Thursday, January 31, 2013

Three Neat Things Thursday and Devildog Slaughterfist

-So over at Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, Jack put together a d100 table of interesting rituals to use in Carcosa, your Cosmic Odyssey reskin, Call of Cthulhu, or anyplace else you need the villains driven to obscure behavior by nefarious motives. His Oulipian constraint was to avoid all the ritual cliches.

You must fashion a mask from the combined skins of a mammal, an amphibian, and a bird. The mask will be worn only during the first part of the ritual; after this the mask must be consumed by the sorcerer before the ritual can continue.

-Bryan M. automated my d100 war dogs table--making the shopping part of your game that much faster.

-That RPG book I wrote won best RPG supplement of the last 10 years over at UK Role Players, beating out some heavy competition.

And just because I scanned it for later reference and why not, here's Devildog Slaughterfist, level 1 thief...
Character sheets designed by my GM Kirin Old School Hack Robinson
Last thursday's diary entry reads...

Dear Diary: Went to Rappan Atthuk today with one hit point, left with one hit point, 250 gp, a magic arrow, a serrated gnoll sword and one leg.

We'll see if we can make it another day....

Now if you'll excuse me I have to go find some graph paper...

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Zero Dark 29, 28, 27...

Been trying to think of why Robin Laws' GUMSHOE system works pretty well for Night's Black Agents (spies v vampires) despite the fact that all Laws' "players want this players want that, drama drama, ice cream Pavlov Hamlet" rhetoric about why it works doesn't actually make sense or line up with what I've ever seen at the table.

And what kind of game is this? In a nutshell: in Night's Black Agents you can spend a point of your Preparation stat to have a flash bang grenade on you, even if you didn't before and had no idea you were headed into a firefight. It's that kind of game.
I bought these sunglasses retroactively once I realized we were in Afghanistan
In essence, you use the point-buy character-creation system to make a PC and then kinda keep using the system throughout the entire game--inventing contacts, equipment, cover stories, etc as you need them. Somehow it works even for non-hippies, why? Short answer: it makes sense for a spy game.

Long answer:

It's Fast-moving In A Gamey Way And In An International Spy Story We Need That

GUMSHOE's spend-to-do-it system makes moving from scene to disparate scene (essential to the international espionage genre) mechanically interesting.

Like, consider this situation:

GM describes a target. PCs outline a plan and step one of their plan involves secretly flying to Istanbul.

In GUMSHOE, I go "Go ahead and spend a point to get a plane, but remember spending that point now means you won't have it later and you can't use 'Well Connected To People Who Have Planes' points later in the session..." which is an interesting choice to have to make.

If I ran it Call of Cthulhu/BRP style then I have two choices:

"Ok you automatically get a plane because it makes sense you'd be able to get one" (which is an ok GMing call, but not especially interesting mechanically and you just do it and move on and forget about it, maybe secretly deciding "Ok, now you owe Manuela a favor before she helps you again".)


"Roll to see if you can even get a plane" (which if they succeed, yay good, if they don't, well, they have to do something else but that having to choose some other plan is kinda arbitrary and they will find another plan but it won't necessarily be any more interesting and so the consequences of failure didn't make the game better.)

Now the Call of Cthulhu plane example above could be made interesting if there was a ticking time bomb situation ("Use your Credit Rating score to get a plane and if you don't you only have one day left and figure something else out") and that points up a genre difference:

In D&D or Call of Cthulhu, the thing that makes their probabilistic systems work so well is the assumption the PCs are under some kind of pressure. Often time pressure, but it could also be something like dwindling resources or just fear of getting killed if you don't kill the monster first. So what do you do? You think of a plan that puts the odds on your side, then roll. It's tense, it's exciting, it requires thought.

The spy genre does not work like that though. Quite often at the beginning of the mission the spy is under no obvious pressure. Failure isn't interesting here--can't stay at the fancy hotel? Oh well, stay at the cheap one. Pointless, pressureless leisure--at least in the beginning--is part of the genre. This leisure gives the protagonists time to build the world around them (see 3 below).

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Zero Dark Thirty the main character's not under any external pressure, really. It's just work. The worst that could happen if a resource is denied is if the GM rigged up a situation where if a plan doesn't work (failed probabilistic roll), the bad guys notice and change up.

Using GUMSHOE's nondiegetic-thinking-style spendy mechanic, you, in effect buy ease and choice at the beginning of the session and pay for it with desperation at the end of the game. Which is different from the all-desperation-all-the-time mechanics you want in an exploration-and-wonder-oriented genre.

Exploring... Vs Playing With... 

For my players specifically:

In a made-up setting: getting to see what's hidden in it is fun. More fun than helping to write the fiction called "the setting" which they like mysterious and not-in-their-control. They want the slow revelation.

In the real world setting: getting to fuck with the real world is fun. Because they already know the setting--they live in it and hear about it every day. So the revelation that there's a really hot country called Australia that has giant jumping pocketbeasts is not something they need held back for dramatic effect. So a mechanic that suddenly  makes an ASS (or whatever the Australians call their secret service) member your friend isn't a blow to an essential wonder and isolation you need to enjoy the game, it's a fun reminder that in this version of the familiar world the strange is always hidden behind the familiar.

Revelation vs Showdown

Ok most horror, sci fi, and fantasy stories ("adventure" stories broadly) are built on the idea of the revelation. Westerns, spy movies and kung fu movies ("action" stories broadly) are built on the showdown.

The revelation is the new awesome thing you get to see that vastly exceeds expectations. The space ship, the creature, the magic, the crazy city built from bells and beehives, etc.

The showdown is characters you already know about from the beginning finally confronting each other. John Malkovich is bad and smart and weird, Clint Eastwood is good and tough and clever, who'll win? Watch In The Line of Fire and find out...

Many stories incorporate both* but they pull in opposite directions, broadly speaking.

The revelation requires the players do not know about things before they show up. The less is known, the more of a revelation it is.

The showdown requires the players know all about things before they show up. The more is known, the more of a showdown it is.

D&D and Call of Cthulhu are naturally set up for The Revelation (exploration) and any Showdown requires the GM to do all the work building the threat. GUMSHOE is naturally set up for The Showdown and any Revelation requires the GM to do all the work, carefully hiding the fullness of the threat from the players.

Games relying mostly on Showdowns want the world to feel connected and, ultimately, knowable--everything is about you and your big fight coming up. Games relying on Revelation want the world to feel abstract and unknowable--everything beyond you is a mystery in the great beyond.

In the revelation story, the players are small and the world is large. In the showdown story, the players are large and the threat is large and the world is a backdrop.

In NBA's espionage version of the showdown, this backdrop is really just a kind of weapon the PCs have a certain amount of points to spend to design--like magic item creation or building an invention in a superhero game.

I get the feeling this is also related to Hard SF vs Sci Fantasy. When I hear SF is "about ideas" that usually implies "about the revelations" whereas when you hear its "just an adventure story with laser guns" that implies "about the showdown".


One more thing: just as having a Showdown-worthy NPC that matters is a perennial problem for D&D GMs that the game leaves them pretty much on their own about, my guess is making the vampire conspiracy really seem like a Revelation full of wonder is going to be a perennial problem for NBA GMs. I mean, in a game where you can use a stat to, in the middle of a fight, have totally already remembered to bring holy water, you got your work cut out for you.

Also--if you click that link at the top there are a few things I did to make the game more problem-solvey and a little less button-pushy


 *Noir and crime stories are often all about both: building to a confrontation with a known figure and revealing a hidden underworld at the same time. To see a story where the final showdown kinda lacks guts on account of it having been somewhat too obscured under an overall aesthetic of revelation, see the original-- and mostly excellent--original Sin City miniseries. When Roark is revealed we know who he is but we still don't know anything about why Marv confronting him will be interesting. To see the typical noir solution--having the villain there all along but only revealing they are the villain at the last minute--see The Maltese Falcon. To see one variation on it--having the villain front and center but only revealing the weird extent of their villainy at the end--see Chinatown.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Monster Dispatches Me With A Sense Of Reverence...Into The Realm Of Anti Life

Cosmic Odyssey
July 1988
Mike Hellboy Mignola
Jim I drew this so I am exempt from all mortal criticism Starlin
Steve Colorists Don't Get Nearly Enough Credit The Color Here Is Off The Hook Oliff
Carlos Neither Do Inkers, Especially The Ones Who Don't Get In The Way Garzon

Such a good comic. Yeah Batman uses a gun and suddenly Daily Show Green Lantern is an idiot but, really, fuck you continuity nerd, this comic is more readable than Watchmen, Maus and Fables put together.

But, more to the point here, so eminently rip-offable for your D&D game.

Chapter One

Ok so a horde of servants of Apokolips  goblins or gnolls or Lannisters or beastmen or whatever attack Gotham City some place right outside wherever the PCs are sleeping. Upshot: they represent some larger political entity of generally and broadly bellicose intent.

Their objective: set up an interdimensional portal to Apokolips  sabotage the security situation in the city/castle/country--like they're tryna destroy a wall or gatehouse or tower or whatever like as if you're Troy and they just rolled up in their horse.

Superman and some guy named Lightray from Jack Kirby's rainy-day drawer Your PCs hopefully knock some heads and send the baddies packing.

Here's the rub: (probably) unbeknownst to the PCs one d4 of the invaders escapes the wrong way--into the city/castle/country instead of out. If you can't pull this off, a later Chapter might have just gotten easier.

Chapter Two
Days, weeks, months later people start noticing citizens disappearing. If the PCs won't care you could make them citizens who were carrying lots of stuff disappearing. This is the work of the d4 escaped villains, who have been skulking around and mugging the locals ever since the failed invasion.

Fuck these jerks, right? So either Batman the PCs track them down to their lair in the sewers (or whatever it is) or you go all Hunter/Hunted and a lone PC is the next kidnapping victim.

If the attempted-PC-kidnapping happens: 1) Don't say they weren't warned and 2)There's no guarantee that the PCs will find the monster lair, but that's not a big deal.

Important things about the lair:
-it's not that hard to find
-it's mazy
-the baddies have left one of their distinctive weapons lying around
-unless the PCs make sure otherwise for some reason, when it's all over, one of the foes' corpses will be unaccounted for. As if it just up and took off after it had been deaded.

So far, so easy. You could even ignore Chapters 1 and 2 and build the following chapters on top of stuff that's already happened in your campaign anyway.

Chapter Three

George Bush Sr Your setting's local potentate gets Superman to round up the heroes offers the party a lot of money to aid in the special world-saving thing that's going on.

To wit:

Darkseid Your awesome Archvillain that you stay up nights thinking about how Frazetta would draw rolls up. The same one responsible for the invaders in Chapter One. There's a menace bigger than us all coming on and the Archvillain or Archvillainess needs your help, you brave level 5+ PCs.

And this Menace is...

The Anti Life Equation has been discovered. Or the Formula of Invoked Devastation. Or the Hand of Vecna. Or the Alabaster Chalice of Deathfrost Mountain. Or something. Archvillain tells the tale: coveted it for ages has s/he and then s/he found it and....FUCK
--it's totally fucked beyond imagining.

Actually, the formula/artifact/object/relic is sentient and malevolent and far more badass than the Archvillain.

Now, just after looking into this abyss which then looked back, the Archvillain managed to put the horrible hellthing back to sleep but not before it managed to send four horrible demonic avatars of itself out into the unsuspecting universe setting.

Using crazy Kirbytech magic and/or spies, the Archvillain's tracked these avatars. They are bent on global annihilation. Or maybe just local annihilation. Basically: annihilation of parcels of geography the players would prefer to not see annihilated. In addition to just generally annihilating, if any two of them succeed, the Equation/Formula/Artifact/Whatever will sense the great torsional shift in the relationship between our reality and The Larger One Beyond In Which It Is Embedded As The Jelly Within The Donut and be permanently awoken and then war and death and doom will reign from the heavens and various other problems with stats.

So the Archvillain lays out the crisisbox and what is thus far known:

One demon avatar is in the players' backyard somewhere. Hidden in the homebase.

One is in the realm of an aggressive and warlike people.

One is in a highly sophisticated and civilized land.

One is in a realm of which there's some cannibals but they aren't so bad, really.


Now in the original comic these are planets, but in your game the locations can be anything you want: cities, buildings, dungeons, mountains, sailing ships, even just 4 levels of the same big dungeon. Whatever.

If you want, this is a great place to plug in four existing modules to make a sort of Voltron campaign. The four locations are fairly modular and changing them won't fuck with the program much, they just need to be:

A. Near enough to civilization that a portal to evilness there would actually matter


B. Places that can be plausibly got through within the time limit I'm about to tell you about in the next section...

Chapters Four, Five and Six
Basically, barring unforeseen circumstances, the party will address three of these four situations, then the Archvillain will act like a jerk, then if they deal with that, they can go on to handle the fourth situation.

So the next three chapters are probably going to be spent addressing the situations in three of these four locales.

All of them have one thing in common: a demon sneaking around securing ritual materials necessary to open a portal to necrodimensional space in some findable locale.  Once the portal opens everything is fucked and demons pour forth and lay waste to the vicinity, stone turns to meat, children to wild pigs, livestock to lechers, it's all bad news. This ritual will take (let's be nice) a month to finish. Though the demon does not have to be paying attention to it the whole time--like the amber python of the skyjungle eats the white peach over the course of a month and then the realities align. The PCs won't know this right off, though: it's an ASAP situation.

The actual materials for the ritual can be whatever--just make them relatively exotic, a jade thingy worth more than whatever, a man who has lived since the last war, a wheel that has never touched the ground, etc. All the portals in all the locations should use the same basic ingredients, more or less, so after the party "solves" the first location, they know what to look for thereafter.

While the portals are basically similar, the avatar demons use different tactics to defend and conceal their portals..

1-The homebase demon is a demon of shadow and has possessed the body of one of the escaped invaders from Chapter Two. The demon's made the host tougher and more spooky and is using it to sneakily acquire the needed materials. This will be mostly an investigation-type adventure until the creature and its partially-built ritual portal is actually discovered in Moosejaw Arizona tucked away in whatever corner of the PC's home base you want it to be, in which case you probably can take it from there.

2-The aggressive and warlike people place. Remember this adventure structure can be adapted to any scale, so it could be a nation of Always Chaotic Evil goatmen or a city that will be obviously hostile to the PCs, it could be a regular dungeon or just that house over there full of jerks. The key here is the demon is a demon of war and has made the locals even nastier and more xenophobic.

Like, for example if location #2 was the Caves of Chaos from the Keep on the Borderlands module then as soon as the PCs saw the first kobold, the alarums of invasion would sound throughout the caves and every single motherfucker from ogre to owlbear would rush out to find and exterminate the party.

Note that if the party plays its cards right, this effect can make the location easier to handle. And, somewhere behind all these Klingified defenders, there's the demon and portal. The demon itself is using the body of a large and powerful robot golem.

3-The highly sophisticated place has been infiltrated by a demon of madness. So everybody here is nuts and beating on everyone else. This could be really fun if you're using a module--like reimagine Vault of the Drow or Ptolus in the context of a baffling war of all against all--or just take a regular location like some castle and everyone is suddenly murderously batshit.

The demon itself is possessing the body of an eerily fast Aquafresh-colored petroleum-based ooze capable of hurling heavy objects with stone-giant strength.

4-The demon in the cannibal place has totally ignored the storytelling possibilities of both adopting a wacky new morphology and messing with a cannibalistic species (or would that be anthrovorous since they eat you not themselves?) and just gone and taken a regular human form and done its own thing.

Now just because it (and Jim Starlin) did doesn't mean you have to. By all means, make someone try to eat your PCs, that kind of behavior is fully sanctioned in the storytelling medium in which we thanklessly toil. Anyway...

The demon here in location 4 is a demon of tribulation and has:

-infected the locals with a deadly airborne pathogen so they're all pretty pathetic, as cannibals go
-taken control of the local weather and geology (lightning bolts form the sky and lava jets from the ground), and
-is smart enough to have been in communication with the other demons and has painted the anti-life bomb yellow taken steps to protect its lair against any specific tactics the players have used in any of the place. In other words, this one's smarter.

Chapter Seven
As the clock begins to tick down but before the last of the four locations (in whatever order the PCs choose) is investigated the Archivillain will attempt to enact the following scheme: s/he will secretly contact Etrigan the most mystically-attuned and/or selfish PC and try to recruit them by offering that PC something of great value.

Recruit them for what? To help perform a summoning and binding ritual on the AntiLifeMcGuffin so it does what the Archvilain commands. The argument will be "Look, guys, it's taking longer to track down these demonic avatars than we thought, right? And it's a desperate situation and all and it's probably better for everyone if, in addition to y'all doing your thing, I try to enslave this enigmatic and gigapotent primordial intellect to my will, am I right or am I right?"

If the PC resists, the Archvillain will probably just do it anyway without their help. If the PC helps, hey moral dilemma fun.

So either way the offer serves its purpose: The metagoal here is to split the PCs and put them on a time crunch where some of them have to find the last portal and some of them have to stop the Archvillain from leveling up from power-hungry to power-crazed.

The Archvillain's summon-and-bind ritual is horrible because this: if s/he does it right, then, well, megapowered bad guy. If s/he does it wrong: the Implacable Thing is unleashed in full and inimical glory on this virgin world.

So it's kinda a lose-lose. The only chance is to:

-stop the summoning before it happens (though the villain should have it all set up in advance so it doesn't take too long--unless the PCs have been vigilant and pre-sabotaged it, it's like a 30 minute ritual),

-enact a banishment ritual (right in front of the Thing) after the summoning but before the binding (banishment formula easily found in any decent eldritch library once the Archvillain's plan is known)

-bind it to a PC instead of to the Archvillain (ohhhhhh, so dangerous)

-or beat the Thing up.

...and, remember, meanwhile one of the demons is still trying to open a portal to fucked elsewhere at the same time give or take.

So there you go. Have fun with that.
(Actually it's probably more like...
except you'd have an hourglass or the moon slowly coming out from behind the clouds but seriously there's a limit to how much google image searching I'm gonna do in a day, ok.)

Thursday, January 24, 2013


The Spinneskelle is a ghastly automaton found atop spherical objects found in both nature and dark rooms deep in the recesses of stone mazes.

It appears immobile at first, but any action within 60' of it (or in the same room) will prompt it to change to one of nineteen ballet-like positions (like those old pulley-robots at Disneyland) and cause its wand to replicate one of the nineteen powers of a Wand of Wonder (see AD&D DMG for full details of powers). The actions and corresponding reactions are as follows:

Creature moves toward Spinneskele: Slow
Creature moves away from Spinneskele: Delusion
Creature directly attacks with weapon or unarmed: Gust of Wind 
Creature casts spell: Stinking Cloud
Creature starts fire or lights an object with an existing fire: Heavy Rain
Creature talks to other creature or self: Summon
Creature talks to Spinneskele: Lightning bolt
Creature sleeps: Butterflies
Creature eats: Enlarge
Creature breaks an object: Darkness
All creatures present do nothing: Grass grows
Creature activates magic item: Vanish
Creature harms Spinneskelle: Diminish
Creature drops item (throwing things at the Spinneskelle counts as an attack, above): Fireball 
Creature picks up item: Invisibility
Creature harms room or environment: Plant growth
Creature harms other creature: 10-40 gems
Creature attempts to steal wand: Shimmering colors
Creature dies: Flesh to stone (on another creature)

The Spinneskelle itself holds the wand with an unbreakable grip until destroyed. It has two or three times boss hit points (it's pretty easy to hit, though).

If the Spinneskelle is destroyed, the wand may be taken and will function as a Wand of Wonder except the given powers key off foes actions as above rather than a die roll. However, remember, it is still a wand, so you'll look like an idiot.

(P.S. To make your players look extra stupid, make the wand only work if you adopt the Spinneskelle's positions.)


Monday, January 21, 2013

RetroStupidPretentious Analysis

As Jeff once explained any RPG worth playing is Retro, Stupid or Pretentious.

I took ten minutes out after breakfast this morning to look at the games I've played lately and subject them to rigorous RSP critique...
click to make bigger
If you don't recognize the name of a game, google it.


Seems I forgot Night's Black Agents...
Setting scores a P for both high concept and extensive research, Mechanics are a solid Pretentious being based on GUMSHOE (maybe RetroPretentious when I ran it) and the structure was StupidPretentious or maybe just Stupid with Ken running the first half and me running the second.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Most Plussed

A year (?) ago or so Blogspot started letting people add little plusses to your blog entries. Here are the most plussed entries since then...

10 Mostly Women?

Just an informal poll to see who besides me reading this blog had groups that were mostly women or female-lead. Continued on

9 Welcome to the Gigastructure

Announcing the start of the Deathmaze game on Google +. People liked it.

8 Hunter/Hunted

Explaining one way to make sure your Call of Cthulhu game is never a railroad.

7 A Warbox

Showing how to make a campaign map quickly generate random encounters related to the campaign's background drama.

6 Year One Tips gleaned from the first year of running games via Google plus hangout. #3 is, as of now, no longer true, but otherwise I'd stand by most of this stuff.

5 Is This How Burning Wheel Is Supposed To Work?

Despite the fact that the board dedicated to this game seemed to feel the need to Forgesplain to us that we were playing the game badwrong, a great many good and sane humans seemed to enjoy reading about our foray into storygameland.

4 Actually, Robin...

I dip into the most terrifyingly psychobabbly parts of a very popular GMing manual.

3 Hire Women

What it says on the tin. The basic go-to for dealing with the Tipper squad's obsession with making up rules for what can be in game art. (Plus a fascinating back-and-forth with a real live Tipper--creases--in the comments.)

2 Called Shot Mechanic

The top spots on this list are not occupied by rants but by useful game stuff. The Called Shot Mechanic is pretty much usable for any game where you roll dice to do stuff.

1 The Alice

(Coming in at +83) Well I just posted this new character class so you've probably seen it. Hopefully the rest of the stuff in the book will go over as well...


I also asked people on G+ what their most plussed posts were--these are they: