Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

My favorite gaming books published in 2014 (so far)

I picked up 188 RPG products in 2014 (plus a few more than arent in RPGGeek’s database yet), 43 of which were published in 2014. Of those 43, I’ve spent enough time with enough of them to tease out a partial list of 12 favorites — partial because there are books I expect to love which aren’t included here simply because I haven’t had a chance to read them.

  • The Chained Coffin – Michael Curtis (Stonehell + DCC RPG + a setting inspired by one of the least-known authors in Appendix N, Manly Wade Wellman + a fabulously run Kickstarter that turned out a beautiful product = win. There’s a ton of stuff in this boxed set, including a killer spinning prop.
  • The Clay That Woke – From the concept to the execution, this is a fabulous book. It oozes mood, and the system — which uses tokens, not dice, drawn from the krater of lots and compared to an oracle — is fascinating. This is one of my favorite things I backed on Kickstarter in 2014.
  • Cosmic Patrol – This oddball improv game marries a genre I don’t care about (Golden Age sci-fi, robots and rayguns) and a publisher I don’t associate with weird little games (Catalyst), and the marriage is groovy. I liked the core book so much that I bought the whole line.
  • Cthonic Codex – This hand-assembled, limited edition boxed set is a buffet of peculiar, evocative goodness for any fantasy game. It’s a setting unto itself, presented in incredibly appealing . . . fragments, I guess? It’s hard to describe, but superb.
  • Dead Names: Lost Races and Forgotten Ruins (paid link) – Like other Sine Nomine books (e.g., Red Tide, which is awesome), while this is a Stars Without Number supplement it’s really a toolkit for generating weird places and species that works just as well for other games and genres, and a good one at that.
  • The Dungeon Dozen – This is in my top three for the year — it’s superb. I liked it so much that I reviewed it on Gnome Stew. If you’re a fan of old school games, old school art, and/or random tables, buy it.
  • Dwimmermount (paid link) – After the most painful crowdfunding roller coaster I’ve ever been involved with as a backer, I crossed my fingers that Dwimmermount would be as good as 2012 Martin hoped it would be. And it is! It’s a weird, wonderful monster of a dungeon that begs to be explored.
  • Guide to Glorantha – Moon Design’s two-volume doorstop dominates any shelf it sits on, and both books are simply stellar. I have no idea if I’ll ever need or use this much information on Glorantha, but I’m glad I own them.
  • Obscene Serpent Religion – Need a freaky serpent cult for your game? Of course you do! This is a toolkit for creating one, and for doing so cleverly with a minimum of effort and a lot of flavorful inspiration.

Despite trying to be thorough I’ve probably forgotten something, and I’m confident more favorites will emerge as I make my way through my to-read pile mountain. Happy gaming!

Categories
Board games Tabletop RPGs

My 2014 in games

After making my support payment to BoardGameGeek/RPGGeek, my 1/1 (or sometimes 1/2) tradition, I decided to write the post I meant to write last night — I was too tired to do it last night. So here’s my 2014 in games, by the numbers, and with more personal reflection than I was planning when I started writing

RPGs

I logged 31 gaming sessions in 2014 with my two gaming groups, one face-to-face and one virtual (Hangouts), and probably played another 5-10 that I forgot to log. The number of distinct RPGs I’ve played climbed to 93, which I’m happy about.

2014 was mostly the year of Fate Mass Effect, but we also wrapped up a great Hunter: The Reckoning campaign and a mediocre-to-bad Star Wars: Edge of the Empire campaign (run by me), and I played one-shots and short campaigns across a handful of indie RPGs, including Primetime Adventures and Dungeon World. That feels about the same as 2013 to me. I used to play more sessions, but summer is now mostly taken up by camping and hiking, and everyone in my groups has more obligations than they used to, so the numbers are down compared to a few years ago.

In hindsight, I spent too much time not feeling engaged at the gaming table. That’s happened before, and it usually teaches me some good lessons about my taste in games and gaming. I homed in more closely on what I like (player-driven stories, lighter mechanics, player agency) and don’t like (railroaded stories, filler sessions, lack of player agency, close-mindedness about games) in my gaming.

I didn’t do much GMing in 2014, and the GMing I did was almost uniformly pretty bad. I’m not sure why that is, but my GMing confidence has taken a big hit as a result. I did figure out that I don’t want to run the kinds of game my face-to-face group usually plays at the moment, though, and taking myself out of the GMing rotation for a while has reduced my stress level.

I also got some feedback about my default play style that surprised me. The whole thing was handled badly, but after a few months I’m feeling positive about the situation overall. I’ve created two PCs for 2015 that are strongly against type for me, and I’m excited to play both of them. I wish this had gone down differently, but it gave me a richer perspective on gaming as a whole and my strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots as a player, both socially and RPG-wise.

One notable high point was Google+, which has offered up a steady stream of gaming goodness and been a great outlet for me to blather about gaming stuff. I checked in several times a day most days, and enjoyed virtually all of the time I spent there.

On balance, 2014 was a mixed bag of a year unlike any other year I can remember, with higher highs and deeper lows than usual. I’m hoping 2015 has a more even and more positive vibe.

My predictions for 2015

2015 will be a lot like 2014, numbers-wise. My face-to-face group has two campaigns going, Dragon Age and Star Wars: Age of Rebellion, and my Hangouts group is playing tremulus. My Hangouts group will likely cycle through another half-dozen or so indie RPGs in 2015, and my number of sessions overall will be about the same. I won’t GM much in 2015, but I’ll try to hit 100 RPGs played.

Kickstarter and IndieGoGo

I backed 14 projects on Kickstarter (11 RPG products and 3 board games) and two on IndieGoGo (both RPG products). Compared to the combined 58 projects I backed from 2011-2013, that actually makes it a pretty average crowdfunding year for me. Which is a surprise, because I thought I’d cut way back; apparently there’s still room to trim!

Two of the board games have arrived, and I wish I hadn’t backed either of them. My track record in Kickstarted board games is 100% bad: I’ve never liked or held onto a board game I’ve backed on KS. I’m crossing my fingers that Mouse Guard: Swords & Strongholds will break that streak in 2015.

But man was it a good year for RPG stuff. The highlights were The Clay That Woke, Dwimmermount, The Chained Coffin, and a pile of fantastic stuff from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. And there’s more stuff I think I’ll greatly enjoy on the horizon.

I spent zero time browsing on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo for stuff to back, relying entirely on Google+ posts to point me to interesting projects. I backed less than half of the projects I looked at overall. I saw KS and IGG becoming a problem for me in 2013 and turned them into non-problems in 2014, which feels pretty good. (I also posted less about stuff on KS, which makes sense.)

My predictions for 2015

I’ll continue using Kickstarter and IndieGoGo in 2015, but I doubt I’ll back any board games and I suspect I’ll back fewer gaming products than I did in 2014. Crowdfunding won’t quite fall off my radar, but it will come close. Most things I might back on KS/IGG I’ll just order when they come out, or not order at all.

Board games

I played 58 distinct games, with a total of 181 plays logged in 2014. The majority of games got played once or twice; the highest play count was 20. I started logging plays in 2008, and in 2014 I crossed the 1,000-play mark, making 2014 an average year in terms of plays.

My top five most-played games were Don Quixote (solo), Connect 4 (kids), Disney Dazzling Princess (kids), Ascension: Storm of Souls, and Blokus Duo. That’s a decent snapshot of my year in board gaming, which was a good one for games with my daughter, with visitors, and solo, but a light one for gaming with my wife and gaming group.

I purged 28 games from my collection in February, and another 23 yesterday, for a total of 51 sold off in 2014. I acquired about 17 games (my best guess; I don’t track this), which is light compared to the past few years — and intentionally so. That puts my core collection — the games I want to consider when I ask myself, “What do I want to play?” — at 144, which is still bigger than it needs to be.

My board gaming h-index climbed from 12 to 13, which is a bit of a bummer as I worked on that number throughout the year. But it’s only a few plays (of the “right” games) from hitting 14, and 15 isn’t terribly far off. More games saw repeat plays in 2014, though, which was my goal.

The highlight of the year for me was getting closer to my sweet spot board game-wise. I spent more of my time playing games that I deeply enjoy and rate highly, and less of my time playing new games just for the sake of it or games I wasn’t wild about, and my collection got leaner and better overall. My favorite games in 2014 included Kingdom Builder, Hanabi, K2, Ascension: Storm of Souls, Don Quixote (solo), FlowerFall, and Lords of Waterdeep.

My predictions for 2015

I think I’ll rack up fewer solo plays (that time has been taken up by bodybuilding and other stuff), more plays with my wife, and about the same number of plays with my daughter, my gaming group, and visitors. I’ll acquire fewer new games in 2015, and will do another purge. Past purges have culled everything rated 6 or lower, but dipped into 7s; now I’m eyeing the 7s. Why aren’t they 8s? More of those can probably go too. Finally, I might just make it to 500 distinct games played in 2015.

That went from a short exercise in stats to a long, reflective post. Before writing it, I’d have generically described 2014 as “good” for games, but looking at it all broken out like this I have a more nuanced picture of the year. If you made it this far, hopefully you got some mileage out of my navel-gazing.

Happy new year!

Categories
Bleakstone Old school Tabletop RPGs

Bleakstone campaign setting

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. (I no longer support LotFP, but this acknowledgement remains because I’m a big believer in acknowledgements.) 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.
  • James Maliszewki’s Grognardia, which introduced me to so much old school awesomeness.
  • 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

The ever-awesome Steve Zieser illustrated Bleakstone’s iconic species.

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, including all artwork, 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!

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

My daughter’s first RPG session

I wanted my daughter Lark’s first RPG experience to be one that reflected her personality and interests (at age 4), so I designed one, Storylike, for us to play New Game Day. I snapped this photo from her first-ever gaming session.

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

METAL SHOWCASE 11PM review

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.

Categories
Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

Gaming books on Lulu.com that I enjoy

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 several dozen recommendations, mostly old school products and story games, and I keep it more or less up to date with new purchases (latest update: May 29, 2018).

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. 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 game babies with it, I *ed it. (To be clear, I like everything on this list.) 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:

  1. * Advanced Edition Companion
  2. * Adventures on Dungeon Planet
  3. Adventures on Gothic Earth
  4. Agon
  5. * ASE1: Anomalous Subsurface Environment
  6. * ASE2-3: Anomalous Subsurface Environment
  7. * Augmented Reality
  8. * Barbarians of Lemuria: Legendary Edition
  9. The Barrow Mound of Gravemoor
  10. Dark Dungeons
  11. * DCC RPG Reference Booklet
  12. * Delving Deeper Reference Rules Compendium
  13. DemonSpore
  14. diaspora
  15. A Dirty World
  16. * Dodecahedron 2015 Cartographic Review
  17. d30 DM Companion
  18. * d30 Sandbox Companion
  19. Drowning & Falling
  20. * The Dungeon Dozen
  21. Dyson’s Delves
  22. * Elysium Flare
  23. Encounter Critical
  24. * Fight On! Compiled Compilation +4
  25. * Fight On! Foliated Folio +8
  26. 43 AD
  27. * 44: A Game of Automatic Fear
  28. Grey Ranks
  29. The Hell House Beckons
  30. Hollowpoint
  31. * The Hyqueous Vaults
  32. * KEFITZAT HADERECH – Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals
  33. Knives in the Dark
  34. Knockspell 1-3
  35. * Labyrinth Lord: Revised Edition
  36. Lair of the Unknown
  37. Last Train Out of Warsaw
  38. * The Lazy Dungeon Master
  39. * Love in the Time of Seið
  40. * METAL SHOWCASE 11PM
  41. * The Metamorphica
  42. NOD Magazine (link is to issue 1, but there are many more after that one)
  43. * Norwegian Style
  44. Original Edition Characters
  45. OSRIC
  46. * Petty Gods: Revised & Expanded Edition
  47. Planet Motherfucker
  48. * Play Unsafe
  49. * A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming (direct link to free PDF)
  50. Realms of Crawling Chaos
  51. REIGN
  52. Santicore 2011
  53. * Santicore 2013
  54. Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Volume One
  55. Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Volume Two
  56. Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Volume Three
  57. Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Volume Four
  58. * Shadowbrook Manor
  59. * The Shadow of Yesterday
  60. SlaughterGrid
  61. * Stalker RPG
  62. * Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls
  63. Stonehell Dungeon: Into the Heart of Hell
  64. * Super Mission Force[1]
  65. Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox Rules
  66. * Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque
  67. * Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque II
  68. Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque III
  69. Teratic Tome
  70. 3d6 Supers!
  71. * Tomb of the Iron God
  72. * Transylvanian Adventures
  73. Ulverland
  74. * Uresia: Grave of Heaven
  75. Warriors of the Red Planet
  76. * Whitehack
  77. * Wizards Mutants Laser Pistols! Volume One Compilation
  78. ZeFRS

I apologize to your wallet in advance. Happy gaming!

[1] Super Mission Force is a skirmish miniatures game, but it supports campaign play, features characters with skills useful outside of combat, and deliberately straddles a the fuzzy line that separates RPGs from wargames, so I included it here.

Categories
Free RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

Signal Lost, my Game Chef 2013 submission

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:

Categories
Free RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

Eaten Away, a 24-hour RPG

I created my first complete RPG, Eaten Away, for the 2012 RPG Geek 24-Hour RPG Contest. It’s a pickup game of zombie horror, no prep required.

I designed Eaten Away on October 15, 2012. After waking up at 4:00 a.m. with a splitting headache, I got the idea for what became the Attrition System at 7:00 a.m. while I was drinking my morning coffee. My first thought was, “Hey, this is pretty neat.” My second thought was, “Shit, my 24 hours just started . . .”

I fleshed it out, decided it was perfect for a zombie horror game — which would also save me some time by sidestepping the need for setting material — and did most of the conceptualization in the car that morning. From idea to playable game, Eaten Away took me about 13 hours to create.

Its inspirations include the countdown clock in John Wick’s Shotgun Diaries, the core mechanic in James V. West’s free RPG The Pool, the toolkit approach to setting creation in Eden Studios’ All Flesh Must Be Eaten, and the construction of free-form dice pools in Margaret Weis Productions’ Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, as well as the safe house concept and narrative arc in the video game Left 4 Dead. The setting and theme were inspired by a range of zombie movies and fiction, but especially by The Walking Dead — both the comic and the TV show, in slightly different ways.

If that sounds appealing, you can download it as a free PDF.

Categories
Books Reading Appendix N

Other Appendices N

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 (paid link) 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 (paid link) — 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 (paid link) 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!

Categories
Books DCC RPG Old school Reading Appendix N Tabletop RPGs

The DCC RPG and a reading list

Part of my inspiration for this project came from my copy of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. The DCC RPG is based on Appendix N, and itself has an Appendix N. In that appendix is this picture of all of the Appendix N titles the author, Joseph Goodman, read before and during the time he worked on the game:

I saw that picture and immediately thought, Holy shit, that looks like fun. As inspirations for Reading Appendix N go, this one played a big role. Something about not only reading all of those books, but also tracking them all down, hit me somewhere primal. “Book + collection” goes straight to my rat-brain.

Joseph also proposed the same common-sense guidelines I’m following for this project: Read everything listed by title or series, and pick a representative work where no title/series is listed. While I didn’t crack open the DCC RPG to use as a template for Reading Appendix N, I’m sure Joseph’s guidelines helped frame the whole project in my mind. Some of the books he picked I followed his lead on, some we both chose independently, and some don’t overlap at all.

The DCC RPG

The DCC RPG is awesome and well worth checking out; here’s the Amazon link (paid link). Even if you never play it, the amount of amazing old school artwork it boasts is worth the price of admission.

An Amazon Listmania! list

I’m not the first to post an Appendix N reading list online — something I’m going to do shortly, having spent several days working on it. This Amazon Listmania! list (paid link) was inspired by the DCC RPG, and appears complete.

I’m in favor of any effort to spread the word about Appendix N, but that list isn’t exactly the kind of tool I need. It’s not in a useful order, doesn’t list individual works by title, doesn’t provide notes or other extras, and doesn’t explain the thinking behind the personal recommendations the list creator made.

I’m also not the first person to undertake reading Appendix N (and I certainly hope I’m not the last!), and that’s fine by me. What I’m trying to do here on Yore is tackle this project in a way that’s useful and interesting to others as well as enjoyable for me. Where a tool exists — like the above list — that’s less than ideal, I aim to build a better one. Stay tuned for my Appendix N reading list, which should go up shortly!