Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Standouts on my want-to-play list

Organizing all my RPG PDFs and deciding what was worth putting into Dropbox for easy tablet access has had a few surprise benefits.[1] One of them was seeing just how many games I’d be interested in running or playing at the moment — ballpark, around 60-70 (with varying degrees of interest, of course).

Among the things on that list, a handful stand out as games — or settings — I’ve yearned to run or play for years. I’m feeling introspective, so here are a few of them.

Birthright

Birthright is probably at the top of that list. I got into it around 2005 and slowly acquired the whole game line, and I think it’s one of the most under-appreciated TSR settings. It’s easy to dismiss as being vanilla fantasy, but it tends to twist its vanilla roots in surprising ways — and taken as a whole, it hangs together like a living, breathing world full of vividly realized powers with their own conflicting interests.

It also features one of the all-time best approaches to player-facing game material: Each player plays the ruler of a different kingdom, and each kingdom has its own slim, delightful book, written from the perspective of a trusted adviser to the new ruler.

Broken Rooms

Broken Rooms has been on the list since 2012 or so; I’ve never met anyone who’s heard of it. Picture this: It’s Earth, modern-day, but there are also 12 parallel Earths accessible via “broken rooms,” places where they butt against one another — and the PCs can access those pathways. So far, not so new.

But those Earths are weird, and the further out from our version they are, the more fucked-up they get. And people being people, they’ve discovered that those other Earths have shit we need/want, and that only a select few folks even have access to it. What emerges is a parallel world-hopping sandbox of cutthroat factions and zero assumptions about what the PCs will do now that they’re neck-deep in it. I love that.

Bloodstone Lands

I’ve spent years gaming in the Forgotten Realms, but never run a Bloodstone Lands campaign. The first edition BSL sourcebook is one of my favorite gaming books period, combining a wintry setting, a neighboring evil empire, and factional politics sitting on a knife edge — just waiting for the PCs to tip the balance as they see fit. It’s short, tight, and beautifully executed; I think I’ve been hankering for this one since 1989, when it first came out.

Pendragon and Song of Ice and Fire

Pendragon has been on this list since around 2000, and A Song of Ice and Fire since around 2013 when our campaign back in Utah wrapped up. They’re different in many ways, but they both occupy a similar headspace for me: seasonal play, a wide lens (generational play in Pendragon, where getting married so that you can play your kids is crucial, and the concerns of your house in SIFRP), strong social elements (including actual social combat in SIFRP, which I love), and deadly combat.

I like having a list like this, informal as it is. It centers me, and reminds me how much gaming I hopefully have to look forward to down the line.

[1] I’ve been sifting through my Google+ posts and adding some of them to Yore, and the ones tied to a specific moment in time — like this one, originally posted in December 2017 — I generally just publish on the original date. No one will see them pop up as “new” posts, but that’s okay. This one felt different, though, because my want-to-play list still features these standouts. So I posted it today, despite it being a year old.

Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs

Coins & Scrolls on fast kingdom mapping

This method for quickly mapping fantasy kingdoms over on Coins & Scrolls is really neat.

Start with a blank map, just coastlines. Add dots for major settlements, and color the hexes around them to identify the “core regions” of different counties/duchies. Then roll dice to expand those counties, determine undeveloped regions, and create enclaves.

The end result looks dandy, but — perhaps more importantly — this mapping methods looks like a lot of fun and seems like it would produce a gameable map.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs Traveller

Space Pirates of Drinax: a gorgeous Traveller sandbox

Space pirates!

I buy 99% of my RPGs only in PDF these days, but when a product as special as the Pirates of Drinax (paid link) (PDF)campaign for Mongoose Traveller (paid link) comes along, my heart goes pitter-patter and I have to make an exception.

It’s a sandbox campaign with a fantastic hook: The ruler of once-great Drinax, now a stellar backwater between two great powers, gives the PCs an old ship and a letter of marque, and asks that they secure the allegiance of the nearby worlds.

But, you know, they’re motherfucking space pirates: They can do whatever the hell they want, and the campaign supports it. There’s a neat system for tracking (and changing) how every important planet feels about the PCs, with real consequences waiting in the wings.

Need a bit more structure? The core is 10 adventures that can be run more or less in any order, anywhere. Some are opportunities signalled by rumors, while others are driven by outside forces. All adjustable to your game, of course, with copious notes about how to do just that.

Plus all the great tools I expect in an old school space sandbox: NPCs with motivations and roleplaying tips, ships, planets, deck plans, a gorgeous poster map, tons of info about the Aslan (who are key players in the region) and more. Its roughly 600 pages of material.

From what I’ve read so far, this is a stellar campaign.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Trollworld is rad

When my Tunnels & Trolls (paid link) hardcover arrived, I was immediately drawn to the glossy color section. I’d mostly ignored Trollworld when I read the rules in my softcover copy, figuring if I ran it I’d homebrew a setting . . . but this map has me rethinking that.

Rrr’lff is Trollworld’s main continent, and it was created by an egomaniacal dragon-wizard in his own likeness before the Wizard War.

Other fantasy settings are all like, “We’ve carefully considered geography and ecosystems and crafted a realistic world with trade routes for every potato farm, and we’ve named it [Generic Fantasy Name].

Tunnels & Trolls chugs a beer and says, “Let’s play on a dragon-shaped continent created by some douchebag wizard! And let’s call it Rrr’lff, the sound you make when you barf!

Trollworld is rad.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Free Talislanta PDFs, and where to start

I was noodling about RPG setting material I’ve always meant to read, and I remembered a truly excellent thing: Stephan Michael Sechi, creator of Talislanta, generously makes available virtually ever Talislanta product ever published in PDF, with permission granted to download, modify, and print for personal use only, for free. That’s over 30 PDFs spanning the 2nd through 5th edition of the game — plus a separate library just for maps.

What is Talislanta, setting-wise, and why might it interest you? I can’t think of a better summary than this Stephan Michael Sechi quote from the introduction to the 5th edition Player’s Guide:

“My main objective was to create a fantasy world that was not based on Euorpean [sic] mythology, as most other RPGs had done; hence the “No Elves” slogan, which we used in Talislanta ads that we later ran in Dragon Magazine.

I read all of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books, Lovecraft’s The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath, Marco Polo’s The Travels, and back issues of Heavy Metal magazine (especially Druilette’s Salambo, in which if you look closely enough you might find the inspiration for the Jhangarans). And I confess to partaking of one of Turkey’s finest products nightly, which helped inspire most of the visual elements of Talislanta, and some remarkably lucid dreams I had of actually visiting Talislanta.”

Now that is a setting.

Where to start

If you’re totally new to Talislanta, P.D. Breeding-Black’s amazing cover to the 2nd edition Talislanta Handbook and Campaign Guide — reproduced above — makes a fantastic first impression, and that may be all you need. It illustrates a Talislantan Thrall, a member of a race descended from an army of magically-created warrior slaves. Thralls of the same gender are 100% identical; you can only tell them apart by their tattoos.

For a second impression, though, download that book from the Talislanta site and turn to page 46, Character Types, where you’ll find several pages like this:

And this:

Looking at all of those wonderful possibilities, from Xambrian wizard hunter to Yitek tomb-robber to ice giant to Za bandit, with all that they imply about Talislanta as a setting, piques my interest like nothing else, and it may do the same for you.

And then . . .

If your interest is piqued, check out the Talislanta site’s Help, I Have Questions! page, which is excellent. That FAQ recommends Talislanta Fantasy Roleplaying, 4th edition, as the best jumping-on point for folks new to the setting. The 4th edition core book compiles almost everything written for 1st-3rd editions into a 500-page doorstop of a tome. (There’s also a 60-page sampler for 4th edition, available on the same page, specifically designed as an intro for newbies.)

To their advice I’ll add that the 24-page overview of the entire setting in the 5th edition Player’s Guide book is fabulous, well-organized, and presents a ton of information in an easily digestible format. That’s hard to do, particularly for a setting as quirky as Talislanta!

If all of this material sounds like too much, take heart. Here’s an excerpt from the FAQ:

“Talislanta focuses on breadth instead of depth. While there are so many different lands and cultures in the book that I won’t even attempt to count them all, due to the time and effort it would take, each of these lands or peoples is described in an average of about 3 pages. […] Gamemasters should view this as a good thing. What it means is that you are given a vast world with limitless possibilities and well-defined cultures. At the same time you are spared the minutiae and laborious detail that other settings focus on.”

Despite being interested in it ever since I was a kid — when I saw their famous “no elves…” ads in Dragon Magazine — I’ve never actually read much Talislanta stuff. Having rediscovered this library, I can’t wait to dig deeper. Happy reading!

Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs

An overlooked OSR gem: Lesserton and Mor

Lesserton and Mor, written by Joel and Jeff Sparks of Faster Monkey Games, is a product that I don’t think has received its due. It’s a fantastic, unique, flavorful, and versatile sourcebook for a premade city and its neighboring open-air megadungeon, and it’s incredibly cool. (Update: And it’s now free in PDF!)

For starters, just look at this glorious Peter Mullen cover:

The late, great Steve Zieser did all of the interior art, and his style — like Mullen’s — matches up beautifully with L&M’s “dirty British fantasy” aesthetic.

The hook

L&M has an awesome premise: The ancient city of Mor, “mankind’s proudest achievement,” was sacked by barbarians, and then destroyed in a mysterious cataclysm. The refugees of Mor made their new home next door, and grew that ragged settlement into the city of Lesserton — “the adventurer’s paradise,” a home base for those brave and foolhardy enough to venture into Mor to claim its riches.

Lesserton is fully described in L&M, from districts to buildings to personalities to laws. But Mor is not — Mor, you make yourself. It’s even possible to roll it up as you play, creating new hexes and populating them as the PCs venture into unexplored territory (along the lines of my own Hexmancer).

What’s inside

L&M is a shrinkwrapped bundle, old-school style: a wraparound cardstock cover, unattached to the three booklets inside. The loose cover doubles as a map of Mor, intended to be filled in as you go. Inside are three books: a ref’s guide to Lesserton, a thinner players’ guide to Lesserton, and a guide to rolling up your own Mor.

Lesserton reminds me of WFRP’s Middenheim and Terry Pratchett‘s Ankh-Morpork — two of my favorite fantasy cities — but it’s also its own animal. It’s populated by a ragtag mix of people, including many part-ork (“orkin”) folk descended from the original invaders of Mor, and home to all manner of gambling houses, pubs, and brothels. (“Fantasy Mos Eisley” would also be decent shorthand.)

The Referee’s Guide to Lesserton plumbs its depths rather well, and packs a lot of stuff into 68 pages. It’s not chaff, either — it’s stuff you’ll actually use at the table (like another of my favorite city books, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, which I’ve written about on Yore).

There are regular pit fights, places to rob, weird shops where you can buy weird shit, normal shops that will sell you adventuring gear, and on and on. There’s a whole section on carousing, which I now realize I missed in my look at carousing in D&D from 1977 to present, and it’s great.

I loathe homework in RPGs, but I love players’ guides to settings; for me to be happy, players’ guides need to be extremely well done, or they’re just homework. The Player’s Guide to Lesserton is extremely well done. For starters, it’s 16 pages long.

What’s the city like? One page, boom. Where is X? There’s a map on the back cover. “I want to get shitfaced.” Covered. “I got too shitfaced, where do they take drunks here?” Covered. “Where do I gamble/drink/fuck?” Covered.

Also covered are lots of things that feel very Lesserton to me. For example, Brinkley’s Assurity Trust will, for 100gp, sell you a bumblebee pin that signals to the orkin tribes who live in Mor that there’s a ransom for your safe return. That’s brilliant! L&M is full of touches like that; it’s designed for play, not just reading (or worse, endless, droning setting-wankery), and it shows.

Finally, there’s the Referee’s Guide to Mor, plus its companion map. This booklet (28 pages, also a great length for what it needs to do) opens with useful background on Mor — what was where, what sort of city it was, and the like. That gives you a good foundation for improvisation during play.

The balance of the book is a framework for generating your own version of Mor, hex by hex, either in advance or on the spot. Random terrain, random buildings, random encounters, special areas (caches, dead magic zones, excavations, etc.) — pure hexcrawl goodness. It even covers generating the orkin clans who call Mor home.

Awesome possum

Put it all together, and L&M is a hell of a toolbox. To stretch the toolbox analogy a bit, it’s like a toolbox that contains some top-notch tools you’re likely to need, as well as the parts to make the ones it’d be more fun to create yourself, and an owner’s manual to help you make the most of both.

I rarely hear anyone talk about Lesserton and Mor, which is a shame — it’s a true gem of a setting. I rate it a 10/10, and heartily recommend it.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Post-apocalyptic setting details via NUKEMAP

Via private G+ share, I followed a link to Alex Wellerstein‘s NUKEMAP — disturbing and depressing as a real-world visualization tool, but in gaming terms, perfect for nuking the Earth as part of post-apocalyptic setting creation.

NUKEMAP lets you choose a place on the map, the yield of the weapon, and whether it’s a surface strike or an airburst, and then click to see the radii of destruction, fallout, casualty estimates, and more. I nuked Seattle with a W-78 delivered via a Minuteman III missile, ticked the boxes for surface burst, casualties, and fallout, and got this result:

Making a custom Zone map for Mutant: Year Zero? NUKEMAP seems like it’d be a great place to start. Rolling up on one of the cities that got nuked in the original Twilight: 2000 timeline? Pick a yield, NUKEMAP it, and think about how it would look in the game.

As a person, I’m both repelled and fascinated by nuclear weapons. The circumstances of their testing, the reasons they exist, and their effects on real people are profoundly disturbing.

In one of my college film classes, I got to watch Bruce Conner’s Crossroads. It was a life-altering experience. Which sounds so clichéd, right? But for me, in this instance, it was true. Almost 20 years later, I can still remember how I felt watching Crossroads: I felt like the bottom had dropped out of the world. (As far as I can tell, it’s only available online in excerpt form, but imagine watching 37 minutes of that, on a full-size movie screen.)

But as a gamer[1], I’m equally fascinated with post-apocalyptic settings, nuking things until they glow, and seeing what happens next. There’s something deeply appealing about apocalypses of all kinds in game form.

NUKEMAP sits at the intersection of thoughtful consideration of the real-world devastation caused by nuclear weapons and the escapist fun of romping through post-apocalyptic worlds. It’s a nifty tool.

[1] And movie lover, TV viewer, avid reader, etc.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Day After Ragnarok has a stellar words:awesomeness ratio

Day After Ragnarok (paid link), by Kenneth Hite, packs an amazing amount of crazy-good stuff into a teeny-tiny itty-bitty package.

Word for word, Ken Hite sticks more gameable, immediately usable, inspirational shit in everything he writes than most folks in the industry, and this book may be the best example of that that I’ve ever read.

I have the Savage Worlds edition (paid link), but DAR also comes in Fate Core flavor (paid link) and a HERO 6th Edition version (paid link), and I assume it’s basically the same setting book with different mechanics.

10/10

DAR’s concept is so gonzo and batshit that it immediately commands attention. In just the first couple of pages, Ken gives us a setting like no other. The time is 1944, and the Nazis have succeeded in bringing about Ragnarök:

And then it happened; the whole world heard the howl of Garm, and the moon was eclipsed in blood. The head of Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent, 350 miles across, breached the surface of the Arabian Sea and rose up into the troposphere.

The Americans, naturally, figure out a way to nuke Jörmungandr in the eye.

(No individual artist credits in the book, unfortunately.)

Which turns out to be a great idea, but also a really terrible idea:

Dark crimson rain fell from Dublin to Denver. Where it struck, the seas boiled and the earth drank poison. And things engendered, mutated horrors born of dragon’s blood and broken strontium atoms. […] But it hardly mattered, no at first, because the fall of the Serpent’s body back into the Atlantic sent up a wall of water a hundred miles high that smashed into the coast from Halifax to Havana.

The Serpent is really fucking big:

The head finally crashed to earth in Egypt–or rather, on Egypt. Its body followed it down, thunderously settling across Europe in a 300-mile wide swath from Scotland to Sicily, and setting off earthquakes 100 miles across on both sides of its fallen body.

All the fallout from the Serpent’s death doesn’t trigger a complete, worldwide apocalypse, though. It wipes out some entire countries, and scars all the rest, but large chunks of humanity survive — and all of this happens smack in the middle of World War II.

It’s an entirely different kind of post-apocalyptic game.

And it fucking delivers

Not only does Ken set up a setting like no other in just a few pages: he then delivers on all of the promises those early pages made.

My group is 9 sessions into our Savage Worlds DAR campaign, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of what the setting has to offer. And unlike a lot of settings, exploring a new place doesn’t involve reading a massive tome — Ken covers the whole setting in 27 pages.

This setting is so rich, and so well-conveyed, that all we need to explore some new corner of it is a couple of paragraphs from DAR, access to Wikipedia, and a few minutes of collaborative spitballing. That’s a perfect balance of inspiration and freedom — something I love in a good setting book.

I won’t veer into spoilers about the setting (everything I’ve shared above is in the intro, and is common knowledge in the setting), so suffice to say that Day After Ragnarok (paid link) is one of my all-time favorite campaign settings. It’s a superb book in every way.

Categories
GURPS Tabletop RPGs

GURPS Time Travel’s four mini-settings

The more of GURPS Time Travel (paid link) I read, the more I love this book. Pound for pound, it’s one of the best gaming books I’ve read, GURPS or otherwise.

Leaving aside the “idea nuggets” scattered throughout, Time Travel offers up six settings. Time Corps is brilliant, and does more in 13 pages than most setting books do in hundreds. Infinite Worlds is the other setting which gets a longer treatment (and which later got blown out into its own book, GURPS Infinite Worlds (paid link), which I haven’t read yet).

But there are also four mini-settings, which collectively take up just 16 pages. These sounded neat, but I figured the real money was in the two more complete settings. Not so! These mini-settings are fantastic in their own right.

In the Cube

The first mini-setting is a short one, just 3 pages, and casts the PCs as lost time-travelers jumping randomly throughout history. They’ve got a support team back home, in the present; their time machine, the Hypercube, is also in the present.

The PCs can contact the scientists at home[1], although it’s not a quick or automatic process because the Hypercube isn’t a stable, smoothly-operating machine — it’s kind of a mess. The home-timers can also send the PCs stuff.

This tight little setup is a big, shiny hook for a rollicking time-romp. The PCs are yanked into another time — whatever sounds fun, perhaps a historical tipping point or the middle of a raging battle — and have to make their own way until the scientists can establish contact and give them support.

It’s very Quantum Leap, but there’s also some Star Trek: Voyager in the mix — because of course the PCs would eventually like to return home.

Eternity’s Rangers

The opposite is true of Eternity’s Rangers: The PCs can’t return home, because in their home time, they’re all dead. This mini-setting gets a whopping 8 pages, and it’s my favorite of the bunch.

Eternity’s Rangers, as the name suggests, is a military campaign. The Recruiters, a mysterious group with access to time travel, controls the Rangers, a military unit composed of soldiers from all along Earth’s timeline. Each ranger was snatched from the moment of their death and offered a choice:

I died in the Ardennes, during what you call the Battle of the Bulge. Ran into an enemy patrol in the middle of the night. There was fire; too much fire. Then a voice said, “If you want to come out of this alive, friend, take three steps to the left.”

The Recruiters send the Rangers on missions throughout time, always with specific objectives: “Turn the tide of this battle in favor of the Visigoths; everyone gets an assault rifle and 10 magazines,” or “Rescue this prisoner, but don’t reveal that you’re time travelers.” And if someone does cotton to your unnatural origins? They’re probably going to have to die, because the Recruiters are ruthless about obedience to their orders.

I could go on and on about this setting (it’s so damned good!), but instead I’ll share just one more favorite element: the pickup. Every mission comes with a pickup time and location, and if you’re not there, you’re stuck forever . . . unless you’re important enough to merit a follow-up rescue mission, of course!

The Order of the Hourglass

This mini-setting is Roaring Twenties pulp adventure + psychic time travel + time-hopping adventurers opposed by shadowy secret societies. Think League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (paid link), but with time travel.

By default, the PCs use time travel to study or explore the past — but their enemies use it for evil. Unscrupulous time travelers set up bases in the past, altering history for their own ends. Some have figured out that committing murder in the past leaves no loose ends, and have no compunctions about killing those who oppose them — like the PCs.

It’s a simple concept, but a rich one. There’s no vast temporal conspiracy, just ragtag time-explorers getting into trouble, often at the hands of a diverse bunch of enemies. There’s a ton of room to maneuver, which is one of the things I like about this setting.

The Horatio Club

Imagine if the Diogenes Club were actually a pan-dimensional cross-time nexus frequented by all manner of strange people, and you have the Horatio Club.

No one arrives there by accident, and the club’s many doors lead to myriad universes which, generally, feature entertaining problems that need to be solved. It’s a bit heavy-handed for my tastes, but the bones are intriguing — and like In the Cube, it’s a marvelous excuse to romp through time and space without worrying overmuch about the consequences.

This book just keeps on delivering

I’m on to the Infinite Worlds portion of GURPS Time Travel (paid link) next, and a bit further on down the line I’ll be checking out the much longer standalone IW book. Based on the strength of the five Time Travel settings I’ve read, I’m excited to see what that one’s like, as well!

[1] The book also suggests another option: Everyone plays two characters, a time-wanderer and a scientist in the present.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Setting information is telling me about your character

Jack Shear’s blog, Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, is always a great read (it’s been one of my RPG blog staples for years), but World-Building: When is Enough Too Much? is an especially good post.

It made me think of a scene in Game of the Year (paid link), where the GM uses the game session as an excuse to inflict his “exquisite storytelling” on the group while riding roughshod over what they actually want to do: play. It was painful to watch,[1] not the least because I’ve been there (I’d bet many — most? — gamers have), and I’ve been that guy.

My setting bible has its own lectern

Here’s Jack’s thesis:

I think I understand why people aren’t interested in page after page of fictional history and paragraph after paragraph of world-building: it’s the DM version of “let me tell you about my character” magnified without a sense or proportion or boundaries.

And, a bit further on, the stinger:

Dear DM: if you would roll your eyes at a five-page character back story that a player wants you to read, you should roll your eyes at your own expectation that the players will read five pages about the history of the Cult of Paradoxis and their war with the fire giants too.

That analogy is perfect. Once in a blue moon, I enjoy hearing at length about someone’s character, but blue moons are vanishingly fucking rare. And these days, reams of setting information turn me off at least as much as great walloping rulebooks thick enough to serve as body armor.

Some types of setting, or kinds of book, or mixes of the two, will require more words than others. But even a beefy, lengthy chapter on the world can be long without being long-winded.

But for fuck’s sake, if Time Corps — one of the settings in the superb GURPS Time Travel (paid link) — can frame an entire, enormously compelling time-travel campaign in just 13 pages, how many pages does the average campaign setting write-up really need?

Concision is king. I wish more gaming books used the absolute minimum number of words necessary to convey setting information.

[1] Not the movie — I enjoyed it. But oh man, that scene.