#RPGaDAY 4: Most Recent RPG Purchase

#RPGaDAY prompts.

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My role-playing purchases have dwindled precipitously in the past few years. I recognized that I was buying far more books than I had energy even to read, let alone put to use in role-playing campaigns. Additionally, I noticed I was buying books covering basically the same topics and rules niches: mechanically light, historical or modern fantasy, etc. How many times did I need to buy a book telling me how to run a game about wizards and vampires in a variation of our world? So I shifted from “that sounds interesting, I’ll buy it” to watching a few particular writers’ output for items of note. So up until now, the last role-playing purchase I made was probably nearly two years ago, when Night’s Black Agents came out.

GURPS Horror: The Madness Dossier cover.Bearing that in mind, how surprising is it that my most recent acquisition was the recently released standalone edition of Kenneth Hite’s The Madness Dossier? It’s an analogue of the real world, in which the survivors of a temporal cataclysm try to wrest history as we know back to the way they know it, where humanity is ground under the heel of godlike beings who control the very means of thought and perception with hard-coded neurolinguistic programming, a la Snow Crash. So naturally humanity fights back, using the enemy’s own weapons against them, while searching for more information about the lost history and how to ensure it stays lost.

Madness Dossier started out as a mini-setting in the third edition of GURPS Horror, with a handful of pages of text, some lightly sketched antagonists and plot seeds. I dug it a lot — albeit knowing all the time I’d never run it as dark as it was written. Instead, I seized on the idea of crossing the setting with GURPS Cabal. The reality quake and slumbering deities of History B made their way into the Broken Spokes campaign I wrote up notes for, where the Annunaku of Madness Dossier become the fallen archangels of the First Creation, and the reality quake took the form of the biblical deluge that flushed them out of the cosmos.

The campaign frame never really took off, even as one-shot scenarios, in part because I never felt inventive enough to expand Madness Dossier or Cabal sufficiently to run a game. Now the expanded edition has far more content about what neurolinguistic programming looks like mechanically, the antagonists that members of Project SANDMAN might encounter and what it is they do, to call back the old quandary about Mage: the Ascension. And because I can’t let life be simple, of course, I’m mentally making notes about how to port the setting over to Conspiracy X 2.0, to reach that trifecta of modern fantasy in a low crunch rules structure.

[RPG Blog Carnival] Pimp a Game: Northern Crown

rpgblogcarnivallogoIn this carnival of sharing our under-loved favorite role-playing games, I’d like to talk about Northern Crown.

Picture a history of the world mostly as we know it, but painted with the palette of d20 Dungeons & Dragons. Amid the hardworking artisans and farmers of Uropa stride adventurers: trained soldiers, paladins of God, wizards and more.

The powers of western Uropa have turned their gaze to the west, where a massive, uncharted land, called Northern Crown for the distinctive constellation in its night sky, has been found by explorers. Those Uropan nations have unsurprisingly taken to the prospect of new, open lands with alacrity, settling all up and down Northern Crown’s eastern coast.

Of course, Northern Crown isn’t empty of inhabitants at all. Wild, fantastic beasts dwell here: catamounts, horned serpents, stony elementals, fairies and more. Moreover, people live here. The nations of the First Ones span the landscape, blending into the existing environment that most Uropan settlements don’t. As you can tell, it’s a match for the ages as the First Ones struggle against foreign interlopers in their lands.

Northern Crown stands out from other fantasy settings in several ways for me, who’s accustomed to most fantasy settings being “Okay, it’s pretty much standard Dungeons & Dragons, but darker!”:

  • Anachronistic alternate history. Part of the world’s charm is it’s not only an alternate history of the world as we know it, plus magic, fell beasts and all that, plus it’s the greatest hits of renaissance/reformation Europe and colonial America. Fantasy Thomas Jefferson and Wizardly Ben Franklin lead a nation of freethinkers in the 17th century, while exiled King Charles plots against the half-fey Gloriana reigning over Albion.
  • Humans only. The dominant sentient species in Northern Crown are humans. There are fairies and outsiders, but they start off as non-player races. There are no elves or dwarves, etc. Replacing the racial axis in the Cartesian grid system of character creation is culture. Players choose a culture in which their character grew up and receive feats and abilities based on what that culture values. Albions learn minor glamer magics, Vinlanders train for the life of a sea wolf and Sophians prize education and reason.
  • Straddling the divide between medievalism and industry. True to its historical roots, Northern Crown incorporates advances in technology from the default pseudo-medievalism of Dungeons & Dragons. Firearms are relatively common, though the rules as written make them more of a pain than they’re worth, which is how I think the designer wanted them. The apex of melee combat is fencing, more intricately developed than the art of swinging a greatsword. Natural philosophers have begun to categorize and plumb the depths of phenomena observed in the world — they’re mechanically a kind of spellcaster that relies on specific tools, but the process and effects are wholly scientific.

To the goal of getting Northern Crown into the game-playing public’s eye, in December I began the project of extracting the setting’s declared open content — so wonderfully much of it; indeed, nearly everything — and updating it to Pathfinder, presenting it in the style of d20pfsrd.com. You’ll find Project Boreas, currently a work in progress, available for perusal and populated with ever more material for exploring the lands of Corona Borealis.

Updating the source material to Pathfinder has been interesting. So far I’ve focused on things that don’t need a lot of change. But I’m coming to the point where Northern Crown‘s unique classes — agent, natural philosopher, rake, raider, soldier and witch, namely — need attention. Sometimes, there’s a Pathfinder class or archetype that does most of the job, or there are already written class features that can transport over pretty well. The question is: when is it worth making a change to something already written?

My own inclination is to change as little of the source material as possible. Let GMs and players make their own decisions. Some things, like upgrading a class’ hit die, are no-brainers. Northern Crown‘s unique classes also need level 20 capstone abilities. Other things, like the fencing rules, perplex me. They were written before the codification of combat maneuvers into CMB and and CMD rolls. How does one gauge the utility of a hilt smash or rondo against the venerable charge and bull rush? Plus, there shouldn’t be a feat to gain access to fencing moves. So either all the classes that get Fencing for free either need a new free feat, or that Fencing feat gives a CMB bonus to fencing maneuvers; CMB bonuses are reportedly rare as hen’s teeth in Pathfinder, outside the cad. I may like Pathfinder, but I certainly don’t have the level of system mastery to know when tugging on a string knocks down a load-bearing column on the far side of the rules complex.

Fun questions, right? That’s what I’ll plug away at as I can for the next few months. Spending more time observing conversation on the Paizo forums has proven very instructive in getting a read on things that are considered vital, over-powered or lackluster in the eyes of forum-going players.

All this game mechanic work is in service to running a Northern Crown game someday, of course; hopefully after we finish Carrion Crown. Picture it: the hard-set Free Republic of Vermont lies in the nebulous marches between Nouvelle France and Nieu Amsterdam, antagonistic Uropan powers, sharing that contested space with First Ones bands and the fantastic fauna of Northern Crown. After a rough winter, its citizens — some of whom may not agree that they “belong” to any such republic — need new leaders to succeed the aging Ira Cole, chief of the Green Mountain Rangers. Leaders who ought to be handy with swords, flintlocks and spells to defend their lands and neighbors.

Some REALLY atypical RPG settings

A post over at Topless Robot listed some good “atypical” RPG settings. You know, like Paranoia, Toon, and . . . Traveller? Pendragon? Wait, those are supposed to be weird?

Weak sauce, gentlemen. Weak sauce.

Traveller is a bog-standard hard science fiction with the addition of FTL travel. Pendragon is about Arthurian Britain, one of the longest-lived settings of adventure in our whole freakin’ culture. You want some unusual RPG settings? How about . . .

1. Bunnies and Burrows

You’re rabbits. Not magic, super-powered rabbits, just rabbits going through their everyday lagomorph lives. One of the yummiest things in God’s creation, cursed to a life of frantic fucking HOPING that enough of your kids survive red-tailed hawks to continue your family line. My college gaming buddies and I had a running joke for RPG nights when time was running short: Bunnies and Burrows vs. Cthulhu in the Old West.
GM: Uh, OK, you see an elder god.
PCs (in chorus): We wiggle our widdle noses at it!
GM: OK, you’re dead. There’s no medicine to heal you. 2 pts. for your next character.

2. GURPS Fantasy 2: Mad Lands

What were they smoking? Steve Jackson Games marketed this as their next big fantasy line. You kinda have to applaud them for such a gutsy move, but this game is all edgy and weird and Burroughs-esque without being much fun. The Mad Lands are home to a band of primitives subject to the whims of mad, chaotic gods. “Lobsters hung from her ear lobes; her body was covered with armor made of live, writhing sea urchins.” That’s a DIRECT quote from a story in Roleplayer. Tell me that doesn’t sound like a line from The Naked Lunch.

3. Broncosaurus Rex

The U.S. Civil War continues hundreds of years in the future. With dinosaurs. The Confederacy freed their slaves ages ago, so there’s no worrying about petty morality when your character flies the Stars and Bars. From the back of a triceratops. On another planet.

4. Little Fears

Children face down monsters in the closet. SCARY ones. The kind who want to slice your parents up for Sunday dinner or lock kids down in Uncle Touchy’s Naked Puzzle Basement. The book is beautifully done and there’s actually a good, albeit inconsistent, game in here. Fair warning—only very mature roleplayers should play this game.

5. Over the Edge

An absurdist conspiracy game on a fictional Mediterranean island. There’s lots of corruption, violence, drug use, and gambling. The whole shebang’s run by Monique, an aging President-for-Life who used to bang Mussolini. The one time we played Over the Edge the players got obsessed with the pizza delivery drivers who could travel through time. Lots of fun, with light and adaptable rules.

6. GURPS Goblins

Greedy, despicable, disgusting characters in Georgian London. At least they have an excuse: they’re goblins. This is an RPG within a Hogarth cartoon where greed, lechery, and base ambition make for a darkly comic, one of a kind experience.

7. Singing Cowboys (All Flesh Must Be Eaten)

RIghteous, root-beer drinking, God-fearing singing cowboys fighting zombies. I seriously have to wonder if anyone’s ever played this. I love All Flesh Must Be Eaten, a survival horror RPG with an elegant, versatile rules set that’s right in my sweet spot. But the Fistful o’ Zombies supplement was designed to integrate zombies with Western films, and someone noticed that a lot of old Westerns were low-budget flicks about singing cowboys. Even in-game the zombies are deliberately tacked on—the premise here is that a B-movie director is shoehorning monsters into his failing films, and the PCs are the clueless characters in the serials. The other settings in the book Fistful o’ Zombies are actually quite good; Singing Cowboys just comes off as pointless and odd.

8. Psychosis: Ship of Fools

PCs have to unravel multiple layers of reality with a tarot deck. I think the authors were going for an Illuminatus meets Dark City feel that doesn’t pan out. I never played this one, but I have read the book. You’ve gotta be a crackerjack writer to pull off a premise that ambitious and, well . . . that didn’t happen. It’s just overly twisty and boring, like talking to a hippie while the two of you are on different highs.

9. Human-Occupied Landfill (H.o.L.)

The grand champion of bizzarro roleplaying games.  The PCs live as prisoners on a giant landfill planet at the ass end of the galaxy. There’s bug-eyed aliens and orcs and toxic mutants and a sodomite biker gang. The whole damn book was handwritten for press. The game feels like being trapped in the gross-out drawings of an angry, disturbed, skilled 13-year-old.

The Acme of Research Laboratories

CoastConFan Blog shows us the elements you might expect to find in your modern 1920s investigator’s lab and attached facilities. The first four pictures are of Harry Price‘s own lab. Price was an actual psychic investigator active during the 20s, so everything you see in those photos is in-period and accessible to someone in that line of endeavor.

CoastConFan goes on to suggest some other resources your hardy group of investigators would find handy: a reference library, examining/consultation room for doctors and analysts, storage and a garage.

That may seem like a lot for amateur investigators to pull together and it is. CoastConFan presents those resources as “for a full blow[n] investigators lab that is fully funded and should be consider the absolute acme of a mid-20s lab and headquarters.” So this is a great resource for someone working for the Gilchrist Trust, a magical researcher of Cabal at Martense College, one of the Rosicrucians’ scientifically-minded Parmenideans in that era of WitchCraft, and so on. That vague itch to dig out Angel‘s organization rules has resurfaced. I could see where the acme of research labs falls in spending points.

[Link via Propnomicon.]

Tales from the Fallen Empire on Carnagecast

Tales from the Fallen Empire splash art.

Tales from the Fallen Empire splash art.

As promised, the Tales from the Fallen Empire episode of Carnagecast posted earlier this week. Check it out to hear about an awesome sword and sorcery setting for old school sandbox role-playing.

The Kickstarter for Tales from the Fallen Empire has already funded. Now it’s all gravy and stretch goals.

Tales from the Fallen Empire Kickstarter

Tales from the Fallen Empire splash art.

Tales from the Fallen Empire splash art, used with permission.

James Carpio, proprietor of Chapter 13 Press, just launched a kickstarter campaign for Tales from the Fallen Empire, a sword and sorcery campaign setting for Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics role-playing game.

As James tells us:

Join the struggle for survival in a war-torn land where new empires arise to impose their will upon the masses. Vicious warlords fight to control territories carved out of fallen kingdoms. Imposing magicians emerge claiming the legacy of the Sorcerer Kings. High Priests of long forgotten gods and goddesses amass wealth in the name of divine right while Warrior-priests, devoted to a banished god, patrol the lands bringing justice to people abandoned by their rulers.

In addition to providing a gazetteer to the sundered lands of the Sorcerer Kings of old, Tales from the Fallen Empires modifies some of Dungeon Crawl Classics‘ core classes, as well as adds a bevy of its own: Barbarian, Witch, Draki, Wanderer, Man-Ape and Pirate. Carpio cites Lieber, Howard, Lovecraft, Corman and Moorcock as his sources, so you know it’s going to be a flavorful melange of elements and tropes.

The kickstarter campaign concludes on July 18th, 2012 and is well on its way to funding. There are many backing levels, but the two key levels are $15 for a PDF of the book and $30 for the print edition ($45 for international shipping).

I recently interviewed James about Tales of the Fallen Empire for Carnagecast. Once that episode posts, I’ll pass the word along so you can hear direct from the designer about his inspiration and goals for the world of Leviathan.

6/8/2012: As promised, here’s the Carnagecast episode link. James talks about his inspirations for the setting, what makes Leviathan unique and some of the interesting elements of Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Millennium’s Edge: The Trinity 2997 Project

Let’s make it Trinity Thursday, shall we?

Millennium’s Edge is another fan project for the science fiction role-playing game Trinity. This one skips ahead almost a thousand years to final years of the third millennium. Almost half a quadrillion humans are scattered among the planets of the Milky Way galaxy. After a long war against a resurgence of Aberrants, phenomenally powerful but twisted humans with an appetite for destruction, many of those worlds are isolated or lost.

Now, as human history approaches its fourth millennium, the mysterious Æon Institute emerges from centuries of self-imposed exile beyond the Rim to once again unite the galaxy in peace and enlightenment. Its agents, the psychomorphs, bring interstellar contact, guidance and long-lost knowledge to the Three Million. The Æonites have a huge task ahead of them, some would say an insurmountable task, and many do not welcome their return. But they have on their side three advantages: the power of psionics; the determination that comes from knowing their cause is just; and the leadership of the galaxy’s first — and greatest — clairsentient.

That’s a pretty spiffy set-up, isn’t it? Millennium’s Edge is sadly incomplete, looking at the table of contents. The inventive GM will find useful information in a timeline running from 1925 to 2997, plot seeds, sketches of factions at work in the galaxy and the table of contents itself, which in outlining the authors’ plans for Millennium’s Edge can spark all sorts of ideas for advancing Trinity to the far future.

The Gilchrist Trust in WitchCraft

Dennis Detwiller’s The Gilchrist Trust would make an interesting antagonist association for WitchCraft, to go beyond its immediate Call of Cthulhu applications. The goal of the Trust, proving the existence of life after death, would bring them directly into contact with the Twilight Order and the House of Thanatos.

Given their self-assigned mission of maintaining the boundaries between life and death, the Order is almost automatically predisposed to act as a foil to Trust investigators’ efforts. “Mundanes,” as most Trust agents would be, aren’t supposed to know about ghosts and the otherworlds. I can see Twilight members actively following Trust agents to muddy their investigations, stealing artifacts under study by the Trust and racing them to newly uncovered locations and materials to remove any traces of necromantic practices.

The Thanatoi’s position on the Gilchrist Trust would be murkier. The House of Thanatos is more about boundary crossers. Their membership is made up of revenants, phantasms, vampires and other sorts who either blur the line, or caper merrily on both sides. So they’ve got the information that can win someone the big prize of the Gilchrist Trust. Whether any Thanatoi would be on board with that information exploding out to the public seems fairly unlikely. The afterlife is their specialty. The thought of it being legitimized and rigorously examined by even a fraction of the scientific establishment of the 1920s should be terrifying.

Of course, this is the 1920s. The occult world of WitchCraft is still reeling from the mini-reckoning of the Great War and the Spanish flu. The Twilight Order and the House of Thanatos are not likely to be entirely on their game at the moment — though maybe the Thanatoi’s rolls have had an influx of revenants and relentless dead from the fields of France; perhaps even Gilchrist’s son, Alexander. Moreover, the prospect of a cool million, or a sizable share of the Gilchrist fortune by taking the big prize, would be awfully tempting to the Gifted necromancer down on his luck. With the self-appointed guardians and experts of the afterlife at an ebb, this could be just the right time for the Gilchrist Trust and its agents to crack the afterlife wide open.

Hey Nonny Nonny, it's the God Damned Bat Man

High concept crowd-sourced sketches are a specialty of RPG.net. This time, they hit on something special with the idea of mashing up together Batman and the Robin Hood tales.

Opinions vary whether Batman should merge with Robin, or become sheriff of Gotham. I like the idea of Joker becoming the mad outlaw in the woods, with a very merrie band of loons and psychopaths.

Are You Ready to Join the Cabal?

Before tonight, I thought one of GURPS Cabal‘s biggest drawbacks, to a person like myself, who likes to run games in locales he knows personally — namely, New England and northern America — was its entirely understandable Eurocentrism. Given the Cabal allegedly grew out of pharaonic Egypt and the setting itself was devised as a roiling pot of the major monsters and horror tropes of today, which also descend from European and Near Eastern sources, that kind of focus can’t really be avoided. Emphasizing the focus, in fact, is, or was, because that’s what Kenneth Hite did, the right thing to do.

But it did leave me feeling intimidated for a long time, lacking the deep knowledge of history and occultism that Cabal exudes. A Tuesday night brainstorming session at the coffee shop, though, produced a list of potential settings in which to run for Carnage. Given this year’s horror theme, Cabal made the list, but as an afterthought. I didn’t think I’d be any more confident about running something there than before.

However, I just took a flip through the book for the first time in quite a while. The historical references are as dizzying and dismaying as ever — saying more about my own education than anything else, I think — but I did find one plot seed reassuring in its proximity to home: Martense College,1 one of the Cabal’s “black schools,” calls upstate New York home.2 A hundred miles or two to the north and east would put it right in my stomping grounds. Picture it: a small, prestigious liberal arts college about forty-five minutes south of Burlington harbors power-mad faculty, would-be wizards and the heirs to the world’s magically-derived fortunes.

I can see the game as a clash of cultures: the refined Hermetic theory of the Cabal versus rough and rural mysticism, the kind that gave rise to Lavinia Whately’s bastard son. Plus, stone chambers leading to Faerie and crashed reptoid astronauts protecting the last of their nursemaids fit right into the Cabal’s lunatic cosmology.

1 A reference to the Martense family, I bet.

2 Where “upstate” refers to any point north of New York City.