most fantasy fans have probably read The Lords of the Rings and have at least heard of Conan, but I doubt they’ve ever read Appendix N line items like Bellair’s The Face in the Frost or Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows or the works of A. Merritt.
Three Hearts and Three Lions is a bit more popular, in part because its author Poul Anderson is a well-known and respected writer in the field; he’s not one of my top favorites, but his works are always enjoyable and entertaining, and so this has been one of those Appendix N novels I’ve wanted to read. To be honest, I found it highly enjoyable; its protagonist is Danish engineer turned resistance fighter Holger, transported from a pitched beach battle with Nazis to the realm of faerie, a world where the legends depicted in the Matters of England and France are established historical fact—meanwhile, Napoleon is a mythical figure—and where Christiandom is waging a war against the Elves and their pagan magic. So, not exactly the typical Tolkienian depiction of elves and magic.
Three elements in particular appear in the novel and were highly influential on Gygax when he was designing D&D:
Anderson’s world is a pitched war between Chaos and Law, something that writers in the ’70s would revisit—Moorcock with his eternal champion, and Zelazny with his Amberite royalty. Here, it’s a very specific balance. Law is the established, dogmatic order of religion—Holger speculates that Christendom, Judaism, and Islam are fighting against the forces of Chaos. Chaos itself is the lack of ordered rigidity offered by the old-ways of paganism and animism, backed by the royalty of the courts of Faerie.
D&D’s alignment system is kind of a mess to explain, and tends to lead to the most arguments and confusion with new players. Picture an X-Y axis. The Y axis represents a sliding scale between Good and Evil—at their extremes, good is the desire to sacrifice yourself for the good of others, while evil is the instinct to use others for personal gain. The X axis is that of Law and Chaos—extreme Law is a rigid hierarchy of absolute rules, and chaos is unhindered freedom that comes from anarchy. Someone who’s Lawful Good acts with honor and dignity towards all others, while the Lawful Evil character is one who lives for themselves but has a code of honor or works within normal society to achieve their own goals. A Chaotic Good character acts outside of laws and rules but does so for positive ends—say, stealing from the rich to give to the poor—while the Chaotic Evil character is a raving psychopathic murderer. In the end, it forms a box of nine alignments.
Originally the system was just an X axis between Law and Chaos, as interpreted through Poul Anderson’s novel, and Gygax meant it as more of a simple black-and-white choice between good and evil—or, rather, the difference between social democrats and libertarians, between those who put others’ needs before their own and those who live only for themselves. It’s developed a bit since its OD&D introduction, when it was even closer to the book’s “organized churches versus paganism” theme, but the core is still there.
Thanks to moral relativism, we have the conundrum where one side isn’t necessarily a better choice than the other, and the fact that such linear and binary choices don’t account for extremes—our postmodern viewpoint is far less simplistic black-and-white morality, and it can lead to some awkward situations and much discussion. (At least, my mind wanders into that area; most people rely on fantasy gaming as escapism, and so would rather not think about the heavy questions of morality.) What about an authoritarian state who does horrible things in the name of the greater good—thinking of most literary dystopias there. How about the Lawful Good character slaying innocent women and children of a monstrous race who doesn’t share the same ethics or values that we (and our player character races) do; are they evil by association, or is it justified for any future evils they may cause, or are they monsters simply by being the “other,” having more fur and sharper fangs than the races “acceptable” to humanity like elves and dwarves?
Anyways, the core kernel of it all came from Three Hearts and Three Lions, and reading it gives you a slightly better idea of where Gygax was going with it.
Anderson’s protagonist Holger is the archetype of the D&D paladin class, designed around the Crusader knights, holy warriors powered by faith. Several of the paladin class’s abilities came from the novel. At one point, Holger is asked to “lay hands” on various peasantry to heal afflictions and bless them; it doesn’t actually do very much, but the peasants believe it does. He has a powerful horse with higher-than-animal intelligence, hence why paladins always have rules for special mounts—they’re essentially Arthurian knights. He’s a strong, robust fighter who isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with man or monster, wielding sword and shield.
Holger is also very spiritual, on the quest for a holy sword—a relic only he can wield—and has fine ties to purity of faith. At one point he succumbs to his baser instincts, which immediately negates the wards and charms he and his friends have set up to protect themselves from Chaos. That religious iconography becomes meaningless, and therefore fails to protect against a wandering monster set forth by the Faerie kings. I see that as the basis for the paladin’s “fallen” status—essentially, sinning or acting in ways that don’t display the noblest chivalric intent cause the paladin to lose their various powers granted by faith until they atone.
Truth be told, beyond that inspiration it’s a bit of a stretch to see Holger and end up with the paladin. The class itself has always had issues distinguishing itself—if the cleric is a holy warrior and protector of the innocence, why do we need another one? And its implementation has never been a real standout, usually just roleplay restrictions in return for a slew of magical powers, ending up a class without enough staying power or sense of progression to be more than a subpar fighter. But in terms of Appendix N literature, it’s the clear inspiration for what the paladin became.
As far as I’ve seen, traditional mythology puts trolls as rather ornery giants, kind of a racial slur against the Jotun in Norse myth. At one point, Anderson’s characters must make a dash through a labyrinthine troll barrow to cut across enemy-infested mountain wilderland—the same kind of reasoning behind the run through the mines of Moria in LOTR—and bump into the deadly troll in its den. Anderson’s troll is a lanky humanoid with rubbery skin; after a pitched battle, the heroes vanquish the troll, only for its dismembered arm and slain body to regenerate and resume the offensive. The only way to kill it for good turns out to be burning it with fire. Sound familiar?
Holger’s companion and love interest is a Swanmay, or swan maiden, a woman who shapeshifts to and from swan form. You can see that as part of the druid class’s ability, but in the book her power comes from her cloak/dress made of feathers, which seems like it had more of an impact on D&D’s magical items. Of which there are several: Holger is on the quest for the magic sword Cortana, which only a powerful warrior of strong faith can wield—a cross between D&D’s artifacts/relics and its +5 Holy Avenger Longsword only usable by paladins—and early on, Holger makes off with a faerie lord’s magnesium dagger, a nice touch for two reasons. First off, apparently sunlight harm the fey in this world. Second, it reminds me of most of those +1 flaming weapons you find.
The elves and faerie themselves aren’t really the same Tolkien-style elves found in D&D, but the sole dwarf is very much the same stereotype, a short, rotund humanoid with a beard that speaks in a brogue and consumes alcohol. There’s also encounters with a dragon, a werewolf, and a nixie that read straight out of both D&D and the mythology it ripped off, a “hell horse” that’s much like the game’s “nightmare,” and an animated suit of armor which felt pretty D&D-esque.
One other odd note. Several of the Appendix N novels—this one, most of Burroughs’ works, André Norton and her Witch World, to some extent Anderson’s High Crusade—involve modern people transported to another world. Oddly enough, having everyday people catapulted into fantasy realms has never been a notable theme in D&D campaigns themselves, though it was the basis for the ’80s cartoon. I guess part of it is the limiting factor, e.g. you couldn’t play elves or dwarves that way, and you’d lose knowing the established history of the setting. But I find it fascinating that the trope was so loved by Gygax but never really included as an established option.
For a long time now I’ve been interested in running an old-school points-of-light style fantasy game, for no particular reason. I’ve never played or run one, so it’s not for nostalgia’s sake; rather, it’s probably for the opposite reason—because I’ve never really experienced with that style of game.
“Points of Light” was the one thing I really liked about 4th Edition D&D, rolling things back to a more AD&D-style world setting where civilization existed in the form of small towns and isolated waystations, surrounded by oceans of dark forests filled with monsters and brigands and primal savagery. Heroes come from small-town beginnings, or from the few well-fortified city states; they venture forth into the unknown to beat back the darkness and plunder strange relics of lost civilizations—faded empires, shattered races. Help may be days or even weeks away, so life can be brutal and harsh, even for the prepared: it’s the rugged individualism of a new frontier.
In sum, the generic OSR setting without archaic OSR game mechanics. The Hyperborean Tales, Lankhmar, Averoigne; old Weird Tales pulp fantasy meets the Dark Ages.
You can see a lot of the original D&D game in it, too: when a half-dozen men-at-arms is a “sizable” patrol in an underpopulated world, compared to forty or more hobgoblins, it becomes a bit of small-unit skirmish. (As in, wargame.) Hex grid wilderlands notwithstanding. They had this gee-whiz sensawunda, too; stumble into this hex and you might find some dude’s magic arrows hidden in a hollow treestump, stumble into this one and you get attacked by the plesiousaur in the lake.
Actually, I can chart this interest back to when I first played Baldur’s Gate, because its setting fits my ideal bill pretty well. A lot of open wilderness filled with hostile creatures and the occasional dungeon (or humanoid stronghold), with a few scattered hamlets along the way. Candlekeep, seaside resort for rich nobles, old wizards, and dusty tomes; Nashkel, occupied by a neighboring city-state, its iron mines besieged; Beregost, sizable trade city, and Baldur’s Gate, sprawling metropolis of the region. The Friendly Arms Inn in particular jumps out at me; a badass adventurer couple overthrew an evil overlord and turned his fortress into a waystation. Baldur’s Gate is nasty and harsh, a tough slog filled with memorable locales and unique NPCs… it’s how I imagine a great AD&D game would be like. (Not having to calculate THAC0, weapon speeds, or Armor Class modifiers—yep, that would be a great AD&D game.)
I’ve always enjoyed playing the Icewind Dale games the most—they have a rich if subtle flavor (case in point, items) and they’re easiest to progress in—while Planescape: Torment had the best story, and Baldur’s Gate II was the most accessible (while retaining a similar top-notch story). I’ve never really given the original Baldur’s Gate that much interest, despite how much it’s influenced my gaming perspective. Maybe the Enhanced Edition will change that. Maybe if it had been developed enough to not give me fucking bluescreens.
Part of my problem is that I realize it’s not an ideal genre to play in, and besides, everyone else who may be interested in this probably played it thirty years ago—it’s still a major source of nostalgia, and I’d wager most gamers into more trad fantasy have already played this. Plus, OSR just doesn’t interest me—I’d rather run a stripped-down version of FATE, or perhaps (glorious day!) take The One Ring for a test drive, considering Mirkwood matches my ideal points-of-light setting pretty damn well. (Plus its rules are kinda hot.) For the most part it’ll remain on my back-burner until I find the time and interest for it.
A lot slower session, which will hopefully balance the fire the posse jumped out of and the frying pan they’re heading into.
So, a retcon. Zeke’s player decided to retcon the ending of the last session so that Zeke died a heroic death, grappling the werewolf with his last breath, shoving it under the mire with his hammer, and going down into the sludge. This was under the assumption that Zeke wouldn’t want to live as a werewolf, but wouldn’t commit suicide either, so the player figured this was the best route out of a potentially interesting character development.
But, since the party has already cornered the market on Six Foot Tall Man-Mountains What Kill Things, his replacement option—occult investigator—filled about six niches the party was lacking entirely, and was welcomed aboard.
So, the actual session.
Having returned to the village from whence they originated—Troika Sinclaire having woken up in the process—the posse bravely decided to bed down for the night. Troika and
Raizo Warlord Kang decided to sleep in the abandoned saloon, Jeremiah found an old wall to sleep next to, while Sam Steele opted for an actual bed. The next morning, they decided to head back into the woods to search for the werewolf nest, and finish them off.
Sam worked up plans for a Gizmo; the original idea was for some kind of rudimentary Smelloscope, but in actuality it turned out to be an elderly bloodhound which acquired the fucking terrible name of Bingo. Buying some loot donkeys to carry whatever gold and magic gems the werewolves undoubtedly retained, they set out across the woods and thicket after the missing girl, Sam having purloined an article of clothing thick with the missing girl’s “scent.” Yeah, they went there. Pervs.
After talking with a prophetic departed Zeke, and when Bingo returned them to the trains from whence they’d departed, the posse decided there was nothing more of value here and went to Denver, terrifying the countryside with tales of werewolves in the meantime. Upon arrival, Sam Steele assaulted bar patrons again with vintage frontier gibberish of the rough Canadian frontier, then went to talk to his Masonic contacts, while everyone else stayed at the hotel. Bumping into occult investigator Tony White, Sam found out Mr. White had been referred to them by a mutual connecting.
Arriving back at the hotel, Sam berates Jeremiah into action. Jeremiah heads out to his local Ranger contacts, where he’s almost killed (again), and “discovers” (again) that he’d blown up a mountain, killing thousands and resigning from the Rangers over the incident. (Learning Curve: social skills are useful, too!) Directed to a nearby town called Bakersville, one of many affected by the explosion and its ensuing wasting death, the posse headed out in that direction. Sam trades in his lonkies for a horse. Jeremiah scrapes up enough money to buy one of the lonkies.
Bakersville is now a ghost town—literally, as Sam and Mr. White discover. The occult investigator, and Troika, investigate, meeting the groups’ contact in town: a man named Texas Red, who didn’t make it out of the blast zone. Most of the party rents expensive air-filtration suits to survive, and trundle slowly upwards to the crater set in the middle of a mountain range—basically, picture if Mount Saint Helens had been one peak in a long continuous range of tall mountains. And if it was flattened a bit more, and then filled in with debris and rainwater.
So, White questions Red to figure out what happened, and discovers that the guy that Jeremiah, Warlord Kang, and Zeke (along with an Injun and Red) killed—Sherman Henry Miltworth, mad scientist and minor Smith & Robards competitor—was blown out of the world because of something he was working on dealing with tiny particles that exist somewhere in the ether. (You know, atoms.) Also, weaponized ghost rock, and Reckoner-powered future gadgets. He built his mercantile empire on the backs of his mechanical men, sent out to burglarize Union, Confederate, and Canadian weapons shipments, which Miltworth then improved upon using his own pyrotechnic flair, selling the end results back to the warring states. Robots which, by chance, had ambushed a Canadian train and slain most of Sam Steele’s merry mounties.
Meanwhile, Jeremiah gets his suit aquatically adapted by Sam, adds on a Bingo-powered oxygen system, and descends into the lake—Sam conveniently dumps some chemicals in to make the water glow. Finding not much but rubble and melted cannon, Jeremiah stumbles into a vault-like door set into the wall on his way out, which he then opens, and (of course) Jeremiah is sucked into the passageway, snapping his lifeline.
Sam ends up throwing Bingo’s air-supply treadmill into the lake, and using this as a raft, he, White, and Warlord Kang paddle their way off to rescue Jeremiah. They find him in the remains of the bunker, surrounded by cans of P.M. Potts’ Potted Meat Company’s Potted Meats, along with a very dead Sherman Miltworth. Also, his infernal clanking robotic butler, which was effectively slain before it could reveal any interesting plot information. With the butler burning behind them, the posse bravely paddled their way back to Troika, having done their duty and collected some waterlogged blueprints and a probably case of ghost rock fever.
Failing to pay a fate chip to make Bingo a permanent Gizmo, the strain of powering Jeremiah’s oxygen supply is too much for the old dog and he suffers a catastrophic failure of his circulatory system.
So, Deadlands. Three sessions in and we’ve got the rules hacks pretty much nailed down now, namely balancing the initiative system so that the spread didn’t result in either 1.) half the party holding four cards and the other half holding one, or 2.) the entire party holding three to five cards. Our fifth character finally appeared: Troika Sinclaire, former outlaw and ne’er-do-well who was left for dead, suffered a vision quest, and is now giving up parts of the white man’s ways to get back to nature. (So, a gone native Shaman.)
Session 1 – Point Insertion
The characters wake up to find themselves hogtied in a barn, with short-term amnesia and sketchy memories of the last four months. The last thing they remember was a New Years’ 1878 celebration, where they were out drinking and partying—only, each remembers the posse holding different roles (one thinks Ezekiel the Blessed was the bartender, Zeke remembers the Ranger Jeremiah Johnstone handing out drinks, etc.). That and a selection of clues (e.g., props to make up for the lack of plot—photos, stock certificates, and the front page to a Tombstone Epitaph). Easily breaking their bonds, then arming themselves with whatever junk they can find, when Warlord Kang jumps down from the rafters.
So, a note. Four of the five Posse members took a Veteran draw, and the ninja ended up with a free mysterious background from snagging a joker during character creation. His joker gave him Doppelganger—and, being a man of the Orient, the logical pick was Warlord Kang, tyrant-king of his own Shan-Fan (San Francisco) based criminal syndicate and leader of the Iron Dragon Rail Corporation. Pretty much your standard Yellow Peril caricature made flesh. No shit, he looks like Ming the Merciless:
Of course, only two people recognize that he’s Warlord Kang: Sam Steele, Moutie, and Zeke the blessed. So, Sam arrests him and want to bring him forth to Ottawa to be hung for his crimes. After arresting the others for being “drunks.”
Moving right along, the exterior is filled with cornfield and dust, rolling hills in the background, and a forlorn farmhouse. Going inside, they find the farmhouse is filled with blood and some of their gear—the more noticeable and/or stabby parts. And that’s when Zeke notices the dust cloud coming ’round the hills, which looks to be a posse of some sort.
After Warlord Kang discovers some bodies in the well, including an undead girl, Sam demands that they investigate, and rescues a ghost—making the others question his sanity. Having spent quite a while in the well, the riders show up, being a frothing-at-the-mouth lynch mob. Warlord Kang does the sensible thing and hides in the corn, while everyone else parlay. Through much work, they work the leader of the mob down to a “sporting chance” and gives them to the count of thirty before they ride whooping after them into the corn. They manage to escape by diving into a cave the ghost girl shows Sam, and they sneak they way through some caves.
Emerging on the other side, Warlord Kang guts some locals, including some Sam and Jeremiah tied up, and Zeke struts off back to the farm to bury the corpses. As they’ve already been buried, the lynch mob moving home in a well-organized fashion, the posse notes the date: April 4th, four months since their last memory. With that knowledge in mind, they ride off to get train tickets to get to DODGE CITY, where Jeremiah’s guns are known to be held.
They ride on a train that is ambushed by werewolves, and almost all die in the scuffle. They don’t, which is the important part.
Session 2 – Residue Processing
Battered and bleeding, with the train’s workings beyond their ken, the posse treks off to some lights in the distance, which turns out to be a near-abandoned canning factory, property of the E.M. Potts Potted Meat Co. (easily identified by the blue cow on their cans’ labels). Heading inside, Warlord Kang sneaks away, while everyone else marches into the main office, chatting down the sole survivor: the disrupted Bruce, with a shattered arm. Revealing that the head of the company was doing experiments on livestock and Mexican immigrants, some howling in the distance attracts the posse’s attention. Finding himself abandoned to the elements, Bruce commits suicide.
Meanwhile. Having noticed a room full of sharp cow-gutting automated saws, and finding a sleeping Troika Sinclaire locked up in a cage in some kind of office, Warlord Kang stumbles into some werewolves when attempting to avoid the howling things. He ninjas away, only to stumble into some more werewolves. One smoke-bomb later, he starts hiding himself in the ventilation system, and after the rest of the posse got out of the death-room, stumbles onto the werewolf breeding pit, a nest forged out of bones and bits within the central control office.
The rest of the posse gets in through the processing factory’s open doors, which slam shut behind them just as the automated saw system kicks in. Not wishing to go through them, Zeke attempts to kick the door open—and succeeds in bashing open the aluminum siding. At which point he is grappled by a werewolf. As Sam and Jeremiah shoot at the pressure pipe powering the saws to disable them, Zeke grapples the werewolf and beats it to death. Peering outside, they see… more werewolves. Zeke and Sam decide to crawl through the meat trough in the center of the room, underneath the saws, to get to the door at the other side. Jeremiah attempts to hold the werewolves back, but is badly wounded, and falls into the trough to crawl his way to safety. As he emerges, the saws finally turn off.
Regrouping, they fortify themselves in the office where Troika Sinclaire finally awakes. They debate proper strategy when they realize they’ve been trapped by werewolves, plans to climb to the roof are brought up and brought down, as are plans to run out, kill a cow, and drag it back into the room as a werewolf lure. Eventually, they run off while setting some dynamite next to the ghost rock boiler (that Warlord Kang had spotted in his immaculate escape), bringing the whole building down, and causing a massive stampede of cattle that glow eerily blue under the moon.
Regrouping once more, they make their way to the ruined factory’s train, and fending off the alpha wolves and the wolflings, make their escape thanks to Science!.
Outside of town, Zeke asks them to stop because he will not ride on stolen merchandise. Instead, he rides Troika’s horse Swiftwind while Warlord Kang runs alongside him.
Session 3 – …in noctu luna lacrimat
Finally arriving in Dodge City, having converted their stolen train into a steam wagon, they disassemble. Troika falls into a miraculous and eerily session-long coma. Jeremiah goes to the telegraph office to warn the Agency of the werewolves, and gets entangled with sheriff Bat Masterson. Sam gets into a bar brawl with an unkempt man wearing a Lance Corporal Mountie uniform. Zeke walks off to find Jeremiah, and also gets embroiled with the local law, who is trying to figure out why Jeremiah abandoned his roots to become a wanted man who blew up a scientific institute in Colorado. He does send a deputy to get Sam out of trouble, who then buys the uniform off of him.
Save for Warlord Kang, the group opts to spend the night in jail, where it is attacked by the ninjas of Warlord Kang. Attempting to capture them using smoke bombs and knockout gas, the ninjas cause havoc before they are put down. Jeremiah and Zeke go back into their wall-less cells, while Warlord Kang runs off with some of the dead ninjas’ gear, and Sam goes to get the law. One midnight trial later, and the posse is riding back to Denver, to find out more about the explosion they were reputed to cause.
When the train they were on was stopped by a strange coincidence—a stopped, empty, and surprisingly familiar-looking train heading from the direction they are now currently going—Jeremiah is roped into a missing persons investigation on behalf of one of the locals. Heading out into the woods, they find an abandoned mill in a swamp, the tree branches littered with little occultist charms.
Progressing further, they find a stone circle in the center-ish of the swamp, lined with candles, the circle containing scattered bits of feathers and honey. Lighting the candles and filling the area with torches, Zeke stumbles upon a crudely-made broadsheet advertising the Enlightened Order of the Weeping Moon, a Victorian-style gentleman’s club that is very exclusionary and which primarily exists in California, Oregon, and Back East.
While debating their next course of action, a massive werewolf, black as the night, covered in even blacker snaking tattoos carved into its fur, jumps into the middle of the circle and attacks. During the pitched battle, Zeke is mortally wounded, and Jeremiah is battered, but by the skin of their teeth they survive. At which point they hear more howling off in the swamp, and skedaddle.
I’ve had a couple people ask me this, since I have a lot of good memories of playing Classic, and own a surprising number of the books. (Also, I have some Great Rail Wars miniatures stored away for a rainy painting day.) One of my friends actually got a bit miffed about it, since he’s a huge fan of Classic, and wondered why we didn’t stick with Classic Deadlands since it is such a “simple and elegant” system. Well…
First off, there are a number of positive things I will say about classic—it’s awesome, it’s got a unique charm, it’s my ideal balance of style and substance—but “simple” is not a descriptor that anybody in the world uses to describe the Classic rules. I consider Star Wars d6 a simple system—skill-based dice pools, no special abilities to shop for, no derived stats or rolling on random tables, no need for GM fiat since it has plenty of rules depth. It has its flaws (e.g. character advancement power curve, buckets-of-dice) but when you can make a character in about a minute, without needing to consult any rulebooks, it’s a simple system. Dread is simple, it’s fucking Horror Jenga. Marvel Superheroes is simple (roll dice, consult chart); ICONS is actually more complicated in some ways, but also damn simple, hence why it’s a good pick-up game. Cyberpunk 2020 is relatively simple (d10+stat+skill vs difficulty, ye-haw).
Elegant is in the eye of the beholder. Some people consider THAC0 an elegant system. For what it’s doing—retaining the AD&D decreasing scale of armor class while compacting it into a single line chart and simple math equation—yep, it’s much more elegant than combat matrices. But I don’t consider it “elegant” in the slightest. Some people find HERO elegant, though I consider it too math-intensive and way too crunchy for my tastes. d20 uses an elegant base mechanic (roll one d20, add modifiers) for everything, but becomes UN-elegant through the bloat of modifiers and mechanics it feeds off. My definition of an “elegant” mechanic is one that’s effective and streamlined, something that’s graceful (or has ornate richness on a metagame level) yet also straightforward, easy to use. An elegant RPG is one free of unnecessary subsystems and rules bloat, yet with its own style and flair, and good mechanical synergy.
My first thought was White Wolf’s Storyteller system until I realized I was just thinking of the dice pool/system resolution, not the sheer level of fiddly crunch that goes into my favorite of its game lines (Exalted, Werewolf, Mage), two of which have stupid-high learning curves. (Exalted’s rules fit the “ornate richness” bill, though.) Something like Adventure!—stripped down Storyteller, fast and streamlined—I’d say is ideally elegant. Star Wars d6 is one of the most elegant systems ever devised—and I say this being less of a fan of d6 compared to my friends. CthulhuTech’s Framework is pretty elegant on its own, ignoring the weird tier effect when your party is a dude in a two-story living mech, a dude in a killer mythos symbiote suit, and Bob the guy with a shotgun. I hate to sound like a raving fanboy, but my prime candidate for an “elegant” game is Fate—simple and streamlined, yet with a surprising amount of heft to its crunch, and a lot of versatility. Hence why I keep trying to run a real, full campaign with it. Houses of the Blooded fits the same bill.
Deadlands is a crunchy game with three layers of mechanics (dice, cards, chips), with sub-mechanics on each layer. Heck, most things have their own mechanic to keep track off (knacks are new chip mechanics, relics are a free edge and hindrance, spells use different card draw levels, et al). It’s nowhere near the high-end of crunch on the RPG scale—it’s not D&D, or even old White Wolf, and something like HERO, the Warhammer 40k RPGs, or GURPS make it look downright light—but compared to the games of its era it’s not very simple; in fact, it’s pretty damn complicated. It’s a bit bloated and clunky when you have different mechanics for resolving everything, and that can make it user-unfriendly. (Also, it requires more dice than the average gamer owns.) Also interesting to note that Deadlands creator Shane Lacy Hensley found his own game bogged down in combat, and broke out the Great Rail Wars rules for big battles.
Simple? No. Elegant? Depends on your preferences. I think the system has great depth and complexity, but that’s the exact opposite of simple and elegant. I also say it’s pretty brutal; coincidentally, so is Dresden.
Why Don’t I Use Deadlands Reloaded?
I realize most gamers love Savage Worlds, but its popularity eludes me—I’ve never particularly liked the system. (Yes, I have played in it; three different games, two different GMs, somewhere around five sessions before we all got bored and went to another system.) In fact, I find it pretty lackluster and a clumsy mess, particularly Reloaded. Savage Worlds just feels odd when everyone’s a bog-standard human, and Reloaded made it a lot easier on characters in general (which takes away some of the typical Deadlands flavor) while taking away some of the gnarly style/substance mechanics (poker draws for everyone, neat chip effects) that fans had to kitbash into the system. While most (if not all) of its settings and Plot Point campaigns are brilliant and/or unique, the system’s many eccentricities astound and annoy me. It’s something like an indie-storygame but for D&D players: safe and accessible because it can use miniatures and has tactical rules, but is rules-light enough to be considered a new, weird, unique system.
It’s a cinematic game that uses miniatures (being derived from the Deadlands miniatures game, Great Rail Wars); it has a low standard difficulty (4) yet someone who’s buffed themselves to a godlike d12 fails 33% of the time on that die (and 66% of the time on their Wild Die d6); higher-level combat is toothless until someone penetrates a PC’s armor and they explode into meat chunks; its Plot Point campaigns have the bad habit of ruining all the world’s secrets, and even screwing over world-specific races; the early books were dominated by the equivalent of the Microsoft Paperclip, Smilin’ Jack, with his overblown tough-guy talk.
It’s a tactical game where the tactics don’t matter. It’s a cinematic game where it’s a challenge to be cinematic. It’s a generic toolkit, which often leaves things flavorless. It takes parts of Deadlands (most of the rules; die types, card initiative, etc.), Star Wars d6 (wild die and feel), TORG (action deck, health system, test/trick/taunt), and D&D (the tactical parts), throws them into a pot, and Savage Worlds is the result; hence why the mechanics can be disjointed and over- or under-developed. (Why does it use cards? Because Deadlands used them for initiative and TORG had its action deck, and both of those were cool, so we’re using them too. That makes us cool, right?)
For having “Fast, Fun, Furious” as its tagline, it may be speedy and efficient, but I didn’t have a ton of fun, and “furious” seems a bit out-of-place. Unless that referred to Smilin’ Jack.
To me, it straddles the fence precisely at the awkward middleweight position in the gaming hierarchy, enough so that it becomes a hindrance: why not move up a step and play a real game with more developed and crunchier mechanics (e.g. Classic Deadlands, 7th Sea, White Wolf, TORG), or move down a notch and play something more versatile and rewarding of cinematic action (e.g. Fate)? To me, Fate does everything Savage Worlds is supposed to do and (for me) didn’t: you can have fast, furious combat (even on the mass scale); it doesn’t need any more bookkeeping or GM prep; it’s a generic toolkit game which easily becomes flavorful and connected to a setting/campaign; and play is a lot more fun (because of its unpredictability and versatility) while being very rewarding as well.
It’s been a while since I had the free time to post anything, so numerous posts have become backlogged in my mind. They’ll be backlogged a bit further since I wanted to start out my attempt at liveblogging my Deadlands game, and see if that goes to any more fruition than my attempts to liveblog Pathfinder or Starblazer.
So far, we’re most of the way through character creation. I’d hoped to jump into the action last night, so that everyone would know what they were getting into, but since one of the players needed more time to work on their character (and several others needed some polishing) we’ll hold off until next week. Regardless, the party:
- Sam Steele, agent of the RCMP (that’s the Mounties to you and me), law man on a mission, gunsmith, survivalist, and all around badass pulp hero. (Literally, he’s based on a real person, name and all, who would have been as well-known as Bat Masterson or Wyatt Earp had Canada dominated the dime-novel/pulp marketplace.) Lots of wilderness lore and survival, some investigation, a bit of Presence and Endurance, has the only Resources in the party, and uses fists to back up his longarm. The tinkerer is coming out via Science!, and Sam has a couple of nifty gadgets; he’s tweaked out his Winchester ’76, has an armored battle redcoat, and his pith helmet and obligatory Mad Science Goggles peek into the ether so Sam can tell if someone’s lying or not.
- James Johnston (name forthcoming), agent of the Texas Rangers, law man on a mission, gunsmith, Big Damn Hero, and all around badass. The players for the Ranger and the Mountie showed up with very similar concepts—lawman gunfighter, beloved by all, who must help those in need, who tinker with their guns—yet went in totally different ways. The Ranger, for one, went full-bore gunfighter, with tricked out LeMat Undertakers thanks to weird science, though he’s more into repairing his devices than making them with Science!. He’s also a lot more into intimidating people and using his reputation, though he also has a lot of wilderness survival skills.
- Name Forthcoming, witch hunter. The party’s blessed, who is Solomon Kane’s 1870s equivalent. For some reason, we decided he had a stupid big hammer, and the player went along with it. (Not sure if he stuck with the John Henry part that we suggested to make the hammer make sense, but we shall see.) After spending all his points, he ended up with a relic Hammer of the Cross, a holy hammer which smites evil (much as the character). With some decent buffs to tale-telling and talking, he can also distribute Fate Chips, heal the sick, and his mere touch harms abominations. Though he’s not the best at ranged, get him up close and he’ll tear apart adversaries. Though I see he should probably switch some skills to take advantage of his powers.
- Name Forthcoming, ninja. The player wanted Martial Arts in the supernatural sense, and ended up going full-blown ninja—which probably sounds out of place, until you remember that Deadlands had a lot of weird stuff in California, and the Great Rail Wars had an entire faction (Iron Dragon) of ninja and ronin miniatures. So, a lot of crouching tiger, hidden dragon kinds of abilities, buffed up with inhuman toughness, smoke bombs, and a kusarigama. Lots of stealth and deceit and disguising, filling a niche that the party was in desperate need of.
- Name Forthcoming. Originally was going to play a former eeeevil gunslinger who is trying to redeem himself, thanks to some magical trickery. But having two powerful law dogs and a Blessed with the Lord’s Hammer made that idea a bit untenable, so he’s going back to the drawing board and rethinking the concept.
All of the characters other than the Blessed and the last one are Veterans of the Weird West, though the last one was seriously thinking about it. The law dogs got some of the less-awful but still fun hindrances from the draw, though the ninja got a couple of choice ones.
I want to take a minute to point out why exactly I’m so stoked about the Reaper Bones Kickstarter (see last post), which has just cleared its $1,790,000 stretch goal. My hunch is that it’ll easily surpass two million, but I question if it’ll pass Wasteland II’s $2.8 million mark. I’d like to hope it will, but I’m also getting the idea that most people who were going to pledge have already pledged, and increased that pledge multiple times. We’ll see—an amazing stretch goal or two would be great motivation.
Plus, in case you missed it, you can swap out your limited metal Sophie-on-a-bike figure for $25 worth of product. Dracolich, here I come. Unless I go for the hydra and two extra swamp things packs. Or the demons and the colossal skeleton. Or the… sigh.
This fella is a purple worm—if you’re not up on your D&D, it’s a large subterranean sandworm/graboid/etc. that pops up and swallows people whole. Basically, a hundred feet of intestine crossed with a lamprey. Reaper currently has three versions up for sale. I have a Casketworks catalog from when I was last buying metal miniatures—2007—showing the metal version sold for $19.99; now it goes for $27.99, thanks to the rising cost of tin. The pre-painted plastic one (sans tail) sells for $6.99, which is about on par with the Pathfinder Battles large blind packs and non-awesome DDM large figures on the secondhand market.
The bones version (again, sans tail) sells for $2.99. And the detail quality is around 95% of the metal versions, or in other words, negligible for table use. That’s a fucking steal.
At that point, it’s an impulse buy. Not into minis? It’s a great place to start; you’re not out that much capital if you hate it, or screw up the paintjob. Into minis? You can afford to throw 2-3 on to every gaming purchase you make, getting several great figures for roughly the same cost as buying one metal figure. It’s a win/win for everyone, and will get a lot more people into minis since it overcomes to price barrier. No longer do you have to be the middle-aged old grognard to afford an army worth of little fantasy soldiers.
You can do all sorts of stuff new painters do: paint them out of the bottle without requiring primer, drop them, use the heck out of them, throw them across the table, and you know what? Most stress tests show they’ll survive a lot of punishment. And worst case scenario, you spend another three bucks and buy another one.
Because tin—core component of pewter—has increased in price faster than gasoline, thus spiking the price of miniatures, I dropped out of buying and painting them altogether. Not really something you can afford on a high-school/college student budget. Particularly for the big figures, which I’ve ALWAYS wanted to paint; the biggest I’ve done are some Chronoscape gugs, and those cost around $12 for a slightly-bigger-than-normal figure.
Even with a steady (if underwhelming) paycheck, metal minis require a lot more disposable capital than I can throw at them. When the choice is between a $50 book that will see hours of use, or a $50 figure that I’ll spend a few hours painting and use for one or two sessions, it’s pretty clear what I’m going to pick. Slashing the price-point drops “character” size figures down into impulse buy territory, and means that the big figures are priced reasonably enough that I could justify picking one up for a change. And makes me less concerned about spillage/usage from tabletop play since they’re only cheap plastic.
Another example. When I was running Legacy of Fire a few years ago, I really wanted three to five fire giants for the City of Brass, but just couldn’t afford them. This awesome Reaper fire giant king sells for $49.99 ($35 if you buy the lead alloy version), and his minions go for $24.99 a pop. Just for the warriors alone, $100 for four is something I’ll never be able to justify (short of attaining my dream job, managing an orchard of money trees). I don’t see the point in buying one figure if I’m going to proxy three more—may as well proxy all of them at that point. Like I did, using marids and crocagators in lieu of fire giants. But man, did I want to pick those suckers up and drop some painted versions down on the map.
The Kickstarter has options to pick those giants at the cost of $10 a pair. It’s been implied that the Bones will have MSRP about twice their Kickstarter option price, and if that’s true, the fire giants will go for ~$10 a pop. I can justify $40 for four figs; at my painting speed, I can set back $10 a week and be able to afford them without breaking my bank. $10 is an expensive impulse buy, but it’s within striking distance for pretty much anyone who can afford to be a gamer; if you can’t save up $10 a month to pick up a game-related item, you’re in the wrong hobby, friend.
I could go on and on, about the $60-80 dragons, the $50 demon, the $48 hydra, the $35 elementals, frost wyrm, and skeletal colossus. Heck, even the newest bonuses offered in the Vampire pledge level, a griffon and an owlbear, retail for $20 in metal form. From that implied price point, the Bones versions should retail around $8 and $6 each, which is pretty damn affordable.
And that’s why I’m glad the Kickstarter is going gangbusters: it means that next year, everyone can walk into a store and pick up an awesome mini without worrying about the cost. Every “optional” big critter is another monster I could justify buying in the future, because it’ll cost somewhere between $10-35 and not twice (or triple) that.
Though right now I can’t afford half of those awesome big options I want, I’m (mostly) okay with that. It’s comforting to know that I could walk into a store and pick them up later next year without spending an arm and a leg, if I really want a clockwork dragon or an elemental. Besides, it’s not like I won’t have ~200+ figures from the Vampire pledge to paint.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, I’ve never been huge on miniatures for tabletop gaming. I don’t mind a good skirmish battle, so long as it’s not taking the place of a roleplaying session. And I don’t mind using them as visual aids—sometimes it’s just better to know spatial relationships—so long as they’re not a necessary part of play, e.g., you can game without HAVING to know those spatial relationships. But I do love painting those suckers, despite my slow and lackadaisical progress at, well, painting miniatures. It’s relaxing, rewarding, and best of all, you can slap those suckers down on the table a few weeks later and go to town on your players.
But I feel I need to point out Reaper Miniatures’ new Kickstarter, because 1.) The rewards are awesome, and 2.) This is how you do a Kickstarter.
Reaper Miniatures is pretty much the king of tabletop miniatures, ever since Ral Partha and Grenadier evaporated in the ’90s. They’ve toyed with plastic miniatures in the past—I have some of their prepainted Legendary Encounters figs, which aren’t bad—but haven’t been successful at taking their winning metal fig sculpts and bringing them to the plastic field. Until they came up with their Bones line in March, which are white polymer figures—essentially pre-primed and ready for paintin’. Great combo: cheap (polymer, non-painted) and quality (based off Reaper’s metal sculpts).
Currently, a full third of their salse are Bones figs, even though there’s only twelve figures in the line—similar to Legendary Encounters, which only had about a dozen figs for years. The cost to start-up, design, mold, and ship a new line of figures is much slower than sticking with the established metal line. But with Indonesia playing tin baron, the costs to buy tabletop figs have been rising a tad high in recent years. Three metal Kobolds go for $5.99, while six polymer Bones Kobolds go for $3.49. See the difference?
So, Reaper went out asking for $30k on Kickstarter, whereupon they’d be able to get the Bones molds constructed and the miniatures flowing at a rapid rate. Like a proper Kickstarter, Reaper set up a series of “Stretch Goals” for when that bare minimum is hit; each Stretch Goal gives backers more rewards… in most cases, more free figures, or the ability to pre-order expensive figures at a deep discount. When that goal was hit out of the park by Reaper’s fans, casual fans saw the awesome stretch goals and joined in, which caused more backers to join in to get the awesome rewards, which caused… you get the picture. The more people who donate, the more everyone gets. It’s a brilliant idea for generating money, and Reaper managed to set up the right hurdles and rewards to cause the desired snowball effect.
Well, Reaper’s $30k goal was surpassed several times over, and the pledge will clear a million effing dollars sometime tomorrow if things keep up. And there’s another five days left before the Kickstarter ends. Currently, those stretch goals have showered down more bonuses on the heads of backers, so the $100 pledge reward has gone from thirty free Bones figures to nearly two hundred:
Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick. At my slow speed and non-professional paint level, the Vampire reward package is enough to set me back for a lifetime of painting. (Or at least a good number of decades.) There’s also the option to pre-order “big” Bones figures, mostly dragons, pairs of giants, a frost wyrm, a pair of demons, a trio of “spider centaurs,” and bunches of other cool stuff, at the cost of $10-15 per. If you donated an extra hundred to buy most of the big figs, that’d still come out to around $1 a miniature—better, standard Bones usually retail for $1.99-2.99, so not only are you getting them at wholesale value, but you’re propagating the line so it’ll see more sculpts (both old and new) at a really decent price.
I’m a bit underwhelmed by the current “final” stretch goal, since it gives you free dungeon furniture (torch, caskets, treasure chest), but the rest of the rewards are pretty impressive. All the Vampire-level backers getting ~200 figures is pretty damn impressive, as is dropping $10 to get a 5-6″ dragon.
Considering Reaper’s getting a million bucks or more out of this, the cost to make the reward figs is a drop in the bucket; with all that gross, here’s hoping that means the Bones line will explode instead of flounder like the pre-painted Legendary Encounters line did. I actually like this idea more than the pre-painted ones, since it saves me the time and energy of priming metal figs (or painting over plastic ones), even though I’d probably prime them black so I can see what I was painting.
[Update 21 August 2012]
I was being conservative when I said they’d clear a million by “tomorrow,” when what I meant was “in the early-morning hours shortly after midnight tonight.” And lo, I was correct. The Vampire level has added five pirates, five bits of scenery, four townsfolk, and four amazing mummies to the set, and will probably also hit its next stretch goals (four “dark heroes” and four other Pathfinder iconics) unless donations dry up. Reaper’s Bones Kickstarter is currently in the top ten highest grossing Kickstarters (hence why the stretch goalposts are increasing, to pay for all the free minis that need to be made and shipped to backers). It’ll also end up being the highest grossing Kickstarter related to tabletop gaming. Godspeed, Reaper. Make it to the top five.
Personally, while I’m not enthralled by all of the figures, I do like knowing that by early next year, the line will cover a lot of ground within Reaper’s extensive catalog, and do so faster than normal (compared to the ~12 figures in the line so far, the Kickstarter will fund production equal to 6-8 years of normal production speed). Not everyone has use for zombie hunters or future soldiers or steampunk gorillas (or, in my case, dungeon IKEA), but someone else will. And they’ll be able to walk into the store and drop a few bucks to pick up a Bones version.
You know the drill. Lumping two sections together since neither of them is as finished or polished as they should be, but there’s enough here to get a firm foundation. More after the break.