Sunday, 12 May 2019

Let's talk: Against the Darkmaster

It bears repeating that the OSR isn't just D&D, and the upcoming game Against the Darkmaster (VsD) is evidence of this. Starting as a bunch of Rolemaster house rules, VsD evolved into a ruleset if its own. Think streamlined, modified MERP. I've always found MERP pretty confusing in terms of layout and perhaps a little too esoteric, but it's always attracted me in a weird way.

You can download the deluxe quick start rules right now and a Kickstarter will go live sometime this year. Oh, and when I say quick start, I mean a 120 plus page book.

Everything uses a d100 mechanic, rolling d100 and adding various abilities and skills, cross-referencing with table to see how successful you've been. Combat is in the mid-crunch realm, relying on tables where damage is figured by looking at your weapon type and your opponent's armour, with damage having degrees of success and types of wound. Typically, this isn't the kind of combat system I go in for but it's all pretty simple.

Characters are formed of backgrounds, kin, cultures, and vocations, giving you a nice amount of customisation without getting too bogged down in min maxing. I like the kin types, like dusk elves, star elves and high humans, giving it a particularly high fantasy Tolkien feel. They each have their own attribute bonuses and special abilities. For instance, halflings gain double HP after eating a second breakfast. See what I mean about Tolkien?

Which brings us onto cultures, which is a mechanic I included in my own Dungeon Nights game, offering some extra background, equipment, skill ranks and helping to determine how wealthy (or dirt poor) you are. Cultures include City, which are obviously city or town dwellers, Woad, which are tribal folk, and Noble, who are rich types with privileged blood.

There are six vocations in the main game, but four in the quickstart. These include warrior, rogue, wizard, animist, dabbler and champion (the first four of which are in the QS). Your vocation offers you a pack of skill bonuses and/or vocational spell lores, which are types of magic, of which only wizard and animists can cast in the QS, but I'd imagine the dabbler will likely have some spells. You gain skill development points at character creation to choose which ones to upgrade, in addition to the innate bonuses you get. Ultimately, VsD is a skills game - your vocations don't get their own innate powers, but the wide array of skills actually make them highly customisable.

Speaking of customisation, we're not quite finished yet. Backgrounds can be purchased based on background points you get from your kin. For instance, my dusk elf rogue gained 3 background points, so I spent it on the major tier of Elven Training, meaning he can use his Swift attribute instead of Brawn when fighting with certain light swords, in addition to gaining a silver elf trait. Each background has two tiers that cost different points, so if you have enough points you could buy minor or major tiers in multiple backgrounds, rounding out your character and adding to their pot of abilities. Bring all of the above, kin, culture, vocation and background together and you have the ability to customise without being overburdened (looking at you, Pathfinder).

The game also has Passions and Drive. Passions are split into three categories: motivations, nature, allegiance. Each one of these is a statement the player comes up with at character creation with the help of the rest of the group. These are basically why your character is doing what they're doing and how they may react to situations. Passions link directly to drives, which is a mechanic that offers a boon. You can gain drive by playing on your passions, and spend it on bonuses, re-rolls and a few other nifty little things. It's a great mechanic that helps contribute to roleplaying and characterization.

I've not really sunk my teeth into the magic side of things yet, but it's point based and has the capacity to go wrong, which I really like. It's much more involved than your typical D&D OSR game, where casting spells can attract the attention of the Darkmaster himself and there are various modifiers to do with range, whether the target is moving and whether the spell is prepared or not that beef up the system a bit much for my taste. It's not overly complex, but I'd probably chuck a few rules out for streamlining purposes.

I'm super impressed with VsD as it stands and I look forward to backing the Kickstarter when it launches.

Image: Against the Darkmaster/ The Fellowship & Sego

Saturday, 4 May 2019

How I run games

I'm not saying that this is the right way to run a game, but it's the method that suits my GM style and my lifestyle.

I'm a fan of Sly Flourish's Lazy DM books and I take cues from these in terms of creating NPCs and locations, but not having anything fixed. I have to start a campaign with a hook, otherwise why bother, but after this hook it's fairly loosey goosey.

Take my current Aetherscream PF campaign. I have a setting (17th century aetherships, horror and Mediterranean fantasy), a hook (the PCs are finding their way home, a planet's godhead has vanished and may be their only hope of getting home), and some NPCs and factions (Will of the Elder as the theocratic church, Clayshrikes as golem augmented freedom fighters, Grey Ones as vastly knowledgeable underdwellers run by a hyper-intelligent psychic black pudding, Skywretches as an expanding empire of Hammer Horror monsters). I built in a couple of fun gimmicks, like the PCs pistols being Ghastlocks, guns that absorb monster souls and offer special bullet abilities.

The above took me the most effort to come up with but I also know it's a framework that I can alter as I go. Before every session I note a list of possible secrets that could be revealed in the session. Some of these come into play, others get crossed off or carried over to the next session.

I have a set of Rory's Storycubes I roll if I want to create a new NPC or simply understand what a situation entails. I find having these removes bandwidth from me, giving me a little random engine I can use to expand my universe on the fly. As a GM, you're the engine that drives the game, which uses a tonne of bandwidth. I use tables, lists, random rolls and the players to share the load.

Consequences matter. I don't think it's a particularly good game if the PCs have zero impact on the campaign world, so I note down how my world reacts to their actions and make sure they see it resolve. This can take the game in unexpected directions, which for me is the best part of a game. I have no prepared endpoint. I honestly don't think you can really play a good game if you already know how it ends, since you're essentially coaching your players towards that ending. I'm cool with dropping the main quest or hook altogether if something more interesting organically grows from play. At the moment, I have a couple of players that have written a manifesto in the game world to help unionise overworked guards. It stemmed from a joke, but is now going to have consequences to how the game world operates because I know how my world would react to this development. This could take things in a vastly new direction, but it may not.

Since it's Pathfinder, the most intense prep is creating maps and stocking them with creatures. This, by the way, is my least favourite part of GMing. Some people love it, but I do not. Before a session I'll make some notes on developments since last game, some new secrets, and take a location from my master list to flesh out if I know that's where they're heading. I couldn't give a shit about balancing "encounters", but I do it within reason since it's PF. I don't think too much about it - I know what dwells here, so I add the creatures that make sense and build the ecology on the fly. As an aside, I'm not a fan of long, drawn out combat. My fights rarely go to the death, with opponents either running away or surrendering. You get far more play options keeping a goblin alive than having them decapitated.

I used to have big bads with plot armour and all that nonsense, but that's dumb. If someone who I thought would be a tough big boss gets slaughtered by my min-max players then it simply wasn't a big boss. I don't want to be precious about any character in my game.

As I say, this isn't the only way to run a game. Some people love binders of intense prep, spending hours on their NPCs etc. This isn't a style for me. For me, less prep is more. It allows for flexibility and means that I don't get pissed if the PCs don't visit my intricately designed dungeon or meet an NPC with a page of backstory. Here's how I write an NPC: Talie Thundersnow, show-off thief, in love with Ozarn the potter. Hates the monarchy.

So, there's an insight into how I prep for and run a game. It might help you, it might not.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Tunnels and Trolls cartoon adventure comic launches on Kickstarter

Tunnels and Trolls never had much in the way of peripheral material. Ken wrote a couple of novels, but it's high time we got some new T&T fiction. Fortunately, a new comic called Tunnels and Trolls Cartoon Adventure has just launched on Kickstarter by Spanish publisher Hirukoa.

From the KS page, the story revolves around a group of adventurers - an elf wizard, a dwarf warrior, a human wizard and a... centaur rogue. I have to say, the latter surprised me as I don't really think centaurs when I think T&T. Leprechauns and fairies, but not horse people.

Aside from being a comic, this is also a series of solo adventures, a GM adventure, new items and monsters, in addition to mini T&T rules. Now this has piqued my interest.

If this sounds like something that interests you, please go to the Kickstarter page.