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Bleakstone is my old school fantasy hexcrawl setting, parts of which have been kicking around in my brain since 2012. This post presents an overview, including an elevator pitch and all the high notes.

In August of 2014 I finally realized that I do best when I design gaming stuff in chunks, rather than trying to eat the whole elephant, and decided that the easiest way to do that with Bleakstone was also to design the setting in public. It’s been through numerous iterations (not all of them named Bleakstone), it’s full of things I like in my D&D, and it’s a work in progress.

This post is focused on presenting concise, gameable content that sparks my imagination — the bare minimum that I need to sit down and referee a Bleakstone campaign. You can jump straight to specific sections if you like: regional map, dominant intelligent species, unique features, domains, and inspiration and tools.

Spoilers for players abound

If you’re a player in Bleakstone, or think you might one day like to play in this setting, stop reading here. There’s no segregation of player and GM content below, and Bleakstone’s secrets are laid bare below.

Bleakstone elevator pitch

Strange, chaotic, and dangerous, the region known as Bleakstone has nonetheless produced pockets of stability and civilization in the past few centuries. Towns and villages dot the land, often fortified, and petty fiefdoms and principalities claim territory throughout the region. But in between, on Bleakstone’s poorly maintained roads — and beyond them — are dark, dangerous places peopled by monsters, centuries-old ruins and dungeons, scheming null slimes, the hidden domains of spider-like skurliths, the spires of imprisoned gharrudaemons, and wandering uzbardim who answer to no one.

In its golden age, a civilized skurlith empire ruled this entire region. The skurliths pacified the land by imprisoning the gharrudaemons who came before them, entombing them in vast obsidian monoliths that still stand today. Bleakstone is best known for the areas of “bleak stone” that dot the landscape: places that have been petrified in their entirety, and which are peopled by denizens of hell — and worse. These stone expanses range from a few yards in size to several miles in diameter, and within them it’s as if everything present was transformed into stone in an instant: people, animals, plants, houses — anything in contact with the ground. The bleak stone expanses began appearing a few decades ago, and new ones have appeared ever since. They’re mysterious, unpredictable, and above all dangerous places, avoided by most residents of Bleakstone.

Declared an “unholy land” by the Holy Empire of the Eleventh Lord, to the west, a decade ago (and stricken from all maps produced by the Empire), Bleakstone is largely ignored by its neighbors. Bleakstone is a weird and troubled land, a place where adventurers have many opportunities to make their mark — and many more opportunities to die trying.


Regional map

The Bleakstone region is represented by a 30×20 map composed of 6-mile hexes numbered 0000 through 2919, 600 hexes in all, with a surface area of about 19,200 miles. It’s about the size of Costa Rica, although I didn’t plan that — I picked 30×20 because it fit nicely on my monitor, offered plenty of room, wasn’t so large as to seem impossible to flesh out, and made it easy to randomly place locations with a d30 (long axis) and a d20 (short axis).

Here’s a much larger version of the map — a full-size export straight from Hexographer.

Climate

All of Bleakstone is temperate and has four distinct seasons. It’s broadly similar to western Europe.


Dominant intelligent species

There are five dominant intelligent species in Bleakstone. In order of population, most to least, they are:

  1. Humans
  2. Skurliths (“skuhr-liths”)
  3. Uzbardim (“ooze-bahr-dimm”)
  4. Null slimes
  5. Gharrudaemons (“garr-oo-day-mons”)

Elves, dwarves, and halflings are also present in Bleakstone, but they’re relatively uncommon and aren’t dominant in the region.

Humans

When the skurlith empire fell, humans moved in like rats, as they always do, and quickly became the most common species in the region. They found a strange landscape dotted with towering obsidian spires and peopled by mysterious uzbardim and the remnants of the skurlith race. Later, they learned of the null slimes and became embroiled in their intrigues (and vice versa). The more susceptible among them became cultists of the gharrudaemons. In this strange land, the strong tend to rule — those whose ambition and avarice dull their caution, and who could not rule in more civilized lands.

Most humans in Bleakstone were born in one of the three human domains that span the region: Skeldmar (feudal Germany with a Norse flavor), the Blackfang Barony (a dirtier version of medieval England), or the Theocracy of Umr (a blend of sword and sorcery, fantasy Arabia, and religious madness). People of Umr tend to be tall, with medium-brown skin and pinched features. Skeldmar folk tend to be shorter, and most often have pale skin, light-colored hair, and wide faces. The ancestors of the people of the Blackfang Barony were a mix of exiles and castoffs from other nations, and their descendants run the gamut from dark-skinned to light-skinned, with a wide variety of features. Over the centuries, wanderers from all over have found their way to Bleakstone, and people of all shapes and colors can be found in the region.

Skurliths

Once the dominant species in Bleakstone, Skurliths are now the bogeymen of the region — the savage, degenerate descendants of a once-proud species whose civilized empire spanned all of Bleakstone. About three feet tall when standing on two legs, their ungainly bodies appear to be made entirely of hairy sinews and chitinous plates. They have shiny black crab heads, two spider-like forearms tipped with pincers, and eight smaller pale, claw-tipped legs, the lower two of which are larger and thicker than the others, enabling them to walk upright. They prefer to scuttle on all of their legs, moving like a cross between a spider and a centipede.

Skurliths no longer have a formal culture or society, instead grouping along cult lines: All skurliths in a given area worship some aspect, often half-remembered, of their foul goddess, and perform dark rites in their subterranean lairs. Ruined cyclopean monuments to the Lady of a Thousand Pincers dot the wilderness, as do the towering obsidian monoliths erected by their distant ancestors, but the cults are the only aspect of old skurlith society that survive among the creatures themselves. They often make their homes near reminders of their former greatness, though they never go near the obsidian pillars.

Skurliths lair in dry warrens a few feet underground, and they hunt like trapdoor spiders. A typical skurlith lair has numerous concealed entrances, each covered by a camouflaged trapdoor, with skurliths waiting just below the trapdoors for prey to come close enough to grab. They’re also skilled trackers, capable of stalking prey across long distances.

Uzbardim

Uzbardim are expressions of chaos from another dimension, each a living cog in a great pattern designed to bring about the Third Transformation. They are bipedal, but in place of feet they have bundles of fibrous tentacles which can bunch together (when wearing shoes, for example) or separate to navigate uneven terrain. Their torso is shaped like a capital letter “T,” with two arms dangling from each end of the long ridge that forms their shoulders. Their heads are set level with their shoulders, on the front of the torso; they have one huge, red eye, but no other facial features. Uzbardim’s bodies are always stark white, and their flesh is unpleasantly spongy, but resilient.

Their actions appear unpredictable to others, but everything an uzbardim does is part of their shared grand plan. How they communicate with each other is unknown; though they can make hooting and moaning sounds, they generally communicate with non-uzbardim only through gestures. Uzbardim interact with other intelligent beings only when their agenda overlaps with the boundaries of society. In some places they live in villages, creating bizarre sculptures and crooning nonsense language; in others, they live alongside humans and work as thieves, spies, and scouts; and in still others they wander, apparently aimlessly, and attack anyone who comes near. They are birthed from giant seed-pods found near water.

Null slimes

Null slimes are greyish blobs about 8-12 feet in diameter and roughly a foot thick in their resting state. They live underground, and when in motion they “pool” against a surface and secrete a weak acid that eats through rock and dirt, enabling them to tunnel slowly but ceaselessly, honeycombing the earth. A null slime can form a vocal apparatus that enables it to make moaning noises, mimic animal speech, or — if intelligent — to speak.

Around 90% of null slimes are unintelligent — peaceful, cow-like creatures content to tunnel and follow the orders given to them by the other 10%. That 10% is composed of some of the most intelligent and devious creatures in Bleakstone: plotters, assassins, schemers, living siege-weapons, seekers of secrets, messengers, and carvers of underground byways used by even darker creatures. They’re as peaceful as their unintelligent cousins only in the sense that they rarely commit violence directly, instead manipulating others to act on their behalf.

Null slimes have no name for their own species; “null slime” is simply the moniker that stuck. The intelligent ones worship the Absence, and view voids of all kinds — the tunnels they leave behind, the absence of life caused by murder, the power vacuum created by an assassination — as sacred. Many of their sinister plans seek to bring about nothingness in some form. They’re justly feared throughout Bleakstone.

Gharrudaemons

Centuries ago, rifts in reality began to appear in what is now Bleakstone. Through these rifts came gharrudaemons, lords of hell with powerful magical abilities. The skurlith empire fought the gharrudaemons and eventually imprisoned them, and sealed the rifts, inside vast obsidian monoliths. These monoliths still stand today, towering high into the sky.

While the gharrudaemons cannot escape their monolith-prisons, nor return to hell through the rifts, they can communicate with the outside world through telepathy. Over several centuries they have preyed upon weak minds, building up cults of mortal worshipers around their monoliths. During dark rites enacted at the bases of their spires, the gharrudaemons direct their followers to do their bidding. Some gharrudaemon cults are small and relatively localized, while others are subtle and insidious; the latter have worked their way into Bleakstone society, extending their masters’ reach ever wider.

Gharrudaemons have their claws in a great many pies across Bleakstone, manipulating mortals and seeking to shatter their prison spires. If successful, they would sweep across the land like a hell-scourge.

Dwarves, elves, and halflings

Dwarves, elves, and halflings are all relative newcomers to Bleakstone. Dwarves are most often found deep in Bleakstone’s mountains, expanding their slowly growing network of tunnels and keeping largely to themselves. Several clans from neighboring regions can be found here. Dark rumors persist that Bleakstone dwarves traffic regularly with null slimes.

Elves skulk in the region’s woodlands, spying on humans and developing detailed maps of Bleakstone for their masters in the northern nation of Seven Trees. They can’t be trusted, but they know more about some aspects of Bleakstone than anyone else in the region. Elves are always after more information about the region and its inhabitants, and will often trade their knowledge for new intelligence.

Halflings tend to be adventurers or traders, and are most common in coastal communities. Most Bleakstone halflings are part of the same sprawling crime family — a literal family of siblings, cousins thrice removed, and half-uncles, as well as a Mafia-style organized crime ring. Halflings boil their dead, extract the bones, and display the skeletons of venerated elders in their homes. What they do with the meat is anyone’s guess.


Unique features

Coupled with its unusual dominant species, three major features of the Bleakstone region set the place apart as weird and dangerous.

Bleak stone expanses

A bleak stone expanse is an area that has been “flash-petrified” in its entirety. They began appearing about 30 years ago, and new expanses are still appearing today. No one knows what causes them, but they terrify the average Bleakstone resident. They’re home to devils, demons, and worse, and are the source of countless local legends.

Some are pristine, with people turned to statues mid-conversation, cows petrified in their fields, and everything untouched save by weather. Others have been vandalized, turned into refuges by desperate bandits, or even broken up so that their peculiar stone can be sold to wizards in far-off lands. The only good news is that once an expanse appears, its borders are fixed — it will never grow any larger.

Obsidian monoliths

The landscape is dotted with massive spires of obsidian, apparently solid, all at least a hundred feet tall (and some much taller; the largest is over 400 feet high). Every one of them imprisons a gharrudaemon, making the regions around them dangerous: Cults worship the daemons, the beasts themselves reach out telepathically to exert their will on the surrounding area, and spending too long near a monolith causes mutations in people and animals. The existence of gharrudaemons (and the rifts through which they came), or indeed the monoliths’ status as prisons, is unknown to the overwhelming majority of Bleakstone’s inhabitants.

Ruined skurlith monuments

No one knows why the skurlith empire fell, nor why its descendants became savage, degenerate creatures, but the skurliths’ enormous, cyclopean monuments still stand today. All venerate their foul goddess, the Lady of a Thousand Pincers, in some way, but each is unique in its loathsomeness. The largest skurlith domains are located near these monuments.


Domains

Bleakstone is divided into four domains, with their borders indicated by dotted red lines. The Blackfang Barony, extending east from the center of the map, is the largest domain; Harrowmoor, an unclaimed region that’s home to many uzbardim, is the smallest. The Theocracy of Umr occupies the northeast quadrant of the map, while Skeldmar spans the western edge and extends into the center of region.

Blackfang Barony

Map location: center and lower right | Collective noun: “Blackfangs”

Ruled with an iron fist by the self-styled Baron Dragos Blackfang, a noble from a northern kingdom exiled for his depravity, the Blackfang Barony looks like feudal England, only dirtier—and with uzbardim. For unknown reasons, uzbardim are common here, and most of them work as slave laborers alongside the barony’s human serfs. Aristocrats and notables dye their teeth black to signal their loyalty to the baron, while its peasants are forced to wear black hoods as a sign of their fealty. Some of the most fertile land in the region lies within the barony’s borders, and the baron’s power owes much to the farms tilled by his serfs. Null slimes have a significant presence as well, manipulating events in the barony and in neighboring Umr.

Harrowmoor

Map location: upper left | Collective noun: “Moorfolk”

Harrowmoor is the closest thing to a uzbardim nation anywhere in the region, as more uzbardim live here than anywhere else, pursuing their own mysterious ends. As they have no organized social structure, Harrowmoor is officially unclaimed territory, poor in natural resources but rich in brigands, dungeons, and monsters. Skurliths can be found throughout Harrowmoor, and are a constant danger to travelers. Bands of scum and exiles make their home here, striking out into neighboring Skeldmar to raid and pillage before melting back into the desert and mountains of Harrowmoor. Nomadic uzbardim also roam Harrowmoor, camping in one spot for a few days while robbing travelers, and then moving on to a new camp. Scouts, spies, and smugglers use Harrowmoor like a highway to travel between kingdoms without being detected. Both Skeldmar and the Blackfang Barony would like to annex Harrowmoor, but none has yet been able to stake and defend a claim.

Skeldmar

(“skelld-mahr”) Map location: middle and lower left | Collective noun: “Skeldmarians”

Much like feudal Germany, but with a Norse flavor, Skeldmar is a patchwork nation composed of dozens of tiny fiefdoms, each ruled by a skeld who pays obeisance to the king but in practice is largely left alone. Every community in the region has its own skeld, and every skeld wants to rule a larger area than she already does. Justice is delivered through trial by combat, and duels are commonplace. In truth, nearly all of Skeldmar is ruled by null slimes, who manipulate the skelds through control of the kingdom’s many mines (its most important resource). To outsiders, it often seems like everyone in Skeldmar is out to make a name for themselves any way they can.

Theocracy of Umr

(“oom-urr”) Map location: upper right | Collective noun: “Umrians”

The oldest human nation in the region, the theocracy is governed in the name of Umr-Khall, the One God, the Lord of Magic. For the average Umrian, that means paying at least lip service to Umr-Khall’s cult—and being constantly paranoid that you’re not doing enough, and that the Pale Wardens (Umr’s secret police) will make you disappear in the night. Few Umrians know that the theocracy is actually ruled by the gharrudaemon Nuzzurkalioth. Many of the acolytes of Umr-Khall’s cult are really worshipers of the gharrudaemon, and their ranks are always increasing. Umr is like a cross between fantasy Arabia and feudal Russia, a hard land of dark secrets, cruel nobles, and strange magic.


Background, credit, and tools

My approach to creating Bleakstone was based on three things:

  1. A randomly generated Hexographer map, with a few tweaks. I generated maps until I hit one that felt right, and that became the basis for the region.
  2. Randomly placed towns, dungeons, and other features, with some non-random additions. I didn’t use How to Make a Drop Map for this iteration of the setting, but that approach informed the simpler one that I did use: I rolled a d30 for the long axis and a d20 for the short axis, juggling the results as needed. I then added things by hand until it felt right.
  3. Random selection of dominant intelligent species based on Random Campaign Setting Major Races, mashed up with Proscriptive Campaign Creation. I used the Fiend Folio (my favorite monster book) when I rolled for dominant intelligent species, and I got denzelians, meenlocks, nycadaemons, and tiraphegs. They were the inspiration for the null slimes, skurliths, gharrudaemons, and uzbardim that are the foundation of Bleakstone.

The central idea that gave the region its name was inspired by the Lamentations of the Flame Princess module Death Frost Doom, which features an unexplained petrified area. Bleakstone’s other inspirations are harder to catalog because they span dozens of books, blogs, G+ posts, and a host of stuff I’ve read or bumped into over the years. A few sources stand out clearly, though:

  • Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, and its associated books. Jack Shear writes some of the tightest, most immediately gameable setting material in the business.
  • Appendix N, and my own Reading Appendix N project, most notably Robert E. Howard’s Conan yarns, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales, and H.P. Lovecraft’s yog-sothothery.
  • Jeff’s Gameblog, which is full of Jeff Rients’ crazy and fantastic ideas.
  • James Maliszewki’s Grognardia, which introduced me to so much old school awesomeness.
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess, particularly James Raggi’s many insanely good (and just plain insane) adventures.
  • Patrick Wetmore’s Anomalous Subsurface Environment, which jams a huge amount of gonzo goodness into a cruft-free package.
  • Early Dark, from Anthropos Games, which introduced me to the idea of mashing up Earth cultures to create fantasy nations
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 1st Edition, which got me into old school British fantasy
  • Abulafia‘s fantastic random generators

Lastly, the Bleakstone logo font is CAT Hohenzollern, designed by Peter Wiegel.

Legal stuff

Bleakstone and the Bleakstone logo are trademarks of Martin Ralya. The Bleakstone campaign setting is copyright 2014 by Martin Ralya. All rights reserved.

If you dig Bleakstone, I encourage you to use it in your home game, in whole or in part, provided it’s not published or distributed in any form. Happy gaming!

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Want to read a whole lot of awesome Green Lantern comics? This is the list I used to do just that, plus some context to explain the order I chose and some gushing about Green Lantern in general.

Just want the reading list without the context?
Skip straight to the list, and happy reading!

In 2013 I got back into superhero comics (after reading mostly indie stuff for many years) when I read a comic that surprised the hell out of me: Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, which took a character I’d more or less dismissed and made him fascinating. That started a slow burn that led — by way of Morrison’s New X-Men, Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye, Jason Aaron’s Thor: God of Thunder, and a couple of other titles — to a desire to explore a superhero who was new to me. A bit of Googling led me to Green Lantern, and specifically to Geoff Johns’ run on the title, which was widely regarded as being excellent.

I decided if I was going to jump in, I’d do a cannonball: read Green Lantern and all concurrent lantern-focused titles for all of Johns’ 2004-2013 run, 10 years worth of comics in 40 trades (plus a 41st for good measure). It was one of the best reading decisions I’ve ever made.

I came to love Hal Jordan, Guy Gardner, Mogo, Despotellis, Kilowog, Sinestro, Soranik Natu, B’dg, and so many other great characters. I love the Green Lantern Corps, the mythology of the corps and the universe the lanterns inhabit, and the fact that lantern titles — especially Corps — are more sci-fi with superheroes than straight-up superhero tales. Taken as a whole, Green Lantern and its companion titles are over the top, pulpy in the best ways, often pretty crazy, larger than life, and a whole lot of fun. They’ve become some of my favorite comics.

But this venture wasn’t without its challenges. It’d been a long time since I’d read a DC or Marvel title on an ongoing basis, and I was unfamiliar with the mechanics of crossover events, dovetailing and intertwining stories that span multiple books, and the like. It was confusing.

More confusing still, while it seemed like there should be one correct reading order, I saw lots of disagreement online about the order in which these titles should be read. I wound up using two lists as the basis for my own (and many thanks to the folks who created them!): this post by SmashBrawler on ComicVine, and The Superheroes List part 1 and part 2.

My reading order isn’t definitive — this is just how I chose to read these titles. I had a blast doing it, and I hope I can simplify this process for others who are in a similar situation.

The goal of this list

For context, here’s what I wanted to do:

  1. Read Green Lantern and every other book starring lanterns (not necessarily every book in which lanterns appear) for the entirety of Geoff Johns’ run
  2. Keep it simple by, whenever possible, reading whole trades at once
  3. Introduce myself to Hal Jordan, who I knew next to nothing about
  4. Avoid spoiling anything in the process of figuring out my reading order
  5. Strike a balance between simplicity (reading trade by trade) and maximum fidelity to the story (reading issue by issue and roping in lots of non-lantern books)

This is the list I used to accomplish those goals. It’s presented as simply as possible because that’s what I found I wanted when I was reading these trades: a simple list. “Do this and you’ll have fun.” I did this, and I had fun.

Green Lantern reading order, 2004-2013

For 1-19 and 23-37, you can read each trade on its own, one after the other. (I call out a couple of cases below where I took the lazy route and you might prefer to go issue by issue.) Three big cross-title events — Blackest Night (20-22) and Rise of the Third Army through Wrath of the First Lantern (38-41) — however, need to be read issue by issue, jumping between concurrent trades as you go, in order for them to make sense.

You can also download this list, including my notes, as a simple text file.

Do any of these books suck?

Red Lanterns is terrible. The first trade is basically just an excuse to put Bleez in lots of boobs/butt poses, the writing in all three trades is godawful, and the story is generally wretched to mediocre. There are a couple of cool moments, but I was glad every time I could put a Red Lanterns trade behind me.

New Guardians wasn’t great for the first two trades (though still much better than Red Lanterns), but it picked up in the third one and finished strong. I wound up liking it.

The two Ion trades were just okay, but important for Kyle Rayner’s story. Not bad, just not great; well worth reading.

Everything else on this list — over 30 TPBs — I loved reading and would be thrilled to read again. This is a fantastic set of comics.

Look, a rabbit hole

In the course of reading these trades, I came to dig the lanterns so much that I bought a replica lantern:

…and jumped at the chance to pick up a piece of original artwork (Green Lantern Corps #15, page 11 — one of my favorite storylines in the whole arc, featuring one of my favorite parts of that story), which my wife framed up for my birthday:

…as well as a copy of Green Lantern #1 signed by Geoff Johns and Ethan van Sciver, which I sent off to CGC for grading:

So be warned: Your wallet won’t thank you for getting into Green Lantern — but apart from that you’re in for a real treat.

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A little while back game designer Jason Morningstar said this about his solitaire RPG METAL SHOWCASE 11PM: “Half solo RPG, half choose-your-path novel, half nobody has ever bought or played this and I think it is really good!”

Gauntlet thrown, challenge accepted. I ordered a copy, played it, and now I’m going to talk about it. Only briefly, though, because this is an RPG with potential spoilers.

It took me about 30 minutes to play, and I had a great time. I’d happily play it again. But part of the fun was knowing almost nothing about it going in, and while it’s a tricky line to walk in a review I want to preserve that experience for you.

Pictured above are the book, the two dice I grabbed (black because \m/), and the back of my character sheet. The latter shows all the notes I made during the game, hopefully tantalizing you without spoiling anything. I named my band Suppurating Maelstrom. My favorite note from the session was “Enabled [character's] morbid obesity.”

Here are my impressions after one play, which I jotted down immediately after playing.

What a fantastic little game

It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy book, only better written and more fun. You have a character and stats; you make choices and compete in contests.

But you’re also asked to get inside your guy’s head at different points, and those choices — and the notes you made about them — matter later on. My first session was 30 enjoyable minutes long, told a story (a rather depressing one; my guy was kind of a dick), and made me want to play again.

That might sound like a subtle tweak on the formula, but in combination with the tight presentation and writing, an alchemy occurs: There’s roleplaying here that I’ve never experienced when playing a gamebook. I felt involved in a way that was much more like how I’d get into a non-solitaire RPG session, or a solo board game session when playing a board game that tells a story, like Arkham Horror or Astra Titanus. It’s hard to explain, but: good stuff.

There are plenty of choices involved, and the stuff you make up on the fringes of the game space will be different every time, so I can see this having good replayability. It’s also difficult to win; that’s a good thing.

I’ve never played a game quite like it. I’m enamored of it, and I recommend it.

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I often see posts asking for Lulu RPG recommendations, and Lulu’s search functionality is pretty lacking, so rather than type mine up every time I wrote this post for easy reference. It’s up to 60+ recommendations, mostly OSR products and story games, and I keep it more or less up to date with new purchases.

If you just want one recommendation, you should buy ASE1: Anomalous Subsurface Environment, which I liked so much that I bought Brian Thomas’ original art for the sasquatron (seen above, as yet unframed). The sasquatron, a robo-yeti with a crab claw, is just the tip of ASE’s iceberg of gonzo awesomeness.

Lulu runs coupons so regularly that I never order without Googling “Lulu coupon code” first; all coupon discounts come out of Lulu’s end, not the publisher’s end.

Notes about the list

Some of the links below are to specific versions (like softcover or standard paper), so you might want to check for other versions.

If I loved something and want to have little OSR/story game babies with it, I *ed it. If you’re curious what I think about a book in more detail, I eventually rate and comment on every gaming book I own: Here are my RPGGeek ratings.

Looking for tabletop RPG products on Lulu? Try these

Here are a whole mess of gaming books I’ve bought on Lulu that I would recommend, in alphabetical order with links:

I apologize to your wallet in advance. Happy gaming!

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My high school girlfriend introduced me to the Amber series back in the early 1990s, and shortly thereafter to Amber Diceless Role-Playing, the RPG based on the books.

Zelazny, like a lot of Appendix N authors, writes with economy and punch. Nine Princes in Amber grabbed me with its opening sentence, “It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me,” which hooked me on the whole 10-book series. From there, Zelazny goes on to sketch one of the series’ best characters, Corwin, in just a few pages, establishing him as tough, dirty, quick to heal (very quick, you discover later on), and missing his memory. It’s a great opening chapter, and it sets the tone for a series that’s full of surprises.

My Amber books are a mix of different printings, the sort of mass market paperbacks I devoured growing up:

The core concept of the Amber books is fantastic: Amber is the one true world, and it’s surrounded by an infinity of other worlds whose laws of physics vary from Amber’s. Earth is one such world. The Amberites, the family chronicled in the series, can walk between those worlds in Shadow, and by pursuing specific ends they’ve each become the best at what they do.

If an Amberite wants to learn to play the guitar, she travels to a world where time passes much more slowly than it does back in Amber, where years pass for every minute, and spends a century learning to play. Then she returns to Amber, less time having passed than it takes for a cup of coffee to cool, as the best guitarist in the universe.

Life as an Amberite is a constant political game of one-upsmanship and underhanded scheming. The series is full of backstabbing, skullduggery, politicking, magic, and memorable, larger-than-life characters. My three favorites have always been Corwin, the voice of the whole first series; Benedict, the master of warfare, who is such a skilled warrior that he constantly anticipates every possible threat to his person; and Random, Corwin’s younger brother, an upstart in a family of squabbling gods.

I’ve read the first five books at least twice, but it’s been years since I last read them — probably close to 15 years, I’d guess. Long enough, in any case, that the specifics I recall vividly are spoilers of the first order, and things I don’t want to spoil for you. But it would be a shame to write this post without sharing some of Zelazny’s prose, so here’s a passage from late in Nine Princes of Amber that doesn’t give anything away:

The climate was warm and the colors bewildering, and everyone thought we were gods.

Bleys had found a place where the religion involved brother-gods who looked like us and had their troubles. Invariably, in the terms of this mythos, an evil brother would seize power and seek to oppress the good brothers. And of course there was the legend of an Apocalypse where they themselves would be called upon to stand on the side of the surviving good brothers.

I wore my left arm in a black sling and considered those who were about to die.

I thoroughly enjoy Zelazny’s writing, and his talent is on full display in the Amber books.

Post-Appendix N

The second series, five books that comprise the back half of the Chronicles of Amber, begins with 1985’s Trumps of Doom. It’s post-Appendix N, and not quite as good as the original series, but still excellent and enjoyable. It introduces all sorts of cool things to the Amber universe, and it’s worth reading.

The Chronicles of Amber and AD&D

The strongest connection I see between the Amber books and AD&D is the similarity of Shadow, with its infinite panoply of “shadows” of the one true world, Amber, and AD&D’s planar cosmology, with its Material Plane, Limbo, and many other planes of existence. The planes are described, briefly, and diagrammed in Appendix IV of the Monster Manual.

Nearly a decade later, the Manual of the Planes covered the planes in much greater detail.

More generally, there’s plenty of stuff in the Amber Chronicles that D&D characters engage in all the time: fights, magic, backstabbing, politics, artifacts, wars, schemes, and much more. Parts of the Amber books feel like D&D in a way that’s hard to pin down, and I can see how AD&D drew inspiration from them in fuzzy-yet-signficant ways.

The Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game

Worth a quick sidebar is a game much more closely tied to the Amber books, Eric Wujcik’s Amber Diceless Role-Playing, and its lone supplement, Shadow Knight (which covers the second five books).

Amber Diceless is brilliant both as a game and as a translation of the novels into game form. I’d never played a diceless game before trying Amber, and its mechanics are both sound and perfectly suited to the feel of the series. I’ve also never played a game quite like it since.

You start the game by bidding for attributes against the other players. Whoever bids highest in, say, Warfare, is the best in the group at fighting. If you challenge him at warfare, you simply lose; the trick is to shift the terms of the contest to bring your strengths into play.

That notion — that the best cannot be challenged at what she’s best at — is pure Amber. The same goes for the attribute auction, which pits the players against each other in a way that mirrors how they’ll wind up pitting their characters against one another as the game progresses.

Which edition?

I recommend The Great Book of Amber, an inexpensive paperback volume that collects all 10 books — Appendix N and post-Appendix N — of the Chronicles of Amber.

If I didn’t already own the whole series in individual paperbacks, this is the version I’d buy. At $25 or less, it’s cheap enough that you could decide not to read the second series and still get more than your money’s worth out of it.

Whatever edition you choose, the Amber books are ripping yarns, fast-paced, consistently inventive and surprising, and highly engaging. You should read them, and I envy you the pleasure of reading them for the first time.

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I’ve done a bit of design work in the tabletop RPG industry, and like most gamers I’ve started and abandoned game designs over the years, but today marks only the second time I’ve designed a complete RPG and shared it with others.

After enjoying my experience with RPG Geek’s 24-hour RPG design contest in 2012, during which I designed my first complete RPG, Eaten Away, I was intrigued when I heard about Game Chef 2013. I also hoped I wouldn’t get an idea for a game, because I didn’t think I’d be able to finish anything, but that’s not how ideas work, is it? Of course I got an idea I couldn’t ignore.

Signal Lost is a story game about exploring the Distant Star, a deep-space survey vessel that has gone dark, and facing an alien terror. Here’s a direct download link: Signal Lost RTF file.

Here’s the cover:

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Martin Brown from Grognard Games produced a great short video introduction to Appendix N, the influence the works therein in had on D&D — from thieves and paladins to plane-hopping and alignment — and the inspiration those works can provide today.

It’s a bit surreal for me, though: He’s called Martin as well, and is also English, and I recognize an awful lot of the books on his shelves, but he’s handsomer than me and introduces Appendix N much better than I could. I’m also officially jealous of his bookshelves.

All that aside, you should watch this. It’s quite good.

(Thanks to Erik Tenkar of Tenkar’s Tavern for the link.)

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I finished Fritz Leiber’s The Swords of Lankhmar this morning — my 20th Appendix N book. I’m not a fast reader, or perhaps more accurately I’m not a hurried reader, so tackling all 100 books of Appendix N is going to take me a while.

“Swords” took longer than the other Lankhmar books to date because it’s over-long, slow in places, and was competing with a minor detour: The Annotated Hobbit. I’ve read The Hobbit before (and posted about it for this project), but never this edition and not for many years.

After that, it’s back to Lankhmar for the last Appendix N Leiber tale, Swords and Ice Magic, and then most likely on to the post-Appendix N volume of the series, The Knight and Knave of Swords. 20% complete might not sound like much, but it’s a fun milestone — and I’m looking forward to the other 80%, too!

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Since I first posted about Reading Appendix N, I’ve been pointed to several similar reading lists that are either contemporary with Appendix N or related to it in some other way. None of them are additions to Appendix N — to date, Gary’s 2007 additions are the only ones I’ve found — but they’re all interesting for their own reasons.

The first two were written by Gary, one predating Appendix N and one written much later; the second two were written by Tom Moldvay and Steve Winter, respectively. Let’s start with Gary’s two lists.

Dragon Magazine, Issue 4

Published in 1976, this issue of Dragon came out three years before Appendix N, and it’s essentially a proto-Appendix N. Squished into one corner of a page showing recent fantasy miniature releases, it lists 22 authors and roughly 30 specific titles, all of which appear in Appendix N — with one exception: Algernon Blackwood. I’m not at all familiar with his work, but he was apparently a writer of supernatural tales; he’s on my mental list to check out (in 2014 or so, when I finish reading Appendix N…).

In all other respects, this list is a subset of Appendix N. There’s no similar list in the original edition of D&D, nor in the Holmes edition, so I believe this list in Dragon #4 may be the first D&D reading list. As the foundation of Appendix N, it’s a neat little piece of D&D history.

Mythus Magick

Mythus Magick came out in 1992, 13 years after the DMG and Appendix N, and it offers up considerably more author recommendations but no specific title recommendations. Instead, Gary emphasizes particular authors as his favorites. There’s a huge amount of overlap with Appendix N authors on this list, as this excellent Grognardia post breaks down. (That post also includes the full list.)

About half of the authors are new (not included in Appendix N), and many of them are folks I don’t associate with sword and sorcery, sword and planet, weird tales, or the other kinds of books represented in Appendix N — Margaret Weis and Anne McCaffrey, for example. Gary also lists himself, which makes me smile.

The Moldvay Basic Set

The 1981 D&D Basic Set (the “B” in the edition often called B/X) came out in 1981, just two years after Appendix N, and it includes one hell of a reading list. While this one is by Tom Moldvay, not Gary, it is in a D&D core book and it’s roughly contemporary with Appendix N.

What I like most about Moldvay’s list is that it’s broken down into categories: young adult fantasy, young adult non-fiction, adult fantasy, short story collections, and non-fiction. Given that B/X D&D makes a great gateway product for young adults and teens, devoting about 40% of this list to books aimed at them is an excellent idea. Of the four reading lists in this post, Moldvay’s is my favorite — and it’s huge, with roughly twice as many authors as Appendix N.

Star Frontiers

Star Frontiers came out in 1982, three years after Appendix N was published. It focuses on science fiction, of course, and it’s a neat list in its own right.

It includes non-fiction as well as fiction, which I like, but I mention it here largely because there’s some overlap with Appendix N in terms of authors: Poul Anderson, Fredric Brown, L. Sprague de Camp, Philip José Farmer, Andre Norton, Fred Saberhagen, Jack Vance, and Roger Zelazny all appear on the Star Frontiers reading list.

Other Reading Lists

Lots of other gaming books include reading lists — GURPS books, for example, are justly famous for their killer bibliographies — but these four lists stood out to me because they have some connection, be it strong or weak, to Appendix N. They all look like they’re worth exploring, assuming the 100-book Appendix N reading list isn’t keeping you busy enough!

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Yesterday I stumbled onto an excellent blog, Raven Crowking’s Nest, which is also home to a project to read and write about the books in Appendix N. The author, Daniel Bishop, is an old-school gamer with a lot of insight into the hobby, and his posts on Appendix N books are great.

He kicked off with a post full of amazing photos of his Appendix N collection, which vastly outstrips mine both in terms of books owned and books read. Just like when I saw Joseph Goodman’s shot of his Appendix N books, this kind of thing is a huge motivator for me.

He’s also written two posts about specific books so far: a long look at Lavender-Green Magic, by Andre Norton, and a post about Hiero’s Journey, by Sterling Lanier, which makes me really glad I’m going to get to read this book.

Daniel includes notes about how to use these books as inspiration for gaming, which is a really good idea (and one that I may steal for future Reading Appendix N posts here on Yore), and his analyses of their connections to AD&D sound spot-on to me.

I don’t see an easy way to track just his Appendix N posts, although the search bar is an acceptable alternative, but I’ve now read at least 50% of his archive and not been disappointed once — Raven Crowking’s Nest is a blog to add to your reading list.

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