Thursday, January 2, 2020

Diverse Lutes

Random itinerant entertainer class from the cancelled project I wrote about in the last entry

The Troubadour
it has this goofy subtitle because remember
we made the whole book look like an old issue of Dragon

There are those born with a passion to dazzle and entertain, with a song deep in their heart, with a need and capacity to delight those around as a toddler cannot help but delight its maiden aunts and mother. In places of danger and wild uncertainty they die by dozens, leaving to sullen and neglected offspring naught but diverse lutes and a heap of unclean motley. The demiurges and agonarchs that fashion from our world red contests do not concern themselves with such creatures, nor do we here this day. 

Others ply the jongleur’s path more steadily but less wilingly, and are driven by a stranger engine: The gods of death demand a record.

In all places and all times, in all nations and tongues, there are those cursed to know and account to Memory and Mortality what has been brought to their country, as the wine merchant demands the vintage and chronicle of each cask in her cellar. They arise from all families and strata, and are given no choice.

The curse brings with it no concommitant appreciation for song, rhyme, or good company, though a native or willed intimacy with these tools does ease the burden on those stricken. Laden willingly or otherwise with mnemonics and harmonics, the troubadours wander, measuring and auditing the deeds of those they meet against the day these souls pass from the hands of their Author to those of their Archivist.

Bearers of the Knowing Curse would rather not be, but make the best of it: they fashion songs of their accounts and entertainments of their songs, and seek thereby to both derive a nightly crust and placate the Demon of All Stories who struts and shrieks across the meager sleep that is their affliction’s patrimony. They rise again with the sun to seek new and distant accommodation, lest a vulgar audience tire of the truths which are such minstrel’s only coin. They are much in demand at funerals.

Though the difficulties of this path are by no means to be envied, walking it imparts a personage a wide experience and useful talents:

HP: 1d6

To Hit: +1

Skills: The Troubadour has skills much like a Specialist (Lotfp Rules & Magic pg 17)—they grant a chance on a 6-sided die—1=1 in 6, 2 = 2 in 6, 3 = 3 in 6, etc. 

At first level, the Troubadour gains two skill points to add to any of the values below. The available skills and their starting values are below, new skills are denoted with a *:

Bushcraft (1 in 6)
Languages (1 in 6)
Search (1 in 6)
Sleight of Hand (1 in 6)
Stealth (1 in 6)
*Animal Handling (1 in 6)
*Entertaining (2 in 6) 
*Lore and Trivia (2 in 6)

New Skills:

Animal Handling applies to any attempt to get a mundane animal to do what you want, from quieting a guard dog, to racing a horse to teaching a chicken a stupid dance. This doesn’t work on hostile animals (ie encounters) unless you have food, fire, or some other form of leverage which would reasonably change the animals’ mind about you. In cases where a simple Wisdom or Charisma roll would do the trick for any character, an Animal Handling score above 1 allows the character to roll their skill in addition to the Charisma roll—and it counts as a success if either roll succeeds.

Entertaining is what most Troubadours do for money. The skill applies to any attempt to enthrall a neutral, friendly, or merely difficult audience--though it won’t remotely work against the majority of real foes. Entertainment can be used to distract, inform, ingratiate oneself with- or otherwise manipulate large groups of people, though the player must specify what kinds of entertainment they are familiar with (one distinct per point of skill) if the form would require sleight of hand (card tricks or juggling for instance) you’ll have to get at least one point there too and the roll to entertain is made on the higher of the two scores. In cases where a simple Wisdom or Charisma roll would do the trick for any character, an Entertaining score above 1 allows the character to roll their skill in addition to the Charisma roll—and it counts as a success if either roll succeeds.

Lore and Trivia are what Troubadours weave their tales from and about. The Troubadour’s deep knowledge transcends that of ordinary characters in two ways. First: the Troubadour is allowed a roll on their Lore and Trivia skill to be aware of information that other characters wouldn’t be allowed to know at all, or which is generally restricted to a given class, race or nationality other than their own. Second, in cases where a simple Intelligence roll would reveal a hidden piece of lore for any character, a Lore and Trivia score above 1 allows the character to roll their skill in addition to the Intelligence roll—and it counts as a success if either roll succeeds.


Due to the peripatetic and disjointed nature of the Troubadour’s lifestyle, the advancement of such individual inevitably involves collecting unexpected talents. At second and each subsequent level, roll d100 each time the Troubadour’s level goes up.

1-57 Gain 2 skill points and put them where you like.

58-59 You’ve had to fix one too many sodden cart wheels and abused dulcimers. Gain a point of Tinkering (as the Specialist skill) each time you roll this.

60 Traveling is hard work. +1 Con to racial max, excess goes to Cha, Int, or Wis.

61 You have learned much on the road. +1 Wis to racial max, excess goes to Int or Cha.

62 Well, technically it is a dog and pony show. You’re not just good at handling animals, you’re good at training them. Given a week, you can train any basically neurotypical nonhostile and domesticated animal to do such tricks as that animal might be able to do, (though it won’t be able to fight independently for you if it couldn’t already). Where is the line of “domesticated”? Cats: yes. Monkeys: yes. Tigers: no. (Though, note, apparently cheetahs are highly trainable if you can find one.) If you roll this result again, re-roll.

63 Heavens, my thumb’s come clean off! You are unusually skilled at entertaining children and have a few tricks ready to amuse them at a moment’s notice. When trying to get them to do something, roll twice and pick the better result. If you roll this result again o nthe d100, roll three times and pick the highest, if you roll it again then 4, etc. Doesn’t work on like evil demon children that want to eat your brains or whatever.

64 With your odd cap and mandolin, you’ve mastered the art of looking harmless. You are skilled at playing possum--if you pretend to go down in a fight you will most likely be ignored thereafter even if everyone else is already dead and will get a +2 to any attack in the next round (on top of any possible sneak attack damage). You may definitely use Stealth (if you have it) even out in the open during a fight since you’ll just look like you’re trying to get away—at least until an enemy sees you hit someone.

65-68  He's a card player, gambler, scoundrel--you'd like him. You have friends all over. You have one contact for each Troubadour level you have (write these pals down when they appear). This ability can be triggered in any civilized area (or uncivilized areas that travelers frequent) and HEY, IT'S YOU!!!. (Referee, get rolling some random NPCs.) These will generally be low-level underclass types--thugs, mountebanks and freakshow performers and, though they have information, they will not be adventurer-material (i.e. they won't help you fight things or open trapped doors for the most part). However, if you re-roll this result you may do one of the following things: "upgrade" an existing contact to upper class status (inheritance? big score?) or "upgrade" an existing contact to adventurer status (that is: you've made it look like fun and they want some, too.)

69-75 You’ve been forced one too many times to resort to fisticuffs to recoup your earnings from unscrupulous innkeepers: +1 to hit. Re-rolling this later adds +1 more.

76 So you found this scroll in a case by the side of the road… You have learned one magic-user spell. It functions as if cast by a 15th level wizard or your level whichever is higher. Determine the spell randomly (d8 for level). It works once, that's it.

77-80 You’ve learned to avail yourself of such shadows as are convenient. You have a sneak attack of 2. If you re-roll this, add another point, though you max out at 4.

81 You have mastered the art of combat misdirection. You may add your Charisma bonus to hit with any suddenly improvised weapon the first time you strike against any intelligent foe (who the knew you were going for the kettle?). If you have no Charisma bonus, this bonus is simply +1. Re-rolling this adds to the damage: +1, then +2, then +3, etc.

82-85 Score! You have d6 doses of horrible drugs that are bad for you. They work by ingestion or insinuation. Unless the GM has some crazy drug table, I'm going to say victims must save or act as if under a Confusion spell for 4 rounds.

86 You have such an honest face. Someone NPC of ordinary intelligence you can talk to will  automatically believe one lie you tell per day. If you re-roll this result it goes up one lie per day.

87 An impressed colleague is waiting at the foot of the stage with a gift for you. You are given a musical instrument of unusual quality. It’s doesn’t help you perform any better but it is worth 4d100sp (no xp for that, though) and gives you a +2 to any conversation with fellow entertainers who will immeidiately ask about what weight strings it uses and whether the humidity affects the resonance and…

88 Ohhh... your head hurts and why is this countertop marble? It's hard to reconstruct but you are pretty sure you won 3000 sp and spent it all in one night. Here's how it works: you have exactly ten seconds real time to say what you bought. You now have all that stuff, assuming it adds up to less than 3000gp. You do not get xp for this treasure.

89-90 Being something of a coward has paid off. You are +2 to hit with a bow or crossbow if you spend a round aiming. Re-roll? +3, +4, +5 etc.

91-94 There are fringe benefits to all that make-up you wear. You have learned the art of disguise. Somewhat. It's a your Cha vs. their Wis roll, assuming you have access to about 40 gp worth of stuff or the kind of materials you'd find in a civilized area. Obviously there are limits to what you can disguise yourself as but if you and your Referee can’t agree on them you probably shouldn’t be playing together. Every time you re-roll this result you get +2 more to the check.

95 There are certain admirers you have who insist you sign the guest book under an assumed name. You are adept at forgery. Mechanical details work like disguise above: (Int v Wis, 40gp, +2 on a re-roll, etc etc) though you can also make a Sleight of Hand roll and if either is a success: you’re good.

96-98 Your confidence has grown even faster than whatever abilities you supposedly have confidence in. +1 Cha up to racial max., excess goes to Int or Wis.

99-00 Knowledge is, of course, your business. +1 Int up to racial max, excess goes to Wis or Cha. Note: You look no smarter.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas Present

Christmas present:
Before Ragnarok happened, James' idea for the April Fools' release (or was it the Free RPG Day release?) was a book on Bards, made by me
I agreed to do it on one condition (well two conditions, the first was lots of money) --we'd do it in the exact format of the '80s Dragon Magazines, including comics, letters, and lots of real black and white ads from real OSR companies.

It was all edited and in layout... you can see on the bottom-right, Rainville had even finished the cover.

Although the idea was originally a joke, so was Red & Pleasant Land (working title "Eat Me")--I was determined everything I wrote in there be not only playable but something I was actually planning to use.

It had a traveling troubadour class, a set of scheming entertainer NPCs, a Vornheim-style entertainer generator, an interconnected sandbox built around the circuit of taverns and festivals that an itinerant musician, juggler, etc would follow, a bunch of descriptions of plays that PCs might pull off the shelves of a random library that looked pointless at first but had hidden clues and adventure hooks worked into them, a few musical magic items including gongs and a more detailed version of Heward's Mystical Organ, an adventure that started with a poem the players had to examine for clues, another adventure featuring "The Malignant Hymnal of Occychorcys" and a guide to making music puzzles. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace

Stats tell me the same number of people read these entries as have for years, so I know this'll reach the people it needs to.

Recent bullshit aside, a lot of people in gamer land say I am unnecessarily mean on the internet to gamers. All these gamer conversations, long or short, follow this same basic form:

Zak: "Well here's the receipt"
Angry: "I DON'T HAVE TO DEBATE YOU" (leaves)

Angry (later, to the internet): "Zak is such a jerk, he said I was made of french fries!"


Ten years of this--since 2009.

Point is, even though I know lots of people always do think that I legitimately to this day do not know why they think that because none of them ever stick around and answer questions long enough to explain what their beef is or why they have it. I (and everyone in real life who sees these things) go around mystified about it--I have no idea what people expect me to do instead of point to the receipt, never have. And, to a one, gamers immediately change their tune in real-life (cons or vidchat) and never say the stupid things they say online, so talking to them's no help, either.

So, if you are reading this and

(1) You think I am...

(2) unnecessarily mean on the internet...

(3) and can point to one specific example

(4)-of a specific instance and

(5)-can answer all questions about why you thought it was bad

Leave a comment.

Talk as if you're talking in real life: No talking on behalf of other people ("I think people..."), no running away in the middle.

p.s. Edit: Dec 15. Some commenters aren't smart enough to understand the rules so I added numbers.

Monday, October 21, 2019

A Short History of Actual Change the Tabletop RPG Industry

1970s: Dungeons and Dragons is released, leading to...

-The hobby as a commercial business beginning and eclipsing wargaming
-Zillions of fanzine-level imitators

1980s: Increasing Professionalization and Popularity of D&D, leading to...

-Lots of new players
-Younger and broader audience
-Games that aren't D&D become commercially viable and professional
-Nearly every genre extant as of the '80s has a game. Every subgenre too (in sci-fi for instance we have Traveller, Cyberpunk, Robotech, Shadowrun, etc)

1990s: Video Games Or Maybe Just Industry Decadence?

-Are video games why RPGs become less popular? Or maybe it was just the fad passing

1990s: Vampire: The Masquerade

-Wayyyy more women show up

2000s: The Internet and Cheap Color Printing

-Lots of little indie games
-Acceleration of communication and production in fan-products
-Easier path from fan to designer

2010s: Crowdfunding and Communities

-Easier path from fan to publisher

Mid 2010s: 5e, Stranger Things, Critical Role, '80s Teens Having Teenage Kids

-D&D becomes incredibly popular again


There are also factors I don't know anything about (how distributors have handled games, for example). You can argue about other significant game-changers around the edges but I'm more interested in the takeaways from the information we have as a whole.

Mine so far are:

-The only things that've moved the needle so far are: big external factors like new technology and big products with new content/presentation

-Did D&D's '80s competitors--Games Workshop, FASA, Palladium, Chaosium--do something right that so far has evaded today's non-WOTC publishers? Or were they just taking advantage of the fact that there just wasn't a game for x yet?

Thursday, October 17, 2019

A Question For You

Online, in the RPG community, there's a conversation. In general, I mean--people talk about one thing, then another, then another.

People learn about new games and game ideas from this conversation, get GMing tips from it, find resources through it, get game design ideas from this conversation, etc. Most of the developments in mainstream RPGs since 2000 have been influenced by the conversation, almost all of the developments in independent RPGs have been and most of the new talent in the indstry comes ot of this conversation.  It has been going on for as long as there's been an internet.

Do you, personally, care if this conversation is good or bad?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

What's Next?

In the '80s and '90s, D&D had a decent share of the public imagination but so did Shadowrun and Vampire and RIFTS. Now we're mostly back to just having D&D.

In five years--outside the niche that cares about these things--will there be lots of mainstream RPGs in game stores or will it still basically be D&D and Path?

All the activity around games online since 2000 has produced jillions of game design models, but only a few different models of product design--that is, design of all the things involved in the game product you sell, not just the mechanics and setting:

The D&D/Pathfinder/Fantasy Flight Approach: 

-Lavish mainstream illustration
-Expensive-looking but nonfunctional mainstream graphic design 
-Lots of library content
-Relatively incremental mechanical changes from whatever was mainstream 5-10 years ago
-Setting content based on a legacy RPG property
-Supported with miniatures, online tools and as many promotional gimmicks as the company can afford

The Indie Approach:

-Stylish but minimal graphic design and illustration
-No library content (or library content created by fans after the first book)
-Rules light
-Sold as pdf or in a thin volume
-Often explicitly made for short campaigns or one-shots
-Attempts to be mechanically innovative or else based on Apocalypse World, FATE etc.
-Setting content varies: smaller ones can be anything (Shab-Al-Hiri Roach), larger ones tend toward genre emulation (Dungeon World, etc)
-Sold mostly via online network of indie enthusiasts

The Mainstream Runner-Up (Green Ronin, Pelgrane, etc) Approach:

-Looks kinda like a D&D/Path/Fantasy Flight-style hardcover on the outside
-Hardcover with lots of library content
-Often based on a popular or nerdpopular license, or else down-the-middle genre emulation
-Expensive-looking but nonfunctional mainstream graphic design
-Mainstream but cheap-looking illustration unless its based on a license that it can borrow illustrations from (Marvel Heroic, DC Adventures)
-Mechanically similar to some other mainstream game
-Promoted through the upper-tier of the RPGverse (spotlight at Gen Con, etc) or the lower tier of the wider nerdosphere (maybe a popular stream here or there)

The "Prestige OSR" (Break, Silent Titans,  LotFP etc) Approach:

-Eccentric, distinctive illustration
-Terrifyingly extreme and time-consuming graphic/information design
-Hardcover, designed as a fetishized object
-Lots of library content, though often in the form of random tables
-Hybrid of simplified '80s RPGs and new mechanics
-Setting content is D&Dish or D&D-adjacent
-Promoted by fan-content and screaming on blogs at each other

No-Frills Start-Up (Zweihander, Sin Nomine, S&W, Onyx Path etc) Approach:

-Little or genre-emulating illustration
-Simple graphic design, based on a basic template or legacy-influenced layout
-Cheaply printed or available only as pdf
-Lots of library content, or sometimes lots of it
-Content is genre-emulation of something already familiar in the RPG-o-sphere
-Slightly-updated mechanics based explicitly on some previous property
-Promoted mostly online by the 24-hour tireless sweat of a lone or small group of hardworking hustlers


So a few observations here:

-All of these approaches have proven to be able to allow at least some people somewhere to quit their day jobs and live off games. So congratulations.

-Fantasy Flight is putting out things on the D&D model and making money but still hasn't really managed to change the conversation in terms of games. It might be just because everything they do is based on something familiar.

-I think if the Indie Approach was going to catch mainstream fire it would've done so by now. Maybe it's (like many Indie authors say) the content or mechanics are just too Out-There or maybe it's that mainstream audiences like library content, production values and/or the promise of long campaigns. It's hard to know for sure, but either way: people have been making games like this for twenty years and they haven't expanded as fast as other ways of doing things.

-Likewise, the Mainstream Runner-Up Approach has hit its ceiling. These companies have been around for decades and haven't managed to move around in the market much without a license, and the licenses have proved--at that scale--to be unsustainable. 1980s-90s alternatives to D&D like Robotech and Warhammer came out of the gate both looking as good as D&D and usually offering some new mechanical twist. They felt like something new. These don't and the people who make them don't seem to be willing to risk investing more in writing or art to move up a tier.

-What'll happen with the other two approaches is an open question. The Prestige OSR model is relatively new and hasn't ever been used to produce a complete and original new game and when it does it probably still won't be on many retail shelves. The no-frills start-up will probably have to make the leap into some other way of doing things in order to move into mainstream awareness, but there's no reason, in theory, they shouldn't be able to.

-The most interesting question is whether there are any other options.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Vanessa Veselka on Selling Flowers & Dying In Grain Elevators

Some of Vanessa's contributions to Demon City--all laid out by Shawn Cheng with art by me. Click to read...