Friday, December 4, 2015

REVIEW: They're Here Already II, by Judas Babbage

Bone pioneer and lysergic athlete Judas Babbage was fired from Adder Entertainment with extreme prejudice and served 2 years for the assaults which followed. He entered the pen with a half dozen adventures complete and ready to publish, including the inciting incendiary book behind his termination, Go Fuck A Baby. Failed by the mental health industry Babbage felt he had no one to turn to when his medication not only stopped being effective but completely turned on him. Before his death in the early 90s he expressed a lot of regret over how things went down, and specifically for GFAB.

"What I set out to do was make a game no one else would do. I didn't believe [in] such a thing as things you shouldn't do, creatively. I guess I still don't. So when everyone kept insisting what I was doing was terrible, my response was fuck you, get more babies...

"Someone calls themselves an artist, you call yourself an art lover, you don't want them to give you what you ask for. You want something only you can do...I think I was the only one who would do that one, but looking back I think anybody could do it. It's pretty tacky. I mean I don't know that I shouldn't have done it but I wish I hadn't...I was a hurting young man trying to find someone to listen to me, only I just incensed people. I didn't interest them."
- A Tunnel Special (1995)

Babbage's wife Copernica published several of the titles Judas had completed in order to defray legal expenses and help support herself. GFAB was never published but cam-paks such as Hey Iron Devil and Killing Age Heroes did see the light of day, fully compatible with Æ's contemporary releases. They were not allowed to promote themselves as such but they did still contain some signature language and reference to other Æ titles. All credits apart from Judas and Copernica's names were stripped and this led to a continuing controversy over the provenance of certain artworks. These problems, very real and very shady, should not detract from the fact that Judas Babbage was our dirty grampa and we are all his deformed children. Judas Babbage was the Batman that games needed.

When Æ reconvened in 1999 people were ready to feel good about giving strangers money to play games again. In the spirit of that enthusiasm Babbage was posthumously welcomed back into the fold. Before she died in 2000, Copernica signed a deal granting Babbage's finest work, They're Here Already, to be republished and re-edited for the initial wave of NovÆ reprints. They're Here Already II is an improvement where changes are made but the original material is largely, and shockingly, untouched.

Near the city of Knife Hole there is a great pit, around which there are seven churches. The pit is a Throat straight to hell, a dungeon massive in description if not in size. If there's one complaint which rules all others and in the darkness binds them it's that Babbage's kamikaze antipsychotics were on a bleeding roll and you get descriptions all over the place here. Thoughts completely abandoned and picked up in another room. Inconsistencies like what color the blood is. For the most part this is an issue for the person shepherding the game with those playing likely not to even see much in the way of nits and tears, but that itself begs the question of the necessity for such elaborate assessments. Babbage was never one to trust an artist, it seems, and reading They're Here Already II I can believe that. Box text is often at best a barnacle but Babbage seemed to think that 10,000 words was worth a picture. If there's a strange bit of praise to offer here, however, it's that this is one of the few adventure modules which would work better as an audiobook.

Each of the churches has been given a prophecy, one which will be fulfilled in 7 days. Thwarting any of these requires delving down the Throat. Seven champions are selected, and one or all of the party will represent these champions. You've all got two things you have to do in order to stop your prophecy but those things will be at fixed points in your descent so you can't control how fast you do them. You can't stay in the Throat safely so you keep having to go up and down and back to town.

Problem: every night one of the prophecies comes true. The town you return to is much changed from the one you left, usually, and represents its own dangers. It's entirely possible, after a couple of days of play, to get trapped in town dealing with its complications and never make it down the Throat at all.

The complications themselves usually involve the transposition of an asset, resource, or ally with some kind of non-union EC Comics equivalent, and by the end of the week not only has the town become a Tim Burton wet dream but the throat inverts, becoming a moving column of hell scorching its way across the world.

The actual meat of the cam-pak though is the time you spend in the Throat. The Throat-Threats within are all suitably deadly and the best way to survive anything you meet is running, as they seem to all have been designed after crocs and hippos: deadly, shockingly fast in the short term, but slow lethargic to the point of stillness in the long run. Of particular pleasure was the Answermander, a monster which screams advice on defeating the dangers as it chases you, but will absolutely slice you to ribbons if it catches you. Nothing really hurts it apart from a secret he only reveals when he kills someone. I used to use @nswerm@nder as my handle in the old IRC #AE room on the goatz network. This concludes the sad little peek into my life.

The chief innovation here is the Rules Table. The demonians of the Throat love rules, and love to talk. Any rule stated by a denizen becomes fundamental physical and magical law while in the Throat, but these rules are assigned randomly whenever a demonian interaction occurs. It makes one confident that no two people who played They're Here Already II have ever played nearly the same game, something always said about only the best games.

The revisions are largely on the lines of a proper table of contents and index, proper art credits, some new art, and some thorough proofreading. One large change, however, is that the connecting thread one followed from the bottom of the Throat to the Babbage release Siege of Blood Ants has been removed. In its place is a circle of counter-churches, one each devoted to the prophecies the churches above are trying to prevent. They do not have their own champions, but players can choose to switch their letter over to these new counter-churches. It's an improvement which Æ credits still to Judas and Copernica Babbage, but which has been surreptitiously confirmed to be the work of Killer Ivanova.

While much of Babbage's other catalog saw print in the Sibbilants anthology a few items will likely never be reprinted due to art right disputes the Babbages laid the ground work for. Go Fuck A Baby remains unpublished, of course, but several small companies have made reference to its infamous title, such as the Cyclopean Romanse novel Go Hug a Babylon (insufferably) and the controversial Cobra Party Free RPG Day release G-Fabulous! (interminable for different, 'hilarious' reasons)

Perhaps the best legacy Babbage could have is a gamer support group for people suffering from mental illness, They're Here Already, dedicated to speaking out about mental illness among gamers to destigmatize it and remind people they aren't alone. This organization drew fire from their choice of name but there is no such thing as a perfect ally. No unblemished legacy. And as forefather and object study Babbage means more to our little community than his game books ever did, really.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Where Do You Roam: The Long Road to Paladins


HD: 2d8 at 1st level, 1d8 levels 2-9
Attacks: Cleric
Advances: Cleric
Requirements: Wisdom 15+
  • Paladins may use any weapon but they are +1 to hit with one-handed swords.
  • Paladins may use any armor and shields. They gain +1 to Saves when using a shield.
  • Paladins gain bonus HP equal to their armor improvement, not including shields; e.g. leather armor grants 2HP.
  • Paladins may know 2 Languages.
  • Paladins have the ability to Judge Others. They may do this by spending some of their hit points, reducing their Max HP for the day. In a given round a Paladin can
    • spend points to give an ally an equivalent bonus to a Save or skill check.
    • spend points to heal an ally within 30' an equivalent amount of HP.
    • spend points to penalize an enemy's Save.
    • spend points to improve damage against an enemy on a successful hit.
    • Your HP maximum always resets after a night of restful meditation on your values, even when your HP does not fully replenish. A Paladin who has aided an ally's Save during the opponent's turn cannot Damn Others in the same round of initiative, and a whole bunch of other common sense stuff: 1 use of these abilities, whatever it may be used on, per round.
  • Paladins have a pool of Providence equal to 1+Charisma bonus. They may spend these points in order to
    • make an additional attack this round.
    • automatically save against a non-Spells effect.
    • heal themselves 1d8.
    • cast detect evil/good, detect magic, protection from evil/good, or any sensible 1st level "detect this or that" type spell. Identify or Locate Object could also work at the DM's discretion.
    • Only one of these abilities may be used in a given round, but they can be used in a same round where they Judge. All Providence refreshes to maximum after 1 night of restful meditation on your principles. You also gain 1 Providence anytime you use Judge Others to save an enemy or punish a treacherous ally.
  • At 9th level Paladins become sacred. One of their weapons gains the power to cast light at will. Their armor or shield gains the power to spare the Paladin from partial damage on a Save. The may communicate with their steed as if it understood Common. One ally may be designated as sacred as well, and when fighting alongside the Paladin this ally is +1 to hit/damage/saves. If any of these are lost or slain the Paladin may replace them by spending all their Providence for a given day.
  • Paladins may advance to level 16.

((This is where this article originally began. I wanted it to be easier to find the Paladin build I settled on near the end. I guess this turns this article into even more of a class design DVD extra))

Paladins are at once incredibly specific and yet people can't quite agree what they are. I've been playing one recently for the first time so I've been thinking about them.

Mechanically the point of reference seems to be pure Lancelot/Joan of Arc territory. Clerics are very magic, mostly healy, and a little bonky. Paladins then are Crusaders and Templars: a little healy, kind of magic, mostly fighty stabby. It reflects an evolving approach to the infantry coming out of the hobby's wargame roots. You don't really need different classes to represent Lancelot and Robin Hood and Goemon and Conan and Lash LaRue really because those guys are all Fighters, at least in terms of ground forces, artillery, support. Their weapons are all instruments of war and they have powerful kung fu and so are the bread and butter of your forces en masse. The Roman Legions. The Mongol Horde.

If however you are putting together not a table full of fireball cannons and medic tents but like 3-6 guys to go exploring and beat up tigers then your attitudes might shift. You can run the game fine with just the Fighter, sure, but the needs of playing out a story as Few in a world where literally everything wants to kill you are different than the needs of Many where your opponents have to play by the same rules you do. The surest method of survival is not sending a bunch of guys at the problem and anyway you don't HAVE a bunch of guys. Instead the surest survival is avoiding the thing Fighters are best at mosssst of the time and relying on cleverness to avoid certain doom. You've got a key ring. Magic-Users unlock opportunities normally unavailable to you because of magic. Thieves unlock opportunities for reconnaissance, improved ambushes, and literally unlock things, granting you ingress to most places. Clerics unlock a level of relative safety netting with protection from some of the game's trickiest low level enemies and powerful healing at higher levels. Fighters unlock chest cavities. Everyone keeps their role from the battleground but it's not a simultaneous maneuvering formation any more: everyone takes turns, and is useful in turn.

This is a fine approach but it more or less gets fucked up immediately with demihuman classes who are all sort of a Fighter Plus. They require some not-difficult-to-get stat values or have truncated advancement paths but since the point of the game in the minds of the designers at this time was low-level play I don't consider level caps a core diminishing function. Then apparently you have elves switching between fighter and magic-user every game in OD&D, multiclassing shows up really quick so everybody gets to play with everything, we get the race/class split you you can have hammer-wielding wizards with berserker helmets...So many elves. So many.

The epidemic spread. You had Thieves but you also had Thief Acrobats and Assassins and Bards. You had Magic-Users but this quickly starts getting sorted into Necromancers, Illusionists, and over time into Sorcerers and Shugenja and such. Fighters are now sharing space with Rangers, Barbarians, and Monks, and Ninja. Clerics finally get Druid split off into something of a default assumption and uh Paladins show up....and for the most part the Cleric gets crowded out the least, mostly owing to the fact that they instead got weighted down with 1000 different god options and the special crap that comes with them. We're not even getting into all the splits that come in the 2e-Onward era here. And once people decided to start moving their ability scores around in any old order or outright ignore ability score requirements for these Plus Classes? Oof.

So we start to get this concept somewhat belatedly of hardcore niche protection, which usually means all of these variant classes are Better at things the four core classes already did, but the core four can do More things. But that meant these other classes needed a few more things tacked onto them after a while, and in one way or another this has been the true balancing act the developers have been involved with ever since, but I honestly wonder if we didn't miss a big cull along the way.

If you've got the Four Core you don't need all the endless variants, strictly speaking. But if you're going to throw them all over the place and getting increasingly specific you don't really need the large umbrella of the Four Core any more. A world where any cleric you can imagine is also another class' main concept, too, is down to a choice between Extra Bullshit Mechanics, a choice between numbers first and "I want to play" second, and I don't cotton to that philosophy.

This is the DNA of a lot of classes and this is the DNA of the Paladin. So what does the Paladin do?

Again we get a rolling snowball. Like many classes different interpretations over the years and multiple settings have left us with a lot of options that, depending on what/when you play, people consider core to the class. The VDND Ranger is currently straining from this, being pulled in a dozen different directions as people exasperatedly take to the space where the WOTC forums used to be to cry "Why can't these idiots simply give us a dual-wielding magic-using thief-skilled Tarzan-capable dungeon-adept damage-volcano range-combat-expert with a floating archenemy who precludes precise navigation or tracking or rationing and comes with a powerful best friend tiger that we actually want to play, HOW HARD IS THAT?" The Paladins get off comparatively easily in terms of EX-BS-MECH but the question of what makes a Paladin is where the division comes in.

Paladins should be above all champions for their god.
Paladins should be above all champions for good.
Paladins should be above all champions for the law.
Paladins should be above all champions for honor.
Paladins should be above all champions for a code of conduct.
Paladins should be above all champions for their liege.
Paladins should be above all champions for their kingdom.
Paladins should be above all champions for their kind and kin.
Paladins should be above all champions for justice.

That's a lot of things wrapped up in the core idea of the Paladin. Then we get branches from the Paladin as well, antipaladins, cavaliers, with their own baggage like horse owning and improved smiting. The kind of thinking where one posits first "If only there was an evil version of a paladin" and later "If only there was a good version of an antipaladin" explains a lot of headaches in the hobby over the years - at both a fan and developer level - and also explains Pathfinder entirely.

So what are Paladins? Well, they're a bunch of awesome guys who may or may not have hung out with Charlemagne who got a bunch of historical fan fiction written about them where they were great fighters who loved Jesus. That's it. If you're a paladin it means you're The Best, like the Justice League, but we can't make a class out of the Justice League.

.....Fuck it, Paladins are the Justice League. I always wince a little when someone puts an Adventurer's Guild in a setting because from a story perspective it's like someone in Cimmeria opening a Conan Guild. The fact that we're out here busting our asses to save the world is supposed to be kind of a big deal, and the stakes are lowered knowing that not only will someone definitely come along behind us to fix things should we fail but we are also almost certainly not the right people for the job, as we're likely never the highest level characters around. Double wince for someone making an Adventurer class or a Legendary Hero or a Chosen One. But damn it that's what Paladins are (if we decide that they're the ones doing the choosing). They existed in the public mind to go on rad adventures. Like the Justice League, collectively and individually. So we'll lean into that a little with our bottom floor design concept: Paladins should be above all champions.

So: we're going to have us a Paladin-Down, producing a few alternate versions. Then we'll try to synthesize a perfect Paladin from these. First up is an approach that for reference's sake we'll call the Paladin Defenders.

HD: d8
Save: Cleric
Attack: Fighter
Advance: Cleric
Requirements: 10+ in all ability scores, or 18 in Strength, Intelligence, or Charisma.
  • Paladins may use all weapons.
  • Paladins may use armor and shields.
  • Paladins may speak two Languages.
  • Paladins add their Hit Die to Saves against effects of the undead.
  • Paladins may intentionally fail a Save to allow an ally to automatically Save.
  • Paladins receive a bonus to hit equal to the number of allies attacked since the Paladin last struck.
  • Paladins receive a bonus to AC equal to the number of allies damaged since the Paladin was last injured.
  • Paladins receive an additional Hit Point each level.
  • At 1st level, Paladins may have up to 4 designated allies for the purpose of their Paladin abilities.
  • At 4th level Paladins may have up to 6 allies.
  • At 5th level Paladins become adept at punishing those who abuse her trust.  Against designated allies who betray her, the Paladin always does double damage.
  • At 8th level Paladins may have up to 8 allies.
  • At 9th level Paladins form an Order, attracting up to 9 levels worth of Paladins (so 3 3rd level Paladins, for example), none above level 8. These dedicate themselves to the Paladin's code above all others. The Paladin's allies may not adhere to the rules of this order but if they do they are considered to have a +4 reaction adjustment in civilized places, a boon the Paladin herself enjoys. Additionally, Paladins become ruthless in dealing with oath breakers. Against members of the Paladin's order who break their oaths, any strike by the Paladin is considered fatal.
  • At 12th level Paladins may have up to 8 allies.
  • At 13th level Paladins gain the spell abilities of a 7th level Cleric.
  • At 16th level Paladins may have up to 12 allies.
  • Paladins may advance to level 16.
Obvious pros here: You've got a good skeleton for a Fighter-Plus type Paladin who mostly gets that way by taking the things Paladins are known for in their capacity as Cleric Plus but we've removed a lot of the other magical access that lets them creep onto the Cleric's territory. We put back in requirements for ability scores because hey remember all these variant classes started out as something close to the first prestige classes, you really had a one in a thousand shot of making a good Paladin roll. We keep him from being too powerful by putting the engine for these abilities almost entirely on the Paladin's allies. Paladins are literally defined by their allies, as in that's where we get the word is a bunch of warrior holy bros. So this makes sense. We don't load the Paladin down with late level features apart from these, either, meaning that a solitary Paladin or an antisocial Paladin or a Paladin with only a couple guys with him that day are really just Fighters with a few more HP and good saves against mummies and shit. They fight better in a small army, which also makes sense for a Paladin. Finally, near the end of their leveling cycle, they have proven themselves in the eyes of their god and the fact that they are even alive is a kind of minor miracle, so we'll throw in a reduced spellcasting. I mean this is like...a Mandy Morbid level legendary warrior at this point so yeah, go be magic.

Obvious cons here: Pages, lantern bearers, porters, and other dungeon hirelings the Paladin may designate as allies are usually short-lived, so the Paladin's bonuses are usually going to top out at 3-5 for most tables, no matter how high level she gets. This approach also involves a lot of tracking for the player of extra crap. While this version makes a good companion and partner it does mean their role is basically Supporting Offense. That's fine since this was already their role but since we push back spell access until late levels it means they're a less versatile Supporting Offense than a Cleric would be, and no healing to speak of. When they're on they're on and when they're not they're just a Fighter. The ability requirements may also be too low.

Next, for reference's sake, we'll tackle a setup we'll call um Paladin Paragon.

HD: d10
Saves: Cleric
Attacks: Cleric
Advances: Cleric
Requirements: Strength 13, Wisdom 13, Charisma 13.
  • Paladins may use all weapons.
  • Paladins may use all shields and armor.
  • Paladins may speak two Languages.
  • Paladins who do not attack in a given round may heal an ally 1 HP. A Paladin may not heal herself.
  • At 2nd level a Paladin may Turn Undead as a Cleric of half level, rounded down.
  • At 4th level a Paladin may cast Light a number of times per day equal to her level.
  • At 8th level a Paladin's weapons and armor are always to be considered magical and silvered, though no numerical bonus is conferred by this.
  • At 9th level a Paladin may be understood as if speaking all languages, and may establish that an item sacred to their faith is but three days' ride away. The DM should do their best to honor that request.
  • At 16th level a Paladin gains the ability to cast Quest, Resurrection, and Wish once each. These are three miracles, and once they have all been performed the Paladin is assumed into the heaven of heroes, bodily, their final miracle.
  • Paladins may advance to level 16.
Pros here: We've got a hardier Paladin with the increased HP. We've changed the requirements so it's ok to have a couple of bad rolls. We've made them a powerful low level support and the ability to keep her allies on their feet without cramping a Cleric's style. They're more consistently magic while only sacrificing a small tohit advantage. High level abilities mostly make it so that the more mundane challenges of dungeon crawling are things the Paladin may dispense with.

Cons here: Maybe too magic? That 1HP/round means that as long as you have them around any healing potions or magic are basically around to keep the party healotron alive. They lost a little attack accuracy and never gained anything martial back in return. They get very few high level abilities and those are all limited. That ability score spread might be pretty rare, and while I like you-play-what-you-roll in theory in my experience it's easier to just say what classes there are and have new players (I mean brand new players) just pick something.

We're identifying a problem here. The default assumptions of a D&D Paladin imply basically sword Clerics. That's easy, charge an extra 10% to level up for Clerics, boom. There's your Paladin. Right back to the you-only-need-the-Four-Core approach there. But that brings us back to our starting point for design: Paladins should be above all champions. There's nothing especially championy about the sword cleric and we needn't concern ourselves with the poles of previous D&D Paladins nor their default assumptions. Champions go on quests, right? So let's try building a Paladin Questing taking a few things I learned the hard way into account and trying to make the antipaladin less stupid in the account.

HD: d8
Saves: Fighter
Attacks: Fighter
Advances: Fighter
Requirements: Paladins must make a Vow. Their Vow must include
  1. something they would never hurt (innocents, followers of Moon Slave, women), 
  2. something they must always do to help others (say funeral rites, donate 100g or more if they have at least that much, give a day of their time in labor for those too infirm to work)
  3. something they will deny themselves (money, sex, alcohol, meat)
  4. an enemy they will always fight (usually demons, or like a snake cult)
  5. a goal they seek so grand it would change the world, toward which they must always strive (ending hunger, slaying Tiamat, finding the Holy Grail)
A Paladin who breaks or forsakes any part of their Vow loses all their special abilities until they Atone, acting as if under the auspices of a Quest spell. A Paladin who breaks or forsakes all aspects of their Vow in a single session becomes an Antipaladin. The particulars of a Vow are determined by the DM.
  • Paladins may use any weapon they find or are rewarded with in the course of their Missions.
  • Paladins may use any armor or shield they find or are rewarded with in the course of their Missions.
  • Paladins may speak 2 Languages.
  • Paladins may take on a number of Missions equal to their level plus their Wisdom bonus. Missions must be finite and goal-oriented and they must help a person or group in their cause. Deliver an item through  dangerous territory, defeat a fearsome troll, rescue a lost child, that sort of thing. Saving lives. Avoiding disaster. It should be obvious what is and is not a Mission but if not the DM will let you know when an opportunity arises to take on a Mission.
  • At 1st level Paladins have 2+Charisma Bonus Glory. They gain 1 Glory each time they level.
  • At the completion of a Mission a Paladin experiences a Moment of Glory. This allows them to invest the power of providence in themselves and their tools, and acts as an extra reward for living a life within the strictures of their vows. This means the Paladin spends 1 Glory to receive a permanent boon. Boons marked with * are unalterable expenditures of Glory, and you may not trade these points back to qualify for an Epic Boon. Any spells chosen for any boon must only be spells capable of being cast in reverse, though the Paladin may never cast reversed spells.
    • +1 to hit/damage
    • +1 attack each round (may only be chosen once)
    • +1 HD of HP
    • +1 to all saves
    • +1 to critical range
    • A level of Thief skills
    • A level of Cleric spellcasting
    • The ability to Turn Undead
    • A single Magic-User spell of your choice which you may cast 1/day
    • Investment of an object of your possession (including weapons and armor) with 1 Cleric spell (of either 1st level or any higher level you are able to cast) and a number of charges for that spell equal to your Constitution score.*
    • Completely recharge an item above which is out of charges, or completely recharge a typical magic item.
    • Investment of an object with another permanent magical effect as determined by the DM. *
    • d6 unarmed damage.
    • Immunity to poison.
    • Immunity to disease.
    • The ability to summon weapons and armor (including boon weapons and armor but not normal magic items) to you and dismiss them with a word.*
    • A beneficial mutation from some table.
  •  At 9th level a Paladin may sacrifice all previous eligible boons to recover an amount of Glory. This Glory may be spent or saved, banked toward Epic Boons.
    • For 3 Glory they increase their damage multiplier on a critical hit.
    • For 5 Glory their unarmored AC improves by 6 points and their armored AC improves by 3.
    • For 10 Glory they may deliver a massive Smite a number of times a day equal to their Strength bonus. Smites do the Paladin's current Hit Points in damage.
    • For 15 Glory they gain the Spell Slots of a Magic-User of their current level. These slots do not increase as the Paladin levels and they may only be filled with Cleric spells.
    • For 18 Glory they may assume any form the describe, with all the natural abilities of that form. This change is permanent, and the Paladin ceases to age.
  • Paladins may advance to 16th level.
  • Paladins who become Antipaladins retain the spells and spell-like abilities they have gained through boons but always casts and prepares those spells REVERSED.
Pros: This makes Paladins incredibly goal oriented without making them inflexible for conventional D&D play. It rewards them directly for their choices by allowing them to make more choices. It therefore lets them be as fighty and healy and magic and role-playish as they wanna be. It develops them over time uniquely but along a common theme. Also I've been watching a lot of Steven Universe lately and this feels like that kind of Paladin which I think works with all our parameters, conceptually. Also, the antipaladin thing.

Cons: Holy shit is this complicated. Very story gamey. Involves or demands a lot of working with the DM or outright DM control in order to work.  Basically just a trumped up version of the Rey Paladin I'm already playing. Goddamn now I owe Pathfinder a fucking apology.

So what are our priorities now?

Paladins should be above all else champions. A god doesn't make a Paladin, Clerics have gods. A code doesn't make a Paladin, Thieves have codes. Law and order don't make a Paladin, because if the law is just and the world is in order then everyone's fine and there's no need for Paladins and if it's not then it's not worth Paladinning for, not as a holy blessed hero.

Paladins need to be more than just sword clerics.
Paladins need to be more than just heal fighters.
Paladins need versatility.
Paladins need simplicity.
Paladins should at leeeeast be a little recognizable in terms of some D&D expectations I guess.
They should be magic but not oh shit we broke something magic.


HD: 2d8 at 1st level, 1d8 levels 2-9
Attacks: Cleric
Advances: Cleric
Requirements: Wisdom 15+
  • Paladins may use any weapon but they are +1 to hit with one-handed swords.
  • Paladins may use any armor and shields. They gain +1 to Saves when using a shield.
  • Paladins gain bonus HP equal to their armor improvement, not including shields; e.g. leather armor grants 2HP.
  • Paladins may know 2 Languages.
  • Paladins have the ability to Judge Others. They may do this by spending some of their hit points, reducing their Max HP for the day. In a given round a Paladin can
    • spend points to give an ally an equivalent bonus to a Save or skill check.
    • spend points to heal an ally within 30' an equivalent amount of HP.
    • spend points to penalize an enemy's Save.
    • spend points to improve damage against an enemy on a successful hit.
    • Your HP maximum always resets after a night of restful meditation on your values, even when your HP does not fully replenish. A Paladin who has aided an ally's Save during the opponent's turn cannot Damn Others in the same round of initiative, and a whole bunch of other common sense stuff: 1 use of these abilities, whatever it may be used on, per round.
  • Paladins have a pool of Providence equal to 1+Charisma bonus. They may spend these points in order to
    • make an additional attack this round.
    • automatically save against a non-Spells effect.
    • heal themselves 1d8.
    • cast detect evil/good, detect magic, protection from evil/good, or any sensible 1st level "detect this or that" type spell. Identify or Locate Object could also work at the DM's discretion.
    • Only one of these abilities may be used in a given round, but they can be used in a same round where they Judge. All Providence refreshes to maximum after 1 night of restful meditation on your principles. You also gain 1 Providence anytime you use Judge Others to save an enemy or punish a treacherous ally.
  • At 9th level Paladins become sacred. One of their weapons gains the power to cast light at will. Their armor or shield gains the power to spare the Paladin from partial damage on a Save. The may communicate with their steed as if it understood Common. One ally may be designated as sacred as well, and when fighting alongside the Paladin this ally is +1 to hit/damage/saves. If any of these are lost or slain the Paladin may replace them by spending all their Providence for a given day.
  • Paladins may advance to level 16.
I think we got it. I gave them a couple of ways to benefit THEMSELVES by Looking Like A Paladin which is an often overlooked facet of class design. The ability score requirement is high enough without being almost impossible, and while I don't put a Constitution or Charisma requirement in place the class still definitively depends on good scores in those areas. They still work best in a group but their role is an ebb and flow so they can dominate neither Fighter or Cleric capacities, especially with the reduced attack/save strength at level 1. We don't have to worry about adding features late in levels because getting late in levels is the point of these features. Their Name Level feature emphasizes their role in a group again while making them seem extra awesome and holy terror.  Judging is an ability that take the place of a whole range of ability tracking, all for just tracking changes to a number whose changes you're already tracking. It also introduces More Cussin' into the class, another oft overlooked facet of game design. Finally whatever benefits they might incur from other under-represented class features we instead put under the umbrella of Providence.

The best thing about this is that it should be easy to learn at a glance. How many Judge Others points do I have at first level? Your HP, one of the first concepts you learned. Providence caps out at 4 for old school D&D and counting to 4 is literally one of the first concepts a human learns. OK you're done. You've mastered playing a Paladin. All you're doing now is "damaging"  your HP, and subtracting 1 from Providence.

And while it's not included in the block above, I would personally allow a rule at my table where taking/completing Missions as outlined in the Paladin Champion gave you an extra ability you can use with Providence.

Friday, November 20, 2015

VDND God Sorcerers

Stuff of the Gods

At 1st level, you physically transform your aspect into a splinter of the god you were, for we were all gods, for all of space was carved from the bodies of the gods. Apologies to turtleneck but we are made of GODSTUFF. In this aspect, you resemble yourself, glowing with power, but you resemble something far beyond yourself. You gain the ability to cast mage armor at will, without components. This celestial accoutrement crackles with energy and life. For the duration of mage armor, you gain the sacred flame cantrip and have Disadvantage for Stealth checks.

Wisdom of the Spheres

At 1st level, you understand the secret orders of the universe, intrinsically, a race memory burned into carbon by starforge. You gain training in Religion and Perception.

Might of the Stars

At level 6 your limbs remember their old strength. Whenever you roll a natural 20 you gain 1 Sorcery Point.

Shape of the Champion

At level 14 you are becoming an unstoppable force of nature. You can leap 30' horizontal and 20' vertical from a standing start, adding half that distance from a running start. You gain a swim and climb speed of 30'. Additionally, you have Advantage on all Constitution saving throws against magical effects.

Lord of the Cosmos

At level 18 you are god taking new flesh from the old, through the shape of man meat. Whenever you roll a natural 1 you gain 1 Sorcery Point. You gain an additional Metamagic option: You may spend 1 Spell Point to sustain a spell to its maximum Duration without having to maintain Concentration.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Toxic Blood for VDND Sorcerers

Toxic Saturation

Beginning at 1st level, you have resistance to poison damage and advantage on saves against poison.

Blow Chunks

Also at 1st level, you learn the poison spray cantrip. You can cast this without components by vomiting this vile sludge.

A Way of Something Like Life

At level 6 you are immune to the Poisoned condition. Additionally, you have advantage on saves against necrotic damage.

Death in the Blood

At level 14, whenever you take damage, you may bleed buckets as a reaction. Each creature within 5' of you must make a Constitution saving throw or suffer the Poisoned condition. Additionally, you have resistance against necrotic damage.

Walking Wasteland

At level 18 you may spend 6 Sorcery Points to compel a Constitution saving throw from any target you touch: at a failure, the target is Poisoned and drops to 0 HP.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Left

She gets up in the morning and bakes a small loaf of bread. She boils some spiced wine. She takes her breakfast, still in the chilling damping fog, to the top of the crest. As the sunrise burns away the mist she sees an empty bay, every morning. Each time she tells herself it's better than seeing the wreck of his vessel, his body shattered on the rocks, but it's only a hollower hope now. She will wait, because he said he'd come, but their horse was stolen that horrible night the men came, and she runs low of stores, and she does not know what to do.

On the path there are footsteps.

The jails are not a place full of wracking moans and clacking chains, not if you do it right. They are a place of silence, broken only by muffled scraping, soft weeping, and death rattles. He was put here to be forgotten. They all were. Now each day is spent in a torpor, waiting for his lifeline. In a crowded and silent jail it's simpler to shove a small bit of food, barely enough to survive on, under each door. Safer, too, not to mention actually cheaper. He was put here for greed, and now he'd give everything to have anything. What crime did the others commit? How many sins forgotten and forgiven with time? On this day, there was no breakfast, no morsel meal. He would cry out if he could, but the iron saw to that. He is abandoned in the night to a final sentence.

All through the hallways, stretching down and down, there are footsteps.

Long ago Our Jeffrey and Our Susan moved away. They sent letters, of course, once a year, and five years ago Our Jeffrey came to visit for a few months. She was old, and she was tired, but it helped knowing that the children were getting along, perhaps with children of their own? The letters never fact, it had been so long since she had seen a letter. Or the post. Or a traveler. Surely there was not some sickness in the world, and this remote place alone untouched? Surely there was no wreck on the road, or raid of brigands in the towns, or a childbirth gone wrong? It had been so long since My Ronald passed, how many years again, and the children were all she had. Surely she still had them?

At the front door there are footsteps.

A little boy cries. He is new. His father is gone away. No grandmother or midwife attended his birth. His mother is...gone, away. He will not be old.

By the foot of the bed there are footsteps.

He said he would destroy me if I ever left him and I didn't believe. I didn't. Fool. Idiot. I didn't know. Tell me you know me. We were children together. We swam naked at the dam. I watched your uncle die under the wheels of the grain cart. Tell me you know me. You wed my brother. And you, you there, you blessed my house once. That no evil thing should befall us. Was that a lie? Or is his power greater than your god's? I didn't know, how could I? Please, I'm no madwoman. I'm not a stranger. I was born here. Please, minister. Please, reverend. Please, father. I am yours. I'm real. Please know me! At least hear me...

Behind her there are footsteps, and a hand on her shoulder.

The entire town was caught up like a thief in the night. Only he remained. He did not believe. He was a drunk and a wicked fornicator. He screamed and wept and bashed his head on the cobbles and begged to be taken to Reward. The town was emptied, and he was alone in the world.

And in the morning the city was filled and its streets fair thrummed with the sound of footsteps footsteps footsteps

In all the places of the world there are those who are forgotten, about whom none live to even recall, so forgotten that their forgetting has been forgotten. They are remote, or they are marginalized and disenfranchised into invisibility, or they are the victims of some cruel and dark curse. They are left, and would be swallowed up by existence so completely that it's like they never were.

They are not, in fact, alone. The alone stand together, find one another, shoulder one another through the forgetting. They are everywhere you're not, unheard, unknown, unseen, often quite literally. They are so so many. How many people have you forgotten? How many races of beings are forgotten to history? What atrocities went unnoticed? They all come together, the survivors of forever, and they are a one and mighty people. And they come for their own, whether they want the company or not. The Left endure and swell forever, and....

out of curiosity

how many of you are alone right now?

Friday, October 30, 2015

VDND Bone Man

Ability Score Bonuses: Strength +1, Intelligence +1
Size: M
Speed: 30'
Languages: Common, 2 of your choice.
Living: If you remain silent, observers must pass a Perception check equal to your Charisma Score+Constitution Bonus to distinguish you from an undead. Turn Undead has no effect on you.
Skeleton: You are trained in Intimidate. If attempting to blend in with other skeletons, consider yourself trained in Performance.
Clacking: Your Passive Perception for seeing things is -4. Your Passive Perception for hearing things is +4. In a round where you spend a bonus action chattering your teeth to echolocate, you negate both of these modifiers.
Incense: You have proficiency with Herbalism Kits and may treat as a Healer's Kit.
Blood of Carcosa: You have been trained from birth in the blooded rituals of Carcosa. At the following character levels, you may cast each of these spells once per day, as rituals. You must finish a long rest to use these rituals again, unless you have Spellcasting as a class feature or the Ritual Caster feat.
Level 1 - unseen servant
Level 3- augury
Level 5- feign death*

All Bone Men are either Warriors or Maguses.

Warrior: You have proficiency with the Greatsword. Additionally, you may use a Greatsword coated in blood as an Arcane Focus.

Magus: You learn the cantrip chill touch, with no components but at a range of Touch. Additionally, you also learn the following rituals at later character levels:
Level 7- divination
Level 9- contact other plane
Level 11- forbiddance

* casting feign death on a target gives them the appearance of Bone Men.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Headless Plague

From artist Grivetart on deviantArt
There is a creature more populous than any other in the world. It has achieved a state of perfect commensalism with nearly every evolved vertebrate organism. You can think of it like a virus or you can think of it like a fungus but it's neither of these. Think instead of Jello cocktail, nerve endings suspended in a thick ooze. It's inside you, it's inside me, and it is the horror of all cultures. The source of many manias concerning the drives of self (and all Drives are of self ultimately) is not of yourself, yet, like a parasite within an shell within a tortoise within a shell, very much is OF yourself.

It is contagious. You'll never know when you catch it or pass it on. Most people get it as babies. Grown ups put it inside of them. For those few who have been spared, these children become rabid plague dogs.

It's always whispering to you, in its way. Wrapping itself around useful neurons and hijacking them. The only way it can feel happy is to tactilely feel your happiness, the only way it achieves its ambitions is vicariously through yours. Your body notices these urges and strives to feed them. It's the only food the creature ever gets.

All great women and men have them, of course, and these are the invisible kings and queens within the innards that run the planet. These are the Icarus symbionts, the most likely to succeed in spite of whether their meaty clothes live or die. Thank gods for custom, eh? But most are not lucky. Drowning is a terrifying and silent feeling, separated from everything you need, mostly oxygen, but wholly aware, without leverage or purchase, able to watch and study yourself in dying. Suffocation is conversely fast and loud pressure, strength being forced from you as your breath is trapped, trying so hard to get new air in that it wants to blow your lungs out in the other direction. These creatures experience both, in the dark, wearing chains of bone and hoods of dead flesh.

All our deaths are inevitable. All their deaths are inevitably helpless horror.

Every so often one of their kind claws its way out through sheer will, and they become the monsters of the woods, the stories around the fire. They thrive and survive in war, or near great construction, or the scenes of unmitigated disaster. They stalk from the place of no survivors. They slither from slaughterhouses and slink into sewers.

These creatures have no community or king, nor tongue of their own. They have knowledge of the languages their host spoke, if any, but they cannot speak them. They haven't the faculty. To touch them is to know them, to hear them, but there is no mistaking them. They know one another on sight, or a thing such as sight, and every other creature knows them, too, even if they have no knowledge of their kind. They are an unmistakable thing.

Almost all of them are mad from decades of frustration. Almost all of them are giddy, euphoric with a freedom they have never enjoyed before in life. Any you meet will be determined, machines of focus, with goals set and wearing their very oldest clothes. They have the power their hosts had in life, because they have their host in death. They have wormed their way into every corner and ligament and artery, for they have had much time in which to do so.

They are not altogether unstoppable. Bone breaks, even when carefully maintained by a conscientious gardener. But there is not a limit set on how far these creatures can go, how long they can sway the world, if they be free to do so. If they can be said to have any restriction it is that of all aerobic life, the need for AIR, a resource they are provided for most of their life span, a resource they will die without, a resource whose harvest they have forgotten at a cellular level, save for using the unique architecture of their home.

So, all this being true, some thrive more than others.

They do not have a name. They do not call one another and they can never tell a name to you. Besides, though they exist in all cultures, though they are found from sea to sky, they've really only ever been called one thing.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

I Am So God Damn Mad About Pearce Shea's In The Woods Right Now

I want to get some things out of the way up front.
  1. I forgot about +Pearce Shea.
  2. I hate his game.
  3. In the Woods is not even the kind of adventure I like to run.
  4. If he wants another proofreader to take a pass before he releases another version of this down the line, I'm available.
Even if all of that sounds good to you, I don't think you should buy it.


So there's this phenomena common in the DIY scene that I want to talk about. Common to me at least, I certainly experience it a lot, and it's similar to a problem I had at the comic shop. See I handled every customer's pulls every week and I saw thousands of customers a week, including hundreds of regulars and hundreds of subscribers. Now to make a name up, I knew Dick Longhard's subscription inside and out. I knew when he added series, dropped series, noted when he just wanted one of something, kept him in mind for certain variant covers. I also knew Dick Longhard personally. We had extensive conversations every week and sometimes talked for hours. We liked a lot of the same books and I convinced him to try a few titles with fresh eyes and a new perspective. It didn't take but it led him to something he did enjoy, usually.

What I often did not know is that these two people were the same person.

It happens. I see a lot of people and I'm a busy guy. And, yeah, it's shitty, but I care a lot more about who you are RIGHT NOW in front of me and whether you're interesting, fun, surprising, engaging to talk to than I do who you are, where you're from, or anything at all about your life. Some of that is just guy-ness but even if you tell me your name I'll probably forget it until I've had a couple of interesting conversations with you.

Which is all to say that I know +Pearce Shea from G+ conversations and being one of the stewards of Santicore, praise be his horrible name. He is always watching. Nice guy, smart guy, against all better judgment seems to like me okay which always helps. Like I said, I'm a shitty guy. So when he released In the Woods and I tagged his post to remember to check it out when I got home, he reached out and comped me a copy. It was super sweet and I appreciate it a lot, being broke as a joke right now.

So since I cross my T's and I knew I'd read his stuff before somewhere, I looked him up, and oh goddamn it he's that guy.

Of course I'd read games with others. A lot. Because it's good and I read good things. The only reason I didn't have it on my sidebar is because I kept forgetting the name of the site, too, because I'm a fucking mess. I can't often use his writing for my at times purposefully narrow purposes but his work has a focus mine could sorely use a lot of times. We'll come back to that point.

Basically, I liked Pearce Shea in three different directions before I read this book, but forgot him twice. Hence I feel a public apology is in order.

So given.


One of the most rewardingly frustrating things in our community is when I read something that does a thing I'm doing better than I was gonna do it. It's often not close, just enough for association - to make someone go "Oh like in Fire on the Velvet Horizon" - that I revisit what I've done and readjust until it's a whole different thing and I'm satisfied with it. That's the key to me, not to see a good thing and go "I can do that better" but to see yourself on someone else's path and go "I can do ME better." This is a personal issue affecting The Work and doesn't exactly bear on In the Woods, though, because, after all, In the Woods is the kind of thing I'd love to see and do more of. Again, we'll circle back to that.

So it was upon reacquainting myself with Monsterparts (that problem of mine with names again, I kept thinking this was that Apocalypse World game) that I cursed to myself and immediately made a note to make major amendments to 2 projects, one of which I'd already given up for drunk work and the other of which was a big sprawling DUNGEON MIX post I'd been percolating. This experience is thrilling in a way and came back to bite me.

Billed originally as "attribute-less D&D" on his site, Monsterparts is a game where all the PCs take on the roles of The Kid Who Saw And Was Not Believed. You are not here to save the day. The world does not revolve around your actions. The day cannot be saved. The world is a goner. This isn't expressed through typical King In Yellow language or symbolism but rather the Lynch/Burton view of suburban sprawl as funeral mask, scab on the wound, or, in terms the games protagonists might grok, through Goosebumps sandboxing. You can cheat death and survive the horrors around you....for a time. No one believes you, and even the memory of what you saw, what you heard, weighs on you. Knowledge kills, and you can convince people to help you but you won't be doing them a favor.

The name of the game is inventory management and survival. Its old school D&D roots may show through in play at times more strongly than its Goonies roots.

All of this is shit I want more of, but it's specifically the Endurance rules (and especially those governing the taxing presence of monsters) that had be enviously hurrying to strike through my hard efforts.  My favorite rule in the game is how simply acknowledging the bad things in your life brings the darkness. It's such a kid logic kind of thing, such a part of that post-traumatic coping, the idea that to even express how you're hurting is to make it real, like the Event. I've seen grown ups struggle with this, a lot, sometimes from shit they experienced as kids, sure in the knowledge that this rule were true.

Related is the book's admonishment that authority figures and adults will only believe you at the worst possible time. The rules then go on to explain how to convince someone of something, but I would (and did) add a wandering monster roll triggered by attempting to convince a grown up of the world around you. It seemed super genre appropriate. "Stop it, kid, there is no such thing as bigfoot." "RAAAAHRRR argh gagble!"

There is a countdown in play, a timetable that probably works a lot more smoothly in person. I ran this online, with my camera focused on the Oblivion Clock, which was super creepy and effective when I finally addressed it NOT by describing it but by using it. That's not how it will work at a table but is, itself, a gag I really should have thought of before now, so damn you for that, too.


"Kids in the creepy woods" is one of my favorite anythings and the result of being not just a monster kid but also a ghost kid (and dinosaur kid who taught 6th grade sometimes but that's another tale). I mean I grew up a kid in the creepy woods and manifest has seen fit to put me back smack in the middle of some creepy woods with howly swaying pines on the night I ran In the Woods. This is tailor made for me in concept, but it practice this is a more unusual animal.

In the Woods is also the first time the Monsterparts rules are being released commercially to my knowledge so it kind of ends up working like a Free RPG Day adventure demo, spending a little time saying "Here is the implied setting of the larger world of this game, here is how you play this game, but AT THE SAME TIME here's the setting and background for this adventure and here's the rules information specific to this booklet." Reading through the whole thing is required to get it, I think, but once YOU the guy running the game has it then it's easy enough to explain. I talked players through character creation in G+ and while it took longer than it would have if we had pass-around handouts it still only took about 30 minutes for me to finish setup. (It would have taken longer if I hadn't done some of my bits earlier. Given the online issue I would say resist the spirit of the rules here and do more prep than you're specifically told to, fill out your whole roster, and just replace entries with ones the players make as needed.)

In saying that it feels at times like a Free RPG Day adventure that comes off as a slight, uh, slight. Certainly some people eying this book are doing so with the aim of playing around with a new ruleset, and they might come away miffed because in terms of the game IN GENERAL there's not a lot to tooth on here and very little in the way of tools to run a more general Monsterparts campaign. The tools are mostly focused on creating strange experiences in itself, which means you have to work specifically to adventure content.

I am bad at this because I hate it. With a lot of adventure books I feel like I am surplus to requirement if I run it straight. They lack the invention, surprise, fucked up sex shit and cannibals that fuel the enjoyment I find in running games. I literally cannot resist making changes and personal touches, to the point where (as alluded above) I made up more rules, ignored the advice about crocodile names, and invented another monster. It's a part of me, and therefore when a game actually comes with room to maneuver in its adventure modules it raises my eyebrow.

In the Woods has this room and doesn't has this room which leaves me pretty damn flummoxed. I'd compare it to Better Than Any Man except it lacks some of the open ended anything can happen nature of Better Than Any Man. It shares its sandboxy structure and its no-matter-what-you're-probably-fucked context but otherwise they're fairly dissimilar. I mean if nothing else BTAM is something you can use to begin or continue any campaign while In the Woods is packaged as a complete experience itself. Sure you could tack on a campaign to the end of this but if the same spooky kids keep thwarting the darkness time and time again then the world revolves around them, they are special, and that seems to run counter to the feel of In the Woods.

In the Woods is like....bonsai sandbox, which led me through a unique experience of not Mastering this adventure so much as curating it. So many people writing about story games are very concerned about controlling what the player CAN do or what the GM CAN do to the point where, terrified of anything but ultimate Goat Simulator freedom, they end up sounding a little tyrannical about what you can't or shouldn't do. Instead I found a lot of profit in making my job about gently reminding people they're kids, repeating creepy descriptions, avoiding too much genre awareness, and otherwise constantly reinforcing the CONTEXT and TONE. That doesn't mean that we weren't silly sometimes, kids are silly sometimes, eldritch horror sometimes looks like Zoidberg, but the hex grid is already set up to drive home the notion that this is a situation which must be escaped, not overcome, and my job is to pull a Tom Noonan and work the slide projector shouting "DO YOU SEE?!"

I had a lot of fun with the specificity of that experience. I wasn't their enemy or their friend like a bad GM and I wasn't an interface for the world and a cast of thousands like a good GM. Instead my hands were as tied as if I were a player character by my choice to run this adventure, and I only really played one character, who was The Situation At Hand.

That is praise if it doesn't sound like it. It's not something I'd do every week but I really appreciate when this hobby shows its war game and board game DNA and In the Woods feels a lot like one of the better "bottle experience" board games.

Digression: Cabin in the Woods is great and all and Betrayal at House on the Hill is basically that in board game form. I think throwing everything in a soup tureen and going "haha GENRE, am I right?" can be done well, sure, but I don't think it's much fun to play out in a RPG because you're really playing the game of Spot The Reference. I don't even like that in Feng Shui but if I may say so I've usually avoided that with my games. Say what you will about Friday the 13th but it didn't hinge on your breadth of experience. It was devoted, overly devoted, to delivering its singular experience. I may not like it more than a lot of more modern horror movies, who want to have their cynic and platonic at the same time, but I respect it more.


I can't say whether I did a good job proofreading for Santicore because nobody has called out something I've missed to me yet. But I am rated highly in performance testing and, format issues aside (there are a few clarity issues caused by formatting but none so serious and never so frequent that I think they're worth addressing), there are a few places here and there where it looks like your word processor decided you meant something else. I imagine you've heard about these by now but, if not, I can take a pass at it. It'd be my pleasure.

I've also done up some fan art of a kind for you, visual aids from when I ran this. Use them however you want.

Don't Buy In The Woods....

The basic gist is that you're kids lost in the woods at night and there's horrible monsters. It's a kid's idea of spooky woods and a night that is oppressive and alive. Some notes, then: I don't think they're too spoilery but I'll white them out anyway.
  • I made the badger very pregnant because I'm gross.
  • Lizard Yolanda sounds like an Elvis Costello song.
  • New wave 80s horrorsynth worked well to get me in the very specific mood, and +Dunkey Halton regretted that I shared this with him.
  • I think more that all game theory can ultimately come down to a divide between the kinds of games where players go "There's a reward, let's go after it" and the games where they go "There's a reward, FUCK that, go go go" and never speak of the reward again.
  • Since the party was small and camp was so near the path the players opted to try to Nope down the mountain with little thought toward rescuing their friends. While I know a lot of groups would take a different tack on this, the lure of the nearby trail and therefore steps to be retraced to/in relative safety (one might assume) is one I can see being hard to overcome.
  • I think this is a six hour game, basically.
  • While not exactly breaking kayfabe I let the players know, when asking about reasonable expectations, that a logical supposition would be (and this is why I brought this up earlier) Friday the 13th NES game rules. You know there are specific places where you'll get killed for sure, versus the trails where you could still be killed at any time but it's more spread out and less certain doom, but in the broader context you are definitely fucked either way.
  • The players come from a summer camp associated with their school. That means a mix of ages but there aren't camp counselors, only grown up teachers. Next time I run this I'm going to impose a 30-and-under rule on myself, replace the teachers with shitty college kids, and make the park rangers some in over their head grad students finishing arboreal studies masters.
  • Hunger is basically the best.
  • Getting back to the board game comparison, the grid mapping rules are justly advised as the first rules you should master, as it basically helps tip over dominoes for you.
  • Tim is the worst.
Now Over the Edge was a similar kind of bonsai sandbox and it advised players strongly not to read the whole book if they ever planned on playing the game. The game was built around a specific lore with specific SHOCKING REVEALS!!!

And I know a lot of people ignored that and read the whole thing anyway because some of y'all's contrary fucks, and also some people just read entire game system core books for fun or to pull ideas from.

If either of those describe you, do not buy In the Woods.

At least for yourself.


If you want an idea of what you're getting or you want to pick Pearce's brain for ideas, read these old Monsterparts rules.

If after reading the above you want to RUN In the Woods for your group, buy In the Woods.

If after reading the above you want to PLAY In the Woods, buy this book for someone and ask them to run it for you.

But don't buy In the Woods just to have another PDF. I mean one of your friends MAY end up running it for you down the line, and you'd be doing yourself a big favor right now. Support +Pearce Shea by throwing a buck or two his way, sure, he deserves it, but you know damn well that the PDF sitting in your documents folder will get too tempting eventually and you'll break down and read the whole thing and then be afraid to play the game EXACTLY as much as you WANT to play the game. This is apparently already a spreading phenomenon.

But if you are buying In the Woods buy it here and buy it now, because it's deeply discounted until November only.


I don't finish running a lot of my adventures or dungeons. Schedules are hard to pin down and by the time I have the time to set up another game I've become enamored with some OTHER idea and want to run that instead. It's a sickness, and it leaves a trail of broken toys going back about oh shit have I been playing these games for like six years?! When did that happen....

In any event, I'm finishing In the Woods. And then maybe I'll run it again, if I don't take that time to write my own Monsterparts adventure first.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

I Lost and Forgot This Lost Forgotten Dungeon

Long ago the party was rattling around the dwarf cliffs day-deep in a town called Skorkida. There's really one dwarf kingdom, one dwarf city, in a way, and the individual city states are more like boroughs. They were sort of in a...dicey position, legally, for reasons I'll gloss over, and wanted to ingratiate themselves to the locals a bit more by exploring this structure the dwarfs discovered. Some dwarfs intruded into the tunnels belonging to another clan and found this system of chambers, and it had to be mapped by impartial outsiders to settle whether right of salvage and discovery belonged to the tunnel owners or the intruders.

Anyway. I had an idea for a dungeon gag I wanted to use, so I decided that's what this was. A 'monsterless' dungeon where all the dangers were from doors or chests.

First I made this table:

1. smiling chest, must tell a joke to make the chest laugh or it bursts into flame, Breath-dex save or 1d12
2. skull chest, covered in poison, do not touch this chest
3. tooth chest, unlocking this steel maw puts metal jaws in place of character's mouth, save vs spell or bite 1d6 uncontrollably
4. bear chest, contains a folding bear, as grizzly bear but can collapse small enough to fit in a 1' cubed space.
5. steam chest, 60' radius scalding trap 2d8
6. bat chest, makes everything invisible visible in room until unlocked
7. crimson chest, fills room with blood when opened, like a Shining elevator amount of blood
8. nesting chest, 3d6 chests within chests
9. inscribed chest, reading it casts as from scroll, "and then i found myself inside the chest." Inscription is in a language at least one character can read, if you read the message you vanish and appear inside the chest, even if there's not actually room in there because it's full of guys....
10. chasing chest, covered in spikes and floats after party once observed
11. beckoning chest, first draws adventurers, then draws monsters 4/6 wandering checks each round
12. eye chest, can only be picked open by invisible person
13. bird chest, filled with eggs (cockatrice)
14. sphinx chest, must answer riddle to open (riddle: We're green with no gills, lizards with no frills, scaly but no snake, rhyme for the riddle's sake. Answer: skinks.)
15. many-locked chest, fucking covered in them. 10% to open and 10% to activate spike trap, raise both by 10% for each attempt. Spike trap does 3 damage +1 for each failed attempt +1 for each spike already set off.
16. snake chest, charms someone failing to unlock it into attacking party, they may wait until they can get sneak attack damage. No save, successfully unlocking the chest is your save
17. growing chest, occurs naturally in a tree, home of cursing sprites (all party members failing saves become incapable of seeing, hearing, or in any way perceiving another party member, like even if they write a note or carry around a potted plant)
18. tiny chest, unlocks hidden door nearby
19. shadow chest, can only be unlocked using the shadow of thieves' tools, always has Shadow cast on it (Oh right uh I turned a lot of BX monsters into spell effects and living shadows was one of the obvious candidates, so the chest's shadow can animate and try and eat your shadow and replace it, and then move on to another shadow, when your new shadow leaves it kills you, if attacked treat like normal living shadow)
20. displacer chest, must be truly found to be unlocked, as searching for secret doors
21. illusion chest, disguised as creature
22. night chest, only exists in the dark
23. getaway chest, contains stairs that lead to escape, portable. Stairs terminate in a sylvan glade far from here and vanish when you step off of them
24. mirror chest, reverse treasure roll for chest (5% becomes 95% etc.), unlocking will just lock and jam further, so you have to try to lock it securely before you open it
25. wax chest, touching it causes one to adhere to it, may save vs Petrification to escape, 3 failed saves means it's stuck on there until Remove Curse but you can do d8 damage with it
26. pandora chest, fills he who opens it with unshakable hope and aspiration, save and this effect wanes in d6 rounds and is infectious (no save), failed save means the effect takes root until shaken by a Command, Remove Curse, Fear effect, something that makes sense...
27. haunted chest, 3rd level spellcaster, counts as ghoul for turn undead
28. reliquary chest, soul trapped in chest
29. curse chest, 1d2 mutations
30. heart chest, as love potion, mirror inside, save to avoid narcissism, if you save you just love whatever is directly behind you. If they break it to you harshly and break your heart then the effect ends but for the next week you have to make Morale checks in battle with Morale 7.

There were no Mimics exactly. There were chest golems (as wood golems but with chests for uh, chests, so a successful unlock check killed them) everywhere and many of the doors, in addition to being trapped or locked, were Shrieking Doors. The Shrieking Door was one of the very first rpg things I made and my answer to hating the ear borer. How to accomplish the same thing without being a shitty player punisher? ac5, 2+hd*, 12hp, sonic attack does 1d4 and deafens plus after 1 round it will rip itself from its hinges and totter after you with a 1d8 crushing attack, no loot or language, roll for wandering monsters every round until killed. Like the chest golems above, you can incapacitate them with a successful unlocking check.

Grabbed a map, randomly figured out which doors were locked or trapped etc, then randomly figured out which rooms had chests in them and randomly rolled for what those chests were. It ended up like this:

Door to 14 trapped(pit, 2d10)
Door to 19 trapped(needle, save vs poison or sleep for 24hrs), locked, shrieking
Door to 10 trapped (polymorph the PC into a chest mimic)

Door to 3 locked
Door to 17 locked, shrieking
Door to 6 locked
Door to 8 locked
Door to 9 locked

Door to 4 shrieking
Door to 8 shrieking
Door to 13 shrieking

room 13 monster (wood golem, ac7, 2+hd, 14hp)
room 17 monster (wood golem, ac7, 2+hd, 14hp)
room 18 monster (wood golem, ac7, 2+hd, 14hp)

room 8 manylock chest x2 (key to 2nd chest contained in 1st, key to 9 door in 2nd)
room 6 crimson chest
room 10 night chest (time travel, everyone in the room transported to same room right before the party enters the dungeon) and snake chest (containing valuable dwarf mummy)
room 13 eye chest (diary of nearby secrets) and bat chest (key to 14)
room 19 curse chest (contained gauntlets, also cursed, each containing spirit of dwarf brother, +1 AC but you have to make Wisdom save to do anything with them because the brothers fight)
room 3 inscribed chest (OK this was inscribed in dwarf obviously and this terrified my players like few other things. They kept sending their dwarven retainers to read it but in short (heh) order the chest was so full of crushed dwarf it began extruding their gore through the seals of the chest)
room 7 reliquary chest (Blacksmith, the opposite number to the Craftsman. (Oh right the dwarf holy wars, uh don't worry about this just imagine it like the black chests from Paper Mario. The short (still funny) of it is that dwarf faith was very forceful, the Craftsman represented force of will to be meticulous and persevere, the Blacksmith represented force of effort and strength and pressure, the party never met Force of Personality....)
room 4 heart chest
room 18 nesting chest (key to 11 in smallest chest)
room 15 bird chest

This represented some challenges. Getting through all the unlocking in room 8 was a potentially daunting prospect, room 13 was basically made to make things play, pretty much everything terrible happened which could. Everything was failed.

There were some timetable elements I didn't recall, like so:

If PCs take 1 day to get up in the dungeon, ghost awakens (silent, looped actions like Speed, slowly draws party toward 11)
If PCs take 2 days, 36 kobolds invade and set up shop
If PCs take 3 days, rat-dwarves invade and force kobolds into inner rooms. These are ratmen but dwarves so they can outmaneuver you in tunnels easier.

The party ended up getting through to room 11 on their own, which subjected them to illusory flashes of the past, PCs taking on different roles in the dwarf holy war. They came to in the midst of a room filled with mummified and petrified offerings, treasure type H, stone statues which looked hungry and terrified, braziers on dais which must be lit before the stone crypt is opened. Black pudding inside, PCs hit who survive suffer as potion of madness until dispelled, lose all gear carried. The pudding moved at full speed 120/30, and I added two* for XP. The party was luckily smart enough to light the braziers, which meant the old god did not crawl from its crypt but did speak to the minds of all, casting a powerful Fear on the room.

It has been a while but I know a lot of people failed the pudding fear, the snake chest ensnared the crocodile man with the wand of fireball, the mutant chest went off, and the party just generally got its ass kicked. I've been meaning to run something like it again lately...maybe for the monthly 5e game....I had completely forgotten all this notes were on this old laptop.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Moon Slave VDND World Tour: Killscreamer

I don't know that this accomplishes the much debated task of making Bards cool, but it basically turns them into 4e Warlords and those guys were cool. The prototypical Killscreamer is probably someone from a Mad Max movie like the Doof or the announcer guy from Thunderdome.

Bloodthirsty Commander

Beginning at 3rd level, you may sacrifice a Spell Slot in order to regain a spent die of Bardic Inspiration. The level of Spell Slot sacrificed determines how many spent Bardic Inspiration uses are recovered, up to 5 Bardic Inspiration dice for a level 5 Spell Slot.

Additionally, if a use of Bardic Inspiration is used and, as a result, a creature is killed, that use of Bardic Inspiration is not expended.

Grim Visage

Starting at 3rd level, you may add your Charisma Bonus to your Armor Class instead of your Dexterity Bonus. There is no maximum Charisma Bonus which may be applied in this way, as with Dexterity bonuses on some armors. However, if you take advantage of this feature, you are so loud (and are dressed even louder) that you have Disadvantage on Stealth checks.

Driving Force

At 6th level, you may use your Action to allow another character to Attack or Cast a Spell. This does not count as that character using their Reaction, since it uses your Actions, and they may still make their Reaction as normal this round. You may still move but cannot perform any Bonus Actions allowed you.

For Glory

At 14th level, on each of your turns, you use a Bonus Action to allow another character to Disengage or Dash. This does not use their normal Reaction and they can still React normally this round. Characters may only benefit from the opportunity to Disengage or Dash if it positions them closer to an enemy.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

REVIEW: Lain to Rest At Last, At Last, by Bloom Rose and Steve Olsen

No one must know.

When Big Screamin' Andrew died his hellish drop, Andrew William James, popped the freshness seal on his medulla. Without the James sire to lean on and fall back on, Adder Entertainment was truly all this addle-pated addict had going for him, and Adder was by then beset by the buzzards. Spunj, AWJ's magnum opus of procedural relationships told through evolutionary leaps, where the characters played psionic non-motile sea life, had just pulled quite the Cosby after James' clever idea of designing the expensive hardcover (filled with educational color plates, true) after his high school biology textbook got them in a little hot water. A Newfoundland school board had received a case in error and distributed them. The backlash was laughed off by the community apart from resulting in a little more Newfie discrimination than normal for a week, but it was a deathblow to planned expansions for the line. People: this game was so lame, it wasn't even cool enough for schools. Canadian schools.

Æ was definitely about to go bankrupt. When those books were opened, James' embezzlement would be apparent, his drug use would be found out, lawsuits, jail time...He did the only sensible thing he could, which was to blame the whole thing on Bloom Rose, the last of the old guard and his biggest rival within the company. His conscience appeased, he started a big ol' fire.

When you are hiding your drugs and prostitutes with a warehouse fire you are probably not a detail oriented person...

Little gets written about Steve Olsen. Stooge impersonator and Stooge cover artist Steve Olsen was a valued member of the Æ typesetting pool and holder of the inter-office Doom high score. He was also a shadow photographer, taking stills of the discoloration in cheap paint and old wallpaper created by harsh light and conspicuous obstacles. Because he worked cheap and studio space was hard to come by, he had many installations in progress around the Æ offices and warehouse. Eccentric decorations to a fairly staid office job. Not thought of by many, and, as a consequence, Steve Olsen was also not thought of.

Lain to Rest At Last, At Last opens, controversially, with a photograph of the place where Bloom Rose burned.

She of course knew Steve Olsen was inside. She had given him the key and her leave. She knew the financial records, the projects which might help raise them from bankruptcy, evidence of the criminal acts she suspected, all had to be inside the burning structure, TRUE, but first she had to help Steve Olsen.

A company laptop found in her apartment had the detritus and the Kubla Khans of decades backed up onto it. It's these documents that Steve Olsen and editor Marna Grisby combed through to form the blue octavo notebook that is Lain to Rest At Last, At Last. It is a document unique: an artist eulogizing herself with the greatest hits she never had. The accompanying pieces by Steve Olsen are, to be sure, non-traditional compared with Æ's other artistic output in their expedition journals, but they do lend the whole proceeding a somber, memorial tone like a true crime novel or a trashy pictorial of Princess Di's headless body.

There is a Mega Man approach to the dream state of faerie nation the players find themselves in. The order in which you proceed through the hills and thickets affects what happens next. There are fourteen vignettes in all, not counting the Belle Damme Sans Merci framing device. I'll address each in the order they appear.
  • Crooked Bird is a minor encounter originally intended for an issue of A Tunnel. The bulk of the Halcyon Swap was ditched for inclusion in this book, and only Crooked Bird's riddle remains. Originally, this conferred you passage back to life (if you survived the trip) but in its final form it transforms the mouth of Crooked Bird into a path for Shadow of the House of Shadow. The trick to this one is to do it last, when you have more flickers following you, and therefore get more attempts at its riddle.
  • Reflection of No Mirror is one of the most visible encounters and it's by design, since it's best to do this one first. It sets out the premise and the rules you abide by on your quest fairly well, and if you wait to do this one after the Falls then Her Weeping won't be here.
  • Tern By Rock will accompany you if you kill Her Raging, and if you get it all the way to the Falls it becomes Her Remaining. Patterned after Bloodstone's Puffin from the Æ miniatures line.
  • Awful Children dance around the base of one hillock, fourteen in all, and if you abandon the flickers and attempt to save the children they shall be washed white and remade in the Falls. All remaining flickers will vanish, and the Shadow of the House of Shadows may not be entered through normal means.
  • Falls blanket the stony mushroom shapes surrounding the foetid geyser. Once the rocks wash the water it becomes clear and pure, but the geyser is certain death over the next ten minutes as your body finishes cooking and sliding out of itself. This part is controversial for its graphic nature, and is considered poor taste given Bloom's death. I say it's Bloom's work, and the worst thing you can do to someone after they die is make them the kind of person no one has to feel awkward about. I could be biased here.
  • Old Mill features Her Waiting and collapses after you visit Blue Road, so you can watch it fall. Dwelling within is sort of an endurance exercise for players and controller, with the latter encouraged to describe, ceaselessly, and with increasing bombast, a storm which begins to rage without and the way the mill seems about to come down any second, the panic of the wildlife within...No storm rages, in reality, but the players have to make a decision between the mounting death outside and the certain but knowable death inside.
  • Her Yearning stands at the beginning of the Blue Road. Her Rembring (sic) stands at the end. At the cross of the river stands the flicker of a flicker, and though she looks and acts like all the others, she cannot come with you. She watches the water. You never meet Her Feeling.
  • Terrible Fox walks a cone of death through the hills. First encounter her here. There's no way to survive her breath but if she does kill one of the flickers the entire zone you picked them up in resets, so it's a way to keep yourself from getting into an untenable position. Only, at risk.
  • The Sky Moves Past in this zone and only here does it ever fall real night. Only from this vantage point can you track the light where the sun should be. If you go here first, Her Waiting can be found here, and vanishes from Old Mill.
  • Credible Skeleton is also the name of a Brazilian metal band from the 90s apparently. I've never checked out their stuff, but King Diamond covered their hit "gregory" on a tour a while back...Anyhow, washing the skeleton in the Falls reveals it as Her Staying. Originally intended to be part of the expedition journal Kill the Scorpions.
  • Shadow of the House of Shadow is kind of always spinning and rotating here. I picture it looking kind of like the pillar which comes out of the floor in the first Hellraiser. This zone can be entered conventionally but divorces you from any useful equipment, and your retinue remains outside (except for Credible Skeleton if you haven't transformed it). Surviving the house and escaping with Her Working  means that she destroys the house, leaving an empty knoll and a vast stretch of nothing until you reach the Stair.
  • Burning on a Horse rides here only if you observed a sunfall at The Sky Moves Past. Her Fighting is here, and killing him makes copies of Her Fighting. These can be used in lieu of other flickers but vanish in the Falls. Otherwise, you find a long and winding platform bridge taking you over other zones to the Stair.
  • One is a secret okay
  • The Stair is a massive pit. There's no bottom and it's sure death to everyone but the flickers. It's death to them too, though, but they at least have a long walk down.
The flickers are never named explicitly but there's nobody who missed Steve Olsen's intent. This means that there are actually two "ideal" pathways through the cemetery hills, one in which all the flickers escape and one in which none do. I'm all for symbolism and bullshit but I have no idea who the people championing the second one are, SURELY I could just feel depressed on my own and save three hours of my life.

There are movies where this would save the company and everyone would remember her legacy and dedicate everything to Bloom and Æ would reach greater heights starring Tommy Lee Jones for some reason, but nope. Losing all assets and all records of all assets was hard to come back from. Æ shut its doors officially shortly after James' trial concluded, and Lain to Rest At Last, At Last was one of the final things to ship. (The last product of the Æ era, of course, was Wurming Places, an A Tunnel compilation and itself a fitting cap to Bloom's legacy.)


These trickled out a little more slowly because I've been going through some shit and the Bloom Rose sequence demands a little more than my normal reviews. There's a lot to fact check and cross reference so I can present an accurate picture behind the scenes and a mostly cohesive timeline. It's also just more draining than normal because of how inextricably tied these books are to not the rest of Bloom Rose's bibliography but the rest of her biography, and the sad way in which she died, gaming's sainted grand dame.

We all know now that Æ's story was far from over at this point, and I do promise to get into some of those latter day Second Age releases, but first I'm going to backtrack to some other old school favorites, including some of Æ's stranger dalliances with other popular rpg genres. There are a few in partial draft form I know I want to finish off before the end of the year, for example, in particular Ezra Nudibranch's Know Fist.

I do think the individual books in the Bloom Rose sequence play well but the informal fan grouping of them suggests an over-arc which just isn't there at the table. In that respect the sequence is one of those rarest things, a game series which is both good and actually reads better than it plays.

Lain to Rest At Last, At Last, in particular, is the kind of experience other people would found whole gaming genres trying to recreate, and the fact that it both HAS monsters (in the house/the house) and doesn't give a fuck about having monsters seems a decidedly modern flourish compared to the toothy gauntlets Æ was known for at its height. The Sixth Cycle of Cyclopean Romanse and Steve Olsen found one another, and in a strange way were the best things that could have happened to one another. Meanwhile, Bloom's lack of estate has led to some legal complications with reprinting much of her work outside of A Tunnel. Instead, Æ turns a willfully ignorant eye toward the rampant torrenting and bootlegging of her other vital contributions. In fact, a few booths at Gen Con this year were circulating the Elephant, an ivory-covered compilation of Bloom's work featuring some new illustrations which first appeared somewhere in Oregon two years ago and rose to fame after that Patton Oswalt AV Club article.

Next up: something really fun.